Ken Wilson on Christian Community (part 2)

On Sunday Ken Wilson gave a sermon at City Church San Francisco called “The Unique Tenacity of Christian Community.” A friend of mine called it, “Best sermon ever on LGBT inclusion without mentioning LGBT once.” You can listen and judge for yourself.

Yesterday I interacted with one part of the sermon that resonated deeply with a theme that I have been developing here for a couple of years: knowing what we think about an issue (and the LGBTQ issue in particular) does not automatically provide us with an immediate knowledge of what we should do about it.

Today’s there’s another, related thread I want to trace.

This one is closer to what I blogged about on Sunday: our “believe thats” can get in the way of the dangerous business of entrusting ourselves to the God we profess to “believe in.”

To put it differently, knowing we are right about something can give us a kind of confidence that impels us to greatness in spite of ourselves. Or, it can make us into a most insufferable band of self-righteous hypocrites.

Knowing that we are right can, as Wilson put it, make the world a more dangerous place.

As I’ve explored this theme, I have sometimes talked about the dangers of bounded-set Christianity, where the right things we know become the litmus test for who is in and who is out. Once we adopt such a posture it is literally possible to justify any and every sort of evil and violence in the name of Jesus–just as long as we can convince ourselves that we are guarding the borders of the people of God.

In his sermon on Sunday, Wilson put it like this:

A group of people that is more right than everyone else is not good news for the world.

Indeed, everyone thinks this about themselves. This is neither good, nor is it news, nor is it for the world.

I think that Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular have a hard time with this. Our whole church system was created around the notion of theological correctness. Each of our denominations was created to be more theologically correct than the one we broke off from.

But here’s the true rub, as Wilson articulated it on Sunday:

The gospel Paul is preaching intends to produce people who can love their neighbor as themselves, embrace people who have strong disagreements, and not just embrace 250 Facebook friends.

Our “gospel” becomes good news when it is recognized as producing a love that transcends and demolishes the boundaries of love that we have inherited or created.

If the gospel is not defined as falling within a boundary defined by a theological system, how might it be known and seen? By people moving toward each other–with a strong emphasis on “other”–with the same self-sacrificial, embracing, reconciling, and self-giving love that God showed us in Christ.

There’s a gospel that is actually good news.

The way of the gospel is the way of the cross. And that always stands in tension with the way of the empires of power.

What if the surprising power of the crucified Christ is not that it can make us all God’s people agree with each other, but that it can make even those who disagree with each other into a thriving, flourishing family of self-sacrificial love?

Wilson framed the question like this:

What if we understood that God was more concerned with how we handle our disagreements among ourselves than he is in resolving them for us? What if this is actually the test of authentic resurrection faith? What if God judges more by willingness to love than on our getting it right on any issue?

What if?

Please share the love:

14 thoughts on “Ken Wilson on Christian Community (part 2)

  1. “A group of people that is more right than everyone else is not good news for the world.”

    A statement like this has become a pretty standard rhetorical move if one positions themselves or imagines themselves as “speaking truth to power”. The ironies are manifest. There would be no reason to write a book, give a speech, vote, or do just about anything without an implicit belief in this. It even holds true for making the statement. The statement itself is of course an assertion of rightness.

    We are awash with activists, religious on every side of just about every issue. It seems the only people who could afford a statement such as this is someone who for the most part lives in relative affluence and security. “Black lives matter” is a very clear statement of “we are right and the world should pay attention”. It’s also a statement I agree with. I also agree that it is vitally important that we learn to live productively in community with people with whom we disagree. I think that statement is “more right” than its opposite.

    There is something inauthentic and dishonest about this contemporary mode of postures. To listen, to be patience, to be tolerant, to be flexible, to be self-sacrificial, are all positive qualities and postures that I think move us in a helpful direction. To play games with faux skepticism I think just slows things down and enables a more immature lack of healthy differentiation.

    1. I feel the force of your argument, Paul, but am not sure that it works within the context in which the phrase in context was articulated.

      Rightness itself is not good news. It’s what everyone, including Wilson no doubt, claims.

      It’s awesome that Obama was more right than anyone about the importance of peace when he ran in 2008. It’s too bad that he didn’t enact any of his anti-war rhetoric once he got into office. His being right wasn’t good news for the people on the other end of our drones.

      Being right about God raising Jesus from the dead is awesome. But it’s not good news for the world if the enthroned Christ is the symbol behind the swords with which we either literally or figuratively kill people.

      “Black lives matter” isn’t a call for America to change its rhetoric that “all people are created equal,” it’s a call for America to enact the reality that those words represent.

  2. Thanks much for keeping the dialogue going, Daniel. I recently did a talk on Mark 9:14-24. In preparing for this talk I was profoundly struck by the beginning of the story. When Jesus came down from the mountain and saw his disciples arguing with the scribes he knew it must be about a theological concern and asked, “What are you arguing about with them?” It appeared as though Jesus was interested in the debate and wanted to join in. Yet, immediately a man in distress tells him about his son who is in need. Jesus drops his interest in theology and engages the father of the boy. In other words, while he was interested in orthodox or the right thinking of the group, he was more interested in orthopraxis and doing the right things. No where in this story do we see him turning back to the scribes or his disciples and fixing their thinking; rather he teaches on doing the right things. The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with language telling us to take care of the alien or “other” in our midst. I need to look in the mirror and know who the other is around me and do the right things before I start telling them what the right way to think is.

  3. I think Jesus cared about correct interpretation of Scripture and so did Peter and Paul. One of the continuing themes of the gospels is how others might think Jesus was violating Torah/Scripture but the gospels use these as teaching examples on how to correctly interpret Scripture by showing how Jesus did it. There are many things Jesus was, but certainly one of them was and is being the perfect teacher.

    So I think it is a valid activity for believers to try to do one’s best to interpret Scripture and discern God’s will as best we can, both for the original hearers/readers and to apply to us today. But there’s the rub, none of us can claim to be infallible interpreters like Jesus, but does that mean we just throw up our hands and give up? I cannot do that, but I know I also need to continue to check my understanding of anything I think Scripture teaches against the law of love.

  4. I feel a false dichotomy arising the the comment thread here. The question is not “Does being right matter?” Of course it matters. It mattered to Jesus and his apostles. It matters in thousands of questions today to people committed to vastly different systems of conviction. It’s necessary. It’s just not sufficient. After we are right (and you can approach this with all the humility or triumphalism you like), we must ask, “Now how will I treat those who disagree with me.” And “Can I persist in tenacious community the those who agree with me that Jesus is Lord and disagree with me on the implications or consequences of that claim?” That, I think, is the question being urged here.

    1. I think that all of you are on to something, about what the rhetoric of the line is after even if its precise articulation doesn’t precisely capture it.

      This question is, perhaps, a variant on yesterday’s: Now that I have a position, what am I going to do with it?

  5. “I know I also need to continue to check my understanding of anything I think Scripture teaches against the law of love.” is a sound statement. But at least as sound is the formula at which I arrived as long ago as the late 1960s, that I need to continue to check my idea of love against what I think, and the Church has always thought, Scripture teaches. We have had twenty centuries to sell the world on the love-ideal; so even in my old article, ‘… And Your Neighbour As Yourself: some current attitudes assessed in the light of the biblical teaching on Christian love.’ I saw that we were up against a tendency for ‘love’ to become free-floating and autonomous, a sort of gooey glop which could be ladled out over things and people without reference to, say, sex-ethics. I concluded: “Christian love is a very complex thing, as wide and as deep as the whole will of God. It is likely that we shall never cease to discover new aspects of it, and I have found it impossible, within the compass of this paper, to recount even the things which are known to me. A definition might run “Christian love is a total concern for our neighbour as defined by the will of God.” Its converse is not so much selfishness as pride and disobedience.”

    Not many years later I was to be seriously propositioned by an old suitor 8.5 years into my marriage in the name of Christian love, one personal reason why I write about this with particular feeling.

    Essentially the only argument ever offered in my Anglican diocese for the ‘blessing’ of same-sex ‘unions’ is that it’s the only ‘loving’ course of action, and that to refuse such ‘blessings’ is ‘unloving’. In many days of Dialogue with the late Hugh Dempster, reproduced in my book , I found that this was absolutely the best that he could do. So all those decades later major policy decisions were made in the world’s second largest Communion based on a theologically naïve position. The only comfort that I and my late husband could find in all this was that the Lord is not surprised by any of these developments. And that some of us have been stimulated by them to look at the Biblical text in more precise ways.

    1. I agree that the measure of “love” is tricky, and that all too often it’s a wax nose, to bent into any shape we so desire.

      I would want to bring it closer to the Christian narrative, following especially in the path of the Johannine corpus. The love we are to imitate that is God’s makes itself known in the cross: God gave his son to be the sacrifice for our sins. The love we are to imitate that is Christ’s makes itself known on the cross: greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends.

      For my money, the antithesis to biblical love is seeking our own life, even at the expense, if needs be, of the life of neighbor, whereas love is known in a person’s laying down her or his own life in order that the other might more truly live.

  6. Yes, we should try our best to understand all Scripture thru the love commandments and interpret the love commandments thru all Scripture. I see this as a process of continual improvement over time, both for individuals and the body of Christ.

    Per the Acts 15 example, it is possible for those that see themselves with stricter requirements in some area of disagreement (in Acts 15 Jews) to perhaps request some concessions from those that see themselves with less strict requirements (in Acts: 15 gentiles) to allow table fellowship, but not expect total capitulation (in Acts 15: requiring gentiles to be circumcised). I think each believer should own their own faith and the start of doing that is to acknowledge where it differs from that of other believers that one is called to be in fellowship.

  7. The approach Ken is promoting is not new. Joseph Fletcher wrote a book in 1966 entitled “Situation Ethics” which nicely articulates it. The only true guide we can follow is our own sense of what is the most “loving” thing to do in each situation. If we judge that the commands of Scripture are “unloving,” then we must disobey Scripture and follow the higher law of “love.”

    Doesn’t sound bad, until you realize that because Scripture is no longer a revelation of objective truth that nobody can know what the “loving” thing truly is. Each person does whatever he/she feels is the most loving thing. So if it is “love” that draws you to someone of the same gender, you are free to pursue a relationship. If you are unmarried but truly in “love,” then you need not necessarily wait until marriage to have sex. If you and your spouse fall out of “love” and fall into “love” with other people, simply get a divorce and pursue your new love.

  8. While to invoke the New Commandment is right, we need to attempt to get our minds around the whole counsel of God in this matter, including the clear meaning of love for neighbour as taught in Lk. 10. That will always be hard for us with our limited minds: our faith and its implications are so huge, that we seldom if ever hold all of it together in balance at one time. The New Commandment I believe to be primarily about mutual love within the Christian fellowship large or small. I believe that I lived for nearly 51 years in just such a microcosmic edition of that, marriage to a deeply Christian man. Its basis is not merely the Lord’s sacrificial example, but the direction and empowering that He experienced from the Father. It cannot mean becoming a pushover in the face of ruthless and powerful corruption, else Jesus could not be said to have ‘loved’ the religious leaders who opposed themselves to Him. It is significant that the ever-so-human Peter first jibbed at being washed, then wanted it done in a different way! The distinction between felt wants and real needs is a vital one.

    What does love mean when Christian leaders are faced with the demand that some form of vice should be not disciplined but specially privileged and baptized? In Corinth the skyline and the culture were dominated by the cult of a powerful deity enjoining sexual enmeshment, Venus-Aphrodite, goddess of sexual orgasm. There was, that port city with its nice climate, a push for ‘cheap grace’, special dispensation for one (male) man’s orgasms. St. Paul, in order to ‘love’ that man Christianly, had to risk getting himself in wrong with a lot of people for whom he had earlier sweated blood. It all cost him the utmost personal anguish. The cult of Venus-Aphrodite is alive and well in some of OUR port cities with nice climates. Unsurprisingly, that’s where we came in, in this thread.

  9. A question was posed earlier: “This question is, perhaps, a variant on yesterday’s: Now that I have a position, what am I going to do with it?”

    Scenario One: You are a pastor and in between services a couple you have known for years comes up to you, eyes red, obviously saddened, troubled. They say; “Pastor, last night our daughter told us she was a lesbian and wants us to invite her partner into our home. What do we do?”

    Scenario Two: You are the parent of the daughter mentioned above and it is ‘last night’ and you are having this conversation. What do you tell her?

    I might posit that having a position on the deity and lordship of Jesus is of utmost importance. Taking a theological stance on a whole host of issues can be interesting and academic. But in these scenarios, which are very real and I suspect happen daily, at that moment how important is the position? How important is it to be right? This is where the love that has been talked about in this blog must come through, the position must die on its cross in order for grace to take its place over the position.

  10. Hello Dr. Kirk,

    Thank you for your blog. I have an Evangelical/Pentecostal/Emergent background. I found the natural law arguments for marriage presented in “What is Marriage?: Man and Woman, A Defense” by Sherif Girgis to be quite persuasive. I am thankful for exposure to Catholic philosophies such as Thomism and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. These reasoned articulations build upon the Biblical text; they add insight and wisdom that informs my understanding of personhood. This greater anthropological framework about what it means to be a person has helped me to better understand who I am and how I may relate to God. Such perusals in natural law also provide a welcome respite from Mr. Wilson’s methods of analysis of the biblical text.

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