I’ve found a couple of recent posts on Mike Bird’s blog frustrating. First, there was one called “The Problem With Liberal Churches” which quoted Addison Hodges Hart on Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World (p.116):
Mainline (“liberal”) Protestantism, meantime, continues to evaporate like an insubstantial morning mist. Left-wing in politics, “nice,” bland, ineffective, graying, vague in message, spineless in matters of sexual morality, and doctrinally vaporous, it has little spark left within it and suffers from a relentless loss of numbers from its pews. And so on. The handwriting might well seem to be on the wall – “weighted and found wanting.”
It is interesting that low numbers in conservative churches are an indication of being a faithful remnant, the unpopularity of the Gospel, the fact that the majority is often wrong, and that Christians are called to go against the flow, while low numbers in liberal churches are an indication of the opposite.
Yet it is not the theology of the progressive Millennial Protestants that most take our breath away. It is the hubris. Matthew Vines, a young twenty-something with no formal theological training, believes with all starry-eyed optimism that he has the authority to correct the apostle Paul in his doctrinal particulars. This is a familiar pattern for Vines; one winces, for example, as he publicly brings his father to heel in his book.
We do not judge a Christian teacher only by his age or experience, to be sure. But the new progressives have an authority problem. Whether their own family members or martyred apostles, they show no hesitation in correcting those who would—and should—teach them. They do so, furthermore, with precious little confessional and congregational accountability. Ecclesial accountability—though no fail-safe—is given us for our good. Beware Greeks bearing bonds, you might say, and bloggers without churches.
Put it this way: If we’re faced with a choice between a precocious twenty-something with lots of neat new ideas about sexuality and gender untested by the scholarly community on the one hand, and an apostle gored by a Roman sword because the Holy Spirit spoke through him in tones ancient authorities considered hostile to imperial rule on the other, we’re banking on the latter.
This is conservatives once again being hypocritically selective in their application of their allegedly core principles. When someone challenges a conservative pastor for bullying and abuse, the response is often to decry the hubris of one who would challenge God’s anointed. When someone challenges a denomination for driving a wedge between faith and science that is at odds with historic Christianity, they are dismissed as innovators.
On the one hand, Matthew Vines nowhere suggests that Paul was wrong. The fact that these critics have to resort to misrepresentation indicates the weakness of their position. On the other hand, those of us who, unlike Vines, are progressive or liberal in our view of Scripture do think Paul was wrong. He was wrong about the place where human thought occurs in the body. He was wrong to think that those whose lives are guided by the Golden Rule can leave slavery or gender inequity in place unchallenged. He was wrong to think that he and others alive at the time he wrote to the Thessalonians would see Christ return.
And yet these were points at which he was wrong because many of his contemporaries were wrong. When conservatives criticize liberals for going along with their contemporaries, why don’t they do the same for the Bible’s authors?
Where Paul stood apart from his contemporaries was in finding a creative way to reject the clear teaching of Genesis 17, that in order to be part of the household of Abraham, even if not his biological offspring, it was necessary to be circumcised:
This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Paul’s contemporaries decried the hubris of this minority voice, daring to challenge the clear teaching of Scripture and the historic stance of the people of God.
This hypocrisy is so incredibly frustrating. To embrace Paul as not merely right but Scripture, and to dismiss the hubris of one who dares to challenge a longstanding view today, shows that they have learned nothing from the past (remember Galileo?) and have failed to understand their own Scriptures.
Have a read of Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. From my own perspective as a liberal, I am struck time and again by Vines’ unwillingness to view the Bible as having gotten things wrong. And so the fact that his conservative critics claim that he is saying just that shows just how desperate they are to discredit him.
It is ironic that Paul’s critics had the same stance and the same criticisms as Vines’ critics, and that they now embrace Paul’s convoluted attempts to show that he was not being unfaithful to Scripture as themselves Scripture, while demeaning and dismissing anyone who sounds like Paul today.