Anxious Debate and a Thinking Response

ImageWhen I was a student at Wheaton College I, and all other students, were subject to “thePledge.” That is, we had to agree to follow the “Fundamentalist Five,” which were no drinking alcoholic beverages, no smoking tobacco (that there were other things one could smoke was just starting to dawn on the evangelical world), no use of playing cards, no going to the theater, including motion pictures, and no dancing. Neither my wife (whom I met there) nor I had problems with “the Pledge,” for that in general had been our lifestyle before Wheaton, the difference being that my family had seen those rules as culturally relative and thus not as absolute (we had, for example, made an abortive attempt to see The Ten Commandments in a drive-in theater, abortive because we left part of the way through due to torrential rain; my father would drink wine in France while on business trips, since teetotalism was not part of the Christian culture there), and Judy’s had seen them as absolutes. But in the view of our churches those who did those things were probably “not Christians,” including many mainline followers of Jesus. While never said officially in so many words, this atmosphere pervaded Wheaton, These were the boundary markers of “the faith.” However, even then there were signs of some breakdown: no less a fundamentalist than Bob Jones (I am not sure whether Sr. or Jr.) reportedly said of C. S. Lewis, “That man drinks liquor, and smokes tobaccah [so pronounced], but I do believe that he is saved.” None of that “Lewisian” freedom for us, though, for in our churches and at Wheaton we were encouraged to anxiously watch the boundaries, a behavior that showed all of the signs of a society in regression: reactivity (i.e. emotional rather than rational thinking), herding (i.e. totalism in thinking and relating; cut-off if the boundary is violated), blame displacement (i.e. those “outsiders” were the godless ones leading the country “to hell in a handbasket”), and a quick fix mentality (i.e. a “quest for certainty” along with the idea that following these “biblical principles” could make one a happy, healthy Christian, and would heal society too). [The signs of regression are from Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Bethesda, MD: Edwin Friedman Trust, 1999), 115].

What is interesting about the “Fundamentalist Five” is that all of them are about issues that the Christian Scriptures do not address. It is not that to some degree they were not a good idea: while there was at most only temporary teetotalism in the Scriptures (even Nazirites could drink beer, although not wine), the Scriptures do speak against drunkenness; smoking tobacco is poor care of the body God has given us (although this was not discussed in conservative churches in the South that were largely supported by tithes on the income from tobacco growing – the connection was denied as a “mere statistical correlation,” just as climate change is sometimes denied today), movies can teach immoral behavior (although at that time TV was not included in the prohibition and it was sex, not violence, that was viewed as immoral), and dancing can be provocative as well as good recreation and positive social interaction. In fact, perhaps due to this influence, my wife and I developed other interests in life (such as reading) and to this day rarely see movies and do not own a TV (and while I would dance with my wife, I recognize that unless we are under the watchful eye of an instructor she is risking her physical well-being whenever we might do it). Furthermore, it is interesting that the “Fundamentalist Five” are all negative (along with a prohibition on “sex” that we rarely talked about openly). Finally, these prohibitions did help us alleviate our anxieties about whether or not we were “in” the camp of “good Christians,” so that we did not need to think about the “weightier matters of the law,” such as dealing with anger, the danger of wealth, avoiding violence, and loving our neighbor. In fact, one could angrily deride those who “did such things” [i.e. who violated the Fundamentalist Five] and just as angrily write off those concerned about what Jesus (and the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures) actually taught as being into “the social gospel.”

The problem was that Wheaton also taught us to think. My wife came to realize that her assumed rather than articulated prejudice against African Americans was just that, a hateful-to-God prejudice not supported either by the biblical texts that were claimed for it or by empirical reality. I came to see my prejudices against other denominations (I was Plymouth Brethren at the time) were likewise non-Christian (after all, none of my professors except Gerald Hawthorne was Plymouth Brethren, not even my theology professor, Millard Erickson). We both came to see the flaws in the “Fundamentalist Five,” as did many others on campus. It is no wonder that the yearbook of my wife’s class mocked both the church and Wheaton (in a rather artful manner). Thinking can be dangerous, for one may see through one’s reactivity.

Because of this background and my deepening in my convictions due to my immersion in the great Christian spiritual tradition and my study of family systems theory at Edwin Friedman’s institute in Bethesda, Maryland, I have concern today about many of the big evangelical issues, especially the biggest two, which are what abortion and homosexuality (in particular the marriage of homosexuals) seem to me to be. Like the “Fundamentalist Five” these are not discussed in Scripture, although, also like the “Fundamentalist Five” some passages do have a bearing on the issue (Exod 21:22 in the case of the status of the unborn and three Pauline passages in the case of homosexuality). But no one in Scripture is discussing the issues that we are discussing today, for they were not discussions in the cultures to which Scripture spoke.

Do not get me wrong here, I recognize that, while Exod 21:22 appears to treat the unborn as a commodity, the Deuterocanonical literature (which my denomination reads) does reject abortion (at least in some understandings of the text), as do the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (Book VII, Sec I., chs. Ii-iii), Tertullian (On the Soul, 37.2), Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 35), and other Christian writers down through the ages. I am certainly in solidarity with this ethical tradition, even if the reasoning of the various writers varies and the status of the “soul” in the various writers is different.

My discomfort with the current “Pro-Life” position of evangelicals lies elsewhere. First, it has degenerated from calm, reasoned speech to emotional and reactive sloganeering. “Abortion stops a beating heart,” true, at least if not done every early, but so does Chick-fil-A (among other such establishments). The slogan begs the question to whether a “beating heart” is in question is human or on its way to becoming human. Likewise pictures of aborted fetuses or fetuses in utero (including some that seem to be sucking a thumb) are emotional arguments for they say little about brain activity (one sees all types of reflexive activity in animals without a significant cerebral cortex). Second, it shows a herding mentality (“you are either with us or you are with them”), much less about whether any spiritual side of the human being is there from conception, develops during gestation, or comes with breath at birth. Third, it shows blame displacement, the demonization of those with other opinions. This is especially seen when the extreme representatives of “the other side” are held as typical of that group (which is like pointing to “Baptists” picketing military funerals as typical of all Baptists). There is no recognition that those holding other opinions might be acting out of at least some motives that are morally appropriate (if, perhaps, factually misinformed), be dealing with issues that need discussion, or be wishing to get to the same destination by another route. Finally there is a type of “quick fix” mentality, in particular the “quick fix” that the solution is law (which may include “tossing” the demonized politicians/judges out) and that if we can only make abortion illegal we have solved the problem. This, to me, is strange in that Christians have long recognized that law is more likely to expose a problem than solve a problem. The USA, for example, did not solve the problem of alcoholism via Prohibition (although it did bring significant income to the area of Canada in which I used to live). And there is also the problem that the language of the “Pro-Life” movement is sometimes so extreme and full of anger that it clearly violates some of what the New Testament directly condemns.

In my mind those of us who are Protestants (Roman Catholics have already had the decision made for them by papal authority – but I am an Episcopal minister, so not bound by papal authority) still need to discuss the status of the unborn and thus when lesser evil arguments are appropriate. I would suggest that a rereading what the then “dean of evangelical theologians,” Kenneth Kantzer, wrote some years ago [“The Origin of the Soul as Related to the Abortion Question,” in Walter Spitzer and Carlyle O. Saylor, eds., Birth Control and the Christian (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1969), 551-558], along with others, might make our discussion more reasonable. I would suggest that we consider whether a non-violent (and thus non-law), grace approach to the issue might be more in tune with our Christian values than a law approach. I would suggest that we put the issue into a real pro-life context (that some call “consistently pro-life”) that would include dealing with all social forces that are anti-life, including not just those that push people to unnecessarily abort their unborn children, but also the anti-life violence that we see in war (and obscene military budgets), capital punishment, and the denial of medical care to the impoverished in our society (Why does the USA have one of the highest levels of infant mortality in the developed world? Why does it have one of the lowest levels of longevity? These infants and adults are clearly people without a shadow of a doubt.). I would suggest that we talk as a church community (and, if we are talking about political action, as a matter of public policy) of putting in place those social programs that would so support an individual or family that has a child they cannot afford or that puts extreme pressure on them that prospective parent or parents would realize that there was no “need” to abort that child, that they would instead feel cared for. [I personally am glad that our own daughter had our severely handicapped granddaughter in Alberta, not in the USA, for, while abortion was never an issue for them, since the child was born before anyone realized that it had a very significant genetic defect, placing it in provincial care could have been, and it has only been the support of the Province of Alberta and Dominion of Canada that has enabled them so far to care for that child, although not without significant stress on the family. Had they been in the USA, they might well have been bankrupt by now.] This is not the stuff of reactive slogans or herding or us-them mentality, but the stuff of costly discipleship, loving care, and careful, reasoned, researched discussion. It is also the “stuff” that in the public sphere goes against the grain of out “cut social supports” mentality when it comes to budget balancing.

I could go on to discuss the issue of homosexual marriage and make much the same analysis. We evangelicals have acted as if this would destroy marriage. That raises anxiety, sends adrenalin rushing through our system, and shuts down thinking. We need at least to consider a number of issues. First, Canada has had legal homosexual marriage for quite a while now (it was viewed as a right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) without observable damage in terms of the collapse of marriage. But, second, and more importantly, in my mind the damage to marriage has already been done by the church’s handling of divorce. The Scriptures may have little to say about homosexuality and nothing about homosexual marriage, but they have a lot to say about divorce. We handled divorce legalistically, at first by telling wives to “submit” (bashing them with biblical “proof texts”) even if their husbands were violent towards them and their children, and then we church folk handled it legally by acting as rabbis and trying to decide who was “the guilty party” and whether there were biblical-legal grounds for divorce. (I taught for one denomination in which divorce was the only unforgivable sin.) Both fit the Pharisaic mindset that Jesus condemned, both fit the litigious, individualistic mindset of the USA, and neither “worked,” for divorce rates skyrocketed, including in the church. So we developed reactive rationalizations that would approve what was. But that is where the “sanctity of marriage” lies. Furthermore, in a society in which roughly half of all first unions are cohabitation rather than legal marriage and in some segments of which roughly 83% of all births are to an unmarried woman, we might even want to welcome the fact that homosexual couples are wishing to get married (although this begs the question of what marriage is and whether, legal permissions and social ceremonies aside, a homosexual couple can be married, which depends on that definition). Obviously I have just touched on a series of bigger issues, but they are issues that require reasoned discussion, not reactive sloganeering, issues that require a gracious response that models itself on the costly love of Jesus towards us, not hateful (or smug) rhetoric. Furthermore, we also need to discuss the appropriateness of pushing a solution that is built on our commitment to Jesus and our living into the narrative of the Scriptures on a society that does not share (nor ever did share) that commitment.

Enough said for now. In short, I identify with (at least some of) the social goals of contemporary evangelicalism, those that are rooted in Scripture, church tradition, rational argument, and experiential verification. I do not identify with the anxious debate that goes on in which complex issues are reduced to simple slogans and in which a big issue is narrowed into a simplistic solution. I do not identify with the quick grasp to law and force rather than to grace and mercy. I hear too many echoes of the type of reasoning that went into the “Fundamentalist Five.” I recognize that many of my contemporaries at Wheaton are now, like me, in mainline churches, and many more are not in the church at all. In my case this move was not a reaction to anything, but a clear call from God some 8 years after I had left Wheaton, but in the case of others they had had it with the anxious debate, the twisting of scripture, and the moral blindness of at least significant sections of the evangelicalism of that day. Education got them thinking and they left. My hope is that in the context of the anxious debate of another generation of evangelicals on different ethical issues another generation of students will walk the same trail, perhaps not to Canterbury this time (as in the well-known book by the late Robert E. Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail [New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1985, rev ed. 2012]), perhaps just out of the church period. The “nones” are a growing segment of society.

[I share this as this is what I am thinking about right now and it is relevant to my Anabaptist/Devotio Moderna/Franciscan outlook and to my students. There are aspects of this, such as God’s hatred of violence and its wide implications, need further discussion. I have started to discuss them on my own blog, – see

5 responses

  1. Fascinating piece. You seem to capture many of my own complaints against evangelical culture: the reactionary boundary-drawing, the us vs. them mentality, the desire to inflict “good Christian morals” on everyone else via the law, and so forth. We don’t necessarily agree on our values, but it is fundamentally important that at the very least we can reason with one another rather than parrot the talking points of those whom we follow.

  2. I have found this article to be stimulating and thought-provoking. Thank you. Having been engaged in ministry for some years I find some of the interconnectedness of issues which you alude to increasingly difficult to untangle. Its tempting to ask, “What is the most loving thing?” to be done in any of these situations. But that leads to the issue of “Loving to who?” I really struggle with these issues.

  3. Peter, I have often thought about the work of Eric Erikson. I think your piece illustrates the progression of life and faith that he wrote about.

  4. We can see in this article what the scripture spoke of when it said,” there shall come a great falling away.” People who once had morals and standards now excuse their sins and unbelief. While I believe some of these guidelines do not have scripture they were created for our protection against the infiltration of liberal though as we find in this article. The scripture is clear on life beginning before birth and the penalties for taking that life. I see why Christ said,”When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Our generation has been poisoned with the continual tainting of the truth! I have served 22 years as a missionary and am stunned at the continual erosion of truth in America.

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