Are Some Sins Easier to Condemn, Easier to Erase?

What if bigotry were as hard to discern and remedy as same-sex attraction and concupiscence?

Think about the categories used in the PCA report on Human Sexuality:

Second, according to the system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not be surprised, but rather expect that concupiscence in general, and specific instances like homosexual attraction bigotry, would continue in the life of a believer. The Confession is clear; corruption remains “in every part” (13.2). We would never say to a new believer who has a history of destructive anger, “Now that you are a Christian, you will never again feel a rush of anger rise up within you at the wrong time, for a selfish reason, out of proportion to the situation, or in any other way that contradicts God’s law.” Neither should we communicate to a believer with a history of homosexual attraction bigotry the expectation that this will simply disappear.

“…according to the doctrinal system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not rule out, but rather expect that concupiscence in general antipathy to others, and specific instances like homosexual attraction bigotry, would be areas in which the believer would see some progress toward truly righteous feelings and actions. Our previous point had to do with the danger of creating the expectation that our experience of corruption will entirely disappear in this life if we are regenerate. This point addresses what might be considered an error on the other end of the spectrum, the error of asserting that change is not possible or not to be sought. But just as the Confession is clear that corruption remains in every part, it is also clear that the sanctifying work of the Spirit is felt in the “whole man.” Someone with homosexual attraction who hates other groups ought not close himself or herself off to the pursuit of, and hope of, real change in those attractions inclinations, even if that change is incomplete and mixed. …

Finally, we can discern a very practical value to the distinction between the sin that is constituted by our “corruption of nature…and all the motions thereof” and the “actual transgressions” that proceed from it. Even where original sin is manifested in the form of sinfully disordered desires or feelings inclinations, including homosexual attraction bigotry, there is significant moral difference between that initial “motion” of corruption and the decision to cultivate or act on it. To feel a sinfully disordered sexual attraction hatred (of any kind) is properly to be called sin—and all sin, “both original and actual” earns God’s wrath (WCF 6.6)—but it is significantly less heinous (using the language of the WLC 151) than any level of acting upon it in thought or deed. The point here is not to encourage those with homosexual attraction who are bigoted to become comfortable with or accepting of it. Rather, it is to counter the undue heaping of shame upon them as if the presence of homosexual attraction bigotry itself makes them the most heinous of sinners. On the contrary, their experience is representative of the present life of all Christians. John Owen has said, “…yet sin doth so remain, so act and work in the best of believers, whilst they live in this world, that the constant daily mortification of it is all their days incumbent upon them.” Our brothers and sisters who resist and repent of enduring feelings of same-sex attraction bigotry are powerful examples to us all of what this “daily mortification” looks like in “the best of believers.” We should be encouraged and challenged by their example and eager to join in fellowship with them for the mutual strengthening of our faith, hope, and love.

Is it possible to think about tribalism, bigotry, undue attachment to groups, or racial supremacy the way the PCA instructs officers and members to think about same sex attraction? Both are disordered inclinations. But when people condemn bigotry between racial groups, they tend not to see it as something that lurks in a fallen human being, even in a regenerate soul:

​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

Would the authors and signers of this statement ever add, “there go I but for the grace of God”? Or is such a condemnation an indication to others that you do not approve of racism in those who are. As such, a statement is mainly a way to avoid confusion. By signing or issuing a statement, I too show that I am not a racist and detest those who are.

Wait. What about hate the sin, love the sinner?

Even more difficult – what if the sins of the sixth and seventh commandments — heck the whole darned Decalogue — reside in each and every Christian’s heart? That might produce statements that are less finger wagging, and more understanding like the PCA’s report.

It might also indicate that human beings are not Pelagian when it comes to racial bigotry. That is, the soul does not have a racist switch that you flick on after coming into the world loving and kind, and then flick off when you repent and condemn racism in yourself and others.

In fact, if sin can be systemic, no better place to look than not in bureaucracy but in the human heart.

First Part of Review of PCA Statement on Same-Sex Attraction

Posted at Juicy Ecumenism today and then not:

Calvin vs. Wesley: A Review of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Report on Human Sexuality, Part One

The Rev. Karen Booth is a graduate of Drew Theological School and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is the author of “Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution.”

Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that my views are based on my background as a seminary trained, local church pastor who has had some additional experience working with ministries of sexual sanctification. I am not a professional theologian, nor do I have access to specific archival material that would have been relevant. I do thank Dr. David Watson and Dr. Scott Kisker of United Theological Seminary for helping me think through some of the Wesleyan theology.

In June 2019, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) faced a General Assembly that included more legislative petitions about LGBT issues than any other subject. The concerns stemmed from a provocative conference called Revoice, which was co-sponsored by the denomination’s Covenant Seminary and hosted by a local PCA church in St. Louis.

Though there are nuances, Revoice (the conference and movement that followed) generally affirms a traditional Christian sexual ethic while tolerating, accepting or even celebrating homosexual orientation and/or LGBT identity as long as there is a concurrent commitment to celibacy. This stance is sometimes referred to as “Side B,” with “Side A” being LGBT-identified persons who do not consider same-sex intimacy to be essentially immoral. There is also a “Side C” for those who are unsure and a “Side X” for those who believe that BOTH desire and behavior can be transformed through the power of Jesus Christ.

Though one writer suggested that the PCA controversy was mostly about “language” and “terms,” another recognized that there were serious underlying theological and pastoral issues at stake: “another way of describing the debate is whether homosexual orientation/desire is sinful and therefore must be mortified or if it is a natural inclination that can just be kept in check through celibacy.”

Fearful that endorsing Revoice could ultimately lead to more progressive positions on sex and marriage, delegates sought further clarity. As a result, the General Assembly voted to affirm the more traditional Nashville Statement, a document developed by the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and to establish a study commission.

The seven-member Ad Interim Study Committee on Human Sexuality (hereinafter “Committee”) included pastors, theologians, Christian educators, and professional counselors who had diverse opinions about Revoice. This caused even more controversy, raising doubt that they would ever be able to reach biblically faithful consensus.

Nonetheless, the Committee completed its work within a year and officially released its Report on May 28. After wide distribution and study, the Report will be perfected and then accepted or rejected at the rescheduled General Assembly in June 2021.

The Report primarily consists of Twelve Statements that summarize the Committee’s findings, with longer essays explaining the underlying theological and doctrinal foundations. There are also suggestions for pastoral care and apologetics, an annotated resource list, and an exhortation to maintain unity amidst the diverse legislative proposals that will surely follow.

The first two Statements deal with marriage (the monogamous union of one man and one woman) and the binary nature of male/female creation (a unique expression of God’s image and His perfect will). Neither issue is currently up for debate; the former is explicitly addressed in both the Westminster Confession and the PCA Book of Church Order and the latter is implied. Both are referred to multiple times to defend other portions of the report.

The remaining material concentrates on four sets of related topics:

The moral nature of same-sex attraction, desire and temptation,
The compatibility (or not) of the concepts of homosexual orientation and gay Christian identity with Scripture and doctrine,
The significance of redemption, sanctification, Christian community and pastoral care for same-sex attracted persons, and
An apologetics strategy for sharing God’s truth and grace about human sexuality with an unbelieving world.
The Study Committee recognized that the first topic was key to all else that followed:

What do we believe the Bible teaches us about our condition as fallen human beings? What does it mean to be saved from this state?

How does regeneration affect our experience of fallenness?

How we answer these questions will determine how we answer the more specific questions about our experience of sexuality.” (Report, Page 14, lines 17-41)

So, the Calvinistic theological reasoning (Statements 3-6 and essay #1) goes something like this:

Original sin is a comprehensive (total) depravity and corruption that humans have inherited as a result of the Fall and for which they are held culpable/guilty. This essential corruption remains to some degree even after justification and regeneration. The outworking of this original corruption results in ACTUAL sin, which includes not only evil/immoral behavior but also impulses, feelings, desires and internal temptations, even those that are not agreed to by a conscious act of will (concupiscence). Both original and actual sin must be repented, grieved and hated.

Bottom line: “the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; (it) is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.” And “these desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.” (Report, page 8, lines 6-8, 20-21)

The second claim was the Committee’s unambiguous answer to Revoice leaders who argued that same-sex attraction is not in-and-of-itself sinful, but rather a sort of “disability” or “handicap.” As already noted, this understanding of the sinfulness of same-sex attraction will shape the Committee’s conclusions on sexual orientation/identity, Christian life from unbelief to sanctification, discipleship and community, pastoral care and apologetics.

Obviously, this theological understanding is quite different from the official stance of The United Methodist Church (UMC). The denomination morally prohibits same-sex behavior, by stating that the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” But it doesn’t even mention, let alone condemn, the experience of same-sex attraction.

This policy was initially adopted into our Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference almost by accident. (See here and here.) It was reaffirmed after our first official study (“Committee to Study Homosexuality,” 1989-92) and endorsed yet again in more recent legislation and proposals regarding amicable separation. After almost fifty years of squabbling over sex and marriage, it’s pretty much become “conventional wisdom” in the UMC.

But is this conventional wisdom rooted in Wesleyan thinking? Providentially, yes.

Though it wasn’t originally conceived by Albert Outler or Georgia Harkness or any of the other “heavy hitters” that drafted proposals for our post-merger Social Principles, it nonetheless accurately reflects our Wesleyan heritage. As John Trinklein noted in his dissertation, Wesley’s discussion with his pastors at the 1759 Conference

clarified that there was a difference between sin “properly so-called” and sin “improperly so-called”. In his understanding, only that which is a “voluntary transgression of a known law” is truly a ‘sin’; any “involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown” is “naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality”—and therefore not a ‘sin’ … Total corruption and the irresistible inclination to sin have indeed been passed on to us, but only our own voluntary (“proper”) sins can damn us. (pages 123-126)

Although humans are not damned for Adam’s transgression, Wesley nonetheless believed that the corruption of original sin left them stained, broken and hopeless – categorically unable to escape their inherited sin nature or do anything good on their own. (See here, here and here.) The hope, for Wesley and his followers, would be found in his manifold understandings of God’s grace.

This will be explored more fully in Part Two of the blog post. For now, here are a few of my personal observations.

Even though I disagree with its Calvinist underpinnings, I think the major strength of the PCA Report is its solid grounding in theology and doctrine. Once it is approved, the denomination will have not only a brilliant tool for teaching, but a firm foundation to fall back on if its traditional sexual ethic is ever challenged in the future. When the UMC decided (even if by default) to deal with sexuality issues from a “social concerns” perspective, it set the stage for almost constant struggle over terms and definitions. How I wish we had begun with something like this PCA document. How I yearn for something like it in the future.

I have not yet studied the entire PCA document, but I hope that their initial finding – that same-sex attraction itself is sinful – will be somewhat mitigated later on. Because, unless it is presented, taught and preached with great compassion and sensitivity, it can be soul crushing to those who struggle against SSA. If it only adds to their already heightened sense of personal shame, they will be less inclined to seek any kind of help from the church. I think we’ll discover in Part Two that the Wesleyan way of grace offers a more hopeful and potentially more transformative approach.

Two Kingdom Theology and Same Sex Attraction

Remember when two-kingdom theology was the easy and quick explanation for Reformed churches friendly to homosexuality? Steven Wedgeworth clarifies what everyone knew when anti-two kingdom folks were using Meredith Kline as the whipping boy for moral relativism. The folks at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis who sort of oversaw the production, “Transluminate: A Celebration of Transgender, Agender, Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Genderfluid Artists,” are not two-kingdom proponents:

To understand how the Transluminate event could happen within the PCA, readers should see it as an extreme but perhaps predictable ramification of a certain philosophy of ministry, common in our day. Evangelical and particularly “missional” churches routinely advocate for various kinds of parachurch ministry in the world of arts and culture. Some call for an aggressive or confrontational approach, while others say that mere “faithful presence” is a more effective strategy. This term, “faithful presence,” was originally coined by James D. Hunter in his book To Change the World, but has become a shorthand way, not unlike the term “common good,” to express the concept of Christians interacting with the secular public realm, not in overtly distinctive ways, but simply according to basic morals and friendly manners. This posture is frequently described as winsome or hospitable. It argues against direct criticism or evangelism, at least in any public way, in favor of building more long-term relationships. After these relationships of trust are sufficiently built, opportunities for evangelism may make themselves apparent. Some proponents of this philosophy even deny that specifically evangelistic activity, arguing that the relationship itself or the image and reputation such faithful presence creates will itself be a sufficient Christian testimony. Memorial Pres. certainly seems to promote this view of evangelism and outreach.

Jake Meador partly agrees:

Our outreach to the world cannot simply be a gesture of welcome, but must also include a call to repentance and to adopt the practices of Christian piety in grateful response to God’s offer of grace in the Gospel. What conservatives fear is that this inherently confrontational aspect of Gospel proclamation is lost or watered down by some on the church’s progressive side. And this is not a wholly groundless concern.

Parachurch ministry in the realm of arts and culture, welcoming congregations, “faithful presence” — these are all features (not bugs) of Redeemer New York City and its spin offs. And yet, the Gospel Coalition has not clarified the missional approach to ministry. In fact, they have benefited from Tim Keller’s presence and stature.

What Was Jesus Thinking?

You might have thought that Jesus was not exactly interested in social justice when you read Luke’s account of Christ’s interaction with the Capernaum centurion:

After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well. (Luke 7)

Sure, the officer’s faith was impressive, but doesn’t it sound like the centurion was a guy, sort of like a modern business man, who approached life transactionally. He gets things done merely by saying the word. Surely, Jesus is that kind of leader, one who simply barks an order and underlings jump.

And what about those orders? Jesus did not seem to object to the hierarchy in the Roman military, or that a centurion could own slaves. And let’s not forget that often the Roman military was nasty and harsh, and that was partly responsible for its success. Then there’s imperialism, a system of oppression by today’s standards if there ever was one. Yet, Jesus overlooked those blemishes, recognized the authenticity of the centurion’s faith, and healed his slave.

On the other hand, what if the centurion had a same-sex relationship with the slave?

When the identity of the slave in the Gospel narrative of “The Healing of the Centurion’s Slave” is studied through historical-critical research, the written and earlier oral traditions of the story indicate that the miraculous act is true to the historical Jesus. Also, by exploring the slave’s identity as a slave, same-sex love interest, and military recruit—and the 1st century C.E. implications thereof—the author concludes that the historical Jesus understood the sexual relationship between the centurion and his slave, and healed the latter based on the faith of the former. Jesus never spoke negatively about homosexuality and never offered sociological or theological discourse pertaining thereto.

(When was the last time you saw “thereto” in a defense of homosexuality?)

Maybe Jesus really was woke.

How Slippery is the Normativity Slope?

I listened to a discussion among Asian-American PCA pastors about race and ethnicity and was surprised to hear the use of “white normativity” as frequently as they did. They object strenuously to white normativity in the church. I wonder about that way of putting it since John Frame and I are both white and yet the differences he and I have about worship have little to do explicitly with being white. I do, by the way, like the idea that Frame’s brief for Contemporary Christian Music has as much white culture attached to it as exclusive psalmody since the old canard about so-called traditional Presbyterian worship was that it was too white, male, European, and suburban (even though none of the Westminster Divines had a clue that Levittown was on the horizon of white cultural normativity).

Here is one example of the use of white normativity from one of the interlocutors’ talks/homilies/speeches:

That leads to a deeper and better informed repentance, does it not? One that names with far greater specificity, repenting of specific sins specifically…one that names with far greater specificity the problem of white cultural normativity and supremacy in the church.

If you wanted to know the instances of white normativity in the church, like too much stuff that white people like, you might be surprised to hear that wealth is an instance of white dominance in the church and a way to repent is for whites to pay ecclesiastical reparations to black and people-of-color congregations. But wait, isn’t currency itself a form of white normativity? Can you really make up for it by relying on it in the way you make up?

Aside from that logical speed bump, the real point here is how do you head down the rhetorical path that relies on intersectional ideas like white normativity and turn off before you arrive at heteronormativity. After all, for the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the systemic nature of injustice does not stop with skin color but runs all the way to sexual identity:

We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

This is not some threat about where ideas lead. Some PCA pastors could make a real contribution and explain how to address racial and ethnic inequalities or discrepancies while excluding discussions of sexual orientation, gay marriage, and Christian-family-normativity in general. Since I don’t rely on the arguments that lead someone to detect white normativility and then reject it with contempt, I can’t do the heavy lifting here.

But since the PCA is at a difficult juncture about homosexual identity, some in the communion may want to ponder whether white normativity and heteronormativity tend to pick up speed on the slope of normativity.

If You Go From Progressive to Backward, Can You Still Be Ahead of Your Time?

The quotation from Francis Schaeffer (from 1968 even!!) has been circulating among those who want to listen to make the world safe for the sorts of discussions that went into the Revoice Conference. Jake Meador invoked Schaeffer four years ago to defend Karen Swallow Prior:

…consider the great American evangelist Francis Schaeffer whose writing on homosexuality (available in his collected letters) anticipated many of today’s debates.

Schaeffer, writing in 1968 (!) made the now-common distinction between what he called “homophiles” and homosexuals, arguing that it is possible to be same-sex attracted without falling into sin and that it is the acting on that attraction which is sinful. (Again, he wrote this in 1968.)

In one of his letters he refers to “the mistake that the orthodox people have made” and defines that as saying that “homophile tendencies are sin in themselves, even if there is no homosexual practice. Therefore the homophile tends to be pushed out of human life (and especially orthodox church life) even if he does not practice homosexuality. This, I believe, is both cruel and wrong.”

Then Scott Sauls chimed in on the eve of the PCA’s General Assembly:

Former PCA minister, Francis Schaeffer, offers a helpful perspective on this. Schaeffer wrote, “The mistake…that the orthodox people have made…is [to say] that homophile tendencies are sin in themselves, even if there is no homosexual practice. Therefore, the homophile tends to be pushed out of human life (and especially orthodox church life) even if he does not practice homosexuality. This, I believe, is both cruel and wrong.”

I read both pieces scratching my head because by 1980 Schaeffer was the inspiration behind the Moral Majority and his critique of American decadence during the so-called culture wars was hardly so polite about challenges to the family and public standards of decency. Take for instance this quotation that Michael Brown used to notice how prophetic Schaeffer was:

Sadly, many did suppose that this trend towards humanism would not affect “our own little projects, lives, and churches.” Now that we are in a pitched battle with the secular gods of the age, we have realized that our complacency is not only threatening our generation but also the generations to come. Is it too late to affect a positive change?

Even in 1984, long before the vast majority of Christian leaders were considering gay and lesbian issues, he asked, “When a San Francisco Orthodox Presbyterian congregation can be dragged into court for breaking the law against discrimination because it dismissed an avowed, practicing homosexual as an organist, can we be so deaf as not to hear all the warning bells?”

Brown also found this, even from as early as 1968:

Consider this insight from his book The God Who Is There, published in 1968.

He wrote, “But much modern homosexuality is an expression of the current denial of antithesis. It has led in this case to an obliteration of the distinction between man and woman. So the male and the female as complementary partners are finished.”

Yes, Schaeffer saw this 50 years ago, one year before the Stonewall Riots and the rise of the militant gay revolution, and long before the push for same-sex “marriage.”

Schaeffer may be wrong. He may be right. But quoting him should not resemble the way Roman Catholics pick and choose among papal assertions. I mean, remember when Barack Obama said he was opposed to gay marriage?

This Is Embarrassing

The Protestants who I enjoy criticizing are clear at the same time that Roman Catholics are not. And the editors at First Things are caught.

First, a recommendation of the evangelicals who produced the Nashville Statement:

[Several] critiques have merit, and are especially significant since they come from within the evangelical movement. But in our era of theological mushiness and cultural transformation, even the most imperfect attempt at clarity and doctrinal solidarity is better than soft-spoken obfuscation. Christians committed to historic, biblical doctrine on sexuality should be disposed to approve of efforts to make orthodoxy clear, unequivocal, and pastoral.

Perhaps, as many have said, the timing of the Nashville Statement was insensitive. Waiting a couple weeks after the initial images from Houston had appeared might have muted this criticism. But can we foresee a season when such a clear statement of traditional doctrine would not offend, alienate, or divide?

I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity. The document’s fourteen affirmations and denials are short, unequivocal, and to the point.

But Roman Catholics, not so much. Aside from the ongoing dilemma of marriage and divorce that Pope Francis and his synods introduced into the magisterium, individual priests, like James Martin, are signaling virtue but in a very sensitive way:

Fr. Martin notably seeks peace. He speaks reassuring phrases in soothing tones. He prefers the familiarity of a sweater vest and dad jeans to the strangeness of the soutane. In ways superficial and profound, he seeks to render Christianity inoffensive. At a certain level, I understand this desire. The Church may be a sign of contradiction, but it is also a source of consolation. Sometimes we need a Church built on sharp, gothic lines, and at other moments we seek the calm harmony of the classical.

But Fr. Martin’s proposed renovation goes beyond mere ornament, to require the restructuring of the whole Christian edifice. Fr. Martin never says this outright, but the logic of what he does say demands it. Approval of homosexuality is now considered the bare minimum of politeness in the world’s respectable precincts (where one hundred years ago, it would have been thought intolerably rude). If Christianity is to have the manners Fr. Martin values—if is to exhibit perfect “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the eyes of world—it must not only change its phrasing but reverse its teaching on sex.

Fr. Martin is no idle vandal of the Church, even if his critics often take him for one. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I believe that Catholics have something to learn from his argument that the Church treats homosexuality unfairly.

Catholic teaching has not changed, but at the practical level the Church today has made peace with heterosexual desire. Praise of virginity and warnings against lust in the marriage bed have given way to anxious reassurances that Catholics do not hate and fear sex. The Church has largely ceased to speak of sex as dangerous and requiring restraint, even where it is licit. We hear of the dangers of pre-marital sex, of extramarital sex, sometimes even of homosexual sex—but very rarely of sex simply.

Of course, doctrine hasn’t changed. You hear that a lot from those who have to live with modernists — those who won’t live by, defend, or recommend the doctrine that hasn’t changed. But something has.

And I suspect some converts to Rome are having trouble arguing for Rome’s superiority to Nashville.

Why Do Celebrity Pastors Stumble Over “Thus Saith the Lord”?

I am not sure why Eugene Peterson’s flip-flop on gay marriage is such a big deal. But (all about mmmmmeeeeEEE) I’m not in the habit of taking my cues any more from popular Christian authors or personalities. That could be age, temperament (naysayer), or wisdom — and in the right combination separating those traits may be redundant. But I continue to be surprised by what catches on among evangelicals who fret (even if I don’t want to come across as being above it all).

While following some of the reactions, I came across responses from Tim Keller, John Stott, and Sam Allberry. Since Stott is deceased, I should have known that these would not be direct reactions to Peterson. What caught my eye was the link to a review by Keller — can you believe it? There on display is the same affliction that got Peterson into trouble in the first place — namely, failing to minister God’s word and telling us instead about thoughts and reflections based on a lot of stuff you’ve read.

What is especially noteworthy about Keller’s handling of such a controversial subject as homosexuality if he is going to maintain his New York City profile is his ability to quote authors (other than the prophets and apostles).

First some of the debate about homosexuality in church history and antiquity:

These arguments were first asserted in the 1980s by John Boswell and Robin Scroggs. Vines, Wilson and others are essentially repopularizing them. However, they do not seem to be aware that the great preponderance of the best historical scholarship since the 1980s — by the full spectrum of secular, liberal and conservative researchers — has rejected that assertion. Here are two examples.

Bernadette Brooten and William Loader have presented strong evidence that homosexual orientation was known in antiquity. Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, for example, tells a story about how Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their “lost halves” — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex. Whether Aristophanes believed this myth literally is not the point. It was an explanation of a phenomenon the ancients could definitely see — that some people are inherently attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.

For comparisons of homosexuality to slavery Keller can take you to more scholarly literature:

But historians such as Mark Noll (America’s God, 2005 and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 2006) have shown the 19th century position some people took that the Bible condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly controversial and never a consensus. Most Protestants in Canada and Britain (and many in the northern U.S. states) condemned it as being wholly against the Scripture. Rodney Stark (For the Glory of God, 2003) points out that the Catholic church also came out early against the African slave trade. David L. Chappell in his history of the Civil Rights Movement (A Stone of Hope, 2003) went further. He proves that even before the Supreme Court decisions of the mid-50s, almost no one was promoting the slender and forced biblical justifications for racial superiority and segregation. Even otherwise racist theologians and ministers could not find a basis for white supremacy in the Bible.

He even uses awareness of 19th century debates about slavery to take a swipe at Southern Presbyterians:

During the Civil War, British Presbyterian biblical scholars told their southern American colleagues who supported slavery that they were reading the Scriptural texts through cultural blinders. They wanted to find evidence for their views in the Bible and voila — they found it. If no Christian reading the Bible — across diverse cultures and times — ever previously discovered support for same-sex relationships in the Bible until today, it is hard not to wonder if many now have new cultural spectacles on, having a strong predisposition to find in these texts evidence for the views they already hold.

What are those cultural spectacles? The reason that homosexual relationships make so much more sense to people today than in previous times is because they have absorbed late modern western culture’s narratives about the human life. Our society presses its members to believe “you have to be yourself,” that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.

As if the Bible supported abolitionists or anti-slavery arguments were immune to “modern western culture’s narratives about the human life.” Sometimes Keller wades into scholarly material superficially so that it agrees with him, but I digress. (Funny how when I bring the Bible into the history seminar it doesn’t gain me any credibility.)

Then you have Keller appealing to more academics to critique these modern “narratives”:

These narratives have been well analyzed by scholars such as Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. They are beliefs about the nature of reality that are not self-evident to most societies and they carry no more empirical proof than any other religious beliefs. They are also filled with inconsistencies and problems. Both Vines and Wilson largely assume these cultural narratives. It is these faith assumptions about identity and freedom that make the straightforward reading of the biblical texts seem so wrong to them. They are the underlying reason for their views, but they are never identified or discussed.

Maybe this is impressive to David Brooks and other columnists and reporters at the Times, but wasn’t Keller called to minister God’s word? Where is Moses, Jesus, or Paul? Nothing wrong inherently with being aware of some of the scholarly and public intellectual literature. But can’t you give us a “thus saith the Lord” pastor Tim?

When he finally gets around to the Bible, Keller accentuates the positive (the way Mr. Rogers did):

The saddest thing for me as a reader was how, in books on the Bible and sex, Vines and Wilson concentrated almost wholly on the biblical negatives, the prohibitions against homosexual practice, instead of giving sustained attention to the high, (yes) glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality. Both authors rightly say that the Bible calls for mutual loving relationships in marriage, but it points to far more than that.

In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, even God and humanity. It is part of the brilliance of God’s creation that diverse, unlike things are made to unite and create dynamic wholes which generate more and more life and beauty through their relationships. As N.T. Wright points out, the creation and uniting of male and female at the end of Genesis 2 is the climax of all this.

That means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories — they each see and do things that the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a life-long covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together.

Gee golly williker. Marriage is just one stroll down the trail of delight (or maybe through Homer Simpson’s Land of Chocolate). Where is the grit of NYC? Where is the complicated character of life in the modern world where we have to make tough choices, or recognize the good and less attractive in all people we meet, and the institutions in which moderns operate? Where is the edge that attracts at least some people like Brother Mouzone or Woody Allen to the Big Apple? The view from Keller’s study is awfully pleasant (and crowded with books other than the Bible).

Meanwhile, Russell Moore made a decent point about Peterson when he compared the evangelical celebrity to Wendell Berry’s own flip-flop on gay marriage:

And now Peterson says he’s willing to walk away from what the Scriptures and 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teaching affirm on the conjugal nature of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman reflecting the mystery of Christ and the church. I can’t un-highlight or un-flag my Peterson books. I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me. Should I stop reading him, since he has shown a completely contrary view on an important issue of biblical interpretation—and, beyond that, of the very definition of what it means to repent of sin?

This is the same sort of conversation had a few years ago among those of us who’ve been taught much by novelist and poet Wendell Berry when he, too, embraced the zeitgeist on marriage and sexuality. Some said we should throw out our Berry books and never read him again. Others, I’m sure, seeing how much they’d benefited from Berry on place and memory, probably decided to follow him right into this viewpoint. Maybe the same will happen with Peterson now.

True enough, but when Moore says we should not throw Peterson’s books away (who am I to adopt such a move since H. L. Mencken sets on my shelf of worthies right next to Machen — alphabetically anyway), I wonder why Mr. Southern Baptist doesn’t distinguish Peterson as a would-be pastor and theologian from Berry who simply is a writer and farmer. Berry makes no pretension to issue “thus saith the Lord’s” based on his reading of Scripture. Peterson, however, operates in the world of Scripture and theology (and all you usually get — my impression — is “the Lord would be really happy if you might ever consider this and you may also flourish forever and ever”).

Homosexual Militarism

When I think of gayness, I don’t think of weapons of mass destruction. Call me a homophobe, but the cause of gay rights and the promotion of alternative “lifestyles” has not usually been synonymous with a strong U.S. military or neo-conservative (read interventionist) U.S. foreign policy. Then again, if Gomer Pyle really was gay, maybe the Navy’s decision to name a ship after Harvey Milk makes sense:

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is expected on Tuesday to formally name a fleet replenishment oiler after gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, but one congressional critic says Mabus’ name choice is putting politics ahead of the Navy’s legacy.

Mabus will participate in a naming ceremony for the USNS Harvey Milk on Tuesday afternoon in Treasure Island, Calif. The oiler, which can carry 156,000 barrels of oil, is the first of six that will be built by General Dynamics NASSCO and will replenish Navy ships, as well as the aircraft deployed on them, while at sea.

Some conservatives are not happy, as you might expect. According to Congressman Duncan Hunter:

What this says to the men and women of the Navy is that there wasn’t one of you — at any time in history — who is more suitable for this honor. There are plenty of names out there to pick from, but Ray Mabus makes every decision with politics in his mind first and foremost, and that’s a real disservice to men and women of the U.S. Navy and the service’s legacy.

But are homosexuals also comfortable with having one of their heroes’ names painted on a ship that doesn’t make love but executes war? If, for instance, Equality California, one of the larger LBGT rights organizations, is currently soliciting support for a proposition against gun violence, are they comfortable with military violence?

Then again, if you want a seat at the table of the U.S. of A., for now that means cozying up to the nation’s military. Isn’t integration grand!

When Bathrooms Were Safe Spaces

Driving cross country and using rest stop facilities made me aware once again that just because a bathroom is male or female is no guarantee of comfort. What if another patron is attracted to men and finds me(eeeeEEEE!) particularly handsome? What am I supposed to do?

In fact, a recent piece in Christianity Today by a gay Wheaton College alum confirms those the plausibility of these questions:

By far the worst aspect of my college experience was the dorm’s group bathroom. At the beginning of the year, most shower stalls had two curtains. One hung past the entrance to the water spout, and the other hung a few feet farther out, past a small bench where we could put clothes and a towel. As the year progressed, some of the curtains would rip and fall down. I always tried to use an area with both curtains intact, because I feared falling into sin. Afraid of homosexual thoughts, I felt that I could not form close connections to the other men on my floor. Such a compulsive paradigm isolated me further from people who would have wanted to help.

So, well before the rise of transgender self-consciousness and legislators quarreling over access to bathrooms, men and women, boys and girls, have been sharing facilities with people whose sexual orientations make them uncomfortable. Truth be told, I even shared a suite of rooms in Divinity Hall (at Harvard) with the man who led the Gay-Lesbian Caucus. And I turned out okay (right?).

If we can share bathrooms with gays and lesbians, can’t we do the same with trans?