Well, today is the first day of the new church year, and to celebrate, there was the usual dust-up on Twitter. It seems that someone was calling some people who write very popular books “wolves,”—not in the literal sense, but the biblical, metaphorical one. Not animals who go around eating other animals but those kinds of people who go among the sheep pretending either to be shepherds or sheep themselves, but who are really devouring the sheep chiefly by preaching and teaching things that will destroy the sheep (that’s a metaphorical way of alluding to hell for the person who takes the Bible “literally”). The people so-called took exception to the charge in a ‘how dare you’ sort of way. But then there was what appeared to be a reasonable exchange that ended in a long shopping trip to Ikea and then this blog post. I’ll just pull out one or two salient points, and then we shall wander over to see how Jesus is celebrating the new year:
Do I personally affirm “the church’s teaching that homosexuality is sinful?” Which church? My own church (local & denomination) is actively reexamining this issue in light of tradition, interpretation, history, & science. I’m participating, but as a historian, not a theologian.
Yes, well, if we are going to parse out what we mean by “church,” we cannot possibly expect this to go well. Skipping over several paragraphs:
My own strand of Reformed thinking comes w/ a deep respect for pluralism & rejection of Christian nationalism. (Esp among my Dutch profs who’d endured Nazi occupation.) Since that time, I’ve encountered compelling theological & historical arguments that challenge or complicate traditional approaches to this issue. I’ve read several but have several more to read, and am doing so in conversation w/ “traditional” perspectives.
Because, you see, if you do affirm a “traditional and biblical sexual ethic” you will end up being called a Christian Nationalist. That’s how this works. Finally, after many many paragraphs of discussion of a book she wrote about American Christianity and feminism we come to this:
It’s possible to hold “traditional” views on sexuality but hold them very differently.
I think, by “differently,” she means that she will claim to hold a “traditional” view, while at every point undermining and rejecting that “traditional” view. This could be called, on the one hand, lying, or, on the other hand, gaslighting, or, on the third hand, eating sheep for dinner. Wolves, in the Bible, hedged their bets. They wanted to have power over the sheep. They wanted to teach politically expedient doctrines. They wanted to do that teaching in the temple and synagogues. And they wanted all the cash that went along with being a leader of the sheep. The content of the teaching did not trouble them very much. They held the “traditional” views on syncretism and idolatry “differently.” It’s ok, they said, to worship Baal and to sacrifice your children to Molech as long as you do it in the name of YHWH.
And of course this:
We can spend our lives asking what right belief & obedient discipleship looks like in all these areas, & we should. But I’m going to do so in conversation & communion with my LGBTQ sisters & brothers in Christ. Because of the gospel.
A yes, the gospel. Well, it is Sunday, and Jesus is contemplating what the little heading over that bit of text calls “The Coming of the Son of Man.” Luke quotes Jesus who seems to be looking into a bleak and tumultuous far distant future:
And there will be signs in the moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
The Son of Man, you might remember, is an allusion back to Daniel, to that person who comes and sits on the throne next to the Ancient of Days. He is a confounding sort of person. In Daniel, he is God and yet here is Jesus using the term for himself. More also—and of course the disciples wouldn’t have understood what this was going to look like any more than Daniel did—the Son of Man will be coming again in a cloud with power and great glory. And yet Jesus, at the speaking of these words, had yet to go through the tribulation of the cross, the first part of the redemption we all so desperately need. We want it all at once, but God, in Christ, drags it out for millennia, giving only bits and pieces of the picture according to what he thinks is best. In the intervening periods of quiet, when all of creation isn’t being shaken to its foundations, we, in the words of today’s psalm “think that he is one such as ourselves,” because reading the Bible is sups hard and so is waiting.
The disciples must have been looking long-faced and disappointed because Jesus swings wide his arm to point to one of the many fig trees dotting the olive groves. “Look,” he says.
As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.
The disciples gird up their loins to argue for the next two thousand years about what “these things” are and also “this generation.” Which one is that? It’s worth trying to figure it out. And, of course, faithful Christians can disagree and still be, in the words of K du Mez, “sisters and brothers in Christ.” That argument is lots more fun than coming to the next line, about which there should be no confusion, and yet, I think, this unhappy truth is the one that everyone stumbles over. Jesus concludes his pithy teaching with “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Ah, but Jesus, you know, never said anything about homosexuality. That was just Paul, and some obscure and hateful copyist of the post-exilic age who was really just not wanting there to be temple prostitution. Also, as you know, Paul didn’t really know anything about homosexuality when he was writing whatever letter that was. Also, you know, shellfish. The question of sexuality in the Bible is very very very complicated and cannot be understood, therefore, we must be forever “listening” but not ever arriving at the truth.
Perhaps it is unkind to mash all those easily and constantly debunked arguments that have been made for the last century together like that. But I don’t think it is nearly as unkind as lying to people over whom one holds sway. The Word of God, unhappily, is far too easy to understand, and that is why nobody ever really wants to read it. It is much nicer to “listen” to the experiences of the people around you than to crack open the text and confront a real and personal God who has the power not only over the body, but over the soul—a soul that, when the body dies and goes into the ground, does not die, but goes on forever. The soul does not “pass away” anymore than the words of our Lord do. But the soul can be “always dying,” always separated from the God who shakes the heavens and earth out like a garment.
It isn’t because we don’t love people who are confused about their sexuality that we want to be clear about what the scriptures say and then obey them. It isn’t because we don’t want to know about abuse or the troubles that real people endure. It is because we do love them, and because we want them to come close and listen to the precious and perfect words of The Son of Man who is literally—not metaphorically, but really in his actual body—going to be coming back far too soon in power and great glory. And he will judge the living and the dead. And then, I’m sorry to say, there won’t be any more time for arguing about anything. Go to church, but also, stay away from the wolves.