Why I am reluctant to call myself a Christian


The reason I am not Christian is because of Christians.

I came across that quote years ago, attributed to Gandhi. I can’t demonstrate that Gandhi actually said it, because I don’t know the original source. But the attribution makes sense:  Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Christ’s example of non-violent resistance, yet he never converted to Christianity.

I’m thinking about that quote this week because I am so deeply discouraged by my fellow Christians. I’ve also been thinking of Bruce Cockburn, who once professed at a concert:

I’m a Christian, but I’m not one of those Christians.

Cockburn made that statement during the Reagan/Bush 41 era. Presumably he’s still making the same apology; neo-conservative Christians haven’t improved any in the past 16 years.

Why am I about ready to disown my Christian brothers and sisters? Because white evangelicals are the most pro-torture of any demographic group in the USA.

That’s the conclusion I draw, based on a new survey carried out by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. According to white evangelical Protestants, the use of torture against suspected terrorists is often (18%) or sometimes (44%) justified. That’s a combined 62% who support torture.

Note the following three points about the survey:

  • It referred explicitly to “torture” (not something mealy-mouthed like “enhanced interrogation techniques” ).
  • It asked about the torture of “suspected terrorists”, not “terrorists” — there’s a big difference.
  • In this survey, “sometimes justified” is a clear expression of support for torture. It’s the middle option between “often justified” and “rarely justified”.


Same sex marriage inevitable?

Demographic trends suggest that same sex marriage is unstoppable in the USA. Consider this analysis from statistician and blogger Nate Silver:

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled today that same-sex marriage is protected under that state’s constitution. As in California, there will of course be an effort to amend the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage. […]

Most likely, […] Iowans won’t vote on the issue until 2012. […]

The state has roughly average levels of religiosity, including a fair number of white evangelicals, and the model predicts that if Iowans voted on a marriage ban today, it would pass with 56.0 percent of the vote.

By 2012, however, the model projects a toss-up:  50.4 percent of Iowans voting to approve the ban, and 49.6 percent opposed. In 2013 and all subsequent years, the model thinks the marriage ban would fail.

If Silver’s analysis can be trusted — and he’s extremely good at this sort of thing — we would see a 5.6% swing (from 56.0% to 50.4%) in only three years. That’s staggering!

Silver doesn’t quite say so, but I deduce that his model is tracking a decrease in the “religiosity” of America with each passing year. Silver says there’s “a very strong correspondence between the religiosity of a state and its propensity to ban gay marriage”; and then he predicts “that by 2012, almost half of the 50 states would vote against a marriage ban.”

And even among white evangelicals, it seems to me that younger folks are not as invested in conservative mores:  I think they have a more laissez-faire attitude toward both gays and abortion.

If you’re an evangelical Christian, you’d better pray for revival. Or if you’re a Republican, for that matter — demographic trends strongly favour the Democrats.

The Obama two-step

Obama reaches out to evangelical voters via radio:

He has also pledged to continue, or even expand, federal funding for faith-based social programs:

Not only is Obama showing how faith would shape policy in his administration, he’s being so bold as to criticize Bush’s faith-based program for not going far enough in opening the federal social services spigot to churches and other faith-based groups. …

For Obama, who got his political start as an organizer in Chicago’s black churches, it’s difficult to argue that embracing government-sponsored faith-based initiatives is a matter of pure political convenience.

At the same time, it is well known that Obama is pro-choice on abortion. And he has been outspoken in support of equal rights for homosexuals:

As the Democratic nominee for President, I am proud to join with and support the LGBT [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender] community in an effort to set our nation on a course that recognizes LGBT Americans with full equality under the law. That is why I support extending fully equal rights and benefits to same sex couples under both state and federal law. That is why I support repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, and the passage of laws to protect LGBT Americans from hate crimes and employment discrimination. And that is why I oppose the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution [i.e., to prohibit same sex marriage], and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states.

… Finally, I want to congratulate all of you who have shown your love for each other by getting married these last few weeks.

That is an eyebrow-raising two-step. I don’t think this is cynical politicking; both halves of the two-step reflect Obama’s personal convictions.

He stops short of outright support for same sex marriage. And that may be a bit of political positioning:  Obama knows that a lot of folks can accept equal rights for homosexuals as long as government draws the line at the “M” word.

Obama is hard to categorize. He draws the boundaries in unconventional places. He doesn’t play it safe. (Well, sometimes he does — but on occasion, he goes where other politicians wouldn’t dare.)

Love him or hate him, you have to admit he’s a fascinating character.

photo of Obama by Carlos Barria of Reuters

Where the women aren’t

Nebcanuck and I were recently discussing complementarianism. It’s a doctrine, popular among some evangelical (or fundamentalist) Christians, which states that men and women have different, complementary roles in the Church.

I reject complementarianism in favour of the alternative position, egalitarianism. It’s an issue of longstanding importance to me. I’m happy to return to the issue from time to time because the strong arguments in favour of egalitarianism bear repeating.

The complementarian position

So-called “complementarianism” attempts to put a positive label on the politically-incorrect notion of male headship:  i.e., that women are always to be under male authority. Scriptures like 1Ti. 2:11-13 are regarded as determinative of church practice:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. (Today’s New International Version)

I end the quote at verse 13 because the reference to the order of creation is crucial. Complementarians argue that this is not a transitory rule, required only in the first century context. The rule is rooted in creation and therefore permanent and universally binding.

The egalitarian position

It is obviously true, biologically, that men and women have different and complementary functions. But complementarians elevate this into a general principle, and forbid women to exercise leadership in the church or to teach men. I suppose complementary in this context means, “I rule and teach, and you follow and learn.”

But if women are no less intelligent than men, no less responsible, and no less vessels of the Holy Spirit —

“In the last days,” God says,
      “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
      your young men will see visions,
      your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
      I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
      and they will prophesy.”

(Acts 2:17-18, TNIV)

— how is it that complementarians prohibit women from leading or teaching men?

Texts in tension

It’s important to note that the issue doesn’t turn on one side remaining faithful to scripture while the other side repudiates scripture. The issue turns on which scriptures are regarded as paramount. While complementarians emphasize 1Ti. 2 (and other, similar texts), egalitarians emphasize Acts 2 (and other, similar texts).

In other words, an interpretive problem arises when we try to reconcile one thread of New Testament teaching with another thread of New Testament teaching.

For example, St. Paul says (1Co. 14:33b-38 ) that women are to be silent in church. He states that this is the rule in all the churches (taking the latter half of verse 33 with the verse that follows — translations differ on this point).

But elsewhere in the same letter, St. Paul refers to women prophesying and praying. Indeed, as long as women wear a symbol of authority on their heads (1Co. 11:5-16), Paul indicates that it’s OK for them to pray and prophesy during corporate worship.

On the face of it, there’s a contradiction between these two texts, even though they were written by the same author in the same letter. One of the texts must be qualified (interpreted narrowly) in order to bring the two texts into harmony with one another. The question becomes, Which text is paramount, and which text must be construed narrowly?

Rules vs. actual examples

New Testament texts diverge in a similar fashion on the topic of leading and teaching. As with the 1 Corinthians problem, the pattern is this:

  1. On the one hand, there is a rule that women are to submit to male authority (which makes it out of bounds for them to teach men) ;
  2. On the other hand, there are actual examples of women carrying out ministries that involve leading and teaching.

Thus we can rephrase our earlier question:  Is the rule paramount? — or is the church’s practice paramount?

In one of his books, John Stott (a leading evangelical) lists the following biblical examples of women leaders:  Huldah, Miriam, Deborah, the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, Philip’s four unmarried daughters (who prophesied), the women who prayed and prophesied at Corinth, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, Phoebe, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, and Junia.

That’s quite a list! It establishes an a priori case that God approves of women ministering in ways that necessarily involve leading and teaching. As in Acts 2, we see the Sovereign Lord pouring out his Spirit on women and empowering them for ministry.

Pastor Hagee and Israel

This post is primarily for Random, with whom I’ve had a back-and-forth on this topic.

In my view, Pastor John Hagee’s theology is anti-Israel. Random responded with puzzlement, pointing out (accurately) that Pastor Hagee has significant support among Jews.

Before I turn my attention to Pastor Hagee specifically, here’s a bit of background.

The relationship between evangelical Christians and Jews is conflicted. Evangelical Christians (especially the subgroup which emphasizes end-times doctrines) are huge supporters of the state of Israel. They provide a large amount of both political and financial support.

On the other hand, evangelical Christians generally think Jews are unsaved unless and until they convert to Christ. Some expect the Jews to convert en masse at the time of Christ’s return.

There is also some history of arguing that the Jews brought their historical difficulties on themselves by rejecting the Messiah when he appeared to them. Indeed, the New Testament itself places most of the blame for Christ’s crucifixion on the Jewish leaders.1

The New Testament depicts the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as the immediate consequence of Israel’s rejection of Christ.

This political / financial / theological stew generates considerable ambivalence toward evangelical Christians among Jews, whether they reside in the USA or in Israel.

As for Pastor Hagee:  Ben Smith offered a brief exposé this week. The bottom line is, Pastor Hagee fits precisely within the scenario I have outlined:

When Sen. John McCain was forced to distance himself from Pastor John Hagee earlier this year, he denounced the pastor’s attacks on Catholicism. But asked why he wouldn’t “repudiate” Hagee’s endorsement of him, McCain found something to praise.

“I’m grateful for his commitment to the support of the state of Israel, and I’m very grateful for many of his commitments around the world, including to the independence and freedom of the state of Israel,” he told CNN’s Campbell Brown on April 29.

Hagee’s commitment to Israel, however, is itself controversial:  It’s rooted in the belief that the Jewish state will be the site — soon — of Armageddon.

Hagee, who leads the Evangelical group Christians United for Israel, is a proponent of U.S. aid and support for Israel, and he is a major ally of Israeli conservatives who reject any “land for peace” formula in dealing with the Palestinians. But Hagee is viewed with distrust by some Jews and Israelis because his brand of Christian Zionism closely links support for Israel to the end of the world and the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. …

Using geographical calculations based on the Book of Revelation, he writes that Israel will be covered in “a sea of human blood” in the final battle.

The Jews, however, will survive the battle, Hagee says, long enough to have “the opportunity to receive Messiah, who is a rabbi known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.”

Hence my assertion that Pastor Hagee is, at bottom, no friend of Israel. And Jews know it, however much they may appreciate the political support of Hagee and his constituents. Smith quotes Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism:

“Christian Zionists, and especially Christians United for Israel, do not offer unconditional support for the Jewish state. They offer support for a particular religious vision, particular Israeli leaders, and particular political factions, all of which reflect their own prophecy-driven view of the Middle East,” Yoffie said in an April speech, calling Hagee and his group “extremists.”

Yoffie thinks that Hagee “is not the kind of friend that Israel needs,” a spokesman, Donald Cohen-Cutler, said yesterday.

1The obvious alternative to the New Testament account is that the Romans were solely responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. Jews could not lawfully execute anyone. And it is significant that Jesus was crucified alongside insurrectionists — not “robbers”, the conventional interpretation — with the (mocking) label “King of the Jews” posted above his head. The implication is, the Romans decided to crucify Jesus because they feared that he, too, was an insurrectionist. His popular following could have led to a revolt against Roman rule, as happened with other messianic claimants in that era.

Unbiblical? Unreal!

climate change is unbiblical

Alrighty, then. God said it, I believe it, that settles it!

A generational shift in evangelicalism

This is a follow-up to a post from a couple of weeks ago.

Last week, Scot McKnight spoke at a convention which brought together three scholarly societies:  the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion.

For those who don’t know, McKnight is a professor, the author of 20 books, and a blogger. He is solidly evangelical in his convictions. Nonetheless, he has embraced emerging Christianity, perhaps with some reservations about its postmodern orientation.

I was surprised to see that the meeting of academics included on its agenda a forum on the Emergent Church. And I’m grateful that Andy Rowell recorded the sessions he attended, including the Emergent Church Forum.

Here is a ten-minute excerpt. McKnight begins by telling a story about a blue parakeet (i.e., emerging Christians) stirring up the sparrows (i.e., evangelical / orthodox Christians) in his backyard. And then he identifies six uncomfortable questions that emerging Christians are asking.

You can listen to the audio, or read my summary (verbatim at some points, a free paraphrase at other points) below.

McKnight on emerging Christianity

  1. What kind of truth can be found in scripture?
    Emerging Christians are beginning to ask questions about scripture that an older generation thought it had answered. The questions include, Just how human is this book? and Is it possible that the story of Jonah and the whale is just a myth? Emerging Christians hear that there might have been three Isaiahs, and they aren’t too bothered about it — it isn’t even interesting to them.

  2. Questions about science:
    My students put it like this: If evolution isn’t true, I would like to ask God why he made a world that looks so much like evolution. This is a generation that isn’t even attracted to questions about proving that Genesis 1-11 is a historical record. They don’t care about creation science. They believe in evolution, and that’s just the way it is.

  3. Questions about Christians and how they behave:
    Emerging Christians grew up with the scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and the priests, and they just don’t trust institutional leaders. Behind closed doors, church leaders do things that are despicable. Emerging Christians ask this question:  If Paul says that those who are in Christ are a new creation, why are there so many old creatures in the Church?

  4. Questions about hell:
    I’ve had students say to me, Scott, my evangelical pastor tells me that people who haven’t heard the gospel are going to hell. Is he really telling me that everybody in North Korea who never has a chance to hear the gospel is going to hell? Well, I just can’t believe that’s true.

  5. A moral critique:
    I’ve had students say to me, Why is Jephtha in the Bible? And why is he valorized and heroized in Hebrews 11? That is a serious question. It’s easier to talk about how many Isaiahs there are than it is to answer that question.

  6. Questions about social location:
    Emerging Christians are aware that what we are interested in comes out of the world in which we live. There are other people in other parts of the world who don’t care about our questions.

    Social location matters to everything we talk about, the language we use to discuss it, the way we shape theology, the way we respond to the gospel, etc.

    Emerging Christians don’t just admit that, they delight in it. They’re not seeking a universal theology. They’re willing to live with a theology for the midwest, or the east coast.

I have a few comments of my own. First, none of the questions that McKnight points to are particularly new (except perhaps the last one, which brings us into the realm of postmodernism). What is new is the degree to which the traditional answers — answers which satisfied a previous generation of evangelicals — are now regarded with suspicion. As McKnight puts it at one point in his presentation,

This is not a question that evangelicals and orthodox Christians can simply give a traditional answer and get by with it anymore.

Second, the refusal to settle for easy answers may be related to McKnight’s third point, the distrust of institutional leaders. The traditional answers were never intellectually satisfying. They were accepted largely on the say-so of the priest or the Doctor of Theology, who was regarded as a trustworthy authority. Given the new cynicism about church leaders, emerging Christians aren’t taking things on authority; they’re waiting for an argument that they deem reasonable.

Third, I think emerging Christians within evangelicalism look particularly shocking in the US context. In Canada, you will find extremely few Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who insist that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days. Evolution is perhaps somewhat more controversial, but I think most Canadian believers accept, at the very least, that theistic evolution is a legitimate position.

Finally, the six “questions” of McKnight’s presentation do not touch on all the elements of emerging Christianity. McKnight knows that:  he has given a very different summary of the movement in a Christianity Today article.

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