Posts Tagged ‘Jason Micheli’

He isn’t wrong about everything

July 16, 2014

He’s a Dylan fan, after all.

Still, Jason Micheli is a popular United Methodist pastor and blogger with whom I’ve strenuously disagreed over the past couple of years. He was kind enough to ask me to write a guest post for him while he’s away on a mission trip. He published it today with this title:

micheli_post

I love it!

Anyway, I encourage you to read it.

Does the UMC really believe that the LGBT are “evil” or “less than fully human”?

June 23, 2014

In the sixth part of a seven-part series of blog posts on “A Way Forward,” an Adam Hamilton-backed proposal to save the United Methodist Church from schism, Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary and a fellow ordained elder in full connection in the UMC, notices a surprising lack of biblical and theological reflection in the debate over changing our church’s traditional stance on human sexuality.

One of the striking differences between the contours of the United Methodist discussion and the counterpart discussions which led to the breakup of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches is how seldom Methodists have actually discussed specific biblical texts related to homosexuality, or, for that matter, invoked a deep discussion about a biblical theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality… I readily acknowledge that all of these discussions have taken place in our seminaries, but it hasn’t really become part of the public church discourse as it has in other denominations. Our conversations have mostly focused on pastoral care, the need for generational sensitivity for evangelistic purposes and wanting to portray ourselves as inclusive and welcoming, not closed and angry. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that not a single verse of Scripture is actually quoted in A Way Forward.

He goes on to concede that we traditionalists haven’t fared much better, focusing our disagreement on revisionists’ disregard for the Book of Discipline—as if that were God-breathed scripture.

I’m sympathetic with Tennent’s complaint—until I read a recent blog post like this one, written by popular United Methodist blogger and pastor Jason Micheli. The post reminds me how lightly committed we Methodists are to the authority of scripture. Tennent fails to appreciate that if there’s any hope of “saving” the UMC, the Discipline may be the only arrow left in our quiver.

Be that as it may, even for Micheli, a blogger with whom I’ve long and loudly disagreed on a number of issues related to the authority of scripture, this post is unusually obnoxious.

He begins by excerpting an email he received from a parishioner, who writes, among other things:

As part of a Christian community, we are charged to make disciples; to invite friends and acquaintances to join us in that community. How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil, cannot hold positions of leadership and may not enjoy the blessing of holy matrimony?

As one long-suffering commenter on his blog said, “You should correct your friend, because this is not the affirmation or proclamation of the UMC.”

That’s putting it mildly!

Micheli knows that his parishioner has grossly mischaracterized our church’s doctrine. He knows that we in no way “affirm or proclaim” that gays and lesbians are “evil.” We affirm that all people are of “sacred worth,” regardless the extent to which they experience same-sex attraction (which is on a continuum; it’s not binary). Alongside two millennia of orthodox Christian teaching on the subject, we say that homosexual practice is sinful. (But not even that—in our own milquetoast way, we say it’s “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Well, yes…).

He also knows that gays and lesbians are not only permitted to hold positions of leadership, but they can also be ordained—so long as they are celibate in singleness—just like heterosexuals. The extent to which someone experiences same-sex attraction is irrelevant.

In the interest of acting in good faith, even given his disagreement with our church’s stance, how can Micheli let this statement stand—unless he agrees with the spirit of it?

Of course, he would probably say he’s merely using his parishioner’s email as an example of the way in which our doctrine is “bad advertising” for our church.

But if that were the case, how can he then say the following (my emphasis in bold): “Where Methodists are still stuck in the love the sinner/hate the sin time warp, debating whether we can officially regard homosexuals as fully human or not, Presbyterians have moved ahead to grant homosexuals access to the sanctifying grace Christians call ‘marriage.’”

Given that I can’t decide whether it’s worse to view homosexuals as less than “fully human” or “evil,” it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Micheli agrees with his parishioner.

If so, does he not realize that he’s impugning himself? After all, he stood before God, his bishop, and his annual conference not too long ago and promised them all that he agreed with the doctrines of the church and would actively enforce and abide by what he now seems to believe are ignorant, bigoted policies.

I’ve said before that I respect the integrity of my fellow clergy on the other side of the debate who believe, along with me, that the issue dividing us can’t be a matter of indifference—that there is no middle way. Given his strong convictions, why does Micheli believe in one? In the interest of social justice, why is he willing to live under a tent so large that we tolerate or condone church leaders (like me, I presume he would say) who believe (according to him) that homosexuals are less than human—or evil? Or something like that?

The rest of his post is misleading and beside the point. Yes, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriage by a wide margin. Of course they did! Many of the conservatives who would otherwise have voted against it have already left the denomination! Also, as a matter of integrity, who cares whether the UMC is “mainline,” whether its present doctrine is bad advertising, or whether it causes us to lose or gain members? The only thing that matters is faithfulness to our Lord.

And Micheli agrees with that. He says it’s imperative that we “do right by what the Spirit is showing us about gay Christians.”

Of course, but by what doctrine of scripture would the Spirit be showing us something that contradicts what the Spirit has previously revealed in scripture?

Which reminds me… Last week on Facebook someone asked me, “Besides Bible verses and tradition, what argument can you really make against homosexual practice?” To which I responded: “Besides the shooting, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

Giving guilt its due

May 14, 2014

spuffordWhen someone says, as my fellow ordained UMC pastor Jason Micheli has said, that God doesn’t care “at all” about our sin, I disagree not simply because the Bible says otherwise—which, granted, is reason enough—but because it doesn’t do justice (literally) to our sin and guilt—my sin and my guilt, thank you very much.

In his most recent book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Emotional Sense, English author (and Anglican Christian) Francis Spufford gives voice to the way that sin and guilt have made him feel, which is exactly the way it makes me feel. And no one, certainly not Jason Micheli or Herbert McCabe or Thomas Aquinas, can convince me that I feel this way without justification—and that from God’s perspective, everything is A-OK. I know everything is not A-OK about me. And the fact that it isn’t matters to God. And by God’s grace he’s working to change me. And it hurts sometimes. And I’m glad it hurts because, like good old Bactine, that’s how you know it’s healing you.

For someone like Micheli to pat me on the head and say, “The way you make yourself right with God is to recognize that things are already right,” is no comfort at all. It doesn’t ring true to my experience.

And I’m obviously not alone in feeling this way.

Regardless, I’ll quote the relevant passage from Spufford. He later includes enlightening illustrations about the lives of penitent slave-trader and “Amazing Grace” author John Newton and British Field Marshal Montgomery. Spufford’s message is that guilt is a good, necessary, and inescapable fact of human existence. It’s not an overreaction on our part: we ought to feel guilty, even as we avail ourselves of the resources of Christian faith that enable us to live with it. (Note: Like it or not, Spufford uses profanity in his book, and in the following excerpt. What we might call “original sin,” he calls the “Human Propensity to F— Things Up,” which he abbreviates as HPtFtU in his book.)

He precedes this quote by talking about the recent popularity of serial killers on TV, in movies, and in novels. These stories appeal to us because they place evil safely outside of ourselves.

But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those states of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night—you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there—then, the idea that it would help to cling to a cozy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off the flu by waving a toy lightsaber. The bad news, at those moments, feels like the whole truth about you. It isn’t. It is only truth about you. But the way back to the rediscovery of the rest of what’s true begins with the admission that you really are guilty of the particular bit of HPtFtU which is making you feel like shit. If you don’t give the weight in your chest its true name you can’t even begin. It’s guilt that drags at your steps, it’s guilt that paints the morning black. In my experience, in times of intense misery it’s letting your guilt be guilt that at least stops you needing to accuse yourself; and in better times, in times of more or less cheerful ordinary muddling through, I’ve found that admitting theres’s some black in the color-chart of my psyche doesn’t invite the blot of dark to swell, or give a partial truth more gloomy power over me than it should have, but the opposite. Admitting there’s some black in the mixture makes it matter less. It makes it easier to pay attention to the mixedness of the rest. It helps you stop wasting your time on denial, and therefore helps you stop ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame. It helps you be kind to yourself.[†]

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Emotional Sense (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 34-5.

Being emotional is part of what it means to be made in God’s image

May 8, 2014

A month ago, I wrote that the doctrine of God’s immutability (“God doesn’t change”) shouldn’t be construed to mean that God doesn’t feel or experience emotion. In the Bible he certainly does! Because God freely chooses to be in relationship with his Creation, he allows himself to be affected by that Creation—he takes pleasure in us; he suffers because of us. Because God is unchanging in his being, character, purposes, and promises, however, God is never capricious or moody.

Granted, we could say that every time the Bible depicts God’s experiencing an emotion, the Bible writers are resorting to anthropomorphism—making God seem more human than he really is—because in our finitude we’re unable to experience him in any other way. But that fails to make sense of a great deal of scripture. As Roger Olson said, “The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.”

Historically, Protestants, who believe that scripture is our primary authority guiding faith and practice, never defended this extreme version of immutability (“God doesn’t change to the extent that he also doesn’t feel”), which comes to us by way of Thomas Aquinas. (Do Catholics believe this?) Unlike Aquinas, we don’t believe that experiencing emotion represents any kind of imperfection. On the contrary, emotions are good and indispensable even to sinful human beings, who often fail to control them or direct them to good ends. Needless to say, we’re not God.

I’m only bringing this up again because Jason Micheli, a popular blogger and fellow United Methodist pastor (in another conference), has a series of blog posts in which he’s arguing, by way of this extreme version of God’s immutability, that sin can only be a problem on the human side, not on God’s side. He writes:

Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else into this punitive ogre, this satan.

Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it does not matter at all to God.

In a fairly literal sense, he doesn’t give a damn about our sin.

It is we who give damns.

Sin does not matter at all to God. How many chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, must we tear out of our Bibles if that’s true?

In a sermon he preached to confirmands(!) about the Lord’s Prayer, my colleague goes on to say that we project the guilt of our sin onto God such that we turn God (I kid you not) into Satan, a wrathful accuser bent on our destruction. Jesus, by contrast, teaches us not to project our guilty consciences onto God when he says, “Deliver us from the evil one.”

See, it’s all right there in the red-letter words of Jesus! What, you don’t see it?

Regardless, Micheli would say that God’s “forgiveness” (scare quotes are deliberate, since this “forgiveness” bears no relationship to actual forgiveness) is merely this: We remember again that God doesn’t condemn us for our sin. God is love, which can only mean that God never “gives a damn” about sin.

So God is just fine with us whether we sin or not. How could he not be? If God were sorry that we’re sinners bound for hell then that would imply that God feels something for us.

I find the whole discussion bizarre.

I suppose the idea helps protect us from guilty consciences, but who needs that much protection? Guilty consciences are often good and necessary things! Speaking as someone who has sinned really badly in my life, I take no comfort in any god who could look at what I’ve done and be O.K. with it.

But it’s not just me and my personal sins, which are bad enough. What about sin on a global scale? God isn’t bothered by that? I’m reminded of something that Miroslav Volf said about pacifism rooted in the idea that God never punishes or judges sin:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.[†]

Read this nice post (“Does God Change?”) from Roger Olson if you want to know more about my understanding of immutability. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with something that evangelical theologian Bruce Ware said in an essay on the subject, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I underline the part that means the most to me:

The abundance of Scriptural evidence of God’s expression of emotion and a more positive understanding of their nature lead to the conclusion that the true and living God is, among other things, a genuinely emotional being. Heschel suggests that instead of thinking of the emotions ascribed to God as anthropomorphic, we should rather consider our human experience as theomorphic, as part of what it is to be created by God in his image.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

The cross is not incidental to Christ’s mission

April 17, 2014

Last December, in these two blog posts, here and here, I wrote a response to Jason Micheli, a popular fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, who argued in a series of posts that Christmas doesn’t need the cross: the purpose of the Incarnation was not in order to save us, and even if humanity had never fallen into sin, God would still have sent his Son into the world.

Needless to say, I vehemently disagreed, which you can read about above.

But at least my fellow pastor is consistent. Now that we’re nearing Good Friday, he’s recycling the same arguments again, arguing that the cross isn’t necessary for atonement; that the Father would never send his Son to die on the cross; that the cross is merely the world’s equal and opposite reaction against anyone’s faithfulness to God; and that the cross is therefore completely incidental to God’s saving purposes. Presumably, our Lord could have died of old age—had the world allowed him to—and that would have been no more or less salvific.

I don’t think I’m misrepresenting his viewpoint. I tried to engage him on the topic last December, and he wasn’t interested.

I understand the motivation to want to argue that the Father doesn’t send his Son to die on the cross. By this way of thinking, if suffering is always only a consequence of human sin or the accidental outworking of cause-and-effect—rather than something that God might also will—then God is off the hook for it, and all those moral objections to God are neutralized.

In some temple of pure thought, I can see the appeal of such a god. For one thing, such a hands-off god wouldn’t get so worked up over my sins and make so many demands on my life.

As always, however, we have the Bible to contend with. There are too many scriptures I could cite in my defense from both Testaments, and you probably know most of them yourself. But even if we restrict ourselves to Jesus: When he prays, “Not my will but thine be done,” we are right to infer that God willed Jesus to suffer death on the cross.

Does the cross also reflect the free will of civil, religious, and military authorities such as Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Roman soldiers, not to mention the bystanders in the crowd who cheered them on? Of course. They didn’t need God to “give them a push” to send Jesus to the cross. It was both the consequence of human free will and the chosen means by which God atones for our sins.

Also, as I’ve said a dozen times before on this blog, the Son isn’t an unwitting victim either of his Father’s or the world’s schemes: out of love for us, Jesus chooses to go to the cross. The Son wants what the Father wants.

All that to say, where the god of the philosophers conflicts with the God of the Bible, we side with the Bible. Fortunately, the God of the Bible is not only more interesting, he’s also much worthier of worship.

For one thing, the God of the Bible loves us so much that he lets us suffer, when that suffering will be for our good. And the suffering of his Son Jesus was for the greatest good of all: our salvation.

For another, with the God of the Bible, we get to believe, alongside C.S. Lewis, “What God sends us must be sent in love and will all be for the best if we have the grace to use it so.”[†]

“The Ultimate Law” in The C.S. Lewis Bible NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1106.

Around the blogosphere

February 4, 2014

Or at least the small corner of which I happen to read…

satans_downfallLast year, Roger Olson’s writing on the subject of Satan and spiritual warfare helped convince me that I had shirked my pastoral responsibility to educate and warn people about the dangers we face from the principalities and powers. In earlier posts, he recommended Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, which I’d also recommend to anyone. It’s out of print, but I bought a used copy through Amazon.

This week, Olson wrote another post on the topic, “Where in the Devil is Satan (in Modern Theology)?” He writes:

Few evangelicals will outrightly deny the reality of a personal power of evil called Satan or the devil. When you ask people many say “Oh, I read The Screwtape Lettersyears ago.” But you get the sense they (average  North American evangelicals) haven’t given the subject any thought since then (if even then). (I suspect many people read Lewis’s classic much as they read his fiction.)

I’ll freely admit my own guilt and complicity in this neglect. I grew up on a form of evangelical life that made Satan very prominent and lived in fear of him and his power—even though pastors, evangelists and Sunday School teachers often said “Greater is he that is in you….” I just wasn’t so sure about that because of how much they talked about the devil and his power—sometimes more than they talked about Jesus!…

I suspect many evangelicals in North America have simply over reacted to the over emphasis on Satan and demons in certain circles around the fringes of evangelicalism. And, really, the main reason I’m talking about this is to raise a question about that—our tendency to over react to extremes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

In order to avoid dualism, many intellectual Christians have abandoned Satan altogether or absorbed Satan into God (or at least God’s will and plan). I, too, want to avoid dualism, but I don’t know how or why Satan is real and powerful and “the prince of this world.” All I can say with confidence is that he is a conquered enemy of God who is still causing a great deal of chaos. Why God allows it, I don’t know. That’s God’s business. That he will eventually take away all of Satan’s power and free us from his influence lies at the heart of biblical hope.

keller_bookScot McKnight’s blog includes an interview with Tim Keller about his most recent masterpiece, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. If I haven’t convinced you to read this book by now, you’ll never be convinced.

Here, Keller discusses one of the book’s prominent themes.

Moore: It is common for people to get tripped up by the conundrum about the impossibility of God being both all-loving and all-powerful.  He may be one of the two, but He can’t possibly be both or there would be no suffering.  Not surprisingly, God’s wisdom, which changes everything, is always left out of the supposed dilemma.

How can we grow in our confidence of God’s wisdom when we are suffering?

Keller: There are two ways to grow in confidence in God’s wisdom.  The first may sound strange—we need to be less confident of our own wisdom.  This may be very hard for modern people.

Throughout history, people struggled with suffering and asked God ‘why?’ all the way back to Job.  But virtually no one on record thought suffering and evil made God’s existence impossible until the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  Why the change? By the mid-18th century the earliest forms of secularism had begun to develop.  In the past it was assumed that if God was infinite and ineffable then his ways would have to be beyond our comprehension.  So evil that was inexplicable to us—made perfect sense.  If there was a God who created all things—of course he would be infinitely wiser than we are and we could never have the insight to call him on the carpet for how things are going in the world.  But the modern belief was that all truth could be discovered by human reason.  As we got larger in our own eyes and more sure that we understood how the universe worked, and how history should go, the problem of evil became so intolerable.

But this was all to a great degree because of our own hubris.  If we can recapture that bigger view of God and the more realistic view of our own limitations, it would be easier to trust God’s wisdom.

The other way, of course, is to look at the Cross.  There we see something that, to the onlookers, appeared to be a defeat.  God had abandoned the best hope of the world. How could God bring anything good out of that?  But we have the vantage point such that we can get at least a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of the Cross.  If God can work his wisdom in suffering like he did in Jesus’ life—he can do it in ours as well.

Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, pointed his readers to this post by Andrew Comiskey on the problem of gay marriage:

It shows no dignity to our fellow humanity to ‘high five’ bad moral decisions. We can still love others while disagreeing with their choices. In fact, disagreeing with ‘gay marriage’ is much more costly today than blessing it. Young people who applaud gay weddings are not lampooned as haters and bigots. Rather, they are extolled as loving and tolerant, on the ‘right side of history.’

The core issue, however, is not ‘gay marriage.’ What has been lost in this debate is the truth that something is wrong with homosexuality. We no longer understand moral disorder in the context of same-sex attraction. Power brokers of all sorts have successfully brainwashed a generation into believing that being gay is natural and good, not disordered in the least.

Of course, our gut reaction is a bit different. Most wonder if an intense longing for one’s own gender isn’t a little off, and if the ‘wedding’ of same-gender friends is really a marriage at all. Still we stifle that hunch for the sake of being ‘nice’ to gay people. Perhaps it is not so much that we are loving as we are cowardly.

Finally, on the same subject, I listened to last Sunday’s sermon by fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli, who attempts to analyze homosexuality from a Wesleyan Quadrilateral perspective. Micheli supports changing our church’s traditional stance. I credit him for talking about the issue (as part of a sermon series he’s been preaching on marriage). Nevertheless, while he purports to stand above the fray in this sermon, the game is rigged. Here was my initial comment that I posted on his blog, to which he replied. (Click on image to expand.)

micheli2

To which I wrote the following:

“Fairly fair”? By your score, it was 3.5 to 0.5 against the traditional position. That’s a laugh. You wrote as if the only reason we have our traditional position is because of a few stray verses here and there, mostly in Leviticus (as if just because it’s in Leviticus it no longer applies). Isn’t the Great Commandment also in Leviticus? Is that no longer binding?

What about Genesis 2 and Paul’s echo of that in Romans 1? What about Jesus’ affirmation of marriage between man and woman in Matthew 19? Reason itself seems to affirm that given complementary nature of our sex organs, God intends for sex to be a gift shared between man and woman only. (And before you bring it up, anal sex is physiologically harmful.)

It’s unlikely (and science certainly doesn’t prove) that people are “born gay,” but what of it? People are born with all sorts of congenital illnesses, many of which are fatal. You hardly prove your point that because people are born a certain way, that’s the way God intends.

Regardless, you don’t contend with the New Testament’s affirmation of celibacy as a viable and blessed way to live.

You’ve surely heard or read people like N.T. Wright demolish the idea that “Paul couldn’t have imagined lifelong, monogamous homosexual relationships.” In fact, they existed in Paul’s day, philosophers wrote about them, and Paul was a smart guy.

But not just Paul… What about every other Christian thinker until about 1971? See, that’s the weight of tradition that you haven’t contended with. Why did all these otherwise smart, compassionate Christian saints fail to imagine that homosexuals could live together in lifelong, monogamous relationships? Why did none of them question the biblical teaching?

And would you really have us believe that prior to the 20th century, no one imagined that some people had a relatively fixed same-sex sexual orientation—even if they didn’t use the word “homosexual”? That seems incomprehensible to me.

You know that arguments from silence (“Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.”) are spurious. First, we have no idea what Jesus did or didn’t say about it. It’s not recorded in the Gospels. Second, given that we know for sure that first-century Judaism outlawed homosexual behavior, we could as easily interpret Jesus’ “silence” as a tacit endorsement of the status quo.

You also know that while Jesus loved and accepted the marginalized, he didn’t do so without the demand for repentance of sin.

You talk a lot about love, but you never concede that if homosexual behavior is a sin, it would be unloving not to warn people against it—to recommend change (which is possible in many cases, especially with lesbians) or celibacy.

All that to say, you haven’t been close to “fairly fair.”

In case you’re not Methodist, the Quadrilateral says that scripture is our primary authority guiding Christian belief and practice. We properly read and understand scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

By the way, Wesley himself never talked about a Quadrilateral. Some Wesleyan scholars in the 20th century argued that it was implicit in the way he did theology. Seems reasonable enough, although it doesn’t say all that much, and it’s nothing unique to Methodism: the Anglican tradition of which Wesley was a part speaks of a trilateral source of authority, leaving out experience.

Regardless, contrary to the way Micheli speaks of it, the Quadrilateral is not a four-legged stool (which will always wobble). It’s a three-legged stool. The “seat” is scripture, which is supported by these other things. So, even if Micheli made a slam-dunk case using tradition, reason, and experience (which he didn’t), none of these three sources of authority get a veto over the Bible.

Another bad argument for gay marriage

January 23, 2014

Let me preface this post by saying that I don’t enjoy writing about homosexuality. I say, along with Paul, that I am the worst of sinners who is constantly in need of God’s saving and forgiving grace. I don’t intend to place myself above gay and lesbian Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction. I have misdirected desires of my own, and I fall into sin. I feel nothing but compassion for my fellow sinners.

But my denomination is in the midst of a civil war over the question of whether or not homosexual behavior is a sin—and, consequently, whether we should “marry” homosexuals or ordain non-celibate homosexuals. Whether I choose to blog about it or not, my fellow clergy are blogging about it and arguing about it. Since I wasn’t kidding when I affirmed my belief in the doctrines of our church—not to mention when I answered questions directly on the subject during the ordination process—I feel defensive when so many of my fellow clergy are clamoring for change.

I believe passionately in the authority of scripture, and, for me, nothing less than faithfulness to God is at stake in the question. I say that as someone who didn’t always believe so strongly in scripture’s authority. In fact, I was happily liberal on the question of homosexuality when I was in seminary. But I changed. If I did so because of some latent homophobia, I’m unaware of it. For me, my conversion on the subject of the Bible and homosexuality was a matter of thinking it through rather than feeling it through.

Of course, people who disagree with me say that they have scripture on their side, too. If so, I would love for them to use it more persuasively than in this particular argument, from today’s blog post by fellow UMC clergy Jason Micheli.

It goes something like this: Since many Christians are unfaithful to God’s Word when it comes to marriage and divorce, it’s therefore O.K. for Christians to be unfaithful to God’s Word when it comes to homosexual behavior. Or, more charitably: since we’ve reinterpreted scripture in relation to marriage and divorce, why can’t we reinterpret it in relation to homosexuality? As Samuel Wells puts it in this quotation from Micheli’s post.

There is virtually no justification in the New Testament for remarriage after divorce (Mark 10.11-12, 1 Corinthians 7.10-11)—in fact the New Testament has quite a lot more to say about divorce—and yet most Christian traditions have come to believe that remarriage is acceptable for many people.

It seems questionable then why we’re unwilling to adapt our understanding of scripture when it comes to homosexual persons when we’ve shown we’re willing to do so for divorced persons.

Would Wells or Micheli then argue that “most Christian traditions” are therefore right about marriage and divorce? Who could look at the divorce rate among Christians and imagine that this is O.K.—that we Christians haven’t gotten badly off course?

Besides, most Christian traditions still oppose divorce in most cases. What would Wells or Micheli have the church do? Excommunicate our parishioners who get one anyway? Some churches do that, of course, but I think it’s always appropriate for the church to extend grace to sinners (as in Matthew 18), even as we acknowledge that a specific behavior is sinful.

I’m not conceding, by the way, that divorce is always a sin. Jesus offers one exception for divorce (“sexual immorality”) and Paul adds another in 1 Corinthians 7:15. (But read his words in context.) I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to contradict Jesus. Instead, I believe we can harmonize Jesus and Paul to say that divorce, like war, is always a tragic consequence of human sin; it should be permitted only rarely—as an option of last resort; and grace should abound for sinners in the midst of it.

Anyway, I wrote the following response to Micheli’s post: (I mistakenly wrote as if the Wells quote were his, but I can only assume he endorses it.)

I’ve never understood this argument about divorce. The divorce rate among Christians is scandalous. By all means, the Church is being unfaithful to God’s Word. (Although there is biblically warranted divorce for Christians in some cases. You need to carry your 1 Corinthians 7 proof-text to verse 15 and add Matthew 5:32 to your Mark 10:11-12.)

But what does our failure regarding marriage and divorce prove about homosexual marriage? Logically, nothing at all. You seem to be arguing that if we’re unfaithful to God when it comes to marriage, it’s therefore O.K. to be unfaithful to God when it comes to gay marriage.

If homosexual behavior per se is sinful, this cannot be true. (Not to mention that there’s no such thing as gay marriage. Marriage, by definition, is between a man and a woman.)

If you don’t think homosexual behavior is sinful, then say so. Explain why. Put forward that argument. Because this particular argument sucks.

Christmas needs the cross, part 3

January 3, 2014

In my ongoing non-conversation with United Methodist pastor, author, and blogger Jason Micheli, I have vehemently disagreed with his contention that Christ would have become incarnate regardless what happened in the Garden, regardless whether or not humanity sinned. To me, this idea contradicts the Bible, which is reason enough to argue about it. But it also demotes the cross’s central role in the theology of the New Testament, and minimizes the problem of sin and death. (You can read about my disagreements: here, here, and here.)

He has said that he’s merely restating or paraphrasing what has been said by classic Christian exegetes and theologians, and on this point I feel slightly out of my element: I haven’t read Maximus the Confessor or Duns Scotus. I’ve read a little of Gregory of Nazianzas and a little of Thomas Aquinas. But I haven’t read them make his argument!

I’ve read the Bible, of course. But that’s not good enough, apparently.

In today’s post, however, he writes about something Athanasius supposedly said:

To paraphrase Athanasius without distorting his original intent: God became man and was always going to do so; so that, man could be with God.

I’ve read Athanasius! So I posted the following in the comments section:

You write:

“To paraphrase Athanasius without distorting his original intent: God became man and was always going to do so; so that, man could be with God.”

Paraphrase aside (why no direct quotes?), I can’t see how this doesn’t contradict Athanasius’s own words in a book of his I’ve actually read, On the Incarnation. Athanasius says repeatedly that Christ became incarnate in order to deliver us from the corruption wrought by sin during the Fall. He says it in many ways, but let me quote one part directly:

“You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man”—he just finished talking about the Garden and the Fall “The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion.” [St. Athanasius, <em>On the Incarnation</em> (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 29]

I could go on, but I hope you get the point. Athanasius doesn’t say or imply here that the Word would become incarnate regardless what happened in the Garden. On the contrary, it was because of what we lost through our disobedience that the Word was made flesh. The incarnation was a response to our sin. Its purpose, as Athanasius says, is to save us from the law of sin and death.

Keep in mind, as a Wesleyan whose orientation is already prima scriptura, I don’t need Athanasius to affirm this for me. But I’m glad to know that he does: we have the same Bible, after all.

If Athanasius sounds positively Western and soteriological in his orientation, it’s because Western Christianity didn’t get it all wrong, after all.

Have you heard this before? Adam and Eve weren’t created in God’s image?

December 31, 2013

I am sorry that my little blog here can’t drive more traffic to Jason Micheli’s “Tamed Cynic” blog. According to his most recent post, not a single entry in his “Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross” (he’s posted eight of ten so far) made his Top 5 most popular of the year, despite my linking to them here and here. What can I say? I’m no Scot McKnight.

I’m not recommending that you read his blog for your edification. In fact, almost every week I find something new to get under my skin (which is a credit to his skill as a writer)—and I comment to the sound of crickets. He did tell me that he doesn’t have much time to respond to blog comments, so it’s nothing personal.

But I would love for someone to read yesterday’s post in his Christmas series, and tell me what, if anything, is wrong with the following two statements:

“But according to scripture, Jesus not Adam and Eve constitute the imago” (by which he means imago Dei, “image of God”).

“Rather we only know what ‘sin’ means and the extent to which it defines us because God has come in Jesus.”

On his side, he’s using Colossians 1:15-16 to make his case (which is a lot of weight for those verses to bear). Doesn’t Genesis 1 tell us that God created male and female in his image? Micheli might allow himself some wiggle room by using the word “constitute” (emphasis mine): “Implicit in this logic is the assumption that Adam and Eve were fine before they fell, that they already constituted what God initiated when God declared ‘let us make humankind in our image‘”—as if, perhaps, there’s some difference between God creating in God’s image and the two being so “constituted” in that image? Who knows? I’ve never heard this before.

For the sake of my monthly student loan bills, I’m hoping that my Emory education didn’t fail to teach me something so blindingly obvious that Micheli need not explain himself.

What he is saying is that God initiated but did not complete the process of making humanity in his image. That only happened in the incarnation. I guess there’s no sense pointing out to a Methodist pastor like himself that John Wesley would contradict him, not to mention the plain meaning of Genesis 1. “Let us make,” God says… and so they were made.

Doesn’t Paul, in Romans 7, contradict the idea that we only know what sin is because of the incarnation of Christ? Specifically, we have Paul saying the following:

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’… Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.”

Christmas needs the cross, part 2

December 19, 2013

In a current series of posts entitled “Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross,” United Methodist pastor, blogger, and author Jason Micheli writes the following (sorry—the man likes carriage returns):

Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all.

More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

As I said in yesterday’s lengthy post, I responded to his words above with the following:

Saying that Jesus “came to die” is an inelegant, un-nuanced way of expressing the truth that Jesus did, in fact, come to rescue us from our sin and reconcile us to God.

Yesterday, I began laying out why I disagree with Micheli (and why I find his overall tone—that any half-wit can see that he’s right and nearly everyone else is wrong—obnoxious, to say the least).

I felt slightly intimidated, however, because he says (without citing any sources) that he’s not saying anything that classic Christian thinkers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus didn’t also say.

But of those thinkers, I’ve only read a little of Aquinas, so what do I know, right?

I thought, “Am I missing something?” Has my seminary education once again let me down? At Emory—which is hardly Bob Jones University, after all—we were never taught, for example, that God sent his Son for some reason other than to save us. “For us and for our salvation,” the Nicene Creed says, “he came down from heaven.” And this view certainly corresponds to Wesleyan thinking on the subject.

But to appreciate my insecurity, you must understand something about me: over the past five years, I have experienced nothing less than an evangelical reawakening. I have fallen in love with the Bible again. I believe in its infallibility. I believe that the Bible is sufficient to inform our thinking about God, humanity’s relationship with God, and Christian faith.

To put things in perspective, there was a time when I thought (to my great shame) that C.S. Lewis—C.S. Lewis!—wasn’t a sophisticated enough Christian thinker, unlettered as he was in modern theology! Isn’t that hilarious? I was literally sophomoric when I graduated from the Candler School of theology. (“Sophomore” literally means, from Greek roots, “wise fool.”)

By the way, Jason Micheli lost me the moment he prefaced a quotation of C.S. Lewis by saying, “I hate pastors who quote C.S. Lewis but…”

So here I am, trying to understand what the Bible says, believing that the Bible alone ought to inform our understanding of the incarnation. After all, the Bible already has much to say about it without resorting to philosophical ideas outside of the Bible.

In his defense, Micheli says he’s doing speculative theology, that he’s only speculating on ideas about which the Bible is silent but which are nevertheless philosophically necessary—as any trained chimpanzee could surely see, he might add.

In principle, speculative theology that’s unopposed to biblical theology is O.K., so long as our speculations don’t become dogmatized (as with the Marian dogmas or transubstantiation in Roman Catholic theology). But as I’ve tried to argue, Micheli’s argument comes into conflict with what the Bible actually says.

He says, for instance, that God can’t truly love us unless or until God becomes incarnate in Christ. I am always very reluctant, even in theological discourse, to say what God can and can’t do. I’ll let God speak for himself, which in this case I believe he has—in scripture! John 3:16, for example, certainly contradicts Micheli’s idea: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” Because God already loved the world, he sent his Son. The incarnation was a consequence of God’s prior love. Not to mention that God loved his people Israel in the Old Testament, as the Bible says in a thousand different ways.

Micheli also says, for instance, that it’s incorrect to say that God became incarnate to save us from sin. But against this idea, I read verses like Matthew 20:28: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. Or Galatians 4:4-5: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” God sent his Son to redeem. Or Hebrews 2:14: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” He partook of flesh and blood that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.

As Jesus turns his face to his impending suffering and death on the cross, he says, in John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” In the context of John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” is his being lifted up on the cross. For this purpose I have come to this hour—to die on the cross. 

In the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, Paul connects the birth and incarnation (“having been found in human form”) directly to the cross (“he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross.”)

But this is just me citing scripture. I’m no Duns Scotus, after all. So I consulted United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, which synthesizes the Bible and the the thinking of the Church Fathers. In his the section of his book entitled “The Necessity of the Incarnation,” Oden writes[†]: “Scripture states the point starkly: he came to die (Athanasius, Four Discourses Ag. Arians, 3:58). The relationship between his birth and death can be stated schematically,” and he includes the following schematic (click to expand):

oden

 

All that to say, I hope, that it is no theological mistake to say that the main reason God became incarnate was to save us from sin. To say that the meaning of Christmas is found in the cross. Or, indeed, even to say that Jesus was born to die.

Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 272.