What God Would Say

Whenever Christians are engaged in difficult discernment decisions there is always the risk for error. We are always going to make discernment mistakes, misjudging the will of God. It’s just a fact of life.

For example, maybe extending the sacrament of marriage to gay couples will prove to be a mistake. But my church allows women to teach adult Sunday School classes and lead communion thoughts (mere baby steps on the road toward egalitarianism). Maybe we’re wrong about allowing women to do these things. Maybe women should “remain silent” as they are in most of our churches. More, some churches suppress charismatic displays like speaking in tongues. But maybe these churches are wrong in this and are grieving the Holy Spirit. Some churches baptize infants. And maybe they are wrong about that.

Or maybe right.

The point is, everybody is likely to be wrong about something. Unfortunately, we don’t know what these errors are. And since people tend to be stupid and pigheaded (with me as chief of sinners) there is little chance that we’ll sort all this out before we’re dead.

So here is where one’s view of God comes into play. Given the ubiquity of error how do we think God is going to respond to our mistakes? With wrath and hellfire? Or with grace, good humor and understanding?

In my last post I floated an idea about discerning the holiness of same-sex marriages. Here’s what that experiment would look like:

A local church finds within her members a group of people who feel called by the Holy Spirit to extend the sacrament of marriage to the same-sex couples within their midst. The leaders of the church, understandably, are unsure about this (think Acts 15) so they lay hands upon the “Paul and Barnabas” of this effort to start a satellite church that would welcome same-sex marriages.

Importantly, this new church isn’t a “gay church.” It’s simply a church that welcomes both traditional and same-sex marriages, treating them identically. The same pre-marital counseling, the same young married classes, the same young family classes, the same marriage counseling if the marriage struggles. Same everything. Marriages, families, and single people all in community together.

After many years the sponsoring church feels that it is time to step in to make some discernment decisions. It’s the equivalent of Paul and Barnabas coming back from years of ministry amongst the Gentiles to testify to the Jewish Christians about how the Holy Spirit has been active in their ministry. Many stories will be told. Many testimonies given. A great deal of prayer. And, ultimately, the sponsoring church will have to decide if they will extend the right hand of fellowship.

Let’s say they do extend fellowship and grant the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. And let's also assume that they are wrong in doing this, that God disapproves of their actions. What is God going to say to these church leaders on Judgment Day? In the voice of God, here’s my best guess:

First off, dear children, know that I love you. And although you disappointed me greatly at times your heart was in the right place. You are good people. And that’s what matters most.

But you did get it wrong by sponsoring that church. My plan, and I thought this was quite clear, was only for men and women to marry. I consider homosexuality to be a sin. So I’m very disappointed in you.

However, let me commend you in this:

First, I can understand how you could have talked yourself into these actions. You were trying to be like Jesus and love people extravagantly and recklessly. You were, you now know, a little too reckless. But I can’t fault you too much for loving so extravagantly. You were just trying to follow my example. In the end, if you had to make a mistake loving too much is the best mistake to make.

Second, we both know that the Bible is no easy book. I am aware that the Bible isn’t totally transparent. The Old Testament has some strange stuff in it and it doesn’t always seem to jibe with the New. Plus, you were living in 2010 and your distance from the bible made it even harder on you. It was difficult, I know, for you to sort ancient cultural mores and prejudices from the timeless truths. In short, it was a tough task, getting tougher every year, and you did the best you could.

Third, I appreciate you trying so hard to repair the damage of hate coming from people who call themselves “Christians.” Like those people who carry “God hates fags” signs. To be clear, I’m angry at you, but my wrath is full to overflowing when it comes to those people. So I can understand your great desire to “make up” for their hate and bile. But it wasn’t your job to fix that mess and you went too far. However, I’m touched that you tried to protect my reputation. You overreached, but your hearts were pure.

Fourth, although I consider same-sex marriages to be a sin, I appreciate how much good you did in these relationships. By preaching agape and fidelity you placed covenant at the center of your witness regarding marriage. And although I was not pleased with these marriages there was true love in them, deep sacrificial love. And this love was a real participation in my love, however fallen it might have been. By preaching fidelity in a world of promiscuity and failed promises you did great good and prevented much evil and harm.

All in all, I know your heart was in the right place. You tried to love people. And you did your best.

I’d give you a C minus.

But grades don’t matter here.

Welcome home, my good and faithful servant!

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

20 thoughts on “What God Would Say”

  1. Might he opt for a *ahem* third way between the two extremes? How about this:

    "Yes, if you're going to err - and you will - err on the side of loving too much, being too gentle, showing too much compassion. No question about that.

    But why could you not have affirmed what I showed you through the tradition of Moses about the way I set things up - and why - and STILL fought a sturdy and unrelenting fight to purge hate and contempt from your midst?"

    qb

  2. Re-reading I've edited some of the words/phrases that were very anthropomorphic. Although, truth be told, the whole thing is pretty anthropomorphic.

  3. First time reader here. A friend who I often disagree with on theological this and that sent me here. Glad I came.

    Bob - In the story of The Christ, and even within harsh doctrines like Substitutionary Atonement, we see that God places his children above his hatred of sin. Pick up your jaw and I'll elaborate. God has every LEGAL right to set us all on fire for our sins, but his love wins out. He MAKES a loophole in his own justice system of debts and debtors to bring his children home. His love is stronger than his desire to claim his right to vengeance. And as an even greater sign of love He BINDS HIMSELF to a New Covenant that, like the original covenant with Abraham, is between God and God - he doesn't stop to ask if anyone would like to be forgiven, it's what HE wants. God Almighty is tying his own hands for the sake of reconciliation. Looking at THAT God I think Richard's idea is putting Him in the context in which God would have us view Him.

    QB - If Peter had stuck to the tradition of moses you'd still be avoiding delicious things like bacon and shrimp. Also you'd need to throw out half your mixed-fabric clothes as those are as abominable to god as homosexuality. Plus, doesn't even nature itself teach you, that, if a man has long hair it is a shame to him?

    Great article Richard.

  4. You have a knack for putting things into real perspective... Here are some thoughts/questions this post brought up for me:

    1. Is Christianity unfolding as it was as recorded in the New Testament? Is our experience with "doing church" in terms of mission, governance, discipline, and love going to carry the same weight as the epistles? My Stone-Campbell heritage and even my current Presbyterian leanings say "no" (although the PC USA does seem to be taking a lot of liberty these days in this area).

    2. We are going to have to face homosexuality head on. It is not going away. The best record we have to go on spiritually as to how to deal with this is the New Testament, augmented by what we know through psychology. So we must go back and have the crucial conversations about how we got to this place. I have struggled with homosexual feelings since I was a teenager (with some heterosexual feelings in there as well). I have tried to understand this from every angle. And my conclusion is that while I had no choice in the matter, the result of my homosexual attraction was from several sources of dysfunction in my early and developmental years. And that these problems shaped the way I developed relationships, with each chapter of my life compounding upon earlier experiences. I've known several other homosexually inclined persons and in many ways there are shared experiences of dysfunction at some level - some more similar to mine, and some not-so-similar. In my mind to go down the road of embracing homosexual unions is to further compound the initial problems that led us into homosexuality - offering only a bandaid and a smile where a tumor lies.

    Thanks for this post!

  5. "You are good people. And that’s what matters most."

    - Except that's not what matters most.

  6. The bible is full of stories of people with "good intentions" who were punished, rebuked and killed for taking some action with good intentions. The man who tried to steady the ark of the covenant when it was about to fall, as but one example, certainly was a "good person" and clearly only had good intentions.

  7. Richard,
    I would give you an A for this little essay, and I suspect that your "voice of God" would have given the "dear children" in your essay an A too, had their effort been graded on a curve. So I guess I have a quibble with your "A" effort--which is not very gracious of me, especially since I would not have done nearly as well as you did!

    But here it goes, because i think the quibble points out something worth considering. That your "voice of God" gave the "dear children" a C- along with a loving critique raises the expectation that there is an "A" perspective by which the C- point of view was found lacking. It was not clear to me from your essay what that "A" perspective is. Moreover, we can be certain of this, if nothing else in this matter: any presumed "right" perspective will be contested.

    A couple quick points. First, I'm finding it helpful in talking to other Christians to point out that IF Christ is the Logos, then the best scholarship and research should inform biblical interpretation. And if that's so, we are in a better position to judge these matters than were 1st c. Christians. Conservatives will see this as a Trojan horse, but I didn't put the Logos claim into the Bible.

    Second, I think that for gays and lesbians, "Either you're for us or against us." There is no tolerance for the idea that others can sit in judgment of their sexual identity. Perhaps that's a Trojan horse for conservatives. Whether that's true of not, from a practical perspective this "either/or" completely closes off the "love the sinner; hate the sin" approach with respect to this difficult question.

    For my part, it's clearly best to error on the side of love...which is the gist of your post, I think.

  8. Somethoughtsonfaith, qb was using "tradition of Moses" in the literary sense - not the religious tradition centering on the Law of Moses, but the literary tradition that gave us the book of Genesis with its creation account.

    As to the kosher laws etc., qb's earlier posts make it clear that changing how we think about OT strictures is certainly permissible and even encouraged, provided that our "discernment" is informed by new and fresh evidence that is plain for all to see. Thus the public speaking in tongues of Acts 10, the blinding light of Acts 9, etc., give us sound reasons for thinking differently about shrimp, bacon, and those polyester-wool blends that comprise qb's hiking socks.

    Cheers and peace,

    qb

  9. qb's gotta affirm Beck here (not that the Professor needs it, of course).

    By the time we reach Genesis 6, God is expressing a breathtaking despondency about the quality of the people he created. If Willard is right about God's overarching purposes in creating man, YHWH's aim in history, he is hoping to build a community of persons whose character makes them worthy of greater and greater infusions of divine power and responsibility. That seems to be the thrust of Jesus' parables about "ten cities" and "talents."

    On that premise, then, central to God's desires for human character is divine love, without which (as history repeatedly tells us) we are incapable of wielding God's power in ways that achieve his glorious, creative objectives. So, in a way, "becoming good people" is PRECISELY the piont, not some ancillary wish.

    qb

  10. qb should add here that Peter's experience with the family of Cornelius gives us room for the kind of experimental trial and error that the Professor is holding forth for us. It began, of course, with a private revelation, and a dangerous one. The vision of the great sheet was heretical, unacceptable, apostate. But he followed the vision, and the Spirit confirmed it in more or less public view, that is to say, with multiple witnesses in Cornelius' household. The act of discernment in this case began with a private conviction to which the Spirit added YHWH's witness, and the discernment was confirmed.

  11. Of course, but it depends on what your definition of that "becoming good people" consists of. If, as I read it, "becoming good people" amounts to affirming sin (or rationalizing it) in the name of being nice, open and affirming, then my guess is that "becoming good people" is not "the point" at all.

    Certainly, Jesus was not open and affirming of sin, nor were the apostles, and they certainly didn't rationalize any sin away by claiming that it's just not fair that God set down rules that don't seem right.

  12. Fair 'nuff. You certainly won't find qb urging the church to go down this road. But one has to admit that the NT record of discernment by the nascent church went down some pretty provocative roads and came out the other side with the divine imprimatur.

    Basically, qb is urging that efforts to discern God's will be bracketed by God's revealed purposes. This question of homosexual marriage cannot, MUST not be carried on without due consideration of the full counsel of scripture, including the literary tradition ascribed to Moses and the biological, anatomical, and procreative aspects of the stewardship mandate that we find there. Not that those are the only considerations, but they have not found their way prominently into this discussion...a fact qb finds disheartening but revealing.

  13. Regardless, I do appreciate how fair minded you're being. I've rarely seen someone who disagrees strongly with a position come to the defense of that argument (or, rather, a wee bit of it), in the name of fair play and charity. Which is what you've done here.

    Thanks.

  14. Out of curiosity, what issues, if any, are not open to "discernment"? Are there any off limits?

    If we try hard enough, I'll bet we can come down on both sides of almost any issue. Is there no objective standard on any issue which is beyond being watered down if we really really really want it to be changed?

    I don't have the answer at all, nor am I suggesting one, which is why I'm asking.

  15. hmm, perhaps you'd like to change your example Anon. The story of the man and the ark is not one of "good intentions gone awry, but rather of rather (at best) a gratuitous lack of faith in God's plan or (at worst) a desire to be "God's protector". either way (or anything in between, your example doesn't exactly hit the point you're trying to make.

  16. I disagree. It seems pretty clearly to be someone who was honored enough to carry the ark, had heard the law, and when it began to fall, respected it so much that he wanted to prevent it from falling.

  17. Tracy, I always appreciate your thoughts. I'm after a couple of things in this post (and the prior one):

    1) Let's put the issue of same-sex attraction aside and just use these posts to think about discernment. My sense is that "discernment" too often reduces to "bible study." But if the Logos became flesh I think we also need to discern the activity of the Holy Spirit in lives of flesh and blood. As Jesus said, by their fruits you shall know them. We fans of William James should like discernment that looks like this!

    2) One of the things I would like to see is a "roomier Christianity." If only because humility demands that I admit my own myopia in discerning the will of God. Christianity should be able to maintain a diversity of expressions, all living in peace with each other. Too often, however, there is this homogenizing pressure to get us all to goose-step.

    3) I think the reason we can't maintain this peaceable diversity is fear. Fear crackles through all these conversations. You can smell it in many of the comments here. It boils down to this: "If I or you get this wrong what is God going to do with us?" That's the third thing I'm trying to think about: What is the view of God working in the background? Because that's where the fear comes from. And if that fear is operative you can't make much headway in discernment.

    Fearful people aren't very clear witted.

  18. Is sad that many "Christians" don't practice what they preach, and instead practice hate to sin & hate to siners, instead of hate to sin & love to siners.

    The remedy to that wrong rejection of lost ships is not being flexible about what the Bible said, conceiding their petitions (allowing gay marriage) in order to compensate their persecution by some "Christians". That only will calm the concience for comminted the fault of not denounce the church wrong doings to those lost sheeps. The remedy is really practice love the siner with out acomodating the Bible to their likeing (allowing gay marriage). The only way to preach is by the good example. Doctrinal preach with out the good example will not gain the lost sheeps. If the sheeps in their free will insist in continue their ways, at least preaching with the good example would not damage the reputation of the Christians

Leave a Reply