General Synod pronouncement and proposal for action on the United Church of Christ as a 'Just Peace Church'
85-GS-50 VOTED: The Fifteenth General Synod adopts the pronouncement "Affirming the United Church of Christ as a Just Peace Church."
Affirms the United Church of Christ to be a Just Peace Church and defines Just Peace as the interrelation of friendship, justice, and common security from violence. Places the United Church of Christ General Synod in opposition to the institution of war.
The Thirteenth General Synod called upon the United Church of Christ to become a Peace Church and the Fourteenth General Synod asked a Peace Theology Development Team to recommend to the Fifteenth General Synod theology, policy, and structure for enabling the United Church of Christ to be a peacemaking church. This pronouncement is based on insights from all three of the historic approaches of Christians to issues of war and peace—pacifism, just war, and crusade—but attempts to move beyond these traditions to an understanding rooted in the vision of shalom—linking peace and justice. Since Just War criterion itself now rules out war under modern conditions, it is imperative to move beyond Just War thinking to a theology of a Just Peace.
Biblical and theological foundations
A Just Peace is grounded in God's activity in creation. Creation shows the desire of God to sustain the world and not destroy. The creation anticipates what is to come: the history-long relationship between God and humanity and the coming vision of shalom.
Just Peace is grounded in covenant relationship. God creates and calls us into covenant, God's gift of friendship: "I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore" (Ezekiel 37:26). When God's abiding presence is embraced, human well-being results, or Shalom, which can be translated as Just Peace.
A Just Peace is grounded in the reconciling activity of Jesus Christ. Human sin is the rejection of the covenant of friendship with God and one another and the creation and perpetuation of structures of evil. Through God's own suffering love in the cross, the power of these structures has been broken and the possibility for relationship restored.
A Just Peace is grounded in the presence of the Holy Spirit. God sends the Holy Spirit to continue the struggle to overcome the powers ranged against human bonding. Thus, our hope for a Just Peace does not rest on human efforts alone, but on God's promise that we will "have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).
A Just Peace is grounded in the community of reconciliation: the Just Peace Church. Jesus, who is our peace (Ephesians 2:14), performed signs of forgiveness and healing and made manifest that God's reign is for those who are in need. The church is a continuation of that servant manifestation. As a Just Peace Church, we embody a Christ fully engaged in human events. The church is thus a real countervailing power to those forces that divide, that perpetuate human enmity and injustice, and that destroy.
Just Peace is grounded in hope. Shalom is the vision that pulls all creation toward a time when weapons are swept off the earth and all creatures lie down together without fear; where all have their own fig tree and dwell secure from want. As Christians, we offer this conviction to the world: Peace is possible.
Statement of Christian conviction
A. The Fifteenth General Synod affirms a Just Peace as the presence and interrelation of friendship, justice and common security from violence. The General Synod affirms the following as marks of a Just Peace theology:
Peace is possible. A Just Peace is a basic gift of God and is the force and vision moving human history. The meaning of a Just Peace and God's activity in human history, especially the life and witness of Jesus, is understood through the Bible, church history and the voices of the oppressed and those in the struggle for justice and peace. Nonviolent conflict is a normal and healthy reflection of diversity; working through conflict constructively should lead to growth of both individuals and nations.
Nonviolence is a Christian response to conflict shown to us by Jesus. We have barely begun to explore this little known process of reconciliation. Violence can and must be minimized, even eliminated in most situations. However, because evil and violence are embedded in human nature and institutions, they will remain present in some form. War can and must be eliminated.
The State should be based upon participatory consent and should be primarily responsible for developing justice and well-being, enforcing law, and minimizing violence in the process.
International structures of friendship, justice, and common security from violence are necessary and possible at this point in history in order to eliminate the institution of war and move toward a Just Peace. Unexpected initiatives of friendship and reconciliation can transform interpersonal and international relationships, and are essential to restoring community.
B. The Fifteenth General Synod affirms the United Church of Christ as a Just Peace Church. The General Synod affirms the following as marks of a Just Peace Church, calling upon each local church to become:
A community of hope, believing a Just Peace is possible, working toward this end, and communicating to the larger world the excitement and possibility of a Just Peace.
A community of worship and celebration, centering its identity in justice and peacemaking and the Good News of peace that is Jesus Christ.
A community of biblical and theological reflection, studying the Scriptures, the Christian story, and the working of the Spirit in the struggle against injustice and oppression.
A community of spiritual nurture and support, loving one another and giving one another strength in the struggle for a Just Peace.
A community of honest and open conflict, a zone of freedom where differences may be expressed, explored, and worked through in mutual understanding and growth.
A community of empowerment, renewing and training people for making peace/doing justice.
A community of financial support, developing programs and institutions for a Just Peace.
A community of solidarity with the poor, seeking to be present in places of oppression, poverty, and violence, and standing with the oppressed in the struggle to resist and change this evil.
A community of loyalty to God and to the whole human community over any nation or rival idolatry.
A community that recognizes no enemies, willing to risk and be vulnerable, willing to take surprising initiatives to transform situations of enmity. A community of repentance, confessing its own guilt and involvement in structural injustice and violence, ready to acknowledge its entanglement in evil, seeking to turn toward new life.
A community of resistance, standing against social structures comfortable with violence and injustice.
A community of sacrifice and commitment, ready to go the extra mile, and then another mile, in the search for justice and peace.
A community of political and social engagement, in regular dialogue with the political order, participating in peace and justice advocacy networks, witnessing to a Just Peace in the community and in the nation, joining the social and political struggle to implement a Just Peace.
C. The Fifteenth General Synod affirms friendship as essential to a Just Peace.
1. We affirm the unity of the whole human community and oppose any use of nationalism to divide this covenant of friendship.
2. We reject all labeling of others as enemies and the creation of institutions that perpetuate enemy relations.
3. We affirm diversity among peoples and nations and the growth and change that can emerge from the interchange of differing value systems, ideologies, religions and political and economic systems.
4. We affirm nonviolent conflict as inevitable and valuable, an expression of diversity and essential to healthy relationships among people and nations.
5. We affirm all nations developing global community and interchange, including:
a. freedom of travel,
b. free exchange of ideas and open dialogue,
c. scientific, cultural, and religious exchanges,
d. public education that portrays other nations fairly, breaking down enemy stereotypes and images, and
e. knowledge of foreign languages.
D. The Fifteenth General Synod affirms justice as essential to a Just Peace.
1. We affirm all nations working together to insure that people everywhere will be able to meet their basic needs, including the right of every person to:
a. food and clean water,
b. adequate health care,
c. decent housing,
d. meaningful employment,
e. basic education,
f. participation in community decision-making and the political process,
g. freedom of worship and religious expression,
h. protection from torture, and
i. protection of rights without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or national or social origin.
2. We affirm the establishment of a more just international order in which:
a. trade barriers, tariffs, and debt burdens do not work against the interests of poor people, and developing nations,
b. poor nations have a greater share in the policies and management of global economic institutions.
3. We affirm economic policies that target aid to the most needy: the rural poor, women, nations with poor natural resources or structural problems, and the poor within each nation.
4. We affirm economic policies that will further the interests of the poor within each nation:
a. promoting popular participation,
b. empowering the poor to make effective demand on social systems,
c. encouraging decentralization and greater community control,
d. providing for the participation of women in development,
e. redistributing existing assets, including land, and distributing more equitably future benefits of growth,
f. reducing current concentrations of economic and political power, and
g. providing for self-reliant development, particularly in food production.
5. We affirm nations transferring funds from military expenditures into programs that will aid the poor and developing strategies of converting military industries to Just Peace industries.
6. We oppose the injustices resulting from the development of national security states that currently repress the poor in organizing society against an external enemy.
7. We affirm a free and open press within each nation, without hindrance from government.
E. The Fifteenth General Synod affirms common security from violence as essential to a Just Peace.
1. We affirm that national security includes four interrelated components:
a. provision for general well-being,
b. cultivation of justice,
c. provision for defense of a nation, and
d. creation of political atmosphere and structure in which a Just Peace can flourish and the risk of war is diminished or eliminated.
2. We affirm the right and obligation of governments to use civil authority to prevent lawlessness and protect human rights. Such force must not be excessive and must always be in the context of the primary responsibility of the state in creating social justice and promoting human welfare. Any use of force must be based in the participatory consent of the people.
3. We affirm that war must be eliminated as an instrument of national policy and the global economy must be more just. To meet these goals, international institutions must be strengthened.
4. We affirm our support for the United Nations, which should be strengthened developing the following:
a. more authority in disputes among countries,
b. peacekeeping forces, including a permanent force of at least 5000, able to police border disputes and intervene when called to do so by the U.N.,
c. peacemaking teams, trained in mediation, conflict intervention, and conflict resolution,
d. support for international peace academies,
e. a global satellite surveillance system to provide military intelligence to the common community,
f. international agreements to limit military establishments and the international arms trade,
g. an international ban on the development, testing, use, and possession of nuclear and bio-chemical weapons of mass destruction, and
h. an international ban on all weapons in space and all national development of space-based defense systems and Strategic Defense Initiatives.
5. We affirm our support for the International Court of Justice and for the strengthening of international law, including:
a. the Law of the Sea Treaty,
b. universal ratification of the International Covenants and Conventions which seek to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and
c. recognition of the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and removal of restrictions, such as the Connally Amendment, which impair the Court's effective functioning.
6. We reject any use or threat to use weapons and forces of mass destruction and any doctrine of deterrence based primarily on using such weapons. We also reject unilateral, full-scale disarmament as a currently accepted path out of the present international dilemma. We affirm the development of new policies of common security, using a combination of negotiated agreements, new international institutions and institutional power, nonviolent strategies, unilateral initiatives to lessen tensions, and new policies that will make the global economy more just.
7. We affirm the mutual and verifiable freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons as the most important step in breaking the escalating dynamics of the arms race and call upon the United States, the U.S.S.R., and other nations to take unilateral initiatives toward implementing such a freeze, contingent on the other side responding, until such time as a comprehensive freeze can be negotiated.
8. We declare our opposition to all weapons of mass destruction. All nations should:
a. declare that they will never use such weapons,
b. cease immediately the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons,
c. begin dismantling these arsenals, and
d. while the process of dismantling is going on, negotiate comprehensive treaties banning all such future weapons by any nation.
9. We declare our opposition to war, violence, and terrorism. All nations should:
a. declare that they will never attack another nation,
b. make unilateral initiatives toward dismantling their military arsenals, calling on other nations to reciprocate, and
c. develop mechanisms for international law, international peacekeeping, and international conflict resolution.
Proposal for action on organizing the United Church of Christ as a Just Peace church
85-GS-51 VOTED: The Fifteenth General Synod adopts the Proposal for Action "Organizing the United Church of Christ as a Just Peace Church."
Calls upon churches to organize themselves so as to be effective instruments of God's Just Peace. Calls for organizing the United Church of Christ regionally and nationally for more effective Just Peace witness. Calls for a two-year Just Peace offering and effective long-range funding.
This Proposal for Action builds on the proposed pronouncement, also submitted to the Fifteenth General Synod, "Affirming the United Church of Christ as a Just Peace Church." Like the pronouncement, the Proposal for Action has been developed in response to the request of the Fourteenth General Synod to recommend theology, policy, and structure for enabling the United Church of Christ to be a peace-making church.
The Fifteenth General Synod calls on all in the United Church of Christ to recognize that the creating of a Just Peace is central to their identity as Christians and to their Baptism into the Christian community.
A. Call To Local Churches
The Fifteenth General Synod calls on local churches to organize their common life so as to make a difference in the achieving of a Just Peace and the ending of the institution of war.
The Fifteenth General Synod calls for the development of four key components within local churches: spiritual development, Just Peace education, political advocacy, and community witness.
1. We call all local churches to the inward journey of spiritual nurture: prayer for a Just Peace, study of the Scriptures, theological reflection upon the work of the Holy Spirit, and celebration and worship that center the life of the community in the power and reality of the God who creates a Just Peace. We call for the development of Christian community that nurtures and supports members in the search for a Just Peace. We commend to all local churches the use of the World Peace Prayer, using the example of the Benedictine Sisters who pray this specific prayer each day at 12 noon:
Lead me/us from death to life,
from falsehood to truth.
Lead me/us from despair to hope,
from fear to trust.
Lead me/us from hate to love,
from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts,our
world, our universe.
2. We call all local churches to the inward journey of education. Knowing that there are no easy answers to the creating of a Just Peace, we call for churches to establish the climate where all points of view can be respected and all honest feelings and opinions shared in the search for new answers and directions. We call for a steady program of Just Peace education and a steady flow of information on Just Peace issues into the life of the congregation.
3. We call all local churches to the outward journey of political witness, enabling all members to join the search for the politics of a Just Peace. Just Peace is both a religious concept and a political concept, and participation in the political arena is essential. We call for each church to appoint a contact person for the United Church of Christ Peace Advocacy and Hunger/Economic Justice Networks to follow closely those political issues most critical to the development of a Just Peace and to alert members of the local church when it is most appropriate to write or contact their Senators and Representatives.
4. We call all local churches to the outward journey of community witness. We call for local churches to make their convictions known in their communities through public forums, media, and presence in the public arena. We call for local churches to help shape public opinion and the climate in which the issues of a Just Peace are shaped. We call for churches to explore with military industries the opportunities for conversion into Just Peace industries. We call for evangelistic outreach, inviting others to join in the search for a Just Peace.
Because the times are so critical, we call for extraordinary witness as well as ordinary political involvement to break the power of the structural evils that prevent a Just Peace. We call upon local churches to be understanding and even supportive of persons who out of individual conscience take the responsibility for such nonviolent extraordinary witness. Examples of such witness might include: becoming a conscientious objector to war; refusing acceptance of employment with any project related to nuclear and biochemical weapons and warfare; refusing any and all assignments to use weapons of mass destruction as a member of the military; withholding tax money in protest of the excessively militaristic policies of our government;and engaging in acts of non- violent civil disobedience, willingly going to jail to call attention to specific outrages.
B. Call to Conferences and National Bodies
The Fifteenth General Synod calls upon Conferences and national bodies of the United Church of Christ to organize their common life so as to make a difference in the achieving of a Just Peace and the ending of the institution of war.
The Fifteenth General Synod calls for the development of four key components in developing the United Church of Christ so that it can make a real difference over the next years: regional centers, Washington advocacy, international presence, and national programs.
1. We call upon Conferences to develop regional centers able to link local churches into effective regional and national strategies. A variety of options are possible at the Association and Conference levels:
The development of regional United Church of Christ peace centers that resource local groups through educational, organizational, advocacy, and funding efforts;
The development of ecumenical regional Just Peace centers, in partnership with other denominations;
The funding of part-time, contract, or full-time Just Peace staff at the Association or Conference; and
The funding of ecumenical peace staff in states or metropolitan areas.
2. We call for the strengthening of our advocacy work in Washington, D.C., with more funding to develop the capacity of the United Church of Christ to make its witness known in the national political arena, to expand its capacity for policy analysis, to increase its presence on Capitol Hill in shaping legislation, to develop stronger communication links with churches around the country to share political developments and urge action, and to build coalitions.
3. We call upon the United Church of Christ Board for World Ministries to explore and develop new models of peace and justice ministries globally to address particular situations of injustice, oppression, and real or potential violence, and to develop communication links between Christians in these critical situations and Christians in the United States, developing global partnership and global awareness in the search for a Just Peace.
4. We call upon all national bodies to continue to develop effective programs of advocacy, empowerment, and education. We call for more resources to develop national strategies of advocacy and action to increase the witness of the United Church of Christ for a Just Peace. We call for the Office for Church in Society to facilitate the coordination of this work.
Churches, Conferences, and national bodies, including the Office for Church in Society, the Executive Council, the United Church Board for World Ministries, and the Stewardship Council, have been requested in this Call to Action to respond to various directions. These bodies are responsible for developing the strategies and programs to fulfill the goals outlined here.
Note: Implementation of this Proposal for action is subject to the availability of funds.
In 1932—while many Americans were reacting to reports of atrocities committed by Japanese forces in China—two leading Protestant theologians debated in the pages of Christian Century whether U.S. military intervention in the conflict would be a "just" or "unjust" war. The theologians were H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale University and his brother, Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Both were members of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, one of the UCC's antecedent denominations, and both influenced many members of the first and second generations of UCC pastors who studied under them.
The rising tide of conflict in Asia and Hitler's imminent seizure of power in Germany were stirring renewed fears of war, and motivated both men to reexamine Christian traditions regarding war and its moral consequences. We present these papers because they are relevant to the international debate over terrorism and the use of armed force in self-defense.
H. Richard Niebuhr argued for a principled "inactivity" based on radical trust in God. He wrote: "The inactivity of radical Christianity is not the inactivity of those who call evil good; it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness. ... It is not the inactivity of the noncombatant, for it knows that there are no noncombatants, that everyone is involved, that China is being crucified ... by our sins and those of the whole world. It is not the inactivity of the merciless, for works of mercy must be performed though they are only palliates to ease present pain while the process of healing depends on deeper, more actual and urgent forces." But Reinhold Niebuhr disagreed: "Love may qualify the social struggle of history but it will never abolish it, and those who make the attempt to bring society under the dominion of perfect love will die on the cross. And those who behold the cross are quire right in seeing it as a revelation of the divine, of what man ought to be cannot be, at least not so long as he is enmeshed in the processes of history."
Also linked from this page is the 1985 General Synod pronouncement on "Just Peace"—an alternative to traditional "Just War" doctrine—and UCC theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite on the relevance of the Just War tradition to the war against Iraq.
The UCC Office of General Ministries, which sponsors this page, thanks the Rev. John Deckenback, Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, and his staff who provided us with the original text of this debate. We also thank you for your congregation's financial contribution to Our Church's Wider Mission, which makes this service possible.
Radical trust in God
H. Richard Niebuhr argues that radical obedience to God requires Christian nonviolence. Any other response would mean distrust in God and God's promises.
In a fallen world, Reinhold Niebuhr replies, Christians cannot act as if the reign of God has already been established, and must sometimes use force to protect the innocent.
A final word
In a letter to the editors of Christian Century, H. Richard Niebuhr sums up the debate.
Turning to Tradition
In making moral judgments about the war in Iraq, says UCC theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Christians can find help from a "1,500-year-old tradition."
The "Just Peace" doctrine commended by the UCC's General Synod in 1985 is distinct both from "just war" theory and traditional Christian pacifism.
This special supplement to the Theology Page is a resource for congregations and seminaries using the 1648 Cambridge Platform as a tool for study in U.S. Christian history and polity. The Cambridge Platform was a transforming event in the life of 17th-century Congregationalism and is relevant to serious issues that concern all Christian churches today. In a global church that is becoming increasingly congregational, non-hierarchical and fragmented by culture wars, how do churches maintain bonds of love with each other? How can we resolve the tensions between unity and freedom, tradition and modernity, the integrity of community and the rights of the individual?
Papers at the Cambridge Platform 350th Anniversary Conference in Cambridge, Mass., explored these issues in depth. We are able to invite you to this feast of theological reflection through the courtesy of the Congregational Library in Boston, which granted us permission to reprint the conference papers. Also included are six audio files of an unprecedented conversation between leaders of the four communions that can claim descent from the Cambridge Platform—the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. These groups represent the left, center and right of the American religious spectrum, and show how a defining moment 350 years in the past can produce strikingly different results. The audiotape was provided through the courtesy of the First Church in Cambridge, United Church of Christ. Papers are linked below.
Elizabeth C. Nordbeck writes that the heritage of the Cambridge Platform "heritage is immensely powerful, immensely compelling and still capable of shaping the present and future."
Social and Spiritual Roots
Francis J. Bremer explores the Platform's roots in the social and spiritual values of New England's Puritan community.
Relevance for Today
Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe asks what the Platform can teach divided and often warring churches in the 21st Century.
Looking Back, Forward
Harvard University chaplain Peter Gomes preaches the concluding sermon at Harvard's Chapel.
Written by Andrew G. Lang
A few years ago the Ramsey Colloquium—a group of Christian and Jewish scholars—published a sharp critique of "the gay and lesbian cause" which they titled "The Homosexual Movement." 1 As they predicted, their declaration was denounced as "a display of homophobia." "Such dismissals have become unpersuasive and have ceased to intimidate," they wrote. "Indeed, we do not think it a bad thing that people should experience a reflexive recoil from what is wrong." This "reflexive recoil" from homosexual behavior is not homophobia, they said, but the instinctive reflex of those who know that homosexuality violates God's natural law.
Among the authors were several academics at liberal strongholds like Amherst, Princeton, Oberlin, Yale and Hebrew Union College. It hardly needs to be said that entering the debate in this way exposed the Ramsey Colloquium to angry denunciation and was, for some of its members, an act of courage.
My purpose is not to criticize the declaration's reasoning but to draw your attention to one paragraph as the starting point for our conversation:
We believe that any understanding of sexuality, including heterosexuality, that makes it chiefly an arena for the satisfaction of personal desire is harmful to individuals and society. Any way of life that accepts or encourages sexual relations for pleasure or personal satisfaction alone turns away from the disciplined community that marriage is intended to engender and foster. [Italics added.]
This is a profoundly counter-cultural vision of human sexuality and one that can be helpful as we struggle with the moral question that is before us: should the church affirm faithful relationships between same-sex partners?
Calls Sexual Revolution into question
The Ramsey Colloquium, rightly in my opinion, calls into question the ethic of "sexual liberation." Thirty years after the Sexual Revolution, our culture still understands sexual freedom as freedom from constraint, namely, from the boundaries of discipline, order and structure. And who could be opposed to freedom? We always live in the tension between personal freedom and social discipline, so we want to liberate ourselves from this tension and live in the light of a pure freedom that never says "no" to human possibility. Defined in this way, freedom is the doctrine of personal sovereignty, the private property of the ego that has to be seized and defended. So words like "discipline," "order" and "structure" also provoke a "reflexive recoil"—the recoil of the individual ego when we encounter boundaries that limit our freedom of action. Naturally, in a culture that defines individuality as self-determination and self-assertion, discipline is at best suspect, at worst oppressive.
But this is not the church's traditional vision of freedom or individuality. Freedom, according to Christian tradition, is not only freedom from but also freedom for. Karl Barth saw it as "freedom for obedience" to the Word of God. Particularly in the witness of the Reformed churches, freedom cannot be understood as my self-liberation but only as the sovereign gift of God who, despite my opposition, rushes to my side and creates the right order that I have abandoned. So God places me in "disciplined community," as the Ramsey Colloquium puts it, or in a "community of disciples" who follow Christ as their Lord and whose lives are oriented towards this Lord as the source of their freedom and the measure of their behavior. It is in this community, and nowhere else, that God meets me through Word and Sacrament, and where I learn the boundaries and, paradoxically, the unlimited possibilities of the freedom that is mine only as gift, and never as self-determination.
The tradition defines God's sovereign gift of freedom in words that are familiar to all of us: covenant, election, justification, vocation, and sanctification. These are words I want to explore as we attempt to understand the morality of same-sex relationships among members of our church.
What is God's word on this subject? To begin with, I need to understand with you what we mean when we say that a "word" is addressed to the church, because there are many words to which you or I could appeal for authority. There are the words of psychology, sociology and genetics. There are the words of natural law and tradition. But all of these words are subject to the one Word whom we worship as Lord and to whom we owe obedience. So, in the familiar text of the Barmen Declaration:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scriptures, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and beside the one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths as God's revelation. 2
Jesus Christ is the one Word of God! Belonging to this Word, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, is our "only comfort, in life and in death." But what do we need to know, the Catechism asks, to "live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?" Three things:
First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption. 3
"Sin"—another counter-cultural word! But without the consciousness of sin the Gospel itself makes no sense. There can be no productive discussion of marriage and homosexuality, or really of any other moral question, unless we can agree that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."
Sin threatens our relationships with death. In the self-assertion of the ego against God not only our relationship with God but also every human relationship is brought into disorder. There is, in fact, no human covenant that is not wounded by our collective and individual rebellion against God's sovereign claim on our lives. This is certainly so in all the greater and lesser injuries that we inflict on each other—in heterosexual marriage, in celibate life, and in the partnerships formed by gays and lesbians. Sin distorts our life together as the Body of Christ, so that no contentious issue in the church can possibly be discussed without anger and mutual recrimination—particularly an issue like sexual morality, which exposes our deepest fears of alienation, loneliness and chaos. Sin distorts all of our relationships. Left on our own, we cannot live together as God intended.
But—thanks be to God!—God does not leave us alone. The Heidelberg Catechism affirms that we do have this "comfort, in life and in death," that we belong not to ourselves but to our "faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil."
Covenant: God's bridge to humanity
This brings us to covenant, defined by the Westminster Confession as God's "voluntary condescension" which bridges "[t]he distance between God and the creature." 4 "Covenant" is a critical concept in Reformed ethics, as you all know, and I cannot possibly say much about it a few minutes. But I agree with Max Stackhouse that "it is likely that nothing less than an understanding of and a commitment to covenantal mutuality under God can bring moral and spiritual coherence to what is otherwise experienced as a seething, chaotic mass of dominations and arbitrariness." 5
Moral and spiritual coherence! These are not empty words! We all sense that the scattered and broken pieces of our lives (and our relationships) belong together but we simply don't know how to re-build the structure we have demolished. But the Reformed tradition affirms that the coherence that eludes our best efforts has already been established definitively in Jesus Christ. How? Through the covenant of Baptism, our primal covenant, in which Christ's obedient "Yes" to God becomes our own "Yes"—and this is the starting point for our lifelong journey from chaos to coherence.
The self-disclosure of God in the covenant of Baptism reveals that God's being itself is covenant. In the reciprocal relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we learn that God's nature is not solitude, but communion. God's inherent nature is to be with others. The Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says it better than I can:
God is not a sealed fortress, to be attacked and seized by our engines of war (ascetic practices, meditative techniques, and the like) but a house full of open doors, through which we are invited to walk. In the Castle of the Three-in-One, the plan has always been that we, those who are entirely "other," shall participate in the superabundant communion of life. Whatever we regard as the ultimate meaning of human life, be it giving, creating, finding or being given, being created and being found; all this is fulfilled in the original prototype: in the life of the eternal "With." 6
The triune being of God is therefore the primal form of all of our covenants. Here, God chooses not to be alone but with and for the humanity God created. Here, God elects humanity to be God's covenant partner. Here, God's love cannot be contained but pours itself out with incomprehensible majesty into the creation and reconciliation of humanity. Christian covenants must participate in this Trinitarian structure, so that the order broken by sin and restored by God's sovereign decision in Christ becomes an order of being "with" others.
The form of covenant
From our participation in this divine self-disclosure—as Christians who have been incorporated into God's Trinitarian being through Baptism and who meet the Triune God again and again through Word and Sacrament—we can begin to describe the form of Christian covenant:
First, God chooses each of us for covenant, calls us into covenant life and uses covenant to complete God's work of conversion and sanctification in our lives. Election, vocation, conversion and sanctification! Nothing less is at stake in Christian covenant than the overcoming of our opposition to God! So every Christian covenant is a means of grace that draws us into the covenantal life of the Trinity. God works through covenants to convert us to a life with God and with others.
Second, Christian covenants are accountable to the community, and therefore must be sealed by public vows. In contrast to the secular theory of "contract," in which two independent persons with equal rights enter into an agreement, Christian covenants are accountable to the Lord who comes to us in Word and Sacrament, that is, in the realized life of the Body of Christ in the Christian community. Jesus Christ is the Lord of every covenant, but the Covenant Lordship of Christ is mediated through his Body, the church. Therefore, covenant promises cannot be a private contract between two solitary persons but always a public demonstration of vows in the presence of the community.
Third, the community is accountable to the covenants made by its members. Because we are sinners, our covenantal relationships are always threatened by moral disorder. Covenant partners will turn again and again to the church which, as the Body of Christ, will call us back into relationship.
Fourth, Christian covenants create new life. Just as the triune life of God is not enclosed within itself but creates life in all of its forms, human covenants must also be creative. This is seen most clearly in the covenant of marriage, where (if it is God's will) a woman and a man extend life through the birth and care of children. But this creative vocation must be seen in all of our covenants. In some way, every Christian covenant must extend the boundaries of life. Every Christian covenant must be generative and generous. Every Christian covenant must say "Yes" to life.
Marriage: the oldest of human covenants
Heterosexual marriage is the oldest of human covenants, and every other relationship descends from this encounter of a man and woman in marriage. This is obviously so because we are born in families and we owe our existence to heterosexual parents. But the tradition also says that in the marriage of a man and a woman we have a type, or an image, of the covenantal love of God for Israel and Christ for the church.
There is much discussion about whether same-sex relationships also should be called "marriage," and, as you all know, this is a subject on which the church is deeply divided. There can be no question, however, that the Jewish and Christian traditions set heterosexual marriage apart from all other covenants. In my view, the confusion of marriage with other relationships can obscure the priority of heterosexual marriage in God's creative design and the Bible's orientation towards marriage as an analogy of God's passionate and faithful love for creation. And although I intend to argue that the church must grant equal dignity to same-sex relationships lived under vows—an argument I will save for the end of this paper, if you will be patient with me—I am not yet convinced that "equal dignity" is the same as "objective equality." In other words, heterosexual marriage and same-sex relationships are not objectively the same thing but each has its own inherent moral dignity.
In any case, the marriage rites of all Christian churches testify to the tradition that marriage is a covenant between heterosexual partners. So does the only gay and lesbian denomination, the Metropolitan Community Churches, whose rite for blessing same-sex couples is called "union," not "marriage." In its "Order for Marriage," the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ reflects this ecumenical consensus:
The scriptures teach us that the bond and covenant of marriage is a gift of God, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh, an image of the union of Christ and the church. 7
As the first human covenant revealed in scripture and the only human covenant present at the origin of the human race, I believe marriage has a privileged claim on the ministry of the church. Through the tradition's use of marriage as an analogy of God's covenant with humanity, marriage is prior to all other covenants but one—our primal covenant of baptism.
But although heterosexual marriage is unique, it also participates in the Trinitarian structure that is common to all Christian covenants. Marriage, if I may borrow from St. Benedict's well-known image of the monastery as a "school for sinners," is the school where those called into this covenant learn how to be with another and not alone. It is a means of grace, through which God calls a man and a woman away from the terrible solitude of the alienated self into a life of self-giving love. Like other covenants, marriage is not closed in on itself but open to others, first, to the gift of children and family, second, to the church whose liberating boundaries encompass every Christian marriage. Like other covenants, marriage is accountable to Christ, who is the Covenant Lord of the married partners and of their family.
The covenant of celibate community
Marriage is also a vocation, which means that to be a Christian marriage, God must summon a man and a woman into this relationship. But throughout its history, the church has also held an honored place for women and men who were called into a different covenant, but one by which they nevertheless were liberated by God to live a life with and for others. That covenant is celibacy, and to this we will now turn.
We are immediately in trouble here because most of us in this room are Protestant and we have had virtually no tradition of organized celibate community for more than 400 years—with a few exceptions, including one Augustinian monastery in Germany that transferred its allegiance to the Lutheran Reform in 1558 and somehow survived until 1675. 8
The disappearance of vocational celibacy, along with the organized structures without which any covenantal life is impossible, ought to be a serious concern among us. Luther's reaction to the abuse of monastic vows was so extreme that at one point he wrote that chastity is impossible outside of marriage. Calvin was equally contemptuous of the monastic way of life, writing that "the cloisters, the cells, the holes of the monkeries smell of nothing but excrement." 9 So there was no reform of celibate community in Protestant Europe, only a relentless attack on the monasteries that led to their dissolution.
Our break with 1,400 years of vocational celibacy has led us to believe that marriage is normative for all men and women, that is, the only vocation of relationship to which Christians can aspire. But it was not so in the apostolic church, as Karl Barth reminds us:
It is obvious that in the New Testament community marriage can no longer be an obligation. . . . This is the fact, too lightly ignored by Protestant ethics in its glad affirmation of marriage . . . , that Jesus Christ himself, of whose true humanity there can be no doubt, had no other beloved, bride or wife, no other family or domestic sphere but this community. Certainly, He expressed Himself very definitely about the divine basis, the indissolubility and the sanctity of marriage (Mk. 10:1-12, Mt. 5:27-31.) He did not command anyone to abstain from it in practice as He Himself did. . . . [But] there are those for whom entrance into the married state is not only not commanded but temporarily or even permanently forbidden. We certainly cannot say, in the light of these sayings [of Jesus], that entrance into marriage is universally the higher way, the better possibility. . . . Our true point of departure is that for Paul marriage is always a way (beside which he knows another and better) by which the Christian, becoming one body with his wife, does not deny the truth that he is one spirit with the Lord, but in his own way maintains and expresses it just as much as he who chooses a different path. 10
This "different path" is celibacy. So it is a mistake for us to see celibacy as either a compromise or a curse for those who, because of their sexual orientation or their situation in life, are unable to enter into the covenant of heterosexual marriage. Celibacy is a gift in which the person called into this life becomes fully human. Those who hear God's call to this life are not half-human. We cannot say they are incomplete because they have not fulfilled themselves in a union between a woman and a man. Nor should we understand celibacy as "asexuality" or merely as "abstinence" from a sexual relationship. Instead, celibacy is a particular disciplining of sexuality that liberates sexual energy for communion with others. We only have to look at the ecstatic visions of Roman Catholic mystics like St. John of the Cross or St. Therese of Avila, or the extraordinary creative energy of the Shaker communities, to see how sexual identity was not negated by celibacy but channeled into an intensely unitive relationship with Jesus Christ.
Celibacy therefore conforms to the Trinitarian structure of covenant. It is a life with and for, not a life apart from others. Like the covenant of marriage, it should be sealed by vows. We have no time to examine the arguments of Luther and Calvin against monastic vows, but by definition there should be no Christian covenant—including baptism, marriage and ordination—in which public promises are not witnessed by the community. By abolishing the vow of celibacy, the Reformers also abolished the possibility of celibate life as a normative vocation alongside heterosexual marriage. The result impoverished the church and denied any structured expression for those Protestants who were not called into marriage. A church without a covenantal vocation to celibacy is a church that is not fully oriented towards Jesus Christ—who, as Karl Barth reminds us, lived his life for others but not in the covenant of heterosexual marriage! Barth cannot be ignored when he writes that in Jesus "[t]he great example of a powerfully exercised freedom for celibacy is before us all." 11
On the other hand, the Protestant revolt against priestly and monastic celibacy was not groundless. Men and women like the monk Martin Luther and his future wife, the nun Katherine of Bora, were living under the burden of an enforced celibacy to which they were not truly called by God. We will take up this point again in a few minutes, because it will be a critical one in our discussion about same-sex relationships.
Are same-sex relationships a means of grace?
Do same-sex relationships conform to the Christian tradition of covenant? Can they become a means of grace through which God calls homosexual men and women to a life of conversion and holiness?
It is important to begin by acknowledging that homosexuality is most often experienced as inherent, as a "given," not a "choice." I know that some of us do not believe that the "givenness" of homosexuality is at all self-evident. But even the Ramsey Colloquium concedes—although rather reluctantly—that "some scientific evidence suggests a genetic predisposition for homosexual orientation," although it argues that there is no moral distinction between homosexuality and a predisposition towards "alcoholism or violence." The official Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality is somewhat more generous. According to the U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family:
[I]t seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a fundamental dimension of one's personality and to recognize its relative stability in a person. . . . Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose. 12
But basing its argument on natural law, the Roman Catholic church prohibits the expression of love in a homosexual relationship because "only within (heterosexual) marriage does sexual intercourse fully symbolize the Creator's dual design as an act of covenant love with the potential of co-creating new human life." In the Roman Catholic view, a homosexual relationship is therefore "disordered" because it does not express the sexual encounter of a man and a woman and because it cannot be open to the procreation of children. For these two reasons, the church requires that gays and lesbians remain celibate.
The Roman Catholic teaching, in my opinion, is a reasonable attempt to struggle with a difficult problem in a way that does not dishonor or condemn the gay and lesbian members of the church. We can be grateful that the Church of Rome has broken decisively with the now widely-discredited model of homosexuality as a "disease." Instead, the church accepts that homosexual orientation is, at least generally, an inherent dimension of the human personality of gays and lesbians. The Roman magisterium therefore implicitly calls into question the ethics of so-called "transformation ministries" or "restorative therapies" that promise to convert or "cure" homosexuals into heterosexuals.
But the implications of the Roman Catholic teaching go deeper. Before 1975, Roman Catholic ethics assumed that homosexuality was a vicious choice. It did not acknowledge the concept of "sexual orientation." Since the only right expression of sexuality was either in heterosexual marriage or in celibate vocation, then every sexual relationship between two women or two men must have been a conscious act of rebellion against the will of the Creator—a rebellion, in other words, of persons who were naturally heterosexual but chose same-sex partners in violation of nature. This is clearly what Paul has in mind when he writes in Romans that "their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another." (Rom. 1:27 NRSV). Note the verbs "exchanged" and "giving up!" Paul clearly is condemning men and women who have a choice. The Romans described by Paul had freely chosen to "give up" what was natural to them for what was unnatural. 13
But Paul is not describing the homosexuals who are the subject of Roman Catholic ethics. Here, sexuality is not "chosen," but "given." One therefore has to ask who "gave" this orientation, and what is the nature of the gift?
One gift of homosexuality, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint, could be a consecrated life of celibacy. Since that church continues to maintain an entire infrastructure of organized celibate communities, it can at least offer this alternative with some credibility. But Protestants have less credibility when we impose celibacy on our gay and lesbian members. Our churches support virtually no institutional forms of celibate life and seem to have returned to the idea of permanent celibacy merely as a backdoor solution to the disturbing presence of openly homosexual Christians in the ordained ministry. Confronted with the ecumenical consensus that homosexuality is not chosen, some Protestant churches have rediscovered the vocation of celibacy several centuries after it was abandoned by Luther and Calvin. But the rediscovery lacks moral conviction, and the spectacle of married bishops and ministers—who have no personal experience of vocational celibacy and have never considered this vocation valid for themselves—imposing permanent celibacy on others is problematical, at least.
But enforced celibacy for homosexuals is equally problematical in the Roman Catholic tradition. Fundamentally, it violates the dignity of celibate life as vocation. There is no evidence in either scripture or tradition that God created an entire class of human beings who sui generis must enter into covenants of celibate community. Celibacy in the Catholic tradition is always seen as a gift, a way of life to which God elects and calls some, but not most, men and women. As any Roman Catholic vocation director will tell you, to live a life of enforced celibacy when that man or woman does not clearly hear the divine calling to this covenant is almost always destructive. Celibacy in the absence of God's call to celibate community is not necessarily a moral choice.
Protestants should know this well enough from our own history! One of the motors that drove thousands of Catholic priests, monks and nuns into the arms of the Reformation was the legal requirement of celibacy in the absence of a real vocation to this way of life. Eberlin von Gônzburg, a Franciscan friar who converted to Lutheranism in 1522, was speaking for the generation of Luther and Calvin when he described the moral agony of a celibate life divorced from vocation. Celibacy, he wrote, was
. . . a daily nagging of conscience and unrest of mind, by which all joy becomes suffering, all consolation saddening, all sweetness bitter. . . . [It] dulls and deadens the human senses, hardens the heart, and restrains natural honesty, leaving one in the end in so uncivil and inhumane a state, and so guilt-ridden and remorseful, that one hates salvation and the good in one's life and longs for misfortune. 14
Protestants should remember the spiritual and mental anguish of our own celibate ancestors before legislating permanent celibacy for lesbians and gays who may not be called to this exceptional (and demanding) way of life. Nevertheless, some homosexuals are called to the covenant of celibate community, and so are some heterosexuals. The Roman Catholic church acknowledges the presence of both sexual orientations in its ordained ministry. But we should recognize with Karl Barth that celibacy is a "special vocation" and it would be a serious error to prescribe it when the vocation is absent. When celibacy is imposed not by God's call but by ecclesiastical discipline on gays and lesbians, the result is precisely what Gônzburg described: the senses are dulled, the heart is hardened, honesty is restrained so that, in the end, one is left is "so incivil and inhumane a state, and so guilt-ridden and remorseful, that one hates salvation . . . and longs for misfortune." Today, we would describe this condition as a state of deep melancholy, depression or despair—and why should we be surprised? What else could be the result when a man or a woman who is capable of giving himself or herself to another in love is sentenced by the church to a life of solitude? This was obvious enough to the Reformers 475 years ago and it should be equally obvious to the church today.
The vocation of gays and lesbians in the church
So, if not celibacy, then what? Is there a vocation for those gays and lesbians God has not called to either heterosexual marriage or celibate community?
Like all other women and men, lesbians and gays are called by God to live a life not for ourselves, but for others. We are called to covenantal relationships in which our lives correspond to the inner life of God who is self-in-community, who in God's own being is self-for-others.
Gay and lesbian unions are covenantal relationships if they conform to this Trinitarian structure. Like heterosexual marriage and celibate community, these relationships are "schools for sinners," in which two partners learn how to live in the paradox of freedom that is unlimited precisely because it is limited by the other. The partner in a same-sex relationship is truly "other"—not through the complementarity of a man and woman, of course, but in the mutuality of two persons who in freedom choose each other and delight in being chosen. God creates these relationships because within the limits of our given sexuality we are always called out of isolation into community. Always. Always! Through these relationships we learn what it means to be truly human, to care for another as much as we care for ourselves, to learn that a life enclosed on itself is death, but a life opened to other lives is God's gift and command to those who believe.
Neither same-sex relationships nor celibate community are objectively "equal" to heterosexual marriage. The marriage between a man and a woman has its own distinctive and privileged character. But neither are they "second-class" marriages. They are moral relationships and they have a specific claim on the ministry of the church.
Same-sex relationships are broken by the same powers of evil that threaten heterosexual marriage. All relationships are wounded by sin. That is why God gave us covenants and why Christ is the Lord of each covenant. When the church offers its ministry to same-sex partners it is affirming the reality of sin and therefore saying "no" to the false doctrine that there was no fall from grace and no need for the Cross. We often speak about "affirming" or "celebrating" same-sex unions but I am convinced the real pastoral need in the gay and lesbian community is the ministry of the church when our relationships are broken by sin. Like heterosexual couples, we are adrift in the ethical chaos of a society that exalts freedom over commitment, selfishness over self-sacrifice, and the fulfillment of personal "needs" over mutual responsibility. The church needs to be a safe harbor for these relationships—encompassed by ethical boundaries, discipline, accountability and tradition. In other words, gay and lesbian couples need structure, and we need just as much structure as heterosexual couples.
Same-sex couples therefore have a claim on the pastoral care of the church. The church must not abandon us to the moral disorder of a fallen world that is in rebellion against God. But the church's pastoral concern for these couples necessarily requires the public, liturgical expression of the vows that bind them together. Pastoral care without the public recognition of their vows would undermine the moral accountability of same-sex couples to each other and to the church. The congregation cannot legitimately expect conformity to ethical norms for same-sex partners if it is unwilling to witness the vows in which those partners commit themselves—in the presence of the community—to fidelity and mutual obedience. If a congregation permits pastoral care but denies the public rite of union it is saying, in effect, "we expect you to honor your covenant but we don't want to hear about it outside the pastor's office." "Don't ask, don't tell" is a cruel way of life for same-sex couples and if that constraint were imposed on heterosexual partners, I doubt many marriages could survive. "Private" promises of fidelity apart from the community are like New Year's resolutions, easy to break. Moreover, the alienation of same-sex unions from the liturgical life of the community plays into the hands of the secular ideology that covenants are only private contracts between individuals who are accountable to no one but each other.
Conversion and sanctification
Ultimately, the purpose of same-sex covenants, like the covenants of heterosexual marriage and celibate community, is conversion and sanctification. Through these relationships we cooperate with God's design for human life. They are a means of grace, and we could not be fully human without them. St. Irenaeus, who heard God's call to the covenant of celibacy, says this about God's work of sanctification:
If you are the handiwork of God, await the Artisan's hand patiently. He does everything at a favorable time, favorable, that is, to you, whom He made. Offer Him your heart, pliant and unresisting. Preserve the form in which the Artisan fashioned you. Keep within you the Water which comes from Him; without it, you harden and lose the imprint of His fingers. By preserving the structure, you will ascend to perfection; God's artistry will conceal the clay within you. His hand formed your substance; He will coat you, within and without, in pure gold and silver; He will adorn you so well that "the Sovereign will delight in your beauty" (Ps. 44:12). But if you harden and reject His artistry, if you show Him your displeasure at being made a human being, your ingratitude to God will lose you both His artistry and His life. Making is the property of God's generosity; being made is a property of human nature. 15
What a glorious vision, for all of us! God is an artisan who will adorn our lives "in pure gold and silver." But you and I cannot ascend to this perfection alone. Not alone. Not alone. God takes us by the hand and leads us through the terrors of life, giving us companionship so we can learn how to live not for ourselves, but for others. Through these relationships of community and family, of heterosexual marriage, celibate love and homosexual partnership, God converts us towards the "life for others" that is the primal nature of the Trinity, towards the majestic generosity and creative power of the Three-in-One into whom we were incorporated through Baptism, and we know this is true because Jesus Christ has been revealed to us as the first of many chosen, justified, called and sanctified by God.
2. "The Theological Declaration of Barmen," United Church of Christ Web site at http://www.ucc.org/believe/barmen.htm.
3. "The Heidelberg Catechism," in The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, v. 2 (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1997), 329.
8. François Biot, The Rise of Protestant Monasticism (Baltimore and Dublin: Helicon Press, 1963), 65-67. At this point the vocation of celibacy-in-community disappears from Protestant history until the first deaconess community was founded in 1836. Crossing the Atlantic with German Reformed and Lutheran immigrants, the deaconess movement spread to the United States, and its memory is preserved in the many "Deaconess Hospitals" affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Lutheran churches. But today the deaconess movement in North America is only a memory. In Europe, there has been a modest revival of Protestant monasticism—most notably the ecumenical Taizé community in France. Unlike the deaconess movement, Protestant monks have met a cool reception in the United States, at best. The only alternative for North American Protestants called to this vocation are the small Anglican communities that are closer in spirit to Rome than to Wittenberg or Geneva.
12. Committee on Marriage and Family, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers" (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic News Service, Oct. 1, 1997).
13. Karl Barth at one time shared with Paul the belief that homosexuality is a choice, not a "given" condition. The two or three pages he wrote in Church Dogmatics on homosexuality assumed that gays and lesbians despise the opposite sex and choose partners of the same sex as a substitute for the woman or man they have rejected. Barth nowhere addressed the issue of sexual orientation or proposed an ethical response to it. Barth's assumptions were not unusual in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he wrote his brief comments on homosexuality, and could have been a response to a pre-war homosexual movement in Germany that exalted the male as superior to women—not a popular motif in the male homosexual movement today. But it is not widely known that Church Dogmatics was not Barth's last word on the subject. "In light of conversations with medical doctors and psychologists," writes Barth scholar George Hunsinger, "Barth came to regret that he had characterized homosexuals as lacking in the freedom for fellowship. In the end he, too, found it necessary to interpret the plain sense of Scripture in light of advances in modern knowledge." George Hunsinger, "Thinking Outside the Box, Part 4: The Voice of 'Progressive Traditionalists'," The Presbyterian Outlook, March 13, 2002, online journal at www.pres-outlook.com/hun031302d.html.
About the author
Andrew G. Lang, who is a homosexual, is the theological reporter for the Proclamation, Identity and Communication Team, Office of General Ministries, United Church of Christ, and manager of the UCC's website at www.ucc.org. This paper was presented at a conference May 6, 1998, at the Acton, Mass., Congregational Church sponsored by the Massachusetts chapter of Confessing Christ. The views are those of the author. Copies of this paper are available at the United Church of Christ website, or call the UCC at 216-736-2173.
Last revision: Oct. 24, 2002
On May 6, 1998, the Massachusetts chapter of Confessing Christ sponsored a colloquy at the Acton (Mass.) Congregational Church on same-sex unions and the Christian faith. The event centered on papers presented by Andy Lang for and by Max Stackhouse against the proposition that the Christian church should support monogamous, vowed relationships between same-sex couples. We present both papers here, plus a list of links to other resources on the subject.
Here is the introduction to the Bible study led by Dr. Paul Hammer—retired professor of biblical interpretation at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y.—at the 2000 Dunkirk Colloquy.
Where shall we begin Bible study? In one way, it is quite unbiblical to begin with the Bible. Biblical writers generally do not begin with an exegesis of texts, but with the reality of their situations. Then they tap into their traditions and texts to help them meet the situations they face in their faith communities and in their worlds.
As a former colleague of mine says, "The word became flesh, not text." ANd when it comes to texts, we know that no interpretation of a text can ever be absolutized, for the only Absolute is neither the Bible nor the Church but the living God.
One of my favorite stories about biblical interpretation is about two boys whose mothers were ministers. They were arguing about whose mother was the better preacher. Said the one, "My mother can take the same text and preach a different sermon each Sunday." "That's nothing," said the other. "My mother can take a different text and preach the same sermon each Sunday."
Perhaps there is a bit of truth in both. No text is ever exhausted by any one sermon. And every text finally points to the saving love of God for everyone in God's beloved world.
Bible's unity is enriched by its diversity
What I would like to do is to offer what I see as the interpretive or hermeneutical contexts generally of biblical writers themselves, though of course we cannot fit all these writers, who span a thousand years of Hebrew Christian history, into one mold. The diversity of biblical writers is quite amazing, but what would one expect from the multiple struggles they faced over such an extended period of time? Any biblical unity is enriched by such diversity.
Obviously, there is no one way to articulate such interpretive contexts, but I would suggest the following: a cosmic context, and ecclesial context, a canonical context, and evangelical context, and a pneumatic context.
First, a cosmic or world-embracing context. (Kosmos means "world.") Biblical writers embrace the realities of their worlds and their situations where they and their communities find themselves. Do they, like we, really have any other choice than to begin where we are?
Further, I find it instructive that the way in which the biblical writings are put together in our Bible places them in the context of creation in Genesis at the beginnning and of new creation in Revelation at the end. Thus the Bible as a whole has this cosmic or world-embracing context. As you and I come to this colloquy, we bring our cosmic contexts: our personal lives, our interpersonal relationships, our work, our leisure, our economics, our politics. We bring the glory and the tragedy of life in our world. We do our Bible study in a cosmic context.
Second, an ecclesial or a community-of-faith-participating context. (Ekklesia means the "called-out" assembly, the church.) Biblical writers were part of communities of faith, even when as prophetic persons they had to challenge their own communities. These faith communities were communities of worship, of instruction, of supportive fellowship, of wider mission in that cosmic context of which they were a part. Their life in an ecclesial context intended to guide and nourish and challenge them to be faithful in the larger cosmic contexts of their worlds.
We too bring to this colloquy our life in the faith communities of our churches, with their worship, their education, their fellowship, their ministries and missions. As early Christians prepared for their world-embracing mission, says Luke, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42).
Parenthetically, I find it interesting that here Luke says nothing about preaching! Life within the faith community calls for teaching. For Luke, preaching is for those who have yet to hear "the good news of great joy for all the people" (Luke 2:10). Someone once said that sometimes we seem to speak to the church as if it were the world and to the world as if it were the church.
Teaching is more for the ecclesial context. Preaching is more for the cosmic context. At any rate, we do our Bible study in an ecclesial context.
Third, a canonical or Bible-engaging context. Though the earliest biblical writers may not yet have had their scriptures, they did have their oral traditions. These traditions and the biblical writings that emerged from the communities of faith during a thousand years became canonical for Israel and the Church. From among other writings, these, taking several centuries of usage, finally became the canon or "measuring stick" to engage them again and again to inspire and challenge and keep them on course, though these writings hardly spoke with one voice as they engaged their ecclesial as well as their cosmic contexts.
In fact, an important aspect of the biblical writings is the way scripture can challenge scripture and point to an ongoing interpretive process. The canonical context points to both content and process, and thus the Bible canonizes both the writings themselves and the dynamically continuing process of interpretation. In Matthew's witness, Jesus himself carried on that process repeatedly with the words, "You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you." He can challenge ancient texts with fresh interpretive power. As we compare biblical writings, we can see this intepretive process continuing at many points. In other words, it is quite biblical to challenge the Bible. For example, we would certainly want to challenge this text: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks!" (Ps. 137:9).
It holds even for the Bible (as someone has said), "None of us is entirely useless. Even the worst of us can serve as horrible examples." The great authenticity of the Bible is that it's all there, the good and the bad, the glory and tragedy of human life. It's no put up job where everything fits into a simplistic mold. As we do Bible study, we do so in the canonical context of the whole Bible.
Fourth, an evangelical or gospel-happening context. Why bother with the Bible? Because the Bible as canon witnesses to the Word that became flesh, not text, that is, to the evangel, the "good news" of God's working in real human existence to touch it with creative and liberating and healing power. I am grateful that one of the uniting churches in the United Church of Christ bore the name "evangelical," which comes directly from the Greek word euangelion.
I am quite unhappy with those Christians who define themselves as the evangelicals, as if other Christians are not. All Christians are by definition evangelicals, for we all have our life in God's evangel, God's good news. Our life has to go on in an evangelical context.
We sometimes limit the evangel to what God has done in Jesus Christ, but Old Testament writers also use the term. More than five hundred years before the coming of Jesus, Isaiah writes, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation" (Is. 52:7).
The whole Exodus event is "good news" for Israel. The Ten Commandments are preceded by the grace and good news of God's liberation. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; (therefore) you shall have no other gods before me". (Ex. 20:2-3).
And it is striking that the Apostle Paul can interpret his scripture (our Old Testament) in this way: "And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you'" (Gal. 3:8). What here is the good news for Paul? It is the good news of God's inclusiveness in the promise to Abraham.
An evangelical context means that we live with the expectation that good news will happen to people, to communities, to God's beloved world: that God's good news for the world will bring a deeper sense of faith and hope and love, of freedom and justice and peace, of grace and truth and glory—the glory of God's self-giving love in the cross of Jesus Christ.
We do our Bible study in an evangelical context, in the expectation that God's good news will take on flesh among us as we live together in our canonical, ecclesial and cosmic contexts.
Fifth, a pneumatic or Spirit-empowering context. Biblical writers speak of God's spirit or Holy Spirit in differing ways (Isaiah is not Jeremiah and Jeremiah is not Ezekial; Paul is not Luke and Luke is not John.) We need to let each speak for themselves. But generally, the Spirit of God takes the events of God's deeds in the past (creation, exodus, cross, resurrection) and makes them alive in the present with a foretaste of the future. The Spirit empowers the present with good news from the past and with pregnant hopes for the future.
But how does that happen? It happens in part with the gifts of the Spirit, the charismata with which the Spirit empowers the life of each person and enlivens the evangelical, canonical, ecclesial and cosmic contexts of our lives. We are empowered not only for our own inner spiritual life but for that work of the Spirit that meant for Isaiah and Jesus "good news to he poor ... release to the captives ... sight to the blind ... liberty to the oppressed" (Luke 4:18-19).
Again, some Christians have appropriated the word "charismatic" for themselves with their particular gifts of the Spirit. But from New Testament usage, all Christians are charismatics, for we all are blessed with various gifts of the Spirit and we need to value each one in mutuality and edification and mission together. We do our Bible study in a pneumatic context.
What does this mean for Sunday worship?
To conclude, let me try to put these five contexts into our worship on Sunday mornings. Are they part of the picture?
Well, any sound planning of worship is going to have to take into account the cosmic context of what is going on in the world around us and in the lives of those who come to worship. The worship itself is an expression of the ecclesial context, the gathering of that community of faith with the multiple aspects of its life. In the worship is the reading of the scriptures and their engagement in the sermon, thus expressing the canonical context. And what we hope will happen in the worship is that God's good news will touch us individually and corporately, the evangelical context. And then we hope that people will be empowered by the Spirit with gifts to go forth to live the good news, individually and corporately, and so let it impact the cosmic context of the week that lies ahead. Then back again next week.
Every Sunday is a time to be empowered by the Spirit, for the sake of good news, as we engage the Bible, in the community, in order to be faithful servants in God's beloved world.
As to our sermons, I like the story of the sexton who used to greet his pastor after the service in one of three ways. If the sermon was good he would say, "Pastor, today the sheep were fed." If it was a so-so sermon he would say, "Pastor, that was a difficult text." And if it was really lousy he would say, "Well, Pastor, today the hymns were well chosen." Given that my spouse is a musician, I've learned how important it is that the hymns be well chosen. Thank you all.
Here is the Rev. Frederick R. Trost's paper delivered at the Dunkirk Colloquy in 2000. Trost was the founding convenor of Confessing Christ and is the former President and Conference Minister of the UCC's Wisconsin Conference.
I bring greetings to you all, grateful for this opportunity to be together in this place. I appreciate the work that Andy Armstrong has done in preparing the way for this colloquy and for the support many of you have given to the Confessing Christ project in the United Church of Christ.
It is a joy to be with you and with John Thomas, Debbie Schueneman, Robert Chase and Paul Hammer as well. Paul and I have been friends, "Since the days of our youth." I remember coming to the Dunkirk Conference ground when I was a child. My brothers and I looked forward to summer vacations here under the auspices of the former West New York Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which also decided to ordain me. It is more than fifty years since I was here last and I am reminded of people like Frederick Frankenfeld (for whom I was named), Paul M. Scroeder, Julius Kuck, Otto Reller and others to whom we looked up when we were young.
Any one of you could speak eloquently to the issue we are exploring together, "Taking the Bible Seriously," for we are, laity and clergy, sisters and brothers in the faith of the church. Each of us and all of us together have been summoned and united by baptism into the work of the Church. We are co-laborers in the vineyards planted by God. Our lives are meant to be a joyful, glad and happy response, despite every weakness and contradiction, to the fact that "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." Every difference we face, every issue among us, should be seen in this light. With the great variety of gifts and background, theology and ways of interpreting the Gospel, we are one in Christ Jesus.
There is, perhaps, no more difficult vocation in the world than the one entrusted to us, nor one more happy, than that of those who allow themselves to be humbled in the service of the Word. I believe I speak for many in simply thanking God for who you are. As D. T. Niles put it in former times, workers in the vineyard, bearers of the Good News, we are fundamentally, "Beggars," each one of us, telling other beggars where to get food.
Let us pray: Grant us, O Lord, to pass this day in gladness and peace, without stumbling and without stain, that, reaching the eventide victorious over all temptation, we may praise you,, the Eternal God, who governs all things. We give you hearty thanks for the rest of the past night, and for the gift of a new day, with its opportunities of pleasing you. Grant that we may so pass its hours in the perfect freedom of your service, that as evening comes we may again give thanks unto you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Mosarabic Sacramentary, Daybreak. Office of the Easter Church, Doberstein, 20).
"Taking the Bible seriously." I'd like to begin by telling you three brief tales of the church, each rooted in the crucible of the 20th century:
First, a story you know perhaps, and one of my favorite tales of the church, a story about the community of believers at Le Chambon in France. It is a tale I have heard many times over the years and never tire of enjoying.
For as long as anyone could remember, the community of faith in the region of Le Chambon had gathered every week as the Word was spoken. The congregation at Le Chambon was small, unknown, overlooked by many. But prayers were said and songs were sung among these French Reformed Protestants from one season to the next. The years passed in quietness, for the most part.
Then, about the year 1940, things changed. Children began arriving together with their guardians, at the railroad station. Jewish children. They were fleeing the crucible to the east. They were in search of refuge. At first, the communities in and around Le Chambon did not know what to do with them. It was, at the time, against the law to receive a Jewish child.
The communities decided to break the law. It is said that from 1940 to 1943, there was not a wine cellar in all of Le Chambon in which was not hidden a Jewish child, not a hay stack under which was not hidden a Jewish child, not an attic in which was not hidden a Jewish child.
At the time of the month when the moon grew dark, the consistory and other members of the community would gather together all the Jewish children place them in their hay wagons, and transport them across the frontier to sanctuaries in Switzerland, to freedom and to life. In this manner, it is said, the lives of several thousand Jewish children were saved.
In 1943, the pastor and leading elders of the community at Le Chambon were arrested. Pastor Andre Trocmþ was asked by his interrogators, "Why did you break the law?", "Why did you accept the Jewish children?" To which he is said to have replied: "We did it because we wanted to be with Jesus."
"Let me say, parenthetically here, that we often struggle among ourselves not because we know the Bible so well, but because we do not know the Bible well enough. Not because we take the Bible so seriously, but because we do not take the Bible seriously enough."
Taking the Bible seriously!
Second, an account from the same period of a sermon of Clemens August, Count von Galen, Roman Catholic Bishop of Mônster. He, too, took the Bible seriously. It was Bishop von Galen who, Reichsleiter Martin Bormann suggested should be taken into custody and hanged because of his resistance to the government. Their plan was to kill all epileptic and other exceptional children and adults who lived within the diocese of Mônster and elsewhere in the land.
It as Bishop von Galen who proposed that all the farmers living across the countryside of Westphalia take into their homes or find a place in their barns, all the exceptional children and adults being cared for in Church related institutions, then daring the government to come and try to find them.
In a famous sermon preached in the Liebfrauenkirche in Mônster on July 20, 1941, the Bishop exhorted the congregation to take the Bible seriously; to live by faith unafraid.
Remain strong, he said. "At the moment we are the anvil rather than the hammer... Ask the blacksmith and hear what he says. The object which is forged on the on the anvil receives its form not alone from the hammer, but also from the anvil. The anvil cannot and need to strike back; it must only be firm... If it is sufficiently tough and firm,... The anvil usually lasts longer than the hammer. However hard the hammer strikes, the anvil stands quietly and firmly in place and will long continue to shape the objects forged on it."
The Bishop summoned the congregation to resistance. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was saying about the same time, it is the obligation of those who take the Bible seriously and who seek to live as Easter people, to open their mouths for the voiceless. (Proverbs 31:8)
"The service of the Church has to be given to those who suffer violence and injustice. The Church takes to itself all the sufferers, all the forsaken, of every party and of every status. Here, the decision will really be made whether we are still the Church of the present Christ." (Bonhoeffer, Finkenwalde, "No Rusty Swords," 325)
There is no way to take the Bible seriously without accepting the blows of the hammer, and allowing our faith to be shaped like objects forged upon the anvil of the Word.
Taking the Bible seriously.
Third a tale from the Apartheid years in South Africa where despite the blows of the hammer, little Christian communities shaped by the Word, sang their songs of faith. It was in the season of Advent, as Christmas approached. The community gathered in the tiny village to which it had been exiled and the people sang their advent hymns and Christmas carols.
The government was offended. The police ordered the people to stop. Hymn-sings were prohibited. The government deemed them acts of "disturbing the peace."
The people went to their homes and at night, in silence, lit a candle and placed it on the window sill. IN every home in the village a candle gave its light. Again, the government was offended. Police were sent to every house. They ordered the candles snuffed out. Then the people refused, the police entered the homes of the people and blew the candles out themselves.
The next night, the people lit their candles again, this time not just one candle but many. There was not a window in the village from which did not shine a candle into the night. It is said the dark night sky above flowed with candlelight.
The police backed away, embarrassed by the thought of entering every house in the village and having to bend down to blow out a thousand candles.
Taking the Bible seriously.
Not a program
Taking the Bible seriously is not a program of some kind. It is not a curriculum. It is not a directive from some source far away. It is not a strategy to solve our problems. It is not a suggestion easily made. It has consequences. It is the simple act of faithful people, done for generations, sometimes at a risk, enabling the Church to make its way through time and events with a song on its lips, often in the face of the laughter and derision of the world. The reality is, hammer blows are struck from time to time.
This belongs to taking the Bible seriously.
I shall always remember the face of Archbishop Oscar Romero. There is a portrait that hangs above his grave inside the cathedral in San Salvador. The gentle face of this "pastor of the poor,' is not the only thing that stands out in the painting those who have knelt inside the cathedral recall seeing two other things: first, the hands of the Bishop, calloused by good works, are folded in prayer. Second, the Bible is in front of him.
This belongs to taking the Bible seriously.
The fact is, despite all the changes that take place in the Church from one generation to the next, our vocation as Christians remains the same: we are to proclaim the Gospel in the Word and Deed as witnesses to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Let the hammer strike where it may.
"The theology," Karl Barth observed, "there is the question as to the source of the Word, that is, exegesis, and the shape of the Word, that is, (so-called) practical theology. Between them stands dogmatics" (a nasty word in some circles). Dogmatics asks the question, "What are we to think and say?" "What should the content of the Christian proclamation be?" To do theology is to engage in conversation with the Word of God. It is at the heart of our vocation as pastors and as members of congregations. We all do it somewhat well, even very well at times, or somewhat badly, even very badly at times. But we all do it.
A few years ago, we built a new Conference Center in Wisconsin. The Conference staff works there and the Churches gather there to think and pray. When we built the Conference Center, we said to our architect, we have but two requirements: one, there should be skylights throughout the building so we might do our work with light that comes from beyond us. Two, we should have many windows in the building; windows that open wide to the world.
We placed a baptismal font at the entrance to the building so people are reminded of their baptism. In the chapel area, where many of our larger meetings are held, we placed a communion table, a cross and the Bible. The only way the community can look out into he world is through the table. And through that cross and, at the very center, the Bible.
Outside the building, we mounted a large, bronze church bell that had rung for nearly one hundred years from the steeple of one of our inner city churches. We placed it not far from the front door, so that when people leave their work at the conference center, they are reminded of their vocation to "make a joyful noise" in the world; "to sere the Lord with gladness," that is, ... to take the Bible seriously.
But the Bible is more than "light from above' or a reminder of our vocation "to lift our voices" in the world.
Where the Church is alive, where it lights its candles and allows itself to be shaped on the anvil of the Word of God, it will always have to "re-assess itself by the standard of the Holy Scriptures." (Barth)
The Bible is, in a sense, a measuring-stick, a ruler, if you will.
Despite some contemporary notions of faith, it is not the evidence of our thoughts that matter when it comes to the faith of the church. It is not even the deep longings of our hearts that count the most. What the Bible offers the Church is the evidence of the Apostles and Prophets, "God's self-evidence." (Barth, "Against the Stream").
The faith of the Church is a gift in which "we become free to hear the word of Grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ. Our subjective faith lives by its object." (Barth)
What is of interest to those who seek to live by faith is not me and my faith, but the One in whom I believe and the miraculous fact that should stun us all, namely, that "God is gracious to us."
God is telling us in the Bible that "I am gracious to you." This is the Word of God and is the central concept of all Christian thinking. Where do we hear this Word of God? To know Jesus Christ is to be met by the graciousness of God.
To take the Bible seriously is to allow this Word to be spoken to us.
It is the Good News that the publican in the temple has a future and a hope. It is the Gospel that all of us who are acquainted with "the far country," are also the recipients of a robe, a ring, and slippers.
Each of us who takes to his or her lips the ancient prayer, "Lord be merciful to me, a sinner," is close to the very heart of this. Close to the astonishing fact that grace abounds! This is what the angels are singing about in the face of the dark night, into the howling winds of the "bleak midwinter." And this is why the shepherds return to their fields, bewildered but rejoicing.
To take the Bible seriously is to believe this; to accept the astonishing, bewildering, miraculous, absurd, liberating truth.... Despite everything, God is in love with us all!
The Word that incarnates God's grace is the one whom the second article of the Apostles' Creed confesses; the one with whom the very first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is concerned; the one whom Herod the King understood better than almost anyone else (and was afraid).
The gracious Word of God, which is the main theme of the Bible, meets the world (according to Luke 2), in that stable in Bethlehem. Christian faith is the welcome to the embrace people give to the fact of Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ is present in this world for our good. In him, God chooses to meet us, embrace us, judge us, confront us. This meeting, this embrace, this judgment, this confrontation is a gift. It is why the church has always prayed, and in its most faithful moments opened the Bible and said, "Come Holy Spirit!
Pointing away from ourselves to Jesus
To take the Bible seriously is to trust in the act of the faithfulness of another, namely, the act of God. It is to this act that the Bible points. To take the Bible seriously is to trust that God is here for us. It is to live in this certainty.
Faith points to this fact. We are like John the Baptist. In Matthias Greunewald's Crucifixion from the time of the Reformation, his index finger points away from himself to the cross, to the Lamb of God. That is our calling too.
Louise's and my son, Paul Gerhardt, is an artist, a painter. Often his themes are the themes of faith. Recently, he was in Haiti helping to establish a food program among desperately poor children.
Paul sent us a letter describing a visit he made to a Catholic orphanage in Haiti. The orphanage was filled with little children, he wrote, almost all of them sitting or lying in their cribs, crying, reaching out for someone to hold them.
"I stumbled past row after row of those cribs," he said to us, "in a sea of tears. I was numbed by it all. Finally, I summoned the strength to take one of the fragile children into my arms. Then, I lifted up another and walked outside into the sunshine. I began to sing little songs to the children. Though they could not understand the words, they smiled with the melody. I did this for more than an hour. Then I returned the children to their cribs and said good-bye. As I was about to leave, I was captured by a little girl, about two years old. She stood out because of all the children, she was the only one who was able to smile. She stood in her crib, motioning to me and pointing way from herself, to a little boy whose tears were insatiable. I went to him and held him close to me. The little girl continued to smile. I set him down. She motioned to me again, pointing me to another child who wanted to be held. I thought of John the Baptist," Paul wrote.
To take the Bible seriously is to point, with whatever gifts we may have, away from ourselves to Jesus.
This, as you know is not always easy. There is a lovely story told of one of the great music conductors of the past century who was leading a magnificent orchestra in one of the Beethoven symphonies. A newspaper reporter noticed that tears poured down the conductor's cheeks as the symphony was played. After the concert, he asked the great man "Why?" "Maestro, why were you weeping?" To which the great man is said to have replied, "I weep because I cannot make the music sound the way I hear it in my heart."
It is not always easy to "play the music" of the Gospel or to do our theological work.
Preaching fairy tales
In a remarkable essay by Kurt Scharf, he writes of the temptation of the church to be too generous, to open, too tolerant of the many winds that blow about us. Bishop Scharf mentions how, as a young theological student, he (and many others), lost respect for church leadership because they seemed to have no standards or expectations when it came to the teaching office of the pastor.
The nave of this Church, he said, had become a forum of human opinions, where just about anything was acceptable, so long as one held the belief deep within his or her heart. "In the first years of parish ministry," he writes, "I became acquainted with a neighboring pastor who had written a book of sermons based on Grimm's fairy tales. These sermons were popular in my association and it was not uncommon to hear preaching on Sunday morning about Snow White or Dornroeschen" (or Jack in the Beanstalk). The pastors searched for truths and for relevance and popularity anywhere they thought they might find it, including the poetry of Goethe and the dramas of Schiller, but not in Scripture. (See Eberhard Bethge, U. A. "Kirche in Preussen: Gestalten und Geschichte," 178-180)
Taking the Bible seriously:
When the Church takes the Bible seriously, it will not trouble itself with "religious virtuosity" or with efforts to construct communities of the "morally elite."
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it will acknowledge that the Bible is Holy because it was written for the unholy. It will understand that the witness of the Bible is not that we, despite everything, believe, but that God, despite everything, keeps faith.
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, Karl Barth observed, Christ always leads the way and the church follows. Christ always speaks and the Church merely answers. Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, the community knows that it belongs not to itself but to him. This is why in the "Evangelical Catechism," in response to the question, "What does thy daily communion require of thee?" the newest member of the congregation would respond, "Lord, Jesus, for thee I live, for thee I suffer, for thee I die. Thine will I be in life and in death. Grant me, O Lord, eternal salvation.
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it will understand itself as the lowest, poorest, meanest, weakest thing that can possible exist, gathered around a manger and a cross, and also as the highest, riches, most radiant of communities, an Easter people.
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, its members neither esteem, nor admire, or revere one another, but simply love each other. They accept each other in his or her place, exactly as she or he is, because the community understands the judgment and grace of God.
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it is impossible for its members to face one another with any ultimate reservations. It is a community in which people help one another, not with the intent of doing good or showing how selfless they are, or to give God pleasure or to make a public impression, but because they have a common cause. They hold a basin in one hand and a towel in the other.
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it summons the courage to challenge, to break the idols, to shatter callousness. It refuses to allow itself to achieve respectability by the grace of society. It will struggle not to allow love to be replaced by habit, ignoring the crisis of today because of the splendor of the past. It will understand itself as a response to life, to passion, to the cross, to the resurrection, resisting moods or fads and insisting on good thinking. It will have empathy for the prophets, who saw a single act of injustice as a disaster, even though it is incapable of emulating them. It will confess that theological work among people of faith can only take place in relation to Auschwitz and in a context in which the clouds formed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain with us. (Cf. Abraham Joshua Heschel).
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it sits at Jesus' feet like Mary. It knows that no one belongs to it by virtue of one's religious experience, but rather, it knows it is already called together, united, and governed by the Word of its master, or it is not the church at all. (Cf. Karl Barth, "Against the Stream.")
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, the members of the community will bear one another's burdens, seeking to live life from the Gospel in relation to the Word made flesh, as provisional heralds, as representatives of those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it believes that God who was in Christ does not cease to live for us, and so the Church lives in anticipation, in hope, expecting surprises.
Where the church takes the Bible seriously, it confesses God with us. "If its poverty lead it into temptation, it will confess Christ was poorer. Should it become grieved by disbelief, it will confess that Jesus was tempted, just as we. It will know that whenever one is in a position of weakness, he or she shares God's life." (Bonhoeffer).
Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it sees a great light, though it is still a community walking in darkness. It therefore leaves behind all self-satisfaction, but also all brooding and despair over the enigmas of the present. It knows that it serves God by serving its neighbors in the world, wherever they are, whatever language they speak, or politics they profess or race to which they trace their roots. Its mission is not to say "no" but to say "yes." That God is not against us, but for us. (Cf. Barth)
Textual criticism only reveals the surface
In April, 1936, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Rudiger Schleicher (who was later to perish with Bonhoeffer for his role in the conspiracy). In this letter, Bonhoeffer speaks of the necessity of taking the Bible seriously. It is to believe that in the Bible it is God who speaks to us. Textual criticism belongs to biblical study, but it can only reveal the "surface of the Bible, not what is within it." Bonhoeffer asks an insightful question: "When a dear friend speaks a word to us, do we subject it to analysis? No, we simply accept it, and then it resonates inside us for days. The word of someone we love opens itself up to us the more we 'ponder it in our hearts,' as Mary did. In the same way, we should carry the word of the Bible around with us. We will only be happy in our reading of the Bible when we dare to approach it as the means by which God really speaks to us, the God who loves us and will not leave us with our questions unanswered." (Bonhoeffer, "Meditation on the Word." 44).
To take the Bible seriously is to understand that my knowledge of God does not originate either in my own experience or the insights which I bring from within myself, but that it is based on God's revelation of God's own Word. It is to frankly acknowledge that either I am the one who determines the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where God will find me. God tells me where God is to be found. "If it is I who say where God will be" Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother-in-law, "I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature."
But if it's God who says where (God) will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me. That place is the cross of Christ. And whoever will find God there must draw near to the cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires. That does not correspond to our nature at all... But this is the message of the Bible... The entire Bible then, is the Word in which God allows (Godself) to be found by us. Not a place which is agreeable to us or makes sense to us... But instead a place which is strange to us and contrary to our nature. Yet, the very place in which God has decided to meet us. (Ibid, 45)
To take the Bible seriously is to understand that our God is a suffering God. "It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in (the world)... It is to know that being with and for others is the way in which (we are) formed in Christ." (Bonhoeffer)
I close with a little advice from one who has come before us (Christian Lendi-Wolf, in Doberstein, Minister's Prayer Book, 326) [I believe, incidently, that we should remain in conversation with those who have come before us, not only the witnesses of the prophets and apostles, but those frail human beings who believed before we were born. There is an important conversation, as Archbishop Romero observed, that constantly takes place between the "Ecclesia Militans" and the "Ecclesia Triumphans" and we should pay attention to it.]
In a letter to a young student, this one who has come before us seems to sigh as he says
so you want to be a pastor of souls? Absolutely necessary for this ministry is a mirror. But you, I know, are not fond of gazing into a mirror. And yet there are a lot of people who like to stand in front of a mirror because they are pleased with themselves. (I speak) rather (of) that unerring mirror. And what more salutary could happen to us than this? His gaze kills our pride.
Only a humble (person) can really be a pastor... Only a fighter can be a real pastor. The Lord's presence promises us forgiveness and gives us the courage again and again to make a new beginning... His Word is a call of alarm that keeps us from stiffening into self-satisfied security... The mirror of God preserves us from being phony paragons. Real pastoral care requires truth. And that's what God's mirror gives us, in order that we... may care for others with unflinching and joyful hearts.
Friederich Schleiermacher often signed his letters and other documents with the words "student der theologie" (student of theology). This remarkable teacher, the most influential of the theologians of his time, remained a student to the end of his days. As I prepare for retirement after nearly forty years as a pastor, my hope and prayer for you and for the United Church of Christ is that you might sign everything you say and do with the statement, "We have sought in this and in all other things simply to be a 'student of the Word'."
I thought last evening as the four women in the string quartet played their music so joyfully, what it would be like were each of us to remain, all our days, so happily engaged in the Scripture set before us, paying attention to the "notes," and even with the mistakes we would invariably make allowing the music to resonate deep into our being, looking up from time to time and taking direction from the first violin.
"Jesu Juva," Bach would write at the beginning of his compositions—"Jesus, help me." And at the end of the many of them, the words, "Soli Deo Gloria" ("To the Glory of God alone").
May it also be so with each of us!
Here is John Thomas' paper delivered at the Dunkirk Colloquy on October 10, 2000. Thomas is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.
Gary Dorsey is a journalist who spent a year watching, living with, and eventually growing to be a part of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut. In his book about the experience titled, Congregation: The Journey Back to Church, he includes many delightful observations of the pastor and people of this ordinary and remarkable church. One Sunday morning, peering down from the balcony, he described the preacher as follows:
His hearing aid sounded off like a pitch pipe at times, and one Sunday. . . I noticed him speaking from a set of notes all typed in red. I realized that his jackhammer typing style finally had frayed the black ribbon on his Olympia, and rather than spending a dollar to replace it, he had jumped the cartridge to pound on the red side alone, making every word look like the scarlet verse of Jesus.
I may read Dorsey saying more than he intended, but his observation, playfully joining the preacher?s eccentricities with those familiar red letter editions of the Bible, provides me with a good starting point. Sometimes, here and there, now and then, when the preacher, accompanied by the Spirit, is able to take the Biblical text seriously enough, as well as the gathered community seriously enough, what emerges is not merely an oration, or a set of moral platitudes, or a ringing call to action, but the presence of the living Word itself, to which the Bible always points, but which it can never quite contain.
Many years before Dorsey, a more traditional theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, put it this way:
I am sure you will gladly testify, dear friends, that from the time you received the milk of the gospel in your first instruction in Christianity, right up until the present day, every such encounter with scripture was like a new, joyous, and powerful appearance of the Lord himself.
Schleiermacher?s enthusiasm may sound like wishful thinking to ears assaulted by the noise of our secular world at the dawn of a new century. Far too often in our own experience the Lord fails to appear, at least in ways that seem fresh, joyous, and powerful, and the scarlet verse remains what at one level it always is, the product of the eccentricities of pastors who are no better than the Christians sitting in the pews waiting for the concluding ?amen? that never seems to come soon enough! But a church that takes the Bible seriously always expects more, and sometimes receives it, which in the midst of our jaded world view and its scientific straightjacket is news that comes as a marvelous surprise, perhaps even as the Gospel itself. Like the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus, belief is mixed with unbelief, and even the skilled Biblical interpretation of the mysterious stranger does little to overcome cynicism in the face of dashed hopes and human tragedy . . . until. Until something happens and we get what we hadn?t quite dared to expect - the red type truly becomes the scarlet verse of Jesus, and the Lord himself appears with fresh, joyous power. So that the first word about taking the Bible seriously is expectation - approaching the text expecting more than mere written text, more than bare words to confront us. And while there is much more to be said about taking the Bible seriously in our day, perhaps this is the greatest challenge of all.
According to the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ, ?we look to the word of God in the scriptures.? Another way to say this is that our expectation is an honoring of the Bible?s ?transparency.? Frederick Buechner uses the image of a picture window to describe this task:
If you look at a window, you see fly-specks, dust, the crack where Junior?s Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.
In the line of the familiar hymn, ?Break now the bread of life,? we sing, ?beyond the sacred page, I seek you Lord.? Not apart from, but beyond or through the sacred page we seek the Lord and sometimes see God?s face. Taking the Bible seriously means recognizing its transparency, expecting to see beyond mere text to the mysterious presence. It is to see the Bible not as the ultimate object of faith in a kind of fundamentalist biblicism, nor as mere literature expressing pious religious themes or fixed moral values be they liberal or conservative, but as the penultimate instrument of mediation through which the ultimate living Word encounters us full of challenge, comfort, judgment, grace and truth. Encounters us, I hasten to emphasize, because this transparency works both ways, and allows the Word to ?see us for what we really are,? to see ?the depths of ourselves? as Buechner puts it.
To read the Bible expectantly, honoring its transparency, enables us to avoid what Walter Brueggemann and many others warn us about:
To say that the Bible mediates God is not to say that the Bible ?hands God over? to the reading community as possession or as prisoner. The reading community has been wont, on occasion, to imagine that it possessed or imprisoned the God of the Bible. Such a self-deception takes a Protestant form in bibliolatry and a Catholic form in magisterial infallibility.
Not only does this violate what Brueggemann describes as the ?elusive, odd character? of Yahweh which defies human definition, it also enables those in power, those in the ecclesial center, to use the Bible to violate or exploit those at the margins, an all too familiar approach to the Bible in our own day, an approach which, in the end, is far more cavalier than it is serious.
Both divine revelation and human disclosure
To begin taking the Bible seriously, then, is to approach it expectantly, to honor its transparency, and to discover that it not only discloses Yahweh, God, the Word made flesh, it also strips us bare before that same Word to portray us in all our grandeur and all our depravity. So in a peculiar way, the Bible is both divine revelation and human disclosure. Beyond the sacred page we seek you Lord. Yet beyond the sacred page, from the other side we might say, God also seeks us, and in so doing allows us to look over God?s shoulder, as it were, to see ourselves as God sees us. But in order to do this, we must first read the Bible, or perhaps better, we must listen to the Bible.
Taking the Bible seriously means to read it. This may sound like an incredibly mundane stating of the obvious, the kind of comment that elicits from our teenagers the marvelous rejoinder, ?Duh!? In one sense, of course, we do read the Bible. We read it in order to preach about it. We read it in order to seek answers to troubling question. We read it in order to justify our opinions, wielding it against our theological or ecclesial enemies like the ?sword? it used to be called in some conservative Christian circles. In other words, far too often our reading of the Bible is really an effort to make use of the Bible, and in the process the Bible tends to lose its transparency, becoming opaque or worse, a kind of mirror reflecting nothing more than our own devices and desires. The reading that takes the Bible seriously is of another sort altogether. It is a kind of attentiveness to the narrative in its broad sweep, and to its text in all its intricate detail, that makes of the Bible more of a companion than a tool, something we listen to, attend to long before there is anything we can ?do? with it, and long after its ?usefulness? has become dated. Jews catch something of this spirit in their worship when the scroll is taken from its place and paraded, even danced around the sanctuary like a long lost friend. The worshipers move to touch it, sometimes to kiss it. There is nothing magical in the mood; the scroll is no talisman. It is a friend to be embraced, a voice to be honored. ?In this scroll is the secret of our people?s life from Sinai until now,? the liturgy announces as the Torah is taken from the Ark. ?Its teaching is love and justice, goodness and hope. Freedom is its gift to all who treasure it.? ?Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord is One! Our God is One; our Lord is great; holy is God?s name.?
Justo Gonz?lez suggests another dimension of the reading we are called to engage in when he describes the reading that takes place Sunday after Sunday in churches in poor barrios throughout the Western hemisphere. Unlike the modern historical critical reading, and the fundamentalist reaction to it, the reading he describes retains ?a sense,? he says, ?of the activity of God, of the openness of the universe, of the possibility of mystery.? In this reading the ?future is in control,? which means life, and the text, is ?constantly open to surprise, to astonishment, to real and radical revolution.? A reading that is ?open to astonishment? is how Gonz?lez puts it, an astonishment that
allows Hispanics today to read Scripture with a profound sense of connection with the people who actually wrote the text. We are well aware of the geographical and cultural distances that stand between us and the original writers and readers. But we leap across the distance by sharing a sense of astonishment, a sense of openness to God?s activity, that was very much part of the writing and the intended reading of the text.
This astonishment does not rule out close, critical readings of the text, and does not react in a fundamentalist form of literalism. But it moves beyond the modern reading to encounter the astonishment of the writers who themselves have been encountered by the amazing and liberating future of God.
Those who take the Bible seriously have grown acquainted with it, befriended it and like any good friend, look for it to tell them the truth, the hard truth, the whole truth, astonishing truth, the Gospel truth. The friend is not there to be used, manipulated or wielded like a set of tools or an armory of weapons. Nor is the friend there to lock the present into a comfortable and secure past. This ?friend,? this text is there to be heard, listened to, attended, embraced. Buechner, in his Beecher lectures at Yale, speaks of the prophet-preachers of the Bible. ?What do they say?? he asks.
They say things that are relevant, lacerating, profound, beautiful, spine-chilling, and more besides. They put words to both the wonder and the horror of the world, and the words can be looked up in the dictionary or the biblical commentary and can be interpreted, passed on, understood, but because these words are poetry, are image and symbol as well as meaning, are sound and rhythm, maybe above all are passion, they set echoes going the way a choir in a great cathedral does, only it is we who become the cathedral and in us that the words echo.
Truth echoes for those who take the Bible seriously. The truth of a God who knows what it means for a parent to see a beloved child go off to a far country, cut himself off from parents, squander opportunity and betray parental trust, and yet in the midst of all of that to stand at the door wanting only to embrace. The truth of an aging Sarah who has suffered all manner of indignity including her barrenness, a condition which seems only to mock the divine promise, yet a woman still ready to be told in the most unimaginable way that God remains faithful to God?s promise. The truth of Job whose life is destroyed before his eyes and who must then suffer the foolish advice of friends before discovering that God wants us not only to be faithful, but perhaps also to rail against the injustice of it all, even against the Creator of it all. The truth of a Jonah who cannot bear to offer the word of judgment for fear that it will be heeded, leaving the hated enemy spared. The truth of David, grown bored with governance, finding himself consumed by lust for Bathsheba and setting off a sequence of murder and lies that follow his dynasty from one generation to the next. The truth of a people liberated and of exiles sustained. The truth of a woman so overwhelmed with devotion for Jesus that she is willing to risk propriety and expose herself to criticism by anointing him in an act of extravagant intimacy. The truth of a man touted to be tough as nails and resolute as the rock he bears for a name, yet who finds himself weeping for the ease with which he denied what he had pledged to follow. The truth of bones living and of streets like gemstones lined with trees whose fruit is for the healing of the nations. The truth of a God who becomes vulnerable to the point of sharing in solidarity our deepest sorrow and being inflicted by the most profound wounds that our own journey into death might not be the last word and might never be traveled alone.
But what do we do?
None of this tells us exactly what we must do in a given circumstance. None of it enables us to definitively sort out the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy. It won?t solve our dilemmas over homosexuality or abortion or euthanasia or genetic engineering or the economy. In other words, none of it is terribly ?useful.? Indeed, it is often more like a confusing cacophony of conflicting testimony or, as Brueggemann puts it, of ?core testimony and countertestimony,? of ?hiddenness, ambiguity, and negativity.? It simply tells us the truth about the way we are with ourselves and with each other, the way we are with God, and above all the way God is with us. And those who take the Bible seriously hold these texts that issue forth in echoing voices like a companion, a friend, who means more than anyone or anything else because this friend tells us the truth. A companion, yes, but never an easy one, for the God, the Word seen through its transparency, who sees us through its transparency, is often, to use Brueggemann?s language, ?the Wild One who lives at the center of Israel?s life, who in sovereign severity will dispense with Israel and who with impervious resolve will begin again.?
To take the Bible seriously is to read the Bible before, or perhaps rather instead of, quickly rushing to make use of the Bible. We are, to use the old Reformed language, ?servants of the Word,? not masters of the Word, because the Bible is quite literally ?out of control.? Again, Brueggemann?s colorful rhetoric presses the point, summarizing in a recent article what he exhaustively articulates in his Old Testament theology:
The preacher stands up to make utterance about this odd, problematic God in a society that is flattened in a-theism, and has on her hands a quality of the irascible, the elusive, and the polyvalent. Almost none of this, moreover, is available to or recognized among most of our listeners. Because it is too unsettling and difficult, we tend to fall back on more familiar ground of safe practices, blessed ideologies, scholastic closures, or liberal crusades. Don?t we all!
Tamed. Proof-texted. The living Word is often preached to death and used to distraction, our own distraction that is, because we would rather be distracted from the truth not only about God but also about ourselves that this transparent text reveals. Read the Bible expectantly, honoring its transparency. And read the Bible, listening, attending, as one might attend a dear companion who can always be counted on to tell the truth.
Taking seriously the origins of the text
John de Gruchy, a Reformed theologian writing out of the context of the struggle for liberation in South Africa, offers a third dimension of what it means to take the Bible seriously, which is to recognize that ?the spectacles of Scripture require the eyes of social victims.? ?We need,? he writes, ?the spectacles of the victims of society in order to discern the liberating and living Word in Scripture itself.? This should come as no surprise; a serious reading or interpretation ought to take seriously the origins of the text itself which is to be found primarily within the experience of the enslaved, the nomad, the exile, the peasant, the imprisoned, and the persecuted and which is, for Christians, ultimately articulated from a center that can only be found in the Christ of Calvary, the Crucified One dying outside the gates. Without these ?spectacles? a kind of demonic and dangerous nearsightedness almost always occurs. Thus we are shamed by a history of entrenched white economic interests reading support in the text for slavery; we are humbled by the remembrance of powerful colonial interests reading support in the Bible for the physical, spiritual, and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples; we are confronted by the memory of Christendom in the West reading support for anti-Semitism in the text; we have men reading support in the text for the subordination and silencing of women. And on and on it goes.
I am not suggesting that there can be no serious, legitimate, or faithful interpretation of Scripture by those whose social location allows them to occupy the cultural centers, in other words by folk like most of you or like me. Nor would I suggest that those at the margin always get it right. The same Reformed tradition to which de Gruchy appeals in his argument would remind us of the need to have a healthy regard for the sin that is no respecter of persons. de Gruchy acknowledges that ?neither the poor nor other social victims automatically understand the Scriptures simply because of their social location or experience.? But what feminists have described as the ?hermeneutic of suspicion? needs to be brought to bear in any serious reading of the Bible. And we ought, I think, to be particularly nervous, and especially suspicious, when readings by those in the center disadvantage those at the margins. If there is, as many today recognize, a kind of ?preferential option for the poor? embedded in the Biblical text itself, then there may also be a ?preferential reading of the poor? to which anyone desiring to take the Bible seriously must attend. De Gruchy borrows a Lutheran phrase to make his Reformed argument:
We encounter the grace of the saving presence of God not in Word and sacrament isolated from human suffering and the struggle for justice, but ?in, with, and under? it. This is precisely where God?s grace was encountered by Israel and the early church, according to the biblical record. The Word of grace addressed the people in their historical struggle and journey; indeed, the Word gave redemptive, liberating meaning to that history.
There is, for this reason, a theological ?appropriateness,? even a moral brilliance in the fact that almost every service of daily evening prayer includes the Magnificat. We ought never come to the Scriptures without hearing Mary, and Hannah before her, singing of a God who ?scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. . . , brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. . . , filled the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty,? (Luke 2.51-53). Even if Mary doesn?t always get the ?first word? in the church?s liturgy, the church has rightly intuited that she must always get ?the last word!? And even if one is finally not persuaded that there are ?privileged readings? of the Bible, there can be no denying the fact that there is never a ?disinterested reading? of the Bible. The ?spectacles of social victims? warn us, ?beware!? Taking the Bible seriously, therefore, always requires a communal reading lest our own location blur our sight or distort our hearing of the living Word, and that community called Israel and the Church can never be narrowly construed lest our reading be done by a clique of the like-minded rather than the whole people of God in their rich and agonizing diversity. Moreover, that communal reading must be an ?engaged? reading or listening, shaped by the Cross that is not only to be found in the words of the text, but also in the world of human struggle.
When interpretations collide
To honor the Bible?s ?transparency,? expecting it to reveal a living Word to us even as it allows us to peer over God?s shoulder while God sees us for what and who we really are. To read the Bible before we try to use the Bible, allowing it to echo and resonate in astonishing ways with its ?irascible, elusive, polyvalent character.? To engage the text communally and ecumenically, acknowledging that the spectacles of Scripture, indeed the very origins of Scripture, require the eyes of social victims and that engaging the text must never, therefore, be separated from a passionate engagement with a suffering world. This is what I believe it means to ?take the Bible seriously.? And here, of course, is the rub, and the tremendous pain of the Church today. For there are many, including some in our own United Church of Christ, who ?take the Bible seriously? in very different ways. No doubt you have ?heard? them on the other side of my argument. But let me offer a recent personal experience as a kind of ?case study? to make their presence more obvious, cautioned by the recognition of course that you are hearing them through me and my own ?interested? reading of the text.
My participation in a religious leaders statement on issues related to human sexuality had particularly enraged one local church which, while already quite distanced from the wider fellowship of the United Church of Christ, now felt alienated enough that it determined that it would do more than send me a letter of protest. Under the leadership of their pastor, the church prepared a resolution for their Association to formally ?censure? me for my action and call on the United Church of Christ to ?repent? of its positions on homosexuality and reproductive choice. As a result, I spent an evening at a gathering of about two hundred members of this congregation along with representatives of other local churches in the Association. I was there to listen and in both a personal and representative way to make an ?account? of the positions held by our General Synod along with many others in our church, on these difficult questions. It was not, as you might imagine, an easy evening; we managed for the most part to retain a sense of respectfulness and civility, but just barely!
Many of the people at the meeting arrived carrying their Bibles. They were well acquainted with the six or seven passages in the Old and New Testaments around which the debates on homosexuality often center. We went back and forth over what is by now very familiar terrain on this well-cratered battlefield, for the most part to little avail. My effort to enlarge the conversation and, in my mind, enrich it with pastoral and theological dimensions was not only unpersuasive, but met with deep resistance and, at least in a few cases, open derision. Finally a young woman put the essential impasse in stark relief by standing with Bible in hand and challenged me with a question: ?Show me a verse.? Don?t talk about pastoral experience and challenge. Don?t waste our time with alternative readings of contested texts or with hermeneutical insights about Scripture interpreting and critiquing Scripture, or with historical illustrations about how the Church has often been led to reverse itself on matters of faith and practice, or even with theological reflection about the nature and meaning of baptism. ?Show me a verse,? which is to say from the perspective of that gathering, ?take the Bible seriously.? Show me a verse where it says that what you want to affirm is acceptable from the standpoint of the Bible.
I, of course, could not show them a verse. Nor would I, in part because that kind of exchange usually ends up in an ecclesiastical winner takes all battle where casualties abound and where the Bible is turned into a weapon in a way that, from my perspective, dishonors its integrity and its intent. In short, for me it is not a way to take the Bible seriously. This meant that most left the meeting that night confirmed in their conviction that neither I, nor many others in the United Church of Christ, take the Bible seriously. I, on the other hand, left the meeting for my drive to the airport and a late return home, yearning that my audience that night would also take the Bible seriously. Not that they weren?t, of course, in their own minds, taking it very seriously, very faithfully. To differ radically is not, at the same time, to imply a lack of respect, though of course that is, for many in our climate of alienation and distrust, a distinction that is hard to maintain. And, to be fair, I need to acknowledge that in lifting up this one comment—?show me a verse?—I may not do full justice to the depth or sophistication of my opponents? Biblical engagement. Nevertheless, I still yearn for a more ?serious? reading.
I wanted them to talk about the Bible in a way that pointed to its transparency, that moved beyond selected words and texts, which they clearly took very seriously, to allow the living and liberating Word to be encountered and which might allow all of us to see ourselves with greater clarity and honesty. The Bible was very much in view that night, and was the center of our conversation. But there was, at least for me, no sense of Presence ?in, with, and under? the texts in dispute. The book became opaque as the ?sacred page? became the ?end of discussion? rather than the doorway beyond which we ?seek God?s face.? I wanted them to take the Bible seriously.
I wanted us, together, to read the Bible that evening. Yes, to look at those six or seven verses; they?re there and cannot be ignored. But also to read, listen and attend to the rich narrative from creation to new creation, to the testimony and countertestimony that bears witness to an ?irascible, elusive, polyvalent? God who cannot and will not be contained, who will not be used, and who is constantly seen in the text breaking into the life of Israel and the Church in ways that judge the community for drawing its boundaries too close. I yearned for a reading that evoked astonishment, that leapt across geographic and cultural distances not in order to use ancient writers to answer modern or even post-modern questions, but to encourage in us an openness to God?s activity in our world that is as much about hospitality as it is about purity. I wanted the parables of welcome and embrace, of wedding feasts for unusual guests, the stories of an Ethiopian returning through the wilderness of Gaza, the dreams of what is unclean becoming clean, and the visions of glory coming into the city borne by the nations, the strangers - I wanted all of this to echo and resonate in our midst along with the words of judgment and the invitation to disciplined, covenant life. I wanted the Biblical witness to a just economy, to faithful stewardship of the earth, and its critique of militarism and power to be given at least an equal hearing as its admonitions about sexual behavior. The Bible was used all evening. But it didn?t seem to me as if we were really reading it, listening to it. Our gathering never achieved what Buechner described as a ?cathedral? in which the poetry, symbol, and image echoed. Ours was a tiny closet that night, where the words of life fell with a depressing thud. I wanted them to take the Bible seriously.
And perhaps most urgently of all, I wanted them to put on, with me, ?the spectacles of the poor,? or in our case that evening, the spectacles of those who were almost completely absent, or more likely silenced in that gathering. With the exception of one or two references to distant family members or coworkers who are gay, there was no real evidence of any serious engagement with or listening to gay and lesbian Christians as part of the Biblical discernment. This was a privileged, safe reading of texts from the secure centers of life in which the margins were afforded no voice. While my censurers of course vigorously disagreed with, even resented my suggestion of parallel situations, if felt to me like a discussion of the Bible and slavery, without any time on the agenda to hear the voices of the enslaved, like a discussion of the Bible and patriarchy without any time on the agenda to hear the voices of women, like the Bible and economics without any agenda time for the poor. Such readings always involve a set of lenses; there are no disinterested engagements with texts. Taking the Bible seriously requires, it seems to me, at least a recognition of our ?interest,? and a readiness to put on the ?spectacles of the poor? even if, in the end, we are not finally persuaded. I wanted my audience to take the Bible seriously just as much as they wanted me to take the Bible seriously.
Herein lies the anguish and the difficulty of church life today. It is obviously an ecumenical problem, but it is also, and perhaps most painfully, a problem within communions, fueling much of the contentious debate and deep estrangement that can be found in denomination after denomination. Most Christians believe they ?take the Bible seriously,? though we must admit the truth of one radio preacher I recently heard who said that ?the Bible is in danger of becoming America?s best selling coffee table book!? Most Christians believe the Bible has ?authority? in their lives. But in our widely divergent convictions and commitments about ?how? to take the Bible seriously, we are quick to deny seriousness to those with whom we disagree. And in our Protestant ethos, shaped by the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation, to claim that someone fails to take the Bible seriously is about as close to excommunication as we can get. This, in fact, was precisely what was at stake in the formal dialogue between the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ initiated by those in the Reformed Church who desired to resist and then to abrogate the Lutheran-Reformed full communion relationship adopted by our two churches and the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The dialogue came to a hopeful conclusion, in spite of remaining differences that were and are significant, by saying the following:
The question was framed, ?How is it that two churches of the Reformed tradition, honoring and reading the same Scripture, can come to such different conclusions? By the end of [our dialogue] it was agreed by all participants that the Bible has been and continues to be the foundational guidance for our churches on the issue of homosexuality, though we come with differing hermeneutical and interpretive principles. Both sides agreed that both churches seek to take the Scripture seriously.
While the Report has been received by both churches, it is clear that its conclusions are not universally embraced, particularly in the Reformed Church in America where calls for distancing or dissolving the full communion relationship persist at each meeting of the General Synod. Behind all the other issues in dispute, the suspicion lingers: ?You don?t take the Bible seriously.?
Is there hope for moving beyond the impasse?
So we are left with the question, ?Is there any hope for moving beyond the impasse, or are we destined for a prolonged, bitter, and divisive ecclesial struggle in which the Bible becomes both the terrain and the weapon of battle?? Two things will help. First, we could concede that those who differ from us, who distrust our reading of the text and the implications we draw from it, are in fact attempting to take the Bible as seriously as we are. Condemnation has always been the first step toward division, and in our Protestant milieu dismissing the seriousness of another?s engagement with Scripture is the heaviest form of condemnation. Second, we could attempt, as I have attempted here, to give an account, literally to ?be accountable? to those who challenge us, sharing as candidly and as forthrightly as possible how the Bible speaks to us. In one sense that is what this lecture seeks to do for my accusers in the Association gathering. There are theologians, preachers, and Biblical scholars who would give a different and in many cases far more sophisticated accounting than mine. But each of us, I believe, is called to offer that account, to say to sisters and brothers in the faith, ?this is what it means for me to take the Bible seriously,? and of course, in that account, to evaluate, challenge, and critique the accounts of others. To concede that someone takes the Bible seriously is not the same thing as accepting any and all approaches as accurate, valid, helpful, or even faithful. Borrowing the ecumenical language of the Lutheran-Reformed dialogue, I assert that with mutual affirmation comes mutual admonition. I do respect the seriousness of those who gathered to dispute with me at the Association gathering. But I disagree with them sharply. Nevertheless, much will be advanced if we join at least the occasional affirmations to our frequent admonitions. All of this will help, but with the stakes so high, I suspect it will only help; it will certainly not solve our problems.
Ultimately I suspect what will be more important than resolving disputes over how different ones among us take the Bible seriously, will be a commitment to engage together in what I would like to call a liturgical reading of the Bible. A liturgical reading is not simply, or perhaps even primarily, a reading of the Bible in the sanctuary. It is a reading that occurs in the shared context of our Baptism, a recognition that we come to the Bible together as ?children of God, disciples of Christ, as members of the Church? and as a Body whose head is Christ in which no part can say to another, ?I have no need of you.? Thus, a liturgical reading resists privatized reading, reading that is always subject to the ?interest? of a particular location or station in life. A liturgical reading takes place around the communion table, which means we always read in the presence of Christ, crucified and risen, in the company of all the saints, and that in the sacrament our reading is done against the horizon of God?s rule and reign which is both signified and enacted in the breaking of the bread. A liturgical reading is always shaped by the Table?s re-presentation of God?s mission in which all will ultimately be reconciled in Christ. A liturgical reading takes place before the Cross which confronts us with our personal and corporate sin, sin that always twists and distorts our reading, even as it lifts our eyes to those who suffer in the world and, in so doing, invites us to read along with the slaves, the exiles, the nomads, and the peasants from whom the text has been received. In other words, a liturgical reading invites us to read with those who not only are able to be astonished, but with those whose oppression causes them to desire the astonishment that turns the world upside down.
A liturgical reading honors the seasons of our worship life, reading the text through the anticipation of Advent with its judgment and hope, the celebrations of Christmas with its sense of presence and fulfillment, the expansiveness of Epiphany with its global and cosmic dimensions, the penitence and discipline of Lent and the astonishing victory of Easter, and finally through the Spirited and ordinary weeks of Pentecost. Thus a liturgical reading rescues us from our personal preoccupations and exposes us to the whole of Scripture with the full array of Biblical themes. That is to say, a liturgical reading is a sustained reading, a reading not for the moment, or for resolution of the current dispute, but is a reading over time, engaged in by those who share the experience of grace, who know themselves to be in the Presence of the crucified and risen Christ, and who seek to be in solidarity with those whose poverty provides not rose colored glasses, but clarity about both the astonishing evil in the world and, even more, about God?s astonishing activity and amazing grace. In that kind of liturgical reading over time, even the unschooled and the eccentric, the flawed and the imperfect will discover that the words on the preacher?s page do become the scarlet verse of Jesus, and the daily encounter with scripture can be, as Schleiermacher said, ?a new, joyous, and powerful appearance of the Lord himself.?
At the Bar Mitzvah of a son or the Bat Mitzvah of a daughter, a Jewish parent is invited to pray:
Into our hands, O God, You have placed Your Torah, to be held high by parents and children, and taught by one generation to the next. Whatever has befallen us, our people have remained steadfast in loyalty to the Torah. It was carried into exile in the arms of parents that their children might not be deprived of their birthright. And now I pray that you, my child, will always be worthy of this inheritance. Take its teaching into your heart, and in turn pass it on to your children and those who come after you. May you be a faithful Jew, searching for wisdom and truth, working for justice and peace. Thus will you be among those who labor to bring nearer the day when the Lord shall be One, and His name shall be One.
Such is the prayer of all who would take the Bible seriously. May it be our prayer as well.
The 2000 Dunkirk Colloquy in Dunkirk, New York, brought together members of the United Church of Christ for reflection and conversation on the authority of scripture for Christians. Keynote presenters included the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minster and President of the United Church of Christ, and the Rev. Frederick Trost, Wisconsin Conference Minister. The Rev. Paul Hammer led Bible study.
The Bible both unites and divides us as a church. Our spiritual ancestors have never agreed, even in the first generations of the Christian community, about the right way to read and apply Scripture. Today, views in the UCC (like all other mainline denominations) range from conservative to liberal. Scripture often quoted by all sides in the ethical conflicts that divide us as well as many other churches. The Bible is God's gift to the church, to be read for our instruction and comfort, but we often use it as a hammer to strike down the arguments of our opponents, or even to exclude each other from the Body of Christ.
Right interpretation of Scripture necessarily includes right living, that is, we cannot hear God's word in the Bible if our minds and hearts are closed to each other. These were some of the issues that were explored at Dunkirk.
UCC President Thomas proposes a reading of the Bible that takes its origins seriously and is heard liturgically in the context of a community united in worship.
Fred Trost argues that when the Bible is taken seriously, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Paul Hammer finds the unity of the Bible enriched by its diversity.
Theology is the work of the whole Body of Christ—not only of ordained ministers or academic theologians. Everyone who loves Jesus Christ and tries to be faithful to the Gospel is a Christian theologian. We want the Theology Page to be useful to you in your growth in the faith.
Are wars ever just? A debate between two famous brothers
As our church and the world continue to struggle with issues of war and peace in the aftermath of Sept. 11, we present as a resource a debate between two of the theological parents of the United Church of Christ: the brothers Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr. Both theologians—who taught two generations of UCC pastors—reacted to the Japanese invasion of China with thoughtful but opposed interpretations of what the Christian faith requires in time of international conflict. The debate was aired in the pages of the Christian Century. Also included as a resource: a paper by UCC theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite applying the Just War tradition to the war against Iraq, and General Synod's 1985 pronouncement on "Just Peace"—an alternative to "Just War."
Taking Bible Seriously
Three papers by on the authority of scripture in the church.
Should the church affirm vowed relationships by gay and lesbian couples?
The meaning today of the Cambridge Platform—a watershed event in the evolution of the congregational idea of church relationships.
Just War or Just Peace?
The classic debate by the Niebuhr brothers on just war, plus General Synod on "Just Peace."