June 30, 2023

Why Do We Affirm What We Affirm?

Why Do We Affirm What We Affirm?

My previous blog post on an affirming church kicked up a lot of dust. But the dust will settle. And as it settles, here’s what clear in its wake:

There is zero unity on this issue in so-called evangelical churches and there never will be. And the reason is as I have said – we have different versions of the gospel. Indeed we have different gospels. That is the shaping of things to come. Whatever we’re facing in the evangelical church on this matter, this much is true, there is a deep fracture coming.

A Watershed Moment

As I said in my post, this is a watershed issue for the church. The side of the mountain that you land on will determine where you end up. A journey that begins with either affirm or non-affirm will take you to a very different river theologically, ethically and missionally. That’s the truth.

But I didn’t write that blog post to simply have a crack, or has been said to “clickbait“, or even “to dog-whistle to right wing anti-SSM fanboys“. I wrote it to encourage those who are not going to affirm the Sexular Age.

I wrote it to encourage them to keep going when they’re up against the wall in the public square, in the media, in their workplaces, or in their education settings. And I wrote it to forewarn others who think that somehow you can sign off on the Sexular Age and it not eventually filter into absolutely everything in your Christian framework.

For here’s the thing. The shock and dismay at my post, and the concern that I apparently misrepresented the church in question: all these things are a tiny taste of what non-affirming Christians face in the media on a constant basis. A tiny taste of the shape of things to come. True, some people bring opprobrium on themselves with unwise or ungodly attitudes, but most Christians who get a shellacking in the media or workplace over sexuality issues have done nothing but simply hold their line and be godly.

And as this thing plays out in the coming decade or so, how much support will non-affirming Christians get – and I mean publicly – from their supposed brothers and sisters who are in the affirming camp?

Zero. Nix. Nada. There will be complete radio silence. If you think it’s shocking that a no-name Christian blogger pushes back in a localised setting that no secular person will ever read or care about; and if you think it’s unfair that this issue was raised, then spare a thought for the public flogging that many non-affirming Christians will receive, and are in fact receiving, over this issue.

Internal Christian arguments are like rock bands that are “big in Japan”. Having your mug shot on the front page of a state newspaper, accused of being a cult-like church that promotes homophobic bigotry, that’s Taylor Swift “I couldn’t get a ticket cos the website crashed!” bigness. And it has happened. Spare a thought for that person. Or at least pick up the phone and encourage them.

I have fielded many a private call or message from a Christian getting done over by the media or in a secular work setting, or in the public square in general, asking how they can navigate the hostility and pushback when it feels like everyone is against them. That would appear to be the time for affirming brothers and sisters to say:

“I know how this things works, I’ve got your back. We don’t agree on everything, but we’re all in this together. Let me represent your case fairly in the public square because I’ve got a credibility that you don’t have there. I can take some heat for a brother or sister.”

But that never happens. As the public heat gets turned up, where will their affirming brothers and sisters be at this point? Brothers and sisters who make great calls in the Christian blogosphere for unity, but fail to demonstrate it publicly when it matters?

Will we now hear them calling out in loud support of their supposed brothers and sisters before a secular world that can hardly believe people can have genuine disagreements but still love each other? Will we hear them say, in a show of public support for those they clearly regard as their weaker, less insightful brothers and sisters who have not been fully enlightened yet, that they know they are acting in good faith?

We will not. That won’t happen. Here’s how I know that it won’t happen. It doesn’t happen already. I’ve seen shreddings of great and godly people in the media, replete with a public flogging and headline articles. And what has been the response from supposed brothers and sisters? Silence.

Radio Silence

Radio silence. TV silence. Blog silence. Social media silence. All sorts of silence. Perhaps a private “thoughts and prayers” text to salve the conscience and maintain the odd friendship. But in general, silence. And that is a pattern. And it’s a pattern because the affirming camp is increasingly convincing itself – and the trajectory of mainline denominations proves it – that the non-affirming part of the tribe is not being shaped by honest convictions around Scripture and ethics, but by darker, more sinister forces. The non-affirmers may reference the Bible, but in reality they’re hiding behind a power dynamic that is designed to create victims.

Darker sinister forces are causing disunity, hostility, homophobia, reactionary politics, and this disastrous, unhelpful divisiveness. I say all those things because I’ve heard all those things. And if this is the case, then such dangerous and retrograde theology should not be accommodated, should it?

That’s why the initial call for unity is revealed as hollow. Now don’t get me wrong. As a non-affirmer I completely believe that affirming theology in this area is dangerous and retrograde. But I’m saying it. I’m not pretending there’s some sort of Willie Wonka Golden Unity Ticket out there we can all find.

So we need to drop the pretence to each other that unity is possible and just get on with a careful split that leaves as little damage as possible. Unity is dead. After all, where was the unity of the Victorian affirming churches when the scurrilous claims of widespread, and harmful, coercive conversion therapy were being made against evangelical churches by the Victorian government? I’d like to say they were in hiding, but they weren’t. There was no show of unity there.

Affirming churches were either standing on the side-lines watching or tacitly giving approval. Worse, it felt like given half the chance, some of them would say to the government “Here, with our insider knowledge we’ll help you gather evidence.” And as Murray Campbell points out here, there was even a suggestion from some affirming churches that the damage being caused was worth serious investigation.

Not for a moment was there an affirming voice even pointing out that the problem might have been over-exaggerated by a hostile cultural and academic crowd, for the sake of the political ends of silencing a valid interpretation of a gospel ethic. The evidence is in – there is already zero unity. And there’s no unity because we’re set on different courses.

The Shaping Of Things To Come

Perhaps it’s the shaping of things to come. The true shaping of things to come. That affirming churches and denominations will inevitably regard non-affirming churches as beyond the pale. Indeed they will mark them out as unsafe and unhelpful. They will end up doing the hack work for hostile cultural and legislative actors. Now that might be an active hack work, which would be shameful to say the least. But it might just be the non-active hack work of allowing the constant misrepresentation of non-affirming churches by activists and the media, and not lifting a finger to stay it.

So when someone privately texts me to challenge my blog post, and says that he believes the move by a denomination to not allow affirming churches equal sway in a theological institution, is “disastrous”, I know what the shape of things to come is. And when Mike Frost, who co-wrote one of the most insightful missional books in the past three decades called, well, called The Shaping of Things To Come, in speaking about this very affirming/non-affirming issue last year, states:

But instead of rallying to fulfil these bold visions for Christian mission, we’re debating the ins and outs of how to expel a tiny number of churches that don’t agree with the majority on yet another non-core issue. You’d think we would have learned by now.

In other words, Mike believes that the non-affirming types who want to break fellowship with the affirming types over what he labels a “non-core issue” are actually putting the mission of God at risk. Never mind that Mike couldn’t point to one denomination that has given ground on this issue, that has then gone on to do any effective work in the mission on any scale worth counting.

And if such non-affirming types are doing something so dreadful as putting the mission at risk, then it stands to reason that it wouldn’t be in the mission’s best interests to be seen tosupport them. It stands to reason that when they’re getting shafted in the public square, that shafting might be helpful for the long term interest of this bold mission vision. If you want to see the shape of things to come for non-affirming types, then look at the shape of things that have come! That’s how radio silence can be justified.

And perhaps, not to be too pointed, but one of the biggest risks to the mission of the church could be the world watching on as a Christian leader gracelessly and sneeringly offers put-down after put-down on social media to other Christians who happen to disagree with his assessment of their tribe. Mike’s own recent self-confessed awareness of this and his promise to do better, highlighted on his social media platforms in the wake of my recent blog post, sounds like a step in the right direction. May he continue in it. The mission might get back on track after all.

The Need To Be Affirmed

But in the end, I believe that the reason that one side of the evangelical church has rolled over on this matter and become affirming, has very little to do with mission at all. I mean that’s what it will tell itself. Indeed that’s what I was scolded about when I challenged it. But the reason is not missional, or pastoral, it is theological. And it’s at a deeper level, I suspect, than many in the affirming camp will permit themselves to admit.

And it’s this: We all love to be affirmed. And we will seek affirmation from those whose opinions we most value. And that’s why we read these words in John’s Gospel:

Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;  for they loved human praise more than praise from God. (John 12:42-43)

Praise. Glory. Affirmation. Call it what you will. But John gets it right. The silent assent to Jesus without any public acknowledge of him was a sign that the people of his day sought the approval of other humans and not of God. Mike is right – we need bold visions for Christian mission. He’s just wrong about the boldness part of that. Boldness in biblical terms has at its guts the ability to be hated by the world (the fallen “world” of 1 John 2:15 that is opposed to God, not the created order or the humans in it), and not waiver.

Boldness does not mean that we are free to create frameworks, or construct theological excuses, to dial down the hatred that the world reframes as freedom and love. Boldness means saying “I know you wish to misrepresent me, but I don’t need your affirmation.”

At a deeply psychological level we all love affirmation. We crave it. And our great sin is that we crave it from all the wrong sources. It’s my constant temptation. I’m sure it’s yours. I like to be liked. I don’t like not being liked. And I even like to affirm me and my need for affirmation from these things. That’s how sinful I am! Dunno about you.

And in liking to be liked, I like it even less when there’s a whole lot of unlike directed towards me on Facebook. But that’s by the by. Whoever’s affirmation we most crave, will determine whose affirmation we most seek. Hence, unless we have sorted out a healthy locus for our affirmation, then whatever the source requires of us in return for its affirmation, we will offer it up. Every time. And sorry Facebook people – I don’t ultimately need yours, even if at times I want it. Some of the comments from people I love did sting a bit. But only a bit.

The Elephant And The Rider

That approval paradigm is how the human heart works at both a theological level, and at a psychological level. New York University academic, Jonathan Haidt’s observation about the rider and the elephant and how we are persuaded – or persuade ourselves at least – about certain truths or convictions rings true. Or a it might be put: “What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies”.

All of us seek the glory that comes from humans at some stage, and in certain aspects of life in which we value the approval of others. And at the moment, with the hostile and harsh pushback from the Sexular Age, unless we’ve firmly located the locus of our approval in God, we’ll be suckers for the approval of humans in this matter.

And in line with Haidt’s psychological observation, ripped off from the old theological conviction, we will have ready-made reasons to justify it. We’ll even be able to say, as is being said, that such an affirming stance comes itself from God.

This is all just my way of saying that we are no different to each other. The affirming crowd in our evangelical denominations is no different to the non-affirming crowd. Not in type at least. Merely in direction and focus. Merely in the source we reflexively – and sinfully – seek approval. For we all sinfully seek the approval of other people. It’s just that we seek it from different people.

Does that mean I think that affirming types in evangelical churches are not sincere and hold genuine concerns? It does not mean that. I do not doubt their sincerity. Does it mean that I don’t think they have deep pastoral concern and kindness? Once again, how can I even raise that question.

But that’s not the deepest part of us. The Bible tells us not to look at the surface level. Indeed it doesn’t even tell us to look at the heart level. And the reason is simple: Our hearts are deceitful – self-deceptive rather than simply deceptive towards others. We do not even know our own motivations. When it comes to depth, our hearts are at Mariana Trench level. That’s why we read that the Word of God judges not only our actions, but our motives and intentions.

We can mask these things to the point. We can mask them to the point that we can make the Bible say what it does not say, and we can make it not say what it does say. And then, with the elephant firmly directing the rider, we can call what is merely eisegetical convenience an exegetical conviction.

And we can all of that without blinking. And I think that that means that the onus is on the affirming crowd to overturn two thousand years of church conviction about this with more than a wave of the hand or a reference to revisionist theologian Matthew Vines.

The same crowd that calls for more theological voices from Majority world Christians, seems equally deaf to the Asian, sub-Saharan, and South American evangelical theological voices insisting the affirming West is wrong on this one. It sounds suspiciously like another version of Western cultural imperialism, picking and choosing what we value from the Majority world to suit our own interests.

That’s a harsh word. For sure. But that’s the point. We all need a harsh word from time to time. And it’s a comforting word to those who will hear it. And I hope it’s a comforting word to those non-affirming evangelicals who will, increasingly be shredded by the surrounding culture, and eventually abandoned by affirming churches and denominations that will win the politics and lose the church (and the mission in the process).

Here’s the affirmation we should all be waiting for:

‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

If you seek that approving voice, then no matter what the other voices say against you, or no matter what the other voices who should be supporting you don’t say for you, then you can keep going. And that in the end, is all the affirmation we need.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

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