Saturday, March 26, 2011

An Open Letter to Andy Burnette

[This entry is a response to an editoral written in the Indianapolis Star on Saturday, March 26, 2011.  It was written by Andy Burnette, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Danville, IN, and is called "Use history of faith to stand up for rights."]

Dear Mr. Burnette,

I read your editorial piece in today’s edition of the Indianapolis Star (Saturday, March 26, 2011). I am writing to agree with some of the things you have said in that article, and I am also writing to challenge you on some of these points. Because your assertions about what the Scripture teaches have been made in a public forum, I felt it necessary to respond publicly.

First, I am in complete agreement with your statement that “many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people have been deeply hurt by faith communities.” You rightly say that “Bible verses provide easy cover for bigotry.” Part of the difficulty is that the word “Christian” covers a lot of territory in our culture. The Westboro Baptist Church out of Kansas City claims the title “Christian” but spews the kind of hatred which disgusts both you and me. Their claim that the death of every American soldier is an act of judgment by God because of the toleration of homosexuality in America is ridiculous! Certainly, they have made Bible verses an easy cover for bigotry.

Even apart from extreme groups like these, there is a kind of quiet bigotry that exists among those who claim to be “Christian”. They do not make public demonstration or carry banners that say “God hates fags,” but they can’t stand the man in the cubicle next to them simply because he is a homosexual. She doesn’t want to go to lunch with her lesbian neighbor because she doesn’t want anyone to see her with that kind of person. Whether the venom is public or private, the terms ‘bigot’ and ‘Christian’ should be mutually exclusive.

Second, you insinuate that the same Christians who point to Scripture and stand against homosexual marriage also ignore the texts that prohibit divorce. I could not agree more! Divorce is a terrible epidemic in our society, and the evangelical church is not helping. Too many times, a church will turn a blind eye to any and all divorces…not seeking to call husbands and wives to the biblical standard of “one man and one woman for one lifetime.” Certainly there are difficult issues revolving around this subject as well, but the evangelical church must repent of its tolerance of heterosexual divorce. This is especially true in light of Paul’s teaching that the marriage relationship is a testimony of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:25-33).

On these two main issues, I agree with you. However, there are difficulties I have with the way you have shaped your argument. There are three points at which I want to challenge what you have said. First, there is a serious authority problem in what you are saying. While I could spend a long time expounding some of the texts that speak about homosexuality (e.g.- Gen. 19; Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10), I will not. I will only refer to what you have said in your article…to point out the difficulty. You write, “…there are six verses in the Bible about same-sex relationships and more than twice that number prohibiting heterosexual divorce…”

Whether your statistics are accurate or not is not my issue at the moment. The issue I have is that you are implying that we should ignore the “six verses” that speak about homosexuality when forming a “Christian” worldview, especially since we are already ignoring the others on divorce. In other words, you and I have the right to adhere to and avoid verses in Scripture based on our prerogative and preconceived notions. If you were claiming that the Bible should be ignored altogether, I am assuming that you wouldn’t have used Matthew 25 in the course of your argument (more on Mt. 25 in a moment).

What you are saying is just as heinous, though! You have moved beyond relativism to a complete denial of biblical authority. You are not saying what’s good for you is good for you and what’s good for me is good for me. You are saying that my desire to submit to all of Scripture is the wrong approach to living as a “person of faith.” What is your suggestion? Rather than allowing my life, faith, and practice to be evaluated by the teachings of all Scripture, you say we human beings should be evaluating the veracity of Scripture…determining which portions are right and which can be ignored. Man is the authority, and God’s Word must submit to us. I know that these words are found nowhere in your article, but the implication is clearly displayed in the way you are willing to ignore some of God’s words while proclaiming others to be authoritative.

My second problem with your editorial is the logic of your argument about what the marriage amendment preserves. You are right when you talk about the frivolity with which marriage is entered into and exited in our society. Though I do not wish to drag her memory through the mud, it seems that Elizabeth Taylor’s approach to marriage would be a good example of this frivolity. However, you have set up a false dichotomy. You basically say that if one wants to defend and promote biblical marriage, then that person supports quick, drunken, Elvis-officiated marriages in Las Vegas. This is not true. These are still real marriages, and I would fight to the end for them to not end in divorce. However, this is not what is meant by the sanctity of marriage.

The other part of this false dichotomy is the portrayal of all homosexual relationships as committed. Really? I think that at this point, you can give me a break, Mr. Burnette. You may know of some homosexual relationships in which decent people are trying to stay committed, but to define marriage as a Frat party gone too far and homosexual relationships as a modern-day Ward and William Cleaver is to lie to your readers. It is a deceptive twist of words that is not rooted in reality but in the desire to promote your cause.

My third difficulty with your article is in your treatment of Matthew 25. You are right that there are two groups of people before Jesus. You are right that Jesus does not ask them about their “bedroom behaviors.” However, you are wrong when you say that belief and theology are not seen here. One major guiding principle in hermeneutics is that we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. This means that as we look at these verses, we must keep in mind the teaching of the rest of the Bible.

For example, we are given a summary of Jesus’ message as He began His earthly ministry. In Mark 1:14-15, we see that Jesus was “proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” So, Jesus is preaching that the time was fulfilled. In other words, all of the promises of God to send a Savior were being fulfilled His coming. The kingdom was at hand…Jesus was ushering in the righteous rule of God over His people. With this in mind, what is his call? It is now the question, “Will you be kind to one another?” His call is to repent of sin and believe in the gospel. Believe is the One who will give His life as a ransom for many.

Also, we see the priority of repentance and faith throughout the New Testament. In another place, Jesus says, “…whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (John 5:24). We see the priority of repentance and faith in the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts (2:38; 3:19-20; 16:31; etc.). In the book of Romans, Paul writes that we are justified by faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-28; 4:4-5; 5:1). He also writes in Galatians 2:16, “…we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

Someone might ask, “What about James 2:21, which says, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?’” This seems to be the argument of your editorial…that our acceptance with God will be based on our kindness to others…doing and not believing. Well, the flow of James 2 would rebuke this way of thinking. James goes on to say that Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (v. 22). He concludes the paragraph by saying that “faith apart from works is dead” (v. 26). Anyone can claim to have faith, James says, but a faith that is not displayed in works is no faith at all…in other words, belief changes our behavior.

So, Jesus preached that we are to believe, and the New Testament declares that we must believe in order to be justified before God. This faith in Jesus will make a difference in the way we behave…in our words and in our actions. Now, let’s go back to Matthew 25, where King Jesus is separating the sheep and the goats. It might seem at first glance that all of this is based on works, but when we look at the text carefully, we see the people who are doing the works more clearly. Verses 37 and 46 say that it is the “righteous” that are rewarded and enter eternal life. Verse 41 says that the “cursed” are punished.

What’s the problem with that, you might answer? Being generally kind to other human beings is righteous. Here’s the problem. Romans 3:10, using the same Greek word, says “None is righteous, no not one.” Humanity, by nature, is not righteous. Many people deny this and say that humans are basically good, but no matter what I think about humanity or what you think about humanity, God looks at humanity and says, “None of them are righteous.” If that’s the case, then who is going to be rewarded in Matthew 25? Will anyone be rewarded?

The good news is that though none of us are righteous, God has made a way for us to be righteous in His sight. He has graciously chosen to apply the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One (1 John 2:1), to our lives when we believe in Him. This is what it means to be justified…to have our sin forgiven and to be declared righteous by God.

So, through faith in Jesus, sinful men are made righteous…justified…before God. They are no longer subject to God’s condemnation. Our eternal destiny has been changed, and the way we live our lives on earth changes. So, God’s work is made evident through our works of benevolence…visiting prisons, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. Of course, any human being can hand a cup of cold water to a thirsty person or drop change in a roadside beggar’s bucket, but Isaiah says that all our works are like bloody, filthy rags before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6). It is only the righteous…who have been made righteous through faith in Christ and whose changed lives are demonstrated by righteous works…that will enter eternal life. Doing good works apart from faith is hypocritical goodness…just like professing faith without works is hypocritical faith.

Mr. Burnette, I would encourage you to re-examine your interpretation of Matthew 25. You have not remained true to the rest of the biblical witness. It seems that, instead, you have isolated one text and twisted it so that it says what you want it to say about being kind. Then, you have ignored the vast majority of the New Testament which emphasizes the necessity of faith. You even take one portion of Jesus’ teaching, wrongly interpreted, over the dominant message he preached.

So, while I agree that hatred is unacceptable and divorce cannot be ignored, I take issue with your denial of biblical authority, your setting forward of a false dichotomy, and your wrong interpretation of Matthew 25. Obviously, my response is incomplete because I have not put forward my position against homosexual marriage. My position was probably obvious in my interaction with your thoughts, but I still wanted to let you know this is not all that I think on the subject. Essentially, my approach to the issues of homosexuality and homosexual marriage is not to first think about rights but to think about what is right.

I take very seriously the words you have written for the world to see, and I hope you will seriously consider what I have written here.

Toby Johnson
Gray Road Baptist Church