The Message of Love (3)

This is the last of a couple of posts about The Message of Love, which was published this week.

A flavour of the chapters

Each chapter was a challenge and joy to research and write and gave a distinct contribution to an overall theology of love in the Bible.

Introduction

What is love? Contemporary beliefs about love. Reasons for the book.

Part I: Love in the Old Testament

Much of Part 1 explores divine love – God’s covenant love for his people. How does he respond to human failure? Divine love and judgement. Chapters 4 and 5 shift to human love: love for God (ch 4) and the Bible’s unrestrained poetic celebration of the joy of sexual love (ch 5).

1. Abounding in love, punishing the guilty               Exodus 34:6-7
2. God’s love for the outsider                                        Deut. 10:12-22
3. God, the betrayed, yet persistent lover                  Hosea 1-3
4. Love the Lord Your God                                             Deut.6:4-25
5. Erotic love                                                                     Song of Songs 4-5

Interlude

This sets the scene for interpreting love in the New Testament including the shift to agapē language.

Part 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ

Given that the sending of the Son is the climax of the triune God’s redemptive action in the world, Part 2 focuses on how the NT talks about Jesus’ mission, and particularly the cross as God’s supreme demonstration of love.

6. ‘You are my Son, whom I love’                                 Mark 1:1-15
7. God is love                                                                   1 John 4:7-10
8. Love and justification by faith                                Romans 5:1-11
9. God’s great love                                                          Ephesians 2:1-10

Part 3: Love in the Life and Teaching of Jesus

Jesus does not talk that much about love, but when he does his words carry enormous weight and profound challenge. Part 3 examines the searching demands of ‘discipleship love’ – utter commitment to Jesus; the command to love enemies; a beautiful story illustrating what wholehearted love for Jesus looks like; and how remaining in God’s love is linked to obedience.

10. The cost of love                                              Matthew 10:34-39
11. Enemy love                                                     Luke 6:27-36; 10:25-37
12. A woman’s great love                                   Luke 7:36-50
13. Remain in my love                                        John 15:9-17

Part 4: The Church as a Community of Love

Love only exists in relationship with others. The majority of love language in the Bible is about the church and its calling to be a community of radical, counter-cultural love. Part 4 unpacks the searching character and supreme importance of love; the connections between humility, faith, love and the Spirit; how love is God’s weapon in a spiritual war; and how Christian love within marriage subverts the world’s assumptions about status and power. A major theme in the Bible is idolatry – where God’s people love the wrong things. A final chapter looks at a modern example – the love of money and the relentless persuasive power of consumerism.  

14. The searing searchlight of love                          1 Cor. 12:31-13:13
15. The liberating power of love                             Galatians 5:1-23
16. Subversive love: Christian marriage               Ephesians 5:21-33
17. Love gone wrong: money                                   1 Timothy 6:2b-10

Conclusion

The conclusion is a synthesis of themes that emerged within the chapters, outlining a biblical theology of love and the central role of the church as a community of love within his overall redemptive purposes.

Theological, pastoral and missiological questions

Three strands of love and associated questions emerged during writing.

Divine love:

Is God really loving and utterly good? How can God love if he allows such suffering in the world? How is divine love compatible with divine judgement? Is God’s love unconditional? How does God show his love for the poor and marginalised? How is God’s love revealed at the cross?

Human love for God:

Can love be love if it is commanded? How do faith, love and the Spirit connect together? How can the love of money be ‘de-idolised’ within the church today? If love for God requires humility and submission, is Christian love a denial of life and our full humanity (Nietzsche)? How is love for God costly?

Human love for one another:

Why does the Bible overwhelmingly concentrate on love within the community of the people of God? Is loving enemies an impossible ideal? What does the Bible have to say about erotic sexual love? What is the relationship between knowing God and loving one another? What does a loving Christian marriage look like? How is love God’s most powerful ‘weapon’ in a conflict with powers opposed to his will? What is the relationship between love and future hope? Where are you being called to walk in the difficult yet life-transforming path of love?

My prayer is that this book will help to put love where it belongs – at the centre of Christian teaching, preaching, worship, ministry and individual experience.

Wives, submit to your husbands (2)

A couple of posts back there was a promise to come back to Ephesians 5:21-33 and look at it from a different interpretative angle – that of Cynthia Long Westfall.

I invite you to read this and compare to the earlier post on John Stott’s interpretation. Which do you find most convincing and why?

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Her book has been out a couple of years. You can listen to an interview with her here at the excellent OnScript website – a sort of biblical research podcast treasure trove.

Her big argument is that Paul is subverting male privilege in home and church. The focus of the text is clearly on husbands. Paul is teaching them what life within God’s economy looks like within a Greco-Roman culture of male patronage, power and superiority.

In the context of Paul’s day, the basic patronage relationship was reflected within the marital relationship. The husband is superior in power, status, honour and value. The wife receives the benefits of his standing and in return offers him respect, chastity, obedience and loyalty.

It is this patronage relationship that is being reimagined (subverted) by Paul in light of Christ. A radically new way of relating between husbands and wives is in view. It, of course, still operates within the given culture of his recipients – Paul famously does not directly confront slavery, nor does he advocate social revolution in terms of marriage.

Interpretations that focus on wives’ submission and the analogy of the husband to Christ (verse 23) without proper regard to the grammar and syntax of Paul’s thought act to distort his message and propagate a false view of (male) authority. (p. 93).

To summarise from various places that Westfall discusses the Ephesians text:

  • The passage as a whole is an example of what it is to be filled with the Spirit (v.18 -23 is one long sentence in Greek). [I would argue that the even bigger context is to ‘walk in love’ (5:2) that frames much of Ephesians as a whole].
  • This is the way of life for all Christians – male or female. Jew or Gentile.
  • ALL believers are to be in mutual submission v. 21
  • This is then applied to the Household Codes and husbands / wives, parents / children and masters / slaves. The radical implication is that in Christ there are new relationships now formed, cutting across existing authority and power structures. Each ‘weaker’ group are now, together with the powerful group, ‘all members of one body’ – the body of Christ (v. 30).
  • Each weaker group are addressed personally, recognising their agency. Normally they would not be addressed at all. Their obligation is primarily to the Lord in how they relate to those in power over them.
  • Paul places particular obligations and restrictions on the groups in power.
  • With husbands, Christ’s treatment of his bride, the Church, informs the husband’s function as head of his wife (p. 93)
  • The remarkable ‘twist’ is how the husband takes the role of Christ’s bride and ‘is therefore charged with treating his wife as he has been treated by his own head.’ (p. 93).
  • As Christ is saviour (23) who gave himself up for her (25, the church), so the husband is instructed to lay down his life for his wife. And love her as Christ loved the church (25)
  • Christ’s love is illustrated by his sanctification of the church (5:26-27)

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.

  • These are images of domestic chores performed by women:
    • giving a bath
    • providing clothing
    • doing laundry
  • So the husband is being told to do women’s work in how he cares for his wife. The point is fully with the teaching of Paul elsewhere and, more importantly, of Jesus himself. Those in power are to become humble servants of others

He promotes a model of servanthood and low status, consistent with the humility of Christ’s incarnation, precisely for men, who have power and position in the Greco-Roman social system. (p. 23).

  • There is little new being said to wives – they are to submit as expected within the culture. But this submission is drastically relativised by mutual submission of verse 21. It consists of honouring and respecting her husband.
  • But her identity and status is transformed by the commands given to husbands. Those commands are the core of the text and they are anything but what was expected within the culture – they are revolutionary (p. 102)
  • So Paul is placing new and challenging obligations on those who have power (husbands), NOT to defend their own status and authority, but to give up privilege and status and serve the other in love.

[My comment – This is where interpretations that end up defending male ‘headship = leadership’ and insisting on female submission to that ‘authority’ tragically actually reverse the thrust of Paul’s upside-down kingdom ethic].

  • The wonderful irony of this passage is how men are being told to act like women – in terms of ‘low status’ service of the weaker other.
  • This is a profoundly ‘Christian’ calling.
  • She is now honoured just as if she were his body – he is to treat her exactly as if she were a man (his body) – in terms of honouring her, loving her and serving her.

So what of ‘headship’?  Does the Genesis account that Paul references, somehow root female submission in a creation ordinance (as John Stott says and complementarians in general claim)?

  • Genesis 2:18-22 is the basis for the instructions to wives – the woman is created from the man. She receives life from him
  • The instructions to men are based on Genesis 2:23-25 – where the husband and wife are declared to be ‘one flesh’
  • Both ‘head’ and ‘body’ are metaphors [to press ‘head’ to mean ‘leadership’ is unwarranted and distorts Paul’s argument]
  • ‘Head’ – the wife receives life from her head. The metaphor works perfectly. The woman in Ephesians draws her life from man, and the Church draws its life from Christ. This is not an image of authority but of life.  ‘She reciprocates in gratitude and honour expressed in submission.’ (p. 102)

The primary focus in the Ephesian household code is on the husband’s role. The language both reflects the model of Jesus’s servanthood and exploits the metaphor of ‘head’ to create a similar effect as in the episode where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. (p. 165)

And this to finish.

In effect, Paul flips the patron metaphor of being the wife’s head (protector and source of life) … He has given an explicit application of Jesus’s summary of the law: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12 NRSV). Paul applies Jesus’s teaching literally to the men: “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28 NRSV). Paul’s caveat is that she is his body. The intertextuality between Ephesians 5:28 and the Jesus tradition is transparent. (p. 166).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Wives, submit to your husbands (1)

A couple of rules of engagement with views different to yours are:

  1. Be fair. Represent the other accurately
  2. Engage with the best example of the other point of view, not a caricature or extremist position
  3. Look under the surface to their motive – what is their concern underlying their position? Assume the best of the other as much as you can.

It is easier to write this than to do of course. Don’t know about you but I fail regularly. But, the world, and the church, would be a much more civil place if we did.

This is a continuation of posts on Ephesians 5, this time specifically on wives and husbands and verse 23 in particular.

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.

9780851109633_1Over the last few weeks I’ve read a wide range of interpretations of this verse and wider passage (21-33). Probably one of the best articulations of a ‘traditional’ view of male ‘headship = leadership’ and female submission in marriage is John Stott in The Message of Ephesians which was originally written in 1977 as God’s New Society. So it dates back a long way. There have been forests of books since on this topic, but Stott is such a good writer and exegete that it remains, I think, hard to beat.

Like many others I grew up as a Christian reading Stott. He is a huge influence and I’ve nothing but admiration for him. He is one of the great figures of the 20th century church.

In this post, I’ll try simply to summarise his interpretation of the text and then add some questions and comments. And then in the next post I’ll put it in dialogue with a recent and widely praised book articulating a very different interpretation of the text – that of Cynthia Long Westfall (2016) Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.9780801097942

If you have read this far, you may be groaning, ‘texts like these have been gone over 100s of times!’

True, but I suspect that for many, on whatever side of the debates, practice is largely inherited and assumed. The issues need aired for each generation. And it is an interesting angle on biblical interpretation to compare and contrast two views separated by about 40 years and a lot of published words.

A bullet point summary of Stott:

  • Paul is exhorting wives to submit to authority (and children and slaves to obey) within the familiar structure of the Household Codes of the ancient world.
  • Christians ought to acknowledge how the church has often upheld a status quo of injustice rather than liberation from all forms of exploitation or oppression.
  • We cannot interpret Paul here as advocating some form of authoritative relationships that either go against what he teaches in the rest of Ephesians and his letters, or that goes against the teaching and example of Jesus.
  • Dignity and equality of all before God is a beginning point. Submission does not equal inferiority.
  • Husbands have a certain God-given role, wives another, within God’s ordering of society.
  • Authority is God-given. Since husbands have delegated authority, wives are to submit to it. Such submission is a humble recognition of the divine ordering of society.
  • Much care is needed not to overstate this teaching on authority. It is not unlimited, it does not mean unconditional obedience, submission to God comes first, it must never be used selfishly. Not once does Paul use the normal word for authority (exousia): “When Paul is describing the duties of husbands, parents and masters, in no case is it authority he tells them to exercise.” 219.  (PM: this is somewhat confusing – in the next sentence Stott affirms authority is in view, namely improper authority that should not be used)
  • The husband is to use his role for the good of his wife – to love and care for her.
  • Those with authority are responsible to God and to those under their care.
  • The husband being ‘head’ of the wife – his ‘headship’ – is defined in regard to 1 Cor 11:3-12 and 1 Tim. 2:11-13.
  • There, the refs to Genesis 2 and ‘headship’ is based on “his emphasis is on the order, mode and purpose of the creation of Eve”. Thus ‘headship’ is not culturally contextual, but based in creation. p. 221.
  • The sexes are distinct and complement one another: man has ‘a certain headship’ [PM: what does this mean?] and wives in ‘voluntary and joyful submission.’ p.222.
  • Stott roots this in psychology and physiology [a lot of the psychology sounds dated now]
  • The word ‘submission’ is loaded and needs to be ‘disinfected’ from associations of subjugation and subordination and subjection. How it is used in Eph 5 is how it should be understood
  • The characteristic of male headship is Christ’s example – defined as saviour. ‘the characteristic of this headship is not so much lordship as saviourhood.’ p. 225.
  • Just as the church submits to Christ, so the wife submits to the husband’s care. This will enrich her womanhood. p. 226.
  • The husband’s primary responsibility is to love his wife. Two analogies are given.
    • ‘As Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. As Jesus perfects his bride, the church, so the husband ‘will give himself for her, in order that she may develop her full potential under God’. p.229
    • ‘Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies’. Stott sees an anti-climax from the heights of love just described, as a more ‘mundane’ command. Linked to the ‘golden rule’ of treating others like we would like to be treated.
  • ‘one flesh’ is an image of union. All believers are members of his body (v.30). ‘Thus he sees the marriage relationship as a beautiful model of the church’s union in and with Christ.’ p.231.
  • So the husband leads and loves, she submits and respects in ‘response to his love and her desire that he too will become what God intends him to be in his “leadership”.’ [PM note how leadership is in quote marks] p. 231.

Stott then applies this passage with 5 reasons for wives to understand the nature of biblical submission. He confesses that

‘it surprises me how unpopular this passage is among many women.’ p. 232.

The five reasons are:

  1. Submission is for all. Verse 21 makes clear that if it is the wife’s duty to submit to her husband, ‘it is also the husband’s duty, as a member of God’s new society, to submit to his wife.’ ‘Submissiveness is to be mutual.’ p. 233
  2. The wife’s submission is to be given to a lover, not an ogre. Her submission functions in the context of his self-giving love.
  3. The husband is to love like Christ.
  4. A husband’s love, like Christ, sacrifices in order to serve.
  5. The wife’s submission is but another aspect of love.

On the last point, Stott comments that when you try to define ‘submission’ and ‘love’ you end up finding it very difficult to distinguish them. To submit is to give yourself up to someone. To love is to give yourself up for someone.

‘Thus “submission” and “love” are two aspects of the very same thing, namely that selfless self-giving which is the foundation of an enduring and growing marriage.’ p. 235

Comments

This remains one of the best examples of a traditional male ‘headship – leader’ interpretation because Stott is too good an exegete not to give a full-orbed analysis of the text.

Looking under the surface, his motive is to be obedient to what the Bible teaches. He goes to great lengths to clarify and modify any potential abuse of this text to control women.

But in doing so, and particularly in his five reasons to women to submit, some problems become apparent:

The notion of husband as leader is read into the text rather than out of it. Stott several times writes ‘leader’ and talks about ‘a certain headship’ indicating his awareness of how this is, at best, an implication which depends on a particular interpretation. A huge amount is built on an argument from silence – that the reference to the creation account somehow implies that Adam being created first leads to ‘headship’.

However irenic and well-articulated the final five reasons for wives to submit to husbands are, it is ironic that Stott’s main application is aimed at women.

The whole tenor of the passage is addressed to husbands – to help them reimagine what it is to be a Christian husband in a Greco-Roman world. Wives are pretty well assumed to do what wives do in that culture – if radically modified by the fact of mutual submission in verse 21. Yet so much interpretation of this text ends up being about wifely submission and defending the husband’s ‘authority’. There is something very askew in this ordering of application.

What actually in practice is being argued for? Where Stott has integrity is how he recognises that the text itself drastically qualifies normal notions of ‘leader’ and ‘authority’. As he says, submission and love become synonymous. Husband and wife submit to each other [this is strongly resisted by some later harder-line complementarians]. If this is the case, the whole idea of ‘leader’ and ‘headship’ becomes virtually meaningless in practice. It seems to me that this is why modern complementarian practice is reduced to arcane theoretical discussions of ‘who makes the final decision’ when husband and wife disagree. Really – is that what Paul has in mind?

Rather, might this not all point to the problem being one of insisting on a faulty notion of ‘headship’ that is just not there in the text? Despite Stott’s assertion (and it is an assertion) that ‘headship’ is rooted in creation and therefore transcends all cultures, it remains a conceptual leap that is highly debatable. Great caution should be exercised in building edifices on shaky foundations, especially when those edifices (in my humble opinion) have tended to disempower women.

The irony is that the thrust of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 is going a different direction.

 

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

 

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.

Putting the Golden Rule into Practice: Musings on Luke 6 and Queer Theology

Ok this post may stray into warmish waters but it is a sincere attempt to get at the cutting edge of what Jesus is saying in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. If there isn’t an edge to application from that radical Sermon then we’ve quite simply missed its core.

These are questions coming out of two areas of reading and teaching I am doing at the moment

  1. Love in Luke 6
  2. Queer Theology

This post has three parts.

  1. What is the core principle within the Golden Rule?
  2. What or who is a contemporary example of the ‘Other’?
  3. What does it mean to apply the Golden Rule in regard to Queer Theology?
  1. What is the Core Principle within the Golden Rule?

Luke 6 contains what has become known as the ‘Golden Rule’ –

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

In the verses that follow, Jesus repeats the phrase ‘what credit is that to you?’ three times. His point in each case revolves around the identity of those ‘Others’. The whole point is that ‘they’ are NOT like ‘us’.

There is no ‘credit’ in safe and easy love of those ‘like us’ – the people we feel comfortable around and like to hang out with.  You know, people who share our values, faith, sense of humour, probably of similar socio-economic background, education, likely skin colour, maybe age – and mostly likely heterosexuality.

Such ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ love costs us little. ‘Love for those that love us’ is just typical human behaviour; it is fairly unremarkable. This is Jesus’ point about ‘even sinners do that’. In other words, those outside the kingdom of God love like this, so there is nothing particularly credit worthy and exceptional if disciples love each other in this way. It is to be expected.

However, there is, it is implied, ‘credit’ in loving people NOT like us. That is distinctive and rare because it does not make ‘natural’ sense. This sort of love is not to be expected.

Given the context of the sermon, the ‘Other’ is not just different to ‘us’, but is opposed to us in some way (enemy love begins and closes the main part of the Sermon vv 27-36)

That opposition is not necessarily personal, but holds opposing beliefs and values that perhaps stand in sharp conflict with some of our own deepest commitments.

So – who is NOT like you? And is opposed to you in some way?

  1. Queer Theology as a contemporary example of the ‘Other’

The opposing ‘Other’ could take many forms. Bitter divisions of course exist around areas of political, racial and religious commitments and identities. But the area I’m focusing on in this post is sexual identity.

What does it mean to ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ where the ‘Other’ is articulating a theology of sex and identity that is deeply at odds with orthodox Christian teaching?

To be more specific – what does it mean for evangelical Christians (since this is the community to which I belong) to love the ‘Other’ where the ‘Other’ is committed to Queer Theology?  (I am deliberately focusing on a theology rather than a person. These are musings on general principles on how Jesus’ teaching applies in a contemporary situation. I don’t want to make it personal).

So a definition is needed at this point. What is Queer Theology?

Cheng Radical LoveAn entry route is Patrick Cheng, Radical Love: an introduction to Queer Theology. In it Cheng claims that

“Christian theology itself is a fundamentally queer enterprise because it . . . challenges and deconstructs—through radical love—all kinds of binary categories that on the surface seem fixed and unchangeable . . . but that ultimately are fluid and malleable.” (10)

This quote captures the essence of Queer Theology’s agenda. It is to shake up or ‘queer’ accepted ‘norms’, particularly around gender and sexuality. All sexual identities are constructed, nothing is fixed or ‘normal’. Whatever sexual identity someone has (and it can be fluid and changing) it is a ‘gift’ – to be welcomed, expressed and affirmed. ‘Radical Love’ is to accept this dissolving of boundaries.

Traditional religion, with its commitment to the ‘norm’ of heterosexuality is exclusionary and coercive and oppressive. Queer Theology is therefore a type of liberation theology, ‘on the side’ of the marginalised LGBT+ communities.

In his book, Cheng proposes a Queer Theology around systematic categories of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also talks of a queer reading of Scripture.

The results are very radical indeed:

  • The Bible is reinterpreted. For example, sin in Sodom and Gomorrah is ultimately about inhospitality to strangers
  • God the Father is understood as “coming out” in radical love that dissolves boundaries. Boundaries between sexual and non-sexual relationships; between marriage and queer sex.
  • Jesus is the ‘boundary-crosser extraordinaire’. Cheng even sees Jesus as physically male and genetically female as a result of the virgin birth.
  • The Spirit is the work of God in breaking down boundaries and effecting radical love. All sexual, erotic, and other boundaries that separate are overcome by his ministry of radical love.
  • Sin is redefined as human rejection of God’s radical love; of human rejection of God dissolving boundaries and divisions. Sin is holding on to divisive and judgemental ideas around heteronormativity.
  • The sacraments are reinterpreted as ‘coming out’ for LGBT people. This is expressed in baptism which signals a leaving behind of the old life in the closet and embracing a new life out in the open.

There is much more but this gives a flavour. For most Christians, Queer Theology’s novel and radical nature makes it an example of the ‘Other’. This is a theology that is ‘not like us’ and the people espousing it are most definitely opposed to traditional orthodox Christian teaching on sex and holiness (Obviously this is a broad statement, but there is a clear identifiable core agreed body of Christian teaching on sex, singleness and marriage).

So, in terms of theological response, here is an initial assessment of Queer Theology claims.

I’d argue that this sort of theology is not recognizably Christian in any meaningful sense. It is not even clear to me why Cheng and other Queer Theologians focus on the Bible and Christian faith at all. If there are no boundaries, why tie things to systematic Christian theological categories? Why not ‘queer’ things even more consistently and take any source you like? Why not just use the vast array of LGBT+ stories, poems and art as the source to support the boundary breaking vision of ‘radical love’?

It is also pretty clear to me that Queer Theology is profoundly unorthodox. It lies outside any recognisable Christian tradition. Indeed, it is effectively heretical in its doctrine of God, sin and salvation. It radically relativises the Bible and interprets it through the lens of sexual identity politics.

So that is a very negative response. Some might say such a reaction is judgemental and unloving. I’d say not necessarily. It is an assessment of specific theological ideas. Disagreeing in itself is not unloving. Whether it becomes unloving or not depends on how the next question is answered.

  1. What does it mean to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ in regard to Queer Theology?

Going by the Golden Rule, the question to ask next (and often isn’t) is How would I like to be treated by people who disagree profoundly with what I believe?’ ‘How, therefore, should I act toward those espousing Queer Theology?

Here are seven thoughts in response:

1. I would not want people to dismiss what I believe out of hand as so obviously wrong that it is not worth taking seriously. So I should not do the same to Queer Theologians.

2. I would not want people to misrepresent or caricature what I write or say in order to win an argument. So I should take time to understand and fairly state what Queer Theology is.

3. I would not want people to attack my character for daring to be different from them. So I should not do the same to people self-identifying as Queer.

4. I would not want people to assume that because I disagree with Queer Theology, that I am a homophobic bigot. I should therefore not assume that others’ motives are malign.

5. I would not want people to not bother to try to understand why I believe what I believe because they disagree with me – and see me as a sinner. So I should seek to understand and listen to why people hold to Queer Theology.

6. I would not want people to try to silence me by threats or coercion of any kind. Or refuse to talk to me because I am morally obnoxious in their eyes. So I should not do likewise.

7. I would not want people to pretend to be who they are not, or to ‘spin’ their real beliefs, in order to try to build an unreal sense of unity. So I should speak honestly about what I believe, but with grace and respect.

Comments, as ever, welcome (I think).

Sologamy: the logical end of Western individualism?

From Aeon Magazine  –  a superb article by Polina Aronson. Worth reading the whole thing.

‘Sologamy’ is the latest relationship trend not only in Europe and the United States but also Japan. A budding industry of self-marriages promises to make us happier by celebrating commitment to the only person in this world truly worthy of a relationship investment: our precious self. A variety of coaches worldwide offer self-marriage courses, including guidance through preparatory steps (such as writing love poems and composing vows) and orchestration of the ceremony itself.

While self-marriage has no legal power (you can’t normally do it in a town hall, at least not yet), it is open to anyone regardless of age and gender. I wasn’t – and am not – single, but that doesn’t disqualify me; my coach cheerfully confirmed that anybody, regardless of their situation, was welcome to learn how to ‘cherish’ and ‘love’ themselves. Still, most women (and it is almost always women) whose stories I read in blogs, Facebook pages and media reports were driven into self-marriage by the desire to emancipate themselves from the stigma attached to singledom and by the prospect of self-discovery. Some hoped that self-marriage would ‘heal them from a chain of painful break-ups’; others opted for it as a means of proving the worth of their lifestyles – and all of them were willing to learn how to love themselves ‘unconditionally’. Welcome to the 21st century, where we are no longer only ‘bowling alone’, to use the expression coined back in 1995 by the American sociologist Robert Putnam – we are marrying alone, too. So is this a sign of a radical new kind of independence, or a depressing totem to our self-absorption?