Thursday, August 12, 2010

Foremost

One of the key turning points in my theological journey - and in the journeys of many gay Christians - was coming to realize the full implications of the law of love: if all of the biblical Law can be summed up in the command "Love your neighbor as yourself," then any commandment that does not make sense within that context must either have been misinterpreted or misapplied.

Far from being a license to do whatever feels good, as some worry, the law of love forces us to get out of our own heads and consider the needs of others - needs we can only understand as we get to know them beyond the acquaintance level. Still, not everyone is convinced that the Christian life can really be boiled down to something that seems to dismiss so much of the Bible. "Ah," they say, "but that is only the second greatest commandment. The greatest is love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind."

It's a valid point, even if those making it see it as justification for retaining whatever legalistic strictures they deem important. Who could argue, after all, against the idea that a Christian's highest priority should be to love and honor God, whatever the cost? Indeed, that priority lies at the heart of ex-gay theology - that no sacrifice is too costly if it is done to please God. That the need for the sacrifice in question cannot be reconciled within the context of "love your neighbor as yourself" (except through broad speculation) is quickly dismissed, since love for God necessarily comes ahead of all other considerations.

What this argument necessarily sets aside, however, is what the biblical authors lay out as God's primary requirement from his followers:

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice." (Hosea 6:6, Matt. 12:7)

Matt. 25:34-46, Luke 6:32-38, James 1:27, Isaiah 58:6-12, Jeremiah 21:11-12, Ezekiel 16:49, Micah 6:8 and numerous other passages reiterate that God is honored by how we treat others - not by how many vices we can catalog to be avoided. That's not to say that God is unconcerned with any other aspects of our lifestyles, but those areas, when they don't overlap with how we conduct our human relationships, are left to God's direct governance through the Holy Spirit (an agent that legalistic believers inherently distrust, since the personalized nature of the Spirit's ministry leaves them without any leverage that they can use to regulate and micromanage the behavior of others).

The only topic in the Bible that comes up more frequently (at least in the Old Testament) is idolatry - which makes perfect sense when one realizes that the Israelites did not truly become monotheists until after the Babylonian captivity. Idolatry can also be understood as anything we allow to take priority over God in our lives, which takes us right back to the previous argument about the greatest commandment.

Were it really all about following a bunch of rules, one would expect the New Testament authors to have written in a style that could more easily be codified into lists of commands and restrictions. And one would have expected a far different outcome to the parable of the Good Samaritan; from our vantage point it may seem like a no-brainer that the priest and the Levite were in the wrong for refusing to aid the injured man, but in fact they were honoring the requirements of the Levitical law by avoiding any activity that would have rendered them unclean, and thereby disqualified for service in the temple until they had properly atoned.

In other words, meticulously observing the letter of the law does not produce righteousness - it gets in the way of righteousness! As Jesus emphasized repeatedly in his teachings, it's not the person who colors neatly within the lines whose conduct is pleasing to God, but the one who is extravagant in the love that he or she shows for others, especially "the least of these." I can attest from my own experience that a lifetime centered around the negative (and self-centered) goal of abstaining from a laundry list of sins leaves little energy left over for the positive goal of selfless compassion.

Again, all of that isn't to say that God doesn't care about the other aspects of our lives, but we would do well to take more care in the judgments that we make about the behavior of others. Perhaps that person isn't ready to deal with what we see as their sin - or perhaps it really isn't a sin for them. It is the Holy Spirit's job and not ours to guide each individual believer according to God's unique, personalized plan for their lives.

And for those points where individual interpretations of what constitutes a loving action begin to conflict, the church exists. Not to issue authoritarian edicts or enforce conformity, but to provide a community in which our efforts to become more compassionate can play out. The church can offer both a forum to share and debate those ideas, and a testing ground for discovering what does and doesn't work.

Within such a functional, loving community we would most likely find ourselves making greater sacrifices than we would in an institutional church - not to appease a picky deity or to earn another check mark on our list of dos and don'ts, but because we have cultivated a desire to do what we can to improve the lives of those around us according to their unique needs. Not to increase our suffering for the sake of earning heavenly brownie points, but to decrease the suffering of others.

Such an ideal community seems like a pie-in-the-sky notion most of the time. My own selfish preference is for that old list of rules, where I can still make everything revolve around me. But in the end it's not God I'd truly be pleasing.

10 comments:

Craig L. Adams said...

I'd like to join that "functional, loving community" you describe.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea that love is the foundation for the Christian life. I feel, though, that you have taken one single Scripture to far. Yes, Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets could be SUMMED UP in the two greatest commandments, but he did not say that following those commands however any individual sees fit would fulfill them. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. (Mat. 5:17) Thus the law is still the standard. It is just that we can look to Jesus when we fall short of the law. Jesus did away with many of the legalistic laws regarding all sorts of things like forbidden food and working on the sabbath, but he never did away with the laws regarding sexual purity. In fact, the laws against such things as homosexuality, incest, and adultry were reinforced in multiple apistles from Paul. Many people say that since other teachings (like wearing braids and earings) that were cultural were along side the teachings on sexual immorality that they must also be a cultural thing. The problem with that thinking is that there is still a reason WHY the cultural things were taught. Braids and jewelry were the culturally recognizeable norm for a prostitute (especially one who worked at a pagan temple). So even that teaching still aplies today - don't dress like a prostitute or in a way that would associate you with a pagan religion. You can look at the teachings on sexual immorality the same way if you want. Homosexuality was a common and exceptable practice of that day, as it is today, and Paul, in Romans, told of the destruction of those of his time who gave themselves over to sexual perversion. How they, though they knew about God, thought themselves wise in their own eyes. "Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." Obviously Paul knew of God's grace and mercy, but he didn't pretend that that would make it okay to commit sin. "Shall we go on sinning that grace might increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6) Homosexuality is never stated in the Bible in any way except that which is immmoral. It is important to love your neighbor as yourself, but that hardly makes it okay to practice anything that has been perscribed as a detestable sin in the Bible. This is not legalism, it is struggle toward righteousness despite the nature of sin. I cannot tell a non-believer not to sin, since he cannot be expected to be a part of a law that he doesn't believe in, but since you claim salvation I am obligated to show you the Scripture and what it says about sin.

Eugene said...

Anonymous,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I do appreciate the feedback, even though it's clear that we're already talking past each other.

Since you posted anonymously, I get the impression you may have already come and gone. But I will extend the offer of a dialogue - a mutual exchange of stories for the purpose of helping each of us understand the other better. Without such understanding, no debate or discussion we could engage in would ever produce much light.

Eugene said...

Craig: Yeah, me too. :) I concede that no community is ever going to be any more perfect than its members, but I still have to believe that we're capable of improvement...

Russ Manley said...

Not coloring within the lines, but extravagant love for others: well said.

I may quote you on my blog, if you don't mind. Your thoughts in this post are very much along the same lines as something I posted the other day under "Sex, Lies, and Catholicism."

I think we both are envisioning a Christianity based not on church-going but on a way of seeing, thinking, and living. Something rather different from what it has been all these many centuries - which for me might be summed up in Augustine's famous dictum, "Love God, and do as you please."

Which I'm sure you understand the profound implications of. Good writing here, keep it up.

Eugene said...

Russ,

Feel free to quote me. Thanks for stopping by - it's always nice to meet someone who's been on a similar journey.

Russ Manley said...

Yes, sounds like we've both been down the scenic route.

NicoleAlexandra said...

Do you think being gay is a sin?

Eugene said...

No.

NicoleAlexandra said...

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