Last week I wrote a paper on John Wesley’s sermon, “Catholic Spirit”. It’s my favorite Wesley sermon because it argues so beautifully for unity in the church, a hobby horse I myself like to ride. Across lines of doctrine, practice and denomination, can’t we love each other as family? Doesn’t our devotion to Christ make us all brothers and sisters? “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart? Give me your hand!”
That’s all well and good. Every once in a while, though, my desire for fellowship breaks down. Now and then I see someone who self-identifies as a “Christian” and I want to say, with Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The most recent examples of this have surrounded the same sex marriage debate. There are Christians who legitimately disagree on the role of the state in sanctioning same sex marriage. There are Christians who disagree on how the church should minister to homosexuals. There’s room for that conversation to take place within the body of believers. But when a Christian pastor suggests putting all the “lesbians and queers” behind an electrified fence until they die, or when another pastor preaches that the government should be killing homosexuals, or when a crowd of adults cheers wildly at anti-gay propaganda coming from the mouth of a little child? People, I don’t think the word “Christian” means what you think it means.
I’m not sure you understand what the word “pastor” means, either, by the way.
When faced with that sort of behavior I do not long to sit down with the people in question and say, “Brother, in the spirit of Christian fellowship, let me share from my heart why I believe you to be mistaken.” No, I want to shout from the rooftops, “That pastor is not a Christian!”
While this might seem presumptuous, I suspect some of those folks would return the favor. It has been suggested before that I’m too liberal, too Catholic-friendly, too Arminian, too anarchist and too feminist to be a Christian. I guess we can add “homosexual lover” to the list, since I’d rather they didn’t die.
It seems to be human nature to split into “Us” and “Them”, to treat our opposites on any number of issues as the dangerous “Other”. I could spend the rest of my life waging war from within my subgroups, and many Christians do. On the other hand I could be a latitudinarian on every issue: no worries; nothing matters that much; it’s not worth arguing about. Wesley thought that was a terrible idea. It’s also impractical. How can I be a latitudinarian (that is a mouthful!) toward both my gay friends and the pastor who would like to see them dead? How can I say “Live and let live” to both sides of that argument? And if the “sin” of my gay friends somehow shuts them out of the Kingdom (an assumption I’ve heard often enough), why doesn’t the “sin” of the hate-spewing pastors even shut them out of the pulpit?
I seem to have more questions than answers these days. Wesley said that what unites us as followers of Jesus, even when we disagree passionately on many things, is our devotion to God and our love for our neighbor. In another sermon, “The Almost Christian”, he made a similar argument. The world is full of people who seem respectable and religiously observant and who show up at church often enough. But if they don’t genuinely love God as He revealed Himself in Christ, and if that doesn’t spill over into an active love for others, well, that’s not Christianity. The word doesn’t mean what you think it means.
(As an aside, I anticipate the usual response about those pastors loving the homosexuals enough to tell them the truth about their sin. Don’t bother with that. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to wish people dead and then pretend to care about them. You just don’t.)
I’m not trying to create an Other, not trying to divide the world into Us and Them. But sometimes we have to clear the field a little. If only for the sake of my own sanity, I need the word “Christian” to mean something. And so I’m borrowing Wesley’s ideas. Pastor Worley, you’ve failed the love test. Rev. Knapp, please go back to the gospels and find Jesus. Congregation at Apostolic Truth Tabernacle, you should be ashamed of yourselves. I don’t know what’s going on there, but it’s not church. Call yourselves Fundamentalists, Religionists, Old-Timey Bible Thumpers, but for the love of God, leave Jesus out of it. Somewhere along the way, you’ve all lost sight of what it means to be a Christian.
Thanks, Jim. 🙂
Sharon, I am standing up, in my livingroom, giving you a standing ovation right now. Not really, it’s late and I have neighbors, but I really like this so very much a lot.
Thank you for being an ally.
Have you read,
They drew a circle that kept me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But Love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took them in!
Attitudes to homosexuality are treated as a shibboleth by some, a test of how respectful one is of the Bible. If only we could forget it, and see what we have in common! Does Charles Worley really think attitude to homosexuality more important than “Perfect Love driveth out all fear”?
Thanks for your comment, Clare! Believe it or not, I was thinking of that poem as I wrote. I questioned myself because, in a way, I was drawing a circle that keeps out Worley & Knapp & company. But if we can’t establish love as a baseline for what it means to follows Jesus, we might as well forget the whole thing.
This is perfect……”But if we can’t establish love as a baseline for what it means to follows Jesus, we might as well forget the whole thing.”
Wow, Sharon…Judy shared this with me and I so very much agree with you! The lack of love for those who don’t believe the way we do astounds me. And to say that we should HATE or KILL those is absolutely against biblical teachings…there is NO way that Jesus believed that way. Thanks for an awesome blog…hope it’s ok to share with friends.
Unfortunately you are trying to defend a term that has no single authority regarding or regulating its use. Your interpretation of that label is therefore no more or less valid than anyone else’s.
When I hear “I’m a Christian, so I think/believe. . .” I have learned to infer nothing of actual value by the employment of that preface.
Too many foul and even minor atrocities have been committed by proclaimed ‘Christians’ for that qualifier to automatically suggest/imply anything on its own.
For comparison; I’m from Kentucky.
This might surprise you since I’m also upper middle-class, educated, articulate, have very little ‘drawl’ in my voice, I have most of my teeth, have never sipped ‘shine’ and I did not marry my cousin. I grew up with shoes on my feet, indoor plumbing and electricity, and in church we never once danced with snakes.
Though I have official documents verifying that I am indeed a child of the dark and bloody ground, the apparent common mass perception of what a Kentuckian is, or might be, simply does not fit. I’m not sure what to do about that, frankly I don’t worry too much about it.
As for the Kentuckians that do wallow in the stereotype, those who celebrate ignorance and inbreeding? (yes there are those that do, stereotypes, like good lies are often based on a fundamental truth) I can’t really do much about them either.
The only way to break this stereotype, this presumption of the uninformed, is to be a living, breathing exception. It’s not very efficient, and certainly not quick, but jumping up and down on a soapbox doesn’t really work.
I’ve learned to live beyond the label. A Kentuckian is one of the things I am, but that label itself is by all means, not my full measure. It neither fully defines, nor limits me.
More important than being considered a good Christian (or a good Kentuckian) is being recognized as a good person. You do not own the label, you cannot fix those that use it counter to your ideals. However, if you take your Christian duties, responsibilities and ideal, as you understand them to heart and live them day in and day out, those that do come across you will be forced to recognize that you are a good person, because of, or even in spite of, that tarnished and oft-abused label.
Jesus didn’t trademark Christianity. He never even used the word. He spoke of the children of the Lord, true believers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the word.
As far as Christian sects, denominations, divisions, well these things have been around since about day two of your religion. The epistles to the various churches in the New Testament punctuate this fact, that even the earliest Christian churches were divided on the true and full meaning of Christianity, sometimes minor differences, sometimes major. (My own denomination of birth was chastised for the blasphemy of ‘sprinkling’ rather than baptismal ‘dunking’.)
Only a few short centuries later the unified and mighty Catholic Church split into rival (warring) east/west orthodoxies, and in Europe, the protestant movement segregated the Western Christian establishment even further. The rest, as they say is history. These separations were precisely because of, sometimes vast, doctrinal differences of opinion in the true and whole meaning of Christianity.
Myself, I am an atheist. Yet if I had the motivation, I could have enough legitimate divinity credentials to qualify as a certified ‘Christian’ authority, with full legal recognition in a month or less. Therefore just being a ‘Christian’, even a certified one actually has little tangible meaning.
Let’s go back to something I just said: “I am an atheist.”
What did that tell you about me? If you are smart and open minded, which I believe you are, it meant very little other than that I don’t believe in God. It tells you nothing about what I do for a living, whether or not I am a good person, a good father or husband, whether or not I squash puppies or lie, cheat or steal. The statement, exactly like “I am a Christian” says very little.
The late, great, Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) called himself a ‘radical atheist’. He explained this: “If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. . . . It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously.”
He was no Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens, (whose books I have never read, it’s not required.) railing against established religions, holding rallies and incendiary public debates. Neither am I. I can practice my atheism just fine from the quiet, calm and obscure comfort of my recliner.
Christianity means very little by itself. There are those that will foist this label as being a singular, well-defined ideal. It is not now and never has been. There’s little you can do about that other than to live your life beyond that vague categorization. Which I hope you will.
It is quite enough that you openly and happily accept LGBT folks as legitimate, worthy and loving people. That’s all that you anyone should feel required to do. Those that you love and support know this and that is what really matters. That there are ignorant, hateful people doing ignorant and hateful things should not surprise or astonish you. Like the poor, they will always be among us, better to serve those that need our love and support than waste time and resources bashing those relatively few that wallow in intolerance and hate. Better to ignore them, let them boil in their own vile juices.
P.S. Loved the ‘Princess Bride’ references!
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Your blog and this post in particular are such a gift and wonderful discovery for me today… thank you for your boldness and good humor.