No need of redemption?

Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.

It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.

One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.

Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.

Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.

Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.

This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.

I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.

No need of redemption?

Billy Abraham on doctrine

Billy Abraham on doctrine

A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

A place for the center to stand?

Christ, doctrine, & holiness

Joel Watts writes that matters of sexuality are not about Christ or doctrine, but holiness.

For me, the via media focuses on Christ. As a subset of this, it focuses on orthodox doctrines of the Church. For most of us, the issue of homosexuality is not a doctrinal matter (i.e., Trinity, baptism, episcopal authority) but is a matter (in Wesleyan terms) of holiness. That is why I can focus on episcopal authority even while arguing for inclusion. I can focus on orthodoxy, hold to prima scripture, and attempt to be a part of the Great Tradition while arguing for inclusion.

The way his words flow here, it reads to me as if he is saying orthodox doctrine is “a subset” of a focus on Christ but that holiness is not. Perhaps he is merely saying holiness is a different subset of the focus on Christ. Or maybe he is saying holiness is a subset of doctrine. I’m not entirely sure.

In any event, he has me puzzling a bit about the relationship between doctrine and holiness. I’ve always taken holiness — which is another word for sanctification which for Wesley is another word for salvation — to be itself part of the doctrine of the Christian Church. Holiness is what it means to live out our baptismal vows. It is what it means to be saved.

I don’t see how we can disagree about what it means to be holy and say we agree on the doctrines of justification and sanctification, for instance. Furthermore, if pressed, I’d argue that holiness comes before doctrine.

First, we focus on Christ. In this focus, what we notice overwhelmingly is his holiness. It is only after this that we begin to develop the superstructure of doctrine that gives shape and stability to our beliefs and practices. The Church was the church when all it had before it was the holiness of Christ. It did not have to wait for Nicea to become the church. All we needed was Christ and his holiness.

This is why questions about food laws and circumcision were existential issues for the church. They cut to the meaning of holiness.

Which is all a way of saying that I find matters of holiness more important than doctrine when it comes to Christian unity. And I think Wesley would agree.

This has little to do with the main point that Watts was trying to make about United Methodism and schism and so on, but it his post got my gears moving.

When it comes to questions of doctrine vs. questions of holiness, which do you think is more crucial for the unity of the church and the life of the Christian?

Christ, doctrine, & holiness

Protestant purgatory?

How do people who are imperfectly sanctified at the time of their death enter into heaven?

For what it is worth, there are some indications in John Wesley’s writings that he might agree with the views expressed in this video.

Protestant purgatory?

Understanding the argument on sex & gender

I’d never read the “Welcoming Toolkit 2.0” before Saturday. It is a document that advises those who are trying to organize their congregation to adopt a public stance known as “reconciling” or “welcoming” or “open and affirming” with regard to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, pansexual, or queer.

It is a really impressive document that rivals anything I’ve seen when it comes to analyzing a congregation and leading a process of change. The Appendix on how organizations change would be useful for any church leader in any setting, for instance. The document is a testimony of the skill, expertise, and funding behind the movement.

One thing that I found helpful in my quest to understand the debates and arguments in our denomination was Appendix Nine (pp. 43-48), which outlines a the way members of the church are invited to understand issues of sex, identity, and attraction. It is the closest thing I’ve found to a comprehensive theological statement about how the movement would have us understand who we are. The statement is not at all theological, of course. It is based rather on the work of Indiana University’s own Alfred Kinsey, who was the son of devout Methodists according to his Wikipedia profile. But it does outline what we are invited to affirm.

The Appendix argues that the idea that humanity was created male and female is a woefully inadequate way of describing us. Rather, we are beings who exist along a continuum of experience between the poles of male and female with no normative expectation that we should treat biological sex, gender identification, gender expression, or sexual orientation as properly understood in either/or terms. (If that is confusing, go read the Appendix for further explanation. One key concept is that sex is a physical biological category and gender is a psychological and social construct that may or may not have anything to do with biological sex.)

The bottom line argument is that since some people do not fit within the binary categories of male and female, the categories should be set aside in favor of a set of four continua: sex, gender identification, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Any individual might occupy any spot on each of these four continua.

What I think the basic move entails is taking description of natural diversity for a norm. So, because there are people who are born with sexual organs that are not clearly male or female, we should reject the notion that the only two normative categories are male and female. Similarly, because some people who are biologically male are sexually aroused by and attracted to other biological males (or people who express their gender as male), the notion that sex should be between people of opposite genders should not be affirmed.

So, for instance, we are invited to embrace the notion that sexual attraction to the people of the opposite biological sex is not normative or God’s intention in creation, but one possible position along a continuum of equally holy and blessed options. (The theological language here is mine not the document’s, but this is a document for the church, so I assume it is not out of place.)

Here is how Appendix reflects on one implication of this melange of categories:

Remember in the graph of the Kinsey scale, the ends of the scale refer to same and opposite gender. How can there be a same or opposite with gender in such a mix? This is why some people who are attracted to people of a variety of genders identify not as bisexual (which still implies that there are only two genders) but as pansexual or queer. For them, these words better reflect their experience of falling in love with a person rather than a gender.

So, here are some of the take-aways I hear in this document.

The terms “male” and “female” provide an inadequate binary choice in defining who people are. We should, rather, teach that people may be male, female, or any combination of the two. Similarly, the gender people identify with (woman or man) has no tie and should have no necessary tie to biological sex. At the center between the poles of man and woman, the Appendix offers a third gender, “queer,” that is neither of the other two. Beyond this, since how people express gender is socially determined, there can be no norm, certainly not a theological one, regarding to the ways people of various genders (or no gender?) act, dress, speak, or otherwise behave. Finally, because of all this, there is no coherent or justified reason to deny that God blesses all forms of sexual attraction and sexual activity between two consenting adults. (The “two consenting adults” part is not stated in the document, but I assume it is implied.)

This may not fairly sketch out the approach to questions of sex and gender being outlined in the document. It is my attempt to do so.

What is clear from the Appendix is that this is not a theological argument. But, of course, it does have theological implications. I’ve not heard any of the public voices for an “inclusive church” lay this all out so clearly. I am glad to have found a place where it is set out for full consideration and reflection.

Understanding the argument on sex & gender