Love and Relationship: Some Insights into Progressive Theology

If you’ve ever been out of your depth, then you’ll know how I felt several months ago, attending a theological conference whose starting points were deeply entrenched in progressive ideology. The people were friendly, the discourse was generally courteous, but I found myself holding little sympathy for the presuppositions and arguments of my fellow attendees. It was an odd experience, but probably a good one, because I think it’s really important to try to understand what makes other people tick.

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One moment, in retrospect, has given me quite a lot to think about. Some scholars had presented a paper, and in that paper there was a footnote which casually noted, without argument, that gay and lesbian desires were critically different from other sexual desires for things like adultery. The paper itself had little to do with these issues, but this kind of thinking was generally assumed all around, part of the progressive baggage of the conference, par for the conference course. One more traditionally minded attendee, however, chose to ask a question at this point focusing on that footnote. He pressed the presenters to clarify their casual and undefined distinction between types of sexual behaviour, which would condone one kind of sexual activity (homosexuality) while condemning another (adultery). The instant he asked his question the whole room changed. I could feel the tension visibly rise, heads shook in disbelief, a woman behind me began grumbling angrily not-quite-under-her-breath, and the cheerful congeniality of assumed liberality was swept away in sudden righteous indignation.

Another attendee offered a response, and it is her response that has stayed with me these past months. She posited that the difference between adultery and homosexual relationships is that “while marriage builds relationships, adultery breaks them.” This was met with general and widespread affirmation, and as a result the tension decreased, heads nodded in agreement, there were murmurs of assent, and the ordering of progressive assumptions had been restored for the moment. Here, I realized, is a crucial piece of logic which appears to be generally adopted by progressive-minded Christians. Naturally, I wanted to dissect it more.

underachievementdemotivator

One of my favourite demotivators, reminding me of the importance of keeping my head down.

As far as I can tell the basic premises of her logic appear to be as follows:

Premise 1: God is love.

Premise 2: Love is manifested in relationships.

Premise 3: Things that build relationships are good.

Premise 4: Things that break relationships are bad.

It seems to follow, then, that since sexuality is an expression of human desire for relationship, homosexual unions—i.e., marriages—must be good because they build relationships, which manifest love, of which God is the image. This is how adultery can be distinguished from homosexuality, because the one breaks relationship (violating God’s nature), while the other builds it (honoring God’s nature).

If, as my limited experience seems to attest, this is the logic that operates among many progressive Christians, then it makes sense of a few things. First, it explains why, for them, monogamy is used as justification for homosexuality. If the essence of marriage is found not in biology but in a concept of “committed, covenantal relationship,” then homosexual unions must be good if they are committed and covenantal. The argument makes it feel as if arguing against homosexual marriage is to argue against marriage itself, and how can you argue against that? Second, it provides a clear example of a kind of ‘Bible within the Bible’ thinking where, basically, the love commands of the New Testament trump all other laws and regulations. Beyond even this, the love commands trump the ethical teaching of the New Testament itself. Since we know that God is Love, we can use that knowledge to make judgments about all other ethical behaviors in the present, homosexual love inclusive.

Love wins 3

 

There are lots of problems with this kind of thinking. In another post I plan to spend more time with the question of ‘Bible within Bible’ (AKA, Progressive Revelation). There is also a significant problem regarding the definition of terms—what justifies the above definitions of “love” and of “marriage”? These terms have been insufficiently queried, but I don’t intend to home in on those today. Instead, today I want to focus solely on the statement I heard at the conference, that, in essence, what builds relationship is good, and what breaks it is bad.

First of all, is it true that everything that “builds relationship” is good? Let’s consider some cases. What if I profess a love for (consensual) degrading sex acts, where sexual pleasure is experienced in proportion to the level of degradation? If such a relationship is consensual, and monogamous, but degrading to the Imago Dei, can it still be a good? Or what if I profess a love for sex (consensual) with underage boys? Moreover, what if I am ‘monogamous’ in such a sexual relationship? If the concepts of ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ in a blanket sense cover each of these types of relationship, then we retain no ground from which to proscribe certain ‘loves.’

Nambla banner

Nambla is an actual organization that advocates to legalize “consensual” adult-child sexual relationships.

Alternatively, think of the following case: imagine a husband and wife in monogamous marriage. However, the husband has become convinced that he wishes to invite another woman into the relationship, thus shifting into polygamy. His motives are based on an ethic of love—I love you (wife 1), and I love you too, (wife-to-be 2), and I think that the three of us together will increase our love. The polygamous marriage, by increasing the love-quotient in the relationships, should be a relationship-building good. However, might it not follow that if wife 1 refuses to enter into the polygamous relationship, then she becomes the culpable party, choosing a sinful rejection of relationship rather than the polygamous building of relationship?

There’s more. Isn’t it the case that sin also “creates relationships”? If I commit adultery, I may have broken a relationship with my wife, but at the same time I’ve also created a relationship with another woman. In fact, in any situation where I wrong someone, haven’t I generated a relationship with that person—however decrepit? If I sire children and abandon them, don’t we still have a ‘relationship’ even if it is one rooted in my own selfish sinfulness? If I economically exploit a poor person, do I not have a ‘relationship’ with that person, even if it is unjust by nature? If a given act of sin creates relationship, then it cannot be the case that all things that build relationships are good. In fact, in many of these cases that which breaks the relationship is in fact the greater good.

Rich Man and Lazarus_Eugene Burnard

Injustice binds the rich man and Lazarus together in relationship.

In each of these cases, the concept of love has been divorced from any meaningful reference points (whether historical or scriptural) and applied to the modern world as a sign of divine approval. But the fact remains that without some concept of ordered loves, we won’t be able to tell the pedophile that he is wrong, nor he who is pleased when God’s image is violated for his pleasure, nor, for that matter, the individuals who want to commit adultery and ‘break’ relationships on the basis of love found elsewhere, or love lost in the original relationship. What, in such a situation, is the benefit of a ‘monogamous covenant’? If love adjudicates all ethical matters, lack of love becomes justification for any number of wrongs. And the crucial fact is this: unless we have a way to distinguish between good and bad loves, and unless we have a way to distinguish between godly and forbidden relationships, we have no grounds whatsoever to proscribe any relationships or any loves, however reprehensible. Love cannot be its own justification, without definition and qualification, without falling into an inevitable, slippery slope of relational chaos.

And to this, I find myself asking: If only there were a place where we could locate, and study, such a definition…

Of Orlando and the Ordering of Love

Boiled down, the primary issue between the LGBTQ community and the Church is not a matter of sexuality but of love—of the definition, the rights, the responsibilities, and above all the ordering, of love.

caution-out-of-order-sign-1045The central problem in the LGBTQ community is one of disordered love. The central witness of the Christian Church is a call to ordered love. The ongoing confusion in the Church’s formal response to the LGBTQ community is in its failure to properly disambiguate love. Quite naturally, we ought to anticipate conflict where a group anchored in ordered love comes into contact with a group espousing disordered love. But the elements of confusion and outright deception thrive when the Christian fails to comprehend the complexity of his own loves. No one is served well when we fail to understand love.

This confusion was on clear display in the aftermath of Omar Mateen’s furious June 12th rampage at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, to which vocal outpourings of Christian support flowed. Hasty judgments affixed blame on the Christian Church for the shooting (Mateen was in fact Muslim), then on ISIS (he shouted allegiance to that group at one point), and by proxy on all who oppose the LGBTQ agenda (specifically, religions). Time, however, revealed a different story, and in point of fact the shooter was himself a patron of the club, and reports indicate that he himself engaged in homosexual sex. Whatever the causes that led to this horror, they were far more complex than anyone perceived at first, and yet the kneejerk activity of the Christian world produced a bleak poverty of reflective response, a plethora of shibboleth solidarity, and a profound failure to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). In haste to show a certain kind of love—civil solidarity—Christians failed to acknowledge the complexity of what we mean by love.

A community which espouses disordered love loves the wrong things in the wrong ways. Put differently, to live out disordered love means that some good love (in this case, sexual love), is placed in a position of priority over other loves. In this circumstance, sexuality is crowned king and made to rule all other loves. The Christian witness claims that sexual love, an implicit and God-given good, is meant to serve other loves, not rule them. The love of God receives the position of authority, and all sexual love must be brought into subservience to that love. This is the primary point of conflict between the LGBTQ agenda and the Christian faith.

Pyramid_Kheops

You have to have the right part at the base, or the rest of the structure will fail.

Disordered love renders the fulfillment of love impossible. A person who places a false love at the centre of life is incapable of achieving fulfillment. She might achieve ecstasy, or a feeling of temporary euphoria, or a sense of liberation, but in time all false loves will degrade to despair. Disordered love also warps perception, because a single love misplaced distorts other loves. This accounts for the excessive role that acceptance and affirmation play in the LGBTQ community. Idolizing sexuality as central to identity—to such a degree that there is little identity apart from sexuality—generates the all-or-nothing need for acceptance. If all you are is your sexuality, and someone questions your sexuality, then that person has actually questioned all that you are; there is no other part to you that can be questioned. In disorder you have collapsed your identity into a single facet. Acceptance in time becomes the single greatest demand, because the LGBTQ individual has wagered his whole identity on the affirmation of this disordered love. Deny him that love and you have denied his existence.

Such high stakes highlight the necessity of extreme care when the Church addresses the LGBTQ community. At the same time, the implicit danger of affirmation is that to extend friendship, or “solidarity,” can be taken as complete and unequivocal acceptance. LGBTQ individuals are persons who, desperately hungry for love, have adopted strategies that actively remove them from the fulfillment of love. The Church contributes to this inevitable and eventual despair when it fails to account for the deeper need. When the Church offers unconditional acceptance it contributes to the destruction of souls. In a tragic way, to offer “affirmation” or “acceptance” to a self-identified LGBTQ person is like offering beer to a recovering alcoholic. The drug will fail to resolve the addiction.

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The break fractures perception.

In a letter on the 18th of February, 1954, C.S. Lewis wrote the following about disambiguating our loves,

Charity means love. It is called Agapë in the N.T. to distinguish it from Eros (sexual love), Storgë (family affection), and Philia (friendship). So there are 4 kinds of ‘love’, all good in their proper place, but Agapë is the best because it is the kind God has for us and is good in all circumstances. (There are people I mustn’t feel Eros towards, and people I can’t feel Storge or Philia for: but I can practise Agape to God, Angels, Man & Beast, to the good & the bad, the old & the young, the far and the near.)

The Christian is called to express charity (Agape) to all persons—this is the love that most clearly images God’s love. And yet, Lewis warns, we must not exhibit Eros or Philia toward the world, if only because “friendship with the world is enmity toward God” (James 4:4). This tension raises two difficulties in loving others well. The first trouble in communicating Christian love to non-Christians is to love without friendship, to love without approval or allegiance, to love without an affiliation of causes; to love both wisely and with discernment. This requires a commitment to extend God’s love to an individual while acknowledging that our aims are fundamentally different; so different, in fact, that we have no concord or relationship whatsoever in our ideals or aims; that, in point of fact, I hold your ideals and aims to be foundationally inimical to the Kingdom of God. This is, decidedly, a love that does not affirm.

The second trouble lies in articulating what is meant by loving with God’s divine, Agape love. How are we meant to go about Agape-ing people? God, who is Love, must Himself be the defining arbiter of the meaning of love; we look to Him to discover the meaning of Agape. But this brings us to a discomforting place, because the love of God exhibits itself most clearly in an act of horror and rejection—Agape is cruciform. God is Love, and Love is a cross, and therefore Love somehow contains judgment, death, and punishment. The Love of God is not an act of uncritical acceptance, but acceptance at great personal cost, acceptance which demands acknowledgement, change, and submission on the part of the recipient. This is the fundamental—even crucial—place where our loves are ordered. We come to God with self in priority, and love of self regnant; we submit at the cross to the love of God, crucifying the self and self-love, and allowing God’s self-giving love to take the throne. Thus, salvation is free but demanding once received, and acceptance of God’s true Love generates hatred of the unlovely. Ordered love hates the usurping love which seeks to drag the soul back into corruption and despair.

St_George

In the story of St. George and the Dragon, the Dragon is actually the body, brought into submission to God’s way.

Orthodox Christianity can not, does not, must not, never has, and never will affirm the LGBTQ lifestyle, and any who do so but claim to follow Christ have compromised on the central witness of the Christian faith. They worship the god of love, but he is a god of their own manufacture, because his love is defined by their loves. Their expressions of love are idolatrous because they elevate their human perceptions of love in priority over God’s self-revelation of love. They have projected upon God their own perceptions, their own follies, and to them God says, “You thought that I was altogether like you” (Psalm 50:21). They are disordered in their thinking, and the result is confusion and eventual despair. They claim to follow God, but know Him not. They claim to love but have rejected the cross.

Returning to Orlando—but not Orlando because it is a matter for the world—what does it look like to love the LGBTQ community? How do you love without affirming? How do you offer an open door without acceptance? Three guidelines might help:

First, the difficulty of the Christian witness must be acknowledged. Christian love cuts against the grain of the world’s love. These loves are not the same, and the Church does neither the world, nor itself, a service when it confuses its commitments to love. Faithful Christianity is a difficult thing difficultly upheld. A commitment to orthodoxy is never easy. Christians must therefore resist the urge to affirm what should not be affirmed, to accept what must not be accepted.

Second, Christians must faithfully order our own loves so that our witness will not be compromised. If Agape is truly our call, then we must exhibit it in visibly cruciform living. The logs in our own eyes must be faithfully expunged as we approach our neighbors for the logs and specks in theirs.

Third, Christians must carefully strive to know our truths and understand our own hearts. Jeremiah proclaims that “the heart is deceitful above all else” (17:9). Unchecked, we will allow our passions to influence our commitment to truth. Love is more pain than pleasure, and commitment to truth is never accommodation. God’s truth is unchanging, God’s love is unchanging, but we, when we fail to seek both of these, fall short of our call to be images of God in the world, and in the worst case we become deceivers, even of the elect.

2 Peter 1 and the Furnishing of Faith

This is an exact replication of Peter's likeness.

This is an exact replication of Peter’s likeness.

This past summer I attended a pastor’s conference where one of the keynote speakers spent several of his sessions preaching from the text of 2 Peter 1. His goal, as best I could tell, was to speak about the moral formation of pastors, and he was using the list of characteristics in 2 Peter 1:5-9 toward this purpose. In case you are unfamiliar with that list, the NIV renders that passage as follows:

5For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

I confess a few problems. Three to be precise. First, is that of all the New Testament books, 2 Peter is the most likely candidate for, shall we say, lack of authenticity. Many scholars don’t believe that Peter had a hand in writing this letter, and there are a number of reasons for this. For example, a large section of the book is exactly copied in Jude, which means either that Jude was written first and Peter borrowed from him, or that Peter wrote and Jude borrowed. Either way, it’s a little troubling. For another matter, the business where Peter defends both Scripture (1:19-21) and Paul (3:15-16) feels a little strained. It is only later, inauthentic books that attempt to shore up their own authority with these kinds of claims. That isn’t to suggest that 2 Peter doesn’t belong in the Bible, but only that we have to read it with some special attention.

My second problem with 2 Peter 1 is that I find this list a little tiresome and daunting. Whenever I hear it I feel a kind of undue pressure. Does this mean that in addition to all the other ethical practices I am meant to keep—the Sermon on the Mount, the Fruits of the Spirit, and so forth—that this metric of adding to virtue A virtue B, and to virtue B virtue C and so forth is the way forward in faith? Something about the math of the matter leaves me sour, especially the sense that in order to get to love as a quality I have to accomplish tasks A, B, C, D, and E. This seems like a contradiction to the witness of Scripture elsewhere. Third and finally, the conference speaker wasn’t particularly good, and although he was very enthusiastic the level of his energy, this, combined with the relative poverty of his insights, left me feeling rather dry and nonplussed in the audience. His interpretation of 2 Peter 1, in other words, did not incite me to greater moral formation.

Reader's Greek Bible

I carry this with me at all times, just in case.

So, as is often the case, while he preached I opened my Greek Bible and began to work my way through the text in question. What I found in 2 Peter 1—as is often the case when I attend to the original Greek text—opened my eyes and encouraged my faith. Let me see if I can share the same encouragement with you.

The message of 2 Peter begins in verse 3 and the first paragraph runs through verse 11. Other translations do an injustice when they break the paragraph into pieces—the whole section from verse 3 to 11 is really one thought. Permit me to offer (or maybe even forgive me for this) my own translation here. Things may sound a little wooden because I am being intentionally literal. Also, please note that the words in bold are directly repeated words and ideas in the Greek text. Peter writes,

Since all things of His divine power—the things for life and for reverence—have been given to us through the knowledge of the one who calls us to His own glory and goodness (through whom the honorable and great promises have been given, in order that through these things you might share fellowship with the divine nature, escaping from corruption in the world’s desires)—now, regarding this very thing, making making every effort in all haste, supply in your faith goodness, and in goodness knowledge, and in knowledge self-control, and in self-control obedience, and in obedience reverence, and in reverence brotherly love, and in brotherly love love. For these things are possessions to you and increasing, making nothing idle or fruitless for the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For in the person for whom these things have not come, he is blind and shortsighted, holding forgetfulness of purification from his old sins. Wherefore more, brothers, hasten to make secure your calling and election, for doing these things you will never ever stumble. For thus access will be richly supplied to you for the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

One of the funny things about the Greek language that make it difficult to translate into English is the way it uses verbs. In any given sentence you can have one main verb with a whole host of attached clauses—the trick is that the main verb doesn’t always have to be at the beginning. In the passage above, the first main verb we get is in verse 5, were Peter commands us to “supply.” That means that the whole of the first two verses are clauses explaining this action of supplying. What this means is that we can neatly summarize the main idea of the passage as follows: since all things of the Divine power have been given, therefore supply the following to your faith. Because of verses 3 and 4, perform the command of verse 5. The grammar points to the importance of verses 5-7.

As I looked closer at verses 5-7, however, more of my curiosity was aroused. The preposition used between each element is en, meaning ‘in’ or ‘within.’ This seems like an odd choice to translate as “to” since there are other Greek prepositions that can mean “to” (such as eis or even epi). That made me want to look up the translation options for the word which the NIV translated “add,” but which I have translated “supply” above. In Greek, that word is epicoregeo, and other immediate options for translation are “provide” “give” “grant” and “support.” This range of options warranted some further digging, and what I found was this—the primary meaning of the word is to “supply” or “furnish,” and its special usage is the action of a husband providing for his wife. This discovery piqued my interest.

I looked at other occurrences of the word in the New Testament, and more things came together for me. Of these (there are 5 total, including the two in our passage above), Paul’s use of the word in Galatians 3:5 was especially arresting. Paul writes, “So then, does He who furnishes you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” What a concept! The Church, who is the bride of Christ, has been supplied (epicoregeo) by the Spirit. Taking from the special usage of the word, Paul is implying that the Spirit is like the support offered by God to we who are His Bride. He is our deposit, our household expense account, if the image is not too irreverent.

Concentric CirclesWith a fresh understanding of the word “supply” and its possible implications, I returned to 2 Peter 1 and reread the list. Things then began to shift. This is not a list of ethical addition at all. My faith is not a matter of adding x to y and to z in order to achieve love. Instead of addition, the dominant image is one of concentric circles. Faith is the overall picture, the biggest circle, but at the centre of that circle is love itself. The action of “supplying,” then, is the action making provision for the needs of my faith through these qualities. So, within my faith I supply goodness, and within goodness I supply knowledge, and within my knowledge I supply self-control, and within my self-control I supply obedience, and within my obedience I supply reverence, and within my reverence I supply brotherly love, and at the absolute centre of my being, the heart-of-hearts from which I operate all my faith, I am to supply love. The progression of my ethics is not adding action to action, but of a sanctified centre working outwards through all my behavior. The Christian life, in other words, is not a matter of adding qualities to attain to love, but of centering your life on love and then growing into these other qualities.

Suddenly, this passage in 2 Peter which had seemed obscure and, quite frankly, a little difficult, resolved into a clear message of Christian ethics. God is calling us into His Divine nature—to participation in His image and likeness. How are we commanded to respond to that call? By placing love at the centre of our lives, furnishing our faith with it as a husband furnishes living arrangements for his bride. If we reject this process, we are blind, shortsighted, and forgetful of our salvation.

My little Greek study made the conference more enjoyable. It overturned my previous thoughts on this passage. And it even began to change my perception of the second letter of Peter as being something of a fringe text. Indeed, read this way it would appear that the message of 2 Peter 1:3-11 is at the very centre of the Christian ethical life.