The Apostolic Council and the General Assembly

Presented without Scriptural proof-texts for our reading enjoyment.

Back in the day, as I understand it, there was a lot of arguing about whether non-Jews could be followers of Christ.  There was the establishment position – definitely not, no way, no how.  This was the position of the Apostles who knew Christ in life as far as we know, and it was the position of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem when Paul was alive and preaching.

On the other side, you had Paul, and a few others who agreed with him.  They thought there was room for Gentiles to be followers of Christ.  They did not know Jesus when he was alive, as far as we know (Paul was the “apostle” who broke from the normative definition, since he was someone who never met Christ as a living person and yet considered himself a “witness”) but they felt that Jesus was calling Gentiles to come and follow.
Now, as the Peter and Cornelius story points out, the anti-Gentile folks had Scripture on their side.  The chosen people were the chosen people.  That’s about it.  The rules were pretty darn clear, and they were very, very old.  What God has made clean, do not make unclean.  There is no room in God’s realm for the unclean.
But then a little problem – God comes to Peter and says “You know that unclean stuff?  Its clean now.  Get over it.”  Peter, of course, tests this new teaching out in his relationship with Cornelius, a Gentile, just the kind of person that the leadership of the early movement felt was so undesirable.  Peter hears from God, goes to meet Cornelius, and changes his mind (or his heart if you prefer, or his theology, or his doctrine, or his orthodoxy, or his orthopraxis, or all of the above).
There are a lot of angry people who could quote a lot of Scripture which would contradict what Peter did.  But he was called by God, and after testing it himself, it made sense and seemed to be the right thing to do.  And you know what?  Peter had some Scripture on his side too.  Imagine that.
The result of this was that there were a bunch of big fights (or really, little fights that were a big deal).  So everybody got together in Jerusalem to work things out.  They decided that there would be two gospels – the gospel of the circumcision and the gospel of the uncircumcision.   (I don’t think Blogger takes greek fonts, so you’ll have to look those up yourself).  Two gospels!  Can you believe it?  One was the traditional gospel and one of them was, basically, Paul’s, and now Peter’s after he had his own vision and made his own decision.
Of course, now we take it for granted that Gentiles can be Christians.  In fact, things have changed so much that Christian = Gentile, from a Jewish point of view.  How things have changed!  Who would’ve thought?  What the great majority of the very first Christians, who knew Jesus personally, thought was absolutely correct we now take to be obviously wrong.  Incredible stuff, here.  Incredible.
I bring this up because I think there is something in there, perhaps, for our own fight over whether homosexuals can be followers of Christ, whether we can accept them as equals and recognize God’s call in their lives.   One side, the side currently in authority in most Churches, has strong cleanliness issues with homosexuality, and they have some Scripture they can quote (homosexuals are as bad as shellfish, after all).  This sounds familiar to me, does it seem familiar to anyone else?  And yeah, I get that unclean is also a moral judgement – it was for shellfish too.
On the other side are people who say they are hearing from God, that they are seeing God calling people to service in the Church beyond being tolerated on the fringes.  They are testing this out themselves and finding – holy of holies! – these people are so much more than just their sexual orientation, and they are so clearly called by God it is like being slapped in the forehead when you see it.
So, maybe, we all gather, and somehow, we find a way to make room for both positions.  We work things out at least as well as the early Church tried to work them out.
Because here’s the thing.  Two thousand years later, we are all Gentiles.  Paul’s position, Peter’s position, won out.  It took time, but the truth was made clear in time.  And now, of course, we can’t imagine things differently.
Maybe we can let that happen this time.  Maybe we can take the time to really see what is true, what is right, rather than screaming at each other about it, rather than making absurd declarations of war, of disaster, or schism, or the falling sky.
And in the meantime, we find a way to mutually respect, to allow room.  In disagreeing, we are participating in the great salvation history of great disagreements, in Scripture and after we closed the canon, to this very day.  It happened in ancient Israel, in the early Church, and it happens now.  It is who we are, in part at least.
If I can figure this stuff out, so you can anyone, so the only excuse is that we’re too invested in our position being right, at the expense of our brothers and sisters, to contemplate some third way that actually makes room for God to be glorified.
Have we, in two thousand years, learned anything?

The Layman Proves Me Right With A Call to Arms

In my previous post, I talked about Terror Management Theory. In its own recent post, the Layman has made a “call to arms”, continuing in the genre of absurdly exaggerated conservative rhetoric about the 218th General Assembly.

This turn to warlike language is as predictable as it is disappointing and sad. I have no doubt that we are now going to begin seeing groups like the Layman escalate their language of conflict and metaphors of warfare. They are rallying their troops and cementing their commitment to their immortality project, which they believe is threatened by equal treatment for a minority. (This has of course been the case in the past as well.)

In Faces of the Enemy, we get a chilling look at what this escalation of language and imagery will look like. The key to fostering conflict is to dehumanize your opponent. This helps to soften the natural empathy that human beings feel for each other to varying degrees. It is probably impossible for a human being, psychologically, to inflict violence on another human being. The target of the violence has to be dehumanized first – at the very least, into the “enemy”, the faceless inhuman threat to all we hold dear. If, for example, the Layman saw its ‘opponents’ in the 218th GA as children of God and equals as human beings, they would not be able to say the things they’re saying.

But, if they don’t say those things, then they have to deal directly with their immortality project, which is a painful process as I’ve mentioned before. They have to accept the fact that well-intentioned, intelligent and faithful people can disagree – and for now, that is clearly well beyond them.

Of course, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, but I don’t think we’ll see groups like the Layman doing that anytime soon. I’m sure they’ll claim that the horrible things they’re saying, they’re saying out of love – how else could they justify them, while not devolving into Fred Phelps territory? I had an abusive family member who did the same thing, so I can’t say I’ll be listening when they do.

They are predictably going to exacerbate their feeling of threat, they’re going to rally the troops with more calls “to arms” and bellicose language, and they’re going to slowly escalate to the point where they can do…whatever it is they’ll decide to do. Schism, tantrum, whatever it turns out to be. I certainly don’t expect this to escalate very far, but its sad nonetheless on a lot of levels.

In the meantime, those of us who are the target of their sprays of venom and rancor should do what we can to remain calm and to be as loving as we can bring ourselves to be. As difficult as it will be, given the awful things they are saying and will say about us. We need to try to remember that, underneath all this yelling and the war metaphors directed at us, there are Christian sisters and brothers. We need to hope that they will remember their better selves before the end of all this, whatever it may be.

Theology of Ministry – Mediator of the Divine/Nothing Special

Mediator of the Divine/Nothing Special

Sometimes you have to pretend that you are not just another person. Projection is not necessarily the enemy, but a tool. It is something that someone might give you, enabling you to serve them in a way you couldn’t otherwise. Projection also creates powerful social roles which fulfill crucial functions. Sometimes, you take on the role of minister as mediator of the divine. You stand up, holding a baby, splash the baby with water, and talk about how this splashing and the words everyone has said really matter, how they have made a change in this baby’s life. You hold bread and grape-juice and you pass these things around and you talk about how this particular meal is different from every other meal, that the bread is a body and the grape juice is blood, and that somehow this means that we are sustained by God and ushering in God’s reign in the world. You sit with people who are facing the terror of death, or are wracked by the grief the feel at the loss of someone they love, and you talk to them about hope, about an end to grief and tears, about a God who is present with them and loves them, even when that God does not intervene to save them from suffering. You present these things as true and trustworthy, even when they are elements of faith, and not of certainty.

Then, you come home, take off your shoes, feed the dog or cat, turn on the TV, and it probably strikes you that the minister is nothing special. You are made of the same stuff as everyone else. You screw up about as much as anyone. Maybe more, because sometimes you have the audacity to try to mediate the divine of all things! You’ve got a degree, but in the PCUSA a lot of your parishioners will have their own degrees. And the ones who don’t aren’t going to care about the certificate on your wall. If anything, it’ll make you harder for them to relate to.

You’re going to screw up. You’re going to fail and fall and trip and stumble. You’re going to look stupid and make people angry and hurt people’s feelings. At those times, you’d better thank God that you are nothing special, because if you were really supposed to be special compared to everyone else, what a disaster that would be!

This is a job that we do and it is also a job that we cannot possibly do. The only hope, really, is that it doesn’t ultimately depend on us. In the meantime, however, a lot does depend on us. People depend on us, and in the broader sense the church depends on us. We should work as hard as we can to be as good at ministry as we can be – but we should also know when to let go of our need to accomplish things and look good and be respected. It doesn’t take much work to convince someone in ministry that they need to work hard. Ministry is like a magnet for perfectionistic people-pleasers. The hard thing is the reminder that this is just a job. It is a calling among many callings, and our hope is not in ourselves.

Theology of Ministry – Participant/Resistor


As ministers, we are participating in the status quo of our society. We are viewed as the holders of traditional morality, whether we claim the title or not. We are looked at differently when we drink beer or say a swear word. We are also looked to for performing functions like weddings and funerals. In some parts of the country, like the south in particular, whether we deserve it or not our voices are lent extra weight on certain matters, particularly of morality. We are ministers as participants in our society – granted, less so every day, but its going to be a while before we have made ourselves completely irrelevant.

In this capacity, we should always be aware of what we are saying and of what we are doing, because these things will reflect upon us in the eyes of our society. Sometimes, this is a good thing. Wearing a robe and stole at a peace rally gets some extra attention that a Grateful Dead t-shirt does not. Attending a PFLAG rally as a pastor, for good or ill, carries some extra weight.

On the other hand, we get co-opted by our broader culture. It is very easy to fall into a particular social position, especially when it lets our voice ring louder than it would otherwise. But when we act in the capacity of minister as resistor, more often than not, all of that social recognition falls away. We are called to be in the world but not of the world – whatever that means. For me, this means that in many cases we need to be leaders in the resistance against a culture that devours its members and exports its violence, that demands allegiance and provides empty consumption in return.

When we do this, however, we are going to lose whatever extra respect and social power we had as participants. And, in the meantime, we still need to participate, to do weddings and funerals and to function in our social role. In doing this, we are simply living out the tension of being Christian in our culture, but we’re doing it with a robe on and with an official title, which makes it a little worse on us. On the one hand, I don’t think we’re supposed to become religious recluses, cutting off contact with the “profane” world. On the other hand, the church needs to push back against culture constantly or else it will be swallowed by it. For many people, they get a couple hours a week to try to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ way of life. The other 110 waking hours are spent being bombarded with the American way of life. It isn’t a fair fight, but its our fight.