The Church as Contributor to Social Injustice

I am going to continue my previous post on the evangelical statement put forth by John MacArthur as a number of issues have come to my attention in my subsequent interactions with evangelicals online. Some clarifications need to be made.

First, as I have pointed out in my previous post, much of this is about jockeying for control of evangelicalism itself. This battle is not new, but began in earnest within the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) three decades ago. Southern Baptists comprise the majority of evangelicalism with many “hidden” branches posing as “unaffiliated” or “nondenominational.” Moderates were forced out of the denomination over a period of two decades back in the 80’s and 90’s. There was a concerted effort to replace moderates with fundamentalists in their educational system. Since then the denomination has doubled down on the efforts to squelch any attempts at reform. MacArthur is a product of that wing of evangelicalism.

Secondly, although both fundamentalist Christians and Progressive Christians present Social Justice as either, a. irrelevant or b. central to the Gospel, the truth of the matter is more complex. By quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus began his ministry with a reference to social justice, but his message was never about reforming the Roman government. It was directed at social injustice and religious hypocrisy WITHIN RELIGION. This is what initially got Jesus in trouble. It was his prophetic indictment of the Jewish religious authorities using their power to exploit others. This is why many evangelicals will point out (correctly) that Jesus never tried to change the government or shame the government into social programs that benefited the poor, etc..

So here is where it gets awkward for the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism. Historically they have been one of the prime perpetrators of social injustice in America. For the past 150 years, white fundamentalism has been a major hurdle and has systematically targeted people of color as well as Catholics, Jews, women, Gays, and a host of others. Bolstered with Bible verses and the assurance of an inerrant Bible, preachers in the South convinced their parishioners that God was behind their cause. Much like MacArthur and his dismissal of social justice, these pastors were convinced the “modern secular” abolitionist goals of the North were a threat to the Gospel and contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.

As the government pushed for social justice for poor Blacks, fundamentalist Christians pushed back hard against those reforms, preferring to exploit others based on race for their own financial gain. It is almost as if the Pharisees were lifted out of first century Palestine and resurrected in the 19th century as Southern Christians. In the end Southern Christians were willing to go to war, claiming states rights. The American Civil War killed over 700,000 people. Sadly, losing the war for cessation did not change their hatred and oppression of Blacks. Instead, they sought all sorts of work-arounds to circumvent laws for Black equality. The next 100 years was spent trying to segregate and marginalize Blacks (and Hispanics) as much as possible and deny them quality of life.

Thirdly, this is not “ancient history.” One of the comments I heard over and over in the 90’s from White conservatives was how sick and tired they were of hearing about “200 years of oppression.” A popular bumper sticker read, “If I’d known it would be this much trouble, I’d have picked my own damn cotton!” In other words, they didn’t believe Black claims of oppression had validity. Tragically, this opinion still affects, to one degree or another, about 70% of White evangelicalism. It has expanded to include more than just people of color. Basically anyone other than White fundamentalists is fair game.

So it is no wonder that MacArthur and 7000 other signers of the Statement on Social Justice feel the struggle for Social Justice is a distraction from the Gospel. They don’t believe the struggle is valid in the first place. They uphold a narrative about race and the place of women that is founded in White male privilege. The use of Scripture is used to validate their own presuppositions and biases.

I would add as a fourth point, that the Gospel, as understood by fundamentalists, is really not the matter of concern here. In the early 20th century, fundamentalists eschewed involvement in politics and war. They were accused of being “unpatriotic.” Subsequently, they have bent over backwards to appear super-patriotic. The American Constitution has become almost as sacrosanct as the Bible itself. The argument about Social Justice has become more of an argument about the role of government in society, and how much intervention is acceptable, than a Biblical discussion on social responsibility. This is why the majority of conservative Christians I talk to say they are unabashedly, Libertarians. 

Because of this willful ignorance of past church failures in the area of social justice that evangelical Christianity has stalled. Meaningful repentance needs to take place before the church can be a “witness to the gospel” in society. The church needs to clean house.

Further:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2018/09/over-7000-pastors-admit-they-dont-follow-jesus/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Progressive+Christian&utm_content=43

John MacArthur and the Great Divorce from Social Justice

It’s been a somewhat challenging past three weeks. I injured my back climbing the ladder on our travel trailer and it is taking a month of Sundays to heal. Normally I would have tried to get a couple of posts in by now, but the pain has been too distracting. So instead of a lengthy post addressing the recent “Statement” on Social Justice by conservatives point by point, I will give a broader assessment of what I think are the underlying reasons Evangelicals felt a need to make the Statement in the first place. In doing so I will be using Diana Butler Bass’  Christianity After Religion

If you’ve been following the struggle for control in Evangelical circles you would be aware of the recent attack on “Social Justice,” by Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, So. CA. A number of excellent responses have been made. Links provided below.  

MacArthur states that they deny “that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching.” 

He goes on to state “Clarity on these issues will fortify believers and churches to withstand an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”

“Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.””

The fact that MacArthur fails to define the terms, “intersectionality,” “radical feminism” and “social justice,” I believe is telling, as I do not believe MacArthur himself understands them, nor does he understand the underlying reasons he distrusts modern attempts to achieve social justice. MacArthur’s frame of reference is that of a White male with a successful following, numerous books and a graduate degree from Bob Jones University. He is, to speak, at the top of his game. One of the things about being at the top of the social ladder racially, sexually and gender-wise is one thinks they should define the issues. It’s called speaking from a position of privilege. This is what intersectionality addresses. 

I will not go into the history of Bob Jones University other than to say it was founded on racist, segregationist principals, not the gospel. One can Google it to see its ugly past history. But there are broader issues than just White privilege at play. What I believe we are seeing is something that has played out over and over again, both in ancient Israel and in church history. 

“Woe to you as well, experts in the law!” He replied. “You weigh men down with heavy burdens, but you yourselves will not lift a finger to lighten their load. 47Woe to you! You build tombs for the prophets, but it was your fathers who killed them. 48So you are witnesses who consent to the deeds of your fathers: They killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.…” Luke 11:46-48

What Christians like MacArthur are guilty of is lip service to men like Martin Luther King. While these prophets are alive and calling for social justice the church resists, sometimes violently. Years later they laud the sacrifice and accomplishment of these men and women. It is the height of spiritual blindness.

This, I believe is due to the fact that dominant religious institutions are inherently resistant to the prophetic voice. This was true in Jesus’ day and is just as true today. As Diana Butler Bass states:

“Religious discontent is indistinguishable from the history of spiritual renewal and awakening. Religion is often characterized as contentment, the idea that faith and faithfulness offer peace, security, and certainty. In this mode, God is depicted in kindly ways, the church is an escape from the cares and stresses of the world, and religious leaders as pastors, the caretakers of the flock. Although most faith traditions do offer such surety to believers, religion has another guise as well—the prophetic tradition. In the prophetic mode, faith discomforts the members of community, opens their eyes and hearts to the shortcomings of their own lives and injustice in the world, and presses for human society to more fully embody God’s dream of healing and love for all peoples.

Religious faiths struggle between the pastoral and the prophetic, comfort and agitation. In a very real way, institutions are inherently pastoral—they seek to maintain those things that give comfort by baptizing shared values and virtues of a community. They reinforce the way things are (or were) through appeals to divine or supernatural order. They are always slow to change. Institutions resist prophets. Prophets question. They push for things to be different. They push people to behave better toward one another. They want change.”

—Diana Butler Bass, “Christianity After Religion”

In response to the prophetic call, those that hold positions of power, wealth and influence in the church become threatened, fearful and angry. They tend to see the call for social justice as a “competing” philosophy rather than a call for repentance and change within the church. If you have all the right boxes checked off theologically, then why would you need to change something? I would charge that MacArthur and the 4000 signatures that followed are “comfortable” with their religion. And that’s the problem. Jesus didn’t call us to be comfortable. If one is not dissatisfied in some fashion with their religion then they have gotten too comfortable.

Further reading:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/divergence/2018/09/07/the-gospel-is-social-justice/

https://thewitnessbcc.com/an-open-letter-to-john-macarthur-about-social-justice/

https://sojo.net/articles/latest-evangelical-statement-and-history-stumbling-racial-justice

A Changing Religion: The Merger of Church and State

This has been lifted from a Facebook post by Bob Grayson. When the church was offered the “keys” to the Roman state in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, little did the early church fathers realize what was really happening is that they were offering the keys to the church instead. In effect, the spiritual “principalities and powers” that Paul mentions became intertwined with the very fabric of Christendom.

“A Changing Religion

 Much of what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. As long as Jesus’ followers were on the bottom and the edge of empire, as long as they shared the rejected and betrayed status of Jesus, they could grasp his teaching more readily. Values like non participation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies could be more easily understood when Christians were gathering secretly in the catacombs, when their faith was untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.

Several writings illustrate this early commitment to Jesus’ teachings on simplicity and generosity. For example, the Didache, compiled around 90 CE, says: “Share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!” [1]

The last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ended in 311 CE. In 313, Constantine (c. 272-337) legalized Christianity. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After this structural change, Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning money and war. Morality became individualized and largely focused on sexuality. The church slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point. Texts written in the hundred years preceding 313 show it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army, as the army was killing Christians. By the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and they were now killing the “pagans.”

Before 313, the church was on the bottom of society, which is the privileged vantage point for understanding the liberating power of Gospel for both the individual and for society. Within the space of a few decades, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas. The Roman basilicas were large buildings for court and other public assembly, and they became Christian worship spaces.

When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a different religion!

The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the power gap. In effect, we Christians took Jesus out of the Trinity and made him into God on a throne. An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible. Relationship—the shape of God as Trinity—was no longer as important. Christianity’s view of God changed: the Father became angry and distant, Jesus was reduced to an organizing principle, and for all practical and dynamic purposes, the Holy Spirit was forgotten.”

— Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48-51; and

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 100.

 [1] Didache 4:8. See Tony Jones, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community (Paraclete Press: 2009), 23. More about the Didache is available at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html.

The Pope, Jeffress and the Death Penalty

“Many times when I stress Jesus clear teaching on loving enemies and non-violence, someone will say, “But what about the Old Testament where God commanded violence?” Particularly people have brought up King David who was called “a man after God’s own heart” and yet participated in much violence against enemies. To that I want to say that we are called Christians, not Davidians. We follow Jesus, not David. It always baffles me when Christians treat the Captain of our faith so trivially and easily dismiss him in favor of Old Testament texts. Do we not believe that God himself came into history? Is it insignificant or does it change everything? How much do we actually “believe in Jesus”? 

But another thing I want to point out is a little passage in 1 Chronicles where David summoned all the officials of Israel for an assembly in Jerusalem including “all the officers over the tribes, the commanders of the divisions in the service of the king, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and the officials in charge of all the property and livestock belonging to the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty men and all the brave warriors.” This is what he said:

“Listen to me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a man of war and have shed blood.'” (1 Chronicles 28:1-3)

Wait a second, didn’t God command all the bloodshed and violence? Does this not bring that into question? What a shocking and historical statement to make to the entire military of Israel. The “man after God’s own heart” was denied his desire to build God a temple because he was a “man of war” and had shed blood. Perhaps King David was such a man after God’s own heart that even in his time, when violence was seen as the divine way, he was ahead of his time in beginning to see God’s true heart on this matter. This is an Old Testament foreshadow of what was clearly revealed in Christ, and the true hope of God’s kingdom and the building of his temple (us).”

— Jacob M. Wright

What I think we have here is an example of the ancient practice of claiming God is on your side to justify violence, and then David’s growing realization that killing another human could not possibly be a loving God’s desire. A recent example of this was the Pope’s condemnation of capitol punishment as being counter to the teachings of Christ. A telling rebuff was President Trump’s evangelical advisory panel member, Robert Jeffress: 

“When an individual takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘murder.’ When the government takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘justice.'” …“I’m sure Pope Francis is a good man who is sincere in his belief. But the Pope is sincerely wrong on this. Popes, pastors, and churches may change their opinions, but God’s Word never changes. ‘Forever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven’ (Psalm 119:89).” *

It is here we can clearly see the problem inherent to evangelical theology… “God’s Word never changes.” The assumption is that there is no progression of thought about God and ethics in scripture, and that the Bible sprung fully formed from God’s mind like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. It totally discounts the humanity of scripture, and in practice places cherry-picked violent passages as more authoritative than Jesus’ own teachings. It is a slippery slope that has historically allowed the church to justify very un-Christlike behaviors. Like King David of old, evangelicals end up creating a god in their own image. A god that satisfies their own violent and selfish appetites for revenge. Rather than allowing scripture to show progress in understanding God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, it is forced into a theological box of man’s own creation.

The ironic thing about treating scripture in this manner, is, that despite the claim that they are “honoring” scripture in this way, a finished, inerrant, propositional scripture allows quite a bit of wiggle room and unethical behavior. It is quite easily twisted, as it has been reformed in man’s own understanding of how a propositional rule book would look.

I have quite a few run ins with both atheists and fundamentalist Christians over the violence in scripture. As a progressive I get hit from both sides. Atheists almost universally seem to understand the Bible as fundamentalists do, inerrant and spoken by God. It is a straw man argument that they can easily attack. My dear evangelical brethren, on the other hand, insist on defending scripture as accurately depicting God’s violence (justice). Both sides feel this is the only way to interpret scripture: literally, and neither will admit to their presuppositions. …Very frustrating.

The truth of the matter is that scripture is the word of God, small letter “w.” As John tells us, Jesus is the Word of God, big letter “W.” This worshipping of the Bible creates a false idol of something that should be cherished but subservient to Jesus, not lord over him. Let’s get our priorities straight.

* http://www.firstdallas.org/news/pastor-robert-jeffress-pope-is-dead-wrong-about-capital-punishment/

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Rome

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the church over the centuries has been related to how the church is to manifest the Kingdom of God in society. One of the main purposes of my blog and indeed, why, a half dozen years ago I decided to “deconstruct” my evangelical assumptions, can be summed up in a desire to better manifest the Kingdom of God. The gospel message is about the Kingdom of God and not, as in evangelicalism, about what you must do to avoid hell and “go to heaven when you die.”

When Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was the “king of the Jews,” his reply of “my kingdom is not of this world,” seems to have never fully registered with his followers in the centuries that followed. Looking at the social milieu in the first century we see a Palestine under Roman control. Israel has faced a number of centuries being conquered and reconquered by foreign powers. In other words, a theocratic state conquered and ruled by secular states. In order to survive and maintain some degree of power, the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Pharisees compromised with the Roman government. In doing so, they took on the methods of Rome: quest for power, control, wealth, in other words, their own self-interests. The common person was largely left out of the equation and reaped little benefit form the merger of church and state. In fact, they suffered because of it. 

In a blatant rebuff of an earthly theocratic rulership, Jesus declares the Kingdom of God is not “of this world.” This is something he conveyed over and over in his parables and is the central theme of the Sermon on the Mount: the Kingdom of God is not like early kingdoms. It is worth pondering for a moment. If God’s Kingdom is not of this world, was a theocratic state, i.e., Israel, ever really a “final plan” of God’s, or was it a misunderstanding, a tribalistic anachronism of Moses and Aaron’s? Certainly, the tribalistic, warrior God of early Israel seems at odds with the Heavenly Father Jesus portrays.

In large part, Jesus’ clashes with the religious leadership was over collusion. When religion merges with the state, it is religion that suffers or is diminished. So how is it that the Kingdom of God is to flourish among men (and women)? The key to understanding is scattered throughout his teaching via parable. Parables were a popular teaching method in the first century and allowed Jesus to be subversive to the Jewish leadership in a way that the common folk could understand and agree with, but not give legal reason for his arrest. It bought him time to get his message out before his inevitable arrest and murder by the state.

Jesus knew, no doubt, that his “good news” was good news to the poor, the sick, those rejected by the religious powers, but would be a threat to those who colluded with Rome. The growth and distribution of the Kingdom of God was not to follow an earthly blueprint. Like a tiny mustard seed it would start small and eventually snowball into something huge. But not by coercion or manipulation. Not by putting the Ten Commandments back in courtrooms, not by putting Bibles in classrooms, not by having compulsory prayer in our schools, not by passing legislation to deny women, minorities and foreigners equal rights, but by the selflessness of people sharing the love of God to others. For almost 300 years this was the paradigm of the early church, in stark contrast to the Jewish-Roman collusion, which did not end well for the Jews.

But, then, in the early 4th century, the emperor Constantine, a ruthless violent man, “converted,” i.e., saw the advantage of merging the growing Christian church with his secular power regime. The early church fathers, tired of the relentless persecution, did exactly what the Jews had done in the first century, they colluded with the enemy of the Kingdom of God. To some, this was seen as a godsend, the opportunity to spread the gospel unhindered by persecution. In retrospect it allowed a perverted and unhealthy church to grow in power, wealth and influence. In time holding the “keys to the Kingdom” meant the religious controlling majority could not only declare heresy, or anathematize “false teachers,” but arrest and execute those who did not toe the line.

History had repeated itself. The lesson that collusion with the state does not end well, as with the Jews, was a lesson not learned. The entire Middle Ages was squandered by the Church of Rome consolidating its stranglehold on Europe. And again, with the Reformation and it’s break with Catholicism, the same mistake of collusion was made. Some finer points of theology had shifted but the Reformers policies were straight out of the Catholic playbook.

Fast forward to the 18th century. Christianity in Europe had become, state religions. Dying institutions propped up by the secular governments as a way of morally legitimizing their harsh governments. Ah, the great American democratic experiment. Unfortunately, again a major misunderstanding of how the Kingdom of God operates. The cries of religious freedom were then, as they are now, primarily not about freedom for all, but freedom to practice particular forms of religion at the exclusion of others. Slavery, the seizure of tribal lands and subsequent displacement of First Nation peoples and the various persecutions of Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Mormons, etc., all an outgrowth of a nation who fancied herself, “Christian.” Yep, collusion again.

Someone once said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again, expecting a different result. This is what the American church is guilty of, colluding with the state and eventually expecting it to result in the Kingdom of God. The evangelical church over a two century period, enjoyed a tremendous growth, not only in numbers, but in power and prestige. It identified completely with the nationalist interests of the American government. The government, as conceived by the fathers of our nation, became an object of worship, in its romanticized form by the conservative church.

Any hint of change to the chummy relationship the church had developed with civil government was seen as an attack on “Christian values.” This is the tragedy of Trump Christianity: the Right has so thoroughly mixed partisan right wing conservatism with Christian ideals, that the Gospel of the Kingdom has been pushed out. Now, with the major shift in American ideology away from conservatism and towards equal rights  and inclusivity, the Religious Right is majorly threatened. It would mean the death of “church as usual.”

This is an observation I made a few posts back, that society is advancing morally faster than the Religious Right is. Society as a whole, is acting more Christlike than the church. The goal or methodology of the church, in its endeavor to bring the Kingdom to earth, is not to impose legal sanctions and laws against what it determines to be “sin,” but to simply love others, regardless, and seek justice, mercy and grace for all mankind. This is not meek pacifism, but a call to action. Actions that will have an effect on society for the better.

God Asks Jesus into His Heart

“God repents of Old Testament days, asks Jesus into his heart”

“It’s reported that God, who has been known to go by Jehovah, has recently decided to follow Jesus. God recently released a statement that sending his Son into the world made him rethink some of the old ways he use to deal with people. “Perhaps wrathfully raining down fire on cities and drowning millions of people wasn’t the best or most Christlike way to go about things,” God reportedly said. God especially felt bad about commanding his people to commit wholesale genocide against the Canaanites and the Amalekites, including their women, children, babies, and pets. “I’d rather not talk about that stuff. It’s in my past. I was still new at this whole human race thing. As God, I’ve decided to give a Christlike example for my creatures to look up to. Jesus has taught me a lot.”

After hearing Jesus teach against wrath and hate, and commanding people to love their enemies and be peacemakers because this is what their Heavenly Father is like, God said that Jesus’ words really had an impact on him and made him think. “I really liked the way Jesus portrayed me. I think I can live up to that,” said God. “When my Son even forgave his own murderers, that kind of sealed the deal for me. It’s really had a powerful affect on people’s lives too. I want to be more like Jesus.” 

God said that since becoming a disciple of Jesus, he no longer plans to torture the majority of mankind forever in fire, and is taking a new course of direction. “A different approach to this whole thing is really needed,” God said. God promises that his change of heart is real, and that he promises to practice the fruit of the Spirit in the future.”

Jacob M. Wright*

This post from Jacob Wright appeared on Facebook. Although tongue in cheek, it expresses a very real problem with church doctrine, post-reformation, and especially in American theology’s Puritan roots: the Jonathan Edwards “sinners in the hands of an angry God” approach so common in much of today’s evangelical theology. Numerous assumptions have been made historically in Western Theology, that have more in common with Medieval views of justice and administration of laws than the Heavenly Father Jesus introduces us to in the Gospels. Instead, with post-Reformation teachers and theologians like John Piper, God’s actions are assumed to be just, even when they seem immoral.

Evangelicalism seems at times, unaware of the contradiction of the ancient Hebrew understanding of natural disasters, plagues and a Yahweh who was their tribal warrior god, and the Heavenly Father Jesus introduces us to. In fact, some evangelicals have attempted to interpret current events as God’s anger with mankind, hence hurricanes to punish America for “the sins of homosexuality,” or for America just being to darn liberal in general. It is interesting to see how this plays out in social media, as conservatives will claim that when calamity befalls those they see as outside the fold, it is God’s judgement. On the other hand, when bad things happens to them, it is either a trial to bring forth spiritual growth, or it’s the result of general wickedness from those outside the fold. It’s a primitive and self-serving technique that, not surprisingly, always puts them on the right side of things. On a side note, is Trump God’s “anointed one” or, conversely God’s punishment on a hypocritical conservative Christianity? Depends a lot on one’s point of view!

In large part, this is the result of refusing to admit the ancient understanding of God was different than Jesus’ understanding of God. The assumption being that Jesus accepted the writings of the Law and Prophets uncritically. This is simply not true. The Jewish understanding of God by the first century had evolved quite a bit since the early days of human sacrifice and a methodology of questioning scripture, its meaning and application had arisen called Midrash, a Jewish scholarly commentary that by the second century was annotating the the Biblical texts. Although conservatives oft quote Jesus’ saying he came to “fulfill the Law,” (the Greek means to complete, to perfect (telios), and therefore he unquestioningly accepted the Bible as true, it is a bit more complex than that. It is more accurate to think of Jesus as explaining the Bible than vis-versa. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” John 5:38-40. Note, it is not the scriptures themselves that give eternal (aeon) life, but belief in Christ himself. This is a profound statement coming from a Jew raised in a culture that taught that observance of the Law as presented in the Tanakh and Masoretic Text was a corporate responsibility tied not to an individual savior, but to the writings themselves.

And here is where conservative Christians oft get in trouble. They don’t seem to realize where Christ aligns with Judaism and where he, for good reason, deviates from it. And how that affects his understanding and application of scripture. Numerous times he (and other NT writers) simply ignore the original intent of a Biblical passage when a literal approach would obscure the love of God or a broader theme. Matthew 5 is a good example of this. The main reason for this in the relatively recent systematic theologies, is that they rely on an inerrant text. Because of this presupposition Jesus MUST accept the OT scriptures uncritically or the whole systematic house of cards falls apart.

The problem with removing God from moral responsibility, is that it gives us a capricious God, and the admonition to be holy as God is Holy becomes meaningless. The moral compass is destroyed. John Piper’s God, for example, tells us to do as he says, not as he does. This is not leading by example (Christ’s example is also destroyed in this scenario), but is leading by threat of punishment. We are not allowed to ask “why,” but are simply told “because I say so.” Without a moral compass in the very nature of God himself, we are reduced to rote legalism: following laws for the sake of the rules themselves. This is why Jesus is our example, not scripture itself. Scripture presents us with varied understandings of God, while Jesus presents us with a unified witness to what God the Father is like. He is like Jesus, not Zeus.

But this is exactly not what the standard evangelical teaching of scriptures gives us. History has born witness to the atrocities of the church when it assumes God’s “wrath” is something to appropriate for itself to further the Kingdom of God. 

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the sometimes violent, always coercive God goes back before the Reformation, to the 4th and 5th centuries when the church aligned itself with the state. The threat of eternal punishment and being declared anathema was a fearful threat the church could effectively use to manipulate a largely illiterate body of believers. If that didn’t work, church sponsored murder or torture would. 

Does any of this look like Jesus? I don’t think so. It is time to put down the false allegiances we have and worship the God Jesus introduces us too.

*Jacob Wright is in process of turning many of his Facebook posts into a book. His GoFundMe page is here: https://www.gofundme.com/jacobwright

Porn and the Law of Love

Last week I got embroiled in a discussion on Patheos, that an evangelical Lutheran (ELCA) had written, concerning the growing belief among Americans that pornography was morally acceptable (43%). Among his findings was that Democrats are “strongly pro-porn” (53%), while Republicans, God bless ‘em, are only 27% approving. As well as the 22% of people for whom religion is “very important” who also find pornography morally acceptable. (1) Lutherans, as a whole, are a fairly diverse group, ranging from fundamentalist to liberal in their views. This particular author was pretty moderate and evangelical.

But while I shared his concern that the growing acceptance of pornography is not a positive sign, I found the overall take away from his article unpersuasive. It seemed to me to be more of the same evangelical hand wringing over sexual impurities, while the vast majority of white evangelicals seem to ignore more important social injustices. I tend to think it is far easier to point out what’s wrong with people’s sex lives than to take personal responsibility for injustices in our society. And the irony of evangelicals pointing out the evils of pornography in light of the Stormy Daniels/Donald Trump affair underscores the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

What I found particularly confusing was the way he jumped back and forth between the Law of scripture and the gospel:

“But God’s moral standards are objective and absolute, and we will be judged by them.  The only cure for a seared conscience is a strong, undiluted, 100 proof, dose of God’s Law.  If that can burn through the seared conscience and break through the hardness of the heart, so can the Gospel.” (2)

He seemed to be saying the Law (God’s moral standards) and the Gospel were one in the same. I took exception to this and sought clarification. What followed ended up muddying the water further and I was finally accused of being antinomian, rejecting the Law. Accusing non evangelicals of heresy seems to be a popular trend lately, the marcionite accusation leveled at popular preacher Andy Stanley is a good example.

What I think evangelicals miss in their understanding and explanation of God’s moral law and the gospel is that the gospel is not primarily a legal transaction. It is a love transaction. While the Decalogue and the Laws of Moses do indeed spell out some particulars, both Jesus and the apostle Paul anchor God’s attitude towards us, and our response to him, as one of love. As I tried to explain, the Law as legal contract, does not go far enough and is helpless to change us. So a “100 proof, dose of God’s Law” will not change our hearts. It is the love of God, administered by the Holy Spirit that brings change. This is technically known as sanctification.

Every time I bring this up with evangelicals, they get upset. Having clear cut rules seems very important to them. And it is about the rules, and keeping them, and more importantly, pointing out when others are not keeping them. And again, one of the reasons conservatives are so adamant about legalism, is that it is far easier than practicing love. It is black and white, clear cut. You’re either sinning or your not. It is why ultra conservative evangelicals like the Southern Baptists can be so legalistic while withholding love from people of color, women and gays. Godly love is far messier. It requires love of even our enemies. Love the LGBTQ community, check. Love foreigners among us, check. Love people of color, check. Love refugees, check. Love their children, check.

True, cruciform love is far more demanding than a list of sins can ever be, and that is why Jesus and Paul put such an emphasis on it. It is why Jesus broke with Sabbath tradition and came in conflict with the keepers of the Law. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” tells us all we need to know about keeping the Law of Moses…it’s not enough.

But my main concern with Dr. Veith’s article was that it was impractical. Evangelicals can no longer claim moral high ground in society. People want to see your faith in action. Moral platitudes are worthless if not backed by those who “walk the walk.” Society is no longer motivated by threats of hell and damnation. Sin, as breaking what many see as anachronistic sexual mores, carries little weight. The conservative church is giving answers to questions society is no longer asking, nor cares about. Unconditional, extravagant Godly love, though…that would be a game changer for the church and society. It is odd that so many evangelicals I talk to find that objectionable. After all, wasn’t that the summation that Jesus gave to the Law in the first place? “Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself?”

“Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”

― Thomas Merton

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