Sunday, May 29, 2016

Evangelicalism's Borders

Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism has a post about Samaritan's Purse and church authority. Her words will be green.
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that evangelicalism has “borders” that it enforces—beliefs that are considered required for membership. Every religion or belief system has such borders, they just define and defend them differently. What I find fascinating about watching the borders evangelicals draw is how drastically these borders have changed over time, and how very specific they can get. Fred Clark of the Slacktivist uses the term “tribal gatekeepers” to describe this phenomenon.
I have been fascinated by this to. What is the faith? You have to answer that to have a coherent faith. Yet Evangelicalism denies that anybody has the right to set such boundaries. If they did they would be claiming the same authority as the pope claims. Yet not having an answer to this question is unworkable as we shall see. 
I was reminded of this concept by this Facebook post by Kay Cossar:
So Samaritans Purse wants to be an evangelical organization. Yet what defines Evangelicalism? They came up with a few questions that do that. But that is such a big deal. Who are they to say that those who answer Yes to these questions belong and those that don't are excluded? Really it amounts defining the faith. What doctrines are central to the faith and what are secondary? Essentially they excommunicated Kay Cossar. I am not saying it is wrong for them to do so but I am saying they are not the right people to make the call. They should focus on helping the poor. Yet there is no official place to go for any definition of what are the central tenants of the Evangelical faith.   
But let’s leave all of this aside and look at Samaritan’s Purse’s statement of faith: 
Actual statement deleted 
You know what’s interesting? There’s nothing in here about the rapture or the tribulation, there’s nothing in here about Calvinism or Arminianism, and there’s nothing in here about evolution. In other words, some of the greatest points of disagreement among American Protestants of the 19th and early 20th centuries are simply not mentioned. The immediate focus on the Bible as inspired and infallible is in line with the early twentieth century roots of modern evangelicalism, but the fierce battle over whether fundamentalists should remain in apostate denominations as salt and light or come out of such denominations and be separate—a battle that waged fiercely in the 1930s and 1940s—is absent from this statement.
The statement, like most evangelical statements of faith, confuses agreement with importance. The notion that if people disagree over something that it must be a secondary doctrine. What Libby Anne is pointing out is that this is not true. Calvinism vs Arminianism is very important. Evolution is very important. So what makes it on the list? Things that have a string consensus in the Evangelical community. Agreement is the criteria when importance should be.   
One might think that a statement of faith would be timeless and unchanging—especially for a group which claims to rely so fully on an infallible and inspired Bible—but evangelical statements of faith tend to change over time as the borders of evangelicalism change. Because that’s what these statements of faith are for—policing borders, determining who is in and who is out. Can you be an evangelical and support marriage equality? Can you be an evangelical and support women’s right to choose? Can you be an evangelical and believe in gender equality? Can you be an evangelical and believe in evolution? Where do these borders lay?
This is just something most evangelicals don't understand. I am reminded of an article on How John Calvin Made Me Catholic where someone studying for a PhD in church history was shocked to find that 16th century Calvinism is very different from modern Calvinism. He was better informed that most Calvinists but he had no idea his faith was really only about 200 years old. Yet his Calvinism which came out of the Great Awakening in the US was very different from my Calvinism which came out of Holland.
I ran into these borders myself when I was in college. It was there I became a theistic evolutionist. When my parents found out, they looked at me with a level of sheer disappointment that would crush any child’s heart. It was clear—very clear—that they believed my salvation was one the line, and also that I was no longer in their tribe, no longer a part of their self-conceived group. I had transgressed the borders of belonging they had drawn around their faith, their interpretation of evangelicalism, their idea of what an evangelical is. I didn’t know then, but known now, that there was a century-long precedent for this. When evangelicals’ fundamentalist ancestors of the 1920s waged battle over evolution, they made their lines clear—and these, at the time, were brand new lines that had not been drawn before.
This is how it goes. We have an emotional reaction when someone has rejected what seems to be a central tenant of our faith. Yet the church can help here. It can tell us the church is big enough to allow different answers on this question. The Catholic church does this on the evolution question. Yet with no church the emotional reaction goes unchecked. Everyone becomes their own pope. If nobody decides what is important then everyone must decide for themselves. 
In that light, it is interesting that Samaritan’s Purse does not mention the age of the earth in their statement of faith. They would, presumably, be okay with a theistic evolutionist working for them provided that person is against marriage equality and anti-abortion. The boundaries they draw differ slightly from those drawn by my parents, from those drawn by 1920s fundamentalists, and from those drawn by seminaries that require an affirmation of complementation gender relations (i.e., a rejection of gender equality). Each specific evangelical ministry, college, or magazine draws its lines slightly differently, each choosing its own particulars.
The truth is that they copy from each other. Nobody wants to make these calls on their own. Still it is a fair point that there is no claim of infallibility and some variation. Over a long period of time the variation is quite significant. 
Yet defining the faith is not something we want to risk being wrong about. Look at Libby Anne's parents drawing the line in the sand on evolution. It turns out they were wrong. They stood by their faith despite the rift it created with their daughter. That rift eventually led to her becoming an atheist. You don't want to be wrong when you are telling people this is a doctrine you cannot compromise on. Really you don't just need a consistent answer. You need an infallible answer. 
Let’s step away from this history and turn back to Samaritan’s Purse, because there’s one more thing to be said. Check out their about section:
The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) gives a clear picture of God’s desire for us to help those in desperate need wherever we find them. After describing how the Samaritan rescued a hurting man whom others had passed by, Jesus told His hearers, “Go and do likewise.” For over 40 years, Samaritan’s Purse has done our utmost to follow Christ’s command by going to the aid of the world’s poor, sick, and suffering. We are an effective means of reaching hurting people in countries around the world with food, medicine, and other assistance in the Name of Jesus Christ. This, in turn, earns us a hearing for the Gospel, the Good News of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Can I just say that this is a precisely backwards interpretation of this parable? In the story, the Samaritan, and not the Jewish religious leaders of the day, is the one who stops to help an injured traveler, putting him up in an inn with his own money. What was a Samaritan? The Samaritans were considered heretics by the Jews. They had transgressed the Jews’ borders of belonging and were outside of them. Partly it was their ancestry that was at issue, but their theology was distinct and different enough to be a problem as well. Additionally, the Samaritan did not take the opportunity to preach to the man he rescued. Indeed, he did not in any way approach his service to this injured traveler as an opportunity to evangelicalism.
I would not say this is a backwards interpretation of the parable. I agree with her that it is a stretch to tie it to evangelism. We are to love people unconditionally. Yet we can predict that such love might lead to some people becoming Christian. That is not a bad thing to think. Yet Jesus does not inject that into His story at all. In fact, His story associates love with bad theology. He indicates that loving is more important. 
It is highly ironic that a ministry named Samaritan’s Purse would create theological borders intended to keep today’s Samaritans—i.e. anyone evangelicals consider heretical—out of their organization.
This is just drawing the wrong lesson from the parable. Love matters more than theology. It does not follow that theology does not matter at all. Like the quote on the top of the blog says, love without truth degenerates into sentimentality. The church needs to be a community that knows what it believes. No problem there. The problem is that Evangelicalism can't know that without going beyond scripture and therefore contradicting itself. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Body of Christ

Last week the church had us focus on the Trinity. I had to think a while about why I didn't contemplate the Trinity much as a Protestant. This week we are encouraged to think about the Eucharist. When Jesus gives us Himself under the appearance of bread and wine. Another thing I never contemplated much as a Protestant. The question as to why is a lot easier to answer. The truth of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist does not make sense without a visible church to administer it. If the Eucharist is really a miracle as Jesus says then you need some parameters around when that miracle takes place. They are simply not in scripture. So either the church defines what makes a valid Eucharist or there is no such concept as a valid Eucharist. 

Most Protestant churches never claimed to be able to do what the Catholic church does. They never claimed to be able to define doctrine. They never claimed to be able to canonize saints. They never claimed to be able to consecrate the Eucharist. They are right of course. They can't do these things. What they are wrong about is that the Catholic church can't do these things and that Christianity does not require these things be done. 

Jesus says quite plainly we need to eat His body and drink His blood. Here are the words from John 6:48-59:
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
It does not get any more plain. Yet many who say they respect scripture don't believe it. Why don't thy? Tradition. Human tradition nullifying scripture. No point in going there.

The real point is that the Eucharist is supposed to be part of the life of every Christian. We are supposed to internalize Jesus sacramentally. There are two principle sacraments of the ordinary life of a Christian. They are confession and the Eucharist. Confession is an important one but you need to start with a sin. You confess your sin and receive forgiveness. That is something Protestants get right. That is a big deal. We need to be able to ask for forgiveness and believe we have received it. 

Yet there is more. Eucharist does not start with a sin. It starts with a heart that is open to God. It is a bit like the immaculate conception. It is a mercy that can be given before the sin is committed. Mary received that mercy and therefore did not sin. More than that, she conceived God Himself inside her and brought Him into the world. Eucharist is like that. We receive the grace to avoid sin. More that that, we receive the ability to bring God into the world. 

Catholic tradition has always seen a parallel between the Eucharist and sex. The intimacy of Christ's body entering our body is a profound renewal of our covenant the same way sex is a profound renewal of our marriage vows. 

Then there is the openness to life. Sex by its nature opens up the possibility of you and your beloved bringing something new into the world. Something that will require a major sacrifice. Something that will be an extension of both of you and yet a unique blessing for the world.

This is what God wants to do with us in the Eucharist. He wants us to be open to something new. Something that requires self-sacrifice. Something that is an extension of Jesus and an extension of you. Something that will bless the world with a new and exciting God thing. It could be a piece of art. It could be a relationship. It could be many things. What is important is we want it. Whatever the presence of Jesus is going to do inside us we want. No matter the cost.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday

Today is trinity Sunday. It is hard to get Christians excited about the Trinity these days. There is a big focus on salvation. How do I get saved and how do I help others get saved? There is also much attention given to morality. That is asking how should we live? The Trinity is more about contemplating the mystery of God. There is much less emphasis on that today. 

Yet what is salvation about? We go to heaven. What do we do there? We contemplate the mystery of God. So it seems strange to be interested in going to heaven and not be interested in contemplating the mystery of God today. The same is true of morality. Why do we want to be good? Partly so we can go to heaven and partly so we can be close to God while on earth. Yet if we want to be close to God so badly why would God's revelation of Himself be unexciting?

There is a tendency in Christianity to keep things simple. A lot of that is to avoid disagreement. The more complex your theology the less agreement you will have. Protestants have no way to resolve disagreements so they avoid complexity as much as possible. That can tend to infect Catholic thinking to. Just focus on the ABC's of the gospel and you will be more convincing.

The truth is we are all made in God's image. That means contemplating the mystery of who God is has direct implications for who we are and who we should be. In fact the simple gospel makes more and more sense when you understand more about God. The Trinity is a good example of that. What do we see there?

God the Father loves God the Son and God the Son loves God the Father with perfect self-giving love. That love is by nature creative. It overflows from their relationship and creates blessing for others. The Holy Spirit is the overflow of this love. He proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The creation of the world also overflows from this love. In Gen 1:26, God said, "Let us make mankind in our image." So God as community decided to create mankind. That means community becomes critical to our understanding of what it means for us to image God.

Then in verse 27 They get more specific, 

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
So the image bearing is specifically related to our maleness and femaleness. This is the subject of St John Paul's Theology of the Body. We image God when we marry and create families. Think about that. God is our father. What that means is we arose from the overflow of God's love the same way a child arises from the overflow of love between a man and a woman. So God's desire for intimacy with us and to live in community with us comes from the same place as our desire to be intimate with our children and live in community with them.

So you see what a difference this makes. Heaven is not a reward we are given for doing what God wants. It is a family reunion. It is a father welcoming His children back. This is why heaven does not get boring. Being in a place gets boring no matter how nice the place. Being in a community of love never gets boring. That is what God's family is all about. 

Then you can see why marriage and sex and family are such important topics for Christians. It is because getting them wrong means getting God wrong. That means getting everything wrong. 

It also explains why it is so important for Christians to be able to unite into one community. That is what we have to become. If we have too much pride and disobedience to unify around one father on earth then what we are rejecting is precisely heaven itself. Do we want to put aside out petty squabbles and unite around God? Really? Does our behaviour on earth show that?

Pope Francis gets this. From today's angelus:

Our being created in the image and likeness of God-communion calls us to understand ourselves as beings-in-relation, and to live interpersonal relationships in solidarity and reciprocal love," the Pope told the pilgrims in St. Peter's Square.

In this mission, we are sustained by the strength which the Holy Spirit gives us: this cures the flesh of humanity wounded by injustice, oppression, hate, and greed.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Birth of the Church

Today is Pentecost. The day when the Holy Spirit came. The speaking in tongues as a reversal of the curse at the Tower of Babel. Yet what I want to focus on is the birth of the church. This time between Pentecost and the second coming of Christ is called the Church Age even by protestants. The church is the community associated with the new covenant that Jesus brought. It is the body of Christ. It is breathed into life by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Consider Acts 2:42-43:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 
Here we have a description of what the church is. They devoted themselves to 4 things. The apostles' teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. What is missing? Scripture. Why? Well, the New Testament was not written yet. None of it. In fact, it was likely more than 10 years before any book of the New Testament was written. Yet why was it not written? Mohammed wrote the Koran for his followers. Jesus could have written something for the church. He chose not to do that. He chose to form 12 apostles and start His church on their teaching. The word of God continues to be made flesh and dwells among us. 

Notice how the office is emphasized. The apostles teaching is mentioned along side fellowship. In other words there was value in all the members of the Christian community. God speaks through every life so we should honour everyone greatly and ask ourselves what can this person teach me about God. Yet there is a special teaching ministry that is apart from the general fellowship. That teaching ministry is associated with the apostles. So the office matters as the central teaching authority in the church.

When I was a protestant this created a problem for me. This clearly violated Sola Scriptura. Sure we can say that once the apostles all died then the writing of the apostles became central. The problem is that is just a big change. Moving from a human authority to a book is a dramatically different way of answering questions. Think about it. If you have a question in the early church then you ask the apostles. They might give you an answer. They might tell you to pray about it and use you best judgement. Yet if they do tell you what to do then you have to do it. They are the final authority. 

That is just so different from reading a book. You read it and often things still are not clear. So you go through a process of debate and analysis of what the book means. At the end of the day you decide which arguments to accept and which to reject and you arrive at a decision. Nobody else's opinion matters as much as your own. 

Even leaving aside which method is better, the fact that they are different is a problem. This is the covenant community. How the community determines the content of that covenant is very much central to what that community is. That is to say, if you change the central teaching authority from a set of human beings to a set of writings then you really have a new covenant. 

The other question that leaps to mind is when did this change get made? If Sola Scriptora was not true at Pentecost and became true later then when did it start to be true? One answer you hear is the death of the last apostle. It makes logical sense. The trouble is there is just nobody around the time of the death of the last apostle that is making this point. We have writings from Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, etc. They are all focused on the successors of the apostles and the teachings they have passed on. 

In fact, the New Testament was still not quite ready for prime time. Individual books are floating around and bishops are starting to pay attention to the question of which writings should be read at mass and which should not. Still it is not until the 4th century that we have a New Testament canon. 

So if it is not the death of the last apostle then when is it? Did God change the very foundation of the church and nobody noticed? Nobody until Jan Huss and eventually Martin Luther in the 15th and 16th century? You see the problem? If Luther brought a new covenant then Luther becomes greater than Jesus. New covenants are always greater than the old ones they replace. The new messenger is always greater than the previous one as well. Yet saying anyone is greater than Jesus is unthinkable. So what is going on?

The answer is Sola Scriptora never became the truth. We have successors of the apostles with us today. We need to devote ourselves to their teaching. The church born on Pentecost is still here today. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016


Imagine you are a disciple. You experience the disappointment of the crucifixion but then you have the huge thrill of the resurrection. Suddenly you can see how Jesus is going to do things. He is alive. All He has to do is show himself to the Jews and the Romans and anyone else who doubts. If need be He will work a few more miracles. This will be easy. Some of that notions comes across in Acts 1:6 when they ask, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

That seems like such an obvious next step. He has so much credibility by just being alive people will follow Him for sure. All He has to do is show up. The crowds will fall on their faces in worship. The Romans are done. A new age is dawning. You can just taste it.

Yet Jesus does not go there. He goes up to heaven. He did not come to earth and die so He could spend 2000 years ruling over a sinful human society. It is not enough. He wants heaven. He wants heaven for us to. A heaven in which we are not only forgiven but sinless. Nothing less will do.

Then He says more, " But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Notice the difference here. The disciples say Jesus is just going to do it. Jesus says they are going to do it. Sure God is going to empower them but that is not quite the same thing as God just doing it while we cheer. The word here for "witnesses" is martyria where we get the word martyr from. So The disciples are not just going to play some ceremonial role. They are going to contend for the faith with every ounce of their being. 

What is more, when Jesus leaves the earth He removes the best evidence of the resurrection. Sure they are eye witnesses but actually producing a living Jesus is way more convincing than having somebody tell you He is alive.

God is always like that. You can think of so many ways He could just remove doubt. Yet He does not quite do it. He gives enough evidence to be convincing to some but not enough to be convincing to all. It is called the scandal of faith. God chooses to relate to us through faith.

So ascension is good news and bad news. It is good news because the Christian road leads to heaven and not just to a nicer society on earth. That gives us hope. Yet it is bad news because the Christian road is hard. It is hard because it will require faith to walk it. It is hard because it will demand everything we have in this life to walk it effectively. It will be a road marked with suffering.

It is hard because not everyone will be coming. Not everyone will chose to believe and not everyone will choose to suffer. This gives our life meaning but it also gives our mission some urgency. We will make choices that have eternal consequences. We can say and do things that will lead to our salvation and the salvation of others. The flip side is we can fail to say and do those things. That can mean same might be damned that could have been saved had we been more holy or more loving or more bold.

When God leaves the business of His Kingdom in our hands it is an a huge thing. His plan of salvation involves our cooperation. He does not just want us to receive His grace but to become the principle instruments of it. So much so that our lives can be hugely powerful forces for good or they can not be that. It is up to us.