The Sacrament and the Commodity

Today I took a walk through the woods as I do most Mondays. I went to Lake Acotink, which is a little more beautiful and a bit longer hike than Burke Lake. I find it exciting to follow a creek as it gets larger and larger and becomes a river that opens out into a lake. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t matter how many times I do this hike — my heart always leaps when I reach the point in the trail where I see the lake for the first time. Continue reading

Marc Carpenter and Today’s Pelagianism

Okay I recognize that most people who would  read my blog wouldn’t have any reason to know or care who Marc Carpenter is. I didn’t know or care who he was until yesterday when some chatter on facebook led me to this post on Billy Birch’s Arminian website. For those of you who were blissfully unaware, in the Christian blogosphere, there’s a group of fierce theological piranhas known as the hyper-Calvinists. If you don’t know what Calvinism is, in a nutshell, it’s the belief that God decided before the beginning of time who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell and nobody knows who’s going where (except that the people who are going to the right place always seem to agree with Calvinist theology). There are other aspects to it as well, such as being very argumentative with other Christians and radically sure of your own theological correctness (though I’m sure there are Calvinists who are actually humble, nice people who might even have a sense of humor).

Now hyper-Calvinism is the extreme version of Calvinism, when you not only damn all non-Calvinist Christians to hell (along with the rest of humanity — DUH!), but also all fellow Calvinists who refuse to damn non-Calvinists. It’s kind of like the logic of the Rwandan Hutu militia that massacred not only Tutsis but also Hutus who sympathized with Tutsis as well as Hutus who didn’t think that Tutsi-sympathizing Hutus should necessarily get killed. So anyway, Marc Carpenter is the most hyper of the hyper-Calvinists that I’ve come across. He actually says that he doesn’t call himself a Calvinist anymore because John Calvin himself isn’t Calvinist enough to avoid going to hell for some of the things that he said (unless he repented before dying which nobody can know for sure).

Here’s a sampling of Carpenter’s logic taken from a letter called “Speaking Peace to God-Haters” in which he explains why other Calvinists (such as a guy named North) aren’t themselves really Christian if they refuse to condemn Arminians like Methodism founder John Wesley (for believing that God’s grace is available to all of humanity).

North and others like him believe that “experience” and “holy living” take precedence over doctrine. They believe that one’s doctrine can deny the work of Christ, but as long as one has a “heart-felt spiritual experience” and a “Christian life,” one can hold to a different christ and a different gospel.

The truth is that it is doctrine that distinguishes the true Christ and the true gospel from all counterfeit christs and counterfeit gospels. Without the doctrine of Christ, you do not have Christ. The “personal knowledge of God in Christ” includes the knowledge of how God is just to justify the ungodly – Christ’s person and work (which no Arminian knows). God invariably gives this knowledge to everyone He regenerates, and no one who does not have this knowledge is a true Christian.

The paradox of hyper-Calvinism is that their doctrine says that only Christ’s atoning sacrifice can “justify the ungodly” — nothing humans do in and of our own accord can earn God’s salvation (a statement which I agree with), BUT… the believer must believe in the right doctrine to be saved (“Without the doctrine of Christ, you do not have Christ”). What Calvinists believe is that while we can’t do anything to make God save us, “God invariably gives [a clear understanding of Calvinist doctrine] to everyone He regenerates.” If it sounds confusing and twisted, that’s because it is. They have to articulate their views in a convoluted way because these two aspects of hyper-Calvinism are fundamentally contradictory. Maintaining the second part, that someone remains unsaved without the right doctrine, undermines the first part, that we can do nothing to earn God’s salvation.

There’s a word that hyper-Calvinists hate more than any other word. It’s Pelagianism, a term derived from a 3rd century ascetic monk named Pelagius who had a fierce argument with the north African bishop Augustine over whether humans could do good without the power of God’s grace. Pelagius argued that if humans just used their will-power, they could suck it up and obey Christ’s teachings, and God would judge them in the end on the basis of their success. Augustine believed that barring Christ’s atonement and empowerment, humans were completely without the existential resources to do good. In Augustine’s view, we need not only for God to forgive the sins we committed before becoming Christians but to continue to prop us up constantly like sagging tomato plants till the day that we die because we never are completely liberated from sin. Augustine won the argument and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic. Since then, Pelagianism has been a catch-all phrase throughout the centuries for accusing other Christians of believing that they earn salvation through their works rather than receiving it as a gift of grace from God (by the way, there’s a ton of scripture which I haven’t referenced which undergirds this whole debate — see my post “Justification by Faith: 3 Perspectives” if you’re confused and let me know if I need to provide more scriptural context for you to understand).

In any case, during the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin accused the Catholic church of Pelagianism for purportedly thinking that the sacramental system of baptism, Eucharist, confession, last rites, etc, was a sort of formulaic means for assuring one’s right standing with God, i.e. earning your salvation through your works, in this case, sacraments. The Reformers’ accusations were at least partly on-point. One of the more extreme, disgusting practices in that day was for the church to collect a certain amount of money from people (called indulgences) in exchange for guaranteeing that their relatives who had died and were suffering in Purgatory could get bumped up to heaven faster. This more obviously corrupt practice (which Catholics quickly discontinued after the Reformation) was allowed to develop because of a mindset that the church could generate (and eventually sell) salvation-assuring products through its sacramental system. Now I don’t think that using the historical sacraments of the church as a means for opening our hearts to God’s gracious transformation is inherently Pelagian (we would do well as Protestants to respect the sacraments a lot more), but it is true that the late-medieval sacramental system was overly formulaic and commodified to the point of creating a culture of works-righteousness that interfered with the Holy Spirit’s reign over the church.

Today we have a new Pelagian problem. Just as sacraments were good but became a stumbling to the medieval Catholic church, doctrine is a good thing, but it has become a stumbling block to Calvinist Protestants in particular. The form that Pelagianism has taken in our time is doctrinal rather than sacramental. Doctrinal Pelagianism is the belief (often vehemently denied and/or unacknowledged but confirmed in practice) that we earn our salvation by believing the right doctrine about Christ. If the hyper-Calvinists really believed what they say they believe about divine predestination, they would have no compulsion to argue other people into their doctrinal perspective, because God has presumably already decided their fate and whether or not people change their minds about their doctrinal views shouldn’t make any difference. In other words, hyper-Calvinist behavior reveals an unstated and unacknowledged functional belief at play underneath the officially professed predestinarian doctrine.

What Marc Carpenter and his ilk demonstrate is that their version of earning salvation consists in taking the most radically unpalatable doctrinal position possible. That is the works-righteousness of doctrinal Pelagianism: believing “hard truths” that are unacceptable to the “anything goes” perspective of the postmodern world as well as lukewarm Christians who refuse to “stand against” the world. The “work” that Carpenter is doing to earn his salvation is a sort of faux martyrdom in which he solicits others’ attacks by saying ridiculous things like Billy Graham is going to hell because he wasn’t vociferous enough in proclaiming the damnation of Hindus.

Jesus does say in John that “the world will hate you because you are my disciples.” What He doesn’t say is that by making the world hate you (however you do it), you earn the right to call yourself my disciple. Just because Fred Phelps, the “God hates fags” preacher, is more hated than any other preacher in America doesn’t mean by some bizarre logic that he’s more fervently proved his loyalty to Christ than any other preacher. Christians like Phelps and Carpenter are simply at the most extreme end of a scale of doctrinal loyalty through anti-worldliness that many conservative evangelical Christians use to evaluate the status of their salvation without recognizing that they are doing so. The reason that doctrinal Pelagianism is so pernicious is because it creates the political power games of doctrinal loyalty tests. The self-promotional doctrinal infighting that goes on in the Christian blogosphere is at least as blasphemous to God’s name and as big a waste of God’s time as the scandalous indulgence sales were in the 1500’s. The reason a doctrinal Pelagian cannot fathom the possibility of any theological diversity within Christian orthodoxy whatsoever is because he needs to know that he’s right in order to feel saved, which is  exactly the kind of dangerous spiritual insecurity we are supposed to be saved from.

The sad comedy is that the whole point of justification by faith is to clip the wings of our egos and keep us from being snippy, argumentative demagogues. Ephesians 2:8-9 provides the best summary of the true Biblical doctrine of justification by faith: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” That last clause needs to be in bold-face in a larger font than the rest of the text in every Bible. God’s whole purpose in making salvation something that we cannot earn but only receive as a gift is to prevent us from becoming the people who damn everyone to hell who disagrees with them. So to put it in 21st century text-speak, hyper-Calvinism = complete justification-by-faith FAIL!

So are there fruits of spiritual regeneration that show we belong to Christ? YES! By all means! But we don’t need to make these fruits out to be the assented propositions of some extra-Biblical doctrinal system that uses as many tough-sounding words like total depravity, penal substitution, and infinite wrath as possible. Paul gives us a listing of the fruits of our regeneration in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These fruits have nothing to do with the particulars of our doctrine; they have to do with the spiritual dispositions we exude in our treatment of others. Now our doctrine is not unrelated to this. But what I would contend is that whatever doctrine results in the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit is for that reason the right doctrine. Heresy is whatever doctrine produces the poisonous fruit of un-Christlike behavior, no matter how many Biblical proof-texts it can claim. Orthodoxy (right teaching) is confirmed by orthopraxis (right practice). See my post on this specific topic. The reason why the doctrine of justification by faith is so important and worth defending is, because without it, Christians become snotty brats who are utterly useless to the Savior who wants to incorporate us into His body.

So the next time you’re absolutely sure you’re right about something theological and you’re sure that the person you’re arguing with is not only wrong but bound for eternal damnation, then take a look at Galatians 5:22 to examine whether you are indeed regenerate. Maybe you need to pray Jesus back into your heart again (I’ve had to do that quite often myself). Of course being a Wesleyan, I’m not worried about the number of times I’ve had to say that prayer and which time it “counted,” because I know it’s a prayer that God will never lose patience with.

[Note: if I just used too much shorthand and jargon for you to know what in the world I’m talking about, my apologies. I can explain in more depth if you’re interested. Otherwise sorry to have bored you with seminarian dribble-drabble.]

Homosexuality & Biblical Authority

I got an email today from the Virginia Methodist state listserv that let me know there’s going to be a resolution at our Methodist Annual Conference this year regarding the question of homosexual clergy (in my first year as a voting member — GULP!). The email cast its opposition to unbanning homosexual clergy according to the framework of the United Methodist constitution. Our United Methodist Book of Discipline says that the 25 Articles of Religion agreed upon by our forebears can never be revoked or tampered with by United Methodists in later generations. Article 6 says regarding Old Testament regulations that “although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral. The author of the email considers the Leviticus 18:22 prohibition on homosexuality to be part of the moral law of the Old Testament. Thus, removing the ban on homosexuality is, in his perspective, not only un-Biblical but unconstitutional according to United Methodist bylaws.

I’ve been very reluctant to touch this issue with a fifty-foot pole. For pastoral reasons, I refuse to take a “pro” or “anti” position on this issue other than to affirm that I am bound as a Methodist pastor to uphold the standards currently set forth in our Book of Discipline and I will uphold the Discipline after the Methodist General Conference in 2012 regardless of what gets decided. I also believe that as a Christian, I’m supposed to submit myself completely to the authority of the Bible. I also have a best friend who’s gay and I participated once in a Bible study with Christians who were gay and seemed like more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ than I was.

So there’s a tug of war inside of me involving my personal experiences, my loyalty to the church, and the authority of scripture. Those of you who are familiar with Methodism might know that we have a concept called the Wesleyan quadrilateral that describes the four things we bring to bear when listening to God’s voice in our lives: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Now these four are not equally weighted. Scripture has the most weight and is supposed to draw the boundaries for how we utilize our church traditions, logical reason, and personal experiences. At the same time, we never read the Bible from a completely neutral “objective” perspective: all Christians use our tradition, reason, and experience as part of our Biblical interpretive process whether we admit to doing so or not.

In any case, with this particular issue, the important question I must ask as a Christian and Methodist pastor is whether ordaining homosexual clergy undermines the authority of the Bible. I realize that there are Christians who believe that the Bible can be instructive in their lives without being absolutely authoritative. But I don’t consider that to be an option. In order to hear the Word of God in the world, we need to have a single authoritative text that tells us how to interpret all the other news articles, mystery novels, and blogs that we come across. I’ve got to be able to decipher God’s voice in the midst of a lot of chaos and confusion and competing voices. The Bible is my lens for interpreting the rest of reality. If I see something happen, the Bible gives me a way of describing what I’ve seen in the terms of my Christian faith. Moreover, we have to agree as a Christian community on the boundaries of the covenant to which we have submitted; otherwise we will always be autonomous free agents only accidentally and temporarily in community, “blown here and there by the winds of every teaching” (Eph 4:14), because of our lack of a binding common discourse.

So can a Christian respect the authority of the Bible and not condemn homosexuality? Can Methodists respect our Articles of Religion and allow gay clergy to be ordained? These questions have to do with whether the Levitican ban on homosexuality is part of the “moral” law of the Old Testament that is universal to all times and cultural contexts or part of the “civil precepts” or regulations “touching ceremonies and rites” that were applicable and essential only to the particular context of Israelite society. Augustine wrote in his De Doctrina Christiana that the basic principle we should look to for guidance in interpreting scripture is the one Jesus laid out when He said that “all the law and the prophets hang on [the] two commandments” to love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:40). My understanding is that an Old Testament commandment constitutes a “moral” law if it relates to my ability to love God or love my neighbor. The Ten Commandments, for instance, map perfectly onto this principle, with 1-4 related to loving God and 5-10 related to loving other people.

So what about being gay? Certainly sexual promiscuity whether extramarital or premarital creates an obvious problem for our ability to love our neighbors and ourselves. But what about a gay person who has a monogamous lifelong relationship with a single partner just like a chaste married straight person? Does that create an obstacle for loving one’s neighbor or loving God? When people want to argue that homosexuality dishonors God, they typically use Genesis 1:27 to say that God created us “male and female” with specific complementary roles to be played in creation, most importantly the marriage relationship which they describe as always being between a man and woman (the same people usually argue that women are supposed to submit to men as part of this divine order, a command which appears quite a bit more often in scripture than the prohibition on homosexuality).

When the Methodist Church decided to ordain women in 1956, they officially rejected the principle that God’s plan for humanity is defined according to a gender hierarchy of complementary roles. They also decided to interpret the scriptural passages which explicitly prohibit women from teaching (1 Tim 2:12) or even speaking in church (1 Cor 14:34) as being applicable in the original cultural context of the early Christian community but not universal “moral” principles that should be followed by all Christians in all times and places. So should the United Methodist Church rescind the rights of women to be clergy? (I’m not going to argue in favor of this for fear that my clergy wife will throw all my belongings onto the front lawn).

If the prohibition against women teaching and speaking in church addressed a particular cultural context that is no longer applicable, then these prohibitions don’t constitute part of the moral law about which the Articles of Religion speak, so the United Methodist Church church can ordain female clergy without undermining Biblical authority just like we can serve shrimp and pork at our church potlucks and we don’t have to stone our children for being disrespectful to their parents. So are homosexual clergy analogous to female clergy? Does being sexually involved with a member of the same sex undermine a person’s ability to love his/her neighbor or love God? If so, then the Levitican prohibition of  homosexuality is indeed a moral law applicable to all times and places. If not, then the prohibition of homosexuality is bound to a specific cultural context in the past.

I can see a context in which homosexuality would be problematic to the social fabric of a community. That context is the patriarchal order of the early city-states of the Ancient Near East. In our day, many people think of patriarchy as being a way of thinking that is inherently oppressive to women. But in the time when people first started living in city-states with complete strangers (as opposed to nomadic tribes with their extended families), patriarchy was the means of protecting women and children from sexual violence. The sexual code of Leviticus 18 sets the boundaries for how sexual contact can and cannot occur. Without these boundaries, ancient cities became like Sodom (Genesis 19) where gangs of horny men roamed the street and raped anyone who couldn’t defend themselves. The problem of Sodom illustrates why Leviticus 18 is necessary (and it has nothing to do with the gender of the parties involved). In Judges 19, the men of Gibeah gang-rape the female concubine of a Levite who visits their town.

The reason that the homosexuality ban is part of the necessary boundary system of patriarchy is because men were the points of reference by which different households were demarcated. The way that Leviticus 18:22 is written is revealing: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.” Raping another man (there was no concept of consensual sex in ancient times) constituted making him into a woman, thus removing the boundary marker by which members of his household were protected from gang-rape. Homosexuality thus would have caused the whole protective system of patriarchy to fall like a house of cards. That’s why it was unloving to one’s neighbor to sleep with other men.

To me, the prohibition on homosexuality constitutes a moral law only if the patriarchal social order is necessary in all times and places to protect women and children from gang-rape. I personally believe that patriarchy is an obsolete social system that had an important function in the development of civilization but is no longer necessary due to thousands of years of laws and social conventions that have replaced the social need for households to be protected and demarcated by fathers. In our modern context, “patriarchy” has a totally different purpose than its originally legitimate protective function in the ancient world but that’s a topic for a different essay. In any case, I view the homosexuality prohibition as a “civil precept” of ancient Israelite society that was absolutely necessary in that context but does not constitute a timeless universal moral law like the prohibitions of adultery or stealing or coveting, for example. I don’t think this view compromises my commitment to the absolute authority of every word in the Bible, and as a United Methodist pastor, I will uphold the Discipline regardless of my personal perspective on this issue.

Orthodoxy for the Sake of Orthopraxis

So for those of my facebook friends who don’t know, this week there’s a virtual “Rally to Restore Unity” being held by Christians on facebook and other places in response to some ferocious theological debate that has taken place on the Internet largely as a result of Rob Bell’s controversial new book Love Wins. The idea is that we as Christians ought to promote unity in the church rather than saying that anybody who disagrees with us isn’t a true Christian. I don’t endorse everything that’s being said by other people, but I do think it’s worth reexamining how the Bible actually defines heresy, which is actually not the way that we have tended to understand things as Protestants who splinter into a new denomination every time we disagree on a theological detail.

For most of Christianity’s history (pre-Reformation), heresy was more or less judged according to whether it created schism, or a splintering of the unity of the body of Christ. The reason that Marcionism, Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Donatism, Montanism (and a whole lot of other –isms you’ve never heard of) came to be seen as heresies is because they threatened the unity of the body of Christ and undermined the ability of Christians to work together as committed disciples.

The reason I make this point is because it’s not enough to be “Biblical” to avoid heresy. The Bible is a complex enough text that you can take bits and pieces out of context to justify a practice that goes completely against the spirit of the Bible. This is why Paul told the Corinthians that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which was actually the verse that caused the great fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine to convert to Christianity after he had trouble taking certain Old Testament passages literally. Of course, some asinine people take this to the nihilistic extreme of saying that nothing in the Bible needs to be taken seriously if every verse can be misinterpreted. And then in response, others say that we must interpret everything literally or not at all.

The reality is that we have to make decisions about which passages get more weight than others when interpreting the Bible. If James says that “faith without works is dead” and Romans says that “we are justified by our faith and not by works,” then do we interpret James in the light of Romans or Romans in the light of James? (Personally I think that some days I need James and other days I need Romans; the fact that they seem to contradict is only a problem if I’m trying to come up with an airtight systematic doctrine that’s purer than everybody else’s.) This issue actually came up when I was helping a friend write a sermon this December. We had to decide how to read Peter’s statement in Acts 10:35 that God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” If this is true, then it seems to clash with what Paul says in Romans about God only “accepting” those of us who are justified by our faith in Christ. So do we say that Peter can’t really mean what he’s literally saying or do we somehow hold Acts 10:35 and Romans 5 “in tension” with one another (whatever that means)?

In any case, my point is simply that we need a better litmus test with which to measure true or false Christian teaching than to just ask whether it’s derived in some way from something “Biblical.” The 2nd century Gnostics did all kinds of proof-texting from the Bible to support their heresy. In response, the bishop Irenaeus wrote that Biblical passages are like a set of mosaic tiles that can be rearranged to form different pictures according to how they are prioritized and privileged. He said that properly orthodox Christian teaching arranges the Biblical tiles to form a lamb, while the Gnostics were rearranging the same tiles to form a fox. If the same words can make a fox and a lamb, we need a litmus test that helps us read the Bible in such a way so that we see the lamb of God and not some fox of Satan. The Bible actually gives us several litmus tests to use. Each of them sets the boundaries of orthodoxy (right teaching) according to the needs of orthopraxis (right practice).

First of all and most prominently, we have Jesus’ claim that “all the law and the prophets hang on” the commandments to love God and love your neighbor. What does this mean? The way that Augustine interpreted it is to say that all scripture has the goal of leading its readers to fulfill these two commandments. Thus the way to know whether I am interpreting scripture correctly is whether it leads me to give myself more fully to God and my neighbor in love. Interestingly, the poster child Jesus gives for the second great commandment to love your neighbor was a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a man who was not simply a different race than Jesus’ audience of Jewish religious leaders, but someone whom they considered to be an absolute heretic because of the Samaritans’ religious mixture of Jewish and pagan beliefs.

As much as it makes us squirm, Jesus seems to be telling us in the Good Samaritan story that the priest and Levite’s orthodoxy was inferior to the Samaritan’s heterodoxy because the Samaritan was the one who was able to show mercy (though it is also true that when Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 under different circumstances, he critiques Samaritan beliefs and affirms the superiority of Jewish orthodoxy). There are certainly ways to abuse the litmus test of love. It’s perverse to say that because scripture is supposed to lead me to love my neighbor and God, then I can sidestep any Biblical passages that feel “unloving” to me because they’re uncomfortable. The only way to become a Christian disciple capable of real love is to have layers and layers of corrupt worldly socialization chiseled away from us by God largely through wrestling with uncomfortable Biblical passages.

Another litmus test comes in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He tells Timothy that the problem with “false doctrines” is that they “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:4-5). Controversial speculation is the fruit of heresy; advancing God’s work is the fruit of orthodoxy. The goal of a pastor like Timothy should be to cultivate pure hearts, good consciences, and sincere faith. This means making decisions about what to share with which people at what time. When the Corinthians take Paul’s initial teachings out of context to engage in political power-play within their congregations, he explains that they have misused surface-level teachings which were appropriate to them as new believers by trying to make them into absolute norms: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3:2).

The reason God didn’t write the Bible as a flat, static text whose passages offer obvious interpretations at first-glance is because He wasn’t looking to give us a soap-box from which to launch self-righteous tirades against other people. Instead He gave us a dynamic resource full of milk for some believers and solid food for others as the occasion dictates according to the purpose of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). The reason that God breathed scripture is not to give us ammunition for winning theological cage matches with other Christian but to equip us for doing God’s work. Orthodoxy exists for the sake of orthopraxis.

Notice that I’m not saying there are no boundaries; what I’m saying is that the boundaries exist for a reason – to create dedicated Christian disciples who will work as a unified body to transform the world. Sometimes heretics undermine this purpose by coloring outside of the lines of the Biblical canon; sometimes they stay inside the lines but in a mischievous way that follows the letter but abuses the spirit of Biblical witness. And ironically it’s often the case that the Christians who are the most zealous grand inquisitors of others’ doctrinal shortcomings have been deeply compromised by worldly values themselves. If you have the need to prove something with your doctrinal “loyalty,” then perhaps you haven’t yet received the good news that Christ died to take away our need to prove anything.

A third litmus test that I’ve always found helpful are the fruits of the Spirit that Paul shares with the Galatians towards the end of his letter to them. Galatians is Paul’s angriest letter because some of the Galatian leaders were trying to force a whole slew of Jewish religious practices onto the Gentiles who had converted to Christianity. We have many Galatians in the church today who try to tell other believers which political party they need to vote for and what political issues they need to prioritize in order to be a true Christian. After Paul emphatically exhorts the Galatians not to put their trust in anything other than Christ, he gives them a concrete means of measuring whether they’re living by the Spirit or the flesh: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22). Whenever our doctrine causes us to be less than kind, gentle, peaceful, loving, joyful, patient, faithful, and self-controlled, then that’s a pretty good indication that we’ve fallen for a heresy of some kind. An orthodox use of scripture will result in the Spirit’s fruits blossoming in our soul.

The test of orthodoxy is more than just asking whether we are being “Biblical.” Far more important is whether we create or remove stumbling blocks for people with whom God wants us to share His love, whether we get our kicks from force-feeding the toughest morsels of spiritual meat to new believers or prayerfully discern between giving them milk or solid food as thoughtful shepherds in imitation of our own Good Shepherd, whether we promote controversial speculation for the sake of our own power play or advance God’s work for the sake of the Kingdom, and whether we justify ourselves with our own doctrinal rightness or devote ourselves to unifying the body of people who are okay with being wrong since Jesus Christ is their only justification.

Pride: How We Hide Our Nakedness

Deadly Sin Sermon Series, 4 out of 9 — 11/6/2010
Texts: Genesis 3:1-13; Luke 18:9-14

It’s hard to understand what’s wrong with pride. Aren’t we supposed to take pride in our work? To be proud we’re Americans or proud of our children? The world teaches us to be proud of our accomplishments in our applications to colleges and jobs. Proud people work hard; they take care of themselves and don’t ask for help; they know what’s right and they’re not afraid to call out wrong when they see it. These may seem like good values, but they can make us feel like we don’t need God, and they undermine our sympathy for other people.

The early Christian Saint Augustine wrote that “pride is the beginning of all sin because [pride] was what overthrew the devil, from whom arose the origin of sin.” Some of you know the story of how the devil got thrown out of heaven. The devil’s original name was Lucifer, which means “light-bearer.” He was the brightest of all the angels, second only to God, but he couldn’t stand not being God. So he led a revolt against God. When the revolt was defeated, Lucifer was expelled from heaven and sought his revenge against God by corrupting God’s greatest creation – the human race. All of this happened because of Lucifer’s pride.

So along came Adam and Eve. God told them they could eat from any tree in Eden except for the tree of knowledge, which would cause them to die. They obeyed God and remained innocent until the devil came along. Read with me from Genesis 3:1-13. So the devil says that what’s really going on is that God doesn’t want Adam and Eve to have their eyes opened and know good and evil like God. Adam and Eve believed the serpent and they broke their trust with God. Eating a fruit might not seem like a terribly prideful thing to do, but it was the first instance of human beings declaring their independence from their Creator.

Adam and Eve’s declaration of independence was the birth of their self-awareness. Whether they really wanted to be like God or just let curiosity get the better of them, the consequence was that “their eyes were opened and they realized that they were naked.” So they sewed some leaves together to cover themselves. Then, when God confronted them about what they had done, they tried to cover up the nakedness of their sin with a story about how it was all somebody else’s fault.

Adam and Eve’s story captures something essential about humanity that makes us different than every other animal God created. The other animals are content to play their part in God’s natural order. They don’t know that they’re naked and they don’t care. If animals make mistakes, they don’t feel guilty; they just learn by trial and error. The difference with humans is that we are self-aware. Not only do we cover our physical nakedness with clothing, but we also try to hide our mistakes, with outright lies or a list of accomplishments that make up for our shortcomings.

Pride is a name for the wall that we put up to cover our spiritual nakedness. We clothe ourselves in the reassuring story that we are blameless people who don’t make mistakes and have always been successful. And as we tell this story to ourselves over and over, then every service hour, every AP class, every master’s degree, every person we’ve ever helped become like bricks in the wall of pride that we hide behind when confronted by our mistakes. We become slaves to our walls and spend our lives gathering achievements to put on our resumes.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. Let’s take a look at how it goes for them. The Pharisee’s prayer is a wall of pride. He says, God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, and he lists all the ways in which he’s better than others. It’s not a prayer so much as the Pharisee’s explanation of why he doesn’t need God’s help. We don’t know what the Pharisee was hiding behind his list of reasons he’s a good person. But by putting himself in the best light, even in a prayer, he missed out on the one thing that prayer is supposed to do – bring you closer to God. Prayer is supposed to be the one place where the walls come down and you’re real with God. How lonely when your prayer itself is a wall of pride?

And that wasn’t the only wall that the Pharisee’s pride built. He saw this tax collector beating his breast and crying out to God. Being a religious leader in his community, the Pharisee could have gone and comforted the tax collector; he could have prayed with him. Instead, the only use the Pharisee had for the tax collector was to make him a prop in his song of self-worship: thank you, God, that I’m not like that tax collector. As long as the wall of pride stays up, other people can never be more than props in the one-act plays of our lives. Regardless of how many conversations we have, regardless of how kind a face we put on, if our pride is what motivates us, we will never have any true friendships. And in some deep place beneath all the masks and beneath all the walls, we will always be lonely. When we hide behind the wall of our pride, we’re no different than Adam and Eve hiding from God because they were naked. And if we never tear that wall down, then it can keep us out of the joy of eternal communion with God.

Now what about the tax collector? He prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We don’t know his specific sins. What we do know is that his wall of pride came down. He probably had done some good things in life that he could have listed out before God to hide the burden that was in his heart. But he didn’t want to keep playing the game. He didn’t want to keep building the wall. So he decided to come out of hiding and put the nakedness of his sin right out in front of God. And Jesus says that the tax collector was the one who got what he needed from his prayer.

Now I don’t want to suggest that we’re going to have a mind-blowing, mountaintop experience every time we pour our hearts out before God. I’ve shared before that I went through a time when I was severely depressed and God felt really far away. I had started going to my first Methodist church in Toledo, Ohio, and the pastor there had taught me about this thing called centering prayer. So each night I would light a candle in my room and I’d stare at the candle and whisper over and over: “God, please make a space for yourself in my heart.” I didn’t feel much of anything, but I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t until years later that I realized God had answered my prayer.

So you might not feel anything right away, but I will promise you one thing. When the walls of pride come down, then God’s mercy can flow. And mercy is not just forgiveness, because it doesn’t stop with the person who receives it; it transforms us into merciful people and it keeps on flowing as we show mercy to other people. You don’t even need to do anything terrible to receive God’s mercy. All you’ve got to do is stop waving around whatever you’ve done well and let the wall of pride come down. And when you stop trying to build your achievements into a wall, you discover that your ability to do good at all is itself an act of God’s mercy.

Regardless of whatever myth our culture has taught us, nobody in the history of humanity has ever pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Whether we’ve realized it or not, we have always relied on the mercy of God flowing through the parents who raised us, the teachers who taught us, and the mentors who showed us the way. Our success is a product of all the ways that God has touched our lives through all the people who gave us a chance, so whatever good we do is really God doing good through us. God doesn’t need credit for all the good He does; He just knows that if we try to take credit for it, we’re going to build a wall of pride that will make us lonely and uncompassionate towards other people.

God can handle the glory so let’s give it to him and stop building it into walls for us to hide behind. God works best not through people who think they’re right about everything, but through people who have let their walls of pride come down so that mercy could flow through them – people who are grateful for God’s mercy and grateful for the privilege of sharing that mercy with others.