Celebrating Gnats

“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” Matthew 23:24

When s fellow Christian tells me their church is “progressive” or “non-traditional.” I am cautious and ask what they mean by either of those terms. Usually, that person is excited to tell me more. The reason for that is their church is doing something very different from what they experienced growing up. Their experience of church in childhood could be that of worship that is staid formalism, long and boring sermons, or music they would not have been caught dead listening to outside of the church building. When these persons speak this way, their church is considered neither progressive nor non-traditional.  The proper way to describe their church worship time is “contemporary.” Various problems people have with the contemporary worship style centers around the forms of music being used. And there are other issues involved.

Criticism of “traditional” worship centers around how worshipers are expected to dress when attending “church,” what instruments are used such as an organ, harp, piano, etc.,   how the minister and worship leaders are robed, vested, or otherwise clothed, and lastly what translations of the Scriptures or liturgical prayers (if any) are used.

Celebration of “contemporary” worship often involves the very same issues. What instruments are played, how Scripture, prayer, and song lyrics are conveyed, and whether or not male clergy and worship leaders wear ties are the issues in the minds of too many Christians  who want to call themselves progressive and non-traditional. In fact, such people are all too conventional.

The church has become a choice among many in a culture of consumerism. What forms of worship do I want to consume? Is a more important question than who is this God I want to worship? Do I have a relationship with God? Is a more important than is my connection with the Ultimate Other, the Source of All Being. Or worse yet, is my relationship with God in my own image or an adult form of an “imaginary friend?”

The text quoted above applies to the modern (mainline) Protestant and evangelical churches on these issues. We are prone to look at trivial matters as more important than issues that actually matter. Are we too busy learning a newly released song to keep worship exciting (meaning really more attendees and fundraising)? This is modern tithe of mint, dill, and cummin. Or are we looking for what God, as the Source of All Good Things, considers under the heading weightier matters of instruction – “justice, mercy, and faith.” Does our reflection on this matters make us more just, merciful, and faithful?

I point our that the words progressive and non-traditional are not true values any more than conservative, orthodox, or traditional are. Once the church rejects justice, mercy, and faithfulness in order to celebrate gnats, what camels do we swallow? What corruption are we willing to tolerate and hide in order to be acceptable to those who we know would judge us harshly? Why do we fool ourselves that doing so is for good? My meaning is this. Do we hide corruption and evil for the “good of the church?” Are we willing to cast aside any person from a marginalized group because to do so harm’s our reputation for those who are wanting to condemn the church anyway? Are we protecting our power over an institution? These are indeed the questions Jesus, Paul, and James asked us to consider two thousand years ago. The truth is all that has been accomplished over this amount of time is to know we are not providing the answers they are asking us to give. So, we defend the indefensible. We make God in our image. The Jesus we choose to follow has nothing to do with history or Scripture and becomes neither Lord nor Savior but an imaginary friend. And we celebrate the gnats and believe our own lies.

Slavery Not Sex

I was asked a few years ago to give a study on The Bible and Homosexuality at a retreat. The person who announced the topic decided to add these words, “This is a study that will show you the claim that God does not love you is false.” I was struck by those words. It really was not until then that I realized I was doing more than merely correcting erroneous information. My job in that context was to help restore or heal the relationship between certain people and their God. I had thought completing the hard work of study and interpretation was the goal. For the announcer and others, that work was important only in so far that it gave assurance that God in fact loved and accepted the one’s taking the class. I was not teaching. I was assisting the Physician in excising the cancerous tumor that plagued the class. I felt unprepared. I was not sure if I was ready to begin.

What follows is a portion of that study. This essay deals with St. Paul’s attitude toward  sexual slavery. I put forward the understanding that St. Paul the Apostle condemned slavery in no uncertain terms and sexual slavery in particular. Paul did not view homosexual acts as worthy of condemnation. He did view the domination ethic that allowed one person to use another merely for sexual purposes as out-of-bounds for people who sought “the peace of Christ” or “the kingdom of God.”

St. Luke in the Book of Acts tells us that Paul claimed Roman Citizenship. Not only did he lay claim to it but that he was born a citizen of the city of Rome (Acts 22:27-28). He uses his citizenship to escape a flogging, appeal to Caesar, and to shame those who flogged him in the past. The question remains how did Saul of Tarsus, a Jew, receive citizenship upon his birth? Evidently, his father was a Roman citizen. So, then, unless his father was a non-Jew, it is a good question still how a “hebrew of hebrews,” who was “descended from the tribe of Benjamin” get the citizenship to pass on to his son? The answer appears to lie in the early part of Acts before Saul is first mentioned. We read that St. Stephen, the first martyr after Christ, was disputing with members of “the synagogue of the Freedmen” that included members from Cilicia (the territory of Tarsus) and other areas (Acts 6:8-10). Saul later watches the cloaks of the men who stone Stephen and gives his assent to his lynching (Acts 8:1). This story brings up an often overlooked issue. Why is their such a synagogue in Jerusalem? Who are “the Freedmen?”

The Roman Empire was built on conquest and slavery. The economy of the Empire was based on slavery. It is understood that the majority class of the Empire was composed of slaves. Rome discouraged the liberation of slaves. The one reason for our purpose is that Roman law required that any freed slave be granted Roman citizenship. Slaves who became Freedmen received the privileges of their former masters. The synagogue of the Freedmen was the meeting place for Jewish persons who were former slaves or their descendants. St. Paul was born a Roman citizen from Tarsus in Cilicia. Saul was descended from Jewish slaves.

The early Christian community condemned slavery in various ways. The slave trade is condemned in the New Testament (1 Timothy 1:10, a letter attributed to St. Paul) and other early documents.  St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a subtle rebuke of a Christian practicing slavery. Onesimus a runaway slave under Roman law could be condemned to death. St. Paul is sending this newly baptized brother back to his owner Philemon a Christian known to St. Paul. Philemon is to receive Onesimus as a brother just a Philemon would receive Paul. The Apostle does not say that Onesimus should be freed. Paul does say that he will come to visit and see how the situation has been handled.

Paul condemns several types of people in his writings. A primary example is the text of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Where Paul has advised against the use of law courts to settle disputes among believers. He gives a list of the types of people who are outside the kingdom of God. Among these people he lists two specific types of people. The New Revised Standard Version uses the terms “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” These words translate malakoi and arsenokoitai respectively.

The first word derives from a word meaning soft or effeminate. The translation of male prostitutes does not appear to be warranted. Suetonius, the Roman historian, describes how many male Roman leaders kept male sexual slaves. It was a practice that went back many centuries. Alexander the Great kept boys for the same purpose. This form of sexual slavery is practiced in central Asia in modern times.

The next word arsenokoitai presents a puzzle for the translator. It just so happens that the very first time we see this passage in Greek literature is this very text. It is not likely Paul made up a word that his ancient readers would not understand. It is a problem for the modern translator. It is a compound word that gives a literal meaning of “to go to bed with” or “lie down with.” From that knowledge the text implicates both the slave and the one using the slave. To our modern sensibilities that is not just. Given the context of the situation of the law court the issue may be about the impression of guilt rather than moral responsibility.  The use of this text to condemn homosexual relationships that are consensual stretches the meaning of the text.

The most commonly used text by modern interpreters of Scripture to is found in Romans 1:27. This text talks about how “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way men, giving up natural intercourse for woman, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” The question to ask here is, “what error is Paul talking about?” The context is simple enough to understand. St. Paul is talking about the loss of worship of the transcendent God for anything and everything else that can be substituted for God. This list is as close to exhaustive as St. Paul can get. It describes the results of the removal of humanity from the God that is the creator of good things. There is not one sin listed here that is not a perversion of something good. Sexual slavery is perhaps the worst form of domination of the creature over another creature. It is predatory. Whether the sexual actions can be classified as heterosexual or homosexual does not matter because sexual slavery is destructive of all sexuality for a person or people desiring to replace that transcendent God over the creation.

No person is outside the love of God. No one is above the will of God. All too often people who read and interpret the Scriptures do so with our own prejudices in mind. It is important to remember that the only real actions the Bible asks us to do is live and act in the love of God and the love of other human beings. For this reason, I believe St. Paul understood the stigma of slavery, domination, and the inherent violence involved to be the ultimate result of people attempting to live without transcendence. We all have turned away and are without excuse before God. This is why grace is imperative to and for human beings.

The Need

It is cliché to say that one does not “believe in” organized religion or “needs” the institutional church. I admit that many times both clergy and laity ask themselves if they are witnessing anything happening that Jesus would have wanted. Hardly a week goes by that I do not ask myself if it is in any way worth the effort. My United Methodist clergy friends left St. Louis more fatigued and desperate than usual in both body and spirit. The difficulties of the Institutional Church are plain to see. Last month was equally difficult I am sure for Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholic Church is probably comforting itself with taking the long view of things eventually working out. In short, we are about to begin the season of Lent needing something to lift our spirits. I wish I had that to offer. Rather, I want to discuss something that made me pause this past summer.

Being a pastor often puts me on the spot. And this past summer my world was collapsing. I wound up with a broken marriage, a very important life and death need for addiction treatment, and attention to other health concerns. So, while dealing with those matters, I was asked by another patient about churches. Specifically, “I don’t understand why churches need buildings and money. What does that have to do with Jesus?”

I really wish I lived in a society where ministry could be done without the need for property, resources, and money. I don’t. I live in a society where property, resources, and money are necessary in order to do ministry in many situations. If I make a pastoral visit, I will need a way to get to the person I wish to see. If I serve food to the hungry, I will need a way to obtain the food. The list of situations continues for ever it seems. I decided to answer the question without addressing it directly.

One of my favorite ministries I have ever been part of is Wonderful Wednesday. What’s that? It is an after school program for elementary school children in one of the most impoverished counties in the state. What we did those days was to feed the students a small meal, helped with homework, played board games, taught prayer and stories from Scripture, played outdoors when weather permitted. And essentially taught the children to live together in a small community. They grew spiritually, emotionally, and mentally in what we did with them each week. I gave more description and examples. But, as a reader I think you get the gist of what I am describing. Church workers (mostly volunteers) who attempt to give a safe space of comfort and loving kindness to children who live in a volatile world. Wonderful Wednesday works and the larger community recognizes it.

My friend replied, “That’s what churches should be doing!” I said that I agreed wholeheartedly. We did not though hold the program in the church building where the Sanctuary was. We held it in another building also owned by the congregation. In fact, we could not carry out the Wonderful Wednesday ministry as effectively without the property, resources, and money that is part of “organized religion” or “the institutional church.” The children we minister to would not return if we couldn’t provide what they needed. The ministry need was provided for by the institution that we find ourselves having to manage, cajole, fight, and push most of the time. Without it the grace provided by the religious organization would be missing in the lives of those students.

We can only see through our own eyes. We only view from our perspectives. We talk about the fact that Jesus did not say to acquire property to do ministry. We forget though that Jesus preached in open areas, from fishing boats, in synagogues, in personal homes, and in the Temple. The mission was the goal. And the good carpenter knows how to make best use of tools. The stories I was told about how the church acquired the annex building demonstrate a difficult and divisive situation for the church. The mission for which the building was used became possible out of that struggle. The need makes the struggle worthwhile. Turning away from the struggle could leave the need unfulfilled. That would be the most devastating situation more than the pain and sacrifice of the struggle itself.