Issues Facing Missions Today 62: From Cairo to Cape Town—Scriptural Authority versus Western Theology
When the Church becomes a mirror of the culture, it becomes irrelevant to the culture. Its youth drift away, its numbers decline. It throws its angelic visitors and own daughters out to the horde of Sodom knocking at its door. When the Scriptures are used in defense of the culture, its words are co-opted by the culture and its message suppressed. It is no longer the Spirit-inspired Word of God but becomes words in the mouths of other spirits.
A Tale of One Culture in Two Centuries: The Cases of Slavery and Homosexuality in the West
One still finds today people who try to link the Church’s use of Scripture to defend slavery in the West in the 19th century to the Church’s use of Scripture to oppose homosexuality in the 20th/21st century. The assumption, of course, is a liberation hermeneutic (a liberation interpretation) that equates the situation of slaves to other marginalized groups, such as women and homosexuals and transgender people and persons wishing to die or to design their own babies. This is a confusion of categories—otherwise we would find ourselves championing the causes of every marginalized group.
One might even argue, on such a logic, that once the West’s majority affirms homosexuality on the grounds of its pursuit of freedoms, the Church would then have to change its stance and take up the cause of the now marginalized orthodox (an increasingly persecuted minority) who oppose this new teaching. However, the error is not just one of a confusion of categories (putting slavery, women, and homosexuals in the same grouping). It is also a misuse of Scripture. The particular mistake is to use Scripture like a puppet, making it say what you want it to say: people see the puppet’s mouth moving, but the puppeteer is the one talking.
On this matter of the misuse of Scripture, the issues of slavery and homosexuality are related (and not on the issue of liberating the marginalized). In the 19th century, a culture that had slaves and economically depended on them to work the cotton and tobacco fields of the American South, conveniently ‘forgot’ Scripture’s calling the slave-trade a sin. In its interpretation of laws 5-9 of the Ten Commandments, 1 Timothy 1:10 relates the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal’, to slave traders. In its description of God’s judgement on Rome’s economic system, Revelation 18:13 highlights that the slave trade is a trade in ‘human souls’ that God’s judgement will end. To strike at the very mechanism of slave trading is to strike at the institution of slavery itself.
1 Timothy 1:10 also mentions that homosexuality is a sin, relating it to a breaking of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. The Ten Commandments stand for moral topics rather than single issues, and this commandment stands for all sexual immorality, not just adultery. In a Western world that sees things through the lenses of liberation, both a licensing of sexual immorality and an opposition to slavery make sense. But from a Biblical perspective, as in 1 Timothy 1:10 itself, the two issues are distinct. To allow sexual immorality and homosexuality in opposition to what Scripture says is to break the seventh commandment not to commit adultery. To allow people to capture and enslave other people is to break the eighth commandment not to steal.
The West’s chief cultural lens has, for several hundred years, been liberation. It is the value that determines all other values. This explains why mainline denominations that have embraced this culture have searched for ways to remove Scripture’s concrete and clear teaching from the discussion. Some have turned to the numerous, conflicting options to reinterpret Biblical passages addressing homosexuality: any interpretation will do other than the one that the Church has affirmed for 2000 years. Others have acknowledged that Scripture says what it does but have tried to override these texts with the more abstract values of liberation and love—values that can be shaped into any sort of teaching one wishes. (For example, for one person, giving a mother the right to abort her child is to give her freedom to choose, and to give her this freedom is how to love her; for another person, killing your own children is hardly loving and not a freedom the unborn child can be expected to embrace. Vague values are little more than wax noses in the hands of whoever is shaping them.)
Thus, it should be no surprise that, when the Anglican Bishops of the Global South met this past week in Cairo, they did not sign up to the West’s cultural interpretation—or misinterpretation—of Scripture. They rejected the cultural ‘West’s’ mainline denominations’ rejection of Scriptural authority, be they in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, or South Africa. For the Anglican Bishops of the Global South, Scripture stands first, not some culture’s primary value over against Scripture or misinterpretation of Scripture. In Scripture, liberation is first and foremost liberation from idolatry (Egyptian bondage) and sin (Babylonian exile), and love is first and foremost the love of God by obeying His commandments (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). It is no use separating love of God from obeying His commandments (cf. John 14:15, 23). Nor it is any use making ‘liberation’ a tool for redefining Biblical sexuality over against what Scripture actually teaches.
The Saga of South Africa
South Africa offers an interesting case study in the misuse of Scripture to establish rather than challenge the culture. The Dutch Reformed Church was the actual incubator for Apartheid in South Africa already in the 1800s. Scripture was read in such a way as to support Apartheid, the separation and subjugation of the native races under white, colonial power. Opposition to this teaching was particularly strong in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, but it, too, turned to a particular ‘culture’ in order to articulate its message. In the case of ACSA, the ‘culture’ was a theological cultural wind blowing from the West, the wind of liberation. Liberation theology from the mid-twentieth century in the Americas was a ready tool to oppose Apartheid in South Africa. Rather than the subjugation of non-white races, as in the Apartheid theology, their liberation was championed.
If the Dutch Reformed Church was the instigator of an Apartheid theology and politics in South Africa, it was also a key player in its demise. With mounting international pressure and sanctions in the 1980s and continual opposition to Apartheid from several Christian denominations (including Reformed denominations outside South Africa and the Anglicans inside the country), certain Dutch Reformed theologians began to call for a new epoch (Kairos). The initial call was rightly focussed on a call for Biblical justice. But the developing call for liberation in the culture, which might have appeared to be in agreement with the virtue of justice, easily became something more. The wax nose of liberation served the South African situation rather well to undercut misinterpretations of Scripture and Christianity in the Apartheid culture and to call for justice, but it could be shaped into other things as well.
The borrowed theology from the West of liberation was (to change the metaphor) a lion let out of the cage. What else would it attack? Unchained to Scripture, it quickly gained a taste for other liberations within Western culture. Who can argue against anything when ‘liberation’ is the chief value? Only liberation that takes away someone else’s freedom can be checked; but giving people a license to do whatever they wish in all other cases is clearly the ethic of the day—so much so that enforcing people to participate in others’ liberation is also considered ethical and even a legal necessity. (You will open your bathrooms to any gender. You will bake the cake for a homosexual wedding. You will call a person by the gender pronoun he, she, or it wishes.)
The West has lost the very vocabulary and the ability to articulate any ethic other than assent to individual freedoms—the right to engage in whatever sexual unions people desire, the right to define one’s own gender despite ones sexuality, the right to abort children, the right to design children (eugenics), the right to adopt children into same-sex households—and so forth. We watch the news each week to see what the latest victim is that this unchained liberation devours. This past week, in South Africa, the old champion of liberation during the Apartheid era, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, picked up the cause of assisted suicide. Of course he would. He did so in the midst of a student uprising on college campuses to demand free education and other real or imagined ‘rights’. Of course they would. All this is perfectly logical: liberation as a cause in the culture prowls from village to village, snatching unprotected victims day by day.
So, it was no surprise that the bishop of Soldanha Bay in the Western Cape put forth a motion at the synod in September, 2016 for the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to affirm same sex unions through church blessings. (Over against the canons or laws of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the diocese had already declared that homosexuality is not a sin! The motion was defeated at the synod, but the Archbishop of ACSA has vowed to continue the cause—the cause of liberation is never sated, and the culture cheers it on even in the Church.)
Nor was it a surprise that the once Bible-believing Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa earlier in the month condoned same-sex marriage. (With its congregational Church polity, individual congregations may be able to resist the denomination’s view.) It has exchanged Biblical interpretation for theological application, and the chosen theology to apply is liberation theology. Such views affirm a liberation from the Biblical understanding of marriage itself—people can be sexually united with the Church’s blessing outside marriage—and a liberation from Biblical teaching on sexuality—in particular, the Bible’s teaching on gender and marriage being between biologically male and female persons. For a culture that marinated in Apartheid for so long and that, in the end, used liberation theology to deliver itself, this makes perfect sense. But it is solidly opposed to Scripture and the teaching of the Church from its beginnings when it comes to the issues of sexuality and marriage.
It is also no surprise, then, that the Bishops of the Global South, representing somewhere around 2/3rds of the Anglican Communion throughout the world, rejected the liberation interpretation of sexuality from the West and reaffirmed the historic commitment to Scripture of the Anglican Church in October, 2016. Individually and collectively, they are not so blinded by their cultures that they forever try to bend Scripture with the hurricane winds of liberation to affirm rather than challenge culture. They have not guzzled the wine of liberation to the last drop but have savoured it along with the meat of God’s Holy Word.
There lies the challenge. Every mainline denomination in the West imbibing the sweet wine of freedom from its culture is in free-fall. The Episcopal Church in the USA, having severed itself from Scripture, is sailing at the mercy of every wind of doctrine. Its numbers are half today what they were in the 1960s. The more it looks like culture, the less relevant it is. The Church of Wales has so few ‘participants’ in its services and has so fully embraced the culture (there are always exceptions in a few individual churches, to be sure), that it is an ossified relic of a Church that Once Was. England is facing the same challenge, and that with an Archbishop guiding it who seems to want everyone to sing together rather than sing truth as the ship goes down.
And what of South Africa? Will this country at the tip of the continent where the Church is growing fastest in the world continue to link itself to its Western, colonial past by reading the world through the lens of liberation? And what of the Church? Will it join with the orthodox faith of historic Christianity, affirming the teaching of Scripture and prophetically witnessing in its context in the face of a cultural suicide in the name of liberation? Or will it choose to mirror the culture and become irrelevant?