Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Chris Broussard, Jason Collins, and Assessing Genuine Christianity


[For my initial reflections on this matter, see here]

Buried deep beneath the surface of the recent media hullabaloo over the self-"outing" of NBA center Jason Collins is Collins' own claim to be a Christian. Such a claim runs counter to the opinion of many, including ESPN commentator (and Christian) Chris Broussard, who has been roundly condemned by the secular public (and segments of American Christianity as well) for the following comments he made on air about the issue:

Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly, like premarital sex between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, whatever it maybe, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. So I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the bible would characterize them as a Christian.
Even a generation ago, such comments wouldn't have rustled the leaves of public opinion, let alone sparked the outrage that has led such organizations as and (allegedly) Faithful America to call for Brouusard's suspension because of his "hateful" opinion. Of course, that was a time before the politics of gender identity and sexuality gathered momentum to the point where they now outpace the science they assume validates their views and which, by the way, needs to be taken into consideration by many of those with more "traditional" views on the matter.

Collins, however, cites his own Christian upbringing as influential in developing his own worldview:
I’m from a close-knit family. My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding. On family trips, my parents made a point to expose us to new things, religious and cultural. In Utah, we visited the Mormon Salt Lake Temple. In Atlanta, the house of Martin Luther King Jr. That early exposure to otherness made me the guy who accepts everyone unconditionally.
In the wake of Broussard's commentary, many self-identified Christians have tripped over themselves in the rush to condemn Broussard condescendingly ("Those benighted evangelical traditionalists ...") and lend their support to Collins for his "courage" in outing himself. In the Washington Post, twelve Christian leaders, among them the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson, opined that it's "okay to be gay and a Christian." Such opinions as those shared by Broussard, it is alleged, "[misrepresent] the ever widening nature of the gospel of Christ, who engaged with those on the margins, and placed in leadership people who were not powerful by worldly standards." They rejoiced that Collins now "has the freedom to be faithfully and authentically himself with the world," and expressed the prayer that "God will open the eyes of Chris Broussard and help him mature in his faith." As they continue their major perspective shines forth brightly:
May Broussard see that Christianity is not a faith that is closed off to those who are different from him, but one that continually expands, reaching out to the neighbor and the stranger, sharing the good news. We encourage Broussard to listen with humility to LGBT Christians, their lives and stories. It is through listening that we learn."
Meanwhile, over at the Huffington Post, the openly gay UCC minister Emily Heath, while acknowledging Broussard's right to express his opinions, lamented that Broussard, in effect, invalidated the faith of, not only Collins, but of innumerable people like her. According to Heath, it's not for him to decide who is and who is not a Christian: "what I am sure of is that Jason Collins should be the one defining his own faith, and not Chris Broussard." She continues:
For most of us who are gay and Christian, we understand that some Christians believe we are "living in sin." We also understand that our faith does not hinge on their acceptance. While people like Broussard believe we are "walking in open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ," we are pretty sure that we are actually living as the people God created us to be. And so, really, it doesn't matter much whether or not Chris Broussard has seen fit to "characterize" us as Christian. That's not his call.
Even straight Christians got into the act. At the Huffington Post, Presbyterian minister Richard Brand reminded us of the commonplace observation that "Jesus himself said absolutely nothing about homosexuality." Anyway, such a strict attitude about matters of sexual morality is, in Brand's view, somewhat beside the point:
Jesus seemed to be much more concerned about our relationship with each other, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and those in prison, caring for the widows and children, giving our wealth to the needy, than he was about strict rules and obedience to some rigid rituals.
Finally, over at Red Letter Christians, Kathy Vestal announced that we should all be "proud" of Jason Collins, not for being gay, but "for being courageous enough to put his own life on the line in the hopes of making tomorrow just a little better for someone else."

At bottom the issue is one of definition. What does it mean to be a Christian? Is anyone in a position to define the requirements so as to exclude others who may desire to be labeled as a Christian? For many, like Rev. Heath, the answer to the latter question is a clear "No." It is for each of us to define our "faith" on our own terms. For most of Collins's lionizers, however, there appears to be a tacit understanding that being a Christian simply means accepting Jesus' teachings, though the scope of those teachings seems to be tendentiously circumscribed. Collins himself points to Jesus' teachings on "tolerance and understanding." The signers of the article in the Washington Post point to Jesus' practice of welcoming the marginalized. Brand speaks of Jesus' ethic of love, manifest in the treatment of the poor, as relativizing such matters as "strict rules." And, lying just underneath the surface of the discussion is the subtext that Jesus' gospel frees people to be the people they were "created" to be, people who would remain oppressed if traditional ways of thinking were perpetuated.

Of course, such thinking allows for a lot of leeway in defining who is a Christian.  And that certainly serves the agendas of those who would like to marginalize large swaths of the Christian canon, particularly liberal Protestantism's bête noire, St. Paul. The New Testament, however, is hardly as nebulous as they would like. Simply put, a Christian is a disciple of Christ (Acts 11:26). Being such, according to the church's earliest tradition, involves both commitment to Jesus and persevering adherence to the well-defined theological content of what the New Testament authors refer to as the "gospel" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). At bottom, as St. Paul writes elsewhere, a Christian is one who confesses that Jesus is the risen Lord (Romans 10:9-10). Such commitment, however, carries with it demands that cannot simply be shunted off to the side and conveniently ignored. Our Lord himself said:
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” (Luke 6:46-49, NIV)
Over the years I have taken a lot of heat for pointing out how American Christians to my right have failed to grasp the implications of living by what Scot McKnight has called "The Jesus Creed" (i.e., love God and one's neighbor). The point likewise applies to those Christians on my left. Love is indeed the mark of the Christian. And love for one's neighbor certainly entails sacrifice for the poor and marginalized. But such concerns for love and social justice cannot legitimately be played off against the so-called moral demands of the Torah. Rev. Brand implicitly lumps people like Broussard together with the Pharisees, those "nitpickers" who ignored the prophetic call for mercy in the interests of strict law-keeping (e.g., Matt 9:13). Elsewhere, however, Jesus tells his disciples to "observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell you" (Matt 23:1-3) because of their scrupulous desire to obey the very Torah Jesus came to "fulfill" (Matt 5:17), and whose imperatives he proceeded to intensify in terms of a radical focus on the inward dimension of its demands (Matt 5:21-48).

Collins and his supporters point, quite rightly, to Jesus' call of the marginalized and, indeed, of "sinners." In contrast with Jewish sectarianism that drew the lines ever more tightly around those who "really" obeyed the Torah, all in the hopes of hastening the advent of the anticipated Kingdom of God, Jesus, like his predecessor John, called the entire nation to repent and to put that repentance into concrete, observable action. As was to be expected, Jesus' message implicitly pointed to the inadequacy of the piety of even the most observant Jews, and was accepted primarily by those who brought nothing, morally or religiously speaking, to the table (that's the point, by the way, of the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, at least in its historical Sitz im Leben).

But the point that so many "progressive" Christians ignore is that societal "marginalization" per se is not the issue. The Pharisees, not to mention the sectarian Essenes, were not wrong in condemning the moral laxity of "sinners," prostitutes, and tax collectors. Where they went wrong was in the assumption that they, by their intensified observance of the Law, could be shown to be the true "remnant of Israel" and hasten the advent of the Kingdom of God, and their own concomitant vindication, thereby. They failed, in other words, to realize that they, just like the "sinners" they condescendingly despised, needed to repent and get with Jesus' kingdom program. When we get to the post-Pentecost situation of the early church, the matter is intensified further when, through St. Paul, Gentiles—the ultimate "outsiders"—are included as full members of God's eschatological covenant people. Yet the rationale for their inclusion is not some merely humanitarian concern for their previous "marginalization," but rather is eschatological, based on the understanding that God was now fulfilling his promise to Abraham to have a world-wide people. And their inclusion was not without cost to them: they had to "[turn] from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

Indeed, it is a basic hermeneutical mistake to proceed as so many today do, namely, to argue as follows: (1) Jesus accepted the "marginalized" in his day; (2) Therefore, Jesus accepts the "marginalized" today; (3) homosexuals are marginalized in American society; (4) Therefore, Jesus accepts homosexuals today just as they are. In a sense, of course, it is entirely true that Jesus (and God) accepts people as they are. He can hardly do otherwise, and all without exception are, in biblical parlance, "ungodly" (Romans 4:5), with nothing in their hand to bring to the table. True as that is, however, God does not allow sinners to  remain "as they are" after coming to Christ. Nor did Jesus in his ministry in Judea and Galilee in the early 30s CE. Just as rich, unethical tax collectors like Zacchaeus demonstrated their conversion by tangible acts of restoration, so adulterers and other such "sinners" gave up their sinful ways upon joining the company of Jesus' disciples.

Even though the story clearly is not part of the Gospel of John as originally written, the famous pericope of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) comports well with what we know of Jesus elsewhere. Some scribes and Pharisees, desirous of "testing" and trapping Jesus (akin to their desire to trap Jesus in the matter of Roman taxes [Mark 12:13-17]), bring to him a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. Should she, they ask,be stoned, in accordance with the Torah? (in light of the Deuteronomic injunction of Deut 22:22-24, some have suggested she was in fact betrothed at the time; though cf. Ezek 16:38-40). Jesus, however, refuses to answer their question. Instead, he simply says to them: "Let the one who is without sin among you cast the first stone" (John 8:7). Unfortunately, this saying has been popularly understood to portray a "liberal" Jesus who plays fast and loose with the strictures of the Law, reducing them to little more than inconvenient adiaphora. The verse, however, deliberately echoes Deuteronomy 13:9 and 17:7, where the Torah says the witnesses must be the initiators of the execution by casting the first stones. Jesus is not saying that one must be a paragon of sinless perfection to be able to judge adultery (Carson). Such would invalidate even the office of judge. Rather, it means that the one doing the casting must not have been guilty of the sin in question. Here this might be a tacit acknowledgement that the scribes and Pharisees in question had conspired to set the woman up, in which case they could have been viewed as abettors of the offense and clearly in attitudinal violation of the Torah, whether or not any of them had actually been guilty of the physical act of adultery.

Most important, however, is Jesus' ultimate response to the woman herself: "Go, and sin no more" (poreuou, [kai] apo tou nyn mēketi hamartane) (John 8:11). The use of the present tense in the prohibition may be meant to indicate that Jesus was aware of her actual guilt in the matter. More importantly, however, the command indicates that Jesus, even as the merciful Judge, does not condone sin and, indeed, disallows continuance in it for those who would follow him in discipleship.

This means, of course, that everything hinges on whether or not it can be determined whether or not Jesus would have condemned homosexual practice. This brings us back, once again, to the observation, repeated ad nauseum in the current discussion, that Jesus never discusses the issue. More "progressive" types like to deduce from this that the issue is thus not essential to Christianity, and that such matters as "love" ought to define our response to this as to other issues, even if that means overturning what the rest of the Bible says about it. 

Such is merely a diversionary tactic, however, using contemporary understandings of what "love" entails to marginalize inconvenient material elsewhere in Scripture. In any case, even if it mattered, the observation about Jesus' non-mention of the issue is true only at the explicit, surface level. As I argued in depth last summer, both the Jewish context in which he ministered and his definitive comments on God's purposes for human sexuality as laid down in Genesis 2 demonstrate without serious doubt that Jesus, like all his Jewish contemporaries, would have condemned homosexual behavior as counter to God's intention for humankind and, hence, as sinful and not an option for his followers. And this means that what, not only the Old Testament, but St. Paul as well say about homosexual activity cannot legitimately be squeezed out of the conversation.

And Paul is clear, not only in Romans 1 but in 1 Corinthians 6 as well, that such activity is sinful. What he says in the latter text is most instructive, for it speaks directly to the issue for which Chris Broussard is being vilified, namely, whether one can be an active, unrepentant homosexual and still consider oneself a Christian. The relevant text reads as follows:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11, ESV)
Paul is quite emphatic on the point. Both passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in male homosexual intercourse will have no place in the kingdom of God. By definition that means that they are not genuine Christians and followers of the one we claim as Lord. Such activity is, along with the other vices listed in the text, representative of the old life from which the Corinthian believers had been saved.

This does not mean, of course, that genuine Christians will never commit such sins, or any other for that matter. With reference to the matter at hand, this does not mean that people with a homosexual orientation are immediately delivered of such attractions once they become Christians. It doesn't even mean that God promises deliverance from such attractions at all during the present life. Heterosexual Christians should come to grips with this, if they haven't already, and learn to sympathize with homosexually-oriented brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, what the text does mean is that any professing Christian who lives an unrepentant life characterized by such behavior thereby throws his or her profession into question. St. Paul indicates this in his response to the peculiar Corinthian "boasting" in the matter of a man cohabiting sexually with his father's wife, i.e., incest:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy or swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:9-11, ESV [alt. JRM])
The apostle here both acknowledges the profession of the sexually immoral man and calls into question whether or not he has a genuine claim to being a Christian brother (tis adelphos onomazomenos). The apostle had internalized the principle Jesus laid down in the Sermon on the Mount, that a tree is known by the type of fruit it bears (cf. Matt 6:16-20). Christians, as Martin Luther famously said, are simul iustus et peccator ("at the same time righteous and a sinner"), but they are not sinners simpliciter. Christians may commit acts of fornication, homosexuality, or theft, but, as my mentor Harold Hoehner used to say, "There is no such thing as a Christian fornicator. There is no such thing as a Christian homosexual. There is no such thing as a Christian thief." Such acts, when committed, must be repented of, and the lifestyles to which they lead are antithetical to what it means to be in union with the Christ who died to save humanity from those very sins.

Much more could be said, of course. But the long and short of the matter is that Chris Broussard, though he may have expressed himself inartfully and in an unwise manner considering the current cultural climate, was nevertheless correct when he said that living in unrepentant sexual immorality does indeed disqualify a person from legitimately claiming to be a Christian. Of course, only God knows the heart, and the proof of the pudding comes at the end of the road. Nevertheless, if assurance of being a Christian is what one desires, the best one can offer is what Paul labeled the man living in incest at Corinth: a practicing, unrepentant homosexual who claims to be a Christian is a "so-called" brother or sister. Listening to the "stories" or "narratives" of homosexuals is essential, of course, if only to understand their struggles and reflect on the injustices they have historically endured. Nevertheless, such stories, no matter their postmodern appeal, can never trump the clear teaching of the Scriptures that the church confesses to be their sole authority for faith and life. This we must maintain as Christians despite the cultural obloquy that will be the inevitable result of such a stance. Christian ministers have the right to disagree with Scripture, of course. If they do, however, let them have the courage and integrity to emulate Thomas Jefferson and desist in calling their views "Christian," when they are demonstrably otherwise.

Needless to say, this is only a part of the story. We must, as citizens of a secular democratic republic, demonstrate tolerance for homosexuals as with all others who live and think differently from the way we do, remembering that God has distributed his common grace to all sorts of people for the furtherance of human society and flourishing. We must likewise always emphasize the primacy of love in our dealings with the homosexual community, refusing to magnify the gravity of what we consider to be the "sinfulness" of their lifestyle vis-a-vis others which we may find less "tempting" to emulate. And  frankly, many of us will have to repent of our failure to live that way in the past and present. Likewise, we must remember that a traditional, "negative" view of homosexual practice does not necessarily commit a Christian to a certain "conservative" view of how Christians should respond to the various "gay" issues now dominating the discussion in the public square. How one goes about working for God's inaugurated kingdom is a matter of genuine debate, the answer one gives to which has potentially significant consequences for how we are viewed by the wider world. It is to that question that I will devote my third and final post on this issue.


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