Mess of Pottage Blog

Luke's "Pro" Blog

Sexual Relationships — Theory and Practice

In view of all the changes to the PC(USA)’s Book of Order, it’s worthwhile to look at what its Book of Confessions says it believes. We wouldn’t want our practice to get ahead of our theology, after all:

d. The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of man’s alienation from God, his neighbor, and himself.

—Confession of 1967, §9.47

That’s pretty good. But it goes on to explain this problem as follows:

Man’s perennial confusion about the meaning of sex has been aggravated in our day (1) by the availability of new means for birth control and the treatment of infection, (2) by the pressures of urbanization, (3) by the exploitation of sexual symbols in mass communication, and (4) by world overpopulation.

—Confession of 1967, §9.47 (Numbers added for reference.)

There’s as much wrong as right with the list of reasons. (1) and (3) are obviously true; (2) has some truth in it, and (4) might be true if it weren’t for people like Norman Borlaug who solve problems instead of whining about nebulous potential dangers whenever the status quo is challenged.

Another problem with this list is that by lumping everything until about WWII together and calling them “perrennial” problems, backward views about sexual relationships like those of Boko Haram and ISIL don’t rate a mention, for all the violence and sorrow they’re causing.

In other words, our confusion about the meaning of sex was reflected in the very documents that tried to address it, almost fifty years ago.

Yet it reads like a breath of fresh air in today’s climate. The last two generations have not fared well (by any metric) as a result of what appears to be not a linear but an exponential accumulation of problems.

In the intervening years, new ways our confusion is aggravated have become apparent. I would include among them, (5) by the welfare state’s need for a broad tax base, which led to the creation of many inducements for women to work outside the home, and (6) by society’s misinterpretation of marriage as being about conferring approbation of and support for sexual rather than parental relationships.

Many of these causes are in fact symptoms of another, deeper, problem: the idea that we are smarter and more enlightened than our ancestors. We have made more progress along some invisible track. This gives us the audacity (or impetuosity) to implement change based simply on theory, rather than promising results from field tests. We impose our theory across all of society rather than using small laboratory environments to discover what works and what doesn’t.

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Christian Wedding Cake-Baking

Should there be a faith exemption from nondiscrimination laws? Should a wedding photographer be required to offer his services to gay couples the same as to straight couples? Should a baker be able to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple on the grounds of her faith?

I won’t speak (here) to the legal issues except to quote Martin Luther King: “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” I think it’s probably best to use the law to prohibit bad behavior rather than to require good behavior. But the law doesn’t concern me as much as the underlying faith issue.

Should Christians bake cakes for people whose lifestyle they disagree with? Kevin Deyoung asks that very question and suggests the answer is no, because to do so would be to compromise with a sinful culture.

Let me explain why I disagree.

What do you know about Joseph, the guy who wanted to divorce Mary quietly? Do you remember what his job was?

Joseph was a carpenter, according to Matthew, and, according to Mark, so was Jesus. The Greek word used in both places is tekton, which refers to craftsman who made things of wood. (Mark Driscoll says that Joseph and Jesus “worked construction,” which is a pretty good way to get the point across.)

What else, besides houses and cabinets, is made out of wood? Hint: Jesus died on one. They had three crosses on Golgotha that day.

Nothing in the Bible says so, but it’s not inconceivable that Joseph did the rough work necessary to fashion the beams used by the Romans to crucify people.

According to Matthew, Jesus’ family fled to Egypt during the reign of Herod the Great, and returned to Nazareth after he died. Not long after Herod died, someone named Judas the Galilean led a revolt that was centered around Sepphoris, the Roman capital of Galilee, about four miles from Nazareth. The Romans crushed the rebellion, burnt Sepphoris to the ground, and crucified 2000 participants. (See James Tabor’s summary or go look at Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 17, Chapter 10, and The Jewish Wars, Book 2, Chapter 5.)

The Romans needed 2,000 crosses. Where did they get them? Probably not by shipping them from Rome! More likely, they bought (or simply commandeered them) them from the nearby villages. If the Holy Family was back in Nazareth by then, it’s not at all unlikely that Joseph worked on some of those crosses.

If Joseph did work on crosses — and remember, this is speculative — he probably found it repugnant. As a Jew, he wouldn’t have liked the Romans: not their culture, their religion, or their occupation of his country. And nobody approved of crucifixion — which was the point of using it.

As someone with reason to think a lot about God’s purposes in the world, Joseph’s theology would have informed his opinions. But if the Romans told him to make crosses for them, Joseph would have had to do so, unless he wanted to wind up on one himself. And if Joseph didn’t get caught up working on this project, others in his trade — siblings or cousins, perhaps — certainly would have been.

That wasn’t the last time the Romans crucified anyone in Galilee, either. It’s no great stretch of the imagination to think that Joseph (and possibly even Jesus) worked on crossbeams from time to time, long after that revolt was crushed.

Is this all too speculative? Then consider Colossians 3:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.

Why did the writer say that? (Ephesians 6 is essentially the same.) He wrote it because slaves don’t get to choose what they do and don’t do. Slaves have to obey their masters, and if they refuse, they’re punished. The only alternative available to a slave is passive-aggression: they can obey unctuously when their master’s paying attention, and then spit in the soup when he’s not looking. But that’s ruled out by the New Testament. Instead, slaves are told to do just as good a job even for a cruel master as they would do for Jesus himself.

What particular things do you suppose the writers of the New Testament letters were thinking about when they gave that instruction? There’s no telling. But it was probably something you wouldn’t want to do. It was probably something you’d find objectionable.

You don’t have to like this. Maybe you think the Bible ought to have told slaves to rise up in rebellion and throw off their chains. Fine. But it doesn’t. Other books say different, but the New Testament tells slaves to do what they’re told. (To be sure, masters are told their slaves have been freed and slaves are their brothers.)

Christians have always had to do things they didn’t approve of. So why should a Christian baker or photographer be exempt from the reality that applied to carpenters like Joseph, if not to Joseph himself? Why should Christians today be exempt from the reality that certainly applied to the slaves who may have been a majority in the early church?

So my counsel would be to go ahead and take photos at the gay mens’ wedding. Bake a wedding cake for the lesbian couple. Or, rather, bake it for the Lord, like you do everything. Then, when the lesbians have their wedding, they’ll say, “I don’t agree with Christians, but all the best bakers are Christians. They have superior products and deliver superb value. I wonder why they do that?”

I’ll close with this clip of Jim Burgen talking about this same topic but widening it not just to commercial transactions but to every interaction:

(Update: fixed some grammar.)

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Important Cases Go to Court

The PC(USA) G.A. Judicial Commission to hear three major cases. One is a ruling by the Los Ranchos Presbytery to reinstate the old “fidelity and chastity” clause of the Book of Order at a more local level. The Synod ruled such resolutions were constitutional. So it’s being appealed. This is the “tails you lose, heads we win” school of polity. More-local councils should only be allowed to make decisions when they make the right decisions. Or at least the politically correct ones.

But you say, connectionalism requires that presbyteries are subordinate to [the discernment of the will of God expressed by the Holy Spirit through] the councils to which they belong? Hmm. I’m minded of this observation by Kevin DeYoung, which is generally supportive of a presbyterian approach to church discipline:

the elders in a Presbyterianism system serve as Christ’s representatives and with Christ’s authority, but they are not mini-Christs. The presbyters do not have a blank check to decide whatever they want. The keys of the kingdom must always be tied to the King’s words.

The context was discipline within the local church, but if you change elders to presbyteries, or synods, or the general assembly PJC, it’s still true.

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GA Committee Recommendations

Several committees at the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting in Pittsburgh have issued reports. These will now be voted on by the General Assembly and if they pass, will be sent on to the presbyteries for voting during the year ahead.

While I’m sure the commissioners did their work as well as they could, I’m personally disappointed with several of their recommendations, including these:

There’s another recommendation that I’m still trying to figure out.

  • Changing the ordination standards to include “repentence” and “grace.” Since it involves ordination standards, I assume the underlying issue is human sexuality, but of course we prefer to speak in generalities.
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