I recently blogged about an interview between Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, both pastors of United Methodist mega-churches. Much of the conversation involved ideas prominent in liberal theology and in liberal churches. They accused large swaths of American Christianity of being too closely affiliated to the political right, of being overly concerned with morality, repentance, and judgement, and of wanting to separate themselves from sin and from sinners. They argued that these things caused young people to abandon the Church.
I broadened my response to be a criticism of liberal theology more generally, and argued that the Jesus of acceptance and social change told only half of the story. I argued too that even that half becomes distorted when severed from the whole of the Gospel’s message.
Pastor Hamilton kindly responded by commenting on my post:
Hi Matthew, I think you have mischaracterized Mike and myself here. We both regularly call people to repentance from sin, invite them to accept the lordship of Jesus Christ, and we seek to preach truth and grace. We also both affirm, teach and believe the historic elements of orthodoxy as articulated by the creeds. You and I both undoubtedly have our Pharisaic tendencies. I often tell folks I am a recovering Pharisee who occasionally falls off the wagon. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day seemed fixated on pointing out other people’s sins, but didn’t realize that the more serious sins were the ones in their own hearts – spiritual pride among them. In their pursuit of their vision of spirituality and moral purity they separated themselves from people Jesus sought to save.
I apologize if I mischaracterized your comments from the video. I also did not mean to call you or Mike Slaughter “unorthodox.” I trust my wording did not do that.
Were there any particular parts where I misconstrued your language from the interviews?
I too believe that we are not called to separate ourselves from others who either struggle with our own besetting sins or with sins that we are not entirely attracted by. I was also deeply challenged both by the example of our Lord who was beloved by sinners even as he called them to repentance and by the teaching of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate.
As I understand it, sin is not merely an arbitrary list of things God decided to prohibit. Sin, tied to non-being, ultimately leads to death. Every sin we commit slowly destroys us and leaves us less alive and less receptive to God’s grace. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ suggestion in The Great Divorce (and the idea is key to Dante’s Commedia as well) that those in hell are there because they choose to be – hell is locked from the inside. Sin is terrifying because it separates us from God and makes it harder and harder for us to receive his love. Ultimately, if left unchecked, it leads us actively to choose intense and eternal suffering over God’s love.
I grew up in a fundamentalist, independent Baptist church (I’m now happily Anglo-Catholic), and I understand the problem of a reduction of the beautiful message our Lord gave to mere moralism. I experienced first-hand the problem of trying to separate oneself from “the world” and “worldliness.” Because such an approach misses the part of our Lord’s Gospel message that emphasizes sacrificial love and works of mercy, it misses the whole of the Gospel – like the Pharisees of old did.
The solution, however, cannot be to ignore the half of the Gospel that the fundamentalists read and only emphasize the works of mercy. My point in writing this piece was to argue that that approach only leads to a Pharisaism of another kind. I rejoice if this does not characterize you.
I am worried about such language, however, especially when it seeks to represent the views of “young people.” I am a young person who has won people over to Anglicanism and it was because the Church spoke to them where they were. They didn’t need to be affirmed or told to do more things. They needed to be called to repentance and offered the opportunity for confession and absolution. I have found it always to be true, as Benedict XVI explains, that love and truth always go together.
As I thought back over this conversation, I was reminded of our Lord’s words in the eighth chapter of St. John’s gospel:
Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?
Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
This freedom from sin and, consequently death, is the foundation of Christ’s coming as he explained from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord…. This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
The Gospel contains many counter-cultural prescriptions for Christian life and society. Fundamental to all of them, however, is freedom from the bondage of sin. This is why baptism, preaching, and conversion are the primary call of the Great Commission. Christian must work for justice, the good of the poor, the help of the sick, and the freeing of those unjustly in captivity, but all those things ultimately do not help the most basic problem besetting each human soul. Applying the balm of the Gospel must be Christians’ first action in a sick and dying world.Google+