The NEW Test for Christian Orthodoxy!

In my last post, I listed the ten commitments of the emergent ‘Mesa’ group, here  https://toddrisser.com/2014/04/23/the-mesa-list-of-ten-commitments/

One word in that list will jump out to many evangelicals who I know these days: sexuality. It will trump, override and cross out everything else in the document.

Evangelicalism has a new test for orthodoxy. This is how you see if someone is a Real Christian or not. It’s how you tell if they love Jesus. Like a grocery store scanner scanning a bar code, all you have to do is check their brain for one issue: How do they interpret the verses in the Bible about homosexuality?

Never mind that the Nicene Creed has been the standard for orthodoxy for around 16 centuries. That’s not good enough. A Real Christian is now determined by ideas or questions someone has about homosexuality and how to interpret or apply those seven passages of Scripture.

Forget about if they have repented of their sins and become a follower of Jesus. Forget about placing all their hope and trust and faith in what Jesus did on the cross, and on Him daily. Forget about loving God and loving neighbor. Forget about doing justice, loving mercy or walking humbly with God. Forget about Matthew 25 and what it says about the Great Judgment. No, none of that matters. The new test for a Real Christian is how you exegete and apply seven pieces of Scripture about homosexuality.

It’s not the only New Nicene Creed. About 30 years ago Jim Dobson declared that the moral equivalent of a human being is when a sperm fertilizes an ova, even though it hasn’t attached to the uterine wall (and isn’t viable until it does, I might add). And so, that too became the new test of Real Christianity: your position on when life begins, or when it has the moral significance of a human (the question was never that life is sacred in the womb – Christianity has always agreed on that – the question became your view of scientific theory on whether that moment was fertilization, ovulation,  attachment to the uterus, or later). Though I land in the relatively conservative end of these conversations on sexuality and life in the womb, I find it ludicrous that we’ve now substituted these questions for the Nicene’s summary of faith-assertions about Jesus as the New Christian Orthodoxy.

But before that there was another. The Nicene Creed wasn’t enough for the fundamentalists in the 1920s. They made up a new list of doctrines you had to sign on to be a Real Christian.  Even though one of those doctrines (penal substitution) wasn’t around the first 1000 years of Christianity.

It seems evangelical Christianity is bored with the Nicene Creed and we need other, more interesting tests for Real Christianity than just how we respond to Jesus.

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The ‘Mesa’ list of Ten Commitments

Mesa is a gathering conversation, on-line and in person, of emerging/Emergent Christian leaders around the world. Their website (http://mesa-friends.org/) says “What is mesa? La Mesa is a Spanish word for table. It suggests a way of coming together in mutual acceptance, respect, and service. It reminds us of the life and message of Jesus – who used a table to tell the story of God’s welcoming and reconciling love.”

Mesa lists ten commitments (below). I find them to be characteristic of the kinds of emphases emergent Christians have been talking about for some time now. One thing in this list will probably jump out bold to those against the Emergent movement. I might talk about that next time.

1. We believe in Jesus and the good news of the reign, commonwealth, or ecosystem of God, and we seek for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven by focusing on love – love for God and neighbor, for outsider and enemy.

2. We seek to know, serve, and join the poor in the struggle for justice and freedom … through advocacy, relationships, and action.

3. We seek to honor, interpret, and apply the Bible in fresh and healing ways, aware of the damaging ways the Bible has been used in the past.

4. We seek to reconnect with the earth, understand the harm human beings are doing to it, and discover more responsible, regenerative ways of life in it.

5. We seek the common good, locally and globally, through churches of many diverse forms, contexts, and traditions, and we imagine fresh ways for churches to form Christlike people and join God in the healing of the world.

5. We build inclusive partnerships across gaps between the powerful and vulnerable – including disparities based on wealth, gender, race and ethnic identity, education, religion, sexuality, age, politics, and physical ability.

6. We engage conflict at all levels of human society with the creative and nonviolent wisdom of peacemaking.

7. We propose new ways of encountering the other in today’s pluralistic world and we collaborate with other religious and secular groups in alliances for the common good.

8. We host safe space for constructive theological conversation, seeking to root our practice in theological reflection and seeking to express our reflection in practical action.

9. We value the arts for their unique role in nurturing, challenging, and transforming our humanity.

10. We emphasize spiritual and relational practices to strengthen our inner life with God and our relationships with one another.

Theological Immediacy Syndrome

I think those who decry current theological work suffer from a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without an awareness of how we got our theology, and what that means for the on-going ways theology will develop in our lifetime and well beyond.  I mean by this that they imagine that their theology is a once-for-all-time message that needs protected for theological purity; a beleaguered set of doctrines that has been attacked throughout the centuries and has been successfully defended and still must be. Or, in the case of some of our New Calvinism friends, they imagine Christian theology was one certain accumulation of doctrines that was somehow lost in the early days of the church, re-surfaced when John Calvin came along in France, and now must be protected for all time, the one true expression of The Faith; and if you aren’t sure what it is, just keep your John MacArthur and John Piper books handy.

This, of course, suffers from the fact that it is simply historically untrue. All of our theologies have been through numerous revisions. All Christian theology, including Calvin’s, have accumulated, morphed, jettisoned, adjusted, re-vised and edited themselves over and over again. When people, like the emergents, start writing new directions in theology, they are simply repeating a process that has been going on for 20 centuries.  (And one that we know, from the diversity of Second Temple Judaism, was going on in Judaism during Jesus’ time as well).  Friends of mine who de-cry the emergent/postmodern Christians seem to imagine that whatever they write today might de-rail the Christian faith for all time. I think of that as a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without a long view of history. What the historical process shows us is that, rather than crying heretic! every time somebody tries to do some work, if we sit back and let the pot simmer on the stove, it allows for the on-going work of Christian theology to develop, just like it always has. It takes a while for new iterations of Christian theology and practice to work its way out. We don’t need to rush it or stress.

The Shift to Postmodern Christianity

Down through the centuries, Christianity has been very good at adapting to various changes and shifts in worldview and culture. At the hinge-era of what we usually call the modern/post-modern area, we are in the sometimes volatile thinking-phase of this adaption.

Eddie Bibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their extensive examination of emerging churches have written:

“Because of this essential dismantling work, some outside the (emergent/emerging) movement have said that those in emerging churches do not love the church or that they are full of negativity because of their propensity for dismantling church structures. This is to misread the movement entirely. What to some may appear to be pointless complaining is a part of a larger process of dismantling ideas of church that simply are not viable in postmodern culture. Neither the gospel nor the culture demands these expressions of the faith. Emerging churches remove modern practices of Christianity, not the faith itself. Western Christianity has wed itself to a culture, the modern culture, which is now in decline. Many of us do not know what a postmodern or post-Christendom expression of faith looks like. Perhaps nobody does. But we need to give these leaders space to have this conversation, for this dismantling needs to occur if we are to see the gospel translated for and embodied in twenty-first-century Western culture…” (Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 28-29)

George Hunter III has said, more than once, that many churches are poised to be effective if 1952 ever rolls around again. Surely we don’t want North American Christianity in the 21st Century to end up having been “islands filled with modernist Christians while surrounded by a sea of postmodern people”, do we?  I am indebted to Dustin Metcalf (Akkerman, Oord & Peterson, Postmodern and Wesleyan? 63) for this picturesque image.

World Vision, gay folk, Cedarville University and women

This past week two Christian institutions both made the news in regards to some interesting decisions.

World Vision, the huge Christian aid and development charity (huge as in, a one billion dollar budget – the country budget for Somalia alone this year was around $40 million), decided it would not refuse to hire people who were involved in same-sex marriages. (With 1,100 employees at headquarters, they figured they had some who were gay, and this, among other things allows for their partners to have health benefits). They claimed they were trying to do three things: “First, to focus on the aspects of the biblical mandate that are non-negotiable: caring for the poor, victims of injustice, and especially children,” said Dearborn. “Second, to contribute to the unity of the church around those things, at a time when the church is fractured. And third, to contribute as a result of that to the credibility of the gospel and the church in the eyes of American society.”[1]

But wait. A firestorm of response (and cancelled child sponsorships) from evangelicals caused WV to reverse course, publicly apologize, and withdraw the provision. My college age son asked me what I thought, and it’s this: To be sure, I certainly desire legal rights for all people. I like living in a free country. I cherish our freedoms as precious. (Leave my guns alone, by the way). In this free country, someone doesn’t have to share the sexual ethics of my religion for me to want legal protections and rights for them. Alongside this, in this free country, religious organizations are allowed to follow their conscience about ethical issues, including sexual ethics.

Christian organizations are in a tough spot here, potentially balancing health benefits to a few handfuls (or even a few hundred) employees vs. say, feeding tens of thousands of children. Even those organizations who really want to grant access to excellent health benefits regardless of someone’s sexual orientation, have to balance that with accomplishing their larger mission. I think if I were a gay person working for them, I might say “feed the children; I don’t want hundreds of thousands of kids potentially losing the sponsorships by which they survive so that I can get my partner health benefits… I’ll get insurance some other way.” Or I’d work for someone else, but that’s just me.

During this same week, Cedarville (Baptist) University in Ohio seems to have abolished co-ed theology courses. I say “seems” because alumni are reporting this, but official statements from the school don’t say it explicitly. What IS clear in school documents is that all but one of CBU’s female theology profs have left, women are not allowed to take the pastor track major, and they have officially banned men from taking classes on women’s ministry taught by a woman. Alumni are claiming that, since women shouldn’t teach men according to the Bible, male theology students can now only be taught theology by male professors. Many of us evangelicals will roll our eyes, shake our heads and laugh saying What next – the burkha? We will say things like “How can they stick with these views of women – this is crazy. What are they afraid of?”

But my point is the way we treat Bible verses about women and homosexuality. The irony of Cedarville’s woman question and the gay question at WV during the same week is not lost on me. My friends to both the right and the left of me theologically will both say to us evangelicals, “You’ve exegeted your way around the verses that say no women teaching men or speaking in church, what’s stopping you from exegeting your way around the 5 verses in the Bible about homosexuality?” My more conservative friends will mean that women should sit down and shut up in church. My more liberal friends will mean we need to drop our prejudice against homosexuals just like we have against women. Both will accuse us of speaking out of both sides of our mouths.

And it’s easy to see why they would say this. They’re right: we have a handful of verses against women in ministry leadership, and we’ve successfully built exegetical and Scriptural arguments against and around them. We have a handful of verses about homosexuality and some Christians have built similar exegetical arguments against them, saying they don’t refer to the kind of monogamous same-sex marriages we see today. They will also remind us that 150 years ago people used the Bible to defend slavery, and had very strong, reasonable arguments that the Bible never condemns slavery, accepts it as normative, and instructs masters how to act – explicitly endorsing it! So it’s not hard to see why some of our friends will accuse us of not being consistent with how we handle these two issues.

I will watch with great interest to see how this discussion of the exegesis of bible verses regarding homosexuality unfolds for evangelicalism in general, and the Church of the Nazarene in particular, in the coming decades. What happened at World Vision is not going to go away. Hopefully what happened at Cedarville will, but religious freedom should, and does, give them the right to make those decisions. I just find it curious that anyone wants to be part of that.

 

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-reverses-decision-gay-same-sex-marriage.html