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Mildewed Cloth, Liberal Theologies, and My Cat

by Tim Wohlford


After graduating from college I enrolled in seminary and became a United Methodist pastor for seven years. The United Methodist Church, as it turns out, had (like many other "mainline" Protestant denominations) a very active liberal faction. The seminaries of those mainline denominations were, by and large, the domain of those liberal factions, and any student who attended those seminaries could expect to be exposed to radical feminism (don’t even THINK of using a masculine reference to the deity), radical socialism (I encountered several members of the communist Nicaraguan government while visiting a seminary), radical anti-nuke movements (I was invited to chain myself to a fence at a nuclear defense plant) and radical racial teachings (I once got an A minus on a paper for stating that Jesus’ use of light/dark metaphors where racist). Today’s student could expect to add "radical gay/lesbian studies" to that list, and would be encouraged to attend Gay Pride rallies. I was (to my discredit) one of the first students at seminary who openly advocated the ordination of gays and lesbians by the church (a stance that I later disavowed, starting when I saw pedophiles using the same arguments to gain the blessings of the Church).

How do those seminarians (and factions of those denominations) stray from traditional Christianity to those ideals, which seem to be antithetical to Christianity? The answer, as it turns out, can be summed up in one word: authority. Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, states (as he ascends to heaven), "All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me" but his disciples (almost from that instant to the present) have been trying to determine the authoritative teachings of Jesus (and of the faith). Peter and Paul disagreed when it came to the number of Jewish laws that new converts would follow. Paul, in his letters, makes it clear that several non-Christian teachings (including Gnosticism) were mixing in with the faith that he’d taught them. The early church struggled with the Arian controversies that held that Jesus wasn’t fully God, and with the Gnostics who taught that Jesus wasn’t fully human. The primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while perhaps arrived at by means other-than-holy, did organize the lines of authority until the 16th century in the Western church (and to this day for Roman Catholics). Eastern Orthodox churches "froze" their understanding of the faith after the first 7 ecumenical councils, and adhere to the Nicene Creed as their fundamental interpretation of the faith.

Protestants, on the other hand, have had a problem dealing with authority since the times of Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century. The leaders of these branches of Protestantism (which include Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists) held that Scripture should be the primary authority (if not the only authority) in the theological (and hence, moral) discussions of the church. Luther stated, "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason, for I do not trust in either the Pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves… I cannot and will not retract anything." Calvin and Luther didn’t "dump" the historical teachings of the church, though, and used the works of various theologians to bolster their point that the Roman Catholic Church (in their belief) had erred in its practices.

The Church of England (which fathered the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Methodist denominations, to name a few) was formed when Henry VIII wanted a divorce, and was not granted such by the Pope. During the Enlightenment era, the Church of England adopted the premise that theological discussions should be governed by "Scripture, Tradition, and Reason" (John Wesley added "Experience" to this premise for the Methodists).

Why are Christians not simply "People of the Book," simply adhering to the words of Scripture as the only authority in theological (and moral) debate? That answer can be exemplified by the passage of the Bible that deals with mildewed cloth (Leviticus 13:47 ff.). In that passage Moses gives the laws concerning the proper disposal of mildewed cloth to the Hebrews, and the length of this passage is considerably longer than the better-known passage concerning homosexuality. There is little evidence that this passage was ever obeyed (even by ancient Judaism), and while included in the Christian Bible (along with laws concerning Year of Jubilee and others that have never been followed) no Christian debate that I know of has ever resulted from this passage. This passage begs the question: By what authority does the Christian obey certain laws, and ignore others? By what authority does a Christian follow certain doctrines that have tenuous scriptural backing (i.e., doctrine of the Trinity)? The truth, for Christians who are honest, is that the faith is informed almost as much by historical teachings (tradition) as by scripture.

Liberal theologians have added two more norms, even if they don’t state as much in publications of their theologies systematized: The person of the "Historical Jesus," and the pronouncements of modern science. Both are very problematic, and both lead the theologian to justify whatever they want to believe.

Many modern liberal theologians (along with my teenage daughters, and many well-meaning conservative Christians) appeal to the "historical Jesus" in any argument. This tact implies that 1) we can know the mind of Jesus, and 2) we can know with certainty what Jesus’ pronouncements would be in a contemporary situation. On its face this argument seems to have merit - after all, the Christian is called to imitate Christ. The problem is that Jesus can start to look a whole lot like us when we aren’t very careful. In Charles Sheldon’s work, "In His Steps" we see Jesus looking like a 19th-century evangelical who obviously would oppose the sport of boxing. Frederic Schleiermacher, the 19th century German theologian saw the "Jesus behind the Gospels" as, well, a 19th century German theology professor. Latin American Liberation theologians see Jesus as either an oppressed Latin American peasant or as a Latin American revolutionary. A local Jackson, Michigan (where I live) writer to the local Letter to the Editor section pronounced in today’s paper "…look in the dictionary at the definition of ‘liberal’ and one will see that Jesus was a liberal."

Modern feminists' interpretations of Christ are even more bizarre. Combining the appeal to a "historical Jesus" to a misguided sense that "these descriptions are only metaphors anyway" feminists have wandered far from any recognizable form of Christianity. Sallie McFaugue saw the entire universe as the physical incarnation of God (at least metaphorically) and hence "borrows" the sacredness of Christ to apply to the environment. The most infamous example of this mix of questionable Christology and metaphorical language can be seen in the "Sophia" movement that has permeated the feminist movement, where the Jesus story is summary condemned as an account of child abuse, and the Eucharist is to be served with milk and honey, not bread and wine.

I have no problem using Christ as an example of moral living and of true belief. However, I see many modern theologians repeating the same mistake over and over - the creation of Christ (and hence, God) in one’s own image. The original Star Trek movie had the theological problem pegged -- we all tend to create God in our own image, and then use that image as our authority in our discussions. I would submit that if my cat were to do self-serving theology he might well picture Jesus as a longhaired Persian Cat (neutered, of course). The careful student of theology (and all people of religious belief are students of theology) will view pronouncements of Christology with suspicion when they use appeals to the person of Jesus to support new theological views.

The other "norm of authority" that seems to be used by liberal theologians is that of the pronouncement of science. One cannot participate in a discussion of gay/lesbian issues without hearing the phrase "we are born this way" stated as an article of scientific fact. The model of Darwinian Evolution has become for liberal theologians the Doctrine of Darwinian Evolution.

During my college days in the '80's the artist Joe Jackson had a hit single "Everything Causes Cancer," an observation that points out the often contradictory nature of scientific pronouncement. The pronouncements of science, especially as pronounced by the media, are subject to change and subject to error (at least in reporting if not in fact). Theology that relies on the latest science is to be viewed with a high level of skepticism, especially if it contradicts direct scriptural pronouncement (as in the case of homosexuality).

So, if you want to justify a "new" theology, especially one that is counter to traditional church teachings, one that is counter to any traditional understanding of Scripture, then one must simply re-create Jesus (and hence, God) into a convenient image, state that any knowledge of God is really metaphorical anyway, and use the latest scientific pronouncements to bolster one’s point. In New York City there is a play entitled, "Corpus Christi" where Jesus is portrayed as a gay man, surrounded by gay followers. Combine this imagery with the pseudo-science that pronounces that gays and lesbians are "born that way" and PRESTO! Instant theology is created. My cat couldn’t have done it better.


Tim Wohlford is:

  • a former UMC Pastor (1984-91).
  • 1988 graduate of Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis
  • a member of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson MI (PC-USA), where he occasionally preaches.
  • currently employed as a computer network engineer.

His website is www.wohlford.net, and may be contacted via email at Tim@wohlford.net .


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