Archive for January, 2012

Winnie Varghese and Social-Justice Salvation

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

The “overarching theme” of the Bible is not “a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice,” but “a preferential option for the repentant and the faithful, and the mercy to offer them salvation.”

Having been in this fight for so long, we sometimes forget – those of us who write about these things and those who read them – that our side of the debate is not obvious to everyone, and that from time to time we need to articulate our positions again, both because there are people who are open to considering them, and because we need to keep our skills sharp.

This interview with Winnie Varghese, a lesbian Episcopal priest at St. Mark’s in New York City’s Bowery district, reminded me of that. Two passages in particular, beginning with this one:

I was raised in the US in a very liberal Christian family, as my parents, who were young adults right after [Indian] Independence, grew up with an understanding of Christianity that was framed by the many Independence movements of the 20th century. The Bible is organised around the story of the Exodus, which is that God saves God’s people from slavery in Egypt, and we learn that God is on the side of the oppressed. In fact, the theme throughout the Bible, whether the Old Testament, or the New, is that of God redeeming people, not because they are good, or doing the right thing, but because they are marginalised.

It astonishes me that an ordained priest in a church that prides itself on rigorous religious education for its priests, actually has this understanding of the Bible; or if this is in fact not her understanding of it, that she would decide deliberately to push this nonsense as what the Bible is. Shorter version: This “priest” is either very ignorant about the Bible, or very duplicitous, although I suppose it could be both.

So off we go:

First, the Bible is not “organized around the story of the Exodus.” It is organized – as is, Christians believe, the whole of human history – around the birth of Jesus Christ, His revelation to us as God incarnate, and His role as our Savior and Redeemer.

Neither does Christianity teach that God redeems people “because they are marginalised.” What Christianity teaches is that God redeems people because they accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Why they should do so – because they are sinful and repentant – is almost secondary if one is looking for a single, simple lesson to take from the Bible. But it is most certainly not that redemption is offered because one is “marginalized.”

Here’s the second passage. In answer to the question, “What about the notion that homosexuality is a sin?” Varghese replies:

In the Levitical Code in the Bible, there are many acts that are prohibited, like wearing fabrics of two kinds in one garment or eating shellfish. These may seem absurd to modern people, but these were specific things that communities did to distinguish themselves from other communities, but which most Christians do not follow now. So it’s not difficult to take the Levitical Code — where a sexual moral code is discussed — and say that that’s from another time and another culture. The Code, for instance, says things like, if your child talks back at you, stone her. We don’t observe those practices now.

If we look at the Bible’s overarching themes, the most consistent one that runs through the text is a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice, which is what people of a sexual minority need today, as they are marginalised and denied justice legally, and in terms of human rights.

This can be summarized as “the shellfish argument,” but the more complex issues of the Levitical codes aside, it never ceases to amaze me the simple failings of logic made by people who offer this “defense” of homosexual behavior.

The first failing is the notion that because items A, B, and C in a list are no longer applicable, then item D is therefore no longer applicable either.

To make my point, remove the list of prohibitions entirely from the context of Christianity, or even faith in general. Let’s say you’re writing a manual for automobile drivers, and the year is 1912. Your manual might very well include the following:

– Do not wear a veil to protect yourself against flying road debris; yea, verily I beseech thee, wear sturdy goggles.

– Do not attempt to start the motorcar with a crank made of wood; alas these will soon splinter, and cause you only grief.

– Do not honk your horn when approaching a horse-drawn buggy from behind; this may spook the horse and cause injury to the buggy’s riders.

– Do not operate your motorcar while intoxicated; it will impair your judgement and could result in serious injury or death to you and your passengers.

If I’m an advocate of the patently idiotic position that drinking and driving is a great idea, how seriously would I be taken if I insisted that, because cars now have windshields and thus no need for drivers to wear goggle; that cars are now started with keys and thus no need for cranks; and that horse-drawn buggies are virtually extinct, obviously the prohibition against drinking and driving is a quaint anachronism that can – and should – be reversed?

Why, then, does anyone take seriously people like Varghese, when their advocacy for homosexual behavior follows the same pattern?

The second failing is to offer the one example in Leviticus, make the case that it is “problematic,” and then proceed as if the case is closed – as if nowhere else in the Bible is homosexual behavior ever mentioned. Homosexual behavior is mentioned several other times in the Bible – Old Testament as well as New – and it is univocal in its prohibition of it as sinful.

The third failing is, again, a thoroughly incorrect characterization of the “overarching theme” of the Bible. It is most certainly not “a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice.” Certainly the marginalized are lifted up, to the extent that by “marginalized” we mean the poor, the downtrodden, and the powerless; but the overarching theme of the Bible as regards the treatment of different kinds of people, is that no one of faith gets preferential treatment. The Gospel is the ultimate societal flattener: Repent of your sins and place your faith Jesus Christ, and you are saved, no matter your station in life or the magnitude of your sin.

So the “overarching theme” of the Bible is not “a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice,” but “a preferential option for the repentant and the faithful, and the mercy to offer them salvation.” To focus more narrowly on sexuality, the overarching theme of the Bible, as Kendall Harmon has always reminded us, is one that repeatedly and pointedly prohibits sex outside of marriage, and one that very clearly defines and blesses marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Finally: As long as we’re brushing up on things like spotting flaws in the other side’s positions, it’s always a good practice to apply some simple math whenever you feel like you’re reading an explanation of the Bible and Christianity that just doesn’t seem to add up. For example, Varghese uses approximately 1,000 words to explain to a lay audience what the Bible and Christianity, at their core, are all about. So go to the linked article, open your browser’s “Find” tool, and count how many times the word “Jesus” appears.

The transgender taboo is a threat to academic freedom

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

By Ed West, Telegraph

The Sunday Times over the weekend had a feature about six children suffering from Gender Identity Disorder who are being given drugs to delay the onset of puberty, giving them more time to decide whether they wish to change sex later in life.
The operations are being paid for by the taxpayers, although I don’t think that’s the issue. If the state can pay several thousands to save a person from a life of misery and eventual suicide then I for one think that is money well-spent. And yet the strange thing is that, taking aside the fact that “blockers” may affect cognitive ability and bone density, there’s actually no accepted medical proof or consensus that sex change operations actually help someone’s mental health; we may one day find that it does, but we simply don’t know enough at the moment.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the growth of a political orthodoxy that boys and girls are sometimes born into the wrong bodies – their gender does not match their physical sex – and that this is best fixed by hormone treatment and/or surgery later in life; and that anyone who finds this uncomfortable suffers themselves from a psychological condition, apparently, called transphobia.

You Lost Me

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

I’ll get straight to the point: you need to read You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman. If you’re at all interested for the future of the church. If you’re a church leader – youth minister, senior minister, or bishop. If you’re a parent, or grandparent. If you’re a teenager or young adult, particularly if you’re wondering whether or not to hang around the church for much longer. You need to read this book (here’s a video intro for the digital natives).

New from the Barna group in the US, You Lost Me is reporting on research done among young adults who used to be members of the church. ‘Used to be’ is the key. The title of the book gives voice to the response young adults are making to the church – it’s what you say when you’re talking with someone and they start saying something that doesn’t make sense anymore: ‘hang on, you lost me’.

The research spoke with young adults with a Christian background to hear their stories of why they’ve left the church and sometimes the Christian faith all together. The book is a companion of sorts to Kinnaman’s previous book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters that considered the reasons young non-Christians reject the Christian faith. Where the previous book spoke with the ‘outsiders’, this book is about the ‘insiders’, or at least those who were insiders in the past.

In the first part of the book Kinnaman introduces us to the young adults who have left the church: The nomads, who are disengaged with the church, continue to identify as Christian, but see little importance of faith for their lives; the prodigals who have abandoned the Christianity of their childhood and hold varying levels of resentment toward Christianity and the church; and the exiles, who remain passionate about their Christian faith but are disillusioned with the institutional church as the place to live out their commitment to Jesus.

Part two identifies six main reasons for why young people are disconnected from the church together with recommendations for how the church (church leaders as well as parents) can respond. The six problems are that the church is overprotective and unwelcoming of creativity and involvement in culture; shallow in its teaching; antiscience; repressive particularly in regard to sex; exclusive in a way that conflicts with the open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance of the surrounding culture; and does not allow the expression of doubt.

Rather than summarise Kinnaman’s alternatives (I want you to read the book for yourself afterall!), the bottom line is the recovery of genuine relationships within the body of Christ. Kinnaman says ‘relationship is central to disciple making—and…the dropout problem is, at its core, a disciple-making problem’.

The last part of the book provides three areas for renewed thinking in the church (you’ll have to read it to find out what they are!). Each of them are grounded clearly in the Bible and the traditions of the church. There is nothing particularly new, but Kinnaman provides a clear  and powerful call to recover things that we know and have neglected.

In many ways it was the final chapter that was the most engaging. Having presented the problem and outlined a response, the book concludes with fifty ideas gathered from church leaders and young Christians that begin to make the concrete changes necessary to begin to chart a new future. Kinnaman acknowledges that he doesn’t agree with every idea presented, and neither do I. But in reading through them not only were there ideas that I’m keen to pick up and run with, reading the thoughts of others prompted me to think of other actions and changes that would be relevant to my own situation.

Bottom line is this: if you are concerned for the future of the church, if you are concerned for young adult nomads, prodigals and exiles, if you are yourself a young adult who is disenchanted with the church, then read this book.

But don’t read it on your own – read it with others: with fellow leaders, with parents and grandparents, with young adults, with teenagers. The website has discussion guides for church leaders and for parents and grandparents. What we really need though is a discussion guide for church leaders, parents, grandparents and young adults to use together. Kinneman’s analysis argues that blame cannot be laid exclusively on any one group of people. Neither will the solution come from the efforts of only one group of people. Relationships grow out of conversations and conversations need more than one voice.

And read it in the company of Jesus, praying that he would continue to lead us into truth and shape us as individuals and communities to be the people he calls us to be.


David Kinneman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith. Baker Books, 2011

Anglican Church Embraces Working Relationship with Church of England

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Church of England General Synod Report Encourages “Open-Ended Engagement”

The General Synod, the national assembly of the Church of England, released a report this week providing further clarity on its working relationship with the Anglican Church in North America, and encouraged an “open-ended engagement with ACNA on the part of the Church of England and the (Anglican) Communion.”

“We are encouraged by the desire of the Church of England to continue to embrace the Anglican Church in North America and remain in solidarity with us as we proclaim the Gospel message and truth as revealed in Scripture in the way it has always been understood in Anglican formularies,” said Archbishop Duncan.

The Church of England General Synod report can be viewed here.

“As we have demonstrated successfully to the GAFCON primates, the Anglican Church in North America remains committed to our growing relationships with Anglican provinces outside of North America. Our biblical orthodoxy and ministries are strengthening our bond to our Anglican brothers and sisters around the globe. We are gratified that we are already in a relationship of full communion with many Anglican Provinces and look forward to expanding that circle.”

“In that regard, we appreciate the work of the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England, whose report and recommendations to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York form the basis of the document now released for General Synod, and whose content substantially advances the same ends with the Church of England,” concluded Archbishop Duncan.

In July 2009, a resolution was brought forth to the Church of England’s General Synod to recognize its common faith and fellowship with the growing Anglican Church in North America. The following February, 2010, representatives and ecumenical friends of the Anglican Church in North America shared directly with the General Synod the vision of the church for reaching North America with the transforming love of Jesus Christ.  At the 2010 meeting, the General Synod first affirmed the Anglican Church in North America’s desire “to remain within the Anglican family.”

God Matters: Ethical Theory and Divine Law

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

By Matthew O’Brien, Witherspoon Institute

The construction of an ethical theory, as a general matter, inevitably implicates philosophical theology.

“We do not offend God unless we act contrary to our own nature.” This remark, which Thomas Aquinas makes in his book Summa Contra Gentiles, is a pithy summary of his view of morality. It encapsulates morality’s twofold source in human nature and God’s law. God commands us to act in accordance with the human nature that he created, so actions are specifically good or bad depending upon whether or not they perfect human nature, and therefore are reasonable for us to choose or avoid, respectively. Thus, in choosing well, we please God by our obedience, and in choosing badly, we offend him by our disobedience.

In our present intellectual climate, where rival atheist and theist camps disagree about whether God exists, why not circumscribe God’s role in this picture, bracket the question of his existence, and focus upon the ethical requirements of human nature alone? I want to consider a few reasons why this strategy is flawed, if it is adopted as a general method of ethics. It is, of course, possible to address many individual ethical problems in piecemeal fashion and on theologically neutral terms. There is no reason why vexed contemporary debates about abortion or gay marriage, for example, need to implicate theology. But the construction of an ethical theory, as a general matter, inevitably implicates what natural human reason can know about God.

Read here

Archbishops suggest ‘open-ended engagement’ with breakaway Anglicans

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

From ENS

Archbishops Rowan Williams of Canterbury and John Sentamu of York have suggested that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion ought to be in “an open-ended engagement” with the Anglican Church in North America.

The organization is made up of individuals and groups that have left the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, as well as those that have never been members of those two provinces. It includes entities such as the Reformed Episcopal Church, formed in 1873, and the Anglican Mission in the Americas, founded by Rwandan Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini and Moses Tay, the now-retired primate of the province of South East Asia, in 2000.
Williams and Sentamu made their remarks in a report to the Feb. 6-9 sessions of the Church of England’s General Synod.
The report comes in response to a resolution the synod passed two years ago in which the Church of England recognized and affirmed ACNA’s desire “to remain in the Anglican family,” but said it was not yet ready to be in full communion with the breakaway entity.

The Pastor’s Role in World Evangelization

Friday, January 20th, 2012


A word of encouragement to those who preach each week.




Pastor John:

What then should a pastor do to promote a passion among his people to see God glorified by the in-gathering of his sheep from the thousands of unreached people groups around the world?

My answer: above everything else, be the kind of person and the kind of preacher whose theme and passion is the majesty of God. . . .

The most important thing I think pastors can do to arouse and sustain a passion for world evangelization is week in and week out to help their people see the crags and peaks and icy cliffs and snowcapped heights of God’s majestic character. And let me sharpen the point in two ways:

1. We should labor in our preaching to clear the mists and fog away from the sharp contours of the character of God. We should let him be seen in his majesty and sovereignty.

I know of one denominational official who, when asked how to preach on texts that seem strong on predestination or election or the sovereignty of grace, said something like, “O, I think you can preach on those texts without letting people know what you think. It’s possible to be sufficiently imprecise so that you don’t upset people.”

That attitude toward doctrine and preaching is the source of widespread weakness and shallowness in our churches. It is a tragedy when we believe that we are serving the cause of God by surrounding the peaks of his glory with a fog of ambiguity. If our people are ever going to have a global faith and a global vision we are going to have to stop hiding from them the biblical proportions of the majesty of God.

2. The majestic character of God needs to be seen week in and week out not in the context of casualness and triviality and Sunday morning slapstick, but in the context of exaltation and awe and solemnity and earnestness and intensity.

How will our people ever come to feel in their bones the awful magnitude of what is at stake in the eternal destiny of the unevangelized, if our homiletical maxim is to start with a joke and keep the people entertained with anecdotes along the way. How will the people ever come to know and feel the crags and peaks and snowcapped heights of God’s glory if our preaching and worship services are more like picnics in the valley than thunder on the ice face of Mt. Everest?

That’s the most important thing as I see it for arousing and sustaining a passion for the glory of God in world evangelization — week in and week out to help them see the majesty of the glory of God.

Excerpted from “A Pastor’s Role in World Missions” (1984).