Ten Principles for the Next Reformation

Ten Principles for the Next Reformation October 31, 2017

"Bible with Cross Shadow," David Campbell, Flickr C.C.
“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

I got to spend the weekend that marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation at the Reformation Project conference in Chicago. The Reformation Project was started by Matthew Vines as an organization that advocates for biblically grounded full inclusion for LGBTQ people in the church. But it’s about so much more than a single issue or constituency of people. The church’s current sexuality debate has surfaced a host of issues around the meaning of ethics, salvation, hermeneutics, and orthodoxy that need to be addressed.

I believe that we are in the midst of a battle over Christian identity that is no less intense than the original Reformation. As with the original Reformation, there are many different parties to the conflict, and I think Gamaliel’s counsel to the Sanhedrin is applicable. All the sects ensconced in today’s debates that are based on passing human fancies will fade away over time. Whatever is of divine origin will manifest itself in whatever orthodoxy emerges out of the chaos.

The original Reformation had five principles that each began with sola: sola fide, sola scriptura, solo christus, sola gratia, and soli deo gloria. I’ve come up with ten principles that I would propose for the next Reformation. I think they’re rooted in solid biblical teaching brought into conversation with legitimate critiques of Christianity in postmodern culture that should be engaged thoughtfully and used constructively rather than dismissed.

1. God has never stopped creating humanity in his image

For many Christians, the doctrine of creation is past tense. God created the world and humanity in his image. Then humanity fell into sin. Original sin corrupted everything about creation. So everything we don’t like or understand about creation today like cancer, earthquakes, people with unusual genes, etc, is a product of the corruption of sin. Christians seem to narrate creation in this way because they want God to be sovereign on the one hand but also off the hook for any circumstances of life that defy facile explanation, which they can simply attribute to sin. But such an account of creation makes sin far more powerful than God. If God is still God, then God has never stopped creating humanity in his image. People who are created with genetic variations that fall outside the norms, such as non-binary genders or any other genetic anomaly, are not products of sin’s corruption but indispensable icons of God’s image who need to be celebrated for their beauty. To say that the fallenness of our humanity under original sin is a biological reality is to say that God is no longer our creator. My doctrine of original sin describes sin’s corruption as a social reality rather than a sin-created biology because God has never stopped creating.

2. Without God’s grace, we become monsters

God’s grace is the essential foundation of Christianity: the belief that without God’s unconditional forgiveness, nobody can make it. We need God’s grace not because God demands perfection from us and must pay himself back the debt for our imperfection, but because our sin makes us monsters in the absence of the grace that alone can defeat sin. The chief problem with sin is that we innately try to justify it. Sin entraps us when we lie to ourselves and get defensive about it. This self-justification makes us into monsters. When we accept Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin on the cross, we gain the freedom to be wrong, admit our mistakes, and grow from them. When we are no longer invested in justifying ourselves because Jesus is our justification, sin loses its power over us and we are able to create vulnerable, authentic community with one another.

3. Our ethics must be based on human dignity rather than law and order

What Jesus reveals in his ministry throughout the gospels is that he cares more about the dignity of individual people than preserving the law and order of religious propriety. A summary of this ethic can be found in his statement that “the Sabbath was made for humanity not humanity for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Throughout the history of Christianity, there has been a debate between the ethics of human dignity and the ethics of law and order. The majority Christian position has usually been that our ethics is mostly about people fulfilling their proper role in a divinely mandated order: slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to husbands, queer people submitting to a gender binary, etc. This is why I’ve said that Christianity has been hijacked by the spiritual offspring of the religious authorities who crucified Jesus. What Jesus cared most about was making sure that the most socially ostracized person in the room experienced honor and dignity whether it was the woman who erotically massaged his foot or the woman who dumped a bottle of spikenard on his head or the short, sleazy tax collector Zacchaeus. If we read the Bible presupposing an ethics of law and order, we will interpret what we find very differently than if we read it looking for an ethics of human dignity.

4. Christ’s blood is our ultimate authority

Many Christians have a very patriarchal conception of authority in which might makes right. God has authority because he has absolute power over the universe, and his authority is conferred onto the alpha male in the church pulpit to whom we are to submit in unquestioning obedience. But what we see in the book of Revelation is that the one who is given authority is “the lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Jesus’ authority as a judge is not derived in his ability to make us bleed, but in his blood that was shed by us. The reason that the first Christian converts became Christians was not because they feared being punished by God but because they were “cut to the heart” by their complicity in the crucifixion of their messiah (Acts 2:37). They were not submitting to the imperial authority of the powerful institution that the church would eventually become. They were responding to the moral authority of Jesus’ blood expressed through Peter’s testimony. Accepting God’s representation of his authority in the form of a slaughtered lamb means rejecting the patriarchal, imperial modes of authority that have predominated the church for centuries.

5. We expect the Spirit to disrupt our presumptions

Throughout the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit expresses her sovereignty through disruption, most often signified with the speaking of tongues. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is supposed to be paradigmatic of the life of the church. Sadly, this innately disruptive character of the Holy Spirit has been completely cast aside by many Protestants and Catholics in their lived theology. Many Catholics seem to worship the Father, the Son, and the Church, while many Protestants worship the Father, the Son, and the Bible. Catholics would say the Holy Spirit can never contradict the infallible teachings of the Pope while Protestants would say the Holy Spirit can never contradict their standardized interpretation of the Bible, which in both cases means that the Holy Spirit is not really sovereign. But if the book of Acts is supposed to represent how the Spirit moves in the church, then we should expect our presumptions to be continually disrupted as the Holy Spirit relentlessly reshapes us into the form of Christ.

6. The church is supposed to be a solidarity movement

Through Jesus’ parables, he consistently describes the kingdom of God as a place in which “the last will be first and the first will be last.” Last weekend, our campus ministry looked at the parable of the wedding feast in Luke 14:15-24, in which God is a rich man who invites all the people off the street to his party after his rich friends rebuff his invitation. That’s what the church should look like: a space that is a refuge for the world’s outsiders. But lately, the church has become a refuge for privileged people who seek reassurance that life is uncomplicated and God’s moral priorities are their own. When Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him, he’s calling us to throw off our privilege and status to march with the world’s crucified. This doesn’t mean that we should neglect the spiritual discipline of pursuing holiness and become toxic, un-introspective social justice warriors. We need to be made holy so that we can be God’s solidarity.

7. Orthodoxy is a song, not a checklist

There are two meanings of the word doxa in Greek. For Aristotle and pagan philosophers, doxa means opinion. For Paul and the New Testament writers, it means glory. Too many Christians have a pagan definition of orthodoxy as right opinion rather than a Pauline definition of orthodoxy as right glory. Why is this distinction important? Because the point of Christian teaching is not to produce a checklist of correct answers, but to teach us how to perform God’s song gloriously. Each of us is going to have our own innovations to bring to God’s song. Some will harmonize; some will not. Hopefully, we are brought more into sync with the feel of the song as we grow in our skill. Heresy happens when we stubbornly persist in making cacophony and discord in God’s song rather than being malleable and humble enough to let God bring us into harmony. It’s better to think of this as being out of tune rather than being incorrect. Heresy is being willfully out of tune. Some people intuitively know how to play God’s song beautifully even though they’re terrible at reading his sheet music. Other people are masters of the sheet music, but they play the song in such a painfully mechanistic way that it ruins the whole symphony.

8. The Bible must be read with the marginalized

For most of Christian history, biblical interpretation has been the purview of relatively wealthy white men. Yes, some of them were monks who were sworn to personal poverty but by virtue of their security as educated elites provided for by a powerful institution, they occupied a place of privilege. It’s only been in the last half-century that brown and female interpreters have begun to have a voice. So when Christians say that there’s nothing new to see in the Bible, they’re choosing to exclude the people whose interpretations have only recently received notice. The predominant biblical interpretation of American Christianity caters to white middle-class sensibilities. Sexual propriety, the perennial middle-class virtue, is amplified, while talk about money and other aspects of social justice are minimized. It’s not that middle-class virtues are bad; they’re simply incomplete. That’s why we need marginalized interpreters of the Bible to provide correction for the blind spots we have developed in the Bible’s mainstream interpretation.

9. Mystical union with Christ is individual salvation

The goal of Christian spirituality is described by the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:19-20: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” As a Christian, I am seeking such a radical state of intimacy with the divine that I no longer live but Christ lives in me. Salvation is not a cheesy Disneyland afterlife in the sky. Salvation is a mystical reality Jesus wants us to experience here and now. I have experienced moments of it. Most recently, at the Reformation Project conference, I sat in prayer in front of an icon of Jesus rescuing a lamb from a thorn bush and Jesus told me that that was what he was doing for me. Union with Christ is what heaven is. Alienation from Christ is what hell is. This is not to minimize the reality of heaven and hell. They are both quite real and quite serious. But any account of heaven and hell as a mechanistic reward or punishment is a projection of shallow consumerist thinking rather than a faithful representation of biblical teaching. The goal is to be intimate with Jesus. There are things we can do to make ourselves more available to him; and there are things we can do to make ourselves more alienated from him. We need to seek the things that draw us closer to him.

10. Restorative justice is humanity’s salvation

The apostle Paul says that God’s purpose in Christ is to reconcile the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). In other words, Christianity is not a rescue mission for a tiny group of predestined elect who are raptured out of a damned world. Christians are called to be ministers of God’s reconciliation who seek a world where all brokenness is healed and restored. God wants to use us to help heal the world and set everything right. His purpose is not to punish and collect debt, but to establish justice by commanding mercy. If we are willing to humble ourselves and receive his mercy, then we can be part of the safe, vulnerable kingdom he is establishing. If we prefer to cling to our egos, agendas, and judgments, then God will not let us harm the people who have put themselves under his mercy. I cannot subscribe to universalist salvation because I trust that God protects his people from their oppressors. It will be wonderful news if it turns out in the end that all the oppressors have repented and entered into God’s healing restoration.

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