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Wielding a Serrated Edge with Care

Lately, I have found myself thinking a lot more about what Christian charity in debate should look like, and in particular, my encounter with O'Donovan's book on the gay issue has sharpened these thoughts a bit.
For the past few years, I’ve become less and less comfortable with the whole “Serrated Edge” approach to debate-—the idea that we should imitate the Biblical prophets in mocking and railing against those believers who are hypocrites, or are undermining the faith, whomever they may be. Aside from the question of whether or not that style of prophetic condemnations could in principle be normative for the ordinary believer, there is a clear practical objection to our imitating them. We don’t know who’s a hypocrite, and who’s undermining the faith. We may think we have a pretty good idea; in some cases, we may be almost dead certain, but we will always have to face the fact of our limited knowledge and understanding, the fact that it may in fact be ourselves who are the hypocrites. The Biblical prophets (and Jesus, and the Apostles) spoke as specially called emissaries of God, and so could denounce God’s enemies with some confidence and precision. We cannot, and so we’d be much wiser to hold our fire.

I’ve also come to see the dangerous threads of the American hatred of authority in the “Serrated Edge” approach. If you think that anyone can act just like Jesus or Jeremiah, then any old believer or self-ordained minister can take it upon himself to denounce and mock the bishops and God-ordained leaders of the Church, whenever he thinks they’re wrong. Now, there can be Pharisees and Caiphases who need to be called to account, but something seems wrong with this anti-hierarchical free-for-all that the “Serrated Edge” approach advocates.

Anyway, all that to say that I’ve been doing some reflecting on what Christian charity really means for us, particularly in light of my reflections on the gay controversy (see my serial reviews of O’Donovan on this) and I wanted to throw three observations out there.

1) Hearing out the other side
First, being charitable means being willing to respect, listen to, and (in some cases) even submit to others even on the points with which you disagree with them. Now, this really should be quite obvious; after all, how is it any virtue to respect and listen to others on the points with which you already agree with them? That’s really almost just a form of patting yourself on the back--“Ah, he says the same thing I think--good for him...I like this guy.” But I know people--pastors and teachers--who think that doing this makes them charitable. “Oh yes, I try to be charitable and balanced. I don’t just chuck everything that guy says in the rubbish bin--only the stuff he says that is wrong. But he says other stuff that is right, with which I fully agree, and I’m perfectly willing to give him credit for that.”
Now, admittedly, to say this is actually a big step forward for many in the Reformed tradition, for whom it is customary to chuck everything someone says in the bin if you disagree with them on anything of importance. But I should hope we can go further than this in cultivating the virtue of charity.

Charity means saying, “Ooh, I like what this guy is saying here...but I’m really not happy with where he goes in chapters four and five. However, even there, I have to give him credit for his careful, Biblical argumentation, and for his earnestness, and I really need to read back through those chapters carefully to see if maybe I have something I need to learn.” Charity means saying, “I’m pretty sure this is wrong, but I need to keep listening to see if it’s really me who’s wrong.” For many evangelicals and Reformed folk, saying this, in many contexts, sounds like compromise, sounds like being willing to get wobbly about the gospel. It can be, for sure, but it doesn’t have to be. (O’Donovan has a fabulous quote on this, that I’ll be sharing shortly in my review of Church in Crisis.)

2) Keeping in mind the original audience
Second, charity means being willing to read someone else within their own context, in light of their own audience, rather than insisting that they address you and your concerns directly. Again, this should be fairly obvious, and is hardly a matter of distinctively Christian charity--it’s just common sense. But it doesn’t seem all that common. Too often, we judge Christians writing in other backgrounds by the standards we would apply to someone writing with a background identical to ours. We have to be willing to ask, “What audience is this author trying to address? What problems and concerns does that particular audience have? Given those particular problems and concerns, how might this author want to address them? What would the arguments in this book mean or convey to someone in that audience?” Only after we have asked these questions thoroughly can we begin the difficult process of translation—“what form would this message take if addressed to me? How does it apply? Do we agree fundamentally despite the necessary differences of approach?”

Very often, Christians seem unable or unwilling to go to the work of this kind of translation, with the result that Bible-thumpers here in the US lambast British evangelicals for “giving up the gospel” or “abandoning Scripture,” even when those same British evangelicals are known to their own audiences as stalwart defenders of the gospel and the authority of Scripture. And I don’t just mean, “Well, everyone’s so liberal over here, that you have to understand that what looks liberal to Americans looks conservative to Brits.” It’s not that simple. It’s a matter of differences in culture, history, church organization, priorities within the faith, etc. I’m getting very tired of American evangelical leaders who know nothing about the history or culture of the Church of England, about its polity, about its struggles and triumphs, proceeding to mock any Church of England leader who isn’t willing to say exactly the same thing about homosexuality as they would say, at the same time and in the same way as they would say it. There might be legitimate complaints, but it is hard to find them amidst the endless heap of absurd ones that keep getting chucked across the pond.

3) Owning other branches of the Church
Finally, I’ve realized something crucially important about catholicity and church unity: we already are all one body--it’s not up to us to decide whether and how much we will be. That is to say, we can’t decide whether we want to be connected to or associated with Christians who are doing all kinds of wacky stuff and are cooking up heretical ideas and are ordaining homosexuals—inasmuch as we are all belong to the Church of Christ, all share in one baptism, we already are connected to and associated with each other. So our job is not to decide who we’re connected to in Christ, but how to respond and relate to those to whom we are already connected to.
At times it seems as if we operate with something of an Old Covenant purity mentality, constantly fearing contamination. Evangelicals seem to think that their purity may be contaminated if they come too close to Christians who are involved in various errors. Do we dare attend a Roman Catholic worship service, or will we be contaminated by idolatry? Do we dare attend a liberal worship service, or will we be contaminated by their unbelief? Do we dare attend a service led by a woman? Or by a homosexual?! I know many who would do the Protestant equivalent of crossing themselves at the very suggestion. Why is this?

Why is it that whenever a denomination takes some dangerous new step toward apostasy, all the surrounding denominations (and many of the constituent churches) trip over one another trying to distance themselves? I noticed that when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in favor of homosexuality this summer, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod put out a statement saying (roughly), “Please don’t get confused—we have nothing to do with them. We’ve always said they were bad.” Somehow I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he prayed “that they may all be one, as we are one.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there aren’t very important practical questions to be addressed here, and that there is not an important place for church discipline to declare when Christians have cut themselves off from Christ, and an important place for believers to acknowledge and respond to that reality. However, in Protestantism’s current condition of denominational mayhem and lack of real authority, there is no clear-cut way of making such judgments. Indeed, what does it mean to say that such-and-such denomination by their action so-and-so has made themselves to no longer be a Christian church, and we don’t need to treat any of them as such anymore? We make those kinds of pronouncements all the time, and I don’t really see how we are in a position to. Until God acts decisively in judgment upon his unfaithful children, and they are utterly scattered and destroyed, we must remember that they are still his children, of whom He has “kept seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” and we must relate to them as such. And this means owning them, rather than denying them. I would like to have seen the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod say, “Yes, our Christian brothers have said this. We value them and pray for them as Christian brothers, but we believe they are in serious error here. We repent for this error on their behalf, and hope that they will repent also.”
In other words, we are not pure Christians trying to avoid being contaminated by apostates. We are already contaminated by our own sins and theirs—because we are all part of the Body of Christ, we too must own responsibility for their errors, and repent as well. If ordaining women is a sin for the Church, I share the guilt by virtue of being a member of the Church, not by attending a service led by a woman.

Again, we may still need to make practical judgments about how to relate to and associate with errant Christians, but it must be always from this starting point—we do not get to choose whether or not we will be connected with them, because we already are, like it or not.

6 comments:

Can I get some elaboration on the quote below? Because you're making me feel tingly and fundamentalist all over after reading that last section of your most recent blog post.

"I would like to have seen the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod say, “Yes, our Christian brothers have said this. We value them and pray for them as Christian brothers, but we believe they are in serious error here. We repent for this error on their behalf, and hope that they will repent also.”
In other words, we are not pure Christians trying to avoid being contaminated by apostates. We are already contaminated by our own sins and theirs—because we are all part of the Body of Christ, we too must own responsibility for their errors, and repent as well. If ordaining women is a sin for the Church, I share the guilt by virtue of being a member of the Church, not by attending a service led by a woman."

So are we corrupted/guilty by these sins, or not? Since you mentioned Jesus, is that sort of language up there Christ-like, or not? You're definitely crossing lines I'm not willing to cross.

September 17, 2009 at 2:52 PM  

First, I am not suggesting that guilt or responsibility is a simple binary variable. That is to say, it's not as if you either are guilty, or not guilty, and those are the only two possibilities. You can be more or less guilty, more or less responsible for something.

In saying, "We need to own some responsibility, accept some guilt, for what Christians in other churches do" I'm not saying that it's just the same thing as if we had ordained homosexuals at our own churches. There's still a distinction...but it's not between "purity" and "contamination"; it may be between "impurity" and "aggravated impurity." But, I don't think that thinking of these things in terms of moral contamination is the most helpful way for us to approach it. The question we need to ask ourselves is not "are we contaminating ourselves by fellowshipping with such-and-such church?" but "will fellowshipping with such-and-such church be the best way of serving God and fellow Christians?" We should recognize ourselves as already being in the company of the guilty, and try to discern how to live there, rather than pretending to be in the company of the righteous, and sniping at the guilty.

I'm surprised that you find this odd, because I learned the whole notion of corporate, covenantal guilt in Moscow.

As far as this being Christlike, well, I think it's precisely that. Christ is the ultimate example of taking his people's sin upon himself, of not insisting upon his own innocence, but of identifying with sinners, taking their guilt upon himself, and serving them to the end.

We also see close parallels of what I'm talking about in the OT prophets. We see plenty of examples of righteous prophets like Jeremiah and Daniel repent to God on behalf of their disobedient people. Instead of saying "O Lord, save me, for I have been pure, but judge all the other Israelites, who have spurned you," they say, "O Lord, we are all under your just judgment; bring us to repentance, forgive us, and restore us."

September 18, 2009 at 4:25 PM  

How does excommunication play into this?

September 20, 2009 at 12:58 AM  

Donny, after we excommunicate people, then we never have to be nice to them again. We get to treat them exactly like all the other pagans; carefully avoid them, mock them, and thank God we're not like them. You know. Standard behavior.

Wait a minute. I just used a sarcastic rebuke to argue against sarcastic rebukes. Does that mean I...
[poof!][Bradley vanishes into a puff of contradictory vapor]

September 20, 2009 at 6:13 AM  

Hey Donny,
Excommunication is definitely relevant--as I said in the original post:
"I’m not saying there aren’t very important practical questions to be addressed here, and that there is not an important place for church discipline to declare when Christians have cut themselves off from Christ, and an important place for believers to acknowledge and respond to that reality."

However, I say right after that, "However, in Protestantism’s current condition of denominational mayhem and lack of real authority, there is no clear-cut way of making such judgments."
Is the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in a position to excommunicate the ELCA? Is Pastor Wilson in a position to excommunicate the Episcopal Church (I use him as an example because he rebuked people for attending their worship services, which is part of what got me thinking about this whole issue)?
No, they're not, because the Protestant Church is a mess that way.
And even if they were, you don't excommunicate entire branches of the Church--you excommunicate particular people, for particular actions.

Certain leaders in the Church are empowered to exercise discipline, and they have a duty before God to fulfill this office with great care. But even excommunication is to be done in charity, praying that it may be effective in calling the sinner to repentance.

What I'm objecting to is the Protestant tendency for everyone to take it upon themselves to pronounce excommunications on people. You can't do that. If no one has excommunicated some Episcopal priest who you think should have been excommunicated, you can't pretend he is excommunicated. You have to understand that he is a member of the Body of Christ still, and you can't dissociate yourself entirely from him.

September 20, 2009 at 8:38 PM  

Donny:
Pastor Wilson said this for the confession of sin this morning...this is the general notion I'm getting at, though he's speaking primarily of the State and not the Church.
"Our Father and God, You have established Your Church as a royal priesthood in this world, and so we intercede for the nations of men now, confessing on their behalf so that the grace of Your forgiveness will soon be extended to them all.

Father in heaven, we confess to You that our nation is torn apart by political and cultural strife, and that we have wandered far away from the way of forgiveness that You have called us to. On the one hand, we have multitudes who believe that they have no need to seek forgiveness, when in fact they have a desperate need to do so. On the other, we have multitudes who are in no frame of mind to extend forgiveness, even if it were to be sought. We confess this to You as a great national evil.

We know, Father, that if we in the Church regard iniquity in our own midst, or in our own hearts, this prayer will be ineffectual. And so, Father, we confess to You now that we are slow to forgive our fellow Christians, when we ought to be quick and eager to forgive. We are too proud to seek forgiveness from our brothers and sisters that we have wronged. Father, we confess this sin to You, and ask Your Spirit to move in such a way that we are equipped to deal with this great sin."

September 20, 2009 at 10:02 PM  

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