Friday, April 21, 2006

Theology and the Kingdom of God

I have been watching, with some interest and amazement, a sometimes heated discussion/debate currently underway on one of the online sites I frequent. The topic: women in church leadership. The same tiresome arguments are marshaled on both sides. If God had wanted man to fly, He would have … Sorry, wrong argument. If God had wanted women in church leadership, then He wouldn’t have sent his only begotten Son, got that, Son, and appointed twelve males, as in men, got that, as his closest disciples. And the other side counters with charges of cultural ossification, blindly adhering to the traditions of the past, yada, yada, yada. See how these Christians harangue one another.

It strikes me, reading these debates, how little I actually care about this stuff. To tip my hand somewhat, there are women in my church who are involved in leadership. They are involved in church leadership. They are involved in all kinds of leadership, and I can’t imagine life, in general, without their wisdom and gifts. But beyond that, I just really DO NOT CARE. It’s not worth expending much time and energy, nor, as best I can tell, are any of the innumerable other theological topics that tend to bog down Christians from the more important tasks of loving Jesus and loving other people.

I just don’t think it’s all that complicated, although at one time in my life I tried to make it complicated. If you’d look downstairs in my basement, you’d find several bookshelves full of books that deal with theological issues. We just threw about 100 of them away last weekend during a frantic spring cleaning session, but there are still hundreds left. I’ve read most of them. I went to seminary, and studied Greek and Hebrew, and at one time could have debated the merits of whether the apostle Paul was writing to north Galatia or south Galatia. That was back in the days when I thought I might be a pastor, before I figured out that struggles with addictions and telling the fourth grade Sunday School class to "sit down, damn it" probably weren't the best recommendations for church leadership. And none of it helped me much in terms of loving other people, or avoiding some nasty habits, or getting outside the all-consuming Kingdom of Me.

Here’s the thing: the charge that is always leveled at Christians by non-Christians is that we are hypocrites. And, of course, they’re right. We are, indeed, hypocrites, and we fairly routinely betray by our words and actions what we claim to believe. We are self-centered, ingrown, prone to constructing fortresses to keep the rest of the world out. And I have been that way in my own life.

If that is to change – and I hope and believe that it can and that it is – then I need something beyond intellectual answers. I don’t need knowledge. I need a soul transfusion. And if I have overreacted, if I have moved away from the intellectual approach to the Christian life that comes fairly naturally to me, then it is because, in my own Luddite way, I have tired of being a hypocrite. I don’t want to know one thing and do another. I want to live a life and be a part of a church that is characterized by costly love, by getting outside our comfort zones, by caring for the unlovable, by giving of our time, our money, our energy sacrificially to serve others. Really. No fooling. I want and expect that to happen. The best marketing a church can ever do is simply to love other people -- both inside and outside the church -- unconditionally. There is nothing more attractive than that, and nothing more revolutionary. And it’s what Jesus did. And if, by the way, there are women who know how to do that better than I do, and can teach me how to do it better, then I am all ears.

Here is how uncomplicated this is: Love, trust, and obey God. Love other people. Apologize (AKA repent) when you screw up one or both of these things. Repeat as necessary. There. That’s easy. It’s not easy to actually do it, of course. But it’s easy to understand it. And that’s about the extent of my theological interest these days.


Anonymous said...

Your God
Words And Music By
Cheryl Wheeler

Is your God the same God who's working with the Pope?
Is it the same God suspicious of Tinky Winky?
Is it the God corralling virgins into herds of 72,
deciding where to send them when the glorious martyrs are through?

Is your God the same God who's burning the science books
and trampling lives to hoist the right to life signs?
Or is he running the breeding program from the Temple by the lake
till one big in-bred family will be an entire state?

Are they his priests who can't keep from buggering little boys?
Is it your cash retaining their attorneys?
I guess he had to overlook the nastiness with the tykes,
to keep the grace of marriage from the clutches of fags and dykes.

Is your God the same God who won the Superbowl?
I hope it's not that looser God the Eagles had.
Or is your's the God decreeing all the women wear a sack,
and presiding over stonings and beheadings in Iraq?

Is your God commanding you
to tell everybody what to do,
to kill your brain and praise his name
and bury the bastard who's not the same,
and spew your heinous and hateful shit
like something holy was driving it
to take over all the earth and skies above?
Oh mercy, whatever happened to the GOD of love?

Andy Whitman said...

For what it's worth, jackscrow, the God described in Cheryl Wheeler's song is not my God.

Anonymous said...

I know, Andy.

Not my God, either.

She's using an overly broad brush, and i am sure that her idea of God would not resemble the God that you or i worship, and of course the things that "bog us down" are the things she sees as hypocrisy.

KarlandBethany said...


As you may have seen P.W. Gopal is in town this next week. I was reading blogs this afternoon and your last paragraph an his journal entry from 4/15/06 really seem to resonate well together. You might want to check it out.

Zena and Joshua said...

next thing you know you'll be bashing cs lewis.

grinning broadly,

mommy zabs said...

andy, great GREAT post.
I am in missouri visiting family and we have been discussing some of the things going on in churches we know. In particular one that is striving hard for mega church status, and achieving it. Sad thing is... we've had people in leadership (for a time) at this church... and the thinking is so completely backward, the value system is completely worldly. they have hired execs from disney and other companies to come consult on how they can make the church successful... they are very concerned about the "branding" of the church, the "culture" of the church and if you fit into it or not. These were buzzwords used heavily at abercrombie when i worked at the home office... not something i expect from the church. What triggered me saying all this? This part of your blog

"The best marketing a church can ever do is simply to love other people -- both inside and outside the church -- unconditionally. There is nothing more attractive than that, and nothing more revolutionary. And it’s what Jesus did. "

you see.....that is getting it. I'm all for a church being Excellent in the things it does... but when it means not being real.... being more concerned about appearance. annhilating people in the process... casting out those who don't agree.... argh. i just want to throw up. it becomes the antithesis of what you describe. i just want to weep. and i pray god's grace that I never get there. wherever these people lost the real vision, the true motive, the one that counts... i never want to take that way at the forks in my path of life.

'nough me babbling. but thanks for your writing.

John McCollum said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John McCollum said...

Andy and Jack,

I think churches -- and church people -- get into trouble when we see 'love' and 'truth' as opposite ends of some spectrum, upon which we must stake our position.

That approach can leave us with people who seek truth at the expense of love, and end up with mere knowledge. Their love is nothing more than the turd of judgmentalism with a thin candy shell of smug affability.

It can also leave us with people who seek love at the expense of truth, and end up with nothing more than tolerance. Tolerance without truth is powerless to transform.

I'm not looking to find the perfect balance between love and truth, and I'm not willing to choose between the two.

I think that while love and truth aren't quite synonyms, they're certainly bosom buddies (a great show, by the way. You get both Tom Hanks AND Peter Scolari...).

Andy Whitman said...

John, while I agree with you, I'd also maintain that the "Truth" part of this Love-Truth marriage isn't as complicated as many Christians want to make it out to be.

Obviously there is content to the Christian faith. And there are certainly basic doctrinal truths that one must adhere to if the word "Christian" is to have any meaning. But almost all of them are encapsulated in the Apostles Creed, and can be recited in a couple hundred words.

The rest is dissension and harranguing, the kind of stuff that has divided Christian denominations and Christians in general for at least a thousand years. And again -- I simply don't care. It's not what's important. And probably at least partially because of my history, I refuse to get caught up in it. It's simply not worth it.

Does that help to clarify my approach a bit more?

I don't know if you'll see this before you leave, but I am praying for you and your family on your trip to China, and I look forward to meeting your beautiful daughter on your return.

Anonymous said...

Andy...great thoughts on this stuff. I'm sympathetic to your frustration with theology, which tends to overcomplicate some of the simplist things to life and faith and love. Fortunately, or, i guess in response to your post, unfortunately, I feel a fairly strong calling to be a part of the navigation of "the people of God." Call it pastoring or call it theologizing---I'm not sure there is much a difference. I guess my vain is toward that of "spirtual theology," which seems to be more of what you hope for in this life & in church, and less of what you found in your stint in north galatia. A few notes of interest: 1) women were leaders in the early church. 2) if you ever throw away more books...please call first...I collect them.

danthress said...

I was led to the Lord by a woman who simply loved more deeply than anyone else I had ever met. Her love for friends and strangers presented a very convincing argument for God.

She had a very small book collection.

Mark K. said...

The longer I've been a Christian, the less I've cared about theological distinctions between Christians. E.g., I'm not a Calvinist, but I have no problem fellowshipping with Christians who are. (Some of my best friends are Calvinists, honest.) I have a particular view on the end times, but I only debate those issues for fun.

On the other hand, theology done correctly is a very valuable tool. If we want to know God, we have to know something about Him.

Done right, theology encourages truth and love, not "dissension and haranguing."

I'm with you objecting to the fruits of doing theology wrong. But don't shoot the wrong guy. Theology is a tool to find God (and not the only one) but it can be misused like any other tool. I can fix my clogged drain with a pipe wrench or beat someone to death with it - that does not make the wrench good or evil - it manifests the good or evil of the user.

It's good to care about theology. The Christians who use theology for "dissension and haranguing" don't care enough about it, not too much.

Anonymous said...

Andy -

Yes. Just...yes. I like what you said. I get what John is saying as well, and don't think you're disagreeing, rather emphasizing a different angle. Anyway. I just wanted to let you know I found your post encouraging.

Also interesting, is that the end of your post, as well as a portion of Chelsea's message on Sunday, touched on something God has been speaking to me regularly for the last two weeks.


Andy Whitman said...

Thanks for your comments, Jeney. Hey, sorry I didn't get to do more than shake your hand and introduce myself last weekend. In any event, I hope you had a great visit to Columbus. I love our church, and I know you got to hang out with some of my favorite people, so I'm happy for that.

I loved Chelsea's sermon. She's a prime example of what I'm talking about in my post, and I'd be a fool to not heed her many excellent points because of some stupid doctrinal pouting about women in church leadership.

Anonymous said...


Doctrinal Pouting. That sums it up perfectly. :)


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure we get off that easy.
I'm an Anglican in "new westminster" diocese and if you don't know the signficance of that, just google those terms.

Anyway, in frustration one day I said to a priest, "can't we all change our focus and just love Christ together as a community" to which he responded, "whose Christ?" - ie. some of us understand Christ and his concerns to be Compassion and Social Justice while others of us understand Christ to be Holy... loving Him will assume very different shapes, and thus our dissension takes on such an intensity.

Similarly, what does it mean to focus on building the Kingdom? Some of us see it as here and now: allow same-sex blessings, equated with defending the oppressed and marginalized. Others of us see it as first and foremost keeping God's Word as we (conservatively) understand it.

So what does it mean to just build the Kingdom?

perplexity upon complexity.