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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ezra Postscripts: Secondary Separation, and Serving in a Mainline Denomination

Before I complete my short series on purity in the post-exilic Judean community with a post on Nehemiah, I want to make a couple of follow-up comments to my last post on Ezra.  That post demonstrated how Ezra exemplified an Old Covenant assumption that when the holy/clean make contact with the common/unclean, the holy/clean are compromised.  In the New Testament, however, this is not always the case.  Contact itself does not defile; otherwise Jesus would have been defiled by the incarnation itself, not to mention what he did (whom he touched, whom he conversed with, etc.) in the flesh.  Nevertheless, the saints (i.e., the holy people) may still be defiled, not by mere contact with ordinary people, but by lingering wickedness within themselves that leaks out in the midst of settled alliances with ordinary people.  My two comments in this post have to do with some difficult practical applications of this principle.

My first comment has to do with what's sometimes been called "secondary separation."  Secondary separation goes like this: I'm separating myself from all impure people, especially professing Christians who aren't living the life right somehow, and I'm avoiding interaction with them as much as possible.  But you're a good one, so I'm in relationship with you.  But then I find that you aren't separating yourself from all the people that I'm separating myself from.  So I have to separate myself from you because now you're compromised, not because you're doing or saying anything wrong yet but because you're in relationship with the wrong people.  For example, I love Bob the Christian Pastor/Speaker/Author/Celebrity; I own all his books, go to his conferences, and follow his tweets.  But then I get the bad news that Bob appeared at the same conference or signed the same public statement or blurbed the same book with a Charismatic (or Anti-Charismatic) or Fundamentalist (or NIV-user) or Catholic or Liberal or Prosperity Guy or Whatever, so now I question Bob the Celebrity's integrity and might not be able to lead the small group material that he wrote anymore, even if I haven't seen any evidence that he promotes anything that I disagree with.

To use a term from the last post, I wonder what Christians' "purity maps" are, especially the purity map of a person who engages in secondary separation.  The purity map has boundaries between holy and ordinary, probably multiple gradations in fact, and there is fear of corruption if a boundary is crossed.  It occurs to me that the impulse behind secondary separation is remarkably akin to the approach to cleanness established in Moses' Law, encouraged by Ezra, and practiced by the Pharisees in Jesus' day.  Uncleanness for them was like a contagious disease, like cooties; and if you've been infected, even if you're not showing the signs of it yet, I need to get away from you so that I don't get infected too.

People with this bent to separate might have a noble motive of seeking to remain pure and holy, but they live like they're in the old dispensation, because Jesus never acted anything like this.  He wasn't afraid that people he made contact with or people that they made contact with would corrupt him, and he never taught his followers to worry about it either.  Actually, the group of people that Jesus did urge separation from were hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees, the very people who were so concerned to remain apart from everybody else.

It seems that people with a secondary separation mindset identify themselves very closely with the people that they are in relationship with, so closely that they can't distinguish between the actions of the people that they are in relationship with and their own actions.  In other words, if my friend goes out to dinner with Mr. Dangerous, then I think I did too, so I have to retreat.  The inability to distinguish between self and the people self is connected to doesn't look very healthy to me.  In fact, it doesn't seem to me to be the evidence of great faith but the evidence of great doubt—doubt that I'm holy because of the blood of Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and adoption by God the Father, and doubt that he will see my sanctification through to the end.

Nevertheless, as I take issue with secondary separation I don't want to lose sight of the genuine concern for purity in the New Testament.  Contact with the unholy can't defile us.  But a settled arrangement of linked values, goals, agenda, and journeys with the unholy can, because it brings out in us what ought to be put to death.  That leads to my second comment, which is about the challenge I have knowing exactly how to put this into practice as a pastor in a Mainline Protestant denomination, the American Baptist Churches USA (ABC).

First, some explanation is in order.  The term "Mainline" doesn't mean "mainstream."  It refers to Philadelphia's Main Line, which passes (or used to pass?) through the swankiest part of Philadelphia and was dotted with churches of old, well-established, well-endowed denominations.  Mainline Protestantism refers to those WASP-ish, generally northern, "establishment" denominations.  These denominations happened to take a decidedly liberal turn theologically in the 20th century.

My denomination, the ABC, is unusual for a few reasons.  It is the most conservative denomination of the Mainline.  It is also the most liberal of the Baptist denominations in America.  And it is one of the few denominations—perhaps the only one—that is far enough from its WASP-ish roots that it has no ethnic majority.  In short, it is outrageously diverse.  On one end are conservatives who practice such fierce separation that they have no relationship with any other churches and are American Baptist only in name.  On the other end are people who by profession and practice are Unitarian Universalist in everything but name.  And all kinds of folks are in the middle.  It's a tent that's so big that I wonder if anyone fits under it (kind of like the old Yogi Berra-ism about a restaurant that's "so crowded nobody goes there anymore").

Another thing that makes us unusual is that the ABC is more a federation than a denomination.  Congregations opt into associations, associations into regions, and regions into the denomination.  Most of the denominational apparatus itself is a set of separate, cooperating boards.  There are ties (including legal ones) that bind all the constituent parts together, but a feature of this bottom-up structure is that, basically, no one can tell anyone else what to do.

This explains the ABC's curious stance on the issue of homosexuality that has vexed every Mainline denomination.  I've had people tell me that they know of the ABC as the Baptists who are in favor of homosexuality.  That's because there is a small but energetic minority of Baptist churches that include as members, marry, and ordain homosexuals.  Some associations have actually ejected these churches from membership, but the "Welcoming and Affirming" churches have joined other ones and remain connected to the denomination.  Despite this, the denomination actually has an official public statement on homosexuality that says, "We affirm that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."  (Yep, that's the whole statement.)  So our corporate statement expresses disagreement with homosexual practice, but our structure isn't designed to facilitate enforcement of corporate statements on member churches—and more to the point there generally isn't the will to do so.

I'm not going to get into what my denomination ought to look like, in my humble opinion.  The sticky question, and the one that matters more, is what do I do?  Am I corrupted because I am in league with the ungodly since there are some in my denomination who deny central premises of Christian doctrine (including the word "doctrine" itself) and endorse sinful practices?  Or am I pure despite their presence, and in fact might I be an agent of sanctification within this fellowship?

The book of Jude has a lot to do with this dilemma.  Most of Jude's letter uses lavish images of purity and pollution to condemn false teachers and demand total avoidance of them and their wicked ways.  But at the end Jude writes, "And have mercy on those who waver; save others by snatching them out of the fire; have mercy on others, coupled with a fear of God, hating even the clothes stained by the flesh" (22-23).  Though Jude's insistence on intolerance of falsehood remains unwavering, he views propagators of falsehood and those tempted by it in different categories.  The propagators are to be rejected completely.  Those who are being unknowingly influenced by it, on the other hand, are to be treated with mercy that reaches out to save.  It is a fearful mercy that recognizes the potential that oneself might be led astray if not careful, but it is mercy nonetheless.

In my relatively short time as an American Baptist, I have encountered a very small number of people who actively and openly propagate ungodliness, deny the gospel, and exalt unregenerate human opinion over the Word of God.  But most people don't do that, even people that could fairly be called Liberals.  I have to say, this surprised me.  My upbringing and even more so my college and seminary educations conditioned me to believe that every Liberal was an axe-grinding, 19th-century German higher critic who woke up in the morning chomping at the bit to identify more parts of the Bible that didn't really happen.  But that's simply not so.  Liberals can no more be fairly reduced to a caricature than Evangelicals can.  Most of the Liberal-tilting American Baptists that I've met, including clergy, are genuine folks who read the Bible respectfully, desire to follow Jesus, and show evidence of salvation.  Some of these people are also dangerously open to the false teachers.  But that doesn't prevent me from having a relationship with them.  As a matter of fact, my relationship with them (in addition to others' relationships with them) is more likely to counteract that falsehood than anything else.  I often find that if I show that I want to listen to them, they become very interested in listening to me.  I also find that some of what they have to say, far from being false, actually drives me to uncomfortable passages of Scripture that I might avoid if I only let myself talk to people who already agree with me.

Now having said that, I do stand in a dangerous place.  My denomination is not pure like it should be and in fact is much more afraid of the journey to purity than it is of the effects of pollution.  I don't have much hope that it's going to improve in purity in the short term.  I could become corrupted.  On the other hand, there are many within it "who have not stained their clothes" (Rev. 3:4) who are leavening the whole thing as well as living as salt and light in the world, and there are many who are wavering who yet might be snatched from the fire.  And God has been clear with me that I'm not to go.  So I think I'll stick around.

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