Monday, November 30, 2015

The Pastorate: Both Local and Universal

My hometown suffered some recent tragedies entirely uncharacteristic of our self-image. Whether it is a little self-deceiving to believe it, we still see Colorado Springs as a sleepy, small town with lots of churches and conservative Christians (though in reality we are well over half-a-million is size, and mostly unchurched). With two “mass” shootings in the last two months, we are forced to take a second look at what is going on in our city. The pastor is uniquely poised to do exactly that because of what they are given to work with.

This has helped remind me that the pastor's job is always a combination of the local and current, and the universal and unchanging.

The Pastor’s Job is Intensely Local

The local congregation is a kind of focal point for the kingdom of God here on earth, like a child’s magnifying glass used to focus the rays of the sun on a dry leaf. The great and eternal truths of God are intensified when believers gather together to hear the Word of God, pray, and disciple each other. The presence of God is magnified when brothers and sisters in Christ join together to worship. Life with Christians over a period of time reveals things that would not be seen otherwise. The pastor learns what lies in peoples’ past, walks with them through some of the most difficult times you can imagine, and even gets to dedicate babies and baptize new believers. These events provide a local flavor for the pastor that cannot be developed if he or she has their study door closed and head in the sky. Some pastors neglect people for their study and thus miss the beauties and developed wisdom of living with people. Some seek broad acclaim and use their local congregation to reach the next rung in the ladder, thus using something God intended as an end as a means for their own glory.
The best pastors in our past were able to use their local congregation to meet the ends of both pastoral wisdom and deepening theological acumen (think of Jonathan Edwards on the American frontier and Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones during WWII). A pastor, as Scripture envisions him or her, is a theologian of sorts who lives, breathes, and works among a particular group of people in a particular setting. The local provides us with the warp and woof of daily life and naturally affects the pastor's work. But the local cannot subsume the universal.

The Pastorate is Inescapably Universal

In the local church, the pastor has the responsibility of communicating the truths of the faith once and for all handed down to us by the saints and communicated in Scripture. The pastor's text is (or, ought to be) the Word of God in all its full and varied wisdom. While we live within communities that experience their own seasons of blessing and cursing, the pastor is at their best when they bring the universal and unchanging truths of Christ to bear upon each season.

In our community's most recent tragedy, our congregation prayed for the loss of a sister congregation across town and reached out to them in Christian brotherhood, and those of us who have connections to those touched by the tragedy are reaching out as we can. But we also must talk about Christ. When the press of the current events seems the strongest, the church must remember to glorify the one, true hope of us all, Jesus Christ. Our Sunday text for the weekend of the latest shooting was Colossians 2:6-15. It was fitting for the church to emphasize Christus Victor on a weekend when we feel the weight of sin, and the despair into which it leads many. We must, as Paul admonished us, avoid false philosophies about human nature and false political utopianism, and keep ourselves rooted in the victory of Jesus Christ.

When the church proclaims the universal truths of Christ in an ever-changing world, we are the most relevant and the most powerful.

Consent as a Moral Category - Is It Enough?

[This post was inspired by a short Facebook conversation in which an individual appealed to "consent" as the kind of trump card in a conversation about sexual ethics. Further reading and research has led me to the discovery that he was not a cultural outlier. Many now observe, and I concur with this conclusion, that the only agreed upon category for sexual ethics is consent. Violate that, and you are in trouble. Violate any other traditional sexual boundary, and you are either ignored or celebrated.]

The term “consent” is commonly used now to describe what is and is not ethical behavior for sexual activity. It has been noted by several cultural observers that invoking consent is currently the one universal standard on sexual ethics. Because gender, marriage, family, and number have been effectively eliminated as ethical considerations, the current backstop against unbridled sexual behavior is the invocation of consent. With all serious considerations of human essentialism gone from the conversation about sexual ethics, is this enough? Despite the surface appeal it has as a moral category, it lacks all the force a real moral category needs in order to do its job. Consent fails to carry the ethical load it is currently given.

We find ourselves in a cultural position where the appeal to consent is replacing human essentialism (or some form of it) as our dominant sexual ethic. Human essentialism in this context is roughly the belief that there are things hard-wired into human nature that inform sexual behavior, uses, and ethics. So, things like gender, number, and community are significant concerns that persist over time and across cultures. In addition, issues like family and child welfare are considered as crucial to determining the value and ethics of sexual behavior. Without some robust form of human essentialism, all these concerns must be accounted for, and currently the place-holder for the chasm left by human essentialism is whether someone consents to sexual interaction.

Consent alone does not do all the moral work we think it does.

Can a 12 year old consent to sex? I will guess that most of those who use consent as the pivotal moral category will balk at saying yes, but it is quite clear that they can. A child may be so sexually informed (or exposed) that when presented with an opportunity, every indicator they give will look like consent. But if consent is our singular moral category, we find ourselves in contradiction with laws regarding statutory rape. These are old but significant laws that were informed by a much more robust sexual ethic which argued that people should be protected from most sexuality until a certain age of maturity no matter what they consented to. And if the "consent theorist" wants to keep their position and be in favor of statutory rape laws, they need to appeal to something else beyond consent to judge between the contradiction created in this scenario. They have then admitted that consent is not enough.

But what if the external indicators of consent are not genuine? Well, that is a thorn in the side of the consent theorist. If we want to rely on what is "really" going on with the 12 year old who consents, then we are not relying on consent, but some other set of moral or psychological categories that temper consent. And so what happens to consent? It is rendered a subsidiary moral concern.

In this case we find a situation in which an individual can consent and we still think the sexual activity is wrong and/or harmful. But if we are consent theorists, on what do we base that claim? If we have gone so far as to remove a form of human essentialism from the moral equation, where do we stand intellectually and morally in order to make this judgment in opposition to the consent given?

Can consent change over time? If it does, how do we judge the morality of the act when consent was given?

Of course consent can change over time and after the fact. This is so ubiquitous a reality, for example, that universities are doing summersaults to cover themselves legally from what is termed the “rape culture” and the fact that plenty of people regret decisions and make a big deal out of removing consent after they gave it. But if consent is our only tool here, we are in a pickle. Actually, it is another contradiction created by the removal of all other, far more robust, ethical categories. If we believe we can make judgments about the wrongfulness of sexual behavior after consent is withdrawn, our allegedly primary moral category is again rendered a subsidiary concern; it is most useful in the service of other, more robust, moral categories.

In both cases a sexual ethic that appeals to some form of human essentialism or ahistorical moral standards (like those found in some religions) is the more accurate, useful, and preferred ethic. Gender, age, community, family and other essentialist categories really do matter. We erode our sense of human essentialism to our great peril. Consent is clearly a moral category and very useful when reflecting on the ethics of sexual behavior, but we have found that other more robust concerns are also necessary to place consent within its most useful context.