The biblical case for same-sex relationships isn’t new

It’s great that some theologically conservative evangelicals are making the “biblical” case against Christianity’s historic anti-gay position. There are certainly many people–and not just in evangelical churches–who feel in good faith that they can’t accept a revision of the traditional view without sacrificing their trust in the Bible or other bedrock convictions.

But at the same time, most of the arguments mentioned in the article linked above boil down to saying that

(1) what the biblical authors (especially Paul) condemned is not the same thing we are talking about when we discuss monogamous same-sex relationships and

(2) the Bible’s “moral logic” or its “underlying values” point toward an affirmation of loving, mutually enriching, stable relationships, whether they be opposite- or same-gender.

I happen to think this is basically correct, but it’s also what more liberal scholars have been arguing for decades. It’s understandable that evangelicals would want to make the case to their co-religionists in a cultural and theological idiom that they’re more likely to accept, but this isn’t a substantive departure from the “revisionist” case that has been made in mainline Protestant churches. Framing it that way reinforces the view that mainline scholars and leaders don’t take the Bible and Christian theological tradition seriously and have just capitulated to “the culture.” But in fact, the decisions of churches to embrace full equality for gays and lesbians have typically been informed by painstaking biblical scholarship. This scholarship has led to essentially the same conclusions that are now being used by evangelical revisionists. Obviously not everyone has been convinced, but that’s not because the case hasn’t been made until now.

When is schism justified (or required)?

Emergent blogger Tony Jones calls for a “schism” regarding women in the (evangelical) church:

That means:

  • If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.

  • If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.

  • If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.

  • If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.

I agree with Jones that this should be a non-negotiable position in the church. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I belong to a church that has ordained women since 1956.*

Some of Jones’s commenters contend that it would be more gracious and Christ-like for supporters of women’s equality to remain in fellowship with those they disagree with. While this has a certain ring of plausibility, it ignores the reality of institutional power and structural inequality. A church can contain disagreement over women’s equality, but at an institutional level it has to decide for or against it. Either you ordain women or you don’t. To advocate remaining in a church that doesn’t ordain women is not, therefore, a policy of even-handed neutrality. If one stays in such a church, it is at the cost of sacrificing the equality of women. “Let’s agree to disagree” tends to skirt the question of structural inequality and provide cover for the status quo.

Now, mainline Protestants shouldn’t feel too smug about this, not least because true, substantive equality is still an aspiration in many of our churches. Women pastors continue to face hurdles that don’t affect their male colleagues, and we are still far from where we should be. Moreover, Christians whose churches (like the UMC) that have yet to enact policies of equality for their LGBT members face an analogous dilemma. If women’s equality is non-negotiable, is it OK to stay in fellowship with people who oppose LGBT equality under the conditions of structural inequality? If so, what is different about this case that makes it OK?

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*To be more exact, the Methodist Church, which was the largest of the bodies that merged to form the United Methodist Church in 1968, had been ordaining women since 1956.

Inerrancy versus sufficiency

In a post yesterday, Daniel Silliman quoted historian Molly Worthen arguing that biblical “inerrancy” became an entrenched position among evangelical Christians only when it seemed necessary to shore up beliefs that were under attack by theological modernists. Prior to that, evangelicals held a variety of views on the inspiration of the Bible.

He specifically mentions the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition’s emphasis on the “sufficiency” of Scripture:

[S]ome theologians of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, including important figures in the early history of the Church of the Nazarene, rejected inerrancy. The ultimate revelation of God, they wrote, was not the Bible. The ultimate revelation was Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Bible was to be thought of not as an authority but as a guide to the revelation of Christ.

It’s “sufficiency,” rather than inerrancy, was emphasized.

This remains the official position of the United Methodist Church, which of course also traces its roots back to Wesley. The Methodist Articles of Religion, which were adapted by Wesley from the Church of England’s 39 Articles and are shared by a number of churches in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, include this statement on the “Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”:

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

While this says that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible, it does not say that everything contained in the Bible is necessary for salvation. This at least opens the door for a non-inerrantist understanding of biblical authority.

It’s probably not wise to try to hang too much on this statement, since the origin of the 39 Articles was in Reformation-era disputes, not contemporary questions about biblical inspiration. The question for them was more about where ultimate doctrinal authority was to be found.

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that inerrancy is not the only–or even historically the most common–way of understanding the Bible’s authority.

American Christians should relax about church decline

Popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for CNN on “why millenials are leaving the church.” She really means the evangelical church, and she cites issues like excessive politicization, an anti-science attitude, and hostility to LGBT folks as reasons why people in her generation are jumping ship. She suggests that churches need to come around on these issues if they want to draw in today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Since I’m neither an evangelical nor a millenial, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Mainline churches have problems with numbers across the generational board, so we’re not exactly in a position to lecture evangelicals about how to boost theirs.

But maybe that’s not really the point. I don’t want to attend a church that’s anti-gay or that tells me I can’t believe in evolution because I think those positions are wrong. Will a pro-gay, pro-science church attract more members? I frankly have no idea. But I do know that it’s better to live by what you consider to be the truth.

It seems to me that behind much of this anxiety about church decline is an unstated assumption that America is still the center of Christendom. Numerically, this just isn’t the case, as Philip Jenkins and others have been pointing out for some time. Whatever the future of Christianity is, it isn’t likely to happen here.

In light of that, maybe American Christians need to get over the idea that it’s up to us to ensure the future of Christianity. This could actually be quite liberating, allowing us to experiment with new forms of church life and take bold steps to live out our faith without constantly worrying about how it’s going to play to whatever demographic we’re trying to attract. Maybe we need to have a little more faith.

The biggest problem facing us is not the numerical decline of the church. It’s things like climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, and wars and rumors of wars. If Christians worried less about the former, they might discover the resources for interesting and fruitful ways of responding to the latter. And communities that can do that might actually be worth paying attention to.

A liberal revival?

According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.

Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.

Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.

Wesley’s “conversion”

Methodist and other churches remember today as the anniversary of John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience.” Richard Hall at Connexions provides some of the background here. Essentially, Wesley reported having a vivid experience of assurance in his own salvation when hearing a reading from Luther’s Preface to Romans. While this has sometimes been described as Wesley’s “conversion experience,” it seems that later Methodist lore may have invested it with more significance than it warrants. Wesley was undoubtedly a very sincere Christian virtually his entire life, and had been preaching justification by faith for some time prior to this experience.

As Stephen Tomkins relates it in his very accessible biography, Wesley experienced several turning points in his faith and ministry: when he started the “Holy Club” at Oxford (which became the nucleus of the Methodist movement), when he encountered the pietistic German Moravians during his mission trip to America, at the meeting at Aldersgate Street, and when he began his field preaching, among others. Tomkins traces a life-long dialectic between Wesley’s emphasis on God’s free grace and on the need for personal holiness. As Tomkins puts it, “He had an evangelical horror of trying to satisfy God by good works, but an even greater horror of trying to satisfy God without good works” (p. 196). When he felt that one pole of the dialectic was in danger of being over-emphasized, he often swung back toward the other. For example, the classic evangelical experience represented by Aldersgate and Wesley’s preaching on justification by faith has to be viewed side-by-side with the teaching on “Christian perfection,” arguably his signature doctrine.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar: the Rob Bell of his day

I started reading the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?”, and right off the bat what struck me is how similar the public controversy over Von Balthasar’s views was to the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”

Obviously there are vast differences here. Von Balthasar was a brilliant (and at times obscure) theologian; Bell is an evangelical preacher whose talents lie more in communicating his message than theological originality. But the controversy, at least based on Von Balthasar’s account here, was drawn along remarkably similar lines.

Here’s Von Balthasar on the criticisms leveled at him by some of his contemporaries (this all took place in the mid-80s). The question at hand is “whether one who is under judgment, as a Christian, can have hope for all men”:

I have ventured to answer this affirmatively and was, as a result, called to order rather brusquely by the editor of Fels (G. Hermes); in Theologisches, Heribert Schauf and Johannes Bokmann added their voices to this reprimand. . . . At a press conference in Rome, besieged about the question of hell, I had made known my views, which had led to gross distortions in newspapers (“L’inferno e vuoto“), whereupon I published, in Il Sabato, that Kleine Katechese über die Hölle (Short Discourse on Hell), which was reprinted in L’Osservatore Romano without my knowledge and aroused the ire of the right-wing papers.

Bokmann is perfectly correct: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.” However, I never spoke of certainty but rather of hope. The three critics, by contrast, possess a certainty, and G. Hermes expresses it with matchless force: “Such a hope does not exist, because we cannot hope in opposition to certain knowledge and the avowed will of God.” It is impossible that “we can hope for something about which we know that it will certainly not come about.” Therefore, the closing sentence of the essay declares tersely: “There is no hope for the salvation of all.” If I speak “no less than five times” of the fully real possibility, which confronts every person, of forfeiting salvation, the retort I get is that the matter is “not” treated “seriously by putting on a stern face but by stating the entire and full truth. And the full truth about hell is not stated if one only speaks of its possibility . . . and not its reality.” At this point, a first paradoxical statement occurs: “If we once admit that it is really and seriously possible, even considering all the opposing arguments, that men are damned, then there is also no convincing argument against men’s really being damned.” This is not comprehensible to me: if God sets the “two ways” before Israel, does it necessarily follow that Israel will choose the way of ruin? There was certainly no lack of seriousness behind the presentation of the two ways. But G. Hermes, of course, knows that the possibility is reality; he is not the only one, as we will see, who knows this. Just how will become evident from what follows here.

But first one other regrettable thing: as a consequence of not sharing in this secure knowledge–and R. Schnackenberg, for instance, does not share it when he says of Judas Iscariot that it “is not certain that he is damned for all eternity”–one is then numbered among those “average Catholics” who veil the hereafter in a “rose-red fog” and “wishful fancies”, participate “irresponsibly and cruelly” in “operation mollification” through their “salvation-optimism”, adopt the “dull and colorless garrulousness of present-day Church discourse”, practice “modernistic theology” and call for “presumptuous trust in God’s mercifulness.” So be it; if I have been cast aside as a hopeless conservative by the tribe of the left, then I now know what sort of dung-heap I have been dumped upon by the Right. (pp. 16-20, footnotes omitted).

Change a few names, and lower the general level of erudition all around, and you’ve essentially got the debate between Bell and many of his evangelical critics.

Rob Bell’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About God”

I think the book suffered a bit from not being as tightly focused as “Love Wins.” The earlier book could assume a fair bit of common ground, as it was tackling what is mainly an intra-Christian debate, but here Bell’s target audience seems to more explicitly be the skeptic, the seeker, and the “spiritual but not religious,” as well as the disaffected evangelical.

The results are mixed. We get an overstuffed yet not-fully-persuasive chapter on science and faith. At the same time, the chapter on religious language does little more than make the point that language about God is symbolic. (This is a bit ironic given the book’s title.)

On the other hand, the three central chapters on God “with,” “for,” and “ahead” of us were golden. Chapter 5 (“For”) in particular is pure gospel. Bell doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve (or in his (largely nonexistent) footnotes), but it’s not hard to detect a little Tillich here, a dash of Moltmann there, and a dollop of process theology. But he’s really at his best in expounding the story of Jesus and his love–once again giving the lie to critics who’d like to brand him as some kind of heretic or post-Christian.

Throughout, Bell amply justifies his reputation as a first-class communicator. Reading this book brought home to me how much even the most “accessible” religious books tend to be steeped in theological jargon. It wasn’t a life-changing book for me by any means, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the first book I’d recommend on the topic. Many mainliners in particular, I imagine, would regard a lot of what Bell writes as old hat to some extent.

But Bell is doing something that hardly anyone else is doing: delivering (more-or-less) solid, progressive-leaning Christian theology in a way that (apparently) communicates far beyond the frontiers of the church. That seems like something mainline Protestants in particular could learn from these days.

Some extremely belated observations on Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

With my unerring penchant for striking while the iron is stone cold, I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins over the weekend. I liked it–Bell has a knack for getting theological concepts across in friendly conversational prose without dumbing them down. He homes in on the heart of the Christian gospel–God’s abundant, overflowing love–and conveys it in a way that, I suspect, non-Christians might find quite appealing. It is, in short, “good news.”

But what struck me most was the orthodoxy of Bell’s views. Given all the hubbub surrounding the book, I was expecting something a little more envelope-pushing. But Bell, notably, does not deny the existence of hell, doesn’t say that everyone will be saved, and doesn’t deny the unique, salvific importance of Jesus.

I’d call Bell’s view “hopeful universalism.” He thinks that God leaves us free to reject God’s love but hopes that ultimately the persistence of that love will reconcile everyone. His understanding of heaven and hell and the cosmic scope of redemption is drawn from such radical theological sources as C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. His understanding of the work of Christ seems fully orthodox, even though he (rightly, in my view) sees different theories of Atonement as mutually complementary metaphors for that work.

As I suspected, in fact, the controversy over Bell’s book says a lot more about the self-appointed heresy-hunters and boundary-enforcers in contemporary evangelicalism than it does about him. There is a vocal minority that wants to define a simplistic version of Reformed evangelicalism as constitutive of the gospel–complete with insisting on “conscious eternal torment” for unbelievers and the monstrous doctrine of double predestination. And they have, unfortunately, had some success. But the Christian tradition is far wider than that. And while I don’t agree with everything he says, Bell’s book fits comfortably within the mainstream of that tradition.

The Bible as fallen and redeemed

Kenton Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture cuts to the heart of how Christians understand revelation and the truth of the Bible. This is a more popularly pitched version of an argument that Sparks, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, made in his book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. The issue is: How can the Bible be a revelation from God and normative for Christian faith and practice when it contains passages that depict God in morally horrifying ways and ethical commands that seem downright evil, not only by modern standards, but by standards embedded in the Christian tradition itself?

Sparks argues, correctly I think, that this presents a more difficult issue than biblical “errancy” regarding history or science. It’s relatively easy to make peace with the idea that the Bible did not adhere to modern standards of historical accuracy and that it was not meant to teach scientific cosmology or biology. However, the “texts of terror” threaten to undermine what Christians claim is the central message of the Bible: a revelation of God’s gracious character, will, and purposes for humanity and the world.

The touchstone example Sparks uses is the story of the Canaanite genocide recorded in the book of Joshua. How can the God who commands Joshua to slaughter men, women, and children be the God of limitless compassion that Christians claim to believe in? Some of the church fathers dealt with these passages by adverting to allegorical interpretations: they should be interpreted as referring to our internal spiritual warfare against our sins, for example. Sparks argues (again, correctly, I think) that such readings will seem strained to modern readers. Instead, he says we should frankly admit that such passages are not part of God’s word, at least not directly.

To articulate his position, Sparks draws an analogy between the “problem” of the Bible and the problem of evil as it’s usually discussed in the Christian tradition. Briefly, theologians–however much their specific approaches may differ–have generally maintained that creation is good but fallen and that the source of sin and disorder is in humanity not God. The Bible, Sparks says, is part of the fallen creation–it is not perfect or inerrant but reflects human sinfulness. “Scripture is a casualty of the fallen cosmos” (p. 66). But just as God uses fallen human beings to advance God’s purposes, God uses the Bible–taken as a canonical whole–as a medium for revelation. The Bible is both human and divine discourse.

The inevitable question, though, is how we are supposed to distinguish the divine message from those parts of Scripture that reflect human error or sin. Sparks offers several responses to this: first, Scripture sometimes corrects itself, as in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he relativized certain parts of the Mosaic law; second, we should read individual passages in the context of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative and message; and third, we need to read the Bible in light of the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit, the revelation of God in the natural world, the Christian tradition, and our own experience. Sparks emphasizes that most passages of the Bible admit of a surplus of meaning and we should be cautious in thinking we’ve arrived at the one true interpretation. He also points out that a key test of Christians’ Bible-reading is whether it leads to Christ-shaped lives.

Sparks identifies, at least to some extent, as an evangelical, and much of what he says may not seem particularly controversial to mainline Christians, who generally admit that the Bible is a humanly conditioned document. But mainliners have not always been clear on what their positive doctrine of Scripture is; Sparks’ book clearly articulates a position that is honest about the text while also maintaining a “high” view of the Bible’s authority. Such a position should in principle be acceptable to a fairly broad swath of Christians, from fairly conservative to fairly liberal. My one complaint is that Sparks is vague (as he himself admits) on how he understands the Bible’s inspiration, as well as the closely related concept of revelation. For example, is the medium of revelation the text itself, an overall message or regula fidei derived from the text, or the events that the texts witness to? But on the whole, I’d recommend this book as a sane and balanced approach to a difficult topic.