Presbytery of the Cascades: Amending Marriage (1 of 2)

An excerpt from this rationale was included in the PCUSA document titled “Proposed Amendments to the Constitution,”  (Download PDF) and thus warrants careful scrutiny.

The Presbytery of the Cascades stands with those in the PC(USA) who believe that the teachings of Jesus call for radical inclusion of all people and that the actions of Jesus, passed down in Scripture, showed unconditional love and equality for all people.

One theme that recurs throughout the Rationale record is sentences such at this that baldly assert conclusions about Jesus and the Scriptures without the slightest supporting references or passages. Recall the discussion of the Chicago Presbytery’s claim that Jesus Christ “placed himself on the margins with people others considered unclean, unworthy, and immoral.” This assertion, if taken at face value, would appear to support the Presbytery’s position on same gender marriage. However, as we listened to the actual testimony of Scripture we found that Christ’s purpose in these encounters was not to affirm sin, but rather to “seek and save the lost.”

We are now told that “the actions of Jesus, passed down in Scripture, showed unconditional love and equality for all people,”  as if this is the final, comprehensive summation of His life and teaching.  I agree that Jesus Christ taught we should reach out in love to all people. After all, the Great Commission is the climax of Matthew’s Gospel. However, careful study of Scripture’s testimony does not yield the portrait of Jesus here stated. Jesus’ teaching and actions were indeed sometimes dominated by “unconditional love and equality for all people.” At other times they were dominated by a fierce judgment and anger against the stubborn sinfulness of people or situations. This complexity was well analyzed by Wilbert F. Howard’s Interpreter’s Bible exposition on the Gospel of John (2:13-17, in which Jesus clears the temple of moneychangers). He uses this occasion of Christ’s wrath to discuss how Christ’s true nature can be utterly distorted by a selective, partisan interpretation of Scripture’s teaching. A small excerpt follows. I strongly recommend that you read the whole expository passage[i].

“The First Epistle of John ends thus: “We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true; and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21). As if to say: Here has been revealed to you God as he really is. Hold it firmly in your mind and do not let yourself be wiled away from it. Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ, and you will think rightly about God.

But the mind of men is ingenious in fashioning difficulties for himself and finding ways of thwarting God’s gracious purposes towards him. And what if we so misread Christ that the portrait of him in our minds is not authentic, but a caricature? What if our misconception of him makes Christ himself an idol that hides the true God from us; because we accept only such facts about him that happen to appeal to us, and blandly overlook, or stubbornly refuse to see, others no less evidently there, but which we choose to think less worthy of him, and which will not fit into the conception to which we have come, less by diligent and humble study of the Scriptures than by excogitating* for ourselves an idea and an ideal of what the Christ should be?”

* excogitate: to think out; devise; invent

The source of authority cited by the Rationale authors appears to be what like-minded people believe. Yes, they mention Jesus Christ and the Scriptures, but no attempt is made to demonstrate the validity of their beliefs from these sources. Thus, what’s authoritative to them is what they believe about Jesus Christ and Scripture, not the Scriptures themselves and what they teach about Jesus Christ.


 

[i] “The First Epistle of John ends thus: “We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true; and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21). As if to say: Here has been revealed to you God as he really is. Hold it firmly in your mind and do not let yourself be wiled away from it. Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ, and you will think rightly about God.

But the mind of men is ingenious in fashioning difficulties for himself and finding ways of thwarting God’s gracious purposes towards him. And what if we so misread Christ that the portrait of him in our minds is not authentic, but a caricature? What if our misconception of him makes Christ himself an idol that hides the true God from us; because we accept only such facts about him that happen to appeal to us, and blandly overlook, or stubbornly refuse to see, others no less evidently there, but which we choose to think less worthy of him, and which will not fit into the conception to which we have come, less by diligent and humble study of the Scriptures than by excogitating for ourselves an idea and an ideal of what the Christ should be?

That is precisely what too many have done, with disastrous consequences, not for themselves alone, but for the world. The “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” idea has been so overworked that many preach and follow a Christ who has small resemblance to the Christ of the N.T.; a Christ who is not loving, but unkindly indulgent; weakly good-natured, immorally so; whose great aim seems to be to get us off. Undoubtedly he himself claimed to be “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). And that he was and is so, incredibly so, stares at us from a dozen passages in the Gospels; and is proved daily in our experiences of his unbelievable patience and lack of exasperation with impossible people, imprudent and inexcusable. But there are other aspects of him no less deniable; and it is fatal to ignore them, or to pretend that they are not there. “And he looked around at them with anger.” (Mark 3:5), so we read. Those who knew him best remembered that his eyes could be as a flame of fire, and spoke with bated breath of something awesome in him which they tried to describe in the strange phrase “the wrath of the Lamb.” There was nothing gentle in that fierce message that he sent to Herod, “Go and tell that fox.” (Luke 13:32). Nor was there any trace of mildness in him at that tremendous moment when he turned upon his best friend, who had meant only kindness, with the terrific rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). If it is true, as it is true, that nothing does he underline more heavily than the duty of forgiveness–and this not once but over and over, declaring bluntly that salvation offered in the gospel is not unconditional, but that, as he says, if you forgive men not their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you (Matt. 16:15)–nonetheless, he himself did not always forgive. The Pharisees did not find him gentle or meek or mild when he pursued them, ruthlessly and remorselessly, with those blistering denunciations as scorching as anything in literature. “You whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27); “you serpents” (Matt. 23:33); “You make him [your proselyte] twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). Rather than make peace with such men acting so, he chose to go to his death. And when the traders would not cease from polluting the temple of God with their unseemliness and noise and chaffering, there came a time when he said that if they would not go then he would drive them out. And he rose up and did it.

Desperate attempts have been made by some who feel uncomfortable over it to tone down and edge out this incident. … And this was a wild scene, with cowering figures clutching desperately at their tables, as these were flung here and there; or running after their spilled coins, as these rolled hither and thither; or shrinking at the lash that had no mercy till the holy place was cleansed. For though it is possible to read this account as if only the cattle were actually struck, that seems very unlikely; and in the reports as given in the other Gospels, quite impossible. If this incident had been recorded of anyone else in history, it would universally have been accepted as the scene of violence it was. And those who try to explain it away do so because they feel unhappily that it will not fit into their preconceived idea of what Christ should do or be; that here somehow he acted for once out of character, and fell inexplicably below himself, forgot his own law of life, lost his head and his temper. All of which is painful and regrettable. And the best thing to do is to say as little about it as one can, and look the other way, and rub this unfortunate episode out of our minds, and think of him only at the great moments when he was his real self.

But that is foolishness. Surely our understanding of what Christlikeness is must be gathered, not from such incidents that we choose to select and to regard as typically Christlike, but from the whole of his life and character and conduct. For not only now and then, but always and in every situation, Christ did the perfect thing to do. He was as Christlike here in the temple as when dying for us on the Cross. Here to he was revealing God as truly as on Calvary. For, declares Paul with assurance, in God there is kindness–and severity (Rom. 11:22). And the one is as divine and glorious as the other. For what if he were not: were only flabbily good-natured, ready to make no fuss about our sins and to pretend that they do not matter greatly, and so push us through! “Ah, God,” cried Luther, “punish us we pray Thee … but be not silent … toward us.” A fearsome prayer! For what if he hears and answers it? But what if he does not, and lets us sin on undisturbed! For nothing do we owe Christ more than for the magnificence of his hopes for us, and his refusal to compromise with us, and the severity that pulls us up with sharpness.

And as for ourselves, if Christ is always to be followed, it is clear that while our usual rule of conduct is a frank, free, patient forgiveness, there are times when we must not forgive; when, as Hugh Mackintosh says bluntly, “Lack of indignation at wickedness is a sign, not of a poor nature only, but of positive unlikeness to Jesus Christ.” We must not so misread Christ that he becomes an ugly idol, blinding our understanding, and hiding the true God from us. The wrath of God is never thought of in scripture as opposed to his holiness. It is a necessary part of it. Christ would have lost my soul if he had not refused to compromise with me.”

The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, New York, © 1952.

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