Saturday, February 28, 2009

Judgment and Judgmentalism

I am preparing a Sunday School lesson on the Seventh Chapter of Matthew, the last part of the Sermon on the Mount. The first five verses of this chapter tell us to "judge not lest we be judged." We hear about getting logs out of our own eyes before we try to take specks out of others' eyes.

But then, in the very next verse, Jesus tells us not to cast pearls before swine, not to give what is sacred to dogs. Unless you take Him extraordinarily literally, He is not talking about literal canines and hogs. He is telling us how to deal with those people who are, for some reason, dogs and pigs.

In other words, He is asking us to exercise some judgment and to evaluate the people with whom we come into contact. Interesting.

Is it contradictory? Does Jesus tell us not to judge and then immediately tell us to judge?

No. There is a big difference. In the former, He warns us against judging the worthiness of others. That is God's to do. We have enough problems in our own lives - enough logs in our own eyes - to keep ourselves busy. In the latter, He is talking about exercising judgment to discriminate concerning the readiness of others to hear what we have to say.

Worthiness vs. readiness. Very different concepts. One we are able to tell; the other is way out of our league.

We have to exercise judgment - if we don't, we will give money to every cold caller who telephones. If we don't, we will marry the wrong person, take the wrong job, etc....

And when we deal with other people, there are times to disciminate, to exercise judgment. When looking for the right opportunity to "cast our pearls," to share our spiritual sacred things with others, we don't just grab every person we see by the neck and force our testimony down their throats. If we do, we will have very little success and will do a whole lot of damage to the cause of Christ. Hopefully, what we do is cultivate relationships with others so that they will be ready to hear and receive our "pearls." The time for that becomes a judgment call.

I am afraid that many confuse the two. I am afraid that some are so afraid of "judging" in a specks/logs sense that they fail to exercise the judgment God calls them to employ. On the other hand, I am afraid that some are so anxious to find the dogs and the swine that they are judging left and right, looking for and calling out specks, logs, stains, sins, and failures wherever they think they see them. And they tend to do it loudly.

Jesus tells us not to judge as God judges, but to exercise judgment arising out of the common sense He has given us.

Don't get the two confused. Our language is finite - we have a limited number of words. But "judging" in a Matthew 7:1-5 sense simply cannot mean the same things as exercising "judgment," making judgment calls, discriminating rightly, and using our brains.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Broadway, the Executive Committee, and the Homosexuality Debate

This week, I went to Nashville to attend the meeting of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. I went as a representative of my church, Broadway Baptist of Fort Worth, both because I am church attorney and because I am a member of the church's denominational relations committee. I went along with our interim pastor and our minister of congregational care.

The occasion was the Executive Committee's consideration of a motion made on the floor of last summer's Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis to consider Broadway no longer to be "in friendly cooperation" with the SBC. This is our denomination's version of an ouster motion, a disfellowshiping of a church. The motion, while it did not state a reason, was ostensibly based on the press coverage our church received last year over an internal issue that arose concerning the publication of our church pictorial directory and how one or two gay couples in the church should be pictured, if at all.

I attended the meeting as a representative of the church. For that reason, and because I am counsel to the church, I will not in this blog reveal any confidences that were not stated plainly before the Committee. I do not mean to intimate that there are deep secrets that we kept hidden but merely am respecting the attorney-client privilege.

This blog is not written as a representative of Broadway. It is my own. Please do not complain to the church, the pastor, or anybody but me when you don't like what I write. I expect to offend pretty much everybody who reads this blog, because I am going to try to set out what I believe are the good arguments on both sides of the homosexuality debate among Christians, and particularly among Baptist Christians. I am not going to try to resolve the debate in this blog - if my own personal view comes through here, that will be an accident. I therefore fully expect that virtually all of you will be offended when I set forth the argument with which you disagree and when I don't clearly come down in support of your side of the debate.

The SBC Constitutional Issue
According to the most recent amendment to the Southern Baptist Convention constitution, a church is not in friendly cooperation with the SBC if it acts to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior. I do not believe Broadway has so acted. Such actions would include things like open statements of affirmation of homosexual behavior or publications of such statements. Such acts could include things like performance of a marriage or marriage-like ceremony between persons of the same gender. Such acts could arguably include ordination of homosexuals. Broadway has done none of those things. In Broadway's case, the charge against it apparently is Broadway's choice not to exclude homosexuals from membership in the church. Some Baptists believe that the extension of church membership - or the choice not to withdraw it - is such a prohibited "act." I disagree. Others believe that allowing homosexual members to serve on committees within the church is an affirming act. Broadway hopes all of its members will serve on committees, so to me, committee service is just that - service - and not a leadership role that affirms homosexual behavior.

In short, at Broadway, church membership is for those baptized by immersion who profess Christ as Lord and choose to join Broadway in its following of Christ. Broadway has never taken the position that the church, in extending membership to any person, is affirming all of that person's behavior - no matter what that behavior is. There are Baptists who disagree with that conclusion.

This week's meeting was gracious. It was good to be a room where a Christlike sense of reconciliation was apparent. The Executive Committee took no action against Broadway, voting instead to continue conversation with the church.

There have been a number of internet press reports, blogs, and emails about the meeting. Responses have been predictable. I have seen the blogs condemning Broadway out of hand for failing to rid itself of the sinners. I have seen the articles laughing at the fact that this is a serious issue for a church. I have gotten the emails calling the whole matter a "ridiculous conversation." I have heard the various comments.

I want to address, carefully, the homosexuality debate, not because I want to end it, but because I hope to focus it. I think there are some bad arguments on both sides, and I think the discussion is far more productive if it is focused on the good arguments.

Orientation vs. behavior
Initially, I don't think I am going out on a limb to say that orientation is irrelevant to the debate over whether homosexual behavior is right or wrong. I believe that most of us - if not all of us - are tempted ("oriented," if you will) toward one sexual sin or another. I know that all of us are tempted to different sins. The temptation does not make the sin, and being tempted does not make one guilty of the sin. Jesus Himself was tempted and yet was perfect.

Similarly, I don't think the question of the origin of homosexuality gets us very far. Whether there is a "gene" or not means little to me. I doubt seriously that very many people choose homosexuality - given the stigmas, the societal problems, and the familial issues involved, I cannot believe that many people voluntarily choose that orientation. Some may, but clearly many do not. Whether they "became gay" because of an environmental factor or some sort of abuse or were "born gay" seems irrelevant to me.

But, the fact that someone did not choose the orientation does not end the discussion. I believe that everyone chooses his/her behavior. Paul talks a lot in the New Testament about how our natures lead us in certain directions and how the cause of Christ requires us to put aside our natures. If this were not so, we would all fall prey to our sexual temptations, for we all are "made that way."

Finally, I am not persuaded by the claim that "a loving God would not have made me this way if it were wrong." We do not live in Eden; our world is fallen. Children are born every day with all sorts of problems that are surely not in God's ideal plan. People are killed by drunk drivers. Disease strikes. Storms attack. Foreign armies invade. Recession paralyzes. If God does not stop all of that, I don't see why it would be expected that he would stop one particular natural phenomenon, even if - left unchecked - it has "wrong" consequences.

"Homosexuality is unnatural" is unpersuasive to me.
Setting aside the question of the origin of the temptation, I think it is too easy for those who are not tempted by homosexual behavior and who do not struggle with same-sex attraction to claim that those who are oriented in that way are "unnatural." Just because I don't understand something does not make it any less natural than the things I do understand. We have to face the fact that homosexual activity is stigmatized - it is simply so "gross" to some people that they cannot think of it rationally, and they often lash out against it. That reflects, I suspect, their upbringing as much as anything else, but it is not a persuasive argument against homosexual behavior.

"People who are against homosexuality are bigots" is a hasty generalization.
Yes, some of them are, but that does not mean their argument is wrong. In fact, some homosexuals are bigots as well. Many people who support gay rights are unfairly biased against conservatives, evangelicals, or clergy; that does not make their argument right or wrong. And the fact is, many who take the position that homosexual behavior is sin nevertheless are loving and kind to homosexuals. Many who would deny church membership on sincere grounds nonetheless would fight to keep the church doors open to homosexuals and to extend ministry to them in countless ways.

Singling homosexual behavior out of the biblical list of sins makes little sense.
Again, the upbringing of some and the incomprehensibility of same-sex attraction to the heterosexual may explain the tendency to list homosexual behavior as the worst of all sins, but I do not see any biblical support for that claim. Where homosexual behavior is listed in the New Testament, it is included among a laundry list of other things - including gossip, unkindness, stealing, and heterosexual immorality.

"Jesus never talked about homosexuality" is an unpersuasive argument.
This is a favorite of the progressive in today's churches - "If this were so important, Jesus would have talked about it."

In the first place, I think Jesus did talk about it. While we have no citation of his negatively attacking homosexuality, we do find Jesus favorably discussing sexuality, and it is always in the context of monogomous heterosexuality. In context, the holding up of heterosexual monogomy as the ideal serves to leave all other forms of sexual expression as unworthy.

In the second place, there are any number of things that we are quite sure Jesus opposed without having a direct scripture on point. For example, there is no scripture citing Jesus' views on child abuse, gang rape, bestiality, check kiting, or selling heroin to minors - but I doubt many biblical scholars would take issue with you if you asserted that Jesus was and is opposed to all of those things based on what He did say and what we know about Him.

Third, this assertion is an argument from silence that is unsupportable. At the end of the gospel of John, the apostle tells us that there are many things that Jesus said and did that are not written in scripture. We are told that it would take more books than the world can hold to encapsulate everything about Jesus. That tells me that we do not know everything He said. Yes, it is true that we have no recorded quotations from Jesus directly condemning homosexual behavior; that does not mean He never said it.

Finally, there are many facets of Christianity that arise from parts of the Bible other than the gospels. If we limit ourselves just to the words of Christ, we lose the concepts of justification by faith, the fruit of the Spirit, almost everything we know about the church, and countless other basics of our doctrine. If God is behind the Bible, and we believe in the oneness of the trinity, then in fact Jesus speaks to us from the whole of the New Testament, if not the whole Bible.

"Paul did not understand" is an unconvincing position.
There are several variants of this one: "Paul had no idea of modern science;" "Paul was a bigot;" or "Paul was pushing an agenda." All of these arguments, it seems to me, are unacceptable from the Christian point of view because they place our personal understanding and interpretation above the words and teachings of scripture, and this is a slippery slope that allows us to delete anything from the Bible that we don't like. Unlike Paul's admonitions about women that we can, using careful exigesis, determine were meant for certain times and cultures, his statements about homosexual behavior are not so limited. The confining statements about women have to be taken in context with Paul's many other statements about women - and Jesus' example - that are empowering and that describe women in places of worship leadership. There are no similar pro-homosexual statements in Paul's writing to lead us to believe that his condemnations of it are limited in time, place, or culture.

So what does the Bible say?
For the purpose of this blog, I will not deal with the Old Testament passages. I know that the holiness code and the kosher laws are in large part irrelevant to many Christians today, and I know there are distinctions to be drawn regarding the Sodom and Gamorrah passage. I do not concede their irrelevance, but I will pass on debating them here.

The New Testament passages are clearer. And here is where the real debate lies. On one hand, those who feel that homosexual behavior is sinful point to passages that state simply that homosexual behavior is outside the will of God. On the other hand are those who feel that the New Testament leaves some room for a committed homosexual relationship (analogous to marriage), who say that in these passages Paul is condemning not all homosexual behavior but rather certain "offending" behaviors that he saw around him in first century Roman society - primarily pederasty, child abuse, and extreme promiscuity. The "homosexual offenders" condemned in 1 Corinthians 6, then, are not all practicers of homosexual behavior but rather those who abuse it, so this argument goes. In turn, this argument says the "unnatural" acts that have been taken in exchange for the truth of God as described in Romans 1 are the excessive, promiscuous, and abusive examples of homosexual behavior.

Without concluding here that either position is right or wrong, I can respect both arguments because they both represent an honest attempt to deal with scripture. They admit that the authority for the debate is the Bible. That is where the debate should lie in the church.

The question of repentance presupposes conviction of sin.
I believe absolutely that church members - indeed all Christians - should repent of sin. My own experience tells me, however, that it is impossible to repent of something that you do not recognize as sin. As I have matured as a Christian, I have come to recognize that things in my life that I had done or said consistently are in fact sinful. In New Testament terms, the Holy Spirit convicted me of those sins. When I came to that realization, I repented. But before I repented of those sins, I was still a Christian. I was acting in ways that were sinful, but I did not recognize it. I was not unrepentant because I did not believe in repentance; I was unrepentant because I had not come to understand the actions/thoughts/statements as sin.

If a homosexual believes his/her behavior is sin and does not repent, I believe that is wrong. If a homosexual does not believe his/her action is sin, I do not see how or why we should expect repentance.

I believe that the church can and must help all of its members strive for and achieve a closer relationship with the Holy Spirit, for it is the Spirit who convicts of sin. If that relationship with the Spirit of God is pursued, we will all become aware of additional areas where we are falling short of His will for us, and we will repent as we discover those areas. If homosexual behavior is in fact sin, then the Holy Spirit will reveal that truth to the homosexual Christian who pursues relationship with the Spirit, and repentance will necessarily follow.

Philip said to Jesus "show us the Father." Jesus' response was "Philip, have you been this long with me and still do not understand?" That is true of us as well... we can walk with Christ a long time and fail to understand much of what He is teaching us.

If all church members were fully repentant, there would have been no need for most of Paul's writings in the New Testament. In fact, Paul wrote to churches - people who were Christian - to help enlighten them about what the Holy Spirit desired for their lives. He led them to repent of sins they did not recognize in their own Christian lives.

So what is my point?
I am neither unsure of where I come down on the "Is it sin?" question nor ashamed of my position, but I choose not to discuss my personal convictions right now. I am simply making a different point here. In light of the discussion my church is having with the SBC, I am today more concerned with the point that there can be a reasonable debate on the issue between two sides who both recognize the authority of scripture. We have to admit that we could be wrong. We have to respect the one with whom we disagree.

How can church pick this one issue as the touchstone for withdrawing membership? Are we next going to excommunicate the gossips, the mean, the greedy, the abusive, the lazy, the gluttonous? I know many who do not believe that tithing is required; I know others who believe that failure to tithe is a sin. Is one side of that debate going to disfellowship the other?

I know many of you think that scripture is absolutely clear on this point. I know many others of you think that the nature of God makes the decision on this question easy. I hope you will both respect the other. I hope the church can find a place for both of you. I hope that we can keep this debate from hindering us from the important work that God has for us as a church.

I have several gay friends. I hope they understand that they can have Christian friends who believe that their behavior is wrong but who love them anyway.

There is a compelling argument that says that churches have to draw the line, that when the church recognizes something as sin, it must confront the sin and deny membership to the one openly practicing that sin. The argument goes something like this: "If a car thief wanted to join the church and proclaimed that he was going to continue to steal cars, you wouldn't let him join your church." In answer to that, all I can say is that it is apples and oranges. Nobody makes a sincere argument that thieving is not condemned by scripture, so there is no real attempt to claim that the car thief is reasonably acting within the will of God when he continues to steal. Perhaps more important, any student of rhetoric and debate knows that the foolish extreme can always be argued as a counter to a basic point. The homosexuality debate is real, and there are real Christians with real love of scripture on both sides of it. Some of them disagree with me.

A church like mine that celebrates diversity has to be big enough for both sides. You cannot be "diverse" only in a politically correct sense of including oppressed minorities; you must also be diverse in the sense of welcoming the views of those on both sides of touchy debates. I think that is proper. I am glad my church does not take a position that affirms, approves, or endorses the behavior. I am also glad my church does not take a position that cuts off membership for those who accept the behavior.

My church is big enough for both sides.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Choice

A single mother with six children has just given birth to octuplets. She now faces the daunting task of raising fourteen children by herself. Raised without a father, with (according to Matt Lauer) no visible means of support, these children may be destined to a life of poverty or worse. Or maybe not. Maybe friends, the community, churches, or others will rise up and help.

The reason I know about this is that it has been on the news every day for the last two weeks. The Today Show has repeatedly discussed the ethical ramifications of this mother's choice. The question of whether or not the fertility clinic and the doctor who implanted the embryos into the mother should be sanctioned in some way has been discussed by various experts. The mother herself has been interviewed, and the question "why" has been asked of her over and over again.

I get that. It is news, it is questionable judgment, and people are interested in the answers.

What I also see, however, is a great inconsistency. We live in an age of "reproductive choice," where the privacy of the mother is the touchstone for reproductive rights.

The media, by and large, is supportive of a mother's choice when the issue is termination of pregnancy. The reason I know this is the complete lack of coverage of any woman who chooses to have an abortion today. There have been no news stories concerning a woman's choice to abort a baby this month. The Today Show has done no ethical analysis of that choice. The ethics of abortion clinics and doctors who choose to end fetal life are not front page news.

My point here is not to pick a scab and dive headlong into the abortion debate. I understand both sides of it. I am mildly pro-life (as that term is used in the political sphere), as I have said on this blog before. But that is not what I am talking about right now.

My point now is how striking it is that when a mother's choice is for multiple births, it seems to be fair game to attack her judgment, her doctor, her intelligence, and - indeed - her choice. That is inconsistent with the constant philosophy we have heard spouted since Roe v. Wade, if not earlier: "This is a matter of privacy. This is a mother's choice."

I realize that there is a difference between government interference in a private decision and with media criticism of it. I am not suggesting they are the same. My criticism here is limited to the media. Abortion is legal now, just like this woman's decision to have octuplets was legal. Only one of those legal choices is getting the scrutiny, the criticism, the cry for sanctions. If the other legal choice were questioned in this way, the screams would be long and loud.

That kind of inconsistency deserves notice.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Fragility

In the last week, I have discovered that two of my law school classmates, both in their early to mid 40s, have died. One died in a car accident, the other from a heart attack.

In the last week, I have learned that the wife of a friend my age - again early 40s - lies in critical condition after a brain aneurysm.

In the last two weeks, I have learned that a co-worker has stage four colon cancer that has metastasized to her liver and lungs.

Not all fragility is health-related, of course.

I count among my very best friends three whose marriages - two of which had lasted over two decades - recently dissolved when my friends were in their forties, when the "hardest times" were supposedly past. They are all in different stages of recovery.

My church has suffered greatly over the past two years. In terms of finances, leadership, direction, national affiliation, and fellowship, we are fragile right now.

Any teenager can tell you that hearts are fragile. Friendships are fragile.

Too often, dreams are fragile.

A co-worker lost her job a couple of weeks ago. I did not work closely enough with her to know if she deserved this fate or not. I do know that she came to work one day having no idea how fragile her immediate future was. She found out that morning about 9:30.

Fragility is not always bad. Fine china is fragile. Our archives and libraries are filled with fragile documents. Today, good friends celebrate the birth of their first grandchild. Healthy, but fragile, a new life enters the world.

What is too easy is to retreat into a fortress, to protect our fragile lives - and the fragile new life that comes among us - as best we can. And when I hear about my law school friends and my friend's sick wife and my divorced friend and my co-workers, I understand that need. We want to just make it all go away.

But yet, fragility is what allows the butterfly to fly and the rose to bloom. It is what makes the voice of my youngest so profound. It is the very fragility of life that makes living it such a celebration.

We can think that we desire the new baby to miss all of this "stuff." Of course, we know that we really want her to find life "more abundantly" - that means we want her to grab everything that life has to offer her. And those of us who know the Way to that life of abundance will work to help her find the Way for herself... Even if the road is rocky.

You know the proverb - a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not why ships are made.

Easy for me to say - I still have my job, my health, my marriage, and my life... for this moment anyway.

I am recognizing anew that what I have is fragile. This is nothing shocking, of course. The ancient preacher tells us that the flower fades and the grass withers. So much of what we do and have is a chasing of the wind.

Join me in praying for my sick friends and my hurting friends. Protect your fragility where you can without destroying the celebration. On days like today, when I am tempted to run to a fortress, help me remember the words of the poet: "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying. And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying."

I know that the proverb and the poem are right. Tomorrow, I will see strength, purpose, endurance, power. Today, I am seeing the fragility.

My favorite quotation begins with the line. "Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future." You don't need hope on the days you are feeling the strength and understanding the purpose of everything. Hope is for the day you see the fragility.

So today, I have fragility and hope. I think I can live with that.