The Gay Spring

2013 saw incredible change in the legislative landscape of the United States with respect to marriage–a gay spring, if you will–that sharply divided the country along regional lines. Across the South and Central United States voters protected the traditional understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman and refused to extend that the definition to include same-sex couples. In the West and Northeast the definition was–sometimes against voter intent–expanded to allow for same sex marriages (as in California and Utah).

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This spring and summer–the time when Kings go off to war and denominations do too–Presbyterians will likely redefine marriage to allow for same sex weddings where civil law provides for it. And even where state law doesn’t permit it the option of sanctioning, blessing, consecrating, or otherwise attaching the churches endorsement to same sex unions will likely become an option for teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Since I live in North Carolina, this change will have little impact on me personally. Assuming, and it’s far from likely this would happen, that two men wanted me to marry them I could demur to state law without having to cite my own theological understanding of the issue. That’s a convenient position in which to find oneself. Of course, when ministers of the gospel look to the state for theological guidance it’s possible that the battle has already been lost.

Yet, there are many ministers across the country who will have lost the comfortable protection both of the state and the church in this regard. It is, however conceivable that with a change in marriage definition ministers will now be forced to be open about their views on marriage, even if they are not being asked to perform something that the state understands to be a wedding. This is difficult at the best of times, but in the face of opposition from both the state and the church it is onerous.

Mass culture has swung to affirm the GLBTQ community. Many Americans maintain traditional views with regard to sexuality, but it is now unacceptable to voice these in a public forum. I’m not talking about Duck Dynasty or some other pop culture person expressing views that are out of the “mainstream culture” as that culture constructed and communicated across media. I’m talking about a more general and diffuse pressure to join in with the chorus of affirmations of the sovereign right of the individual to discover (or construct?) his or her sexual identity.

I disagree with expanding the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution to encompass the right of same sex couples to marry. I disagree with it for a variety of reasons most of which are rooted in my theological understanding of God, humanity, creation, and the nature of marriage.

Since we don’t live in a Christian state, since what little moral consensus that once existed around this issue has evaporated, and since the line of precedent around this and other issues like it have unalterably led us to this place, I understand why many states are embracing this new reality of marriage.

I respect same sex people who choose to enter into legally-recognized partnerships. All things being equal–which of course they’re not–it’s better for a gay couple to enter into to some form of monogamous partnership or marriage than the alternative.

In the eyes of some states these are marriages, but in reality they are really only approximately equal to marriage. Those elements that are essential to marriage are missing from same sex relationships. As a result, to the church, these are really no marriage at all. On one level I’d prefer to not have to write this, but to do so would betray the Holy Scriptures that were handed to me as well as the churches theological reflection on Christ and the Scriptures for the last millennium.

To my mind, gay marriages are marriages in the same way that a corporation is a person–as a result of a legal fiction. A corporation may have rights like a person–political speech for example–but at the end of the day I think we can all agree that Goldman Sachs isn’t a person in the same way that Aunt Betty is.

So what of those whose views are popularly portrayed as slinking to occupy the hazy background of our current cultural snapshot? It simply remains for us to live peaceably with gentleness and respect.

My Augustinian view of history makes an awful lot of room for our culture to choose poorly, to favor error over truth. It happens in my own denomination and certainly within my country. In the end any law that violates God Law will be proven to be false and in the age that is to come will melt away. That is, of course, an eschatological statement, and we’re not in the eschaton yet. What remains is for those of us who are called and ordained to the work of preaching the Gospel to remain faithful to respect the civil authority while protecting the purity of the church’s teaching, worship, and sacraments. If I have to break civil or ecclesial law to do that, so be it.

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Making a life or making a living?

News reports regularly give statistics about the rise or decline in new applications for unemployment benefits. Each of us probably knows at least one person who has been unemployed for more than a year. We likely know many more who have been without work for a shorter period of time. Our society has generally embraced the model of work for wages–we exchange our knowledge and/or manpower for cash. Most of us can’t think of any other way in which to order our lives. The question is, however, does this arrangement really work all that well? Does making a living require us to sacrifice our lives?

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Frederick Buechner has written:

We must be careful with our lives, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.

Given the premium our culture puts on comfort (the ‘good life’), it’s ironic how little we intentionally our lives to see if we are treating them as precious or as simply a means to an end. Are we simply doing more and more meaningless things with ever greater efficiency?

What does making a life really look like? In a recent post Scott Martin notes:

Those focusing on making a living see wealth solely in the context of the cash nexus: the opportunities, possessions, luxuries and leisure that money affords. Those focusing on making a life see wealth in terms of the depth and quality of their relationships, the strength of their home, the memories they make, the moments they share, the lives they touch. In fact, the people I most respect who have made lives worth emulating rarely focus on money at all. There have been times when they have had plenty and times when they have struggled, but the constant is in how deeply they have loved.

Imagine sitting down with a financial planner and in addition to totaling your bank accounts and mapping your investments, you also mapped your significant relationships and explored your relationship to your home.

Martin continues quoting Buechner:

Buechner writes that the world is full of people who “seem to have listened to the wrong voice” and are doing work that “seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.”

It’s ironic that some of the vocations that directly seek to meet the greatest human needs are the least esteemed (and rewarded) in our culture: teacher, care-giver, social worker, priest. Could it be that our value system is inverted?

Ask yourself: am I making a living or making a life? What two things could I most easily change in order to improve the quality of my life (in terms of relationships)? Resolve to start making those changes.

Are there really two marriages?

[This is part one of two discussing Tony Jones’s series of blog posts compiled as, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011) and available on Kindle.]

In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage. The church would conduct a rite that refers exclusively to the religious or sacramental nature of marriage, and the state would ratify a legal agreement between two people, known as civil marriage.

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Jones builds his case on the basis of what might be a called a strict separationist—even Anabaptist—view of the relationship of the church to the state. Jones’s argument is plausible, but is relies in places on a view of both the church and of the state that is problematic.

A central pillar in Jones’s argument is his discomfort at clergy acting as agents of the state in the case of marriage. This is an objection I am hearing with increased frequency, even outside anabaptist churches. He writes, “…almost all of them [pastors and priests] express extreme discomfort at this situation, for it actually requires the clergyperson to act as an extension of the state.”  Further, “…that conflicts with the theology held by many pastors, Calvinist and Arminian, Protestant and Catholic.”

At first glance, Jones’s argument seems compelling. On further examination, we’re forced to ask whether Jones has, in fact, gotten it backwards. Is the cleric really an agent of the state or is it the other way round? Is the state an agent of the church or at least offering sanction for a rite of the church that the state finds beneficial? In reality, neither is fully the case and perhaps that’s why marriage is often something of a mystery to modern and postmodern people—it presupposes that the spheres of religious belief and law can peacefully coexist and together accomplish a societal good.

Moderns and post-moderns—really, hyper-moderns—presuppose what Richard John Neuhaus referred to as the “naked public square.” That is to say, they presuppose a sharp division between religion and public life. Religious considerations ought not to shape public policy since religious knowledge is not universal and is questionable as a legitimate type of knowledge. Public policy is empirical and verifiable, religious knowledge is simply internal and subjective.

In arguing for the separation of religious and civil marriage, Jones appeals to the “two kingdom” view: “Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. And the Apostle Paul expands this idea in the book of Ephesians, writing about the spiritual realm as opposed to the physical.” Jones’s reading of Jesus and Paul is, perhaps, a bit over the top. That the kingdom of God is not something currently apprehensible to the senses is not the same thing as saying that God is unconcerned with this world. It is surprising that Jones reaches this conclusion since later in the book he reveals himself as a panentheist. That is, Jones believes that “God indwells all of creation.”

Jones further claims that Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Locke all follow in the steps of Jesus and Paul by making a distinction between the church and the civil magistrate. Clearly blog posts are not the best context for discussing precisely what this differentiation means, but suffice it to say that Jones is clearly here unable to give a cogent rationale for his sharp division of the two. He fails to realize that marriage is necessarily the union of religious belief with the physical world.

…To be continued…

Are we a church separated by a common language?

Disclaimer: This post is designed to be neither polemical nor apologetic. I’m attempting to describe what I am observing in the midst of the current unrest in the PC(USA). While it is a generalization, I think there a significant degree of accuracy in this observation. -JBG

An American walked into an Oxford pub and addressed the bartender, “I’d like a beer and some chips.” The response puzzled him, “It’ll be five minutes on the chips, they’re in the fryer.” Looking behind the bar, the man noticed row after row of different types of chips–regular, salt and vinegar, barbecue–lined up ready to go. It’s been observed that the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language. In Britain, chips are crisps and the word chips refers what we might call fries.

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The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a denomination separated by a common language. It’s not our only challenge, but certainly ranks among the top five.

This reality often escapes the casual observer who reads our Book of Confessions and Book of Order. When any of us reads, we pour into the words before our eyes a meaning we associate with those words based on our education, experience, and convictions. In other words, we engage in interpreting those words–that is, we translate. This is why lawyers (and philosophers) are so precise with words. At least one job of a good lawyer is to ensure that her client clearly understands what, in reality, he is agreeing to. There is, of course, often a difference between what we think we’re agreeing to and what the other person thinks we are agreeing to. The difference often lies in the interpretive act.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we share a common theological language. That language, however, is filled with varying and often competing interpretations. We all say “chips,” but some of us are thinking french fries and others Baked Lays. Same words. Different meanings.

One example of this is the theological phrase, “the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Every part of the church, perhaps with the exception of those who object to the term “lord” in the first place, affirm that Jesus is Lord. Technically, it is inaccurate to say that the denomination rejects the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The reality is that there is a diversity of meaning in this phrase.

What does this phrase mean? Are we talking chips or fries?

When evangelicals (broadly) say the “Jesus is Lord,” they typically understand this phrase to refer to a constellation of affirmations.

These include, but aren’t necessarily limited to,the following:

  • Jesus is the only way by which we may be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation is accompanied by a conscious recognition of it if not a conscious decision to repent of sin and believe the gospel;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations whose currency comes in the form of longevity rather than novelty.

Typically, evangelicals will focus more closely on personal piety or personal righteousness and less on what might be called social righteousness. This is the residue of revivalism in the creation of modern evangelicalism.

Again, broadly, those who are not evangelical will mean something different with the phrase:

  • Jesus is the only (some would not agree to this) way to be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation may or may not be accompanied by an awareness of it;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations that consider the insights of modern critical scholarship and recognize the significance of the interpreter in assessing the meaning of a text.
  • Older interpretations are more likely to be affected by social realities that no longer exist and which may (although not necessarily should) be rejected.

Those outside of the evangelical camp will tend to emphasize the corporate or social nature of righteousness and see in Scripture that a key component of the nature of the church is it’s commission to stand for God’s justice in the world.

See the tension?

I’ve written elsewhere about how tensions have to be managed rather than resolved. This tension in the PC(USA) will not go away nor will it dissipate. In the end, every minister and church has to decide to what extent are they willing and able to manage the tension. Those who are both unable and unwilling ought to be free to appropriately depart. Those who believe they can remain should do so.

 

Is God angry at sin?

Protestant churches—especially evangelical ones—typically sing their theology. In the absence of a formal liturgy hymnody carries the weight of theological formation. Scripture shapes our beliefs about God more in the theory than in reality. The average Christian spends little time exploring how the confessions interpret Scripture. Instead, our sung worship songs shape our beliefs. Their influence comes by virtue of their memorable lyrical quality. It takes less effort to memorize a song (sung regularly) than a catechism that is ignored.

That’s why I was so disturbed by the recent decision of the committee compiling the forthcoming Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God to omit the song, “In Christ Alone.” You can read the story here. If hymnody is sung theology then what does this decision say about the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

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This decision is troublesome for several reasons. First, the committee weighed two ways of conceptualizing what a hymnal is. They asked the question: Is it a collection of diverse hymns reflecting a variety of theological views present in the church? As such, any commitment to a unified theological vision would be downplayed in favor of representation of various views or styles. Their should be no problem including this popular song.

They also asked: is a hymnal a “deliberately selective book” that emphasizes some views and excludes others on the basis of its “educational mission” (I prefer “catechetical mission”) for the church? This requires some degree of theological unanimity.

The prevailing view of the committee was that a hymnal has an educational message, which requires rejecting some theological viewpoints that no longer comport with the view of the church.

This is an important consideration. I agree with the decision of the committee to envision the hymnal as something that is consonant with and advances the theological vision of the church. The problem is that in making this decision the committee has emphatically set aside a theological vision that comports with my own. In the rush to be inclusive the committee has, in actuality, excluded a theological vision that has inspired many Christians over the centuries, not the least of whom is John Calvin.

Read the rest of the article here.