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In making doctrines and orthodoxy idols, Evangelical Christians diminish the meaning of faith.
I am writing this today because of something that’s been heavily on my mind lately. Beliefs can divide and kill. Having “correct” doctrines is not necessarily an indicator of life transformed by the Holy Spirit.
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As I observe the Christian world of the United States today, it's quite fascinating to think about some Christians' willingness to choose LGBTQ+ issues as the hill they're going to die on, just as they chose issues such as the defense of segregation and slavery in the past. As in the past, denominations and churches engage in acrimonious fights over matters such as ordinations of LGBTQ+ ministers and whether to include non-binary and trans persons into the life of the church.
The United Methodist Church is one such major denomination in recent years. The impending schism creates, on the one hand, the Global Methodist Church that resolutely opposes anything other than what they believe is traditional and biblical views of sexuality and gender; on the other hand, Liberation Methodist Connexion, whose vision is of radical inclusion. Likewise, the Anglican Communion has become fragmented to a point at which there are now two de facto world bodies: the Lambeth Conference convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON).
Those who have spent some time in the church are familiar with this phrase, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Because this phrase appears in the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline, many incorrectly attribute it to John Wesley, but it is thought to be first used in 1617 by the Catholic Archbishop of Split, Croatia.
So the big question is: What is essential?
Deciding what is essential and what isn’t is always a value judgment and is often very subjective and arbitrary. Many conservative Christians understand this when COVID-19 led governments of the world to decree what constitutes “essential activities.” A number of pastors defied government orders and continued their worship services as usual, in person. They argued, perhaps correctly, that it made no sense that churches were forced to close their doors while liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, and even bars (with some modifications) were allowed to operate. In Vermont, the state government prohibited big-box general merchandise retailers such as Walmart and Target from selling “non-essential” items in stores. This, of course, made a lot of Vermonters angry. Parents of toddlers could not purchase a baby car seat required by law. When many people were concerned with food security amidst the major disruption in supply chains, customers were also barred from shopping for seeds and gardening supplies. The top-down, one-size-fits-all government regulation overlooked a salient truth: What may be non-essential to some is essential to others.
In theological realms, this sort of divide can manifest because of history or culture. Quakers do not care about sacramental theology: whether Christ is present in, above, and below the consecrated elements, or if the wine and bread are truly the blood and flesh of Jesus. Since many Quakers do not practice such ordinances, such controversies are irrelevant to them; however, for sacramental churches such as Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches, differences in beliefs regarding this matter can lead to schism, ex-communication, and even religious wars.
Doctrines and creeds have historically functioned in Christianity as both tools of unity and of exclusion.
Beliefs are important. Don’t take me wrong on this. Doctrines and theology have a profound influence on how we live out our lives as people of faith. How we pray and how we believe inform how we live (lex orandi lex credendi lex vivendi). Likewise, having distinctives is not necessarily a bad thing: some feel at home in an Anglican parish with beautiful liturgies steeped in traditions than at a non-descript hall where an independent Baptist church meets. You might resonate with charismatic worship services more than with a traditional Presbyterian service. Some prefer a denomination that is committed to social justice actions, while others desire churches that emphasize Bible preaching and evangelism. Distinctives are like personalities. Nevertheless, toxic ideas have consequences, especially when they are packaged in the language of faith and given an aura of divinity.
The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed are often used as the litmus tests of “true Christianity” versus “heretical cults.” The creeds are recited in many church services, often preceding baptism and the eucharist.
At denominational and congregational levels, more detailed and in-depth sets of doctrines are often formulated, again, both as a point of unity and a tool of exclusion (or, defense). Not so long time ago, practically every Protestant church website had a “statement of faith” page. And new members are usually instructed in their churches’ beliefs.
Yet, there are a lot of doctrinal differences we don’t make a big deal out of. Calvinism or Arminianism? Pre-trib or post-trib? Young Earth creationism or not? Cessationism, or are the gifts of the Holy Spirit still operational? These are genuinely theological issues but we often agree to disagree. Most preachers (aside from New IFB types) don’t call other denominations that hold different views on these matters “demonic” or “hell-bound.”
So it is quite telling that churches fight and split over far more trivial issues such as the ordination of women into ministry, same-sex marriages, and now acceptance of gender-expansive folks. Like the questions of slavery and racial segregation, these are primarily earthly and political matters.
Neo-Phariseeism in the church today
This leads me to my next point: some Christians are driven by a new form of “Phariseeism.”
In the first century, C.E., the Pharisees (from Hebrew, P’rushim, or separatists) was a new Jewish religious and social movement that ultimately laid foundations of Rabbinic Judaism. One of the key ideas they held is the concept of “the fences around the Torah.” They believed that by creating additional rules around the prohibitions and commandments in the Torah, they protected people from accidentally violating the actual laws of the Torah.
Jesus critiqued the Pharisee leaders (likely of the House of Shammai) of his day for imposing onerous and prohibitive burdens on the populace, and in doing so, alienating them from faith. (It is worth noting that Hillel the Elder, a contemporary of Jesus, articulated the Golden Rule first.)
The comparative response to the challenge of a prospective convert who asked that the Torah be explained to him while he stood on one foot, illustrates the character differences between Shammai and Hillel. Shammai dismissed the man. Hillel told the man: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."
Like the Pharisees of the first century, many Evangelical pastors and church leaders construct barriers and “fences” around God and the works of the Holy Spirit in the church.
A few months ago I came across a video on YouTube (it has since been deleted, but a copy of it also appears on Facebook) containing an excerpt of a sermon by John MacArthur, the pastor of Grace Community Church (a California non-denominational megachurch).
In this video, MacArthur recalls an incident in which he had inadvertently baptized a transgender woman named Carla. He explains that this happened because he was busy that day and did not vet baptismal candidates as he would normally do. Later he felt “deeply disturbed,” he confronts Carla, calls him a man, and says:
You certainly don’t for a moment think that Lord Jesus Christ accepts you and sanctifies your lifestyle. As a man living as a woman, in homosexual relationship, or relationships. You’ve always been a man and now you’re a castrated man. You’re born a man and die a man, and you must live as a man and and you must acknowledge your sins of what you’ve done, and if you acknowledge the sins of what you’ve done, and ask Lord’s forgiveness and repent, come to Him by faith and be forgiven and be gracious to you. But you must live as a man, get rid of those clothes, get some men’s clothes, and prove the genuineness of your repentance before God.
MacArthur then quips that Carla has left his church and started attending another church down the street and that church’s pastor had to “deal with him (sic).”
Here, MacArthur throws a gauntlet down within an hour of Carla getting baptized and implies that Carla would be accepted into the church of Christ (and by extension, into God’s salvific grace) only if she changes and forsakes her “lifestyle,” and conforms her outward appearance to MacArthur’s satisfaction. And his church is called Grace Community Church!
Two centuries ago, Western Christian missionaries traveled across the oceans not only to save the souls of unreached peoples but also to “civilize the savages.” They also have taught that, as non-Westerners, Christ would only accept them if they renounced their “barbaric” cultures and folkways, and dressed and behaved like Europeans. In the name of Christ, they’ve destroyed indigenous traditions, languages, and cultures around the world.
Even in the days of the Apostles, there were debates as to what Gentile believers had to do in order to be accepted into the assemblies of The Way. Many argued that they had to be first properly converted into Judaism, be shomrei shabbat and shomrei kashrut, as preconditions for becoming disciples of their messiah and to partake in salvation. An apostolic council was convened in Jerusalem (circa 49 C.E.) and a heated debate ensued. Ultimately, Peter proclaimed:
Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. God, who knows people's deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus. — Acts 15:7-11, CEB.
And the apostles agreed to issue a short statement (Acts 15:28-29, CEB), which bears similarities to the Noachide law:
The Holy Spirit has led us to the decision that no burden should be placed on you other than these essentials: refuse food offered to idols, blood, the meat from strangled animals, and sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid such things. Farewell.
[Many conservatives may argue, predictably, that being transgender or non-binary is inherently considered “sexually immoral”; yet it is telling that these same pastors do not place the same sort of burdens and barriers before cisgender heterosexual new believers who have a history of divorce. One can be cisgender, straight, monogamous, and still sexually immoral. Conversely, it is wholly possible that a trans person may be in what conservatives consider a faithful “heterosexual” marriage. For that matter, if he demands a burden of holiness on the day of baptism, why wouldn’t MacArthur require rich persons to “Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22, CEB)? Like some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5), many Evangelical Christians reject those who are too foreign to them — all in the name of biblical orthodoxy and commitment to holiness.]
(For more on this topic, I encourage you to read Acts 10 and Acts 8:26-40 and meditate on the texts. What would the apostles do if they met a non-binary or trans person whose heart is open to God?)
When holiness and orthodoxy subvert Christian witness
The United States has historically been the most religious nation on Earth outside the Islamic world. In the 1970s, nine out of ten Americans identified themselves as Christian. Now the figure is 64 percent, according to the Pew Research estimate (2020). So-called “religious nones” now account for 30 percent of the U.S. population, and at this rate, Pew predicts that by 2070, maybe only one out of three Americans will profess to be Christian.
The top three reasons are:
Behavior of believers
As in the days of Jesus’ life on Earth, people are increasingly alienated from God because of the barriers erected by religious leaders and because of obvious hypocrisy among them. He was critical of this two millennia ago. Indeed, he got flak for hanging out with “sinners” while reserving his choice words for the Pharisees and Sadducees who were so sure of their own holiness and orthodoxy.
Head beliefs and heart faith
Many Christians obsess with orthodoxy above all, but even with the best of orthodoxy, it's never perfect. Our beliefs are based on fragments of revelations interpreted by fallible men, further filtered through the canonization process, translations, and countless interpretations by preachers, teachers, and theologians.
Evangelicals oft like to say their faith is not religion but relationship. We can have a relationship without knowing everything. When was the last time you had a relationship with someone and you had a perfect, complete, infallible knowledge of who they are?
As an autistic kid, I was a veritable religion geek. Comparative religion became one of my special interests. I’ve spent hours at libraries and bookstores perusing books on many different faith traditions and I was fascinated by them.
Because of this, I became Christian head first. I was drawn to churches that emphasized their doctrines. I studied and read a lot about the beliefs of the churches. But I felt an insurmountable barrier between my brain and my soul.
Beliefs can be intellectual exercises. Faith is something deeper.
One could have faith without having to know and understand systematic theology at a postgraduate level. Indeed, the greatest faith is found among those who don’t (see Luke 7:9).
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
Then he called a little child over to sit among the disciples, and said, “I assure you that if you don't turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:1-3, CEB.
This week’s Willow Letter has gotten very long, even though it has been edited twice and cut some extraneous sentences. This is not an easy topic for discussion. In every church, there is always tension between grace and sanctification, and between childlike faith and a well-formed understanding of doctrines. But orthodoxy has become toxic in Christianity today, especially when it is politicized and weaponized.
He has qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not based on what is written but on the Spirit, because what is written kills, but the Spirit gives life. — 2 Corinthians 3:6, CEB.
p.s.: Here is a sermon by Pastor Paul McIlwraith of North Park Community Church, which is a “non-LGBTQ affirming” Evangelical church in London, Ontario. He presents a very balanced, Christ-centered approach.
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