Posts tagged Theology
Last Chance for a Win-Win on Same Sex Marriage?

In the wake of a lot of conversation without a lot of substance, I have a deep appreciation for the following blog posted by Bob Hyatt. I don't agree with all of his premises but I have a deep respect for the civility and thoughtufulness of this response:


"This week, two important things happened. First, the voters of North Carolina passed a State constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. And then shortly after, President Obama reversed his long-held position against same-sex marriage and said, “It ought to be legal.” In addition, the polls now show that the country is almost precisely divided in half for and against changing our laws on this issue.


All of which lead me to believe that we will soon reach or have already reached the last chance for both sides of this issue to lay down the all-or-nothing mentality they possess, and find a win-win scenario where each side gets the essentials of what they want.
Is it possible to have a win-win on same-sex marriage (SSM)? I think it’s not only possible- it’s imperative.


Because, at least at this point, neither side seems willing to try and see the issue from the perspective of the other and look for something other than a binary, up or down, yes or no kind of solution. And where will that lead us? Certainly no place good. Look for more protests of churches, more of those who speak out in favor of the biblical understanding of marriage to be labeled as “haters”… and fewer and fewer gay men and women even giving the Gospel a hearing because in their mind, the Church simply doesn’t care about them as people.


In order to avoid an exacerbation of this cultural war, some common sense compromise is going to be necessary- each side is going to have to give up something for the sake of the other.

On one side, the Church is going to have to realize that gay men and women, in wanting what everyone else has, are asking for something reasonable. Rights of inheritance and property, custody and visitation- all of the rights granted currently by the state in marriage are good things, things we can affirm, even in relationships that we wouldn’t necessarily endorse. After all, even if we hold a more conservative view on divorce, I don’t see many churches advocating for divorced couples to lose the right to have custody over their step-children should something happen to their spouse. We may not endorse the relationship, but we can certainly try to understand the desire of those in it to have the same legal rights as other couples. And more than understand it- I think we can advocate for it, and practically demonstrate that we do in fact “love everyone.”


At a bare minimum, those who claim the stance “Welcoming but not affirming” must come to grips with the very practical question of what that looks like not just on Sunday morning, but it the public/civic arena too.


On the other side, those pushing for SSM need to understand the depth of feeling involved in and around the word marriage- what is for many Christians a sacrament and for all Christians sacred. To have the State legislate an understanding of what is essentially a religious term, and to legislate it in a way contrary to the faith and practice of so many is profoundly offensive. This goes beyond legalization into the realm of endorsement and definition, and as such, is qualitatively different than many other culture war issues.


As long as we’re talking about “marriage” we’re going to continue to see a stalemate on this issue as those who believe in a traditional, biblical view of sexuality and those who want the basic rights afforded to others all around them each refuse to give an inch.

So what’s the solution?


The State needs to get out of the “marriage” business. It should recognize that as long as it uses that term, and continues to privilege certain types of relationships over others this issue is going to divide us as a nation, and is only going to become more and more contentious. We need to move towards the system used in many European countries where the State issues nothing but civil unions to anyone who wants them, and then those who desire it may seek a marriage from the Church. When I pastored in the Netherlands, this was the system- you got a civil union certificate at the courthouse and then a Marriage ceremony at the church. This division largely negated the culture war aspect, and allowed those churches who objected to same sex marriage on biblical grounds to not only opt out, but to be able to continue to teach their biblical view of marriage, uncontradicted by the State.

But more even than changing our system, we need to change our hearts. I don’t know how many proponents of gay marriage will be reading this, so I won’t make much of a plea to them beyond this: please stop labeling the other side of the argument as “hate speech” and bigotry. It’s not. It is a working out of deep convictions and a particular understanding of sexuality as a good gift from a good Creator, to be used within certain boundaries. Personal animosity doesn’t enter into the argument- and when it does, it deserves just as much sanction and rebuke from the Church as anything else.


And that means that in addition to rethinking how we talk about LGBTQ issues in the church, and what it looks like to actively welcome them in the name of Jesus, the Church needs to rethink its political strategies. We ought to stop worrying about ballot measures and propositions which declare same sex marriage illegal, and ought to start focusing on the new realities of this Post-Christendom world in which we find ourselves. Our efforts would better be spent on trying to get the government OUT of marrying anyone. Will this mean giving up one more piece of privilege and power in the public sphere? Sure- the Pastor’s signing of the “Marriage License,” a document issued by the State is exactly that. But if it gets us towards a place of peacemaking with a community we are not doing very well at sharing the Gospel with, isn’t laying that down worth it?


Ultimately, we in the Church need to change our hearts as well. It is our primary goal that the Gospel of Jesus be heard and understood and that the person of Jesus be esteemed. As we often say in marriage counseling, “perception is reality,” and the sad truth is that right now, the gay community in America doesn’t think much of us or our Jesus, not based on the offensiveness of our Gospel, but on the offensiveness of our fighting what they see as fundamental human rights. My fear is that we may (for a while longer at least) continue to win battles like The recent one in North Carolina… but ultimately lose the war in the hearts of a portion of our population who become convinced that the Gospel couldn’t possibly be Good News to them, based on what they do (or don’t) see in us."


You can find Bob Hyatt's blog at:

Rob Bell's, "Love Wins"

A couple weeks ago I read Rob Bell’s, “Love Wins” and frankly - I was really confused by what all the hoopla was about. And it really ticked me off at the number of people who either did not read the book and felt like they could comment on it OR clearly did not understand (or misrepresented) what Rob Bell was attempting to say.

Rob starts the book by taking fundamentalist evangelicalism to its logical (and absurd) conclusions. He holds a mirror up to our beliefs and gets us to recognize how tied our soteriology is to Dante’s Inferno and Greek Dualism (although he does not use those words). The problem is more than just an abstract theological exercise – it is of critical importance to proper understanding of the way of Jesus and our role in THIS world, right NOW. Bell writes with tongue planted firmly in cheek:

“If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it. If it got bad enough, you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived.” (Pages 6-7)

He then does a nice job of re-framing the questions of the afterlife in the indigenous soil of the scripture. In this sense, Bell does not (contrary to popular opinion) dismiss Hell as non-existent. Rather, he recognizes the very diverse ways that Christian thinkers over the last 2,000 years have thought about God’s redemption of the world outside of our current narrow, fundamentalist view.

This book is clearly meant to be more pastoral than academic in nature. As such, my good friends Tom Oord and Brint Montgomery do a much better job of reflecting on questions like the nature of God and human freedom arguments than I could ever hope to do. These are critical issues to wrestle with, in my humble opinion, and I’m glad that Rob has stirred the pot to get us thinking about them. But to summarize Rob’s argument:

“…given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.” (p. 107)

Personally, I wouldn’t go as far as Rob assumes here. I think he underestimates human depravity and stubbornness – I would re-title the book, “Love Usually Wins”. (And yes, I get the irony that the Neo-Reformed Poster Boy is more optimistic about grace than this life-long Wesleyan). I guess I have a hard time using words like “all” and “everyone” on one hand and taking human freedom and God’s non-cohersive love seriously on the other. But that is just my opinion. And so while I don’t completely agree with him, Rob seems to be easily within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

In the end, this book is not just an ivory tower speculative discussion, this conversation goes to the heart how we communicate Jesus’ Gospel. The church growth adage that “the message doesn’t change but the methods do” is simply not true. Theology needs to be a continuing conversation in which we wrestle with and re-imagine faith within the broad boundaries of orthodoxy. Theological models that worked well for worldviews of 200 years ago may find themselves in need of further conversation in 2011. Rob shows his concern as a practitioner:

“And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.

“And so there are conferences about how churches can be more ‘relevant’ and ‘missional’ and ‘welcoming’ and there are vast resources, many, many books and film, for those who want to ‘reach out’ and ‘connect’ and ‘build relationships’ with people who aren’t part of the church. And that can be helpful. But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of God is behind all this?

“Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins they committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable awful reality.” (P. 175)

If I remember my church history correctly, Reformed Theology emerged as an attempt to help people escape from salvation being a tool of manipulation and control by the Roman Catholic Church. (This is the only context in which five point Calvinism makes any sense at all to me!) Reformed Theology desperately wanted salvation to be from start to finish all about God and his grace and not about other people’s interpretation of who is in and who is out. And if I remember correctly, burning people at the stake or other methods of torture were commonplace attempts by ecclesiastical authorities to keep that power. I think that “Love Wins” is in many respects a re-discovery and re-imagination of the reformer’s spirit when it comes to salvation. And that may explain the angry responses by those who are in positions of ecclesiastical power.

Dangerous Eschatology

I don’t know many people who took seriously Harold Camping and his doomsday prediction for May 21st.And I’m confident that every late-night comedian is delighted that he has revised his prediction to five
months from now
.(As a side note – Camping’s revision of May 21st being a “spiritual thing” happening rather than a physical event is eerily similar to the Seventh Day Adventists dealing with “The Great Disappointment” of Jesus not coming back in 1844. It’s uncanny how history has a way of repeating itself.)

The whole episode would be quite funny to me as well except that I am pastor.Consequently, I have
to deal with the human carnage that is inherent in this kind of bad eschatology.This weekend I had a conversation with a young woman who was convinced by her Pentecostal church that it was a waste of time for her to attend college because Jesus was coming back so soon. Eight years later she is understandably very hurt with the path that she chose after trusting her spiritual leaders.

I also don’t think the whole episode is very funny to those who gave their life savings to Camping’s organization to put up billboards.

All of the biblical and theological shortcomings of this kind of thinking can’t be addressed in a short blog like this.But what is clear from a pastoral perspective is that Camping is a true “wolf in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). Any belief that makes us less engaged with the suffering of this world runs
contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” NOT, “Get us out of here to Heaven so that we don’t have to
deal with this Earth.”

What is most ironic to me is that those outside of the Christian Beltway seem to intuitively get Jesus’ message more than some insiders do.On May 22nd, one of my high school friends posted on Facebook, “To the ‘A’ hole who spent millions of dollars on billboards across America about the so called rapture that was going to happen yesterday. I hope you feel good about your money spent, personally I would have spent that money on someone who needs help, just sayin.....”

A couple years ago Bill Mahr produced a film that was exceptionally anti-religious.While I thought many of his arguments were straw men, the final scene the movie put in to some perspective for me the tension that many outside of organized religion feel with all the dangerous eschatology that is floating around religious circles these days:

For those of us who are insiders – can we agree to corporately repent of all the times that we distracted people from REAL issues with speculation and trivia?Can we repent of ways that we have been so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good?