some greyness around labels

In the vestry of the chapel I grew up in, from conception through til I was 10-ish there was a poster that said “Labels tie your child down” and had an image with a child struggling to walk because there were lots of huge luggage labels tied to him.

Labels, when applied to us, and as a way of meaning that people don’t have to get to know us, are a bad thing, without a doubt.  But I also think labels can be a good thing, as a means of self-identification, and specifically within the Christian world I think labels, when we apply them to ourselves help us in the cause of Christian unity.

In most cases, labels highlight differences.  I am an Arminian because someone else is a Calvinist; Someone else is conservative because I am liberal; someone is a complimentarian because another is an egalitarian, some are charismatic because others are not, I have a friend who needs to say he’s an inerrantist because not everyone is.  I don’t know about other people, but often me and my friends will pre-fix a statement during a chat with “Well, I believe xxx, so” usually the xxx is something the other doesn’t believe. (for example a Roman Catholic might say to me “I believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary”).

I see two key advantages in describing ourselves in this way 1) it keeps our disagreements graceful 2) it reminds us of what we agree on

Disagreement is a natural part of life, and it is as natural part of being in a faith community.  I am reminded of the clips from The Life of Brian where there are disagreements over what various items Brian leaves mean, and how his “disciples” ought to follow him best; Christianity is no different, we produce a variety of of biblical interpretations, a range of doctrines and numerous ways of running churches.  No doubt somewhere in that melee is “the right answer” but there is no way of knowing for certain.  Using labels reminds us of that; it highlights that there is disagreement and that we cannot know the answer.  When someone introduces their ideas by saying “I’m a Universalist, so …” it reminds me that there are ways of reading the bible beside my own, and so inspires me to extend grace and courtesy to their ideas.

The use of labels also helps us recognise our own tendencies or preferences.  Whether it is because when I acknowledge I am an egalitarian I have to admit to myself at times this will colour my understanding, or whether it is because when someone describes themselves as Charismatic it pushes me to recognise I am not that Charismatic and so acknowledge I am more skeptical than others.  These tendencies or theological preferences are not necessarily bad things (although we need to check they don’t over-colour things) but we need to be aware of them if we can learn from other Christians and so we can make sure that they don’t affect things adversely.

Secondly, labels remind us of what we agree on and they do so by highlight divergent opinions.  If you can put a label or a caveat on it, then there is a range of opinions on it.  If not then it is something we can agree on.  You don’t get “Jesusists” – those Christians who believe in Jesus as opposed to those who don’t; because we all believe in Jesus.  If we can’t label it, then it must be pretty commonly shared, at least as a rule of thumb.

So what of those who reject the use of labels?  There are plenty of them “well, I’m just a Christian really” is a common phrase.  Sometimes this comes from a desire to be known for making individual, evaluated decisions, rather than accepting the normal position of this group or that group.  I know Calvinists who agree with all of TULIP but who don’t call themselves that because their doctrines were reached by reading scripture rather than working through mnemonic.   Which is a very reasonable position to take.  Although, of course those of us who use labels tend to have gone through the same process.  In these situations I respect people’s decision not to label themselves, but hope they can acknowledge how their position affects their understanding of biblical texts or of life situations.

Another, more worrying, situation, which thankfully is rare, is that people reject labels because of a narrow view of what we must agree on, or a short-sightedness of how we disagree.  They think that because they believe x, or y, everyone else must also, and to not brings into doubt whether they are a Christian.  This is a slim but worrying trend we must oppose.

790 words later, and this all sounded a lot greyer than I thought it would, but oh well, I have said I’ll try and embrace that, so feel free to use the comments button lots.  How am I wrong? Where do you disagree with me?  What do I take too far or not acknowledge?

 

Reading our prejudices into the bible

The last time I wrote about same-sex relations, and in particular the C4M petition I tried to remain neutral in relation on attitudes to same-sex relations in general, for that post my views on the matter were irrelevant.

In this post I shall address more closely my feelings on the matter.  In fact…

I do not think same-sex relationships or practices are wrong.  I do not think that heterosexual relationships are the only way God intended for couples to exist.

Now I’ve gone on record with my opinion on the matter.  You can all hold me to it if you want.

One of the common objections I experience to my view is that “But, but … but, the bible says they are wrong”.  And it is to this that we now turn our attention.

Yes, there are a few verses, in both the Old and New Testament that come out against same-sex relationships/practices.  I could go through and explain how in each circumstance I do not think they categorically condemn anything, but I don’t want to get into that game of proof-text tag.  Instead I want to look at the wider issue of why it is that people use the defense “But the bible says so” and some inherent flaws with this.

Firstly, living our lives by the authority of the bible, I believe, is a good thing.  So trying to work out what the bible says is a good thing, and using it to justify our opinions, in principle is a good thing.  But it also leads us into tricky water.  The bible is not monolithic or straight-forward.  It is multifaceted and contains many different opinions, even on the same matter.  Rachel Held Evans has been blogging about this issue too, (why not check out her series) and often concludes that there is not “a biblical view” on a subject, but a range of them.  This is inevitable for a Canon that is a collection of texts that have been written over such a long period, by some many authors in different cultures.  What qualifies them as Canonical, and what gives them authority. however, is their inspiration by the Spirit.

Given this what defines our understanding of “what the bible says” must be us.  We all share the same scriptures but reach different conclusions, so the thing that determines that, has to be us.  We all read different things into the text.  I read liberal and Arminian   values into texts, others read conservative and charismatic messages into the text.
Why do some people think  the bible is against gays, bisexuals, etc?  Because they are against gays, bisexuals etc?  They read their own prejudices into the text.

And it isn’t just in how they interpret verses, because if it was some verses might be inescapable, it is how we deal with the scriptures as a whole.  We are all guilty of selective reading.  I tend not to mention verses that talk about God pre-destining people.  Those who use the bible to suggest homo-sexuality and/or bisexuality are wrong do exactly the same, they give greater priority to the “anti-gay” verses and claim it as a biblical mandate.

There are 5 instructions in the NT to greet one another with a kiss (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12,  1 Thes 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14) and yet those who tell me that my views on sexuality are unbiblical have never kissed me when we’ve met.

For the sake of ease, let us focus on one book to further illustrate this point.  1 Corinthians works well.  The following verses are all taken from this one letter, of Paul to the church in Corinth.

Therefore do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (4:5)
I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. (5:3)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (6:9-10)
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. (7:8)
Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,  (11:14)
All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (16:20)

A command against judging, but an admission the author judges, commands against homosexuality, a command against marrying, a condemnation of men with long hair and an instruction to kiss each other.

People often take objection to same-sex relations and trot out this verse in their support, very few people have sincerely objected to the length of my hair (which now sits just above my shoulders) based on that verse, no-one has told me that I should be celibate, but they have said my non-hetero friends should be and no-one has greeted me with a kiss. Their reading of even this one book (and don’t get me onto slaves elsewhere) is selective.  Because we all read selectively.

The question then must be “why?”.  It is necessary for us to consider what leads to this selective reading over any other.  A suggest a number of reasons.

Generational
A bit of me feels uncomfortable writing this blog-post, I know a number of people whom I love and respect deeply disagree with me on the matter.  I am wary of sounding too overly-critical, for example I have written, and then deleted the word homophobic a number of times [I stand by my decision that it is an unhelpful label in this particular branch of the discussion].  Many of the people I hold in high regard are older than me.  I think in some cases, the prejudice comes from their generation.  As they grew up opposition to LGBT was the norm, to some extent they are unaware of their prejudice and the hurt they cause, and it is that upbringing and societal influence that affects their readings of these texts.  It fits with everything else they have been told, so they accept it.

Faith Tradition
There are plenty of churches that actively preach against same sex relationship and preach ardently on the virtues of marriage, how it is a God-given ideal for society and family life.  There are, therefore members of those traditions who have been conditioned to read the passages condemning same-sex relationships favourably, without much thought to their own conscience.  They have seen no need to question the verse because their is a clear teaching on it from their church.
There are, of course, the majority of people who have read the passages and heard their church’s teaching on the matter and have knowingly accepted or rejected it.  Making our own decisions on these matters is always favourable.

Wider Society
Wider society is better now than it was before at accepting orientations that aren’t straight, as valid and normal, or as no different to straight orientations, but there is still a horrifically long way to go.  The stats in my previous blog highlight that in a very painful way.   This does not help, it possibly tips the reader towards thinking that condemnations of same-sex relationships are acceptable, or normal, and therefore limits the critical thought that goes into the texts.  Again, this is not always the case.

Upbringing
This merges all of the above, church, society, parental attitudes etc all affect our reading of the scriptures.  If we are brought up in homes where heterosexuality is favoured, or where same-sex relationships are seen as wrong this can affect our reading.

Personal Conviction
So far it may sound as if I believe that anyone who opposes same-sex relationships has been conned or hoodwinked into the position.  This is far from the case.  The majority of my adversaries in this matter, most of whom are very close friends hold their views because of a personal conviction in the validity of principle.  As much as I bitterly disagree with these people I cannot help but respect that they have reached a conclusion based on their weighing of the evidence and which sits well with their conscience, much as I have.

However, when we boil it down, personally I do not think the bible condemns same-sex relationships, and people will have to do better than “because the bible says so” as their reasoning.  By all means disagree with me, but have a better argument than a prejudiced selective reading of our authoritative scriptures.

On “In Christ Alone”, but no, not for that reason

I told one good friend my next blog post would be a reflection on a line from a Christian worship song and another that I would write about lent.  Fortunately I can just about do both, kind of.

There has, in recent years, been much theological kerfuffle over the song “In Christ Alone”.  Is its theology OK? Should we sing it? And so on.  This has revolved around the line “The wrath of God was satisfied”.  Depending on how charitable I am feeling depends on my views about it, but that is not the line I am interested in here, that debate has, thankfully, died down.  It wasn’t until a Christmas service where I was thinking particularly deeply about the words that I began to wonder if I took issue with another line (I then mulled on it a long time, hence the delay).  The song triumphantly proclaims

No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his[God’s] hand.”

Great, we all know that God, and therefore his acts of salvation are stronger than the devil who was defeated by Christ.  Where is the issue?  Well, the bit that got me thinking was that, as an Arminian I believe one can lose their salvation.  We choose to accept salvation and we can choose to reject salvation.  And that choice is no good if we’re locked into it once we make it, that makes a mockery of free will, so I believe we can choose to be saved and then walk away from that, with no issue. And vice versa is true.  So that made me slightly sceptical. Something can pluck me from God’s hand.  Or, more accurately, I can walk out of it.

This taken on its own can lead to a sticky position.  It can, if manipulated, lead to assertions that we cannot be sure of our salvation, what if that little niggle we have counts as us rejecting our salvation.

My Arminian viewpoint is one of the many reasons I feel at home in the Methodist Church, and one of their central tenets is that

“all may know they are saved”

Clearly then we can say that salvation is a matter of free will, and also that we can be assured of our salvation, because as long as we know we have accepted salvation then we know we are saved.  There is no trying to double-guess God involved.

So where does that leave me with the song?  It leaves me in Lent.  It leaves me considering the powers of hell, temptation, the road to the cross, Jesus defeating evil and sin, and casting out demons and all those lenten themes.

I come back to the point I made earlier, that Christ is the victor over “the powers of hell” and it is Christ who assures my salvation (this is where it ties in with lent, we know Christ to be superior to the devil by his interaction the the wilderness and, if we take the gospels at face-value the exorcisms subsequently and ultimately in the resurrection which we look forward to).   There is no way that the devil can undo my salvation, as long as I am trusting in the means of that salvation.  The weakest link in this scenario then, seems to be me, and here I think it gets slightly more grey (although I have a black and white conclusion).  However it is that the devil interacts with humanity (and I will happily throw around ideas about how involved he is or isn’t) it would seem to be by exploiting things.  So the positive human attribute of being curious and questioning our faith, can be manipulated to become a lack of faith.

And what about schemes of man.  I would be most hesitant to say that any human who, knowingly or otherwise, leads me away from faith must be acting for, with or by the devil.  I think, an atheist for example can be sure enough of their convictions and in control of their life to try and lead me away from faith of their own volition.

Do I think the devil can trick me into walking out of God’s salvific hand?  Do I think humans can either?  Here it gets trickier, because clearly I am not being stolen, I am making a decision, and my Arminianism is such that I fundamentally believe I am free to do so.  But what then, has the devil beaten or out schemed God?  I do not believe so.  I believe I must bear full responsibility for that decision, and furthermore that God loves me enough to respect that decision.  I believe my free-will is imparted to me as part of the imago dei, it is part of what it means to be made in God’s image and I believe God made us in his image as an act of love.

One final consideration must be made.  That God will try utterly hard to see that we choose to stay with him.  There is something, for me at least, quite compelling about being in relationship with God.  I yield that this is entirely subjective, but the times when the questioning of my faith has made the edge of God’s hand look tempting then I have had a heightened sense of the safety and the firmness of his palm.  Call me cowardly for sticking with what  feel to be safe by all means, that is a fair criticism, but I believe it is part of God’s love for us that he also reminds why it is a good idea to stay.

So, I must conclude that “no power of hell, nor scheme of man, shall ever pluck me from his hand” … unless I choose it for myself and then God will let me walk out of his hand with a tear in his eye and a heavy heart, but shall do so out of love for me.