3 things to remember on July 4th

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This is an updated version of a post I shared last year on the Fourth of July… 

I’ve already written about my discomfort with the commingling of Christianity and nationalism in this country. I’ve expressed strong reservations about the way we invoke God’s name to glorify our revolutionary past—and our all-too-violent present.

There are many good reasons for ambivalence on our national holy day. Kurt Willems has pointed out the Revolutionary War didn’t even meet the criteria for a “just war,” as spelled out by Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. Carson T. Clark has observed that the revolution pitted Christians against other Christians. Instead of gathering around a common table to receive Christ’s sacrifice, Christians sacrificed one another—in clear violation of Jesus’ teaching. (You can’t very well love someone if you’re trying to kill them.) And Mark Charles has perhaps the most damning indictment of all: that our founding documents bear the unmistakeable marks of systemic racism, listing among America’s enemies the “merciless Indian savages.”

He writes:

How can a declaration that begins by stating “All men are created equal” go on to include justifications that dehumanize the Indian tribes and peoples who were already living in this land? Clearly the founding Fathers had a very narrow definition of who qualified as human.

There is much to say about the idolatry of nationalism, about the syncretism of churches holding patriotic (and often overtly partisan) worship services.

The truth is, I am not immune to these blind spots. I may hesitate to wave the flag, but I never stopped to looked at our national celebrations from the point of view of a Native American until I heard Mark Charles speak at Q earlier this year.

This Fourth of July, I want to share three things I hope we’ll remember and live into more intentionally. Doing so could help us tap into the very best of our nation’s heritage, while enabling us to confront the less commendable parts of our story.

1. May we remember that our nation was built on a commitment to share power.

This may be one of the greatest legacies of the founding fathers. After his triumph over the British, George Washington did something unusual. He resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. Legend has it he was invited to become America’s king—a legend which may or may not be true. Either way, Washington walked away from an opportunity which he could have exploited for his own gain.

Years later, Washington stepped down after two terms as president. His reasons may have been more practical than principled—he was yearning for retirement. But once more he set the extraordinary precedent of voluntarily walking away from power, rather than clutching it until the blood ran cold in his fingers.

In addition, the United States was built on the idea that the majority should not have absolute power. The rights of minority “factions,” as they were called, must be protected against the tyranny of the majority. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers: 

It is of great importance… to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.

Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature.

Of course, the founders did not embody these values consistently. They conveniently excluded some groups—namely, the indigenous population. We haven’t done any better. Far too often, we dehumanize and exclude those with whom we just don’t want to share power—blacks, women, gays, immigrants. Instead of celebrating when one group achieves new rights for itself or attains some measure of power, we lash out. We stoke fear. We cry “persecution” when what we’re really experiencing is the loss of our monopoly on power.

But a better way has been laid out for us. We can embody the values of our founders—values even they failed to live up to—and ensure that everyone has space at the table.

2. May we remember that it’s possible to disagree without resorting to violence—verbal or physical. 

The White House has changed hands between rival political parties 24 times since Washington left office. Only once did that change lead to revolt, when the pro-slavery Southern states seceded after Lincoln’s first election. The idea that someone can transfer power to their rival without bloodshed was remarkable 230 years ago. And while we may not resort to physical violence today (most of the time), we have a tendency to polarize every disagreement.

The effect of polarization today is to draw us into increasingly hostile forms of conflict with each other. We start viewing every liberal as an existential threat to civilization. We start to see every conservative as a racist, warmongering bigot. We get so caught up in paranoia about the “gay agenda” or some “right-wing conspiracy” that we fail to see the people behind the ideas.

When we start viewing those with whom we disagree as threats to society, we have, in effect, given up on the American experiment. Americans have always disagreed with one another, sometimes vociferously. If you think Fox News is a new phenomenon, you should see some of the partisan newspapers from the late 1700s and early 1800s. But we must always remember our common humanity and refuse to be enemies—even with the most radical liberal or the most hardcore conservative.  

3. May we remember that God loves America as much as he loves every other nation.

God loves America. Or perhaps more precisely, God loves every single person in America. But as Christians, we should never lose sight of where the biblical drama is moving. The trajectory goes from “one nation” to “all nations.” Even when it was “one nation,” that nation’s job was to bless all the other nations (Genesis 12).

There is no such thing as “American exceptionalism” in God’s eyes. For a church that’s been called to make disciples from “all nations,” American exceptionalism is heresy.  

America is not a new Israel. There is nothing in scripture to even remotely suggest that we are “special” in the way that Israel was special during the pre-Jesus part of the biblical drama. To suggest otherwise is to move in the opposite direction of the Bible.

God’s kingdom transcends and encompasses every nation. America doesn’t matter to God any more than Eritrea. But we don’t matter to him any less, either. God cares deeply for the people of this nation—and that’s something to be grateful for this Fourth of July.

Photo: Timo Kohlenberg on Flickr

40 answers for Kevin DeYoung

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Dear Kevin,

I read your “40 questions for Christians now waving rainbow flags” with interest. I don’t have a rainbow-themed avatar, but I have a good deal in common with those you were addressing.

Besides, as you say, it’s always good to “slow down and think.”

You describe your questions as “sincere, if pointed.” I took this to mean they were designed to elicit a response. So respond I have. As much as possible, I’ve tried to follow your lead—offering what I hope are sincere, if occasionally pointed, replies.

A few of your questions seemed redundant (e.g. #2 and #3, #29 and #30). In such cases I did not bother to repeat my answers. For you, each question may have had its own nuance, but I felt the same answers applied, at least broadly speaking.

One last point before diving in… I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that what we’re cheering for is definitely not “the sexual revolution,” if by that you mean an “anything goes” approach to sexual expression (which is what people usually mean by that term). I believe our sexual ethic should be shaped by Scripture, even if we occasionally have a different understanding of what that looks like.

All right. Onto the questions…

1. How long have you believed that gay marriage is something to be celebrated?

I’ve been wrestling with the relevant questions and issues for the last 4-6 years.

2. What Bible verses led you to change your mind?

Well, given that “verses” are an artificial construct imposed on the Bible in the 16th century… none.

For me, it started with a friend who came out on Facebook. Then I reconnected with a relative who’s gay. I happen to think they were the best possible reasons to reassess my views. They drove me back to the text—not to see how many proof texts I could amass on one side or the other, but to see whether I could discern a broader ethic or principle, showing how God wants us to relate to his LGBTQ image bearers.

(For what it’s worth, I did revisit some of the popular proof texts, as well.)

3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?

“It is not good that the man should be alone” may not only be true if you’re straight.

“Better to marry than to burn” may not only true if you’re straight.

But mostly, I would say this:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

(Here’s more on how I see “love your neighbor” as the Bible’s sexual ethic.)

4. What verses would you use to show that a marriage between two persons of the same sex can adequately depict Christ and the church?

The same verses you would use to show that marriage between two opposite-gendered persons can adequately depict Christ and the church. (I’m pretty sure gender is not the main point of Paul’s analogy, since the church is not literally, anatomically female.)

5. Do you think Jesus would have been okay with homosexual behavior between consenting adults in a committed relationship?

I don’t think most first-century Jewish rabbis ever had the opportunity to imagine such a thing, much less decide how they felt about it. That’s not a category into which homosexual behavior typically fell back in the first century. But if Jesus had been incarnated into our world today, I think he may well have been okay with it…or at least, almost definitely not as bothered by it as some of his followers are.

6. If so, why did he reassert the Genesis definition of marriage as being one man and one woman?

Why do you use a passage in which Jesus is clearly talking about divorce to make a point about homosexuality? Context.

7. When Jesus spoke against porneia what sins do you think he was forbidding?

In light of his audience and the examples he specifically mentioned—namely, a man and a woman divorcing on grounds of porneia, women serving as pornai (prostitutes)—I think he was most likely addressing illicit forms of heterosexual sex.

8. If some homosexual behavior is acceptable, how do you understand the sinful “exchange” Paul highlights in Romans 1?

As part of a rhetorical device Paul used to convince his fellow Jews they were just as guilty as Gentiles before God.

9. Do you believe that passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Revelation 21:8 teach that sexual immorality can keep you out of heaven?

Yup! As long as we understand “sexual immorality” (porneia) correctly. (See #7 above.) And as long as by “heaven” you mean the renewed creation.

10. What sexual sins do you think they were referring to?

In the case of Revelation 21:8, the key word is pornois (a variant of porneia). Refer to #7 above.

As you know, 1 Corinthians 6:9 uses a relatively obscure term, arsenokoitai (literally “man bedders”), which likely refers to “the hedonistic homoerotic practices that were widespread in the Roman Empire” and “were almost always performed by social superiors on social inferiors” (HT William Stacy Johnson). So I’m not sure this text is applicable to two people of the same gender in a covenantal relationship characterized by mutual affection and equality.

On the other hand, the fifth-century saint John the Faster thought arsenokoitai referred to heterosexual anal sex. So there’s always that option.

But are we really going to hinge such an important question on the meaning of one obscure, notoriously hard-to-translate word?

11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?

Augustine failed to grasp that sex is basically a good thing, that it’s a gift from God to his creation.

Luther failed to grasp that Jews and peasants are people too, and ought to be treated with respect.

Pretty much all of them failed to grasp that slavery is bad. So what exactly is your point? Just because a belief—one which, we should note, is not contained in any ecumenical creed or confession—has long been held by the church doesn’t mean it gets a free pass.

We should not be too quick to dismiss something Christians have assumed to be true for centuries, especially when it comes to core tenets of orthodoxy (which this is decidedly not). But neither should we act as if our predecessors were infallible. It’s the task of each generation to discern how best to embody God’s intended reality in our world, knowing we will always do so imperfectly.

12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?

You seem to be suggesting that it’s imperialistic for us to commend the affirming view to our sisters and brothers in the majority world. Question: did this aversion to imperialism stop your fellow evangelicals from promoting anti-gay legislation in places like Uganda—legislation that exposes lesbian and gay Africans to harassment, imprisonment, and in some cases death?

Have you considered how imperialism tainted early missionary efforts in the majority world, the introduction of the Bible there, and how people were taught (primarily by white Westerners like you and me) to interpret it?

13. Do you think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were motivated by personal animus and bigotry when they, for almost all of their lives, defined marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman?

No. But I don’t think most people who hold the traditional view are motivated by “personal animus and bigotry” either. Just because someone opposes same-sex marriage does not mean they’re a bigot.

At the same time, just because you’re not a bigot doesn’t mean you don’t have room to become more loving. We all need to grow in our compassion and understanding.

14. Do you think children do best with a mother and a father?

What if one of them is abusive? Are you suggesting that’s better than two gay dads who provide a loving, safe environment and don’t abuse kids?

15. If not, what research would you point to in support of that conclusion?

“There is no evidence that the development of children with lesbian and gay parents is compromised in any significant respect relative to that among children of heterosexual parents in otherwise comparable circumstances.”
–Patterson, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents,” Child Development, 1992

“Children raised by lesbian women do not experience adverse outcomes compared with other children.”
–Anderson, Amlie & Ytterøy; “Outcomes for Children With Lesbian or Gay Parents: A Review of Studies From 1978 to 2000,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 2002

“Extensive data available from more than 30 years of research reveal that children raised by gay and lesbian parents have demonstrated resilience with regard to social, psychological, and sexual health despite economic and legal disparities and social stigma.”
–Perrin & Siegel, “Promoting the Well-Being of Children Whose Parents are Gay or Lesbian,” American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013.

16. If yes, does the church or the state have any role to play in promoting or privileging the arrangement that puts children with a mom and a dad?

In my opinion, the state does have an interest in prioritizing the placement of children in households with two parents—though there are also loads of single parents who are wonderfully qualified to adopt. As I’ve indicated in my responses to #14 and #15, I’m not nearly as convinced as you are that gender is the critical factor here.

Churches, on the other hand, have every right to advocate for whatever arrangement they find most compatible with their understanding of Scripture. If we’re talking about faith-based adoption agencies that receive federal funding, then the answer is a bit more complicated. (And I won’t pretend to know what it is.)

17. Does the end and purpose of marriage point to something more than an adult’s emotional and sexual fulfillment?

Sure. Marriage is a stabilizing force in families and communities.

Marriage can also be a powerful tool for regulating sexual activity—providing an appropriate context for healthy sexual expression and discouraging harmful sexual activity—e.g. limiting (one hopes!) the number of sexual partners someone has and thereby reducing the transmission of disease.

Some of us just don’t see how these ends and purposes have anything to do with the gender of the participants.

18. How would you define marriage?

Depends if we’re talking civil or sacramental marriage.

Civil: a state-sanctioned union of two people in which they share a common household (finances, property, etc.).

Sacramental: a divinely sanctioned union of two people in which they covenant to love each other exclusively, serve one another, nurture one another (socially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically); and form a family with one another (whether or not that includes children).

19. Do you think close family members should be allowed to get married?

No, gross. The negative effects of inbreeding are well documented.

20. Should marriage be limited to only two people?

Yup. As Jon Stewart said, nobody is born a polygamist.

Besides, if anything opens the door to polygamy, it’s patriarchy, not homosexuality.

21. On what basis, if any, would you prevent consenting adults of any relation and of any number from getting married?

On the basis of responsible legislation which excludes inbreeding and polygamy (as well as marrying your pet goat) from the legal definition of marriage.

22. Should there be an age requirement in this country for obtaining a marriage license?

Of course. Marriage still requires consent from both parties. Kids cannot consent to being married—or be held to just about any legal contract, for that matter.

23. Does equality entail that anyone wanting to be married should be able to have any meaningful relationship defined as marriage?

Well, my 4-year-old might think so, given how many times she’s asked to “marry” me. But most reasonably intelligent adults understand this is not the case.

24. If not, why not?

Because same-sex marriage is about one previously excluded class of people being given access to the institution; it does not fundamentally alter the nature of that institution. Marriage is still at its core two people uniting in an intimate relationship and forming a common household. The idea that gays getting married somehow renders the institution meaningless is silly.

25. Should your brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with homosexual practice be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs without fear of punishment, retribution, or coercion?

Yes, absolutely. The Supreme Court was weighing in on the fourteenth amendment, not the first.

Caveat: please don’t mistake public disagreement for persecution. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage have the right to not be persecuted for their beliefs. None of us have the right to not be criticized.

26. Will you speak up for your fellow Christians when their jobs, their accreditation, their reputation, and their freedoms are threatened because of this issue?

Yes, if there is genuine persecution or discrimination taking place.

For example, if Coca-Cola fires someone because they signed a petition supporting traditional marriage, I would strongly object. If they fired someone for relentlessly badgering their LGBTQ coworkers, not so much.

On accreditation… I don’t wish to see Christian schools punished for maintaining a traditional evangelical view on homosexuality. But please bear in mind that accrediting agencies are private organizations. They have the right to set their own criteria. If they choose to rescind a school’s accreditation over its policies on homosexuality, it’s not necessarily valid to play the “government persecution” card.

Related question: if a wedding photographer has the right to refuse to serve a gay couple, shouldn’t a private accreditation agency have the right to refuse to serve a college it considers anti-gay?

27. Will you speak out against shaming and bullying of all kinds, whether against gays and lesbians or against Evangelicals and Catholics?

Bullying is bad, period.

But are you really going to equate the bullying of evangelicals and Catholics with the bullying of gays and lesbians? Especially when 40% of the homeless youth population is LGBT? Especially when LGBT youth are 4-6 times more likely to attempt suicide?

Who’s the bigger bully here?

28. Since the evangelical church has often failed to take unbiblical divorces and other sexual sins seriously, what steps will you take to ensure that gay marriages are healthy and accord with Scriptural principles?

I hope churches that marry same-sex couples will offer premarital counseling beforehand, mentorship opportunities with older married couples, counseling for those in struggling marriages, etc. In other words, pretty much the same kind of support they offer to heterosexual couples.

To your point, perhaps this is an opportunity for all of us to commit ourselves to strengthening marriage.

29. Should gay couples in open relationships be subject to church discipline?

LGBTQ members of the church should be held to the same standard of sexual ethics (fidelity within marriage) as heterosexual members.

30. Is it a sin for LGBT persons to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage?

See #29.

31. What will open and affirming churches do to speak prophetically against divorce, fornication, pornography, and adultery wherever they are found?

Preach and teach God’s Word as they always have. (They’re not all Bible-burning liberal apostates.)

32. If “love wins,” how would you define love?

I would define love as an active, robust commitment to the flourishing of others—a reflection of God’s commitment to our own flourishing.

Also, as all that’s necessary for the fulfillment of the law (see Paul in Romans 13)

33. What verses would you use to establish that definition?

Probably the same ones that you would… 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 13, etc.

34. How should obedience to God’s commands shape our understanding of love?

Love is obedience to God’s command, according to both Jesus and Paul. If you love God and love (i.e. seek the good of) your neighbor, you are obeying God.

35. Do you believe it is possible to love someone and disagree with important decisions they make?

Yes. We do it all the time. (Albeit badly.)

36. If supporting gay marriage is a change for you, has anything else changed in your understanding of faith?

Sure. Once I changed from being an Arminian to a Calvinist, but it didn’t stick.

As much as you might want to uncover signs of a slippery slope, the truth is, everyone’s understanding of faith changes over time—or at least it should.

Or are we so bold to assume we have everything figured out already?

37. As an evangelical, how has your support for gay marriage helped you become more passionate about traditional evangelical distinctives like a focus on being born again, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the total trustworthiness of the Bible, and the urgent need to evangelize the lost?

It hasn’t.

My passion for the historic orthodox faith—as expressed in the Nicene Creed, which I say every week without crossing my fingers—is unchanged by my perspective on gay marriage.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. I hope I’m even more motivated to proclaim the good news of a God who loves everyone and wants everyone to know him.

38. What open and affirming churches would you point to where people are being converted to orthodox Christianity, sinners are being warned of judgment and called to repentance, and missionaries are being sent out to plant churches among unreached peoples?

There are plenty within my own tribe, the Episcopal Church, who are deeply committed to orthodoxy and evangelism. (Though we have room to grow, especially with respect to evangelism.)

At the same time, many of us would argue that making our churches more welcoming is an essential part of evangelism. Most gays and lesbians would never come and hear the gospel in your church, because they wouldn’t see it as a safe or welcoming space for them.

Removing barriers between people—barriers that shouldn’t be there in the first place—is an important step toward gospel proclamation. Not the only step, to be sure. In my context, our challenge is to make sure we take the next step after that. Your challenge is to take the first step.

39. Do you hope to be more committed to the church, more committed to Christ, and more committed to the Scriptures in the years ahead?

Yes, yes, and yes.

40. When Paul at the end of Romans 1 rebukes “those who practice such things” and those who “give approval to those who practice them,” what sins do you think he has in mind?

I think Paul had in mind the general sinful condition of all humanity, as demonstrated by his rhetorical turn in chapter 2.  Paul’s point in Romans 1-2 was that we are all guilty of idolatry (worshiping the creature instead of the Creator). Morgan Guyton observes that the vice list in chapter 1 was “intended to elicit disgust” from Paul’s Jewish audience, just before he dropped the rhetorical boom (“You, therefore, have no excuse…”).

Paul also said the people he’s referring to were “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.” So, as Morgan notes, when you encounter gay Christians who clearly don’t rise to this level of depravity, you have to ask whether “same-sex marriage is evil” is really the point Paul is trying to make here.

—//—

Food for thought, I hope. I don’t expect anything I’ve written will change your mind. But I hope you’ll reconsider your assumption that those of us who see things differently than you are “swallowing everything the world and Facebook put on our plate.” Many of us have wrestled with, thought about, and, yes, prayed over these issues for a long time—especially those among us who are LGBTQ, for whom this is so much more than an “issue.” I hope, out of respect for them, these questions will become a conversation-starter instead of a discussion-killer.

—//—

Finally, some other responses that are well worth reading:

Four things you can do if you were disappointed by the SCOTUS ruling

If you aren’t one of the 26 million people who added a rainbow flag to your Facebook profile picture last week, this post might be for you. If you disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, this post is definitely for you.

I won’t try to change your mind. I’m not going to tell you why I think you’re wrong. Instead, I want to offer four things you can do in the wake of Obergfell v. Hodges.

This list is for those feeling torn between their convictions about human sexuality and their desire to love people well.

1. Focus on marriage—starting with yours.

Do not be swayed by the Chicken Little prophets of doom. For most of us, nothing changed last week. Our society’s definition of marriage expanded (which is not in itself a bad or unprecedented thing—see Loving v. Virginia). Our definition of marriage did not narrowwhich means if you were already married, good news! Your marriage is just as it was before.

Your marriage is not weakened by someone else gaining access to the institution. Your marriage is what you put into it, period.

So if really want to “defend” the institution of marriage, the best way you can do that is by loving your spouse well, not by worrying about who else is now able to wed.

2. Listen to the LGBTQ community.

Just about all of us know someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. But it’s another thing to really seek to connect, engage, listen. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s amazing what happens when we stop talking about people and start dialoguing with them.

So reach out… and just try listening.

You don’t have to debate. You certainly don’t have to try and “convert” anyone. You don’t have to get into an argument. Just listen. Ask them to share their story, if they’re comfortable doing so. Or, better yet, just talk about… whatever. Your heterosexuality is not all that defines you; their orientation or gender identity is not the sum total of who they are, either.

Try to go the whole conversation without issuing a “just so we’re clear” disclaimer. You don’t need to say it. They don’t need to hear it. Chances are, they already know what you believe. Trust me, whatever you might say to try and prove them wrong… they’ve heard it before.

3. Reexamine your convictions.

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Many of our convictions are inherited rather than intentionally cultivated. We arrive at them by default, more or less.

How much time have you spent considering the arguments for and against same-sex marriage? I don’t mean, How much time have you spent defending your particular point of view? or How much time have you spent reading those you already agree with to validate what you already believe?

That’s confirmation bias, not discernment.

What I mean is, How much time have you spent studying, reflecting, discerning, questioning—perhaps even praying about your convictions? How much time have you spent testing your assumptions? How open are you to the possibility you might be wrong?

Remember, as Cindy Brandt has written, certainty can be a form of idolatry.

Here’s a good reading list, if you want to familiarize yourself with the pro-affirming argument:

Don’t assume you already know what they’re going to say. Don’t assume their arguments are “nothing new.” Hear them out. You might be surprised.

And yes, you should spend time familiarizing yourself with the argument for a non-affirming view as well. A good place to start (especially for a rancor-free presentation) is Preston Sprinkle’s blog.

4. Find the places you can come together.

Even if you haven’t changed your mind about same-sex marriage, you may be asking how you can “love without being disrespectful,” as Ben Moberg put it.

Ben has some great ideas for how affirming and non-affirming Christians can work together for the common good…

Like tackling LGBTQ homelessness, for instance. As Ben writes, “Nearly 40 percent of the youth homeless population is LGBTQ.” The church has to own that. We’ve driven more than our share of kids into the cold because we did not understand—because did not WANT to understand—because we valued dogma over people. You don’t necessarily have to agree with last week’s ruling to realize we need to repent of this and do better for our kids.

Or how about we get serious about the bullying of LGBTQ students? Or what about employment discrimination? Is it really OK that a person can be fired for being gay in 29 states? (In case you think gays have all the civil rights they could ever want or need after last week’s ruling.)

We still have a long way to go before members of the LGBTQ community are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. You don’t have to shed your beliefs about marriage to care about that.

Or as Ben put it:

For those morally conflicted about same-sex marriage, there is literally zero moral risk in advocating for justice in these issues. There is an enormous moral risk in doing nothing.

—//—

This matters because, like it or not, we are part of the same church. We have the same calling to love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we need reminding who counts as a neighbor, well, there’s a parable for that.

As Ben Moberg writes, “Good and godly people can disagree about the Bible.” And we will. Lots. Our disagreements may lead us to worship in different churches—some of us in affirming churches where same-sex unions are celebrated with joy, and some in non-affirming churches where marriage is reserved for heterosexual couples. Both sides can’t be right, but both sides can be more loving.

I’m not trying to suggest there’s some magical “third way” solution where we can all come together and pretend we don’t disagree. But disagreement doesn’t have to be the end of our story.

Again, as Ben writes, “There is so much work that needs to be done. The kingdom of God is at stake. And we can do this, together.”

Images by Ted Eytan on Flickr; A Guy Taking Pictures on Flickr 

An open letter to the gay community after SCOTUS

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Dear LGBT people:

I’m starting to worry that some of you didn’t get the memo. Or maybe you’re not as good at destroying civilization as we were told. Either way, we were promised an apocalypse and, well, I’m sorry to say… you’re just not living up to expectations.

I mean, it’s been two whole days since the SCOTUS ruling, and you STILL haven’t turned up at my door to make my kids gay or replace my lady wife with a dude.

How many churches have you shuttered for not doing gay weddings? How many pastors have you rounded up? What are you even doing with all your free time now that you’ve won? As far as I can tell, the signers of the Manhattan Declaration are still freely moving about, enjoying their lives as much as before. (Well, maybe a little less now that you’ve apparently ruined their traditional marriages.) They’re even issuing new statements in case, in all the flutter, we forgot where they stand.

Maybe your paddy wagon is in the shop (getting some fabulous new detailing, no doubt). But you really must get on with it soon.

Otherwise, people will start to think that your only agenda is to love and be loved.

Sincerely,

A disgruntled alarmist

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I don’t forgive Dylann Roof

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The world witnessed an astonishing display of forgiveness in Charleston last week.

Relatives of those gunned down by Dylann Roof got a chance to confront the terrorist who ripped a gaping hole in their lives. According to the Washington Post:

One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while [Roof] remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses.

It was a powerful, breathtaking sight. I affirm their right to forgive. I am, quite simply, awestruck by it. Someday I’d like to ask them if they could teach me how to be a Christian, because they clearly understand the way of Jesus much better than I do.

But let’s not all pile on the “forgive Dylann Roof” bandwagon yet. Some of us—most of us—have no place there. Specifically, if you are white like me.

It’s not my place to forgive Dylann Roof, for one exceedingly obvious reason: I am not one of his victims.

It’s not my place to tell others—least of all members of the black community—they should forgive Roof either. I haven’t experienced anything remotely like what they’ve experienced.

I have no idea what it’s like to live in fear because of the color of my skin. I don’t know what it’s like to be profiled, targeted, stereotyped, harassed, and threatened on a daily basis. Me and my ancestors have not had to spend our entire history “literally dying to be human,” as Carvell Wallace put it.

The choice to forgive an oppressor is the victim’s alone.

Forgiveness is central to the Christian experience—our salvation would not be possible without it. But it is not for the oppressor to dictate terms of forgiveness to the oppressed.

And let’s be honest: on the continuum from “oppressor” to “victim,” I am much closer to the former than the latter. I may not be Dylann Roof. I may despise racism. I may sign a petition to take down the Confederate flag. But every day I benefit from a system that privileges whiteness.

Perhaps the real reason it’s so tempting to join what Broderick Greer called the “white Christian rush to forgiveness” is because it lets me off the hook a little too easily. After all, if Dylann Roof can be forgiven for what he did—and he’s not even sorry!—then maybe I don’t have to feel so bad about my white privilege, my racial bias, and my failure to fully confront them. The rush to forgive Dylann Roof blinds me to the lesions of white supremacy that scar my own soul.

Finally, it’s not my place to forgive Dylann Roof (or tell others to) because by doing so, I risk misappropriating the very notion of forgiveness.

That’s what I learned from this eye-opening conversation between Mallory Ortberg and Carvell Wallace. (Warning: there’s strong language in the full piece, but frankly, if that’s what troubles you, then we need to have a chat about priorities.)

Many of us see forgiveness as closure, as the end of a story. Once forgiveness is offered, we can all go back to our lives. To quote Ortberg:

In the broad Christian context I grew up in, saying “I forgive you” was generally understood to be a complete act. You forgave someone when you were DONE wrestling through what they had done to you. And it meant that you were, if not over it completely, at a certain amount of peace, and that things were, generally speaking, “okay.”

That’s a problem, because forgiving Dylann Roof does nothing to address the systemic racism that poisoned his soul—and to some degree poisons mine as well. It does nothing to dismantle the structures designed to keep black people “in their place.”

Forgiveness may be followed by a renewed effort to combat racism. But forgiveness does NOT make the fight against racism unnecessary.

To quote Carvell Wallace:

A lot of people forget that forgiveness of racists among black people is something that WE DO IN ORDER TO KEEP OUR SOULS INTACT… We have to forgive the sinner because the accumulated resentment could destroy us, but that will never mean that we don’t fight tooth and nail against the sin.

It’s nothing to do with the offender and it’s not about granting a pass to anyone. It’s more about clearing your heart of hate SPECIFICALLY SO YOU CAN CONTINUE TO FIGHT.

America has a long history of raping, robbing, enslaving and killing people and then urging those same people to find and express forgiveness and peace. So when I hear “pray for peace” from a white person in the hours after Charleston, it lands very, very wrong.

I do not forgive Dylann Roof. Nor will I ask anyone else to. Rather, my responsibility is to find and name the unseen prejudice lurking in my own heart—to repent and seek forgiveness for the ways I have contributed, intentionally or otherwise, to an oppressive system.

Image: #StandWithCharleston by All-Nite Images on Flickr

In which you get to see me on video talking about my kids’ book…

A few weeks ago, my publisher, David C Cook, shot a few videos of me talking about why I wrote my book and how we can tell a better gospel story for our kids.

Here are the first two…

On why I wrote The Story of King Jesus…

On treating Bible stories as if they were isolated moral fables (and why we should read Scripture as a single story)…

Watch for a few more of these videos in the weeks ahead!

To learn more about The Story of King Jesus go here.

Matt Chandler, The Village Church, and the unresolved issue

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I mentioned the situation at The Village Church (TVC) in my previous post about patriarchy and sexual abuse.

(For those who don’t know, TVC tried to “discipline” a former member for annulling her marriage after she learned her husband was using child porn. Lead pastor Matt Chandler has since apologized. You can read more about the situation here.)

I believe Matt Chandler showed genuine humility and remorse in his response. He apologized publicly and privately to Karen Hinkley. He made amends. I respect him for that. His response was anything but the typical non-apology we’ve come to expect from celebrity pastors caught overstepping their authority. (For what it’s worth, Karen Hinkley showed tremendous grace in her response as well.)

At the same time, I believe the larger issue remains unresolved. TVC, like many churches, believe only men can lead, that women are intrinsically subordinate to men. For them and the other churches of the Acts 29 Network, this doctrine is “central and not peripheral.” It’s “primary and not secondary.”

And that is why they continue to be unsafe places for women—especially those affected by abuse. Which, let’s face it, is a lot of them, when you consider as many as 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault at some point—and more than two thirds of assault cases go unreported.

As long as we insist that a woman’s path to God runs through a man, as long as we insist she cannot discern God’s will for herself but must submit to the judgment of an all-male elder board—in Karen Hinkley’s case, to decide whether she should be allowed to end her marriage to a confessed child porn addict—then these abuses of authority will continue.

You can apologize. You can make amends. (And, to their credit, TVC did both.) But until you address the culture and theology that require a panel of men to “validate” a woman’s narrative in the first place, you will find yourself in the same situation again and again.

Patriarchy hurts women.

Patriarchy fosters abuse by treating women like property.

Patriarchy blames and belittles survivors.

Patriarchy enables and protects abusers.

Patriarchy trivializes the actions of abusers.

Patriarchy is the problem. Not just a few otherwise good-hearted men forgetting what’s important and overstepping their authority. It’s the fact that they won’t share authority. Until they do, we’ll continue to read about people like Karen Hinckley.

We’ll know we’re ready to get serious about abuse in the church when finally share leadership with women.

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Sexual abuse won’t stop unless the church puts women in power

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Bill Gothard.

Doug Phillips.

Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Bob Jones University.

Josh Duggar.

The Village Church.

Oh, and lest we think this is purely an evangelical phenomenon—or that fundamentalists are the only ones who minimize abuse, marginalize women, and harbor their abusers—John Howard Yoder.

There is no single, magic answer to the epidemic of abuse in the church, both Protestant and Catholic. But increasingly, I’m convinced of one thing: the abuse won’t end as long as men are the sole arbiters of power.

When a woman has to go before an all-male elder board for permission to end her marriage to a confessed child porn addict, that’s a recipe for perpetuating abuse.

Sure, they might apologize later for “not communicating clearly” or for being too “heavy-handed.” But if they don’t confront the root problem—men claiming sole power by divine right—then it’s just going to happen again. And again and again. Any theology that insists on a God-ordained “male priority” (yes, that’s the term they use) is complicit in the cycle of abuse.

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If you exclude women from leadership, who holds the men accountable when they abuse their power? Other men, just like them? A God who, to them, is essentially masculine—just like them? I don’t think so.

All-male leadership fosters an environment where men act with impunity.

This shouldn’t be hard to grasp, especially for evangelicals. Those who believe in human depravity should have no trouble imagining what happens when one group claims a monopoly on power—or worse, when they claim their right to do so was given by God himself.

Yet many Christians refuse to consider the one thing that could actually help stop abuse: giving women an equal share of power.

Of course, it’s easy to point the finger at those who wear the term “patriarchy” as if it were a badge of honor. The truth is, many of us who reject patriarchy haven’t done much better. We may accept the notion of gender equality in principle. But if the composition of our leadership is any indicator, we haven’t fully embraced it in practice. (Case in point: though the Episcopal Church has been ordaining women for almost 40 years, the active priesthood is still two-thirds male.)

It’s time for a radical overhaul to church culture and governance. A theoretical commitment to equality won’t do anymore. Token gestures—like putting a woman or two on the elder board—won’t cut it, either.

It’s time for women to have a truly equal share in the leadership of our churches. That means it’s time for some of us to relinquish our unearned privilege, to let go of our monopoly on power. It’s time for some of us to step aside. It’s time to practice what we preach.

When women share equally in the leadership of our churches, it will be harder for men to get away with trivializing and ignoring—and therefore perpetuating—abuse.

That day can’t come soon enough.

Image: The Pulpit by Bs0u10e0 on Flickr

6 ways mainline churches should respond to decline

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Christianity is dying!

No it’s not.

Yes it is.

It’s just a flesh wound!

Anyway, it’s mostly liberal mainline churches that are doomed.

Evangelicals are in trouble too.

All right… we’ll call it a draw.

That basically sums up debate over the Pew study on America’s changing religious landscape.

The rise of the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, can be partly explained by the collapse of cultural Christianity, as Ed Stetzer argues. Mainline churches have been hit the hardest because we had the greatest share of “nominals”—those affiliated with the church for reasons other than a deep-seated commitment to Christ. Our churches once enjoyed disproportionate cultural influence, wealth, and privilege—which is why half of America’s presidents were either Episcopalian, Methodist, or Presbyterian.

Those days are gone. Christianity’s cultural dominance is waning, so there’s little reason left to be part of the church other than a deep-seated commitment to Christ.

This is not a bad thing.

But to suggest, as some conservatives have, that liberalism is to blame—and that conservative evangelicals have nothing to fear—is painfully shortsighted.

For one thing, evangelicalism’s share of the overall population is shrinking too. Attempts to explain away this decline aren’t convincing. If religion were a business—and let’s face it: we treat it like one, which is why we argue over numbers like these—then somebody’s job would be in jeopardy over the drop in evangelical “market share” the last few years.

For another thing—to echo Jonathan Merritt—if liberal drift is responsible for a 3.4% decline among mainline churches, how do we explain a 3.1% decline among Roman Catholics?

In the US, Christianity as a whole is losing influence—evangelical, mainline, Catholic. We’re all in decline.

However, that’s bitter comfort for mainliners who are currently winning the race to the bottom.

The reality is, evangelicals have no business gloating over the decline of mainline Christianity, and faithful mainliners should take no comfort that evangelicals are in the same boat.

We have bigger things to wrestle with—namely, what the future looks like for us.

I’m an evangelical-turned-Episcopalian. I want my newfound spiritual home to have a future—for my kids’ sake and for the world’s sake. I believe we have something profoundly meaningful to offer. But change is coming, and if we fight it, we will die.

Here are six ways I think mainline churches can turn a shifting landscape into an opportunity for renewal…

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1. Embrace the decline.

We don’t have the same cultural cache we used to. Good. As I’ve written elsewhere, privilege breeds complacency. The sooner we let go of it, the better.

It’s not the church that’s dying. It’s the edifice we’ve built around it. Let the edifice die. We’ve forgotten what church really looks like. The radically egalitarian movement intent on bringing heaven to earth is sometimes barely recognizable beneath the edifice.

As members of the group Episcopal Resurrection recently wrote:

We have a choice before us. We can continue, valiantly and tragically, to try to save all the rights and privileges we have previously enjoyed. We can continue to watch our church dwindle until it someday becomes an endowed museum to the faith of our forebears. We can continue business as usual until we lose our common life entirely.

Or we can lose our life for Jesus’ sake so that we might save it.

There is no resurrection without death. What are we prepared to let die so we can envision a better way of being the church?

2. Embrace the meaning behind the liturgy, not just liturgy for the sake of liturgy.

I love the sacraments. They’re part of what drew me to the Episcopal Church. I love the way the liturgy soaks into my being, the way it anchors my faith. Big-box Christianity feels like a desperate imitation of the culture; for me the liturgy is transcendent and countercultural.

We Episcopalians can be quite fond of our liturgy. But there’s a danger in becoming too fond of the thing itself, instead of what (or who) it points us to. This was brought home for me when I read Matthew Drake’s heartfelt post on why the sacraments aren’t enough to bring him back to church:

If you’re anything like me, you might view the sacraments and the liturgy as good programs that good people built after Jesus split. Programs whose faithful practice has helped people follow God through the ages. Programs which should be honored and cherished and used to this very day. But man-made programs nonetheless.

I’m cool with those programs until the minute their sacraments become sacred. When people start associating rituals (communion, baptism, the sinner’s prayer), leadership structures (prophets, priests, pastors), organizational structures (denominations, theologies, creeds), and morals (sex, marriage, crime, punishment), as fixed quantities that can be applied in homogeneous fashion… [they] become calcified idols which are now undermining the very deep truths of the even deeper mystery they were originally built to point toward.

For many of us who’ve stumbled into the liturgy, it’s become a lifeline. It’s rejuvenated our faith. But it’s not a magic bullet.

If we’re counting on an influx of disaffected Millennial evangelicals all because we’ve got some liturgy, we’re in for disappointment. It’s going to take more than that.

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3. Dust off our Bibles.

Sometimes I like pointing out to my evangelical friends that we read more scripture in a single church service than most of them do in a month.

If only we picked up our Bibles any other time of the week.

Outside of church, evangelicals are 40% more likely than mainliners to read their Bibles. We mainliners have a complicated relationship with our sacred text. We’ve seen others use it as a weapon to clobber people. We’ve seen the damage a simplistic reading can do. We’ve seen Scripture used to prop up anti-intellectualism and justify all kinds of evil—oppression, exclusion, discrimination…

But to say we should read the Bible more is not to say we necessarily have to read it the same way everyone else does. We don’t have to use it as a weapon. We don’t have to treat it as a flat book. We can read it for what it is: a sacred collection of books with diverse literary styles, themes, and perspectives.

We don’t even have to understand everything in it.

But we should try reading it more. There’s value in knowing where our story comes from.

As Rachel Held Evans shares in Searching for Sunday, it was evangelicalism that gave her a knowledge of—and presumably her love for—the Scriptures.

What if we could do the same for our kids?

4. Recover the Great Commission.

One possible reason why evangelical churches have fared somewhat better/less badly is because they are more evangelistic. (There are other reasons, too, including higher fertility rates.)

For many of us who grew up evangelical, the word “evangelism” conjures memories of a heavy-handed sales pitch, simplistic reasoning, and outright emotional manipulation. As with Bible reading, evangelism is something we should do more. That doesn’t mean we have to do it the same way as others.

But let’s be honest for a moment: We’ve forgotten how to tell the story of Jesus. We’ve become too passive and complacent. The Great Commission does not say, “Wait for people to come into your buildings, then make disciples of them.” It says “Go.”

Or as Episcopal Resurrection put it, “We can no longer wait inside our sanctuaries to welcome those who want to become Episcopalian.”

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5. Flatten our hierarchies.

Note that I didn’t say eliminate our hierarchies. Jesus chose some to be apostles. He gave them the keys to the kingdom—authority to “bind” (forbid) and “loose” (permit) on his behalf.

We need priests, bishops, and maybe even the occasional archbishop. But our hierarchies have grown top-heavy and bloated. We’ve lost sight of the fact that every member of the church is a minister, not just the ordained clergy.

If the post-Christendom church is to “travel lightly” (as the Task Force for Reimaging the Episcopal Church calls for), then we have to take another look at hierarchy. We have to streamline and simplify. We have to make it easier for people to do mission at the local level.

There’s an even bigger reason to flatten our hierarchies. Too much power consolidated into the hands of too few people invites abuse. If we are going to be communities where all are welcome and treated with dignity—where this is more than just an aspiration or a slogan on a church sign—then it’s time we take a paring knife to our power structures.

6. Welcome—really welcome—children in our worship.

One of the things I love about my church is the way my children are welcomed at the table. They can receive before they understand. Belonging precedes believing.

But we can go farther.

Recently I had a chance to participate in worship at another Episcopal church near where I live. The kids present were invited to gather around the altar for the communion liturgy. They helped lead the prayers of the people. They helped serve the bread and the cup.

It was chaos, and it was beautiful.

Children learn by doing, by participating. Children need to know they matter—that their presence in our sanctuaries is a blessing, not a burden.

When we exclude our children from our worship, we teach them that their presence is largely irrelevant, as Tom Fuerst writes. It’s no wonder Millennials are defecting from church in droves when they grow up.

If we want our kids to be part of the church later in life, let’s make sure we welcome them now as fully participating members.

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I’m not under any illusions about the challenges facing the mainline church (and our sisters and brothers in evangelical and Catholic churches too). None of these six ideas are magic bullets that will single-handedly reverse the decline or reset the cultural landscape. There is no going back to the way things were. But that can be good news—if we embrace this opportunity to reimagine what it means to be the body of Christ.

Images: khrawlings on Flickr, Forsaken Fotos on Flickr, le vent le cri on Flickr, [AndreaS] on Flickr

Stop praying for peace in Baltimore

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Last year I wrote a blog post asking privileged, white Christians like myself to resist shallow, self-serving prayers for peace in the wake of Ferguson. The problem isn’t that we long for peace; it’s what kind of peace we long for. Peace without justice. Peace without facing up to the malignant curse of racism. Peace without confessing how astonishingly short of justice we have fallen.

Five months on, little has changed. What was said about Ferguson can be said about Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. And now Freddie Gray.

This is what I wrote about Ferguson at the time, updated to reflect the current situation in Baltimore. What’s sad is how little I had to edit—an indication of how little has changed since Ferguson…how little we’ve learned. 

Five months on, we’re still praying for peace. And we are still missing the point.

(Changes to the original post are indicated in red.)

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I’m done praying for peace in Ferguson Baltimore. I can’t bring myself to do it.

Not when the word “peace,” uttered by those of us who still cling to our unearned privilege, means peace for us and our kind.

Not when peace means black citizens are told they must respond to yet another mockery of justice in ways the powerful and privileged deem “socially acceptable,” yet it’s somehow OK for law enforcement to come at them with tear gas and tanks and military-grade assault weapons.

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Not when peace means a return to the status quo, a resumption of normalcy—that is, privilege for us and discrimination for them.

Not if what peace really means is that I don’t have to face the implications of my privilege or the pervasive reality of systemic racism. Peace, as many have noted, requires so much more than the absence of conflict.

You want “peace” in Ferguson Baltimore—by which you mean you don’t want to see any more cop cars burning on TV—but you don’t want to do anything to fix a system where people have no other way to make themselves heard?

Then what you want isn’t peace. What you want is for your privilege to remain untouched.

When the privileged pray for peace—if it’s not accompanied by a commitment to justice, a willingness to lay down our privilege—then what we’re really saying is we’re OK living in a world where white mass murderers are apprehended alive, yet a young black man—whose only crime that day was fleeing an unlawful arrest—has his spine almost completely severed in the back of a police van.

What we’re saying is we’re OK living in a world where black male teens are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white teenagers.

We’re saying it’s OK to have a 20-year life expectancy gap between neighborhoods just six miles apart. 

We’re saying it’s OK for blacks in Ferguson Baltimore to be routinely beaten by police—including a 15 year-old boy riding his bike and an 87 year-old grandmother. 

This is not peace.

As one pastor observed, it’s like trying to have the benefits of resurrection without crucifixion. Peace without justice. Reconciliation without owning up to the sin of oppression. Harmony without relinquishing any of our privilege.

It cannot be done.

Peace does not come cheap. As you watch the scene unfold in Ferguson Baltimore, as you mourn with those who mourn, do not pray for peace. Not until you’re ready to come to grips with what is necessary for peace.

Photos: Fibonacci Blue on FlickrInternational Business Times