Loud voices are calling on Christians to speak with powerful conviction and clear biblical direction and address the social and moral life of our nation. The call was splashed across the front page and two full inner pages of last Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch. It factored in the recent national election with a mobilization of so-called ‘conservative’ church-goers. What motivated them was not a matter of major national policy, it was not the priorities of the national budget, it was not relations of the United States to the wider world. It was the supposed threat of same-sex couples being able to be legally married. Now these same passionate religious forces are weighing in on the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. What are we to make of this?
Thirty years ago, Dean Kelley, authored a book titled Why Conservative Churches are Growing. Kelley later noted that the title was not his. It was his publishers. He wanted to speak instead of strict churches, not “conservative” ones. Since that book appeared, these strict churches have continued to grow and what used to be called “mainline” churches, the churches that have the buildings that still dominate older down-town areas—like this one—are shrinking in numbers. “Strict” churches, as Kelley and others sociologists of religion point out, are churches see themselves as radically different from the prevailing culture. They either want to avoid its contamination or else they want to “Christianize” it on the basis of what they see as very clear moral claims and direction. However, when these churches refer to “morality” they mean strict obedience to God-given rules that are set out in the Bible.
But if we look beneath this vocal concern about “morality” we can see something else. It’s a subconscious anxiety about losing the security and certainty that these churches and their interpretation of morality provide for their members. There is always a human itching for life to be locked-down, to freeze our assumptions about how the world is put together. But this hunger for certainty, this longing for black and white answers and rules, has special appeal when the world seems to be threatened by wide-spread change and uncertainty. It surfaces with force when the world seems to be falling apart. That’s pretty much a description of what many feel is our experience today.
These strict churches insist that even though the world may change, the Bible provides a clear path for reaching heaven after we die and for shaping our actions while we are alive. The Bible contains God’s clear commandments, and behind them is God’s ultimate judgment on our actions. As some put it, “God did not give us the 10 Suggestions!”
I believe this is a major factor shaping church life in America today. It’s unhelpful to talk about this (as it is so often the case) as “conservative” churches and pastors and theologians pitted against “liberal” ones. The difference is found between churches and pastors and laypeople, on the one hand, that believe God gives clear, unchanging biblical guidance for life. On the other hand are those who agree that God is the basis for guiding our life in the world, but argue that discerning God’s will is not confined to the Bible. They do agree that the Bible is our central resource for understanding Christian morality. At the same time they recognize that scripture itself is shaped by historical forces, and even more so, our reading of it. They agree that we need to take seriously our call to servanthood, our committed response to God’s guidance, but they do not see this as a simplistic moralism expressed in obedience to absolute rules. Something deeper is a stake.
Here Paul can help us. We need to remember that Paul grew up as a devout Bible scholar and committed servant of God. He was a Pharisee who studied in Jerusalem under the famous scholar named Gamaliel. Now Pharisees get a bad press among Christians, but we need to remember that they were Jews who made a self-conscious decision to devote their lives to studying the scriptures and to consciously shape their lives by what they found there. There were some Pharisees who approached this goal in a way that parallels persons who today would call themselves “Bible-believing” Christians. These are people who generate a great deal of energy and certainty and a carefully defined life-style. For example, some of these Pharisees argued that you could move a chair on the Sabbath as long as you picked it up. You couldn’t drag it across the floor. Why? Because many houses had dirt floors, and to drag a chair on the Sabbath could mean you were plowing. This is an approach to morality and religious commitment that Jesus consistently repudiated. At the same time, other Pharisees were more flexible and self-qualified in understanding God’s expectations. Jesus paralleled them but in a radical way, stressing flexibility and open-endedness. For example, he did not condemn the woman taken in the very act of adultery or condone her stoning to death even though the Bible calls for this. And unlike other rabbis, he assumed women were worthy of religious instruction and bothered with children and Gentiles.
Now the story of Paul is the story of a deeply committed, zealous, Bible-believing Pharisee whose moral sense was converted from a strict obedience to God centered in the laws of the Torah to a grateful and humble response to God’s amazing and unmerited grace. Before his conversion, life in God for Paul centered in the Torah, that is, in God’s clear commands that require our obedience. It was his commitment to this life, his rigorous obedience to what he believed were the claims of the Bible, that led him to persecute a heretical sect that had sprung up around a false Messiah. Then, on the road to Damascus, he was shaken to the foundations of his being to discover that he had it all wrong. He thought he was persecuting God’s enemies, but the truth was the he was God’s enemy. He was actually was inflicting harm on God by inflicting harm on the community of Jesus. The discovery overwhelmed him and changed everything. We can see some of the effects of this transformation in today’s reading from the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome.
On the Damascus Road, Paul discovered something is more fundamental than mere “morality.” Most deeply, we need to be in harmony with God’s compassionate heart, not simply obey divine commandments. God wants us to embody Christ-like grace and openness, not a rigid moral purity. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” he writes to the Roman Christians. In other words, shape your embodied life in this world as an offering, an offering from your very heart. This is “spiritual worship,” he says. This is the way to please God.
Responding to God’s guidance lies deeper than obeying rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. It’s a matter of being transformed from within, of having our understanding enriched, of discovering what God calls for. Living in Christ means those deeply touched by Jesus have the possibility of seeing beneath the assumptions of the world—even its moral traditions. J. B. Phillips translates verse 2 like this:
Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the Plan of God for you is good, meets all His demands, and moves toward the goal of true maturity.
Note the assumptions: Let God re-mould you from within, let the impact of God move you toward the goal of true maturity. Or as the NRSV translates the Greek: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” What’s needed is discernment in a process of inner growth toward greater spiritual maturity. Obeying God entails discovering what faithful response means, rather than assuming we already have it all figured out.
This process, this growth, explains why Christians came to realize that they should not own slaves—even though in Paul’s time some Christians did. That’s why some Christians in this generation have come to realize that women can and should have positions of leadership in the church, even though Paul himself seems to say the opposite. What’s going on is getting beneath the traditional or the unquestioned, the black and white or seemingly obvious to “discern what is the will of God,” to use Paul’s words. The living Spirit of Jesus in the church gives us the capacity to grow into a wider or deepened or qualified understanding of God’s claims on us. More fundamental than the guidance of biblical commandments is being shaped by the Holy Spirit of Jesus. We this implicit in Paul’s closing words in this chapter:
Does this mean that public laws, popular morality, and biblical commandments are unimportant? No. They have value in shaping the world. But for Paul, moral response to God most deeply involves the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is why today, over against the strident moralism of Rod Parsley and Pat Robertson, some Christians are arguing that the church’s response to homosexuality needs careful review and even transformation. Are they right? To answer the question calls for discernment on the part of all and perhaps, if it is God’s will, a growing into a qualified understanding.
Paul goes on to say to the Romans, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” A few verses later he writes, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” In other words, for Christian action, being humble has priority over being “right.” God is always more than we can ever know; more than our convictions. So, be careful. Don’t claim to be wiser than you are. As Paul points out to the Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then [beyond the reach of this life] we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully.”
Does this mean we cannot know God and God’s will at all? Does it mean we can have no standards? Certainly not. But it does imply that at their best, our affirmations and convictions inevitably reflect human limits. Moral conviction and response need to rest on humility. We need to recognize that we always stand under God. We need to guard against smug certainty and absolutistic assumptions—like the people Reinhold Niebuhr criticizes who seem to know the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell. We need to take to heart the words of Oliver Cromwell, the fierce Calvinist Lord Protector of England, who said to the leadership of the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you, in the compassion of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” This, in my view, is one of the greatest shortcomings of strict churches. So often they lack self-qualification. So often they fail to engage in self-criticism. So often they lack humility. On the contrary, they tend toward being absolutistic, self-righteous and smug. No ‘ifs, ands or buts.” As a bumper-sticker puts it: “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it.”
The issue of homosexuality is threatening to tear churches apart. American Methodists and Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Northern Baptists are going through the same kind of struggles as the ELCA to which I belong. But when we think of the time and energy and emotion being poured into this issue, where are our priorities? What should be of major moral concern for us? What should trouble us? Am I saying the issue should be of no concern? No. But I am saying we need to put things in perspective. What did Jesus have to say about homosexuality? Nothing. What did he have to say about sexuality at all? Only one thing, namely, that under no circumstances should there be any divorce. If that is what he taught, why is it that we find divorced people not only in the mainstream churches but even in the strict ones?
We need to ask where our moral priorities are placed. How many times does Jesus talk about the dangers of prosperity, of being well-off? How many times does Jesus champion the needs of the poor and the dispossessed? How many times does Jesus welcome the disreputable and those on the margins of society and call upon his followers to do so? How many times does he warn against violence and recommend peace? If this is what troubled him, why aren’t the churches more passionate about these issues? We need to discern what matters deeply to the heart of God. We need to get our moral priorities straight. We need to recognize God’s calling to the churches to stand against agencies of dehumanization in the world, against all that undermines life’s essential goodness. But before the churches speak, they need to be clear about what has priority for the Bible, and most of all, for Jesus.
Deeper than divine commandments is divine wisdom and guidance. Deeper than Law is the impact of God’s grace on our hearts. Enriching the moral wisdom of the past are the lessons the Spirit of Jesus is teaching us today. As the banner outside this building puts it: “God is still speaking.” That’s what responding to God’s guidance entails. Amen