That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part V: Practical Problems and Conclusion

For the previous post in the series, click here.

The Practical Problem–Undue Punishment
I can’t remember off-hand whether it was in Mere Christianity or God in the Dock (though I seem to think it was the latter), but C.S. Lewis made a compelling argument for the usefulness of “an eye for an eye” and against a certain brand (not the category altogether) of “rehabilitative” corrective action.

For Lewis, the purpose of the “eye for an eye” command of the Old Testament is not necessarily to enact harsh punishment but to establish a limit to punishment. “You may go this far but no farther in punishing for this sin.” It is, in effect, a command for mercy. It is counter to what Lewis observed in his own time–those who would inflect excruciating punishments without any limitation so long as one argued that the purpose for inflicting the punishment was “rehabilitation.”

The need for such limitations are etched upon human history, both in the criminal justice and psychiatric fields. An again, if we use homosexuality as an area where the “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” mantra has prevailed, we see that it has led to similar atrocities in the name of “rehabilitating” the “sinner.” The “Pray the Gay Away” movement and its concomitant “rehabilitation” programs for gay Christians (or the gay children of Christians) has inflicted tremendous suffering on those whose only crime is loving someone that someone else has told them it is wrong to love. The sin of such movements far exceeds the “sin” they seek to fight against, even if one does accept homosexuality as sinful.

It would be unfair to attribute such radical and un-Christian behavior in the name of God to any person who might use the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” line. Most Christians, at least as far as the ones I know, who are theologically conservative would find the Christian-based “rehabilitation” programs for people in the LGBTQI+ community as morally repugnant as the rest of us do.

Though an extreme case, the “Love the sinner; hate the sin,” ideology may be used to justify all manner of unloving behavior directed towards those determined to be sinners in some “special” category in more dire need of correction than the rest of us. And while the majority of people who use the statement we’ve been discussing have good intent at heart, I would ask them to seriously look within themselves and see if that reasoning is allowing them to take action towards others that, though far less in degree, doesn’t fully comport with loving them.

The Practical Problem–If it’s not Effective, is it Loving?
How effective is it, really, when you tell someone, “God’s put it on my heart to tell you that you are sinning and God wants you to stop that.”

Not very, I’m afraid. It’s just not an effective way to call others to change. They have to choose that for themselves. We can inspire them to be better, but flat-out telling them they’re wrong and they should change isn’t going to work in most cases. In those cases where it might, the fact that they need to change what they’re doing is wrong before you even begin.

So, if your words are only going to offend and no one is in immediate irreversible danger, is it loving at all to remind someone of their sin (if you really are correct in telling them that the thing you’re convicting them of is sin)?

Conclusion

In response to my arguments, K asked the ultimate question: “Okay, so how are we to stand against sin without convicting other people of it?” That’s an excellent question. I’ve offered some modicum of an answer in the post Toward a Positive Morality.

But the answer as a whole needs more exploration. That’s an excellent topic for the near future…

One final note, though: I am by no means advocating in this post that we should not oppose or stop those who are hurting others in some way. We are, unfortunately, called to prioritize loving some people over others because one are more people are actively and purposefully inflicting great harm. When that is the case, we need to stop the continuing harm or threat of harm (provided it’s serious); we can focus on loving everyone the best we can in the aftermath. The types of situations where that is the case are not typically the situations in which the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” adage is used and they are beyond the scope of this series.

 

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part IV: Psychological Problem and the Example of Homosexuality

For the previous post in the series, click here.

Psychological Problem–Separating Sin and Sinner in our Minds
The Psychological Problem is related to the Existential Problem just as the Existential Problem is related to the Epistemological Problem (I apologize to those of you who just heard a tune following those words).

According to my (admittedly incomplete) understanding of psychology, there are aspects of our conscious and subconscious mind that interact in ways that we cannot often easily detect. The point of psychotherapy, in part, is to uncover the subconcious so that it can be worked upon by the conscious. But how many of us are fully aware of all of the mental (and emotional) activities that go on when we love or hate? None, I think.

The Psychological Problem is an acknowledgment of the intrusion of emotion into our actual practice of morality in the real world. Even if we reduce the terms “love” and “hate” to cold and clinical terms of moral and upright action in supporting people and resisting evil for purposes the purposes of philosophical examination, we cannot separate ourselves from the emotions (both positive and negative) that either help us or hinder us as we determine our own courses of action when confronted with real moral choices.

If we are trying to focus efforts on parsing out people into the parts we can love and the parts we should hate, how do we know that aspects of one part are not bleeding inadvertantly into the other? How do we discover and mitigate inadvertant psychological activity that threatens our wholeheartedly loving our neighbor?

Here, K would caution me that the argument is about the people we can love and their actions that we can hate and argue that we are capable of such division. She provides some cases (addict and addiction, for instance) where such separation seems plausible; she forces me to admit, like in the epistemological argument, that there may be cases where we could decide that the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” adage is maintainable. The problem, though, is that there are also cases where it clearly isn’t–and that’s where I see reference to the statement most often.

An Aside for a Specific Example–Homosexuality
In the present debate over homosexuality in the Methodist Church, I most often see the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” statement pointed to by theological conservatives as some evidence that the Church can potentially stand by the statement that homosexuality is Sin and yet be inviting and loving toward homosexual people. Ask a homosexual person if they think that the Church can do both–the answer is a resounding, “No.”

Now, neither side’s feelings on the matter actually provides evidence for whether or not homosexuality is a sin. But, it does, I think, bring my point about the various problems above into perspective: when there are arguments on both sides of the issue as to whether a particular thing (be it sexuality or something else) is sin, and when the discussion of whether that thing is sin turns on a categorical basis and not a contextual one, the problems for the “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” quickly become insurmountable.

The Scriptural Problems need no further explanation and militate against categorical determinations of sin to begin with.

The Epistemological Problem asserts itself to argue that if we must consider context–the intent of the person in whom and how they love (or the circumstances in which they engage in sexual activity) is not fully knowable by us and we ought to resort to demonstrating grace to be safe–morally speaking.

The Existential Problem reminds us of a distinction often overlooked, I think. For conservatives, homosexuality is neatly divided into the existential and the phenomenal. The conservative says that it’s okay to have homosexual feelings as long as they are not acted upon. This is the current position of the Methodist Church, with its prohibitions on ordination only against “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” Given Jesus’s admonition that a man has committed the sin of adultery if he has looked upon a woman with lust in his heart, I do not think that we can so easily parse between existential and phenomenal aspects of sin. It’s either both or neither.

But there is a more pressing existential concern here even than the attempt to use such artificial dichotomy to maintain such a tenuous position. If you ask a homosexual person, they will tell you that their sexual orientation is not a “choice” or a “behavior” but that it is a part of their very being, their essence–it is who they are. Epistemologically, self-reporting is the best information we have to go on in the determination of the experience of another person, so we are on logical quicksand when we try to decide for homosexuals that, “No, homosexuality is a chosen behavior.”

And, again, this flows into the Psychological Problem. If you believe that homosexuality is sin–and as has been done lately by conservatives–a sin that deserves special priority over other sins, how can you really be sure that you’re going to love the person the same as you would love someone who is heterosexual? In most cases (but certainly not all), the difference is blatant–at least to all but the actor.

In the final post in the series, we’ll discuss The Practical Problems and the Conclusion.

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part III: Epistemological and Existential Problems

For the previous post in this series, click here.

The Epistemological Problem–Determination of Intent 
Unlike God, we do not see into the hearts and minds of others. The best that we can do is to make educated guesses about the state of another being’s heart and mind by reference to the person’s statements and actions. This requires interpretation and, given the unreliability in both our perception and our logic, means that we are never guaranteed to be correct about the intentions, beliefs, and will of another person. We can never dispel all doubt about the conclusion at which we arrive.

If, as I have argued elsewhere, the morality of a particular action is highly dependent upon both intent and context, misunderstanding either causes us to misjudge the morality of the action altogether. The likelihood for this is, in some cases, so high, that we are better off not judging at all–and this is what Jesus warns us of.

K argues that there are some cases in which a person’s actions and statements are such clear indications of malicious intent and sinful desire that it is unreasonable to disregard that information to refrain from assessing the sinfulness of the action. This is, in some cases, a very strong argument. As with all arguments based on epistemological skepticism, there comes a point at which, to meaningfully interact with existence, we must accept and overlook some philosophical uncertainty of our knowledge.

There are a few points at which I must push back against this argument however. The first is what I will call narrative privilege.

By narrative privilege, I mean the limited omniscience we enjoy when we create a hypothetical moral question for examination of morality. If I am the creator of the hypothetical, then for all intents and purposes I control the reality of the hypothetical. My determinations of the actor in question’s intent and knowledge are de facto, true. There is nothing wrong with this for the examination of moral principles to approach objective standards which we might strive to achieve or determine need refinement.

But a tendency exists to transfer this artificial omniscience to the examination of actual people and events. This mistake ignores the epistemological problem altogether, to our detriment.

The second point I raise is, in determining how to treat others, whether it actually does make sense to ignore uncertainty in our knowledge when it reaches a certain threshold that we might call de minimis. This certainly is the case with scientific inquiry, where we are stymied in any progress if we don’t accept some philosophical/epistemological uncertainty. But when it comes to determining our own moral behavior (i.e., what it means to love someone as Christ commands us to love), perhaps we ought to err on showing mercy and grace over judgment.

Third, the resolution of the epistemological problem of intent, if it is reasonable to resolve it, is insufficient (though necessary) to resolve the greater interpretative issue of what it means to “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Existential Problem–Sinfulness and Sins
I follow the epistemological problem with an existential problem, because it is partly epistemological as well. Existential thought is grounded in epistemological skepticism you see, becuase it accepts as true what all experiences indicates–that our perception of what exists and what actually exists are not always the same. To make matters worse, sometimes they are the same, or at least might be, but then how are we to recognize that moment of transcendent clarity for what it is?

In my post, Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?, I argue that there are both existential (state of being) aspects of sin and discrete actions that might be described as “sinful” but that categorical designation of actions as sinful outside of context is fraught with problems both philosophical and practical (some of which are also enumerated above). That being the case, how are we to separate the one from the other?

In other words, if we talk about hating “sin” how do we differentiate from the existential sin in which we are all mired and specific sinful courses of behavior? If the ultimate nature of our sinfulness is in our flawed ways of looking at the world, how can we separate that from a person’s character? Yes, we can trust that God is working within that person to change them, that that person may well be participating in that change and that one day, through God’s grace, they may be perfected. But until then, if we are hating something that is, like it or not, a part of us, how do we properly compartmentalize those things? How do we separate the love from the hate and keep them in proper balance? I’m not sure that such a thing actually exists.

In the next post, we’ll discuss the Psychological Problem and the Example of Homosexuality (as this statement is often applied to it).

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part II: Scriptural Problems

For the first post in this series, click here.

The Scriptural Problem – The Origin of the Saying
The saying “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” is not based in Scripture–not directly, anyway. The closest Biblical parallel is from Jude 1:22-23: “Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear–hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”

There are two points here that might allow for an interpretation that ends up at the saying with which we’re concerned: “save others by snatching them from the fire” and “hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”

Before I address those statements directly, I’d like to point out the problematic nature of the Book of Jude. The book was one of the more highly-disputed entries into the Canon, in part becuase of its reference to works that were rejected from Canon (the Book of Enoch in particular–if you want some B-movie fanfic of the Bible, go read the Book of Enoch). Jude’s reference to the other Epistles make a strong argument that the book (traditionally attributed to Jude, servant of Jesus and brother of James the Just) is pseudopigraphical. This alone does not mean its content is necessarily theologically unsound (this would be an ad hominem attack, after all) but it does caution some extra care in interpretation. While there is some consensus that 2 Peter and Jude are related, there is debate about which came first and exactly how they are related. But, again, none of this background information is determinative on how we should interpret Jude.

So, let’s look at the text. The phrase, “…save others by snatching them from the fire” certainly does allow the interpretation that the author of Jude is recommending calling other people out on their sin. But the intent, I think, is not clear.

The larger context of the passage is warning the believer to show mercy to others while guarding himself from sin. This interpretation fits well with the second statement–“hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.” In other words, “don’t wear the effects of other people’s sin.” This is an inward-focused warning, not an outward-focused recommendation for action.

The inward focus of the warning comports with the preceding verses (Jude 1:17-21): “But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foreold. They said to you, ‘in the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.’ These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. But you dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to enternal life.”

This warning, to guard oneself against outside corruption, to check oneself for sin that may be purged, is an oft-repeated warning in the Bible. It is a command of a very different kind than trying to “fix” your neighbors. One that, in light of epistemological skepticism and existential doubt (discussed below and addressed by the Bible as we’ll see), makes much more sense than the imposition of our own judgments on others.

The Scriptural Problem – Jesus’s Words
Jesus tells the parable of the “Mote and the Beam.”

It goes like this (Matthew 7:1-5; also in Luke 6:37-42): “‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The commandment here, is clear that our focus regarding the conviction of sin is inward, not outward–we must see to the removal of our own sinfulness before we can ever righteously address someone else’s sin. Given the absolute commandment not to judge that precedes the statements about wood and eyeballs, the parable strongly implies that we are not in this life ever going to be capable of properly viewing sin in others. I’ll address the epistemological and existential arguments that support this approach in a section below.

For the time being, I’ll assert that the parable above sits in contrast and opposition to the mindset espoused by the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” proscription because it may be impossible for us–either at the theological/philosophical level or the practical level–to hold both the folk platitude and Jesus’s words in sustainable tension. If that is the case–even if we view Jude as support for the customary statement–we must prioritize Christ’s teachings over competing views.

The Scriptural Problem – Jesus’s Actions
One of the arguments I frequently hear in support of the saying we’re concerned with today is in Jesus’s treatment of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). As a note, this section does not appear in the earliest manuscripts of John available to us.

In particular, they point to Jesus’s statement to the woman at the end of the encounter to “Go now and leave your life of sin” (as the NIV interprets it) as evidence that we might make the same admonition to others. But such an interpretation both ignores the rest of the passage and the special position of Jesus in making such a statement.

To the Pharisees who would stone the woman, Jesus says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” For us, as with the parable of the Mote and the Beam, our own sinfulness makes our condemnation of others problematic and likely impossible.

And let us not forget that Jesus is God–the One who has the power to judge and convict of sin. In God’s omnipotence God knows a person’s heart absolutely as it actually is. God is therefore positioned to tell a person about their sin in a way that we are not.

In the next post, we’ll discuss Epistemological and Existential Problems.

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part I: Introduction; Linguistic/Semiotic Problem; Emotional Problem

“Love the sinner; hate the sin.” It’s a common-enough adage, employed most frequently (as I hear it, at least) to endorse “convicting” other people of their sin on matters over which there exists reasonable dispute about whether the thing in question actually is sin. For me, as I’ll argue herein, the saying is problematic at best, and often nonsensical in its use.

As a note before I begin, I had an excellent conversation with K last night on this topic, and she provided some strong counterpoints to some of my ideas. I’ll try to point those out and properly attribute them as I proceed. For clarity’s sake, though, I’d also like to point out that, for purposes of this discussion, K’s points should be taken as her providing a loyal sparring partner with whom I can reliably test my ideas and not necessarily as indications of her own positions or belief. If you know her and want to know her views, please take that up with her and do not let me put words in her mouth that seem to commit her to a position that might not reliably represent her actual belief.

The Linguistic/Semiotic Problem
The overarching problem that will plague us throughout this discussion is one of meaning and usage of the words “love” and “hate.” This is because, Biblically-speaking, we have multiple meanings for both words (even without getting into issues of translation). On the one hand, we can attribute a moral statement to the words “love” and “hate,” where we mean “act morally with regard to others” by the former and “oppose all that is not good” by the latter. At the same time, we more frequently use the words to represent emotions towards others (people or things).

I have never seen a person use the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” platitude and define what they mean by the words “love” and “hate.” Additionally, because this statement does not come from the Bible, we cannot do a word study on the intent of the Biblical author in selecting those words. There is no clarity.

This allows four possibilities: (1) both words are meant in the emotional sense, (2) both words are meant in the moral sense, or (3 & 4) one word is intended morally and the other emotionally.

I think that only (2) above is a defensible usage. The emotional use has no bearing on morality and therefore cannot be employed as a recommendation for (or justification of) righteous action. Both (3) and (4) are too logically confused to be sensible. As I’ll spend most of this post arguing, even (2) remains too problematic to be useful for us.

A sidenote of thanks to K for convincing me of the possibility of (2) being proper–though I ultimately believe that it is not. As smart as I am, it helps to have an equally-smart person remind me where I could be wrong!

The Emotional Problem
As said perhaps more succintly above, the emotional use of “Love this sinner; hate the sin.” is not helpful as a moral aphorism.

Our emotions certainly often do interact with our moral choices. At the best of times, our emotions are indicators of morality–this would be in line with what C.S. Lewis calls “natural law.”

But just as often, emotions push us away from moral action–how we feel about a particular person influences the likelihood of us taking moral action with regard to that person.

Action is moral or immoral based upon objective standards, not the subjective pull of emotion. The practical difficulty of separating emotion from moral choice does not change the fact that morality is not based on emotion at all.

See Part II for the Scriptural Problem(s).

 

Salvation and Sanctification

In common Christian thought, I don’t think we often separate ideas of salvation and sanctification in our theology; though they are strongly related, I think it is far more helpful to consider each separately.

Let me be clear about what I mean with each term. “Salvation” means that we have been saved, of course. But from what? From the cosmic consequences of sin. If sin is a part of (current, at least) human condition, and if the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23), then salvation means forgiveness for our sins and the gift of eternal life (see again Romans 6:23).

Because this is not a post focused on soteriology, I’m not going to try to hash out the details of salvation through Jesus Christ here. Volumes and volumes have been published on this mystery, and while I do have some of my own thoughts to add to the conversation, this is not the place.

What I’ll say, instead, is that salvation is not, and was never meant to be, the whole story. If salvation is a gift freely offered by God and freely received, and our free will is sacrosanct to God (as I have argued elsewhere), then it stands to reason that salvation, for all of the metaphysical benefits it bestows, does not act as a singular and final transition into exactly what God has called us to be.

I’ll rely on E. Stanley Jones to put it more eloquently. He lamented, “It is usually taken for granted that the goal is to reach heaven….But squirm as we may, and explain away as we can, it is true nevertheless that a granted heaven and an imposed hell hold the field in the mind of Christendom as the final goal….Heaven is a by-product of perfected being [emphasis mine]. The Christ of the Mount: A Working Philosophy of Life, Chapter 2: The Goal of Human Living.

For Jones–and I agree wholeheartedly–the goal of the Christian is not to engage in mere quid-pro-quo (which I described as a vestige of paganism in this post, but which just as well ought to be considered a matter of human nature) of the allegiance-for-heaven variety is a gross misunderstanding of Jesus Christ and his message. Jones tells us that the Sermon on the Mount gives us the true “goal” of the Christian journey–to “become perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

That, simply put, is sanctification: the long, hard process of seeking to make oneself Christ-like and therefore purified, sanctified, holy.

The first reason that I think it’s important for us to think about salvation and sanctification separately is that this partition shows us the true beauty of God’s plan. You see, it sidesteps the quid-pro-quo dilemma entirely. If salvation precedes sanctification, God has already given you all God’s gifts before you take the first step on that path; the only reasons one could choose the dear cost of sanctification (at least the apparent cost, more on that later) is for love of God and a true desire for relationship with the One who created all things. It is love for love’s sake, and our God constantly demonstrates that there is nothing purer, nothing greater, nothing more powerful or more meaningful than that. And this by God’s own design, for we are told that God is love. To quote a song by my favorite band, “the giver became the gift, all one.” The pursuit of sanctification and the pursuit of relationship with the One who calls us to be sanctified is the same thing, because loving God is loving ourselves and others, and the perfection to which God calls us is that of love. That God has taken away even the possibility of the quid-pro-quo from relationship with God demonstrates the nature of both God and true relationship.

If there is a reward to be had in sanctification, it is the thing itself. By becoming sanctified, we begin to see the world as God intends it to be, we truly begin to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven as a present reality, not simply a future promise. Joy, in the divine sense, is the consequence of sanctification, the realization of the way things ought to be–and how they one day will be. It is a state of being, not a thing that can be grasped. And thus, it lies ever out of the reach of the one who grasps it but crashes like waves over the one whose focus is truth. There is an inherent justice to that, I think.

An understanding of salvation and sanctification that gives value to both aspects of the Christian walk also helps us to address that age-old issue about the conflict between works and faith. Salvation is achieved by faith through the eternal grace of God, but sanctification takes the effort of the believer. I’d like to be careful here to make clear that I do not intend to transfer some Pelagian schema from salvation to sanctification. Though human will may be necessary to sanctification, it is not sufficient. First, it is God’s salvific and justifying grace that frees us from the chains of sin so that we may choose to walk the path of sanctification at all. God’s sanctifying grace follows us with us every day, strengthening us against the trepidations and vicissitudes of a journey that sometimes doubles back on itself, forces us to retrace our steps, gives us the realization that we have lost our way. Sanctification is a difficult thing; it is easy to accept, I think, that without God’s help it would not be possible for humankind.

An understanding that sanctification is an ongoing journey gives us a more realistic view of the faith walk in our lives, a view that relieves us from the guilt we tend to pile upon ourselves when we doubt our faith.

Under this schema I’ve described, we are freed from asking about a person’s salvation based upon their behavior. We might question a person’s seriousness about sanctification (though even that, I think, is forbidden to us in the proscription not to judge), but we cannot act as if someone’s behavior has removed them from God’s grace. Room is made for a sort of human grace here, I suspect–that we may acknowledge that even the best of us sometimes make sinful mistakes, but that we are all by the grace of God given the opportunity to make amends and return to the path of sanctification. And if God has given us such room, who are we to ignore it? In other words, this understanding makes it easier for us to love our neighbors.

It gives us space as well to understand that we do not have all of the answers, that we are all of us on a journey to greater understanding of and relationship with God, ourselves and each other. What the culmination of this journey will be, I do not know. But I do know that it will carry with it a fullness of Heaven that we cannot even imagine.

That salvation precedes sanctification also grants us relief from fearing the (lack of) time in this life we have left in which to become holy. If eternal life is a gift included in salvation, we will have all of eternity in which to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. This metaphysical arrangement is an example of perfect love that drives out fear. I don’t know about you, but I often feel I might need just such an amount of time considering the task.

 

Counting the Cost: (Legal) Consequences of a Split in the United Methodist Church (in Texas)

As both theologian and lawyer, I tend to view the threatened (or impending, depending upon how fatalistic you’d like to be) split in the Methodist Church from a number of angles–but no single thread (to mix my metaphors) can easily be untangled from the others.

The report of the Commission on a Way Forward has beed released–though not officially by the Council of Bishops as translation has not been completed. I’ll discuss that in a separate post.

For now, I want to talk about the legal landscape, particularly in Texas, and what that might mean if the UMC does split after the General Conference in February. I’ll try not to get too much into the details (though feel free to post comments or send me a message and I can point you to some resources) and to keep things on a relatively-plain-English tone.

Preface and Disclaimer

This post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. I make no claim to be familiar with the current state of law regarding church property disputes in its entirety–with ongoing litigation across the nation, such a comprehensive approach would be extremely time-consuming at best.

This post is instead meant to provide some background information to support the exhortation and conclusion that follows.

Lessons from the Past

In a recent opinion from the Fort Worth Court of Appeals (Episcopal Church v. Salazar, to which I’ll return shortly), the Court noted that “church property disputes [and schisms] are as old as any church.”

Recent memory has given us the split in the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church (over similar issues to those currently facing the UMC). As the styling of the case betrays, Salazar involves the dispute between The Episcopal Church and local parish churches arising out of the split within that denomination.

Salazar is emblematic of the cost of church disputes over property that spill into the courts for resolution. The initial litigation in the Salazar appeal began in 2009! The most recent opinion in the case (given in April of this year) is on the second appeal from the trial court–the case was heard by Supreme Court of Texas in 2014, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear appeal from that court, and the case returned for new procedings in the trial court before being appealed again (resulting in the opinion to which I’ll refer in this post).

That alone is indicative of the cost–in money, time, effort, heartache and reputation–that has accompanied the Episcopal Church’s litigation in the aftermath of its split. Nine years without a decisive resolution, the attorney’s fees quickly stacking up against the value of the properties in dispute (though, given the number of properties involved in this case and a lack of access to attorney billing records, it’s impossible to know exactly how much has been spent and how that compares to the value of the things in dispute). And Salazar is hardly alone; it is but one of similar cases tracking through the legal system across the country.

Why Does the Episcopal Church Example Matter to Methodists?

The answer here is relatively simple: both the Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church have, within the documents that constitute the church law of each, a “trust clause” that essentially indicates that the local churches hold their property in trust for the greater denomination. In the Episcopal Church’s case, the diocese in which the church sits; for the Methodists, the conference of which the church is a member.

For reasons I’ll describe below, the Episcopal Church’s trust clause makes for a simpler legal case than the Methodist clause–though I do not dare say that it is a simple case for the Episcopal Church, as the breadth of litigation clearly demonstrates.

The Law of Decision – Up for Grabs

The nation’s courts tend to be split between two approaches to handling church property disputes. The first is called the neutral principles of law doctrine. Under this approach, the court looks solely to state property (and business/trust) law and secular records of ownership to determine the “rightful” owner of any particular property. Currently, this is what the Texas Supreme Court has determined is the proper approach.

The alternative approach, given various names but which we’ll call the deferential approach, is a result of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Under long-established First Amendment principles, the Courts must refrain from interfering in or determining the internal affairs of a religious institution (this itself called the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine).

Under ecclesiastical abstention, a Court must not take any part in a dispute that arises out of doctrine, theology, internal matters of faith or leadership and governance issues within the religious organization, because doing so could be the state “establishing” a government-sponsored religion by approving one side over the other. This is, rightly, I believe, a core component of freedom of religion in this nation.

The important thing to understand about the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and thus the deferential approach, is that it means that the court must defer to the determination of the higher denominational authority as the deciding factor in disputes where the court’s involvement would infringe upon First Amendment rights. Essentially, this means that the denomination gets what it wants when there is a dispute with a local church. In the case of trust clause litigation, it means that the denomination wins issues of property ownership against local churches nearly every time.

As an aside, I should note that we’re only discussing matters of civil (as opposed to criminal) law here–the legal history of criminalization (or not) of religious behavior is another long story best kept discrete from this issue.

For the neutral principles of law approach to be applicable, a Court must determine that the dispute does not involve the sorts of internal religious matters that require obeisance to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

Other cases resulting from the dissolution of the Episcopal Church will be heard by the Supreme Court in the near future (though probably not before the UMC’s called General Conference). While this should provide some guidance for the resolution of future church property disputes, that also means that the ultimate decision will be determined in part by the current politics affecting SCOTUS. With the loss of Justice Kennedy and his likely replacement by a staunchly conservative judge, I think it’s likely that the United States Supreme Court will favor the deferential approach, though the opinion that comes down will ideally also include guidance as to when the netural principles approach may be safely employed. Of course, I have no crystal ball, and my own legal practice does not involve the close tracking of Supreme Court politics, so this is merely speculation.

The bigger issue (for local churches, at least) in the case of the Methodist Church is just how much our trust clause seems to mandate the deferential approach.

Comparing Clauses

The Episcopal Church’s trust clause (known popularly as the Dennis Canon) is a mere two sentences that simply states that local churches hold their property in trust for the greater Episcopal Church. This plain language allowed Texas courts to apply the neutral principles of law approach to disputes over property ownership without fear of First Amendment infringements (though it should be noted that the courts have abstained from addressing certain subissues briefed by the parties because they do involve internal church affairs).

The United Methodist Book of Discipline’s trust clause (Paragraph 2501) describes our trust clause as “an essential element of the historic polity” of the UMC and a “fundamental expression of United Methodism.” These phrases, along with the rest of the language of the UMC trust clause, quite firmly push our property ownership issues into grounds of doctrine and polity that may not be interfered with by the courts.

It is one thing to say that this simply means that the greater UMC will win against local churches in property disputes, but it also means that the courts will only reluctantly interject themselves in the dispute at all (though when they do, if my assessment is correct, they will ultimately side with the enforcement of the trust clause).

Thinking About Salazar

When I was first made aware of the Salazar case, it was described to me as indicating that “Texas had found the Episcopal Church’s trust clause to be unenforceable.”

That is partially correct, but only partially. The steps go like this: (1) The Court determined that the neutral principles of law approach applied. (2) Turning to Texas trust law, the Court determined that only the settlor (the grantor of property to a trust) may establish a trust relationship–a declaration by a putative beneficiary of the trust (as in the Dennis Canon) is not alone sufficient to create a trust relationship. (3) Thus, the Court stated that it must look to the language of the deeds conveying the property and to the governing documents of an intermediary non-profit organization that held some of the property to determine if a trust relationship had been properly created under Texas law. (4) In some cases, the Court determined that it had and property was awarded to the Episcopal Church; in others, the Court found no such trust relationship and awarded property to the local church(es). (5) In giving the Salazar opinion, the appellate Court did not reach certain additional issues that might change the distribution of property after the initial legal determinations described in (4). In particular, the Court did not reach teh Episcopal Church’s argument for constructive trust, a remedy that a court may apply under the right circumstances to deem that a bad actor, though having legal title to property, is really holding that property in trust for the plaintiff as matter of equity, thus transferring ownership to the plaintiff.

So, the following points are important to consider when we Methodists look to Salazar and other Episcopal Church litigation in trying to determine the future in the tragic event that our own church splits: (1) The issues in the Salazar case have not been fully litigated. (2) The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet weighed in. (3) The UMC’s trust clause is likely different enough than the Episcopal Church’s trust clause to lead to a different result. (4) In the event that the neutral principles approach is applied to the UMC, then additional factual determinations must be made to reach a conclusion (i.e. what is the language in the deeds to church properties?).

Conclusion

There is one thing that is certain from all of this. If the UMC splits–and I would urge that our current focus should be on finding a just and theologically-sound way to prevent a split rather than on any of the above–any legal conflict over successorship, use of names, and property ownership will be prolonged, expensive, and–most important–an extremely poor witness for Christ. Thus, should that situation present itself, laity and clergy alike at all levels of authority in the UMC must be willing to make sacrifices for and compromises with one another to quickly resolve such disputes without a need for litigation so that we can all keep our focus on making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

 

A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.

 

 

 

Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the comission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/idealogical relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.

Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

(Note: I started writing this post this morning and then had to prioritize work. Now that I’m returning to finish, I’m given to understand that the President is signing an executive order ending family separation. I thought about not finishing the post, but I figured I might as well given that the points I’m arguing below have more applicability than just this situation).

Given how much coverage, discussion and debate the crisis at our border has already had, I’ve been reluctant to write about it myself–what is there that hasn’t been said? I have realized, though, that, even if I’m rehashing the same ideas, it means something to publicly stand with my righteous brothers and sisters calling for an end to this abominable practice. So that’s what I’m doing.

Since theology is a large part of what I write about, let’s start with the theological arguments that have been made in favor of the issue. First, let me point out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church. I must admit embarrassment by that, but also some satisfaction with the response from at least some members of the UMC–over 600 members of the UMC, both clergy and laity, have filed a complaint against Sessions under the UMC Book of Discipline–our version of canon law. The complaint alleges that Sessions’ actions–and his use of scripture to justify them–constitutes potential child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and the teaching of doctrines contrary to those held by the church. Details can be found here.

As both a Methodist and an attorney, I am quite interested in how this plays out. I find the latter three claims to be quite straightforward under the circumstances, but the child abuse claim is an interesting one to me because it will be difficult to resolve. The major issue here is one of causation–are the AG’s actions a direct-enough cause to hold him to culpability? I see arguments on both sides, though I lean toward affirming–in part because we’re not talking about criminal culpability, but a desire to reconcile Mr. Sessions to the teachings of the UMC. The tougher question is what we mean by the term “child abuse?” Herein lies my biggest reservation with this portion of the complaint.

Is the government’s policy wrongly causing children (and parents) to suffer? Undoubtedly. Is this a violation of human rights and general decency? I believe so. Is this practice causing deep trauma, some of which will never heal? Unreservedly, yes. Should we call it child abuse? I’m not so sure.

Yes; it matters. If we expand the societal definition of child abuse, more parents will be subject to claims of abusing their children–not criminally, but giving the poisonous and often hateful nature of online forums and public denunciation in our society, great potential to harm remains. This issue concerns me not directly because of Jeff Sessions, but because of how the construct of “child abuse” might be unreasonably expanded in the future if we are quick to call Jeff Sessions a child abuser.

When we talk about child abuse, I don’t think that there is any question that physical injury, endangerment, or sexual exploitation constitutes child abuse. I think we’d all further agree that emotional abuse is real and can have lasting effects on persons of any age, but especially children. Here, though, is where we run into problems. First, where do we draw the line between negative emotional treatment that is not abusive and treatment that is? Second, how do we separate emotional trauma that results as a byproduct of particular actions from emotional trauma directly inflicted? Are they both “abuse.” I do not have answers to these questions–they require much deeper moral, spiritual and logical analysis than there is space for here. So, I leave this topic with a caution: If you believe that Jeff Sessions is complicit in the violation of human rights by needlessly separating families, fine; I can understand that. If you want to call him a child abuser, I am very hesitant to agree. Is he wrong, morally, in the general sense? Absolutely.

Is he wrong theologically? Also absolutely. Let’s spend some time on that. Sessions stated that there is Biblical support for the governments separation policy by citing Romans 13:1, which reads: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Okay, that is something that “the Bible” says. But coming to the conclusion Mr. Sessions would have us reach requires a very particular–and not very logical–approach to interpretation of scripture, one that ignores (and must ignore) much for the argument to not fall apart under its own weight. Benjamin Corey would call this the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to Biblical interpretation, where we see the Bible as intended to apply usefully and directly to any human situation whatsoever and then to pick and choose verses from the Bible, while ignoring others, to accomplish that. For Corey, and I agree, the fundamental problem of this (see what I did there?) is that it views all parts of scripture as equal in authority and status.

Let’s start local, shall we? Let’s be legalistic for a moment and invoke Rule 107 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the “Rule of Optional Completeness.” This rule allows an adverse party to inquire into any part of a writing when the other party has introduced a portion of that writing into evidence.

If we read all of Romans 13:1-5, we get the following: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who dos o will bring judgment upon themselves. For rules hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The presumption of these verses is righteous rulership by a just ruler who sees himself as a servant of God (and presumably also the people). It does not address behavior when the authorities are acting unjustly and immorally. If we are to act as “a matter of conscience,” it is conceivable that there are situations in which resisting authority is the righteous action.

Both in Biblical history and the ancient world in which Paul lived, we have a multitude of examples of unrighteous rulers. Chronicles and Kings give us plenty of rulers of Israel who “commit the sins” of their fathers before them or who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The dominance of Rome and its rulers in Judea certainly demonstrated exploitative and unjust rulership. It is important, and perhaps ironic, that Paul writes this letter to the Romans and includes the words of 13:1-5. At the time Paul is probably writing, the Roman authorities had little interest in the nascent Christian movement, mostly because they weren’t really sure how to differentiate them from Jews. Persecution would soon ramp up, but at this point things were still relatively calm. Even so, Paul’s argument about the divine right of kings, though supported by the Old Testament stories of the early kings, was not entirely borne out by the long history of kings of Israel and Judah. That oughtn’t be ignored in evaluating Paul’s words.

Still in Romans 13 (verses 8 and 10), Paul writes: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law….Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is fulfillment of the law.”

So, even within the same chapter (remember that chapters are an artificial interpolation, so I use this term to mean “very nearby in the text”), Paul provides us with scripture stating that the government’s position is violation God’s law because it is causing harm.

As a side note, my instinctual response to a leader that cites Romans 13 in, however understated, a claim to divine right and authority is that that person doesn’t understand servant leadership and therefore cannot be the type of ruler described in this passage.

As important as the local landscape of Romans 13:1 is, we must interpret Paul’s words here by reference to the Bible as a whole–with particular attention paid to Jesus’ words and actions.

Here, let us start with other things that the Pauline epistles say of similar tone. I should preface this by saying that, although Romans is one of the epistles about which there is little doubt that Paul is indeed the author, both Ephesians and Colossians are of more disputed authorship, with many arguing that they are Deutero-Pauline, that is, in line with Pauline thought but not written by Paul himself.

Ephesians 6:5-6 reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Colossians 3:22 says almost exactly the same thing. This repetition leads to three primary interpretations, I think: (1) the author of Ephesians and Colossians is the same person; (2) the writer of Ephesians had access to Colossians, or vice versa; or (3) this statement is based on something Paul said or wrote that is not directly attested.

If we are comfortable that these epistles conform with Pauline thought, regardless of authorship, we need not resolve the authorship issue (which is good, because we can’t).

Modern Christianity has rejected slavery in all of its forms–we have reject Pauline thought here in favor of “doing no harm” as a truer practice of Christian love. If we have rejected this logic as flawed, we have decided that, inspired as the author(s) of the epistles might have been, they are prone to error in judgment at times. So why not conduct the same analysis of the statement in Romans 13?

For the best resolution of any ambiguity here (which I’ll admit remains somewhat speculative and incomplete), we have to look to the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 22:15-22, when confronted by the Pharisees about whether Caesar’s tax should be paid, Jesus tells them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Here, Jesus clearly separates temporal rulership from divine rulership. What’s more, if the interpolated punctuation accurately reflects the rhetoric employed, Jesus has set temporal rule and divine rule in contrast or opposition to one another.

If we want to put a fine point on it, we might refer to Mark 9:37, where Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Or Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Here we might also comment that Jesus Christ, as Messiah, defied messianic expectations by refusing to foment military overthrow of Roman (and generally foreign) dominance. There are several viable interpretations for this–nonviolence, a lack of interest in immediate temporal affairs over divine and eternal ones, a theological statement through choice of action that comments on how the Jews might have misunderstood God (especially those in the apocalyptic schools of thought of the time). I tend to believe that Jesus’s focus on love and mercy says everything it needs to about the evaluation of temporal power. Combined with Paul’s words on Romans 13 on love that follow the argument for obeying authority, I think there’s plenty here to support the stance that Jesus’s words (and actions) tell us not just that we ought to oppose unjust authorities of the world, but that we ought to do so peacefully whenever that is possible.

If we look to Jesus’ actions in driving out the money changers at the Temple, we see that (related in Matthew 22:12-13, but also in Mark 11:15-18 and Luke 19:45-47) Jesus does not shy away from taking action against those who abuse their position–though the extent to which there is any real “violence” in this act is highly debatable, as I’ve explored somewhat in my series, “The End of Violence.”

When we look more completely at the statements of Romans 13, comparing it to other parts of the scriptures, looking to our own traditions and to our experiences of rulership in history and even in the modern world we know, and when we apply logic to prioritize ideas that are contradictory (or at least not readily in line with one another), we see that we must take the position that Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1 needs to be read as speaking to a specific situation and time, needs to be nuanced, or needs to be rejected altogether in light of the example of Christ and our call to love our neighbors–especially when loving our neighbors requires standing against injustice.

Would that anyone who wants to support an argument using scripture would take such a broad and careful approach before relying on a single verse at face value!