Sunday, June 15, 2014

truncated theologies of sin and the punishments sin is said to merit

No doubt at least some of you will remember this tweet from Pastor Mark Driscoll
You deserve hell. Everything else is a gift.
10:25 PM - 25 Feb 2011

Having discussed the problem of this twitter theology elsewhere there's another aspect of this kind of twittered down theology that merits discussion, how would this sort of theology of sin (hamartiology) work itself out in pastoral counseling? 

One of the patterns I saw in pastoral counseling both first hand and second hand in the Mars Hill scene (and one can only hope things have maybe improved there) is that there tended to be a truncated theology that presupposed sin.  An opening question that could guide the entire course of counseling might be this, "Who sinned?"  Once that question was answered to the satisfaction of the pastor doing counseling things would proceed to whatever action was felt to be necessary.  What did not necessarily happen would be to proceed with the following set of questions:

Where is relationship broken?
How has trust been lost or not attained?
What can be done to establish or restore trust?

Now this second approach certainly did happen and no doubt does happen at Mars Hill Church but it may still be the case that pastoral counseling can be a forensic exercise.  There is certainly a time and a place to challenge people about ways in which they have sinned but ... at Mars Hill the culture was (and may or may not be now) steeped in a mentality about sin that formulates it in simple terms.

1) all sin is rebellion against God or God-approved authority
2) it is motivated by pride

There was not necessarily any room for the possibility that what might be identified as sin could be motivated by fear or that a person might not even realize that things they did or said might be harmful.  There was a culture of supposing that, "You know what you did and you are being proud and defiant."  When people asked if it was possible to disagree with the by-laws voted in in 2007 or to disagree with the firings of Petry and Meyer there were those who were told by campus pastors it wasn't possible to dispute with the elders on those things and still be a member in good standing at Mars Hill Church.  A lot of people opted to leave rather than soldier on in membership knowing that even the most respectful disagreement with the leadership culture on those particular points was going to be viewed as sinful defiance.

Fast forward to 2014 and Mark Driscoll has begun to talk from the pulpit about how sometimes people mistakes and that mistakes are not sin.  When confronted by Janet Mefferd on the air Mark Driscoll's response to her accusation of plagiarism was to offer that maybe he made a mistake but that a mistake is not a sin.

The trouble with that line of reasoning is that it is specious.  In the Old Testament the Torah provides for sacrifices to be offered when you realize only after the fact that you have sinned.  Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 both show the Psalmist asking to be pardoned of hidden and inadvertent sins and faults.  If sins are only sins if I know about them then so long as I can convince myself I'm not actually guilty of any sins I can consider myself "not perfect" but functionally sinless.  Of course almost nothing could possibly be further from the truth.  I sin all the time in ways that I probably can't even begin to perceive.  Yet in the culture of MH there has often been a swiftness to categorize sins (real or perceived) as done with a high hand. 

Yet even Driscoll can distinguish between active harm and passive neglect as both being sinful if he's talking about a daddy who let down his kids.  Assuming that Mark Driscoll just made mistakes in seven books that Warren Throckmorton showed had plagiarized content (and this may have really happened for all anyone does or doesn't know) the point where copyright law is concerned is moot.  In terms of appropriating the intellectual property of others without attribution the laws don't care if it was on purpose or maybe just a mistake.  That these mistakes happened across seven books might not have anything to do with any ill will on the part of Mark Driscoll but it raises questions about the competence of Driscoll as an author (particularly in light of his past boasting about the formidable nature of his memory) and of the editors who failed to catch how often Driscoll took up ideas that could be clearly traced back to other authors without adequate citation.

It's unfortunate that Driscoll has only begun to expound from the pulpit about how a mistake isn't a sin when he's spent the last eight months at the center of controversies about plagiarism and Mars Hill signing a contract to rig a #1 spot for Real Marriage on the NYT bestseller list.  That Driscoll has been rolling out this distinction between "mistakes" and "sins" in the wake of these controversies makes it hard to shake the impression that Driscoll has only gotten around to developing a more nuanced theology of sin from the pulpit after he's been shown to have cribbed material from other authors without adequate citation in at least seven of his books, one of which was bought a place on a bestseller list to boot. 

Some in the Reformed world have asked the blunt question why there has been no discussion of who on earth thought Mark Driscoll should have been publishing any books to begin with. 

(I don’t know why people are not debating whether Driscoll should even be writing books.) 

Maybe Darryl had a point? Driscoll vs the Catholic Creeds ...

Now talking about something like the nature of the subordination of the Son to the Father in the Trinity is admittedly going to be as esoteric as can possibly be in Christian theological though.  But the ends toward some wish to employ the concept of the eternal subordination of the Son are not abstract or esoteric.  If wives are expected to submit to husbands because through all eternity the Son has always been in a submissive relationship ontologically to the Father then the practical implications aren't hard to work out.  And yet the eternal subordination of the Son, as discussed by Clark in the most recent link above, is not traditionally orthodox Trinitarian thought.  If anything you get to Arianism faster by insisting on the eternal subordination of the Son than you do by simply affirming the Son is begotten of the Father as is customary in the creeds.

Now, about the theology of sin ... this wasn't abstract stuff if a person ended up in a counseling session at Mars Hill Church.  A person might end up meeting with someone in a pastoral role who wanted to figure out who sinned and how that sinner could be confronted (in Christian love and truth, of course) and made to shape up and fly right and, barring that, how the sinner could be avoided or perhaps brought back with what one pastor apparently described as "Gospel shame" some time back in 2012.

It may be that all of these patterns that showed up in the past could change.  Mark Driscoll has abruptly discovered that mistakes aren't the same as sins but this is not the same thing as discovering that there are things that are sins that may not have been intended as sins. 

If there's a pattern in the new Calvinist movement as it is often called that is distressing it's that the measure of sin for the rank and file does not seem to be the same as the measure of a "mistake" on the part of leadership cultures.  Take for instance, intellectual property.  Mars Hill let a cease and desist letter go out in 2011 to a small church plant and apologized after the whole situation blew up.  What's strange about that controversy is that it was happening in the months during which the contract with Result Source had been signed and invoices were being issued, and Real Marriage was getting heavy promotion inside of Mars Hill and that the Driscolls had actually plagiarized the work of Dan Allender and others was not yet known.  Driscoll was willing to tell members of Mars Hill in a letter that he came to view the ResultSource contract as wrong but he didn't describe it as a sin.  So does this mean a new theological nuance has been introduced into Mars Hill teaching in which something can be identified as a mistake and even as wrong but that it is still, somehow, not a sin?  Ten years ago if a young couple was sexually active prior to marriage would they have escape disciplinary rebuke from Mars Hill if they simply said that what they were doing was a mistake and wrong but not necessarily sinful because they love each other?

It has recently been noted by Warren Throckmorton that a video of six minutes that were excised from a May 2014 Driscoll sermon got pulled down from Youtube on the basis of a copyright claim.  And that might be a legitimate claim on the part of Mars Hill but, if so, how might things have played out if Intervarsity Press took a comparable stance toward Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll over the plagiarized content in the Trial study guide?  Didn't Driscoll used to say from the pulpit that the problem we all have is that I want justice for you but grace when it turns out that I've done something wrong? 

If Driscoll would still stand by the idea that everyone deserves Hell and everything else is just a gift then does it matter if everyone deserves Hell because they knowingly sinned or not?  After all, Eve said the serpent tricked her but didn't she still get the sentence of death anyway?  Even in Genesis 3 not fully realizing what you have done didn't seem to be a basis for a lightened sentence. 

One of the problems with Driscoll somehow discovering that there are mistakes (that aren't necessarily sins) is that he hasn't demonstrated he has competently handled biblical texts from which he attempts to make these statements.  What's more it's not as though in the last eight months there haven't been controversies about Driscoll connected to plagiarism and sales-rigging.  Now is not the best time for Mark Driscoll or any high-level leader at Mars Hill Church to abruptly introduce the idea that not all mistakes are sins even if all sins are mistakes or to proclaim that mistakes warrant grace.  The problem is that when you have high enough a level of leadership and influence a mistake like taking a census can have the consequence of lots of people dying of plague (look at the census from late in David's reign).  David didn't say "Oh, I made a mistake".  That was more of Saul's reaction when he was confronted on his failures.  David said "I have sinned against the Lord." 

And for as long as Mark Driscoll has invoked an explicit divine commission as to what he's supposed to be doing with his life that, if anything, raises the bar even higher as to how he should conduct himself in a self-described divine appointment to leadership.  Yet the controversies of the last year connected to Driscoll can give outsiders the disturbing impression that the measure for the leadership set is simply not the same as the measure for others inside the church, let alone outside the church.

If Driscoll would still stand by the idea that "you deserve Hell. Everything else is a gift" does he have the consistency to share from the pulpit what this would mean for him now?  It can seem more and more as though sin is a category Driscoll only manages to describe about others rather than himself.  If Driscoll wants to regain what credibility he has with outsiders admitting that he actually sins (because no one who isn't Jesus fails to sin) and to confess what those sins are or have been would be helpful.  Because there is no one who doesn't sin but if we confess our sins ... .

And because it's one thing to have tweeted in 2011 about how "You deserve Hell. Everything else is a gift." and another thing to recognize what the implications are for this statement if you include yourself in it. 

Now is not the best time for Driscoll to transform Acts 6 from a story about the appointing of the seven to correct the neglect of Hellenistic widows into a top-down pastors-pick-pastors story.  Now is not the best time for Driscoll to transform the martyrdom of Stephen into a riff on how Mars Hill gets critics.  Ten years ago the critics were all generally progressive Christians and secularists.  In the last year the most hard-hitting criticisms and headline revelations have been from evangelicals and conservative Protestants.  The most dangerous possibility about what has been going on at Mars Hill in the last four years is that when the shoe is on the other foot the leadership culture of Mars Hill does not want to be on the receiving end of what it is willing to dish out. 

The blogger Jim West has a whole category of posts called "Twitter theology that makes me sigh".  All Twitter theology makes Wenatchee The Hatchet sigh because theology is something that can't be reduced to tweets.  Just as a Haydn string quartet can't really be reduced to a eight second sample and a sonnet by John Donne can't really be conveyed by the first four lines, theology at any level is not going to come across if it is reduced to tweets.

But out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and out of the abundance of a particular theology the social media user tweets so ... in a way ... the truncated theological aphorisms people are willing to put on twitter do tell us something about them.

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