Homosexuality: the quest for grace and truth

graceIt has been several years since I’ve blogged on the topic of homosexuality, but the time seems right to make public again an essay from late December 2013 entitled “Nazarenes, let’s talk about homosexuality.” There are a couple of reasons I’ve decided to do so:

1). Since the publishing of that essay, same-sex marriage has become the law of the land in all 50 states in the U.S.

It’s apparent that churches and Christian universities are coming under increasing pressure both externally and internally to modify their longstanding view that marriage as God intended it – and as Jesus Christ re-affirmed it – is between one man and one woman, for life (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:1-11). If as an academic and member of the clergy I can encourage compassionate traditionalists who are now swimming against a very strong current, I am happy to do so. I hope as well that the irenic tone of the piece will once again give it a wide reading. The comment thread is also worth your time and gives insight into the pain Christian families have suffered around this issue, an often overlooked communal angle on a topic that usually is seen only through the lens of individualism, a lens that can give us a distorted picture.

2). I’ve had a chance to do further reading on the topic, both narrowly and in its larger context of human sexuality generally.

James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (2013) was recommended to me. However, with all due respect to Dr Brownson, I found nothing compelling there that is a game-changer in this protracted debate.

I can’t get away from the fact that nowhere does Scripture give a blessing to a union of a man with a man or a woman with a woman. Our Nazarene marriage ritual, on the other hand, begins by citing Jesus’ blessing upon the marriage of a man to a woman in Cana of Galilee, a blessing implied by his attendance at the event and his turning the water into wine (see John 2:1-12). Can we bless what Jesus did not bless? While I am sympathetic to the predicament that Brownson found himself in as a New Testament professor when his 18 year old son came out as gay, I cannot help but think that his family situation has colored his biblical interpretation.

The 2013 General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene was wise when it appointed a commission to study the question of human sexuality with an eye to reworking paragraph 37 (“Human Sexuality” ) in the Nazarene Manual. As it now reads, it gives an inordinate amount of space to the question of homosexuality, which affects about 3% of the population, and much less mention to heterosexuality, which concerns 97% of people. My hope is that their report will be the impetus for the publication by our denomination of materials that deal with the full spectrum of Christian sexual ethics, but at a level that Nazarene children coming into adolescence can understand. Meanwhile, I’ve found Beth Felker Jones’ Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Zondervan, 2015) to be an excellent primer on the topic.

Africa is affected by this discussion in that the constitution of South Africa allows for same-sex marriage. South African Nazarene Pastor Patrick Thomas has written an excellent article for Volume 1 of the Africa Journal of Wesleyan Theology, helping the church think through how to minister without biblical compromise to those who are same-sex attracted. Thomas encourages lovingly enfolding those who – due to their commitment to Christ and their same-sex attraction – are living a life of celibacy. He helps us begin to think how we can do better in an area where as a church we’ve done very poorly. (For more, see Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian).

Finally, Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, a few years ago produced an excellent video addressing homosexuality and Scripture. Only 7 minutes long, I’ve not found another just-the-facts resource that does as good a job of laying out the two options when it comes to human sexuality as taught by Scripture, our rule of faith and practice:

  1. celibacy in singleness (like Jesus), or
  2. faithfulness in marriage, i.e. one man and one woman, for life.

May God continue to grant us wisdom and a loving spirit as we engage our culture in ways that – like Jesus – are filled with both grace and truth (John 1:14).

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N.B. – This post is set not to allow for a comment thread. I am in a meeting the next several days and will not have time to moderate.

Image credit: Gabby Hillaire

Blueberry pie time

Greg_pieSometimes, you just have to take a break from theology. Blueberry pie is as good (and delicious) an excuse as any!

Baking is relaxing and scratches my creativity itch. I used to be totally nervous that I would add a little bit too much of an ingredient and ruin the whole thing. Now, I’m much more go-with-the-flow. It’s tough to mess things up irretrievably.

Maybe there’s a spiritual application there…

We come to God all nervous, thinking we’ve totally messed things up, and God says: “It’s not so bad.” Then he adds the right proportion of ingredients we needed to balance things out. The end result? Delicious.

To my regular readers…

Sorry things have been a bit quiet here at “Theology in Overalls” lately. Amy and I are only one week away from the movers coming, boxing up our belongings and shipping them to Africa Nazarene University in Nairobi. We arrive there in early August to begin our new teaching (Greg) and editing (Amy) assignments. These have been chocked-full days, especially since we also have a region-wide conference for our Nazarene educators sandwiched in-between, plus two months in the U.S. on home assignment (deputation) during June and July…good but hectic times.

On the other hand, I have been writing. Just 2 weeks ago, I sent off a short manuscript to a publisher, and should know within a few weeks whether it will be green-lighted. Topic? Ecclesiology. We’ll see…

Thanks for reading TIO. May Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shower you and yours today with the divine presence.

An address to the graduates of NTC and NTCCA

Greg_grad_NTCI was honored to deliver this address to the graduates of Nazarene Theological College (South Africa) on April 23, 2016 and the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on May 7, 2016.

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WE ARE GATHERED TODAY in this place for a celebration. During these moments together, we pause to thank the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – for his grace upon the lives of these graduates. In one way, today marks an ending, the finish line for a race that these women and men have been running, some for as long as the past 3 years. Graduates, as you cross that finish line this morning, I add my voice to the chorus of voices and say: “Congratulations! Well-done.”

Yet if today is an ending, in another more important way, it is also a beginning, or – to use the traditional word for a graduation ceremony – a commencement. It is the start of the rest of your life as those who seek to be ordained ministers, leading the flock of God in one capacity or another. At such a high and holy moment, what would our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, be pleased for us to consider?

Because this is a graduation address and not a sermon, I will not take a single biblical text and expound it. That is an essential skill for a preacher and one that your teachers have taught you well. But like a preacher often does, allow me to give you a Trinity of ideas, 3 words of advice as you either launch out in ministry or else continue in that path:

1) Defend the flock fiercely;

2) Hold your position lightly;

3) Cling to Jesus tightly. Continue reading

Work with the end in mind

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“WORK WITH THE END IN MIND”

Rev. 2:18-29

I.  INTRODUCTION

Eric, a first year college student, moved into the dormitory. Once he had arranged his things inside his room, he cut a large golden letter “V” out of paper and posted it on his door. Others often would ask what the “V” meant, but Eric never would say. When his friends went out to party, he instead spent long hours in the library. He made friends for sure, but he kept his priorities straight. The four years passed quickly, and graduation day came. The Vice Chancellor of the school introduced him as the valedictorian. Eric came to the podium, then opened up his folder. Carefully, he took out what was inside. With a huge smile on his face, he held it up a large golden “V” as his classmates burst into applause.

Eric is a good example of what Steven Covey, the leadership guru, identified as one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here it is: WORK WITH THE END IN MIND. And that’s exactly how our passage today is structured. Revelation 2:26-29 is a description of the golden letter “V,” a picture of the conqueror, the overcomer, the victor. God desires a wonderful outcome for each of us and in Jesus’ words to the church in Thyatira we find solid advice on how best to work with the end (or the goal) in mind. Allow me to paraphrase that advice as follows:

  1. Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.
  2. Avoid pitfalls.
  3. Persevere!

II. CELEBRATE AND KEEP DOING WHAT IS WORKING WELL

In Rev. 2:18, the Son of God, Christ himself – whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet like burnished bronze – congratulates the church in Thyatira.

That’s a lesson in and of itself. It seems like if you steal something or shoot somebody, you get mentioned in the news. How often, though, do we as a church celebrate the achievements of our own people? Maybe one of our children won a dance contest. Celebrate it! Or perhaps one of our brothers got a promotion at work. Can we celebrate that? There are dozens of good things, wholesome achievements that fly under the radar. Maybe we don’t know about them, or maybe we do, but do we praise God for what he is allowing us to achieve both as a church and as individuals in the church?

Jesus says in verse 19: “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” Those are high words of praise! Who at the end of their life when the believers gather for the funeral would not want that kind of praise?

“Sister so-and-so was loving and faithful.”

“Brother so-and-so served us well and didn’t quit.”

In the same way, take inventory of your life. What are you doing well? Are you a good provider, showing up at work on-time and giving your best to your employer? Then you need to tell your spouse: “Good job! Keep up the good work.” Maybe your children used to leave their toys lying around the house, to the point where they were a hazard. But now, they’re doing better. Or maybe last term they had a “D” on their report card but this time they raised it to be “B.” That’s worth celebrating. Perhaps someone at school said a very hurtful thing to your daughter, but instead of getting bitter, she prayed and God helped her forgive them. Parents, take a minute to celebrate your daughter’s forgiving heart. It will serve them well throughout life.

It’s important to identify what we’re doing well. Several times, I’ve taught a course on preaching. One student would preach and the others would have a handout where they could write comments. After the sermon, no matter how poor, we would always before suggesting improvements take time to affirm the things the preacher had done right. Perhaps they had lots of zeal when preaching. We affirmed that. Or maybe the volume was plenty high so that everyone could clearly hear what was being said. We affirmed that, too. It was important that we sincerely praised what was worthy of praise.

God looks at you, my brother, my sister, and God sees lots to praise. You are making spiritual progress! Celebrate that in yourself and celebrate that in others.

Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.

Continue reading

Church of darkness or church of light?

squeers

Mr Squeers, the evil headmaster at Dotheboys

There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.

The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.

During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.

When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.

hathaway

Madeline Bray falls for the noble Nicholas Nickleby.

But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”

Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?

Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?

Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?

well

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?

  • digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
  • combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
  • recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?

  • spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
uncle

Ralph Nickleby, self-absorbed speculator

  • silence when others mistreat minority groups  – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?

Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.

No resurrection? No Christianity

sproutI like Good Friday. There’s something about the love of God that you can’t miss when you look at the Cross.

Last week, I entitled my blog: “No Cross? No Christianity.”

But let’s imagine that Jesus had died but not risen. Would Christianity even exist?

The Apostle Paul didn’t think so. Writing to the Corinthians, he insisted:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV).

No resurrection? No Christianity.

Pondering the resurrection yields many truths. Here are a few:

1. Resurrection reminds us that “good” and “evil” are not to be confused.

People looked at the life of Jesus Christ and saw the loving goodness of God. Yet a handful of religious leaders refused to acknowledge that goodness. Instead, they called it evil and nailed it to a Cross.

God will not tolerate calling what is good, evil. That was the essential point of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (Acts 2:27b). God had vindicated Jesus, the righteous one.

Good is good and evil is evil. The resurrection is God’s warning to not confuse the two.

2. Resurrection affirms that our bodies are to be joyfully celebrated.

Gnostics taught that only spirit is pure; matter – including our bodies – is corrupt and must merely be endured. Resurrection, on the other hand, reminds us that our bodies are good creations of a good God;  they are to be celebrated! In fact, our bodies are so important that God will one day give them back to us in new-and-improved form. Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of the resurrection of all (John 5:28-29). The joys of this life are bodily joys. They will be restored in the Kingdom of Heaven.

3. Resurrection is the promise that God will one day right all wrongs.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Theologians have sometimes solved the riddle by either claiming that God is not all good or that God is not all powerful. Both of these solutions fail to satisfy because they leave out Christ, more specifically the Cross, the Empty Tomb and the Second Coming.

There is no greater example of a “bad thing” happening to a “good person” than when the religious leaders had Jesus crucified. Sometimes we forget that the story doesn’t end with the resurrection. The end of the story is the return of Christ! It is only then that the dead are raised and final judgment takes place (2 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Cor. 5:10).

The resurrection of Jesus is a past event but one that points us forward. Because Jesus lives, we too shall live. Because God through a specific resurrection righted the terrible wrong done to his Son, so we believe that God will one day through a general resurrection right the wrongs suffered by many across human history.

Summing it all up

Resurrection Sunday is indispensable to the Christian faith. No resurrection? No Christianity. Good and evil are not to be confused. Further, we celebrate our bodies as God’s good creation here on earth and – one day – his new creation in the Kingdom of Heaven. And while we mourn that evil can triumph over good in this life, the resurrection teaches us that God will one day set things straight.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed.

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Image credit: HDWYN.com

No Cross? No Christianity

11138657_10153316219233408_5909867169481489133_nSomething strange is happening to Christianity. In our accent on God wanting us to be happy, are we losing the Cross? No little loss would this be. No Cross? No Christianity.

The Apostle Paul knew the temptation of re-tooling the message to soft-pedal the shame of death on a Roman gibbet. A classic example is his discourse in Athens (Acts 17). Instead of talking about the death of Jesus and what it meant, he spoke in philosophical terms of the “unknown God.” It wasn’t a total failure. Luke reports that “some of the people became followers of Paul and believed” (17:34). Yet this was hardly the rousing success he had envisioned.

In Acts 18, Paul travels to Corinth and changed his strategy. Gone was the debate over Epicurean and Stoic categories. In its place stood Golgotha:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, NIV; bold added).

When we reflect on the Cross, what vital lessons about Christian faith come into focus?

1. The Cross symbolizes the death of self-centered living. The weed of “me first” thinking sprouts in the shallow soil of individualism but cannot grow in the healthy garden of interdependence. Jesus went to the Cross because he understood that our destiny depended on it. Romans 5:8 (NIV) teaches: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus understood that to claim his prerogatives as the Son of God would have meant prioritizing himself above us. When a companion drew his sword to protect Jesus at the moment of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him:

Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matt. 26:53, NIV)

When marriage grows difficult, when “what’s in it for me?” appears a legitimate question, the Cross offers an eloquent rebuttal, a testimony that “it’s not about me” nor should it be.

2.  The Cross demonstrates that God’s love is stronger than humanity’s hate. Sometimes we mistakenly attribute hate to God when we say that the Cross was a manifestation of God’s wrath against sin. But the only wrath that day at Calvary was human anger obvious in the mocking tone of the religious leaders:

Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God! (Matt. 27:40b, NIV).

Instead, Paul extols the love of God “that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). And what was his  definitive proof of divine love? Divine sacrifice. God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all…” (8:32). To overcome hate, God did not resist it but – in a kind of cosmic jujitsu – with love, pinned hatred to the ground.

3. The Cross insists that suffering has meaning when it’s endured for a greater good. Athletes working out in the gym surround themselves with motivational posters with sayings like:

No pain, no gain.

What the athlete stands to win – a trophy, a laurel wreath, a medal – makes the agony of training worthwhile. John the Baptist was a living “no pain, no gain” sign for Jesus. When the Lord came for his baptism, John announced: “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NIV). It was a reminder to Jesus of his mission, that because of his atoning death just 3 years later, people would be reconciled to God, that forgiveness of sins and cleansing from our moral pollution were possible (Hebrews 13:12). That positive outcome was worth all the trials Jesus would endure.

4. The Christ of the Cross demands our highest allegiance. Peter – who himself suffered martyrdom on a upside-down cross – urged his readers to follow in the steps of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 2:21). Ralph Hudson’s hymn captures this thought:

I’ll live for him who died for me!

Recent events in our world prove that the words of the hymn can be involuntarily transposed into a higher key: “I’ll die for him who died for me.” Would such a sacrifice be possible if Christ had not taken the lead, laying down his life for us? 1 John 3:16 (NIV) affirms:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

These are some of the lessons that we learn at the foot of the Cross. Christianity without a Cross would be incomprehensible. No Cross? No Christianity. This Good Friday, let us together thank God for the Cross.