Christian Sexual Ethics for Dummies (Why We Don’t Marry Mops)

1. Prologue

Gay marriage is almost the law of the land, and I’m still reeling from surprise that Alabama was not the last state where it became legal. Some anti-gay folks deployed the usual inflated rhetoric, the most amusing of which was a Birmingham preacher who spoke at a city council meeting. You can watch the video here. Now that men can marry men and women can marry women, he said, humans would soon marrying, among other things, dogs, cats, snakes, brooms, and mops. Some have said that the next thing will be marriages of three or more people, or incestuous marriage.

This kind of argument is known as a “slippery slope” fallacy. A fallacy is a misleading argument. A fallacy may sound reasonable or even convincing, but it’s based on flawed logic. The “slippery slope” fallacy says that one action or claim will lead to a series of others that creates an undesirable result. In this case, if legal marriage rights are granted to gay and lesbian persons, people will soon be marrying their mops.

2. The Question – Inanimate Objects and the Problem of Love

By MOs810 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsSo why don’t we marry our mops?

We could propose several reasons. This is not an exhaustive list:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware or autonomous, and therefore
  3. Mops are not capable of consent, and cannot make vows
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  6. Mops are not capable of sharing an equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship.

Mops, therefore, not only make poor lovers; they make poor people. This is not to say that we may not have some kind of sentimental relationship with a mop. Inanimate objects can have sentimental value. Teddy bears, for instance, are nice to cuddle. But teddy bears, like mops, cannot meet any of the above criteria. Most inanimate objects cannot. (Robots and artificial intelligence may provide and interesting challenge to the above criteria, but they go beyond the scope of this article).

Now, inanimate objects, while they are not capable of consent, have a long history of being used in sexual ways. In this regard they are like other tools which give people pleasure—televisions, radios, scented candles, electric massagers, and hot tubs, for example. The virtues and vices of using these tools can be debated. Still, most people will not be inclined to marry their masturbatory aid for the above reasons: a dildo is a tool and, unless artificial intelligence is involved (again, beyond my scope), not capable of loving anyone back. More significantly for the purposes of marriage, neither dildos nor mops of the non-robotic sort can make breakfast, help carry the groceries, earn a second income, or enter into legal contracts.

Since I am writing from a perspective of Christian sexual ethics, this is an appropriate place to point out that there is no explicit biblical prohibition against masturbation, with or without tools. Some people (both Jewish and Christian) look at Genesis 38 and the story of Onan as a warning against self-pleasure, but most scholars reject that interpretation. Onan’s sin is not masturbation (or coitus interruptus), but theft: he attempts to defraud his late brother of his inheritance by not giving him an heir (38:9). His sister-in-law goes on to seduce her father-in-law by posing as a prostitute (38:15) and is finally called the most righteous of all the characters in the story (38:26). If we accept that Onan’s sin is masturbation, then we’re left with the odd lesson that adultery, cultic prostitution, and non-consensual sex are more acceptable to God than masturbation. Since the Bible does not list masturbation among sexual sins, and since it is probably the sexual practice most easily at hand for a majority of human beings on the planet, it seems reasonable to conclude that biblical authors were not too worried about it.

The Birmingham preacher, in his rant, may have been alluding to masturbation when he expressed frustration at not being able to find batteries, but it is difficult to tell. Only he knows what was going through his mind.

3. Living Things and the Problem of Consent (Dogs, Cats, Alligators, Swans, and Gods)

Cesare da Sesto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having dealt with inanimate objects, let’s turn to the others Rev. Hatcher mentions. Dogs, cats, and snakes, unlike mops and brooms, are alive. Are they viable marriage partners?

At the risk of offending reptile pet-lovers, I will claim that snakes, whose brains are much more rudimentary than dogs and cats, are not capable of love. Reptiles do not typically form social bonds of the sort that would lead to marriage.

Cats and dogs, while mammals, also do not make suitable marriage partners. Even cat lovers will acknowledge that though their cats may be capable of love, and while they display a high (and often frustrating) degree of autonomy, they are still not able to give consent either to marriage or sexual relations. Moreover, cats’ reciprocity is debatable—do they love their owners, or is it merely (pardon the metaphor) a marriage of convenience? Dogs, likewise, are not able to give consent, although they demonstrate a high degree of loyalty. Since both of these animals lack language, making vows and giving consent are not possibilities. Dogs are still valuable helpers: service dogs illustrate the kind of important bond between dogs and humans.

While the Greek and Roman myths are full of stories of humans cavorting sexually with gods in the form of animals (swans, bulls, and eagles, just to name a few), and while inter-species sexual activity has been documented in real life, these relationships can hardly be said to constitute marriage. In most of the mythological cases, the consent of the human, if not the animal, is ambiguous. At the very least, there was an element of dissembling: Did Leta know the swan was Zeus? We cannot know. Either Leta or the swan or both were violated, which places that sexual act outside the realm of what is proper. This has not kept artists from depicting—quite frequently—these various sexual encounters.

I can imagine, though, that inter-species marriage relationships might be possible if we met a sentient alien race that was similar enough to our own (even though theirs may have multiple genders, or no gender). Could we talk reasonably about “what God intended” in such a circumstance? But who knows? They might find our monkey-like bodies too disgusting to contemplate anything other than a platonic relationship. Like robotic artificial intelligence, this falls outside the scope of this article.

Free consent is vital to the concept of modern Western marriage. It has not always been so. Child marriage, shotgun weddings, and concubinage have all been part of our history. Some ancient biblical authors believed that guaranteeing paternity was more important than consent, so a man who raped a virgin was then obligated to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). In that culture, such marriages helped secure her future, since her value as “unspoiled merchandise” was diminished. However, other Biblical authors creatively critiqued this social double-standard (see again the story of Tamar in Genesis 38).

Consent also rules out marrying people who are catatonic or mentally impaired to a degree that they cannot give consent. For this reason, pastors will often refuse to marry people who are drunk. Modern anecdotes of couples who get drunk and wake up married in Las Vegas are common, although these are usually cautionary tales of what ought not to be done. One must be sober and in full possession of one’s faculties to get married.

4. Taboo Relationships

What about taboo human relationships? Incestuous marriages? Multiple partners?

Incestuous relationships are problematic for a number of reasons, primarily related to autonomy, consent, equity, and reciprocity. In familial relationships, the primary question becomes “how free is the person to make a choice?”

We can compare it to another common ethical violation: If a boss or a supervisor demands a relationship with a subordinate, it is workplace harassment. Family relationships, which are even more private, contain much greater possibility for abuse. Even if someone gives their consent, we’re left with the question, “How free is their consent?” In the workplace or in the military, a consequence of rejection may be firing, demotion, or loss of pay. The reward for compliance may be promotion, higher compensation, or status and prestige. The consequences may be described explicitly as a threat or reward, or, more deviously, they may be implicit and assumed. These latter cases are the most insidious, as people in power often claim that people under their power were willing partners.

In family relationships, even the loss of esteem of a family member may be coercive, especially in parent-child relationships. In this situation, how can consent be truly free? Even if these consequences are only possibilities, they place partners in very unequal positions of power.

While romance does happen in the workplace, generally supervisors and subordinates must sever their workplace relationship. This is not possible with familial relationships. Because of discrepancies in power and the question of consent, incestuous marriage remains unacceptable.

Bestiality and incest are often used in slippery-slope arguments against gay marriage. But the main reasons we avoid them is not “because the Bible says so.” There are good reasons to avoid such relationships besides the fact that they are prohibited by scripture. These questions are often deployed as fallacies in order to raise the “ick” factor in the listener, to generate sufficient disgust to paint the issue in question in a negative light. This does not mean that we should not consider them as arguments (the “fallacy fallacy.”) I think there is value in doing so because it clarifies how we think about marriage and sexual relationships.

5. Monogamy and Exclusivity

As for multiple partners, we must observe that the Bible contains many stories about polygamy. People have put households and families together in a variety of innovative ways. Christian missionaries have often struggled with how to address those relationships within the context of spreading Christian values. But for the purposes of talking about marriage and Christian ethics in our American context, we’ll bracket, for the moment, these other cultures and the fact that some people believe that legal marriage is itself a problem or an outdated institution.

Let’s look again at the reasons that marriage to a mop is not appropriate:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware and do not have autonomy
  3. Mops are not capable of consent
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot make vows of marriage
  6. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  7. Mops are not capable of sharing the equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship that leads to long-term social stability.

These last two reasons for avoiding marriage to mops are, I think, also the best arguments against multiple-partner marriages. (I am not, by the way, ruling out multiple-partner marriages, but illustrating one way to think about it).

Marriage is, essentially, the simplest social arrangement for two non-kin human beings to come together to make a family. Karl Marx observed that the elemental form of human being is not an individual, but a family. A single human being on an island lacks what makes us most distinctively human: our social community. Being in solitary confinement “de-humanizes” us. We are verbal, we can imagine others as subjective selves, we form pair-bonds, we use higher reasoning, all because we have to coordinate social action. Aristotle observed that we are “political animals.” Just as you cannot understand bees without studying a hive, you cannot understand human beings without studying how we organize in social groups. The family is the most elementary social group, and a pair is the smallest unit of human society you can have and still call it “human.” We celebrate the equitable, mutual, reciprocal love of that basic relationship because we recognize something virtuous in this act of family-making. Two have become one.

But for most of human history, equitability, mutuality, and reciprocity have had little to do with family or marriage. In biblical times, men treated women more like chattel than like subjective selves whose consent and autonomy mattered. Of course, there are plenty of scriptures (Samuel 1:8, Song of Songs) that indicate these ancient people were not oblivious to love as the basis for marriage.

Today, though, the willing self-giving of two people to each other to enter into this basic social relationship is considered a praiseworthy thing in our society. Ideally, these arrangements lead to long-term stability that benefits society. Couples can raise children, if they so desire, and support each other by creating networks of enduring relationships that build resilient communities. Divorce and separation, when it happens, hurts the partners, children, and even the fabric of the community as friendship ties are severed.

While it may be possible for more than two people to enter into this kind of relationship, the most basic system is a pair. We must acknowledge that even pairs are seldom alone in how they form households and families: grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, children and grandchildren may all live under one roof. They do not all enter into this kind of covenant relationship, and their presence in the household may be temporary. But in a household with a married couple, all of those relationships are often sustained by the vows and stable relationship of at least one pair.

Sex and reproduction is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a marriage. People marry who cannot have sexual intercourse. Infertile couples marry. Old couples marry. We must also acknowledge that people can, and do, form households or families without marriage. These may be created with any number of sexual or non-sexual relationships. Sex and reproduction are not necessarily part of the relationship.

But part of the traditional vow of marriage is sexual exclusivity, “forsaking all others.” There are several reasons for this exclusivity:

  1. Ensuring paternity and clear parental responsibility for children
  2. Preventing the spread of STDs, especially to the unwitting partner
  3. Ensuring each partner’s energy is focused on the other for stability’s sake
  4. Creating intimacy

Regarding #3 and #4, it should be obvious from divorce statistics that it is difficult enough to create a stable long-term relationship with one other person. Adding more into the mix increases the difficulty level. In cultures which practice other forms of marriage, these reasons might be contested or mitigated by different social arrangements in a village or community. But if having a stable marriage relationship is itself a good to be desired, we can make reasonable arguments for monogamous exclusivity.

Again, this does not rule out the possibility of other marriage arrangements. It does force us to clarify what the social goods are that we believe marriage is supposed to produce. People can, and do, argue that the Bible supports polygamy. If we wish to make arguments about what Christian ethics supports, we will have to do better than just make claims about “what the Bible says.” The long-term work of truly “knowing” another person, coming to terms with our differences, sharing a mission in life together, all may be virtuous goals of monogamous marriage supported by sexual intimacy. But if these are good for straight folks, they are good for LGBTQ folks as well.

6. Further Thoughts about Sexual Ethics and the Bible

Many folks have a good deal of anxiety about the rapid social change that has led to the social acceptance of homosexual relationships. They fear that rejecting one set of moral standards means abandoning all moral standards. But in pursuing this (absurd) question, I’ve illustrated that we have many ways of making ethical judgments. “The Bible says” is only one kind of deontological (rule-based) ethics, and it’s one that not even devout Christians follow completely. We refrain from adultery, murder, or bearing false witness not because the Bible forbids it, but for other very good reasons. That the Bible forbids it gives us interesting theological insight into the ethical nature of God—but it’s not the primary reason we don’t kill.

LGBTQ allies have often noted that the Bible also forbids eating shrimp and endorses the stoning of disobedient children. While dispensationalist Christians sometimes relegate certain regulations to the “old” covenant, it’s pretty clear that even they are not refraining from stoning their disobedient children because one set of regulations (or divine commands) has been superseded by another set.

There are challenges to traditional binary-gender opposite-sex marriage even without the looming inevitability of same sex marriage. Sometimes people are born intersex, with ambiguous genitalia. As Jesus himself observed, “some people are born eunuchs” (Matthew 19:12.) Should intersex people be allowed to marry? Does someone born with ambiguous genitalia have to “decide” which gender they are going to be and marry someone of the opposite gender? In this case, someone may be chromosomally male, but identify and express themselves as female. If this person is also attracted to women, could we reasonably forbid her to be in a same-gender relationship? Or will our society be okay with it if she just changes clothes and acts masculine?

Transgender and queer persons continue to face marginalization because their gender expression or gender identity don’t line up with social expectations, even among gay and lesbian peers. Yet if we were to transport Jesus (as he is popularly depicted) to modern-day Birmingham in his first-century Palestinian dress and long hair, people might assume he was cross-dressing. Jesus never wore trousers. How we interpret the meaning of people’s clothes, makeup, gestures, and vocal characteristics depends not only on their gender, but on our own culture and value systems.

The Bible contains a single line forbidding cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5,) yet many Christian women who claim to be biblical literalists wear pants, vests, and ties. We are forced to ask tough questions about what gender roles have to do with Christian ethics. Is it okay for a man to wear a kilt? A toga? Since fashion changes with the times, is it a Christian virtue to be conventionally fashionable?

I think these are all good questions that challenge us to think more deeply about marriage, sexual ethics, and the things our society considers good and bad. Unfortunately, because a few anti-gay Christians have liberally used fallacious logic and hateful rhetoric, they have undermined the credibility of doing Christian ethics in the public sphere. Those of us who believe that Christian ethics has an important role to play in public life wind up doing damage control. Naturally, plenty of non-religious people have come to believe religion itself is the original sin that plagues our society. As Paul said to the religious leaders of his day, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

Both Jewish and Christian ethics have a long tradition of reframing and reinterpreting the Bible. Jews have somehow avoided stoning disobedient children and adulterers for thousands of years in spite of the fact that they don’t believe in the Christian “new covenant.” Their history of rabbinical argument and dialogue has been a model for Jewish communities about how to read and interpret sacred scripture. When our faith seeks understanding, we leave behind childish things.

I’ve entertained this question, “Why don’t we marry mops,” because I think it’s important for thinking Christians to recognize and name the fact that we use ethical norms other than “what the Bible says.” Rejecting heterosexist or anti-gay norms does not mean we reject all norms and values, or even Christian ones. In fact, we may emphasize other norms, like consent and personal autonomy, that are more conducive to loving our neighbors as ourselves.

For more reading:

Does the Bible Mean?

A reflection on Margaret Farley’s 7 Norms for Sexual Ethics

Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

Why the United Methodist Church Should Ban Contraception (No, Not Really)

So, yeah, the headline to this post is deliberately provocative, but I think it’s important for church leaders to recognize how changing marriage and birth rates affect the churches they lead. (There are, of course, Christians who do support this philosophy).

This is a follow-up to my last post on this subject, Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid. I said that the economy has affected how people create and maintain families, and that because churches have strategically focused on stable families, declines in participation are probably more related to the economy rather than to theology or mission (which preachers prefer to talk about). I drew evidence for my argument from Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers, which far too few church leaders have read. I want to share a one particular excerpt from it on why changing marriage patterns and birthrates have affected church participation.

Growth and decline are partly affected by how many children people want and have. Growth and decline are also influenced (perhaps even more) by the timing of those decisions. If a hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 30 when they had these children, in 60 years there would be 338 offspring. But if those hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 20 when they had them, there would be 439 children in 60 years, or almost 30 percent more.

Screen shot 2013-08-24 at 9.02.06 AM

I’ve added another hypothetical average age of childbirth (15 years) not because I think it’s a good idea, but to illustrate the math. – D.

In addition, waiting until age 30 means more discontinuity of the kind that often weakens religious ties with religious traditions (geographic mobility, travel, higher education). To the extent that religious organizations perpetuate themselves by encouraging families to have children, then, the most significant influence may not be the number of children, but when they have children. (Wuthnow, 143)

Again, I want to assert that I do not think that the Great Commission (making disciples of all peoples) is primarily about breeding new Christians, nor do I think churches should actually be advocating for earlier heterosexual marriages or contraception bans. But I do think that part of the religious right’s idolatry of the family comes from a recognition and prioritization of these social realities. Churches that have built Jesus-theme-parks for families know which side of their bread is buttered.

As a culture,  we have idolized a particular vision of family even as we have made that vision less attainable. We have made it economically tough for young people to marry and have babies, even as the religious right has ratcheted up their condemnation of sex outside of heterosexual marriage. If we make it hard for people to form and maintain families, we also shouldn’t be surprised when churches that depend on families begin to decline. Again, I don’t think this is the way things should be. I just think it’s a pretty accurate description of the way things are.

I’ll restate some of the important questions that I believe churches should ask: How can we be church to people who choose not to or can’t have children? To single parents? To gay and lesbian parents? To grandparents? How can we help people whose life goals do not include “settling down,” but building a life of active ministry?

Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

“Young Adults, Authenticity, and the Future of the Church.” This was the title of our proposal for three years of study when we applied for an ICE grant. In recent days, an article by Rachel Held Evans has created a flurry of replies about the same topic. Here are some of them, compiled by my friend Rachel Gonia:

My favorite (somewhat curmudgeonly) response is from Anthony Bradley: United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face. He says that really, the United Methodist Church addresses all of Rachel’s examples of millennial dissatisfaction. I, too, want to stand on the rooftops, wave my hands and say, “Hey, all you disillusioned evangelicals and spiritually-minded skeptics! We’ve got what you’re looking for right over here!”

Except that I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

I know, we’d rather blame our theological and denominational bugaboos. We’re not missional enough, or evangelical enough, or socially-conscious enough, or orthodox enough, or envelope-pushing enough, or slick enough, or simple enough, or radical enough. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when evangelical inde-bapti-costal churches were growing and mainliners were shrinking, conservatives gleefully blamed weak liberal theology (and the wrath of God) for our decline. Now that it’s hitting the conservatives, too, we (slightly more) liberal mainliners can blame their bad theology. Or whatever theology and practices we dislike. Some people like the idea of shrinkage, because it demonstrates how countercultural the gospel is—only those of us authentically Christian enough will really get it. Okay, sure, I like being in the moral minority, too.

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Instead of theological or worship or marketing issues, I believe a more likely explanation for the decline in attendance at mainline Protestant churches over the last several decades is simply that people tend to marry later (if at all) and have fewer babies. Although our mission is to make disciples, most denominations have grown not by converting unbelievers, but by breeding more Christians. Since the best predictor of church attendance is “settling down” and investing in a local community like your parents did, slowing marriage and reproduction rates means fewer generations in a given church. As evangelical churches began catching up with mainline Protestants in education and income patterns (which delay marriage), their growth slowed and reversed as well. Sure, Christians still make converts and baptize new believers—just not faster than they are dying off.

The trend has only been accelerating. Because of economic pressure on the middle class, marriage itself is becoming a less-attainable goal (compare and contrast with this article about urbanization and the family from 1969). When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

At the same time, the number of churches per thousand people has been declining since the 60’s as well. At one time, Methodists were proud of the fact that there were more Methodist churches than post offices in the United States. All those little country churches became a drag on growth as urbanization increased, yet we stopped planting new churches in cities. And guess where young people are more likely to be? The cities. Not marrying. Not breeding. And the longer they are not in church, the less likely they are to return.

It’s not all about young people. Since a greater number older people can’t afford to retire, the pool of available retirees who provide valuable volunteer labor to churches is declining. We like to talk about the graying of our congregations, but the fact is they are increasingly absent, too.

Here’s a little comparison that illustrates what I’m talking about. Overlay these two graphs. The first is union participation and wage growth for the middle class:

This graph starts with 1967, the last year that the UMC posted a gain in church membership. Since then, we’ve mirrored all other Protestant denominations:

Of course, I’m not claiming that you can just look at two possibly correlated graphs and infer a cause. But I do think that they illustrate what Wuthnow claims about socioeconomic factors leading to fewer young adults in churches. We designed churches to be anchors in the community and shaped them around heterosexual couples who were married, had children, a stable income, and predictable life patterns. The church in the United States shaped itself around the middle class, and grew as it grew. We do not live in that world anymore.

Sure, any given individual’s story may not describe those socioeconomic pressures. I have no doubt that an 22-year-old who has left a church disillusioned might blame bad theology, religious exclusivism, or intolerance of LGBTQ persons for her leaving rather than her parents later marriage, smaller family size, and job transfers in the 80’s and 90’s. And again, I’m not suggesting theology and mission are not important. In fact, I think they are extremely important. But I am always skeptical of self-reporting, and I tend to look for material (rather than intellectual or spiritual) etiologies for church problems. I know this approach is not popular among the religious set, but I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

There are some questions, though, that do connect the socioeconomic problems with the theological ones: Why is church a place where we settle down instead of launch? Why have we idolized family, race, and class values instead of questioning them? And why aren’t we raising more of a ruckus about the economic injustice that is (directly or indirectly) decimating our churches? Why aren’t more of us pointing out that our civic religion and social structure seems to be based more on the pagan worship of the power and wealth of the 1% than the liberating God of Moses and Jesus? Maybe it’s time that we were driven out into the wilderness to learn about the kind of society God envisions.

From Daniel Erlander’s “Manna & Mercy”

The inevitable question people ask me when I talk about this stuff is, “What do we do, then?” I wish I had a better answer, because I automatically mistrust any pastor or pundit whose answer is “Think more like me.” Including me. Especially me.

I do not have an answer, but I have chosen a particular response: Make disciples and plant churches. Plant churches for people in transition. Plant churches for people who want to launch instead of settle down. Plant churches for families. Plant them for homeless runaways. Plant them in bars. Plant them in parks. Plant them in closed or dying churches. Plant them among the young. Plant them in retirement communities. Plant them on the internet. Plant them for liberals. Plant them for conservatives. Plant them among the disillusioned and the non-religious and the too-religious and the rich and the poor. Plant them for freaks and geeks and people who like church and people who don’t. Plant them and call them churches or plant them and call them something else. Just plant them, like a sower randomly casting seeds that bounce off of car hoods and passersby and fall between cracks in the sidewalk and land in vacant lots and on railroad tracks.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ll tell you if it works.

Unsolicited Advice to an Atheist Church: Mission

This may sound condescending, and the only thing I can do is insist that I do not mean it that way: I find it very heartening that some atheists have decided to start a church. Along with stories about humanist chaplains, I think this is a sign that popular atheism is “growing up.”

Again, I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Well, I do, in one sense. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others have been known more for what they rail against than what they are for. When someone insists that religion embodies everything that is wrong with the world, and that we would all be better off if only our thinking were more rational and in better order, I can’t help but think them a bit naive. In Christian thought, sin is pervasive, and infects everything we do—including our reasoning. This is why a raving religious fundamentalist and a non-believer who insists he is “spiritual but not religious” can express the same contempt for others in the same religious terms: “everyone who disagrees with me is a damned fool.”

But I believe that most reformations begin by rejecting something and then having to deal with the “what now?” When Protestants rejected papal authority they had to deal with the “what now?” of how they would organize and who would be in charge. It is not enough to be isolated individuals who share proper thinking. We must organize and effect change. That is what I mean by “growing up.”

Christian churches have operated with a theology that they enflesh or “incarnate” the Spirit of Christ, that they continue a ministry which he started himself. In secular language, it’s about how you live out what you believe and connect it to a larger, ongoing project. And it’s not just “walking the walk” on your own, because it doesn’t become real until it’s done in community, with a common purpose, with real human beings who sometimes get on your nerves or challenge you. If atheism is only about getting religion off our backs so we can enjoy life, then it is a juvenile atheism. When it becomes about how we can practice transforming society into something more humane and increasing our collective quality of life, all the while struggling with our own tendency toward evil, then it is growing up.

In terms of the condescending sense of “growing up,” I’ll also point out that it is far too easy to find examples of Christians who are immature, who are known more for what they are against than what they are for, who do not connect the tenets of what they supposedly believe with their way of life. So easy, in fact, that reciting all of the ways Christians fail to be Christian is tiresome, and I find that I tune out and start thinking about more productive ways to spend my time. I’ll also point out that anyone who thinks they are mature and that they have it all together is probably the most “lost” of us all. (Not coincidentally, this was Jesus’ chief complaint against the religious leaders of his day).

One part of growing up is having a sense of mission, and this is what really excites me about the concept of the atheist church in the article: Just because you believe in an accidental, purposeless universe does not mean human life—and your life—are without purpose. This seems to be a hard concept for many Christians to grasp about atheism. The mission (the author calls it a “mantra”) of the church in the linked article above is “live better, help often, wonder more.” Having a good mission statement is key to getting people on board with collective action of any kind. If you want to challenge the naysayers, have a clear yardstick for group decision-making, and motivate your people, you need a mission statement.

It’s also a reason you need a good theology—or “atheology”—of your mission. Why is what you do important to other people? Can’t they achieve that mission by watching a bunch of TED talks? Is there some reason people need to be “in the flesh” with other human beings in a group? For Christian churches, it is good to ask: Why do people in your community need Jesus? Why do they need church? Why do they need your church? If you really want to take it to the next level, ask these questions of your people.

While I am writing about mission with an air of authority, I do so tongue-in-cheek, with some sense of trepidation and humility. Though I do have quite a bit of experience in different churches, I’m in the process of planting a new church, and we’ll see very shortly if I’m able to live out what I write. The atheist church in the article started with 300 people. I hope we do so well!

I enjoy thinking about what it would take to plant an atheist church, because it helps me critically reflect on how I am planting this church, and what difference a theology of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit has on what I do. There are days that I have trouble believing in God, and what sustains me is the belief that I’ve been called to do this thing, regardless of how I feel in the moment, and not by my own power. Somehow, even in the midst of my doubt, God shows up. Again and again I witness the miracle of the mustard seed: a tiny bit of faith, planted and watered, which spreads like an invasive weed. (In atheistic language, it is a benevolent, infectious meme.) I hope to see the birds of the air come nest in its branches.