What does Romans 13 actually teach?

Ted Grimsrud—June 18, 2018

What does it mean for the United States to be a “Christian nation”? For many, it seems to mean that people should support the political status quo, and they will quote the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support that support (“be subject to the governing authorities”). We find this most often when Christians want to offer “biblical support” for obeying the state’s call to go to war. But it comes up in many other circumstances as well.

Just lately, our evangelical Attorney General used Romans 13 as a basis to demand acceptance of Donald Trump’s policy of separating would-be immigrant children from their parents when they are arrested trying to cross the border into the US. Many commentators have noted that such a use of Romans 13 is not appropriate. I agree, but I also think that when this passage comes up in a public and controversial way, it is good to take the opportunity to offer some suggestions for how this oft-cited text might best be read.

The message of Jesus

The first step for thinking about the issues that Romans 13 are purported to address (our relationship to the state, our responsibilities as citizens, et al) is to start with Jesus—just as the New Testament itself does. Though Paul wrote Romans decades before the gospel writers wrote the gospels, the early church used these writings in a way that placed the gospels first. I think we can assume that the stories about Jesus that make up the core of the gospels circulated from the time of his death.

Paul himself insisted he simply reinforced Jesus’ message. If our basic question in looking at Romans 13 is a question of social ethics, we need to set the context for Paul’s own life and thought by taking note of what Jesus did and said that establish his own approach to social ethics. Continue reading “What does Romans 13 actually teach?”

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The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018

I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.

The right agenda

I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.

Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.

One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.

Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere. Continue reading “The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation”

What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?

Ted Grimsrud—May 4, 2018

For the past several months I have been putting most of my writing energy into a study of the book of Revelation, and have not met my goals for blog posting frequency. I finally realized that I need to combine thinking so much about Revelation with writing blog posts. So I expect to share several sets of reflections that draw heavily on Revelation in the next few weeks.

Punitive judgment in Revelation

One of my ongoing interests is the issue of punitive judgment—in the Bible and in life. I feel that I have developed a pretty strong argument that shows that the book of Revelation as a whole emphasizes mercy and healing much more than punitive judgment. However, some passages in Revelation have been rather persistently interpreted in punitive terms. Perhaps the most notorious comes at the end of chapter 14. This is what is written:

“Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle. ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (Revelation 14:17-20, NRSV)

After reading through several dozen commentaries and other book and articles on Revelation, I recognize that there is a pretty strong consensus that these verses are talking about God’s punitive judgment against humans who have turned against God. There is one important stream of interpretation, starting with the influential 1966 commentary by George B. Caird, that reads this paragraph in a non-punitive way. In general, though, even commentaries that read other difficult passages in non-punitive ways, tend to see John teaching violent retribution here. Continue reading “What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?”

An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2018

As I appreciatively joined in the memorial service yesterday (April 28) for my friend Norman Kraus, who died on April 6 at the age of 94, I reflected on my first encounter with his writing. Back in the Spring of 1976, if I had imagined that 42 years later I would be sitting in a Mennonite church in Virginia grieving the loss of the author of The Community of the Spirit as one who had been my good friend for over 20 years I would have been pretty shocked.

My final term attending the University of Oregon, Spring 1976, was when I decided not to pursue journalism as a career. I went ahead and graduated that term, but with no intent to stay with journalism. I had gotten intensely involved in a small evangelical congregation, gotten bitten by the theology bug, and read with great attention writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul among others.

I took to browsing the shelves at Northwest Christian College, next door to the UO, looking for books to help me deepen my theological understanding. I happened upon a small volume written by a man named C. Norman Kraus who was identified as a Mennonite professor at a college in Indiana. Not only did the name Goshen College mean nothing to me, the term Mennonite also meant nothing to me.

However, when I started looking at the book, I quickly was hooked. Kraus spoke a language I understood—”discipleship,” “community,” “the gospel of peace.” I read the book thoroughly a couple of times and began to look for other Mennonite writings. That lead to Guy Hershberger, John Howard Yoder, and Millard Lind. It also led us to going to hear Myron Augsburger when my wife Kathleen and I visited her family in Arizona. One thing led to another, we visited the Mennonite congregation in Eugene, headed for Elkhart, Indiana, to attend the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, and by 1981 we joined the Mennonite church and embarked on a long surprisingly fraught journey.

The writings of Norman Kraus were the starting point for all this. For better or worse, he played a foundational role in my life as a Mennonite. I personally would say absolutely for the “better.” I am deeply grateful for the role Norman played in my theological development, and in more recent years in my remaining in good standing as a college professor and pastor in the Mennonite world. Some who do not appreciate his theological journey (or mine) might say for the “worse.” Continue reading “An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus”

Christianity on war and peace: An overview

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2018

[I was recently asked to write up the following brief overview of how Christians tend to view warfare. It will hopefully be published in the forthcoming Bloomsbury Companion to Studying Christians.]

Accounts of how Christians think and act in relation to war have tended to repeat the general typology that was introduced back in 1960 by historian Roland Bainton in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton saw three categories: pacifism (the commitment not to participate in war in any form), the just war (the willingness to go to war when certain criteria insuring the justness of the war are met), and the crusade (a sense of call from God to fight in a war that is understood to be divinely required).

However, this typology has been criticized for leaving too many options out and over-simplifying what is left. As an alternative, I propose a revised typology that has two main types: (1) Negatively disposed toward war and (2) positively disposed toward war. Each of these two types has three subtypes.

“Negatively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war.

  1. Principled pacifism. This view is against war based on starting principles. For example, some Christians have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” The relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. For example, in the United States during World War II those who were morally opposed to fighting were allowed to do alternative service as conscientious objectors. Such conscientious objectors refused military service simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if their country was to fight in a “just war,” principled pacifists would still refuse to fight.
  2. Pragmatic pacifism. This view is against war based on the evidence of how warfare works in actual practice. These conclusions follow from using just war criteria to conclude that all actual wars are certain to be unjust; that is, this pacifism is based on evidence. This view suggests that each war has violated some if not all the standard just war criteria.
  3. Critical just war. This view differs from “pragmatic pacifism” due by being open to the possibility that just war criteria may be met. These criteria typically are sorted into two categories: “just cause” (e.g., defending against aggression, resisting tyranny, stopping atrocities, declared by a legitimate authority, only undertaken as a last resort, undertaken with the near certainty of victory) and “just means” (e.g., noncombatants are not targeted, the violence used is not out of proportion to the good that the war achieves, of limited duration, the humane treatment of prisoners of war). This view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that do not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for many draftees who refused to fight went to Canada or prison.

Continue reading “Christianity on war and peace: An overview”

Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression

Ted Grimsrud—October 29, 2017

Is pacifism a viable social philosophy? I believe that it is, though I also recognize that arguments in favor of the possibility that at times violence might be appropriate can seem pretty persuasive. Nevertheless, as I will outline later in this post, I think the moral and practical problems with violence are ultimately insurmountable.

The impact of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the twentieth-century put principled nonviolence on the table as a possible option for those who desire social transformation. As well, the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren) have sought in recent generations to apply their long tradition of Christian pacifism to social issues. But many have questioned whether pacifism is an adequate approach in the real world—whether it might even be unhelpful to the quest to overthrow injustice.

Principled pacifism may be defined as the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to use lethal violence against other people. This conviction has never been widely held, even though in the United States it has been present in a fairly prominent way dating back to the establishment of the Pennsylvania colony in the 1680s. The main impact of pacifist convictions in the US until the 20th century was the refusal of pacifists to join the military and fight in wars. The possibility of self-consciously nonviolent direct action did not gain widespread acceptance until the 20th century.

Changing notions of peacemaking

I write as a Mennonite Christian pacifist, though I believe that pacifism is a valid commitment for anyone. Several 20th century factors combined to transform the understandings and practices of principled pacifism among “peace church” Christians. World War I showed just how widespread and utterly destructive modern war could be (though much worse was soon to come), so a pragmatic case for rejection of war became more widespread. The philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action as a means to bring about social change gained currency especially through the work of Gandhi in South Africa at the turn of the century and a couple of decades later in India. And peace church people became more acculturated and more likely to feel a sense of responsibility for having an impact in the wider world. Continue reading “Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression”

Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—October 4, 2017

Over the past several decades, as North American Christians have sought to discern the way forward amidst differing convictions concerning the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians and of same-sex marriage, one of the arenas of debate has been what to make of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Several different perspectives have been argued for, in a general sense breaking down into three broad options.

Paul and “homosexuality”*: Three options

*[I will use quotes around “homosexuality” throughout this post to signify my uneasiness with using the word because of the pejorative connotations it has in general usage. What I will mean by “homosexuality” is the general phenomenon of people being attracted to others of the same sex. Part of the difficulty with the language is due to the fluidity of human sexual attraction in general that shows that our reality cannot be reduced to two simple categories, “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”]

(Option 1) Paul may not have written a great deal about “homosexuality,” but what he did write is clear and utterly damning. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 Paul makes it clear that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong. And, for those who hold this view, Paul’s views remain normative for today. Hence, Christians are bound to oppose same-sex marriage and to restrict the involvement of LGBTQ Christians in the churches.

(Option 2) Others mostly agree with the interpretation of Paul’s writings given by the people in the first group, but they would strongly disagree about the application of Paul’s perspective for today. They would say that Paul was simply wrong; that he was bound by his cultural limitations to hold to views that we no longer need accept. So, in spite of Paul, we should affirm same-sex marriage and full LGBTQ involvement in the churches.

(Option 3) Yet others argue Paul was not writing about we today call “homosexuality” at all. He simply did not address the phenomenon we know today of people whose affectional orientation is toward people of their same sex. Rather, in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, he had in mind the kinds of behaviors that are also wrong for heterosexual people—not a condemning of a class of people for the inherent wrongness of their same-sex orientation. Continue reading “Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]”

The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part I—Reflections on a thirty-year journey

Ted Grimsrud—August 21, 2017

I have recently been challenged in several contexts to continue to think about various issues related to how Christian churches, in particular Mennonite churches, have struggled with their ability to show welcome to sexual minorities. These challenges have gotten me to reflect on my experiences in trying to play a constructive role in work among Mennonites to discern how best to proceed. And, I realize that those experiences have in general been pretty negative.

However, through these reflections I have come to some new understandings of the events of the past thirty years. So, as a way to process those understandings I decided to write a series of four blog posts. The first will tell the story of my part in this journey. With the second post, I will share some new thoughts I have had about what it means, what particular problems I now see have arisen with the attempts at conversation and discernment. Then, as kind of an appendix, I will respond to some of the writings of one of my adversaries in these encounters, focusing on two New Testament texts that have often been the center of our attention (Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

I title this series “The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion,” though I could just as well call it “My failure to contribute constructively to the Mennonite conversation about LGBTQ inclusion.” I will focus especially on the inadequacy of the ideals I had in my early years as a Mennonite that the Mennonite way, when faced with serious disagreements in the church, was to go the Bible together to listen to the Spirit’s guidance that we may expect through communal discernment.

Church membership?

In the late summer of 1987, my wife Kathleen, our young son Johan, and I made a move. We traveled up the West Coast 500 miles from Berkeley, California, where we had been going to graduate school, to Eugene, Oregon, for me to begin my ministry as the pastor of Eugene Mennonite Church. It was at that point, now exactly thirty years ago, that I began my adventure as an advocate for a more welcome, inclusive Mennonite Church.

We knew when we headed to Eugene that the congregation had welcomed as worshipers two men in a committed relationship with each other. I was looking forward to helping the group work through some of the biblical and theological issues related to its discernment processes. As it turned out, not long after our arrival, the two men (Eric and Mark) asked to become formal members of the church. As it also turned out, people in the congregation were not overly interested in my offer of leading in Bible study. They had had a fairly detailed study a few months before our arrival, and they concluded that the differences in interpretation seemed irresolvable. Continue reading “The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part I—Reflections on a thirty-year journey”

Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind, 3rd edition

Ted Grimsrud—July 20, 2017

David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, is a prominent and prolific writer who a number of years ago, like most other evangelical theologians who ever wrote about the issue, was on record opposing the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the churches. He opposed same-sex marriage. Probably his most notable statement came in a chapter he wrote in what was at the time the standard text book on Christian ethics for evangelical students—Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in a Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press, 2003). The co-authors of this book were Gushee and the late Glen Stassen.

Gushee’s change of mind

More recently, though, Gushee changed his views and became an advocate for the churches being much more inclusive—and blessing same-sex marriage. He wrote a series of blog posts in the Fall of 2014 where he “came out” as an advocate and followed that series almost immediately with a book version called Changing Our Mind. In 2016, he published a revised edition of Kingdom Ethics (now published by Eerdmans rather than InterVarsity) that reflected that change of perspective (that I know from a conversation I had with Stassen not long before his death would have reflected the views of both authors).

Just a few months after Changing Our Mind was published, it was followed by a somewhat expanded second edition. As would be expected, this book met with intense responses. Gushee has decided to bring into print a third, significantly expanded, edition of Changing Our Mind (the final one, he asserts).

I had been eager to read the first edition of Changing Our Mind. I was familiar with Gushee’s work and knew of his stature as a highly regarded evangelical thinker. I had responded quite positively to Kingdom Ethics when it came out and wrote a glowing review of it, though I did not discuss why I was quite disappointed with their treatment of “homosexuality.” I had learned from my conversation with Stassen that Gushee was the main author of that section, so to hear that he had changed his mind intrigued me.

So I read Changing Our Mind as soon as I could and immediately wrote a quite positive review. As the bulk of this third edition is made up of the only slightly revised chapters of the first volume, I will refer readers to that review for my thoughts about Gushee’s main arguments. I want to focus here more on the additions to the third edition, with a couple of brief comments about his overall argument. Continue reading “Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind, 3rd edition”

A short review of Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God

Ted Grimsrud—July 18, 2017

I recently finished reading a fascinating, challenging book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I have invested a lot of energy in this book because I think the subject matter is extremely important, and not only for Christian pacifists such as myself. And I think Boyd has done an impressive job of examining the issues related to violence in the Old Testament.

I am pretty sure I spent more time reading this book than anything since I read Ernst Troeltsch’s Social Teaching of the Christian Churches in grad school 30 years ago. Crucifixion of the Warrior God (henceforth, CWG) is a huge book—it actually takes up two large volumes, 1,487 pages in all. I have gotten so absorbed with this book, that I decided to blog my way through it. I have written an essay per chapter (I’m through chapter 10 so far) and have posted them at my Peace Theology site. I started on that before I had actually finished the whole book. Since I just now finished, I thought I would take a moment and write a quick reflection on the book as a whole. When I finish with my detailed, chapter-by-chapter critique, I will write a comprehensive review of the whole.

Initial excitement

I started reading feeling very excited. Here was someone who promised to give this important question of how to deal with the “violent portraits of God” the attention it deserved. I was also excited because I knew that Boyd would be working from a pacifist perspective.

I’ll admit that the book became a bit of a slog at times. I’m looking forward to seeing how he boils things down when he publishes his much shorter, “popular” volume on the same topic, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of the Old Testament (due out August 15, 2017). Though Boyd writes clearly, as a rule, his argument is complicated and the detail with which he examines the various issues make it a hard to follow at times.

I remain delighted with Boyd’s consistent commitment to affirming that God is a God of humble, self-giving, nonviolent love—period. That commitment makes me want to recommend this book highly and to express my gratitude to him taking the huge risks and devoting the huge amount of energy to putting this volume together and to following it up with a more accessible version that will widen the book’s reach.

A different approach

And yet, on just about every point, I have concluded that I would make the case for reading the Bible as a consistent witness to this humble, self-giving, nonviolent, loving God in a different way. I strongly agree with Boyd that followers of Jesus must imitate God and always turn away from violent acts. But I don’t really think he makes as good case for this conviction as I had hoped he would. Continue reading “A short review of Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God