A friend of mine sent me a New Year’s greeting email letting me know he was thinking of me. That’s nice, I thought. He said that what brought me to mind was listening to an online broadcast of a very popular evangelical preacher who was talking about the importance of, and means of, living a godly life. The friend went on to offer some encouraging words for the year ahead and to muse on the past year’s transitions.
Yes, it is nice to be thought of. So, though I had some hunches, I decided to go listen to the broadcasts mentioned to see if I could determine what particularly had prompted his reflection.
I want to say at the outset that I went in knowing I’m not a fan of this particular teacher. You’ll soon learn why. And, though I disagree with him substantively, I also claim the label evangelical, though I do not mean by that word what many others mean.
The word evangelical (lower case e) comes from a Greek word meaning “related to the sharing of good news”. In common Greek, it can be used about any telling of any good news – if you just got a raise, or got engaged, or learned you are going to have a baby, then you might become evangelical about that.
From a Christian and Biblical perspective, the word relates to the good news, Good News, or Gospel, of/from/about/regarding Jesus. (Prepositions in Greek are somewhat ambiguous when being translated over into English.) The Gospel gets articulated in multiple ways in the New Testament (and often those are with allusion to the Hebrew Scriptures – First or Old Testament). In its essence, I believe, the Gospel is that in and through Jesus of Nazareth, the one called the Christ, humankind encounters God’s restoring and reconciling love. This love is described as proclaimed by Jesus (Luke 4:16-30, quoting Isaiah 61), embodied in Jesus (John 1), and accomplished through Jesus. The Christian Bible, as we have it today, is a human record of the faith experiences, blessings and struggles prompted by encountering Jesus. John 10 records Jesus saying these words, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The Good News is a rich, full, abundant life that is revealed and accomplished in/through Jesus and received/ experienced by believing in him. An abundant life as described in Luke & Isaiah (the Hebrew word is “shalom”) means freedom from captivities, the ability to provide for one’s family and participate in the community, and the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) which is like setting an economic and social reset button – debts canceled and the lost restored. Jesus consistently named this incoming reality the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. It often brought a reversal of fortunes – those who were rich and powerful were brought low, and those who were poor and lowly were elevated. I think this is a vision worth giving one’s life for – it is the vision that Jesus gave his life for – the restoring and reconciling of humanity to one another and to God in creation.
Now, to be fair, our unnamed preacher was working from Paul’s writing, not the Gospels. In particular, he focused on Romans 12:1-2 – “1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Said preacher then proceeded to spend an hour talking about how the sinfulness and debauchery in our country is increasing compared to his memory of days gone by. His almost exclusive illustration of this was sexual immorality. Though he did not identify any particular incident, to my ear he was stirring the crowd in response to recent news and pop culture stories. I don’t know this for sure, but that’s how it felt to me.
Either way, I think his viewpoint is unfortunate and in error. I am a proponent of sexual morality, and even of the church teaching people how to think about what it means to live out our sexuality in healthy, God honoring ways. That said, using the bible as our ONLY source of information and guidance is naive at best. The vast majority of marriages described in the bible were polygamous, and were understood as economic exchanges rather than a loving covenant between equals. I’m not sure that’s the foundation upon which we want to build today’s marriages or families. And I agree with him that the more crass illustrations of sexuality in our popular culture do have a negative effect on relationships – I am well aware of their impact on me as an adolescent, and we work hard to help our children live thoughtfully in this regard.
Here are my concerns, though, with his message as I heard it (not in priority order, necessarily).
1) Misreading scripture, or more accurately misspeaking for scripture. Paul describes explicitly what he means in Romans 12:1-2, and he does not mention sexuality at all. Instead, he says this:
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
He sounds to me like he is talking about how we live in community, in relationship with one another, and using our talents, abilities and spiritual gifts to be a blessing and work together. Paul calls us to not exalt ourselves above others, but rather to live out what the prophet Micah says in 6:8 – 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
2) Circumscribing a narrow circle of ‘truth’ around only a portion of what concerns and interests God as revealed in the Bible. He speaks as though “a Godly and pure life” were only about sexuality and private moral failings like, “spending too much time at the bar,” which he says at one point. While healthy sexuality and avoiding destructive and addictive personal behaviors (like alcohol or other chemical additions) are important, they are by no means the only or even the primary concerns of scripture. Simply read the prophets, the Psalms, Proverbs, the Mosaic law, and the four Gospels. The primary concern is Justice. Rightousness – i.e. right-relationship-ness, is about living a humble, honest and just life in community. You can be pure as the new-fallen snow sexually and still be as wicked and corrupt and ungodly as any of the worst kings in Israel.
3) Misremembering history – While sexuality is more public, and even aspects of it that he and I would agree are destructive to individuals and families and thus society, these things are by no means new. Men objectifying and using women is unfortunately not new, though now it seems more visible, which likely affects its impact. Promiscuity is not new, though it certainly is more acceptable to discuss openly and even admit – again, I would agree that this is a negative thing. These things being true, the world is not going to hell in a hand basket and we are not racing headlong to become Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19). We are increasingly becoming intolerant of sexual relationships that include abuses of power, whether by an abusive spouse, rape by a stranger, or sexual molestation of a child by an acquaintance. We are gaining courage in speaking about these things, shining light in dark places, and empowering victims to become survivors and thrivers. In addition to all these gains specific to sexuality, vast improvements have been made in the areas of justice – though we arguably still have a long way to go.
4) Conflating God and Country These two messages from our preacher sounded very much like patriotic concerns as much or more than faith concerns. I am a patriot, and I love my country. I do not believe that we are in any way God’s special nation, nor that the fortunes of the United States or US culture are to be equated with the increase or decrease of God’s “kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our primary citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) even while we may celebrate and support our earthly nation-state. While one can love both, we are called to love God and God’s kingdom more. Confusing the two leads to dangerous loyalties that can make us blind to the justice claims of our neighbors and the love claims of our enemies (Luke 6).
5) Using fear to motivate – Fear is a strong motivator, and a powerful rallying cry is built around US versus THEM arguments and harkening back to the good old days. The problem is that this is the same argument used by the Hebrews when they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt rather than forward into God’s blessings. Would the journey forward be difficult? Yes. Would there be dangers and challenges? Yes. Did Moses or the prophets or Jesus use nostalgic fear as a motivator? No. Honest assessments of the future risks of the current path? Certainly. But always with hope and promise of blessing and peace.
6) The presumption of exclusive truth – The preacher explicitly said, “They will come to us, because we have the answers.” The implicit presumption here is, “If you disagree with us, you are wrong, because we are right about everything.” To his credit, he did earlier state, “Many things we may never fully understand…” Why then presume to say that he is right about what he thinks he does understand. Obviously, if I hold strongly to a position it is because I believe it to be true – this is logical. And yet, I can hold to my understandings in such a way that room remains for me to be humble before the truth claims and understandings of others. I heard none of this humility.
Ultimately, Godly living as witnessed to in the Christian Bible is holistic in nature. It will encompass every aspect of life. No one sermon can address all of this. However, any sermon that presumes to address “Godly living” certainly needs to clearly acknowledge the breadth and complexity inherent in the concept. Now that I think about it, perhaps my friend sent me the link because he does not know what I believe about these things – because I have failed to speak clearly and consistently when called upon to speak the truth as I understand it. Or, perhaps he does know, and is concerned for me because I hold these views. Either way, as I said, it is nice to be remembered. And I am grateful for the prompting to think critically about these issues, attempt to articulate my positions clearly, and to enter into conversation about them. I only pray that this energy and effort put forth might serve to edify and build up those who seek the shalom which God has always intended for us. God’s dream is our wholeness, and the entire biblical witness reflects this dream and human encounters with God’s efforts to work with us to bring this dream to fruition. And, finally, that along with our best and in spite of our worst, God will redeem, restore and renew us all. We will dwell together in perfect harmony with self, others, creation and God. And that, my friends, is Good News. See, I’m and evangelical after all. Who knows, I might even reclaim the big E!