Sunday, February 10, 2013
Proscriptive theology: When sinful people want to judge other sinful people
This conversation wasn't at all related to the conference itself, but it did touch on some hot topics in the modern-day Christian faith — namely, the role of gay and lesbian people in the church, cohabitation, and premarital sex.
One pastor from Orange County (no, it wasn't Rick Warren) repeated the same talking point I so often hear these days: that he certainly doesn't have anything against gays, and he welcomes them at his church, because we're all broken and we're all sinners. He simply expects them to "repent" and to "not act on their sexual urges." As I interpreted it, he'd only have a problem if they didn't remain celibate for life and didn't ask forgiveness for being who they are.
I quickly challenged him on why divorce and remarriage are different from same-sex attraction. After all, one can repent from being party to a failed marriage, but Jesus himself specifically admonishes his followers that marrying again after divorcing is adultery — and thus the opposite of repentance for the initial sin. Meanwhile, Christ makes no explicit reference to homosexuality in any of the four gospels.
The straight, married pastor didn't have a ready answer for this one.
Now, let me be clear: I truly wasn't trying to play a game of "gotcha." That being said, I also didn't expect him to be able to respond to my question, because there is no good answer, except to admit hypocrisy. Many married Americans, including Christians, will divorce at some point, and a similarly significant number will marry again. In short, the majority tends to trivialize its own sins while zeroing in on the alleged transgressions of the minority. (I see no sin in being gay, by the way. A far greater misdeed, in my estimation, is pretending to be who you're not.)
Sadly, this is a pattern repeated across mainstream Christianity: We love to point fingers at others, calling them to task for breaking rules we can smugly say we've never broken. And we usually do so without having any understanding of the circumstances surrounding the individual whose identity, actions, or personal choices we're judging.
Take, for instance, cohabitation. In particular, I'm always turned off by married people who chastise unmarried couples for living together or having sex before they exchange vows. My response to such a rebuke is typically a snarky one along these lines: So it's different for you simply because you have a marriage certificate? Because you acquired a piece of paper from the state that proves you're mature enough or committed enough for pillow talk?
At the risk of being indelicate: Any two idiots can get hitched. I'm not married, but I could go get a marriage license tomorrow — even if I'm not ready for it, and even if I'm not marrying the right person — just so that I can have sex without feeling guilty, or pat myself on the back for not "living in sin," or generally paint the facade of being a good Christian, even if I'm a badly broken person underneath (which indeed I am).
If you are a Christian, be honest with yourself: Does this paradigm not cheapen the sacrament of marriage that we're supposedly so concerned about protecting through rules like these? Does it not create a dangerous precedent where young people in particular are encouraged to tie the knot before they're ready, just so they can say they're following those rules? (Don't pretend this isn't real — it is.) And does it not send a false impression that Christians think marriage means little more than whether or not two people are having sex?
I know what you might be thinking: I'm missing the point of commitment that's embodied by marriage, or I'm ignoring the biblical principle that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage. No, I'm not. Commitment and sexual fidelity are both crucial, but neither is guaranteed by marriage or by a one-size-fits-all rule. I've known unmarried, cohabiting couples whose relationships are remarkably stable, and I've known married couples whose relationships are outwardly dysfunctional.
This is why proscriptive, legalistic theology does not work. It backfires. It has unintended and sometimes destructive consequences. And it's dishonest, because it's fabricated by a class of fallen human beings whose sins and occasional failure to repent is no different from those toward whom their legalism is targeted.
Case in point: I'm a social drinker, and I respect those who abstain. In fact, I think it's honorable. But I'd resent being told that I'm a sinner simply because I don't make the same personal choice as those who opt not to imbibe.
Similarly, I wouldn't choose to live with my girlfriend. But I'd never judge someone who does — especially if I have little or no knowledge of his personal circumstances, spiritual condition, or relationship with his significant other.
We've managed to reduce Christianity to a set of superficial rules that seem more concerned about external appearances than true spiritual health, and which, curiously enough, rarely seem to be targeted toward those who advocate most vociferously for their enforcement. Gay people, for instance, don't clamor for their own relegation in the church.
Legalism is a toxic element in the Christian faith, I think. At its core, it undermines our mandate to extend grace and understanding to each other, as our creator has done for us, and it stifles the exploration of a mysterious God whose essence is so much more profound than questions of who is living or sleeping with whom. It distracts those who are already believers, and it repels those who aren't. That's sad.
I know that some who read this will disagree, and my goal is to create a constructive dialogue here. So if you take exception with what I've said, leave a comment and I'll try to respond.