Huckabee’s Heart-Change And Ours: Millennial Issues With Love, The Body, and Marriage

weddingA couple of weeks ago the SCOTUS handed down the Obergefell ruling that made gay marriage the law of the land and the universe was engulfed in a sea of rainbow-colored joy. Or anger. Or grief. Or ecstasy. Honestly, there were about as many reactions as there were colors in the dang rainbow. In any case, a swarm of articles on the subject have gone up, both by non-Christians and Christians of all persuasions. Articles full of arguments, historical narratives, questions, answers to questions, cartoons, and God knows what else.

And, honestly, I have tried to avoid them. Pretty much unsuccessfully, but there you have my vulnerable confession of how little I’ve wanted to have anything to do with the subject online. It’s a difficult enough issue to discuss in person, let alone online, especially when you want to be pastoral. What’s more, this is not a hobby-horse for me. In the last four years of ministry, I’ve explicitly taught on the subject twice, and only because the biblical text in question forced me to.

One of the most recent of these articles was by Tyler Huckabee–an Evangelical writer, blogger, and former editor of Relevant magazine–in which he wrote about his change of heart on same-sex marriage. It’s a personal narrative of sorts, with an articulation of his reasons thrown in, and a closing appeal at the end.

What I’d like to do in this piece is offer some incomplete analysis and commentary on his post.

Now, some of you might be asking, given that up until now I’ve kept my trap shut, why this? Why his piece? In a lot of ways, I think many millennials are resonating with this one in a particular way. It is representative of the reasoning and feelings of a many of the youngish, Evangelicals on the fence who might read the piece and say, “Ya, man, that’s kind of the deal for me too. Thanks for articulating it for me.” This is a niche that seems worth addressing. Also, we are in similar positions. Unlike guys like Gagnon and Brownson, or DeYoung and Vines, I haven’t written academic or a popular book on the subject. Neither has Huckabee. We’re both bloggers and ex-somethings. He’s the ex-editor of a major, Christian magazine and I’m a soon to be ex-college pastor of a not-so-major college group. Also, everybody says Huckabee is a sweet, reasonable guy, so I figure he’ll be a good conversation partner.

To start, you probably ought to read his article before this one, or what follows might not make sense.

Appreciation. First, there are a couple of things I appreciate about Huckabee’s article.

Obviously, he clearly thought about it slowly and maturely, and I can appreciate that writing it can’t have been easy given the church friends he’s had/has, or the way this might affect future publishing opportunities in the Evangelical world. It will certainly make other spheres of influence easier to navigate, particularly the much broader culture outside Evangelicalism, but there will certainly be some cost. Some might cynically say that the timing is suspicious, but I think that would be unfair. It’s clear he’s been chewing on it for a while.

The other thing I really appreciate is that he doesn’t just do the full “conversion to the light” narrative, and run to seeing traditional Christians holding a classic view of marriage as obviously bigoted, or motivated by some deep-seated animus. That’s something many who adopt an affirming stance only recently can’t seem to stop themselves from doing. And I hope, if Huckabee doesn’t change his mind back, that’s something that he’ll influence others to understand as well.

That said, I’ll try to give you what I take to be the heart of Huckabee’s argument, and offer up some assorted criticisms and questions in no particular order. To be clear, for me, the issue in this article is the affirmation of same-sex marriages or relationships as the church, not the State question, which is an interesting and important, but fundamentally distinct issue for another time.

The Main Argument. The heart of Huckabee’s argument, rooted in his reading of Genesis 2, is that the main aim of marriage is not procreation or the propagation of the human race–the relational God is more romantic than that—but rather to deal with the fact that it is not good for man to be alone. Of course, the procreative function is there, but for Huckabee, it is not primary, nor central, nor even necessary to the definition and reality of marriage as an institution or practice. No, Huckabee sees the issue of loneliness as the pressing one in Scripture, and our focus on procreation has misled us on this point. For this reason, we have unfortunately restricted those with same-sex attraction to the position of irredeemable loneliness solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. And Huckabee admits that he can’t do that anymore.

The rest of Huckabee’s arguments, or emotive stories about the way his textbook Bible college theology crumbled in the face of real people’s struggles, are aimed at shoring up that contention.

The first real comment worth making is that his entire argument for the acceptance of gay marriage is premised on the assumption that marriage and sex are the main or only viable relationships to deal with being “alone.” For Huckabee, close friendships, parental relationships, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, extended families, or even the community of God given to us in the church, are just not in view as part of God’s remedy for man being alone. And this is where I think Huckabee’s main argument shows some real inconsistency.

Huckabee rejects that the claim that the narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 gives us the normative standard for marriage as the man/woman pair. Adam and Eve’s obvious, bodily complementarity, highlighted linguistically in the Hebrew pairing “ish/ishah” in the outburst of Adam’s poetry “This at last is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman / because she was taken out of Man” after having Eve plucked from his side (2:23), nor the earlier command in Genesis 1 to be “fruitful and multiply”(1:26-28), nor even the later indications of Torah and Tanakh that marriage and procreative possibility are linked (levirate marriage, Mal.2:15, etc), are relevant. None of these things point Huckabee absolutely to the idea that marriage and the uniting of two to become one flesh is only about a man and a woman. It’s only and primarily about “being alone” and finding someone to fix that problem.

If that’s the case, then why restrict the solution to the problem of “being alone” to the specific relationship of marriage with its spiritual and physical union, just because that’s specifically what happens to occur in the text? In other words, if all these other features of the narrative don’t figure in determinatively as a normative part of the solution to Adam’s “being alone,” why should the sexual union part of it figure in either? Why not just see it as a story of God giving one sexually-non-determinate person another sexually-non-determinate person to be friends with?

I actually think that’s a valid question, in general. Even a traditional reader might affirm the importance of sexual differentiation (all those other feature I just listed) and still note that Adam and Eve together form the basis and beginning of human community in general, which provides a basis for all those other relationships that give humans whole, meaningful lives that don’t have to be spent “alone”, even outside heterosexual marriage.

It is here that Huckabee, like so many of us, has bought into the cultural (and dare I say, “Evangelical youth group”) myth that marriage and sex is the only possible completion of our human experiences of love and wholeness. Ernst Becker pointed out that in the modern period, with the loss of belief in God, we’ve idolized the sexual and romantic Other so that it has become nearly impossible to imagine a full, whole, or even joyful-though-costly life without one. And this conceit I find to be entirely untrue on the basis of Scripture, reason, and not to mention, experience.

While Huckabee worries that the procreative view insults or diminishes those couples experiencing barrenness—which I’d argue it doesn’t—I am quite sure his view ends up diminishing and deeming as lesser the experiences of millions of single, celibate men and women in the Church, both gay and the vast majority who are straight, throughout history down into the present. I refuse to believe the contemporary narrative which sees them as “cursed” by God simply because they don’t have a romantic or sexual partner in this life, something they may even deeply desire. There’s more to be said here, but let’s pass to the next subject.

Scripture and the Meaning of the Body: One of the main themes that comes up is Huckabee’s handling of Scripture and the body. One of the bits that stood out most to me was his handling of the apostle Paul’s thought on the matter. Of course, that’s not a surprise. If you’re going to change your mind on sexuality and marriage, you’re going to have to reckon with Paul’s many statements on the issue.

Some of his responses are fairly common these days. He raised the often-mentioned and often-answered question of whether Paul “knew” about the kinds of gay relationships we’re talking about now, only to assert that we can’t know either way. I think Paul did, but even if he didn’t, it actually wouldn’t matter given the way Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is thoroughly rooted in his reading of Genesis 1-3. But, we can’t settle that out here.

This section was far more interesting to me:

Paul was a bit reserved about marriage to begin with: “To the unmarried and the widows,” he says in 1 Corinthians. “I say it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self control, they should marry.”

This is a rather dim view of sex, which isn’t all that surprising, considering Paul. He seemed hugely unbothered by anything that wasn’t strictly spiritual. I love him for this, but I can’t help but think he would scratch his head at a good deal of the fuss made about marriage in modern Christianity.

Having spent the last 9 months preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students, knee-deep in commentaries on the subject, I must admit I found the comment rather bizarre. What can Huckabee mean by Paul’s preoccupation with “strictly spiritual” matters? Surely not the idea that Paul didn’t care about both body and soul? That’s the point of the argument in 1 Corinthians 5-7. Read any commentary by Thiselton, Hays, or Wright. I mean, heck, in the chapter right before, Paul says to the Corinthians to honor God in your body (6:20). Why? Because resurrection means the body is for the Lord (6:13), to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19), which is why God bought it at a price (6:20). For Paul, you shouldn’t eat idol food because food can be a form of worship, and, indeed, even eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God (10:31). Everything is “strictly spiritual” for Paul.

This brings me to Huckabee’s criticism of Matt Anderson’s massive article on marriage, procreation, and same-sex marriage. As you might guess, central to Anderson’s point is that eros, the romantic love central to marriage, finds its fulfillment in procreation, as the child becomes an icon of the parents’ love. What I find interesting was that Huckabee criticized it as a “crude materialism” that reduces love to “flesh and function.”

That’s a rather odd criticism of Matt’s piece and there are a number of ways’ of responding to it. The one that’s relevant to us comes in view when we connect this criticism to his comments on Paul, as well as his earlier reading of Genesis 1 and 2. When we do this, Huckabee’s critique reveals a rather semi-Gnostic, anti-materialistic view of humanity as body and soul, flesh and spirit, and his failure to appreciate the way the Creator has written a moral and spiritual grammar into the body itself.

For those who chafe at that idea, remember, Christianity is something of a crassly materialistic faith to begin with. God makes dirt. Then he shapes and breathes life into a man out of the dirt. Then he makes a woman from the man. Then, God becomes a man born to a woman as a gendered Jew in the 1st Century. That’s all very materialistic. Again, our two sacraments involve or are analogues of the processes of flesh and function–dunking the body into the waters of death and resurrection, and consuming the broken body and shed blood of the covenant. It should come as no surprise, then, that marriage is an irreducibly physical reality where two become “one flesh” as a biologically and spiritually complementary pair. Here the physicality and the spirituality are two sides of the same coin. The spiritual meaning depends on the physical and vice versa.

In fact, it is precisely this meaning that is at the heart of one of other Pauline texts that Huckabee doesn’t deal with:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32)

As Paul reads Genesis 2, God takes uses the sign of marriage, specifically in its binary, male and female, complementary-flesh-uniting character to point to Jesus’ own love and union with his Bride. And here’s where we come to one of my points: even leaving procreation aside—which I don’t think you should for very long—you can’t alter the pair of man and woman in marriage without altering the grammar, the syntax, the meaning of marriage and it’s God-ordained purpose of pointing to Christ’s saving love for his Church through the “crudely materialistic” processes of “flesh and function.” Childbearing or not, marriage as a sign-post of the gospel is entirely dependent on the sexual grammar of male and female.

Incidentally, can we all agree that anybody with this depth-dimension to their view of physical union can’t have a “dim view” of sex? Instead, Paul gives us a complex view of sex with a double-movement. First, he de-idolizes our sexual desires and reminds us that they are not ultimate, nor devastating if unfulfilled. He is a contented celibate man, just as his single and celibate Lord Jesus was. He too has the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 7:40). Second, he points us to the unique, Christologically-charged meaning of the sexual act and the body that finds its expression in appreciating the glory of sexual difference in marriage. It is precisely such glorious tensions that I love him for.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin, and Loving the Loves of Others. We’ve all heard that phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Nobody actually has a problem with this saying when it comes to something like, say, racism. I mean, think about it. Love the racist, hate the racism, right? Otherwise, what are your options? Love the racist and his racism? Hate the racist and the racism? No. Love the racist and hate his racism seems about the only option, unless you want to go into some other sort of pattern like “love the racist, feel mutely about his racism”, or “love the racist, understand his racism non-judgmentally and be open to a conversation about these things”? Obviously not.

Huckabee says that in this particular case it’s very difficult because the “sin” is part of their identity in such a way that it is categorically different, raising all sorts of problems. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But, I would quickly point out that the gospel is fundamentally about gifting us new identities in Christ. I would say, rather, that in the case of same-sex desires, too often we have accepted the modern mode of identity-construction via sexual desire, which, to my reckoning, is an entirely unbiblical assumption.

Pressing on, Huckabee writes:

But I know that faith, hope and love remain. And the greatest of these is love. And a love that must hold people’s identity at bay is an imperfect love—a love that refuses their own loves. If someone were to say they loved me but saw my own marriage as an affront to God, I would say that that person does not then really love me. I could not abide that sort of love in my life. I just could not.

Huckabee says here that he could not abide the sort of love that refuses to love his loves, to affirm his marriage. But does that really make sense? I know he’s been married for a year, and so he’s thinking in relation to his own marriage, but what if we thought about children? I’m not a parent, but I work with students, and if there’s one reality that I’m acquainted with well about them, it’s that they quite frequently love the wrong thing, person, or persons. Or, they love them in the wrong way. In fact, that’s at the heart of one of our most classic definitions of sin and idolatry: disordered love. In other words, at the heart of sin lies the fact that we often love the wrong things, or we love good things wrongly, with the wrong intensity, aim, or way.

Thirty years ago, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote:

Can love ever be sinful? The entire tradition of Christian doctrine teaches that there is such a thing as inverted, perverted love. Human beings are created for love, as creatures of the God who is Love. And yet that divine appointment is corrupted whenever people turn away from God or love other things more than God.

So, take the mother who loves her children above God. That’s an idolatrous love. That’s a wrong love. Or let’s switch back to romantic loves. Maybe the young man who loves his girlfriend possessively and obsessively. Or the woman who loves the husband of another woman as she ought to love her own. Or, take the case of the disordered love of incest. I don’t mean to say incest and same-sex attraction are the same, but simply to bring up a case we still mostly recognize as wrong in our culture. Brother and sister are supposed to love each other, even passionately. But the problem is that we all sense that it’s not supposed to be in that particular way. Even love that has an appropriate object can be wrong if it’s the wrong sort of love for that object.

Each of these cases is of a love—a real, honest love—we are actually called to, out of love, not love and affirm in its entirety. No, at the proper time and context, if we love the person, we cannot love their loves because they are, in some way, destructive. They are another manifestation of the way that all of our loves have gone wrong this side of Eden.  (Note, I say “in its entirety”, because a man can show tender, thoughtfulness to another man, just as the couple involved in adultery can, excepting the act of involving the other in sin, be quite loving to the other.) But here’s the thing: love can, love does, in fact, at times, love must question our loves.

The fundamental question is, “What has God said about our loves in Scripture?” Remember, this is the God of love who created us, who we rejected for the sake of other, lesser loves, and who yet pursued us in love to redeem and bring us back to himself while we were yet sinners at the cost of his Son’s life (Romans 5:8). We must trust that his love moves him to reveal to us the proper patterns and parameters of marital love. And this is true even when it doesn’t feel like it, as any parent who has ever said no to one of the many destructive loves of their children knows. How much more, then, ought we acknowledge that the Infinitely Wise Creator God knows and loves perfectly, even in a way that our finite and fallen minds may find difficult at times? It is here that our generation has yet to truly struggle with the counter-intuitive love of God.

Have I Considered That I Could Be Wrong? Huckabee closes his confession with a final appeal. He tells us that he knows he could be wrong on this issue. Christians disagree here as they have in other places, and he thinks that God won’t condemn either those who affirm a traditional position or a progressive one in the end. But the question he asks is this: 

However, I do urge you to consider: If you are wrong, what is the cost in the here and now? A life condemning others for something they can’t change about themselves? A life judging love?

That’s the wager. It’s not one I’m willing to make.

I have to admit, I’d hate to be wrong here for that reason, if that’s really the gamble. But is it? First, I’ve already dealt with the “judging love” objection above, and to be clear, the relevant question is not my judgment about love, but God’s. But is it really only the traditionalist like me who has a scary wager to make?

Huckabee quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9, earlier, but he doesn’t manage to connect the dots here:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…

Huckabee asks us to consider the consequences here and now. And those are real, though I think even there Huckabee fails to consider the consequences even here and now if he’s wrong. But still, what about then and there? Do we really want to play the “consider the stakes” game, then? Because the thing Huckabee’s argument doesn’t consider is that you might be telling someone to continue walking unrepentantly in one of the many sins that Scripture says constitutes a rejection of the grace of eternal life. What if God agrees with Paul, the apostle Jesus personally appointed by knocking him off his horse and calling him to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles?  Or the way the Church has been reading him for the last 2,000 years and not a minority of white, wealthy, post-Enlightenment Christians in North America and Europe at the beginning of the 21st Century? What if, right?

See, that is just not a wager I can make.

Wrapping It Up. To sum up, I haven’t actually made full-blown argument for natural or traditional marriage. Nor have I dealt with even half of Huckabee’s concerns, nor even my own. All the same, I think his piece reveals much about the problems we Millennials seem to have with issues concerning the meaning of the body, Scripture, and even the nature of God’s love. I pray that if you’re on the fence on these things—a position I can certainly understand—that this article and analysis help in some way.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those look for more resources, I’d recommend Kevin DeYoung’s book on the matter. Or, for a heavy academic work, Robert Gagnon’s. Or, if you want a more personal meditation, I’d highly recommend Wesley Hill’s thoughtful work. Finally, on the subject of sexual differentiation in marriage, Christopher Roberts’ book is fantastic.

Are You Still ‘Reformedish’?

Cribbing Bavinck

I admit being entirely dependent on him theologically, but, for the record, that photo predates my Bavinck readings.

(Pardon me for the somewhat indulgent, self-referential post that follows. Then again, it is my blog, so that’s a thing. Also, on that note, I’d like to dedicate this post to Matthew Lee Anderson.)

“When are you gonna drop the ‘ish’, and just cop to being ‘Reformed’?” That’s the gist of the challenge I received as I was sitting around chatting theology with some friends last week. I can’t remember exactly what we had been talking about, but after my fifth or sixth time opening a statement with, “Well, Bavinck (Calvin, Turretin, Muller) says…”, apparently enough was enough and an intervention against my terminological obfuscation was called for.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, either. Over the last few years of blogging under the title “Reformedish”, I’ve been growing increasingly Reformed, tended to cite mostly Reformed sources, and written mostly for broadly Reformed publications. Understandably, I’ve had a number of people ask me what all the hesitation is about? Why not just own the term “Reformed”?

Well, there’s a few things to say to that, but first, I figure it’s wise to quote my own earlier explanation of my chosen blog-name:

Why ‘Reformedish’?
The title is an indicator of both my spiritual reality and theological outlook. Also, of the fact that I add “ish” to the end of a lot of words–more than I should really. The spiritual reality is that, while I’ve been saved in Christ through that ridiculous Gospel of grace and am even now being indwelled by the Holy Spirit of God, I am still in serious need of reformation–I am a work in progress. Much grace has been given–more will be needed. This will likely be evident in my writing.

Theologically I’ve become increasingly rooted in the Reformed tradition. I was drawn to this little patch of Christian thought by a few guys: Kevin Vanhoozer, Alvin Plantinga, Tim Keller, and N.T. Wright. They introduced me to their buddy, John Calvin. We’ve been friends ever since. This hasn’t always been the case, though, which means I’m still fairly new to this wing of things. I am not knee-jerk Reformed, nor an expert in the tradition. Consider me an increasingly avid novice. Still, I know that the Christian tradition is a broad and deep one so I try to read outside of what I’ve come to think of as my theological home.

So there are two dimensions. One is spiritual, the other theological and, honestly, I think both still apply. I’m not spiritually reformed by a long shot. Just ask…pretty much anybody I talk to on a daily, weekly, or centennial basis. I still stand in need of quite a bit of reformation. Consider it my own version of Kierkegaard’s unwillingness to call himself a Christian because it was too high a thing.

On the properly theological side, I still feel like I’m fairly new to the Reformed tradition. I’ve read far more now than I had when I started this thing, and can quote far more dead Reformed guys than I could then, but I’m not an expert by a long shot. In which case, I feel rather uncomfortable presenting myself as some sort of authority on “Reformed” theology. I’m not. I mean, I know more than some, but that’s not saying much. The more I read, the more I realize I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the riches of the Reformed tradition. So, yes, I think “Reformedish” is still applicable.

Now, that said, I’d like to be clear that I do own the name “Reformed”, certainly more than I did previously. I mean, I’m certainly not Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Wesleyan, or any of the other venerable theological traditions that get that sort of designation. I also don’t tend to call myself a “Calvinist” as that usually triggers a very specific reference to a narrow set of truths connected to the theology of salvation, instead of the broader panoply of Reformed theological distinctions connected to covenant theology, the sacraments, and so forth. So yes, if you asked me on the street, beyond simply saying “Christian”, or “Protestant”, or “Evangelical”, I’d call myself “Reformed.”

Finally, “Reformedish” is my blog title and I don’t feel like changing because I’m rather loyal. And in any case, it would take way too much work to think of a different name and I’m also kinda lazy like that.

So there you go.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity Podcast: Is there such a thing as Moral Orthodoxy? Heresy?

Mere FidelityWell, after a couple of weeks at the podcasting game, we’ve already changed the name. From now on these conversations on theology, culture, and life will be known as Mere Fidelity, an excellent suggestion from Jordan Ballor. The hope is that as we discuss these issues, those listening will be encouraged to live faithfully as the Church in the world.

Second, here is this week’s episode in which Alastair, Andrew, and I are joined by our website host Matthew Lee Anderson in order to discuss the question of “moral orthodoxy” I raised a couple of weeks ago. With all the conversations swirling around the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy, we think you’ll find it interesting:

As always, thanks for listening. If you find what you hear helpful, please feel free to share this through social media or emails, or nights sitting around the fire listening with your friend. Okay, maybe not that last one.

Beyond that, for those of you who are asking, yes, an iTunes podcast feed is coming. We’re working out the details through SoundCloud, so we thank you for your patience.

Finally, the boys and I all have a deep desire for this to be a blessing to the Church and not just way to rack up clicks or notoriety. To that end we will the Spirit’s empowerment and so we covet your prayers for this new endeavor.

Soli Deo Gloria

The God-Shaped Box of Scripture

cardboard_boxI’ve already reviewed Matthew Lee Anderson’s excellent little book, The End of Our Exploring at Christ and Pop Culture. One of my favorite sections in the work is his critique of clichés in Christian discourse. CThey stop thought, end discussion, and function as a short-cuts to truth that prevent us from actually engaging with the difficult questions involved with God and life.

In the midst of this discussion, he manages to dispatch one particular cliché that, whenever I encounter it, something in me dies just a little:

One of my “favorite” clichés is that we “shouldn’t put God in a box.” That may be true on one level. But what if God has put Himself in a box, like a Scripture-shaped box? What then? Is the problem the box or the shape? If it was a circle-box that were infinitely large, could God fit inside of it? What if we have to be able to say this and not that of something in order to know it? If we say “God doesn’t judge,” does that put God in a box? (Yes, I just dropped one cliché against the other.) If God isn’t in a box, even a Jesus-shaped box, can we know Him? Does God know He lacks a box? Is He able to communicate to His creatures the shape of a box He could fit in? I think the cliché means something like “God is ineffable,” a beautiful word that simply means “beyond speech.” But does God have a language for His own ineffability? Can He teach it to us? That is a barrage of questions, I realize, but they come like a flood every time I hear someone say not to “put God in a box.” I don’t know the answers, but I do know that the cliché short-circuits the process of finding them. The cliché is of the soul-shrinking, mind-denying variety.

The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith, pg. 130

What if God has put himself in a ‘box’ indeed? What if the unknown and unknowable God wants to be known and does something about it like engaging with a particular people throughout history? Maybe he reveals his character through great and mighty acts? Or becomes incarnate and walks among us? Or maybe he does all of those things and has the whole thing written up in Text so that we could know something about him? Is it arrogant to take him at his word? Is it presumptious to say God is X, if God has told us he is X? More importantly, is it presumptious to say, even with the intention of being humble, that we can’t know that God is X, if he has told us he is?

I’m all for proclaiming God’s incomprehensibility and the necessary gap in our knowledge of God. Still, these are some questions to think about before you too quickly complain about putting God in a box–it might be one he chose for himself.

Also, go buy the book.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 Ways Christians Can Disagree About What to Do About Poverty Politically

Disclaimer: Just to clarify, I’m not going to try and put forward any solution, any “true” answer, or definitive position on what Christians ought to be doing about poverty other than working to alleviate it. I’m not arguing for a particular political policy or party, or against a particular policy or party, despite what this may look like. I’m just trying to facilitate calmer, more empathetic, and Christ-like discussions within the Christian community by pointing a few things out.

Christians Should Care About Poverty
povertyLet’s start with the obvious. I don’t know that I really have to argue for this–I hope I don’t–but the Bible is idiot-proof clear that God’s people ought to care for the poor, work to relieve their suffering, help, etc. Depending on who you read, there’s anywhere from 300 to 2000 verses on the poor and justice. I’ll give three from the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels:

Deut. 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

Ps. 140:12. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.

Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read… “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Clearly Jesus wants us to help the poor and he even sees his own mission having to do with that. Christians should want to help the poor–actually, not just want it, think nice thoughts about it, but actually do it. (Jas 2:14-17) The question becomes, “How?”

Typically the least controversial approach is through personal generosity, independent charity groups, and the direct involvement of the church in the fight against poverty. Even minimal historical digging and contemporary research will show that for 2,000 years the church has, for the most part, been known for its charity and benevolence to the most vulnerable in society. In fact, the name “charity” has its origin in the practice of Christian benevolence in connection with the Christian virtue of caritas. I don’t think anybody will argue that the local and global Church shouldn’t be directly helping the poor.

votingTo many Christians (we’ll call them “Group A”) one equally obvious answer is to vote politicians into office who will act legislatively to create programs aimed at helping the poor through various redistribution and assistance programs. It really seems to be the obvious solution. That’s the quickest way to leverage goods and services on behalf of the poor at the national scale. So, when election time rolls around, they look, they read, and think about which party or politician seems most committed towards that end and they do their Christian duty and vote for her/him.

At the same time, there is a significant chunk of Christians (we’ll call them “Group B”) who apparently don’t buy that answer. This actually seems to be a significant chunk of the American church and probably a majority of American Evangelicals. They tend to vote against politicians who favor those sorts of long-term assistance and poverty-related legislation and generally are opposed the large-scale, governmental efforts in this regard–often-times quite passionately. Now, unsurprisingly this sort of voting behavior on the part of Group B leaves Group A scratching its collective head. “I thought Christians were supposed to care about the poor? How could you possibly be opposed to Politician X, or policy Y?”

Three Reasons
What I’d like to do is just quickly point out three reasons (and there could easily be more) why a sane Christian, who has read all those verses about the poor, cares passionately about them, wants to relieve their suffering, and work for justice on their behalf, might still fall into Group B. I’m not necessarily endorsing these views, just trying to explain some of the thought process and logic of it so that Group A doesn’t immediately have to assume bad faith, or a hardness of heart against the poor on the part of Group B. So, here goes:

  1. Church Not Government– The first reason is that they might simply think that poverty-relief is not the job of the government, but rather that of the church. They read the Scriptures, see all of those injunctions to God’s people to care for the poor, and conclude that they are, in general, only for God’s people. The church should be taking care of the poor, working in the inner-cities, creating communities in which sharing is the rule and poverty-alleviating generosity is second nature. The government on the other hand is there to bear the sword, maintain legal justice, ensure the rule of law, and other such functions. In essence, it’s a difference in political theology, in their understanding of the role that God has ordained for the government and for the church. Some Group B Christians think that voting in extended-duration welfare-style legislation is a sort of unwarranted outsourcing, and maybe even an excuse for negligence on the part of the church in their call to serve the poor. The point is not to ignore the poor, but help them in the way they think God has called them.
  2. Government Okay But Ineffective– Another line of thinking might not make that sharp distinction between the church’s job and the state’s job, but might simply find the government ineffective at doing that job. This one shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Basically, the logic is that it’d be fine if the government helped out, but by and large it isn’t very good at doing that. In fact, often-times when you compare the effectiveness of government-run programs and that of church or independent non-profits, they just don’t line up well. Group B might cite cycles of dependence, the destruction of social structures, and various other side effects that are said to accompany government intervention. Now, this isn’t necessarily a specifically Christian way of thinking, but rather a pragmatic one that a Christian might be persuaded of. Again, the issue here is not whether Group B cares about the poor, but what they think will actually help the poor.
  3. Government But Not that Policy– This third reason is really kind of a special version of the second. You might find Christians who actually think that the government has a role to play in combating poverty, a strong one in fact, but still think that certain policies currently touted as main planks of a poverty-combating platform to be faulty and harmful. The recent big one I can think of is the Affordable Care Act. Now, correct or not, I know people who generally think the government should be involved in this sort of thing, actually want health care reform, but simply thought the Act was/is a bad way to go about it–that it might actually be detrimental in some respects. They want the poor to get health care, good health care, but they think this Act doesn’t do it in a sustainable or helpful fashion and so their opposition to it is, in fact, motivated precisely because of their concern for the poor. There are probably other examples, but this was the obvious one.

I fully acknowledge at this point that there are likely many Christians in Group B who don’t vote the way they do for these reasons, but rather for very selfish reasons unconnected to any principled theological concerns. (Actually, I’m planning on writing a post about reasons Christians should never use for opposing poverty legislation soon.) Still, these are three possible, plausible, non-poor-hating reasons for being a Group B Christian.

Now at this point you might be thinking this was one big apology for Christians voting conservative and Republican and really just a stealth argument against Democrats. You’re free to go ahead and think that. I mean, that’s not what I’m doing, but I have no control over your mental habits. Once again, in order to compensate for my incompetence as a communicator or the sheer perversity of some readers, I’m just trying to point out that there are processes of thought by which someone might arrive at a Group B voting pattern, while still having read all those verses about poverty with an aim to obey them.

Of course, it may be that all three of those stances are flawed whether in their approach to the scriptures, their understanding of the pragmatic situation, or their judgment about particular pieces of legislation. Who knows? Maybe the Affordable Care Act really is a great plan. (Please don’t argue either for or against in the comments. It’s not that I don’t care, but I kinda don’t for the purposes of this blog.) All I’m trying to do is ensure that Christians in Group A don’t immediately assume or accuse Christians in Group B of not caring about the poor. Instead, you should work to engage them theologically about the role of the government, or informationally about real effects about various programs or policies.

And really, it’s not even just this issue. Generally-speaking, assuming bad faith motives like “they just hate the poor”, as the only possible reason someone might disagree with you politically, or in any other area, is generally not a winning strategy, either for understanding or communicating. I guess what I’m trying to foster, in my own inadequate way, is the intellectual empathy Matthew Lee Anderson’s been talking about lately. If we’re going to have a real conversation about any of this, especially in the body of Christ, we need to be able to at least try to understand where the other person is coming from, even if you still end up thinking they’re wrong.

Well, this blog’s too long already and I don’t know how to end it so there.

Soli Deo Gloria