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A Church Historians look at the Same Sex Marriage Debate.

March 28, 2013

I am currently writing a dissertation on 19th century American abolitionists, so I spend half of my days in the 19th century and the other half in the 21st century.  This situation provides an interesting vantage point from which to observe the current day debate over same sex marriage.  When I am reading, researching and writing about 19th century American social reformers I have to be conscious that the Bible operated as a moral T-square in American society.  Moral decisions had to be addressed with the Bible in mind.  Today, the Bible seems to have a diminished bearing on the current debate over same sex marriage.  In fact, there seems to have been a 180 degree turn in how Americans receive the Bible in public discourse.  I know this is not a great revelation but it can be helpful to see how this gets worked out.  A caveat, this is a very complicated topic and this blog is only making a few observations. If this post gets you interested, read people like Robert Gagnon, Dan Via, Peter Gomes, Gene Robinson and the books mentioned in the post.

In 19th century America, the issue of slavery divided the nation much the way same sex marriage divides the nation today.  Unfortunately, those who opposed slavery and those who supported it, used the Bible to buttress their arguments.  Yet, as historian Mark Noll demonstrated in his book The Civil War: A Theological Crisis, the pro-slavery proponents had an easier case to make than their adversaries.  According to Noll, a simple reading of the Bible seemed to support slavery.  If someone just read the passages in the Bible that discussed slavery, without evaluating the cultural contexts of slavery in the times of Moses or the Apostle Paul, a person could use the Bible to defend slavery.  Also, most Americans read the Bible with an innate cultural racism which did not view African Americans as equal to whites.  This prevented many Americans from seeing that 19th century chattel slavery was nothing like slavery in the Bible.

On the other hand, the opponents of slavery had to do some sophisticated hermeneutics such as the work done by Bible commentator and abolitionist Albert Barnes, in his 1858 book, An inquiry into the Scriptural views of Slavery. In many ways, people like Barnes had a harder time explaining how the Bible opposed slavery.  Barnes had to demonstrate that the Bible moved in a redemptive hermeneutical trajectory gradually creating situations pertaining to slavery that mitigated the severity of slavery and set a time bomb of sorts that would lead to the abolition of slavery.   In the end, Noll believes that most Americans had difficulty wrapping their minds around how Barnes used the Bible to oppose slavery.  Therefore most Americans accepted the more simplistic reading and did not view the Bible as an anti-slavery document.  According to Noll, it took the theologians U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman to help Americans resolve the slavery issue.  In the 21st century, most Christians would agree with how Barnes dealt with the Bible and slavery, which is evident in William Webb’s book, Slavery, Women and Homosexuals.

Today, as the nation debates same sex marriage the biblical debate has done a 180 degree turn since the 19th century.  Fewer people in the 21st century value a simple, straight forward reading of the Bible when it comes to this issue, unless it suits their needs.  A simple reading of the Bible from the Old Testament through the New Testament condemns homosexuality. In many ways, like the pro-slavery theologians, those who do not support same sex marriage have a simpler argument to make from scripture.  I am not implying that people who read the Bible and oppose same sex marriage all read it in a simplistic way or with blinders like 19th century readers.  Many people who oppose same sex marriage based on the Bible can do so with a sophisticated nuanced perspective.

Unlike in the 19th century though, a vast majority of Americans are not as interested in this argument in the public square.  In fact, people who support same sex marriage and attempt to use the Bible to defend their position have to use far more complicated interpretations.  These interpretations make moves that Barnes and his allies would have never made.  Pro-homosexual theologians may argue that the Bible is not inerrant and that the biblical writers did not know about such things as sexual orientation.  Other interpretations argue that the Bible does not address homosexuality as it is practiced today. Another move that would have been unthinkable in the 19th century is to argue that the Bible is just wrong.  For other people, the idea that love, defined as not telling someone they are wrong trumps anything written in the Bible.   Some pro-homosexual advocates will use simple readings of the text to defend their point when it suits them.  For instance they will argue that Leviticus condemns eating shell fish and homosexuality but Christians eat shell fish now.  They may argue that in the Old Testament, polygamy was practiced and Christians do not agree with that anymore, so the definition of a biblical marriage is ambiguous at best.

In this current debate, the Bible does not appear to have the same authority in the public square unless one argues that the Bible is sexually repressive and regressive.  To make a biblical argument for LGBTQ one needs to demonstrate that the Bible is wrong or has been read wrong or side step it all together.  Yet, Americans in favor of LGBTQ are more receptive to a complicated explanation of the Bible on this issue than Americans were in the 19th century when they debated slavery.   This causes me to ponder what is the difference between 1858 and 2013?  How do Americans in the 21st century make moral decisions?    These are two huge questions which I do not plan to answer exhaustively, but I would like to put forth a few ideas.

There are many differences between the 19th and 21st century as it pertains to how Americans make moral decisions.  First, the vast majority of Americans no longer see the Bible as the T-square to measure morality.  Unlike 19th century Americans, a large percentage of Americans do not believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  The last 150 years has seen the emergence of seismic shifts in Biblical scholarship and cultural morality.  Second, people are more relativistic and more influenced by their own experience than an objective norm like the Bible. Third, Americans are more empathetic of LGBTQ people than 19th century Americans were of African Americans. Fourth, Americans today are in love with libertarian freedom and rights.  Fifth, sex has changed over the last fifty years.  Sex has become a right.

If Americans are not using the Bible as a norming norm for moral decisions what are they using? This question gets to the heart of why there has been a 180 degree turn in how arguments are made in the public square. Where in the 19th century both sides of an issue had to use the Bible to make their case, today people us their experience. People are more inclined to follow their feelings as a guide than an objective source.  This is due in part to postmodern critique of objective truths.  On the same sex issue, many advocates contend that marriage is a human right, but no one explains where human rights come from?  If something is a right who says?   While Christians may argue over the rights he chose to defend, even a deist like Jefferson argued that rights come from the creator.  Since the latter half of the 20th century Americans have used the Bible less and less as a moral barometer. From a historic perspective, Americans are moving into uncharted territory.  I am not arguing that America was ever a Christian nation, but there was a time that you at least had to debate a moral issue with the Bible in focus, today you can side step it or say it is just wrong.Image


Why is it so much easier to love God with our minds than it is to love him with our hearts and souls and our nieghbors as our selves?

October 20, 2012

Luke 10: 25-28

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.

Lately, I have been musing over the issue of pride in the Christian walk.  St Augustine, Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold Niebuhr all believed that original sin was pride and self interest.  In fact, if these men are correct and I believe they are, all sin can be boiled down to pride and self-interest.  I dare you to dissect a sin; any sin and you will find pride and self-interest at the root staring you in the face.  For the Christian, salvation and sanctification is about destroying pride and self-interest so that we can love God with all of our hearts, minds and souls and our neighbors as ourselves.  But because our pride and self-interest are so embedded in our DNA even when we try to do these things our pride rears its ugly head.

For instance, when we spend a lot of time studying the Bible, theology, church history and doctrine, as I do, pride can emerge.  We can become so concerned with having our theological I’s dotted and T’s crossed that it leads to pride when we think we have accomplished this.  There is nothing wrong with studying these things and doctrine is extremely important but if these exercises do not create a changed life we are missing the point of Christianity.  If we read our Bibles daily so that it makes our consciences feel good but it does not change us, we are missing the point of Christianity and justification by faith.  We are making Christianity about works.  Personally, I am a confessional Christian who believes the Westminster Confession of Faith is an accurate interpretation of the Bible and I believe it is valuable to know this creed, but if “knowing” this creed only feeds my mind, I am missing the point. Unfortunately, it seems so much easier to love God with all of our minds than it is to love him with all our hearts and souls and it seems way easier to love God with all of our minds than it is to love our neighbors as ourselves.   But why is that?

First, loving God with our minds does not cost us as much as loving God with all of our hearts or loving our neighbor’s as ourselves.  Loving God with our minds requires that we spend time learning about God.  It is a one-way conversation.  We soak up information.  We do not have to be personal with God. Second, knowledge puffs up and can create pride, which Paul well knew (1 Corinthians chapter 8:1-3).  And as I have already stated we are good with pride. Third, loving God with all of our hearts and souls means loving God at the seat of our beings which is far more radical than merely loving God with our minds intellectually.  To love God with all of our hearts and souls means getting personal with God and with our sinful condition. Fourth the reason we run from loving God with all of our hearts and souls is because it is messy.  It will lead us to reevaluate everything in our lives including how we care for our fellow man. It will cause a radical shift in our priorities.  In essence, it forces us to face our pride and self interest square in the face. Fifth, loving our neighbors as ourselves screams that we are not the center of the universe and that other people’s interests is more important than our own. That is another attack on our pride.

I fear that one reason orthodox Christianity in America is so unappealing to many is because we focus so much on our intellectual love of God that we fail to focus enough attention on loving him with all of our hearts and souls or our neighbors.  Don’t get me wrong I all for upholding orthodox doctrine, but that orthodox doctrine should spill out into the world.  If we proclaim to believe in the deity of Christ, how does that impact how we love God and our fellow man?  If we proclaim to believe in the literal bodily resurrection of Christ, how does that impact how we love God and our fellow man? If we believe in the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God, how does that impact how we love God and our fellow man?

Why Christians should support Malala Yousufzai and the fight for women’s equality in Pakistan

October 14, 2012

As we watch this story from Pakistan unfold it is alarming that in 2012 we are seeing women and teenage girls shot and abused because they want the right to have an education. My job has put me in contact with many Muslim women some of which are from Pakistan so I am particularly sensitive to this story.


I have been ruminating over why Christians should support Malala Yousufzai and the women of Pakistan.  The list of reasons could fill tomes but I would like to put forward just three. 


First, as Christians who are aware of our history, we know first hand what happens when a religion is controlled by zealots on the right or left in regards to women’s issues. For centuries, Christians in the name of religious purity used God’s word, the Bible to justify degrading and suppressing women’s rights. Then, starting around the 1960’s, feminists reacting to this oppression sought to rework readings of the Bible to defend ideas that went well beyond what is taught in the Bible.  Today many of the issues the church is fighting about concerning sexuality and gender stem from the oppression and then the reaction of feminists over the last fifty years.


Second, while zealots have controlled Christianity over the issue of women’s rights, Christianity has a history of fighting for women’s rights.   From the very beginning of the faith, Resurrection Day when Jesus Christ defeated death, God orchestrated it so that women would be the first witnesses of this miraculous event.  In a period when women were not even allowed to give testimony in courts, God chose women as the chief witnesses for the greatest event in the history of humanity.   Due to reaction of centuries of oppression many feminist scholars have castigated the New Testament for how women are depicted, but in reality the New Testament challenged Greco-Roman culture and its treatment of women.  Today, Christians should be challenging how cultures treat women based on God’s word and not enlightenment rationalism or ideas about libertarian free will.


Third, Christians spend millions of dollars each year sending missionaries to the Middle East and to other Islamic nations to live out the Great Commission and present the gospel. This is certainty biblical because the church was commanded to go to the nations and proclaim the gospel, but why not go one step further in presenting Christianity to Muslim nations.  Instead of just teaching people the gospel as means of getting “Saved” why not demonstrate to millions of Islamic women how the resurrection of Jesus Christ changes how we live.  Why not demonstrate that God chose to demonstrate his love for women by having them witness the resurrection of his son because in the resurrection he was over turning the world system that degraded women and the poor.  In our world the poor and women are the most oppressed people groups on earth.  During the incarnation, God came as a poor person and defeated death and then had women witness this event to proclaim it to the world. If that does not say that God cares about the women and the poor I don’t know what does. The gospel is not just about getting saved but it is about God renewing his creation and ushering in the kingdom of God, a kingdom that brings down the oppressor, the prideful and haughty and elevates the poor, the righteous and those who seek justice.

Precious Puritans

October 2, 2012

Why we white heirs to the Puritans need to listen to this critique?

This video  is creating a stir in the blogosphere and for good reason.  Propaganda raises some important questions and attacks a sacred cow for white evangelicals, he attacks our beloved Puritans. I have followed the discussion on the blogs and I really appreciate Thabiti Anyabwile’s blog entry on the Gospel Coalition web site  I am not going to repeat his arguments you can read that for yourself, but I would like to enter into this discussion.

I must preface that I appreciate Puritan theology but I agree with Propaganda in this song. I think we white evangelicals have to take this hit dished out by Propaganda.  Our history of race relations is awful and we need to just own up to that.  I think we white evangelicals need to remember the line, “it must be nice not to have to ponder race.”  The reality is, we whites, in America do not have to consider race and we never have.  Before we run to defend our precious Puritans we must remember that they had the same privilege we have and they were blind to the sin of racism and in many ways American evangelicals still wrestle with this blindness.  Perhaps if we listen to Propaganda and are disconcerted we are really concerned about ourselves because we know that we suffer from the same blinders as our precious Puritans.

To better understand Propaganda we whites need to stop thinking like whites.  We need to try to put ourselves in the shoes of our black brothers.  We must attempt to hear the quotes of Puritans in our churches as they hear it.  When they hear Puritan after Puritan and abolitionists after abolitionist quoted in our churches they also hear the sound the whips and chains that many Puritans condoned.  What is so alarming is that we would be hard pressed to find ANY evangelical forefather that truly was not a racist on some level and that includes the abolitionists. I know some people will throw Samuel Hopkins at me and I agree he was a pioneer but he still had racist blinders.

I don’t think we need to throw the Puritans under the bus, but I do think we white evangelicals need to be mindful that our black brothers do not have the same church history story as we do. We need to be mindful when we hold up Jonathan Edwards or Samuel Hopkins that they could not see the sin of racism. We need to listen to this song and ponder its meaning and begin to reevaluate our heroes and reevaluate if we heirs of the Puritans have learned anything from our racist past.

Lutherans Find Common with Catholics on Obama Mandate – Tim Townsend | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners

February 25, 2012

Lutherans Find Common with Catholics on Obama Mandate – Tim Townsend | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners.


This article  is further proof that the more social conservatives feel threatened in this country the more they are going to close ranks. Whether the threat is real or perceived does not necessarily make a difference.  Since the the1960s social conservatives from various religions have teamed up to respond to a perceived liberal social agenda. While this may be hard for 21st century secular people to wrap their minds around, all of the social conservatives mentioned in this article do not have the same view on contraception, but they all believe that the Bible is the word of God.  It is God’s revelation to man and what God says in this book God means.  These groups have fought over how to interpret the revelation but the one thing they do agree on is that the revelation comes from God.  That is why the battles over interpreting it are so passionate.  Granted the religions mentioned in this article have had debates over which books belong in God’s revelation.  But when it comes to the books of the Old Testament (Torah for the Jews) they are in agreement over about 85% of the books.  Regardless of this, the people in this article all believe that morality as laid out in those Old Testament books are meant to be observed regardless of cultural shifts in morality over time. It should also be noted that for the Christians in this article the commands in the Old Testament are to be understood through the lens of the New Testament.  But this latest round of debates over contraception have to be seen in light of what social conservatives have believed to be an assault on their morals since the 1960s.   The social conservatives have felt threatened since the passing of Roe v Wade, the passing of no fault divorce to the latest debates over legalizing same sex marriage.  In fact, while this article does not mention the Muslims they too see their morality threatened by liberal social agendas.  A person would never know this from watching Fox News but when Muslims, conservative Catholics, evangelicals and orthodox Jews converse on moral issues they soon realize that they have way more in common than the media would let on.

Some secular people may read this article and play the Nietzsche card and say that the people in this article are only concerned because they are losing control over moral decisions in American culture.  If that is your response you are missing the point on two accounts.  First, you cannot play the Nietzsche card without shooting yourself with your own gun.  If you say someone else disagrees with your position because they are fearful of losing power, aren’t you saying that because you want your position to win the fight?  If your position wins, doesn’t that give your group power over the moral direction of the nation?  So the power position argument is moot, everyone is trying to fight for his or her position and if their position wins yes they will have some power over the direction of the debate.  Second, if we really want to understand the social conservatives in this article not just the ones who use the social conservative argument to win elections like Newt Gingrich, we have to realize that they take their holy book VERY seriously.  You can belittle it like Bill Maher but you will not understand this group until you understand that they take their moral cues not from what society deems acceptable now, but what God has commanded from all eternity.  You can even call them hypocrites and some of them are, but plenty actually live out their beliefs, like the Rabbi I grew up down the block from who had 11 children. We will never get along in a pluralistic society if the Bill Maher’s of the world just label the social conservatives as morons and the social conservatives brand the liberals as social degenerates.  This only makes things worse.  And if the liberals continue in the Bill Maher school of rhetoric they may be pushing some people who disagree on a lot into a coalition over the things they do agree on.  Finally, to understand the social conservatives in this article, one must realize they believe they have an authority source for their position while the liberals have their feelings or the latest cultural norms our society has deemed acceptable.

Have a little faith and How Reformed Theology proves that all religions are not the same

January 30, 2012

Whether it is Oprah, a college religion professor or a Hallmark Channel movie, our culture likes the idea that all religions are equal and that they are essentially doing the same thing.  This weekend, I watched a Hallmark Channel movie, Have a little faith: a true story, which attempts to demonstrate this point through a moving story of inter-faith activity.  The movie is based a book by Mitch Albon (author of Tuesdays with Morrie) which tells the story of interfaith activities in Detroit and the life stories of Albon’s rabbi and an inner-city pastor who went from gang banger to man of the cloth.  The movie is encouraging in that it shows how people from various faith traditions can work together for the common good.  In addition, Have a little Faith, portrays Albons’s Rabbi as a delightful man who selflessly serves his congregation for fifty years, helping his congregants get through all of life’s storms by providing them with a sympathetic ear and wisdom of the ages.  It is next to impossible not to fall in love with this man.

But unfortunately, this movie attempts to promote the idea that all religions are essentially the same.  There is a scene where Albon’s character is in a grocery store with his Rabbi and the Rabbi greets one his friends. The Rabbi then tells Albon that this woman is a very religious Hindu who he greatly respects.  Albon then asked the Rabbi, “Why are you so high on this woman’s religion, shouldn’t you as a Jew be promoting your own religion?”  The Rabbi responds, that essentially religions are like trees, some are oaks, some are maples some are apple trees, but in the end they all have the same goal.

The Rabbi in this movie might have met our culture’s standards of being a good Jew, but after reading the prophets of Jeremiah and Isaiah with a Covenant theology perspective, I am not sure if, he met God’s standards of being a good Jew.  All throughout the Old Testament, the prophets are chastising the Jews for chasing after foreign gods.  Jeremiah in the second chapter, using marital imagery told the Jews that they spread their legs before idols like whores.  The whole narrative of the Old Testament is about how God called a people to be separate and refrain from living like their neighbors by worshipping idols but instead to be a nation of priests that led people to THE GOD.  Then because the Jews refused to submit to God, God exiled them from the land of Israel.  Based on that criterion, Judaism and Hinduism are not the same, one worships THE GOD and another worships gods like Israel’s neighbors in the Biblical period.

Ironically Albon put a glaring contradiction in his book and screenplay.  In another part of the movie Albon’s character is talking with the gangbanger turned pastor and told the pastor that because the pastor now runs a church in the intercity, works with the homeless and tries to get drug addicts and drug dealers out of that life style, the pastor had made up for his evil deeds.  Then the pastor (played by Lawrence Fishburne) responded with a response that articulates the heart of the gospel,  “you can’t repay God for what he has done for you.”  My reformed theology meter went off and my inside voice said, EXACTLY!!!  And I thought, based on the Pauline epistles and the book of Hebrews; the pastor understood the heart of Judaism better than the Rabbi. The pastor got to the heart of the Old Testament and New Testament; it’s all about faith not works. I am fairly certain that Albon did not pick up on this, but the pastor’s response completely contradicted the philosophy of the Rabbi.  The pastor simply stated that we can not make ourselves right with God, yet every religion in including many forms of Christianity (some Catholics, and some Arminians) teach that man must make himself right with God by performing good deeds.

Whether the pastor was reformed or not is impossible to tell from the movie, but his response parrots the theology of the protestant reformers.  Martin Luther and the protestant reformers turned that idea of salvation by works on its ear.  Calvin masterfully married, Paul’s teachings about justification by faith and James’s teachings that faith without works is dead and demonstrated that yes salvation is through Justification by faith and it is out of that justification that Christians are to do works in the process of sanctification as God brings man to glorification.  For Calvin, works and good will to man should be a product of salvation not a means of salvation because no one can repay God or use their works to put God in a head lock so that he will have to let you into heaven.

Calvin and reformed theology demonstrate that the Rabbi was indeed wrong, all religions do not have the same goal.   While the goal of most religions is to get right with God through works, Reformed Christianity teaches that we are made right with God by his work on our behalf and our works flow out of that relationship as we live as we were created to live; Two very different Goals.  To read more about the heart of reformed theology see Michael Horton’s book, For Calvinism.

If the protestant reformers were wrong about the message of Christianity than Oprah, the college professors, Hallmark movies and Mitch Albon are right, all religions are the same because they are all about men working their way toward God or gods.  All religions are based on a revelation (the Bible, Quran, Buddha, Hindu scriptures), which points man to God or gods and provides the steps to take to get right with God gods.  But if the reformers were right, some God or gods did not give man a law to point him to God, but instead God came himself in the person of Jesus Christ to reconcile man with himself and fulfilled the law himself so that man can have a right relationship with THE GOD.

If the reformers were right than the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrate that man’s goal is to live in the already not yet of the inaugurated kingdom of God awaiting the consummation of the kingdom.  The goal of reformed Christianity looks to Revelation chapters 21 and 22 as the goal of our relationship with God, not self-actualization, not getting my personal relationship with Jesus just so, not even doing as much good to others as possible, but rather total and complete restoration of creation.  Sorry Rabbi Lewis, but I don’t know of any religion that has that goal therefore all religions do not have the same goal.

The fact that some religions believe in one God and other believe in many gods demonstrate that all religions are not the same.  In fact agnostic religion professor James Carse author of A Religious case against beleif argues that is simple laziness and lack of understanding about religion to assume they are all the same.  I completely agree with Carse and when an agnostic and myself a self proclaimed Puritan agree on something, it is worth serious consideration.

Its about time

January 15, 2012
This is a great article and I loved it. There are three points I would add. First, there is a time when evangelicals should use more than just persuasion. During the years leading up the Civil War there were evangelicals who thought it was enough to just persuade people that slavery was wrong. Sometimes when something as heinous as slavery is taking place evangelicals should demand that laws b…e changed and they should use the ballot box to do this. But using the ballot box can not be the only way evangelicals oppose wrong. Second, the issues that motivate evangelicals should be based on a kingdom ethic and Jesus kingdom is not of this world or from this world. Therefore evangelicals should never confuse Christ’s kingdom with a political party or nation. Evangelicals should never think it is their role to fill a power vacuum. Third, It is one thing to use the political powers to promote kingdom ethics but when the political parties or nations promote values that are opposed to kingdom ethics evangelicals need to work to promote kingdom ethics without the political backing. Evangelicals should stop allowing the GOP to dangle the carrot of pro-life in front of them to get votes. Evangelicals could do way more for the unborn by supporting single mothers and adoption than they ever could by filling the coffers of the GOP with the hope that some person will get elected