Posts Tagged Christianity
As homosexuality becomes more socially acceptable, the pressure to make it theologically acceptable will increase. Indeed, Christians have been at the forefront of the marriage inequality movement for a long time (see my post on the MCC) and a “Queer theology” has emerged which seeks to justify same-sex relations Biblically.
The campaign for marriage equality (against marriage inequality) has been likened to the movement against slavery. I think this a good analogy. Christians were at the forefront of this movement too and an important part, no doubt, of the success of the campaign was the denunciation of Biblical interpretations of the Bible that allowed the system of slavery to continue. The Bible didn’t change – it still contains references to slavery with no obvious disapproval (even some instances of approval). But we chose to see those passages differently.
It is a sad fact that homosexuals do not feel welcome in most churches. But it is encouraging to know that Christians have been at the forefront of the marriage inequality movement for a long time. The Metropolitan Community Church, for instance, was founded as early as 1968 and has been campaigning for marriage equality ever since. It has also no doubt contributed to the emerging “queer theology” that seeks to legitimise their stance. I attended a service of the Good Hope MCC in Cape Town last Sunday. It was Freedom Day, the birthday of SA’s democracy.
The Good Hope MCC meets in a historical Church building on Green Market Square in Cape Town and they hung a huge yellow banner declaring that all “queers” are welcome. The pastor was a slight woman who not only preached, but also sang while playing the guitar, straight from the pulpit. The toilets were designated unisex. I have the memory of there being rainbow decorations everywhere, but this may be more of an impression than actual fact. The message, in any case, was very clear: you are welcome.
But it was also very clear that this message was not directed toward me. I’m a heterosexual male, perfectly welcome in a traditional church. No, this message was directed to the LGBT community. Indeed, I felt like possibly only one of two heterosexuals there (the other being a friend I had brought along). This was also an impression, not an established fact. The MCC church is there for LGBT people. Every announcement and virtually every statement made was geared toward them.
And why should the MCC not focus on LGBT? In virtually every other church they are either not mentioned at all, or they are informed that they are living in sin. The plight of LGBT people in the new South Africa is still acute. There are, for instance, Lesbians being murdered or correctively raped in some communities. Would other churches take as active a stance to stop this?
The Good Hope MCC church is perhaps the only place that LGBT people in Cape Town can connect with a community of believers without judgement. And they do so alone. Shouldn’t heterosexuals and LGBT people be able to worship together? Is it not deplorable that in 20 years into South Africa’s democracy, the church is in a kind of apartheid, heterosexuals here, LGBT people there? Perhaps, in another twenty years, it will seem simply absurd.
I want to ignore those (often unintentionally) hateful Christians who cannot accept homosexuals for a little while. Let us talk about those Christians who
- Truly believe homosexuality is a sin, but
- Do everything in their power to love their homosexual neighbours.
There are not many such Christians, but they should not be judged along with the rest. They are sincere and honourable. But I am not convinced that their stance is not ultimately harmful.
I discovered recently that there are still rather powerful churches that believe women should not be pastors or leaders of churches. I was unknowingly attending one such church until recently and was quite shocked to find that even Tim Keller, a man whose writing on Christianity I have admired, takes this view. These churches call their position “complementarianism” and it is an insidious lie.
The idea is supposed to oppose the concept of “egalitarianism”, which would mean that men and women are equal and alike, able to take on any role in the church. Instead, complementarianism is supposed to convey that men and women are equal, but have different roles. This seems benign. But this is not really what is implemented.
The situation is not : women can do this, and men can do that. It is women can’t do this and men can do, well, everything. The system imposes neither equal (but different) restrictions nor provides equal (but different) freedoms for men and women. It merely restricts women. There is no equivalently important or powerful role reserved for women and women only.
Let us thus not fool ourselves. This system should not be called complementarianism. At best it is rebranded patriarchy or chauvinism, made to look benign, but with all the poison of male domination (i.e. sexism) lurking underneath. Men and women may be equal under God, but they certainly are not in these churches.
(Disclaimer: I certainly do not believe that (most of) these churches set out to dominate women or harm them. They are trying to interpret the scriptures in a meaningful way. As do all churches. I have respect for this and they certainly have the right to their interpretations. But as well-meaning as they may be, as much as they try to include the voices of their women in their church, the system itself will hamstring them, robbing women of representation and leadership opportunities.)
I recently read “Love Wins”, the hugely controversial book, which seems to claim that everybody goes to heaven. But it doesn’t, not really. The book is really just a huge maybe. And this is actually awesome. Allow me to explain.
Bell states quite clearly that he is not certain whether people go to heaven or hell or how this happens. But he states several views, and gives some compelling arguments why the traditional position could be challenged. The important point: Bell is uncertain. A pastor, a leader of thousands, a person influencing millions, is admitting that he does not know.
This almost never happens. Just as politicians must always know exactly what the right policy is, so pastors must know exactly the right answer to every theological question. And so they spend thousands of pages on theses and books and sermons convincing themselves there is only one inevitable conclusion. Because to do otherwise, would mean that you are unsure, that you are doubting, and is that not the opposite of faith? Doesn’t faith demand certainty?
The Bible is a pretty big book and it certainly contains a lot of answers – it makes some things very clear: there is one God who created heaven and earth. But the Bible also contains a lot of ambiguities. Resolving these ambiguities has been the task of theologians for two millennia. When two groups decide an ambiguity should be resolved one way and not the other (for instance the very silly issue of whether young children can be baptised), then churches split. Furthermore, the Bible is finite. By definition there must be questions for which it cannot give clear answers.
Not all ambiguities have to be resolved. Not all questions have to be answered. It is hard. It means you have to live with some uncertainty, which is uncomfortable, but to try to create certainty where there is none, is (borrowing from Voltaire), simply absurd. When you recognise the uncertainty, even if you have a preferred interpretation, you have little choice but to defer judgement. You cannot bash others with your particular version of the Bible and your dogmatic beliefs. It means you actually have to listen to other viewpoints.
Wouldn’t that make us better Christians?
As a general principle, even about things you are certain about (such as whether God exists), try putting yourself in the mental position of someone who has not reached your conclusion. Seriously consider the questions they ask, and how hard it is to answer them. Consider the experiences they may have had that led them to that conclusion. Here is a particular one: consider how an atheist may have come to reject God because of a horrible experience at Church? Now, how sure are you yours is not such a Church?
A gripe of many atheists is the strange ability of believers to affirm science in some areas (they believe in the principles that led to combustion engines) but to blindly deny it in others (notably: evolutionary theory). This has to stop. If Christians are ever to convince the thoughtful scientific atheists out there, they will need to start treating science with the respect it deserves. Two things have recently underscored this for me. Read the rest of this entry »
My thoughts on marrying outside my faith have grown from extremely naïve (of course, it’s fine!) to pragmatically cautious (is it really wise?). I dated a girl who was not at all religious for a short time and I realised that maintaining a relationship with someone outside your own faith is really hard. But I still think it’s possible and that, importantly, it is not wrong or sinful. This post on the blog I kissed my date goodnight got me thinking about the topic of interfaith relationships again (Here and here are two others to look at). Here are my views.
You have to think its ok (at least in principle)
I should probably add a caveat. It is not wrong or sinful unless your beliefs specifically prohibit it (for instance, as I understand it, many branches of Islam do not allow women to marry men of other faiths unless the latter convert). Even the Catholic church allows interfaith marriages (although there appear to be lots of rules, consisting mostly of asking the bishop for permission for various things, which I am sure most Catholics don’t care about). Let us thus assume you don’t think God will smite you if you marry outside your faith. Does that make it a good idea?
Why is it probably not a good idea?
Interfaith marriages (and relationships) have all the problems of more typical relationships, and several (significant) extra ones. Divorces rates are high for these marriages.
You will lose out on an important source of strength and support for your own faith. Even if your spouse accepts and supports that you have another faith, they can never support you in the same way that a spouse of the same faith would. You cannot grow in faith together.
You may have moral/ethical viewpoints that are not compatible. Shared faith is a simple heuristic for shared moral beliefs (but not a perfect one). Any workable marriage must have both partners share important moral values and they must be willing to live with the fact that their partner does not share certain other values. For instance, probably you will want your spouse to feel that adultery is wrong. To enter the relationship soundly you must feel that despite not having the same faith as you, your spouse shares most of the values which your faith leads you to cherish. (This is a necessary but not sufficient condition).
You must decide how to raise the children (if any). Pick a faith or have the children choose when the time is right. But some decision must be made, and it must be made before the marriage (and certainly before the children are born). You have to be content with the fact that your children may choose your spouse’s faith over yours (or none at all, even). I think an incredible amount of damage can be done to children if this is not handled well.
At crisis times you will tend to turn in different directions. It is during crises that all marriages are tested. An important way in which couples get through crises is often by turning to God, together. In an interfaith marriage, it may be that only one person turns to God, or the same view of God. It can lead to separation rather than bonding. It may make it harder to support one another as you have trouble finding common ground. One or both of you may get more support from outside your marriage than the other is comfortable with, which can lead to jealousy.
You will have important goals that differ. Shared goals are important in relationships. At least one potentially fulfilling shared goal is now eliminated: growing in (the same) faith together. You will need to find others, ones that are not shallow, but that nonetheless intersect with your spiritual lives (however you define your spirituality).
An important thing to remember is that none of the above problems are static. You do not just fix them once and then they stay away. No, people change as grow. New circumstances arise. You will continually be faced with all the above challenges in new forms and you must be willing to deal with them.
Why can it still work?
The above problems are, of course, huge. But they are not insurmountable. It is possible to be a fully committed Christian and grow in your faith with a spouse who is not (for instance). Raising children within an interfaith marriage can (potentially) be a beautiful gift to them, instilling a respect for other faiths and human freedom of choice that is so sorely lacking in society. It is possible to find comfort in your spouse’s love and respect in times of crisis even if they have a different faith. I think it is awesome if one of the shared goals of a couple is growing in faith together. But it does not need to be – substitutes are possible.
Love does not recognise boundaries imposed by culture or faith. The important thing is that there is mutual respect in the relationship and a willingness to work together, to bend, if not to break. If your faith is important to you then an interfaith relationship will almost of necessity be very challenging. But, I think, it is also exactly when both partners are committed to their respective beliefs when such a marriage is most rewarding.
That said, I need to stress that I think making an interfaith relationship work is very hard and the chances of failures (despite the best intentions by both parties are high). I personally think I am very unlikely to find a person of another faith with whom I share enough values and goals to overcome the difficulties.
Sometimes you find things on the internet that fill you with a righteous rage. So it was when I friend send me the link to Christian Prayer Center accompanied by a sad smiley face. The site was not in good taste, but it seemed benign on the surface. Closer inspection revealed a scam that’s a mockery of Christianity. My friend’s instincts were spot-on. No prayers are made or answered at Christian Prayer Center.
Let’s start with most damning charge that can be laid. They charge for prayer. Almost as if it were like buying detergent. A quick Google revealed that others had come across this site before and had detailed the process. You actually have to submit prayer request before being told you have to pay for it. This is disgusting.
They sell an offensive book that suggests you can pray so that your prayer will always be answered. Here is the blurb:
Have you ever wondered why God answers some prayers faster than others?
Does it matter how specific we are in asking for what we need?
What can we do to guarantee that our prayers will be answered every time?
If want to learn more about how to harness the fantastic power of prayer, I highly recommend “Miracles Through Prayer” by Pastor Randolph McFinn.
This enlightening guide details the five principles of effective prayer. Using real-world examples and easy-to-follow instructions, it’s the perfect resource for both the loosely religious and the highly devout. It answers questions many of us have about how prayer works, how God responds to our requests, and how to always make sure our prayers get answered.
This book is available for a limited time through the Christian Prayer Center for 20% off the cover price plus FREE shipping. Order your copy today and unlock the full potential of prayer.
What I find interesting about scams like this is how subtle they are. There is a way to make sure your prayers are always answered: pray for God’s will to be done (I suppose there is room for debate about this). But this is not what they mean. They mean that if you prayer for, say, financial success, then this is what you will get. The testimonials on the website are mostly of the following nature:
“When I got in from work this evening, I received a letter from IRS: Certificate of Release of Federal Tax Lien. The letter stated that over 10,000 dollars of back taxes has been satisfied. Thank you for all your prayers and I look forward to successfully sharing the job I will be landing next Tuesday.” -Joyce C.
This is a “prosperity gospel”: the idea that following God leads to success in (material) life (it doesn’t! It leads to success in your spiritual life.) Perhaps the most disingenuous part of the blurb, for me at least, was this: “it’s the perfect resource for both the loosely religious and the highly devout.” It is of course not true that prayer is more effective for the “highly devout” (although you can argue their prayers tend to be more in-line with God’s will). What is disingenuous about this statement is that it implies its perfectly OK to be ‘loosely religious’, that God is perfectly fine with people bending his arm for favours and doesn’t care at all about the lives they lead.
I am not against books that teach people how to pray. I am not against people giving and receiving prayer requests. These are good things. But prayer is about talking to God, not getting things from him. And prayer is not a game of numbers. It doesn’t matter how many people pray for you. And it certainly doesn’t help to pay them. It is sad that there are people that will exploit our basic human need to connect with the divine.
I am posting this in the hope that it will help prevent a few gullible souls from falling prey to these prayer-thieves. In the meantime I will send off a little prayer for these charlatans: I do not pray that they may receive their just desserts; rather, that they may feel, truly feel, the guilt that comes with true repentance and that they will be forced themselves to pray, to the God they have abused, for forgiveness.
Homosexuality is, perhaps, the single most important issue social issue facing the modern church. How the church handles it could be its end. But the obstacles to accepting gay marriage within the church are huge and I am not sure that they are insurmountable.
I must declare a bias. I grew up in just one of a handful countries that allows gay marriage, in South Africa, just as apartheid ended. My mind is coloured by the ideals of equality and freedom that the South African constitution upholds. As such, the idea of placing homosexual relationships on an equal footing with heterosexual ones seems natural to me. It is my default position. But it is based on culture more than theology.
I also suffer (as most humans do) from a confirmation bias – I easily dismiss anything that does not agree with my chosen conclusion. When I read this article about gay marriage being accepted in Sweden (the article itself is probably far from unbiased) I got a warm fuzzy feeling. And when I watched this excellent BBC miniseries with two female lovers in the 19th century I rooted for the socially unacceptable couple.
But if you’re a Christian then you must think about homosexuality and gay marriage Biblically, at least in the context of the church. The church cannot make decisions based on culture alone.
Why gay marriage should be legal
I would like to give a somewhat different perspective on the gay marriage debate. I think gay marriage should be legalised – this is not to say that gay marriage is “right” (from a Biblical perspective), but rather that it is not something the state should care about. This is similar to the way I argued about abortion (of course, I am not trying to equate the act of getting married to abortion).
Take the Bible out of the equation for a second. When you are talking about the State then you must do this. The state must be secular. By secular I do not mean “atheistic”. I mean that the state must be independent of any particular faith (or unbelief). All the arguments against gay marriage are based on religion and thus no longer count.
There does not seem to me to be any intrinsic difference between a heterosexual and homosexual union that should bias the state against the latter. Unless, of course, the state needs somehow to promote childbearing (but that could be better achieved by banning contraception) and with many alternative ways for homosexual couples to obtain children (sperm donors, surrogate mothers, adoption) this may be a nonissue anyway.
Homosexuality and Christianity
I confess, I would very much like for homosexuality to be compatible with Christianity. I want to see gay couples getting married in churches. I think this would be very good for the church (provided it is theologically justifiable). It would eliminate one of the greatest sources of criticism of the modern church. It would bring thousands upon thousands of gay men and women into the fold, people who currently feel rejected and marginalised. There would be love and acceptance rather than stern condemnation or even loving disapproval.
This is utopian. There are far too many Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin for the Swedish situation (if it has not been exaggerated) to be replicated worldwide. And there is too little Biblical evidence to convince these people they are wrong. I cannot convince myself they are wrong, though I so dearly wish that they are.
If you look at the Bible you will see:
- At best the Bible is silent about Gay marriage
- If not silent, it has nothing positive to say about it.
- At worst, it condemns it.
For the people who are sure that the last point is the truth, I would remind you of one thing: God loves everyone. He loves sinners. Even if homosexuality is a sin (and I am not saying it is), it does not and never will negate salvation. A believer is saved. Period.
(Of course, if you have a well-substantiated opinion on homosexuality and gay marriage I would love to hear it. Please leave a comment.)
 Aside: it seems to have become fashionable to depict homosexual causes with lesbian couples. As a man I don’t mind this, but let us not be misled by pictures that do not affect us, or by pictures that do.