This week’s DOMA hearings have prompted the Evangelical blogbuddies to gird their loins and defend the ranks of the faithful few; that is, those who have not “rejected the faith of historic, orthodox Christianity,” even when all others (including many apparently poser-Christians) just didn’t have the stamina. Joe Carter, blogger for the Gospel Coalition, has graciously reminded his fellow believers that even in the face of conflict, such orthodoxy is worth fighting for.
The only problem is that it doesn’t exist.
At least, that is, not as Carter is presenting it. He would have his audience believe (and, I can attest, much of it does, my former self included) that Christianity is an eternal and monolithic entity, whose doctrine and practices—what’s important or central about them—has remained unchanged since the Pentecost. Now, it is quite clear that the doctrine and practices of the Christian church today (in all its forms) have been inherited from some form of historic Christianity, but the real questions here are how much of it, and which parts.
For example, many Christian churches today would affirm the Nicene Creed (though there’s some debate about the “c” in “catholic”), whether or not it is affirmed weekly in their worship. Creedal points like the coeternality of all three persons of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection of the Dead (among others) have been proclaimed and celebrated by Christians throughout the centuries. But Carter’s blog post argues not simply that Christianity has maintained its heritage through these broad strokes, but also in some of its finer points, such as the role of Scripture, down to even the most minute, like the definition of idolatry and (for Carter) by extension, marriage.
Don’t get me wrong here: the Bible has been a very important part of the Christian church in almost all of its forms, but claims to inerrancy (not only the term, but also the concept) are a relatively new, and therefore relatively late, conviction of certain churches. For example, Augustine believed the Bible was an authority, but that its authority and (most importantly) its interpretation was given by the Church, which stood as the greater authority. Evangelicals today argue that he had it backwards, that the Bible should be judge over the church. My point is not to take sides in this debate, but to note that such a debate exists: not over some ‘secondary’ doctrine, but over the source of that very doctrine with which we begin.
Carter accuses many American believers of having “exchanged the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for the God of faux-love, cultural acceptance, and open theism.” Presumably, he excludes the Gospel Coalition from this accusation, but his selection of American Christianity’s failings is revealing. It seems to escape Carter that he has communicated via blogging (vs. say, an encyclical), or that Evangelicalism/the Mega Church movement has succumbed to the American culture of the commodification of everything—from flashy book deals (have you seen some of those covers?), to sermon-series and conferences that look like corporate ad-campaigns (does it matter if people fill your pews for the same reasons they purchased Coke over Pepsi—something sexy told them to?), to worship session rock-concert-laser-light-shows (guitar solos for Jesus). There are many more examples that could be employed, and my goal here is not to condemn the Evangelical church, but only to make clear that it, too, is largely affirming of the culture and ethos of 21st century America. We cannot lament that “what is considered sin changes based on the fickle attitudes of Americans” while wearing swimsuits that make the 1920s blush and clothing made in southeast Asian sweatshops. Christianity, like the cultures in which it takes form, is tradition that, like all traditions, changes.
The problem, then, is not that Evangelicalism has failed to resist American culture, but that it pretends that it has resisted. It pretends that it has not surrendered to the “the secular liberal-libertarian conception of freedom” while picking and choosing those Biblical commands which ought to be followed, and those which can be safely ignored. We can endorse our neighbors’ decisions about divorce and remarriage, we can support companies that make a profit exploiting the poor, or wear braids in our hair and jewelry around our necks . God didn’t really mean those ones.
I take issue with Carter (and much of the Evangelical church) not for simply taking a stand, but for taking a stand on this issue while refusing to ask the harder questions. If today’s church affirms marriage as God has always ordained it, why is its position on divorce so similar to that of 21st century America? Why does the ordained, marital sexual relationship look so much more like the one displayed in our pornographic culture than those of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” If Carter is right that marriage proposed by “the God of the Bible, a God that is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” has always been amenable to a “clear and concise definition” (which he does not provide), why does it often look so different from Evangelical conceptions of marriage today? Why does Jacob get two wives? Why does God “give” Saul’s wives to David (2 Sam 12:8)? Why does Peter consider the marital relationship analogous to that between slaves and masters (1 Pet 3) or that between Christ and the church (Eph 5)? Surely, even the more complementarian marriages endorsed by mainstream Evangelicalism today do not function with such radically unequal modes of authority and submission.
The point of all of this is that marriage, like Christianity, has never been a monolithic, eternal entity (or even concept) that transcends the movements of cultures throughout time. In fact, one of the few things we might be able to call ‘unchanging’ about the Christian tradition is its very ability to change—to adapt and evolve—and this is a very good thing. A Christianity that can meet the needs of its surrounding society (think Jesus eating with the sinners despite the protestation of the Pharisees, or Paul’s being weak to save the weak) is a Christianity that has shown up in its own, individuated ways, under different sets of particular circumstances; and it is a Christianity that will continue to show up a little bit differently every time. My Christianity is in some ways similar, but in some ways radically different than the faith of Augustine, whose practice of Christianity was different than Calvin’s, whose is different even than Paul’s. And this is not something the church should try to hide. But this is a Christianity (yes, one among many forms) that I want to be a part of.
I am not, and cannot be, a member of the unchanging stream of historic, orthodox Christianity, because such a thing does not exist. I am a Christian that affirms the radical love of Jesus Christ, who defended the weak and stood up for the oppressed in the face of all the protesting by the surrounding religious elite. I am but one piece, one thread, of a tradition that, praise Jesus, has been adapting and evolving since the minute it began. And thus, I don’t need to make a theology that claims to be identical with 2000 years of a tradition. I am not a Christian of the past 2000 years. I am a Christian in the 21st century.
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