The Murky Waters of Ministerial Restoration

I chose not to name names here, but as the stories/charges from my former school have multiplied since I first wrote this narrow somewhat even-handed post, I invite you to read more on your own… https://rightingamerica.net/rape-sexual-harassment-and-more-the-cedarville-stories-are-multiplying/?fbclid=IwAR3w4PvmDPtu5fcnddvHU_EtiR1P534Vdd3PsOu0NVUvx5ZfJlSsFNt5CUQ

A Christian college I attended years ago has been in the news lately. It recently fired a professor (I will call him “Dr. Smith”) for sexual misbehavior. Technically speaking, it wasn’t for sexual misbehavior— there had been no documented sexual misbehavior during his time as professor. Rather, it was discovered that some of his sexual misbehavior that was known from the past had been covered up. The college had accepted Dr. Smith as having made “one mistake” when later it was discovered that he had actually had a pattern of misbehavior, at least in the past. Essentially, he was accepted “warts and all.” However, he intentionally allowed things to be kept undisclosed during the hiring process, so such a cover-up can suffice as a basis for being let go.

The professor is a married man but had videotaped one of his assistant (male) ministers taking a shower in the nude. The school had accepted this as an admitted area of struggle for Dr. Smith and something he was repentant of and seeking to grow beyond. The school gave him a list of probationary limitations, as well as disciplinary and accountability actions, towards restoration. However, when the school found out that the problem was much bigger with past actions closer to stalking and coercing over a long period of time, the school felt they could not accept this and let him go.

I can understand the school’s position. If someone (we can call him Tom) told an employer that he once stole $10 dollars from a neighbor when he was in college, that employer can accept this information and address it. But if it was later discovered that Tom had been a habitual thief for years, the employer may be perfectly justified to let him go, even if he hasn’t been found to have stolen during his employment there. The justification would not be because of theft, but because of lying/deception.

There are so many issues that come up in this tiny little story.

First… Many people have called for the resignation of the president of the school— we can call him “Pres. Jones.” I personally can’t call myself a supporter of the president. He is a Complementarian and I am not, so I must admit that I don’t like his actions that have continued to move my former school more in that Complementarian direction. However, it seems like the school was already well along moving in that direction without the help of Pres. Jones, so I am not too motivated to hold that strongly against him. I do, personally, respect a leader who supports forgiveness and restoration (with appropriate discipline and accountability measures inplace). I don’t think ministerial roles should only be given to people with zero marks against them from the past (either because of no major moral failings, or because the failings have been well-hidden). Paul and David were given second chances ministerially after sinful activities that most everyone would have trouble ignoring. Peter denied Christ (much in line with the activity decried during the Donatist controversy. Two disciples of Christ wanted to ask God to call down fire on people who refused to show them hospitality.

I like the fact that President Jones was willing to give Dr.Smith a chance. I also like the fact that there were disciplinary limitations put in place. Of course, there are still reasons for concern.

  • Concern #1 was that it sounds like the issue wasn’t well-researched. It even sounds like the school did not speak to the victim. If that is the case, it is hard to say that Dr. Jones applied due diligence to the matter. If this is true, then the situation is, indeed, partly his fault.
  • Concern #2 was that there was some suggestion that the decision of Pres. Jones to hire Dr. Smith was because of Smith’s connection to “Pres.. Johnson” the former boss of Pres. Jones. Pres. Johnson has a bit of a spotty record known by many for an attitude that could be described as “Boys will be boys, and girls should just keep quiet about it.” Was the decision to hire based on old boys network or based on genuine concern for restoration. I have no idea.
  • Concern #3. If one reads all of the things the school set in place to provide disciplinary support and accountability for Dr. Smith… well, they sound a bit fake. When I say fake, I am not saying the list was not actually drawn up. It might have existed. However, I have seen this sort of list made before, and rarely if ever are they actually carried out. Often the list is little more than a cynical way to “cover one’s own back side.” I would prefer to be wrong on this concern (as well as the others). I want to think the accountability/disciplinary structure was set up to EQUALLY protect the student body, and help the professor. But that might not be the case.

The Second issue is about whether one should hire a person who has sexually acted out in the past at all. For some, sexually acting out is a greater sin than other sins. As such, it can’t be overlooked. Others may see sexual sin as pointing to problems that simply do not go away. Recidivism is so high that one cannot take the risk on the person ever again.

I don’t really see sexual abuse as greater than other forms of abuse. Many bosses and teachers abuse emotionally, or maintain abusive power dynamics in their leadership. Or they cheat, or are unforgiving, or are corrupt. Churches and schools often give these a pass while see sexually acting out as being beyond restoration ministerially.

And you know what? I get it. I long felt that way. One of the articles I read included the comments of a sex abuse expert in Christian ministry. I will call her Dr. Wilson. Dr. Wilson seemed to hold the view that once a sexual predator, always a sexual predator. As such, there should be no restoration ever. I can understand this opinion, and can even give anecdotes that support this. I have a colleague who had done counseling with a minister who had sexually acted out (I won’t share details here for many reasons) with a number of women in his youth group. The church decided to cover it up (the usually response, frankly). The women decided to cover it up as well either due to pressure from family, or because of fear of public shaming. My colleague did counseling with him, but because of the church’s unwillingness to act, the counseling could be no more than advice listened to voluntarily. There were no teeth in the discipline. That minister went to work in a Christian school (one that did not background check). The minister, now serving as a teacher, sexually acted out. Then he left and went to another school, also with no background check done, and repeated the same behavior. I don’t know where he is now.

From stories like this and Donn Ketcham scandal (you can look that one up if you want), it is easy to see why some would say, “Never do restoration…. it traumatizes the victims and gives the minister a new opportunity to start acting out again.” Since many people who have failed sexually (or in other ways in the past) do not in fact repeat their actions, I am guessing the views is really “They could act out again, and we can’t take that risk.”

But what failings are so bad that one cannot be restored ministerially? Abuse involving Sex? Money? Power? It is hard to draw the line.

I rather like the standards in the Missions Community that have circulated in recent years. It applies a ZERO TOLERANCE policy to sexual misbehavior, and a REAL referencing policy for new work. That is, if a person applies for a new job, the former employer will give a real report of why that applicant was let go. This seems reasonable. In the end the new potential employer has the freedom to decide what to do about this. The new employer should make an informed decision… but ultimately it should be their own decision.

In the end, as to this second concern, I can respect two different views. If a Christian ministry says, “We can’t risk our membership or students by hiring this person,” I can actually respect that. If a Christian ministry says, “We have researched the applicant’s past fully, and we have decided to bring them in but under well-controlled circumstances,” I can respect that as well. I can’t respect the middle ground that ends up making decisions based on how one “feels” about the situation, based on rumors rather than on what is merciful AND just, and based on good research.

My Third concern was something that was said by Dr. Wilson. She said something to the effect that even if Dr.Smith did not act out again, it would be based on the external limitations placed upon him rather than internal controls. I am not sure one can say that definitively, but I hardly see why guilt should be the only social motivator that is found acceptable, not valuing shame or fear. Frankly, pretty much everyone has areas in their lives in which they don’t do what is wrong because of fear (of punishment) or shame (reduction of social capital). It seems to me to be bad Evangelical theology to see guilt as the only one that should be considered valid.

I have dealt with a number of ministers who have struggled with sin (sometimes sexual and sometimes not). They can be separated loosely into three broad categories.

  • Category #1. This group feels great remorse/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. This is a very small group. It is possible that this group does not actually exist. This type of person is exactly the type of person who should be restored. Sadly, they can be hard to identify. Geneerally, however, they don’t miimize their own role. They don’t try to shift blame. They tend to accept discipline and want to have accountability. They want to change, or be changed.
  • Category #2. This group feels great shame that they have been caught. They want the situation to go away. In some cases, they do want to not return to their past sin. Ultimately, however, they don’t want to make any major changes to bring this about. In other cases, any statements on repentance are just words to get people off their backs. These people are often (but not always) easy to identify. They tend to minimize their role and shift blame. They will agree to a lot of steps for restoration but then find ways to get out of doing them.
  • Category #3. This group is like Category #1. This group feels great remores/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. In all of this, the group sounds like Category #1. The difference is that there are seeds of destruction in them. It is like an alcoholic who really really really wants to step away from his addiction— but then a trigger comes along and the person falls again into the addictive cycle. This category of person can be restored, but needs outside help. This person needs external accountability support and rules to keep from falling back into past mistakes. This category is a large number of people. It is hard to say whether Category #2 or #3 are larger. In my experience, they are close to the same size.

So if category #2 should not be in ministry, what about #1 and #3? #1 and #3 should be treated the same. Unless the individual tells us, we cannot know for sure which one has triggers or situations in which they cannot help backslide into. In fact, the individual may not know either.

But when you think about it, everyone of us is in one of these three categories as well. We all sin in one way or another. The wall of separation between “us” and “them” is porous, separated only in terms of seriousness, scope of, or type of sin. We all need accountability and social restraints.

That is my problem with Dr. Wilson. Fallen pastors are not a unique category of person that cannot be restored. They are like us— that is a good thing and a bad thing. If they need outside social motivators to keep them doing what is right and not doing what is wrong… that is not a valid condemnation.

Ft it was a valid condemnation, pretty much all of us will have to join in being condemned.

…..

So should Dr. Smith have been fired. Well, by now it has long since shifted from being an ethical issue to being a political issue. Politically, he had to be let go. If it is true that Dr. Smith covered up and minimized much of the wrongdoing, this may well point to the fact that he is racked by public shame more than embracing his own responsibility and need to change. Those that cover up tend to repeat the same thing later. But that is a lot of guesswork on my part. Obviously, I am not privy to the what on behind closed doors… and even less what is going on in different people’s hearts and minds.

Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part 1)

Much like there have been times in church history where people have embraced the idea of “holy language” (Hebrew, Koine Greek, Latin, Middle English) there have been periods of time and places where a similar sanctification has been placed on culture.

The Jerusalem Council struggled with this during the first century. Does a Greek have to become (culturally) a Jew to become a Christian? The decision, in the end, was NO. A Greek can remain culturally a Greek and still be Christian. This still left a lot to be determined. Is everything Greek sanctified and good? What about underlying beliefs or worldview?  It is pretty clear that some things need to radically change, but which things?

It seems to me that four places to get a bit of a grasp of this are:

  • Jerusalem Council (as recorded by Luke) and the Didache
  • Paul’s remarks of culture
  • Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (chapter 5)

I will dig into none of these deeply.

1.  Jerusalem Council.  Here is the announcement as recorded by Luke regarding the summation of that council.

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.

The keyword here is Flexibility, I think. The Apostles and Elders said that they would place no burdens on the Greek Christians except minor limitations on food, and on sexual misconduct.  If you think about it, what does this mean?  Is it saying that the Council was saying that it was okay for Greek Christians to lie, to steal, to murder? Certainly this is not the case. Is it saying that virtues such as integrity, godliness, and honor are not being placed on the Greeks Christians? Again, certainly not. What does appear to be said is three things:

  • The trappings of Jewish Culture are not necessary for non-Jews.
  • The ideals and taboos of Greek culture are, for the most part, commendable. Because of this, the Greek Christians do not need to be told “do not lie” because they already know this to be virtuous even before here the gospel message.
  • Some specific areas of Greek culture may be unhealthy and set aside if one is supposed to follow Christ. (However, Jesus also challenged some aspects of Jewish culture as unhealthy as well.)

Alan Garrow has made the suggestion that the Didache was originally a longer version of the short-form of the Jerusalem Council announcement. He has suggested that the Didache is less clear on the breaking down of Jewish cultural rules. However, when I look at the Didache it seems to me to be an expansion on the Sermon on the Mount… and as such, expresses principles that are in many ways supracultural as well as principles that challenge all cultures. The principles mentioned in the Didache certain do not encourage a rejection of Greek culture but recognize that the words of Jesus challenge both Jewish and Greek cultures.

2.  Paul’s comments on Culture. I am not going to go into details in this area, but simply point people to his writings to the Churches of Corinth and Galatia.  In these it could be said that Paul took a more extreme view than the Jerusalem Council. For example, to the church of Corinth he says that it is okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, as long as people are mature enough to handle it. Since idols are nothing, and the religion of the Greeks has no power, the danger in eating food sacrificed to idols is how it affects the belief and heart of the Greek Christians. In his message to the church of Galatia, he makes a point that when Greek and Jewish Christians are together, it is better for the Jews to adapt to the Greeks rather than remain separate. I would, however, describe his view as Pragmatic. Additionally, it seems like the focus is on avoiding a ghettoization of Christianity. Jewish Christians and Greek Christians should find ways to fellowship together rather than build walls of separation. And Greek Christians should be able to interact with Greek Pagans without fear and separation. I would also suggest they were a bit ad hoc, in that his words point to how broader principles would be carried out in this specific case.

3.  Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.  Chapter 5. This chapter can be read in another post I wrote before.  Click HERE.  When you read it, it says three things about Christians.

  • In many ways, Christians fit into the culture so well that they are indistinguishable from the culture.
  • In some ways, Christians surpass those in the culture by living up to the ideals of the culture rather than the typical reality within the culture.
  • In some other ways, Christians live counter-culturally, by rejecting some specific aspects of culture that are opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

If one looks at these references, I believe oneIdealized Culture would have to see that culture (at least within the context of Jewish and Greek cultures) is generally good or neutral. It is Neutral in that it has distinguishing characteristics that are perfectly fine for Christian and non-Christian. It is Good in that it provides ideals that are often quite commendable and worthy of seeking to live up to. At the same time, culture can be seen negatively in three major ways. First, it can be seen as failing to live up to God’s standards. But is universal for all cultures fail in this area. Second, it can be seen as failing to live up to its own standards. Most all cultures idealize certain virtues and attack certain vices or taboos— but its members rarely live up to these standards.

Third, cultures may be seen as bad based on “demonization” by outsiders. They take certain qualities and broad-brush the culture undermining virtues, and exaggerating vices.

This third area will be looked more seriously in Part II.  But for now, based on the passages above, Christians should live in a culture on three levels:

  1. Christians should live in the culture as it is lived out by its members. As such, in many key ways, Christians should be indistinguishable from others in that culture.
  2. Christians should strive to live up to the ideals of the culture, not simply the culture as it is commonly lived.
  3. Christians should also live up to, as best as possible, God’s standards, being willing to reject cultural ideals and cultural norms WHEN NECESSARY.

Where one shifts between these two, good people can disagree. Paul and Peter appeared to disagree. Mature and immature believers in Corinth disagreed.

It is Okay for good people to disagree.

(But I think Part II will cover an area that is NOT Okay)

 

 

What Do We Do With All Them Pagan Holidays

Image result for pumpkins halloween

Okay. I am here to help. Social media gets pretty confusing around Halloween time. People are, again, saying how evil it is for Christians to celebrate the day. In a few weeks more articles will come out talking about how Pagan Christmas is, and then three months later the same for Easter. No one complains about American Thanksgiving– a harvest festival much like those practiced by Pagan cultures around the world. If you don’t find that strange, consider that Halloween is lambasted annually for being related (a bit loosely) with Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival, after all. And no one seems to complain about the “Fourth of July” despite its use of fireworks— a pagan instrument used by cultures for centuries to scare away evil spirits. With all of these inconsistencies, I would like to offer a bit of help to know how best to deal with all of these different “pagan holidays.”

I would like to suggest a range of Christian responses or non-Christian responses to the issue of celebrations. <Note: for the last 15 years I have lived in the Philippines where Halloween is not celebrated much, being a distant second to Undas or All Souls Day. Therefore, I haven’t had involvement in Halloween in many many years. You can decide if that makes me a better or worse opinion.>

Possible Good Christian Responses.

#1.  Celebrate every day. All days are created by God so every day is holy and worthy of celebration.

#2.  Celebrate no days. Arguably this is just the same as the previous one. To celebrate each day means to treat each day as no more special than any other. So, in essence, one is celebrating or honoring no day as special. Since primitive Christianity gave us no days that MUST be honored above other days, celebrating no days is certainly a viable option.

#3.  Celebrate some days. This one probably needs to be sub-divided.

#3A.  Celebrate those days that have become considered to be “Christian Holidays.” As Christians we share a common heritage— a two thousand year heritage. When we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Palm Sunday, Lent, Pentecost, Epiphany, and many many other days in the liturgical calendar, we connect in some small way with our brothers and sisters in faith around the world and across time. That seems a good enough reason by itself to celebrate. I don’t feel like we have to triplecheck to make sure that no pagan, neo-pagan, or satanic group is trying to lay claim to the day. If Christians decided to view July 19 (to grab a day somewhat at random) as a new Christian holiday, I don’t think we have to be worried that some group has already messed it up.

#3B.  Celebrate those days that are culturally or civically significant that are not “anti-Christian.” We are part of a culture and a community that goes beyond the church. We are not only citizens of heaven, but citizens of nations, and products of history. Therefore, days that honor civil institutions, or historical events certainly can be celebrated. In fact, if Christians do not celebrate these, it could be argued that this makes Christianity alien to the culture and foreign to the nation in which it exists. Christianity is suppose to fulfill culture, or perhaps subvert it, but certainly not destroy it or ignore it.

#3C.  Celebrate those days that are one’s neighbors celebrate even if they are “non-Christian.” We know meat offered to Zeus is not tainted by Greek gods. We know that each day is created pure and good by God. We can redeem any symbol we wish, and we can avoid any symbol that we are uncomfortable with. If Christians were able to “Christianize” an instrument of torture, murder, and shame (the “cross”) we can certainly Christianize or redeem any symbol. The roots of symbols have no power any more than Zeus has power.

Possible Bad Christian Responses

  1.  Picking one of the options above and then telling every other Christian that it is the only moral choice. You can exercise your freedom in Christ or not, but it is not your place to tell everyone else what they can and cannot exercise.
  2. Listening to one-sided religious salespersons and taking what they say as the “gospel truth.” Most concerning to me are those who are taking the words of alleged Satanists as the truth when it comes to Halloween. Think about that statement– Why would we? In fact, we are missing the point. Those humorous quotes of Satanists expressing shock that Christians celebrate some aspects of Halloween are not understood for what they really are. They are attempts by a fringe group to appropriate a Druidic (non-Satanic) holiday and then push Christians away from celebrating All Saints Day, and All Hallows Eve. Of course, some Christians go the other way and assure us “It is all harmless” because… well, they did it as kids so it must be okay. I feel we can do better than this.

It seems like the articles that show up on social media right now embrace a certain ignorance and a touch of cowardice. I think we need brave scholars in Christianity, rather than ignorant cowards.

 

 

Nostalgic Christianity and the Ambiguity of History

nostalgiaOver the years I have been fascinated by those Christians who regularly point back longingly to a time in history that they identify as ideal or idyllic— especially from a Christian perspective. Some look back to the 1950s. Some look back to the early years of their own faith tradition (whatever period that may be) with the pillars of their faith. Some American Christians point back to the “founding fathers of the US, or to the time of the Puritans. Many go back to the first century church.

I have always wondered why. Even a casual student of pretty much any period of history would find a lot that Christians would (or should) feel ambivalent or even uncomfortable about. One of the challenges I have in teaching missions is that in so many periods in missions history, it is hard to find things that are commendable. But they are there. There is beauty in times of ugliness, and ugliness in times of beauty.

But I do wonder what makes people want to view the past in an idealized manner? Consider this verse,

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.   Ecclesiastes 7:10

One would think that Christians would avoid expressing nostalgia if for no other reason than to avoid being declared unwise. But the fact that nostalgia was an issues over 2000 years ago suggests that it is an issue of humanity, not simply of our times.

A present belief is that nostalgia becomes more pervasive in times of uncertainty and anxiety. In these times, the world seems dangerous or at least uncomfortable. A response to that is to embrace a form of exoticism (temporal exoticism, if you will). Exoticism is the belief that some other culture or place is kind of awesome, while our own place or culture stinks. Exoticism is built off of ignorance. Distance obscures unpleasant details. While it has been said, “Once they’ve seen Paris, it is hard to get them back on the farm,” it is probably more true that “Once they have embraced an idealized vision of Paris, it is hard to keep them from leaving the farm.”  For “Temporal Exoticism” the far off place is far off because of time, not space.

For Christians, what are some things that can lead to nostalgia? A few thoughts.

  1.  A feeling of lack of control or power.  When we have power, or the perception of power or control, we tend to be less anxious.  This may not be a universal thing. The feudal system placed people in a position of no political or economic power, yet anxiety most likely came from uncertainties about illness and weather, not the fact that their daily existence was in the hands of the lord of the land. But in the present era in the West, where autonomy is given great priority, lack of control can be highly stressful. (It is strange that Christians feel this sort of lack so acutely when Christianity was built on the presumption of having little to no political or economic power.) People who feel this as a stressor look back to a time that is more triumphalistic or where their own worldview was seen as universally appreciated.
  2. Pluralistic communities. For many people it is stressful to be around people of other cultures or faiths. Living in a culture that is almost entirely unlike the culture I was raised in, I struggle to understand this. However, I met people from my home culture who now live in the culture I presently dwell in who seem to live in a state of continuous trauma. They look fondly back to the time before easy transportation when monocultures were prevalent. It seemed safer back then. But was it?
  3. Progressives. The term “progressive” is so loosely used for so many situations that it is pretty close to meaningless. But I suppose that gives me the right to appropriate the term. In this case, I am using it to refer to those who tend to judge the past based on present ethical perspectives. As such, they often disrespect the same periods of time that are embraced by the nostalgic Christians. Nostalgia may be a way to reduce stress by creating a somewhat false narrative, but when others try to crush that vision, the result is an increase in stress. This increase in stress can lead some to “double-down” on the fantasy.

The reality, however, is that history is messy. Consider, for example, a church of which I have a connection. It is a fairly old church and when one looks at the earliest church rolls, one finds that there were slaves who were members of the church. One can look at that with horror— Christians who went to church and yet “owned” other human beings. Such horror is quite understanable. Of course, if someone else looked at the same situation, they may say, “Isn’t it wonderful that these Christian slaveowners  cared about their slaves enough to be concerned about their immortal souls! Oh yeah, and isn’t it nice that these slaveowners recognize that their slaves have immortal souls!” I think you may see how the ambiguity of the situation can be difficult for people to wrestle with so they embrace a one-sided perspective. Shortly after the American Civil War, the slaves associated with that church were emancipated. They formed their own separate church… which still exists to this day. Should one feel good that former slaves now have self-determination in terms of religion, or should one feel bad that a church could only be racially integrated when there was legally mandated “caste” system in place?

I hope I don’t have to point out the ambiguities of the 1950s in America or of colonial expansion of Christian nations. Some unambiguously bad things like the Crusades also become a bit more murky when one realizes that it was an evil response to past evils of others. Pretty poor excuse, but an excuse nonetheless.

I think we grow as people when we address the ambiguities. It is okay to look at King David in the Bible as a great hero of the faith, but it is also okay to look at him as a self-righteous self-serving monster. But maybe better than either of these is that King David was a man who (truthfully) did many many bad things, (it is kind of awesome that the Bible portrays a man of faith who was an adulterer, a horrible father, a mercenary, and a racketeer) and yet when challenged in his failings was able to humble himself and seek forgiveness. Not many kings outside of fairy tales do that. The ambiguous human is best I think. Heroes and monsters are caricatures. We learn better from humans than we do from caricatures.

Nostalgia is sometimes identified in two forms:  restorative and reflective. In restorative nostalgia, there is the desire to return to a time—- a time that did not truly exist. Reflective nostalgia may be more benign… perhaps even beneficial. To have a time that one can reflectively look back with pleasure does not necessarily have to be done “with rose-colored glasses.” For example, one may look back fondly on one’s time in high school… while still being well aware that there were aspects of high school (puberty, bullying, social awkwardness, and fears regarding the future) that one remembers vividly.

Perhaps, if one seeks to find value in nostalgia, it can be done reflectively… enjoying some aspects on the longing, while still embracing realistically that one can never truly go back (and that returning to the past would, in fact, be a very bad thing).

Unfriendly Media as God’s Instrument

For years it was happening to THEM. THEY were in the spotlight, not US. But things change… and it is about time.

For years the Catholic Church has taken a lot Image result for political cover-upof hits for cases of priests taking sexual advantage of parishioners… especially (but not exclusively) young ones.  I must be honest that I have heard some from the Evangelical tradition revel in these stories. Multiple times I have given the warning about this sort of “schadenfreude”:

“Be careful about embracing this attitude. We know that we have problems as well. Right now the cameras and microphones are all pointed at the Catholic Church, but one day they will swing around and point at us. We should be found doing a better job than they.”

But we haven’t done a better job. We still tend follow the age-old practice:

  • We don’t hold leaders accountable.  “Aren’t they Men of God?”
  • When leaders sin, we cover it up. “We aren’t supposed to bring our hand against ‘God’s annointed,’ right?”
  • When cover up is impossible, go to witchhunt mode to identify and punish a scapegoat. In so doing, the system and overall leadership are shielded from responsibility and need for change.

And then the situation repeats. It reminds me of a cartoon (I really wish I could remember the context) where a bad and expected thing happens to someone being careless, followed by a panel showing that same person expressing relief, “I’m sure glad that will never happen again!” while making no changes to his behavior.

I actually think it is this pattern that makes the church look schizophrenic at times. They treat sinners as saints at times and then treat them as demons at other times. It is hard to effectively create wise and rehabilitative Christian discipline when we keep yielding to the desire to either cover-up or witchhunt.

Eventually, the media comes in and starts digging around. In the US, some digging into the sexual abuse in the Southern Baptists (my denomination) and in a number of missions organizations have come to light.

There has been positive signs of response in recent years as some leaders have owned up. Still, there seems to be a couple of responses that are still quite troubling:

  • Church members still often yield to the temptation to sympathize with those in power over the powerless. (Since this happens in politics as well, I have to assume this is a sociological malady, rather than one merely linked to churches. In High School, there appears to be a “natural” temptation to blame the one who “rats out” the bully, rather than blame the bully in the first place.)
  • Church members (and political folk) tend to blame the media for unfavorable portrayals of their church or political party.

On this latter point, media is blamed as portraying “fake news” even though commonly it is not fake— they simply don’t like the spin. Sadly, these Christians have no issue with “spin.” In fact, many love spin as long as the news spins their own way. When it doesn’t spin their way, they blame the media as opposing God’s work— demonizing the institution or at least the specific broadcaster.

But here is a different thought.    <Clearing my throat for a minute.>

What if news media who criticize abuse and other sinful behavior in the church are actually serving God?

This should hardly shock anyone. After all, many Christians, and many Christian leaders will say that “God is my judge,” meaning that they do not feel that they are answerable to anyone else. But if God is judge, what methods might God use to execute judgment? If the church does not embrace its role to critique and hold people accountable, then God must look outside of the church to do that.

This brings up a second, perhaps more troubling, thought.

What if “friendly” news media, including so-called “Christian News” is then on the side of ‘darkness’?

After all, if God is looking to hold the church accountable, then institutions that cover up the failings of the church, pandering to the messages that the church members want to hear while failing to carry out its God-given role to hold the church accountable, are simply not on God’s side.

If this is the case, and it seems pretty evident to me at least that this is exactly what is happening, are we willing to say, “Thank God for news media who shine a light on our failings and hold us accountable!”?

A recent article by Craig Thompson points out the situation with Evangelical missions. Click on the title if you wish to read it:

Their Abuse Happened over 25 Years Ago, So Why Were Those MKs Still Talking about It on the Today Show?

Salvation as a Human Right? (pt 1 of 3)

I have been reading the essay, “Women Confronting State-Instigated Violence” by Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana. This is not normally the type of writing I would be reading, but it was part of a book that was gifted to me by Father Terry from Aglipay Central Theological Seminary. The book is a collection of essays and poems of female theologians in the Philippines. So far it is an interesting read. The writer of this particular essay noted three fairly rapid transitions that have occurred in looking at an addressing Violence Against Women (VAW).

One phase goes back a few decades, particularly the 1970s, where VAW was seen in terms of CRIMINAL JUSTICE. To address concerns regarding violence against women, laws had to be changed, and the way existing laws are interpreted or applied also had to change. In the early 1990s there was a transition towards seeing things as a PUBLIC HEALTH issue. Violence is a symptom of an overall sociological sickness that needs to be addressed much like many other illnesses. One can’t simply punish or quarantine those who act violently, one must root what causes violence and creates the environment where such violence flourishes. In other words, one must discover and cause of the contagion, and eradicate the supporting environment and carriers.

By the mid-1990s, things had changed further and there was a growth of seeing violence in terms of HUMAN RIGHTS. The way women are to be treated is not simply a matter of legal violation, culturo-social malady, but is a supracultural violation of what should be expected based on, well, being human.

I have known some Christians who balk at this term “human rights,” noting that such rights are generally agreed upon by mutual consent, rather than based on anything indubitable. In a sense this is obvious, but such a statement is not particularly useful. Of course— we are born without warning labels, warrantees, or operating manuals. As such, we have three choices. One choice is to say that since we come with no contractual obligations, we can act however we want. People can be bought and sold as chattel, tortured or blessed at the whim of those who who have the power to have their wills acted out. If that choice is undesirable (and I certainly think it is) another option would be as a people to agree that there are certain inalienable rights. Perhaps these can be seen as derived from natural law, or perhaps they can be seen as drawn from cultural values. Either way, it is a human-based agreement. A third option is to see human rights coming from God. With this view, human rights exist because God seesthem existing supraculturally, and has then made them known to us through divine or special revelation.

For Christians, such revelation would be seen, primarily, as the Bible. The Bible says that certain behaviors are right and certain are wrong. They can be seen in terms of Law— matter of keeping the law or breaking it. Another way would be to look at them as sociologically healthy (“It is not just the law, it is a good idea,” societally.) But it can also be seen a a statement of basic rights. We have a basic right to not be murdered, to not be stolen from, to be trained up in a nurturing family and community. Anything less than this is a violation of the rights that we have as revealed by God.

These three perspectives do not change reality. Rather they change perception. VAW exists and that existence is unaffected by how it is viewed. However, a different view can lead to a different response.

So I was thinking about these three views as it relates to Salvation— a strange thing to think about, I grant you. I wondered how salvation may be seen in terms of Criminal Jusitice, Public Health, and Human Rights.

Continued in the next post

Learning a New Term: “Symbolic Interactionism”

I have recently begun reading the book Participant Observation by James Spradley. I suppose I should have read it years ago… but better late than never. In Chapter One he references Herbert Blumer (1969) and his work Symbolic Interactionism. Three premises of this theory are (in my own wording)

  1.  People act towards objects  (nouns of any type) based on the meaning these things are given (by us).

  2. These meanings do not come from these objects but are assigned to things based on the social interaction people have with their peers.

  3. Meanings are not static, but can modify as people interact with the objects they encounter.

I have seen this as I have been reading FB posts recently. Often I have wondered if I should stop reading them.  I have a melancholic temperament, and a lot of the social media of Christians is quite depressing. However, maybe instead of complaining at the freaky things people share on FB, I should embrace my involvement in terms of Partcipant Observation.

Recently, I was reading a thread on FB that was coming up with stronger and stronger language to speak against former US President Obama, and former presidential candidate H. Clinton. Eventually one conversant described Obama as the Antichrist and Clinton as the “Whore of Babylon.” I hope I don’t need to say that this is a huge abuse of Scripture and Scriptural language, Despite this, the person got quite a few “Likes” for the post. Since most all of the conversants in the thread would consider themselves Christians, and even use the label “Bible-believing,”  why would they say or like a statement that was, arguably, a heretical interpretation of Scripture (from a section of the Bible that appears to curse those who do just such abuses to the Word)?

Godwin’s Law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” While this is commonly applied to arguments, you will notice that Godwin’s Law doesn’t actually specify argument. When a bunch of people get together who share the same beliefs, there is often a tendency to play one-upmanship with each other making more and more radical statements.

For some Christians, Hitler (or other authoritarian abusers and killers) does not describe consummate evil. Rather, Satan, or demons, or the Antichrist would be the substitute for Hitler. The use of the term “whore of Babylon” is clever in that it sexualizes the insult— as seems to be always the temptation when men (or women) want to denigrate a woman. Of course, the “whore of Babylon” is a system and not a person (as, probably, is the Antichrist) but that is not the point. Both terms are symbols. Image result for the devil

For the FB discussion… Obama and Clinton represent a challenge to power— legal power, political power, social power. As such, they are seen as a threat to some people. Threats gradually lead towards demonization (or Hitlerization). In the case of Obama and Clinton, it is not so much who they are (they don’t seem to me to be worthy of much applause or castigation— they are just people who are involved in US politics). Rather, for those who see Obama or Clinton as threats to power, they symbolize something bigger.  When people attack them, they are attacking what they symbolize.

Of course, one does not have to be in a position of power to fall into this trap (and it IS a trap). Over here, the President of the Philippines occasionally states things that insult or attack the Roman Catholic Church— the largest religious group in the country. Many Evangelicals have applauded this. Why?  Again, the Catholic church has considerable power in the country, and as such, there is the temptation to see them as the enemy. (Of course, if they actually were the enemy, then we would have to embrace the teachings of Jesus and love them, not applaud attacks on them.)

But going back to the three premises of Symbolic Interactionism, none of this is inevitable. We connect to things (and people and concepts) based on the meanings we give them. As such, meanings are flexible… they can change. Today, I was in seminary chapel, and the speaker noted how wrong it was for Protestant Christians to applaud the attacks on our Catholic brothers and sisters. We are not without our faults so why express joy when their faults are exposed? And when politicians use religion to divide (and conquer), why do we yield to the temptation of predictability (standing by “our guys” uncritically, and attacking “their guys” uncritically). In the case of the speaker in chapel, he was seeking to work on the 2nd premise of symbolic interactionism. He was seeking to influence his peers so that the Catholic church is no longer given the label of “the enemy” by seminarians. I would like to think that he words will have influence.

Additionally, interacting with people different from ourselves can also help. This is the third premise. I find it valuable to talk to people of other faiths, other denominations, other theological persuasions, other races, and other political and national affiliations. Often, I find there is a lot of common ground. Even when we still disagree strongly on things, the temptation to stereotype them or “Hitlerize” them goes away. Rather, they are simply (in my opinion) “wrong.” More commonly, they are a mixture of right and wrong, good and bad, admirable, and problematic. I find that picking up news from many sources reduces my tendency to embrace certain things as true and other things as fake based on how I feel about a certain subject.

While Symbolic Interactionism is a moutful to say (or type, I suppose), it expresses something of value for Christians.

  • We need to recognize the temptation to objectify— see people as symbols or objects, rather than real people. In fact, we do it automatically, but we can at least be aware of this.
  • We need to recognize our temptation to confuse our ethics and our aesthetics. We tend to think something is right and good, or dispicable and awful based on group feelings and stereotypical generalizations than on what what is truth. We “bless” our beliefs with Scripture verses, rather than drawing our beliefs from the (uncomfortable) whole of Scripture.
  • We can grow as people by interacting positively with those who are unlike us. And if we go in willing to grow and learn, the others might as well,.

And the last is perhaps the most important.

  • We can break Godwin’s Law cycle of devolving discussions by challenging the base instincts of our peers— helping them seek out God’s perspective rather than Groupthink.

In the case of the FB thread I was describing earlier, perhaps it would have only taken one person to jump in and note that both Obama and Clinton (regardless of whatever flaws they may have) are God’s creations, worthy of love and concern— and appear to sincerely seek to live out their political life in line with the ethics that their particular Christian denominations hold. As such, they are worthy of a certain amount of admiration even if one does not ultimately agree with them on some issues. I am not sure everyone would suddenly embrace, but perhaps that person could at least have short-circuited the road to the Antichrist and Whore of Babylon.

Religiopolitical Power

Sometimes things are funny in hindsight. Just about two years ago now, the campaign for the US presidential election was in full swing. Some people lobbied me to vote for one candidate or another. I have no problem with that. While I have never tried to convince someone to vote the way I do in secular politics (although I can’t say the same in church and academic politics), if a person has a passion in that area, why not?

What was more interesting were friends who did not say they were supporting a specific candidate but said that I “just had to vote.” I had told them my intention to not vote. They said that this wasn’t acceptable— that one has an obligation to vote. I noted, quite correctly I believe, that abstaining is still a vote. I further noted that one of the freedoms provided by the US Constitution is the right to not vote (some countries don’t have this, sadly). A couple of them kept trying to convince me to vote anyway.

I guess it wasn’t until later I began wondering why they tried so hard to get me to vote. One theory would be that these people were concerned about the break-down of democracy due to apathy of the populace. But I felt like I made it pretty clear that my not voting was actually quite a passionate “vote” against all 1st, 2nd, and 3rd party candidates. There were political action movements out there like “Rock the Vote” that were trying to get young people to embrace voter participation. Somehow  I could not imagine these individuals joining “Rock the Vote.”

I eventually came up with a second theory that I feel has better traction. These people and myself share a somewhat conservative Evangelical stance religiously. In theory that should mean nothing— just a bit of uninteresting trivia. However, there was (and I guess still is) an odd belief in the US that people of this religious grouping should vote a certain way. If there was a political party whose platform supported, non-coercively, an honest attempt to apply the teachings of Christ in a pluralistic civil society, then perhaps all Evangelicals SHOULD vote that way. But alas, no such party exists— no party comes close. I now wonder if they would have stopped trying to convince me if I said something to the effect, “I am not voting the way you assume I will. In this year of crappy choices, so my vote will certainly negate or weaken your vote in one way or another. ”

I like this 2nd theory. But why would these people think that my religious stance would then impel me to vote for a specific political party (or party candidate) when none comes close to supporting my understanding of the words of Christ? The answer that I always get back to is:

POWER

Evangelical Christians want to be seen as having political power, and so providing a voting bloc does this. Even a small percentage of people who can be counted on election after election to vote in a certain predetermined way gives that people group power status. ‘

Here in the Philippines, the largest religious group is the Roman Catholics. The next three groups are of somewhat similar, although relatively small percentages — Evangelical/Protestant Christians, Muslims, and Iglesia ni Christo (INC). This third group, INC, is a Filipino group whose roots are of Christian origin, although its teachings far diverge from historical Christian creeds. Although small in comparison to the Catholic church, it holds a considerable amount of political clout. This is because members of INC vote about 85% in line with what their leaders tell them to do. This is quite out of line with the other groups, in which there is a considerable lack of cohesion in voting.  Additionally, INC leaders are generally pretty good not only with getting out their voting bloc, but also knowing which ways the political winds are blowing to make sure that in most elections they are on the winning side. This adds credibility to their political power.

Evangelical Christians have tried the same thing here as well. Each election, a list comes out of all of the Evangelicals running for public office. These are given out to other Evangelicals to “guide their vote.” However, to this point, Evangelicals just don’t vote that cohesively in the Philippines. Understandable– one prominent political figure, who is a religious leader, kept running for high political office, and I almost wish that I could vote here just so I could vote against him.  Maybe that is just me, however. I always find far more people I want to vote against than vote for.

Political power is an unworthy thing for Christian groups to seek. The history of the church and secular power has been mixed at best— at worst, it has been a disaster. Non-intuitively, political power of Christians is commonly DISEMPOWERING. We are seeing this in the US where latching onto one party has led to people sacrificing a lot of standards to hold onto the presidency, congress, or get another justice in SOCUS. When a political party knows that they can count on a group’s vote, that party soon understands that their actions are unchecked– no accountability of the party to a religious group means that the religious group has been disempowered without knowing it.

As a Baptist missionary, I have roots in the Religious Dissenters. I hope we will return again to our Dissenter roots, and join with our Anabaptist cousins in having a deep distrust of political power.  Our call is to see God’s Kingdom (not ours) come, His will be done on earth, just as it is presently done in Heaven.

 

 

 

Christians and 21st Century Tribalism

“Tribalism” is a great word that has become bandied about in recent days. There are different definitions:

a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social group, so that you support them whatever they do      (Cambridge Dictionary)

loyalties that people feel towards particular social groups and to the way these loyalties affect their behaviour and their attitudes towards others.  (Collins Dictionary)

loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group  (Merriam-Webster website)

Drawing these things together one may say that:

Tribalism involves loyalty to one group that demonstrates itself in strongly positive feelings for that group, negative feelings or animosity for groups seen to be in competition, and behavior that serves as an outlet for those feelings.

Thus, tribalism is based on emotions and these emotions trigger behavior that may not make sense except in terms of such emotions. Consider the following situation. Suppose John is a member of the “Blue Team.” And as such sees himself as opposed to the “Green Team” and all members of that group.  (If you know your Byzantine history, you may recognize these groups.) Consider the following situations and the tribalistic responses.

  • Blues have power and good things happen?  John credits the Blues.
  • Blues have power and bad things happen?  John excuses Blues (bad things happen despite their best efforts) and/or blames the Greens for undermining the work of the Blues.
  • Greens have power and good things happen? John credits Blues in their minority role, and/or disconnects the good from the activities of the Greens.
  • Greens have power and bad things happen? John blames the Greens.
  • Blues do things that are good? John sees the actions as evidence of Blues’ inherent virtue.
  • Blues do things that are bad? John sees them as “necessary,” to overcome the evils of the Greens.
  • Greens do things that are good? John recognizes that they were done of evil or self-serving motives by the Greens.
  • Greens do bad things? John sees that as evidence of the Greens’ inherent lack of virtue.

This sort of behavior has been around, perhaps, back to Babel. It is human nature. I would like to think that people find this sort of behavior to be a bit humorous. I would like to think that people who see others showing such knee-jerk responses on FB or other forms of social and public media to be rather… “funny.” But I am not so sure. Some seem to take this stuff seriously. Many of my friends seem to not see the inconsistencies — “not get the joke.”

Frankly, I don’t care all that much whether people take it seriously or not. Fanatical tribalism has been with us for a long, long time. There will always be some people who will react like John described above, because their focus is on power. They fear what it would be like not to have power… or to remain without power.

But what about us as Christians. Is that how we are supposed to act?

Well, in the Bible, there seems to be a general rejection of this form of tribalism. In the Hebrew Bible, this may not be as evident. The prophets could be quite brutal in their castigation of the surrounding nations. However, the prophets of Israel were at least as hard on their own people. Arguably they were more harsh with their words for their own people. They would complain about the immorality, corruption, idolatry of the “chosen people.” Why not focus more consistently on how much worse were the surrounding peoples? I believe itImage result for us versus them was because their focus was not on “tribalism,” promoting the IMAGE that Israel is better than everyone else. Rather, they were seeking to encourage Israel to be better, more holy, in FACT.

In the New Testament, this form of encouragement is far more clear. Very little time is spent in the New Testament to talk about how bad the Greeks and the Romans were. Yet if the NT writers were so inclined it would pretty easy to point out the many many moral flaws. of the peoples that Christians interacted with. And this would be even easier since Christians were a persecuted bunch— a people without power. Rather the writers appear to spend much more time attempting to follow the guidance of Jesus.

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.  For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.    (Matthew 7:1-5.  HCSB)

There is a whole industry of Bible scholars and ethicists who argue as to how to apply this passage. But, it seems to reject the foundational principles of toxic tribalism at least on an individual level. It seems, additionally, that the Apostles took the principles of Christ to a level of community as well. They focused on the call to righteous behavior of the body of Christ, rather than try to lift up the community by emphasizing the flaws of outsiders.

There does seem to be one exception. Jesus really went after the Scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel writers recorded so many strong words against the Pharisees that in the church, the term became a byword. There were occasional examples of Jesus having a more positive relationship with this group (such as Nicodemus), but the general tone was adversarial. In recent decades study of the writings of the rabbinical community of the 1st century has created considerable controversy. It was found that the Pharisees often were quite in agreement with Jesus on many issues. This has led some to believe that the Gospel writers were disconnected from the events of the life of Christ. After all, if they were eyewitnesses or had direct access to such witnesses, surely they would have seen the Pharisees in a much more positive light. Others also have questioned regarding Paul. His writings seem to provide an image that is harsher than reality. Perhaps Paul was never actually a Pharisee.

To me, the above issues are resolved if one rejects tribalism as a presumptive behavior. If one rejects it, then the Pharisees were seen more as partners. They share a common devotion to God and to His revelation. So Jesus was quite strong in His words of challenge to them. He was much less harsh with the Sadducees, with whom He had less in common, and even less harsh with other groups with whom He had less commonality.

Of course, in church history, things began to change. The change started with the Apologists in the 2nd century.  Aristides, for example, compared Christians to other groups such as Greeks, Pagans, and Jews. He showed Christians in a very positive light to the other groups. However, the purpose was neither primarily to “feel good about ourselves,” nor to tear down other groups. Rather, it was to show that Christians are good citizens of the Roman Empire and do not need to be persecuted. However, over the centuries, power politics began to dominate, and has continued to today.

So as Christians today, what should we do… when it comes to our relationships in the arenas of government and religion.

If our call is to behave in line with power politics, than tribalistic behavior is appropriate. We whitewash our own failures, and the failures of those we judge to be friends, and attack consistently the failures of others, and question their motives. This is the behavior of many cults— and many Christians as well.

If our call is to follow Christ, we focus on righteousness and on our own failures. We spend less focus on specks in the eyes of others. In fact, we may even applaud the virtues of others. This is a tougher path since we are not focusing on power in a human sense, but on being conformed to Christ. It means not putting our understanding of what is right through the filter of “are they for us or against us.”

 

 

Bigamy and Missions

I have fallen out of the habit of getting involved in discussion boards. I guess part of the reason is that over the decades they attract trolls. But even when they don’t they often draw people in based on their ability to type rather than their ability to discuss or think.

Recently, I saw a discussion thread put up by a person I know somewhat who was asking what one does if a missionary leads a man to Christ who has two wives, each wife having children.

A wide variety of answers started flowing in. The answers that I saw fell inuseto three overlapping categories.

  1.  Verse-drop answers. This is where one takes a single verse or passage and suggests that it provides the full answer. Some may  take I Timothy 3:2 or a statement that one of the OT patriarchs had more than one wife, as an answer to the issue. Verse drop answers push people to the extremes. Some used a passage to justify that “Hey, bigamy is no problem,” while it pushed others to the opposite extreme, “the family must be destroyed at all costs.” My problem here is that using just one verse misuses Scripture, and then describes that misuse as the “Biblical answer.”
  2. Feelings answers. Some of the answers appeared to be based on how the person felt about it. If they found bigamy distateful, it must crushed. If there is empathy for the wives and children (to say nothing of the husband/father) there was more of an accommodationist approach.  Feelings are important, but frankly, the feelings of the discussion members are the LEAST relevant of the interested parties. The feelings of the participants are the ones that should be honored. <I live in a region where people eat dog. Feelings may be relevant to the discussion on whether one should eat dog. But it is the feelings of the people who live in places where people eat dog that is relevant, not people far removed from the situation.>
  3. Simple. In this sense, I mean that there did not seem to be much soul-searching as far as struggling with the issue. If bigamy is a problem, one must find a quick answer to deal with it— divorce one, or maintain a chaste relationship with one or both wives. A boss of mine described these as Al Yagoda solutions. Who is Al Yagoda? He is the guy who knows the correct answer without fully knowing the situation.  “Al Yagoda (“All you got to”) do is ______________________.” The problem beyond ignorance is that it is dualistic. Christian morality is never dualistic. There are things that are good and commendable. There are things acceptable but undesirable. There things that are neutral.

The issue brought up is very real world. In many parts of the world, bigamy is practiced. In some cases it is a sociological necessity almost. What is the cost of following Christ. Does it include destruction of the family? In some parts of Africa, Muslim missionaries are expressing Islam as an attractive alternative to Christianity because polygyny is not condemned. Also, in many cultures, to have the father reject a wife and her children would have severe consequences on the entire family. Obviously, one does not come up with answers because it is practical to do so. But arm-chair answers don’t really help. Our family had a family living with us. She was a second wife of a Muslim Imam. She followed Christ, and she decided that to do this, she must take her children with her and leave the broader family. Did she do the right thing. I have no idea… and probably you don’t either. The children became devout Christians, but they wanted to maintain connections with their father, over the objections of their mother. Was that good or bad?

I would suggest a different set of considerations.

  1.  Theological. Rather than verse-dropping, find what the whole of Scripture says about a topic. For polygyny, the Scripture has a lot to say. In the Old Testament, many of the the patriarchs had more than one wife. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, grabbed that fact and suggested that God approves of polygyny… or even mandates it. However in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Levirite marriages, polygynous relationships are spoken of negatively. Almost all stories of polygynous marriages have problems and the problems almost always relate to the polygynous aspect of the family.  On the other hand, bigamy, having two legal wives does not seem to viewed as fornication or adultery, so it is doubtful that one could apply verses rejecting adultery to the situation. In the New Testament, a church leaders should be a “one woman man.” This short phrase has been abused immensely I know a pastor who married a divorcee. He was told he could not serve as a pastor because of I Timothy 3:2. I am at a loss to see he violated the “one woman man” principle here. Regardless of what that phrase means in different circumstance (clearly suggests not being a flirt or unfaithful, but does it mean must be married, and does it reject the possibility of a pastor being a “one man woman”?), certainly the phrase appears incompatible with a polygynous marriage. A proper theological view on bigamy would look at all of this… but much much more. Simply verse-dropping is an abuse, not use, of Scripture.
  2. Sociological. Why does bigamy exist? Is it because of infidelity? Yes, in some cases. Here in the Philippines there is a surprising number of men who have a family in one town and a different family in another town. In some cases, both families have legal status (even if only because of paperwork error). In other cases, a man or woman works overseas and has a second family there. In these situations, loneliness may drive the activity, while in others the reasons are hard to ascertain. (To me, to maintain to separate families just seems like a form of self-abuse.) In other cultures the reasons can be different. In many family or clan-based cultures, there are very important reasons for bigamy. Where property and status is maintained by clan name, it is important to have an heir. The levirate marraige is part of this. Also, where there is a lot of warfare or other forms of killings, a society may have a shortage of men, so bigamy puts a salve on one aspect of a sociological blight. On the other hand, where the number of men and women are equal, polygynous marriages result in a large number of young men with a shortage of women. This creates its own catastrophic results. For some Christians, it seems irrelevant to consider sociological issues. But we must consider them, since God does. The Semitic culture of the Old Testament had polygynous marriages because of the clan system and a shortage of men. It is understandable then that bigamy was permitted but also discouraged. In the New Testament, sexual infidelity was rampant, but formal polygynous families were rare. The social drive for such families was not present generally, and there was no mention of accommodation for bigamy. God’s attitude did not change, but the context did. That leads to the third aspect.
  3. Contextual. Morality in the Bible is deontological (based on law), teleological (based on expected results), and contextual (based on the cultural setting). The Bible says “Do not murder.” This is a basis for deonotological ethics. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not really deontological, since it is far too broad to be legally instructive. This is teleological, if you think about it. Do acts that your neighbor would be expected to find beneficial. “Dress modestly” is a contextual guideline. It is not legally instructive since it is not clear what would qualifies as modest. Rather, modest dressing depends on one’s culture. I live in the Philippines, and Filipinos dress much more modestly than many other groups. I was in Coron recently on a tour, and there were many Filipinos, Chinese and Europeans, as well as a few Muslims. The female Muslims were covered to a degree that would make it difficult to enjoy the sweltering weather, it seems to me. The male Muslims dressed  more in line with the Filipino or Chinese men. The Filipinos dressed fairly modestly, keeping most of their skin covered (this is as much driven by a desire to avoid being tanned by the sun as it is modesty). The Europeans often dressed in ways that would be deemed scandalous by the other groups. The Chinese were in between the Filipinos and Europeans. “Modesty” is complicated in a multi-cultural setting. However, it definitely varies in different cultures.

So what about Bigamy. Should a man with two wives and children with each wife, be required to dump one wife and children? I can’t see that. The Bible doesn’t require that, but does require a man to take care of his wife (wives?) and children. One should not ask a person to explicitly sin to avoid a doubtful sin. One must figure out the sociological dynamics going on. Christianity is meant to be transformative. In the Cordilleras here in the Philippines, Christianity has done much to end “headhunting”– honor killings, violent rites of passage, and clan warfare. This transformation has reduced the sociological need for polygynous families. Such transformation does not change the past, but should work towards a better future. Polygynous families (regardless of deontological constraints) is damaging where the number of eligible men and women are equal. Since God made men and women in approximately equal numbers, where war is low, polygynous families have little justification– moral or otherwise. One must look at the context.

The Bible clearly attacks moral infidelity and fornication. These can be challenged supraculturally. But polygynous families are not so clearly addressed. Joanne Shetler speaks of her time with the Balangao people. When asked that she condemn the chewing of betel nut, her response was that the Bible does not clearly condemn betel nut. On the other hand it clearly rejects gossiping. So for now, she will focus on what is clearly condemned and withhold judgement on the other matter.

In a missiological setting, it is possible to avoid the extremes of wholehearted rejection and full acceptance. It can be seen as undesirable but acceptable. It can also be seen as transitional. That is, polygynous families may be seen as a relic of a time of war and misery… something that will fade as the culture transforms.