Law and Justice
The current debate over LGBTQ inclusion is usually framed as either a matter of law, “God doesn’t permit this” or justice “God’s justice demands it.”
Beneath the traditionalist argument is usually an implied legalism. “We know God doesn’t permit this because of the law and therefore this is out of bounds for God’s people”.
Beneath this inclusivist camp is usually an implied progressivism or liberationism. “God in history ‘sets the captives free’. God did so with slaves in abolition, racial injustice in the civil rights movement, women in church leadership, and sexual minorities as we now discover they were ‘born that way’ and so must be welcomed. Christianity is about freeing us from guilt and shame and inviting us into freedom in Christ.”
Progressivism and Civil Religion
There is a progressivism deep beneath Western culture today that tracks with the Christian variety. This progressivism has in fact become the new civil religion replacing the Cold War version that aligned God and country to defeat communism. This new civil religion as social progressivism appears to be emerging victorious over the Cold War version which tried to repackage itself as “the moral majority” in American politics. Just as American power felt itself to be deeply moral in resisting godless communism it is increasingly feeling itself to be deeply moral in bringing justice to those sexually disenfranchised by traditional sexual ethics backed by traditional religion. Some in the church are trying to keep up by bringing this new enlightenment to their less evolved traditional church partners.
Lines in the Sand on a Slippery Slope
Progressivist assumptions are so deeply embedded in our culture that they play on the optimism and fears of both sides. This is expressed in church and government as a sort of war of attrition where there is presumed to be, for one or both sides, a right and wrong side of history. It’s just a matter of time until institutions capitulate to the new world order. “You don’t want to have history look back and judge you to be a bigot like those slave holding, slave whipping, slave raping Confederates! Get with the program before it’s too late.”
If we shift the imaginary from a slippery slope to a cyclical model we might revisit the Modernist/Fundamentalist wars of the early 20th Century and the institutional dislocation and re-adjustments that followed. There was an echo of this is in the second half of the 20th century where on a smaller scale denominations split and churches re-arranged themselves over women in leadership.
Observers on both sides will say “see it’s happening all over again. Might as well choose your side, make your split and get on with life instead of wasting time in the painful, agonizing battles.”
Others look across the divide and say “but these are my family. How can we just agree to disagree and go our separate ways?”
For still others, usually on the progressivist side they look at traditionalists as their field ripe for harvest. There are churches and individuals that must still be liberated from the bondage of darkness. Their progressivist mission cannot fail with Jesus as their leader and history his vindicator. Don’t we see the signs of this liberation not only in the church but in the public sphere as well?
Traditionalists feel the tide turning against them in church and state and look for, as they’d done before, institutional walls to protect them and Benedict Options to form them.
In the meantime denominations get weary of decades of constant strife. As the conflict escalates there is more and more pressure to arrive at a final resolution so that the church can finally put away the elephant sucking all the oxygen out of the room. The RCA appears perhaps to be close to this point. How is this done without a split or a purge? The “local option” is widely seen as capitulation (As then RCA Kevin DeYoung blogged on the Gospel Coalition in 2012) and the question would be not over whether there would be a split by over how large.
Time for a Confessional Conversation about Progressivism and Liberationism
As I mentioned how we tend to approach this is with conversations about law and justice which boil down into Synodical votes about rules and policies. When frustrated voices on both sides look for their “showdown” that will bring “resolution” they almost always look in this direction. The trouble is that this level of church government is a weak platform to give guidance to the church moving forward.
When someone in these conversations bring up the confessions (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt) the two points mostly made are either
- The confessions don’t mention these issues specifically and therefore the church is free to craft whatever policy or church order procedure it desires
- The confessions bind us to Scripture and since the Bible says “no” to this (law again) to promote inclusion is to violate Scripture. (See the 2015 Minnkota Overture debate.)
Inclusivists will then respond back to say that the Bible doesn’t prohibit this, in fact the Bible in its broad progressive sweep demands that we proclaim inclusion and liberation as justice.
This is why I say that what we probably need is another confession to actually address the far broader subject of progress. This issue (and others) are matters of how we read Scripture and it is precisely at this level that our confessions are supposed to guide us. Our confessions are supposed to be documents that express the broad themes of scripture to create an effective, binding community around how we do this reading. This is a confessional matter but we have no confession to guide us. Rather than tinkering with policies and rules, or trying to interpret study committee reports we should rather be working on a new confession to address our enlightenment, progressivist context.
The questions that contemporary progressivism and liberationism raise in our enlightenment context go far beyond the battles of women in office or LGBTQ inclusion. If the church continues to try to address these issues at the procedural level all we will do is be subject to the whims of every new aspect of imagined progress or liberation that comes down the pike. We will have no basis upon which to discern how Christ liberates us and what elements embody progress and what elements express corruption.
Not Whether Christianity is Progressivist but rather How
Confessionalism in a way begins with the resurrected Jesus. What we see him do repeatedly after the resurrection is re-interpret the Old Testament showing how it pointed to him. Paul and the Apostles then pick up the task and see Jesus as the “yes” (2 Cor 1) of all of God’s promises. The split between what became Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity was over how to read the Old Testament. The New Testament became the confessional basis for the church in its context.
Christianity is followed by Islam, the Latter Day Saints, and how many other progressivist religions that attempt to continue the process and declare “what we find in Muhammad/Joseph Smith finally corrects and modulates the earlier revelation.” Christians evaluate these new confessions on the basis of the New Testament and its reading of the Old.
The challenge isn’t really to say “Christianity is a progressivist religion” but to figure out how and what are the limits. It is easy to point to the setting aside of circumcision as grounds for LGBTQ inclusion but significantly harder to figure out what you can’t include with this argument. The force of the circumcision argument is precisely that it undermined a law approach. Christianity canonizes this modification in the New Testament. If we continue to wield this argument what then can’t we canonize?
My proposal is that instead of continuing the practice of working on this question as a matter of policy or polity that we approach is as a confessional question for which we very well might need a new confession. The purpose of that confession isn’t necessarily to speak to these issues directly (although they may) but rather to give broad theological guidance for figuring out what Christian progress is and isn’t in our cultural context and how this can help guide us through the inevitable and unforeseeable conflicts that society and technology bring to us.