Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Communion Sidetracked by a Morality of Works

In the church as in life, how easily we get sidetracked. Nowhere is that more evident than with our current struggles within the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.

It seems clear to me that a good part of our problem throughout the church stems from treating Christianity as a moral code. People in all parts of our church are struggling with different moral codes -- and identifying them with the Christian gospel. This was a major error of the Eames Commission, reflecting the notion that Christianity is a set of rules and regulations to which one gives assent rather than a response in faith to the revelation in Jesus Christ. This error then led to an enormous amount of mischief and grief.

The Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Church is not alone with this misconception. Here is a brief excerpt from Jacques Ellul's book The Subversion of Christianity: "When I say that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is against morality, I am not trying to say that it replaces one form of morality with another. . . Revelation is an attack on all morality, as is wonderfully shown by the parables of the kingdom of heaven, that of the prodigal son, that of the talents, that of the eleventh-hour laborers, that of the unfaithful steward, and many others. In all the parables the person who serves as an example has not lived a moral life. The one who is rejected is the one who has lived a moral life. Naturally this does not mean that we are counseled to become robbers, murderers, adulterers, etc. On the contrary, the behavior to which we are summoned surpasses morality, all morality, which is shown to be an obstacle to encounter with God." p. 71

What we now have before us is a morality of works, a litmus test replacing the grace and love of God. However, the parables of Jesus are subversive -- often as with the parables of the Leaven, Mustard Seed and Prodigal Son they subvert the authority of the purity code. They also subvert the kinds of divisions in this church around human sexuality. We are not talking about Paul's distinctions between sarx (flesh) and the Spirit. We are falsely labeling some spiritual relationships as though they were sarx (the way of identifying ourselves with the world), thus undercutting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While we humans seem to have a penchant for the security of rules and proscriptions, Jesus refused to give into that penchant. Instead he spoke of human qualities in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), as Paul did of the marks of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5. In what we have in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks in hyperbole and metaphor, but not with rules and regulations.

As Christians, we are not governed by rules and proscriptions. We are governed by a Vision and a Life lived and given. As Paul notes, we work out the details in fear and trembling, but always in the context of trust and acceptance. That is the opposite of deciding the future of our Communion on the basis of a morality rooted elsewhere than in that Life. Living morally as a Christian is full of doubt and discernment and struggle --and absolutist versions of Christian morality detract from that vocation and eventually subvert and destroy it.

Put simply: our moralities are responses to the revelation of God through Jesus Christ, but they are not that revelation.

We have become so enthralled with the argumentative possibilities in defending our favorite morality or in attacking others' that in arguing about morality we really have come to believe that we are dealing with revelation and the content of our faith (relationship) in God. Not so.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for affirming my choice to witness the redeeming power of Christ through the indiscriminant use of my penis!!

Moral codes are legalism in fiendish garb.

Go forth and sin for you are redeemed through faith alone!!

(queue whining about mischaracterizations...)

Thomas B. Woodward said...

Anonymous - you have clearly misunderstood "A Communion Sidetracked by a Morality of Works."

The ethic of Jesus is centered on his command to love. If you think you will love best by the indiscriminant use of your penis, you might think about consulting those with whom you share your penis if they believe this is the loving thing to do.

If you need a set of zipper rules to tell you what is and what is not loving, there are plenty of denominations which provide them.
Tom Woodward