Who's In & Who's Out

A CHURCH OF DEMANDS OR ACCEPTANCE?

What are churches for? The answer may seem obvious: to preach and try to live the word of God and to celebrate the sacraments. But what does this mean? A recent First Things article argues that two distinct and irreconcilable visions of the church are at war, at least within the Episcopal Church and other Protestant churches; and the mentalities at work here can, I think, be found beyond the borders of Protestantism.

In “An Unworkable Theology” (First Things, June/July 2005) Philip Turner—vice president of the Anglican Communion Institute and former dean of Yale’s Berkeley Divinity School—argues that in today’s Episcopal Church the common message is that “God is love pure and simple. Thus, one is to see in Christ’s death no judgment upon the human condition. Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are. The life and death of Jesus reveal the fact that God accepts and affirms us.” This direction of thought reveals what Turner calls “a theological chasm—one that separates those who hold a theology of divine acceptance from those who hold a theology of divine redemption....In respect to God, it produces a quasi-deist theology that posits a benevolent God who favors love and justice as inclusion but acts neither to save us from our sins nor to raise us to new life after the pattern of Christ. In respect to human beings, it produces an ethic of tolerant affirmation that carries with it no call to conversion and radical holiness.”

This reflects a division found in much contemporary Christian thinking, but the division is sometimes staked out too simply-as if it were merely a kind of turf battle between those who (for example) want the church to be more open and accommodating to sexually active homosexuals and those who believe that fidelity to the Bible demands their exclusion; between those unafraid of modernity and its challenges, and those who see the modern world as a total, irredeemable ruin. It is this, in part, but the real differences are deeper.

People on one side of the chasm point out, rightly, that Jesus says nothing about homosexuality, and that the Bible as a whole is insistent on compassion toward the poor, about which it has much more to say than it does about sexual sins. People on the other side point out that compassion toward the poor does not necessarily mean a state-centered approach to the problem of poverty, and both the Old and New Testaments clearly condemn forms of sexual behavior many modern church-people accept.

Both sides, of course, are selective in their uses of Scripture and tradition. The side that can roughly be called conservative is generally more focused on sexuality than on sins against the poor, and even here the focus is selective: divorce, for example, is mentioned much less frequently as a threat to family life than are same-sex unions, although divorce is clearly condemned by Jesus. The side that can roughly be called liberal uses proof texts as breezily as any fundamentalist, where it comes to economic justice, but gets all cloudy and complicated where sex is concerned.

This is more than a conflict between warring cultures. The conservatives are, I think, right to worry that a Christianity that does no more than affirm and accept is not really Christian. Any religion that affirms us as we are imprisons us. We are called to “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

But it is a long way from here to there. While it is right to insist that Christianity is finally about transformation, and not about simple acceptance or affirmation, this has much more to do with the self-emptying pointed to in Philippians 2:5-11 than with sexual orientation or progressive politics. Morality, while important, is not as important as a faith that involves the cross, and leads us to accept the cross in its fullness. And here the Gospels show us how Jesus approached the imperfect, the unready.

In Mark’s account (9:14-29) of the healing of the demon-possessed boy, the boy’s father begs, “If you can, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus’ answer, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes,” calls forth the father’s anguished response: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

This is not the faith that moves mountains; it is the divided faith most of us know very well. But it is enough for Jesus, and the boy is healed. Perhaps more to the point is the post-Resurrection exchange of Jesus with Peter in John 21, where Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter answers, three times, that he does. Most commentary focuses on this passage as a reflection of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, and this is, of course, a crucial part of the exchange. But a good sermon I heard, preached by a Pentecostal minister, brought up something found in the original Greek that matters deeply to understanding Jesus’ relationship with Peter—and with all of us—at its heartbreaking depth.

When Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” he uses the words agapas me, that is, do you love me as God loves you, with the love that comes down from heaven. Agape is the word for love that Paul uses in speaking of the most important virtue in 1 Corinthians 13, and the word he uses in Romans when he says that nothing will be able to separate us from “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). But Peter, answering, “You know I love you,” uses the words philos se...that is, I love you like a brother. It is a good kind of love, quite commendable, but not the same thing. Simon uses this word in all three responses. But when Jesus asks Peter the third time, he no longer asks do you love me with God’s self-emptying love-he no longer asks, “Agapas me?” Instead, he comes down to Peter’s level, asking him, “Phileis me?” Do you at least love me like a brother? At this moment, knowing that Peter is capable only of this level of love, it is enough; he knows that it is the best Peter can currently do. But then Jesus goes on to say that Peter will be led where he does not want to go; in his final suffering and martyrdom, Peter will have to learn that deeper love. For now, Jesus meets him where he is, capable of love, though not the love Jesus will ultimately ask of him, and of us.

While insisting that we must take the cross and transformation seriously, the church should also be a place where those who are weak, who are not ready for the whole of what is demanded, can feel welcomed and loved. In one way or another, we all fall into this category. The church is often seen as smug, doubt-free, and self-righteous, and Christians of all confessions are often guilty as charged. When one kind of sinning is seen as more important-more really sinful-than other kinds, we miss the point of the struggle, whether the sins involved are sexual, or have to do with greed or compassion or selfishness. We are called to empty ourselves, as Christ did, called to a radical humility, and morality is only part of this process.

I once arranged for Communion to be brought to a prisoner, and a jail official told me, “Communion is supposed to be for good people.” Of course he couldn’t have been more wrong. We receive the bread of heaven not as a reward for our goodness; we need it, to survive and to have strength for the struggle.

Published in the 2005-10-07 issue: 
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John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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