A plea for ‘talks about talks’

The phrase ‘talks about talks’ has come to encapsulate our frustration at the inability of politicians to actually address and deal with real issues. Yet, sometimes it is right to spend time agreeing how a conversation is going to be held, before actually having the conversation. The big issue of the day for the churches is sexuality, obviously reflecting the prominence of the issue in society. In my experience it is an issue on which many people have very firm opinions on both sides of the argument. One of my biggest concerns is about how the conversation is being conducted. In fact, it does not feel that there is a conversation at all, but an impasse of fixed positions and judgementalism on both sides. I know many people on both sides. I also know many people who are conflicted over the issue and who feel that there is no space for them to think it through for themselves. They feel that they are not allowed to say, ‘I’m not sure’, but are forced to come down on one side or another. Hence my plea for ‘talks about talks’, for some agreement about how we in the church, in the broadest sense of that term, will talk to each other about this issue. My own suggestion would be to begin with some passages by Paul that we often struggle to see as relevant to our context. He spends a considerable amount of time in Romans and 1 Corinthians discussing whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, or might have been sacrificed to idols (see Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10). Obviously this was an issue that people were passionate about, on which they had strong opinions and on which people made judgements about each other’s faith (sound familiar?) Living among the relatively young Christian church in Nepal gave me an insight into the seriousness of this issue. Christians in Nepal are surrounded by a Hindu culture in which worship of other gods is ubiquitous. New Christians often make a costly break with their religious background, and often family relationships, in order to commit to Jesus Christ. First generation Christians often reject everything remotely connected to their religious past. However, as a second generation has emerged they are questioning whether of some of the things that have been rejected are Hindu religious practices, or simply expressions of Nepali culture. There is often no clear dividing line. So, there are disagreements over what Christians should, or should not take part in. These are taken very seriously because they are understood to go to the core of the faith. The question is whether or not, in taking part in this activity, are you worshipping God or worshipping idols? This is not a secondary theological issue, especially to people who have lost family relationships or been imprisoned because their commitment to worship only this God. Given the primary importance of the issue, Paul’s response to the Romans is, perhaps, surprising. In many places Paul is not afraid to be directive, yet on this issue, of primary theological importance, he says that each person should be able to make up their own mind (Rom 14:5). The responsibility lies with each person to make up their own mind as to what faithfulness to Christ on the issue allows them to do or not to do. Simply going with the flow of society is ruled out. But, so too, is simply accepting, without examination, the party-line of my particular church grouping. There is another big challenge in Paul’s response. He calls on those with diametrically opposing views on this issue of primary theological importance to accept each other. The person who sees another member of their church do something that they consider to be anathema to the core commandment to worship God alone, is to recognise them as seeking to be faithful to Christ. The person who feels that others are wanting to restrict their freedom, and to impose a legalism on the church, is to recognise them as seeking to be faithful to Christ. If we could agree to hold our conversations about sexuality with these principles in mind, I think the tone of the conversation could be changed. And even if others do not agree to this suggestion, or do not adhere to it, I believe that it is my responsibility to try to act according to these principles. Peter McDowell Peter is a member of the board Contemporary Christianity.
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9 Responses to A plea for ‘talks about talks’

  1. Puran Agrawal says:

    Peter McDowell’s “A plea for “Talks about talks”raises a very important issue for the contemporary Christians worldwide and has justly elicited some very interesting responses.

    Though I agree with Dermot O’Callaghan that one can and ought to make a distinction between primary and secondary issues, the problem is that what one beliver regards as a primary issue, another may regard it as mere a secondary issue (e. g. infant baptism, observance of sabbath, and so on). If one belives that Christianity is primarily about leading a good life and doing good works, then even disputes about issues such as “incranation”, “resurrection”, Jesus’ ascension, and miracles in general may seem merely secondary.

    As a Nepali Christian, I can testify that for many Nepali Christians the disputes about eating of the food scarificed to the idols is as important as the question of incarnation or resurrection. The reason is that every Nepali Christian gives a testimony to the majority non-Christian compatriots and the surrounding pagan culture about his or her faith in terms of what kind of dress one wears, the food one eats, and entertainment one enjoys, to mention just a few, which would not be regarded as very important by most, if not all, Christians in the West.

    I have faced and continually face this kind of dilemma every time I viist Nepal and India. I try to face this dilemma with Paul’s injunctions in Romans 14 in mind. I will happily eat food offered to the idols when offered by my relatives and friends who are not Christians provided by doing so I do not cause offence to anybody.

    If, on the other hand, I have to do so in the company of Nepali Christians who might be offended by my doing so, then I would refuse to eat the food as politely as humanly possible. The same kind of pragmatic discernment guides my decision whether to attend a Hindu temple or a place of worship at the request of my relatives and friends.

    Throughout his writings Paul continually makes the distinction between primary and secondary issues. If we sometimes treat secondary issues as primary and vice versa, then it is because of our lack of proper knowledge and understanding of what the Bible teaches on such issues and/or because, which is very often the case, we have already made up our mind on a particular issue and we try to justify our decision by proof-texts from the Bible.

    For example, many Christians often seek to justify their blanket support for a particular political ideology or party and its social, political and economic programmes on the basis of the verse: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s because they believe that Christianity is solely about personal salvation.

    Finally, I agree with Peter that Paul teaches that we ought to accept as fellow-believers those who hold opposing view on primary issues to ours. Yet this cannot be taken as absolutely binding.

    Firstly, because some views may be so contrary to what the Bible teaches what being a Christian means (e. g., someone who denies the existence of supernatural or the divinity of Christ, or that Christ died for our sins, etc), then we have to point this out to those who claim to be Christians that they are mistaken. Paul never eschewed such judgements when it was appropriate (e. g. on issues such as human sinfulness, Christ’s resurrection, sinful and immoral behaviour, etc)

    Secondly, by refusing to pass judgement on very important issues, we mislead not only those with whom we disagree but also other fellow believers. Judgement must be passed wherever and whenever it is absolutely necessary; both Jesus and Paul never eschewed passing judgement, on occasion in very strong language, when it was called for. Of course, the manner in which any judgement is passed is important; loving correction rather than violent condemnation.

    Puran Agrawal

  2. Joe Duffy says:

    Thank you for an excellent article, written in a most Christian manner
    Regards
    Joe Duffy

  3. Rev PK says:

    I agree very much with Dermot, in regard to the distinction that must be made between primary and secondary matters.
    As an Anglican, I would also want to add that on the matter of sexuality simply living together with different views on this does not work. As Anglicans, doctrinal and moral views are not things which are merely decided upon in the local church, but are held by the whole Church. Hence a push for a change in the Church’s teaching on this key matter would affect everyone, and many of us would no longer be able to remain in communion with the wider Church.

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  5. Dermot O’Callaghan says:

    A thoroughly thought-provoking piece! But I think it tends to conflate ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ issues. Just because an issue appears primary to some people, does not meant that it is a primary issue theologically.

    So, if I were a first generation Nepalese Christian, not eating food sacrificed to idols might appear to be a primary issue (because it was part of my former religious practice); yet we know that fundamentally it is not, since Jesus declared all foods clean and Paul in Rom 14 said it didn’t matter – it was really a ‘weaker brother’ issue.

    Now, if my Nepalese son were a second generation Christian who didn’t care tuppence about what he was eating (never having made idol food a part of his worship), he would easily see that I had wrongly turned a secondary issue into a primary one (his father was a weaker brother, so to speak).

    So I think it is wrong to suggest that ‘this is not a secondary theological issue … [it is] of primary theological importance … yet on this issue of primary theological importance [Paul] says that each person should be able to make up their own mind.’

    I don’t think that Paul ever encouraged people to make up their own mind on matters of primary theological importance. And for us to imagine that we can all make up our own mind about the first order matters of sexual practice (whether homosexual or heterosexual) would be a category error. It would allow us to ‘make up our own mind’ on all issues of primary theological importance – with potentially devastating results.

    And to cast those who are conservative on sexual matters in the weaker brother role would be theologically incorrect and of no little consequence. On this model, their position would be ultimately untenable because the weaker brothers, by definition, are wrong.

    I’m sorry to appear so negative – this article really did stimulate me to think, and I hope my comments will be helpful.

    Dermot O’Callaghan

    • admin says:

      Dermot

      Thank you for this comment. You raise several very good points engaging with what I have written. The question of what are primary and what are secondary theological issues, and who decides, is worth further discussion.

      You apologise for appearing negative. On the contrary you have engaged in the conversation while obviously not in complete agreement with what I have said. You have responded with valid points but with great respect. This is exactly the tone of conversation that I think we need to have.

      Thank you for a perfect demonstration of it

      Peter

  6. Cheryl Meban says:

    Thanks for this, Peter (and Jim). I am deeply convinced that the Church offers more hope of salvation (both in this world and beyond) to the world, not by being ‘right’, but by the way we hold and respect each other’s deeply-held (and tentatively-explored) views. Either we are a people of grace, mercy, love and hope, or we have no good news to share, however firmly we hold to what be believe is sound doctrine. Bearing with each other in love, and celebrating everything that is good, lovely, noble, right, praiseworthy and admirable – wherever we find it… testifies to living faith and offers hope beyond judgement.

  7. Jim McCaughan says:

    Thank you Peter for your thoughts. I am preaching through the second half of Romans and preached on Romans 14 two weeks ago. It is a very powerful message for those who hold very sincere convictions about important matters . . . with the stress on “accepting one another”. This side to Paul’s practical theology had not, perhaps, received the attention which it deserves. Some years ago one of our young people spent several months in South India where the question of eating meat which had been offered to idols was a huge issue in the Christian community.

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