This week, the United Methodist Church put a pastor on trial named Frank Schaefer for officiating at the wedding of his gay son. The judge, retired bishop Al Gwinn, ruled out as inadmissible any defense arguments based on scripture or other sections of the Book of Discipline, reasoning that only “the facts” of what Schaefer did were relevant to determining the verdict. While I understand the rationale and practical limitations that necessitate this approach to justice, I do not think it does justice to justice. The promise that we receive in scripture is that God judges according to the heart. Hebrews 4:12-13 says: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
The heart matters to God, and not just when people do the right thing for secret wrong reasons, but also when they break the rules for noble reasons. The journey that Frank Schaefer took from having the traditional views on sexuality typical of an evangelical pastor to becoming an LGBT advocate because of his love for his son may be inadmissible in a United Methodist church trial, but it is not immaterial to the God who judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
The difference between our finite capacity for justice and God’s infinite capacity is that God can account for all the mitigating circumstances perfectly. We’re used to assuming that God’s infinite nature means only that He judges more harshly than we would. That at least is what evangelicals have drilled into our heads as the basis for sharing the gospel with non-believers (“They may seem like good people to you, but to God, they are utterly wicked, because God’s ways are ‘higher’ than our ways”).
But why would we assume that God’s “higher ways” do not actually make Him capable of infinite nuance? That certainly seems to be the implication of the passage in Isaiah 55:7-9 from which that phrase is taken:
Let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Nuance may be a challenge to the simple-minded folks who end up talking the loudest in religious conversations, but it isn’t to God. I get that if you have a group of people who are bound together by a set of rules you agree to follow, there have to be consequences for violating those rules, or the agreement has no meaning. But it has hurt my heart to see the utter lack of sympathy among my fellow Methodist pastors who have been thumping their chests online about how furious they will be if Schaefer doesn’t get the book the thrown at him. Paul addresses the relevance of the heart to God in his polemic against the circumcision evangelists in Romans 2:28-29:
For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
The basic game that God’s people have been playing since the beginning is to find a way to leverage their meticulous devotion to the letter of the law to their advantage. Doctrinal and moral purity are pursued ferociously as a means for dominating others. As Jesus says about the Pharisees of His day, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,and lay them on the shoulders of others” (Matthew 23:4). Their zeal for moral purity was more about being able to lay heavy burdens on others than it was about devotion to God.
My blog is named after Matthew 9:13 where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.'” In the verse that Jesus quotes, Hosea 6:6, the word chesed, which gets translated into mercy, is actually referring to steadfast love for God, but Jesus reinterprets this verse to mean mercy for sinners. This suggests that the way we show our faithfulness to God is through our mercy for others, which is of course corroborated by Matthew 25: “Whatever you have done for the least of my brothers you have done for me.”
It seems that there are two approaches to holiness represented by “sacrifice” and “mercy.” The holiness of “sacrifice” assumes that God calls us to austerity for austerity’s sake (i.e. show how much you love me by what you’re willing to give up). When you think that holiness is about being harsh with yourself to demonstrate loyalty to God, then the holier you are, the harsher you will be with other people. Thus, holiness and mercy are at odds with one another and have to be “held in tension,” as some would say.
The holiness of “mercy,” on the other hand, assumes that God is not looking for an exhibition of self-deprivation to prove your loyalty, but rather that we are to be emptied of our idolatry and “fleshliness” for the sake of emulating Christ’s radical cruciform love, which is why Paul shares the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 as the basis for exhorting the Philippians to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (vv. 2-3).
When a teacher of the law asks Jesus in Luke 10 what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus’ summary of the entirety of Torah is to share the parable of the Good Samaritan. That was actually the parable Schaefer cited in his comments about what he did (which were of course inadmissible in his church trial). The reason that the priest and the Levite didn’t touch the wounded man was because of the Torah’s regulations on ritual uncleanliness. They were being “Biblical.” The Samaritan violated the Torah to fulfill the Torah because his heart was “moved with pity.”
I believe that holiness is supposed to give us that kind of heart. Sin is sin for two reasons: it hurts other people (injustice) and it poisons our hearts (idolatry). Someone will say, “Well what about honoring God?” The reason God demands that we worship Him and not idols is not because He needs the flattery, but because worshiping Him purifies our hearts and worshiping idols poisons our hearts.
As 1 John 4:12 says, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” If we don’t have a heart that can “love deeply,” that is evidence that we haven’t “purified [our] souls by [our] obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22). Those who follow the rules meticulously but lack mercy reveal an insidious idolatry at play inside their hearts.
The heart matters to God, and right now Frank Schaefer isn’t the only one on trial; we all are. Based on my understanding of holiness, I do not see how officiating a same-sex wedding for your son is idolatrous or unjust (I have examined the Bible as faithfully as thoroughly as I could). I am starting to wonder whether elevating a book other than the Bible above the Bible is the real idolatry here.
Furthermore, regardless of whether you consider homosexuality to be a sin or not, it is unjust to compare Schaefer’s deed to driving drunk or embezzling money from the church, which is what several of my fellow pastors have done. The facts of the case aren’t all that matters. Schaefer’s heart matters. And our hearts matter too. God judges all of it.
Friends, there’s plenty of repentance to go around. My heart is impure, and yours is too. That’s why I exhort you to do what Peter says: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:1-3).