A plea for ‘talks about talks’  3

Contemporary ChristianityI wrote the following article for Contemporary Christianity’s monthly PS forum. The post can be found here. Contemporary Christianity (formerly ECONI) addresses issues of faith in the public square and hosts many significant discussions.

 


The phrase ‘talks about talks’ has come to encapsulate our frustration at the inability of politicians to actually address and deal with real issues. Yet, sometimes it is right to spend time agreeing how a conversation is going to be held, before actually having the conversation.

The big issue of the day for the churches is sexuality, obviously reflecting the prominence of the issue in society. In my experience it is an issue on which many people have very firm opinions on both sides of the argument. One of my biggest concerns is about how the conversation is being conducted. In fact, it does not feel that there is a conversation at all, but an impasse of fixed positions and judgementalism on both sides. I know many people on both sides. I also know many people who are conflicted over the issue and who feel that there is no space for them to think it through for themselves. They feel that they are not allowed to say, ‘I’m not sure’, but are forced to come down on one side or another.

Hence my plea for ‘talks about talks’, for some agreement about how we in the church, in the broadest sense of that term, will talk to each other about this issue.

My own suggestion would be to begin with some passages by Paul that we often struggle to see as relevant to our context. He spends a considerable amount of time in Romans and 1 Corinthians discussing whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, or might have been sacrificed to idols (see Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10). Obviously this was an issue that people were passionate about, on which they had strong opinions and on which people made judgements about each other’s faith (sound familiar?)

Living among the relatively young Christian church in Nepal gave me an insight into the seriousness of this issue. Christians in Nepal are surrounded by a Hindu culture in which worship of other gods is ubiquitous. New Christians often make a costly break with their religious background, and often family relationships, in order to commit to Jesus Christ. First generation Christians often reject everything remotely connected to their religious past. However, as a second generation has emerged they are questioning whether of some of the things that have been rejected are Hindu religious practices, or simply expressions of Nepali culture. There is often no clear dividing line.

Conversation by Kabaldesch0 / CC0 Public Domain
Conversation by Kabaldesch0 / CC0 Public Domain

So, there are disagreements over what Christians should, or should not take part in. These are taken very seriously because they are understood to go to the core of the faith. The question is whether or not, in taking part in this activity, are you worshipping God or worshipping idols? This is not a secondary theological issue, especially to people who have lost family relationships or been imprisoned because their commitment to worship only this God.

Given the primary importance of the issue, Paul’s response to the Romans is, perhaps, surprising. In many places Paul is not afraid to be directive, yet on this issue, of primary theological importance, he says that each person should be able to make up their own mind (Rom 14:5). The responsibility lies with each person to make up their own mind as to what faithfulness to Christ on the issue allows them to do or not to do. Simply going with the flow of society is ruled out. But, so too, is simply accepting, without examination, the party-line of my particular church grouping.

There is another big challenge in Paul’s response. He calls on those with diametrically opposing views on this issue of primary theological importance to accept each other. The person who sees another member of their church do something that they consider to be anathema to the core commandment to worship God alone, is to recognise them as seeking to be faithful to Christ. The person who feels that others are wanting to restrict their freedom, and to impose a legalism on the church, is to recognise them as seeking to be faithful to Christ.

If we could agree to hold our conversations about sexuality with these principles in mind, I think the tone of the conversation could be changed. And even if others do not agree to this suggestion, or do not adhere to it, I believe that it is my responsibility to try to act according to these principles.

3 Comments

A thoroughly thought-provoking piece! But I think it tends to conflate ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ issues. Just because an issue appears primary to some people, does not meant that it is a primary issue theologically.

So, if I were a first generation Nepalese Christian, not eating food sacrificed to idols might appear to be a primary issue (because it was part of my former religious practice); yet we know that fundamentally it is not, since Jesus declared all foods clean and Paul in Rom 14 said it didn’t matter – it was really a ‘weaker brother’ issue.

Now, if my Nepalese son were a second generation Christian who didn’t care tuppence about what he was eating (never having made idol food a part of his worship), he would easily see that I had wrongly turned a secondary issue into a primary one (his father was a weaker brother, so to speak).

So I think it is wrong to suggest that ‘this is not a secondary theological issue … [it is] of primary theological importance … yet on this issue of primary theological importance [Paul] says that each person should be able to make up their own mind.’

I don’t think that Paul ever encouraged people to make up their own mind on matters of primary theological importance. And for us to imagine that we can all make up our own mind about the first order matters of sexual practice (whether homosexual or heterosexual) would be a category error. It would allow us to ‘make up our own mind’ on all issues of primary theological importance – with potentially devastating results.

And to cast those who are conservative on sexual matters in the weaker brother role would be theologically incorrect and of no little consequence. On this model, their position would be ultimately untenable because the weaker brothers, by definition, are wrong.

I’m sorry to appear so negative – this article really did stimulate me to think, and I hope my comments will be helpful.

Dermot O’Callaghan

Dermot

Thank you for this comment. You raise several very good points engaging with what I have written. The question of what are primary and what are secondary theological issues, and who decides, is worth further discussion.

You apologise for appearing negative. On the contrary you have engaged in the conversation while obviously not in complete agreement with what I have said. You have responded with valid points but with great respect. This is exactly the tone of conversation that I think we need to have.

Thank you for a perfect demonstration of it

Peter

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