Strict Christianity

Strict Christianity

While I was visiting a hospitalized member, wearing my clerical collar, I was waved down in a waiting lounge by relatives of a critically ill patient. They asked me if I was a priest, and when I said that, no, I was a Lutheran pastor, it was a bit hard to assess their take on that. One of them said, “Lutherans aren’t as strict as Catholics,” and it was a little hard to tell if that was welcome or unwelcome news as they solicited my prayers for their loved-one.

That’s a very debatable proposition, and one that is a very lively issue in today’s world. How strict are you?

It is my theory that, even when we are made uncomfortable by strictness, we also admire it. Radicals make us uncomfortable, not only because they say and do outrageous things, but also because they make us doubt our own uneasy truces with Truth.

We have all made such truces. We have compromised. We have cut corners. We have had to cope with grayness and blurred edges, but we wish we could be more certain.

And so we do admire those who know absolutely what is the absolute truth.

So, when the chips are down, who are you going to have pray you out of hell and into heaven? Certainly not someone who has real doubts about whether such places actually exist. You want passion. You want precision.

It is also my theory that the right direction for Christian theology is to steer a strictness path. It is tempting to be so moved by life’s complexity that we cop out and slide blithely toward absolute relativism. And, in our Googleized world of billions of divergent ideas and truth claims, this looks like the only way out.

It is also tempting to surrender to a raw impulse to be saved by being right. Such a solid ground of certainty and control is always a mirage, of course, but its very collapse into doubt is something we become more and more desperate and therefore violent in avenging. All the greatest sins of history have been committed by people who were trying to maintain the illusion of their own control and correctness.

We need, instead, to be strict, rigorous and passionate about what is indeed central to the Christian faith. And that is that God and not we ourselves belongs in the center of things. This God is responsible for the center, and for putting structure and content into our being as individuals and as an organic whole: the living church.

This is what I understand when I hear the author of Ephesians say, “In [Christ Jesus] the whole structure is joined together and grows, into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” The “you” in this context, consists of extremely diverse people—Jews and Gentiles—who were divided by hostility and diametrically opposed visions and moralities, etc, until Christ died and rose to unite them through cross and grace.

In the most recent (June 29, 2010) issue of The Christian Century magazine there are two items which bring these issues into sharper contemporary focus. The first, “Episcopal head rejects ‘colonial’ Anglicanism” is on page 16. It reports reactions to the way Kathrine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has “forcefully defended her church’s embrace of gays and lesbians and firmly rejected efforts to centralize power or police uniformity in the Anglican Communion.”

Up to now the Anglican Communion has thought of itself united by common worship much more than unified dogma. Like all populations of people it has had its homosexuals, but it didn’t talk about them. But when the Episcopal Church in America started talking about it and even elected an openly gay bishop (a now a second), there was a loud reaction by some that demanded that such open acceptance of homosexuality went against church doctrine.

What many see as condemnation in church doctrine, I see as a lack of honest reflection. Church doctrine has been about the nature of God and Christ and humanity and salvation and sanctification, etc. But the question of what to do when people of the same sex attracted to each other was quite religiously swept under the carpet. For God’s sake we must admit that they have always been here in the church, just as they have always been here in our families, and no amount of defining them out or shunning them or burning them at the stake is going to change that.

Anyway, the Episcopal Church decided to be more honest and to love God with their whole heart, soul and mind, and ask one another what to do. After 50 years of prayerful debate they decided there was no real reason not to ordain them.

So many Anglicans in the United States and very many in African nations, have decided that such a move is not honesty, but is a softening of resolve—a lack of strictness. They see it as a decision that it is too difficult to remain committed to God’s will, so we will go with the flow. We will surrender to the currents of popular culture.

In the middle is Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, himself a very thoughtful and devout Christian. He has tried to referee the controversy and his tactic has been to slow things down. Desiring to hold the Anglican Communion together he has asked that the Episcopal Church not ordain any openly gay people to be bishops. Now that they have done so he has declared that they are, to quote the Christian Century story “out of step with most of the Anglican Communion and should not fully participate in ecumenical dialogue and doctrinal discussions.”

Now, Jefferts Schori has come back to say that “Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism; rather, diversity in fellowship and communion does.” She goes on to claim that an effort to impose unity from above is tantamount to colonialism or imperialism; “We live in a great concern that colonial attitudes continue, particularly in attempts to impose a single understanding across widely varying contexts and cultures.”

The Century article goes on to quote Anglican scholar David Hein as saying that the Episcopal Bishop “has prepared to pack her bags and go off on her own.” But why is it that she should be seen as the one who is pulling out of discussion and turning her back on the unity of the church? And why should those who accept the roles of homosexuals in the church’s leadership be seen as ones who are less strict? Archbishop Williams has been the one who has declared that the Episcopal Church should be left out. Surely, surely, surely it is not the ones who have risked censure and expulsion to say that God made and loves homosexuals who surrender to the pressures of culture. They indeed are the counter-cultural ones. Those who get so impossibly excited about the idea of homosexuality that they falsely see it as a central doctrinal issue are the ones who have been driven by the dominant strain of homophobia in cultures through the ages.

Jefferts Schori has, in my opinion, decided rightly to be strict about the proper balance of ecclesiastical authority and charismatic power in the church. She sees what Ephesians sees – that the church is not a static thing that teaches the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Christ stays the same. God’s love is the same. But God’s love and the church must change to stay the same. The church, which finds its unity not in static doctrine, but in the cross of Jesus Christ, grows. It grows when the charismatic, prophetic spirit cries out for mercy and justice. And today that voice says do not quench the Holy Spirit. If people who are gay want to come to the cross and to the Eucharist and to the pulpit and altar and hospital bedside and to the table at which we discuss our living doctrines–and we quench that spirit—we are grievously sinning.

The second pertinent article in this month’s The Christian Century is “Tracking God: Karen Armstrong’s Religious Vision.” I have been impressed with Armstrong’s ability to piece together a tremendously broad vision of world’s religions. This article does a very fair job in tracing her own spiritual journey and her “vision.” It makes a fair observation that Armstrong’s preference for an academic approach is rather individualistic and lacking in a full understanding in the necessity of community. However, I believe the article’s author, Amy Fryholm, unfairly exaggerates in her criticism. She claims that, for Armstrong, “religion remains an idea without form—abstract, hollow and fleshless—echoing through the halls of history.”

I find Armstrong’s approach indeed puts back a lot of flesh in religion. She herself relishes the world of ideas, but she wants faith to be less “notional,” and more about ritual and the building of habits of life that bring more healing, openness, forgiveness and compassion to the world. She may not spell out a doctrine of the centrality of community, but all this is of the essence of community.

But the article does outline some of Armstrong’s important claims. Here are a couple of key paragraphs:

Yet her work also contains a distinct critique of religion. She thinks humans are too quick to insist that their particular form of meaning is the only correct form. Religious people tend to insist on certainty, homogeneity and doctrinal consistency. In their view, those who do not assent to this formulation deserve exile, if not death. Christianity, Armstrong finds, has been particularly inclined to this path because it has emphasized belief over practice and doctrinal agreement over dialogue. Armstrong calls this the “fundamentalist” path and resoundly (sic) rejects it.
The other path that religion can take is toward openness, humility and compassion. Armstrong finds an ethical impulse at work in the world that might be—she hesitates to be definitive on this point—traceable to the higher being that we call “God.”
Armstrong’s reluctance to call God out is rooted in her appreciation of apophatic theology—the tradition that seeks God by way of what can’t be said about God as opposed to what can be said. In other words, she thinks God is best found in silence and uncertainty. The true purpose of all religion, Armstrong argues, is to transcend the ego through silence, as well as through empathy with others.


So, here we have an author who appreciates silence, but who has gone on to publish 19 books on God. I think what we have here is not a woman whose vision of God is “abstract, hollow and fleshless,” but one who has appreciated what it means to be flesh. We are limited.

And yet we have both a right and left side to our brains. We have feelings and visions about God, but we also feel compelled to put these into words. We feel compelled to love the Lord with our whole heart, soul and mind. So, we speak about our fallibility and of the need for silence and to speak of God in terms of what we cannot say.

This brings us back to strictness. Silence is not being less strict. It can be seen as a strict adherence to the blessing of silence. Yet, as a pastor I had many days when I had to go beyond silence in my spirituality. I suppose I had to as a parent and as a church member as well. I was most honest and courageous and, I believe, Christian, when I put God and Christ in the center of things and kept myself out. One great biblical scholar (it is fitting that I have forgotten his name) once said in a lecture I heard, “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The further away from him we move, the further away from the truth we get.”

So, I point to Christ and do not pretend that I have all the answers. Surely, if two gay people come to me to want to marry one another and long to love and at the same time to be faithful and responsive to Jesus Christ, I must be silent for a while and listen to what Christ may be saying to me through them. Surely, if one of them comes to me and wants to give their life to Christ in service, I must put aside any discomfort I may have in contemplating homosexual sex acts, and consider that the Spirit is moving me in a new way.

But my silence does have words. And I feel passionately compelled to be strict—very strict and even, Lord willing, fanatical, in the service of getting out of the way of God’s grace.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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