Christian Liberty and Promise
(One Wesleyan's Perspective)
And with a special reference in Appendix I to slavery, abortion, divorce, the status of women and homosexuality.
by Philip McPherson Rudisill
(a Wesleyan Christian)
November 18, 2002
and last edited on 5/21/2021.
One of the more startling teachings of the Christian faith is the moral and loving connotation of its principles, as opposed to the (rarely excepted) materialism of the Jewish context (external holiness) from which the Christian faith arose. We see this in several areas: Jesus' refusal to limit his aid to his Jewish wards,* ** which limitation was required by the rules of Jewish materialism, e.g., a prohibition on work on the Sabbath; and Paul's outright deprecation of that same materialism (such as circumcision).
* See Matthew 8:5-13 where Jesus heals the sick servant of a Roman Centurion.
** I am taken with the apparent, but never explicitly expressed, role of Jesus, namely that he is the king of the Jews incognito, as it were. Consistent with this thesis he roams about helping his fellow Jews in whatever way he can. The epitome of this help is his willingness (via no resistance) to take the place of Barabbas on the executioner's cross and to die while giving comfort to thieves who were very much of the ilk of his own betrayer, Judas, whom he deliberately had allowed into his circle of disciples, perhaps in order to make the point: no willing Jew may be excluded.***
*** Continuing this for a moment more, what then alienated Jesus from so many of his fellow Jews, and especially from the leaders and those who were able to consider things more objectively, was his refusal to love the Jews because they were Jews, but rather only because they were people, i.e., while he accepted his charge as savior of the sons of Israel/Jacob, he kept in mind that he was doing what he did as savior of the sons/children of Adam. This was simply unacceptable to the leadership of the Jews for rather obvious reasons. A clue is given in the fact that the gentiles, i.e., the Roman governor Pilate, alone were the ones to see clearly enough to denominate him: King of the Jews (at his execution).
In the following I seek to make the logic of this scheme plain and concise.
1. Liberty From Scriptural Law Per Paul
It is the clear teaching of Paul, the universally recognized apostle to the gentiles (and personally called by the Risen Lord Jesus and accepted by the Apostles), that if anyone refrain from (or engage in) some activity solely because he thinks it is prohibited (or required) by scriptural law, then that man is a Jew (in a technical sense) and must conform to the entire law of scripture.* Accordingly if a Christian refuses to refuses to eat certain foods, for example, or to travel on a certain day solely because of what seems to be a scriptural injunction against such, then that Christian (if a man) must send for a Rabbi and seek ritual circumcision, etc., (and this per Galatians generally and also Romans 14 and other passages).**
* The original context was an attempt by some Jewish Christians to require all Christians (including gentiles) to be circumcised in order to be pleasing to God (see Acts 15).
** According to Immanuel Kant, Christianity is the only moral religion in the history of the world. What he means is that the Christian is not subject to any external dictation (by priest, church or scripture), for the moral law (essentially the love of neighbor, and with all people counted as neighbors) is sufficient for all actions which are pleasing to God (along with the requirement that all individuals are expected to do all that they can on their own before anticipating any aid from God). See Kant's Religion Within The Bounds Of Sheer Reason, and especially the General Remarks to Part 1, Paragraph 8.4, beginning on or near page 53.
2. Liberty Per Jesus
This teaching is thoroughly consistent with the characterization of the God-pleasing person on the part of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 7:12), namely: that we are to treat our neighbor as we would want to be treated by that neighbor, and not as Paul or Jesus or even God might want, but as each of us would want.*
* It is clear from the Christian scriptures that such conduct of loving one's neighbor is precisely what Paul and Jesus and God want from all Christians. And see Paul's assertion of this freedom in Romans 14:4. Furthermore, Jesus made it plain per Luke 10:25-37 that the term "neighbor" actually included all people.
3. Human Knowledge Of Right And Wrong Equal To That Of God
Further evidence of the human's capacity to make moral judgments* is given in Genesis 3:22 where God Himself observes that the human is equal to God with regard to the understanding of good and evil.** And this is confirmed by the Lord Jesus in Luke 12:13-15 concerning a dispute between two brothers.
* However, there is doubt as to whether we also possessed the capacity to conform to the requirements of the Golden Rule. This is treated in No. 5 below.
** It is worth noting that two people might disagree with regard to the understanding of the effects of some action, but need not for that reason be thought to differ with regard to the principle of action, i.e., in this case the sincere intention to love their neighbor (see Romans 14:14-23). The presumption here is that the two would unify their actions, per the same Golden Rule, once they had unified their grasp of causes, i.e., in the area of understanding/science, which is a function of experience and experimentation, e.g., in the diagnosis of illness and dispensing of medicine. See especially Appendix I below.
4. Paul's Assumptions And Abbreviations
It is only an apparent conflict with this principle that Paul often makes a (Golden-Rule-based) derivation of action which is so plain to him and to his readers that he dispenses with the logic, and simply pronounces the action as though it were original, e.g., murderers have no place in the kingdom of God. But this is merely brevity, for he could supply the actual derivation upon demand at any time, e.g., would you want someone to murder you or someone you love? etc. Thus the universality of the Lord's requirement in Matthew 7:12 is thoroughly honored by Paul, i.e., each person must make his own derivation (from the Golden Rule) and indeed in good conscience (Romans 2:14-16, and 14:22).*
* Paul's derivation of his condemnation of same-sex sex as well as women and men flaunting their hair is cultural and no longer applicable. It was assumed that such people could not have the mark of acceptability to God, namely a loving heart, but instead were rebellious, i.e., deliberately acting unnaturally, just as left-handed people were once considered rebellious. See the Appendix I below for an extended discussion of this.
5. Coming To Love One's Neighbor Naturally
Now (as an avowed Wesleyan) I assert (and here I think I remain in the company of Paul) that even though we have this divinely asserted capacity to judge good and evil (at least with regard to our own intentions), we do not naturally have the capacity to conform to our own derived and self-demanded actions of love cheerfully and willingly (for a cost is involved). But since it is impossible to please God (or anyone else for that matter) with a reluctant heart, and since the love-with-abandon that characterizes, and is required by, the Spirit of Christ (to be pleasing to God) cannot arise naturally, we would be lost except for the fact that Christ died for us as sinners. For if we will simply believe that God loves us as he showed us with Jesus taking the place of Barabbas, (where "Barabbas" = x = any sinner = myself) and be willing voluntarily to open ourselves to his grace (as did Abraham, our spiritual father and model) and love as best we can on our own, then God will provide us (though perhaps only gradually) with the required, eager and willing heart, and we will actually become new creatures, not only in mind, but also in the flesh, such that we will find it progressively easier to love all persons as we love ourselves, i.e., in conformity with the requirements of the Christian faith; that is: we shall begin to love naturally as is required in order to please God.*
* For John Wesley this transformation toward and into perfection in love is precisely what is promised in the Gospel and so, according to him, our own experience here, i.e., growing in love, is an even greater proof of the validity of the Gospels than all that tradition and scholarship can provide us. See also Wesleyan theology, presented very briefly.
6. Coming To Love God Naturally
And finally (to cap what essentially, I think, can be denominated a Wesleyan/Franciscan edifice of faith and love) we can easily understand that once we find that we are in fact becoming new creatures, i.e., as we progress toward this greater and easier love (which is called sanctification*), we will find ourselves also loving God in responsive conformity with the first of the Two Great Commandments, but now in true freedom and God-induced spontaneity; loving God as the one who first loved us, and indeed who pursues us down the byways of our lives and who never wants to let us go; and whereby then we are finally able to
* Complete sanctification/holiness is the promise of the Gospels according to Wesleyan and other Christians and means a state where evil and selfish and sinful thoughts never even arise again. It is promised to occur at some point (and maybe only a few moments) before death. It is upon complete sanctification that a person becomes fit to commune and live in heaven with God forever.
** See also Charles Wesley's hymn "And Can It Be" which commemorates his conversion, and describes my own.
For Paul there is a single law for the gentile Christian (Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:14) and that is the law of love. There is an implied condition here and that is to utilize ones best understanding as to what is helpful and hurtful to the human condition in applying the principle of love. This is what Paul did and this is what he expected the Christian to do. Thus we can share the same principle and spirit of love with Paul and still vary from him according to our respective and sincere understanding of what is hurtful and healthy.
Let us now examine some specific situations where Pauls understanding may vary from our own and where as a result our actions also vary today from his in his time.
At the time of Paul, and even until the mid 19th Century, there was no way to distinguish homosexuals from heterosexuals, for these terms did not yet exist. All people were assumed to be straight and this meant that such a term as straight was superfluous with respect to sexuality, somewhat like speaking of a round circle or an four-sided square. For Paul, therefore (and especially as a Jew of that time), since all people were just assumed to be straight by nature, and so where people were simply people, sex with people of the same sex would have been considered by him as unnatural and, accordingly, a rebellion against nature and against Gods intention in creation.*
* This is not to say that because something is natural it is also moral and acceptable to the Christian. For more on this see Appendix II.
In a similar vein, Immanuel Kant, prominent scientist and philosopher, and expressing the science of the 1700s, counted all humans as naturally right-handed, and the apparent exceptions (left-handers) were like cross-eyed people who just needed treatment (see Regions, page 40, and also Gods Left Hand Joke.) Accordingly then, just as all people were counted as attracted naturally to the opposite sex at that time, all people were considered as naturally attracted to their right hand. Thus the exceptions would be considered either unnatural and rebellious with respect to ones sexual desires or as sick (and maybe also as rebellious) with respect to ones hand desires.* It is understandable, therefore, that Paul would denounce same-sex sexual activity, even as we would likely have done at that time and with that understanding. And it would be likely, though not certain, that Paul would have also disapproved of left-handers.
* The Latin word for "left" is the root of the English word "sinister."
Today Paul would know that homosexuals exist, i.e., people who are naturally attracted to people of their own sex, and where same-sex attraction would not be a rebellion or something unnatural at all, certainly no more so than preferring ones left hand in writing. Accordingly he would agree with us that the homosexual needs salvation as a person just like anyone else, but not as a homosexual.
Paul, as most of the world to even very recent times, will have considered women to be weaker than men mentally and emotionally and thus needing a male shepherd to guide them through life for their own good and for the common good. Accordingly Paul instructed women to be obedient to their husbands and for husbands to love and care for their wives much as the women were to guide and care for the children. Indeed the women, according to Paul (or one of his close followers writing in his name), were not to be active in church discussions and were to keep their hair covered and follow the leadership of men. Paul utilized the analogy of Christ being the head of man and man being the head of woman.
Today, while there may very well be a complementary makeup between men and women, nevertheless women are considered to be equal to men before God and the law, and are not under the supervision and guardianship of men. And under no circumstance may a woman be forced to act against her will. Instead of Paul's Christ-rules-the-man-and-man-rules-the-woman analogy, the analogy for us today might better be expressed as a trinity of equal spirits, the two members of a marriage joined with the spirit of Jesus.
The economic system in Pauls day called for slaves. Although Paul will most certainly not have approved of slavery, nevertheless, since he considered the return of Christ to be imminent (1 Thessalonians 4:17), he did not work for the liberation of slaves, but rather for immediate conversion. Generally he called on people to remain in whatever condition they were in when called to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:24). On one occasion he even encouraged an escaped slave to return to his master (Philemon). Specifically he called on Christian slaves to serve their masters well and with love, and also called on Christian masters to be good to their slaves, i.e., all in accordance with the law of love.
Today we have a different take on the timing of the return of Christ and we do condemn slavery. And Paul would most certainly be one with us in this regard now.
In a more humorous vein, Paul and most people in antiquity will most likely have thought that the earth were flat and that the sky were an upside down metallic bowl (the firmament or "vault") with a spectacular light show and, accordingly, would have warned people going on long voyages, and pray for them, that they not come to the edge of the earth and fall off.
Today we know this was merely the way people thought and understood at that time, the science of that time. And while we pray for people who are making voyages, we no longer worry about them falling off the edge of the earth.
The modern Christian is one with St. Paul in principle and spirit (the rule of love) and differs only in the understanding of what is medicine and poison, helpful and hurtful. In this way there is a complete unity of Paul and the modern Christian.
Good and Evil are a function of the principle of action and not the understanding.
To accentuate this point we will consider the case of Don Quixote. This man is insane and thinks that a windmill is a evil giant in disguise. Consistent with his principle of helping people and with his (insane) understanding of the evil giant in disguise, he risks his own life in attacking the windmill. In his judgement (per Romans 14:4) the Don will be judged per his understanding, and will not be held accountable for any intention to injure the property of another. Accordingly we can see that we are one in principle with the good Don with regard to doing good, and vary only in our understanding of windmills and evil giants. And it points out again that good and evil are independent of a person's sanity, and judgements of what is morally right are always based upon a person's sincere understanding of what is hurtful and what is helpful.
Two Additional Matters
St. Paul, modifying slightly the words of Jesus, permitted divorce, but not remarriage (1 Corinthians 7). Today this seems extreme to many Christians who feel that many people get married before they are ready and before they have fully comprehended the personality of the other partner and the challenges in the marriage. These Christians want to take this into consideration and permit a "second chance." And at the same time, it is generally understood that the purpose of marriage is to unify two persons into a single unit such that all talents are shared without hesitation. Divorce is detrimental to this purpose and so some Christians are strictly against divorce and remarriage. Here again Christians can be on different sides of the debate and with all following a single principle of action (love) and possessing different understanding of what is best for people.
As a final note we might consider the subject of abortion. Here again there can be a unity of principle and a divergence of understanding. When does the soul enter into or become a human? Is it when the sperm and egg unite? or is with the first breath of air into the lungs? of upon consciousness? I don't know and I think it is still undecided and unknown at this date. Accordingly two different Christians here can act in terms of the same principle of universal love and yet with different understandings and come to different conclusions with respect to the rank of a fetus and to abortion.
I am much taken by the Christian fundamentalist movie Audacity where a young Christian man seeks to overcome his shyness and to approach homosexuals with a warning that their gay activity is a violation of a command of God, and that if they continue in this way and do not repent, they are certainly headed to an eternal hell. And his motivation seems to be a sincere love for these homosexuals and for all people.
Since it is now accepted that the homosexual orientation is a natural phenomenon, and since, according to the premise in the movie, it is also certain that homosexual activity is an affront to God, the movie seeks to show that many immoral actions are also natural, and consequently the fact that something is natural does not make it acceptable for the Christian. Such acts as adultery and fornication and cheating and even murder might be considered natural, but this does not make them acceptable.
I would question all of this in the following way: The acceptability and morality of any action for the (gentile) Christian is whether it is compatible with the principle of universal neighborly and brotherly love.* Stealing and murder and cheating are obviously violations of this principle. The same holds for adultery. As concerns fornication (sex apart from marriage) the principle of love will not permit a person to have sexual relations apart from marriage because that means the utilization of another person as a mere means to ones own personal pleasure, and that is demeaning and dehumanizing.**
* What is called for by the principle of love is required of the Christian; what is indifferent to the principle is permitted; and what violates the principle is prohibited.
** And incidentally, chastity apart from marriage is a means of Christian self discipline and evidence of ones capacity to honor marriage and other vows (see also Acts 15). And this would also ensue from the principle of universal love.
The movie is quite correct in dispensing with the justification of naturalness for acceptable actions.* The proper approach is the application of the principle and spirit of love according to ones sincere understanding of what is helpful to the human condition. And so the conscientious Christian will avoid such activities as murder and cheating and fornication and lying, etc., but not because they are forbidden by God or Paul, but because such is forbidden by the spirit of neighborly and fraternal love, the spirit which characterises and guides the actions of the Christian. And likewise if two people of the same sex love each other, we now realize that they should be permitted to marry just as two people of the opposite sex can do, for there is nothing wrong with homosexuality per se, at least not any more than with left-handedness.**
* The fact that a homosexual orientation is natural simply means that it is not undertaken as a rebellion against the law of God. St. Augustine in his Confessions reported how he (at about the age of 16) and his buddies stole pears from a neighbor even though he had better pears growing at home. This theft was undertaken in explicit and deliberate defiance of the law and out of pride, i.e., for Augustine to look good in the eyes of his friends. I myself and a friend at about the same age undertook the same sort of violation of law. In both cases we are dealing with rebellion, i.e., violations of law for the sake of violations, a flaunting of the law, and looking good (bold) in the eyes of the other instead of God.
** I believe that God may have given us the left-hander as a natural "quirk" in order that we might eventually recognize the homosexual as a natural (and helpful) "queer." See "God's Left-hand Joke."
Per Romans 14 (and especially verse 4) we can expect the sincere young fundamentalist of this movie and any sincere Christian homosexuals to end up in the same heaven. For it is sincerity alone that counts with Christ, and thus with God.
An excellent and short description of how a young Christian comes to reconcile her faith and her "forbidden" love can be found here in a description of her book: When Eve and Eve Bit The Apple.
Author contact: pmr#$kantwesley.com, replacing #$ with @