THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 192
Time to move beyond the legal
The consecration of Mary Glasspool as bishop suffragan in the diocese of Los Angeles this week marks another inevitable step forward in the liberating of Christians from the suffocating legality of the message as conveyed by some Christians. There are many reactions to the consecration - I want to look at two.
The first is the reaction from those Christians for whom homosexuality is deeply sinful and to be resisted at all costs. For some this stems from a version of Christianity that I have known from my youth, when I first met it in a young man who was a radiant and militant Christian. His joy in the Lord and his sense of release from sin was matched only by his complete certainty in his understanding of the message of the bible. This he saw in plain black and white terms. There was sin and there was atonement through the cross. There was salvation bought at the price of the blood of Jesus which satisfied a God of justice who demanded satisfaction before he could show mercy to humanity. The death of Christ 'satisfied' God and so man could now enter into all the rich blessings God had prepared for him.
This gospel enabled my friend to go out to preach that all had sinned and that the blood of Christ had been spilt to pay for our sin. And go out he did! In his radiant certainty of faith he stood on a soap box outside nearby pubs at closing time and preached salvation through the blood of Christ.
Much of what he believed I also believe - though nowadays I would phrase it differently, and I would avoid his theory of the atonement. I believe that we are saved through Christ - but I no longer believe in the idea that the blood of Christ bought off a vengeful God.
Within a few years I found myself in another group of young Christians - all full of the joy of the Spirit, all wanting to express their faith and preach to the sinners round about. In their company I went on an evangelistic mission to the churches roundabout - and on one occasion gave my own testimony. Not many people - if any - came out in response to the altar call at the end of these meetings. But I am sure the Lord used them to help some. He is gracious enough to use all our efforts, however misguided, or egotistical they are.
So what is wrong with such an approach to Christianity? Well, in my opinion, it is simply too legal in its understanding of the deep truth of the atonement - something that is actually beyond any of us fully understanding. None of us can fully plumb the depths of what happened at the cross. What we can do is give thanks to God that through his great mercy he found the way, through Christ, to bring us into the deep relationship that is so evident in those we read of in the New Testament.
What does seem crystal clear to me is that a legal framework for the theory of the cross and the atonement is inadequate for today. It has served its purpose. It may well have been fine when it was first proposed hundreds of years ago. It may have helped many generations of humans who thought in terms of legal relationships. But it won't do for today. Today a legal explanation of what happened at the cross is not only out of place - it is counter productive.
Why is that framework out of place today? It is because whereas it was natural in past centuries for men to think in terms of legal rights and wrongs, nowadays there is a very different need. Correspondingly we need an open mind and a fresh approach to understanding the core of the Christian message.
The legal view of Christianity is counter productive today because it is out of tune with today's thinking. Why is that? It is because in the past hundred years or so the world has changed so radically that all past frameworks of ideas and doctrines need to be re-examined to ensure that they still speak to our mental outlook today. Sin will always be sin, however advanced our technology, but God has done all that is necessary to enable us to accept new life through Christ. Old ways of thinking and explaining what God has done are now seriously hindering the gospel. The legalistic theory of the atonement is outdated and largely irrelevant to today's generation.
Think for a moment of the difference between the world for those in the eighteen hundreds and our population today. Almost every aspect of human life has changed. Transport has utterly changed - now planes fly everywhere and the world has shrunk to a global village. Think of communications - the incredible advances made since the first telephone call across the Atlantic is now being surpassed incredibly quickly by a wholly new interconnectivity (immediate and easy) between people (especially young people) - utterly unimaginable even fifty years ago. And both those revolutions - of transport and communications are set to advance rapidly in the near future.
The computer itself is only at the beginning of its long-term effect on humankind. The next hundred years will see unbelievable advances in its use. Medical knowledge and ability has advanced beyond belief. And in every other field of human activity - think of genetics, or human reproduction - there have been advances that were unbelievable just a few short decades ago,
The rate of advance in all fields has been and is so rapid that we are in danger of not comprehending what is happening to our world - the effect that all these advances will have on societies in future. Already more than fifty per cent of the people of the world live in cities. Life on earth is being transformed in a radical and far reaching way. Any area of our thinking that ignores what is happening around it will ossify and eventually just be put on the history shelf and deemed irrelevant to life as it is now lived.
So what about theology - and our Christian friends who are locked into a legal interpretation of the gospel? Their interpretation of the love of God in Christ produced great results in past centuries. It gave a view of God and of his work of redemption that was credible to those who lived at that time. It is not working today.
That last statement needs qualifying. The legal gospel - God condemning us for our sin and Christ's death on the cross 'buying' peace from God - is still attractive in certain circumstances and to certain audiences in certain conditions. For example - in the big top meetings, with two or three or more thousand people, in a service where powerful emotions are raised. And in smaller meetings where the atmosphere is intense. In places and with people who are weighed down with a sense of their sin. With powerful preachers who are able to manipulate an audience. In such circumstances the old legal gospel of hell fires waiting for those who refuse to accept God can be powerful. And the legal framework of thinking still works to some extent.
Which bring me back to this legal gospel. What is so wrong with it? If it sweeps some people into the Kingdom, why condemn it?
I condemn the legal gospel - where God is seen as being pacified by the blood of Christ - because I believe it can breed two very dangerous attitudes:
Firstly it can breed a wrong attitude towards the bible, and secondly it can breed an attitude of superiority - an attitude that sees itself as having exclusive access to the truth: 'I am right and everyone else is wrong.'
And I see both attitudes as possibly leading to arrogance. Lets examine these in more detail.
Firstly, it can breed a wrong attitude to the bible. This is because the whole edifice of a legalistic theory of the atonement rests on a bible that is 'authoritative.' That is taken to mean, by literalistic people, a bible that is infallible, inerrant, one that can be taken literally. The legalistic approach to the relationship between God and man is perfectly mirrored in the literally perfect bible. It has to be perfect or else it becomes suspect - just like any other book. The foundation of any legal system is a network of laws that are authoritative. So legalistic Christians believe that the relationship between God and man is based on the legal concept of judgement - satisfied by the death of the perfect Son of God in place of man.
The problems that arise from a legal attitude towards our relationship with God come when we try to apply this framework of law to everything. For example, in connection with homosexuality. A legalistic Christian will read certain verses in the bible in such a way that they become inflexible rules that must never be broken. The attitude of mind for reading the bible is applied without regard to the realities behind the verses. No account is taken of the new understanding of human sexuality, nor of the human cost that a strictly legal interpretation of the verses written thousands of years ago means today. It matters little to legalistic Christians that millions of gay people are going to have to live lives that are to some degree cramped and limited, simply because legalistic Christians are interpreting two or three passages in the bible in a certain way.
In other words, their desire for the kind of certainty that comes from a legalistic approach to the bible overrules any understanding of the human cost of their biased ideas. They sacrifice people to their beliefs. They say that what is right for people must be subjugated to a view of the bible that is so obviously wrong that even non Christians can see the error of their thinking.
The second grave error that these legalistic Christians fall into is a form of arrogance. It shows itself in an attitude of superiority. 'We are right.' is the cry of most religions - but it is only the arrogant religious who go on to add 'and all the others are wrong'. Yet that is what legalistic Christians do say. They allow no leeway for other people to have a valid viewpoint. In effect they say 'I am right and you are wrong and I refuse to have anything to do with you unless you give up your wrong views and accept that what I say is right' That is exactly the attitude of the Global South to date in the present dispute.
Granted that two radically different views of the bible at the bottom of the disagreement about homosexuality - what those Churches calling out for the dismissal of the American Church from the Anglican Communion are saying is 'We do not agree with you and unless you change your views and accept our point of view then we will refuse to have fellowship with you.'
In other words - 'we are right and you are wrong and we refuse to play ball until you accept that.' In my opinion that attitude is arrogant. It is also seems to me to be deeply unchristian - contrary to the spirit of Christ. It is certainly unloving.
It is no coincidence therefore that the churches that hold these views are also churches that hold a more legalistic view of the relationship between God and human beings - and are churches that hold to a literalistic reading of the bible. The one follows from the other.
I believe that the view of the cross and its meaning is crucial to how one will deal with other Christians who happen to think differently from you. It will also deeply affect how you approach outsiders to the church. Indeed, it will affect your whole life. That is why I believe it is time for us all to accept that it is right to go beyond the legal into an area where we see the love of God and the purposes of God as deeper and wider than the sort of views held by my friends of many years ago. All of us who hold onto legalistic views about God need to step back and recognise that the world has moved on and there is a fresh understanding of the depth of meaning in the death of Christ on the cross. A fresh understanding that drives us to abandon dogmatism and arrogance as things of the past - a fresh understanding that embraces even those with whom we disagree - even gay Christians!
The world is crying out for the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are multitudinous problems and moral conundrums ahead as technology and knowledge increase their grip on the lives of us all. All of us need to hold onto the truth of the gospel, recognising that every generation needs to reformulate that truth in terms that the upcoming generation can comprehend. A legalistic interpretation of the relations between God and human beings is now out of date - we need to find fresh ways to express the love of God in Christ. And hopefully we shall then see that it is an all inclusive love that we are talking about.