Avoiding the idol of unity…

I hear the world UNITY a lot in Mennonite Church USA these days. I suspect it is because the possibility of division rooted in disagreements looms large. In order to hedge against that reality, there are many calls to unity.

It’s not that I don’t believe unity is God’s plan and purpose. I believe it is. I believe that the trajectory of God’s work is towards unity as all things are gathered under the lordship of Jesus.

With all wisdom and understanding, he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.  (Ephesians 1:9b-10)

Rather, it’s that I believe that unity – as it’s often talked about – has become an idol. By idol I mean something that is placed above God or higher than God. To go further, I mean that unity becomes a principle that is above God to which even God has to submit. In my view, this is a serious theological error.

In Ephesians 4:3 Paul writes,

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

The way that unity becomes an idol is through a simple turn in the order of Paul’s words. Paul says that we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Too often, I hear people say that we are to maintain the spirit of Unity. These are very different things.

In Paul’s original teaching, he is saying that as followers of Jesus we are stewards of the unity of the Spirit, which he explains by saying…

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:4-5)

There is unity in the Spirit.  There is only one body. There is only one Spirit. There is only one hope. There is only one Lord. There is only one faith.  There is only one baptism. There is only one God and Father of all. We don’t create a unity that doesn’t exist without our effort. It isn’t up to us to submit to a spirit of unity as if this spirit of unity is our Lord. No. We are simply stewards of a unity that is real and present and a part of who God is (Father, Son and Spirit) and what God is up to – gathering all things under the Lordship of Jesus.

Our real work, then, is being good stewards of the unity of the Spirit. That requires working against the forces of fragmentation and division which are contrary to God’s nature, will and work in the world.

The spirit of Unity is a fine idea that many people can get behind. It would be better if all humanity was on the same page.  But that is different than the unity of the Spirit. The unity of the Spirit is essential to God’s nature, will and work. To monkey with that – either actively or passively, positively or negatively – is serious business. The kind of business that can find one fighting against God.

In light of Ferguson, MO: Theology, liberation and gospel

Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ. This means its sole reason for existence is to put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliate and abused.  In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed. For it is impossible to speak of the God of Israelite history, who is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, without recognizing that God is the God of and for those who labor and are overladen.

– James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

The sky is not falling…

My Facebook and twitter feeds are exploding over the SCOTUS decision that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.  One of the big fears is that religious institutions will now be forced to perform same-sex marriages or risk being in violation of anti-discrimination laws (and in some cases, hate crimes). As a pastor I believe that such a fear is unfounded.  I also believe that this is an opportunity for faith communities to take back marriage from the culture and weddings from Modern Bride.

First things first: I don’t think that churches will face legal ramifications for NOT performing same-gender weddings, if that is their custom, for these reasons…

  • To begin with, churches don’t perform weddings, pastors do.  Pastors are not legally required to marry anyone who asks.  Heterosexual persons have had the right to marry since the inception of our nation.  As a pastor, I do NOT have to perform a heterosexual marriage just because I’m asked.  I have the right to decline based upon my personal convictions and the practice of my faith community.  There is no reason to believe that this would change just because DOMA has been struck down.
  • Secondly, the SCOTUS decision removes the federal definition of marriage as between one man and woman only for the purpose of federal benefits.  The net effect is that people married in states where it is legal must be considered married by the Federal government.  This ruling does not deal with the question of who performs the marriages.  Civil authorities in states that allow gay marriage do not have the right of refusal since they are officers of the government and operate under said laws. However, forcing pastors to perform gay marriages against their religious beliefs would be a violation of the anti-establishment clause, in my i’m-not-a-lawer opinion.
  • More practically, who wants their marriage officiated by someone who is forced to do it by law?  It kind of spoils the mood, don’t you think?  A reasonable response to the question of same-sex marriage within the church is simply to acknowledge that some faith communities will be compelled to participate in same-gender weddings and others will not.  Gay couples will naturally gravitate towards the ones that are. That alone doesn’t guarantee my belief that this won’t be a problem, but I doubt it will be a huge problem.  Fred Phelps is not doing a gay wedding and I seriously doubt anyone would ask him for any reason other than to make a federal case out of it…literally.

So what is the opportunity?  I believe this is an opportunity to…

  • …brush up on our theology of marriage!  What is marriage anyway?  Who can and should get married and why? When is marriage a bad idea?  What makes marriage work?  Why get married at all (this is a common question these days for gays and straights alike)? It is clear that our culture doesn’t have a clue.  But when over half of all Christian marriages end in divorce it’s pretty clear that Christians have lost the plot too.
  • …ensure that our theology of weddings is firmly rooted in worship.  Never thought about a theology of weddings? Well we need to.  What we believe about the covenant between God and husband and wife needs to shape how we approach weddings.  Most couples today are more influenced by Modern Bride magazine and TV shows like “Say Yes to the Dress” than a deeply rooted practice of weddings rooted in the Christian tradition.  Churches, by and large, have abdicated their role in influencing weddings.  The notable acceptation to this is the Roman Catholic Church which still regards the marriage and weddings as sacramental worship. We need to take back the wedding as a worship event that embodies the values of the church and the covenant marriage that the couple is entering into.  A simple wedding centered in the faith community that elicits commitments to mutual submission for a lifetime and so on is a good place to start.
  • …ensure that our practices match our theology!  Where the church could possibly get into trouble with the law is through the uneven application of their theology in practice.  For example, say that church A believes that marriage is between two Christian people.  Then suppose that the daughter of an elder wants to get married at the church and she is marrying an atheist.  If the church violates its own convictions in this case, they open themselves up to charges of discrimination. For example, if that same elder’s son wants to marry his boyfriend Tom and the church refuses, there could be a problem.  Why violate your convictions in one case and not the other?  Ah…discrimination.  Churches need practices that reinforce their theological convictions and they need to act consistently with regards to their theology of weddings and marriage.  In this case, pastors and congregations need to be in step with one another as to the policy and practice of the congregation and the beliefs and practices of the pastor.
  • …clearly define our relationship between the faith community and the state.  Weddings are one of the times that the line between church and state get blurred. Because our laws were created during a Christendom era, people saw no problem with a pastor acting as an agent of the state as they officiate weddings.  Therefore, when I perform a wedding I am also able to act as an agent of the state by solemnizing that wedding as a legal contract between two parties.  This is also a spot where things could go sideways for pastors who do not wish to participate in same-gender weddings.  Remember that civil employees that perform weddings do not have the right to refuse a same-gender couple (if same-gender marriage is legal in that state).  But what is the pastor?  Because pastors can act in a civil role, it is possible that someone could make a case that as government agents they cannot usurp the law and don’t have a right to refusal based upon religious convictions.  That is why I am suggesting that, going forward, pastors do not solemnize the civic aspect of weddings.  Pastor can and should preside over religious covenant ceremonies.  However, they should refer couples to the Justice of the Peace for the purpose of legal, civic marriage.    Yes, it may be inconvenient for the couple and may be an added expense (but have you seen how much people spend on weddings these days?), but it allows couples greater flexibility and rightly separates the civil and covenantal aspects of marriage.  It is a way of giving unto Caesar what is Caesars and giving unto God that which is Gods.
  • …establish facility rental policies that clearly define who can rent the facility and for what purpose.  That’s more of an administrative and policy question, but it is an important one to consider if you are concerned about legality.  This comes into play if you are in the habit of renting your church out for weddings that your pastor(s) don’t officiate.  If that is your policy, it is possible to be open to accusations of discrimination if you rent to party A and not party B.

These are a few of the opportunities that I see afforded to the church in this cultural moment.  It is an opportunity to strengthen marriage, not because gay marriage is somehow going to weaken marriage, but because cultural practices rooted in both Christendom and consumerism have lulled the church to sleep with regard to the purpose and place of marriage in the church, community and, more importantly, the kingdom of God.

Quote of the Day

The advance of the church throughout the world has suffered somewhat, not only from decline in numbers attending, particularly in Western countries, but also in a lack of confidence in the propriety of leading others to Christ throughout the world.  Many Christians are struggling with an identity crises.  Are we really meant to go out and make disciples of all nations?

– Joe M. Kapolyo (intro to Bible and Mission:Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, by Richard Bauckham)

The Hardest Question

I have two posts up over at the The Hardest Question (a lectionary preaching site that I contribute to a couple times a year).   While THQ is a preaching resource site, the posts are relevant to folks who aren’t preaching, too.  These two deal with two different Bible texts related to God’s role in suffering, death, judgement, natural disaster, and so on.

Beware: If you are looking for certainty and resolution, THQ is not necessarily the place to find it.  Our challenge as contributors is to find the hardest question in the text.

In these two posts, I enter a dialectic between Jesus and Paul on God’s role in human suffering.  Taken at face value, Jesus and Paul do seem to be saying different things about God.  As no synthesis emerges, you are left to come up with one or weigh their points of view and offer a response!

My only commitment is that Jesus, in his response, seems to abdicate the roll of being a “God who pulls all the strings” on behalf of the Father.  What do you think?