Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Covenant Relationships and Cross-Cultural Ministry

Enrolling in the Master of Divinity program at Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology means reading books by authors I thought I'd never read again. Mind you, I'm not complaining. This is part of what I signed up for when I chose a seminary affiliated with the Churches of Christ. One of these writers is Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, who is considered an expert in the area of cross-cultural ministry. The book in question, one of several on the reading list for my cross-cultural leadership course starting in January 2021, is entitled "Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership." While it has some strong points, there is one central weakness I've found. 

For as much as he talks about 'covenant communities,' he says nothing about making an explicit team covenant. In everything he has to say about forming the covenant he relies on the practices of worship, learning, training, and debriefing. He refers to some concepts from the Bible and sets covenant community in distinction to other modes of operating, but again, I found no guidance on creating an actual covenant. I can only assume that this is meant to be an implied covenant based on common belief in Jesus. The devil is always in the details, though, and I think that by not making the matter more explicit the underlying challenges he seeks to resolve with this type of community will only persist. Even white North American evangelicals differ among themselves on what it means to be a Christian in community with each other, and so the differences can only be wider among them and different types of Christians in other cultures.

Within Unitarian Universalism we have a resurging interest in the concept of covenant, drawn from our roots in New England congregationalism. While in the days of the Puritans and among the evangelicals of our time the covenant is seen as being between humans and between humans and God, UUs understand it more simply as the terms of the relationship between people. It is fairly common now for us to create a class covenant at the beginning of each year of Religious Education (aka 'Sunday School), when committees form, and in order to bring common understandings to entire congregations.

Recently the congregation where I'm a member, Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, New Jersey, voted to put the following covenant in place:

Love guides this congregation. Love calls us daily to acts of liberation grounded in antiracism. We affirm that we live in the complexity of intersectionality and that building healthy and loving relationships is a spiritual practice, requiring both inward and outward focus. Thus, we covenant to listen deeply, speak compassionately, express gratitude, and embrace our unique diversity. We endeavor to communicate honestly and with compassion, particularly when we are in conflict. When we hurt one another, we will try to make amends, forgive and reconnect with an intent to repair, change and grow. Our purpose is to be radically inclusive, feed the human spirit and heal the world. In celebration of the common purpose that unites us and with the aspiration of Beloved Community before us, we will do our best to abide by this covenant.

This isn't an easy covenant. There are parts that we're not all entirely sure we know what they'll mean in practice. Certainly the covenants of our smaller groups aren't quite as lengthy or formal. For a cross-cultural ministry team, whether based in the United States or anywhere else around the world, a clear covenant that was formulated and agreed upon by the founding members of such a team, and which is held up on a regular basis for reflection and application, can be a step in the direction of putting everyone on the same page. Cultural expectations can still get in the way, but the covenanting team will have committed to creating their own culture. The same could conceivably be done for a larger group, such as the participants in a community center, with its projects and programs.

That said, there is some genuine wisdom that I deeply appreciate in Dr Lingenfelter's book. This is only to be expected given the decades he's devoted to the subject. The way that he defines cross-cultural leadership is fairly ecumenical, given his otherwise strongly evangelical perspective. This particular sentence he repeats a few times in the book, so I'm not bothering with a page number.

"Leading cross-culturally is inspiring people who come from two or more cultural traditions to participate with you in building a community of trust, and then to follow you and be empowered by you to achieve a compelling vision of faith."

That 'vision of faith' language does not necessitate a specifically Christian outlook, although that's what Dr. Lingenfelter meant based on the wider context. In any case, it's a solid definition for anyone engaging in faith-centered cross-cultural ministry, including a Unitarian Universalist like myself. In fact, holding in in the broader sense as a UU expands the possibilities. If I find my way into community development work in Brazil, for instance, that 'vision of faith' can be expansive enough to include Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and others. So long as our shared vision is one of higher ideals aiming towards building beloved community, it should work. Jesus could even be centered as a master teacher without requiring a particular understanding of his divine or human nature. Forming an explicit covenant would help ensure we're all on the same page as to how we will interact with, uphold, and submit to one another.

In another part of the book, Lingenfelter addresses a key challenge that faces many leaders: letting go.

"The risk of letting go is great. Some may judge us to be inept because we have not controlled outcomes that seem essential to process and progress. We ourselves will feel anxiety and stress because the things that we believe are important may not happen in the way that we desire. The disciplines we think are essential to success may not be followed. The outcomes may be disastrous for the group and for the individuals involved." (p 129)

In preparing for mission work in my youth I heard about this repeatedly. Professors and ministers talked about letting go of a sense of full ownership, allowing people to take control, do things we don't like, and either fail or succeed. And sometimes the toughest part for our pride can be when the people we lead make a choice to which we object, and then it turns out to succeed. Many a missionary has founded a church only to make it into a mini-U.S. embassy. The church culture is American, growth can be limited, and an overdependence on the missionary(ies) can create havoc when they're no longer there. 

Although I don't intend to do church-planting work, I have come to realize that if I were to do so, the range of possibilities for one in the Unitarian Universalist tradition on foreign soil would would be wider than those of any Christian church. The thought serves at times as a method for me to analyze what matters most to UUism, making it the faith it is, and what is adiaphora. My role as UU clergy in that situation would be, I think, to offer the gifts and perspectives of the living tradition, lead within covenant, and provide pastoral care, accepting that how the community develops could be quite different from what I'm familiar with, or else resemble too strongly for my comfort another style (like evangelicalism or Pentecostalism). 

Lingenfelter goes on in another place to describe the difference between 'responsible-for' and 'responsible-to' leadership.

"Responsible-for leaders demonstrate emotional attachment to their role and results, and they exercise power and control to achieve results and assure quality. In contrast, responsible-to leaders demonstrate emotional detachment from their roe and results, and they grant authority, responsibility, and freedom to other people, whom they then counsel and hold accountable to achieve results and quality." (p 133)

He illustrates this from an experience he had with his daughter in her teen years. He saw himself as responsible for her, when in fact she had to be responsible for herself. His role was to be responsible to her, meaning that he would provide guidelines and guidance, but that she would have to be responsible for her own conduct. This is a very common problem for parents transitioning from being correctly responsible for their small children to those same children becoming responsible for themselves as they proceed through their teens and into their 20s. Some never make that transition, and others only poorly and with great difficulty. This is something I know only too well, from first-hand experience as a parent.

"Westerners, educated to trust the power of reason and rationality, assume that people will act responsibly and rationally. This is a false assumption. Most of us, if we are honest in our self-assessment, will recognize that we often act first from our emotional being. The natural consequences of this attribute of human experience and response is that leading a multicultural team always involves irrational and emotional relationships." (p. 157)

As I write this in late November 2020, I still feel very raw about a situation in which I faced the irrationality of another person. Just a few days ago my landlord, with whom I thought I had a great relationship, berated me for asking him to cover up my appliances and dishes in the kitchen while he did some repainting. This was a project he had undertaken on his own, and that I had welcomed. He covered my living room furniture while scraping and priming the walls, but didn't do the same in the kitchen, leaving a thick layer of paint dust over everything on the counter. I only discovered it as I went to make dinner, and would gladly have moved things or covered everything up myself had I known he wouldn't do prep work there. His explosive reaction to me pointing out the dust and asking that he cover things or let me know ahead of time so I could do it was shocking, and he became so belligerent that I had to tell him to leave. I'll be moving when the lease runs out at the end of January.

This unfortunate experience has reminded me that it's difficult to know what's really going on in other people's minds and hearts, and that even with a seemingly good relationship something completely unexpected can come forth from others. Reason simply doesn't apply to all aspects of human existence. If this is the reality when people live in essentially the same national culture, you can imagine how much more explosive the differences can be between people of different cultures. Explain as you might the perspective you're coming from, and no matter how well you think you know the other cultures involved, nothing will erase the radical variable of human emotion and irrationality.

Overall I enjoyed this book, although as I indicated above, I do wish that Dr. Lingenfelter had tied it together with a clearer description of covenant formation. In case you're interested in the UU approach, here's a link to some more information: https://uucb.org/forming-a-covenant/

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Those Not Judged | Reign of Christ 2020

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is portrayed showing a tender heart for his own people. In places the prophets described him as the source of their punishment, due to their lack of faithfulness in the covenant he had made with their people. In any case, there's a scene where he is pictured as the shepherd, and Israel as the flock. A pastoral depiction fitting for the time and place. 

I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. — Ezekiel 34:16

You don't have to be familiar with animal husbandry to know that destroying the strongest of the flock and investing resources in the weakest isn't the usual way to go. It's a guaranteed loss of money. The comparison has definite limits. The problem here was that some were thriving in the Babylonian captivity, away from their ancient homeland, while others knew only scarcity and want. The trouble then, and which remains until now, is the lack of concern we show for our fellow human beings.

In the so-called 'Rust Belt' there are communities left behind by the departure of manufacturing for other countries where labor is cheaper. Throughout the country every time a black person is pulled over by the police they wonder if this time their name will become another hashtag. Women are underpaid compared to men and deal with sexism, trans folks suffer violence, and desperate families crossing the southern border are torn apart by a system for which cruelty is the only point.

The most passive thing anyone can do in the face of these injustices and all the others is nothing. The second most passive is praying and saying 'God is in control.' That's just the same as giving up, and it's contrary to what the man from Nazareth is said to have taught. 

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ — Matthew 25:35-36 

Those verses sit square in the middle of a depiction of judgement. The nations are divided between sheep and goats. In this scenario, you definitely don't want to be a goat. They're the ones who saw the deep needs around them and took the most passive routes they could. Or worse, they are the ones who caused harm to others or perpetuated systems that oppressed. The sheep, for their part, saw the immense poverty of material and spirit and did something about it. They even visited the prisoners. 

Notice two things here.

First, there's no accounting for the ones who were fed, clothed, and housed. Are they sheep or goats? Since this was not meant to be a literal depiction of a final judgment (after all, people aren't really sheep or goats, but rather humans) there are limits to what was being said. The focus is not on where they are in relation to judgment, but rather how people were behaving toward those most in need. No moral judgment is being applied to the needy, including the prisoners. We can't assume that they are all innocent, nor does that matter.

Think a little deeper about this one. The moral qualities of the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, and imprisoned are not a factorAll that matters for the purpose of this story of judgment is how other people respond to them. They are not held up as the mythical virtuous poor. They are not necessarily the bum with a heart of gold. All we know is that they are at the margins of society, clinging on by their fingertips.

Second, there was no waiting around for a deus ex machina turning of the tide to change things. Often when we contemplate these verses we associate it with giving a meal to a homeless person or even volunteering at the local soup kitchen or food pantry. That's all well and good. Nothing against that, so long as it's done in humanizing and not dehumanizing ways. The more difficult connection for us to make is between these verses and the systems and processes that leave people without the necessities of life or the formative experiences to participate in society in a healthy way. We often separate what we think we can do, which is volunteering, from what seems beyond us in effecting social change. 

That, however, is the point of organizing. 

While in Ezekiel we hear about a god who will shepherd his people and judge the oppressors, in Matthew we find a demand that we be the ones to enact justice. I'm not here to hold those in some sort of false tension. Time and again the prophets of Israel and Judah called on the people to turn back to doing what is right, caring for one another and especially those below the bottom rung. Not only that, they raised the alarm about corruption in high places and honored traditions that kept people in bondage. 

One last little point. In the face of all the terrible words and deeds of people who call what is factual and evidence based 'fake news' and treat conspiracy theories like the gospel, and in light of the crisis in the natural world, it can feel absolutely overwhelming. This to the point that we feel as though we might as well not try. What can one little person do? Well, one person can link up with other such people and pray with their feet, marching for change and organizing for a more just society. Also, one person can simply check in on an elderly neighbor, wear a mask responsibly during a global pandemic, give blood, donate to organizations that care for others and/or which work for positive change, or simply tip generously.

Search for the lost and bring back the strays, without judgment. 

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Friday, November 13, 2020

No Shame

Before proceeding, a word to any young people who are being told that their sexuality is 'wrong,' especially by your church. You are not wrong for being you. Your feelings are natural and only become wrong if you act on them without a person's consent. As for safe sex, which is vital, have a look at this page on the Planned Parenthood website. Your family and/or church may have made Planned Parenthood seem like the devil. Maybe you really don't agree with their position on abortion. But the information about sex and sexuality is accurate and useful. 

Now that we have that out of the way, I'm going to select parts of the article, indicated by bold italics, for comment. 

One of the reasons there’s a widespread definitional dating in our day is because recreational dating doesn’t deliver what it promises. 

What the hell does this sentence even mean? I looked up 'definitional dating' and as of November 13, 2020 nothing came up. Is this a term he coined? If so, he's responsible for explaining it. The editorial staff at RELEVANT let it pass, so I wonder if it means something to them.

And you know what they say about the definition of insanity — it’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. 

That is not a definition of insanity. Salon refers to that as 'the most overused cliché of all time.' While I disagree, as 'perfect storm' has to be the most overused, it certainly ranks up there. This is low quality, unprofessional writing. Worse, it's disparaging towards people with mental health issues. Using an ugly and completely false stereotype is no way to begin an article about love and sex.

How about trying a different approach to dating?

This isn't a 'different approach.' Back in the 90s, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, Joshua Harris made waves with his book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye." It promotes formal courtship and the ideal of waiting even to kiss until the wedding day. Harris was only around 21 or 22 when the book was published, and his naivety shows in the book. I'm only a year younger than him, and when I read the book in college I couldn't stop rolling my eyes. And yet, many of my ministry professors spoke very highly of it.

In recent years Harris has retracted his entire position and ceased publication of his book. If you're interested you can read his mea culpa here. Perhaps it's also worth noting that he's also said that he no longer considers himself a Christian. 

Countless young women of my generation suffered from the imposition of purity culture within evangelicalism, as did those of the lgbtq+ community. Anything other than heterosexual sexual relations after marriage were acceptable, and anyone who 'deviated' from this norm were being misled by Satan and 'the world.' Girls were told that if they had sex with someone before marriage, no one would want them after, because they'd be like chewed gum. As though her entire value as a human being was hanging on whether or not she'd ever experienced vaginal penetration. Worsening matters, consent was never mentioned in all of this, leaving girls and women who had been sexually abused feeling terrible about themselves as well. 

Take 90 days to get to know each other without pressure. Gasp! “90 days?!” Hey, it’s just three months, less than the length of a football season. That’s not such a long time to spend forming an intentional friendship, which might lead to intentional dating, which might lead to marriage, now is it?

Remember that so far in this article the writer seems to be trying to be all hip and cool. He hasn't mentioned abstinence by name, and of course he won't because a lot of people would stop reading. This 90 days isn't about waiting that time before sexual intimacy. He means 90 days of no kissing and maybe no hand holding.

If you can, go through this process with advisers in the form of a trusted married couple who are wise in the ways of the Lord. The first time you meet with them, it’s like an on-ramp to a relationship. The last time you meet with them, at the end of 90 days, it’s like an off-ramp to get out of the relationship easily if it hasn’t worked out. Or else it’s like a green light to continue the journey and see where it goes.

Now he's describing the literally romanticized belief in 'courtship' that purity culture advocates. It infantalizes young adults and adds a layer of bureaucracy to the relationship. Once older people are involved it makes the matter all the more serious. This is immediately no longer anywhere near light-hearted dating, sex or no sex. It's a courtship. The stakes are raised psychologically, and this can have the effect of locking in a bad relationship. 

One of our innate and counterproductive biases is referred to as 'previous investment' or the 'sunk cost fallacy.' In terms of human behavior, it refers to the idea that having dedicated time and energy to something, it's best to stick with it even though the results, if you were clear headed and realistic about it, are no longer what you want. In other words, by adding formality to the relationship and dedicating a prolonged period of time to analyzing it, an emotional investment is being made. That and the time spent can lead a person to conclude that they should stick with it. 

There are other biases that work against us as well in this sort of situation. Choice-supportive bias, for example, is that which leads us to amplify the good about a decision we've made, downplaying the bad. Conversely, we amplify the bad of the other options we had. It might have been better not to date that person, but since you're in it already you're automatically looking for ways that it's good, and how not dating them would have been bad.

No matter how old or how experienced you are, if you want to have a pure relationship and not create too strong of a physical tie before marriage, then you need to agree from the outset about what you will or will not do. You may be thinking, I don’t need boundaries. I’m grown. Well, so are your pain, disappointments and frustrations. Boundaries aren’t bad; they’re actually a blessing. 

There we have it. He finally said 'pure.' What is a 'pure relationship'? While he's not as explicit about what he means as he should be, he means 'sexually pure.' It's weird to me that people often just automatically accept this language. It's the exact same as saying that any sexual relationship outside of marriage is 'impure.' But where is the impurity? Only in the sex, which really doesn't stand up to reason.

If Todd wanted to talk about boundaries, it would have been great if he'd discussed consent. Evangelicals do not discuss consent, by and large. Just as safe sex isn't necessary if you're abstinent, consent is seen as unnecessary because that happens at the wedding ceremony.  This fantasy doesn't really help. Young unmarried people have sex. It's a simple fact. However much parents want to prevent it, and the church preaches against it, more often than not they'll be having sex.

When I was attending a small Bible college in Missouri in my late teens I heard a story told to a class by a professor about some students who had been expelled several years before. He said that one day he was in his office when someone in the neighborhood called to inform him that two of the students were having sex in a car on her street. He asked how she knew they weren't from the local community college, and she replied, 'because of the Bible college bumper sticker on the car.' He and a couple of others were waiting for them when they returned. After some discussion they were expelled. That professor wanted to make clear to the freshman class that there was nowhere they could go to get away from their obligation to remain abstinent until marriage.

Most of my classmates were married before they graduated Bible college. Because who can wait?

Set a curfew. Every date needs an ending time. Decide that one of you is always going to go home at midnight or whatever other time you agree on. 

In other words, set a time for the date to end so there won't be a sleepover situation.

What’s a no go for touch? Maybe it’s hugs that last longer than thirty seconds. Or French kissing. Or whatever. Know the triggers that could take you all the way to sex. 

Here's where he really shows his hand. Premarital sex is bad and therefore must be avoided. Don't go "all the way." It sounds juvenile because it is.

What else would help? Maybe you’ll agree not to watch movies with sex scenes in them. Or not to send each other notes or texts that are too suggestive. A lot of couples agree to never chill in a horizontal position (lying down on a couch or bed), only in a vertical position.

The Pharisees have a bad reputation through the anti-semitic exaggerations of the canonical Gospels, but this is what we'd call 'phariseeism." Evangelicals talk up grace and freedom, when in actuality they spend a hell of a lot of time making rules about this and that.

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. — Colossians 2:21-23 (NIV)

These kinds of boundaries may seem petty, and they’re not meant to be legalistic.... 

And yet they are both.

....but they have a way of helping people keep from succumbing to natural temptations. They create a safe place for you to learn about each other. They encourage less touching and more talking.

If they're natural temptations and not unnatural, then why demonize it? Oh right. Purity culture.

If somebody loves quality time and the other one loves physical touch, you’d better set strong physical boundaries because one is going to want to sit on the couch all the time and the other one is going to want to be touched — and that’s a recipe for a baby.

No discussion of safe sex. The assumption is that since premarital sex is bad, then preparing for it in any way is also sinful. Therefore evangelical teens aren't usually educated about premarital sex, and young evangelicals have unprotected sex. They just do. Why pretend that evangelical youth aren't actually having sex behind everyone's back?

After ninety days, have a conversation to see where you stand. Are you attracted to each other? Green light or red flag? 

Oh the sexy formality!

I always encourage people to pay attention to patterns, not potential. All of us have the potential to do better in our weak areas, but can we live with each other’s patterns? For instance, she may seem flirtatious to you, but she says it’s just her personality — she’s bubbly and likes talking to everybody. Can you live with that? Transformation in this area may come eventually, but even if so, there’s no timetable on it.

Note that this all relates only to cisgender people in a heterosexual relationship. Sex between other types of people, and recognition of the range of genders and sexualities, are both off the table. Also, in the example the woman is 'the problem' without necessarily meaning to be. Therefore as always men are warned to be careful. Women are portrayed in purity culture as not being terribly interested in sex itself, and at the same time as potential whores. It's incredible. 

You may want to go ahead with more dating together, hopefully leading to engagement and marriage, or you may decide to call it quits. If you do decide to end it here, hopefully the breakup will happen without all the painful ripping apart that can happen when a dating couple is too tightly bonded. 

Here's what he's actually talking about:

In romantic love, when two people have sex, oxytocin is released, which helps bond the relationship. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, the hormone oxytocin has been shown to be "associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people." When it is released during orgasm, it begins creating an emotional bond -- the more sex, the greater the bond. Oxytocin is also associated with mother/infant bonding, uterine contractions during labor in childbirth and the "let down" reflex necessary for breastfeeding. (Obringer, 2005)

Your relationship goal of marriage is still alive and healthy.

Marriage is the goal. No discussion of other ways of relating, and there's no discussion of singleness. If you want to have sex, you have to be married, and the goal in any case is to get married. I've heard adult singles in churches over the years comment that they feel like second class citizens at times in their own congregations. People will often ask very personal questions about a single person's love, such as 'when are you going to get married' or 'are you seeing anyone yet?' Individuals aren't 'half-people.' They are full human beings. The talk of becoming 'one flesh' through marriage is misapplied here.

In a blog post last year I wrote about how you can't trust (most) churches on sex, and in that piece I discussed the sex education curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL). Created through a partnership of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, this material provides age-appropriate material for guiding discussions around sexuality. While there are parts for children, teens, and adults, the section that seems to get the most attention is the one directed at teens. This curriculum provides accurate information about sexual health, guidance for sexual ethics, and opportunities for candid conversations about sex itself. Despite its origins in two religious groups, the material is entirely non-religious, suitable for any sex ed course. Rather than produce something only for their own people, these denominations opted to create something to benefit everyone. 

You can learn more about OWL at either of these sites: 
The following are some titles that I strongly recommend around this topic. 
  • Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, by Tina Schermer Sellers [This one could be particularly useful for psychotherapists and clinicians working with evangelicals or exvangelicals, and also for clergy providing pastoral care to former evangelicals.]
In close, a blessing:

If you've been bound by purity culture, may you find freedom. 

If you've been hurt by purity culture, may you find healing. 

May we all experience the joy of being our full, human selves.

Let there be no shame in being who we are, whoever we are.


Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Obringer, L. (2005, February 12). How Love Works. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://people.howstuffworks.com/love7.htm

Todd, M. (2020, November 10). Mike Todd: Three Ways to Transform Your Dating Life. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.relevantmagazine.com/life5/relationships/mike-todd-three-ways-to-transform-your-dating-life/

Sunday, November 8, 2020

A Retrospective on the Controversy That Formed Unitarianism

For most of my adult Henry Ware Sr. by Charles Osgood
Until the past several years I'd always been on the 'conservative' side of religious movements, even in my more 'progressive' times. When I heard about churches, colleges, and other parachurch organizations becoming 'liberal' it really irked me. Why couldn't those people find some other denomination or movement more to their liking, and not insist on changing what was already established, I wondered. I can still see through that lens and understand how this bothers more traditional believers. Its with this at the forefront of my mind that I recently studied the 'Unitarian Controversy' of the early 1800s in the United States.

The last chapter told how during more than half a century the Congregational churches of Massachusetts were slowly and almost imperceptibly growing more liberal in belief. During much of the time the conservatives noted this fact with growing apprehension, though they were able to point to little or nothing definite enough to furnish a point for attack; for the liberals were content to let the old beliefs fade away without notice, and preferred to confine their preaching to the essential of practical Christianity as shown in life and character. (Wilbur, 1925)

The churches of the Puritan colonizers in North America became known as the Standing Order in Massachusetts. This was the established church of the colonies of that region, supported by taxes. Typically, each congregation employed a Pastor and a Teacher, although over the generations these roles changed and converged. While change otherwise was very gradual, it did come as new ideas circulated in and old certainties became curiosities from a previous time. Many remained 'orthodox' in their Calvinism, although as we'll see, even their theology didn't truly match that of their forebearers. The shift towards liberalism in some quarters came so slowly that the more paranoid of the evangelicals saw it in biblical terms. 

For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ. (Jude 4 KJV)

Despite increasing suspicion, a status quo was maintained for quite a long time. Inevitably, though, the the polarization between the orthodox and the liberals had to come to the full light of day. The spark that lit the fuse happened at Harvard, where generations of Standing Order ministers had trained.

In 1805 a controversy arose at Harvard College over the election of a new Hollis Professor of Divinity. Morse had gone to Yale, where staunch Calvinism still prevailed. He led the orthodox Calvinist clergy against the liberals. When one of the latter party, Henry Ware, minister in Hingham, was chosen for the post, Morse was incensed. The college named for his famous predecessor would now breed heretics! Soon he helped to launch and evangelical monthly, the Panoplist, to rival the Monthly Anthology, started by the Athenaeum liberals. He also helped to gather subscriptions to build an orthodox congregational church in the very heart of Boston, where nearly all the ministers were liberals. (Buehrens, 2011)

Across the years I can relate to how Morse must have felt. If his thinking was at all like mine as an evangelical, then he must have felt fury and betrayal at what he saw as the takeover of an essential ministry training school. If he was a man of conscience, however poorly informed, I'm guessing that in his bones he experienced this as affront to God and, by extension, all 'good Christians.' He didn't take it lying down.

Dr. Morse next exerted himself to establish at Andover a theological seminary which should remain forever orthodox, for its constitution required the professors every five years to renew their subscription to a creed which was perpetually to remain "entirely and identically the same, without the lease alteration, addition, or diminution." (Wilbur, 1925)

Having written before about how the Transylvanian Unitarians were boxed in by a law against any change in their doctrine, thus leading to some theological stagnation, I'm struck by the small irony that orthodox Congregationalists would do the same thing to themselves in attempting to set theological boundaries. Of course, they didn't know the history, and I'm reasonably certain they wouldn't have cared. They were trying to hold fast to the 'faith once delivered' (Jude 3), something that despite evidence to the contrary they believed was unchanging. By laying out in details what was to be believed and taught, and requiring regular re-subscription to the creed, they hoped to prevent another slide into apostasy and theft of something they were building for a specific purpose. 

For a clear example of this gradual drift, one needn’t look further than American Evangelicalism. Whether you are aware of it or not, a significant shift has occurred in Evangelicalism over the past 5-10 years. The Christian group that once “held the line” when it came to things like the doctrine of biblical inerrancy or the authority of Scripture has been slowly drifting away from much of its historic Christian thinking. (The Parkway Church, 2019)

Pastors and other evangelical leaders who I think should be raising the alarm over the heresy of Trumpism are instead doubling down on their traditional beliefs. I'm not sure if this is escapism on their part, the return-to-the-1950s mentality essential to MAGA, or something else. It's certainly not new, being something I believed was the case all through my two decades as an evangelical, and which has been a concern of conservative Christians since...ever, really.

The Seminary began as a militant defender of orthodoxy aligned especially against Harvard and the Unitarian movement in the vicinity of Boston and Cambridge. Its advance would have been somewhat simpler had the orthodox been unanimous in their own theological convictions; but Calvinism by 1807 had divided into two distinct parties distinguished from each other largely by the varying degrees of their strict Calvinistic interpretation. Both of these groups were involved in the founding of Andover. The anti-Harvard and anti-Unitarian group in the Boston area were commonly known as Old Calvinists or Old Divinity Men or, more correctly, Moderate Calvinists, and were in general firmly Calvinistic but somewhat tempered by their generation and environment. The second group, especially strong in Essex County, were the disciples of Samuel Hopkins and were wont to term themselves Consistent Calvinists but were better known as New Divinity Men or Hopkinsians. They were Calvinists in the strictest sense and viewed the laxity of the moderate Calvinists with some alarm and suspicion. In fact, the mutual distrust between these two wings of Calvinists made it difficult for them to combine in mutual opposition to the progress of liberalism. (Pierce, 1946)

The funny thing is that 'theological drift' doesn't just happen with religious liberals, by any means. Among the Calvinists in the era of the Unitarian Controversy there were clear distinctions of emphasis. This sort of divisiveness can happen in any faith tradition, and yet occurs so often among conservative groups that it could be considered one of their defining characteristics. As soon as there is a 'standard' to dispute how interpret, and whenever 'purity' is at stake, there are bound to be problems. It's almost like speciation in the natural world, with new sects and denominations coming into existence around personalities and particular emphases in beliefs.

As for the liberal ministers, although by 1812 there were at least a hundred of them, only Freeman at King's Chapel and Bentley at Salem were really Unitarian in belief. Of the rest only one or two had ever preached a sermon against the Trinity; and while they had generally ceased to hold that doctrine, yet they had not reached any wide agreement as to other points. They knew indeed that they had pretty well outgrown their Calvinism, and they acknowledged only the authority of Scripture; but their main emphasis was on the practical virtues of Christian life, and their main opposition was to narrowness of spirit and bondage to creeds, while for the rest they advocated Christian charity, open-mindedness, and tolerance.  (Wilbur, 1925)

The 'liberals' weren't what we think of with that term today. They still put the Bible at the center of their spiritual lives, and most at that point still affirmed the divinity of Jesus. What they denied, and for which reason it would be better to describe them as 'Arian,' was that Jesus is the second person of one being. Only God was the Father, and Jesus was his Son in the sense that he was the first created and the one through whom the worlds were formed. Jesus still participated in the divine nature in a unique way, and therefore was still worthy of worship as 'lord' and messiah. At least, that seems to have been the general idea. It's hard to say for certain because the liberals, like any others of faith, differed among themselves. 

What I find very interesting here is that the proto-Unitarians (I'm taking the liberty of calling them that because 'Unitarian' didn't quite apply yet) had arrived at the idea of a creedless Christianity around the same time as others in the United States, including the Christian Connection (James O'Kelly) and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ (Alexander Campbell, & Barton Stone). However, the latter movements were coming at it from a more evangelical, back-to-the-Bible sentiment mixed with a desire for Christian union and an end of sectarian squabbling. 

The Calvinists in New England clearly wanted no part of any of this, and saw the liberal request for a simple Christianity as perhaps a Trojan horse to get into congregations and institutions in order to turn them liberal as well. Led by Rev Jedidiah Morse, they waged a war of words with the nascent Unitarians.

All the while that things were in this uncertain state, Dr. Morse in the Panoplist [magazine] kept calling on the liberals to admit that in important respects they had departed far from the faith of their fathers. They steadfastly refused to accept his challenge, for they disliked controversy, and they had no mind to champion special doctrines or to be set off into a separate party. They stood on their rights as free members of Congregational churches and did not feel under any obligation to report to Dr. Morse or ask his leave. (Wilbur, 1925)

The proto-Unitarians would rather have maintained the Standing Order churches as one communion, avoiding a split. From the Calvinist perspective this wasn't feasible, as they saw churches becoming 'Unitarian' or 'Arminian' and believed there was a full-on assault on the faith taking place. With the events at Harvard favoring a 'Unitarian' perspective, the source of theologically 'sound' ministers was at serious risk for the conservatives, and to their minds would only accelerate the conversion of congregations to Unitarianism.

Some religious descendents have succeeded where the early Congregationalists failed. The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC), which formed in the mid-20th century from congregations that did not wish to join the (e)merging United Church of Christ (UCC), maintains a list of congregationally-governed churches that represent a fair spectrum of Christian belief. 

Local Church Control. The NACCC honors the fact that God has given the local church every power and gift necessary for its spiritual life and decision for ministry. Because Christ alone is the head of the church, each church is free to determine its statement of faith, select and ordain its clergy and maintain stewardship of its resources and property. Respecting the ability of each church to discern God’s intentions and purposes for them, the NACCC does not pass resolutions on social or political issues nor does it make statements on behalf of or binding upon the member churches. (NACCC)

Some congregations are as liberal as the official stance of the UCC, even holding membership simultaneously in that denomination, and others are evangelical to the point of being part of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC). In between are a range of more middle-of-the road churches. The denomination claims no theological schools, and ordination is left entirely at the local level, removing the 'risk' that the Calvinists of the Standing Order saw in their arrangement. This balance is maintain as well through the fact that the national organization requires no statement of faith for congregations, and it makes no statements on political or potentially controversial religious issues. Whether it's the best way is up for debate, but it is at least a way to keep the peace, I suppose.

Returning to the 1800s, Dr. Morse went entirely on the offensive against the 'heretics.'

The Panoplist followed up the exposure in a severe review, charging that the liberals were secretly scheming to undermine the orthodox faith, and were hypocrites for concealing their true beliefs; and that the orthodox aught therefore at once to separate from those who, since they denied the deity of Christ, could not be considered Christians at all. (Wilbur, 1925)

In my youth I saw liberal encroachment as evil, something that came from a foul heart that sought power and recognition. It brought to mind then, and comes to me now, what Peter said to Simon Magus:

Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. (Acts 8:22-23 KJV)

As I said here at the beginning, I've been on the side of the conservatives, feeling dismayed at the activities of 'liberalizers' in my denomination's midst. With the independent Christian Churches it wasn't about the doctrine of the trinity or the authority of the Bible. Instead, it was the approximation I saw (and now know what essentially correct about) of certain leaders and churches toward mainstream evangelicalism. Many of these blurred the lines about the necessity of baptism by immersion for salvation, something that is a historic hallmark belief for the Stone-Campbell churches. Further, at the annual national gathering, the North American Christian Convention, the keynote speakers all came to be 'outsiders' to the fellowship. No longer were the voices of our own people lifted up and celebrated.

There are reasons other than liberal conniving for the troubles with the NACC.  

The plain truth is that attendance at, financial support for and interest in the NACC continue to drop off. I could spend this whole post exploring the various reasons why (less institutional loyalty throughout our culture, growth of specialized and niche events, an “uncool” reputation) but I’m more interested in thinking about whether it matters, and what can be done...The convention’s current decline happened not because people don’t attend conferences, but because this conference no longer has a clearly-defined mission...Is it for leaders or entire families? If leaders, vocational, volunteer or both? It’s “the connecting place” but to what end? Who’s connecting? Why is it valuable? How are the connections different from the other ways people are already working together? (Johnson, 2010)

What ended up happening there is that in the past year or two the NACC was reorganized as Spire Network. The conference for ministers and laity is gone, and it is now focused as an evangelical parachurch organization on encouraging church growth. It maintains no denominational ties with the independent Christian Churches, although of course without a denominational structure this wouldn't have existed in any form other than by statements to that effect.  I don't think the people involved were necessarily 'scheming,' although with money involved who knows, but were doing what they thought was right, even though it meant the end of a national touchpoint for an entire religious group. However, I do see how easily and perhaps justifiably conservatives could conclude that this was their plan all along.

The orthodox were made more than ever determined in their attitude; while the Unitarians (as they were henceforth known) began to abandon their policy of reserve and to speak out plainly also against other doctrines of Calvinism, and their views spread accordingly. (Wilbur, 1925)

Backed into a corner, the Unitarians began to do what I think they should have done all along, and stood up for themselves and their convictions. Frankly, I wonder just how much any of it mattered to them before, because if it had wouldn't the silence in some way have bothered them?

William Ellery Channing preached a sermon at an ordination in Baltimore in 1819 that is considered a turning point. Although in no place in the message does he mention Unitarianism by name, his words made clear the distinction between the liberals and the conservatives.

In this sermon he boldly took the aggressive against the orthodox, taking up the distinguishing doctrines of Unitarians one by one, showing that they were supported by both Scripture and reason, and holding up to pitiless attack the contrasted doctrines of orthodoxy in all their nakedness. (Wilbur, 1925)

It's a long sermon by today's standards, and the story goes that when it was first delivered no one past the first few rows could hear it. Still, the impact it made once in print (under the title 'Unitarian Christianity) was enormous. 

We regard the Scriptures as the records of God's successive revelations to mankind, and particularly of the last and most perfect revelation of his will by Jesus Christ. Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures; we receive without reserve or exception. (Channing)

Channing was not denying the Bible as a revelation of God. Rather, he was disputing certain interpretations of it that consigned most of humanity to hell, and spoke about God and Jesus in terms not found within Scripture. He also explained the interpretive principles that he identified with Unitarianism.

Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books. (Channing)

When I read this I was struck by how similar it was to something written by Alexander Campbell, one of the founding fathers of what has become the Stone-Campbell tradition, in 1839. 

The words of the Bible contain all the ideas in it. These words, then, rightly understood, and the ideas are clearly perceived. The words and sentences of the Bible are to be translated, interpreted, and understood according to the same code of laws and principles of interpretation by which other ancient writings are translated and understood. (Campbell)

This parallel between the Unitarian and Disciples of Christ traditions isn't a coincidence. Both Channing and Campbell were working from an Enlightenment perspective that called for the use of reason. As non-controversial as it may seem to say that the Bible should be interpreted using the same methods used to interpret any other literature, that was virtually heresy among people in the early 1800s and still is in some quarters today. It is also not an approach that has a long history with the Bible. In the Second Temple Period midrash was common, and within Christianity in there was a great deal of proof-texting without regard to context and other forms of creative re-readings of the Scriptures. It was really only from the 17th century onward that a more 'reasoned' approach was used, and it remains sacrocant in conservative evangelical seminaries to this day. Odd that we use an 'unbiblical' method to interpret the Bible.

Dr. Channing...held that Unitarian Christianity was the most favorable to piety, and likened the orthodox doctrine of the atonement to a gallows erected at the center of the universe for the public execution of God. (Wilbur, 1925)

Now that's some potent imagery, showing in stark but evocative terms the truth of substitutionary atonement theory. In the reaction to Channing's sermone we also learn that conservative 'snowflakes' aren't really news. For all their vitriol against the liberals, the Calvinists were quite upset at Channing's sermon.

[The orthodox] complained that channing had misrepresented their beliefs and had injured their feelings by his harsh statements. (Wilbur, 1925)

Those poor babies.

In the unhappy division that took place at this time, congregations were split in two, and even families were divided against themselves. (Wilbur, 1925)

It sounds like an ugly, disputed divorce. Before we get into the details, I can't help but note how these events echo some words of Jesus.

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. (Matthew 10:34-36) 

If the historical Jesus actually said those words, it certainly with the same intent I'm using it here. And yet there's a feel of the prophetic for me in this given the course Christianity took. To a degree not found in other religions of the ancient world, precise beliefs about things unseen became critical. A Roman could think whatever she cared to about Zeus, so long as she didn't act disrespectfully towards the gods. Bawdy tales of his lascivious ways circulated even as philosophers pondered the elevated ethics of the supreme god. The same could not happen within Christianity.

In any event, the split between the orthodox and the Unitarians was ugly.

The orthodox losses as the result of the divisions that took place were indeed severe. in eighty-one instances the orthodox members seceded, nearly 4,000 of them in all, thus losing funds and property estimated at $600,000, not to mention the loss of churches that went to the liberal side without a division; and they had to build new meetinghouses for themselves. They called themselves "the exiled churches".... (Wilbur, 1925) 
None of what I'm writing is meant to imply that the Unitarians were faultless. Far from it. And some of their attitudes would cost them in terms of miss opportunities at growth in the future.

Perhaps the charge that hurt the Unitarians most, and had the most truth in it, was that whereas the orthodox were deeply in earnest about their religion, zealous, self-denying, and full of missionary spirit, the Unitarians were lukewarm, often indifferent to their church, lax in religious observances, and opposed to missions. (Wilbur, 1925)

As I indicated above, theological 'drift' happens no matter what, to conservative and liberal doctrine alike. What happened with Andover Theological Seminary, founded to be a bastion of conservative Calvinism, demonstrates this truth. That unchangeable creed that was laid down for faculty requiring renewed assent every 5 years, became cage. With faculty pressure, liberation was sought and won through the courts.

On April 10, 1931, the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, acting under the doctrine of cy près, decreed that henceforth Andover Theological Seminary should forever be relieved of subscription to its creed and that "hereafter no professor should ever be called into question because of inconsistency with the creedal requirements of its Constitution and Statutes." (Pierce, 1946)

When we consider the history of faith, it seems almost axiomatic that over time institutions tend to liberalize and apostatize. There is at work in the universe of institutions a law of entropy. Organizations begin with great heat and intensity. But over time this fire cools, and the intensity eventually dissipates until the school, church, or ministry completely detaches itself from its founding vision and purpose. (Beates, 1994)

Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, as it came to be called following the merger of the Congregationalist and a Baptist one, has gone on to survive under the auspices of Yale University.

Andover Newton had been confronted by declining enrollment, substantial recurring budget deficits and deferred maintenance at its campus outside Boston when it decided to explore an affiliation with Yale in 2015. It formally announced affiliation plans in in 2016, beginning the process of relocating to Yale’s campus in New Haven, Conn. The two institutions have been moving forward since then, with a visiting arrangement bringing some Andover Newton faculty, staff and students to Yale in the 2016-17 academic year. (Seltzer, 2017)

As for the Unitarians and the Congregationalists, some of their spiritual heirs have forged a partnership. For instance, the United Church of Christ, formed in part from Congregationalist churches, and the Unitarian Universalist Association produced together an excellent sex education curriculum called Our Whole Lives. Without involving specific religious beliefs, it provides thoughtful and thorough opportunities for children and teenagers to learn about the biology and emotions around sex, as well as the perils and the need for consent. Without quite a lot of theological revision and new thinking this would not have been possible.

Controversies can serve to forge identities, but division also bears a cost in relationships and resources. Through meaningful cooperation, old enemies can become friends, and beautiful things can happen. I appreciate the struggle of the early Unitarians in the United States, as well as the efforts of Unitarians, Universalists, Congregationalists, and others since that time to pursue united action for the benefit of others. May we find a way to be who we are without demanding that others be like us for there to be progress, justice, and peace.


Beates, M. (1994, April 1). Drifting into Heresy. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/drifting-into-heresy/

Buehrens, J. A. (2011). Universalists and Unitarians in America: A people's history. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Campbell, A. (n.d.). The Christian System: In Reference to the Union of Christians, and a Restoration of Primitive Christianity, as Plead in the Current Movement (2nd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Company.

Johnson, J. (2010, February 16). Does the nacc have a future? Retrieved November 04, 2020, from http://www.seejenwrite.com/does-the-nacc-have-a-future/

National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. About Membership. Retrieved November 04, 2020, from https://www.naccc.org/about-membership.html
Pierce, R. D. (1946). The legal aspects of the Andover Creed. Church History, 15(1), 28–47.

Seltzer, R. (2017). Andover Newton Finalizes Plan to Move to Yale. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/07/21/andover-newton-finalizes-plan-move-yale

The Parkway Church. (2019, June 12). The Evangelical Drift. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.theparkwaychurch.com/blog/the-evangelical-drift

Wilbur, J. B. (1925). Our Unitarian Heritage: An Introduction to the History of the Unitarian Movement. Boston, MA: Beacon press.

Channing, W. E. (n.d.). Sermon Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jared Sparks, to the Pastoral Care of the First Independent Church in Baltimore, May 5, 1819. Retrieved November 04, 2020, from https://www.orlandouu.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/UNITARIAN-CHRISTIANITY-UUHS.pdf

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Ethan Allen vs Hell

A lot of the memories I have from my time at Harding University in the late 90s are fairly mundane. Among them is the time that a professor explained to the class why it was that hell is endless. This particular university identifies with the a cappella Church of Christ tradition, and despite their claim to going back to the New Testament alone for their doctrine, most of what they say is just poor retreads of stale arguments from Western Christian theology. And so, it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Christian theology that my class learned that day that because God is infinite, any sin against him has an infinite quality about it, and therefore the punishment is infinite.

Ethan Allen (the hero of the American Revolution, not the furniture chain) took issue with concept in his 1784 book, 'Reason, the Only Oracle of Man.'

We may for certain conclude, that such a punishment will never have the divine approbation, or be inflicted on any intelligent being or beings in the infinitude of the government of God. For an endless punishment defeats the end of its institution, which in all wise and good governments is as well to reclaim offenders, as to be examples to others.... (McKanan, 2017)

The punishment conceived of in Western Christendom since the Middle Ages is entirely pointless, in that suffering is considered an end in and of itself. There is no aim to correct someone. The only object is maximum anguish that never ends. Yet, we're supposed to believe that this God loves us.

An aspect of this endless hell narrative that doesn't get much play any more is that the 'saved' in heaven have their rejoicing enhanced by the sufferings of the damned. Allen didn't let this pass unchallenged in his book either. 

But we are told that the eternal damnation of a part of mankind greatly augments the happiness of the elect, who are represented as being vastly the less numerous, (a diabolical temper of mind in the elect). (McKAnan, 2017)

It would indeed be a 'diabolical temper of mind' to enjoy witnessing the torment of others. I find it depressing that people thought this, and that some likely still do. When I was growing up what little I heard about hell included the thought that people in heaven wouldn't see it. That's what I also taught in my earliest days as an evangelical preacher, because it only made sense that it wouldn't be heaven if you could hear the cries of the damned. Theologian N.T. Wright also rejects the idea, putting it in terms reminiscent of some of C.S. Lewis' writing.

My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal. (Wright, 2018)

In other words, somehow people are so capable of distancing themselves from all that is good that they degenerate into ex-humans, whatever that's supposed to be. It is some pretty speculation, but that's all it is, having no basis that I can see in the texts that compose the Bible.

It is with good reason that Unitarian Universalists have moved beyond worrying about an afterlife. There is no verifiable evidence that such exists, and if it does, we have no way of knowing what it's really like other than dying and finding out for ourselves (or not, assuming that's the complete end of consciousness and self). The same can be said of large swaths of religious beliefs, including any doctrines about deities, demons, and ghosts. There are more important matters to deal with in the here and now, and to me, any religious practice that doesn't contribute to our existence in this world really doesn't seem worth the time.


McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Wright, N. T. (2018). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Plausibility of Arianism From a New Testament Perspective

The Holy Trinity Marcelo Coffermans (1560)
What if the Arians were right about New Testament teaching on the nature of God? It's come to my attention that I might have been wrong about the meaning of John 1 for many, many years now. Basically, ever since I first read it, which was likely in my early teens. 

Here are the opening verses in the familiar language of the King James Version:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

This has always been very straightforward to me. John 1:1 encapsulates a part of the doctrine of the trinity. Based solely on this we would come up with a form of binatarianism. For the full trinity in which the Holy Spirit is co-equal with the Father and the Son, other non-Johannine passages need to be brought it. I've long held that in order to lose the trinity, the canonical New Testament would have to be altered, removing at least John, Colossians, and Philippians, and radically re-interpreting other passages like the 'Great Commission' at the end of Matthew. While those others would still have to be dealt with, what if the writer of John never intended anything resembling a trinitarian view?

Here's how the New World Translation used by the Jehovah's Witnesses renders it.

1 In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a god. 
2 This one was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.What has come into existence 
4 by means of him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light is shining in the darkness, but the darkness has not overpowered it.

In my undergraduate ministry studies the professors, including those well familiar with the Koine Greek of the New Testament, derided the New World Translation, and usually pointed to this passage as evidence of its flaws. Although I'm no Greek scholar, what I've understood from those better informed than me is that the absence of a definite article in some places does not mean that an indefinite article is therefore appropriate. Superficially, that makes sense. Something new came to light recently for me that is causing me to question that conclusion.

1 In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god;
2 This one was present with God in the origin.
3 All things came to be through him, and without him came to be not a single thing that has come to be.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not conquer it.
(Hart, 2017)

David Bentley Hart's translation of the New Testament brought the surprise above to me, and fortunately he included fairly extensive explanations for his translation decisions in the footnotes and in a postscript. What follows are parts of that postscript, with my commentary. 

The average reader would never guess that, in the fourth century, those same verses were employed by all the parties in the Trinitarian debates in support of very disparate positions, or that Arians and Eunomians and other opponents of the Nicene settlement interpreted them as evidence against the coequality of God the Father and the divine Son. (Hart, 2017)

It's often not understood by rank-and-file Christians in our times that the core doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly regarding the nature of God and Christ, the afterlife, and bodily resurrection were not always a given. The theology developed in multiple streams in the first few centuries after the time of Jesus. Some were completely at odds with the others, while others varied in details of differing degrees of significance. The consensus around what constituted the canon was generally there, but the interpretations were far from uniform. Passages we take for granted to mean one thing today were understood completely differently by some in those times. In the Ecumenical Councils the church sought, with imperial pressure, to find common ground and establish some uniformity of belief. The debates were high stakes and intense.

The truth is that, in Greek, and in the context of late antique Hellenistic metaphysics, the language of the Gospel's prologue is nowhere near so lucid and unequivocal as the translations make it seem. For one thing, the term logos really had, by the time the Gospel was written, acquired a metaphysical significance that "word" cannot possibly convey; and in places like Alexandria it had acquired a very particular religious significance as well. For the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo, for instance, it referred to a kind of "secondary divinity," a mediating principle standing between God the Most High and creation. In late antiquity it was assumed widely, in pagan, Jewish, and Christian circles that God in his full transcendence did not come into direct contact with the world of limited and mutable things, and so had expressed himself in a subordinate and economically "reduced" form "through whom" (δι αὐτοΰ [di autou]) he created and governed the world. It was this Logos that many Jews and Christians believed to be the subject of all the divine theophanies of Hebrew scripture, Many of the early Christian apologists thought of God's Logos as having been generated just prior to creation, in order to act as God's artisan of, and archregent in, the created order. (Hart, 2017)

Anyone who has ever tried to translate from a foreign language using only a dictionary knows that words carry a lot of baggage. You can't simply translate word-for-word and expect it to make sense. You have to know about the context in which the language exists, and be familiar with its idiomatic expressions. For example, if I were to say to a Brazilian in Portuguese that they're barking up the wrong tree, they'd think I was nuts. That phrase makes no sense in that language. Another risk is the double entendre, such as when in The World Is Not Enough, while in bed with Dr Christmas Jones, Bond tells her 'I thought Christmas only comes once a year.' An English-speaking teenager would snicker about it while someone learning English might struggle to get the joke. 

With that in mind, it shouldn't seem strange that 'logos' ('word') would have some connotations around the time it was written that have been lost in translation with time. In this case, the sense of the word as used then could mean something quite dramatic for theology. While the debate took place and the Trinitarians won the day, meaning that they were able to overcome the subtleties of the language with their arguments, the Arian position seems somewhat stronger to me in this new light.

Moreover, the Greek of John's prologue may reflect what was, at the time of its composition, a standard semantic distinction between the articular and inarticular, (or arthrous and anarthrous) forms of the word theos: ὁ θεὸς (o theos) (as in πρὸς τὸν θεόν [pros ton theon], where the accusative form of article and non follow the proposition), was generally used to refer to God in the fullest and most proper sense: God Most High, the transcendent One; the latter, however, theos (as in καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος [kai theos ēn o logos]) could be used of any divine being, however finite: a god or derivative divine agency, say, or even a divinized mortal. Ad so early theologians differed greatly in their interpretation of that very small but very significantly absent monosyllable. (Hart, 2017)

These are nitty-gritty details that could make a big difference. Take a look at how John 1:18 compares, in the light of this new information.

18 No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (KJV) 
18 No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side is the one who has explained Him. (NWT) 
18 No one has ever seen God; the one who is uniquely god, who is in the Father's breast, that one has declared him. (Hart, 2017)

I mentioned above that other parts of the New Testament would need to be reconciled for this view of Christ to work, but I don't think it really should be that difficult. 

Colossians 1:15-16

15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:
16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. (KJV) 
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 
16 because by means of him all other things were created in the heavens and on the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All other things have been created through him and for him.  (NWT)  
15 Who is the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, 
16 Because in him were created all things in the heavens and on earth, the visible as well as the invisible (whether Thrones or Lordships or Archons or Powers); all things were created through him and for him. (Hart, 2017) 

Here I see no real adaptation required to confirm with this alternative perspective on John 1 and the nature of God. Jesus was the 'image of the invisible God,' and it was by means of this 'firstborn of all creation' (or 'of every creature') that the rest of the cosmos was brought into order, if this reading is correct. In fact, 

Philippians 2:5-8

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (KJV)

5 Keep this mental attitude in you that was also in Christ Jesus,
6 who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God.
7 No, but he emptied himself and took a slave’s form and became human.
8 More than that, when he came as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, yes, death on a torture stake. (NWT)   
5 Be of that mind in yourselves that was also in the Anointed One Jesus, 
6 Who, subsisting in God's form, did not deem being on equal terms with God a thing to be grasped, 
7 But instead emptied himself, taking a slave's form, coming to be in a likeness of human beings; and, being found as a human being in shape, 
8 He reduced himself, becoming obedient all the way to death, and a death by a cross. (Hart, 2017)

Here we have the verses describing Christ Jesus emptying himself to serve humankind. This can fit within an Arian view either directly, by affirming that the only-begotten, firstborn of all creation did this emptying to be born of Mary, or else from an Adoptionist perspective. With the latter solution one possibility is to say that the divine son of God united with the man Jesus at his baptism by John, was confirmed through miracles and the transfiguration, and then declared to be so through his resurrection. 

While this is all academic, reflecting no observable realities and having little bearing on the thoroughly-established Trinitarianism of most Christianity today, it does point to a different path that the religion could have taken, raises questions about why that didn't happen despite the evidence, and perhaps helps shed some light on the meaning of other parts of the New Testament. It also should, I would hope, at least open some room for forbearance and patience among contemporary Christians among themselves on this topic. Although I understand full well how heated the question of a deity's nature can be among theists, there is at least room for difference here, as I see it.


Hart, D. B. (2017). The New Testament: A Translation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures Copyright © 2020 Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Matthew's Social Mandate

Often I’ve heard the Luke described as the ‘Gospel of Social Justice.’ Based on the recurring themes found there, I think it’s an apt description. At the same time, I think there is definitely something to be said for the Gospel of Matthew in this regard as well. Although I won’t go in depth here, I’d like to share something I’ve noticed about the structure of the book.

Let’s start with the ‘Sermon on the Mount' found in Matthew 5:1-12*

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  


In this sermon Jesus lays out his vision for the reign of Yahweh. It’s all promises, but no real program. Jesus is saying that good things will come to the salt of the earth folks, but he provides no step-by-step explanation for how these things will occur. It is simply assumed, I believe, that God will intervene.

Note that from verses 1-10 it’s all about ‘they.’ From 11 on it switches to ‘you’ (plural). Read in a certain light, the first set of verses could be a call to action. The ‘poor in spirit’ bit evokes a cowering beggar (Hart, 2017). The verse about mourning seems an exception, in that I can’t imagine people seeking a reason to mourn, and I haven’t seen anything indicating that the word indicates something else. This is a condition that happens to someone against their will.

The Sermon on the Mount can be considered a call to goodness and an assurance of reward for faithfulness. For more on that, let’s fast forward all the way to Matthew 25:31-46 (skipping quite a bit because, as I indicated, this won’t be comprehensive).

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Once many years ago I preached on this at a church retreat. I had a pretty good cadence going in that sermon, and I emphasized that by taking care of others we were serving God. Then, right of the bat during Q & A after I spoke, one knucklehead spent a full five minutes ‘correcting’ me with the evangelical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. That was not what my message was about, and certainly can’t be found in this passage from Matthew. I seems to terrify some evangelicals to think that they might be expected to be compassionate, caring human beings. Their faith is a matter of head knowledge, not the condition of their inner being. I think that for many sensitive souls this has to do with being honest and knowing that they (like everyone) falls short. For others, it’s about having fire insurance against their selfishness and cruelty.

The writer of Matthew closes out his book in chapter 28 with words that have come to shape the baptismal tradition of Christianity through the ages. As I noted recently, the Roman Catholic Church is still fussing over it, invalidating baptisms that don’t match their favored wording.

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

For evangelicalism this mandate has been reduced to a glorified multi-level marketing scheme. Become a disciple, then go out and make disciples, who in turn with themselves go out and make disciples. It’s all about growing numbers. The point being missed here is that, per everything that came before this in the Gospel of Matthew, discipleship isn’t about going an merely making coverts. It’s about changing the world for the better. It’s feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving shelter to the homeless. It’s looking after our human siblings. This requires profound social change that begins in the heart. Matthew would have the disciples enact the justice and peace of God on earth, looking after those oppressed and on the margins, and lifting them up. 

And yet, so many Christians today reject the path of peace and justice.

Consider the following from the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. 

People generally are ignorant of the UDHR, and Christians in the United States would likely oppose it if they knew about it, crying that it’s an endorsement of ‘socialism’ and ‘one world government.’ However, I argue that seeking to make real what is described in the UDHR is the modern translation of that ‘disciples of all nations,’ reign of God vision. Now, instead, it’s a commonwealth of humanity that we should be seeking, with pluralism, multiculturalism, and unity in our shared human condition. 

It’s been said many times that his declaration ‘failed.’ In truth, the nations have fallen well short of its lofty goals, and some openly flout it despite being signatories to it. Still, that in no way invalidates the vision, and instead should stir us up to promote this vision all the more. As a matter of fact, notice how the commitment is phrased in the portion I quoted above: ‘every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education.’ 

So what if Russia and China are on the United Nations Human Rights Council? Just because individuals and institutions fail to embrace hope doesn’t mean that everyone should. For this world to be better, some hardy souls are going to always have to be willing to be in the vanguard, calling for what is truest and best for all.


Hart, D. B. (2017). The New Testament: A Translation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.