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Just one word, one schismatic word, as venerable Scott Hoezee pointed out in these pages.
This time it’s not circumcision, as in Galatia, but “chastity” (or really, unchastity), a term that covers a lot of territory. As usual, predictably, to put it bluntly, it’s something to do with relentless eternal tangles over gender, sex, and power—the last meaning who gets to set the rules and why.
It’s nothing new in the Reformed tradition, or hereabouts, infused as it is with a certain ethnic cussedness (Scotch and Dutch). And, to repeat, always it’s about gender and sex. Not long ago, the great issues flaying the church were about headship and submission, divorce, ladies’ hats, and more recently, ordination of women, some clergy refusing still to so much as hear a woman preach. And now, like, here we go all over again.
Gender and sex are difficult to comprehend and always have been. The late novelist-poet John Updike (1932-2009) identified “sex,” broadly speaking, as one of life’s three great mysteries, the other two being art and God.
And the Bible does not offer the clarity that is often asserted that it does. After all, the first thing Eve and Adam did after tasting that special apple is run for cover and cover up, in more ways than one. And then there’s scoundrel Abraham, who regularly pawned off wife Sarah for self-protection and profit (nor is his treatment of Hagar and son Ishmael any better, casting them away as convenient). Princely holy super-hero David has hell to pay after his rooftop meditation on moonlit Bathsheba bathing. Any doubt about that, just ask Absalom. Dave slew the giant but lost the inner contest–and also his son, as did, it seems, old Abraham after his hike up the mountain. Nor does much change, as instanced in the starkly gruesome toll of clerical abuse of women and men and, yea, countless children, for God’s sake.
And so it goes. Still. The question more often than not seems to be: who can we beat up because of a sexual this or that on behalf of God? Even if, God seems to have more tolerance than God’s self-proclaimed followers; witness Jesus’ care for conspicuously “fallen” women (like who ain’t?).
Then, glaringly, there’s Paul’s admonition to the Galatians, who have apparently revived circumcision as a requirement for salvation. At this the weary Paul is “astonished” and as mad as he ever gets (1:6 NEB). It is, says he, a flat-out “stupid” move to exalt one incidental, arbitrary, and extraneous surgical procedure into a pre-condition for divine acceptance and eternal blessing (3:1).
Dumbstruck by this theological perversity, Paul delivers a singularly scathing indictment of the Galatians: in short, he asks, how did you ever come up with such a crackpot idea, one that violates everything I’ve have been trying to tell you about the radical inclusion of all? For Paul, the one who recruited the Galatians to the Jesus-cause in the first place, this add-on to faith flat-out skews, if not parodies everything Paul has urged upon them. It suggests a mandatory non-negotiable meaning the non-compliant are not only not saved, but not welcome either.
And here we are in Galatia again.
From the recent Synods of the Christian Reformed Church, we now have some sexual something or another as the linchpin for salvation, a tidy override of the lavishness and sufficiency of divine love and welcome. But if the past is any guide, it certainly seems the same rigor will not be applied to heterosexual transgressors and especially to the clergy among them?
But it’s more than that. The assertion of an inerrant doctrinal catechism instead of an all-too-human contrivance is dangerous—when, in fact, human-wrought creeds and catechisms are more like an explorer’s map than dicta from Sinai. Like every human institution, they are tentative, and those who venture to address divine intent and mystery with them should be amply wary of exalting them in the process. At their best, they were meant for clarification, guidance, and nurture, rather than weaponization.
Whenever humans presume to have complete clarity about divine intent, despite ample biblical caution against such, vast and bloody rendings of Christendom have followed. Instead, better to acknowledge the dark glass through which we see but faintly, and especially so given everyone’s own deep-down propensity for doing bloody harm.
In Galatians, perhaps recognizing the futility of argument, and after indulging in fairly brutal snark (including suggesting that maybe those who insist upon circumcision should just go the whole nine yards to eunuchhood), Paul abruptly drops his protracted effort to convince the Galatians of their wrong-headedness, and he instead shifts to simple observation of the futility of such disputes.
The problems: first, practically speaking, “fighting…tooth and nail” leads to “mutual destruction” (5:15). Second, ego too often overruns sense (6:14). Most of all, though, this sort of thing inverts a pivotal spiritual demand of the Gospels–loving the neighbor as much as one’s own self (5:14).
To be sure, Paul acknowledges, destruction lies in improper sexual indulgence, but no less so than in “quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies” (5:20). These all display the absence of divine presence, no matter how soaked in piety and righteousness they might be, and such have nothing to do with the work of the Spirit of God. Instead, Paul lays out a better way through nine “postures of being” that preeminently manifest the character and presence of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, devotion, gentleness, and self-control (5:22).
In short, charity, deep and wide.