How Important is Love? (3) Just ‘the only thing that counts’

Gal 5 vs 6Galatians 5:6 is a crucial verse when it comes to the relationship between faith and love.

NIV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’

ESV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.’

NRSV  ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’

The Greek can be rendered more literally, ‘faith working love’ – the sense being that faith and love are integrally connected, almost like one tangible ‘thing’.

We may put it like this, for Paul, for someone to be a Christian (in Christ) is to be living a life of ‘faith working love’. Or, differently, the very purpose of being a Christian is ‘faith working love’. Without love that faith counts for nothing.

There is no such thing as Christian faith that does not work in love.

This takes us straight to 1 Corinthians 13 where the Apostle makes this point even more bluntly and with greater rhetorical effect – without love, whatever someone does for Jesus, however impressive, powerful or sacrificial, is completely and utterly worthless.

If so, how should this impact the priorities of church life? Of personal discipleship? Of training programmes, preaching and theological education generally?

Note how this is different to the ‘love alone’ theology of the previous post.

Christian love has a specific form – it is umbilically linked to faith. That faith in turn has a specific focus – Jesus Christ.

This means that there is a sharp contrast between Christian love and popular contemporary understandings of love.

In contrast to ‘love alone’ theology, Christian love:

  • Is interpreted and understood from within the narrative of the Bible
  • It has a specific content – the self-giving love of God in Christ
  • Nothing is easy or soft about Christian love – it involves spiritual transformation of desires through walking by the Spirit.
  • It is not concerned primarily about the self, it involves self-sacrifice for the good of others.
  • It is communal through and through – lived out in all the messiness of relationship with others within the community of the church and overflowing into the world.
  • Ethically, ‘love alone’ does not justify and legitimise what is moral and good. Christian love means obedience (‘If you love me you will obey my commands’).
  • Nor is Christian love itself divine, only God is. Love itself does not give our lives ultimate meaning – being children of the God who is love does.

Paul’s emphasis on love does not hang on a couple of extraordinary texts. Love pervades his theology and his letters – God’s love for us, our response of love for God, and – most of all – exhortations and commands for the people of God to love one another.

Nor is Paul out of sync with the rest of the New Testament. While John is the theologian of love par excellence, the priority of love is everywhere. We’ll have a look at some texts in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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How Important is Love? (2): ‘Love Alone’ theology

aliandninoThis is a second of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the last post we talked about the relegation of love within the theological priorities of post-Reformational traditions where love comes in a very definite second to faith.

In this post we’ll look at the opposite trend: how in (some) contemporary Christianity love is celebrated and extolled, prioritised and spoken about in terms that elevate it to such a degree that it becomes a goal in itself.

By this I mean that love takes on a sentimental and even mystical nature, that when experienced you have reached a higher spiritual existence.

Love itself becomes divine – the ground of our being.

This links back to a post on how, in contemporary culture, we have shifted from John’s famous statement, ‘God is love’ to ‘Love is God’. Where love itself is idolised and revered as that alone which gives life meaning.

As the fab 4 sang, ‘All you need is love’.

This is all quite subtle and hard to pin down, after all, you have to be a miserable old curmudgeon to be anti-love don’t you?

‘Love Alone’ theology

Here are some symptoms of what I call ‘Love Alone’ theology

1. Love is spoken and sung about in ways that it is detached from the narrative of the Bible. Love becomes what we want it to be. Yet, in contrast, Christian love has a particular character – it is shaped by God’s self-giving love in Christ. It calls for a wholehearted response of obedience to God. It requires humility and repentance. It depends on God’s grace. It entails deep cost to the self.

2. The ‘content’ of love is assumed – the assumption being ‘sure we all know what love is don’t we?’. That content tends to be sentimentalised – love is warm, inclusive, feel-good, fulfilling. It is that which meets our deepest needs.

3. The difficulty of love is downplayed  – it is assumed that love is automatic and easy. Little or nothing is said about our own distorted loves and sinful desires.

4. The cost of love is ignored – love is that which brings happiness and joy, not that which often involves pain and sacrifice.

5. The focus of love tends to be individualistic – faith in God is what gives ‘me’ an experience of God’s love that brings me comfort and hope.

6. Love trumps all – if something is loving, the presence of love trumps all.  So, for example, a couple in love who want a baby to love pay a woman to rent her womb. Love trumps any ethical concerns over surrogacy. The outcome (love) justifies the means.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

How Important is Love? (1) love as secondary to faith

This is a first of a wee series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

Here’s a proposal: there is a curious ambivalence towards love within quite a bit of post-Reformational Protestantism / evangelicalism. (Love in Catholic theology has a distinctly different flavour – maybe that’s a topic for another day).

By ambivalence I mean that, while love is extolled and spoken of as a good thing, it is somehow not at the heart of doctrine or preaching.

Does this sound familiar to you? What is the place of love in your theology and in your experience?

Obviously this is a broad claim, but at a general level I think a good case can be made for it. For example, how do you read Romans and Galatians or had them explained and preached to you? Is it something like the following?

In Romans, chapters 1-8 form the great doctrinal core of the book (sin, justification by faith, gift of the Spirit), 9-11 the confusing bit about Israel and then the ‘applied theology’ bit on practical Christian living from chapters 12 on?

In Galatians, a bit of Pauline biography in chapters 1-2, the great doctrinal core of the book (justification, adoption) from 2-4 and then secondary practical instructions on ethical Christian living in chapters 5-6.

In both, the ‘practical’ tends to be seen as secondary to the ‘doctrinal’. They are ‘follow ons’ – advice and commands that should flow from the doctrinal … but what really matters is getting doctrine of justification by faith right.

Faith is primary. Chronologically this makes sense – the Christian life follows from conversion. But, I suggest (and this is a blog post – it would need proper research) historically the dominance of justification, the strong distinction made between it and subsequent sanctification and what I call the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of works being smuggled into saving faith, has meant that place of love within Paul’s thought has either been downplayed or simply overlooked.

Some time ago the NT scholar John Barclay said this about the relative neglect of chapters 5 and 6 of Galatians in 20th century exegesis:  (Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians. 1988. Fortress.)

[I]t is a by-product of the “Lutheran” theological consensus. If one considers that the main thrust of Paul’s attacks on “works of the law” is against human works and achievement, one is apt to conclude that his specific ethical instructions are merely an appendix or, perhaps, an attempt to prevent himself from being misunderstood as antinomian. To give these instructions any more integral place would be to admit that Paul also is concerned to promote works.

So love (and the ‘works’ of the Christian life in general) are not integral to saving faith. Note that Barclay is NOT saying that Luther taught this (we’ll come back to what he did teach about faith and love in a later post), he is saying it is a symptom of later theological post-Reformational theological emphases.

On this tack, another scholar, Stephen Chester, gives the example of Lutheran scholar Gerhard Ebeling’s major work The Gospel of Truth (2001) on Galatians in which 230 pages are given to chapters 1-4 and a paltry 25 to chapters 5-6. For Ebeling, yes, love (and works associated with it) is important, but it is nevertheless subsidiary to core doctrinal priorities of the letter. As Chester comments, the impression is given that Paul’s argument is essentially complete at the end of chapter 4 (and a similar point could be made for Romans – effectively the really important doctrinal argument is finished by the end of chapter 8).  (Stephen Chester, ‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’).

There is something gone awry here because this relegation of love just does not ‘fit’ Paul – nor does it do justice to Jesus or to John or the tone of the New Testament in general.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul’s non-violent Gospel is for all believers

Let me be upfront in this post – any believer who argues that Christians, in particular circumstances, are justified in engaging in war and violence is pushing against the overwhelming ethos of the New Testament and early Church History.

Rather than Christian non-violence being seen as a ‘minority report’ within much of later Western Church history, it should be the other way around – that there should be a default scepticism and ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ around Christian ‘just war’ theory because it is so manifestly out of step with Jesus, Paul and the rest of the NT.

This isn’t just an ‘ethical issue’ – non-violence is integral to the gospel, it should shape the lives, attitudes and words of all Christian disciples.

Below is a review of mine of a book making a convincing case along these lines for Paul. Jesus’ teaching to love enemies and of non-retaliation is not just some idealised unrealistic ethic that can be left safely with the ‘perfect man’ – it was embodied within Paul’s own experience and understanding of the gospel itself.

Have a read and see what you think – comments welcome

Jeremy Gabrielson: gabrielsonPaul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters (Pickwick Publications: Eugene OR, 2013. Pbk. pp.204. ISBN 978-1-62032-945-0)

This book represents the fruit of a PhD completed at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Bruce Longenecker. Gabrielson’s theme is that non-violence for Paul was “not simply an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel.” (168)

By this he means that the gospel forms a counter-cultural political body that responds to evil and enmity not with violence or force but with good. The motive for such counter-intuitive enemy-love is not to avoid suffering. Rather, quoting Yoder, it “heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom ‘the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history’.”(169)

A distinctive element of Gabrielson’s articulation of Christian non-violence is his focus on how Paul’s personal biography of violence informs his theology. In other words, Paul’s teaching of peace and non-retaliation are not merely generalised ethical principles drawn from his Jewish context (important though that is) but should be interpreted through the grid of the apostle’s dramatic experience of supporting and subsequently renouncing violence.

This thesis is unpacked in most detail in the longest chapter in the book, ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’. The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13, 23) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers. Gabrielson is cautious about filling in the details of Paul’s account via the later writings of Luke; he argues that Paul’s own words (‘destroy’ and ‘persecute’) presuppose physical violence. Based on parallel examples in Philo, he suggests that Paul’s exceptional zeal could have been understood as a virtue whereby perceived transgression of the Torah would rightly have been violently punished. So, while there is no explicit mention in Paul of being involved in killing, his own language, the Jewish context and the documented experience of the first Christians of violent persecution all combine to support such a possibility.

This leads Gabrielson to propose that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ not only causes deep and profound shifts in his understanding of the law, faith and righteousness but also in his understanding of a peaceable life that pleases God. Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’. Instead, the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion is reimagined to a degree that the apostle can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (Gal. 2:19-20) now that he is a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. Gabrielson concludes

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence.” (95)

This stance frames the author’s unpacking of Galatians’ rich understanding of the Christian life. New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the risen Lord.

This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God (6:9). Yet peaceableness does not mean that violence will not come one’s way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

Gabrielson’s argument is well made and persuasive. A vast amount of scholarly attention has been, and continues to be, focused on Paul, righteousness and the law. This is perfectly understandable given the weight and breadth of the theological issues at stake. Those debates revolve around questions such as how exactly did the ‘new’ Paul differ from the ‘old’ Paul?; what was Paul ‘converted’ from?; what were the continuities and discontinuities in his understanding of the Torah? It is refreshing to see another, frequently overlooked, angle to these sorts of questions unpacked in this book – that of Paul’s shift from violence to non-violence.

Paul, Gabrielson argues, did not come to such a remarkable and counter-cultural position lightly. In an opening context-setting chapter on ‘The End of Violence in Matthew’, he argues that the Gospel makes plain, on multiple levels, that Jesus was remembered as the Messiah who, despite living in a culture steeped in violence, chose non-violent resistance – and that choice cost him his life.

Paul’s general commitment to non-violence is traced in a subsequent chapter on ‘The Memory of a Non-Violent Jesus in Paul’s Letters’. After careful analysis of Jesus Tradition in Paul, Gabrielson concludes that Paul, ‘like virtually every early Christian author’, included the most memorable and startling elements of Jesus’ teaching. Living peaceably in a violent world was one of the

“most salient features of the teaching and example of the historical Jesus … because it was this Jesus who was recognizable as staying true to the living voice of Apostolic testimony” (78).

A further chapter focuses on supporting evidence for this conclusion drawn from a study of 1 Thessalonians. The case made here is that as early as 50 CE Paul is exhorting Thessalonian Christians to imitate the peaceful response of non-violent perseverance to suffering earlier demonstrated by the Judean churches (1 Thes 2:14-16). If referring to the Judean church’s suffering under Paul’s own persecution in the early 30s CE, this locates Christian non-violence at the earliest possible stage of church history in a non-Pauline church. The implications are significant: the practice of Christian non-violence was demonstrably evident in every geopolitical context (Palestinian, Asian, Greek and Roman Christianity) and under different founding missionaries and leaders.

In other words, non-violence is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ – who pioneered the non-violent politics of the kingdom of God for his disciples to follow.

A significant hermeneutical question lurks in the background of Gabrielson’s analysis. Namely, is Paul’s biography of violence paradigmatic for all believers?

While not exploring contemporary implications in detail, Gabrielson believes it is. A life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit.

“The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ” (99-100).

At one point Gabrielson quotes approvingly from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9) that

“If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

Such a conclusion is, of course, highly contested. The biblical and theological case for Christian non-violence has been well mapped out, as have Christian counter arguments. While this book does not offer anything radically new to those discussions, it does add a fresh, coherent and strong strand to the case for Christian non-violence.

There are some weaker points and omissions. It is not clear that Galatians 2:10 is Paul speaking autobiographically of his ‘old’ violent self. The link from righteous violence in Philo to righteous violence in Paul is possible, but theoretical. The conclusions drawn from 1 Thessalonians are implicit rather than explicit. It is surprising that there is no discussion of Romans 13 given its significance in how Paul’s relationship with violence has been interpreted historically.

But overall, if Gabrielson is right, and I believe he is, this work has profound implications for all Christians globally.

It also highlights how, such is the coherence and unified witness of Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, that a Christian argument for a just use of violence is almost inevitably forced to go beyond the biblical texts to try to find other grounds on which to base its case.

Love not necessary for marriage?

ephesusReturning to Ephesians in this post – love and marriage in 5:21-33 to be more precise.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Subversive Then

Such a famous passage needs no introduction and I am not here going to get into ‘complementarian’ versus ‘egalitarian’ interpretations of the ‘roles’ of husband and wife.

Far more interesting is how, in these verses and throughout the letter in general, Paul (and I do think Paul wrote Ephesians) is engaged in an audacious act of subversion.

Basically he is instructing believers in the Ephesus region to live to a different story to that of their world. That sounds all very nice but what does it mean? Very briefly, at least this:

live by a different power. They are filled with the Spirit, not the powers of this dark world (6:12)

to a different ethic, as children of light not of darkness (5:3-14)

walking in love (5:2), not in futility and greed (4:17-19) as the surrounding pagan world walks

in eschatological hope: putting off the old and putting on the new (4:22-23)

imitating their Lord, showing forgiveness and compassion and so building unity rather than division (4:29-32); self-sacrifically serving each other as their Lord gave himself up for them (5:2)

And this theme radical counter-cultural living continues right on into the famous ‘household code’ of 5:22-6:9.

We get so distracted with our modern obsessions about ‘individual roles’ that we can miss the wider story of what is going on here in the apostle’s instructions to 6 groups of believers: wives/husbands, children/parents and slaves/masters.

The reality of the culture is assumed – this is the world they lived in. A world of hierarchy, power and status. A culture of patrons and clients, of rulers and ruled. But that world, so apparently ‘given’ and ‘normal’ and powerful, is being shaken to the core.

Do you see how?

It is Paul’s very act of writing that puts the ‘writing on the wall’ for the power structures of the Greco-Roman world. He addresses personally every one of those 6 categories on the same basis. Whether a wife or husband, child or parent, slave or master, they are to live primarily as disciples of the risen Christ – ‘as to the Lord’.

Do you see the implications?

Now, their primary identity is not the social group in which they happen to find themselves. It is in their joint union of being in Christ. They belong to Christ and to each other in a revolutionised set of relationships that we call the Church.

for we are members of his body

Power, status, hierarchy, patronage, honour and birthrights are radically relativised. A new world has arrived. The old world would eventually crumble, as the social and political implications of the gospel eroded it from within.

This new community is to be marked by virtues and attitudes common to every member.

All are to walk in love and imitate their Lord (5:2)

All are to live pure lives (5:3ff)

All are to live to please their Lord (5:10)

All are to submit to each other (5:21)

Subversive Now – the example of love and marriage

If to be a Christian is to live in community with others ‘as to the Lord’ before all else, this has deeply radical implications today just as much as it did in the first century.

Where the Ephesians lived within a world of highly stratified boundaries that were rarely crossed, we live in a world where the individual is king or queen.

And perhaps nowhere is the ‘freedom’ of the autonomous individual challenged more than in being accountable first and foremost to others in that community of the church.

Take the example of love and marriage today. In our culture there are few things more private that our love lives. Romantic love is idolised. The two lovers find themselves in each other. Nothing should stand in their way of true happiness. Love trumps all.

Their primary identity is in their relationship. Other things like church involvement may follow, but is secondary to their love and to any children that follow along. It is family first.

But this is a modern example of living to the story of our culture rather than to the story of the gospel. Rather, Christians are ‘members of his body’. No identity, even marriage, comes first.

Even more subversive, this means that marriage is not private but public – it belongs to and within the community of faith. It is within the body that husband and wife learn to live out their marriage and their faith.

And even more heretical yet, this means that privatised individual love between a couple is not the primary ‘location’ for Christian love to flourish. Love between the couple sure helps, but the primary location for Christian love is the community of the church. Whoever we are, – whether we are in positions of weakness or privilege: wives or husbands, young or old, slaves or masters – we are all commanded to ‘walk in love’.

And this is why the paterfamilias, the husband with all the authority and power within Greco-Roman culture, is commanded four times to love his wife. It is his status within the culture that is being most subverted by the radical social implications of the gospel. He is being told to live to a different story – not one of assumed rights to be served but one marked by self-giving love for others supposedly less ‘worthy’ then he – like his wife.

The ever quotable Stanley Hauerwas puts it like this,

The church makes possible a context where people love one another. Love is not necessary to marriage, and the only reason why Christians love one another – even in marriage – is because Christians are obligated to love one another. Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se. You don’t learn about the kind of love that Christians are called to in the family and then apply it to the church. You learn about that kind of love from the church and then try to find out how it may be applied in the family.

Comments, as ever, welcome

 

REFLECTIONS ON ‘LIFE IN REVERSE’: END, MIDDLE AND BEGINNING

Over the last three weekends I have attended three very different Christian services. The first was my mum’s funeral, the second our IBI Graduation Service and the third a baptism.

Their sequence is ‘life in reverse’ – from death, to celebrating a significant milestone in life together, to a sacrament welcoming a precious new life into the community of the Church.

I hadn’t planned to write about this. I’m beginning without knowing where this is going. It may make it on the blog or into ‘Trash’ on windows explorer. If you are reading this, then you know what happened!

In IBI we are always encouraging (and requiring) students to do ‘Reflective Practice’ which is a structured process critically examining events, attitudes, and feelings with the aim of developing and improving future practice. This blog post is getting close to this – not so much reflecting on my practice but on my feelings and attitudes as a Christian who believes the creeds of the Church catholic.

DEATH

First, my mum’s funeral conducted by Rev Noble McNeely in 1st Holywood Presbyterian Church, a friend and caring pastor.

I have had very little experience of death. In our technological, medicalised and commodified Western culture death is pushed to the margins of everyday life. Unless your line of work brings you into contact with death and the grieving, it likely rarely intrudes. We are busily taken-up with the frenetic business of living. Our consumer culture promises us every possible joy and pleasure that life can offer with no ‘sell-by’ date attached.

dylan

Stanley Hauerwas

As Dylan says, we can be taken up with the conceit that we are too good to die. Or, as Hauerwas likes to say, we can fool ourselves that our technology will enable us to get out of life alive. (Always wanted to get those two together theologically!)

Yet, as OT wisdom tells us, our lives are indeed like vapour, we are here one day and gone the next. Even though I was with her when she died, I’m only beginning to get used to the reality that my mum, such a strong, supportive and reliable presence for all of my life, is gone.

In the blink of an eye, you and I will follow.

I can only speak personally here and you may disagree, but it is only a Christian funeral service that can look death in the face and yet speak with hope. It would be easy to lapse into vague sentimentalism about our loved one living on with us through love or memories, but Christian hope is much more earthy and robust.

It tells us the specifics of a historical story. That Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, has looked death in the face for us. He has experienced death itself and descended to the realm of the dead. Yet, death could not hold him. As Peter proclaims in the first ever gospel sermon, the Messiah

… was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:31-33)

Is such belief just a crutch for those who can’t bear to accept that this life is ‘all there is’? Is it ironically a similar form of conceit to that of which Dylan and Hauerwas criticise? That we are ‘too good to die’ and can ‘beat death’ after all through resurrection life? Is it a refusal to face the fact of our own mortality that we dream of immortality?

I can’t prove this of course, but I think not. Such hope depends completely on the historic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, evidenced by the outpouring of the Spirit.

As a consequence, it seems to me that Christian hope, through being united to the resurrected Son in faith, has given, and continues to give, believers courage to face death, persecution and suffering.

But not only this, it calls Christians to make this life count, to live a life worthy of this gospel, not getting distracted by temporary distractions but focus on loving and serving others in whatever short time given to us.

And perhaps it is those who have faced death and been given a reprieve, who can see these priorities most clearly (thinking of someone in particular here, I am sure you can too). Life is an infinitely wondrous gift. Let’s not waste it.

CELEBRATING A MILESTONE

The second service was a joyous occasion. Many friends and family came. Current students baked a fantastic graduation cake and made delicious desserts.

img_5373.jpg
Cutting the cake

Students spoke of a life-transforming experience of theological study and said nice things about staff and teachers. We sang songs. We laughed. We took many photos. We dressed up in gowns and suits and dresses and formally marked significant achievements of learning together. We acknowledged the sacrifices students and their families had made. We listened to Prof Craig Blomberg preach about ‘the real world’ being God’s inaugurated kingdom that one day will be really real and the present ‘unreal’ world will be remade anew. We congratulated students on their hard work, their teachability, their desire to learn and their passion to serve – head, heart and hands.

I think modern life has too few such occasions in which to mark significant achievement. The mixture of joy and formality at graduation is appropriate. It is a public recognition of individual success but this is not to say graduation is the end of the process. Rather it is simply a milestone to celebrate on the way.

The purpose of the learning (ideally) has multiple effects: to learn about God, his Word, what previous and contemporary Christians have thought, and to know ourselves. It means learning to think critically, to write, to articulate ideas, to lead, to communicate, to work with others, and to use God-given gifts in service of his people and the wider world.

In other words, this was a service about adult Christian faith engaging the world. It was full of life, enthusiasm, progress and a vibrant sense of how the gospel (good news) is good news for all of life.

Christian faith is not just a theory to believe in that might get you to ‘heaven’ when you die. It is, rather, an experience of living in God’s story in the here and now and participating as disciples in his mission to redeem the world which he loves.

BAPTISM

The third service was back to the beginning of life. It was another joyous occasion.

It was the baptism of the long-awaited and cherished infant son of good friends. There was prayer, singing, music, Christocentric worship and afterwards much good food and much conversation.

The church leader was welcoming, relaxed, hospitable and articulated winsomely the case for infant baptism. It not does magically make the child a Christian, but welcomes him into the church community. His parents promised to raise him in the ways of Jesus, but not on their own. In Christianity it takes a community to raise a child.

The church leader likened it to teaching him to be a Man City supporter. He may be dressed in the kit, learn the songs, go to matches, learn about the team and its history … but at some point he has to decide for himself whether to be a Man City supporter or whether to support another team, or not follow football at all …

The parents’ job – and that of the church – is to embody authentic Christian faith for him to see, touch and experience for himself. I pray he does so and in doing so finds much joy in loving God and loving others.

CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS

As I reflect on these three services, from death – to adults celebrating a milestone in their lives – to welcoming new life into the world, I have been challenged and refreshed. From a Christian perspective, all three services reinforce one another.

Perhaps these are simple conclusions, but things seem simpler after the last few weeks.

  1. Life is a beautiful gift, to be celebrated with thanksgiving, beginning, middle and end.
  2. It is also short and not to be wasted. A gift is to be used well.
  3. It is to be lived in community with others. That is where true life lies. We celebrate new life together. We rejoice at milestones reached along the journey. And we comfort each other in hope at the end of life.
  4. True purpose is found in living life for others – for God, his people and the good of the world.
  5. Such a calling is anything but a life spent selfishly pursuing temporary wealth, security, pleasure and comfort. It is a call to costly self-sacrifice in whatever context we find ourselves in.
  6. Christian faith has a telos – an end – that reaches beyond death. Christian hope is founded on the eschatological future promised by God in the resurrection of the crucified Christ. Such future hope should profoundly shape our present
  7. Such hope also proclaims that death will not have the last word. That word has already been spoken by God: loving Father, incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son and the life-giving Holy Spirit.
  8. And so it is in him alone that we are called to trust, worship and follow in this unpredictable pilgrimage called life.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, same-sex relationships and church membership: six problems (Long Read)

I don’t know about you but I’ve never really believed the adage that ‘All publicity is good publicity’. Allegedly it comes from Oscar Wilde who said ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’

Well, speaking of Oscar Wilde, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has sure been talked about over the last couple of weeks. Twitter storms, widespread media coverage inside Ireland and beyond, public resignations, and many and varied responses online all followed its debate on same-sex couples and membership at the 2018 General Assembly in Belfast.

People have asked me what I think; friends in other PCI churches have emailed telling of friends they have who have been exploring faith and coming to church now thinking of leaving; we’ve had animated family discussions around the dinner table and, as usual, I’ve learnt most from those. So here are some thoughts.

An online war of ‘gospel inclusivity’ versus ‘gospel purity’

I’m an elder in a local Presbyterian Church outside Dublin. For most people in it, Belfast and what goes on there during General Assembly is pretty much ‘out of sight out of mind.’ They are Presbyterian with a small ‘p’: people from all sorts of backgrounds, few with any family, cultural or theological ties to Presbyterianism who gather together to worship and try to follow Jesus.

But it’s hard to ignore the fall-out of GA 2018. It has long-term implications both in the official policy of the Church (that all Kirk Sessions are supposed to be trained in) and for the mission of local churches like ours (I can only speak of the context I am in)

Much social media I’ve looked at just dismisses ‘the other’ for being homophobic or a liberal depending on where you are coming from. It’s like an online war of ‘gospel inclusivity’ versus ‘gospel purity’ with both sides feeling virtue is on their side. So I’ll try (and probably fail) not to caricature and will quote from the Report and the PCI directly in aiming to be fair to its thinking and motives.

A point of clarification: this post is not discussing the rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships, ‘active’ or not. It’s responding to the process and new policy of the PCI.

The PCI statement can be seen here (pdf)

The actual report of the Doctrine Committee can be read here – go down to Appendix 2 (pdf)

‘Same-sex couples’ and a ‘credible profession of faith’

In case you have missed it, the furore has been about a Report from the Doctrine Committee of the PCI responding to a

a request from the General Council to prepare guidelines for Kirk Sessions to address the issue of same-sex couples who may seek communicant membership … or who may request the baptism of a child.

And the Doctrine Committee Report therefore focused on

the specific theological question of what constitutes a credible profession of faith and how it is to be understood and applied in these particular pastoral situations.

The ‘credible profession of faith’ is the key phrase: as the Report says

within the Reformed tradition the notion of a ‘credible profession’ is effectively a shorthand for not only a credible profession of Christ as Saviour but also a credible walk in obedience to him as Lord.

And the key conclusion of the Doctrine Committee was

In light of our understanding of Scripture and the Church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith it is clear that same sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children. We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ.

For non-Presby readers, the logic here is the covenant theology around infant baptism. The child obviously cannot make a profession of faith. The parents promise to bring up the child in the faith within the community of the church. To do so they should have a ‘credible profession of faith’ themselves. Since ‘same-sex’ couples have, in effect, an ‘incredible’ profession of faith, they cannot have their children baptised.

The Report was debated at the GA 2018. Rev Cheryl Meban proposed that the relevant parts of the Report (Appendix 2) not be received, but in the debate that motion did not succeed and the Report was adopted as the official position of the Church.

So, if that’s the story, how to interpret it? Here are some perspectives. These, of course, are my personal opinions. Always open to correction, learning from push-back, apology for misrepresentation. There are few more emotive and sensitive subjects than this one. Comments welcome.

Logically Consistent – what’s all the fuss?

Looking ‘logically’ at things, the vote is perfectly comprehensible. The PCI has produced several reports on Homosexuality over the years. They are gathered together in this document (pdf) which has a summary article by Prof Stephen Williams (2013), an original report (1979) and pastoral guidelines (2007). I’d recommend you read them if interested in hearing what the PCI is saying in its own words in officially agreed documents.

In the 2013 summary, it says

The position that has been clearly and consistently adopted in PCI is that homosexual activity is not consistent with Christian discipleship, since it does not accord with the will of God expressed in his moral law.

So, if ‘homosexual activity’ is inconsistent with Christian discipleship, and if ‘credible’ Christian discipleship is required to be a communicant member and have children baptised, therefore, when asked the question, the answer of the Doctrine Committee Report is hardly that surprising.

Fair enough? Not really. For what it’s worth, here’s why I think it is a deeply misguided decision.

6 Problems

  1. Pastorally deaf

The Doctrine Committee Report saw its job as answering one narrow question. In their own words:

The Committee approached this issue in the understanding that the General Assembly has already agreed pastoral guidelines on homosexuality and has offered substantial pastoral advice for Kirk Sessions.

So, after mentioning pastoral guidelines, they are then set aside, effectively irrelevant to the task. Doctrinal implications are then worked out to their logical end.

But when you actually read the pastoral guidelines of 2006, the tone and content is light years away from the abstract, logical and pastorally deaf conclusions of the 2018 proposals.

The 2007 Report was written specifically in request of a resolution of the 2006 General Assembly that accepted that there were homophobic attitudes within the PCI:

“That the General Assembly recognising homophobic attitudes within our Church and society request the Social Issues Panel to prepare guidelines to help our Church to develop more sensitive and effective pastoral care.”

Remember, this is also ‘official’ PCI policy. The 2007 Report says things like this:

many people in churches who have same sex attraction are afraid to be open about it for fear of how they will be treated by those in their church, amongst others. There is no reason to assume Presbyterians are any different. Representatives of the Gay Helpline state that they have regular calls from people belonging to PCI who are unwilling to disclose their same sex attractions.

It is clear that people of all ages who have same sex attractions are very reluctant to tell others because of fear, prejudice etc. Keeping their feelings hidden out of fear has a significant impact on mental health.

The Report tells several stories – here is one worth recounting in full:

Bob’s story. I was brought up in a strong, loving, Christian home and was very actively involved in a lively, evangelical Presbyterian church. I became a Christian when I was young and was well taught and have a real love for the Bible. I was very committed to the youth work in my church and tried to live for Christ and witness for Him inside and outside the Church. During my teens I began to realise that I was different. I found myself attracted to boys rather than girls. I didn’t choose it to be so, it just was. I resisted it, prayed against it. I understood well the Bibles’ teaching on homosexuality and wrestled to overcome my feelings and pretended to be like ‘the lads’. Eventually in my late teens I confided in a Christian friend. He continued to talk to and pray for me over a number of years. Knowing and respecting the churches teaching I practiced celibacy but felt alone, fearful and overwhelmed. The pressure of keeping it to myself, the feelings of shame, the guilt of feeling that I was living a lie and the fear of how the news would affect my parents and my church life eventually took its toll on my mental health. I had to take various medicines for depression and on one occasion came very close to committing suicide.

People in the church would crack jokes about ‘Gays’ and I just wanted to crawl into a hole. How could I open up to them when my struggles were joked about? I respect my minister and his teaching, but when homosexuality was mentioned in church the Biblical position of calling practising homosexuality sin was outlined without ever a word of compassion or understanding for people like me who were struggling so hard and hadn’t chosen to feel the way I did.

One of my greatest struggles was that I had always been brought up to respect and to tell the truth. Yet here I was living and telling lies to protect my family and myself. Eventually I felt I had no other option but to tell my parents about my struggles. They were devastated and so were my friends at church. It is devastating when all who made you and shaped and directed your life turn on you. I am not bitter, I still love my family and respect my church but when I really needed someone to listen to me without judgement, there was no one. I would love to be straight. It would cause so much less pain but for the sake of my own sanity I have eventually had to accept that I am gay. I am both a Christian who loves God and His word but I am also gay.

How I wonder does ‘Bob’ feel now in light of 2018?

It seems to me that the message he, and everyone like him has received, is that the Church has gone backwards, not forwards in its attitudes since 2007. It is not a safe space to share struggles with sexuality. It’s better to keep quiet, whatever the cost. You are not welcome here.

  1. Missionally disastrous

I also wonder about the internal politics of the Church that led the General Council to ask the Doctrine Committee to give an answer to this one specific hypothetical scenario. It seems to me to be an intentional ‘marker’ of orthodoxy setting the Church against a rapidly liberalising culture, particularly around sexuality and gender.

Now I have no concerns about the Church of Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the state let’s not forget, being counter-cultural. That is its job. I agree that a Christian sexual ethic is, and will seem increasingly, bizarre within Western late-modern culture. So be it.

But why proceed in such an oppositional, defensive and exclusionary way? It feels a bit like those under siege, retreating to the Keep, drawing up the ramparts and taking up arms, fearful of the surrounding hoards.

It feels like a retreat from conversation and engagement. Whereas the 2007 Report made serious efforts to dialogue, this is theology done in a vacuum, abstracted from real people.

Such an approach is, in post-Christendom, missionally disastrous. It speaks of a Church Community speaking only to itself. I would have thought that after the 2007 Report, there would have been a sense of humility at homophobia within the Church (that the Church itself acknowledged) and a sensitivity to the relational impact of such a Report.

There is a flood of good theological thinking and practice out there on learning from the multitudes of people exiting institutional Christianity. It is exactly this type of bureaucratic, abstract and un-relational process that puts post-Christendom people off denominations.

A theme that keeps coming up around gender and sexuality is the need to listen, to learn and to apologise for how attitudes and actions in the Church have hurt people like Bob. This isn’t ‘selling out’ beliefs on what the Bible teaches, it is being relational as well as doctrinal.

I’m afraid that this PCI process and Report lacks humility, of learning from the Other and of generous hospitality to those different from ‘Us’. Its tone is that ‘We have nothing to learn’ and we are putting up boundary fences instead.

I’m writing something related to 1 Corinthians at the moment. There is perhaps no more relevant letter in the NT for contemporary Western culture. Yes, Paul puts boundaries around Corinthian sexual behaviour (among other things) but he does so passionately, compassionately, persuasively and lovingly as a father who cares for his children.

This is how theology works – in relationship, inspiring, exhorting, encouraging Christians to live a life worthy of the Gospel. Passing a hypothetical rule about a specific sin that rules hypothetical people out of membership and being able to baptise their children does not seem very biblical to me.

  1. Hierarchy of sin

Choosing to focus on ‘same-sex sin’ as a bar to membership also gives the impression that the PCI has a hierarchy of sin, with same-sex relationships at the top. There are innumerable other sins that Presbyterians commit but are not (as far as I know) specifically singled out to be examined when it comes to membership and baptismal promises.

The irony is, when it comes to infant baptism, it has been the church’s failure to practice it consistently which has all but destroyed the integrity of baptism within Christendom Reformed churches. (See David F Wright’s book, What has infant baptism done to baptism: An Enquiry at the end of Christendom?). The notion of a ‘credible profession of faith’ has been given lip-service for generations. To start tightening up sacramental discipline with same-sex couples speaks of double standards. I know many cases of couples who hardly, if ever, appear in church or show ‘visible’ signs of a living faith, suddenly appearing for a baptism of their baby. Or of couples living together being welcomed as members with no questions asked.

Paul’s ‘sin-lists’ in the NT are pretty catholic in their scope – greed, gluttony, envy, pride, hetero-sexual sin and others all appear and more. If the Church is serious about stricter sacramental discipline, then how is this going to happen? Are other sins going to be specified as that which exclude people from communicant membership?

Now the Doctrine Committee report is aware of this:

The Doctrine Committee recognises the danger of giving the impression that there is the only area where sacramental discipline might apply. However, the current request to the Doctrine Committee asks for guidance in one particular area.

So, the Committee was aware of the problem but, in effect, seem simply to have pressed ahead with their remit anyway. The danger foreseen is now fulfilled: same-sex relationships DO seem to be treated in a distinct way to every other sin when it comes to sacramental discipline.

In contrast, the 2007 Report on pastoral guidelines says this

When we condemn homosexual practice in isolation or single it out as somehow worse than other sexual practices outside of heterosexual marriage then we demonstrate homophobic attitudes.

I’ll say no more.

  1. No consideration of pastoral accommodation

The motive for this Report was to give guidelines to Kirk Sessions (elders) within the PCI. Apart from laying down a law, I am not clear what guidelines are being given.

Not only is there a lack of guidance to elders on how to approach the ‘straight-forward’ hypothetical situation of a same-sex couple seeking membership and / or baptism of their children, there is no discussion of other likely scenarios.

What, for example, of the following example? (I have no agenda in the one that follows. I am just trying to show that the PCI process has not addressed pastoral realities and passing a law is an inadequate approach. I am sure you can think of other scenarios.)

A legally married same-sex couple, with children, become Christians. They want to become members of the church. What should elders do? To obey the recent decision of the GA 2018, such a couple cannot become members and baptise their children. Should they be advised to get divorced and split up the family? What if they stayed married, but celibate? Or can some form of pastoral accommodation be worked out on a case by case basis?

A useful book discussing alternative theologies of same-sex is Sprinkle, P. (ed) 2016. Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church. Grand Rapids. Zondervan. I’m going to zone in on one of the contributors, Baptist theologian Steve Holmes, because he, like the PCI, argues on the non-affirming side. His chapter carefully considers the arguments for Christian same-sex marriage, and for a new form of relationships to be accepted – like Robert Song’s ‘Covenantal Partnerships’. He is not persuaded by arguments for either of these two options (and the book itself gives space for other views which do).

But Holmes addresses a crucial question that the PCI does not – what then does the church do with a situation like the one above? Holmes opens up the question of pastoral accommodation.

“If the Christian theology of marriage is not extensible to same-sex couples, and if there is no space for a new discipline of ‘covenantal partnerships’ that includes sexual activity, what are we left with? The answer, it seems to me, is pastoral accommodation. Churches that believe same-sex partnerships to be wrong might nonetheless find space within the life for people living in such partnerships out of pastoral concern.” (191)

He refers to how Protestant churches have made space like this for divorced people out of pastoral concern. Most now allow remarriage. In Africa, some churches have done similar with regard to polygamy. He says

“We must at least ask ourselves how we can refuse to give the same permission to gay people.”

The PCI Report makes no mention of pastoral accommodation. To begin to answer it, the PCI should, I think, be considering the sort of issues Holmes’ raises. To leave things as they stand after the GA 2018 is deeply unsatisfactory:

  • If addressing issues of sexual practice and discipleship, then there should be a renewed emphasis on sexual ethics for straight people. How can the Church do this before making judgements that exclude same-sex couples?
  • Holmes says “general rules or guidelines are almost always unhappy”. And “pastoral questions are properly answered at the level of individual lives, not at the level of generic themes”. Sadly, the PCI did not take this view. Going forward, there needs to be more thinking about pastoral practice.
  • How do we approach issues of discipleship around sexually active converts in non-marriage relationships (whether same-sex or opposite sex) if they have joined the church? Is it consistent? Will there be limitations on areas of service into which they are invited?
  • How will the church relate to gay and lesbian church members who come out? What space will there be for them to open and honest about their sexuality? What if they are married and likely with children? How can the church support all the family in their discipleship in such a scenario?
  1. Loose language

A not insignificant point in the loose language of the Doctrine Committee Report. Throughout it talks of ‘same-sex couples’. Nowhere does it distinguish between a couple who may, out of Christian conviction, be in a non-sexual same-sex relationship. What difference might that make to communicant membership?

  1. Love

It is unfair to say that the Doctrine Committee Report does not mention love – it does here.

In this context it is important to emphasise that the Church invites and welcomes all who wish to sit under the means of grace at public services and to have access to the pastoral care and counsel available within her fellowship. Like her Lord, she reaches out to all with love and compassion. This posture of grace and welcome should not in itself be confused with moral indifference or approval of any behaviour contrary to God’s Word. It is rather the warmest of invitations to receive Christ Jesus as both Lord and Saviour in all of life.

The problem with this is, it is one thing to claim for yourself that you reach ‘out to all with love and compassion’ but it is of much more relevance to ask ‘Do the people you are reaching out to feel loved?’

I’m afraid that there is very little likelihood that the process and the Report would make a gay person feel loved. It is also pretty unlikely that they would have any prospect of feeling ‘moral indifference or approval’!  It is hard to feel that it represents ‘the warmest of invitations to receive Christ’.

Overall this final paragraph feels hollow in light of the overall content, tone and pastoral insensitivity of the process.