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Listening, Heart Wide Open

We need to hear people’s stories. Not just the ones we want to hear, the triumph-of-grace-over-sin, feel-good, happy-ending tales of a life turned to Christ. Not just the kind that make the people cheer in victory, that another soul has been rescued from the clutches of Satan.  We need to hear the stories that make us squirm. The ones that cause us to lie awake nights, asking the deeper questions about sin, salvation, and grace.

Here are a couple of links to just such stories: Life Abundant, a guest post on Andrew Marin’s blog; and this one, the most recent post on Ryan Nix’s blog, Queer as Faith.  (Nix’s posts are much less about being the “gay Christian dude” and more about drawing us back to the heart of the Father.  Incredibly inspiring and often convicting, the posts are very well-written; it’s worth checking out some of the others as well.)

Often, we might say that we ought to get to know real-life LGBT people. But the subtle underlying message we hear or sometimes speak is, “So that they come to know Christ and give up their lifestyle of rampant sin.”  The fault in that is two-fold. First, it’s incorrect to assume anything about someone’s faith (as seen in the links above). Second, it’s never a good idea to enter a friendship with an agenda.

Most of you know where my heart is.  If we’ve talked, then chances are I know where yours is.  No one is being asked to jump immediately on board the train and change their thinking, certainly not overnight. But we do need to hear what people different from ourselves have to say. It’s not a matter of listening with an open mind but an open heart.  When we do this kind of open-hearted listening, we are offering ourselves to G-d to work through us and in us.

Who will you listen to today?

Scale Theology

I’ve been thinking about the idea of Scale Theology.  That’s the snappy term occasionally used in my church (and probably others, I can’t imagine it’s unique) for a belief in salvation by good deeds.  The essence is that when you die, if the good stuff you did outweighs the bad, you get a pass into Heaven.  If not, well, you can imagine what happens.  Obviously, any church which teaches salvation by grace through faith does not subscribe to Scale Theology.

Naturally, I agree that Scale Theology is useless nonsense.  There are several reasons for this.  First, is there anyone on the planet who would believe they hadn’t done enough good?  And if there were, would it be true?  Second, everyone’s idea of what constitutes “good” deeds is different.  One person might think it means going to church, being nice to people, and respecting authority.  Another might think it means being on the front lines of battle.  Another might believe it’s all about how much money you donate.  Third, ditto on the idea of “bad” deeds.  We might all agree that, say, Hitler was one seriously bad man.  But how about the kid who bullied you all through middle school?  Is he as bad?  You might think so, if you’re the seventh grader getting beat up.  Finally, how much good one would have to do to outweigh the bad is also in question.  Take that middle school bully.  What would he need to do to make up for his childish actions?

Having established that I don’t in any way subscribe to Scale Theology, I do want to bring up one minor issue.  Churches that emphasize salvation by grace through faith sometimes fail to acknowledge that we also need to do good things.  It’s often framed in terms of “storing up our treasures in heaven” or that doing good deeds demonstrates that we are showing outward signs of an inward faith.  Sometimes, the balance is tipped in favor of volunteering at church rather than giving our time and money outside the church.  In any case, churches often go overboard in trying to make sure no one is confused about our salvation not being dependent on our actions.  Churches that encourage, emphasize, and celebrate social justice may be sneered at, and are often perceived as promoting the dreaded Scale Theology.

The problem with that kind of open condemnation is that it’s unfounded.  Social justice-oriented churches don’t necessarily buy into Scale Theology.  It’s not that anyone believes that the power of salvation rests squarely on G-d’s shoulders.  It’s that social justice Christians believe that we are called to, that we must, be obedient to Jesus.  The difference is not in whether a person or church subscribes to Scale Theology.  The difference is in why one thinks good deeds are important.  We don’t do good deeds to buy our ticket into Heaven.  We don’t do it to earn brownie points with the Lord.  We don’t do it because it’s going to make someone proud of us, look good on a college application, sound important at a job interview, or make people like us better.  We do it because Jesus expressly stated that we are to care for the needy.  He said it plainly.  He said it in parables.  He said it repeatedly.  The Apostles lived it.  Paul repeated it.  James nearly pounded it into the ground.  Which part of that are we not getting?

Another flaw when talking about Scale Theology is the belief that anyone who isn’t a card-carrying Born Again is automatically in the Scale Theology camp.  There’s no room for anyone to have natural compassion.  Doing good is dismissed as a misguided attempt at purchasing the admission to the Pearly Gates.  But what if it’s not?  What if we simply can’t admit that it isn’t the mere act of putting faith in Christ which drives the human heart?  There are people out there who, believing there is no god, think it’s our responsibility to care for one another.  There are people who sincerely don’t want others to suffer and are brokenhearted over the terrible things that happen to people.  Out of that compassion, they work to care for life on this planet in all its forms.  I know these people exist; I’ve met them.  Not one of them thinks that doing good in this world is the basis of getting into Heaven after death.  (It’s especially important to note that many of these people don’t even believe there is a heaven, or anything else, after death.  Therefore, Scale Theology is irrelevant.)

We need to stop worrying about whether focusing on doing good is sending the wrong message about salvation.  We simply need to begin living as Jesus intended us to.

Inside and Out

We talk a lot about the difference between salvation by works and salvation by grace.  I thought I’d spend a little time on the subject because in some Christian circles, it is a common to compare theology based on the perceived difference.

An oft-used explanation for “works-based” theology is that it is like a scale: Our good deeds and bad will be weighed, and whichever wins determines our fate.  Arguments against scale theology are that we cannot ever do enough to earn G-d’s favor and that when asked, we would never put ourselves in the “didn’t do enough” camp.  I want to go on record as saying that I believe both of those things to be true.  However, there are some complications and I think they deserve some discussion.

First, we need to be clear about what we mean my “works.”  Does that mean avoiding naughty behavior (personal morality), or does that mean feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and in prison (social ministry)?  Evangelical churches, which are solidly in the salvation-by-grace-through-faith camp, emphasize personal morality as vital to our spiritual journey, but fail to include social ministry.  This is a form of works-based salvation.  It amounts to saying, “You may have said the magic words, but it’s clear from your behavior that you didn’t really mean it.”

Second, the emphasis on personal morality over social ministry is not Biblical.  Jesus himself said that what we do to minister to our fellow humans marks the difference between the sheep and the goats.  James said that “faith without deeds is dead,” and from the context, it’s clear he didn’t mean just personal morality.  A failure to encourage both being good and doing good misses the mark.

To illustrate, imagine an elementary classroom.  The students are learning the “silent e” rule for long vowels.  Many children misunderstand and begin adding an e to every word at first.  The teacher must spend time reviewing the concept until the students have learned it.  Does the error mean that the teacher should throw out the e altogether, because it’s too confusing to the students?  Of course not!

Yet that’s exactly what has happened to the idea of social ministry.  Some people have misapplied the principle, wanting to replace faith and personal morality entirely.  In response, some evangelicals have thrown out the principle entirely, wanting to emphasize personal morality as the key to or evidence of genuine faith.  Sadly, it has led to inactivity on the part of Christians when it comes to caring for the world and people G-d has created.

There is a tension (in a good way) between social ministry and personal morality.  How much do we emphasize one or the other?  How do we carry them out practically?  What role (if any) do they play in our salvation—from being necessary to being a reflection?  We have to be able to talk about these things openly and in a healthy way in order for Christians to know what it means to live out our faith.

Which Christian is the Real One?

I’m wrapping up my thoughts on the most frustrating conversations I experience in Christian circles.  Today, I want to deal with the idea that we will know they are Christians by their denomination.

There is nothing anyone can say to justify thinking that any particular denomination has it right, while all others have it wrong.  There is no way to defend the belief that one branch of Christianity is superior to all others.  Similarly, there is nothing I could say or do that would change the mind of someone who believes he or she knows the mind of God and the heart of another.

No matter how many times I hear the message that a particular kind of Christian is “unsaved” because of denomination or doctrine, I simply cannot swallow that line.  When we have to box God in, when we narrowly define His standards for salvation, we unknowingly box ourselves in, too.  I’ve seen this happen.  We start to think we can’t have friendships without strings.  Every relationship is based on whether we think a given person is “saved” in the manner we deem appropriate or acceptable.  Every conversation produces another chance to evaluate the beliefs of another or a way to sneak in our version of Jesus.  We simply must see every person we meet as someone who is potentially going to Hell unless we intervene.  Sadly, this includes the majority of people of certain types of church.  (In my circles, it’s usually the Catholic church that gets the heat, although Orthodoxy gets its share.  Occasionally, it extends to certain Protestant denominations, but that is rare.  It seems as though the going assumption is that Protestant churches all teach the “correct” path to salvation.)

I would rather that my relationships be lower pressure.  When I stopped feeling like I had to convert everyone, I began to really enjoy my non-Christian family and friends much more.  I also found they were more interested in my faith when it didn’t feel like a sales pitch.  I also enjoy many of my Christian friends more, because we no longer feel the need to compare notes or compete for the most (as one friend put it) “notches in the side of our ‘Saved’ trucks.”  Instead, we can focus on being the kind of people Jesus would want us to be.

Real Christians Part 2

I’m going to pause here to tell a story that I think fits well with yesterday’s post about fear-based conversion.

I don’t generally like to talk about my kids on this blog.  I have a separate blog about being a mom.  There are a lot of reasons for that, which I won’t get into here.  But I wanted to tell this story because I think it’s a fitting example of why I feel so frustrated with the concept of the “real” Christian.

Back in October, our church held a special baptism service.  This isn’t surprising, it’s a Baptist church.  For the uninitiated, that means that we don’t baptize infants or young children, only adults who have stated belief in Jesus.  I actually have no problem with this; in fact I agree with it.  I think that it’s important for people to make their own choices about matters of faith, including whether or not to engage in the rites of a particular religion.

Anyway, My son, age 7, wanted to be baptized.  I was hesitant, as I think he is very young.  I would prefer he be at least an adolescent, to be certain that he isn’t making a choice because we his parents said so.  But my husband felt that it would be acceptable if he really wanted to do it.  So I reluctantly agreed.  I checked with our church and was told that generally, they don’t baptize anyone under age 10.  But if he was able to make a clear statement of faith, then they would consider it.  The children’s ministry director sent us a list of questions to ask our son, to find out whether he really understood his faith.  I have to admit to being uncomfortable with some of the questions, but my husband went over them with our son and said that he thought he was ready.

Our son met with the children’s ministry director, who asked him the same questions.  In the end, she determined that he was not ready for baptism.  Her reasoning was that he did not seem to understand the “role of his own sin” or the purpose of salvation.  He apparently told her that he needed to “be a good person” in order to go to Heaven (presumably rather than that he needed to just believe in order to be saved from Hell).  He also didn’t seem to be quite ready to explain just how he came to be “saved.”

I admit that I was a bit relieved, on several levels.  First, I didn’t think he was ready anyway.  Second, I’m glad he wasn’t just spitting back the correct answer as learned in Sunday school.  He’s a deep thinker and I believe he has a better handle on the meaning of salvation and faith than many of the supposedly “mature” members of our church.  For him, all that’s important is that God loves him and he loves God.  Yet at the same time, I was bothered by the fact that the people at our church, in a position of authority or not, believe they have the right to decide whether my son is a “real” Christian.  Afterward, I was talking with a friend from another church about what had happened.  He knows our church (and is somewhat unimpressed with it).  He said, “For the record, I wouldn’t want to be baptized at your church.  Don’t worry about it.”  I was strangely comforted by that.

In the end, what was off-putting about the whole thing was that even though my husband and I know for certain that our son believes, the church deemed him to be something other than a “real, true Christian” because they have a pretty narrow definition.  Tomorrow, I will explain more about that and how damaging it is to our collective body of Christ when we try to apply that kind of label.

Will the Real Christian Please Stand Up?

A few days ago, I posted about the most frustrating conversations that I have had with other Christians.  None of them are new to me, but I’ve seen a resurgence of those discussions in recent months.  Today, I’m talking about the third conversation, identifying what Slacktivist says some evangelicals call “real, true Christians.”

Defining and identifying “real” Christians depends on several pre-existing assumptions on the part of the Christian doing the defining:

1) There is a literal place called “Hell,” in which people experience eternal conscious torment after they die.

2) God’s default location for dead souls is Hell.

3) Rather than being saved for something, people need to be saved from something–namely, Hell.

4) Only certain people will learn the secret to escaping punishment, while the rest will be eternally excluded.

I’m not going to get into addressing the first assumption.  It’s enough to say that I simply don’t buy the concept of Hell as it’s taught and presented by evangelicals.  I believe this concept came not from the Bible, or historical Judeo-Christian belief, but from Milton and Dante.  It’s fictional.  How fiction came to be taught as reality is beyond my scope of knowledge or understanding, but I’m sure that a good Google search would turn up plenty of information.

I do want to address the second assumption.  It has never made any sense to me whatsoever that God intends all humanity for the scrap bin unless we do or say some particular thing.  This doesn’t seem to me to fit either the image of a loving Father or the actual Biblical text.  Before someone gets their knickers in a knot over that, let me explain.  I don’t read anything in the Bible where the text says that God will put people in Hell (or allow them to go there, if you think that sounds nicer) unless you say, do, or believe something that will change His mind.  That idea is an interpretation based on several texts pieced together and likely evolved over time.

The third assumption, that people need to be rescued from Hell, only matters if you agree with the first two assumptions.  I actually wonder how anyone could ever be a real, true Christian under those circumstances.  I don’t think a decision made out of a certain sense of fear is necessarily stable.  Yesterday, my children were taught in Sunday school that they “deserve to be punished” because they do “bad things” every single day.  Next week, we who teach Sunday school are expected to encourage the children to “ask Jesus to be their forever friend.”  How many of them are going to choose Jesus because that sounds better than being punished forever?

Frustrating Conversations

In the last few months, I have had a number of conversations with other Christians that have left me shaking my head in disappointment.  I suppose I always hope that people will actually consider the beliefs they hold dear, examining them to be certain that they understand why they hold those beliefs.  Yet I am often left feeling somewhat deflated when I discover that most people just don’t think that deeply, even when they say something is very important to them.

The three most recent discussions I have found myself involved in are repeats of similar conversations I’ve had over the years and cover three of the main topics some Christians see as a kind of barometer of the faith.  In other words, if you have the right opinion about those things, then you are clearly a “real” Christian.  Inevitably, they go something like this:

Conversation A

Person: The world is going to Hell in a handbasket, society has become so immoral.  We accept terrible things, like the “homosexual agenda,” abortion, and fat people.

Me: Um…this is the human condition.  People do bad things.  It’s not worse now, just different.

Person: We need to return to the values of the 1950s.

Me: You would like separate lunch counters?

Person: No, but you have to admit, it’s much worse today.

Me: Really?  Well, what about things like slavery or the Crusades or the Nazis?  There’s a lot of racism and genocide in history.

Person: Well, we still have all those things.  But now we also have men who want to marry each other.  And also fat people.

Me [realizing this person has a particular view of the world and is shaping his opinions to match]: Never mind.

Conversation B

Person: The Earth is really only about 10,000 years old.

Me: Scientific discoveries seem to indicate something different.

Person: Science doesn’t know everything.

Me: True.  But how can we explain what science has discovered?

Person: God made the Earth LOOK much older than it is.

Me: Why?  Why would God want to trick us like that?

Person: So that we would take the Bible on faith.

Me: Ok, how does that strengthen our faith?

Person: I don’t know, I guess God just wants us to believe Him instead of trusting our own observations.

Me: That doesn’t make sense.  I feel more drawn to God knowing He made all these wonderful things, including dinosaurs.  I think it’s really cool that our part of the world used to be a tropical sea!

Person: But God wants us to just trust that His Word, the Bible, is the only truth we need.  He wants us to pick Him over science.

Me [realizing this person isn't able to give a concrete reason]: Never mind.

Conversation C

Person: People who are [Catholic, Orthodox, non-Evangelical, emergent, social justice Christians, etc.] are not really saved.

Me: Why not?

Person: [gives various reasons, usually some variant of "they don't believe in salvation by grace through faith alone"]

Me: Are you sure about what “they” believe?

Person: Yes, I grew up in that tradition.  I know everything they ever believed and can recite it to you verbatim.

Me: So everyone from those traditions or beliefs is not actually a Christian.

Person: Well, no, I’m sure some of them have found their way to faith.  But most of them just don’t understand their faith or what they’re supposed to believe.

Me: Not unlike most people within our tradition.

Person: I’m sure there are people in our tradition who don’t understand, but that isn’t most of us.  It is most of them.

Me: Ok.  Even if that’s true, are you certain that we’re right and they’re wrong?

Person: Yes, because the Bible says so.

Me: You know they say the same thing about us, right?

Person: Yes, but we are actually correct, unlike them.

Me [realizing this person has preconceived notions that can't be addressed in this conversation]: Never mind.

———————————————————————————————————————————————

There you have it.  I’ve been having similar conversations on and off for the last 20 years.  It doesn’t offer me much hope.