Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Progressive Christianity: Love and Doctrinal Statements

I'm back taking a look at Rachel's chapter titled 'Adaptation' from her Faith Unraveled. And we'll start again with a quote.

Love. It’s that simple and that profound. It’s that easy and that hard.

Taking on the yoke of Jesus is not about signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions. It isn’t about being right or getting our facts straight. It is about loving God and loving other people. The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical: enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all — the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious. Whether we like it or not, love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently, applied differently, screwed up differently, and manifested differently. Love is bigger than faith, and it’s bigger than works, for it inhabits and transcends both.

It's not difficult to see what Rachel is reacting to. It's a sad fact that there are many Christians and churches where taking on the yoke of Jesus really is about 'signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions'. What makes this so evil is that it misses something so very important about who God is. He really is love. (So often sorting out large issues can be done only as we understand better who God is.) Before there was a creation, before there was a need for doctrinal statements or intellectual commitments, there was love. The Father was loving the Son and the Spirit, as the Son was loving the Father and the Spirit, and as the Spirit was loving the Father and the Son. Love is eternal because God was loving eternally. So, to miss this is to miss something beyond huge. God is love.

This explains Jesus' - what shall we call it? - annoyance/anger/rage with a church eager for doctrinal commitments but not for love.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.  I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.'

So, here's a church holding the line on orthodox teaching, testing 'apostles' and hating the evil works of phony believers. And Jesus commends them for these things. And yet, He threatens to remove their lampstand. He threatens to destroy them as a church! And why? Because they are failing to love. Can it be any clearer? To be sure, faithful teaching is important. But it's not more important than love. It just isn't. And this is a lesson that many Christians and churches that stress orthodoxy need to learn. And if they don't, Jesus just might take them out also. It really is that serious.

Now, having vigorously agreed with Rachel when it comes to one point, I need to vigorously disagree with her on another. Again, a quote.

Whether we like it or not, love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently, applied differently, screwed up differently, and manifested differently. Love is bigger than faith, and it’s bigger than works, for it inhabits and transcends both.

There are some things here that I'm not sure I understand, like the last sentence. But there are some things that I think I do understand and that I need to disagree with, like

love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently … 

'Interpreted differently?' The concept of love is up for grabs? If that's true then it loses all meaning whatsoever. And what we end up with is people justifying their actions by simply saying, 'But that's my interpretation of loving my neighbor.' And who could disagree? Could God?

I actually think that God has a particular definition of love. It's the definition that was working quite well for an eternity between the Father, Son and Spirit. What we need to do is agree with this definition and submit to it. That way, as we face some decision, we can work to understand His definition and then apply it, telling ourselves, 'God says that this is the loving thing to do and not that'. And we can help each other come to this kind of understanding of love.

Here's a bit of Scripture that fits here. The disciples have a question about marriage and divorce. So, Jesus tells them,

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10.11,12)

What did Jesus just tell those guys? I think that we can phrase it as, 'Divorce does not fit with love'. He has a definition for love, and He tells His disciples that that definition rules out divorce. So, if one of them was to divorce his wife, that would be a sin against love. It would be a sin against love of neighbor, his wife, as well as a sin against love of God who said doing that would be wrong, adultery. Jesus applied His definition and we need to follow His lead.

And it's not just about things to avoid. Jesus also said this,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Matthew 18:15

Again, to rephrase this, telling someone that he's done something wrong can be the loving thing to do - even if he thinks that what he's just done, say divorcing his wife, is loving.

God has a definition of love, a specific idea of what it is. He's described it in the Bible. (There's lots more than just those couple of verses I mentioned.) So, love cannot 'be interpreted differently'. There may be a range of things to do in some situation, all of which qualify for the label 'loving', but that range of things is not unlimited. God has described the boundaries. We need to agree with those boundaries and live accordingly.

This is really important for lots of reasons. Here's just one. Loving isn't just a nice thing to do. It's something that God expects us to do. And meeting His expectations is important, if for no other reason than wanting to act in a way that loves Him. So, we are to love His way to express our love to Him.

On top of that, God really does bless and curse. Jesus revealed that in His interactions with people, blessing some and cursing others. And receiving a blessing or a curse depends on how we are living. Are we actually loving God and neighbor? Are we living according to His definition of love?

Let's pull this together. There actually is a place for doctrinal statements and intellectual commitments. But they are justified if and only if the goal of such things is to help us and others to love God and to love our neighbors. So, for example, it can be an act of great love to call someone to embrace the doctrinal statement, 'Jesus is Lord' and to commit to understanding the depths of what that means so that that understanding will be a guide to living well. It can be an act of love to call someone to repudiate their definition of love and to embrace God's definition instead.

So, you see, it is not an either/or but a both/and. Just as there is great danger to Christians and churches that fail to love, there is great danger to Christians and churches who fail to make appropriate doctrinal statements and commitments.

So, while I agree - heartily agree - with Rachel in her reaction to a loveless orthodoxy, she needs to understand that Jesus calls us to some very definite doctrinal statements and intellectual commitments about love. He calls us to these so that we will love like He does. 

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