Friday, May 14, 2021

Sentimentalism and Scripture

 “Infinitely more harm is caused by spineless and sentimental church leaders who misrepresent the truth because they like being liked by people more than they like people loving Jesus,” 

- Rev. Eric Huffman at the WCA Global Gathering


Huffman has tried to walk this statement back some in social media forums, but his whole speech and a recent article in Good News lead to the same conclusion: Progressives don't value Scripture the way they ought to.

It's always a shame when we put a comprehensive label on any group. Using myself as an example, I am unabashedly progressive on LGBT+ inclusion. As a straight, cisgender, white man I acknowledge that I can't fathom what it is like to live any other way than I do. I can't comprehend being gay. My inability to comprehend another person's reality does not lessen that person's authentic witness to Christ's love or their gifts for ministry in all forms. It just means I am a limited, finite human being. I am an equally unabashed believer in the Trinity and specifically in Jesus of Nazareth as fully human and fully divine and that something salvific happened through his life, death, and bodily resurrection. I believe Article IV of the Confession of Faith in our Book of Discipline contains beautiful language describing my understanding of Scripture.

In short, to dispute a famous WCA trope, I can happily recite our doctrines (which, by the way, are silent on human sexuality) without crossing my fingers behind my back. Are there progressives who can't do that? Of course, in the same way that there are currently traditionalist pastors and churches who openly advocate against infant baptism (websites available upon request).

Now about that sentimentality...

In his speech and article, Huffman hinted at his own story of moving from a more progressive mindset to a traditionalist mindset, in great part through a conversion experience in the Holy Land. God bless you! I'm genuinely grateful for this experience. I presume his own experience includes a shift from being spineless and sentimental to salvation (note that in his speech, Huffman is emphatic that nobody is questioning the salvation of LGBT+ Christians. That is belied by 1) his own statement in the article that he was not saved when he believed in inclusion, 2) repeated references to progressive pastors by Good News and WCA leadership as "false teachers", which, if you take the Bible literally, condemns us to hell, and 3) my memory from General Conference 12 years ago when somebody said on the floor, "Why are we talking about this when they are going to hell anyway?") Huffman's experience is his own. It is not the experience of all.

The current version of the Global Methodist Church's Book of Discipline and Doctrine makes no reference to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is no surprise since it has been despised for decades as a device for putting tradition, reason, and experience on the same level as Scripture. I get that. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Quad is not supposed to be a square. Scripture is primary. I prefer to think of reason, tradition, and experience as three lenses through which we view Scripture. "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" has never worked. We must all look through at least one lens. 

So here is the super short version of how a guy who, frankly, is not overly sentimental came to change his mind on the "compatibility" of LGBT+ people and Christianity. Previously, as I looked at the Bible through our tradition and reason, the message seemed clear. To use the archaic language of the UMC, "the practice of homosexuality" was wrong. And if you had an "inclination" towards same sex attraction then you needed to control it, just like if you had an innate desire to steal you needed to control it. Then I met people who were gay. Or, more accurately, I met people who were willing to tell me they were gay. I listened to them and I looked at their lives, including the fruit they bore. Yes, I used experience. But that's not the end of the story. I never said, "well, I guess since they aren't hurting anybody whatever feels good must be OK." This is the stereotype that I hear, and it is not what I or the people who I know best have done. Experience is only the start of a dialogue with the Bible.

The internal conversation that now began for me was, "When I read the Bible with tradition, the answer seems clear. When I throw in reason, the answer is not quite so clear, but I, we, can't simply throw out centuries of tradition and a plain reading of the Bible because of what I'm hearing from a handful of people. The Bible says what it says." Some well-meaning people end the conversation here and stay traditional. I did for awhile, too. I think that is a mistake. Like Jacob wrestling with God, if we are really going to take Scripture seriously we have to wrestle with it. So I did. I read authors and books that I would not have touched before. I learned some new Greek and Hebrew. My question changed into this: "Is it possible for me to read the Bible in a way that opens the door for inclusion without compromising the integrity of the Bible?" Or to turn Huffman's words around, "Is it possible that the best representation of God's truth comes from reading Scripture in light of sentimentality (emotion, experience, compassion)?"

When I added the lens of experience to my reading of the Bible, words and ideas that didn't make sense took on new meaning. It did not reduce my appreciation for Scripture - it enhanced my appreciation. This is what reason and tradition do, also. Our understanding is deepened, not lessened, by bringing these lenses to it. 

I'm going to say it one more time, plainly, so that there is no misunderstanding. Scripture is our primary and authoritative source for understanding God's self-revelation through Jesus Christ. Our debate in the denomination is not about the authority of Scripture. When people choose to go to the GMC or stay in the UMC they will not be choosing whether or not to be in a "Bible believing" denomination. Our debate is about the interpretation of Scripture - the lenses through which we read Scripture. It would be best if Huffman and others would refrain from telling me why I believe what I believe. Our rhetoric is not helpful. 

10 comments:

  1. Maybe it would be helpful for you to go further and explain how you understand the passages of the Bible in Genesis and Romans through the lens you read.

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  2. Hi Unknown,
    I've preached on that and taught on it but in my experience neither a blog post nor social media are good venues to have much conversation about exegesis of specific hot topic passages.

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  3. https://twitter.com/itsmejjwarren/status/1394001757299171331

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    1. As I said on Facebook, I'm only speaking for myself. If you want to cherry pick more extreme view on either side of the theological spectrum we can certainly do that. I don't think it will go well for either of us.

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  4. I too have read quite a few books and webpages on the subject and watched quite a few YouTube videos. And yes people do offer alternative interpretations of relevant Bible passages. But generally those seem like excuses to me.

    Leviticus 18 is a classic example. LGBT apologists point to the verse about having sex with animals, and say this means the context is pagan fertility worship, meaning the verse about it being wrong for men to have sex with men only applies to pagan fertility worship. But the overall theme of the chapter is inappropriate sexual partners. It’s obvious that most of the chapter is not referencing pagan fertility worship. And so it seems to likely to me that the verse about men having sex with men, is not about pagan fertility worship either. The LGBT apologists seem to make similar excuses for most other relevant verses. All of them seem unlikely to me to be valid. And mathematically, it seems to me that unlikely + unlikely + unlikely = very unlikely. IE even if the LGBT apologists were right about one of their explanations it’s highly unlikely that the Bible does not overall oppose sex between men.

    Even if all the so called clobber passages are removed, scripture still seems to say that Christians are either single or heterosexually married.

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  5. Thanks for your thoughtful article. You point out an interesting distinction between "authority" and "interpretation," which I see as hair splitting. What you've basically advocated is the jettisoning of the authority we've given the scriptures which deal with LGBTQ behavior. You've decided that you will not accept the authority of the Tradition which has claimed for thousands of years that this behavior is outside of the moral norms which God expects of his people. Based on your experiences with the LGBTQ community, you've decided that because they seem to bear fruit for the Kingdom, their behavior (which the Church has said is not acceptable for millennia) must be ok. Does that mean that any behavior is acceptable just because I bear fruit for the Kingdom? It seems your test is flawed. The most famous, recent example is Dr. Ravi Zacharias, who seemed to have borne a multitude of fruit in the lives of faithful Christians, all the time justifying his sinful actions.

    Let me put it in another way. You've decided that the consistent interpretation of Scripture in the history of the Church has been wrong. What you've actually rejected is the authority of the Scriptures as meted out by the authoritative community which is authorized to interpret it. Behind that authoritative community is the authority of God, who gave the scripture to the Church for for the ordering of its life.

    This is about authority. The authority of the Scripture is as bound up in the authority of the church as anything else. Instead, you've used the authority of the experience of other individuals and weighed it as more authoritative that the Tradition of the church.

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    1. And just so we're clear. . . when Outler expressed "experience," he meant the exprienced of God in your life personally, not the life of experiences of believer, etc. Outler wanted to make sure that we understood that the experience of a warmed heart was a part of our theology. And. . . Outler later regretted ever formulating the Quad.

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    2. I don't think interpretation vs. authority is hair-splitting at all. We have all our denominations largely because of different interpretations but nearly all would consider the Bible to be uniquely authoritative.

      What I'm claiming is that we know things now that put Scripture in a different light. The cosmology of Genesis clearly teaches that Earth is flat and that there are vast oceans of water above us that poured out onto the Earth during the flood. We know that is not a scientifically accurate understanding of the world. And it doesn't threaten the authority of Scripture for us to admit that.

      I have to say, though, that I'm fascinated with your approach of binding the authority of Scripture to the authority of tradition and Church. If indeed the Church is "authorized to interpret it" then what I am suggesting is that, not unlike the Jerusalem Council, it is time for us to exercise that authority.

      Experience - yes, of course you are correct that Outler was referencing a specific kind of experience. I think we too hastily distinguish "Christian" from "secular" experience. Is not our whole life a kind of spiritual experience? And, yes, Outler famously said he wished he hadn't developed the Quadrilateral. He said that because he believed it was misapplied. I respect that. As I've said in the blog, I prefer the metaphor of lenses.

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