The Church 12: We are All Anabaptists Now

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A member of our team and distinguished New Testament scholar writes this excellent piece;

The Church 12: We are All Anabaptists Now

Postmodernity, wrote Jean Francois Lyotard, entails an incredulity towards metanarratives.[1]  We might put this the other way around.  Postmodernity find mininarratives credible.  That is, that a story gives meaning to one’s own life is sufficient to make it right or true, without regard to some larger understanding.  Simply put, we create our own meaning and identity.

Constructed Identity, Not Universal, Natural Law

This way of thinking has now reached the level of the Supreme Court (Obergefell v. Hodges, 26 June, 2015).[2]  One might say that this is not the first time the court has interpreted law in light of postmodern thinking, but the decision announced today to legalize same-sex ‘marriage’ is a prime example of postmodern logic.  Marriage is what we say it is, not what God established in creation.

We need to recognize, however, that what we refer to today as postmodern is a perspective that has long been with Western society.  The focus of Modernity was on establishing universal laws and principles through a scientific rather than faith-based mode of argument.  The undermining of faith and the affirmation of rational argument, particularly scientific investigation, required a freedom from established social and intellectual conventions.  After doubt regarding what came before so as to argue from incontrovertible foundations (the Cartesian method) came a prioritizing of liberty among the other values.  Freedom was a way to pursue a different path from the social forces that used to direct society, as exemplified in the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century.  Freedom came to entail a personal pursuit of happiness, a construction of one’s own identity.  This pursuit of freedom ran alongside scientific exploration, although the two were not by any means in full accord.  If science found that something was an incontrovertible fact, those who wished to resist a universal, natural, and objective metanarrative found their freedom challenged.

Indeed, postmodernity believes that identity is constructed, not handed down to us by religion, government, science, or anything else.  We have in recent weeks discovered some fascinating examples of the idea that we can construct our own identities.  One man insists that his sexual identity is not confined to his biological make-up but is rather something that he can construct.  A woman of European descent determines that she should be able to define her identity in terms of her own choice, and so decides to consider herself black.

The reason I earlier suggested that the Supreme Court has already ventured into this arena of postmodern thought was in the case of Roe v. Wade (1973).  The court decided that being considered human was not based on having life alone but also on viability—the viability of the foetus.  It also found that a woman’s rights were to be considered in this matter: a woman had the right to determine whether or not to ‘terminate a pregnancy.’  In this decision, the meaning of human life was restricted by independence (the child’s freedom from its mother by being able to live on its own) and rights (the woman’s freedom to choose what she wished to do with her foetus).  Thus the Supreme Court at that time moved in the direction of the logic of construction of one’s own identity rather than affirm a more universal understanding of human life.

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court was a major affirmation of constructed identity.  If two people of the same sex wish to ‘marry,’ then they have the ‘right’ to construct their own meaning of marriage.  In antiquity, Stoic philosophers argued that identity was God-given.  One of their terms for homosexuality was ‘against nature’ (para physis).  Thus, one philosophical tradition without any Christian influence opposed homosexuality on the grounds that it was not according to nature or the laws God had written into creation.  This was precisely what Jews and Christians at the time argued from a different tradition of moral thought—a theological tradition based on the Old Testament.  They believed that God’s purposes in and definition of marriage were to be found in his creating male and female for marriage to one another (Gen. 2.24).  This is also the basis for Paul’s opposition to homosexuality in general in Rom. 1.24-28.

What we find today, however, is an incredulity towards a creation metanarrative.  The culture’s conviction that we can construct our identities runs fully against the Biblical teaching that God made things a certain way and that humans were not to go against this.  The idea that we can construct our identity is something that came to full expression over one hundred years ago in the West in Existentialist philosophy.  Existentialists taught that humans were ‘thrown’ into existence, that their existence precedes essence.  So, for instance, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s view, the ‘superman’ was the one who exercised his will freely; he created his own identity (see Thus Spoke Zarathustra).  Or, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s view, we begin with ‘nothingness’ and need to create our ‘being’ through our own choices and actions (see Being and Nothingness).  This means that we do not begin with some definition of ourselves to be found in nature or God’s laws but that, through the decisions we freely make, we construct our essence, our identity.

Thus, what Christians in the West now face is a suppression of their ‘metanarrative’ of creation and an opposition to a God who has his laws that stand against one’s freedom to define things according to the way he or she desires.  We Christians, instead, believe that God made us and that we are, as the Old Testament often says, to walk in his ways.  As Paul says, ‘…you are not your own’ (1 Cor. 6.19).  We find ourselves challenging a culture that lives by the value of freedom without regard for God.

Limits of Engagement and Church Discipline

Love is a major part of the Christian life.  We are called to unity in Christ and to show love for those outside the faith.  Yet love is not to be diluted into our culture’s affirmation of tolerance—an affirmation arising out of the conviction that everyone gets to construct his or her own identity.  Indeed, ‘love’ for Christians has more to do with directing people back to the God of all creation, showing them what it is to live—to find life!—in his ways, and telling them the good news that Jesus died for their sins and that the Holy Spirit is given to enable them to live righteous and holy lives.

This is also why church discipline is so necessary: those claiming to be believers are not free to live however they wish in the Christian community (as we see Paul argue in 1 Cor. 5).  Christian love, if Biblical, is based on living according to God’s precepts.  As Jesus said to his disciples, ‘”If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14.15).  The notion, touted by some, that the church should be welcoming to homosexuals living in homosexual marriages is not Biblical—no more so than accepting persons willfully practicing bestiality or living in incestuous relationships—two other examples of adults exercising their freedom in sexual matters.  We need to extend these examples to other sins than just sexual sins, of course.  Persons struggling to become free of sin are certainly to be welcomed and helped, but persons willfully continuing in their sin and denying that their actions are sinful are to be excommunicated.

Excommunication is a loving gesture to show willfully sinful people that their way leads to ultimate judgement (1 Cor. 5.5) and exclusion from the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6.9-11).  If the person is simply welcomed into fellowship, this toleration of sin will give the person a mistaken conviction that God, too, will not judge him or her.  (Similarly, to discipline children playing with fire to teach them that fire is dangerous and that they will be burned is a loving thing to do.  If someone does not believe fire burns and sees playing with it a beautiful thing, he or she may think such discipline is abusive.)

Moreover, failure to offer loving judgement[3] of persons continuing to live in willful sin undermines the purity of the community of believers in Christ.  Paul sees the church as ‘unleavened bread,’ a community that has prepared itself to celebrate the Passover of Christ’s sacrifice (1 Cor. 5.7-8).

1 Corinthians 5:6-8  6 Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The holiness of the community must be upheld, and the church is not a community without standards of membership.  Some expect this to be the case, since their postmodern notion of community and Christian unity is that everyone accepts everyone else no matter what.

To get at a Christian understanding of community, consider two golf courses.  One golf course is owned by a wealthy club with exclusive membership, such as only for men with a certain income.  The other golf course is open to any players.  Some people think that Christian standards of community make it like the club-owned course.  In actual fact, the church is more like the second golf course: everyone is welcome.  Both golf courses, however, expect and require persons to play golf on the course.  If several people showed up at either golf course to play Frisbee instead of golf, they would be disrupting the purpose of the golf course.  Christians welcome people into their midst, but their purpose is to create a righteous community that walks in the ways of the Lord.  For a person entering into such a community but willfully sinning—whether through unjust business practices or homosexual practice—would be like a Frisbee player showing up at a golf course that welcomes everyone to play golf.

Attending homosexual ‘weddings’ (‘But he is a relative!’) is just one example of compromise of Christian witness that believers are already having to consider.  One might be tempted to argue in this case that Christians should not judge those outside the faith, only those inside (so 1 Cor. 5.9-11), and so attend such a wedding ceremony.  However, attending a homosexual wedding goes way beyond not judging—it involves a level of affirmation similar to participating in idol worship.  We should doubt that John the Baptist (or Jesus) would have attended Herod Antipas’s wedding ceremony: he divorced his wife in order to marry his sister-in-law (Mark 6.18).  The argument that we should not participate in some sinful practice is one already put forward with the photographers and bakers who do not want to support an act that is sinful.  Persons withdrawing money from Wells Fargo bank or no longer buying Tylenol because of their promotion of homosexuality in television advertisements are doing so not because these companies serve all customers but because they are advocating a sinful way of life (these are two recent examples in the USA).  The early Corinthian believers had questions similar to these: should they attend ceremonies (banquets, birthday parties, etc.) with their unbelieving neighbours when a god or goddess was also part of the celebration?  To this question, eating food sacrificed to idols, Paul gave a clear answer when it involved affirmation of or participation in such ceremonies, ‘No!’ Believers could eat meat sacrificed to idols bought in the marketplace—when the food did not involve participation in or celebration of idolatry.  But there were in no way to eat food sacrificed to idols in the context of celebration or worship of the god or goddess (1 Cor. 8-10).  The Xhosa asking whether he as a Christian can ‘go to the mountain’ (to participate in religious ceremonies of manhood) is asking the same question in a different cultural context: ‘Can a Christian participate in ceremonies that lead to accepting him as a man within the community but that also involve non-Christian activities, such as sacrifice?’  Paul also appears to be addressing the subject in 2 Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 6:14-18   14 Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?  15 What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?  16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  17 Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you,  18 and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”

Such a theological argument extends beyond engaging in temple worship with others in society; it has to do with limitations on Christian engagement within society.  While we should leave judgement to God of those living against his ways, we equally should not celebrate or participate in their sinful acts.

The Gospel, moreover, offers real change, not just forgiveness of sins (1 Cor. 6.11).  But the church that thinks it is doing well by showing unconditional love to persons willfully continuing in sin is a church that has affirmed that we create our own identity and receive God’s smile of approval for our creativity and exercise of freedom.  It is also a church that denies the power of God to transform sinners.  Here, too, mission in the West runs contrary to the culture.  The Gospel message is not only that God forgives us for our sins—and homosexual practice is a sin—it is also about the life-changing power of God at work through the Holy Spirit in our lives to release us from what binds us and frees us to walk in the ways of the Lord.  This is good news.

Conclusion

Postmodern, Western culture is the culmination of an experiment in freedom initiated already in the Enlightenment.  It parted from the universal, science-based, affirmation of some metanarrative or other that defined Modernity.  It affirmed the construction of identity over whatever claims were made in Modernity and whatever claims were made in religious faith.  It has come to see sexual identity as constructed.  With today’s announcement by the Supreme Court that same-sex coupling can be considered to be marriage, we have another example of an authority understanding freedom as license and identity as locally (individually or socially) constructed.  This argument is easily applied to incestuous and polygamous marriages.  It probably also applies to bestial relationships and the pornography industry.  As long as ‘freedom’ is protected, what is to limit one’s own construction of a sexual identity or one’s own definition of what constitutes ‘marriage’?

Christian mission to the West, then, faces several new realities.  It is a mission in a post-Christian society.  It is conducted by a minority community facing increasing opposition from the larger society.  It challenges a Western notion of freedom.  It finds itself announcing a universal message—the Gospel for all people—to solve a universal problem—sin.  In order to do so, it claims that there is a universal right and wrong established in the sovereign will of the Creator.  This is experienced by Postmodern society as simply incredulous, since the assumption is that truth is local, that identity is constructed—even sexual identity.  Christian mission to the West also includes a challenge to understand the nature of community—a righteous community living to please God over against the culture’s notion of community as tolerance and acceptance of a spectrum of diverse views and practices.

How, then, should we live?  Christians can be glad that there is an increasing clarity about what it means to be a Christian.  In previous generations in the West, the faith was regularly compromised as the Church, government, and society negotiated a political settlement about how to live within ‘Christendom.’  There is simply no room left for such compromises: we are now all Anabaptists.  (Anabaptists are known for, among other things, refusing to compromise Biblical, Christian faith and practice in the face of pressure from governments and society—including established, state-sanctioned churches.  They lived against the grain of culture where it was contrary to Biblical teaching.  Unlike Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics in the 16th century, they saw the Church as radically separate from the State and were often persecuted.)  This frees us to bear a clearer witness, even if persecution comes with the package.  This also brings with it a needed purifying of the Church.  And it also means that we have a challenge not only to offer a particular message to a hostile culture but also to offer a new vision of community to it.  The new, post-Christian climate in the West calls for Christians to stop attending church and start being the Church.  In all this, we have a tremendous task ahead.  Our efforts are best spent not bemoaning the demise of the society in which we live but in getting on with our mission of being God’s people for this time and place and proclaiming the good news in Jesus Christ that our sins can be forgiven and our lives transformed by the power of the Spirit at work in us and through us.
[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984; French, 1979), p. xxiv.

[2] See: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf. Accessed 26 June, 2015.

[3] One often hears people say that Christians do not judge.  Behind this statement lies a serious confusion regarding several Biblical texts.  First, when Jesus said, ‘Do not judge’ (Matthew 7.1), he was not uttering an absolute statement.  He finished the sentence with ‘so that you may not be judged.’  He went on to warn against hypocrisy.  He further said that one should not point out the speck in someone else’s eye when one has a log in one’s own eye.  In other words, Jesus was not saying we should not judge because everything is alright, there is no such thing as sin, let’s tolerate or celebrate each other’s decisions and actions.  Rather, he was warning not to be hypocritical when judging.  Another passage to consider comes from the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ (Matthew 6.12).  The point is not that there is no such thing as sin but that we should forgive others because God has forgiven us.  Christians offer a message of forgiveness for sin, not a denial that certain actions are sinful and so should be affirmed.  A third passage to consider is one discussed in this essay, 1 Cor. 5.9-11.  Paul says that Christians should not associate with sexually immoral people (v. 9). He qualifies this statement by saying that this does not mean that Christians should not associate with sexually immoral people outside the church, ‘since you would then need to go outside the world’ (v. 10).  Rather, he says, this applies to persons claiming to be believers who are sexually immoral—and then he extends the list of sins to other than sexual sins (v. 11).  He concludes, ‘Do not even eat with such a one’ (v. 11).  His view on judgement is summarized in vv. 12-13: ‘For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”’

Posted by Rollin Grams at 3:16 PM

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