A Gentle Critique of Gospel Alliance and Room for All’s Joint Statement on Sexuality and the RCA

A few months ago leaders of the Gospel Alliance (GA) and Room for All (RFA) met to discuss the future of the RCA in light of the huge denominational chasm present as it relates to the ethics and theology surrounding gay relationships, ordination of (practicing) gay pastors and gay marriage. At the end of the conversation, they created a joint statement which can be read here: GA/RFA JOINT STATEMENT 

Though the joint statement has a beautiful tone and many commendable elements, there are two areas where I believe it was seriously wrong for GA to put its name in agreement.

Before I get into my gentle critique, my church and myself are proudly committed members of the Gospel Alliance. I serve on the advisory board. Bob Bouwer is a mentor and one of my closest friends. Charlie Contreras is a second father and my first father in the faith. All who signed the agreement are godly and more mature than me. I am sure they have good reasons for the agreement but it has its fault that I think friends can graciously discuss.

The first troubling sentence is this:

We believe that the healthiest way to express human sexuality is through a committed, mutually loving relationship between two people.

This sentence has several semantic errors in my view. The statement bases its conclusion of what is the “healthiest sexual expression” on the word “committed”. What does the word committed mean in this context? A committed dating relationship? A commitment as found in gay marriage? Perhaps the commitment of traditional marriage?  Maybe it is left ambiguous to enfold all three? Or maybe it is an assertion that at least we agree that commitment is better than no commitment at all? In my opinion, “Committed” is too obscure a word without a qualifier to explain and leaves much to interpretation. We are in need of clarity not more confusion.

This particular sentence of the joint statement is further troubling by the chose of using the word, “healthiest”. Again, what does “healthiest” mean? Psychological health? Emotionally satisfying? Or the highest Christian good? When you put the sentence all together it brings no clarity or help. It just leaves me scratching my head. Really? The healthiest? It is as easy to read the sentence as a nod to traditional marriage as it is to say it affirms gay marriage. Are we saying that all of these are the healthiest? I know that all the GA folks who signed understand and believe that the healthiest expression of human sexuality is a life long, bounded-covenantal marriage between a man and a woman.  This is the healthiest expression of human sexuality and millennia of history has shown this to be true. Of course RFA doesn’t agree with such a statement. And there is no way to bridge the chasm. No need for GA to seemingly move on so central of an issue when confusion is the only gift given.

The more troubling sentence in my view that found a place in the joint statement was this:

While all things are possible through God, we do not believe that prayer or conversion therapy can change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

First of all, it is good to stand for the right of the individual to decide his or her destiny and any “therapy” or “prayer” that forces “conversion” is abhorrent to a Christian worldview. I am sure we can all agree on that. But instead of jointly agreeing on something where there is true common ground, the above sentence has profound weaknesses that strike at Gospel hope.

Its first weakness in my view is that it frames the argument in very unhelpful ways. Gender identity as used in modern parlance is code for one’s ability to name his or her gender expression based on a personal choice. The whole idea separates gender identity from biology and is the fruit of postmodern subjectivity and accepts the notion that such a thing as gender identity is up to personal preference. I see this as the madness of our cultural moment. No matter its many flaws, for sure its usuage is not the proper language of orthodox Christians. Or at the very least least it’s usage has profound challenges that need careful consideration and clarifications.

The sentence’s second weakness is the assertion that one’s sexual orientation is fixed and unmovable. As far as I can tell, the best science doesn’t even agree with the statement. Sexual attraction is fluid throughout life, differing substantially among males and females, and certainly isn’t static. The idea of sexual identity being akin to eye color is to give up significant theological ground and to create significant pastoral problems that need not exist.  Sexual identity is a movable point on a spectrum and I am not sure how a Bible-believing Christian could believe that Christ could not move that point and regularly does.

Beyond that, speaking of identity and orientation in these ways is to use non-biblical categories. The Bible only speaks of being a man or a woman with a sexual calling to the other gender. This is the language of sexuality in the Bible. It does this not because it is ignorant on current sociological and psychological research but because this is the reality that God has ordained since the beginning. It is brilliant in its simplicity and straightforwardness. I think it’s the best language to use and build from especially in conversations among professing believers. I encourage my GA friends to stand their ground on the biblical language. It is worth the fight and profoundly refreshing in an age of verbosity without substance.

And one final point, the Bible is filled with numerous  examples of broken men and women being called and transformed. The idea that a gay man called by Christ cannot live out biblical masculinity in marriage is to say that Christ does not have the resources to empower such a gospel life. I am sure no GA member would ever say such a thing.

Sinful sexuality (with all of its expressions) can be wholly transformed. I know and so do countless others. It might not be popular or hip but it is the gospel truth.

I know that my GA friends were seeking to find a way forward  for the RCA. And I trust their hearts and leadership. But these sentences within the joint statement bring confusion and seeming agreement on large, essential issues when there is none.

I hope that there will be clarification in the days ahead.

Why does evil exist?

One of the hardest things to do as a follower of Jesus is to reconcile the idea of a fully sovereign good God with the very real evil experienced throughout the world everywhere.

It does pose several challenges that are serious and possibly insurmountable.

  • Evil exists and produces suffering for every human person. No one escapes it. Does this not reveal the utter maliciousness of the divine? For a sovereign being to allow such horror and not stop it seems to suggest that he endorses it. Does this not signify that God is evil? And that evil is an ultimate aim of existence?
  • Perhaps God cannot stop evil. Then he is no god at all and perhaps evil is even more powerful than he. Or at least it has the possibility of “winning”. What you can’t control has the possibility of overcoming you or at least beating you.
  • Or perhaps evil is the surest sign that there is no god at all. It is surely the strongest proof of non existence. Perhaps the universe has no meaning or benevolence. Suffering and evil is the only reality the universe gives us. And consequently, life should be filled with dread and doom.

These are serious challenges. But I do think there is a substantive answer for why there is evil. The answer in summary is to realize that all these challenges assume a “closed system” where evil’s work is final. A system in which this present life and its joy (or at least the minimization of suffering) is primary because our physical death is the final end. Whatever goodness is, we must experience it now and whatever evil is we must run from it as fast as we can.

But this is not the Christian story. We are eternal beings. We live in an “open system”. One filled with angels, perfected beings, the sovereign Christ, his unstoppable love, and an eternity to bring about all the good he has imagined for his people and the cosmos he has created.

In other words, it is my strong belief that in Christ’s cosmos evil is a temporary reality that fades into an illusion of light in the depths of eternity. If this is true, then Goodness is everywhere.

Here is a thought experiment that shows that it is goodness that reigns and evil is a necessary means into goodness:

Imagine that you are married and have one four-year-old daughter. You are a devoted Christian family. You strive for what is good and love the Lord. You live a happy life. In one moment, this all changes.

While at the park joyfully playing, your phone rings and you look down, she darts into a nearby forest preserve, you look up and can’t find her. Frantically you look for her. You never see her again.

Later, you find out that she was abducted and killed. The killer, you find out, has done this before and was once caught but had to be let go on a legal technicality. You feel all the guilt, anger, pain and loss that comes from losing your only daughter in this way. Your marriage crumbles from the pressure of the pain and anguish from loss and your spouse leaves you. Your career, which was soaring until that day, comes to a stand still and it too dissolves into the wind of sorrow. A year after your daughter’s death you are severely depressed, divorced and jobless. All you want to do is fall asleep and never wake again. The only consolation, if you can call it that is the murderer is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

If your life and it’s goodness is measured by your physical life, evil has triumphed. But you are part of another world.

One night while laying in bed an angel visits you. He tells you that his aim in his visit is to show you that all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. And at the end of the visit, you will be able to choose to keep going in the timeline you are now in or go back to that moment and save your daughter. If you choose to stay in this timeline, you will forget the angel’s visit and all you learn. If you save your daughter, you will remember every detail of the visitation. With hope welling in your heart for the first time in a year you readily agree.

With the angel, you go one billion years into the future. You are in heaven with the angel. You see your future-self with your precious daughter. You run up and hug her in an embrace of deep joy. When you set her down, you look at her and see that it is your daughter but somehow she is radically different. She is not a child, at least not in the normal sense. She is ancient and young wrapped up into the face you remember. She is a person of such nobility and power, beauty and grace that she seems divine. In fact, in a very real sense she is. She asks why you are there. You tell her. And then you tell her how sorry you are. How you know it’s your fault. You’re in agony. Your apology is filled with the fear of someone who has done something that cannot be repaired. You end saying something like, “I wish I could have saved you”.

She laughs. Not the laugh that comes from a joke; nor is it a cruel laugh. It is the most beautiful laugh you have ever heard. It is fierce, innocent and pure. It is a laugh that comes from the depths of goodness and gladness. If the sun could laugh, her laugh was close to that. It was filled with light. And she tells you that on the day of her murder was the most joyous of her existence. In the final moments Jesus was right there. All she can remember is the joy of being held by his hands. And every moment since that moment has been one ever increasing joy. She could imagine nothing better than the eternal life she now lives.

Your angel guide suddenly takes you back to the present plus twenty years. It is your daughter you see, 24 years old in what looks like a university dorm. The angel tells you that what you see is what would happen if she would not have died that day. Your daughter cannot see you. The angel tells you that she has lost her faith as she pursues a PhD in mathematics and she will never have it again. There is a sadness in the angel’s face that is so deep and final that it pierces your soul. Your ache over your daughter’s death is a mere shadow of the pain he conveys.

Then, like before, your a billion years in the future and you are in heaven with your future-self. You look at him. He is unlike anyone you have ever met. He is embodies peace. You tell him your journey and the option the angel told you. You ask him what he thinks. He tells you that those few years of pain broke him. But not in a bad way. He was broken but in the way that enables something new to be made. In fact, the broken places made possible a beautiful existence. A few years after the death of his daughter, his relationship with Jesus would flourish. In the depths of pain, he found real peace. He found the Lord. He never married again. But what he learned in the valley of the shadows gave him a power and substance that gave hope to thousands during his life on earth. And in the billion years since that earthly life, the peace only deepens. He tells you that this one moment of horror made him into the man he always wanted to be. In fact, he learned it was necessary for him to be the man God created him to be. So not only has he accepted God’s willingness to allow such suffering, these days he celebrates God’s goodness in allowing it. There is no doubt but the assurance of a man who deeply knows something true. If a perfect person could beg, you saw such a thing that day. Your future-self tells you that this is the road to goodness and without it, goodness will be lost for you.

You are stunned and confused but also you see the beauty of this future moment. You turn around and you see the murderer. You remember the way he looked in court, cold and malicious. But now he is radiant. And if you had to choose one word to describe him it would be, “safe”. Anger wells up and pain causes your body to convulse uncontrollably. He waits. He begins to weep. Real sorrow. But it is upheld, somehow, in love and goodness. He is sad but not shameful. You look in his face and you see something you have never seen before–love, sorrow, regret and joy infinitely combined into radiance. This radiance is his self. In fact, it would be impossible to divide the light from his soul. They are one in the same. He tells you that he is sorry for his heinous sin, and asks for mercy. You ask how he could even be in heaven. He tells you that in prison, 5 years after the murder, you visited him. You forgave him and shared the goodness of the risen Christ. He accepted and walked with the Lord until the moment he was executed. The story of reconciliation between you and him was told and thousands came to the Lord. He knows from eternity that those thousands would only have come into eternal gladness because of this story of forgiveness. If it did not happen, they would never know Christ. Lost forever.

The angel touches your arm and you are back in your home, in the present, alone. There is a note that reads: I will be back in one week for your decision.

The next week is like the last year, lonely and filled with anguish.

A week late the angel returns. What do you do? Is Romans 8 right? Does God cause all things to work together for good? Can that be true for you and all your pain? Or should you go back in time, with the angel, circumvent God’s plan and save your daughter? Do want to remember and have
Your daughter and marriage or forget and embrace the pain?

Nietzsche believed in hell

I have recently become quite interested in the great 20th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He is the quintessential postmodern deconstructionist. Born into Lutheranism and devout as a child, he slowly lost his faith after the horrific and slow death of his father. He could not see how a good God could allow such a thing to happen. Eventually, personal pain turned into a philosophical pursuit. One that would reshape the Western world.

Nietzsche came to the conclusion personally and philosophically that “God is dead”. In a unique but troubled brilliance, he was able to articulate modern religious belief as a delusion meant to give meaning to the absurdity of existence.

Of course, if one removes metaphysical telos from human existence, you create an existential crisis. Nietzsche’s, “God is dead” removes purpose for life and has the potential to fill one with dread; it did for him and it has for Western culture.

This problem was one he wanted to solve. He desperately desired to give meaning to life and create a philosophical framework that disregarded the need for religious faith and also gave meaningful purpose to life.

Eventually, he created a thought experiment that he thought answered the challenge of meaning and purpose but I think he gave a deconstructionist articulation of hell. He labeled his thought experiment, “eternal reoccurrence”. Nietzsche writes,

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

The purpose of this excercise was to propel the individual to make moral choices and personal decisions of agency in which there would be no regret. In other words, Nietzsche wanted people to not leave anything on the proverbial field of life. By living from this myth, he believed you would personally experience meaning and purpose in life. But he is wrong. This isn’t the road to meaning but the path to hell.

If you had to relive your life over and over again for eternity without the ability to change one point of your existence and have the awareness of this continual loop, I would suspect several things would happen:

  1. Slowly but assuredly the one experiencing eternal reoccurrence would ghoulishly change being faced without respite with an unchanging story line. Consider this thought experiment: pick your favorite movie that you have watched dozens of times. It is important that this a movie you love without equivocation. Now consider how you might feel about yourself, the movie and existence if that was your eternal life. Strapped to a couch, eyes forced to focus, engaged with each frame until it was burned into your mind,  and watching a movie over and over again without rest or new experiences. It seems that the very experience of infinite repetition would change you negatively forever. Over an eternity, the very conclusion of nihilism that Nietzsche was seeking to escape would be crystallized into every pore of existence. Life would have no meaning except this hell of repetition. It would be an eternal life of dread.
  2. The very nature of something being eternally unchangable and having to be relived without relief is as close to a definition of real suffering that the most tyrannical malignant could ever come up with. In such a reality, every point of that life would slowly become infinite points of joy or horror. But in infinite passes of the same events, joy would infinitely decrease and horror would infinitely increase. Until only horror, angst and misery remained. It reminds me of the mythological story of Sisyphus. He was condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a rock up the hill only to watch it roll down again. One could possibly imagine the first few dozen times of rolling that he could perhaps find joy, whether in the work or in his mind. But eventually, no matter the strength of mind, he would only know suffering. This is embodied suffering. This is the very nature of hell itself.
  3. Finally, the endless repetition of even the most joyful moments of existence would eventually become places of terror until one’s existence in this eternal loop would just be one of eternal terror. For every moment of happiness, there would be the intense knowing of coming loss, the dread that this is not special but as common as the most mundane activity, eternally so; you would have an eternity to find new faults and failures in those you love with the hell of knowing that they cannot change; and joy would lose its meaning but horror would take on new depths. It would grow with each waking moment until terror was the only world you knew. Hell and terror are the same. To experience eternal terror is to burn forever in the fire that never extinguishes.

Nietzsche wanted to remove God from human existence. Much of the madness of our age finds it’s roots in this endeavor. He was right to seek meaning for existence since it is a deeply human need. But in my opinion he has not answered it, not even close. In seeking meaning, Nietzsche found hell.

No Love For Michael Curry

Michael Curry gave a powerful sermon at Prince Harry’s wedding on Saturday. A few days later, former chaplain to the queen, Gavin Ashenden, wrote this reflection. I posted Ashenden’s reflection because of its depth and Christian beauty. Lots of my Christian friends on fb were critical of Ashenden and in essence said, “Give Curry a break. He was preaching to the world at a wedding…. And love is a good thing.”

I think the larger issue with Curry representing Christ isn’t necessarily what he said but didn’t say. He was preaching to the world. The question is did he preach Christ?

Instead of Christ, he preached love. But what does he mean by it? Curry says, “Oh there’s power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love.” In a world filled with all kinds of “love”, we need to define love. He does not and just says any ole love will do. We are left to wonder if the word love means anything definite at all. Sure, he alludes to love but never states the radical, exclusive Christian message: Christ is love and he died to redeem, save and restore you. It’s not any love that does this (in you or the world) but Christ’s. This is the exclusive and radical message of Jesus. Curry didn’t share that message.

Well, you might say he alluded to it. Not really. Curry declares: “He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He didn’t… he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life, for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the wellbeing of the world… for us.” Really? Here is his chance to share the gospel of the kingdom but he tells us that Jesus is some kind of lump-of-coal sacrifice that just wanted to do some good in the world—doesn’t want to offend I assume. This is more eastern mysticism than anything Christian. It was for joy that he died. It was to get a bride. He was intentional and passionately focused. That’s the gospel of love.

No talk of sin, the broken soul, or Christ’s ability to forgive and restore. This is what Christ does. Instead, Curry talks of neighborhoods, governments and child hunger. All important issues but are they central to love? Christian love that is?  The way of the cruciform Christ is this: first he transforms individuals and they go in his love bringing his kingdom. Here is the issue: Curry is saying any kind of love can get this done. Just go do it. We will have to see if such advice works. Sounds more like Oprah than the resurrected God.

Finally, just to stir the pot, listen to these words from preacher: “When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children.” What do you think he is referring to? Of course we could give it a biblical explanation–God so loved the world…–but Curry, I would bet my right ankle is not thinking of John 3:16 to make his point. This is his truly ‘radical’ assertion of the day and it isn’t Christian. He wants ethics thrown out the window and identity politics be the new national religion. This is the coded language of the “radical left”. Love now means accepting anything–behavior, views and whatever pronoun one decides they are at the moment–and if you stand in the way of “love” then what an awful person you must be.

The way of Jesus, as presented in the scriptures and history, is radically different. Jesus will party with anyone and brings his goodness. But to receive his life they will have to die. To self and yes to ego. This bloody road is the only road to love. And from there comes resurrection life.

Instead, Curry preached the politics of the left. And since this was a Christian marriage, one would hope Christ’s message could at least been presented.

The world is clapping and thankful that now religion endorses their malformed love. But make no mistake, real love was no where to be seen.