The Magnitude of Theological Change implicit in “Inclusion” Demands A More Substantive Theology

Still Mulling and Probably Won’t Stop

It’s the most Synodical time of the year and young delegates eyes all turn to the question of same sex marriage.

When word broke this week that Tony Campolo “came out” I knew he wasn’t gay, he had just switched over to the “inclusion” camp. “Inclusion” is the new “affirming”.

I, and just about every other pastor I know continue to watch, and mull and sometimes whisper about the issue of our age for the church. I haven’t posted in a bit on this but I continue to watch, and think and ponder. Perhaps a status report is in order.

“Sorry Tony You’ll Need A Few More Consonants”

The most interesting cloud on Tony’s “coming out” party is that it is post Caitlyn. Both Elial Cruz and Brandan Robertson have signaled that the ticket price has risen if you’d like inclusion into the inclusion party. Former traditionalists must enter with public apology and more letters in hand than just L and G. They are clearly feeling the “right side of history.” Any church that doesn’t equally embrace the bisexual, the gender queer or the transgender is not fully evolved. I would assume we should also welcome the pansexual, the polyamorous and whatever other orientations emerge in the years or months or demographic groups to come.

One wonders if the “demand” made by church, however weakened by the heteros, of “lifetime covenanted monogamy” can even be suggested anymore. Serial monogamy is the new standard and the job of a religious leader is to celebrate and facilitate the transitions.  People’s sex lives are private decisions and the role of church is to celebrate not critique or criticize those decisions. The church should know its place.

Life is a journey, gender is constructed, and it is too much to imagine a single construct spanning a Western middle class lifetime. Partners with appropriately assigned constructions must be found along the way. A more rational approach is to imagine a series of relationships that people are encouraged to sustain as long as their comfort zones can tolerate. While admitting this publicly tends to elicit protests from romantics (see here and here), it is of course the implicit understanding of the day. Friends encourage friends to go out and find the relationship they deserve.

Post-Sexuality and the Inclusion of the Gentiles

Evangelicals (Ken Wilson, Matthew Vines, James Brownson, David Gushee, and others) have all been trying to make a biblical case for birth sex or genetic sex being irrelevant to God approved pairing (only two at a time though please). The strongest argument by traditionalists is that sexual (“gender is for grammar”) complementarity is foundational to any fruitful God-ordained sexual union.

This new situation is motivating scholars to go back and look at stories again in a new light.  This is not a bad thing, the New Testament is full of it having to figure out how new events fit in with old scripture.

It strikes me, however, that a change like this is on the magnitude of a transition like that of setting aside circumcision and the Mosaic law. There is precious little evidence in the Old Testament that circumcision would be set aside yet it was. Much of the New Testament is the creation of the theology necessary to transition the Old Testament narrative through this change. That theology would become the foundation for the last 2000 years of the church.

Are we looking at such a transition today? Are the traditionalists Judaizers?

What is the Source of This Transition?

Traditionalists may pounce on this point but they should probably look before they leap. I’ve continued working on Charles Taylor’s massive A Secular Age and gained much by it. The roots of the present movement outside the church certainly seem traceable back to the Reformation or the “Reform” movements. However painful it is for my atheist friends to admit our framework of individual rights is the heir of Western Christendom. The question is whether the child of secularism will kill its mother.

The evangelical forces for inclusion assert that this is the work of the Holy Spirit progressively working its way through the church and society in a quiet post-millenialism.

Sources for the big leap made by Paul, the apostle to the gentiles were also broad as NT Wright keeps showing us. These were also accompanied, however, by the incarnation, life, death, resurrected and ascension of Jesus together with the coming of the Holy Spirit. All of this culminated in the church that went from persecuted sect to religion of the empire in 300 years.

Traditionalists could of course be the new Judaizers but what I think we should expect to see if the first twist is any guide would be a very messy process out of which the inclusion faction emerges victorious together with an invigorated, thriving church.

While none of us alive today will be present to witness such a triumph I would suggest we might look for certain signs and wonders to accompany it.

  • There will need to be a new theology of sexuality that doesn’t just grandfather in nice, mostly white middle class same sex monogamous stable couples but fully accounts for sexual supernova that seems to be exploding. Just as New Testament was able to convincingly re-imagined the story of Israel so also I imagine this transition will need to do something comparable. I’ve yet to imagine anyone assert another Testament but can we really imagine simply backing our way into a transition of this magnitude? The burden is on those who wish to promote a new ethic to flesh it out.
  • The new theology fleshed out (even if it comes after the changes in practice) will have to in the course of a few generations express itself in thriving institutions. The new theology should become a catalyst for the new institutional thriving in an increasing generative way. We would expect the institution itself to become the vanguard, not always playing catchup like Tony forgetting to bring his apology.
  • While there may be other competing institutions in the ecosystem we’d expect this new one to out-perform the others.

I don’t imagine we can make any of these final judgments today, but early indications are not good.

  • Most of the theology we are reading is defensive and accommodational rather than charting a whole new course. The question we see being addressed is “how can our theology catch up with what is happening outside the church”, not “how can our theology explain what is happening inside the church exclusively (like it was in the first century) and propelling the church forward beyond its environment.”
  • The lack of an agenda in the Christian and evangelical left from the political left is another troubling indicator. You won’t find much in Sojourners that you also can’t find on the lips of non-Christians at the Democratic party. (I say this as someone who has never voted for a Republican for any major office.) Is the Holy Spirit more active in the Democratic party than in the church? Possible, but it doesn’t say much good about the church.
  • If we ask those on the Christian left what is “beyond” inclusion of monogamous gay and lesbian couples what is their answer? Is that answer already found outside the church? Is most of what is happening inside the church an attempt to move ecclesiastical foot draggers to get more in step with what is being written about on What is the mental landscape of a preferable future? The new theology will need a new eschatology.
  • Saying “birth sex is a thing indifferent to a relationship” really doesn’t cut it. Why is this indifferent now when it has been so foundational for the entire biblical story and history of the church? If this is part of the “mystery” (think mystery novel not impossible puzzle) that is revealed in Christ then the Holy Spirit sure has been slow to unveil this truth to us and the vehicle seems stranger than tongues in the house of Cornelius.

Still Watching and Trying to Keep an Open Mind

I want to be honest with both sides of this debate. If this is a new movement of the Holy Spirit by which God enfolds sexual minorities of ever letter into his church I want to be down for that. I want everyone including people who identify as gays, lesbians, polys, bis, trans, around the table of the Lamb and I think Jesus does too. That’s also true of my atheist friends, my sex offender friends, my Muslim friends, my new agey friends, etc. I’m just expressing what Paul expressed that none should perish.

Our current situation raises enormous missiological challenges to us. Do we opt for a Benedict Option or a Blue Ocean option?

The point of this posting is that a change of this magnitude will require more than just practical accommodation with a bit of defensive theological cover. We should see fruit in keeping with the magnitude of the theological change it is demanding.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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6 Responses to The Magnitude of Theological Change implicit in “Inclusion” Demands A More Substantive Theology

  1. Steve Brauning says:

    Big questions. Necessary questions. How long will we be just following the pack? Which ever pack! But I am convinced that we’ll have to face the new wave. Most likely, we’ll be backing into this change whether we like it or not. Because we are sleeping in the bed of our own making! Once the Enlightenment and Reformation kicked in, we received a construct that presented itself as absolute, immutable. But it was based on a patchwork of other constructs: Judaism, the original “Jesus Movement”(early church), the “universalism” of the Roman Catholic empire, then the demythification of the Enlightenment and the “Age of Reason”, mixed with the revolution of the Protestant Reformation. This construct told us about an infallible, inerrant, and inspired Word of God, but keep pretty tight wraps on where it came from and how we got it. It told us, from that Word, about a sovereign God, moral absolutes, eternal rewards and punishments, etc. That is all now being challenged, not for the first time by any means, but this time very convincingly. We had better be ready to respond. I for one am ready to respond by allowing my received construct to be challenged, and challenging it myself. One specific area that is challenged by the scenario referred to in the above article is the whole question of who is “in” and who is “out”. The question of if there even really is an “out”. Who is to judge? Is there any basis on which to judge? Is there even any real judgment? On eternal rewards and punishments: isn’t it time to admit that all that is out of our hands? For me, that is the theological change to be addressed.

  2. Harris says:

    So is the Spirit doing something new? Or is it another case of “this time it’s different”?

    I think we under-estimate the meaning of tradition (or even Tradition): it’s not simply what has been passed down, but is part of an on-going experiment of what works. Communities endure because of tradition; it is the worn path that allows the community to safely navigate a number of variables. Think of it this way: if the tradition didn’t work, the community founders, disappears. Tradition is self-correcting.

    In terms of the present discussions, tradition points to the inescapable nature of ethics as socially constructed. They belong to cultures and so are necessarily time-limited. And I think here is where Christian reflection can really come to the fore: if time-limited, then practices can be interrogated as to their assumptions about people, society and the like. As an aside, what so marks the failure of conservatives has been the reluctance to actually ask about these assumptions — the new ethic is a fall from some ideal state of grace (See Matthew Lee Anderson’s post on the erotic and marriage at Mere Orthodoxy).

    As to what this interrogation might look like, I find two items at work. First, there is the contemporaneous rise of the consumerist, neo-liberal economy. The social vision of the new ethic is one that is deeply compatible with view of the self as autonomous, self-making agent. Pause. Of course in this view of the self is a set of economic assumptions; those who talk this way have the freedom to speak this way, a freedom borne of economic affluence. In a consumerist viewpoint, of self-defining, then the role of the sexual is of a first-order reality. Again, when the conservative tries to establish a proper use of marriage by an appeal to the sexual (it’s for “making babies”), it falls into this same broader social mindset.

    A word about the consequence of this: the reason why the conservative has a hard time outlining the harm of SSM is in part due to the invisibility of the victims. Because SSM is so often aligned with the consumerist mind/view its victims are those impacted by this consumerism. So oddly, the inability of the working poor to sustain marriages; the incarceration state for minorities, or for that matter the amassing of student debt — all are signs of this neo-liberal age of Empire; the new ethic is but the froth.

    Now a second item: the new ethic grows on the separation of the self as identity and the body. My true self is who I believe myself to be, so to speak; the body is a shell. What is this but gnosticism of the 21st C? of course, Harold Bloom spoke of this a generation ago, the essential gnostic spirit of Americanism, of ‘you can be anyone you want to be,’ self improvement and the like. Another extension of the true self as the self-defined is the presence of narcissism, the therapeutic, and of course the high sentimentalism of MTD. Again, about its consequence: it is not simply the vaporization of thought (usually what conservatives note), but rather the separation from the body itself — the exigencies of life. The new ethic again, is the stuff of privilege, the stuff of distraction while the actual impact is felt elsewhere, by others not of our class or race. Neo-liberalism again.

    So here is my recommendation: that the church and its thinkers take far more seriously the actual philosophies, the anthropologies of this Age. Were we to engage at this level, with a commitment to our own body, say, or rejecting the age’s gnosticism, or walking away from consumerism… we would also have freedom to deal with the individuals in front of us, who have to make the best of it, gay, straight, trans or whatever. We need the sharp tools necessary to separate people from the Spirit of this Age.

    [oh dear, this went on, quite a bit, didn’t it?]

  3. Pingback: Can we imagine an “affirming” church tradition flourish and grow or has “providential deism” made divine irrational demands nonsensical? |

  4. Pingback: How the SCOTUS Decision on Same Sex Marriage made Church Affirmation of Same Sex Marriages Increasingly Obsolete |

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