Understanding a “Sacred Covenant”

One of the favorite commonplace arguments of the Good News crowd has unfortunately been taken up by the Council of Bishops: that performing the wedding of a same-sex couple is “breaking a sacred covenant” made at an elder’s ordination. But is it? Here is the relevant section of the ordination service. Read it through, and consider carefully what kind of covenant an elder is making at his or her ordination. I’ve put some possibly relevant sections in bold. At the end, I’ve appended some questions for your consideration.

Ordination is a gift from God to the church, and is exercised in covenant with the whole church and within the covenant of the order.

…As elders, you are to be coworkers with the bishops, deacons, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, home missioners, commissioned ministers, local pastors, and other elders.

Remember that you are called to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all.

An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church: to preach and teach the Word of God, and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead the people of God in worship and prayer; to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ; to exercise pastoral supervision, order the life of the congregation, counsel the troubled, and declare the forgiveness of sin; to lead the people of God in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world; to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church and in service in and to the community.These are the duties of an elder.

Do you believe in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?

Will you be faithful in prayer, in the study of the Holy Scriptures, and with the help of the Holy Spirit continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?

Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ?

Will you, in the exercise of your ministry, lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people? [note that this is the second occurrence of this phrase].

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

Will you, for the sake of the church’s life and mission, covenant to participate in the order of elders? Will you give yourself to God through the order of elders in order to sustain and build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?

May God, who has given you the will to do these things, give you grace to perform them, that the work begun in you may be brought to perfection.

After reading the above language from the ordination service, what is the covenant that is broken by officiating a same-gender wedding? Is it:

  1. The covenant to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people?
  2. The covenant to teach the Bible as the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?
  3. The covenant to accept the order of the United Methodist Church? The liturgy? The (small “d”) discipline? The doctrines?
  4. The covenant to participate in the order of elders, and to build each other up through study, worship, and service?
  5. The covenant to defend the United Methodist Church from “all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word?” The belief that the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s’ faith and life?

Here are some follow-up questions:

  1. What in the above oath might suggest to you that covenant means accepting the incompatibility clause and subsequent prohibitions because they are in the (large “D”) Discipline?
  2. Given the oath to seek peace, justice and freedom for all people, what is an ordained clergy’s covenantal responsibility toward gay and lesbian persons who wish to marry?
  3. When the incompatibility clause was approved in 1972, did its authors violate any part of the above covenant toward their ordained gay and lesbian clergy peers? What about when additional punitive language was added regarding ordination and same-gender marriage?
  4. The Discipline rejects ordination for “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” which has often been called “don’t ask, don’t tell” for clergy. It implies you can be self-avowed, but not practicing (i.e. celibate), or practicing but not self-avowed (i.e. “in the closet). What does this language do to a covenant of mutual accountability among clergy?
  5. Since every General Conference committee that has “studied” the issue of homosexuality has recommended removing the incompatibility language, yet the General Conference has voted to retain it, what does that do to our covenant to “build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?”
  6. Finally, when only 67% of General Conference votes to uphold the idea that “God’s grace is available to all, [and] that nothing can separate us from the love of God,” language borrowed from both John Wesley and Saint Paul, how qualified is that body to address what is or is not compatible with “Christian teaching?” What percentage needs to vote on something for it to be a clear sign of the witness of the Holy Spirit? 51%? 100%?

Growing up in the church, I learned that “covenant” was different from a “contract.” A contract is a legal agreement that says, “if you break this, such and such happens.” A covenant, though, is based on the character of the participants and the shalom of the community. God was faithful to God’s covenant with Israel even when Israel was not faithful, because God’s character was one of “steadfast love.” Opponents of LGBTQ rights would have everyone believe that the covenant to uphold the order, liturgy, discipline, and doctrine of the church is actually a contract. It legitimizes homophobia, heterosexism, and a culture of ecclesiastical coercion using the language of sacred covenant. Using the language of “sacred covenant” to mask thin Biblical interpretation, bad theology, and lousy ethics is itself more harmful to that covenant than any alleged violation of the incompatibility clause.

The Gospel is a Joke

I don’t mean “the Gospel is a joke” in a pejorative way. I mean it in a metaphorical way:

  • When you hear it, you either get it or you don’t.
  • You can explain it and explain it and explain it and people will still not get it.
  • Sometimes after years of not getting it, something happens in your life that makes you say, “Oh, now I get it.” We call this feeling an epiphany.
  • You can tell by the quality of their laughter whether or not people get it. Some laugh along because they think they’re supposed to. Some assume that to be good, the joke must be at someone’s expense…
  • …but the best jokes are not told at anyone else’s expense. The best presentations of the Gospel contain no malice or contempt.
  • Sometimes you hear it so often you stop laughing. But maybe one day it sneaks up on you and you get it again, and you start laughing and can’t stop.
  • Sometimes you laugh so hard it hurts. Sometimes you laugh through your tears.
  • Sometimes you hear it and it’s not funny. Sometimes it’s the delivery. Other times it’s your attitude.
  • Something about being with other people who get it makes you laugh that much harder. Sometimes a group of you start laughing and you can’t stop, because you keep each other going. These moments of joy are when you feel most strongly that life is good, that this is a slice of heaven, and you want it to never end.
  • Sometimes when you try to tell it, it’s not funny. Usually it is because you are trying too hard. The best humor and the best Gospel emerges from being authentically human.
  • When you tell a really good joke, nobody stops you by saying, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before,” because it’s worth hearing again.
  • Sometimes you don’t laugh, but you smile inside.

Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Nicolas Poussin, from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.

The Education of Shelby Knox

This is an excellent documentary, and it raises some great questions about contemporary Christian sexual ethics as well as the public discussion about “liberal” and “conservative” values. I re-watched it in preparation for our October Sermon Series.

It starts with this quotation: “Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love. ~Butch Hancock”

I’m not a fan of describing world views in terms of “conservative” and “liberal,” but the fact is that both inside church and outside of it, this is the dominant narrative of American culture. Since the 70’s, political and religious language have grown even closer together. Since I believe in honoring the way people describe themselves, I’ll use their own language.

Even though I have harsh criticism for conservative Christian sexual ethics (summarized so well by the Butch Hancock quotation), I think it’s important to point out that one of the things that made Shelby such an excellent spokesperson is the lessons she learned from her conservative Christian parents. Her passion for social justice is inspired by their idealism. This fits with the findings of Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, that self-esteem of young women who have conservative Christian parents is higher than those who do not. There are three related points I connect to this:

1. I believe that the Christian story is uniquely suited to teach kids that they have a source of value that is not dependent on their bodies’ social or sexual value to the surrounding culture. It is not the only story that can do so. But I believe its strengths for teaching are in a) the doctrine of incarnation and resurrection (because bodies and how we treat them are important) and b) love of God and neighbor (because loving your neighbor requires emotional self-regulation and delay of gratification). In other words, your body is connected to an ethical system that encompasses all of creation—even people you don’t like. So you deserve honor and respect just as much as your neighbor (or your enemy) does.

2. That conservative Christian fathers change some of their views when they have daughters. Slut-shaming and body-shaming become real threats when directed at your kids. Shelby’s parents gradually (and reluctantly) shift to supporting their daughter’s positions. The local pastors, by contrast, double down on the slut-shaming language. I love the scene where she is able to say to the pastor who attempts to shame her, “I’ve made a commitment to abstain, but not everyone has a supportive family like mine.” Saint Paul would be proud.

3. That liberal parents need to critically examine how they teach their kids about religion, character, pluralism, and activism. A lot of liberal parents I know say that they don’t want to “indoctrinate” their kids into one religion by taking them to church, and instead will just let them sample a buffet of beliefs and let them pick when they get older. As if they won’t do this anyway. Your kids are entirely able to critique their own religion if you do your job and teach them critical thinking. But don’t expect the marketplace to teach them about God, spirituality, commitment, faith, transcendence, or social justice. Don’t expect mass media to teach them about belonging to a community that values individuals’ gifts,  Abercrombie & Fitch will be happy to fill that void with their own values. Dang, join a humanist church if you must.

Anyway, I found the relationship between Shelby and her parents one of the most touching and grace-filled aspects of the whole documentary. In contrast to the political views of the white male pastors in the movie (who assert that liberal politics and Christianity are like “oil and water”), her parents sincerely want to understand her activism and her compassion.

“Do no harm.” This is what it looks like when you take it seriously.

(I’ve enjoyed following Shelby Knox on Twitter since I saw the documentary a few years ago. You don’t have to agree with her, but I think Christians should listen to her.)