On Atheist Church

United Church of Canada minister Gretta Vosper has been open and outspoken about her atheism for quite a while, and the United Church is starting to question her validity as a priest. CBC’s The Current recently ran a short documentary about her and her congregation.

I remember reading about Gretta Vosper in 2009, my first year of seminary. Our class was asked to think through the question of taking Jesus out of church and rewriting hymns (“Jesus Christ is Risen Today” was changed to “Glorious Hope is Risen Today”) and I remember at the time being completely boggled by the concept. My initial reaction, still, is to ask two questions.

First: if you don’t believe in God, why bother even going to church? Perhaps because I’ve never been a member of a liturgical church, I’ve never seen much value in going to church for its own sake. I find the social interactions to be pretty forced (shaking hands and saying hi – or passing the peace, as the high church calls it – without actually having any time whatsoever to actually connect with anyone); I dislike singing on command, and find most modern worship music to be banal at best, theologically questionable and banal at worst; and the number of sermons I can remember even an hour afterward can be counted on one hand, not because they were necessarily poor but because most lectures or sermons render the audience passive and are therefore bad at actually transmitting information in a way that is memorable. The only thing that makes any of these things worthwhile or valuable is because they are a form of communicating with and communing with God – particularly in liturgical, sacramental churches, which believe that the sacraments actually embody God in some meaningful way. Without God liturgical churches are just clubs, and non-liturgical churches are just a show, and there are much better and more interesting clubs and shows to partake in. If you don’t believe in God, you have a get-out-of-church-free card that can be redeemed for sleeping in every week, or for whatever edification or good works you may be up to on a Sunday morning if you aren’t stuck in an awkward handshake with someone you don’t see or talk to any other day of the week.

So why keep it up? Vosper and her congregation seem to emphasize community and ethics, both highly important and laudable. But why dress them up in the trappings of a religion you believe to be false? The reason seems to be that they believe that this is an evolution of Christianity. Which brings me to the second question that immediately comes to mind.

Second: So you like getting together with people once a week for mutual edification: but why call it Christianity? I could understand calling it a church even if it doesn’t believe in God – after all, we have many other organizations that call themselves churches that certainly don’t believe in the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The Unitarian Church, for example, is pluralist and includes room for atheists. The Church of Satan, contrary to its name, does not believe that Satan is real, but uses the name as a provocative way to declare their atheism; from what I’ve heard they value community and philanthropy, like most theistic churches. So why keep up the pretense of Christianity if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Christ, if you don’t read the Bible, if you have to edit your liturgy and songs to remove God from them entirely?

Well, if for whatever reason you no longer believe that God is real, the only way to approach the concept of church is through the sociology of religion. Sociology of religion is a powerful field that examines why we behave the way we do in regard to religion: why we believe in things we can’t see, how we use religion to enforce or reinforce behavioural or belief structures, how those belief structures organize our communities, etc. If you believe that God does not exist, then sociology of religion can provide all sorts of reasons why religion is important – after all, many sociologists of religion (even most?) are atheists themselves, and at least attempt to assume a value-neutral position on the existence of God in their work, studying religion from a why/how/social perspective rather than a so what/theological perspective. In the documentary embedded above, Vosper mentions that religion was useful for so long, but that it no longer is; this is a sociological viewpoint.

Christianity has a long history of taking things that it disagrees with and repurposing them. For example, Christmas and Easter celebrations in the West both incorporate numerous holidays and traditions from various other religions (think: Christmas trees, Yule logs, mistletoe, Easter eggs/bunnies, etc). We take the best of other traditions and use them for our own purposes. Some people see this as syncretism, merging two disparate religions into some mutation that doesn’t truly represent either (such as the Unitarian Church); others see it as cultural/religious colonialism, adopting the things we like best about those we conquer and making them our own, while forgetting where they come from; and still others see it as the natural function of a religion, to orient all things in the world to God, which might mean recognizing the godliness in the best of another’s culture and might mean finding other practices to be void of meaning or resonance with Christ and therefore dismissed or forgotten. It can be all three, and more, depending on the context and the way it is done – and whether or not you’re in the in-group. In any case, I think that this is what Gretta Vosper is doing: apropriating church itself, the outward trappings of the Christian religion, for the sake of their sociological value to the community.

Vosper’s congregation has changed by degrees, only changing song lyrics or removing prayers (or changing the name of prayer to “community sharing time”) when someone brings it up as something that doesn’t align with their values. The change from a church to an atheist church has been an evolution of sorts, a bridge from a tradition and community into a new kind of community that still believes itself to be in line with its tradition (from what I can tell). This quote from the documentary seems to illustrate Vosper’s view of why her church is still a Christian church:

The United Church has to hear how important it is that our continued use of theological language that posits a moral authority in some supernatural realm and a supernatural being, that that is a very dangerous tool in the 21st century, and that we need to argue strongly and lead the way in the conversation that says we are responsible for our own choices here, we are responsible for deciding how we want to be in relationship, we are responsible for how we want to interact with the world…. If I find out through this review process that the United Church is unwilling to do that work…I will feel betrayed, because that’s my church, and my church doing that will mean that it’s not the church that I thought it was.

It seems that she still very much wants to belong. The fact that she would feel betrayed by an organization that is calling her out on the fact that she has disowned its central reason for existence, its founders, its core beliefs, and further that she would feel that betrayal not just because they would call her on it but because they might not be willing to follow her in apostasy, is fascinating. Of course, she maintains theological language and justification for her atheism, and believes that she can in good conscience continue to sign on to the statement of faith of the United Church, which affirms trinitarian theism – or at least, that it is good enough that she once did. The reversal is possible because of the emphasis on inclusiveness.

I love inclusiveness, but not at the expense of identity. The United Church of Canada has been trying to walk the line of inclusivity for its entire existence, and in some ways it has been a leader in embodying a christlike inclusivity that puts the rest of the church to shame; in other ways it has sacrificed identity and theology for the sake of inclusivity, and created a theological vagueness that allows theologians like Vosper to break away from theological tradition. The other United Church minister in the podcast, Connie denBok, pointed out that as soon as we say that we believe one thing and not another we are already being exclusive, a statement that echoes Vosper’s belief that even using theological language is exclusive. If an organization based around the worship of God cannot speak theologically for fear of excluding someone who does not believe in God, is it really based around the worship of God? It is one thing to question this, quite another to implement it with the level of prejudice that Vosper does. It appears to me that she has good intentions, but that she is misleading herself and her congregation by maintaining the title of Christianity while deliberately and explicitly excising the name of Christ from every other aspect of what they do.

I think they’re doing a lot of good things. They’re bringing people together to forge a strong community. They show grace to one another. They value ethics very highly, and strive for authenticity. When Paul told Timothy (2 Timothy 3) about people “having a form of godliness but denying its power”, he was referring to people who adhered to religious rituals but were hypocritical and deceptive. Aside from the fact that none of us are perfect, I don’t think these people are evil in that way, but I do think that the phrase fits well. These people have a form of godliness in their ethical community, but what is godliness without God? Their ethical community may still even have power – the power to change their neighbourhood, maybe even their city, further into the image of a God they do not acknowledge. But what does the image of a non-existent God look like? They may find that their own cognitive dissonance – calling themselves Christians despite denying Christ – will undercut the cohesion and longevity of their efforts. For the sake of the good they hope for, I hope that is not true.

Gaza and the Failure of the Church

In David P. Gushee’s In The Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013, there are two essays back to back about genocide. First published in 2002, “The Church, the Nazis, and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration” examines the roles of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Europe in the Nazi era to see how they could have failed so spectacularly to thoroughly denounce and subvert the Holocaust. He points out that even the Confessing Church, that thorn in Hitler’s side with leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke out primarily against the Nazi attempts to control the church, not against the Nazis’ plan for the Jews, and very few leaders (with Bonhoeffer being an exception) connected these two issues. At the same time, the debate between historians of the Catholic church during that period on whether or not Pope Pius XII did enough, or anything at all, to stop the Holocaust is still fierce, but it’s clear that the Vatican’s political role hampered his ability to denounce and work against the Nazis.

Right next to this is an essay, first published in 2004, called “Remembering Rwanda: Lessons from the Church’s Complicity in Genocide,” which points out that 90% of Rwandans self-identified as Christian at the time of the Rwandan genocide. I had no idea, and that number stuns me.

There are a number of reasons, in both cases, for the inaction of the church; and it occurred to me as I read these essays that those same reasons likely still stand today in the church’s response to the conflict in Israel. I want to be clear at the beginning: in spite of claims on both sides, neither side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is carrying out genocide. Genocide is, according to Dictionary.com, the “deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” The word was invented to describe the Holocaust, and is very applicable to what happened in Rwanda. Hamas has killing Jews as part of its charter and states it in such a way that genocide is implied, but this charter was written in 1988 and has since been declared irrelevant and outdated by Hamas leadership – nor is Hamas in a position to actually carry out a genocide even if they still wanted to. Israel, on the other hand, has all of the means to carry out a genocide, and could have done so a hundred times over if they chose to; charges of genocide against Israel are naive at best, but are consistently used to undermine Israel and those who support Israel in the eyes of the international community.

So no matter which way you slice it, this is not a genocide. But that doesn’t mean that the church has done a good job of responding to it, and I think we’ve been failing for the same reasons that we failed in Germany and Rwanda. So let’s look at a few of them now, instead of in hindsight.

1. Political entanglements.

In Nazi Germany, the church was state-sanctioned. The Nazis were able to control the Protestant church through its association with the state: pastors were paid by the state, and the mainline Protestant church was quickly co-opted into a state church that assimilated Christianity into Nazism. The Protestants who resisted the Nazis were so busy fighting for their independence from the state that they lacked the social capital to actually speak out against the treatment of the Jews, and those who finally did (with notable exceptions) waited way too long: it doesn’t seem quite enough to speak out about the mistreatment of an entire people group only at the point of them being corralled for killing. And even then, most were silent, or worse, more directly complicit. On the Catholic side, the Pope tried to maintain neutrality during the war, not only to act as an intermediary for diplomatic solutions but also to keep the Vatican from being a military target; because the Pope was both a religious leader and a political leader (Vatican City is a mini-nation), he had a conflict of interest, and his role as a political leader won out over his religious mandate to care for the oppressed.

I don’t know much about the status of the church in Rwanda, but Gushee mentions that it had a very cozy relationship with government, to the point where its interests were intertwined with the government’s interests and it was unable to speak out against government actions.

The nation of Israel was founded by Western governments (Britain) and is still supported by Western governments (USA, Canada, etc.), but there has always been an element of Christian Zionism in the founding and support of Israel. Some people claim that it was and is the primary element of support for Israel; this isn’t true, but the role of Christian Zionism isn’t unimportant, and I mention it here because it is the way that the church is tied up with politics. The word Zionism is used to describe the position of supporting a Jewish state in Israel, but religious Zionism – including Christian Zionism – is the belief that the existence of a Jewish state fulfills biblical prophecies and is one of the signs of, or will even bring about, the imminent coming/return of the Messiah. Jewish Zionists in Israel continue to build settlements in the West Bank, believing that they are accomplishing God’s promise of giving them the land as in the book of Joshua; Christian Zionists support Israel, believing that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is one of the signs of the second coming of Christ; and the government of Israel, which is always a coalition, hangs on the swing-vote of the Zionists and therefore generally can’t risk stopping the settlements, which are the most contentious issue in peace talks. Obama has taken a fairly hard line against settlements in the US’s latest attempts at getting peace talks started again, but faces tremendous pressure from Zionist Christians and Jews in the US because of it. So even though Zionist Christians are relatively few in number, their religiously-motivated support for Israel undercuts the entire peace process, as well as the voice of the church against the atrocities being committed on both sides of this conflict.

2. Political theology.

There is a passage in Romans that says that Christians should obey the government. This passage, and the rest of Scripture, puts some pretty major limits on such obedience, but historically it hasn’t been interpreted that way. The German church during WWII soundly believed that the state was God-ordained, and that obedience to the state was a Christian duty and virtue, to the point where they would proudly enlist to fight a war that they couldn’t help but believe in. One of Bonhoeffer’s biggest challenges was that many of his seminary students willingly enlisted, or didn’t utilize their exemption from the draft as pastors.

This misinterpretation of Romans has led to an inherent church complicity in the actions of the state. I can only imagine that some version of this was true in Rwanda, and it’s certainly true in Israel. This misinterpretation is also at the heart of just war theory at its worst, legitimizing anything the government does in war and stopping the church from speaking out against it. Many Christians, even those who aren’t Zionists, have difficulty thinking of a government as unjust, even if it’s committing atrocities.

There’s also a general lack of awareness of the nature of the Powers and Principalities of this world, or what becomes of governments treated as idols. A revival in this theology came about after WWII, as a way of attempting to explain the Holocaust on a spiritual/theological/social/psychological level. Walter Wink has recently been the biggest voice in this area of theology, and points out that we’re all complicit in systems of violence, and that we’re all also victims of such systems of violence. The Domination System takes on a life of its own, and its power is greater than that of any political or religious leader. It takes collective action and resistance to overturn such a system, but the church has neglected its purpose as the nexus of such resistance, leaving those who are being killed by this system to form their own resistance – which of course only feeds the conflict further.

3. Racism

The church was actively antisemitic for way, way too long. Gushee points out that there was nothing the Nazis said about the Jews that the church hadn’t already been saying for years. It’s absolutely shameful, and it fed the antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust, and that same antisemitism and lies about the Jewish people are still used in many Arab countries today.

The church in Rwanda was part of the colonial system that set up arbitrary and racist social systems in Rwanda.

The church today is party to antisemitism, even among the Zionists. Christian Zionism is, effectively, Christians supporting the Jews as a means to an end. Christian Zionism tends to come from the same churches that believe in dispensationalism, which is a doctrine that holds that the age of the Jews is over and that they have been replaced by the Church. Many Zionists love Jews as a way to convert them, or as a way to bring Jesus back, but not for their own sake. This is not true of all Christian Zionists, but there’s an uncritical assumption among many Christian Zionists about the reasons they support Israel, and it’s subtly antisemitic. To put it another way, it objectifies Jewish people. And of course there are still those out there, Christians included, who are still just openly antisemitic. The church in general is not speaking out about antisemitism.

But more obviously, the church today is party to Islamophobia. Groups like ISIS only reinforce this, but we’re responsible for the way that we reduce all Muslims to a single, homogenous group in the way we think and talk about them. There are about a billion Muslims in the world, and we imply that most of them are terrorists in the way that we talk about them. Many Christians in the West have no idea that there are Arab Christians in Palestine; we assume that Arabs are all Muslim, and Muslims are all bent on genocide of non-Muslims. The church has done little or nothing to combat this racist, Islamophobic attitude.


So there’s my quick analysis of how the church, in general, is failing. I’m happy to commend Pope Francis for his subtle yet obvious criticisms of both sides of the conflict on his recent trip to the Holy Land, but the rest of us need to get on top of this. I’ll end with a quote from Gushee:

To oppose Nazism with unmitigated passion as a vicious idolatry; to weep with sorrow over the humiliation and then the destruction of the Jews of Europe; to disobey Nazi laws and risk everything to “rescue those being led away to death” — these were the passions and the actions that the times demanded of the Christian churches from 1933 to 1945. We know that now. A very few knew it then. What will be known in 2050 about what we should have known and done in 2002? – Gushee, In the Fray, 51.

Evangelicalism, or American Folk Religion?

I hate Evangelicalism. Or, at least, I think I do. Except that I’m pretty sure that I’m an Evangelical.

It’s complicated.

For anyone coming to BTS lunch this coming semester, we’ll probably be talking about what Evangelicalism is. Like most self-identifying Evangelicals, I’m unable to accurately define it. Is it a theological tradition? Well, yes and no: it’s not a denomination, and seems to draw from a wide variety of denominations and traditions, but its lineage can still be traced back to certain theological thinkers and groups. Is it a culture? Certainly, but it’s not a distinctly national culture, with there being Evangelicals around the world; and it’s not simply a subculture in each of the cultures it can be found, as those who claim it would often prioritize it over any other distinctives of their culture. Plus all of that theology stuff takes it beyond being merely cultural. Is it a political group? Sadly, yes; but not so sadly, it’s actually a major part of many different political groups on both sides of the spectrum. In short, it doesn’t fit any particular category very well.

So how can we define it? Theologically? As I said, its theological lineage can be traced to specific people and groups…but how many Evangelicals are even aware of this theological heritage? So do we define it by where it comes from (historically) if a very significant portion of those who claim the title are ignorant of its history and may even largely disagree with its founders? Perhaps. There are a lot of people (on all sides of the political spectrum) who claim to be American patriots and love to quote their constitution in ways that would make its writers shudder and weep, but that certainly doesn’t make them less American at heart, whether or not they actually live there.

So do we define it by those who claim it? Such a wide variety of people claim the title Evangelical, and they vary not just in culture (coming from around the world), politics (from across the political spectrum), or theology (Calvinists and Arminians and Open Theists; High church and Low church; just war theorists and pacifists; etc.), but also in their own definition of what Evangelical means. I’d wager that most Evangelicals have a very vague notion of what it means, and that most of us have always assumed the title uncritically. So the conventional wisdom of simply asking an Evangelical what Evangelicalism is might not get us very far.

These are some of the questions that we’ll be exploring this semester, but as I’ve been preparing for the discussion I must admit that I’ve gotten bogged down in frustration. I hate Evangelicalism (which is not to say I hate Evangelicals), not least because I don’t know what it is and because I am one. This is a bit of an identity crisis for me in that sense. It’s good to be self-critical, or critical of our own traditions, but I can never tell if I’m being self-critical or simply pissed off about bad theology, rotten politics, and regressive culture. All of those things are part of the label “Evangelical”, and the people I’m irritated with often do those irritating things in the name of Evangelicalism (sometimes not even in the name of God, though that’s bad enough!).

It’s kind of posh to be a disaffected Evangelical these days. It’s sort of a Christian hipster thing. Christian bloggers talk about their experience coming out of conservative Evangelicalism and its culture, politics, and theology, and how they rediscovered Jesus and connected with progressive churches and all sorts of genuinely awesome things. I’m not talking trash about them – I love them, read them, and sometimes try to emulate them – but I’m starting to get the impression that every Evangelical in my age category and younger is just like me and Rachel Held Evans. In fact, I assume this to be true, and I’m quite skeptical when I’m told that Evangelicalism is actually a theological tradition that is still alive today. I catch myself assuming that people who claim the title of Evangelical are either ignorantly snared into American fundamentalism (which exists here in Canada, too), or else they’re courageously trying to redeem the word by bringing some theological nuance and weight to it. And then I hate myself for hating Evangelicalism, because I recognize how badly I’m reacting to something. Something I can’t even define.

Do I really hate Evangelicalism? Not really. I don’t hate it as a theological tradition (though I’m not sure how much I agree with the distinctive views of its historical leaders). I hate it when bad theology is legitimized by having the term Evangelical slapped onto it though, and I hate the fact that the term itself legitimizes anything, and I hate the fact that so many people buy into bad theology because of it. Do I hate the culture? Well, it’s hardly a uniform culture, but there are certain aspects of the culture that I’m not a big fan of. I don’t like the so-called Evangelical approaches to sin (we tend to focus on it rather than on grace), sexuality (we tend to focus on shame and spiritual existence rather than on living in the fullness of the bodily existence for which we were created), art (we tend to have bare walls in our churches, and our cultural expression is usually limited to inane Christianized facsimiles of more original “secular” art), and so forth. But how much of those emphases are distinctly Evangelical, and how many of them are more narrowly Conservative or Fundamentalist or American?

Ultimately, I hate the way my religion is abused. I hate when the pretenders, the ignorant, and the misguided use my religion and my people as a shield for their own actions, views, and goals. I hate when something as important as an idea gets corrupted, and I hate it even more when that corrupted idea spreads faster than the truth it’s based upon. That’s folk religion: when what people believe and do differs from the actual religion they claim, and they don’t even know it. Evangelicalism, because of its varied and difficult-to-define nature, is the catch-all for all American folk religion. It’s the label for every non-denominational church that lacks affiliation as a way of lacking accountability; every church of the cult of nationalism; every health-and-wealth swindler (though they claim “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal” too, but those also fall under the umbrella of Evangelicalism all too often); every cultural Christian who knows very little about what they believe but will enforce that belief on others with impunity (and often with disastrous consequences); every political group that wants to gain support from Christians of nearly every stripe (because nearly every type of Christian in North America can claim the title Evangelical for some reason or other); and so on. These types of Christianity often have very little to do with Christ, and they bear his name in vain. I hate that, very deeply. What I hate more is that most of the people involved in folk religion are completely ignorant of the fact, but that some of them know all too well, or should know better.

So, for a lot of reasons, I think we should get rid of the term Evangelical altogether. It’s nearly impossible to define, and the lack of a clear definition leaves it wide open for abuse. Let’s stop trying to renew it or reform it, because we’re only prolonging the life of numerous folk religions that do violence to more legitimate uses of the term, as well as to the people who follow them. If we absolutely must have a broad-reaching term for followers of Jesus, I propose we stick with the old classic: Christian. Let’s be Christians, and make it very clear who we’re named after. Once we have that down, we can identify particular theological traditions and cultural expressions and political affiliations. I have a feeling that not all of us will get that far, and that we’ll be much happier trying to look like Jesus rather than spending our time defining our niche.

If there are no Evangelicals, then we’re simply left with Christians. Those people aren’t hard to figure out, and pretty easy to identify with and love.

The Bible: Text, or Work?

I just started reading Francis Watson’s Text, Church, and World, and already in the introduction he’s dropped some bombshells. He begins by defining the three terms in the title, starting with “text”.

A “text” is not a “work” – both terms refer to a written document, but the term “work” implies an emphasis on the author communicating a message, whereas “text” emphasizes the role of the interpreter or interpretive community. We might refer to a book as the work of an author, but we might also refer to it as the text of an interpretive or religious community; I doubt we’d see reference to a book as the work of a community, unless the whole community had a hand in writing it, and if we speak of the text of an author we’re probably referring to that author’s influences.

Of course, Watson uses very different terms to describe the difference between text and work (he’s a bit wordy), but I hope I’ve captured the idea.

Of course, the Bible is both work and text. Someone wrote it, after all, and they definitely had a point (or else, why would they write it?). On the other hand, we can’t really read the Bible without reading it as a text, in the context of thousands of years of religious interpretation and tradition in our community of faith. The point is that our interpretive frameworks will treat it as one or the other, and it’s difficult to emphasize both at the same time.

Watson mentions the quest for the historical Jesus, which at its base is trying to get to the reality behind the text: scholars in this tradition recognize that the gospels, like all historical accounts, are quite selective about what they report, and want to unearth as much of the reality of what occurred as possible. The whole historical-critical approach emphasizes the “work” aspect of a book. Watson thinks that they’re mistaken about the true nature of the Bible – that is, he sees it as “text”.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who emphasize the Bible as text: we read the Bible as members of the Church, in light of (and even in continuity with) two thousand years of interpretive tradition. For Watson, it means that we must take theology into account in our hermeneutic (he’s arguing in this book for a method of theological hermeneutics), but taken further it implies a Roman Catholic hermeneutic, in which tradition is held up (almost) as high as Scripture as being authoritative for Christian doctrine.

In between these two ends of the spectrum seems to be where Evangelicals camp out. In The Hermeneutical Spiral, which was the textbook for the hermeneutics class I took in both college and seminary, Grant Osborne emphasizes that interpreters need to figure out what a book meant in order to figure out what it means – that is, we need to check out the original author’s intention in their original context in order to discern an appropriate interpretation for our own context, which may include our Church community and tradition. In light of the difficulty of being accurate in our understanding of the original context and message of a work, scholars since the 1970’s have been emphasizing the final form of the Bible – that is, we need to read scripture in light of its relation to itself, reading each book as it relates to all of the others, in the order and collection that we’ve received them (this is called Canonical Criticism). This is a move from “work” to “text”, though how far that move is can depend on where the interpreter sees the Spirit at work: does the formation of the canon to Scripture’s “final form” represent the Spirit at work in the councils of the early church, or does it represent the Spirit at work in Christian tradition up to the present day?

Theological interpretations have more room to breathe if we take a “text” view of the Bible, whereas historiography is more central if we take a “work” perspective. Is either perspective right? What do you think? Is the Bible primarily a “work”, or a “text”?


Reading on, Watson describes the “Church” element of his title, and this also reflects on his view of the Bible as “text”. Those who see the Bible as “work” emphasize the original intended meaning of the author, a point which has much to do with the genre in which the author chose to communicate. But because the Church is the central place in which the Bible is read and interpreted, Watson says, the primary genre of all of the biblical texts becomes that of “holy scripture” – that is, the original genre of the work is subordinated to the text’s position and function in the Church, which is to be read aloud as part of the worship of the church, and interpreted through a sermon. The very fact that it is interpreted by a sermon after it is read suggests that there is interpretive freedom – otherwise, wouldn’t the text just speak for itself and not require a sermon? (This has been argued.)

I’m torn about all of this. If we take seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church and preserving the meaning of the Bible, then we should be Catholics, and embrace this approach wholeheartedly. Obviously we are not all Catholics, and tend to reject the notion that tradition is entirely trustworthy or authoritative, Spirit or no. This fact alone troubles me deeply, and I think it’s a point that Pentecostals haven’t done nearly enough to explore. But if we don’t agree that the Spirit affirms all of Christian tradition, then Watson’s approach seems to be saying “this is right because this is how we do it” rather than saying “we do it this way because it is right.” I’m interested to see how he navigates this balance without arguing for Catholicism.

Arguments for Gay Rights (from Scripture!)

It’s 3:30am, and my mind has been writing this post all night; I won’t be able to sleep again until I get it out, so here goes.

I watched Milk last night, a fantastic true story about a man named Harvey Milk who became the first openly gay elected official in American history. This didn’t happen until the late 1970’s, and shortly after achieving his political post and making great headway in protecting the civil rights of homosexuals, he was murdered by a fellow San Francisco City Supervisor, along with their mayor. Their murderer was a political opponent of Milk’s, as they voted against each other’s bills, but that doesn’t appear to be the reason he killed them. The official defence (called “the twinkie defence”) was that the man had been eating a lot of junk food, and that this altered his mental state; clearly this is bogus (my wife pointed out that if this was an accepted defence, why didn’t we crack down on junk food?), but he was convicted only of manslaughter and given the lightest possible sentence. The film suggests that the murderer was himself a closeted and repressed homosexual, implying that his repression caused him to do it; he killed himself two years after getting out of prison. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Harvey Milk’s murder was that it didn’t come as a result of his many death threats, but from a coworker who snapped: Milk had expected assassination because of his human rights activism (how very Jesusy of him), but not like this.

Milk’s real political opponents were not just City Supervisors who voted against him in council; there was at that time a movement toward civil rights for homosexuals that was met by a counter-movement of Christian activists who, citing the Bible and God (usually rather vaguely), appealed and overturned many legal protections for homosexuals. A central plot point of the film was Proposition 6, which would have systematically fired any openly gay teachers in the California school system, as well as anyone who supported them. The supposed reason for this was that gay school teachers were “recruiting” children, and teaching them to be gay. I sincerely hope that the arguments were more nuanced than the film portrays them to be, because looking back 35 years later, they’re insultingly illogical and far-fetched.

The biblical arguments portrayed in the film are also fairly shallow, usually limited to “it may not be illegal, but it’s against the law of God” or some variation on a blanket appeal to God or the Bible. The film obviously doesn’t focus on biblical exegesis, but even back then the arguments were more nuanced and thorough than that. Sadly, probably not by much: even today there are some that insist on a certain style of interpretation of scripture that allows them to point to a verse – way out of context – as incontrovertible proof that God hates someone. I’m thinking, of course, of the Westboro Baptist Church, known internationally for their bigotry and terrible reversal of the spirit of scripture.

Now, there are certainly some verses that seem to be a quite straightforward condemnation of homosexual sexuality, particularly in the Old Testament but even a few in the New Testament, but these texts are not the open-and-shut case that they are often claimed to be, and thoughtful and respectful Christians ought to at least hear out the interpreters who argue that they do not apply to homosexuality as we know it today (I find this book to be a good conversation starter in this regard). We also owe it to ourselves, as well as to homosexuals, to think through the matter thoroughly even if in the end we come to quite conservative conclusions (I find this book to be a good example of a thorough approach with a conservative conclusion).

But regardless of where we stand on the issue of whether or not homosexuality itself, or even gay sex, is sinful, we still cannot use that as a reason to deny homosexuals any sort of rights. In fact, I will argue that we cannot in good conscience treat homosexuals any differently than anyone else, even within the Church, and that to do so would be profoundly un-Christian of us. Here are my reasons:

We can’t take the grace of God seriously and still discriminate against homosexuals.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Christians live in a tension: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us; we are now saints; we still sin; we’re still saved. There is an expectation that we will no longer sin, but there is also an acknowledgement that we still do. Arguments against including homosexuals in the Church a) tend to assume that simply being gay is a sin (and is a lifestyle choice rather than something that cannot be chosen or changed), and then b) single it out as a sin that is somehow outside of God’s grace.

The argument for this is usually based on the notion of “cheap grace”: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit,who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming ageand who have fallenaway, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Heb 6:4-6). The idea here is that if Christians continue to sin, they’ve abused God’s grace and will therefore lose it. This might have some traction if homosexuality were strictly a choice, but even if it were only a temptation that some people have (rather than a set sexuality, as most homosexuals today understand it to be), I don’t think this verse would apply (as by that standard, we’d all fall into this camp). Generally, arguments against cheap grace tend to be arguments for no grace – and given the fact that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, I find that hard to swallow.

There are plenty of other verses to support the notion of God’s grace being unconditional, but since it’s a fairly central point of the Christian faith, I’ll leave it here for now.

We can’t take the inclusiveness of the Church seriously and still discriminate against homosexuals.

1. Treating homosexuals differently as a group goes against the unifying nature of the Church. “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This verse points to the three major dividing and classifying factors of first-century life, the three things that made it possible to have an “us vs. them” mentality. There was, of course, still the dichotomy of “saints vs. sinners,” but saints are saints by grace through faith, and if we’re going to kick sinners out of the church then there wouldn’t be anyone left in it. There’s also the dichotomy of “Christians vs. the World,” which is how we tend to treat homosexuals based simply on the fact that we don’t welcome them to church. This is something that we cannot do if we take the inclusiveness of the Church seriously.

2. There is plenty of biblical precedent for including outsiders and sinners in the Church. The most obvious example is the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church, which wasn’t unprecedented (Israel had long included foreigners) but was nevertheless completely revolutionary in its time. What’s amazing is how easily it happened: Gentiles began worshipping God, and God accepted them, as evidenced through his giving them the Holy Spirit (Acts 10-11). The issue was eventually brought up at a council because it was so controversial, but given that God had quite apparently accepted them, the council agreed to as well (Acts 15). The implications of this went well beyond racial barriers, however, because Jews were set apart by their practices as much as their bloodlines; accepting Gentiles into the Church meant effectively throwing out current and traditional notions of religious ethics! They left Gentile Christians with much simpler rules: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” Note that even these commandments are moderated by the following phrase; because God accepted them before even these requirements were set, the council didn’t have much in the way of theological backing for these ethical commandments, and as such they have the moral force of guidelines for good living. Now, even if we were to take these commandments as being God-given, and include homosexuality under “sexual immorality,” all it would take is for one openly gay Christian to exhibit evidence of the Holy Spirit, and thus acceptance by God, to set a similar precedent for the inclusion of homosexuals within the Church on the same basis as the acceptance of Gentiles. Examples are not all that difficult to find. It’s difficult to take God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church seriously if we systematically exclude any other people group.

3. Even those passages in Paul that treat sexual sin very seriously (assuming again that homosexuality is sexual immorality) assume that people who practice sexual sin are within the Church: Paul wasn’t writing to churches to condemn those outside the Church, but to encourage and correct those within it. At the very least, this means that homosexuality (even if it is a sin) should be treated just like any other sin, not singled out.

We can’t take the ethical demands of the Gospel seriously and still discriminate against…anyone.

I don’t want to say that any point of theology isn’t important, but unless you are gay the status of homosexuality as sin is of no practical importance to you. According to Jesus, we’re supposed to treat everyone as if they were Jesus himself: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Or as it was paraphrased in The Message: “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

Jesus showed the radical nature of this not only in his parable of the sheep and the goats at the end of the age (e.g., Matthew 25, which implies quite frankly that salvation is based entirely on how we treat other people rather than on sinlessness or having correct beliefs), but also in the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Luke 10:25-37

New International Version (NIV)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (from Bible Gateway)

We’ve all heard this passage a thousand times, so I’ll try to be brief. The actions of the Samaritan were radical because:

1. The Jew that had been waylaid was technically an enemy of the Samaritan. These are two people groups with a long history of bad blood and battles, not to mention fundamental religious differences. For a Jew to eat a meal with a Samaritan would have probably been enough to make him “unclean,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that feeling was mutual. This is (sadly) somewhat analogous to the relationship between the gay rights movement and some branches of conservative Christianity in the US. The Gospel demands that we go out of our way and spend our money to help those we hate the most.

2. I already mentioned that sharing a meal with a Samaritan would have probably made a Jew “unclean,” and that I wouldn’t be surprised if this notion was reciprocated (I’m no expert on Samaritan religious practices, but I believe it was quite similar to Judaism on many fronts). But more than that, for the Priest and the Levite in the story it would have made them “unclean” to touch a dead body, or probably even to get the poor guy’s blood on them. Being “clean” was a symbol of being guiltless, and so to deliberately do something that would make them unclean was the same thing as taking guilt on themselves – becoming guilty for the sake of someone else. The Gospel demands that we not only spend our time and money on others, but that we even be willing to take on guilt for their sake. This is the type of thinking that got Dietrich Bonhoeffer killed, but he did it because following Jesus Christ demands it.

But how does this relate to the inclusion and rights of homosexuals in the Church today?

I believe that a large reason that many churches today do not accept homosexuals as Christians is because we are afraid of condoning sin. Most of us know a few homosexuals, and have no problem with them as people (this was one of Harvey Milk’s strategies: get as many gay people to come out of the closet as possible so that the average person would realize that they already know some gay people, and that they’re nothing to be afraid of). Most of us have no problem with other people’s sins, so long as they don’t affect us (one argument presented in the film is still common today: “What other people do in their bedrooms is none of my business, as long as I don’t have to do it in mine”), and we tend to recognize that we need to be in a relationship of accountability with someone before pointing out their sin to them can be effective (contra the strategy of the Westboro Baptist Church, who say that they love “fags” more than anyone else because they’re willing to tell them the truth about their behaviour and eternal destination). Most moderate Christians also recognize that allowing for some kind of gay marriage or partnership would be the compassionate thing to do – because enforced celibacy doesn’t tend to lead to healthy people, gay or straight (see: Catholic Priest sex scandals).

But most moderate churches still haven’t done anything about this issue. I’ve been sitting on the fence for a long time, because I haven’t been able to square the texts against homosexuality (I tend to think that the more conservative exegesis fits the texts better) with the compassion and ethic of Christ: law and grace have been at war in me regarding this issue (I don’t mean to imply a dichotomy between the two, but on this issue it has seemed that way to me). Now I realize that I need to be willing to be guilty before God for the sake of others, so that even if homosexuality is inherently sinful, and if this sin is somehow outside of God’s grace, and if as a Christian leader it is my duty to denounce this sin and eject homosexuals from my congregation, the Gospel demands that I be willing to go against all of that for the sake of loving my neighbour. (If you follow the Westboro or Mark Driscoll track and say that it’s more loving to show “tough love,” I respect your position, but do not find it helpful).

So there it is. I don’t want to pretend that I’ve figured out the texts, because I haven’t. In regard to what I have to do as a follower of Jesus Christ, they’re not super important. Even if it were explicitly sinful to allow openly gay people into the Church, to exclude them would (in my mind) go against the teachings and spirit of Jesus Christ, dishonour the grace of God, twist the inclusive nature of the Church, and altogether fail to live up to the demands of the Gospel.

I welcome your thoughts on this!