Centre and Circumference: Thoughts on an “Atheist Minister”

 

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The United Church of Canada (UCC) has the difficult decision to eject a minister, Gretta Vosper, who claims that she is an atheist but deserves to still exist within the UCC. She has abandoned all language of God, providence, Jesus or faith. It seems like her church is merely a social organization promoting good character and social progress. That is not terrible (in fact the world would be a better place if more people attended an organization like that), but the question is whether that is “Christian”?

The notion of an “atheist Christian” is a contradiction in terms, which has caused the UCC to essentially become a laughingstock by Christians and non-Christians alike. Even worse, many conservatives now have stereotyped the UCC as a denomination full of atheists masquerading as Christians, disregarding the fact that Vosper will be removed and has only a small fraction of those sympathetic to her interpretation of the tradition.

The UCC has a difficult road ahead. They will have to think more about the bounds of orthodoxy and the limits of inclusion. Ironically, to be inclusive you do have to take a stand on some things. That is for them to think more about and us to pray for them with brotherly and sisterly love.

As my father used to say, “Don’t point fingers at people. You will have four fingers pointing right back at you.” I think this situation calls us, evangelicals, to think further about what the limits of what our faith is, who is included, and to realize that we have done a terrible job understanding the bounds of orthodoxy in the other direction.

In seminary I have heard the statement between two students in the cafeteria, “You’re not a premillennial dispensationalist? I don’t how you can be in the Truth!” (If you don’t know what “premillennial dispensationalism” is, don’t worry; you’re only proving my point).

I have seen evangelicals divide congregations and denominations over women in ministry, evolution/creationism, nature of the scriptures, nature of the atonement, treatment of sexual minorities, eschatology, and everything in between.

The silliest division I have ever head about was the “one-cupper” movement of the Stone-Campbell tradition (they are an off-shoot of Baptists). Apparently a major schism happened over whether to drink from one cup or use individual cups in communion. Apparently some felt that everyone drinking from one cup was the apostolic pattern and to fail to do so would be one small step down the slippery slope to oblivion. So… Yes…Christians have actually divided and condemned each other over that, and I have heard these kinds of “slipper slope” arguments for all sorts of, frankly, stupid stuff.

One thinks of this comic here:

church-movements

Now, the one-cuppers is not my experience or context. Mine has been over women in ministry. I was once a devout complementarian, but after going to seminary, I found that the position was wanting. At the time I was pastoring in a very conservative Baptist denomination that saw the affirmation of women in ministry as unbiblical. And make no mistake: to be called “unbiblical” is synonymous with apostasy. I might have well have been an atheist!

Eventually I was sat down and told that if I wanted to continue to pastor, I would either have to shut up, leave, or have my funding cut. An “ultimatum” is too light a term. I remember begging that particular leader, arguing that we need to understand our lines of unity and diversity through who God is (Jesus, the Trinity, his love) not stuff like how we do ministry. However, the devil is in the details. Practical matters oddly are more divisive than doctrinal questions sometimes.  His response was flabbergasting. I was literally told by that leader that when it comes to what is most fundamental about how the denomination operates, “Gender roles [i.e. complementarianism] is more important to the Gospel than the Trinity.” Ironically, those who use the “slippery slope” rhetoric the most have their own slopes.

I have since moved denominations to one that affirms women in ministry, but the question now presents itself: would I seek to push out someone who is against women in ministry if they arose in my association? A part of me that wants to promote an atmosphere where a woman is not discriminated against in her vocation. But, in good conscience I wouldn’t. I believe in changing minds with good exegesis, good reasoning, and good character. I fundamentally believe there ought to be liberty on secondary issues like that. Christ comes first; the Gospel comes first; the Kingdom comes first; then everything else.

One should note with the sparing between liberals and conservatives is that, ironically, every liberal is a conservative and every liberal is a conservative also, in some way. The UCC now faces the question of what essential aspects of classical Christianity it will conserve as the core of its faith, lest it loose  particularity of what it uniquely is.

Conservatives snicker, but the same question presents itself to them, they have just answered without realizing their own revisionism. No conservative I know promotes the institution of slavery, despite it being in part responsible for the division between Northern and Southern Baptists in the 1800’s (Southern “conservatives” defended slavery as biblical; Northern “liberals” appealed to conscience; the result was messy). However, now, no conservative I know promotes slavery. Most abstract slavery passages to apply their fundamental principles to employer-employee relationships, which is obviously not the same. No conservative, not even a young earth creationist, holds that the earth is flat, the sky is domed, or that the Leviathan or Behemoth are real creatures. No conservative holds that heaven is literally up in the sky or hell is literally down in the ground, despite that being the language of Scripture. Do conservatives deny Christ’s ascent and descent, which is bound to that cosmology? Most don’t, and the reason is because they have unwittingly revised what they think is essential to the Christian faith from what is not. They take the Copernican revolution for granted and separate the core doctrinal substance about creation and Christ’s ascent and descent from its pre-modern cosmological form. All Christians have the task of asking what is form, what is substance, what is essential, and what is incidental.

You see, all Christians have the task of faithfully revising their faith and conserving what is most essential. Thus, every liberal is a conservative and every conservative is a liberal in some way. The question is not whether one does it, but rather, what is the limits? Conserve too much and you have fundamentalism, revise too much and you have… well… Gretta Vosper. Most Christians do not look at an earthquake and think God is angry with the citizens of that place. All Christians have revised a more naïve understanding of providence to one that recognizes that sometimes the weather, by the laws of nature, just happens. Is Vosper completely deluded to then say let’s scrape the whole idea of providence altogether? It is not that she is not allowed to revise her faith, it is the question of whether it is simply too far.

Having questions about the limits and circumference of our faith reminds us what is the centre. The New Testament is quite minimal in its central statements of faith: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2) and “Confess ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, and you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). False teachers in the Bible, far from being equated with sincere liberals or people with doubts and moral imperfections, were those that taught for selfish gain (1 Peter 2:1-3). In this regard the New Testament was quite refreshingly simple: Love Jesus? Do you following him sincerely? We’re good!

The early church composed creeds to express this core with more substance. The creeds are great summaries of the biblical story, by which the faithful can be instructed. They can be used as prayers of confession in worship. They can also aid as a doctrinal minimum for unity between all orthodox Christians, but of course, these articles of the creeds will find different interpretations, so they are not blueprints to unity. Their minimal nature suggests that Christians do not all share a common systematic theology – never have, and until eternity, never will. Yet, all Christians share a common story and common relationship with a person, and we must never forget the simplicity of our faith, or forsake the liberty of the Spirit in making the church diverse, when choosing our bounds of unity.

Paul warns that those who perpetuate “quarrels, divisions, and fractions… will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:20-21). In some evangelical circles I have walked in, there is an arrogance over the idea that we are the true church and everyone else is wrong that is so unsettling, I wonder, “Is Christ really in this place?” Who is Christ more likely to admit to the kingdom of God: A humble atheist or a hypocritical Christian? I don’t have an answer as to whether it is obviously one or the other – Scripture gives as much assurance to people who reject Christ as those who claim to know Christ and flagrantly sin.  That is to say, not much.

Where does that leave Gretta Vosper and the UCC?  I commend her for believing what she believes sincerely, and so, I don’t think anyone should demonize her. I know a lot of Christians who are completely nominal. They have no sense of Scripture’s truth or obedience to God’s will, but they like the idea that good people like them obviously should land up in heaven. I wish more people were sincere atheists and come to terms with that, then living the lie that they have a relationship with God. Such people are flames that offer neither light nor heat.

Thus, I do think Vosper should be removed, since it is a primary issue of doctrine. I don’t hold it against her for wanting to stay. Longing for inclusion is a basic human desire. Also, exclusion hurts, no matter the situation. No one likes being told they don’t belong, even when it is true. So, the most anyone can ask is whether is it in fact true. She has explicitly abandoned language of Christ, not just radically reinterpreted it. I admit, if I held the views she holds, I don’t think I would hold it against anyone for seeking to remove me. However, that admission comes with the sadness that I know how it feels to be pushed out of my own faith community for not being “biblical” enough. A moment like Vosper’s removal should and will be always a cause for lament.

Whether she goes or stays makes no difference in one sense: Christ’s body is still broken. My point: we cannot look down at the UCC for its lax borders while most evangelicals share a highly problematic understanding of our own limits. The evangelical lust for control and propensity for division should be equally as troubling as the UCC’s disregard for orthodoxy.

May we all cling to Christ and love one another.

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One comment

  1. Paul Carter

    Hey Spencer, well written and well thought. I agree that churches and denominations need to think carefully about what sorts of disagreements can be permitted within what types of association. Most churches have several variant eschatologies floating throughout the membership and several views on the age of the earth – and they seem to manage that without too much trouble. Similarly most denominations will have a certain degree of difference on any number of secondary issues – the question becomes what is secondary and what is primary? Or as you have said in the article, when is too far simply too far? Two people have to stand a certain distance apart in order to carry a shared burden, at some point, if they are too far apart their partnership becomes more theoretical than actual.

    I think its important in these sorts of issues to look at the underlying assumptions and implications. When I listen to someone talk about a view they hold with which I differ I am usually listening for their hermeneutical perspective. If they have arrived at their conviction in submission to the text I find that I can respect it and feel inclined to co-exist alongside of them if possible. If they appear to have jettisoned the text in order to cozy up to the culture then I feel disincline to partner in any substantive way. I suppose that is why I feel better about partnering with a convictional Presbyterian than I would a compromising fellow Baptist.

    Finally, I appreciated your thoughts regarding whether or not to vote for a complementarian during the ordination process. I recently voted to affirm an egalitarian minister because he wrestled with the text and appeared to arrive at this conviction honestly. His church was officially egalitarian (or publicly I suppose is the better term) and therefore I felt good about affirming him to the ministry. I can imagine that if someone argued for the same position on a less biblical basis I would vote against their ordination. It is, as you intimated, a difficult issue but I like the way you are working your way through it.

    Blessings and well wishes,

    Paul Carter

    Liked by 1 person

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