Jim Winkler

May 14, 2019

Better Than Ezra: “Draw the circle wide” for Pagan Idolaters, Enthuses National Council of Churches Chief

National Council of Churches President and General Secretary Jim Winkler offers embarrassingly bad exposition of the Old Testament Book of Ezra this week. Writing for the ecumenical council’s electronic newsletter, the former lobby chief of the United Methodist Church looks at chapters 9 and 10 of the account of the Jewish scribe and priest who led a group returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon.

Winkler bemoans “a lost opportunity” to partner with neighboring peoples in rebuilding the temple:

Oh, how I wish I could have read that the offer was graciously accepted and that dialogue and goodwill helped to lead to an era of peace and tranquility. How many times have we heard the inspiring reports of peoples of different faiths standing together in solidarity in recent years? Some have even offered their sanctuaries as places of worship for those who have other beliefs and practices!

Then, the priest Ezra arrives in Jerusalem and learns the Jews are living among “the peoples of the land with their abominations (9:11)” and have married some of them, had children and raised families so that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands… (9:2).” Ezra demands they send away these family members. That’s right! He insists they force their own spouses and children to leave. Despite all efforts to spin these verses, they still possess unbearable cruelty.

Winkler breezes past “abominations”, seemingly uninterested in the practices these peoples were perpetuating, and why God forbade them. Chapter 9 lists these peoples as including Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites. Women of these cultures did worship other gods, including Asherah. Earlier in Deuteronomy, the Israelites are warned “do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there.” These abominations included divination or sorcery, witchcraft, consulting the dead, and yes, those “who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire.”

Problems with intermarriage between the Jewish people and neighboring groups were not new to Ezra’s time. Those returning from exile were aware that King Solomon earlier “was led into sin by foreign women” (Neh. 13:26). Solomon tolerated the worship of false gods because of his foreign wives (1 Kings 11). Those studied in Israel’s history were not eager for a repeat.

The NCC chief lists these passages in Ezra as among those in the Bible he finds “quizzical, disappointing, infuriating, beautiful, and humorous.” He notes that those returning from exile lived “in dread of the neighboring peoples (3:3)” and is aware of interpretations that emphasize faithfulness, repentance and restoration, but he’s unimpressed with Ezra:

Sure, OK, but to the lay reader, it reads as ugly. I suppose I appreciate that this is included in the Holy Scriptures because it reminds us yet again of how frequently we fall short of our beliefs and seek to exclude “others.” After all, it’s the daily drumbeat that emanates from the White House.

As for me, I desire a faith that draws the circle wide and emphasizes love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. That’s the faith I try to live out. That’s the faith I believe Jesus is all about.

Winker reduces the biblical account to a cautionary tale of exclusion with a little political jab. He, on the other hand, (with apologies to the 90s-era alternative band) is better than Ezra, living out real faith.

Ezra’s people were to covenant themselves as fully devoted to the Lord. They were to remove all connections with those who worshiped other gods. Interestingly, much of the tension surrounding these chapters involves holding them alongside biblical proscriptions against divorce in the Book of Malachi and later in the New Testament. Winkler doesn’t go there.

Citing the Holman Old Testament Commentary on Ezra, the bible answer site Got Questions offers a more grounded explanation:

Marriages with people of other nations that worshiped false gods were forbidden in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 7:3–4). Ezra’s heart was grieved. He tore his tunic and cloak, pulled hair from his head and beard, “and sat down appalled” (Ezra 9:3). Idolatry was one of the sins that had resulted in Judah’s being conquered by Babylon. Now, upon their return to the Promised Land, Judah was again toying with the same sin.

Winkler wants to emphasize “love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness” but he anachronistically projects those concepts back upon pagan idolaters. Ezra was seeking to uphold God’s justice and holiness amidst competing cultures that had little regard for biblical concepts such as grace and mercy, now widely understood as part of the moral architecture that under-girds Christian-influenced societies.

Religious Left luminaries don’t produce heresy out of thin air. They often correctly identify God’s heart for one thing – reconciliation, for example – and then elevate it at the expense of other Godly attributes, such as holiness or justice. Ezra sought to be faithful to God, preserving the devotion of the people by setting them apart from others engaged in “detestable practices” (Ezra 9).

American Christians are not the ancient people Ezra led back from exile, and these commands should be understood in the cultural context of their time. But Ezra was serious about the damage unchallenged idolatry would inflict upon God’s people.

The head of a Christian council like the NCC would do well to remember this.


13 Responses to Better Than Ezra: “Draw the circle wide” for Pagan Idolaters, Enthuses National Council of Churches Chief

  1. Roger says:

    Satan tries to destroy the Nation of Israel by many ways. One tactic is to destroy it by intermarriage with Gentiles. One of Esau’s failures was marrying a Gentile. Jesus commanded his disciples not to go to the Gentiles or even to the cities of Samaria. Just to the lost sheep of Israel. God will save a remanent until the end

  2. Dan says:

    “Good” article 🙂
    Two words – homo deus (human god, and the name of a recent book), intoned with the Beatles, “All You Need is Love” playing in the background.

  3. Lance says:

    This lay reader bemoans the fact that Winkler worked for the Methodist Church.

    • Wayne says:

      I have not heard his name in years and had forgotten about him. He was absolutely horrible. Good article but now I’m upset I have been reminded of Winkler.

  4. MikeS says:

    The most mind-boggling thing about this article is to learn that the NCC even exists anymore. Their “sell-by” date was decades ago.

  5. Brad Pope says:

    This view is not just a one off Winkler view, very much alive in the Methodist church. It was taught in a class I attended at my church. I hope the UMC gets serious about returning to a posture of recognizing scriptural authority.

  6. MarkJ says:

    Using Jim Winkler’s own criteria, I’d think he’d be hard pressed to condemn any self-described religion within his “wide circle” that incorporated human sacrifice.

  7. William says:

    Who pays his salary? Who funds this organization? Are any UMC appropriations going to this?

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      The NCC President and General Secretary’s salary comes from multiple sources of revenue for the council, one of which is cognate funding from member communions (denominations). The United Methodist Church provides more funding to the council than any other member body.

  8. MIK says:

    This is no different, I think, than the preposterous efforts to apply our 21st Century ethic to prior generations’ conduct.

    It must stop in all contexts.

  9. Loren Golden says:

    The problem with “drawing the circle” as “wide” as Winkler and others of his school of thought would have us do, is that it dilutes the meaning of what that circle defines, and in that dilution, something vitally important to the soul of the Church is lost.

  10. Donald says:

    I have lost count of the number of times I have heard leaders in the rapidly declining Seven Sisters denominations promote a homiletic of ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story.’
    This could be excused if they picked this approach up at The National Storytellers Festival (a great event worth attending). But no, they pick it up at their rapidly declining but ‘welcoming’ seminaries.

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