Sunday, July 13, 2008

quote for the week

Many Christians tend to concentrate on one [vice] list or the other; one knows of Christian communities that would be appalled at the slightest sexual irregularity but which are nests of malicious intrigue, backbiting, gossip and bad temper, and conversely, of others where people are so concerned to live in untroubled harmony with each other that they tolerate flagrant immorality.

(N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Leicester: InterVarsity, 1986, p. 183)
It was the great American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Doubtless he was right, but in fact impartiality and fairness to all are not small virtues. All sin should be taken seriously, whether a sin like gluttony, greed, or egocentrism or a sexual or theological sin of some sort. The leader of the Lambda chapter at Vanderbilt asked me at a forum on homosexuality whether he would be welcome in my church. I told him that everyone is welcome to come as they are into the church, that is meant to be a hospital for sick sinners not a museum for saints. But equally no one is welcome to stay as they are. As Paul says so clearly in Colossians, everyone must repent and leave behind their old selves, their old ways. This included heterosexuals leaving behind homophobia and gay-bashing, both of which are serious sins, and homosexuals leaving behind the kind of sexual actions which are clearly condemned in the Bible - namely same-sex sexual sharing. I agree with Bishop Wright in the quotation above that neither extreme should characterize the church. But it is also true that the existence of a blind spot in one's recognition of a certain kind of sin does not mean one should stop preaching against all sin on the basis of it being unfair. Rather one's conscience should be raised so that one becomes an equal-opportunity critic of all sin, calling all persons equally to repentance.

Too often the condemnation of hypocrisy (including the straining out of small virtues while swallowing major vices), which is proper, has led to the silencing of the prophetic critique of sin altogether. All Christians should be calling all other Christians to moral accountability for their behavior. This is why, for instance, James 5 encourages us to confess our sins to one another - not merely to the priest or counselor or friend. There needs to be a community of saved sinners that is forming into an accountable body of Christ, helping each other to grow in grace. Instead of pointing fingers, we need to hold outstretched hands and help each other follow all the proper moral paths for the Lord's name's sake. Tolerance of sin is no more a virtue than hypocritical condemnation of selective sins. We are called to accountability, and will have to render account to Christ one day as well.

We are also called to speak the truth in love, neither merely speaking the truth nor merely indulgently loving. Paul calls for the balance that leads to what he calls "the perfection of love" (Colossians 3:14).Love is a sanctifying force that leads one to be one's best self, not allowing one to settle for behaving badly. Paul's call to love is not separated from the call to holiness and sanctification. Love without holiness is mere indulgence and permissiveness. It never leads to moral rectitude. But holiness without love is mere censoriousness and leads to condemnation and guilt rather than to growth in grace and in stature.

Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles, pp. 211, 212.

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