There’s a movement within United Methodism called “Biblical Obedience” whose name itself is offensive to many Methodists because it advocates full inclusivity for LGBT people. I’ve already written about my understanding of what the Bible actually teaches on this issue, but what I really want to contemplate today is the question of obedience itself, setting aside the LGBT issue for a moment. The most radical example of Biblical obedience I can think of (other than Jesus’ journey to the cross) is when God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. This story raises difficult questions. Is obedience always a good thing? How do we know whether we’re obeying God or conforming to the world, particularly if our world happens to be saturated in church culture? How does Abraham’s radical example translate into our day? Does it look more like Huck Finn’s quest to free his friend Jim from slavery in rebellion against his cultural values or Adolf Eichmann’s willingness to follow orders and carry out the genocide of the Jewish people?
It’s very difficult to find anything admirable about Abraham’s willingness to murder his son just because God told him to. While in Genesis 18:23-33, Abraham had the boldness to debate with God over the fate of Sodom, he doesn’t say anything back to God when God tells him in Genesis 22 to sacrifice Isaac. What in the world was going through his head? The story has the terse, understated prose of an Ernest Hemingway novel. On the way up the mountain, there’s only one brief conversation. Isaac says to his father, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
It must have been an awkward transition when Abraham said (or didn’t say), “Actually son, I want you to lie down on that piece of wood while I tie you up so that I can slit your throat and burn your body as a sacrifice.” Did Isaac struggle when his father tied him up or was he paralyzed with terror that this adult whom he trusted more than anyone else in the universe was preparing to kill him? What was their relationship like after God bailed out Abraham and gave him a ram? Did Isaac ever speak to his father again after he was untied?
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book called Fear and Trembling as a reflection on Abraham’s fateful journey up Mt. Moriah. Though he somewhat depersonalizes the story to turn it into an abstract question of existentialism, the way in which he sticks up for Abraham is important. Kierkegaard basically says that if God had not promised Abraham that he would make Isaac into a great nation, then Abraham’s obedience would be stupid and immoral. The only thing that makes Abraham’s deed admirable is its foundation in his radical trust of God. In this sense, Abraham’s obedience can be understood as a test of God rather than solely a test from God. Abraham is holding God’s feet to the fire by doing something that completely doesn’t make sense, all because he trusts in God’s promise. He’s playing chicken with God and assuming that God is going to be the one to flinch.
The only experience in my life that I can at all relate to Abraham’s story was the second time I tried to get my pilot’s license. I had failed my first check ride because I was scared of going into a tail spin, which the examiner asked me to do to see whether I could pull out of it. On the second check ride, I passed the tail spin, but he wanted to test my crash-landing abilities, so he told me to set my flaps and get everything ready to land in a nearby cornfield. If I had hesitated at all, he wouldn’t have passed me. So I went through with it fully expecting to land and tear up my wings in the rows of corn, thinking if this guy told me to do it, then he has to pay for the damage. I was less than a hundred feet off the ground (a lot closer than it sounds) when he told me to pull out. I’ve decided to believe that Abraham never would have gone as far as he did if he didn’t know that God would provide an out and grab his hand before the knife could come down on his son.
So radical obedience in the Bible means a willingness to obey God even in contradiction to what makes ethical sense to you. I will say that if I ever hear a voice from God commanding me to kill my son, I will disobey that voice and go straight to a psychiatrist. But how in the world can we tell that God is really talking to us when his command to us seems to be contradicting our ethical beliefs? Here’s the problem. We can’t get out of this by saying that we just trust whatever we read in the Bible. Obviously it’s the most important resource we’ve got, but if Abraham had had a full Torah to look at, he could have said, “Na-ah, God. You’re contradicting your own law, which prohibits child sacrifice in Leviticus 18:21.” Though we can choose to profess that the Bible’s teachings are completely self-evident and never contradict each other, this is not so much an act of trust as an act taken to avoid the need for trust. The Bible has a long history of being used to argue both sides of many issues, which is not at all to render it meaningless, but just to say that declaring our fidelity to the Bible doesn’t protect us from facing legitimate quandaries.
A sinister reading of Abraham would see his model of obedience being carried out in Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat in charge of the logistics of the Holocaust. Eichmann was willing to go against his moral sensibilities for the sake of obedience, right? When Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem for his war crimes, Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt went to observe the trial. She wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil which described how Eichmann didn’t carry himself like much of a villain. He was a polite, boring person. He explained that he had simply been following orders, and he felt relieved and at peace with his conscience since other people had made the important decisions instead of him. There was nothing demonic or monstrous about his demeanor. And yet he did incredible evil because he was obedient. Surely that’s not what Biblical obedience looks like.
A very different analogy to Abraham’s obedience might not even look like obedience at all. It occurs in Mark Twain’s famous story of Huck Finn, a rebellious teenage boy who takes off with a runaway slave named Jim down the Mississippi River. In Huck’s eyes, what he’s doing by helping a runaway slave is immoral and the reason he’ll go to hell when he dies. So he resolves to write a letter to Jim’s owner and turn him in:
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”– and tore it up.
The difference between Eichmann and Huck Finn is that Eichmann’s obedience wasn’t really obedience; it was conformity. Huck Finn actually obeyed his conscience even though he was disobedient to his society. That’s what makes obedience really hard. Every act of obedience to one master is always simultaneously an act of disobedience to another. The only way to avoid conflict is to be half-heartedly obedient to whoever is the most in charge of your social sphere at the time. If your church has a cult of personality built around your pastor and you do everything he says without questioning it, then you’re conforming to your church’s culture, not obeying God. It may be that you end up doing what God wants this way, but it’s not because of your obedience.
What counts as the radical Biblical obedience of Abraham is when our obedience to God’s call risks the ostracism of our community by contradicting its moral values. Now regarding the LGBT issue that we can’t stop talking about, it’s super-important to recognize that both sides of the issue are filled with Huck Finns and Adolf Eichmanns. In fact, I would say that we’ve all got a little bit of both in us. Rachel Held Evans’ recent post “The Cost” addresses this reality.
There is a real cost for the traditionalists who are determined to hold onto what they understand the Bible to teach regardless of how much they get ridiculed and demonized. It’s also true that there’s tremendous pressure on evangelicals like me (yes, I still consider myself one) not to come out as LGBT-affirming. It has been made into the one litmus test of whether or not you are Biblically faithful (as opposed to, say, whether you actually live your life according to the Bible’s teachings). On the flip side, marriage traditionalists who want to have any relationship with progressive people at all face tremendous pressure to keep their views on marriage in the closet and of course to play the “I’m a Christian but I’m not like those Christians” game to establish their credibility. I’ve definitely been guilty of firing off blog attacks against my fellow evangelicals on social issues in order to earn respect from the progressive community.
So how do I determine whether another person is really following God’s lead or only conforming to conservative or progressive groupthink? I can’t. Only you know whether your public stance on anything is a loyalty gesture or a genuine, God-fearing conviction. My cynicism has been wired in a certain direction because of the fact that I grew up among moderate evangelicals, and when I was first exposed to the homosexuality topic 20 years ago, it was being used primarily as a guilt-by-association tactic by which fundamentalists would seek to discredit moderates. Every issue of the North Carolina state Baptist newsletter would have scandalous headlines about moderate leaders who had been caught in meetings with other Christians (like those ghastly Episcopalians) who were supportive of the homosexual lifestyle. Because that was my first exposure to the issue, it’s been very difficult not to presume that it’s always been about power play and one-up-man-ship on the conservative side of things.
But I know that isn’t fair and that there are people on both sides who are trying their best to trust and obey God amid fear and trembling and self-doubt, like Abraham climbing up Mt. Moriah. I consider it my duty to the Bible’s living interpretive tradition to continue to testify in obedience to what God has revealed to me. But I also think it would be sinful for someone to cave on their convictions (even in response to something I write) and betray what God has been teaching them out of conformity to social pressure.
The Biblical obedience modeled by Abraham means to be faithful to what God has revealed to each of us in our journeys of reading the Bible and walking through life, resisting the pressure to succumb to the unfair presumptions of our haters. This requires trusting that God is speaking to people with whom I completely disagree. A few years down the road, he may show them that they’re wrong or he may show me that I’m wrong. But there are a whole sequence of realizations that lie in between where I am now and the greater wisdom I hope to one day have. I can’t fast-forward other people through their walk of learning to trust and obey God any more than others can fast-forward me through mine.
Of course, it’s very easy for me to take this kind of posture on the LGBT issue because I don’t have any personal skin in the game. What’s actually admirable is the grace with which Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network, tries to build bridges between the LGBT community and the conservative evangelical community. I deeply admire the courage of the celibate Christian LGBT couple Lindsey and Sarah who wrote a guest-post on my blog a couple weeks ago and more recently shared testimony on their own blog of other Christian LGBT couples who had discerned that celibacy was not their calling.
Bottom line is if I’m to have any hope of learning what God has to teach me, then it’s not in my best interests to throw rocks at people who disagree with me until they cry uncle. Because I’m a sinner, I contradict this realization every day, which totally sucks. But regardless of what you believe about today’s big controversy or any other issue, I want you to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) like I hope that I’m doing, so that even if you never seem to win any arguments with me, God will use what he’s shown you to help me learn trust and obedience to him, independent of what the progressives and conservatives tell us we’re supposed to think.