Scripture and Change

“People don’t fear change. People fear the loss that inevitably comes with change.” I don’t know who originally said these words, but Dr. Jaco Hamman offered the quote in a conversation with me and a group of fellow pastors.

I can think of no more succinct way to describe the animating energy of the final few hours of our 2019 Annual Conference than this quote. One particular speech stuck with me. A resolution was submitted to remove the restrictive language in the book of discipline regarding homosexuality. Speaking against that resolution, a delegate said, “I have to take the Bible as it is written. I have based my whole faith upon it. I have come to Christ through it and follow it. And the Bible is very clear when it spells out marriage as a covenant relationship to show how Christ loves His bride, the church. And it’s very clear that God created men and women to be in this exclusive relationship. It is what guides everything and if I go against this, how do I define where in scripture I have to [live], how I have to be with my husband, how he has to be with me. I just want to make it very clear that I have to follow what the Bible says…” 

I have heard time and again the same kind of argument spoken from those who wish to maintain the language in the discipline. Last year I heard against a similar resolution, “This resolution would create a separation from almost 2000 years in the universal view held by the ecumenical and the global church on the issue of marriage.” The WCA phrases it as follows in their moral principles regarding marriage – “In keeping with Christian teaching through the ages and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union.”

In each argument and in many others, the common assumption is deeply present that the primary way to be faithful to the Bible and to follow church tradition is, necessarily, to continue to do things the way the bible says to do them and, therefore, the way we’ve always done them. What stuck with me about the annual conference speech and what I appreciate was the vulnerability with which the plea was made. There was no pretense of absolute scholarly certainty or a facade that faithfulness is easy, safe, or simple. The speech was a powerful reminder that the more significant and foundational faith becomes in our lives, the more we risk losing if some part of that faith is challenged or changed. If one thing about the way we have read, interpreted, or implemented the Bible is challenged, there is no way to know ahead of time how much else may come into question in the process of developing a new understanding or course of action.

I deeply empathize with the fear of loss that leads to the kind of statements made in this speech and in the variety of other speeches and arguments I have heard over the years. There is a famous family story about me that recounts the time I spent about 2 months doing nothing but crying because I was forced to move away from the place and people that I loved. The loss that comes with change is no small thing and may just be one of the most significant challenges that we all face in the course of a lifetime. 

I do not in any way wish to downplay or belittle the real and profound loss that would accompany a decision to remove incompatibility language. Any change to something as significant as how to live a faithful life is bound to feel like the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Any attempt to pretend like change does not necessarily lead to the loss of something significant denies the reality of human life and ignores the experience of countless men and women throughout the pages of scripture and church history. At the heart of our faith is a God who did not pretend like life will be easy or pain free, but offered to be by our side no matter what tomorrow brings; a God who is faithful until all will be set right even though we don’t yet experience the fullness of the victory that is already sure. Change includes loss. Loss is painful. People fear the loss that would inevitably come through a change in our biblical, historical views on marriage. Those fears are not unfounded.

However, my problem with even incorporating this reality into determining how we are to view marriage today is that I cannot read the Bible without seeing that the single most consistent strand throughout scripture is change. Page after page we are confronted with a God who overturns our understanding of the way things have always been and reshapes our expectations of the way they ought to be going forward. No theme is more consistent than God’s constant desire to break out of the boxes that we assume contain a faithful life. God is with us, absolutely. God is faithful and constant to the very end. But the flipside of that coin is that ‘God revealing a different or more full expression of who God is and how to most faithfully follow God’ is often one of the primary forces leading to the painful changes with which biblical men and women had to learn how to cope. I just don’t know how to read the bible and come away with the expectation that the way things have been done for the last 2000+ years is the way we should always expect them to be done.

It starts with the very shape and purpose of covenant relationship. Adam and Eve were given a single command. Abraham was simply called to get up and go wherever God led. He was then challenged with the covenant of circumcision. Moses brought the extensive and detailed law that gave shape to life. Joshua followed the command to purify the promised land of people. God relented to give the people a series of kings when they insisted one was needed. The temple became the locus of God’s presence and the center of life and worship in Jerusalem after years of bringing the tabernacle along for the journey. An intricate system of sacrifices was put in place to ensure obedience to God. In exile, the focus of worship and sacrifice became less centered on location and more on ritual and memory. In Jesus, we are offered relationship no matter the time or place, the sacrificial system is completely gone, and he claims to be the fulfillment of the law.

In between all these massive changes in the shape and implications of covenant, God overturned expectations left and right. First, that birth order was destiny. Women like Rebekah used deceit to help along the process of passing down the blessing to the “wrong” child. Membership in God’s people shifted from descendents only, to adding a few outsiders like Rahab along the way, to grafting in gentiles through Christ. Women like Deborah, Ruth, and Esther led in ways that only men were allowed to lead. Jonah was swallowed by a fish for thinking God should only be for the Jews. Judah became the center of political power even though it was the smallest tribe. David was a small kid chosen to be King in a time when physical stature was highly prized. Women preached the first resurrection sermon after finding the empty tomb. 

Outsiders were offensively lifted up as examples or recipients of God’s faithfulness. Jesus brings up the widow at Zarephath and Naaman to explicitly challenge the boundaries of God’s people. He ate with Zaccheus, let the children come to him, spoke with a Samaritan woman, made a Samaritan the hero of a parable, healed on the Sabbath, directly challenged countless religious authorities, conversed with prostitutes, gleaned on the Sabbath, and challenged the way things had always been enough to make multiple mobs angry enough to kill him. Peter’s understanding of dietary law was upended in his encounter with Cornelius. The Ethiopian eunuch would have been unwelcome in the temple but Philip saw that he could not withhold the water of baptism.

The founding of the church itself was a radical shift in the lives of God’s followers. The church was born at Pentecost when the focus shifted from Jerusalem to the ends of the Earth. At Pentecost, the people were amazed that they could speak in native tongues they did not know. Paul makes very clear that circumcision is no longer essential for church life in Galatians. In Corinthians, he explicitly says that God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Paul himself underwent a radical transformation upon conversion to following Christ.

The Bible contains deep rejections of many habits and patterns of action we take for granted today. Luke’s gospel contains a radical emphasis on eschewing material wealth. Acts speaks of the absolute importance of close, covenant community and sharing resources with stories like that of Ananias and Sapphira. Jesus says the first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the Earth, and blessed are the poor. Philippians states clearly that it is the humility of Christ that expresses his power.

Jesus in Matthew includes a series of very direct challenges to prior interpretations of the rules by saying, “you’ve heard it said, but I say unto you.” He stopped a stoning by saying the one without sin should cast the first stone. He rewrote the meaning of Passover to refer to himself and, in John, named himself as the lamb for the sacrifice. 

On top of these actual changes, transitions, and challenges, there are a variety of unresolved tensions within the Bible for how to live and think. Proverbs offers a very transactional and clear method to a faithful life whereas Ecclesiastes repeats the phrase, “all is vanity” to imply that nothing we do matters in the end. Kings tells the story of the monarchy as a cautionary tale in how corruption destroyed the kingdom whereas Chronicles offers a much more positive and hopeful reading of history. Paul is convinced that grace through faith is the essential ingredient for salvation whereas James says faith without works is dead. A great deal of scripture seems to long for the end of war even as parts of it speak to God being on the front line of the battle. Paul and Barnabas had to part ways because of their unresolved arguments about the faith. Revelation leaves an inherent tension between images of Jesus as both lion and lamb.

Sometimes when a complete change does not occur, there are simply counter narratives offered to the official party line. Amos pushed God’s people to see it was not the sacrificial system God longed for but mercy, justice, and kindness. A mob in Acts sees more clearly than the disciples how revolutionary Jesus is by claiming his followers “have been turning the world upside down.” Palm Sunday already anticipates that Jesus will not be a military conqueror even though that is what his followers expected. There are four distinct gospels laying out the details of Jesus’s life that each have their own slightly different order, assumptions, details, and intent.

This list is nowhere near complete and a variety of complex changes covering a multitude of biblical books and themes have been condensed into single phrases for the sake of brevity. This list also represents a variety of different types of challenges to the status quo that variously affect personal, relational, or societal habits, choices, or expectations. My point is not that each change is the same or even directly comparable to a change in our language regarding sexuality – quite the opposite in fact. 

My point is that changes in how we live and relate to God are, at every level, more like the air we breathe than a rare occurrence in the Bible. Every single box that seemed to contain God or a Godly life is shattered at some point in scripture. This reality does not mean that anything goes. This theme does not imply that any particular action must be accepted or that it is capable of expressing a faithful life. But it absolutely baffles me that anyone can read the Bible and conclude that the way things have always been is the way they must always be. I cannot imagine why anyone would assume the God who is at work throughout the Bible could not do a new thing some 2000 years after the church was born. If anything, reading the Bible should make us shocked that God has not more radically turned our world upside down in every practical application of what it means to be faithful. 

I don’t believe it does any good to deny the real sense of loss that comes with a change in how we understand faithful living. But the most biblical thing I can think to do is stop presuming that 2000 years of church history means that we no longer have to question how we are called to most faithfully live. Rather than simply asking what the Bible says and assuming the same rules apply in the same way, here are the kind of questions I would rather us ask regarding sexuality – What is the shape of God’s love that we discern through the Bible? How does sexuality in general relate to and derive from that kind of love? What specific forms or practices of sexuality are capable of embodying that kind of love? To what extent do our current practices of marriage and understandings of sexuality fall short of that image of God’s love? To begin with these sorts of questions is to create the space in which we might begin to discern how and where our definitions of faithfulness may need to be challenged or changed in light of the God who, throughout scripture and history, has constantly forced us to adapt and grow.

Apologetics

Christian apologetics (roughly the scientific, philosophical, and objective search to describe and prove Christianity) was very appealing to me in college. I no longer find the discipline to be particularly helpful or meaningful. My concern is not with the arguments that are offered, but with a particular assumption necessary to make apologetics meaningful. 

Apologetics searches for facts and arguments that prove the truth of the Christian story. This effort works exactly opposite of the way the mind, rationality, and knowledge production work. Humans are fundamentally story telling creatures. We go to incredible lengths to fit facts and evidence into the story of reality by which we coherently view the world. Only when facts and evidence dramatically differ from the story we tell are we forced to learn to tell a better story, and even then it may take a generational change to fully embrace a new paradigm.

This concern is so problematic for my understanding of Christian apologetics because the Christian story is necessarily one of the primary stories into which Christians place our experiences and arguments. To “prove” the truth of Christianity through the tools of apologetics is to presume there is some other more fundamental story of reality or rationality into which we can fit the Christian story. To do so is necessarily to treat scientific, philosophical, and other forms of knowledge as more essential, objective, or true than the knowledge the Christian story is capable of asserting. Thus, in the attempt to find a more objective grounding of faith, apologetics cannot help but subvert the fundamentality of the faith it seeks to prove. 

I still find plenty of what apologetics has to say to be fascinating and potentially important. I simply think the Christian faith is the context in which apologetics becomes compelling, not the other way around.

A Prayer

A Prayer by Kings Kaleidoscope is perhaps the most perfect musical encapsulation of the gospel message for our day and time.

In content, the song both lyrically and musically moves from a place of fear and doubt to the assurance of God’s response. God’s response does not reinforce the logic of the beginning questions and instead offers a new foundation of faith. God is not primarily worried about personal action and accountability, but instead goes to incredible lengths to say #metoo as the means by which God makes all things new.

In effect, the song is a critique of the way that evangelicalism tends to focus on a list of dos and don’ts rather than on the goodness of God. The lead singer wrote the lyrics as an authentic expression of the anxiety that his evangelical faith fostered inside of him. That anxiety is powerfully captured and then beautifully challenged over the course of the song. Jesus’s lyrical response is a rejection of the very works focused theology in which the singer was raised.

In response, the song was received by the Christian music world about as warmly as Jesus was received by the religious leaders of his day. Rather than receive any attention for the beauty and depth of the music and message, the only thing most folks cared about was that the song twice includes a single cuss word in the midst of a desperate prayer to God. The band was kicked off of tour stops and radically rejected for merely having recorded a song that includes a cuss word. As so often happens in churches, we look for the easiest identifiable thing to call sin and absolutely reject anything that seems to cross that line. We thereby only have time for superficial talk of symptomatic problems and never get to the point of addressing actual brokenness. In our haste to define sin, we rarely pause long enough to explore the freedom and power of the life that really is life.

In reality, the honesty and vulnerability of the lyrics represent one of the most authentically Christian prayers that can be prayed. At the heart of the gospel is the vulnerability of our God. If we are to love as God taught us to love, we are required to bear all that we have and all that we are to God, from the most pristine and righteous thoughts to the most raw and heartfelt pleas. To muzzle the cry of our hearts is to put up a wall of arrogance that hides behind feigned self sufficiency; it is to reject the point and purpose of the cross.

Biblical Living

The Bible is an extended argument over who counts as the people of God and what the implications are of that designation for our life and faith. To read the Bible as though we can simply see what is said about a particular action or belief and uphold that same view of sin and faithfulness is to undercut everything that the Bible is and does. Our goal as Christians is to embody the kind of faith-seeking-understanding that is played out in the pages of scripture – not to pull out the verses that happen to agree with what we already expect to be the case so that we can prove our list of sins or beliefs is the one, right, and everlasting truth. God’s love and relationship come first. Upon that foundation we must continuously seek the grace of God that leads to new understandings and embodiments of faithfulness.

Naming Hills

To give shape and meaning to how I will lead and relate to others, these are a few of the hills I’m willing to die on:

  1. Feelings are never right or wrong, they just are
  2. People behave the way they feel
  3. Primary emotion is compelling
  4. Healing never happens in silence
  5. Voicing pain is never as bad as causing that pain
  6. Effect is at least as significant as intention
  7. Denying feelings harms people
  8. Everything in relationship is 50/50
  9. Shaming others is the worst possible way to effect change
  10. If I tell you “I’m not hurting you” and your response is “yes, you are,” only one of us is correct (and it’s not me)

First, Loved. Then, Love.

The first and greatest commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

But the foundation of our very existence is that God has loved us and called us His own. Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough.

Far too much of church life and faith either rejects the primacy of this foundation or assumes it is already in place and, thereby, puts the burden on the individual Christian to begin fulfilling the greatest commands. Instead of first teaching, preaching, and embodying the love that God is, we move straight to regulations on sin and holiness as though these were first order concepts. Sin and forgiveness will never mean anything unless we first know the depth of love and relationship that can then be broken. Lives will not be transformed until we give up control and learn to trust in the faithfulness of God’s abiding love. Without the foundation of love and relationship first, Christianity will be, at best, a noisy but irrelevant gong; at worst, an active participant in the harm done to children of God in the name of vapid and ultimately meaningless conceptions of righteousness.

Feeling vs Fixing

At the heart of the gospel message is God’s choice of feeling over fixing. To feel alongside someone is the heart of empathy and the prerequisite for connection. To fix is the clearest sign that we think we are in control of the outcome and can make things right on our own. Empathy changes lives. Self help reinforces loneliness.

One of the greatest downfalls of most modern evangelical forms of Christianity is the radical emphasis on salvation as God’s clear and unmistakable effort to fix all that has gone wrong in the world. While it is true and significant to see the hope that things are not as they will always be, to focus on fixing rather than feeling is to miss the very heart of the gospel message.

In scripture and over the course of history, we see that God did not choose to simply fix the world in the blink of an eye. God chose to feel with us; to take on flesh and dwell among us; to join us in the deepest pit and say “Me too.” The bible itself is the clearest evidence we could hope to find that God is a feeler, not a fixer. What we find in scripture is not a simple reminder of how God fixed everything in the blink of an eye. We find reminder after reminder that God is with us through every season of life, and God will be faithful to the very end.

Truth and Story

Truth is only truth inside the story in which it is told.

The best way I can articulate what I mean by that is through a previous post on story and truth.

https://jeremywester.com/2018/05/28/4-stories

This idea may be too academic to seem super helpful, but I would argue that it is the essential factor in understanding how we arrived in the chaotic, partisan, broken place where we are as Americans (and United Methodists).

The core problem with partisan brokenness is not really that people believe a different set of facts or that anyone just needs to be convinced about the specific details of what “really happened” in any given moment. The problem is that many of us think that we’re taking part in very different stories. If the story you tell about how things should be has no room for the existence of those different than you, it will, unchallenged and from a position of power, always lead to the overt harm of everyone deemed not “normal.”

To make the jump from one story to another takes far more than pointing out an inconsistent detail or two. It takes the radical experience of being accepted into the life and story of another; a story with enough room for one more; an acceptance that may cause change but never requires it; an experience of already being enough to be worthy of taking part. As long as we focus on proving our point rather than creating the space for acceptance, we’ll simply keep assuming the story that we tell ourselves is the only one that matters.