It’s not heroic martyrdom to “tie up heavy burdens for others” (Matthew 23:4)

Jesus’ woes against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 should be mandatory daily devotional reading for American evangelicals. It’s incredible how much we resemble the religious insiders who crucified Jesus. One of the things that Jesus says about the Pharisees in verse 4 is that “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.” We are living through a time in which many Christians measure their “faithfulness” to God according to the weight of the burdens that they tie up for others to carry, the prime example of course being the homosexuality issue. What’s farcical is when Christians act as though they are making some great sacrifice and bearing some great cross on account of how strict they are in their consideration of what other people do.

The ancient Christians were martyred for doing things that put them at odds with the social order like refusing to participate in the pagan festivals and refusing to buy meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. I have total respect for someone who gets persecuted or scorned because they are choosing to act differently than the people around them. I don’t disrespect people who have a different Biblical interpretation than I do on the issue of homosexuality. Many Christians are able to hold their perspective with humility and grace.

But when you go on and on about the heroic martyrdom of your anti-gay position, then you’re making it pretty obvious how much self-justification you’re getting out of it. When you’re in a sub-culture whose most distinguishing marker of identity for the last forty years has been its sexual traditionalism, there’s nothing risky or martyr-like about holding onto a position that keeps you from getting kicked out of your sub-culture. In our balkanized society, conservatives demonize liberals and liberals demonize conservatives. This is expected; neither can complain with any degree of integrity that they are persecuted or martyred; both have echo chambers in which they can isolate themselves and feel completely supported in their views.

The reason why no argument, no matter how strong the Biblical grounding, will ever sway most evangelicals on homosexuality is because their tribal identity depends upon the moralization of sexual normalcy. That is the entirety of what the code-word “Biblical” means. It doesn’t have anything to do with following Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or Galatians 5:22’s spiritual fruit or James’ insistence on living out your faith through works or Leviticus 25’s year of Jubilee. The way evangelicals determine whether someone is “Biblical” or not is to evaluate their beliefs about sex and gender. That’s the only sphere in which the adjective is deployed.

To stop being anti-gay would involve a complete crisis of identity for the evangelicals. The moralization of sexual normalcy was the evangelicals’ means of recovering their dignity in the early seventies after taking a beating form the civil rights movement. Because it isn’t racist to say that the reason we’re middle class instead of poor is that we don’t sleep around outside of marriage and we don’t need to spend our tax dollars subsidizing poor peoples’ immorality with welfare.

For years I have watched the leaders in the Southern Baptist Church of my upbringing use the homosexuality issue as a means of jockeying for power and attacking rivals’ characters. I’ve never seen  the issue come up in a true pastoral context where someone’s actual discipleship was concerned. The constant charge being brought against the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, for instance, is that they’re really pro-gay under the surface, which means that CBF pastors are under intense pressure to prove their fidelity to the anti-gay cause in order to stave off their delegitimization.

I realize that I can’t see into other peoples’ souls to see how much of what they profess is said out of fear of more conservative Christians discrediting them. I just know that for a long time I kept my mouth shut and toed the party line for this reason. In my case, being anti-gay wasn’t a stance that I held out of integrity but in order to protect my right flank from attack.

Whatever you believe, don’t do so out of fear of whichever tribe you fall into. Ask God to show you the truth, and be obedient to what He reveals. Whether you believe it or not, that’s the way I’m trying to live. The most critical part of your witness is the humility with which you hold your beliefs, which does not mean at all that you’re not allowed to speak honestly about them. I’ll try my best to love and respect you. But if you’re going to make a big fuss about your heroic martyrdom for the burdens that you tie up for others to carry in order to demonstrate your loyalty to the evangelical tribe, then I’m going to say get over yourself!

12 thoughts on “It’s not heroic martyrdom to “tie up heavy burdens for others” (Matthew 23:4)

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  3. Current day Phariseeism is a primary theme on Jesus without Baggage. Every critical comment Jesus made to the Pharisees applies to us who act like Pharisees. And our judgmental attitudes toward gays is certainly part of that.

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  5. With what I hope is humility and not heroic martyrdom, I concur with everything you say here — and with the forthright way in which you say it. Reposting on UM Insight. Preach on, my brother!

  6. Lots of food for thought in this post. I especially like this:

    “Whatever you believe, don’t do so out of fear of whichever tribe you fall into. Ask God to show you the truth, and be obedient to what He reveals.”

    Yet it does often seem that we have more difficulty being faithful to God than we do in being faithful to our tribes.

  7. Mo, what is this a response to. who said that they were being “heroic martyrs”? just curious. and a petty gripe I have to make. we were raised pretty much mainstream Baptists. south main wasn’t very southern Baptist. there were elements of yates that were southern Baptist (oversimplified theology), but certainly not all of Yates. mom’s really really sensitive to the thought that we were raised southern Baptist. just sayin’… the other thing is that i can only remember you being anti-gay in like 7th grade. were you anti-gay for very long after that?
    good post. hope the family is well. saw Cheryl’s pic of IG’s new bed. really cool! love you.

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