I was both bullied and have, at times, been a terrible bully myself. You probably were too. To be demeaned, ridiculed, dismissed, mocked — it’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? Both when it happens to you, and when you find yourself doing it to someone else. I guess I just always expected that a day would come when kindness, understanding and mutual respect would prevail, and that bullying would become a thing of the past in both my life and world. I especially believed this because my life and world were so decidedly and self-consciously “Christian.”
I expected that when someone said that Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior, that the things that He said that He expected of His disciples would begin to play an increasingly decisive role in their thinking, talking and behaving, something like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). I just expected that as Christians grew in age, that they would correspondingly “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” And while I think that I have, I must confess that my growth in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has not been nearly as complete or as consistent as I imagined and hoped that it would be by this point in my life. I have consciously been a Christian for 50 years now, and while I’ve come a long way spiritually in that time, I’m still far from finished. I’m still selfish. I’m still lazy. I’m still impatient. I’m still judgmental. I’m still proud. What I failed to factor into my expectations of growth is the stubbornness of our old natures. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther used to say that waters of baptism was where Adam (our old nature) went to get “drowned.” But what we would soon discover, he added, is what “a good swimmer” Adam turns out to be! I should have been ready for this.
Early in my spiritual life I read Jacques Ellul’s book The Presence of the Kingdom with its warning about our propensity, even as Christians, to be spiritual “wolves” when what we’re actually called to be by the Lamb of God is “sheep” (Matthew 10:16).
…Every Christian receives from Jesus a share of His work. He is a “sheep” not because his action or his sacrifice has a purifying effect on the world, but because he is the living and real “sign,” constantly renewed in the midst of the world, of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. In the world everyone wants to be a “wolf,” and no one is called to play the part of a “sheep.” Yet the world cannot live without this living witness of sacrifice. This is why it is essential; that Christians should be very careful not to be wolves in the spiritual sense – that is, people who try to dominate others. Christians must accept the domination of other people, and offer the daily sacrifice of their lives, which is united with the sacrifice of Christ.
I am thinking about all of this right now because of some bullying that I experienced last week in cyberspace. It wasn’t personal. Nobody called me out specifically by name. But in several postings I came across recently, Christians of my “ilk” – Traditionalist Christians with a high regard for the inspiration and authority of Scripture – were demeaned, ridiculed, dismissed and mocked by those of a more “Progressive” ilk.
It began with some dismissive remarks about a verse of Scripture wrenched from its context and held up for derision. Soon others joined in the fray, tearing other verses from their contexts, and gleefully lobbing them into the slugfest. They had a real good time.
Now, none of it was directed at me or at anything I had posted, mind you, and yet, as I read I found myself back in grade school being pointed at and made fun of. There are 55 years between those experiences of my childhood and now, and not a scintilla of space between the feelings it turns out. Oh, I’m just as familiar with the way that “my” people do this very same thing to “them,” just as voraciously and maybe even more frequently. But that’s no excuse. Paul’s exhortation– “If you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15) – knows no “ilk.” Traditionalist Christians like me failing to practice the Golden Rule when talking about Progressives does not create an “exception” to the Golden Rule for Progressives when talking about Traditionalists. We’ve all – Progressives and Traditionalists alike – got to take Jesus more seriously. Period.
Now, being just as generous as I can possibly be (…the Golden Rule, Doug, the Golden-Rule…), I am going to say that what I think started this particular cyber-snowball rolling downhill was the concern of this one particular hyper-posting Progressive Christian for the naïve and simplistic Biblicism that he has observed in and no doubt experienced in his own painful interactions with more traditionalist Christians like me. Clearly mystified and perhaps a little frustrated by us Christians who conscientiously seek the Bible’s counsel on questions of belief and behavior, and who are “a priori prepared” to acknowledge the Bible’s authority in matters of faith and practice, this Progressive Christian threw a sucker punch when he didn’t think any of us Traditionalist Christians were looking, knowing that his friends would probably enjoy it — which they most certainly did. The problem is that the internet is a very public place. Nothing goes unnoticed. They weren’t just talking to each other, as if that were a legitimate Golden Rule “exemption.” Their fun was at my expense, and the expense of all of us Christians whose faith is Bible-centered – which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean naïve and simplistic.
In my first day of classes at Fuller Theological Seminary back in 1976 – as “Evangelical” a seminary as there is – the New Testament professor who was teaching the Synoptic Gospels class that I was taking constructively opened the door to the critical approach of Scripture by conducting what he called his “five minute Bible Study.” He took one Gospel story and had us look it up in Matthew, Mark and Luke, paying close attention to the variations in the story between each of the three texts. Accounting for these differences and wondering why each Gospel editor told the story in the way that he did is what it means to take the Bible seriously that professor explained. And the tools of historical, grammatical and literary criticism were all there, he told us, to help us do this rigorously without any loss of reverence for the Word or obfuscation of the Gospel.
I have found this same spirit recently in the writings of David Gushee on how he has changed his mind as an internationally known Baptist Evangelical ethicist on the pressing questions of the Gospel’s message to the church as she continues to sort through the proper way to relate to the Gay and Lesbian Christians in her midst (Changing Our Mind – Read the Spirit Books – 2015). After explaining how traditionalists have often connected the dots of what the Bible says about human sexuality in such a way that they draw the conclusion that they must conscientiously oppose all same-sex behavior and same-sex relationships, David Gushee went on to tell Progressive Christians about the best ways to engage the Traditionalists who have drawn these conclusions into meaningful and sustained conversation (56-57).
Do not dismiss the traditionalist-cited passages as “clobber verses,” deployed with malice to harm gay people. Certainly there are some who use the Bible in egregious ways to clobber others, but also remember the good-hearted Christian folks who are simply trying to be faithful Christians and aren’t clobbering anyone when they cite the passages they think are most relevant to the issue.
Do not dismiss whole authors (Paul) or sections (Old Testament) of Scripture as if we good, contemporary folks know that they have little to say to our enlightened modern world, at least not if you want to be taken seriously by traditional Christians.
Do not dismiss people who cite the Bible against your view simply as fundamentalists or some other derogatory phrase. It’s not helpful, and most of the time it’s not fair. Name-calling rarely advances the search for truth or the health of the Christian community.
Do not dismiss traditionalist Christian sexual ethics as simply part of an overall anti-body, anti-sex, anti-woman, anti-pleasure agenda. Surely this has been a strand of Christian history. But I can point you to a zillion Christians who love bodies, sex, women, men and pleasure, but who read the Bibles in a traditionalist way on this issue.
Do not simply point to broad themes of liberation, justice, or inclusion of the marginalized as if those important biblical imperatives ipso facto invalidate the need to deal with the texts cited on the traditionalist side.
Do not assume that the issue is settled by making claims to be “prophetic.” This is a big claim, and it helps to remember that some on the other side of this issue are also making it. Only God can validate who is really being prophetic.
Do not just say that it’s time for Christians to “catch up with the culture” or stop falling “behind the times.” The fact that a particular culture has moved to a particular point does not prove anything, because cultures are quite often wrong.
Concluding his counsel to Progressives who truly want to engage Traditionalists in serious and sustained conversation and not just “bash” them David Gushee wrote –
The argument over sexuality today is a serious one. It requires serious work. But when Progressives default to these responses and refuse to engage the real concerns of the other side, they come across as fundamentally unserious about Scripture – or theology – or ethics – or Christian discipleship. And I suspect that this is one primary reason for the level of passion about this issue in the Traditionalist side.
Of course, similar lists of guidelines have been created by Progressive Christians to help Traditionalist Christians like me better understand the best ways to engage them in meaningful and sustained conversation about the conclusions that they have drawn on important matters of belief and behavior that differ so significantly from “our” conclusions.. And it seems to me that the sooner we all become more familiar with and more adept at following these guidelines in the spirit of the Golden Rule, the sooner the bullying could be curbed and the real conversations might begin. DBS +