On taking offence, being evangelical and hanging with sinners
1. Taking offence
Much of the debate about sexuality is framed by the extent to which people take offence at the views of others. At present the offence that counts is all on the side of those who endorse same-sex relationships. But offence cuts more than one way. The fact is, I’m pretty offended myself. I’m offended that no-one can question, let alone critique, same-sex marriage on the BBC without being hectored, lampooned and shouted down. I’m offended by those who want to retain the designation ‘evangelical’ while progressing down hermeneutical and ethical cul-de-sacs far removed from anything recognisable as evangelical. I’m offended by those who are solid evangelicals and regard ‘gay marriage’ as an oxymoron but for reasons of expediency keep a resolute silent on the matter. I’m offended by ‘evangelicals’ who are causing to stumble their brothers and sisters in Christ who are same-sex attracted but seeking to submit their sexual desires to a biblical pattern. I’m offended – deeply, profoundly offended! – by the political class steamrolling through a hugely controversial act, when there was no manifesto commitment to do so and no great groundswell of public demand for such a move.
Offence? You betcha! But you know what? Whether I or anyone else feels offended is not really that big a deal. Offence is a lousy foundation on which to build an argument – much less an entire approach to culture. Being offended is playground level stuff. It is a blunt and childish weapon that brooks no dissent or analysis, whether or not there are rational grounds for the offence felt. Our current cultural enthrallment to offence is nothing more than the slave mentality identified by Nietzsche. It is the ressentiment in which (as James Davison Hunter describes it),
The sense of injury is key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgement but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper.
Those who want to ‘argue’ this way would do us all a favour if they went away and kept quiet until they have matured enough to discuss things in an adult manner. Their passive-aggressive offence-mongering is juvenile. I don’t wish to cause anyone offence by saying this, but the fact that someone takes offence at the things I believe is no reason for me not to believe them, or fail to articulate them – and certainly doesn’t mean they are right and I am wrong.
2. Being evangelical
Evangelicalism has always had some flexibility in its definition. Rather than being a confessional, bounded set, with the borders of membership maintained by adherence to the likes of the Westminster Confession, it is a centred set, with adherence defined by a ‘mere Christianity’ beyond which there can be considerable diversity. This is at once both the great strength and weakness of evangelicalism. Strength because it is broad; weak because it can be shallow. In recent years evangelicalism has been increasingly associated with its diversity rather than its centred-ness, and this has meant the very term ‘evangelical’ has become decreasingly useful. As Carl Trueman astutely observes:
What is evangelicalism? It is a title I myself identify with on occasion, especially when marking myself off from liberalism, another ill-defined, amorphous, transdenominational concept. But in a world where there are “evangelicals” who deny justification by faith as understood by the Protestant Reformers, who deny God’s comprehensive knowledge of the future, who deny penal substitutionary atonement, who deny the Messianic self-consciousness of Christ, who have problems with the Nicene Creed, who deny the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s person, who cannot be trusted to make clear statements on homosexuality, and who advocate epistemologies and other philosophical viewpoints which are entirely unprecedented in the history of the orthodox Christian church, it is clear that the term “evangelical” and its cognates, without any qualifying adjective, such as “confessional” or “open” or “post-conservative,” is in danger of becoming next to meaningless.
When things have reached this state of affairs the question of who gets to define what ‘evangelical’ actually means is crucial. If no-one can define it, then anyone can – in which case the term may as well be jettisoned. So it is welcome that the EA have made a stand about the point at which divergent opinions remove their holders from the centred-ness of evangelicalism. In the UK (and I appreciate things are different in the USA) the EA has had such a long and clear mandate in holding the evangelical centre-ground that it surely makes absolute sense for that body to claim the right to define the term. Anyway, I would have thought it a relief for those who really are not evangelical to no longer have to bear the label, which after all is generally used in a pejorative sense in our wider culture.
3. Hanging with sinners
One of the most ridiculous things being trotted out with regularity by professed Christians is variations on the line, ‘Jesus hung out with sinners – therefore we shouldn’t be making moral judgments about people that might keep us from hanging out with them too’.
This is ridiculous because of what the Bible actually tells us about the way in which Jesus associated with sinners – which is, that when he went to dinner with tax collectors they publicly confessed their sin and made restitution to those they had wronged. That he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard but this was no more the case than that John the Baptist was demon possessed. That what Jesus’ contemporaries regarded as immoral behaviour was nothing more than a woman anointing him with perfume while at dinner.
It is also ridiculous because it so utterly confuses categories. This is so basic it should hardly need illustrating, but here goes. I would have no problem having a coffee with a drug user, but I’m not going to help him set up a hydroponics system in his house for a cannabis farm. I’d happily go to dinner with an abortion doctor, but I wouldn’t accompany him into the operating theatre and help operate the suction pump. I’d sit with the terminally ill patient, hold her hand, pray for and weep with her, but I wouldn’t contribute to a one way ticket to Switzerland. I’d socialise with a gay couple, but I wouldn’t smile, nod my head and say ‘Amen’ when they say, ‘We do’. I’d eat anything from the meat market with a good conscience, but if I am told it has been offered in sacrifice to idols I’ll leave it untouched on my plate.
And if anyone takes offence at my ‘lack of Christ-like love’ for the dope-head, abortionist, terminally ill patient, gay-wedded or meat seller? Well, I refer you to point 1 above.