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APRIL 4, 2015 BY OWEN STRACHAN

nytThe New York Times just published one of the more rough-handed pieces we’ve yet seen regarding “gay Christianity.” In “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana,” opinion writer Frank Bruni takes the gloves off and seeks to bully Christians into caving on homosexuality. The column is frank, direct, and brutalizing.

Let’s consider five takeaways from this striking article.

1. Here’s what Bruni believes opposition to “gay Christianity” is based in: raw prejudice. He says as much:

But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.

It disregards the degree to which all writings reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras.

It ignores the extent to which interpretation is subjective, debatable.

The lack of self-awareness here takes your breath away. Apparently, Christians cannot see their “biases and blind spots,” but Bruni can. Here’s one example of a “blind spot” he might be missing: he claims all “interpretation is subjective” and “debatable” even as he presents his viewpoint as authoritative. Though he shames Christians for their hermeneutical simple-mindedness, he turns around and makes precisely the error he has just accused us of.

Editorialist, heal thyself.

2. We also note Bruni’s comments on doctrinal formation, which reduces in his mind to “scattered passages of ancient texts.” Speaking of “blind spots” once more, this is the fallacy of “chronological snobbery,” as C. S. Lewis called it. Simply because a teaching is old means it’s outmoded. This apparently does not apply to pagan sexuality, however, which is the framework by which our secular culture now operates. I’m not sure what to think of “scattered texts”–if “scattered” means something like “homosexuality is condemned in no uncertain terms in both the Old Testament and the New Testament,” then Bruni is more accurate than he knows.

The collective witness of the Bible, spread across diverse genres and eras, is indeed unified that homosexual desire and behavior is sinful (see Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22; Deuteronomy 23:17-18; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10). Beyond the clear teaching of these inerrant texts, homosexuality, as my colleague Jim Hamilton pointed out in his excellent chapter in God and the Gay Christian?, fits nowhere in the storyline of the Bible. Marriage is instituted by God between Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:18-25), affirmed by Jesus himself in crystal-clear teaching (Matt. 19:3-6), and ultimately points to the covenantal love between Christ and his cruciform people (Eph. 5:22-33).

Both exegetically and theologically, the Scripture is unmistakably clear: homosexuality does not owe to the good design of God, but to the corruption of the flesh. You could call this witness “scattered,” I suppose. You could also call it “overwhelming.”

3. It turns out that Bruni is not only here to correct us, however. He comes as an angel of freedom. He speaks to us in the verdant tones of “religious freedom,” which he helpfully defines as follows: “freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.” Here it is: your 2015 version of religious liberty. In years past, this concept meant something like “the opportunity to obey your conscience without prejudice.” Now, it means “the golden opportunity to believe what secular elites tell you to believe.”

We have reverted, really and truly, to the conditions that led the Puritans and Pilgrims to brave death and come to America four centuries ago. Our worship is now compelled and instructed, just as in days past. But we are not dealing with a state church, or at least not an established one. We are dealing with a cultural intelligentsia that offers us a grand bargain: we can give up our sexual ethics and be just fine, or we can hold onto them and be smashed into conformity. It’s really this stark: the Bible should be “rightly bowing”–Bruni’s actual phrase!–to secular rationalism. In other words, we have an authority, and it is not Scripture. It is the culture.

Religious people, according to Bruni, cling to their faith. Now, the time has come. We should give it all away. Like slavery and gender roles–“other aspects of their faith’s history”–we should simply relinquish views that the culture now finds wanting. This is rich stuff. Christianity offered women far more agency than secular Greco-Roman culture did. Christianity over the centuries has ennobled women, protected them from male predation, and given them a key place in the kingdom. Christianity overcame slavery, slavery that pagan cultures practiced without batting an eye.

It is lamentably true that far too many Christians embraced the racist and sexist beliefs of secular culture in the past. But it was not Voltaire and Rousseau who championed the abolitionist cause. It was William Wilberforce and William Lloyd Garrison and Jonathan Edwards, Jr. It is not the secular elite who now protect women from the ravages of the Sexual Revolution, with men openly preying on women. It is the church, even the imperfect church, that preaches the gospel and gospel ethics, which overcome both racism and sexism to render the people of God one body, the body of Christ.

The church has never been perfect. But did the church unleash genocide on the world, as secularism did through leaders like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot? It most certainly did not. Secular authoritarianism has brought great evil and suffering to people. The church, though imperfect, has brought gospel hope, ethical enlightenment, and social justice to untold numbers of people. Bruni ignores and even erases this in his piece.

4. Bruni waves his hand and thereby dismisses all believers who hold to complementarian convictions. He quotes exactly one obscure pastor to ground this rather audacious claim:

“In the United States, we have abandoned the idea that women are second-class, inferior and subordinate to men, but the Bible clearly teaches that,” said Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist pastor who was removed from ministry in the church after he performed a same-sex marriage ceremony in 1999. “We have said: That’s a part of the culture and history of the Bible. That is not appropriate for us today.”

And we could say the same about the idea that men and women in loving same-sex relationships are doing something wrong.

This point amuses me. It’s as if there are no denominations with, say, 40,000 local churches that adhere to robust complementarian principles. You’d think the Southern Baptists just got raptured by a secular editorialist. It’s as if the PCA and the conservative Anglicans and Methodists and Pentecostals and hundreds of other groups simply have no voice. Why? Because Jimmy Creech says so, and Frank Bruni has cited him.

This is telling material. The secular left, more than many evangelicals, understands the indissoluble connection between complementarity and exclusively heterosexual marriage. If you give up the first, you swing the door open wide to give up the second. I say this to fellow evangelicals: Bruni is exactly right in this connection. Giving up complementarity means denying both Scripture and natural design. This shift opens the door to embracing transgenderism, homosexual orientation and marriage, and polyamory. There is no other backstop. There is no other iron wall against raw pagan sexuality.

Complementarianism–represented institutionally by CBMW, cbmw.org, the organization I lead–is the last line of defense against the secularist sexualism. There’s nothing else to arrest this cultural momentum. Bruni quotes same-sex-affirming ethicist David Gushee along these lines: “Conservative Christian religion is the last bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people,” Gushee said.” Gushee is quite right. So, I ask my fellow Christians: is complementarity bad? Should we downplay it? Should we problematize it, sigh deeply, and wish we didn’t have to hold it?

Or, should we own it, love it, receive it as good, and see it as the outworking of a gospel worldview?

5. Bruni closes with a peroration worthy of a fiery homiletician. There is one option for Christians, and that is to embrace homosexuality or else: 

Creech and Mitchell Gold, a prominent furniture maker and gay philanthropist, founded an advocacy group, Faith in America, which aims to mitigate the damage done to L.G.B.T. people by what it calls “religion-based bigotry.”

Gold told me that church leaders must be made “to take homosexuality off the sin list.”

His commandment is worthy — and warranted. All of us, no matter our religious traditions, should know better than to tell gay people that they’re an offense. And that’s precisely what the florists and bakers who want to turn them away are saying to them.

So here it is. “Church leaders must be made” to stop seeing “gay Christianity” as sinful. This is a “warranted commandment,” according to Bruni, who states this baldly without reference to any source, authority, text, or tradition. He’s quoted the tiny handful of “Christian” theologians who affirm homosexuality, albeit without so much as a whisper of a reference to the tens of thousands of scholars, exegetes, theologians, pastors, and leaders who do not affirm it.

For the rest of the post…

‘American Gospel’ Blows a Hole in the Prosperity Gospel

The new documentary American Gospel: Christ Alone, directed by Brandon Kimber, takes aim at this scourge. America has always been a pragmatic, can-do kind of country, and the film argues that the material focus of the prosperity “gospel” suits American culture.

In offering this searing critique, which applies not merely to “them” out there but to us (for many of us love money and ease more than we might be comfortable admitting), Kimber first establishes what the true gospel is: good news centered in the finished work of Christ. Standing in the place of sinners like us, Jesus has absorbed the perfect wrath of the Father and made a way out of hell and into heaven. When we trust Christ as our Lord and Savior by God-given faith, we are instantly justified and counted righteous in God’s sight, the very merit of Christ’s now being our own (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 5:1–2; Eph. 2:8–9). Numerous evangelical theologians and pastors comment on this truth in the film, together building a clear and potent case for faith in Christ.

True Stories of True Faith

American Gospel traces the stories of real Christians whose lives have intersected with prosperity teaching in some way. One woman sobs as she recounts how health-and-wealth teaching ripped her life apart, piece by piece, until she had nothing. The film also introduces us to Katherine Berger, a woman suffering from numerous dreaded illnesses—one after another, it seems—who nonetheless radiates bright faith in God.

Also prominent in the film is Costi Hinn, nephew of faith-healer Benny Hinn. Costi served on his uncle’s team as a “catcher” who witnessed apparent miracles around the clock. His testimony—soon to release as a book—takes us into the seamy experience of the faith-healer, an enterprise that preys on the poor and suffering to enrich the flush and covetous.

The moment that crystallizes the shameful nature of faith-healing comes when Costi discusses how Benny Hinn would (and does) “heal” people with minor ailments. When it came to terminally ill children and other sufferers facing profound challenges, the “healer” refused. This was the first jarring note in Costi’s young life that eventually led him out of prosperity religion (and that’s what it is—a different religion than biblical Christianity).

American Gospel does not hold back; the camera pans back to the outer boundaries of auditoriums at Hinn crusades, where desperate parents cradle diseased children, ignored, unwanted, and unhealed. We watch this, and we hear Justin Peters testify to this experience personally, and we cannot help but feel both sadness and righteous anger—Christ’s own anger. The money-changers are still in the temple, still making God’s name a mockery.

This is an exact parallel of what Jesus did not do. He did not enter the ministry to make money. He did not work in the name of God to be popular and liked. He did not heal those who could do anything for him. Rather, he came to the physically and spiritually poor and made eucatastrophes of them all—not only addressing their bodies but, in many cases, saving their souls. He was not in it for himself; he was in it for the Father’s greater glory and the sinner’s true salvation. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Sadly, Christ’s name is invoked by “faith healers” like Hinn and others whose ministries don’t reflect him.

Call Your Skeptical Friends

American Gospel succeeds in its mission. It shows the spiritual and even eternal stakes of prosperity religion. It reveals the danger of allowing any endeavor, however virtuous on the surface, to seep into the preaching and application of the biblical gospel. The movie champions the true, saving gospel, and it unpacks this message with clarity and conviction. Here’s hoping many viewers will come across American Gospel on various streaming platforms (iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo), and that Christians will find opportunities to watch the film with unbelieving neighbors and friends. The prosperity “gospel” is a great foil by which to evangelize, for it is patently a sham to many outside of the church. A film like this could be a great apologetic for those with a skeptical bent, for example.

Though nicely shot and edited, the film could be a bit tighter, and the summation of the gospel message takes some time to unfold. So many voices speaking to different issues can begin to send the brain whirling, though I did appreciate how Kimber mixes in Christian leaders both well known and also lesser known. As is not uncommon today, American Gospel presents the gospel message primarily in terms of justification, which is the heart of the euangelion but not the doctrinal sum. The film references the local church but could say more about its importance. Similarly, the moral implications of the gospel are somewhat muted in American Gospel. If we must not make the moral dimension of Scripture the point of every passage, neither should we lose sight of it. But these are small critiques, not major ones.

High Stakes

The prosperity gospel comes with a terrific cost, as all false teaching does; it does not merely ruin intellectual systems, it ruins individual lives. We see this firsthand in the film.

American Gospel does not merely “destroy arguments” of the prosperity kind in keeping with apostolic aims (2 Cor. 10:4–5). It also shows us that the natural man craves miracles: healing, wealth, favor, better “benefits” and sales “commissions” (this is literally what a Bethel pastor leads a congregation to ask God for), a life stripped free of suffering and challenge. But the miracles God brings in most of our lives are often quite different: quieter, less showy, but powered by the saving gospel.

Instead of immediate healing, Christians may well be called to persevere in suffering. Instead of wealth, we may be called to learn contentment in our situation. Instead of coming back from the dead as in “heaven tourism” books, we must all face death and square with mortality. Instead of the cessation of trials upon the exercise of faith, we may be called to endure trials over the long haul. Instead of undimmed favor with power-brokers, we may be called to anonymity and unappreciated toil. Instead of a life of globe-hopping circuit-riding, we may be called to tuck in with our families (especially our children) and love them well, normal day by normal day. Instead of experiencing an unbroken string of personal triumphs, we may take many hits as we await the ultimate cosmic triumph of our warrior-savior, Christ Jesus. These are “ordinary miracles,” the very work of God in us.

For the rest of the post…

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