I have been working away this afternoon on the last of three long essays on sex, love, and marriage in scripture (the first two are here and here). In fact, I found myself buried in Hosea and Ezekiel and realizing that the essay was careening out of control. Which my essays are sometimes likely to do.
In part, it is because I stuff this digression in the middle of it. So, I thought I’d pull it out and let it sit on its own. The piece on marriage — what kind of marriage God and Israel really have — is still coming.
I have written these pieces not to undermine the historic teaching of the church, to disregard or discard those teachings, but to note where the teaching of the church actually seems to come in conflict or even directly contradict scripture. I understand and appreciate that the church itself is a legitimate authority for both revelation and teaching. This is especially true for those Christians connected to churches and confessions with some kind of connection to apostolic succession.
(Even protestants who claim “sola scriptura” find themselves creating some kind of magisterium with teaching authority, usually unconnected to the historic church. But hierarchy and authority are inescapable.)
Again, I think the teaching is generally true. But the problem is always where the teaching conflicts with the story.
The Christendom church was a church of rules. Because it governed and administered. Everyone was assumed, in Christendom, to belong — to be Christian. There were no outsiders in Christendom (with the exception of Jews, who were tolerated — or not — to varying degrees; some Christendom states in the West managed to expel most or all of their Jewish residents, and never really had to deal with anyone outside Christendom. *This* is what I mean when I say Christendom has a problem with pluralism.) A person in Christendom was assumed — by culture, custom, and law — to be a Christian (unless they were Jewish, when and where *that* was allowed). There was wiggle room to determine how Christian someone would be (which is why most Christendom polities had laws mandating some kind of minimum worship attendance, like Easter and Christmas), but there was no *not being Christian* in Christendom.
Which meant the story which held people together was not the Gospel, and not the story of Israel, but the story of the people who shared a language and a heritage and even rulers.
And, of course, the rules. Within the church, the rules would distinguish how Christian a person might be, whether they might be subject to the discipline of the church (or even the state).
The rules, however, are no longer helpful. Or rather, they cannot hold us together anymore. Not in post-Christendom. (My assumption here is that the nation-state assumes many of the functions of the church in modernity, including the monopoly on truth and meaning in a polity. That, however, is another argument for another time.) Some conservative Christians might make an argument that assumes everyone around them should be Christian, but they are clearly not paying attention to the world around them. Catholics making a natural law argument are trying to have the fruits of revelation without actually resorting to the revelation itself, and that has always struck me as somewhere between hypocrisy and outright fraud.
Regardless, the church cannot be held together by rules and assumptions of a shared national culture that hold and support (and is held and supported by) those rules. Those things are slipping away from us.
And frankly, I say good riddance.
Instead, we should be held together by a story — the story of Israel in scripture. We should be held together by the revelation. This story has some tremendous advantages for us — it is the story of a failure of a people to be faithful, their defeat, conquest, and exile, and their eventual redemption. If we take the story of Israel as the history of the church, then we can see that the forces of modernity and enlightenment (which were launched in and by Christians in late Christendom) are like the Assyrians and the Babylonians. They are, I believe, God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church that became too enamored of its own power, prestige, and position, a church that believed more in the order it brought rather than the poor it came to serve. Assyria and Babylon cannot be negotiated with. There is no cooperation. There is only defeat. There is only surrender.
This frees us, though, from having to wage a pointless struggle. It frees us from despairing of our coming defeat and exile. Because we know we shall be redeemed. (Indeed, we are already redeemed in Christ, who is our home in the midst of exile.) We can face the Assyrians with confidence the way Elijah and Elisha did (that there are prophets in Israel!), remind the church as Babylon besieges us that this fate is a result of our sins — and not the world’s — the way Jeremiah did, and counsel each other the way Christ did in the Sermon on the Mount as to how to most faithfully and lovingly live under the violence of conquest and occupation.
(If a gay couple compels you to bake them a wedding cake, bake them two.)
But we can have this kind of faith only when we know the story backwards and forwards. We can have this kind of faith when we make this story our own. And this is why I focus on the story, as opposed to the rules. The rules tell us we must not sin, and we get excited about that, and fear the consequences should we do so. The story, however, tells us that we are sinners — our ancestors married their half-sisters! — and that the sin we pay for as a people, that all other sins arise from, is idolatry. (And we’ve not even identified our idolatry, much less begun to reflect upon it.) The story tells us that even as we bear the consequences of our sin, God has not abandoned us. The story tells us we are not the authors, or even the agents, of our own redemption. God will raise a remnant. Breath will give life to dry bones. We still have the promise of redemption, promises to us in the midst of our sin, our despair, our defeat, our exile. Promises that are true.
We want to avoid the consequences of our sin, and we think we can do that by following the rules. The story of Israel in scripture tells us we cannot, however, and that even trying is a fool’s errand. It’s not about our virtue or our sinlessness. It’s about God’s redeeming acts. For us. For lost, miserable, sinful us.
We need the story to remind us who and whose we are. And who really fights for us.