The following is an email response I wrote to an article in the latest edition of Good News magazine, a publication of the Confessing Movement, which is a group within the UMC. This article was given to me (anonymously) by a church member, so I read it and felt like writing a response. If you are going to read this, I would encourage you to read Rob Renfroe's article first before you read my response. If I get a response from him, I'll be happy to post that as well.
We’ve never met, but one of my fellow church members recently gave me a copy of your article in Good News magazine, “When Progress Isn’t.” I would like to offer a response.
First, I think you are exactly right about the main thesis of this article, namely, that change in cultural attitudes and values isn’t always real moral progress. I also agree with you that it is unfair when people identify their position as the “progressive” position, thereby emotionally intimidating others into taking their view so that they don’t feel like “antiquated” and “unenlightened” people.
It seems to me, however, that in this article you engage in rhetoric that is just as one-sided and unfair as the type of rhetoric that you denounce. For example, you write:
Once, it was considered wrong to live together before marriage. But we Americans have “progressed” well past that supposedly archaic notion. We didn’t always have a million abortions in this country every year. But we “progressed” to that tragic point a couple of decades ago. Now we are told that we need to accept the progressive belief that homosexual marriage is just as acceptable in the sight of God as heterosexual marriage. All this shows that you simply cannot believe the Bible and believe that all change is progress.
There are people, such as myself, who do not think that homosexual marriage is right just because our culture is going in that direction. I think lots of things in our culture are headed in a destructive direction, and I think our calling as Christians should be to be willing to swim upstream when needed. As for the examples you bring up, I think that cohabitation is misguided, and I grieve over the mothers and babies who are the victims of abortion. Its saddens me, though, to see influential people like yourself lump together moral issues like this in such a cavalier way that doesn’t leave room for thinking through each issue with integrity and sincerity, rather than just buying into intellectual packages.
In your article you talked about what we need to do and not do in order to reach young adults. I totally agree that we should never change our message simply to make it more palatable to a group of people. I can tell you though, as a young adult, that one of the things that church leaders do need to do in order to engage young adults is be willing to set aside pre-determined packages and labels and be willing to actually think outside of a constricting binary spectrum largely determined by the media. Some of us, for example, think that the traditional interpretations of the relevant biblical passages on homosexual relationships are not very compelling and coherent. They sound to us like I am sure the slavery passages sounded to the abolitionists, and like the anti-woman passages sound to women called and gifted by God to preach. Don’t dismiss us that easily by just assuming that we are just going with the flow of culture. We just might be going with the flow of God’s Spirit.
While you are right in saying that change isn’t always progress, the flip side is that keeping things the same isn’t always about being “faithful to the Gospel once and for all delivered to the saints,” as you put it. Just as we shouldn’t assume that recent trends in our intellectual culture are always directing us to a better place, neither should we assume that conserving tradition is an inherently more faithful thing to do. The storyline of the Bible is one that involves both conserving tradition and being willing to reject tradition in order to go forward in our understanding of God and God’s ways. Some of the prophets, for example, clearly rejected the sacrificial system instituted in Leviticus (Isaiah 1:11-12; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 7:22-23), and the apostles clearly rejected the earlier teaching of Scripture in order to accept Gentiles into the church (Genesis 17:9-14; Acts 10-15). Our biblical tradition is full of people who were willing to question whether previous generations really understood God and God’s ways fully and finally. You go on to write,
I have already mentioned C. S. Lewis. In Surprised By Joy, [sic] he writes about “chronological snobbery.” It’s the conviction that when matters before us are moral or spiritual or theological in nature, the most modern beliefs are the most correct beliefs. It’s an elitist approach to history and to knowledge, denying the wisdom of the ancients because we are certain that “the latest is always the greatest.”
“Chronological snobbery” is the bedrock belief upon which theological progressivism is built. It is the conviction that we may dismiss what the Scriptures teach, because, frankly, we have “progressed” to the point that we know better. It is a belief that our culture is so superior and our contemporary values so more enlightened than were the authors of the Bible, that we may dismiss their writings whenever we choose.
That is what’s behind the progressive approach to Christianity. Chronological snobbery. Cultural elitism. And intellectual arrogance.
As a matter of rhetoric, this is simply an uncharitable and unfair characterization. To assume that people who disagree with you are arrogant and snobbish elites is simply false and you should repent of being so quick to demonize brothers and sisters in Christ. As a matter of substance, your claim that theologically progressive views are built on the foundation of “chronological snobbery” is overly simplistic. Yes, there are some people with theologically progressive/liberal views who are simply being a sponge to the culture and are absorbing whatever the world tells them. But there are also many people with some theologically progressive/liberal views that gain these views through years of hard study, reflection, prayer and conversation.
I used to be a member of the Confessing Movement. I used to really look forward to getting the Good News magazine. I still agree with much of what the organization stands for. In many ways, I am very conservative theologically. I believe the Creeds. I believe Jesus was literally born of a virgin, literally rose from the dead, and that he will literally come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one goes to God except through him. But what has turned me off from this organization is the attitude it has shown towards the debate about same-sex relationships. It doesn’t bother me that this group has a conservative stance. Even though I have an affirming stance towards covenanted, monogamous same-sex relationships, I think that there is nothing wrong with a group who is convinced otherwise doing what they can to fairly promote their views. What really bothers me is when leaders like you quickly dismiss the positions of others that they have been struggling with and wrestling with for years and years with cheap and easy jabs. I don’t see how you can honestly say the Bible is clear on this issue. Even if the conservative position is right, it is certainly not clearly right. My bookshelves are filled with works written by top scholars across the boards who are all very intelligent and I can assume sincere people who come to very different exegetical conclusions. Perhaps if both sides on this debate dropped the language about what is “clearly” the case, we could have better conversations.
I apologize for the length of this, and if you have read this far, I thank you. I love the UMC, but I’m just getting tired of how we talk past one another so much. So I just wanted to share this with you and hopefully spark a more productive kind of conversation.