Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I've had this quote from Jacques Ellul floating in my post queue for a while. Ellul's vision for the church is challenging, since it dares us to deinstitutionalize our faith to an extent that most would consider untenable. In any case, his thoughts are worth pondering regardless of the degree of reform one considers necessary for the church to continue to thrive.

In this passage Ellul comes as close as he ever does (at least in The Subversion of Christianity) to touching upon the way that the church has traditionally responded to the issue of homosexuality. As always, he uses the term "morality" in the sense of a code of laws:
The church embraces all society. It baptizes it officially as a Christian society. It takes charge of political and social problems. It seeks to establish social order and to apply Christian principles in every sphere. Thus revelation becomes morality - the supreme betrayal of the prophets, of the gospel, and of the first Christian generation. For the more the Christian (and official) morality develops, the more hypocrisy and Pharisaism develop also. This was inevitable.

To understand the process, we may take priestly celibacy as an example. Certain people have a vocation to be celibate, to dedicate themselves to God in this way, which is one possible way of serving God, and to seek the priesthood. This is good. But when celibacy is made a law or obligation or rule for all priests, when (without any vocation) it is made a condition of the priesthood, then one of two things happens. Either those who have a true vocation to the priesthood but not to celibacy are set aside, or inevitably there is a cover-up of falsehood and hypocrisy. Here, as elsewhere, law is a bad thing. It is not I who say this, but St. Paul. (pgs. 88-89)
With the substitution of a few terms, Ellul's conclusion can be applied to the dilemma faced today by gay Christians. His point can be argued against to an extent, since some who aren't so gifted do successfully "suck it up" and adapt to a celibate existence, but such an argument ultimately accomplishes little beyond heaping shame and condemnation on those who aren't as strong. That argument also imposes a burden that no heterosexual evangelical would ever be commanded to bear, except with hope of eventual marriage.

One could then argue that heterosexual marriage is a legal option even for those with no heterosexual attractions, but that would again be arguing for something that those same individuals would never consent to if it were being imposed on them or any of their (straight) children - namely, marriage to a person one does not and never did (and in all likelihood never will) find sexually attractive.

Such double standards tend to be brushed off by those unaffected by them, but they are no less real for causing harm only to a minority. And double standards are a perpetual problem for any absolutist legal system, as churches that view the Bible as a rulebook tend to be. Outside of the theoretical realm, one size rarely fits all.

The radical freedom that Ellul proposes is not without its problems as well; there are always those who will abuse liberty. But perhaps the answer lies not in authoritarianism, but in a church that genuinely operates like a community. Many churches speak of being communities, but operate as institutions.

Living in such a community would be challenging; it would entail a level of intimacy that most people (myself included) would be uncomfortable with. But it's only within such a context, in which people genuinely know each other on a deep level, that the biblical passages cited as guidelines for church discipline make sense. What brings life to one person may crush the spirit of another, and institutions are ill-suited to distinguishing between the two.

The cookie-cutter approach may seem reasonable when one was close to being the correct shape to begin with, but it's ill-suited to the governance of a church filled with unique individuals.

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