Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Highly Precarious

Some scholars doubt that Paul wrote the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) because of perceived differences in style and vocabulary when compared to Paul’s other epistles. For example, they point out that the pastorals don’t use terms like “freedom,” “flesh,” “cross,” or “righteousness of God,” all of which are found in Paul’s other letters. So Paul probably didn’t write the pastorals, they say.

In responding to this contention, Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles make the following spot-on statement:
“Conclusions regarding authorship based on stylistic differences are highly precarious because the sample size is too small for definitive conclusions on the basis of word statistics alone.” (The Lion and the Lamb, p. 270)
That’s so very true. But unfortunately, when it comes time for these authors to explain why everyone knows that Paul didn’t write Hebrews, they start making arguments that sound an awful lot like those “highly precarious” ones they criticize:
“First, the language of the book [of Hebrews] is different from Paul’s in his letters. These differences extend beyond its vocabulary and style also to the book’s imagery and theological motifs, such as the high priesthood of Christ.” (pp. 289–90)
Now, you might point out that the authors are careful to avoid a double standard here; because they note that the differences in Hebrews aren’t just differences in vocabulary and style, but also differences in imagery and theological motifs. Fair enough. But at the same time, that doesn’t strike me as an overly valuable distinction. How else do you discern an author’s distinctive imagery and theological emphases if not by the words he uses?

For example, I mentioned above that the “righteousness of God” is a term that isn’t found in the pastoral epistles. Now in one sense, you could describe the “righteousness of God” as simply a vocabulary phrase. But you could just as easily describe it as an important theological motif – one that features prominently in Romans, and yet doesn’t show up in the pastorals. Does this suggest that the author of Romans is not the author of the pastorals? No. And by the same token, the distinctive theological motifs of Hebrews are not formidable reasons to doubt that Paul wrote it.

So in discussions of authorship, I’m skeptical about the value of distinguishing between “vocabulary” and “theological motif.” Yet even if that were a valuable distinction, why should the logic that was used with respect to distinctive style and vocabulary not also equally apply with respect to distinctive theology? Like they said above, the sample size is too small. But it’s just as small whenever we’re talking about imagery and theological motifs as when we’re talking about vocabulary and style. We’re dealing with a tiny collection of personal letters here. Paul didn’t write a systematic theology, and there’s no reason to think that he exhausted all of his theological knowledge in the 13 letters that bear his name.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Church Clothes

It seems to me that it’s popular now to go to church dressed casually. And this is even justified with certain theological sentiments: “God isn’t impressed with fancy clothes,” “It’s the heart that he really cares about,” etc. And those things are certainly true. God’s not impressed with fancy clothes, and it’s the heart that he really cares about. But what if those things are more related than we often think? What if our clothes say something about our heart? Now obviously, this is not a hill that I’m willing to die on, but I do think it’s something that’s worth talking about.

The question that I would pose is this: How would you dress if you had an opportunity to meet with the president? My guess is that you would dress nicely, and for good reason. We dress nicely for the occasions that we deem important. So why wouldn’t we dress nicely for Lord’s day worship? The president would be justified in wondering why you’re dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. Would God not be justified in wondering the same?

I haven’t had many discussions or debates about this issue, but I imagine that here someone might challenge the comparison. Isn’t the comparison invalid? Isn’t it inappropriate to compare the president with the God who sees and knows all?

Well, no. Not really. The comparison is an entirely valid one in light of texts like Malachi 1:8.
“When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts.”
Through the mouth of the prophet, the Lord is denouncing the practice of offering physically blemished animals. And the rhetorical question that he poses is powerful: Would your governor be impressed with that? No, of course not. So why would you offer it to the Lord? And here, that line about the heart being what really counts isn’t going to fly. So on the topic of church clothes, I think it’s at least valid to ask ourselves how we would dress if we were meeting the president, and to let our answer to that question have some bearing on the way we think about dressing for corporate worship.

Of course, this isn’t to say that there’s some specific dress code that God wants all of his people to follow in corporate worship. But culturally speaking, I think we all have a perfectly good idea of what it means to dress nicely. This will obviously look different from culture to culture, but human beings have a universal tendency to regard certain kinds of attire as being fitting or unfitting for certain occasions. As a debate tactic, you might demand a specific definition of “nice” clothes, but you won’t live that way when it’s time to go to a wedding or a funeral. You know what it means to dress for an important occasion. So all I’m suggesting is, keep that in mind when you’re dressing for the most important occasion of the week.

Try as we might, I don’t think we can get away from the notion that our clothes communicate. If I were to meet the president wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I think he would be justified in assuming that I don’t have much respect for him. Even if in my heart I do have respect for him, my clothes would be saying otherwise. And if I showed up to a funeral in the same casual outfit, the family of the deceased would be justifiably offended by what my clothes were saying.

As a final disclaimer, which I want to be heard loud and clear, I would never for a moment doubt a person’s love and devotion to the Lord because he dresses casually on Sunday. In the judgment of charity, I’m perfectly willing to believe that his heart indeed is in the right place, and that he takes the Lord seriously. I just wonder why he insists on saying otherwise.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Answering Vines

Kevin DeYoung wrote “40 Questions for Christians now Waiving Rainbow Flags,” and they are very insightful. In response, Matthew Vines wrote his own set of 40 questions for conservative Christians who are still stubbornly refusing to give in on this issue. I thought it would be useful to answer some of Vines’s questions. I’m not going to answer all of them; just the ones that were of particular interest to me. And sometimes my answers will effectively cover a number of different questions. This will likely be a two-part series. Here goes.
“Do you accept that sexual orientation is not a choice?”
I don’t care for the word orientation. But I accept that same-sex attraction is not always a choice, and I’m willing to assume, in any particular instance, that it’s indeed not a choice.
“Do you accept that sexual orientation is highly resistant to attempts to change it?”
Sure, just as resistant as any sinful inclination of the heart is. I myself have sinful inclinations that are highly resistant to change.
“How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?”
Practically none. But before I say more about that, first I want to know why Vines left polyamorous individuals out of his list. Why doesn’t he care how many “meaningful” relationships I have with people who are involved in loving romantic relationships with multiple individuals? Or people who identify as neither male nor female, but something altogether different? Why is he excluding those people?

Probably the most basic reason for why I have practically no “meaningful” relationships of this sort is simply because homosexuals are rare. They’re hard to find, especially in a largely conservative place like where I live. This isn’t the only reason, or the most important one, but it’s at least one. And the few homosexuals who do live around here probably aren’t interested in having a “meaningful” relationship with me, which brings me to the next point.

I take it that Vines is assuming that if I don’t have “meaningful” relationships with LGBT individuals, then that can only be my fault. But why should that be the case? Why should the blame rest solely on me? Honestly, I don’t think any group or individual in particular is to blame here. “Meaningful” relationships between homosexuals and Bible thumpers are rare not because of the people involved, but because of the nature of the issue. It’s simply volatile. And it involves things that are highly important and cherished on both sides.

But of course, all of this really turns on what Vines intends by the word “meaningful.” I wouldn’t say that I have “meaningful” relationships (whatever that means) with homosexual individuals, but I would say that I’ve had a number of cordial relationships with them. I can think of homosexual individuals with whom I’ve cordially interacted over the years. I’ve had friendly conversations with them, I’ve joked with them, I’ve smiled and said hello to them, etc.

Now, I was never close enough with these people to talk about their sexual lifestyle; and honestly, if we ever had talked about such things, then whatever “friendship” might have been in place would have probably ended, or at least changed drastically. But why should we expect anything else? Standing on what the Bible says will often mean that certain “meaningful” relationships will become practically impossible.

Think about it. As a conservative Christian, my view says that a particular aspect of the homosexual’s life – one that’s extremely important to him, that he embraces, that he fights for in the cultural realm, that he views as essential to who he is as a person – is actually something that God abominates. And I can understand why that would be hard to abide. It’s hard to be friends with somebody who thinks that something important and dear to you is actually wicked. By contrast, it’s easy to have “meaningful” relationships with LGBT people when you don’t believe what the Bible says about homosexuality, or when you’re creatively vague about it. Anybody can do that. That’s nothing impressive.

In all honesty, this kind of question is a cheap ploy. I would never bother asking LGBT people how many “meaningful” relationships they have with Bible-believing conservative Christians who oppose homosexuality. Because in all likelihood, the answer will be, “Practically none.” And in a way, that’s okay. It’s certainly not a shocker. I wouldn’t fault them for that. It’s to be expected. And Vines is simply naive if he thinks otherwise.

On another level, I assume that behind Vines’s question is the idea that we really don’t have any right to say that homosexuality is immoral unless we know homosexuals personally. But that’s obviously absurd. I don’t have to be friends with any racists to know that racism is wrong. I don’t have to be friends with any adulterers or sexually promiscuous people to know that their actions are wrong. And I don’t have to be friends with any homosexuals to know that homosexual practice is wrong.

But that said, I’m always perfectly willing to extend my friendship to homosexuals. I’m just a tad skeptical about how “close” such friendships can realistically be.
“Do you accept that heterosexual marriage is not a realistic option for most gay people?”
For starters, I don’t think that there is any other kind of marriage than the heterosexual kind. But to answer the question: Sure. I can accept that gay people don’t want to get married to someone of the opposite sex. Of course they don’t. They’re homosexual.
“Do you accept that lifelong celibacy is the only valid option for most gay people if all same-sex relationships are sinful?”
Well, it’s not the only option. I believe that God can and does change hearts. He can change a person’s sexual desires. That isn’t to say he always will, but it’s misleading to say that celibacy is the only valid option. That assumes out of the gate that God won’t transform their desires.
“What is your answer for gay Christians who struggled for years to live out a celibacy mandate but were driven to suicidal despair in the process?”
That’s certainly a sad and severe struggle, but it seems to me that in those cases, the problems go much deeper than being sexually unfulfilled. I can’t imagine why refraining from sex would make someone suicidal. I’m not married, but I do desire to be. Yet, if for whatever reason, I had to spend the rest of my life single, I don’t see why that would ever make me want to commit suicide. So basically, my “answer” to such people would probably have little to do with their sexuality, or would at least involve trying to help them see the folly of committing suicide because of unfulfilled sexual desires.

But to turn the tables with a counter question: What is Vines’s answer for “gay Christians” who have not struggled with suicidal despair over celibacy, and have served fruitfully in conservative circles while affirming that homosexual practice is indeed contrary to God’s will?
“Do you believe that it is possible to be a Christian and support same-sex marriage in the church?”
I’m not willing to say definitively that someone is unregenerate because he supports same-sex marriage (there are different reasons one might support it), but they certainly might be unregenerate, and there’s definitely cause to wonder. I don’t believe that God is in any sense pleased with what they’re doing, and I also think I’m justified in choosing not to associate with such people. There are some people who may in fact be “brothers,” and yet we ought not associate with them (2 Thess. 3:14–15).
“Do you believe that it is possible to be a Christian and support slavery?”
And so begins a series of questions that presents slavery as a parallel to traditional views of homosexuality. A general comment that would apply to all of these questions is that, historically speaking, slavery doesn’t mean just one thing. There are different kinds. What went by the name “slavery” in the first century was not the kind of thing that Americans typically think of.

Also, what constitutes “supporting” slavery? If you tolerate something, does that mean you support it? Was Peter supporting slavery when he told servants to obey their masters with all respect? Was Paul “supporting” slavery when he told masters how they ought to treat their servants, and didn’t say anything about emancipation? Was Paul “supporting” slavery when he gently asked Philemon to free Onesimus while giving every indication that he viewed Philemon as a faithful brother?

But let’s assume that we’re talking about 19th-century American race-based slavery. In that case, I think that the answer I gave to the previous question would basically apply here as well: Just change the words “same-sex marriage” to “slavery.”
“Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?”
Well, both are serious problems, and the question is actually not an easy one to answer. Because in all honesty, I think that same-sex marriage is just a first step toward the complete abolition of marriage altogether, as it’s very hard to see where the brakes are on this whole “marriage equality” thing. To me, it makes a whole lot more sense (carnal sense, that is) to do away with marriage completely than it does to institute same-sex marriage.

As things stand right this moment, I think that slavery would be a more serious problem. But if a society gets to the point where it no longer honors marriage (which is where I think same-sex marriage has us headed fast), then it’s in big trouble; even more-so than the society that upholds slavery.
“Do you know of any Christian writers before the 20th century who acknowledged that gay people must be celibate for life due to the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships? If not, might it be fair to say that mandating celibacy for gay Christians is not a traditional position?”
These questions seem manifestly absurd to me. Does Vines honestly think that any significant number of Christians throughout history might have believed that it was morally acceptable for gay people to practice their homosexuality? This can’t be taken seriously.

But what’s interesting here is that Vines has now changed his tact. The whole point of his paralleling of homosexuality with slavery was to say, “Rejecting homosexual practice is traditional, but that shouldn’t concern us because slavery was traditional too.” But now he’s arguing that the rejection of homosexual practice is not the traditional Christian view.