John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

On Inerrancy and Interpretation in Scripture on Sexuality

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

I've been having some conversations on Facebook in which the topic of inerrancy* has come up. Some conservative Christians have expressed an opinion that you must reject the inerrancy of Scripture to be able to affirm gay Christians. Here is what I have given in reply, which I hope is helpful to others.

* Before we start, you may want to look up the definition(s) and historical background of the term inerrancy as applied to Scripture. Personally I no longer find this word useful for my study of the Bible, but it's important for many.

When we read and study the Bible, we must go beyond a simple claim of inerrancy to understand the text. I look at the layers of study like this:

1) The Original Text ("the received word/original text"): we no longer have access to this layer which is what the Chicago statement on inerrancy claims as the inerrant Scripture.

2) Transcription: the Scriptures were then passed down through the generations by scribes. Some say that at least certain of the texts were likely exchanged orally for a long time before being written down at all.

3) Canonization: Somewhere during the periods of passing down the texts through transcription, religious communities decided which texts qualify as Scripture. The Hebrew Bible (Ta-na-kh) went through 3 rounds over the centuries, in descending levels of sacredness (the Law "Ta-", the Prophets "-na-", and the Writings "-kh"). It's possible that books such as Ruth, Esther, Psalms and Proverbs (some of the "Writings") weren't yet officially considered fully Scripture at the time of Christ, though they were highly valued writings. The Christian Bible was formally agreed on a few centuries after Christ (though debate continued still for centuries), and then re-formed by first Martin Luther (who wanted to get rid of James and Revelation and moved the deuterocanonical books to a separate section) and the Scottish Bible Society in the 1800s (removing those inter-testamental period books for most Protestants for publishing cost reasons).

4) Manuscripts: the most original writings we have, which we base our modern Bibles on, are collections of ancient manuscripts from various sites and periods of time. These show a variety of variations from the transcription process, from minor word changes to missing sections like the ending of Mark's Gospel and John's story of the woman caught in adultery. The inerrantist view in the past has often dismissed these claims, I believe, while the infallible view says God has guided the process to ensure we have the truth. I don't think any of these variations diminish the Scriptures, myself. (Dallas Theological Seminary professor Daniel Wallace writes that he counts around 400,000 variations in manuscripts, and that there are more variations amongst the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Most are minor and easily understood though).

Now we move beyond the original words of the text itself:

5) Translation: every translation is an interpretive act, especially when moving from a millennia-old "dead" language of 6,000 words with no vowels or punctuation (Hebrew) to a modern language of 1.2 million words (English). Even the Bibles in use by the early church were translations, from Jesus's Targum (Aramaic) to Paul's Septuagint (Koine Greek).

6) Interpretation: Once a text is translated there is an additional layer of interpretation as we try to figure out what the text is intending to say for us today. For both layers of interpretation, we must account for the ancient contexts that the Bible was originally spoken into, and then the modern context that it is being received into. Scientific discoveries also inform this layer, as we see clearly in the geocentrism vs heliocentrism debate of the 1500's (both Luther and Calvin saw heliocentricism as a direct threat to the authority of Scripture).

7) Application: It is only after all these steps are taken (by ourselves directly, or through the acceptance of our community's work) that we take the final step of direct application in our society or individual lives.

So when it comes to discussions of Bible teachings like on human sexuality we have a lot of layers to consider.

Inerrancy or infallibility only cover the first four steps. Those conservative Christians who have not read the affirming scholarship are often unaware that none of these layers are critiqued in many affirming interpretations of Scripture. Inerrancy is fully compatible with much of what is called "revisionist" scholarship.

Briefly, here is what we argue (no evidence, just the premises):

1. Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) is a clear mis-application (#7), since the story has nothing to do with condemning sexuality (violence and inhospitality to the stranger, not caring for the poor in Ezekiel 16:48-50, etc).

2. Leviticus 18 is a mis-interpretation (#6) and mis-application (#7), since it's likely specific to sexual pagan worship practices. "Abomination" does not designate all lasting prohibitions anyway, in its 118 uses throughout the Bible.

3. Leviticus 20 is also a mis-interpretation (#6) and mis-application (#7). The command to execute all those condemned is a tip-off that we're most likely talking about sacred cult prostitutes involved in idol worship practices. Also, do we really want to stone all gay people to death?

4. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is a mis-translation (#5) as well, since no one knows exactly what Paul's word invention arsenokoites means. A good case can be made for it to be describing men who purchase services of male prostitutes.

5. 1 Corinthians 6:9 is another mis-translation (#5) of both arsenokoites and malakos which mistakenly assumes that ancient pederasty or male prostitution can be equated with modern same-sex relationships.

6. Romans 1 mis-interprets (#6) Paul's rhetorical speech as if it's his own argument, and mis-applies (#7) it as a prohibition all gay people rather than against those (as he explicitly describes) who start by worshiping physical idols, then abandon themselves to lusts which are too great to be satisfied by heterosexual relations, and end by becoming people who are "full of all wickedness" (this description does not depict the gay Christians I know).

7. Using Jesus's explicit and clear condemnation of divorce (which actually appears in 3 distinctly different versions in the gospels and yet one more in Paul's writings) to be authoritative over same-sex marriage is a mis-application (#7).

Therefore, the affirming argument cannot be dismissed simply by claiming inerrancy is on your side, since inerrancy only talks about layers 1-4 and cannot address the admittedly human layers of translation, interpretation, and application.

Photo credit Adriel Ifland, 2007

On The Role of Scripture in the Church

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

For nearly two thousand years, Christians have believed that the Old and New Testaments are in some form foundational to our faith. In this we share some identification with the other Peoples of the Book, Jews and Muslims, yet in addition to our distinct differences with these other faiths we have large divides on how to approach the Holy Scriptures within our own faith.

While one of the unique attributes of the Anglican tradition is that we value unity and diversity over uniformity on many topics which results in a broad range of understandings of topics like "the Word of God", there are some core perspectives we share as distinct from many other Christian denominations. To explore this I will contrast my upbringing within the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) with my new home in the Episcopal Church.

Refuting Five "Myths" Against LGBT Relationships

Inclusion, LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

Today I saw an article titled "5 Myths People Spread About Jesus, Sex and Gay Marriage" by pastor Kenny Burchard at ChurchLeaders.com.

He specifically asked for interaction and dialogue, so I thought I'd write a response to his "myths". (One note on the word "myth"—while it's commonly used to describe "made-up false stories", I prefer to think of a myth as a story that teaches a truth deeper than the surface details. Minor quibble.)

I've broken out each of his five "myths" and grabbed a bit of his argument for each, though you'll need to visit the full article for all of his statements.

1. Jesus never defined marriage as one man, one woman.

When Jesus talked about married people, he spoke of “a man … [and] … his wife” inMatthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7.

Jesus went on to use the language “ … the two shall become one.”

Jesus quoted the text of Genesis 2:24 as the foundation of His teaching on marriage. This is the biblical doctrine of “origins.” Jesus even used the clause “from the beginning it was not so” when talking about divorce.

Read full argument here.

It seems to me that this argument attempts to use Jesus's teaching on one very specific issue and apply his words to a different one. In context, Jesus is directly speaking against the dissolution of marriage. He quotes Genesis to emphasize the sacred nature of the marriage bond. I would counter that, rhetorically, it is a speculative stretch to apply his words to defining the gender make-up of a marriage. He may well have applied the same verse to do so if asked, but that is not recorded in Scripture.

So my conclusion is that the conservative position on this passage is a reasonable extrapolation of a possible teaching, but it is not in fact a strict reading of the text.

2. Jesus never specifically mentioned homosexuality in His teaching on marriage, so we should not make a big deal about it either.

So the idea that because Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality somehow means that it isn’t a point of human brokenness is a fallacy.

Another key observation is that any time Jesus mentions a husband, He mentions a wife. And any time He mentions a wife, He mentions a husband. 

This should provide the eager seeker of ”what Jesus taught” valuable insight. He seemed to believe that a husband belongs with a wife, and a wife belongs with a husband. A husband is a “he”—and a wife is a “she.”

Read full argument here.

True, it is a logical fallacy to make the lack of a statement into a positive argument in favor of acceptance of LGBT people in the church. Of course, I would want to point out that this same pushback could be made on your previous point.

As you say, just because Jesus only encountered and was familiar with traditional marriage in his Jewish cultural context does not have anything to say pro OR con about gay marriage.

However, the fact is that people of his time would have been very aware of Greek and Roman homosexual relationships. They would have been aware of the teachings in the schools that were established in Israel, and would have seen the common relationships between philosophy mentors and Roman legionaries with their male servants (possibly, though speculatively, behind the Roman centurion's relationship with his servant in Luke 7—the man Jesus called out as having more faith than all of Israel). The argument that this didn't seem to concern Jesus at all seems to have some weight against the current conservative insistance that homosexuality is a particularly bad sin (shown in the fervency of activity around this issue, even if claimed its a sin like any other).

3. Jesus's, and Paul's, attitude toward marriage

According to Paul’s teaching, marriage for Jesus (and even himself) would have been a distraction because …

… a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife. —I Cor. 7:33

It is true that during His human, earthy ministry, Jesus did not get married. But interestingly, there is New Testament imagery of Jesus being a “bridegroom” (male person in a marriage relationship) who is preparing to come for His bride (female person in a marriage relationship).

Read full argument here.

This argument is far more complex, and I don't have time to do it justice here. However, it seems difficult to use the teachings of Jesus and Paul to affirm the centrality of the nuclear family and exaltation of one-man/one-woman marriage today.

For example, nowhere in Scripture is there a prohibition against polygamy. Both Jesus and Paul allow the assumption to continue that this is a healthy form of marriage. Only in one verse much later on in the epistles is there a recommendation that the overseers of pastors ("bishops") have only one wife.

For most of Paul's writings, he "allows" marriage if you have to have it, but would really prefer the followers of Christ to remain unmarried. Jesus also does not appear to value marriage as an ambition for his followers, even though he does confront the cultural assumption that the man is in control of the relationship and supports the rights of the woman by speaking against no-fault divorce on the man's part.

As for the image of Jesus as bridegroom, that's an interesting analogy to use in support of traditional marriage. After all, the imagery seems to transcend our notions of gender, and affirm that both men and woman are united to Jesus in this "marriage", the same Son of God who is revealed as a male on earth.

In Galatians Paul insists that in Christ there is "no longer male or female". Our cultural divisions are no longer valid in the kingdom of God. His teaching in Ephesians does not focus on the differences between genders, but in fact on the need for equal treatment and that self-giving love is the true picture of Christ's love. There is no contextual indication that this depiction of love is only valid based on gender, simply because the example comes from the common form of marriage Paul would have been familiar with.

4. Jesus reached out to and accepted people into His circle who did not fit the “traditional marriage” model.

Two case-studies of this position are often brought up when talking about Jesus and marriage. The first is the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4). The second is the woman caught in adultery (see Jn. 8:1-11).

What can we make of these two stories? Is it something like …

Jesus speaking: “Hey, there’s a serial-divorcee, and an adulteress. I’m going to invite them to become members of my circle of people just so I can show people that I accept people like this.”

Yes! The truth is that Jesus was reaching out to them, but not without a call to leave their sexual/relational dysfunction behind them.

Read full argument here.

You use two stories here to illustration your point. May I break them apart and tackle them one at a time?

a) Samaritan woman at the well

As I've studied this passage, I've found that the common understanding of John chapter 4 isn't actually in the text. While Jesus uses his knowledge of the Samaritan woman's marital situation to declare his authority, he doesn't actually call it out as sin or ask for repentance. The woman's reaction, both at that moment and when she returns to her village, shows no evidence of shame or contrition.

Of course, that could be because it's likely she is barren, and the victim of the contemporary patriarchal system which would justify her being divorced from each man in turn (which Jesus confronted the Pharisees about) and ultimately forced to live with a man who would not marry her just to survive since it was rare for a woman to be able to make a living on her own in that culture without turning to prostitution. So maybe he didn't confront her sin because she wasn't sinning? (I first heard this interpretation from a conservative Reformed professor at a conservative evangelical university last year, for what it's worth).

b) The woman caught in adultery

I would like to point out two things with this story. 

First, adultery is the opposite of a committed relationship, whether inside or outside of marriage. I have not heard a pro-LGBT argument trying to claim that God is fine with LGBT relationships because Jesus is "okay" with the breaking of heterosexual relationships. We're talking about opposites here. We all agree the breaking of relationship is wrong.

Second, this particular story was hugely controversial in the early church and was contested as a legitimate passage for a long time BECAUSE it was seen as too forgiving of the woman! The church did not want to accept that Jesus would withhold punishment of this woman. The story was eventually accepted as an authentic story of Jesus, though both liberal and conservative scholars agree it was likely added to the manuscript of John sometime after the original writing (maybe migrating from one of the synoptic gospels).

(In general, this is only one of two stories in the entire collection of Gospels wherein Jesus says "go and sin no more". The other is a crippled man in the same Gospel, with no description of his sin. Calls to individual repentance of individual sins simply weren't a focus of his teaching. Now, calls to community repentance and repentance of judging and condemning others were certainly something that came up more.)

5. These are the kind of people Jesus would reach out to if He were here today.

Yes, Jesus would reach out to every kind of person. He would tell them of God’s love, and He would call them to repent of their sins. He would call murderers, thieves, liars, adulterers, homosexuals, gossips and racists.

And He would lead them out of their sin and into a new life with Him.

Read full argument here.

I'll try to keep this one brief. Your assumption is that being created gay while having the same need we all have for human relationship is sinful, and your list of sins seems to reflect a conservative and incorrect translation of certain terms. For more on that, you might be interested in the full in-depth study I did on these verses, which you can find freely online.

Also, this argument fails to take into account the Spirit-filled lives and testimonies of LGBT Christians and the widely acknowledged failure of the "ex-gay" movement.

Conclusion

I hope this helps you understand a little more about the other side's position. I appreciate your post helping me think through these things more for myself.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in return Kenny. Thanks for the invitation to dialogue. Grace and peace!

Equality and Spectrum in Creation

The Bible, InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

Here's another excerpt from the book I'm writing. It's a shortened version of a previous post, with additional coverage added. It's going in the new "Marriage" Appendix.

There are two creation accounts in the book of Genesis, and they are often used to as proof that God meant every marriage to look exactly like a heterosexual marriage.

The First Creation Account

Then God said, “Let us make adam in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created adam in his image,
     in the image of God he created them;
     ish and ishshah he created them.
    — Genesis 1:26-27

In the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1-2:4), both man (ish) and woman (ishshah) are created in God’s image equally as humankind (adam).  We could consider “man and woman” to be a form of speech called a merism which uses two ends of a spectrum to include the entire range, similar to God creating the “heavens and the earth” or calling God the “alpha and omega”. This could allow for room to say that intersex, transgender, and other non-traditional gender forms from birth are also included in God’s good creation. Certainly the emphasis is on the image of God implanted equally in all humanity regardless of gender.

The Second Creation Account

then the Lord God formed the adam [human] from the dust of the adamah [ground/humus], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the adam became a living being.

Then the Lord God said,
     “It is not good that the adam should be alone;
     I will make him a helper as his partner.”
    — Genesis 2:7, 18

In the second creation narrative starting at Genesis 2:5, at first only one human is created: the adam (human) from adamah (ground/humus). Then the Lord God remarks that it is not good for the human to be alone, and a corresponding companion is sought for him among the animals. When this is not found, a suitable partner is formed by forming another human out of the side of the first. While the traditional rib is likely better translated side, regardless it’s important to note how the origin was from a place of equality. 

The KJV’s “helpmeet” has been misunderstood to imply “assistant/lower partner” instead of “appropriate partner.” In fact, the Hebrew phrase is used for one who comes in support of, as God or an army coming to reinforce in battle. Equality and equivalency are the primary emphasis in this account.

“This at last is bone of my bones
     and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ishshah [woman],
     for out of ish [man] this one was taken.”
    — Genesis 2:23

The passage concludes with the man and woman coming together to make one flesh. The particular is subsumed in union.

In neither narrative is marriage mentioned, nor are any other models of relationship described in negative or positive terms. To use these stories as prescriptive for every relationship seems to take the meaning beyond what is written. Since procreation was important to the story at the time, and marriage understood in the context of inheritance and multiplying, heterosexual relationships seem to be the assumed model. If anything, it seems to me that there is a de-emphasis on the importance of being either male or female, and a focus on our shared humanity.

Merisms and the Non-Duality of Creation

InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

This is another rough-draft excerpt from the book I'm currently working on, about God calling us to include the full spectrum of creation in the church. It's at the beginning of the chapter on "Biblical Marriage"

The first creation narrative in the Bible (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) moves from the beginning with God alone to the grand finale with humankind. There is no reflection on a specific pair of humans, nor on marriage, but we can see that humans are the focus and end goal of the creative act.

“In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth...”
— Genesis 1:1 (NRSV variation from translation notes)

Some understand the phrase “the heavens and the earth” as a metaphorical description of “everything”, as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth...”. We may think of it as a spectrum, with everything on every plane of our world, every string-theory dimension of reality, and both physical and spiritual understandings originating with God, the “alpha and omega” (again an inclusive spectrum concept). Some call this a “merism”, a figure of speech used in law, rhetoric, biology, and Biblical poetry:

“In rhetoric a merism is the combination of two contrasting words, to refer to an entirety. For example, when we mean to say that someone searched thoroughly, everywhere, we often say that someone searched high and low... 
“Merisms are conspicuous features of Biblical poetry. For example, in Genesis 1:1, when God creates “the heavens and the earth” (KJV), the two parts combine to indicate that God created the whole universe. Similarly, in Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows ‘my downsitting and mine uprising’, indicating that God knows all the psalmist’s actions.”
— https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merism

This grand, majestic and poetic account cummulates in the making of humankind in the image of God (“our image, our likeness”):

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
— Genesis 1:26a, 27

What do we know from this creation account? We know that humans are made in the image of God, not God made in the image of humans. That all humanity is created in the likeness of God the one and the formed-in-relationship (“our”). That all humanity, the spectrum included in “male and female”, are declared good:

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
— Genesis 1:31a

Why could it be helpful to recognize a “spectrum” instead of a binary designation in the phrase “male and female”? Consider those who are born as Intersex (the “I” in the longer acronym “LGBTQIA”) with inconclusive genitalia. Or some transgender folks who have the physical genitalia of one gender, and the chromosomes and brain-structure of another. If we are all created in the image of God, and declared good, then maybe “male and female” is a non-dualistic container, a merism, of the variety of the good creation even while we recognize that the majority of people are comfortable closer to the traditional two ends of the spectrum.

To conclude our first passage, note that the entirety of the first self-contained creation account is about “humankind” in general, with no mention of a particular pair nor a description of marriage. There is also no hinting at any change in God calling his creation “good”. That comes in the second creation account starting immediately afterward.

To be continued...

Thanks to Alan Hooker for the original insight.

Inclusion of a Sexual Minority in the Family of God

InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

In Acts 8 we see the early church beginning to face persecution from a man named Saul, and the apostles are forced to move outward from Jerusalem. The Apostle Phillip is directed by a message from an angel to set out on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he encounters a man who is outside of the parameters of acceptance into God’s people, according to Phillip’s Judaic upbringing.

This man is a sexual minority, a eunuch, who is also an Ethiopian. Males were commonly made into eunuchs for particular government roles to keep their loyalty undivided with a family, and this one was the royal treasurer. He had come on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even though according to the Law he was prevented from being a part of worship due to his physical body.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
 — Deuteronomy 23:1

The blessings promised to a faithful Israel were described as the possession of land and the promise of descendants, consistent with ancient Near East cultural values. Yet being a eunuch meant that you had no descendants, and therefore no one to pass on your land to. You were quite literally cut off from the blessing of God (which also shows how painful infertility would be).

This very powerful individual, treasurer to the queen, made a pilgrimage in an upper class chariot all the way to Jerusalem (1,582 miles by air, 2,733 miles by foot according to Google Maps, maybe a two month-long journey), only to be excluded from worship.

Note that we don’t know exactly how this person is a eunuch, since Jesus referred to those who are born, made, and choose to be eunuchs as all under that label. But it’s likely given the man’s position that he has been made a eunuch surgically.

Phillip is compelled by the Spirit to approach the eunuch’s chariot, and as he does so he hears him reading from the book of Isaiah:

“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.”
 — Isaiah 53:7-8 (NRSV)
“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?”
 — Isaiah 53:7-8 (ESV)

Phillip asks him if he understands the passage, and the reply is “How could I, unless I have someone to guide me?”. The eunuch urges Phillip to join him and explain what he is reading. He asks: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:34).

Why might this eunuch be so interested in this particular passage from the Prophets? 

Maybe the language of shearing and being cut off would resonate with him. The passage speaks of one who has his future taken away (no progeny?), in a perversion of justice. Maybe he would identify and relate to this imagery in a deep way, and wonder who the prophet could possibly be referring to in such validating language: “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;” (Isaiah 53:12)

Phillip takes this cue to relay the gospel of Jesus. Here we see a man who was rejected by his people, stripped and humiliated, cut and wounded with scars that do not fade, one without physical descendants.

As they go along, the eunuch spots some water and asks:

“Look, here is water! 
What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Can you imagine that question being asked in a trembling, insecure voice? As from one who is desperate to be included, yet knows that tradition and Scripture are against him as both a foreigner and a eunuch. He had just returned from Jerusalem where he would have been denied entrance into worship. As an Ethiopian he would have been limited to the Courts of the Gentiles, yet as a eunuch even that would have been denied to him. After a two-month journey of devotion, he would have been forced to stare into the temple in longing, but feeling rejected by the God he was pursuing.

Author Brian McLaren, from whom I first heard this application, paraphrases the man’s question:

“I have just been rejected and humiliated in Jerusalem, but you have told me of a man who, like me, has no physical descendants, a scarred and wounded man who like me has been humiliated and rejected. Is there a place for me in his kingdom, even though I have an unchangeable condition that was condemned forever by the sacred Jewish Scriptures?”
 — Brian McLaren, “A New Kind of Christianity” p 183

Phillip’s reaction in the text is breathtaking in its simplicity and audacity. As the horses are pulled to a stop in swirling dust and creaking of wood and leather, he answers not a word, but immediately leads the eunuch into the water to be baptized in equality before God.

They emerge dripping into a Spirit-filled new reality. Phillip is whisked away to the seashore by the Spirit of the Lord while the eunuch boards his chariot for home, rejoicing in this amazing and unexpected inclusion into the family of God.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
— Isaiah 56:3-5

Photo credit: "Priest at Ientelos Iesus on Lake Tana, Ethiopia" — SarahTz on Flickr

Loving is listening

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

During my recent conversations around LGBT and faith on Facebook, while discussing a linked articled called "Distorted Love: The Toll of Our Christian Theology on the LGBT Community" a concern around who defines "love" was brought up:

"If I take your last response and article at face value, then I must conclude that it is gay advocates (Christian & otherwise) who ultimately define love, with no room for dialogue or dissent. What a sad place for the Church."

Here is my response, an off-the-cuff set of ramblings on how I might attempt to answer that question.


Love. My thoughts.

Love cannot be defined solely by the giver, but must be affirmed by the receiver (and generally recognized by outsiders who see a net benefit in the long term).

A simple example is the "5 love languages". If the giver insists on using the language of "service" because it's what they resonate with, but the recipient values "touch", then is it self-less or self-ish love?

A more complex example would be the idealist's conviction that an action is loving based on their values, but which is experienced by the recipient, communities with other values, and/or by history as having a damaging result. For example, I think of Saint Augustine and John Calvin supporting the torture and/or death of what they saw as heretics because they thought it was more loving to ensure that the remainder would gain eternal salvation as they understood it. I can understand and empathize with their motivation. I can see how they thought it was love. I can understand that the civil law, cultural understandings of the time, and social pressure from their own religious group would influence their perception and that I might have done the same in their place. But I personally cannot define that as love from where I stand, based on the recipient's experience.

White American slave owners in the 1800's were convinced that they were loving their slaves by providing food, lodging, moral direction and steady work. It's clear that they had a high moral conviction around their policies if you read the declarations of secession or other documents by the southern states. Over half of published Christian sermons before the War supported this position by appealing to both general morality and to Scripture.

"In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law."
           — from A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union.

Many national leaders we now see as morally troubled made decisions motivated at least initially by a conviction that they were in the best interests of others, yet because they did not listen to opposing voices or accept challenges to their worldview, we now see them as "evil" (Mao, Lenin, Hitler, etc could all fit into that category on some level I think as extreme examples).

If an expression of love from the giver ends in obvious, provable harm for the receiver (setting aside exceptions such as restraining the receiver from hurting others), then we need to ask some serious questions about whether that is actually love.

"Love your neighbor as yourself". You have to get to know your neighbor pretty well before you know how to love them to the level that you love yourself (whom you know pretty intimately). 

I'm not saying any of this is empirically true of any particular non-affirming Christian or the traditional absolutist position on marriage. However, if we do not allow the gay recipient of a person's love to voice their sense of how it feels to receive that love, then how do we judge if it truly is love? Whose interpretation of the Bible "wins"? Just the one that's been around longest? Then we have to wrestle with the Scripture-supported "curse of the Jews" anti-semitism which began in the 1st century, was supported in the Inquisition and by Martin Luther and cumulated in the Holocaust before we finally returned to re-read the Bible in a different way (see Southern Baptist ethics and holocaust scholar Dr. David Gushee's work on this).

That's what the article we have been discussing is saying, I think: 

"The recipients of your love aren't agreeing that they feel loved or respected, even when you share the same faith and love for the same God, and neither do independent observers around them. Why?"

Us "gay advocates" are just asking our fellow Christians to take the time to listen more carefully to the recipients of the traditional language around marriage, and to think and pray carefully about how God would want to us to respond. I personally failed to find a way to do so without changing my mind (and after I did, I came to a new understanding of Scripture that seemed clearer and more literally accurate than before).

To be honest, some of this may challenge some particular understandings of theology on a larger level, which is part of what I've gone through in the last couple of years. Yet there too are many different approaches available from that very same Bible we share and love.

Well, that's my opinion. Maybe it helps you understand better where I'm coming from even if you disagree.

Becoming a LGBT-Affirming Christian

J. Elliott LeinComment

Over the weekend I shared on Facebook that I have been on a three-year journey towards affirming LGBT Christians and same-sex marriage. I'm reposting some of what I said for the blog.

Here are some of my reasons for changing my mind, in no particular order, and without attempting to be a completist:

1) History

I found that the church has a history of repenting of what appeared to be clear Scriptural teachings supported by centuries of tradition after being confronted with the pain they cause (over 50% of preachers in 1860 supported slavery based on Scripture and they won the debates from a literal exegesis; teaching that the Jews were a cursed race based on clear verses from the gospels was an ecumenical Christian doctrine for 1,900 years until we saw the results of the Holocaust; interracial marriage and desegregation were strongly resisted by Biblical texts; etc). Today we find this ridiculous, but that's because we don't live in or often understand the past very well.

2) Translation/Interpretation

Interpretation and translation are human endeavors which cannot be separated from cultural assumptions and biases. The modern translations we use today, like the NIV or ESV, make verses seem very clear that are actually quite ambiguous or different in the original languages. There was a marked change in translation of certain words in the 1970s, just as fear of the "gay agenda" was growing (the word “homosexual” was first used then in translation, 100 years after it was introduced scientifically and just before it was removed as a disorder by medical professionals). For example, “wantons” (GNV), “effeminate” (KJV), and “male prostitutes” (NIV 1973) are quite different from “men who have sex with men” (NIV 2011), all of which are translations of the Greek “malakos” in 1 Cor 6 which literally means “soft” (used to describe Herod’s soft clothes in Matthew 11), metaphorically “morally weak” or “associated with feminine things, sometimes describing a womanizing heterosexual who loves women too much” (hence, “wantons” in 1599’s Geneva Bible).

Screenshot from my work-in-progress book on the topic.

3) Experience

Our faith is founded on the experience of God and recognizing the movement of the Spirit. It started with Abraham having an encounter with God, and being blessed to be a blessing to all the nations before he was given any rules to follow or rituals to perform. Christianity is based on a small group of Jewish peasants directly encountering the incarnate God, and radically reinterpreting their entire theological understanding and view of their Scriptures based on that undeniable experience. Paul, the most learned and devoted to the Hebrew Bible of all our apostles, rejected Jesus and the Way completely until he encountered the living Christ. In Galatians he appeals primarily to the experience of the people in the Spirit, not references to Scripture, in resisting the Judaizers encouraged by the culterally-accomodating Peter (accommodating religious exclusivity by his friends, not inclusivity of the world). Earlier, Peter baptizes uncircumcised Gentiles against his belief system because he witnesses the Spirit at work (Acts 10). In Acts 15 the Jerusalem Council reluctantly sets aside their tradition which they understand from the Scriptures due to the testimony of the works of God amongst the Gentiles (think how "icky" an unclean Gentile was in that culture!). The Ethiopian eunuch, a sexual minority, was baptized by Phillip in contrast to the tradition he knew (males with deformed genitalia were excluded from religious involvement by Scripture). Jesus said the “Spirit will guide you into all truth”. Paul said “we see through a glass darkly”. I think we continue to learn and grow in our understanding of God and the Bible, as we remain willing to hear the Spirit speak through people around us. I see the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in the LGBT Christians around me, and this experience has changed me. I believe this is completely orthodox Christianity, especially if we look back at point #1.

4) Movement 

I’m not alone. There are many long-respected leaders in the Evangelical Christian world who have recently changed their minds on this one issue. Tony Campolo, David Gushee, Ken Wilson, and others have recently shared their long and careful journeys to embracing sexual minorities in equality. They do so in full knowledge of how much rejection they face from their own religious culture, their friends and family, as I have as well (nothing compared to the rejection many church-raised, Jesus-following LGBT Christians face though).

5) Love 

Jesus said "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another". It seems like that says the people outside our community would look in and say that we are really loving according to how they understand love, which at this point doesn’t seem to be the case. I believe love is defined by 1 Cor 13. The second greatest command is "love your neighbor as yourself”. I believe we can only love people by being in relationship with them. To get to know their story and their heart before we earn the right to tell them how to change, because only then can we love them in the way we would want to be loved if we were them. I believe same-sex relationships have equal portions of companionship, emotional intimacy, self-giving love, and sexual desire that heterosexual ones do - with equal variation on an individual basis. Paul wrote: "Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that 'all of us possess knowledge.' Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him." (1 Cor 8) Anyone who loves God, is known by him. If “God is love”, and “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4), then love reveals where God is. And love cannot exist as an abstract concept, but must be a lived experience, in relationship. “Loving sinners” cannot be done without relationship. 

6) The Prophets 

I believe that the testimony of the prophets and Jesus were to turn our hearts from doing ritual worship and rule-following for God, and to care for the oppressed and hurting among us. I believe that Isaiah, Amos, Malachi, and Jesus told us that God is worshipped and glorified when we care first for the people around us. Without that, he doesn't listen to our prayers, our "hands are full of blood" (Isaiah 1).

7) Where's the harm?

There’s a lot of information that seems to say there is inherent harm in LGBT relationships, and we should protect people from that by telling them to give up hope of ever having the kind of family and loving relationship we heterosexuals take for granted is available to us. Yet, researchers aren’t finding this. All professional medical associations, who are pledged to “do no harm” (and who by the way, are happily condemning pedophilia), endorse same-sex marriage. Studies show that kids who are adopted into same-sex families (so much better than not having families at all, right?) do at least as well if not slightly better than in heterosexual relationships (it’s a very deliberate choice, no “accidents”!), individual anecdotes aside.

8) What is biblical marriage? 

None of us follow “biblical marriage” if that’s defined as following the pattern we see in Scripture. We mostly see polygamy (only ever restricted from Bishops/“overseers of pastors”), and there is plenty of acceptance of concubines, having relations with your slave women, and marrying your sister-in-law to continue the inheritance/genetic line. None of that is explicitly overturned. Jesus and Paul seemed to have a much higher view of celibacy than marriage. Acts describes something that looks more like a hippie commune than family units. Early church fathers declared people heretics for saying that marriage was even equal in importance to celibacy. Some castrated themselves in devotion to New Testament teaching. Others went the other direction, with clerical polygamy legal until the 8th century. Marriage wasn’t a church sacrament until the fifth century and not part of Catholic cannon until 1547, and Martin Luther wanted to keep it an entirely civic matter. Our current understanding of the nuclear family as superior and set apart from community comes from the 1950s culture. Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad (though even TGC’s Kevin DeYoung warns about the idolatry of the nuclear family in the modern church in his new book on homosexuality), but it’s certainly the product of our culture not the Bible. Procreation ability is not a criteria for heterosexual marriage, and some of these couples have already been together for 70 years.

9) “Gay lifestyle”?

I see this word used often in conservative concerns, yet many gay people are baffled by this phrase. Sure, there are a fair share of promiscuous, outrageous LGBT people, but there are plenty of heterosexuals like that too. And if what you’ve been told all your life is that you’re an abomination, inherently flawed in your desire for relationship, is it a shock when some people live that out? I’m so excited about this new generation who can begin openly providing examples of God-honoring, healthy same-sex relationships, which our Evangelical churches have never encouraged or supported.

Conclusion

Finally, if self-loathing, depression, substance abuse and suicide are the results of preaching the gospel, then it is not Good News. I have a very high view of the "Euaggelion"!

So, there's a bit of my story. It’s hard to condense the 50k words or so I’ve already written during my research. I'd be happy to dialog any time in person or electronically. I'm not interested in fighting, but I love respectful conversation about two of my loves, the Bible and Jesus Christ.

Overall, please remember I’m just a supporter who is learning, and making mistakes. If you really want to understand why many of us think the Spirit is speaking to the church from where we would have thought was the most unlikely place (like the eunuch and Gentiles in Acts), listen to the people who have everything at stake and know this intimately, like Matthias Roberts, Patrick Berquist, Matthew Vines, Brandon Robertson, Gene Robinson, Dale B. Martin, and many others.

Healing

J. Elliott LeinComment

I find the assigned lectionary reading for this Sunday eerily powerful and relevant to our past week. We had two rulings come through, one which stood for the right of all to have access to medical care regardless of economic status, the other which affirmed the equal value of a minority and historically socially-outcast population.

The following are my reflection notes, as I have been pouring over the text in preparation to lead discussion for the first time during our church's adult formation hour in the morning.

Proper 8B — Mark 5:21-43

In today’s lectionary, there are two healings interwoven into one narrative that challenges the status quo. A woman who had lived in complete social isolation, community rejection, suffering and poverty for twelve years is paired with a young girl who presumably spent those same years in relative privilege and joy.

It begins with the humbling of a member of the elite, leader of the synagogue, as he falls before the itinerant rabbi returned from the unclean Gentiles and grovels on behalf of his beloved daughter. The journey to healing is interrupted, fatally, by a community outsider of the lowest caste and value, who dares to enter into the crowd and lay claim for healing from the rabbi. When asked, she publicly recites her story in front of all, acknowledging what appeared to be a cursed judgement on her life. The rabbi raises the outcast’s status to “daughter”, and proclaims that her faith has made her well and at peace.

Once this is complete, Jesus returns to the original task of healing the young girl. He insists on the removal of fear and the gaining of confidence. He willingly touches a dead body, his second embrace of the unclean today. She too is raised, but in a quiet and low-key way as if to not draw more attention to the second than to the first healing.

Jesus proclaims access to  healing for everyone, regardless of who can afford it.

He lowers the status of the elite, and raises the status of the outcast.

He does not heal the fortunate before caring for the unfortunate.

He proclaims healing and affirmation of worth and value to those who are brave enough to step out in faith.

He enters into uncleanness, and societal disapproval, to bring healing.

He calls us to follow him. The first shall be last, and the last first.

Love People to Love God

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

(Part 3 of my meditation on the Love commandments. Read one and two.)

Jesus summarized all of his religious community's teachings about God in two commandments:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. 

And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

   — Matthew 22:37-40 (NRSV)

What does it mean to love God with everything you are?

How do we love God? What does loving God mean? How does our language around love in other contexts apply to a transcendent non-human being that we do not experience in the kind of direct ways in which we experience fellow humans, animals or even other physical aspects of our world?

I've been thinking a lot about what we mean when we use the word "God". It's one of those words that I inherited from my background in church, one that is hardly ever discussed directly but is referenced directly or indirectly in almost all contexts.

Evangelical Christianity often uses the phrase "personal relationship" when talking about what Jesus offers us with God. This was a powerful, revolutionary concept in the ancient world which saw deities as impersonal powers to be either feared or manipulated. Yet, what does that phrase "personal relationship" mean when we apply it to God?

For the purposes of this post, all I mean to say is that by definition God is not an entity that we physically touch, hear from, or see in human terms. Despite the mental image that I developed as a child, God is not a bearded old man sitting on a mountain somewhere (maybe I confused him with Zeus?).

Ways that are not love

One way I used to think about the command to "love God" was that it was about compelling an abstract emotional response on command or through emotion-targeting experiences (for example, a music concert). 

Another way of articulating "love God" seems to redefine "love" as "obey". This is very easy to understand (though sometimes still not as clear as some might think), but it's a different concept entirely. To obey God, to do God's will, is an action not a relationship. Love surely has something to do with relationship, and it is separate from what we might do for another out of respect or love. Obedience may flow out of love, but it is not the same as love. Love exists outside of any action or circumstance.

So, how do we love this transcendent (yet also affirmed to be equally immanent in the world) being in the way that Jesus calls us to, as the greatest and first commandment?

Re-reading the words

Once again, I'm drawn to re-examine the words that I've heard but seldom considered for so many years.

I personally affirm the importance and significance of the first commandment to love God, yet I'm left with wondering "how?". Surely Jesus didn't intend to leave us with something so vague and unknowable. What if we look at it again with the assumption that there is an answer embedded in the text above?

The first commandment is followed by the second commandment. Together (not separately) they sum up all of the "Law and the Prophets". If the first commandment seems hard to understand on its own, maybe we can use the second to interpret it.

The second commandment (which is "like unto" the first) is "Love your neighbor as yourself." My conclusion is that maybe this gives us the answer to our question about the first. That the way we love God is through loving those around us, which comes from us first loving ourselves (recognizing that we are truly worthy of love).

Loving God

So, what do you think? Is God's call to love others our way to loving him? And is the route to truly loving others centered in accepting our own status as fully loved creations?

Love As Overflowing Cup, Not Obligation

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

Last week I was thinking about the "love yourself" portion of "Love your neighbor as yourself". I couldn't get the topic off my mind.

First, what it's not about

"Love yourself" does not mean that you deny your failings, or see yourself as sinless. It means that you are able to recognize your inherent worth and value as a human being. You are able to trust that you are loved regardless of what you might do or think or feel.

Too often our identity and understanding of ourselves is based in shame and guilt. When "who we are" is summed up as "worthless sinners", then condemnation is all we expect from God, from others, and from ourselves. This internal narrative of condemnation and judgement is then naturally shared out by judging others.

If we believe that our identity is one of shame and guilt, that there is nothing inherently good in ourselves, then we believe that condemnation and judgement is how God relates to us and therefore how we should relate to those around us. The constant dialog in our heads is "you are not worthy to be loved". It destroys our spirits, corrupts our thoughts, damages our relationships, and separates us from the always-giving love of God.

This internal judgement overflows outward in our interactions with other people. Judgemental people are the opposite of hypocritical – the judgement they give out is matched by the judgement they internalize.

Is love an obligation?

Hospitality is an attitude and set of actions that can be learned and required of ourselves and others. It's not 

When our giving is primarily about obligation (often out of guilt and shame) rather than love, our efforts can be distorted.

I'm reminded of Mother Teresa's charity work. She is rightly venerated for her incredible self-sacrifice into poverty and provision for the most abandoned and hopeless of humanity. Yet as I've read more about her life and work, I've come to wonder if this fatal flaw is at the core of her efforts.

In her posthumously-published private writings, she confesses that she rarely felt the presence of God. She felt abandoned and alone, and unloved. Her work seemed to be motivated at least partially by a need for penance, not necessarily in passing on love. There have been some controversial discussions around her disallowing pain medication for the dying and suffering, and allowing individuals to die instead of have life-saving surgery. Her glorification of suffering could have come from her personal feeling that she was unworthy of love.

If we only love others out of obligation, is that "love", or is it action motivated by guilt?

Maybe if we can work on accepting all of ourselves as loved, even embracing our shadow side, we can begin to truly love others from which our loving actions will naturally overflow.

Just my thoughts for today. What do you think?

Love Yourself

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
— Mark 12:31 (NRSV)

One of my favorite restaurants, the Taqueria El Rancho, is just a short stroll from my office. I often walk past the local United Methodist Church when I pick up food there, and they have had Jesus's famous two-part commandment on their two-sided sign out front for the past few months (sure beats the puns!).

I've heard these verses so many times that it seems I've never really thought about the actual words much until the other day. I was on yet another jaunt up the hill to get my usual (two beef enchiladas, add one cheese, with the best rice and beans) when I re-read that sign once more, and started thinking about what it really meant.

"Love God, love others"?

Sure, love is a theme. Simplifying the commandments down to "Love God, and love others" is a short and catchy summary. And I definitely affirm that concept.

However, this time it was the second half of that second commandment that really caught my eye: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself".

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Is it simply a moral standard that says you should think of how you would like to be treated and use that bar to treat others? Or is there something more there? After all, some people's ideas of being treated well might not really work for me, and vice versa.

Listen to others to know how to treat them well?

Maybe we could extend the idea to say that the standard to which we should treat people should be based on equivalent results. That is, if I want to treat someone with respect, to give them dignity, and make them feel loved, I should endeavor to find out what actions would communicate this to that person.

Certainly this is widely regarded as important in marriages and relationships – don't assume that what you like is what the other person likes. You have to spend time with that person. You have to ask questions, and listen. Listen more than talk, or assume.

I'm reminded also of the training I received in cross-cultural communications when we left to be missionaries in Germany. We learned that respect and love are communicated in radically different ways in different cultures and contexts. Listening, learning, and attempting to understand life from a different perspective are crucial in these situations (whether overseas, or simply with someone raised in a different family!).

Can we apply that understanding to random strangers we meet in person or hear about online? To seek to understand and listen first, instead of assume? We can definitely try, and it would be great! Yet, there's one more level to this seemingly-simple commandment that I started thinking about.

Love Yourself

"Love your neighbor as you love yourself" implies that the love you give out to your neighbor is equal to or based on the love you have for yourself. If you do not love yourself, if you do not understand yourself to be loved/lovable at a deep level apart from any relationship or context or action, how can you love someone else to that same level?

Tonight I saw a tweet from Nathan Hamm that got me thinking about this whole topic again:

People who condemn others for
sexual sin are often
guilty of deep, dark sexual sin.

It's projection, not morality.
Hypocrisy, not holiness.
     — @NathanHamm

Nathan's premise has some concrete accuracy, as we've seen time and again in scandals emerging around some of the most condemning voices. I don't believe everyone is in this boat, knowing that I have made condemning statements without a "deep, dark sexual sin".

I think rephrasing slightly to "People who condemn others for sexual sin often feel guilty of deep, dark sexual sin" encompasses a greater range of people, and gets closer to the core issue. Focus on the word "guilt" as an internal story instead of an external one. If you have been given the narrative that your identity is inherently and completely sinful (one term some people use is "Total Depravity"), and if you've been given very tight limits to what is considered "ok" around sex (especially if merely looking at someone is a sin), then you probably have difficulty believing that you are loved, and that you can love yourself.

If you internally condemn yourself, if your internal narrative is focused more on sin and punishment than on grace and love, then that is naturally the way you may treat others. Consciously or unconsciously, you may not be being a hypocrite, because you are constantly doing the same thing to yourself.

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

As Jesus said, we must take care of the log in our eyes before turning to the dust mote in our brother's eye. Maybe some people who condemn others frequently have not been able to accept love from others, from God, and their internal monologue is reflected in their outward speech. I believe this to be true for myself, though I'm working on trusting in that love.

So, if you hear people around you doing condemning (of yourself or others), or maybe hear yourself doing it, remember that Jesus tells us we need to accept our status as loved creations of God, and love ourselves, before we can begin to follow his command to love others.

Three Lens of Christian Authority

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

The Anglican understanding of authority in faith, church and life is traditionally described as a “three-legged” stool made up of Scripture, Tradition and Reason/Experience. We say that we recognize the benefits of each element, with some members in our diversity leaning toward particular legs more than others, yet we all affirm Scripture as the final and base source of authority.

We say that those members of our community who emphasize Tradition are known as Anglo-Catholics. Those who focus on Reason and Experience are Progressives. And the Evangelical branch emphasizes Scripture first.

For a time, this explanation was satisfactory for me. It was refreshing to see these different influences named and acknowledged for the first time in my faith. Yet, something bothered me, and this discomfort continued to grow as I studied and reflected through the discernment process I am now in.

Finally, I realized that this analogy does not adequately describe what I saw in the real-life church experiences around me, nor did it make sense from a carpentry perspective. Stools do not function as three-legged devices if only one leg is considered the primary support, and neither do the members of each emphasis group treat Scripture with equal weight – at least not as the other groups would recognize it.

I have come to think that maybe the three “legs” are better expressed as “lenses”. As each group approaches sources of authority, they do so through a worldview that uniquely aligns every element of their source material. Let’s look briefly at each group to see how that might play out.

The Traditionalist Lens

The community within our communion who most emphasize tradition are known as “Anglo-Catholics”. They share a love for tradition with our Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic friends. We might consider it the oldest leg on the stool.

For a Traditionalist, Scripture is the foundation of authority, but it is so *as* the core of Tradition. From whence does Tradition come? From Scripture of course! The Holy Bible is the foundation upon which all of Tradition is built. The Church has added to that foundation through the centuries in our writings, practices and decisions.

Therefore the Traditionalist has no need to say that Scripture stands above Tradition, because Scripture is innately integrated into Tradition. Likewise, both Reason and Experience are seen through Tradition as we read the Fathers of the faith wrestling with logic and life to understand and apply Scripture.

For the Traditionalist, Tradition is not a favorite Leg of authority subservient to Scripture, but the Lens through which both Scripture and Reason are delivered to us.

 The Scriptural Lens

The Evangelical emphasis inspired by “Sola Scriptura” descends to us from the Protestant Reformation. Our range of understanding in the Episcopal Church stops short of a Fundamentalist’s attempt to deny any other sources of authority, yet there is a strong emphasis on the centrality of the Bible in church and personal practice. 

A balanced Scripturalist recognizes both the value of and the inability to avoid the elements of Tradition and Reason in how we read, learn and apply the Bible. Yet in the more Biblicist community I was raised in, too often what should have been seen as a particular interpretation which came primarily from Tradition or Reason and Experience was seen as simple Scripture.

When a Scripturalist encounters arguments that they recognize are from Tradition or Reason, they are quick to compare these insights back to the source text in the Bible. They may also conflate the three sources in such an integrated whole that they have difficulty in recognizing that a particular teaching more Traditionalist or Experience-sourced than a simple reading of the Bible itself.

For the Scripturalist, the Bible is not the primary leg of authority supplemented by Tradition and Reason, but the Lens through which we view both Tradition and Reason.

The Experientialist Lens

Those who emphasize Experience are often in the Progressive or Emergent group, which is where I find myself these days. This Lens most resonates with a postmodern world, and we may consider the strongest forms of this leg the most recent broadly-recognized form of understanding authority in the church today.

An Experientialist understands the Bible to be the recording of people who encountered God in the past, and whose experiences continue to guide us today (in both positive and negative ways). Our understandings of inspiration and authority of Scripture are often as strong and deep as the other groups, but we see these through a very different lens.

Wikipedia has this to say about the idea of Experience as authority:

The interrogation of experience has a long tradition in continental philosophy. Experience plays an important role in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. The German term Erfahrung, often translated into English as "experience", has a slightly different implication, connoting the coherency of life's experiences.

Certain religious traditions (such as types of Buddhism, Surat Shabd Yoga, mysticism and Pentecostalism) and educational paradigms with, for example, the conditioning of military recruit-training (also known as "boot camps"), stress the experiential nature of human epistemology. This stands in contrast to alternatives: traditions of dogma, logic or reasoning.
     – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experience

Since we see the Bible as a recording of Experience, it should be obvious that it's easy for us to see Tradition in very much the same light. The written part of Tradition is an extension of recorded experience continuing through the millennia, and the rituals and practices are ways that we can join into those ancient experiences.

For the Experientialist, Reason/Experience is not the favored leg under Scripture, but the lens through which we understand all of Scripture, Tradition and current Experience.

Lenses, not Legs

So that's the general idea. This has helped me understand my perspective on Christian authority better, to reconcile some tensions within myself, and also to relate more empathetically with those using other lenses.

I'm still playing around with the idea, but so far I like it.

Choosing Armageddon

J. Elliott LeinComment

Today I have been thinking a lot about what response those who seek to follow Jesus Christ should have to violence and wars in this world. The anniversary of 9/11 and the rise of ISIS provide moments of reflection on the past, and ask for current answers of how to respond.

One response is encapsulated in an article entitled "Why I am Absolutely Islamaphobic" (originally posted on Charisma News but quickly pulled). The Rev. Cass concludes that our only action as Christians can be arming ourselves to "crush the vicious seed of Ishmael in Jesus name".

Another perspective is offered by Carl Medearis in "A Thoughtful Christian Response to ISIS" where he gives a much more measured recommendation based on his experience getting to know Muslim leaders, one that starts with love and seeking understanding rather than immediate appeal to war.

After the last article was shared in a Facebook group, one person posted a question and comment in response: "So what IS God up to? I think things may be building up to Armageddon."

The following is my initial answer to that question, thinking through this out loud.


Jesus and the Kingdom of God

What if events such as 9/11 or the rise of ISIS are new opportunities to choose to follow Christ, or follow the Deceiver? I believe that every time we choose retributive violence we choose Armageddon for ourselves and others.

Jesus was born into a culture that was under ruthless oppression. The religious leaders of the time were seeking a warrior Messiah who would use violence against violence, establish a political empire, and reinforce a religious class that controlled access to God through their rules, rituals, genetics and physical location (Jerusalem and temple).*

He told these leaders over and over “repent and believe in me” – in other words, abandon this plan (metanoéō: “think differently afterwards”) and follow my plan – or face the consequences. It’s pretty obvious what would eventually happen if they continued on their course, and Jesus wanted to lead them into the true way of being God’s people outside of their nationalist agenda. Yet they rejected him and had him killed because they refused to believe that God wanted forgiveness and inclusion instead of retaliation and exclusion.

What happened 40 years later? Exactly what Jesus predicted – one of their (many) preferred Zealot military messiahs brought the might of Rome crashing down on their rebellion. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed completely, and over a million people killed. Unfortunately it took total destruction to set in motion what Jesus came to establish – a post-temple age of people worshipping “in spirit and in truth” no longer tied to a physical land or temple, called to follow the example of Jesus in non-violence and inclusion of all people regardless of rules, rituals, genetics, or class.

Jesus came to reveal the justice of God (a complex concept in the original Hebrew) as forgiveness, restoration and renewal instead of punishment or retribution (something the prophets repeated over and over, but always rejected by the ruling class). He offers us this radical challenge to follow that path every time we are faced with the logical desire for retribution. To break the cycle of violence and offer love in the face of hate. David, the man after God’s heart, got at least part of this, as he continued to turn over his desire for retribution to God (even as the ruler who had full authority and was expected by all – especially Joab – to crush rebellions to the throne God had given him!).

Ultimately Jesus’s resurrection shows us that God triumphs even in the face of our rejection of his desires, yet wouldn’t it be great if we began choosing that better path and not facing (and delivering to others) the earthly consequences of our rebellion (sin)?

Let us seek to work together, under the leadership of Jesus Christ, to bring the Kingdom of God to reign on earth, as it is in heaven. That is my daily prayer, as he taught us to pray.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name;
   thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
   on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
   as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
   but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power,
   and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

* For more on the expectations of the first century Jewish community for messiah, read "The Challenge of Jesus" by N.T. Wright

The Alternative

A very brief look at recent history, as I run out of time to research thoroughly, shows us how failure to forgive radically leads to further violence.

  • It is generally agreed by historians that the retributive and shaming policies inflicted on Germany after surrender in World War I led directly to justifying the Second World War for many Germans.
  • The invasion of Kuwait was followed by the invasion of Iraq, followed by 9/11, then Afghanistan, Iraq, and now ISIS is the latest response (bearing in mind that this is massively simplistic and I'm not an expert!).
  • The continuing battles between Palestine and Israel.

Yes, it is easy (and accurate) to point fingers at "those who start it". However, a) it's often not that simple and b) that should not change our response as followers of Christ. We have the ability to stop the cycle, even if it means we pay with our freedom or lives.

Finally

Of course we acknowledge there are times to stand up for the oppressed through violent means if necessary, and it may come to this with ISIS. However, there are still ways to do this seeking peace and restoration of relationship, and ways that simply seek retribution and annihilation.

I'm glad I don't have to make those decisions.