Monday, October 28, 2013

The Relative Unimportance of Redefining Marriage

Allyson D. Nelson Abrams has resigned from her pastorate at Zion Progress Baptist Church under pressure after she got married to another woman (also a pastor in an African-American church) in Iowa. Abrams was previously married to a man, whom she had divorced. She was more than just a mere pastor—she also resigned from the secretariat of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors as well as the editorship of the official magazine of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Abrams kept the marriage a secret at first, which was easier to do since the ceremony took place far away from Detroit. Michigan has not yet redefined marriage; Iowa has. This week New Jersey became the fourteenth state to legalize same-sex marriage, and as more states move in this direction, the states that do not recognize same-sex marriages will nonetheless find that every same-sex couple in the state who wishes to obtain a marriage license will have one. Marriage is being redefined for us all.

Don't let your sloppy reading of the title of this post fool you (OK…so I was actually TRYING to fool you in order to lure you in). I think that the redefinition of marriage is something quite important in an absolute sense. What makes the redefinition of marriage RELATIVELY unimportant is that something far MORE important is happening alongside this phenomenon—the redefinition of Christianity. Now, understand me carefully—although the redefinition of marriage is accelerating the redefinition of Christianity, it is more the effect than the cause of it. The redefinition of Christianity has been ongoing for decades now, and it is an unjust and dishonest violence done to the true faith.

Christianity Genuinely Defined: The Standard of the Revealed Christ

None of us has the right either to define or to redefine Christianity. Christianity was defined by Christ (hence the name). Christianity is neither more nor less than the way of following Jesus Christ. All that follows anyone or anything other than Christ, be it relatively malignant or benign, is not Christianity. Germ theory and inoculation, for example, I consider to be good things. I would not, however, call them Christian. Jesus had nothing to say about these things, not in any portion of scripture. I would encourage my children to be vaccinated, to drink pasteurized milk, and to use hand-sanitizer after a visit to the zoo, but I would not tell them that Christ commands any of these things.

Jesus Christ communicated His way to us by means of His apostles through the writings of the New Testament. You know not a single thing about Jesus that you did not learn by way of this medium, which He Himself chose. In the teachings that he gave to us through the apostolic witness, Jesus communicated that the way of following Him was also the way of accepting the writings of the Hebrew scriptures—the Old Testament—as the permanent and thoroughly trustworthy Word of God, which Christ's teachings make plain to us in ways that we do not properly understand the Old Testament when reading it alone. And so the black letters are the way of Jesus just as much as the red letters are. Why? Because the red letters tell us so, among other reasons.

Jesus' teachings during His earthly ministry as preserved for us in the New Testament were not all-encompassing, but they were quite extensive and provocative. Some of what Jesus said was popular in the first century; some of it was so unpopular as to provoke harsh reaction from people (including, at times, his own apostles). Today very little has changed: Some of what Jesus said is popular today, while some of it could hardly be less popular. His is a message of grace that only makes sense in juxtaposition to the severe things He taught about condemnation: Love revealed all the more starkly by its arrival on the heels of the just and damning judgments that He pronounced.

Unmistakeable in all that Christ has communicated to us is His individuality and His sovereign rulership over us. He is Christ the Lord, the Lord Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord whose coming we anticipate but cannot predict, the Lord who is faithful, the Lord of peace, the One Lord through whom we exist. Most frequently, the New Testament simply refers to him as "the Lord" without any need for further modification. There is no Parliament in Heaven; there is only a King. Christian ethics—hard test cases notwithstanding—is predominantly not about our deciding at all, but about our obeying (or rebelling). The worst perversion of the study and practice of Christian ethics occurs when, along the way, we make ourselves the judge rather than the bailiff or the accused, as the circumstance may dictate. We do not get to decide what Christianity teaches about what is right or what is wrong, because we are not the Lord. The way of Christ is the way of submission.

Indeed, even someone who does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord ought nevertheless to be able to acknowledge that Christ in his person and work in history defines Christianity. We do not get to decide what Christianity teaches about same-sex marriage any more than we get to decide what Plotinus taught about the nature of the Demiurge. What Jesus said and what Plotinus said simply are, and we do not bring them into being. We can dispute with either of them, but have wronged either of them when we begin to obscure them in favor of what we wish they had said. Accept Jesus or reject Him; do not edit Him.

Christianity Fraudulently Redefined: The Standard of the Rights-Bearing Interpreter

And yet Allyson D. Nelson Abrams regards Christianity differently. She attempts to reconcile her way of sexual behavior with the way of Christianity by appeal to a bizarre interpretation of a story in the life of Jesus (more on that later). Knowing that this is a, shall we say, innovative hermeneutical exercise, Abrams declares "People have a right to interpret scripture whatever way they please." And it is in that statement, rather than in her marital vows or her serving in the office of pastor although she is biblically unqualified to do so in at least three ways, that the redefinition of Christianity is unmasked: "People have a right to interpret scripture whatever way they please."

Well, no, Ms. Abrams, they do not.

And the thing about it is, liberals know that this is true when their polemics suit them to admit it. Consider the HuffPo's article on Senator Chuck Schumer's Being "Appalled" at Senator Ted Cruz's use of the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham during his recent filibuster. Schumer and a whole host of critics on the left were certainly not of the opinion that people have a right to interpret Dr. Seuss whatever way they please. No, they pointed out—and rightly so—that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was a political liberal who probably would have supported Obamacare, and that Geisel's point in Green Eggs and Ham was probably one more in line with what Democrats were trying to do that night than with what Cruz was trying to do.

Geisel may have been wrong, but Geisel was Geisel.

And so, when it suits them to do so, the left-leaning crowd in America are capable of recognizing the importance of authorial intent and the wrongful violence that is done when people take unto themselves the right to redefine people who cannot defend themselves from it. We have a right to define our own views; people do not have a right to redefine and interpret recklessly the views of someone else. The wrongfulness of that approach applies just as well to Jesus and the New Testament as it does to Dr. Seuss and Green Eggs and Ham.

And so, there is no such thing as a right to interpret scripture whatever way you please.


But don't we all have to interpret scripture every time that we read it?

Well, of course we do. Just as we have to interpret speed-limit signs every time we read one of those. Just as we have to interpret laws regulating warfare, manslaughter, and murder when we read them. But the inevitability of our job as interpreters does not amount to a right to discharge that duty any old way that we please. I do not disagree that there is always interpretation; rather, I simply assert that there is good and bad interpretation, and that these categories are objectively recognizable and amount to something different from "interpretations that suit me and interpretations that don't."

But isn't the right of private interpretation of the Bible the central tenet of our cherished religious liberty?

Absolutely not. There's all the difference in the world between, one the one hand, "People have a right to interpret scripture whatever way they please," and, on the other hand, "Government has no right to enforce rightful interpretation of scripture." A widespread conceit is the idea that government steers away from religious matters because matters of faith are inherently uncertain. This was not the rationale offered when Roger Williams brought religious liberty to Rhode Island, blazing a philosophical trail for the nation to follow later. Rather than relativism, Williams's argument was based upon limited government—government is not authorized to adjudge matters of faith."

Our legal system does not confer a right to private interpretation. Rights and legalities do not align precisely. Not all that is legal is your right, and this is why laws can change. You can, at present, drive eighty-five miles per hour on the new tollway around Austin, TX. Doing so, however, is not your right, and it may be the wrong thing to do if driving at that speed endangers the lives of others. If the government should lower that speed limit to 75 next week, it would not have infringed upon your rights.

I could take all of my trash out to sea and dump it there (as, indeed, New York City used to do with its sewage sludge). The ocean lies outside of all national jurisdictions, and therefore no national authority has the scope of jurisdiction to declare my action illegal. This does not mean, however, that I have a right to dump trash into the ocean. If I could build my own spaceship, refuse to "flag" it as a US vessel, land on the moon, and murder someone there, I propose that no governmental authority on Earth would have the authority to prosecute me for it, but that would not make murder my right.

In the same way, the government of the United States does not have the authority to govern my interpretation of scripture, but that doesn't amount to some cockamamie right for me to make the teachings of Jesus mean anything I want them to mean. This is true, we believe as Christians, because there is a superseding jurisdiction that applies to my ocean-going trash dump, my moon murder, and my shoddy handling of the words of Jesus—for those things I must answer to God.

There is no "right to interpret scripture whatever way [I] please" precisely because I must answer to Jesus for the words that I have put into His mouth. If I would redefine Christianity, I must explain that to Christ.

But has Christianity really been defined with regard to same-sex marriage? Jesus never said anything against same-sex marriage, did He? In fact, didn't I read on the Internet the other day that Jesus affirmed a same-sex couple?

Actually, with regard to same-sex marriage Jesus is very clearly on the record. Hear His words recorded in Matthew 19:4-5:

Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?"

Jesus, speaking about marriage, said that a man (ἄνθρωπος "anthropos", any adult male) shall hold fast to his woman (there is no Greek word for "wife" as there is in English; the word here is γυνή "gyne" from which we get the word "gynecologist" and which simply means any adult female). Jesus said that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

But just for those who like to engage in creative hermeneutics who might suggest that Jesus spoke in terms of man and woman simply because that was the only terminology and context that was conveniently available to Him, please note what He said immediately before this. Jesus tied the male-female design of marriage to God's intention in the creation of human beings as sexed, gendered beings. From the beginning, God created us "male" (ἄρσην "arsen") and female (θῆλυς "thelus"). Jesus tied the nature of marriage to the male-female nature of human biology as chosen by God in creation.

As teachings from Jesus come, they don't get any more specific and clear than this. God made human beings as males and females, and therefore a man should join with a woman and become one flesh in marriage.

Abrams's objective is to find some excuse to ignore what Jesus said that day. Joining with her are people from a wide swath of liberal and culture-chasing Christianity who are desperate to find a way to redefine Christianity to make it compatible with changing American sexual ethics. How will they escape Jesus' plain teaching?

Abrams thinks she's found a way out in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, in an episode in the life of Jesus in which He healed a centurion's servant. This bizarre and dishonest exercise in hermeneutical legerdemain has become popular in recent days. Abrams addresses it only obliquely, but you can see it in greater detail here.

According to this approach

In the original language, the importance of this story for gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians is much clearer. The Greek word used in Matthew’s account to refer to the servant of the centurion is pais. In the language of the time, pais had three possible meanings depending upon the context in which it was used. It could mean “son or boy;” it could mean “servant,” or it could mean a particular type of servant — one who was “his master’s male lover.” Often these lovers were younger than their masters, even teenagers.

Is it possible the pais referred to in Matthew 8 and Luke 7 was the Roman centurion’s male lover? Let’s look at the biblical evidence.

The Bible provides three key pieces of textual and circumstantial evidence. First, in the Luke passage, several additional Greek words are used to describe the one who is sick. Luke says this pais was the centurion’s entimos doulos. The word doulos is a generic term for slave, and was never used in ancient Greek to describe a son/boy. Thus, Luke’s account rules out the possibility the sick person was the centurion’s son; his use of doulos makes clear this was a slave. However, Luke also takes care to indicate this was no ordinary slave. The word entimos means “honored.” This was an “honored slave” (entimos doulos) who was his master’s pais. Taken together, the three Greek words preclude the possibility the sick person was either the centurion’s son or an ordinary slave, leaving only one viable option — he was his master’s male lover.

A second piece of evidence is found in verse 9 of Matthew’s account. In the course of expressing his faith in Jesus’ power to heal by simply speaking, the centurion says, “When I tell my slave to do something, he does it.” By extension, the centurion concludes that Jesus is also able to issue a remote verbal command that must be carried out. When speaking here of his slaves, the centurion uses the word doulos. But when speaking of the one he is asking Jesus to heal, he uses only pais. In other words, when he is quoted in Matthew, the centurion uses pais only when referring to the sick person. He uses a different word, doulos, when speaking of his other slaves, as if to draw a distinction. (In Luke, it is others, not the centurion, who call the sick one an entimos doulos.) Again, the clear implication is that the sick man was no ordinary slave. And when pais was used to describe a servant who was not an ordinary slave, it meant only one thing — a slave who was the master’s male lover.

The third piece of evidence is circumstantial. In the Gospels, we have many examples of people seeking healing for themselves or for family members. But this story is the only example of someone seeking healing for a slave. The actions described are made even more remarkable by the fact that this was a proud Roman centurion (the conqueror/oppressor) who was humbling himself and pleading with a Jewish rabbi (the conquered/oppressed) to heal his slave. The extraordinary lengths to which this man went to seek healing for his slave is much more understandable, from a psychological perspective, if the slave was his beloved companion.

Thus, all the textual and circumstantial evidence in the Gospels points in one direction. For objective observers, the conclusion is inescapable: In this story Jesus healed a man’s male lover.

Never heard anything like that before? Neither has twenty centuries of Christianity.

But let's take a look at these claims:

  1. First, does παῖς mean "the master's male lover"? The website cites two sources for this conclusion: Dover's Greek Homosexuality from Harvard University Press and Sergent's Homosexuality in Greek Myth from Beacon Press. These two sources both originate within the past thirty years, both come from Boston, and both are, essentially, homosexual advocacy pieces. These aren't exactly in the category of objective standard Greek reference works.

    But what happens when you DO go to standard Greek reference works? You find that the TDNT does not mention "the master's male lover" as an interpretive option. The BDB does not mention it, either. Louw-Nida does not list it. This interpretation does not appear in standard Greek reference works, although they do include the standard terminology related to homosexuality in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

  2. Second, does the use of the adjective ἔντιμος suggest a romantic relationship between the centurion and the servant? Again, none of the standard Greek reference works give any indication in this direction. The source cited is an article by Donald Mader in the 1998 work Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy. Again, this is an advocacy piece about homosexuality, not a scholarly piece about the Greek language.

    The word simply means "honored." The English translations get this translation precisely right. And the misinterpretation of this verse by people like Abrams reveals poignantly a key feature of the homosexuality movement—the wrongful sexualization of friendship and other emotions in favor of homosexuality. If David and Jonathan were friends who loved each other, then they had to be homosexuals who were loving each other sexually. If this centurion honored this (underage) slave, then he must have honored him because of sexual favors that he was receiving from him in a pedophilic relationship.

    The homosexual obsession is but one symptom of a culture that makes sex everything.

  3. Finally, although these interpretations are ludicrous on their face, what if they weren't? What would it mean? There's no doubt that the servant was the slave. Since Jesus healed him, does that mean that Jesus approves of slavery? There's no doubt that the servant was a minor. Since Jesus healed him, and if this was a sexual relationship, does that mean that Jesus approves of pedophilia?

    The only thing we can conclude from this story is that Jesus is opposed to sickness and approves of faith.


Homosexual advocates are certainly not the only people who have redefined Christianity. Not at all. And they do not pose any threat to Christianity, because Jesus is not so weak as to be damaged by our infidelity or to require our defense. But although we need not feel threatened by this effort to redefine Christianity, we nonetheless ought to be clear about it. To redefine Christianity is always to rebel against Christ. Nothing is more important than that.

If every state in the United States should redefine marriage, Christianity can survive—no, thrive!—in that environment. The Kingdom of our God, after all, can be differentiated from the kingdoms of this world, as of yet. In contrast, the redefinition of Christianity is something worthy of our most strident defense. May God give us the courage to undertake the task.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I'm Thrilled That You Can Earn Your MDiv Online…Now, Please Don't

I'm delighted to have played some tiny role in rolling out the myriad online educational options available to Southern Baptist seminarians today. (Excursus: My role? Other people dreamed it up, did all of the work to plan the specifics, climbed the mountain that is accreditation, named it, packaged it, priced it, sold it, and implemented it. I said "Aye" in a committee meeting.) It is a wonderful and amazing world in which a missionary kid living in Bhutan can earn a Masters of Divinity degree at SWBTS. Thank you, Lord, for redeeming the Internet to do a little good alongside the torrent of bad.

Now that these degrees are available, I'm writing to beg you not to avail yourself of them unless it is impossible (and I don't just mean "inconvenient") for you to attend an actual bricks-and-mortar seminary campus. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Most people don't learn as well online: Really, I'm just nearly comfortable saying NOBODY learns as well online, but having received a face-to-face education of some significant quality, I've learned to be wary of universals and superlatives.

    I'm thankful for online classes because I'm personally indebted to them. I would never have been able to take German face-to-face at SWBTS. I was in my first year at FBC Farmersville. Taking German would've required that I drive to Fort Worth daily. Not possible. So I took it online. I did well enough in German to pass the tests and gain admission into the Ph.D. program. In fact, I did well enough to read books and articles in German for a lot of my papers.

    And yet, out of the languages that I have studied (French, German, Greek, and Hebrew), there's no question that German is the weakest of them all. The fact that I took German online is a significant factor in that reality. I'm thankful that I was able to get German online, but I sure am happy that I didn't get anything else that way. Whatever you learn in an online class, you're probably not going to know it as well as you will know something you've learned in a classroom setting.

  2. A seminary education is about more than just the mere accumulation of facts. Last night I sat in Dr. Matt Queen's Personal Evangelism class at SWBTS. For the first fifteen minutes of the class session, I heard student after student as they told stories about the people with whom they had shared the gospel as a part of the "Second Mile" campaign on the SWBTS campus. Dr. Queen and a whole host of SWBTS faculty are out with students walking door-to-door throughout this region of Fort Worth sharing the gospel. That's difficult to replicate in an online class.

    There's the experience of chapel. As a student, the chapel experience at SWBTS blessed me many times. No, not every time, but many times! The online student is missing the entire environment of seminary. I think that environment, even for the commuting student that I always was, is quite an important aspect of a seminary education. Think twice—think twenty-two times—before you relegate that aspect of seminary education away to unimportance.

  3. Am I crass to mention networking? There's the network of friends you will meet in your classes. My seminary friendships endure to this day. For example, I commuted to SWBTS with Ken Miller, who now works at NAMB. I sat in seminars with Joe Early, James Egan, David Goza, Greg Tomlin, Rex Butler, Scott Maze, and a whole host of others who remain my friends to this day.

    But they are more than just friends. They are also the peer group to whom I often turn when I don't know what to do or when I just want to learn to do something better than I am doing it. Being a part of this cohort is an important part of my life.

    Beyond that, there are the relationships that I built with professors. I occasionally get to sit down to lunch with James Leo Garrett. I have an ongoing friendship with Malcolm Yarnell. I have gleaned much from the many who have taught me, and by the blessing of God, those gleanings have extended beyond my time with them in their classrooms.

    I could not name a single person with whom I shared an online class. Furthermore, when a church comes to a professor and asks for a recommendation of someone to fill their pulpit, I don't think that they very often reply, "You know, student 'godrules1384' in my Introduction to Philosophy of Religion class seems like a really sharp guy." I think they're going to mention someone into whose eyes they have looked.

  4. Enrollment Does Not Equal Graduation: Online ENROLLMENT is through the roof, not just in theological education at places like Liberty but also in the broader educational world at places like the University of Phoenix. But how many of those online enrollees make it all the way through to graduation? Not nearly as many as you might think. The dirty little secret of Internet education is that such an astounding number of people quit long before they graduate. Easy in; easy out.

    Whether it should or should not, the obstacle of moving to a seminary campus to pursue theological education is a testing point for many people with regard to how serious they are about their calling to ministry. The person who has left behind a job, sold a house, uprooted a family, and relocated to Fort Worth is a person who is committed. In moments of horrific sacrifice and despondency, that person can reach the point where it is easier to press forward and finish than it is to go back. Not so for the online student. It is so, so easy just to quit or postpone (indefinitely).

    Burn the ships, my friend! Burn the ships! Climb out onto the limb. No turning back; no turning back!