[editorial comment: the bold are mine, Nathan’s, not Matthew’s. Also, hope you will tune in tomorrow as I talk about the the Germanic captivity of the Lutheran Church and a Message for the Confessional Lutheran Mainstream]
Gollum: Too risky, Too risky. Thieves! They stole It from us. Kill them, kill them, kill them both! Shhh! Quiet! Mustn’t wake them! Mustn’t ruin it now!
Sméagol: But they knows! They knows! They suspects us!
Gollum: What’s it saying, my precious, my love? Is Sméagol losing his nerve?
Sméagol: No! Not! Never! Sméagol hates nasty hobbitses! Sméagol wants to see them… dead!
Gollum: And we will. Sméagol did it once. He can do it again.
Sméagol: It’s ours! Ours! We must get the Precious! We must get It back!
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003 Film)
In her latest book, Shameless, Nadia Bolz-Weber discusses a woman in her congregation she calls “Cindy”. Cindy is a lesbian who was reared in a fundamentalist Pentecostal setting. She was often told how aberrant sexual behavior was offensive to God and was often the result of some form of demon possession. According to Weber’s account, Cindy wanted to be a good Christian and follow God’s commands, but she had a problem. She had strong, romantic feelings for another girl. These feelings felt good and right to Cindy. Juxtaposed with the seemingly arbitrary teachings of her Fundamentalist church, such feelings of being “offensive to God” and “demonic” caused a major rift in her personality. Cindy could not reconcile her strong feelings with the notion that those feelings were wrong simply “because God said so”.
Weber, in this account, maintains that the problem is not Cindy’s desire to engage in sexual relations with someone of the same sex. She is right to pursue these desires. The problem is the teaching. Weber is half right. The problem is the teaching and the problem is two-fold.
The primary error in this kind of “Law” teaching is that it places arbitrary rules on individuals without connecting it to reality. In many of these cases, like Cindy’s, the Christian is never taught why, say homosexuality, is offensive to God and demonic. Indeed, traditional Christians have a very difficult time it seems in describing not only the real dangers of sin, but the benefits of obedience in a reasonable and coherent fashion. Put simply, Cindy was not given a good reason as to why her feelings of homosexuality would, if pursued, lead to a destructive place for her and for all her relationships. Equally, she was not well taught on the joys and benefits of being single or of pursuing motherhood and family life. Instead, she was taught that homosexuality as sin is nothing more than a religious taboo.
The second error in this teaching is that Law is taught without recourse to the Gospel.
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. Matthew 23
This perhaps is the most fatal error. Cindy feared being found out. She knew that if her secret feelings were uncovered, the best she might hope for was a terrifying exorcism ceremony or at worst ostracism from her community. Cindy dare not share these feelings because she knew the last thing she would receive was absolution of her sins in the Gospel.
This kind of false teaching leads to a rift in the personality of the Christian believer because it forces her to hide sin instead of confess and confront the sin. At the same time the answer cannot be to embrace the sin as Weber suggests and deny that something like homosexuality is a sin. The results are the same in both cases: a fractured Christian. On the one hand, the Christian is forced to conceal sin. On the other, she is forced into a schema where the sinful behavior is somehow permissible.
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Isaiah 5
Unfortunately, there is yet another approach among popular Christian teachers that results in this sort of “dissociative Christian”. That angle in teaching is to insist that the Law does not have a positive use. Often this is couched in “speech-act” language that maintains that since God’s word is efficacious, the Law must necessarily “do something”. Since it is clear that the Law cannot empower behavior or affect salvation, it must only act to condemn and convict.
From this presupposition, the argument proceeds from the doctrine of simul justus et peccator largely founded in Romans chapter seven. Here, it is argued, that the Christian is made up of two personalities: the “old man in Adam” and the “new man in Christ”. The Law can only have one effect on the “old man”. This part of the personality cannot and in fact will not learn anything from the preaching of the Law. All “he” can do is be “killed”, that is convicted of “his” sin by the Law. The “new man”, it is argued, since “he” has “the mind of Christ” is in no need of the Law at all.
It is a clever philosophical construct to be sure, but it again leaves the Christian fragmented. The argument places the Christian in the unenviable position of “Cindy”. In reality, she is forced by this teaching to simply live with the sin because a reformation of life is impossible. Her “old man” refuses to change and her “new man” requires no change. Thus, in all three cases – where sin is hidden and the Gospel withheld (Fundamentalism), sin is reinterpreted as good (Weber), or where the Christian is helpless to be freed from the reality of sin – being a Christian means living some version of a dual life.
Most tragically in all of this, the Christian never fully receives the true comfort of the Gospel. Real relief from the pangs of sin cannot be found in concealing it. Comfort cannot be found in redefining sin as something integral to our identity and thus understood to be good. Similarly, genuine refuge is not found in defining the Christian as having no hope and really no need of a reformed life.
This last error is particularly pernicious. A person might feel relieved from the news that they are suffering from a particular mental disorder and that many of his life’s struggles were due to a congenital chemical imbalance. However, that relief will be short lived if it is later learned that the condition is untreatable. To teach the Christian that his sins are forgiven before God in heaven, but that nothing can be or should be done to change that condition here and now is unsustainable. The notion that he is “just a poor, miserable sinner and nothing else” is a false comfort and false gospel.
Furthermore, this teaching is particularly problematic for pastoral care. If the “old man” refuses to learn and the “new man” does not need to learn, then any teaching on morals, ethics, and care for one’s neighbor makes very little sense. The question of, “Pastor, now that I know my sins before God are forgiven, what do I do with my life?” becomes a major challenge. The Pastor cannot walk his parishioner through the Decalogue and its meanings to answer this. According to his theory of “the simul”, this is an exercise in futility. At best, the pastor can only refer the person to their life’s experiences and feelings for guidance. Finding ways to specifically love God and one’s neighbor becomes a mystical, hit and miss experiment.
To summarize, the Christian life is not something akin to Tolkien’s “Gollum” character in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The struggle with sin as described by St. Paul in Romans chapter seven and the doctrine of simul justus et peccator is not a description of a fragmented Christian who conceals sin, embraces sin, or is helpless under the power of sin. Those descriptions are in fact perversions of St. Paul’s teachings and simul justus et peccator.
To be sure, it is understandable why the Fundamentalist culture has trained their parishioners to conceal their sin. They do want Christians to live a life pleasing to God. Nadia Bolz-Weber has great compassion for those struggling with sexuality and wants to help. Those who bifurcate the Christian into the “old man” and “new man” are fearful that any slip into working toward a reformed life will devolve into legalism and self-justification. While these goals are good and godly, these approaches have severe deficiencies. The Christian life is not only about Sanctification. The Christian life is not only about Justification. The Christian life encompasses both doctrines. When Sanctification is absolutized as with the Fundamentalists or when Justification is absolutized as with Weber and with a distorted teaching on “the simul”, the result is the dissociative Christian.
The Christian need not despair that his personality has been fractured by the Gospel. It has not. Indeed, the Gospel gives the Christian hope and courage to face his sin for the first time without fear and without some dissociative scheme in place. The Gospel empowers him to make real strides away from a self-centered existence toward a Christ-oriented life, which means that others in his life are genuinely placed as the priority above his own interests. At last, a genuine reformation of one’s life seems at hand in the Gospel. Certainly, the struggle against sin sometimes seems insurmountable and he is tempted to retreat to the dissociative disorders noted here. However, St. Paul is sure to remind us of the hope we have.
Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7