Rev. Dr. John D’Elia points out that the poor and needy are mentioned 400+ times in the Bible, while homosexuality gets a paltry two mentions.
Twenty years ago, Christian historian Mark Noll wrote a book about evangelical intellectual life called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I recommend it especially to those who believe that evangelical Christians are backward, hate-filled idiots (you know who you are). I’ve been thinking about his book lately, as my evangelical brothers and sisters are obsessing over gay marriage, or gays working in Christian organizations like World Vision, or whether Disney’s “Frozen” promotes a gay lifestyle. Noll’s book came to mind because it starts with an amazing line:
“This book is an epistle from a wounded lover.”
I feel the same way as I write this piece.
My own faith experience is not all that remarkable. I went to Sunday School as a kid and I loved my youth group as a teenager. I made friends there that I still have. The faith we learned in our evangelical church was gracious and loving and hopeful.
Yes, we believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that everyone was called to follow him. Yes, we were taught that the Bible was an authoritative glimpse into the mind of God. Yes, we were taught a fairly restrictive code of modesty and sexual abstinence. Yes, we were taught that it was our job to share those beliefs with other people.
But we were never taught to hate. We were never taught that our faith was meant to marginalize or stigmatize those who didn’t believe as we did.
That’s what breaks my heart about the state of evangelical Christianity today. Ask most people what they think of evangelicals, and you’ll get a list of things they don’t approve of.
When I was in college, my evangelical pastor preached a sermon about how Jesus handled a group of Pharisees. The Pharisees in the 1st century were tasked with studying the Torah and making sure that everyone followed the rules. Not much of a rule-follower himself, Jesus often clashed with this group (who always seemed to be around, trying to catch him in a mistake). In one confrontation Jesus turns on these guys and calls them hypocrites—he says that while they were obsessed with the letter of the Law, they neglected the more important matters of following God: justice, mercy and faithfulness. Jesus says to them: ”You’re so careful to strain out gnats, but you still manage to swallow the occasional camel.” (Jesus had a pretty wicked sense of humor.)
My pastor turned this into a life-changing message for me—a challenge to remember what’s really important, and a warning not to “major in the minors.” Almost 30 years later I still use that line as a guide in the ways I understand and respond to issues of faith and practice.
I was thinking about it last month when World Vision (US) announced that they were going to remain neutral on local laws regarding hiring practices, which meant that they would not restrict married gay individuals from working there. In the storm that followed, World Vision caved and changed their policy back to whatever it was before. Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision US, said this as he announced the reversal:
“What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs.”
Let me gently say that virtually everything about that statement is wrong.
Nothing was being affirmed, except an old set of prejudices and a distorted view of the Bible.
No strong stand was taken—they’d changed their minds twice in 48 hours.
The “certain beliefs” he mentioned were nowhere near the core of Christian faith.
Want to know what’s “core” to Trinitarian Christian belief? Just this: Wrestling with the idea of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the mysterious community at the center of all existence. That’s it. That’s the major at the top of a pile of minor issues that matter far, far less. Perpetuating the lie that issues of human sexuality are somehow central to Christian doctrine only ensures that our collective eye will remain firmly off the ball. Worse, that lie ensures that another generation of young people will miss out on the warmth and love and grace of real Christian faith, because of a handful of people who focused on gnats while camels roamed free in their kitchen.
Why do I say that? Let’s simply reflect on the weight of the Bible’s teachings, something that all evangelicals claim to do. The poor and needy are mentioned 400+ times, while homosexuality gets a paltry two mentions (four, at most). Who are we to tamper with or even vandalize God’s own sense of proportion? My passionate desire is that we evangelicals can at least agree to order our own lives and ministries according to what the Bible actually teaches—that we order our message according to God’s clearly stated priorities.
But we don’t, and that’s where the “wounded lover” lament comes from. While God has infinite capacity to care about everything and everyone, we do not. Obsessing over the ways people love, at the expense of the justice, mercy and faithfulness at the heart of Christian belief, is a waste of our time…a waste of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.
And yet that waste continues, and the hearts of those of us who would rather bask and bathe in the mercy of Jesus than reduce him to a list of rules, well, our hearts continue to break.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in the months and years to come. What I wish for—what I pray daily for—is that everyone, inside or outside of the church, might get a glimpse of the gracious, loving and hopeful community that I remember. That church was a joy to be a part of. That church never embarrassed its people or its God. That church was a reflection of the life, love, and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I miss that place.
photo:flickr/US National Archives
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