Berni Responds to Bartlet in the West Wing Theology Challenge
Wow there’s been quite bit of discussion on the blog post about the West Wing Theology Challenge – the theological gauntlet that President Bartlet threw down to the Christian talk show host ‘Dr’ Jenna Jacobs on homosexuality. And you know what makes it all so hard? It’s this: in one respect at least, Bartlet has a real point.
I don’t mean that his conclusions are right. But his process points out an important truth. So, here (in love) is my take on it all:
- Changing Social Context: The 66 books of the Bible were written over a period of at least 1,500 years (the last one completed almost 2,000 years ago) by different authors in different situations and contexts – all of which are totally foreign to the world we live in today. That was no accident. God planned to reveal Himself to us in that way. So why are we so surprised that we need to put our thinking caps on to figure out what it all means to us here and now at the threshold of the 21st Century AD? That’s the plain reality. We do need to think this stuff through – honestly, openly and in love.
- The Bible’s Moral Trajectory: There is absolutely no doubt that morals follow a trajectory from beginning to end of the Bible. Polygamy was apparently fine early on in the Old Testament, but forbidden in the New Testament. And as Bartlet points out, a good many of the 613 commandments and prohibitions of the Torah (Mosaic Law or what we now refer to as Old Testament Law) simply cannot be followed today. In fact, even by Jesus’ time things like stoning for adultery was no longer practiced. (That’s what the trap in John’s Gospel Chapter 8 is all about – the religious leaders were presenting Jesus with what they thought was a lose-lose choice for Him. He either had to deny the Mosaic Law, or risk prosecution by the Romans for sanctioning the stoning of an adulteress under that Law). Let’s not kid ourselves that morals and practices didn’t change over time. They did! And they have continued to evolve since then. There’s not a peep for instance in the Bible about criticising slavery (although slave traders are sometimes listed as sinners – who isn’t?!). But are we prepared to use that omission as the basis for sanctioning slavery today? Things have changed.
- The Underlying Truth: So, in the face of evolving ethics in both Biblical and post-Biblical times, what do we go with? What is Biblical truth? My answer is that we go with the underlying truth principles (theologians like to call them ‘doctrines’) of Scripture. That doesn’t mean that we water things down because it suits us; because we really would like to have this sin in under God’s list of “okie-dokies” rather than out. What it does mean is that we evaluate difficult issues in the light of underlying Biblical truths. In other words, the Bible should always be used as the primary and authoritative source, for interpreting the Bible. And there simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this as Bartlet would seem to suggest.
- The Fatal Flaw in Bartlet’s Reasoning: The flaw in Bartlet’s argument is that he uses Old Testament Law to discredit New Testament beliefs and practices. We’re clearly told through the Apostle Paul that we are dead to the old law, and alive to grace (Romans 7:1-6). As a Christ-follower saved by grace, I am not required to tithe my income (as much as that isn’t a bad starting point) any more than I am required to stone my brother John to death for planting two different crops side by side. The Old Testament Law doesn’t apply. Grace applies. And interestingly, when given the apparent no-win choice by the religious leaders in John Chapter 8, Jesus puts them all to shame, by inconveniently pointing out the truth that all of them have sinned and by applying grace to the woman (note grace does not equal denial). Have another read.
- Specifically on Sexuality: What does the New Testament teach on sexuality? Actually it doesn’t discriminate. As far as the New Testament is concerned, sexual intimacy is a wonderful thing invented by God, only to be exercised between one man and one woman in a life-long bond of exclusivity that we call “marriage”. Anything outside of that is sin. That includes pornography (which by the way in Jesus’ day was a word used to describe both heterosexual and homosexual conduct outside marriage – e.g. the temple prostitutes of other religions). That includes adultery. There are lots and lots of references, but I like this one the best – it summarises things in a nutshell. And just before we start imagining the one sin is worse than another, check out this list in Galatians 5:19-21 and see all the other supposedly “minor sins” listed right up there alongside the “major ones”. Let’s get a grip here – sin is sin. Who wants to throw the first stone again?
- Speaking the Truth in Love: These three things remain – faith, hope and love and the greatest of these, is love (1 Cor 13:13). Does that mean we sweep things under the carpet? Does that mean that we fold because popular thinking has moved on? Nope. Jesus didn’t. He told the adulteress that whilst He didn’t condemn her, she should go and sin no more. I have a friend who several times has committed adultery. Love him dearly. But at some point, out of my love for him and my concern for him, I shared the truth with him in love. Directly, plainly but gently. It’s not my job to judge him. It’s not my job to wave my bony finger at him. And it’s not my job to change him. I think – correct me if I’m wrong – my job is to share the truth with him in love, and let the Lord do the rest. Sometimes of course that draws criticism. Sometimes it results in name calling. Sometimes it will draw fire from those who want us to believe something that suits their agenda. That’s okay, so long as we don’t shoot back. Faith, hope and love. The greatest is love – and if we love someone, we won’t sweep things under the carpet hoping they’ll go away, nor will we beat them over a head with a Bible, as though that’ll somehow make a difference.
There you have it. That’s my take on things. Please feel free to comment, to criticise, to share. But please, do it in love.