on dialogue and normalization

You hear a lot these days from people who refuse to engage in dialogue with others who hold certain views because to converse with them would be to “normalize” or “legitimate” their position. I hear this view articulated most often (a) by people who can’t stand Trump and his supporters, and (b) by conservative Christians who oppose same-sex relationships. What I find odd about both groups is their belief that their inclination or disinclination to converse has some bearing on whether a politician or position or idea lies within the sphere of the “normal.” When a man has been elected President of the United States, then he and his supporters are ipso facto as normal as it gets, and won’t cease to be if the rest of us refuse to speak to them. Ditto with the general acceptance in our society, and increasingly in the church, of same-sex unions.

But aside from the practical, prudential questions, there are larger and genuinely principial matters at stake, and in a post today, Wesley Hill has wonderfully articulated what I believe to be the value of dialogue within the fellowship of baptized Christians:

Why do I agree to do these sorts of dialogues? The first reason is that Justin is “family.” We’re both baptized in the same Triune Name. We both confess the same creed. We both believe the weirdest thing is the deepest truth of the universe: that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. I think Justin’s Side A view is wrong and that it is wrong in a way that touches on first-order Christian claims about creation, Christology, and redemption; I also think that when family members hold views you think are that wrong, you keep on loving them and talking with them and seeking to bear witness to what you believe is true and life-giving. Second, for those who are worried, like I am at times, that this sort of dialogue may be a form of capitulation, a form of saying, “I’m convinced of the truth of my view but not so convinced,” let me just add that another reason I want to dialogue with people like Justin is that I want, in whatever minuscule way I can, to help see my own Anglican Communion, and the church more broadly, through its current crisis on sexual ethics. “Dialogue,” so easy to criticize as wishy-washy, need not entail compromise of one’s convictions; it may instead be a way of signaling hope that some future unity-in-truth may be realized in a way I can’t yet fathom. As the Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan has written, “The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process [of dialogue between ‘gay-affirming’ Christians and ‘traditionalist’ Christians] is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”

Preach it, my friend. Preach it over and over again.

On False Teachers: Bleat the Third

Steve Holmes recently wrote of his experience defending the traditionalist view on homosexuality at the Society for Biblical Literature conference:

I was slow to understand what went on in our session at ETS; the Rottweilers were out in some force, and challenging Megan and Bill [who were arguing for affirming same-sex relationships] on their understanding… But there was repeatedly an extra step stated or implied in the questions, from ‘this is wrong’ to ‘you are not a Christian’. I admit I did not understand where this was coming from.

Then someone came up to me at the end, and asked why I had been defending my friends. I began to say some stuff about love and loyalty but he cut across me, ‘They are leading people onto the highway to hell!’

I’ll set aside my difficulties with serious use of the phrase “highway to hell” in our post-AC/DC era, and just note that I have heard this before from my fellow theological conservatives: that people who teach that same-sex unions can be affirmed are not just wrong but are “false teachers” — people teaching something clearly other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore to be denounced and cast out rather than treated as brothers and sisters with whom we disagree.

I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and want to explain why. (Let me also add that I affirm with my whole heart the rest of Holmes’s post, and his further reflections in the comments thereupon. The affirmations I share with him are useful context for my views on this particular matter.)

Let’s begin by positing a few assumptions, because the argument I want to explore only arises when the following assumptions are granted: (1) that the Church must, in order to carry out its mission, confront theological and moral error; (2) that Holy Scripture is our authoritative guide to theological and moral truth and falsehood; (3) that sexual behavior is taken very seriously throughout the NT and that erroneous teaching about it must therefore be seen as profoundly consequential; (4) that the traditionalist side is correct on the merits, and the affirming side incorrect; (5) that there really are “false teachers” whose message is something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And perhaps one other assumption should be noted as well: that it is our place to decide who the false teachers are and to denounce them, something I have raised questions about here.

Now: onward.

As far as I can tell the two passages that are foundational for the concept of the “false teacher” are 2 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 4. I assume that Peter’s pseudodidaskaloi are pretty much the same as Paul’s didaskaliais daimoniōn, though perhaps the latter are even worse. That is, we could have three categories of error (teachers who are sometimes wrong, false teachers, demonic teachers) — but I suspect there are just two, and the latter two categories should be seen as one.

It is interesting, I note in passing, that 2 Peter coins pseudodidaskaloi by explicit analogy to pseudoprophētai, the latter being a far more common term in the NT. But clearly false teaching and false prophecy are distinct things, though if what I say in my previous paragraph is right they have a common origin: didaskaliais daimoniōn would also be anolagous to prophētai daimoniōn.

In any case, all this is foundational to a NT anatomy of error, it seems to me.

So — setting aside as irrelevant to this canonically-based inquiry the question of whether Peter wrote 2 Peter — let’s look at the famous dispute between Peter and Paul about the “circumcision party.” Paul says he told Peter to his face that he was wrong about this, and of course Paul’s view won out at the Council of Jerusalem (where, I have always thought comically, Peter presents it as his own view, with no reference to Paul having corrected him). Now, clearly, this is a foundational issue in relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if the circumcision party had won out it would have been the death of the Church in its infancy. So it is scarcely possible for Peter, assuming that he did at one time hold this view, to have been more catastrophically wrong. Does this then mean that for a time Peter was one of the pseudodidaskaloi?

That’s not quite what Paul says when describing the disagreement in Galatians 2. Instead, he says that in the circumcision party there was a failure to “walk correctly” (orthopodousin) in relation to “the truth of the Gospel.” A fascinating turn of phrase. Here interpreters will surely differ, but it seems to me that Paul is not treating Peter as a false teacher, but rather a brother, even though a brother who has made a terrible error — for if Peter is right, the conclusion of Paul’s argument says in verse 21, then “Christ died for nothing.” Paul does not anathematize Peter, but strives to correct him as one apostle to another, not questioning his place as one of the “acknowledged pillars” (v. 9) of the Church.

So perhaps the pseudodidaskaloi and didaskaliais daimoniōn are going further and questioning or denying the most elementary and foundational teaching of all: that Jesus is Lord, according to the Christology of John 1 and Colossians 1:15-20. This would be supported, I think, by the description of the false teachers in 2 Peter: they have “licentious ways,” “destructive opinions,” and “deceptive words,” none of which are spelled out except to say that “they will even deny the Master who bought them” — which may give us some hint about how deep the errors are here and therefore what qualifies as pseudodidaskaloi. Peter, by contrast, was not — not any longer, after his shameful behavior on the night Jesus was taken away! — denying the Master who bought him, but was mistaken about what the saving power of that Master meant for the Mosaic law.

So if you can be as wrong as Peter was about something foundational for the Gospel and still not be denounced as a false teacher, then I think it follows that if people do not “walk correctly” in relation to biblical teaching about sexuality, they likewise need not be treated as pseudodidaskaloi but can be seen as brothers and sisters whom those who hold the traditional view patiently strive to correct, without coming out from among them, speaking with the patience and gentleness commended in 2 Timothy 3:24-25.

a question for David Gushee

My favorite moment in this column by David Gushee comes when he says, “I have been a participant in the effort to encourage Protestant religious conservatives, generally known as fundamentalists and evangelicals, to reconsider their position voluntarily.” Voluntarily, or …? He sounds like a sheriff in an old Western: Are you gonna come along nice and quiet, or am I gonna hafta rough ya up?

But let’s assume that, contrary to certain appearances, Gushee doesn’t think of himself as an enforcer dispatched by the Powers That Be to bring recalcitrant bigots into line. Let’s set aside his insistence that none of the people on the wrong side of history are honest when they say they genuinely hold theological positions he himself held just a few years ago. (“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty.”) Let’s assume that he’s just quite neutrally letting us know what’s coming.

It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.

Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.

And, in case we didn’t get the point the first time around, he returns to it later:

Openly discriminatory religious schools and parachurch organizations will feel the pinch first. Any entity that requires government accreditation or touches government dollars will be in the immediate line of fire. Some organizations will face the choice either to abandon discriminatory policies or risk potential closure. Others will simply face increasing social marginalization.

A vast host of neutralist, avoidist or de facto discriminatory institutions and individuals will also find that they can no longer finesse the LGBT issue. Space for neutrality or “mild” discrimination will close up as well.

So in light of these warnings about what is to come, I have one question for David Gushee: So what?

That is: What, in his view, follows from this state of affairs — for Christians, that is? Odd that he doesn’t say. It has been my understanding that Christians consider it a virtue to hold to their convictions in the face of unpopularity and even persecution. (“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.… But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”)

Of course, you can also be persecuted for holding false views; being persecuted doesn’t confer legitimacy. But it certainly isn’t a sign of error, or those who have “endured to the end” are of all people most to be pitied. So how is it relevant, in Christian terms, that those who hold certain views will suffer for holding them — that those who hold the view that Gushee has publicly held for around twenty months are powerful enough to punish those who haven’t quite caught up with him? 


Evangelical theology cannot be ‘pro-gay’ – but neither can it be ‘pro-straight’. As I understand it evangelical theology is, or should be, opposed to all idolatries indifferently. This is precisely because it is, or should be, ‘pro-human’. I’ve argued before that classical evangelical practices of holiness in the nineteenth century involved profound subversions of then-standard ideas of masculinity and femininity. There is plenty of good scholarship on the reconstructions of femininity away from the domestic sphere into political and social activism. The reconstructions of masculinity away from celebrations of machismo, violence, and alcohol consumption and towards a more submissive, gentle, family-oriented life have not been quite so well studied. But they too are clear. Evangelicalism in its classical forms undermined and reconstructed the culturally normal gender roles of the day; it will do the same in our day, if it has an adequate grasp of the gospel.

I must admit to going back and forth on the topic of the New Homophiles. Apostolic celibacy is a great good. The struggle to be faithful Catholics is a great good. Trying to identify with Christ is exactly what we are all called to do. Spiritual friendship could be a good thing though I worry they envision something like Charles Ryder reading scripture with Sebastian Flyte. Can we accept them on their terms? I do not know.

— The New Homophiles: A Closer Look | Crisis Magazine. What, indeed, are we to do? We are not under judgment; we judge. We need not worry about acceptance, we only have to decide whom we will, or will not, accept. We keep the gates; we decide who is or is not worthy of admission. We instruct; we have nothing to learn.

It must be awesome to be “we.”

loneliness and hospitality

As a student of family life from the outside, I’ve come to a conclusion that family life, as opposed to celibacy, is a life of high highs and low lows. The high is that you are loved by someone who has promised never to leave you. You are needed by children who are utterly dependent on you, and who return your smiles. The low is that you may lose those people to death, or they may at some point reject you.

The single life is more moderated and less risky. The high is that my will is never crossed. The low is that my will is never crossed. Another low is that I am lonely. But at least I don’t have another person who is directly responsible for my loneliness.

“All the Lonely People”: On Hospitality, Again | Spiritual Friendship. Please read the whole post, in which Betsy Childs manages the enviable feat of being charitable to the uncharitable.

When Christians sell books and preach sermons encouraging non-married people to embrace their “singleness” as a blessing, we are promoting the destructive effects of the sexual revolution. “Singleness” as we conceive of it in our culture is not the will of God at all. It is representative of a deeply fragmented society. Singleness in America typically means a lack of kinship connectedness. This was not the case, for example, with Jesus who was not married. He never lived alone. He went from the family home to a group of twelve close friends who shared daily life with him until he died (followers who would have never left off following him). His mother and brothers were also still involved in his life and are often mentioned. Jesus’ mother was there at his darkest hour when he died. In contrast, singleness in America often refers to a person who lives alone or in non-permanent, non-kinship relationships.

— Karen Keen (via wesleyhill)

Is sex the place in which that project of re-enchantment ought to begin? I just can’t see it—not after the nearly complete triumph of the sexual revolution’s disenchantment, not after the way “free love” was essentially sold to us by the Edwardians as an escape from narrow Victorian Christianity, not after part of the culture’s most visible morality became the condemnation of those perceived as condemning something sexual. The campaign for traditional marriage really isn’t a defense of natural law. It revealed itself, in the end, as a defense of one of the last little remaining bits of Christendom—an entanglement or, at least, an accommodation of church and state. The logic of the Enlightenment took a couple of hundred years to get around to eliminating that particular portion of Christendom, but the deed is done now.

We should not accept without a fight an essentially un-Catholic retreat from the public square to a lifeboat theology and the small communities of the saved that Alasdair MacIntyre predicted at the end of After Virtue (1981). But there are much better ways than opposing same-sex marriage for teaching the essential God-hauntedness, the enchantment, of the world—including massive investments in charity, the further evangelizing of Asia, a willingness to face martyrdom by preaching in countries where Christians are killed simply because they are Christians, and a church-wide effort to reinvigorate the beauty and the solemnity of the liturgy. Some Catholic intellectual figures will continue to explore the deep political-theory meanings manifest in the old forms of Christendom, and more power to them, but the rest of us should turn instead to more effective witness in the culture as it actually exists.

In fact, same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in chastity in a culture that has lost much sense of chastity. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in the coherence of family life in a society in which the family is dissolving.

© 2017 Snakes and Ladders

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑