From Creeds to Covenant and Beyond: Unity of the Spirit

In the past few weeks there have been a few blogs highlighting the importance of the creeds for demarcating the Christian faith over against beliefs that cross these essential boundaries between what is and is not Christian.  Progressives like Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox (see “The Future of Faith”), and his kindred spirits, decry the setting of such creedal boundaries as a corruption of, ironically enough, a purer and more primitive form of the Christian faith, which was part of the purpose of the ancient creeds to begin with.  Of course this supposed purer form of the faith was much more “diverse” and “inclusive” just like the progressives like Cox think they are today.  Yet, in spite of the criticism of the attempt to define the boundaries of Christian faith, as minimal as they are (as they were never intended to be exhaustive descriptions of everything about the Christian faith), Cox and friends cannot not lay out specific statements of beliefs of their own, which of course they do, that, as as any meaningful language would have it, must mean something over against something else.  No matter how much Cox tries to insist what is really important is some vague experience of oneness with the mystery of the universe, he can’t help but to express specific beliefs that are inevitably in harmony or disharmony with other statements of faith.  At any rate, I believe creeds, whether formal or informal, are inevitable whether you are orthodox are heterodox, or whatever.  So I commend those who have held up the creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene, to reveal the lines and where they have been crossed by those who still claim the name Christian, who after such analysis seem to have “progressed” past Christianity and into paganism.

What I can’t commend, however, is the suggestion that the creeds are the sufficient standard by which to assess the faith and practice.  The creeds are a wonderful starting point, and, as Scott Fritzsche pointed out in his experience with Afghan Christians, who clung to the creed while longing for more, they can be a wonderful guide and resource when nothing else is available.  Yet of course the creeds are minimal statements, succinct summaries of that something more, which of course, as Scott’s beautiful story reveals is, Scripture, the Bible.

There are couple of ways the creeds point beyond themselves to something else, something more.  In the Nicene Creed, the phrase, “in accordance with the Scriptures”, itself a line from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:4), for instance, would seem  to point us beyond the Creed to the Scriptures.  And the proclamation in both the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead surely begs the question, by what standard will we be judged?  Again I think the creeds at this point direct us to something beyond themselves, beginning with the Bible.

It is in Scripture that we should encounter a vitally important concept called covenant.  In the Old Testament we see the covenant God made with Abraham and his offspring, Isaac and Jacob.  Hundreds of years after Jacobs death we see God remember his covenant promise to Abraham and reveal his covenant love when he delivered Jacob’s descendants from slavery in Egypt.  In the wilderness before he brought them into the homeland that he had promised, he made a more specific covenant with them through his prophet Moses.  Even before they entered into the land of promise, however, there was a further promise of renewal after exile wherein God would circumcise the hearts of his people so they would obey and therefore live.  The covenant God made with Israel required obedience on the part of the people; obedience would bring blessing; rebellion would bring cursing.  The covenant with Israel contained regulations that only pertained to them and their distinct identity as an elect people holy to the Lord; it also contained moral laws that were universal for all people, including the Canaanites who were judged accordingly (Leviticus 18).  Nevertheless, within the Old Covenant itself there was the hint of something new to come (Deuteronomy 30:1-10).

The prophets picked up on this hint when Israel was under judgment for disobedience.  Jeremiah 31:31-34 refers to it as a “new covenant”, and as such it would be different from yet similar to the former covenant that God had made with Israel at Sinai.  Indeed, it would be different but not entirely; there would still be much continuity and overlap with the old.  Ezekiel also picks up on this hint and promise from Deuteronomy when it declares that after the judgment of exile God will give his people a new heart and put a new spirit, his very own spirit, within them so that they will wholeheartedly obey, and thus live in harmony with the word of God and the God of the word (Ezk 11:19-20; 36:26-28)

Of course as Christians we believe Jesus, as the true Messiah of Israel, fulfilled the precepts and the promises of the Old Testament thus ratifying by his shed blood the New Covenant, which is made effective in God’s people by faith and the Holy Spirit.  Jeremiah says under the New Covenant God would write his law on the hearts of his people; Ezekiel says God’s spirit will empower his people to follow his statutes and ordinances, terms that may be summed up by the word “word” (i.e. Psalm 119).  Thus, the main difference seems to be the motivating and empowering principle of obedience, but, as the New Testament reveals there are others as well.

Although I am aware of the quibbles that some scholars have with it, the traditional distinction the Church has made is between the moral law which is universal and the ceremonial and civil laws that were unique to Israel under the Old Covenant but not for the Church under the New as they fulfilled their temporary purpose and find their ongoing significance and meaning in Christ.  Without going into great detail – as the topic really needs and deserves – as our United Methodist Articles of Religion make clear, the Church under the New Covenant is still obliged to obey the moral law (see Article 6)

Contrary to what is sometimes thought, Jesus did not come to say forget about the law and do as you please because you are under grace.  The Good News of the kingdom of God is not that we have license to do as we please; rather the Good News is that through Christ we receive forgiveness and the grace and the Spirit to do as we ought, which is to keep the moral commandments of God.  As Paul might say, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything” (1 Cor 7:19 NRSV).   Of course this is something that we must continue to grow into in the “already/not yet” until the kingdom comes in all of its fullness and glory in the New Creation.

The moral law would most certainly include the prohibitions of the sexual immorality delineated in Leviticus 18,and unsurprisingly are reiterated in the New Testament.  Some of those who have argued for the acceptance of same sex sexual relationships have been reticent to say that they simply reject the commandments prohibiting homosexual acts.  Instead they have tried to argue that we have just misunderstood the biblical texts, which never condemned consensual and committed same sex relationships.  Others still argue that the issue is sufficiently unclear enough to go against the traditional understanding.  Still others, however, have been brazen enough, albeit also commendably honest enough to simply reject these particular commandments while acknowledging  that the biblical texts are clear that all forms of same sex sexual relations, consensual or otherwise, stand unequivocally condemned.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a renowned biblical scholar and professor at Emory University, for example says he “has little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties.”  He goes on to say “The exegetical situation is straightforward : we know what the text says.”  Nonetheless, although he doesn’t doubt that the Bible unequivocally prohibits all forms of same sex acts, Johnson further states that he does, in fact, reject the the clear commands of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, in favor of the authority of the testimony of personal experience.  But Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.   For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  (Matt 5:17-20 ESV)

I believe what Luke Timothy Johnson admits is more to the point of what is actually going on.  Even those who try to use the argument that Scripture is sufficiently unclear enough to disregard the traditional understanding of Christian sexuality and marriage, – a claim that is in itself extremely dubious in my opinion – frequently seem to fall back on “the Bible is flawed anyway” argument when pressed.  I think the reality, as many liberal scholars like Johnson admit, is that Scripture is sufficiently clear enough – more than sufficiently clear enough – to abide by the traditional position on sex and marriage.  What we are being asked to do is to reject the straightforward command of Scripture, which reveals to us the expectations of the covenant into which we were baptized, which in turn reveals the heart and the word and will of God.  And the Word and Will of God was most clearly revealed in the Word become flesh, who offered to God what Adam, Israel and the rest of humanity failed to offer God, perfect obedience (see Phlp 2).

The New Covenant as revealed in Scripture, and as ratified and embodied by Jesus must be our ultimate standard of faith and practice.  Although the creeds provide an important starting point, they themselves point beyond themselves to Scripture; Scripture directs us to the New Covenant; the New Covenant points us to Jesus, who in turn reveals to us God the Father.  It is the Spirit of God, promised in the Prophets, that puts this into effect in our lives when we believe.  According to the promise of the New Covenant, true believers shouldn’t be trying to figure out what is the least they can believe and still be Christian; rather true believers should be trying to figure out how much they can do to please the one who gave His only Son for us.

Pentecost is upon us, and for all of the wonderful gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the church; the greatest gift is the gift of new life, a new heart, a circumcised heart designed and tailor made for our obedience; so God’s people will obey, rather than reject the straightforward commandments of God.

HolySpiritPeacemaker

I think that John Wesley would agree that the demons would assent to the statements in the Nicene Creed regarding the Triune God and the full divinity and humanity of Jesus as God incarnate.  According to Wesley the devils would acknowledge that “Jesus is the Christ, and that all Scripture, having been given by inspiration of God, is as true as God is true” (the latter many in our denomination deny as adamantly as Wesley affirmed it!) (Sermon 18, “The Marks of the New Birth”);  they wouldn’t, however, obey the straightforward commands of the covenant.

Wesley, as he was wont to do for his hearers and readers, might ask us to ponder whether we have the faith of a Christian or the faith of devils.  The difference of the former from the latter he describes thus: “it is not barely a speculative, rational thing, a cold, lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head; but also a disposition of the heart” (Sermon 1, “Salvation by Faith”).

The unity that we so desperately need cannot be found in assent to a few truths in a couple of creeds; the unity we are called to keep (not manufacture ourselves) is a unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3), and the Spirit was given so that we will obey God’s word from the heart.  It should be evident that the unity of the Spirit can only be found within the boundaries of the New Covenant, which necessarily includes the recapitulation of the moral law found in the Old Covenant under Moses.  Hence Paul, in Ephesians chapter 5 precludes the possibility of fellowship with those who flout the laws against sexual immorality (Eph 5:1-20).  Neither is the concern for sound doctrine and the preservation of the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” in Jude about the nature of God and the incarnation, but those “who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (v. 4).  The following verses would indicate that one of Jude’s primary concerns was sexual immorality as his reference to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah would suggest.

We are not called to just keep the unity of the creeds, as significant and as important as that is; we are called “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  As Romans 8 makes plain the Spirit was given “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but according to the Spirit” (v. 4).  The unity of the Spirit can only be found among those who set their mind on the Spirit and seek to obey and please God from the heart.  The mind set on the flesh, being hostile to God, will not submit to God’s law, and naturally cannot please God; those who are in the Spirit will submit to the moral law and therefore please God (see Rom 8:8-9).  In the United Methodist Church we are of two minds because we are of two spirits.  We can only find unity in the Spirit of God according to the terms of the New Covenant set forth in Scripture.  Whether we like it or not we are divided; the divide is spiritual; and I don’t think there is any legislation that can fix that.  Only the unity of the Spirit and the mind of Christ as revealed in Scripture can.

 

Romans 8 (NRSV)

8There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. 12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

 

To Bring Glory to God: #UMC and Homosexuality Debate

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

So begins the Westminster Catechism, written in the 17th century as a means to educate the Church in the faith.  It’s worth noting that of the 107 questions and answers it begins by stating unequivocally what our role as humans is:  To glorify God.  We exist solely for this purpose.

How do we do this?  The second question tackles that:

Q: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?

A: The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

We exist so that we might glorify God and the only way we know how to do this is through the revealed will of God as stated in the Old and New Testaments of Scripture.

As the United Methodist Church continues to wonder how we can best address the current sexuality debate facing our church, I wonder if it would not do us all well to return to these simple yet profound questions of catechesis.

What is our chief purpose and how do we accomplish it?

Sadly, the chief end of the United Methodist Church appears to be something other than bringing glory and honor to God through fidelity to God’s holy word.  Far too often our chief aim appears to be appeasing the culture around us or a lobby within us or even the noble yet subtly idolatrous goal of church unity.

Today, the Connectional Table of the UMC voted to put forward a proposal to the General Conference, a “Third Way” to move us beyond the impasse in our church regarding homosexuality.   The Rev. Kenneatha Bigham-Tsai, chairperson of one of the subcommittees proposing this “third way”  had this to say about how they came to their decision:

“We believe this proposal will keep everyone at the table, allows for the exercise of conscience, better provides for the inclusion of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and best maintains the unity of the church.”

Notice what is lacking from the logic behind this decision.   This is but one example of many found in and throughout our church where we – and by “we” I mean both sides of the aisle – have lost sight of our purpose for existence:  To bring glory to God.   Instead we have fallen prey to the always alluring idol of worldly glory, choosing to please the desires of humankind rather than submit to the demands of God.

Unity while forsaking fidelity to God’s rule is rebellion.

This disease is rampant in our church and our current struggle is but one of many ways in which it manifests.   Far too often pastors and leaders in the church organize around the wrong question.  We ask how might we make the folks we serve happy or how we might increase our attendance or how we might slow our decline when the first and primary question we need to ask ourselves is how well are we glorifying God?  How well am I conforming my life, my thoughts, my will, my desires, my hopes, my words to the rule of God as set forth in the Old and New Testaments?   How much am I submitted to God’s ideas over my own or yours?

So long as we make decisions based on polling or money or lobbies or probability of fallout we will fail not just as a denomination but as human beings.  We will fail to live up to our chief end which is to bring glory to God.  It’s fascinating to me that the Westminster Catechism was written as a means to help bring the Church of England into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland.  In other words, their goal was a more unified church.  How did they proceed?  By directing everyone’s goal towards glorifying God.

As we move forward, may we prayerfully consider whether every decision we make and every vote we cast is one that brings glory to God through submission to God’s word.   To do anything else might result in keeping us united but united to the wrong things with the wrong goals and a god that is of our own making rather than the one revealed to us through Scripture.

Ministry to ALL Sexual Sinners

In the last couple of posts (see here and here) I tried to show that the Bible clearly describes same-sex acts of any variety as sinful because it is contrary to nature, God’s intent according to Divine design in creation.  I also tried to show that there is no scientific consensus regarding the nature and origin of same-sex attraction; and that evidence, reason, and experience actually show that there are multiple factors at play that would include possible biological predispositions, but also psychological conditioning due to a complex web of personal experiences.  Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience also clearly indicate that although we do not choose our sexual desires, we do have a choice as whether or not to act on them; and just because we have certain sexual desires it does not follow morally that we should act on them.  In other words, again, the Bible is clear and the nature of same-sex attraction is much more complicated than to simply say, “born that way, end of story, now bake my d%$& wedding cake!”  To talk about it as if it is more like race than other forms of sexual desire is misleading blatant propaganda.

Professor Richard Hays, renowned New Testament scholar, in his book, “The Moral Vision of the New Testament,” makes basically the same point when he says that he and his best friend from Yale, Gary, who was gay and dying of Aids, came to similar conclusions in 1989.  Hays writes regarding the pressure for the church to condone same-sex relationships: “As a New Testament scholar I was concerned about certain questionable exegetical and theological strategies of the gay apologists.  As a homosexual Christian, Gary believed that their writings did justice neither to the biblical texts nor to his own sobering experience of the gay community that he had moved in and out of for twenty years” (p. 380).  Hays’ friend Gary, who at one time had been hopeful about the research that had claimed to find justification for some same-sex relations, came away after actually reading and considering the arguments believing that those authors had simply read their own wishful thinking into the Bible.  Indeed, the greatest challenge to accurate biblical interpretation is not the foreignness of the original languages and the biblical culture, but the deceitfulness, the denial and rationalization of the sin sick human heart.  This is not only true for homosexual sinners, but for all sexual sinners in general.  In this post I want to discuss how we might faithfully and compassionately minister to all sexual sinners.

1.  First we must recognize and humbly acknowledge that we are all sinners before God and in need of God’s forgiveness through the blood of Christ, and in need of God’s Spirit to give us new birth so that we can live no longer as sinners but as saints who are new creations in Christ.  Homosexual sin is not the only sexual sin; it’s not even the most prevalent sexual sin, although it is certainly the most politicized by far.  Because of original sin, the reality that we are all born with a predisposition toward sin generally, we are all disordered sexual beings in one way or another and to one degree or another.  The only proper outlet for sexual desire for Christians is within a marriage covenant relationship between one man and one woman according to the teaching of Jesus (Matt 5; Matt 19; Mark 10) and the apostle Paul (1 Cor 7).  I certainly know that I have fallen far short of Jesus’ standards in many different ways, as all have.  Within the body of Christ we must judge others behavior, but we must judge rightly, not hypocritically or pridefully.  As Jesus said, “First remove the beam from your eye , and then you can see clearly to remove the speck form your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5 NET).  (Note also that he didn’t say just ignore, much less affirm, the speck).  Paul puts it this way, “Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness.  Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too” (Gal 6:1 NET).  So we must proceed in a spirit of humility and compassion in order to restore rather than condemn.

2.  Preachers must be courageous to speak the truth in love. I think preachers have been far too squeamish for far too long to preach and teach sexual holiness, probably to preach about holiness in general as far as that goes.  Nonetheless, the church has desperately needed to be a place of sexual education. Although there are some preachers who continue to insist that our doctrine of God is essential, but sexual ethics is non-essential, the teaching of the New Testament grounded in the witness of the Old Testament is that we should flee from idolatry and sexual immorality
(see 1 Cor 10:1-22).  Assent to the creeds would only indicate that one is Christianish, as Wesley might say, and “almost Christian”; faithfulness to the creeds and the New Covenant of which they are a summary would indicate that one is, as Wesley might say, an “altogether Christian.”   The teaching of Jesus is incredibly challenging, quite stark and gravely serious with regards to sexual ethics, and not to be taken lightly (see Matt 5:27-32).

Unfortunately, the church has taken a back seat to the world in terms of sex education, and the world, now in the driver’s seat, has taken much of the church on a joy ride on the wide road headed for destruction. We must take a back seat no more! We must teach the truth beginning with the positive, the beauty and blessing of sexual holiness, found in chastity in singleness and marriage. We must also warn of the dangers of sexual sin, temporal and eternal, in accordance with the witness of scripture. We must call people to repent of sexual immorality of every variety, to offer them the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ and ensure that they truly receive it along with new birth by the Spirit, who enables and empowers us to live holy lives of self-denial on the narrow way that leads to life. We also must help parents teach their children at appropriate ages the blessing of God’s prescribed way; and we must teach sexual holiness to our youth as they enter into middle school.

With two middle-schoolers myself now, I am well aware of the many pitfalls and powerful temptations that exist for them. I have seen Instagram posts by seventh graders with sayings like, “Give her a shoulder to cry on, and pretty soon she’ll have a d&#% to ride on!” Some kids in the middle school are a part of an internet group called “the c&$% swallowers club”.  We mustn’t be naive. Preachers, talk to the parents and with their consent help teach the kids in your church!  It should be a major topic in every confirmation class!

Preacher

3.  We must teach the truth about sin and salvation in general.  Cheap grace will not do!  It is itself a tool of the enemy.  Grace is more than just forgiveness, it is also transformation through the new birth and empowerment through the Holy Spirit.    An over-realized eschatology will not do either.  That is, we must not give people the impression that salvation means instantaneous and complete deliverance from all of the power of sin now.  This can only lead to hopeless despair.  Believers will still struggle with sin, but as people equipped and empowered by the Spirit to be an overcomer until we receive the final victory in the resurrection.  Salvation is a past event in the sense that we are “saved” the moment we believe, but the Bible also teaches us that salvation is also a process in this life as we are still “being saved” as we anticipate in hope the day when we “will be saved” finally and fully at the return of the Lord.  On this side of the resurrection we will still have to battle the forces of evil, beginning with our own remaining sinful inclinations.  We will daily have to take up our cross and deny ourselves on the narrow way with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2).  (Rev. Chad Hotlz just recently wrote a wonderful reflection on overcoming sinful desires using the “Twilight” vampire movie as an illustration).

We must encourage believers, including ourselves, not to give in to the temptation to lay down our cross of self-denial and pull up our recliner of self-indulgence.  There will be plenty of temptation to cozy up and get comfortable with our sin.  Likewise there will be plenty of well-meaning false teachers happy to bring a nice warn blanket to make us more comfortable in our “La-Z Boys”.  This calls for wisdom and discernment.  We must help disciples to become fully equipped for every good work through the teaching of the whole counsel of God so they are no longer tossed to a fro by every wind of doctrine and are able to stand firm against the wiles of the devil (see 2 Timothy 3; Acts 20:17-35; Eph 4 -6).

4.  We must be welcoming, patient, and abundantly forgiving of all sinners.  We should welcome all people regardless of the particular sins with which they struggle, but without condoning any particular sins no matter how popular, fashionable, or entrenched they may be, and without singling out any particular sinful sexual desires as worse than others.  Homosexuality is certainly not the only sinful inclination that we should help people to master by the grace of God.  The church needs to warn people generally of the dangers of incubating and reinforcing lust within their own hearts and minds through fantasy fueled by the various forms of soft and hardcore pornography in the culture today.

I myself was exposed to hardcore porn at a very young age, long before the advent of the internet.  I have struggled with lustful thoughts ever since, although since 2006 I have been free from the grip of pornography addiction.  My new birth broke the chains and daily prayer, Bible study, worship, and Christian fellowship have helped me to renew my mind to be transformed.  The frequency and intensity of lustful thoughts have been greatly diminished and my desire to please God greatly increased.  As a result I have found abundant fulfillment and thankfulness in my one and only covenant relationship with my wife.  The illicit desires have not gone completely away, but they no longer bind me and control me.  When they arise in my heart I nail them to the cross and put them down by the grace of God!  Since 2006 I did succumb to temptation with regards to pornography a couple of times, but I repented and confessed my sin to receive the ongoing cleansing of the blood of Christ.  It is an ongoing battle, but it is a battle worth fighting in light of the war that has already been won in Christ.  Because of him and through him we can conquer sin and vanquish the enemy!

We also need to preach and teach the word regarding premarital sex, adultery, divorce, and all other forms of sexual immorality including of course, homosexual behavior.  Some have referred to the attempted justification of homosexual sex to be the beginning of a slippery slope, but the truth is, as others have recognized, the first slip down the slope probably began with no-fault divorce.  That’s when marriage was first redefined to be more like a glorified high school fling with a modern marriage certificate just a fancier version of the “will-you-go-with-me-check-yes-or-no” note that kids pass around in classrooms.  That’s a bit of hyperbole for sure, but it certainly changed the marriage landscape enough that Christian adults with kids think “I love her/him, but I’m not in love with her/him” is a valid enough justification for divorce.  We have to do better; we have to teach better all across the board; but we certainly shouldn’t use failure in other areas to justify further rebellion against the will of God for his New Covenant people.  Sinners will inevitably seek to justify sin, but the man or woman of God should preach and teach so that people are convicted of their sin and then point them to the only Savior who will forgive them because his Son died for them, to the Spirit who will transform them so that Christ will live in them, and to the Lord who will lead them like a shepherd in the way that leads to eternal life.

5.  Thus, the church needs to be prepared to work with people all along the Christian journey.  In many churches this is difficult because for many church-goers now, one hour of worship a couple of times a month is about all they are willing to do.  This is a major problem in itself; nevertheless Christians need the rest of the body to help build them up in love.  This also is difficult in churches they may be divided with regards to what constitutes sexual sin.  Regardless, pastors need to take a stand on truth and righteousness in spite of the potential conflict.  I don’t believe it wise to continue to pretend that this is an indifferent matter when scripture repeatedly and consistently warns that unrepentant sexual immorality will exclude one from the kingdom of God.  People need prayer partners, opportunities for accountability groups, and access to and support for therapy and rehabilitation programs if necessary.

Ministries like Karen Booth’s through “Transforming Congregations” is a good example and much needed in more churches.  Chad Holtz’s testimony and the help he received through “Pure Life Ministries“, as well as the “Recovery at Dayton” ministry that he got started at his local church are also great examples.  Moreover, for all of the “pray-the-gay-away” straw man attacks against ministries and therapy geared toward helping people with unwanted same-sex attraction, this is also still an important ministry that churches should be aware of and support.  Contrary to mischaracterizations or misguided attempts to help, the goal of such ministries is to help those who struggle to be faithful to the New Covenant standards for sexual holiness, not to cure them in this life of all illicit desire or to replace homosexual attractions with purely heterosexual attractions.  The later, however, may and has happened for some as a by-product of seeking God’s grace to be chaste (see a response to attacks on such therapy by Robert Gagnon and Andrew Comiskey).  “Restored Hope Network” is an faithful example of this type of ministry.

 

Is it really that big of a deal?

The controversy over sexuality in the church and society is such a big deal because it is a big deal.  The issues do in fact strike at the very root of the Christian faith.  How else could you honestly characterize it when scripture repeatedly warns that unrepentant sexual sinners will not inherit the kingdom of God, so often topping the list of vices in the respective texts that carry that warning.  It’s also becoming more and more obvious that gay marriage laws and special protections for sexual orientations is clashing mightily with the free exercise of the traditional Christian faith in society.

The message of the book of Revelation is quite pertinent and extremely poignant here, especially for those who may be tempted to compromise with the culture and an apostate church or just remain silent because of intimidation.  Revelation 21:7 indicates that the New Heaven and New Earth is for those who “conquer.”  The message of Jesus to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 shows that this means remaining faithful in the face of cultural pressure, threats to livelihoods and lives, to compromise with idolatry and sexual immorality.  Hence, Revelation 21:8 specifies those who will be excluded from the New Creation and cast into the lake of fire, soberly beginning with cowards and the faithless, but also quite conspicuously, again, including unrepentant sexual sinners.  This is serious business; the man or woman of God must be bold and courageous enough to show genuine mercy by warning sinners and snatching them out of the fire (Jude).  “Let us then be true and faithful, trusting, serving everyday,” because, “just one glimpse of him in glory will the toils of life repay!”

Just before I was getting ready to post this, I happened to see this powerful testimony that was wonderfully fitting.  I leave you with a powerful testimony from a ministry called XXX Church.  Someone gave a porn star a “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” Bible.  A word from Jesus from Revelation 2:18-29 changed her life and set her free!  Praise God!!!!!

 

Sexuality and the Church: The Liberal Litmus Test

In my last post (see here) I argued that the Bible really is rather clear that same-sex sexual acts, consensual or otherwise, are sinful because the act itself is contrary to nature, God’s intent in creation.  That this is the teaching of scripture in the Old and New Testaments is attested by the thoroughly informed opinions of top conservative and liberal scholars.  It is simply not true that writers of scripture such as Paul were only aware of exploitative forms of same-sex relations.  The fact that Paul condemns lesbian relationships (Rom 1) that were not known to be exploitative but rather quite consensual in antiquity is a pretty good indicator that even consensual same-sex sexual relations were prohibited.  Thus, the argument that the Bible is not clear about whether consensual homosexual relationships are also wrong is quite dubious.  Some prominent liberal scholars though acknowledge that the Bible does indeed condemn any expression of homosexual behavior; they simply believe that the Bible is just wrong.  For these scholars the modern scientific understanding of sexuality and the witness of their own experience is so overwhelming that the Biblical witness against same-sex relations must be set aside as antiquated.  I remembering speaking with a Methodist pastor several years ago who insisted that this was actually the case; that the Biblical teaching regarding sex is simply antiquated and should be dismissed.  So what is the scientific consensus regarding homosexuality?

“There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”  (American Psychological Association:  http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.aspx)

For the most part it is either explicitly stated and strongly implied by the analogies used that sexual orientation is absolutely predetermined and immutable like skin color or eye color.  Opponents of gay marriage are often compared to racist who opposed interracial marriage in the past.  While I was watching the last summer Olympics there was a commercial promoting Gay Marriage wherein it was explicitly stated that being homosexual was akin to race or eye color.  These kinds of comparisons are used relentlessly in spite of the fact that they are simply not true.  Just read the APA statement above again.

There is no consensus among scientists as to how sexual orientations develop; although why the vast majority of people develop heterosexual attractions shouldn’t really be such a mystery.  Nonetheless, while it is acknowledged that “most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation,” that is a far cry from being just like skin color, eye color, or, as I recently heard, height.  The comparisons to race or other completely heritable and immutable traits such as eye color are false comparisons.  As an article that I recently came across written by an avid supporter of the LGBTQ agenda said gay marriage laws could not have been passed without these comparisons.  As a matter of fact if the Supreme Court decides to force gay marriage on the whole country they will more than likely do so based on arguments from the 14th amendment that was written to secure civil rights with regards to race, specifically recently freed slaves.  Yet the truth is we really know that a persons sexual attractions and desires are NOT like race, eye color, or height.  While scientific studies that have attempted to find a genetic link to homosexuality have been inconclusive in that regard, what they have shown, specifically the studies involving identical twins, is that whatever the possible genetic link it is certainly not the absolute and only possible factor as the current APA statement reflects.  If it were absolute like eye color then every identical twin who is same-sex attracted would have a sibling who is as well, which is certainly not the case.  Even if there is a genetic factor it does not follow that the attractions are necessarily simply because of that are good and to be encouraged as there are many psychological dispositions, including clearly negative ones such as pedophilia, for which a genetic component is considered.

Thus, this is not to say that it is a simple matter of choice.  Nonetheless, to say that if it is not a matter of choice then it must be like those physical traits is a false dichotomy.  We all experience desires that we do not choose, and if we’re honest, we all know that there are some desires that we may experience little to no sense of choice over that we should not act on.  From wherever certain desires arise, we also know that some desires should not be encouraged.

Some people, for instance experience the desire for variety in their sexual partners even though they are married.  If they have a willing partner with similar desires they may engage in what could be called “consensual adultery” or as it is popularly called, “swinging.”  One could argue that this is all harmless because it is consensual, and some would even say “natural”; yet it should go without saying that this should not be considered appropriate behavior among Christians, although even this is becoming quite murky in our hyper-sexualized society.  I think virtually everyone would agree, I hope, that Christians certainly shouldn’t be forced by the government to participate in any way in the promotion and celebration of such practices.  So the question is not whether certain desires are chosen or not, but whether or not we believe those desires are desirable for human flourishing and for the good of society.  Another question is whether or not it is appropriate for the power of government to be used to force the explicit or tacit approval of particular views regarding what is appropriate expression of certain sexual desires.  While people may not experience a sense of choice when it comes to sexual desires, it is undeniable that there is some element of choice that is exercised when it comes to behavior.  And that is what we are talking about here: sexual desires expressed through particular behavioral choices.  In some cases it may be a person who can only remember always being sexually attracted to members of the same sex, but it also may be someone like the young woman who came to me and said she decided to accept the sexual advances of another woman because she knew she couldn’t get pregnant that way.  The abundant testimonies of former homosexuals should also put the lie to these false comparisons, but of course they are more often than not maligned and dismissed by mainstream academia and media.  At any rate, homosexuality and bisexuality are more appropriately compared to other forms of sexual desire and behavior rather than physical traits and characteristics.

The LGBTQ agenda, nevertheless, has advanced largely based on the idea that one’s sexual desires are akin to completely heritable and immutable physical traits and on a false dichotomy between unchosen desires and deliberate actions.  There are other very questionable ideas that have been advanced along with these as well.  Many people, not all, but many insist that there is absolutely no biological basis for gender differences; but, again contrary to the actual evidence, that there is an absolute biological basis for sexual orientation.  That is, that gender differences are simply social constructs, but sexual orientation is a purely biological reality.  In the one case it is absolutely acceptable to try to change one’s body to match one’s feelings because, as a transgender I just recently heard said, “what you feel on the inside is reality.”  On the other hand, many of the same people are insisting that sexual orientation is so absolute that one should never seek to change it.  Some states like California have banned therapy for minors that would seek to change sexual orientation; but actively encourage children who experience gender confusion to seek out hormonal and physical change, even though over 80 percent of children who experience gender identity confusion spontaneously revert back to accepting the gender that corresponds to their physical bodies .  So in other words, feelings reign supreme either way, and it is perfectly acceptable to try to change one’s body to match one’s feelings, but anathema to try to change one’s feelings to match one’s body to many of those who are pushing the LGBTQ agenda.

Dr. Paul McHugh, the former head of psychiatry at John’s Hopkins, suggests that we might want to reconsider this approach.  As unpopular as it might be with regards to LGBTQ issues, we might want to consider the possibility that a person’s feelings and self-perception may need to be the focus of change, or at least responsible management.  Dr. McHugh encouraged John’s Hopkins stop gender reassignment surgery after a longitudinal followup study indicated that there was no difference in terms of depression and suicidal thoughts among those who had gone through the surgery compared to those who had not.  Dr. McHugh came to believe that to push for gender reassignment surgery “is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder” (see article here).  Instead of focusing on trying to change someone from a man into a woman or vice versa, which Dr. McHugh says is a biological impossibility, we may want to consider focusing on helping people to cope with and adjust to their biological reality.  As Christians I think it very unwise for us to go along with a prevailing sentiment that considers one’s embodied reality to be completely irrelevant compared to one’s feelings and desires.  Our bodies are not irrelevant to who we are.  Why wouldn’t we even consider the possibility that a persons feelings may be mixed up rather than their body?  Former head of the APA, Dr. Nicholas Cummings, has also expressed serious concerns about political bias and distortion in the APA and psychological research regarding sexuality (see here).

Is it really time to throw out thousands of years of Judeo-Christian wisdom regarding sexual practices based on these incredibly dubious assertions?  Is it on this basis that we are ready to create a society where Christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic based on the teachings of Jesus and the Bible are under constant threat to their livelihoods such as the Atlanta Fire Chief who was fired for expressing his opinions in a book or the florist in Washington state who will be put out of business and possibly lose her home because she declined to participate in an event, a gay wedding, that promotes an idea that she finds morally objectionable?  Do we really want all the Christian military chaplains who hold traditional beliefs about sex to be discharged or banned from service? (i.e. see here).  Are we ready to overturn the teachings of the Church based on the dubious assertions that the Bible is just not clear enough but the scientific findings and people’s personal experiences are?  And if these ideas are so obviously right then why all the threats, intimidation, and manipulative tactics?  Why the push to silence any opposing views?

It has become quite obvious that same-sex marriage has become the tool for the forced indoctrination of children into a sexual ethic that is at odds with the traditional teachings of the Christian Church.  It has also become a tool to suppress the expression of traditional Christian belief in society and to demonize and marginalize those who hold those views.  Its design seems to be to undermine the foundations of our society rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview and to impose a new sexual ethic rooted in a more pagan worldview (see my further thoughts on this here).  There are LGBT activists on record saying that when they say that they want gay marriage they are lying because they don’t believe such an institution should exist in the first place (see here).  While some really do see this as a basic issue of human rights, again mostly based on the dubious comparisons to race, for others there is clearly a much larger agenda that might be called “the fundamental transformation of society.”

The threats, intimidation, and silencing of people with traditional Christian beliefs regarding sex are clearly part of the agenda; and these tactics obviously benefit those on the political left.  Suppression of traditional Christian beliefs is part of the program.  The intimidation and indoctrination that abounds on college campuses, is becoming more common place in other public venues such as government institutions, the military, big business and sports, in television media, and even in many churches.

While I was in Divinity School at Duke, a student pastor mentor invited my peer group to come to a dialogue about homosexuality.  When I asked who would be representing the conservative side, she looked at me as if I had lost my mind.  After an awkward silence she admitted that there was not going to be a conservative viewpoint.  That seemed to be typical for my time there.  Shortly after I graduated there was a huge uproar when the Dean of the Divinity School just mentioned that there were a diversity of theological beliefs at Duke that included some who might hold to the official teaching of the United Methodist Church that all persons are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching (see article here).  Apparently we have gotten to the point where it is not even acceptable to mention the conservative position, even in a United Methodist seminary.  Indeed, recent discussions among members of the United Methodist Connectional Table revealed that some even consider the mere expression of conservative opinions to be an act of violence against the LGBTQ community.

When I was going through the commissioning process in the Western NC Conference I was asked in a one-on-one interview that I had to do how I handled conflict in the church.  I thought I would share about the time that I lead a discussion on homosexuality at the church where I was a student pastor.  It was during the time when the state of NC was considering a marriage amendment that would limit the definition of marriage to one man and one woman.  I had people on both sides of the issue asking me what I thought.  I decided to lead a Bible study and group discussion about the issue and present the issues at hand to the best of my ability.  We discussed the issue of sexuality in more general terms for the most part.  I made it clear that I stood on the conservative side of the issue and presented my own case from that point of view; but I also discussed many of the liberal perspectives, which I had become quite familiar with by that time.  We had about 20 people in the group.  Most identified with the conservative position, there were a few who took the liberal view, and some who just really weren’t sure.  We meet for a few weeks and discussed the issue quite thoroughly.  I have a particular view and I don’t think this is an indifferent matter so I did clearly share my views from that perspective.  But I also think I did a good job of discussing the liberal perspectives and the liberals among us felt quite comfortable and free to share their perspectives.  There were times when people became quite passionate, but never a time when anyone was disrespected.  Over the several weeks no one dropped out of the group.  A couple of people who weren’t so sure came to accept the traditional view; the one staunch liberal maintained her view.  Throughout it was a respectful and thorough conversation and everyone was grateful for the discussion.

For sharing this, especially the fact that I hold to the conservative view, the person interviewing me decided that I wasn’t diverse enough in my theology.  I have no doubt that what he meant was that I wasn’t liberal enough for his tastes.  The interviewer specifically stated that he personally believed that all religions are really pointing to the same ultimate reality and was obviously concerned about what he considered to be my narrow views.  Nonetheless, through this came the recommendation from the Board of Ordained Ministry that I read a couple of different books that would help with what was clearly deemed to be my problem.  One was a book on different ways of being religious called “Six Ways of Being Religious” (actually a pretty good book to get into some of the cognitive dimensions common across different religions and not one advocating that all religions are the same).  The other was a book by Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox, called “The Future of Faith.”

In “The Future of Faith” Cox basically argues in favor of a semi-Gnostic and supposedly more diverse and more original version of Christianity.  He insists that true faith doesn’t insist on specific beliefs as those expressed in orthodox creeds.  Yet Cox himself, as he bashes orthodoxy at every turn (including John Wesley, whom he considers to be an awful proto-fundamentalist), lays out another specific set of beliefs that naturally exclude other beliefs, especially and quite obviously orthodox ones.  I took this to be a clear case of, at least some on the Board of Ordained Ministry, trying to suppress orthodox belief in a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church under the guise of diversity.  This seems to me to be a form of indoctrination and creating an atmosphere of intimidation for those with a traditional sexual ethic; and this in a denomination whose official position is that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.

If the comparisons with racists is not bad enough, as my blog partner Rev. Chad Holtz shared, some United Methodist Conferences are resorting to associating traditional Christian beliefs about sex with the suicidal tendencies of those in the LGBT community (see here).  Depression and suicidal tendencies in the LGBT community can’t simply be boiled down to lack of acceptance among Christians.  It’s a much more complicated picture than that; and it is quite manipulative and downright sinister to try to pin the blame solely on the conservative Christian community.  I remember watching the propaganda film called, “Prayers for Bobby” a few years ago.  The film clearly was designed to place blame on the traditional Christian sexual ethic for the suicide of Bobby, the homosexual son of a conservative Christian family.  Undoubtedly, conservative Christian parents should never disown their children if they live a homosexual lifestyle any  more than they should disown their children for engaging in any other type of sexual activity outside of marriage.  Christian parents should be able to express love and acceptance of their children without condoning everything that they choose to do as well, however.  Nonetheless, there are some important lessons to learn here: one is that homosexual attractions should not be treated as an unforgivable sin with absolute shunning the only possible reaction.  Nevertheless, the film clearly attempts to place the blame for Bobby’s suicide on the lack of acceptance among the Christian community and his Christian parents even though the film shows that Bobby committed suicide after he saw his lover going into a bar showing affection for another man.  Why not ask what other factors might be at play, especially in light of studies that show that there is still a disproportionately higher rate of depression and suicidal thoughts and tendencies even in places where homosexuality is ardently celebrated and traditional Christian sexual ethics shunned?  The obvious reason is because it doesn’t further the agenda.  It is more politically advantageous for the left to continue to make these dubious comparisons and associations in order to demonize the opposition.  Even in the church so much of the “dialogue” is anything but in reality a pretty lopsided monologue.

I have listened very carefully to as many views on this issue that I can.  Not long ago I listened to a talk given by a prominent progressive pastor in a large church nearby on video.  The pastor discussed the issue, but also had a guest speaker present via video to the live audience that had assembled at his church.  The pastor himself presented the issue as being unclear in scripture and as a matter of simply welcoming and accepting all people as did his guest for the most part.  Again the implied comparison here is welcoming people of differing sexual orientations and gender identities as you would welcome people of different races.  It’s not that conservative United Methodists don’t want to welcome all people; it’s that we don’t think it wise and scripturally prudent to condone sexual activity outside of marriage traditionally understood.  For this particular pastor even the word “condone” connoted some type of violence toward the LGBTQ community.  He insisted that the words “do not condone” were unacceptably violent in tone; yet he did not hesitate to label the preaching of one of our African brothers at our last Annual Conference “despicable.”  What did he find so despicable? –  A call to repent of sexual immorality traditionally understood, to put faith in Jesus for forgiveness and new birth, to take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him, and as a result to be saved from hell.

Another reason why some want to throw out the traditional sexual ethic is because of the nice homosexual or bisexual people that they know.  It is even oft suggested that if only conservatives would get to know some homosexual people then we wouldn’t object so much, as if the problem is really that we just don’t know any gay people.  That is quite simply not the case and it is really beside the point.  “Niceness” as defined by progressives is not the standard by which we will be judged; scriptural holiness is!  There are plenty of people from all walks of life who are “nice”, meaning generally kind and polite.  I have known swingers, heterosexual and homosexual , who would fit that category.  One was a former coworker who had left his wife and children to move in with another man, with whom he had an open relationship.  I got to know him quite well and always found him to be fair and considerate in the work place, although he enjoyed talking about his open relationship from time to time.  He had a grandson born the same week my first son was born.

We all know people who are generally quite nice, who experience desires and engage in behavior that is incompatible with the holiness to which we are called as Christians, including someone we see in the mirror everyday.  Nonetheless, it is not the etiquette of Emily Post by which we will be judged, but the word of the Living God!

There are many other problems with this push to abandon the traditional Christian wisdom regarding sexual behavior, not least the apparent bait and switch tactic of framing it as push to simply accept monogamous same-sex unions, what one progressive pastor colleague called a holy from of same-sex sex .  The acronym LGBTQ itself obviously implies the possibility of much more than simple monogamous unions.  What about the B’s who might want to insist on their right to marry a person of both sexes?  What about those those who insist that monogamy is simply unrealistic and not natural like LGBTQ activist and sex columnist, Dan Savage? (see video of Savage explaining here  – be warned of the explicit nature).  If we are just talking about strictly monogamous unions then why is it that the unofficial progressive caucus in the United Methodist Church, Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) is not willing to take a clear stand for only monogamous unions?  What about those in our denomination who are also pushing to remove the language about celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage from our Book of Discipline?  There really doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the secular LGBTQ activists and the activists within the church, both of whom obviously work together.

Around the time of All Saints RMN posted a picture of various same-sex couplings from the Bible and Church history that included Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene in a lesbian embrace (To their credit at least a couple of their supporters thought this might be a bit much).  The picture also included Harvey Milk as the “saint” par excellence.  Harvey Milk was the gay San Francisco politician who was known to have sexual relationships with teenage boys, one of whom committed suicide after Harvey broke up with him.

Nonetheless, there is no reason to see the framing of this argument as advocating for monogamous relationships as any thing but a deceitful bait and switch tactic by those who are hellbent on following the culture, including people like Dan Savage who are now advocating for open marriages.  Mainline progressive Christian in Chief, President Obama, certainly had no qualms about lying about his true views on same-sex marriage until well after he got elected and subversively pushed through policies that undermined support for traditional marriage (see here).  And if we are just talking about accepting monogamous unions why was a young clergy group that I am a part of taken to a conference to listen to an ELCA pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, who brags about using the baptismal covenant to bless the transitioning of a transgender woman into a man, a conversion which she compared to the conversion of the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther?

Litmus test

Based on all these dubious assertions are we really ready to bless same-sex unions with Christian marriage and the transitioning of transgenders with the baptismal covenant?  Are there really any limitations as to how far all of this will go?  And why should we move the boundaries in the first place when there really is plenty of Biblical clarity and lots of confusion, uncertainty, and distortion with the science and personal experience?

The progressives have a liberal litmus test that they have set up in church and society.  For those who don’t pass they are demonized and marginalized as the equivalent of racists and irrational, hateful bigots who must be punished into submission or silenced.  They are creating an atmosphere of intimidation and undoubtedly many are afraid and therefore silent, even many conservative preachers in the church.  But the truth is the liberal litmus test doesn’t even pass a basic smell test for honesty, integrity, and decency.  Preachers, don’t be afraid to preach the truth in genuine love because the only test that really matters in the end is the one that will take place at the judgment seat of God!

 

2 Thessalonians 2:7-12 (ESV)

For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

The progressive devolution of love #UMC

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Princess Bride.  Among many memorable scenes in that movie is the following one which states what everyone else is thinking after multiple inappropriate uses of the word “inconceivable”

Inigo Montoya, the character who calls his partner on the carpet, would, I think, say the same thing to many of our fellow clergy in the United Methodist Church with regards to the word “love.”

My friend James-Michael Smith pointed me to a sermon by formerly defrocked pastor Frank Schaefer which, in my opinion, is an even greater offense than the offense for which he was originally defrocked.   In his message he talks about how we shouldn’t judge anyone at all, how everyone is a child of God no matter what they believe, and that our only responsibility is to love everyone.  One must wonder if there would ever have been a Christian martyr if everyone would have just been as tolerant and as nice as Schaefer and progressives like him claim we ought to be.  We are all OK, after all, preaches Mr. Schaefer, and therefore we should all just love each other.

Mr. Schaefer, you keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.

At least not in the way Scripture uses the word “love,” nor our Wesleyan heritage has understood the word “love.”   Love is not sentimentality (read: A Return to Gospel Love over Sentiment).  There is purpose and content to love, and that content is filled out for us remarkably well in the life of Jesus.

One of the ways in which Jesus loved people was by telling them the truth.   He came in “grace and truth,” (John 1:7), and we must be careful that we do not emphasize one side of that equation at the expense of the other (falling into “cheap grace” on one side and legalistic rigidity on the other).   One of the ways I see how Jesus loved people is in the story we read in Mark 10 of the rich man who came seeking eternal life.  Before Jesus demanded everything of him  – go and sell all your possessions – the gospel writer makes it clear that Jesus looked at the man and “loved him.”   Jesus did not say “you are OK as you are and everything will be alright.”  Love is costly and demanding.  It’s anything but the cheap sentimentality Mr. Schaefer and progressives like him are peddling in our churches.

I’ll never forget the time my parents showed me the greatest love.    When I was deep in addiction to self and to sex I was in desperate need of $300 in order to keep my utilities on in my apartment (I had been kicked out of the house due to multiple affairs).  I was sure my parents, who had the money, would help me in my time of need to prevent me from going homeless.   They took a day to talk it over amongst themselves and to pray.  I was shocked when the next day they denied my simple request.  For months I was enraged with them, blaming them for my subsequent homelessness and pitiful plight.  And yet, it was that desperation which ultimately led to my rebirth and reconciliation with my family.  I later learned that they had prayed hard about what to do and heard the Lord restrict them from helping me, their son.  It was the hardest love they ever had to show me but it proved to be the greatest and most healing love I have ever known.

This devolution of love is a natural consequence of the progressive belief that all are children of God no matter what they believe or how they live (as Scheafer states unequivocally in his sermon).   It’s a beautiful sentiment – if only it were biblical!   None other than Jesus himself makes it clear that not everyone is a child of God.  The better part of John 8 is reserved for Jesus’ harsh judgment upon the people who could rightly claim to be God’s children because of their father Abraham and their adherence to Moses’ Law.   These are not children of God, Jesus says, but children of the devil.   Only those who believe in Jesus are given the right to be called sons and daughters of God (see John 3).   To say that all are children of God by virtue of birth nullifies Jesus’ insistence that a person must be born again in order to see the Kingdom of God.  New birth is the cornerstone and promise of the New Testament as well as a foundational doctrine for Wesley and Methodists ever since.  John Wesley has this to say about the new birth:

It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is “created anew in Christ Jesus;” when it is “renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;” when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the “mind which was in Christ Jesus.” This is the nature of the new birth: “So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

Paul says in Rom. 8:14 that only those who are led by the Spirit are children of God.  And Jesus said that those who obey his commands will remain in his love (John 15:10).  Those are some sobering qualifications!  It ought to cause everyone of us to pause and examine whether or not we are in the faith (as Scripture tells us to do).   And yet, progressives love to talk about love, and love to tell those who will listen that all is well.   Lord, in your mercy, keep them from hearing!

Every time I get up to preach I have an expectation that someone will be saved today.   I expect and believe that people’s lives will be forever changed, both here and in eternity, because the Holy Spirit is at work and is going to do some heart surgery.  New birth will, and must, happen.   The day I stop believing that is going to happen is the day I’ll defrock myself.   It’s my opinion that the problem facing our denomination at large today is not a fight over sexual ethics alone but a devolution of what it means to love God and our neighbor.  We have watered down both to such an extent that we do not offer meaningful life to sinners, nor a meaningful vocation to our pastors.

Whatever future lies ahead for the United Methodist Church I pray that it is one that embraces love in all it’s gospel fullness.  I pray it is one that speaks and lives both grace and truth.  The sort of rigorous love the gospel calls it’s disciples to embrace is one that is worth dying for, and requires one to lay their life down in order to comprehend.  No real disciples will ever be made when our greatest vision for the church is to be a place of tolerance where people of many faiths can sing songs together, enjoy a potluck and do some good deeds.   John Wesley charged his preachers with the task of saving souls.   This requires a love that looks a person in the eye and tells them the truth about their condition and the remedy found alone in the blood of Jesus the Christ.

Sexuality & the Church: What’s Love, Jesus, and Covenant Got To Do With It?

“Why don’t you just want to love people and follow Jesus?”

jesus feet walking

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That was the question a colleague asked me as we sat in the sunshine on the roof of a restaurant in Minneapolis. We were with several other colleagues attending a preaching conference headlined by names like Walter Brueggemann, Brian McLaren, Mike Slaughter, Will Willimon, and others. I think by this point in the conference I had already heard Mike Slaughter call people who think like me “Pharisees”; and Brian McLaren had basically suggested that we conservatives just want to see the Earth destroyed and the only way for her to be saved was for progressives to band together against those forces of destruction. McLaren was very much laying out an “us vs. them” and I soon figured out that I was on the “them” side of his equation. “Full inclusion” of LGBTQ, which, of course, for progressives means acceptance of LGBTQ people and LGBTQ behavior, was mentioned quite frequently with barely a peep or even the slightest hint anywhere that the traditional Christian sexual ethic might still have some validity.

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So at dinner when the topic was brought up by someone else on my end of the table, I said that although I refused to argue in sound bites I would be happy to share with them why I believe the Church should stick with the basic traditional teaching on sex. One person said that she was wrestling with the issue, although heavily leaning progressive. Then the other person really wanted to hear what I had to say because she just couldn’t understand “Why you don’t want to love people and follow Jesus?” Undoubtedly it was a sincere question. Apparently in her time in the United Methodist Church and in seminary she had never heard anything but progressive arguments presented clearly, which is a topic in its own right that I will touch upon in a future post. Nonetheless, these colleagues, both of whom I appreciate and care about, showed me a great deal of respect and listened as I began to address that initial question and a couple others. The following is the very little that I shared with them that day and a bit more.

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First of all, I don’t see love as a blanket permissiveness, a fuzzy non-judgmentalism, or a generic niceness. Christian love is a holy affection (Hebrew: ahav Greek: agapaō) that inspires one to be faithful to the word of God out of Spirit-implanted gratitude; as the author of 1 John might put it, love is to gladly keep God’s commandments (see 1 John 5). In other words, from a biblical point of view, I believe love is a holy affection that issues in covenant loyalty. This is what I believe is at the heart of God’s love for us and our love for God in response. The Hebrew term chesed often translated “steadfast love,” regularly occurs in parallel with the word “faithfulness” in the Old Testament with regards to God’s posture toward his people (See Psalm 100:5 for example). Similarly for us, while deep feelings for our beloved are certainly involved, biblical love cannot be far removed from covenant without radically changing its meaning. This is whether it be speaking of God’s keeping his promise to bless, or even to discipline his covenant people (the Bible clearly speaks of God’s blessing and punishment being driven by love – see Heb 12 & Rev 3:19), or whether it be with regards to God’s forgiveness. In any case covenant is at the center of it. Covenant faithfulness is also at the center of the people of God’s love for him as a cursory reading of Deuteronomy 6 would clearly reveal. This doesn’t disappear in the New Testament, for a New Testament people are a New Covenant people, hence 1 John 5 equating the love of God with commandment keeping. Yes, we need forgiveness, and forgiveness is driven by love; but forgiveness is not permissiveness. Love forgives, but love also holds accountable. God does this for us, and he expects us to do this for each other.

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If we love each other, not only should we forgive each other, but we should also hold each other accountable. That’s what the context of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” found in Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus quoted along with Deuteronomy 6:5 to sum up (not to set aside) the rest of the law, clearly indicates. Leviticus 19:17 specifies a covenant member’s responsibility to hold his fellow covenant member accountable to the covenant or else he would incur guilt himself. The context suggests that to not do this would be to hate one’s neighbor while to be faithful to this task would be to love one’s neighbor. There is danger in breaking God’s commandments; to stand idly by while one’s brother or sister does so would be no more loving than not warning someone who was about to step off a cliff. Members of the Old Covenant were to hold each other accountable; and members of the New Covenant are as well. Accountable to what? The New Covenant, wherein there is much overlap with the Old such that the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament as an authority for Christian behavior (see 1 Peter 1:16 which is a quote from Leviticus). Jesus held his disciples accountable and he called his disciples to hold each other accountable with an abundance of forgiveness for sure (see Matt 18).

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Make no mistake, however, Christians don’t keep the commandments in order to merit God’s love and grace, they show covenant loyalty out of thankfulness for God’s love and grace already received by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Grace forgives, and it also inspires and empowers one to live a life pleasing to God, which includes “accountable discipleship”.

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If all this sounds crazy, perhaps it is because we have been steeped into something other than genuine Christianity, as Michael Brown suggests (see book “Can You Be Gay and Christian?”). Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) as some have described the religion of many young people in the Church, a religion that was undoubtedly passed down from parents and even pastors as others have rightly discerned by the way, IS NOT Christianity – no matter how Christian-ish it may be! The love described in both covenants is not a bland niceness that leads to blanket permissiveness; it is a holy affection of the heart that leads to a desire to please God by doing his will, keeping his word, and as a result being found faithful.

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As preachers, as John Wesley might say, we are not only called to preach the Gospel; we are also called to preach the law warning others of God’s righteous judgment. For a preacher to neglect this is serious business as Wesley well knew! Wesley would allude to or quote Ezekiel 3:16-21, which warns about incurring punishment for failing to warn sinners, as a reminder of this grave responsibility. A preachers job is not to make people more comfortable with sin, which is both covenant breaking and the inner compulsion of a corrupt nature to do so, but to warn sinners “to flee from sin as from the face of the serpent”, as Wesley might say, and to run to Jesus to find everlasting comfort in the living God. This is love!

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So the question is what are the just requirements of the covenant with regards to sexual behavior? In other words, what does the Bible say? For there is no better place to go to find the terms of the covenant than to prayerfully go to the Bible, lest we find ourselves following our own deceitful hearts and eyes away from a covenant relationship with God (See Num 15:39; Jer 17:9; 1 John 2:15-17).

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My own reading of the Bible has led me to believe that all forms of sexual activity outside of the lifelong covenant marriage of one man and one woman are outside of God’s original design for marriage, which is evident in the structures of creation itself, not least in the complimentary sexual anatomy of male and female (see Gen 1-2 & Rom 1). Sex is good, but it is a good thing that can be corrupted and abused. The ultimate end or goal of sex is the glory of God in the ongoing work of creation brought about through procreation, bearing and rearing children. The pleasure derived from it is a means to that end, not only for childbearing, but also to create a strong and stable loving bond between a man and a woman as the foundation of a thriving family. Marriage also provides for lifelong companionship that allows for the fulfillment of natural sexual desires that is in harmony with God’s design and intent for sex whether children result or not (see 1 Cor 7). When pleasure becomes an end in itself rather than a means, God’s design is upended and everyone, especially children, suffers.
In a fallen world God did allow for a measure of sex outside of his original intent for Israel. For instance, the Law of Moses allowed for divorce for more or less ambiguous reasons, but when Jesus came he announced that allowance had reached its expiration date and would no longer be allowed under the New Covenant except for cases of adultery. Jesus made his case for lifelong marital unions by pointing to God’s original intent and design in creation and under the New Covenant calls his followers to live into that ideal as far as is possible (see Mark 10 & Matt 19). For Jesus boredom is certainly never a good reason for divorce. Jesus teaching on divorce and more particularly on marriage also had direct implications for polygamy which God had also tolerated under the Old Covenant. Polygamy came to be unacceptable for Christians altogether. Monogamy became the absolute rule, a trajectory undoubtedly set by Jesus himself.

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That being said, there were other forms of sexual activity that were strictly forbidden for God’s people because they are more degrading and corrupt than others. Leviticus 18 delineates these things that included adultery, incest, same-sex sex acts, and bestiality. Revealing their universal sinfulness, God verbally condemned the Egyptians and judged the Canaanites for these practices; and sternly warned Israel not to follow them. God says these practices, along with the child sacrifice that seems to be part and parcel of such unbridled sexual practices, defile not only the people who practice them, but also the land itself, which because of these practices becomes metaphorically sick.

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People under the Old Covenant were strictly forbidden engaging in any of these things, and also warned that the land too would become sick and vomit them out if they practiced them. For those under the New Covenant there is not a looser sexual ethic; there’s an even tighter one, as a cursory reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount should make obvious, as well as his teaching on marriage and divorce mentioned above (Mark 10; Matt 19). Moreover, when you consider the fact that Jesus spoke of sexual immoralities in the plural that proceed from an evil heart, which, along with other sins, defile a person (Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21), there’s no reason to believe that the plurality of sexual immoralities that he spoke of would bear no relationship with the degrading sexual practices outlined in Leviticus. There is no indication anywhere from the witness of any of the other writings of the New Testament that Christians should expect more license with regards to sexual behavior. The standard that Jesus set forth presents a tremendous challenge for all kinds of sexual sinners whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, or anything in between. In fact, in our hyper-sexualized culture the thought of this may easily lead one to despair and to wonder, who then may be saved? From a human point of view it is a definite impossibility, but with God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, all things are possible!

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Specifically with regards to homosexual acts, nonetheless, the prohibition in the Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (ESV) and 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them,” are absolute. As far as the Bible is concerned there is no way to have a justified same-sex sexual relationship. The writings of the New Testament are even clearer in that not only is sex between men explicitly condemned, but also sex between women (which would have been implicitly understood to be off limits in the Old Testament); both of which are condemned for being “contrary to nature” (i.e. contrary to God’s original design, see Romans 1). While also condemning all sexual immorality in general, which being a broad term would also include same-sex relations, 1 Corinthians 6:9-12, echoing Leviticus with regards to homosexuality, makes it unmistakably clear that same-sex sexual activity, along with the various others sins listed there, if not repented of, will exclude one from inheriting the kingdom of God. In other words, all unrepentant sexual sinners will be excluded from the New Covenant community, and as Revelation 21:8 makes clear from the New Heaven and Earth.

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To be a part of the New Covenant community we need only repent, which means to turn away from sin and turn to Jesus, trusting him with our life by receiving the forgiveness that he provides as our Savior, and following him by the power of His Spirit as our Lord. Along the narrow way (Matt 7:13-14) we will struggle, stumble, and sometimes fall; nevertheless, we will not fail to reach our goal if we keep looking to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:1-2 KJV).
The trajectory of church history, again, undoubtedly set by Jesus himself, only confirms the witness of the New Testament, although some may have wanted to go even further than the New Testament would warrant (i.e. That sex was strictly for procreation or that Christians shouldn’t have sex at all, whereas 1 Corinthians 7 indicates that marriage is also for the legitimate fulfillment of sexual desire and bonding. Paul’s warning there for married couples is not about having sex too much but not having sex enough to ward off temptation). At any rate, as mentioned above, strict monogamy within holy matrimony quickly became the norm for the Church.

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This is the relationship that most beautifully reflects the faithful covenant relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21-32). Sexual pleasure is a means to a greater end, which is covenant loyalty, namely love. The object of love shouldn’t be the pleasure derived from the beloved, but the beloved himself or herself. Marriage should reflect that God Himself is the ultimate object of our love. Christian celibacy makes this even more vivid. Celibacy reflects the sexless nature of the world to come (see Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35), further confirming that sex is a means to a greater end not an end in itself. The Bible is telling us that sex is not of ultimate importance, which, as is evident from our own culture, is all too easy to forget. As Christians we are called to sexual holiness to model for the world the beauty and the goodness of covenant love and faithfulness. When we depart from this God-ordained design, we open the door to the destructive forces of chaos that destroy individuals, marriages and families, hurt children, and destabilize society. God’s design is not meant to be a kill-joy. It is meant to be a blessing where marriages are built on covenant faithfulness rather than fleeting notions of romance and sexual excitement; where children are received as a blessing rather than a burden and faithfully nurtured by their mothers and fathers together, as far as is possible.

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As admitted by “progressive” scholars such as Dan O. Via (see book “Two Views” by Via and Robert Gagnon), up until the 1960’s the gist of what I described above was universally accepted to be the teaching of the Bible without exception. Then once the “sexual revolution” ignited a brush fire of sexual licentiousness that spread quickly through society, novel interpretations of the Bible began to spring up that suggested that perhaps the Bible never really condemned all forms of homosexual behavior after all. Since then many have suggested that people have simply misinterpreted the Bible for thousands of years. Arguments were made that maybe there was room in the church for strictly monogamous homosexual relationships. Many variations of this argument still abound.

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Nevertheless, from what I have read and heard these revisionist arguments are all extremely dubious at best, or just flat-out false. What many people don’t realize is that not only are these revisionist arguments rejected by conservatives scholars such as Richards Hays, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Michael Brown, and, probably the foremost authority, Robert Gagnon; these arguments are also dismissed by prominent liberal/progressive scholars such as Dan O. Via, Luke Timothy Johnson, Old Testament expert Walter Brueggemann, theologian Phyllis Tickle, and others, all of whom are supportive of the LGBTQ agenda.

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In a lecture I saw on video a while back, Phyllis Tickle basically said it is a fool’s game to try to prove that the Bible would condone same-sex relationships of any variety. As does Dan O. Via, Walter Brueggemann also acknowledges that the Leviticus texts condemn all forms of same-sex activity, consensual or otherwise; but Brueggemann believes that the revelation of God in Christ serves as a “corrective” to those texts. Similarly, I have, live and in person, heard Tex Sample, an ordained United Methodist elder and seminary professor, argue something similar. Sample’s argument, albeit, concerned the Apostle Paul. He said that Jesus serves as a corrective to Paul because although Paul condemns homosexuality, Jesus never mentioned it, which Sample obviously, and mistakenly, interprets as tacit approval on Jesus’ part. Luke Timothy Johnson, a prominent New Testament scholar at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, also acknowledges that the Bible condemns all forms of homosexual behavior, but he, like Via, believes that reason and experience prove the Bible to be wrong. While each of these scholars might differ in some finer nuances of their arguments, as all scholars do, the underlying thread among them is that the Bible does indeed condemn all forms of homosexual activity. Some of them, however, do attempt to somehow pit Jesus against the texts that condemn same-sex acts in some way, but unconvincingly so when you consider the more conservative trajectory of Jesus own sexual ethic as mentioned above. Robert Gagnon (see “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and hermeneutics & other articles at robgagnon.net) has also shown that prominent liberal secular experts on homosexuality in the ancient world, who themselves approve of homosexuality, also admit that the Bible does indeed condemn any form of same-sex sexual activity.

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Take, for instance, two of them in their own words in light of common claims among revisionists that the writers of the Bible would only have had exploitative and abusive forms of homosexuality in mind when they condemned it, or the claims that had they known about “sexual orientation” like we do they would have approved of committed same-sex sexual relationships.

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(The following quotes are given as cited by Robert Gagnon at http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/homosexChristianPostRespToJefferson.pdf accessed 3/6/2015).

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“Paul could have believed that tribades [the active female partners in a female homosexual], the ancient kinaidoi [the passive male partner in a male homosexual bond], and other sexually unorthodox persons were born that way and yet still condemn them as unnatural and shameful. . . . I see Paul as condemning all forms of homoeroticism as the unnatural acts of people who had turned away from God.” (p. 446 in “Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism” by Bernadette Brooten, professor at Brandeis , herself lesbian)

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“According to [one] interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at ‘bona fide’ homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew[*] or early Christian.” (p. 114 in “Homosexuality and Civilization” by historian Louis Crompton who was also homosexual)

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(* I would also add that “the any other Jew” referenced by Crompton would also include Jesus of Nazareth; for there is no biblical or historical reason to assume otherwise. The fact that Jesus didn’t mention it specifically apart from the general mention of sexual immoralities, at least as far as the record of the four Gospels is concerned, no more means that Jesus actually approved of homosexuality any more than he would have approved of incest or bestiality, neither of which did he mention either.)

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In addition to the evidence that Gagnon compiles in his own major work, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice,” in the article linked above, he also cites classicist, Thomas Hubbard, an expert in Homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, who acknowledges that there was some idea of sexual orientation similar to our own in the early Imperial age of Rome. The obvious reason that Paul would not have been swayed by the “born that way” argument is because of his own born that way argument that he derived from scripture regarding sin in general. Paul knew that we are all born sinners who love to sin in multifarious ways because of a corrupt nature. Jesus also knew quite clearly that sin flows from corrupt human hearts (Matt 15:17-19). We all have a bent (unchosen desires) toward sin that manifests itself in different ways in different people. Neither Jesus nor Paul would have been fooled by the false dichotomy between unchosen desire and deliberate action. There are a plethora of unchosen desires that we all have that we should not act because it would be contrary to what is right.

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The bottom line is this, there is really no good reason to believe that people just misinterpreted the Bible for thousands of years until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s finally opened our eyes. The Bible (Old and New Testaments) does not have one positive thing to say about same-sex sexual relations in any form, consensual, monogamous, or otherwise. There’s no good reason to believe that Jesus’ supposed silence on the subject means that he actually approved of it. As mentioned above, Jesus spoke of a plurality of sexual immorality as evil that comes from the human heart; same-sex sexual activity would have been understood to be included in that. There’s also no good reason to believe that the apostle Paul just misunderstood that Jesus really approved of committed same-sex sexual relationships. As N.T. Wright points out in his massive work, “Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” sexual holiness was central to Paul’s teaching, as even a cursory reading of his letters would indicate (consider the fact that sexual immorality tops most of his vice lists – see 1 Cor 6:9-12; Gal 5:19-25; Eph 5:1-12). Moreover, Luke in the book of Acts makes it clear too that Paul preached, taught, and ministered by the Spirit of the Lord himself. One should also note that Paul also frequently warns that sexual immorality, and various other sins, embraced and not repented of would cause one to remain outside the kingdom of God, because such a person would be outside the New Covenant community, not because of lack of having done enough to earn membership, but because of lack of genuine faith in Jesus. Jesus promises not only to forgive us; he also promises to transform us from the inside out. To opt for forgiveness without transformation would really be to forfeit both; and both are gifts of his grace. Jesus calls us to this kind of sexual holiness. I can confidently say that this is a central part, not the only part, but a central part of his covenant. I can also confidently say that Jesus himself provided the initial and ongoing forgiveness that we need to be a part of it by his blood shed on the cross; and he provides us new birth, lifelong transformation, and a willing heart to live a life striving to please God by the power of his Spirit (See John 3 & Rom 8). Living by his Spirit we will supernaturally bear the corresponding fruit, beginning with love (see Gal 5:22-26). And Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV; see also v. 23).

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Doubtless, there will still be some who will mock what I have said here. They will throw out myriad and myriad of reasons for why what I have stated here is wrong and, of course, unloving. Indeed, I’m sure that there are places where I could have written more clearly or in some points where I may need correction, which I welcome. Some, though, even in the face of the witness of serious and extraordinarily skilled conservative and liberal scholars, will cling to the revisionist arguments. Some may just be naïve, others may know full well what the Bible actually says and still use revisionist arguments to deceive. The liberal scholars that I mentioned above agree that the Bible really does condemn all same-sex behavior; they simply have the courage to say that they just think the Bible got this wrong. Many of the revisionists that I have spoken with, read, or heard also eventually reveal all of their cards as they almost always, when pressed, end up talking about how the Bible is silly, according to them, with regards to other issues like the smelly shrimp argument that seems to be a staple in the diet of those who want to dismiss what the Bible has to say (i.e. that the Bible forbids the eating of shellfish, which was actually a dietary law under the Old Covenant not one that carries over into the New). They will bring up other, admittedly difficult but not insurmountable, issues regarding the justice of God. They will do this all to the effect of trying to render the text of Scripture as untrustworthy and unreliable, that it is gray at best (see Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, then compare to Bill Arnold’s response “Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray”). They will insist that the Bible is not clear; but the science on homosexuality and their personal experience is, when the direct opposite is actually the case (consider the uncertainty in the American Psychological Association’s statement on the causes of homosexuality). Still others, while also doing much of the above, will insist that the topic is not all that important, and certainly not a “central” issue. They will imply that it should be treated as an indifferent matter where people on both sides can simply just agree to disagree. These same folks, the so-called moderates that usually admit they are for full LGBTQ inclusion, will also say that it is important that we believe the creeds regarding the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the resurrection, not what we think about sex. In other words, it seems to me, they are saying that it is in fact alright to honor God with our lips but not with our hearts, at least as far as sex is concerned.

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After all of this undermining of the integrity and reliability of the written word of God, what are we left with – if we buy what they are selling? It seems to me all we are left with is doing what is right in our own eyes and following our own hearts. And I don’t think that is really loving people and following Jesus.

Ephesians 5:1-14 (ESV)

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,
    and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

LGBTQ and the Church: Examining and Reexamining

2 Corinthians 13:5  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?” (NIV)

About nine years ago I was beginning an intense process of self-examination and reevaluation of much of what I had come to believe over the previous decade. After a merciful miracle involving our third child and second daughter, Anna, I became more aware of the need for reevaluation and self-examination (read about that here). In 1995, not long after I had declared a psychology major at East Carolina, I joined an anti-Trinitarian group called “The Way International” (TWI). In addition to a Unitarian and quite rancorous anti-Trinitarian theology, I had also been steeped in several other doctrines that included soul sleep (the doctrine that there is no conscious existence after death until Christ returns), what TWI called “the law of believing” (similar to the New Age/Wiccan concept of “the law of attraction”), and what theologians call a hyper-dispensational view, which was premillennial/pre-tribulational, for those who might be familiar with those terms. In the TWI, for the most part, there was also a rather loose sexual ethic for opposite sexes that was eventually tightened up after the TWI President, Craig Martindale, got caught up in some lawsuits regarding sexual affairs and possible abuse at TWI headquarters. With regards to same sex relationships, however, TWI was adamantly and absolutely opposed.

A few months after Anna’s birth, I decided to take a step away from TWI and to reevaluate and test much of what I had come to believe regarding God and the Bible. This also coincided with recurring nightmares that I kept having wherein I would go to take a final exam only to realize that I had been going to all the wrong classes, which was odd considering I had already successfully completed a B.A. and an M.A years before.  Nevertheless, in addition to a lot of prayer and continued Bible reading and study, a major, and not so easy, step in this process was to begin to read criticism of TWI doctrine and arguments for the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance. It wasn’t easy quite frankly because of the fear of opposing views that was instilled into us as we were indoctrinated into TWI’s theology. We were inoculated with warnings against opposing views, if not banned from reading certain material, especially material from TWI specific critics and defectors, who were effectively and quite literally demonized and dismissively labeled as “cop-outs”. As odd as it might sound to some, an unhealthy dose of the fear of demon possession was drilled into us; and it was really all about information control, which is really all about mind control. In spite of the depth to which I was indoctrinated and in spite of the fear that had been effectively instilled in me, I dared to question what I had been taught to think, and what I had come to believe; I dared to question myself. So I began to prayerfully read anything and everything that I could find, as I also tried to read the Bible without TWI colored glasses.

 

Final EXAM

It’s really a long, winding, and detailed story, but the short of it is this: After week after week after week of praying, reading, and studying, one day, while sitting on the couch in my living room reading through Philippians 2, in the spirit of that very passage, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, I humbled myself and accepted Jesus as my Savior and as my Lord and my God (see also John 20:28). Through that process I was delivered from pride in my own reason and experience that I had elevated about the revelation of God’s word. I was also delivered from the fear of opposing views and questioning myself. I realized the value and importance of considering as many views as possible on their own terms, and to be a lover of truth more than my own views and ideas. I also realized that one can never know enough not to have some sort of faith when it comes to the major questions of life. Logic is only as good as the validity of the premises on which it is based. An argument can be made for just about anything, and at some point everyone is going to have to take a leap of faith, whether it is in the Triune God of orthodox Christianity or the atheism of someone like Richard Dawkins.

So after my conversion I knew that I needed to get back in the mainstream church. I felt led to go back to the United Methodist church of my childhood and youth. It wasn’t long before I was a lay speaker and not long after that a candidate for pastoral ministry. It also wasn’t long before I figured out that I was going to have to begin reevaluating and reconsidering what I had come to believe regarding sex. It was obvious that the debate regarding homosexuality was still very much simmering in the United Methodist Church, as well as the rest of the “Mainline” church, not to mention the culture at large. Pretty soon it would be boiling over into a big mess that has divided many denominations and churches, including my own (although not officially divided we are very much so practically speaking as “progressive” Bishops, pastors, and entire conferences defy the official UMC position with impunity) . In the culture it also has boiled over into a battle not only over the definition of marriage, but also over the definition of the First Amendment.

So early on I listened to different views with newly fine-tuned attentive ears; and I began to pray, study, and read as many views as I could find – before, during, and after four years of seminary. Most importantly, I made it a habit to try to read through the entire Bible from cover to cover every year. Through this I came to be convinced of the truth and beauty of the traditional Christian teaching that sex was intended for marriage and marriage was only designed by God to be a life-long covenant between one man and one woman. In an upcoming post(s) (maybe more than one) I will endeavor to sum up some of what I have seen and heard, and what I have come to believe as a result, regarding this incredibly contentious and divisive issue in which I believe there is a great deal at stake – much more than simply a college exam.

When Holy Conversations on homosexuality tell only half the story

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on the topic which threatens to split our denomination apart.  I do so today only as a response to a clergy gathering conversation that occurred yesterday at our pastor’s convocation in Holston Conference.

The conversation itself was great.   We split into groups of four or five and spent an hour responding, each in turn, to four questions pertaining to homosexuality.  It was refreshing to share openly with colleagues about our own experiences, traditions, interactions with scripture and reason regarding this pivotal issue facing our global church. It was a fine example of how people of differing opinions on a crucial matter can dialog responsibly and charitably.

The conversation itself was not a problem.  What concerned me was how only half the story was told when introducing the conversation.

Prior to our splitting into groups, a video was shown telling the story of a young man who took his own life because he was gay and couldn’t reconcile that with a pastor who told him he was going to hell while shutting him out of the life of the church.   As tragic as this story is, and needs to be told, it is only one side of the story.

It would have been nice if this story was followed by one of many other stories that exist, such as that of Christopher Yuan, a gay man who struggled for many years with suicidal thoughts and rejecting God who was prayed over daily by a Christian mother and loved without reserve until the day Jesus moved into his life in such a radical way his life was forever changed.  Today he travels the world sharing his testimony. He has not been led to seek a change of desire so that he might one day love and  marry a woman, but loved into a community of people who enable him to find greatest joy in Jesus.   His fulfillment is not found in his sexuality or in another person but in his submission to God’s will for his life.

Why isn’t that story being told prior to our holy conversations?   Why aren’t stories of the many people who have found lasting joy and fulfillment in submitting their fleshly desires to the desires and designs of God?

For many of us, our current position on homosexuality has been largely influenced by the people we know.   But when only one side of the story is being told – the one that suggests you must be either fully affirming OR you are homophobic,telling people they are going to hell – we are not being fair to both the people tasked with making decisions about the future of our church OR to the many men and women with stories just like Christopher Yuan’s.

By all means, let us continue having holy conversations.   But let us also tell the whole story.

Free to be Pagan, but not Christian? Turning the First Amendment on Its Head

I grew up in a rural community in the foothills of North Carolina called Pinnacle, just south of the town of Pilot Mountain and just north of the town of King. Many, many moons ago my mother and her brothers and sisters graduated from the now non-existent King High School. Recently King (somewhat of a bedroom community of Winston-Salem) made national headlines when the town council conceded to the demands of an atheist, backed by the ACLU, to remove a Christian flag and the statue of a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross from a veteran’s memorial in the city park. For the memorial citizens from King and surrounding communities placed stone pavers in honor of area veterans. Two of those pavers honor Acy Hardin Wall, who served in the Army during World War 1, and Marcus Haden Wall, who served in Korea. The former is my grandfather; the later my father.

Christian flag

The majority of the citizens of King and Stokes County are incredibly disappointed; many are indeed quite angry that they have been forced (some would say bullied) to remove Christian symbols from the veterans memorial. I think it’s fair to say that many are shocked that something like that could happen in a largely unknown town in that neck of the woods where it’s quite easy to think that so many things just couldn’t happen there. In the dream/nightmare-like aftermath many may be wondering just that: “how could this happen here?” While it may seem like this came out of nowhere, I think this is just the logical conclusion to an idea that, like a seed, was planted at the founding of our country.

soldier praying

It’s quite common to hear some insist that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation”; but how true is that? Sure it is true that Puritan separatist from England came here to form a distinctly Christian society patterned after the Israel of the Old Testament and the early church of the New. It is also true that there were devout Christians that strongly influenced the ethos of what would eventually become the United States of America under our current constitution in 1789. Nevertheless, along with those Christian influences were also the ideals of what is called “The Enlightenment,” whose ideals were in many ways hostile to religion, especially religion based on the notion of special revelation. This hostility was most clearly evident in the French Revolution. America fared better because of the influences of Christianity and especially the concerns for religious liberty that were passed down to our founders from the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Baptists in Rhode Island, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, and others. The concern for religious liberty was so strong that it became the first right of individual citizens spelled out in the Bill of Rights in our constitution. One could call this the first stone in the foundation of the rights of citizens. The First Amendment itself, however, greatly qualifies the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation since it prohibits Congress from legislating a favored status for any particular religion. Upon its founding, nonetheless, I believe America was indeed a Christian nation, mainly because the overwhelming majority of its individual citizens were Christian – at least nominally so. Although there has been a pretty dramatic decrease to a little below 75%, as late as 1990 86% of the population self-identified as Christian. It was the faith and general ethos of its citizens strongly influenced by Christianity that made the United States a Christian nation, more so than its laws. The Christian ethos was strengthened no doubt by the very public expressions of Christianity as the Gospel was proclaimed from pulpits and in the highways and byways of ordinary public life, especially by Methodists and Baptists, who followed the new country’s westward expansion preaching and establishing churches that often doubled as public schools.

While the First Amendment keeps Congress from establishing any particular religion, it does not (contrary to the way it is often misconstrued today) bar any individual or local community from expressing particular religious sentiments in speech or symbolism, privately or publically. That’s what the second clause, which restrains congress from making any laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion, is all about. As a matter of fact, while many states did not have established religions initially, some did. The founders never intended to ban any expression, verbal or symbolic, from public life. The point of the First Amendment was to allow for the “free exercise” and public expression of religion of any variety according to the consciences of individual citizens and local communities, not to bar public expression in public spaces. It was never intended to confine religious convictions to private opinions or even only within places of worship. Neither were the firmly held religious convictions and expressions of those convictions, or lack thereof, ever intended to become a litmus test for whether someone could hold public office as Article 6 of the Constitution indicates. “The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1779 gives us even more clarity as to the intent of the First Amendment and Article 6. It prohibited compulsory religious adherence and support but also protected citizens’ right to hold and express religious opinions or beliefs without threat of suffering for those opinions or being limited or barred from civil capacities. Yet today there is an increasing number of citizens who have been threatened, fined, put out business, and fired for expressing and trying to live in harmony with their religious moral convictions regarding the sacredness of sex and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage (i.e. the recent firing of the Atlanta Fire Chief  & the fining of a Christian Florist in Washington state). However slight this may seem to those who tacitly or explicitly approve of such censure and intimidation, this is unconstitutional tyranny nonetheless.


Today it is also common for students to be told that they can’t even mention the name of Jesus in speeches during public school assemblies.  There is such as atmosphere of intimidation that one of my children’s Christian teachers said she was leery about even asking for prayer from her students or their parents for her husband who had cancer.  This is clearly out of sync with the original intent of the founders. A good indication is the fact that the day after passing the First Amendment Congress also passed a resolution calling for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving. A little over 70 years later President Abraham Lincoln would also issue a Thanksgiving Day proclamation that would invite citizens to turn in praise to the “Most High God” and to humbly repent for “national perverseness and disobedience” during the height of the Civil War, as hard as it might be to imagine today. This is not to mention the fact that part of the day of ceremonies on the inauguration of George Washington, included the new President and Congress worshipping together at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York where they asked for God’s blessing on the new country. A few years later our first President thought nothing of inviting a Methodist Bishop, Thomas Coke, to come and preach (yes, preach!) before Congress – on the evils of slavery no less! What is clear is that initially the federal government did encourage and support religion in general, which early on would have been almost entirely Christian; even though no one denomination was given a legal privileged status.


Something has drastically changed. Today there are constant battles over public expressions of Christianity as with the case in the little town of King near where I grew up, and in the little town of Dallas, NC near where I now live. This past Christmas the town of Dallas was forced to move a Nativity display from the town square. Why is this happening? I believe that much of this can be traced back to another religious worldview that was also very influential, especially among the intelligentsia, at the time of the founding.

In addition to the Christian influences at our founding, it is also well known that there was a prevailing Deism among some of our founders, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin being two of the most prominent. While not a monolith, generally Deism is the worldview that acknowledges a Creator but denies that the Creator takes an active interest in the ongoing governance of the world. The Creator, like a watchmaker, as many Deists imagined, set the world in motion but allows it to run its course by the natural laws and processes that were put in place. While it shares some characteristics with Christianity, Deism is decidedly inimical to the orthodox Christian worldview. The best example of this, perhaps, is what Thomas Jefferson did to the New Testament to make it more “reasonable”. He literally cut out all the parts that referred to miracles (i.e. divine intervention) or to the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth leaving only a universal ethics handbook of sorts. What Jefferson did with” reason” and a sharp knife, the Jesus seminar led by panentheists/pantheists like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong over two centuries later did with “reason,” votes, and different colored beads.

Undoubtedly 18th century Deists like Jefferson and Franklin, who (as the term “The Enlightenment” would suggest) believed that humanity was evolving to a higher state of consciousness and awareness in a new Age of Reason, also believed that the Deistic view was a higher and more “reasonable” view than the traditional orthodox Christian view. That is to say, they would have seen the Deistic worldview as progress from a less “enlightened” view to a more “enlightened” view of God, humanity, and the world. Although Deism may have seemed then, and even to some now, to be a higher stage of progress in the history of religious thought in the world, it was from a Christian perspective a step back, a regression rather than a progression.

The Bible reveals God as a transcendent being who created the world and remains active and involved in it through the Holy Spirit, but God not to be identified with the world. The God of the Bible is also intimately personal. He communicates with and forms covenantal bonds with human beings so personal that marriage and parental imagery are used to describe them. The God of the Bible is one who walks with and talks with human beings, whether Enoch or Abraham, or two disciples on a road from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion. The God of the Bible is so intimately involved in and with his creation entered into it in the incarnation; that is when the divine word became flesh in the historical human being called Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us.

To the “enlightened” elite of The Enlightenment all of this was simply not possible. In general, Deists rejected the notion of revelation in favor of religious views based on observation of nature through human reason. This wasn’t a new leap forward into something completely brand new, however. To the contrary, as Christian theologian and prominent Bible scholar N.T. Wright has shown (see especially “Surprised by Scripture”), Deism was more or less the Epicurean philosophy of ancient Greece in 18th and 19th century clothes and white wigs. The difference being that the Deists believed in a Creator whereas the Epicureans believed that the universe is self-existent and spontaneously, randomly, and cyclically generates, destroys, and regenerates order and life as we know it, which is the basic underlying presupposition for modern atheistic evolutionary theory. As a matter of fact, N.T. Wright says that the gist of Epicureanism was summed up nicely in a slogan put on the side of London buses a few years ago by the evangelistic atheist and evolutionary biologists, Richard Dawkins, and his associates: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” (cited in “Surprised by Scripture” p. 7 on Kindle). So, Deism was a step away from Christianity and a step into Epicureanism and, consequently, a step toward paganism. For some this is progress; to orthodox Christians it is regression and a travesty.


While Deism made room for one god who was distinct from the universe, the theological, philosophical, and practical political effect was to push this god out of the world – presumably to leave the world to be run by people like Jefferson and Franklin. Even still, Franklin, the son of devout Congregationalists, was somewhat uneasy with the implications of the extremities of this worldview. A letter he wrote to Thomas Paine (easy to find via Google) expressed concerns about Paine’s version of Deism that excluded the possibility of “particular Providence”, that is active, specific, and discriminate Divine guidance in the world, rather than a passive Providence through the general laws of nature. Franklin’s concerns were more practical than theoretical in that Paine’s ideas would seem to weaken the positive effects of traditional religion to influence common people toward the good. At any rate, as Franklin’s sentiments in this case would imply, even the founders who were more Deistic in their worldview saw traditional Christianity to be useful to form a moral citizenry. It was this type of citizenry that John Adams famously said: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” While the founders seemed to value the Christian faith, it seems that some may have only done so in a secondary sense. As long as it was considered useful there was a place for it; but what happens when there is a further shift in worldview among the country’s elite that would render traditional Christianity no longer “useful” but a hindrance to “progress”?


Deism is a step away from Christianity and a step toward a pagan (meaning non Judeo Christian) worldview. The New Testament’s revelation of the Trinity, for which there is really no worldly analogy, makes it abundantly clear that the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is wholly other than the cosmos – holy, holy, and completely holy. The Trinity also reveals the limits of human reason and requires the very thing that humans need in order to be saved, humility. The Unitarianism/Arianism inherent within the Deistic worldview leaves humanity’s pride and false sense of control firmly in place. Deism is inherently Arian in its theology (its view of God) and Pelagian (the view that humans are basically good and with the right moral guidance are quite capable of choosing good over evil without special grace/divine intervention) in its anthropology (its view of humanity). Interestingly, in his book, “Heresy,” Alister McGrath points out that during the Arian controversy Emperor Constantine preferred the more “rational” (in terms of Greco Roman philosophy) Arian position probably because it provided a better analogy for the total authority of a single earthly ruler, like Constantine himself no doubt (p. 148 on Kindle). At any rate, Deism carried to its extreme logical conclusion has the effect of pushing God out the lives of individuals and society; from there it’s not a long step to pushing him out of existence altogether.


As a matter of fact many Christians labeled Deists as atheists. For Christians like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, this was more in terms of what is called “practical atheism” than theoretical atheism. Wesley doubted that there were in reality very many of the later, but was quite confident that there were plenty of the former as he believed that to be the natural fallen state of humans in general because of original sin. By this Wesley meant those who do not know God through the intimate covenantal fellowship that the Bible describes (see Sermon 125 “On Living without God”). Practical atheists are those who acknowledge the existence of God, but live their daily lives as if God really doesn’t exist. As a matter of fact many church councils seem to operate this way, as “if it is to be, it is up to me”, as a song, which was (according to a friend of mine) sung at the last United Methodist general conference, says. This would describe the Deist fairly well, and in reality it’s not too far from practical atheism to actual atheism, but there’s another step or two in between.


Although Deism eventually fell into disfavor among the general population, as Franklin’s letter to Paine indicates, it still exerted a quiet influence among the elites in society and even in the Church. Wesley warned about “enlightened” thinkers and even “enlightened” clergy who down play the reliability and trustworthiness of Scripture, especially as it pertains to original sin (See Sermon 123 “On the Deceitfulness of the Human Heart”). In the “enlightened” Enlightenment mind there is an underestimation of God and an overestimation of humanity. Although Deism seemingly still holds to an intelligent creator, it’s hard to see how this was a view of a personal being since this god was not really very personable in a direct and active way with creatures. The Deist god practically speaking is quite impersonal. From there it’s not far to the pantheism that so marked the pagan world. In fact that’s where things have gravitated among many of today’s “enlightened” theologians and clergy, the widely popular liberal theologian Marcus Borg, who recently passed away, being a good case in point. (Although Borg considered himself a panentheist, it seems to me a distinction without much of a substantial difference.)


Pantheists believe that God is everything and everything is God. The universe itself and everything in it, gods and humans included, are part of the Divine. In this case there is no transcendent God who exists apart from the universe. There is a conflation of the material and the divine. John Oswalt , in his book, “The Bible Among the Myths,” does a great job of explaining the fundamental difference between the general pagan worldview and the Judeo Christian worldview. In it he argues that paganism in all its various manifestations is marked by what he calls “continuity thinking”, which makes no essential distinction between matter and the gods. In fact, the gods are derived from matter and are just as much subject to the larger impersonal forces of the universe as anyone else. The gods themselves are seen as more specific personified impersonal forces of nature. Life in general is seen as cyclical and therefore not really headed to another destination. Magic and rituals are thought to be helpful to align the forces of the cosmos, including the gods as they are appeased and pleased, in one’s favor. The point being here that there are principles and forces to which the gods are bound apart from their own nature and will. Oswalt argues that when one begins with the idea that the world is all there is to go on in terms of discerning the meaning of life and the nature of the world, “continuity thinking” is the result. And “continuity thinking” is marked by relativism with regards to ethics (i.e. perhaps the motive behind Pilate’s question to Jesus: “What is truth?” in John 18:38) and syncretism with regards to religion, and the devaluing of individual human life, particularly evident in the practices of child sacrifice and infanticide, among other things. The other things would also include unbridled sexuality for which God judged the Canaanites and regarding which things God commanded Israel not to practice them (Lev 18:24-30; Ex 23:24). These are the same kinds of pagan practices that first century Jews like Jesus and Jewish Christians like Peter and Paul repeatedly reiterated for God’s people to avoid as well (i.e. Mark 7:21-22; Romans 1; 1 Thess 4:3-8; Eph 5:3; Gal 5:19-21; 1 Peter 1; 2 Peter 2). Oswalt argues that the pagan worldview is the result of reasoning from the perspective that the world, as it is, is all we have to go on; the result is a conflation of God with the cosmos. As the apostle Paul put it, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25).

Paul goes on to explain that this is the reason for sexual immorality and other manifestations of wickedness among fallen humanity. To push the true God out of the world leaves a vacuum; as the Bible reveals that vacuum is soon filled with gods of violence, sex, and greed. Whether we personify them or build temples for them or not, we seek to gratify them and bow down to them nonetheless. I think, though, that our culture has personified them more than we realize. One goddess, modeled in part after the Roman goddess, Libertas, stands tall in a harbor in New York. How much and how many have been sacrificed in the name of a self-centered, narcissistic notion of liberty?

Statue of Liberty

At our country’s founding seeds of Deism were sown and now we are reaping an abundant harvest of paganism. The poisonous fruit is not only in the culture, but also in the churches that have not been able to resist the forbidden fruit of respectability in the eyes of the world. Countless have been the churchmen and women who have sought to line up the theology and ethos of the church with that of the dominant culture surrounding it. Arius in the fourth century sought to bring the theology of the church in harmony with the middle Platonism of the surrounding culture. Pelagius sought to lessen the scandal of grace by bringing Christian theology more in line with the Roman cultural way of thinking about “justice,” reward and punishment based on one’s good or bad behavior. Theologian Alister McGrath argues that heresy (false teaching in the church) often results from good intentions rather than sinister motives, namely the desire to make the Gospel “relevant” to the surrounding culture and to grow the church (see chapter 8 in “Heresy”). In trying to make Christianity relevant, however, you can easily just end up with a pagan worldview with Christian labels and symbols. In this case you just end up honoring God with the lips but not with the heart (Isaiah 29:13), and inevitably an inversion of morality will result. Good is labeled evil and evil is called good (Isaiah 5:20). Pagan ideas and practices have seeped into churches in more ways than one.

Some have used stories and passages of scripture to lend divine support to the unbiblical creed expressed in the poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” It goes along quite nicely with the sentiment that “if it is to be, it is up to me.” In this case the desire to make Christianity culturally relevant has turned much of cultural Christianity today into a glorified “self-help” program designed to help the believer achieve the American Dream. In the extreme, pagan practices of incantation have crept into the church within the “word of faith” teachings that come under the harmless sounding banner of “the power of positive thinking” or “the law of faith.” This is just a “Christianized” version of the doctrine of “the law of attraction” that is taught in Wiccan and New Age circles. I was steeped in a Christianized version of this that a nondenominational group I used to belong preferred to call “the law of believing;” so when a young man who was a practicing Wiccan wanted to explain “the law of attraction” to me I already knew what he was going to say. There’s nothing wrong with positive thinking until you think it puts you in control of the forces of the universe including God. If you’re going to be truly Christian you must submit to the one true God, who is the real Master of your fate and on the only truly competent captain of your soul.


Cultural compromise in the church has opened the door wide to paganism in many ways. It began with accommodation of Enlightenment ideals. Alister McGrath writes, “As rationalism began to gain cultural influence throughout much of western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was growing pressure for Christianity to abandon what was seen as Trinitarian irrationality and return to a more reasonable notion of God, such as that advocated by Deism” (p. 184, “Heresy”). Deism would exert a tremendous influence in the churches that longed to be culturally respectable. Deism, however, probably succumbed to pressure from multiple fronts, one being resistance from orthodox Christians like Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, another the gravitational pull of a purer form of Epicureanism more in tune with its original pagan foundations. That is to say, Deism in the church would eventually give way to pantheism which is quite prevalent in liberal Christian circles. According to John Oswalt, pagan pantheism is naturally syncretistic with regards to religion and relativistic with regards to ethics and morality. Claims that there is only one true God and a clear right way and wrong way to live, especially as it pertains to sex, are quite distasteful to pantheistic sensibilities. Pantheism also has a disdain for the notion of a personal God, especially one by whom we will be judged. In this case God becomes more of an impersonal force that pervades nature and history, but is not independent of nature and history. The orthodox Christian view is that although God is actively present within creation, He cannot be completely identified with creation because He exists apart from and independently of creation. In other words, God, who created the universe out of nothing because of love rather than necessity, is transcendent and personal. To many a “progressive” Christian this is backwards and best left to the backwoods and out of civil discourse.


I witnessed a great example of this syncretistic pantheistic version of Christianity a few weeks ago. A United Methodist mentor group for pastors going through the ordination process that I am a part of went to a conference on St. Simons Island, GA at a United Methodist retreat center called, “Epworth by the Sea.” The two speakers for the conference were Phyllis Tickle and Nadia Bolz-Weber. The former is an Episcopalian theologian; the later an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) pastor. Tickle proclaims a theory that the church is “progressing” through a 500 year cycle that is currently headed toward an “Emergent” version of Christianity. Apparently, Bolz-Weber with her postmodern ELCA church in Denver is the poster child for what Tickle regards as the “relevant” future of the Church. As it turned out due to unforeseen circumstances, Tickle was unable to be at the conference, although a substitute with fairly similar views was found. Nevertheless, in the van on the way to the conference I read most of Nadia’s memoir, “Pastrix.” Between that and her talks I got a good idea of her worldview.


In her book she describes her encounters and experience with Wiccan, one her experience of going to a Wiccan lesbian wedding. She insists that the Wiccan goddess is just another way of looking at the same being that the Bible calls God. Interestingly, during one of her talks she said that she no longer likes the word “Emergent” to describe her version of Christianity because that word is also applied to Christians whose views she finds despicable. As a result she said that the word “Emergent” has been rendered meaningless. (Too bad she doesn’t see that her conflating the identity of the Wiccan goddess and the God of the Bible has the same effect. I guess she has never considered the possibility that the goddess might feel the same way about Yahweh as she feels about the now disgraced conservative “emergent” pastor, Mark Driscoll and vice versa, but I digress.) Anyway, Pastrix Bolz-Weber’s version of the Christian faith inspires her to an oxymoronic “holy irreverence,” she says. One example of this “holy irreverence” is how she used the baptismal font as a chocolate fountain during a party after a worship service. She also used that same font to bless the transitioning of a transgender woman named Mary who was attempting to become a man. She used the baptismal covenant to rename Mary, “Asher.” Bolz-Weber compared the significance of this event to the conversion of Saul to Paul and the conversion of Martin Luther as well. As Bolz-Weber, who once tried her hand at standup, frequently cussed like a sailor (including when she called Rev. Franklin Graham “bat sh&% crazy”) the audience made up of mostly older mainline protestants looked on in oblivious glee at what was more like an HBO standup comedy routine than Christian teaching. If this is where the “progressive Christian” train is headed, I think I’ll stay at the station!

While traditional orthodox Christianity finds itself very much at odds with an ever increasing hostile culture, the “progressive” version is a fairly handy handmaid to it. The former evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, Rob Bell, recently in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, a New Age guru in her own right, basically said that the church needs to catch up with the culture in terms of sexuality and gay marriage. As a matter of fact, as odd as it sounds, there are some pulpits in liberal churches occupied by atheist preachers. One of the most infamous was Jim Jones, who eventually became the cult leader of “The People’s Temple.” Before he started his own “church” and became a darling of political left in San Francisco and beyond, Jones was a student-pastor in the Methodist Church. In addition to being a communist, Jones was also an atheist, who after denying the existence of God became convinced that he himself was God. Jones sought to use the church to promote his social vision. There’s also the current Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, The Very Rev. Gary Hall, who describes himself as a “non-theistic” Christian – perhaps something between pantheism and atheism, or just a way to avoid using the more shocking term atheist. Hall apparently did tell Dr. Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion” that he “doesn’t believe in the God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in either.” Of course, Hall’s theology (non-theology?) leads him to believe that it is just too repressive and cruel to prohibit sex outside of heterosexual marriage, and therefore thinks premarital sex is fine and homosexual marriage and full LGBT inclusion in the life of the church is a no-brainer (See Wahington Post Article here).

I’ve heard Dawkins himself talk about how he sometimes works with “progressive” Christians in trying to influence social policy. LGBT activist, Dan Savage, himself a homosexual, who believes that marriages, gay or otherwise, should be more monagamish (i.e. consensual adultery or “swinging”) than monogamous because the later is just not natural and no consensual sexual desire (he would say “need”) should go unfulfilled, also works and counsels in coordination with “progressive” Christians to further the LGBT agenda (See Huffpost Article here).


Secularists like Dawkins and “progressive” Christians like Hall and others share much in common. “Progressive” and “progressive” leaning pastors have personally told me that they have much more in common with many atheists than conservative Christians. Perhaps what Dawkins calls a blind watchmaker, the “progressive” Christian pantheist calls “God,” albeit an impersonal one. The other thing they share in common, perhaps, is what Oswalt calls “continuity thinking” and what Wright calls an Epicurean worldview. In other words, they are both much closer to a pagan worldview than a Judeo-Christian one.


The Pagan worldview with its syncretism and relativism is quite accommodating for just about anything and everything except the revelation of the one true God who makes specific moral demands to which every human being will be held to account. As the book of Revelation demonstrates, Christians in the first century found themselves at odds with a Greco-Roman culture that had very little tolerance for those who refused to bow down to the emperor and the rest of the Greco-Roman pantheon. They were free to worship the Christian God, but not God alone. As long as they worshiped the other gods too they were okay. But to not worship the one True God, the Living God (see 1 Thess 1), and Him alone, was not to worship Him at all. These Christians were also pressured to compromise their sexual purity as well, to go along with a culture whose sexual mores were not all that different from the culture we live in today. Some of the church leaders in fact did lead their people to believe that sexual immorality was okay (see Rev. 2:18-29). The same can be said for some in the church in Corinth to which Paul wrote (see 1 Cor 6:9-11). For the churches addressed in Revelation , refusal to compromise could have cost them their livelihoods, and, at certain points, even their lives. Yet Jesus called them to remain faithful no matter how grave the threat (see Rev. 1-3, & 12-14).


The sexual ethic being pushed by our culture today is in tune with the paganism of old, but very much discordant with the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview. The same can be said for the sexual ethic being pushed by progressive Christians. The “Reconciling Ministries Network,” an unofficial United Methodist group fully dedicated to the LGBTQetc. agenda, for All Saints’ Day, displayed a pictorial on their Facebook page of various biblical and historical saints paired together in homosexual relationships. This included Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus kissing in a lesbian embrace. Along with these saints, Harvey Milk, the former San Francisco mayor and famed gay rights activist (who is known to have had multiple sexual relationships with teenage boys, one of whom committed suicide when Harvey broke up with him) was also prominently pictured, more so than any other, with a yellow glow behind his head. The famous Greek pagan emperor, Alexander the Great (who according to the custom of the ancient Greeks may himself have had sex with young boys) may have been proud, but it is impossible for me to imagine that Jesus would be. We shouldn’t be surprised to find a relationship between one’s theology and one’s view of what is sexually permissible, even if some still want to operate under the illusion that theology can be separated from ethics. Just take the atheist Richard Dawkins’ response in a debate with John Lennox:

“You could possibly persuade me that there was some kind of physical, mathematical genius who created the expanding universe, devised quantum theory, relativity and so on. But that is radically and fundamentally incompatible with the sort of God who cares about sin, the sort of God who cares about what one does with one’s genitals, the sort of God who is interested in one’s private thoughts and wickedness. Surely, you can see that a God who is grand enough to make the universe is not going to give a tuepenny cuss about one’s thoughts and sin.” (See Transcript for entire debate here)

In Dawkin’s case, it seems quite evident that for him theology is directly connected to a concern over who gets to determine what one does with one’s genitals, us or God. Theology can’t be separated any more from ethics than the first three commandments can be separated from last seven of the Ten Commandments without unraveling the bonds of the covenant relationship of which they were all a part. God made it quite clear through the prophets that morals and worship can’t really be separated. Just take a gander through Micah or Malachi. Neither should it be a surprise that now not only are Christian symbols being expelled from public spaces, but also Christians who hold and express the values of their faith, especially as it pertains to marriage and sex.


So how did we get to the point where there’s no longer room Christian symbolism and Christianity in public spaces? Perhaps the seed of Deism has grown into a great pantheistic tree that has a branch for virtually every kind of bird but one, those who believe in one true God who is Lord of Heaven and Earth.  The First Amendment has been turned on its head. Now, more or less by judicial fiat, or the overwhelming threat of a lawsuit, a semi-pagan secular humanism has become the de facto established religion of the land of the brave and home of the free (?); and the country is having a hard time finding room for those who, like Daniel in Babylon, refuse to go along with the program.


History is replete with examples of the attempt to push the one true God out of the world, to try live as if God doesn’t exist, and even to declare that God is dead. On a hill far away, just outside the city of Jerusalem, wayward Jews and Gentile sinners conspired together to once again attempt to push God in Christ out of this world on a Roman cross. Yet there where he was expelled from the city by those who hoped to rid him from the world, he prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The human heart in its natural state of original sin, has no room for the one who made it either; but through repentance and faith, Jesus Christ can turn a Godless stone monument of human pride into the humble abode of the Triune God. Jesus died for the ones who despised and rejected him, and on the third day God raised him from the dead. Our rejection of Him was His acceptance of us. Will you make room for him today? Will you raise the white flag of surrender and welcome him into your heart, into your family, and into your community? Our Lord was knocked down but he was never out; he was expelled but never left; he was declared dead but yet he lives. He will never leave us or forsake us! He has shown us the way! Take a stand for truth in love; and you too will overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of your testimony (Rev. 12:11).

Confessions of an Insider Trader inside the Church

Before becoming a pastor I sold insurance and securities.   In order to get my license I had to learn about compliance, which amounted to a whole lot of “don’t ever do this, this, that, and certainly not this.”   One of the thou shall not’s was insider trading.   Insider trading is defined as The illegal buying or selling of securities on the basis of information that is unavailable to the public.  Insider trading creates an unfair advantage for those who already know the complexities and nuances of the financial market when our primary duty as agents is to be a fiduciary – one who acts in good faith with regards to the interests of others.  To put it one way, financial representatives such as myself were forbidden to engage in water-cooler-like business because our primary responsibility was to the public who knew nothing of our water-cooler business.

You can imagine my great delight, then, when I entered into professional ministry and discovered there were no such restrictions placed on me!    On the contrary, I quickly learned that insider trading was not only allowed among Christians, it was encouraged!  It was practically a sport.    It fast became my favorite hobby.

For many years I was absorbed by the water-cooler talk among my fellow Christians and colleagues in ministry.   With the age of the internet it was extremely easy to carry out our insider trading enterprise, and, since it wasn’t illegal, we could publish it in the open for all the world to see.    Blogging was my favorite way of conducting insider trading.   It gave me a platform where saved people could talk to other saved people about how other saved people are making life miserable for other saved people.    The titles of my blogs were not meant to deter compliance officers but to ensure they clicked my post and, with any luck, either said AMEN to it or hated it (but shared it anyways).   Titles like, “Why I’m no longer an Evangelical Christian,” or “Why I’m no longer a Progressive Christian,” or, “How to spot a fundamentalist,” or “Mark Driscoll is wrong/right/evil/angelic/pick-anything-cause-just-his-name-will-generate-blog-hits,” and many other such articles which make for great water-cooler chit chat.

Saved people telling other saved people how much better their version of being saved is better than the one they left.

I confess I was an avid member of this insider trading scheme until it dawned on me that no one was getting saved because of it.   No one was being introduced to the life-transforming, saving power of Jesus Christ because of a single thing I had done or written.   Sure, many felt either further justified in beliefs they already held or infuriated because they didn’t agree.  But every one of them was already part of the club.   They were already, at least by their own confession, saved.   I was not their pastor and therefore had little right to tell them how they should live out their walk (and even if I was, there are far better ways to do that than through a blog post, and with far more grace than I  ever mustered as an insider trader).

But no one was being saved.  The unsuspecting, unknowing, unsaved public, for which I have a responsibility as a Christian, care nothing about Mark Driscoll or about why you left evangelicalism.   They don’t care about my disillusionment with authority or established religion, they don’t care about what one group of saved people say to another group of saved people about sex and who should be having it with who, they don’t care about the reasons why you still think Jesus is pretty cool despite all the ways the church has dragged his name through the mud.

The unsaved aren’t asking the questions our insider trading religion has become obsessed with answering…and answering…and answering.    And sadly, we’ve spent so much time around the water cooler we don’t even know anymore how to talk to someone who doesn’t know Jesus and has never once stepped foot into a church (and has never read your blog, or this one).

This past Sunday a first time guest at my church hugged me and thanked me for “allowing her to come” and asked if it was OK for her to come again next week.  This woman didn’t know much about the church but she knew enough, it seems, that a lot of insider trading goes on and wanted to know if she were welcome into the “club.”   Such is the impression we have given to the unsaved – an ever increasing population – in our communities.

I don’t want to be an insider trader anymore.   I want to invest my time and energy into reaching out to the people like this visitor who knows nothing about Jesus or his church.  I want to find ways to answer the questions she is asking, which include things like, “Does God love me?  Will you love me?   Can Jesus forgive me?   How can Jesus change my life?   How can I get sober?  How can I get free?  Can Jesus heal my marriage?  My relationships?  Can Jesus take care of my fears, my guilt, my shame?”

I confess I was once an insider trader but with God’s help, I want to focus less on arguing with the already saved and more on winning the yet-to-be-saved.   As a Christian, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the public around me who do not know Jesus and whose eternities could potentially be changed by my – and your – attention to their concerns and questions rather than our water-cooler discussions.