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.