We may now turn to the final component of our critique of traditionalism. We have looked at the entailments of implicit parent-child models of church authority, of the ‘de-relationalisation’ of biblical wisdom, and of the substitution of indoctrination for education.
Now, we turn to consider the danger of grossly disproportionate responses to self-designated homosexuals. In Scripture we read, “I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD” (Ezekiel 18:30).
This brings two points to the foreground, as follows.
i) Considering the Particular Case vs. Fictional Judgements & False Testimony
First, God judges ‘each one according to his ways’, which means that God judges us individual by individual, with discernment, so that the proud person who doesn’t steal is not treated like a thief who has humbled himself after just one theft.
The thief who has humbled himself after his stumble will not be treated like the arrogant person who hasn’t stolen but who has maintained an arrogant stance. God will treat the humble thief much more leniently, since he repented, whereas a mighty hand will eventually crush the ongoingly arrogant person.
That is, God judges according to the objective realities of somebody’s behaviour, not according to false testimony, nor according to fictions about them, nor according to stigmatising labels, nor according to levels of social acceptability, but according to the truth about them individually.
Fallen human judges, however, tend to prefer to read their verdicts by a standard of false testimony, fictions, labels, and social norms. Why? Because if they tried to be objective, they would have to face their own sin.
To be on the receiving end of false judgements, though, is terrible, since it is to be judged by a Kangaroo court that ‘points the finger’ or ‘scapegoats’ to legitimate self-interest. But God detests acquitting the guilty and punishing the innocent: “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty” (Exodus 23:7).
That is, those guilty of false judgement will not be acquitted, and, better to err on the side of lenience if in doubt since God will in any case see to it that the guilty person who escapes detection will not be acquitted. There is no excuse, however, for judgement that knowingly presupposes false testimony. Somebody who has ‘come out’ about homosexual desires, however, may be prematurely labelled, which is judgement by false testimony.
Abstract Rhetoric: Schism between Academic Theology & Biblical Wisdom
Third, there is even a sense in which abstract pious rhetoric that suppresses relational wisdom has come to pervade academic theology. In particular, as Thiselton reminds us, the influence of Kant and neo-Kantianism has reduced the status of biblical language to mere ‘human projection’ for some. Since the status of biblical language is undermined, it is sidelined as a source of wisdom that can shape our discourse and lives.
In fact, however, philosophical tools can be used to highlight dimensions to biblical wisdom that have often been marginalised in this way. For example, the philosopher Gadamer used Hegel’s insight into something called ‘historical dialectic’ to ground his investigation into the process of relational understanding. When this was developed, it began to look like the biblical doctrine of love. This meant that ‘love’ could be unpacked as including ‘respect for the particular horizons of the given and giving ‘other’’.
This meant that proper ‘affection’ included releasing the other from one’s own need-generated strategizing, and promoting them as who they were created to be, within the boundaries that they determine, to the extent that one is able, given the priorities and responsibilities pertaining to one’s own call. This is the opposite of labelling, stigmatisation, and ‘politeness’ disguising structures of exclusion. Relational wisdom is being suppressed beneath the Kantian call to develop the Christian tradition away from Scripture rather than towards it.Continue reading “Undermining biblical wisdom”
Abstract Rhetoric: Schism between Preaching & Counselling
First, interpreting the Bible so as to systematise it without hearing its relational wisdom tends to split Christian discourse into two – between the discourse of the pulpit and that of the counsellors.
Whilst there should be a distinction between the private specifics of counselling and the public language of preaching, the two should not be so different as to seem to belong to entirely different frameworks. I do not see such a sharp split in Scripture. Unfortunately, it is all too possible these days to attend church for decades and yet receive nothing from the pulpit that ‘strikes home’ with concrete relevance to the life issues being faced by the congregation.
One famous preacher-theologian, Gerhard Ebeling, speaks of ‘pious words which have no bearing on reality’. Elsewhere he writes, ‘we have to bring a certain measure of goodwill to the average sermon if we are not to be bored or furious, sarcastic or melancholy in our reactions’.
Recently, for example, I learned that a few centuries ago it was common knowledge in Baptist circles that genuine Christian experience in relation to guilt followed the following sequence, ‘conviction, compulsion, confession, fear, sorrow, faith’. If one felt guilty about something, one could ordinarily expect to go through a compulsion-confession-fear nexus. It was nothing to do with ‘illness’.
I also learned, however, that this kind of wisdom was largely lost through the influence of Western thinking such that, these days, not only do congregation members not know such things, but many pastors don’t know them either. If one has real issues to deal with, it seems – for example questions about homosexuality – one has to go to the counsellors in order to participate in an entirely different kind of discourse to that which normally characterises preaching, a discourse that may well give opposite advice.
From Wrong Forms of Critical Judgement to Right Forms of Critical Judgement
So then, on the basis of Jesus’ teaching, it seems to me that self-designated church ‘traditionalists’ should be trying to be self-critical before pouring judgement on any view they oppose. Conversely, they also should be trying to be self-critical before pouring judgement on the self-designated traditionalists.
When any debate polarises in the way the debate on the church and say, homosexuality, or any other divisive issue has, then it is a sure sign that both sides are ignoring Matthew 7:1-6. When this happens, there is a prevalence of pre-critical judgmentalism (the blind claiming to see), squabbling over trifles (straining out gnats and swallowing camels), self-deception (legitimising our own sinful interests), finger-pointing (evading self-criticism and categorising the other as ‘worse’), and refusing to be confronted (attacking one’s critics whatever they say).
Jesus’ response, however, by implication, is surely to call us to the opposite of these things: critical awareness through education, focusing on the most important things, rigorous self-criticism to unmask our own self-deceptions and sinful interests, refusal to scapegoat the other as a ‘worse’ category of ‘sinner’, and welcoming wise confrontations.
Jesus says, ‘once you’re doing these things then, by all means, make a judgement, because it will probably be a good one – though not to pigs and dogs!’ Matthew 7:1-6 does not align with the person who says it is wrong to make judgements of any kind, since this is usually a strategic manipulative technique in itself in order to close down or control a potentially healthy conversation. However, it does say that we should begin with self-criticism. So, I must begin with a critique of my own perspective and church tradition.
Once again, Jesus is correct!
The Choice: Self-Criticism First, or, “Pigs and Dogs”
So, it is largely an absence of self-criticism that Jesus is largely attacking in Matthew 7:1-6.
For if, in the case of ‘honour’, we lift up the other first and ourselves second, then it is the other way round with criticism. We are to criticise ourselves first, and only then can we see clearly to remove the speck from our brothers’ eye. And even if we number among the few who have gone through rigorous self-criticism, then it is still not right to pass comment on the speck in my brother’s eye in every case.
Sometimes, the ‘brother’ in question, Jesus says, is like a dog or a pig (how’s that for political correctness!). Unlike humans, dogs and pigs do not have the capacity for self-reflection, and so they do not mind returning to their vomit or to their mud-wallowing.
Further, dogs and pigs are unclean in Scripture. So then, a brother who is like a dog or a pig is unreflective about their own uncleanness. They refuse to be self-critical. Whatever you say, however wise or sacred, they turn and tear you to pieces so that you are too afraid to confront them.
So then, even if you are one of the very few who have been self-critical enough to face your own worst sins, even then you must not always share your wisdom, because some people simply cannot hear it. They have made a lifestyle out of resisting confrontation. If you even hint at a criticism they explode with anger because they have utterly refused to process guilt.
As A.C. Thiselton might put it, they have a ‘pre-disposition of readiness for conflict’. In such cases, you can forget nice words like ‘conversation’, ‘dialogue’, or ‘discussion’. You can even forget more robust terms like ‘debate’ or ‘argument’. At best, you end up in a quarrel, and at worst you get murdered. Forget all attempts to reason with such people, says Jesus.
Once again, Jesus is correct!
Two farmers were leaning against a fence staring intensely at the horizon of a field where you could just make out the sheep, and there seemed to be a problem, but they couldn’t quite see it, so one famer said to the other, “I’m going to go over there and ‘ave a proper ganda!”
A “proper ganda” in this South West England meaning is to have a closer look, to begin to see what is really going on. Propaganda, on the other hand, is precisely the opposite. It is designed to obscure, to blur and hide. And we humans are surrounded by propaganda all the time, not least in the heated culture wars of the West where Critical Theories have played their hand for decades and are now calling in the chips of chaos and disorder.Continue reading “Propaganda”
From the second chapter entitled ‘On the Negative Spirit’ of G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, he majestically dismantles the secualrized notion of “progress”, an idea that on the surface of things sounds mature but as Chesterton shows, is actually devoid of a telos, a true goal that most of human history (until the modern age) has been concerned with. In other words, modern secularism is self-referential to the point of madness and absurdity, “It has no perfection to point to” hence,
“All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission (the absence of an enduring and positive ideal [or] absence of a permanent key to virtue), good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good. To us light must be henceforward the dark thing – the thing of which we cannot speak…
… The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained the knowledge of good and evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us. A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization…”
And now we are set for the full force of Chesterton’s genius. I have rearranged the shape of the following paragraph so that it can be seen more clearly, but the order of words and ideas is exact):
“… Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk what is good.
We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.
We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid talking about what is good.
We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.
The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”
He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle for what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.”
He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”
Chesterton later calls this “unconscious shirking” (p.14), before stating: “What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man? You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself.”
Concluding his astonishing Introductory Remarks in his book Heretics, G. K. Chesterton spins a yarn:
“I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting things done. Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages [one can’t help but think this is Thomas Aquinas], is approached on the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be itself good….”
At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality.
But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light;
some because they wanted old iron;
some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil.
Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post,
some too much;
some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery;
some because they wanted to smash something.
And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, tomorrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that it all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.”
Church has always been, and is, and will always be a place of tension, dissension and conflict.
Of course, conflict isn’t all bad, some is very necessary, but all too often, conflict is done badly – the Old Adam rising to the surface, making demands (without love), speaking the truth (without love), speaking plainly (without love or wisdom) – all the pain, anger and frustration gushing out like an unstoppable Tsunami of muck!
Christians hold in tension a vast array of beliefs and preferences whilst holding to a collective Credal declaration. A lot (most) of disagreements can come down to the secondary issues and preferences, not to mention ‘historical romanticism’ about the past, or as one friend recently said, historical amnesia!
A great teacher I have leant much from once said to our class, “In life, in Christian ministry, choose the mountains you die on!” In other words, work out what is primary (die for those things); work out what is secondary (don’t die for them but learn to hold them in a creative and humble tension).
In the book Mastering Conflict and Controversy, the authors highlight six helpful points to dealing with conflict:
1. Conflict can be healthy and useful for our church. It is OK for people to differ with one another.
2. Resolutions for the sake of quick agreement are often worse than agreements that are carefully worked out over time.
3. Fair conflict management includes:
- Dealing with issues one at a time.
- If more than one issue is presented, agreeing on the order in which the issues will be addressed.
- Exploring all the dimensions of the problem(s).
- Exploring alternative solutions to the problem(s).
4. If any party is uncomfortable with the forum in which the conflict is raised, it is legitimate to request and discuss what the most appropriate forum might be.
5. Inappropriate behaviour in conflict includes, but is not limited to:
- Name calling.
- Mind reading (attributing evil motives to others).
- Inducing guilt (e.g., “Look how you’ve made me feel”).
- Rejecting, deprecating, or discrediting another person.
- Using information from confidential sources or indicating that such information exists.
6. Fair conflict always allows people who are charged with poor performance or inappropriate behaviour to:
- Know who their accusers are.
- Learn what their accusers’ concerns are.
- Respond to those who accuse.
The authors then suggest that if these “rules” can be agreed, a variety of conflicts can be worked through.
For me, the oil in the engine of all conflict must be love, wisdom and grace. The “rules” above do not cover all bases and sometimes, frankly, pastors and leadership teams deal with rude, obnoxious, immature, repressed and infantile church members. Pain can go very deep and often come out of nowhere.
Church isn’t perfect (yet), but I’d rather be in the ring fighting than outside the ring offering my tidy suggestions.