What Do Homosexuality, Women in the Church & Home, Fornication, Divorce & Remarriage, Emergent & Hell All Have In Common?
There are some things in life which are not important until they are essential. One of these things is insurance. Another is a parachute. Another is a life raft. In ministry, one of these things is knowing where you stand on a hot-button topic.
I am convinced that the time to form an opinion is NOT half-way through a ministry posting, when a hot-button topic suddenly surfaces and threatens to wound hearts, destroy relationships, squelch spiritual life and tear the ministry asunder. This is absolutely not the time to be caught flat-footed, with no research and completely oblivious to the nuances and complexities on a certain topic. When you formulate an opinion before entering a ministry posting, one has leisure to study it fully and come to one’s beliefs in an honest and unbiased manner. In the heat of the moment, however, one has neither leisure nor objectivity. Most importantly, the decision becomes a deeply personal event: now you are not just making up your mind, but potentially condemning the actions of vulnerable, hurting peoples. This is the stuff of church-splits and scandal.
Convinced that I needed to come to conclusions on many of the main topics before entering full-time ministry, I have been slowly and methodically working my way through the major hot-button topics which confront the church in our day.
I had been working on several topics for a while, but the decision to work on them in a more public way happened rather unexpectedly. I posted my decision to cease calling myself emergent (see From Cool, Young Emergent to Boring, Old Conservative), and that received some very irate comments, and was linked to some other blogs, where it was disparaged. Unexpectedly, my readership shot up from around seven hits a day to around thirty. I tried to clear things up by responding to a comment somebody made: I had said I wanted to « step up to the plate » in my home. I felt like expressing myself very clearly on this point would clear up any misunderstandings, and soothe over tensions. Boy was I wrong.
That post got noticed by the kindly folks at the Council for Biblical Equality (CBE). I had five separate people posting very vigorously, and challenging my conclusions and beliefs on this topic. I continued posting and debating to try to defend my positions and come to a conclusion: in the meantime, my blog shot up to one hundred and sixty hits in one day, then leveled off around fifty a day. This was enough activity to bring me onto the google-radar, and the rest, as they say, is history.
WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP
The debate on women in leadership eventually came to an impasse. I said that I held the traditional view that the New Testament states that men should be the head of the home, and that men should lead and do the primary teaching in churches, etc. (note: obviously there is more to it than this: I am summarizing) but I was challenged as to my hermeneutics. Did I believe in head coverings (1 Cor. 11)? Did I believe that men had to pray with their hands raised (1 Tim. 2:8)? Did I greet people in my church with the « holy kiss » (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26)? If I decided that certain New Testament practices were outdated and cultural, how could I mandate others? I didn’t have a good answer, and so I ended my portion of this debate with a promise to find some answers to my own hermeneutical system, so that I would be able to come back at this topic with a fresh start.
That is about where I left it: although I have come to my own conclusions on this matter (which I expressed in a sermon that I hope to post sometime in this millennium), I have not posted on it again, simply because I have been scared off by the hermeneutical challenge.
About the same time that I was debating women in the church, a young man I (as well as other pastors at our church) was mentoring referred me to some youtube videos which (I am glad to say) seem to have disappeared from the internet. He had been publishing under « Not Another Generation.com », but this seems to have re-routed to another, similar site. The premise of this guy, at any rate, was that fornication was not forbidden in Scriptures. After all, times are much different now. « Fornication » back then was usually in a temple, with all sorts of weirdness associated. Nothing like good clean prostitution, or modern sex between mutually consenting adults. The guy really got my blood pressure up – not least of all because the person who referred this material to me was facing some serious temptations at the time, and someone fuzzing the lines really wasn’t helpful at all. I got all set to do a youtube video in response, but eventually did not do it for several reasons. First of all, I felt and looked ridiculous. That would describe about fifty-percent of the talking-heads on YouTube, but for myself…I just couldn’t bring myself to post something I produced in my garage, talking into a video camera. Also, other people were posting and were doing a much better job than I ever could. Most significantly, however, this antagonist was picking away at my Achilles heel: he was asking hard questions about how to read the Bible. In one post, for example, he loudly proclaimed, « Dude! Your Bible has a copyright on it! » This means, of course, that somebody is making money from selling you their translation of the Bible. And if they are making money, don’t you think they would have a bias!? How do I know what I am reading is accurate? The same is true (so he said) for the major concordances which are used by Churchmen: however, he had an obscure concordance which I had never heard of, but which was supposedly more accurate and not corrupted by the « church-bias »: according to this concordance, the critical verses were not translated to forbid fornication. He happily concluded that he could with a clear conscience fornicate to his hearts content, and still be a Christian. Other than mock him for being so arrogant as to boast that he alone (with no education whatsoever) was more educated and smart than the whole Christian church, I didn’t really know what to say to this guy.
The next topic I tackled was hell. I think it is important to note that I began talking about this topic as one which struck terror, shame and deep pain into my soul. I questioned « what if it’s really true? » What if, what if….if it’s true, it would have to change everything wouldn’t it? I started to become convinced that it actually was true that: 1) we really are a very very sinful race and 2) that God really is a holy, just, sovereign God, and 3) that this means that countless billions will suffer an eternal conscious torment of sufferings for the lifetime of sin which they have committed. Wow – just saying that…it is one thing to say, another thing to really process. Especially when one also believes that the only way to avoid hell is to place one’s full trust and confidence in the free gift of salvation offered in Jesus Christ, the son of God. He paid what we could not, so that we could receive what we do not deserve, but so desperately need – grace.
In Behold now…severity of God, I began to process this reality, and examine some of the ramifications. A friend from CBE began debating my literalistic interpretation of the verses. This post ultimately ended in frustration, but the underlying issue was again one of hermeneutics: I read the Bible basically like I read any other book. I read metaphors as metaphors, I read hyperbole as hyperbole, I read direct statements as statements of truth. It all seemed terrifyingly unavoidable and unambiguous. However, how could I prove that I was reading the Bible the right way? After all, I am not absolutely familiar with the original context – maybe the original writers would have heard something different than what I am hearing….?
I wrote a lengthy review of Brian Maclaren’s « A New Kind of Christian » and Rob Bell’s « Velvet Elvis« , and I don’t want to get into the content of those books very much here. However, it was very interesting that hermeneutical considerations formed a bulk of their works. Echoing many things I had heard before, they both brought up: 1) how the Bible had been used to endorse slavery, crusades and abuse of women, 2) how there are difficult verses which most people don’t know what to do with, 3) that the Bible was written a VERY long time ago, to a different culture. Thus, they concluded, it was just too simple to say « the Bible has this answer to this question. » This opened the way to present their own version of the gospel, which – as I mentioned elsewhere – is really only deism, or Liberalism, or Unitarian theology (by the way, these are all the same thing) repackaged, and with flashy graphics, wide-brimmed glasses, and a wise and twinkling eye.
Most recently, I have also been looking at the topic of homosexuality. Surprisingly, hermeneutics have not come up in my online discussions: however, when I read Justin’s essay in defense of Christians in homosexual relationships (see here), I was struck with a sudden, overwhelming sense of de ja vu: after some not-so-convincing arguments in which he tried to dismiss the well-known verses on homosexuality (his attempts were similar to the Campolo’s arguments, see here), Justin then went on to deconstruct conservative Evangelical hermeneutics. After all, he said, Christians have used the Bible to endorse slavery, the subjugation of women, and even crusades. (Wait a minute! Haven’t I heard this before…?) The Bible was written long ago, to a very different culture (hm…sounds strangely familiar), and finally, in conclusion, God is all about love, right? So why would a God of love actually tell His people that it is wrong to do something? (Note: I am being a little bit trite in my review: I actually think it is a very well written article, worth more time than I am giving it here although of course I disagree).
It was in reading Justin’s essay that the lights finally came on.
What do the topics of women in Christianity, of fornication, of hell, of emergent, and of homosexuality all have in common? Aside from being hot topics today, the glaring link between them all is that one side leans very heavily on a deconstruction of hermeneutics. The similarities are striking. Slavery came up in all of those topics. Abuse of women was next, followed by crusades. All of them found it necessary to prove, in one way or another, that the Bible could not be trusted. Ultimately, all of the people trying to pull their audiences away from the traditional view began with attacking the way most Christians read their Bibles, and ended by saying, in one way or another, « What really matters is that we all love one another, and love means agreeing with me, not with the conservatives. »
Now, I am not insane: I am not trying to debate all of these topics all at once. However, I have grouped these topics together for a reason: but I have realized something significant. Let me express it this way:
Let’s say that we were not Christians, but Muslims. Instead of trying to prove that our beliefs line up with the Bible, we are trying to make our beliefs line up with the Koran. Now, on one side of the debate are people who know the Koran inside and out. They are quoting passages, they are cross-refrencing, they are citing historical applications of the Koran, they are trying their very best to do exactly what Allah says is right on this issue, whatever it is. On the other side, a group of people is rapidly becoming experts in ancient studies, and in modern studies. They constantly challenge the « literalists » as being too shallow. They question whether the Koran can be understood on its own, as it stands. They draw many obscure « facts » (some of them real, some of them more questionable) to prove that the original context sheds all-important light on crucial passages. They point out that the Koran has been misinterpreted in the past, and strongly imply (although they never come out and say) that most of the Muslims, for most of the history of the religion have been wrong. They, however, are right. Oddly, the beliefs they seem to find the Koran teaching are exactly the same beliefs as their surrounding culture is teaching them.
Now tell me – which group do you think would be better Muslims? The group who read their holy-book and try their best to live by it, or the group who reads everything but the holy book, and tries their best to prove that their book does not actually say what it seems to say?
Let’s switch the metaphor again: rather than Muslims, lets’ invent a new religion – call it the Brittannicites. Our stated belief is that so long as we are true the the Encyclopedia Britannica, we will be saved. Now, which group is a better Brittanicite? The one who spends all their time reading commentaries about the original authors, the editions and redactions, and decides that after all, the Encyclopedia is not really very easy to trust and should be rejected? Or is it the group which actually reads the book, and does their level best to apply it to their lives?
This discovery has not really proven anything: however, the next time that someone begins, ends, or places a very heavy emphasis on the « okay, nobody knows what the Bible says, okay!? I mean, it was used to validate slavery for pete’s sake! » card, I will certainly be skeptical as to their real willingness to listen to God, as opposed to attempting to put words in His mouth.