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Reflective Thinking and Deliberative Theolog

Written by: on March 6, 2015

I struggled to work my way through Adrian Thatcher’s book, God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction. I am sure the cover of the book is some magnificent piece of artwork, although I could not find any credits in my copy; it was not a book I wanted to leave visible either on the computer screen or on the desktop in my study. I am sure those who have written rave reviews for Thatcher’s book have a name for me; happily, I don’t know what it is. The fact is I, as do all Christians and especially those in pastoral, teaching, and counseling ministries, need a biblical theology of sexuality; an understanding that is grounded in careful and thoughtful reflection. I don’t like stereotyped labels; if I were given one, however, it would probably be a conservative evangelical. Thatcher, who undoubtedly also would disparage labeling, would be considered a liberal evangelical; he is clear in stating his perspective when he indicates “his sympathies generally lie with progressive or revisionist themes, as long as these are deeply rooted in traditional theological sources and doctrines.”[1] The perspective of author and reader are significant, especially in theological understanding through scriptural interpretation in social settings.

Thatcher addresses the complex and controversial religion and social issues that surround sex and sexuality despite the fact it is often difficult to do so. It is easy to ignore or gloss over one’s position in this area of theological belief. The average Christian believer in many of our congregations today tend to accept what has been received, that is handed down by family and though “Sunday School style” teaching without much question or reflection. It is what Howard Stone and James Duke refer to as “embedded” belief as juxtaposed to “deliberative” belief. Embedded belief simply coasts along without thought to the underpinnings of belief that give substance and meaning to theological belief and practice. Stone and Duke define the difference between embedded and deliberative theology:

Embedded theology is the understanding(s) of faith disseminated by the church and assimilated by its members in their daily lives. Deliberative theology is a process of reflecting on multiple understandings of faith implicit in the life and witness of Christians in order to identify and/or develop the most adequate understanding possible.[2]

In Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God, Stanly Grenz and Roger Olson present a similar concept which they refer to as the “spectrum of reflection.”[3] They note the “various levels of theology-some less and some more reflective in their approaches to understanding Christian faith.”

Microsoft Word - Theological Reflection Spectrum.docx

The implications of the spectrum of reflection and embedded verses deliberative theology are obvious. This concept is important, at least to me, as I consider the complexity of sex and sexuality in a contemporary cultural context. I cannot afford to not think/reflect through the questions presented by Thatcher.

I want to state a couple problems, a couple good points, an application, and an example from God, Sex and Gender. Thatcher, as I noted, clearly states his presuppositions from his perspectives and this is helpful. My take on his style of writing, the genre is apologetic (defensive); I draw this conclusion because a sense an arrogant and condescending attitude. For an example, he uses the word “exhilaration” as his purpose in expressing a theology “about sex, sexuality, sexual relations, and gender roles.”[4] Learning, discovery, and expanding one’s knowledge in any area that affects life styles and living standards is potentially good and can expand the possibilities in one’s life. In my opinion, in a theological discussion on sex and sexuality, “exhilarating” is a little over the top. As further example, the questions Thatcher asks throughout the book are thought provoking, however, his comment to the questions, again in my opinion, are narrow, restrictive, and condescending to one who might be is disagreement or see a different answer.  In posing the question, “Is one sex enough?” (Meaning can we use “man” to be inclusive of male and female), he suggests we look at hymns that are sexist, such as “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” He notes, in referencing this hymn that celebrates the birth of the Christ Child, “If there are two sexes, then it is clearly sexist to privilege one over the other.”[5] To his credit, he acknowledges that the authors did not intend to be sexist; they were “just perpetuating the unexamined assumptions that there was one sex – man – and that women were included in this sex as silent, imperfect, and inferior members.”[6] (See note below[7])

Reading Thatcher has created a desire (not an exhilaration) to pursue a theology of sexuality that I and the congregation I serve might be contextually and culturally relevant. I have review several books and downloaded a number of peer-review articles to broaden my understanding and expand the possibility of incarnating the Word in my context and community. Matthew Lee Anderson in an article “God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Body” highlights the significance of discussions on sex and sexuality within a diverse community. He notes:

The benefit of such controversies is that they force evangelicals to seriously evaluate and articulate the proper place of the physical body within both our spiritual practices and our theology. Dissatisfaction increasingly ripples forth from within the evangelical movement, suggesting that this discussion is long overdue.[8]

Two things I appreciate in God, Sex, and Gender, Thatcher does not shy from any topic that relates to the subject even to the smallest issue that might seem totally un-germane to a theology of sex and sexuality. He includes definitions that make it possible for those (me) who have never been reflective enough to consider the issues, engage the topics, or even encountered the sex/sexual terminology that he introduces. This does broaden the discussion.

I want to note the brashness with which Thatcher addresses some topics is difficult. There are hundreds of examples. He asks questions like, “Is the body of Christ ‘Queer’” and immediately dramatizes the question with “This idea is of course shocking, even potentially blasphemous.”[9] In the context of this type of confrontation I see Thatcher’s “theological exhilaration.”

Chapter eight was the most difficult for me. Here, Thatcher has a discussion of “Having Sex with Christ?” He supports his assertion on his interpretation (poor exegesis) of Gal. 3:28. He answers his questions thus:

Members of the body of Christ are thought to have an intimate relationship with Him. Some of them also have a very intimate relationship with each other. It is not often understood that, according to Paul, when members of Christ’s body have sex with their partners, Christ has sex with them as well![10]

He makes the interpretation that “Being a member of the body of Christ directly affects with whom we have sex, and gives us reasons why.”[11] From this statement he is able to declare the “Body of Christ” (the church) as androgynous, having sex and being joined by Christ, in however he envisions this sexual act taking place. Thatcher, later in the book, does acknowledge that Gal. 3:28 is “is rather about the unity of believers in Christ” but it seems he only does so to indicate that “Paul’s reference to “neither … male nor female” is a conscious reversal of Genesis 1: 27.” Again this exegesis is contrary to any reading of the passage in context.

Gal. 3:28 is clearly about unity, equality, and ones in the Body of Christ. It does have both spiritual and physical implications or religious and social. The real question is “Who are the true sons and daughters of Abraham?”[12] And Paul indicates it is those who are united (signifying unity and equality) in Christ. Schreiner and Arnold note the possibility of miss representing the text when the spiritual and social concepts are isolated ant taken out of context. They note: “we must beware lest Paul’s statement in 3:28 becomes untethered from the rest of what he wrote, so that it is wrested from its context and becomes the pretext for modern social agendas.”[13]

It is on the back burner for a while, but I will be back to Thatcher and seek a deliberative theology of sex and sexuality.

I have to say that I barely touched on Marin’s book this week. One book that has helped me a great deal in understanding love in different contexts and through diverse expressions is Dan Kimbels book, They Like Jesus but not the Church.  Just as Jesus loved and care, so also, by hearing the hear and listening in love, I can go into the community truly as imparting the same love that I received in my brokenness and separation.

An Appendix: (sort of)

I am far out of writing room, but I want to acknowledge what I discovered as a great application of social unity and equality through wholesome and healthy concepts of sexuality. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook has established an onsite opportunity, Lean In to enhance gender relationships in all areas of life. She notes three significant ways marital, family and workplace relationships can be significantly better.

  • Children with involved fathers are happier, healthier, and more successful.
  • Couples that share responsibilities have stronger marriages.
  • Diverse teams and companies produce better results.

She describes the opportunity in some detail in two TED talks.[14] I have also copied a couple web site quotations that a very inspirational.

We are committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. If we talk openly about the challenges women face and work together, we can change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.[15] … Lean-In Circles are small groups who meet regularly to learn and grow together. Circles are as unique as the individuals who start them, but they all share a common bond: the power of peer support. Women are asking for more and stepping outside their comfort zones, and men and women are talking openly about gender issues for the first time.[16]

[1] Adrian Thatcher, God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction Kindle ed. (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 183.

[2] Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically 3 ed. (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 2013), 18.

[3] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God Kindle ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 202.

[4] Thatcher, Ibid., 209.

[5] Ibid., 408.

[6] Ibid., 388.

[7] My own “tribe” changed the church hymnal in 1989 to read “Good Christians, Now Rejoice” with a similar rendering throughout the text. My point here is that Thatcher is often over-reaching, perhaps even creating a “straw-man” in his attempt to accentuate his own suppositional position.

[8] Matthew Lee Anderson, “God Has a Wonderful Plan for your Body: It includes Sex, Diet, and Sports – But so much More,” Christianity Today 55 no. 8 (August 2011) 34-38.

[9] Thatcher, Iid., 4197, 4286, etc.

[10] Ibid. (emphasis original).

[11] Ibid., 4167.

[12] Thomas R. Schreiner and Clinton E. Arnold, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Kindle ed. (Grand Rapides, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 7076,

[13] Ibid., 7107.

[14] Sheryl Sander’s TED Talks, http://www.ted.com/speakers/sheryl_sandberg (accessed March 6, 2015).

[15] Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean In,” http://leanin.org/ (Accessed March 5, 2015).

[16] Sheryl Sandberg, “Together We’re Better: Through the Power of Peer Support, Circles are changing Lives,” http://leanincircles.org/ (Accessed March 5, 2015).

About the Author

mm

rhbaker275

9 responses to “Reflective Thinking and Deliberative Theolog”

  1. mm John Woodward says:

    Ron, I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your post this week. It seems that we have many similar takes on the Thatcher book. I come away from reading this book with more questions and unsettled issues than I went into the book with. I think you appendix is good…I was going to add an addendum on to mine that suggests that what I often find missing in so many of our discussions on sexuality (especially same sex issues) is that we are missing out on larger questions of God’s design for family. I know family has been a big focus for many Christians in the last couple decades, but can we really divorce these issues from families, from the effects on children (as you mention…the role of fathers), and God’s design for creating healthy individuals? My work with children and young people, I see the negative effects of broken families all the time…I am not sure the direction our society is going (with the support of the church) is going to help in anyway. I have a lot of concern. And Thatcher didn’t alleviate my concern a whole lot. Thanks Ron for your helpful thoughts.

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      John,
      For sure, I noticed a number of similarities in responding to Thatcher. However, John, it seems you have a really balanced openness in the search to understand the social and moral issues surrounding sex and sexuality. I have, perhaps, remained on the fringe of such discussions because, as I note in my post, I have not really had the challenges that have required me to be deliberative on the theological/biblical foundation of my belief. In this age, it is no longer possible to remain outside the fray. It is presently in the courts in Ohio and will be on the ballot.

      I don’t have a problem using secondary sources in seeking exegetical biblical interpretation (two years of undergraduate Greek was enough for me) – I always seek more than one source that give various perspectives and exegetical methodologies. Thatcher pushed me this week to do biblical studies on the numerous texts that he uses. With Thatcher, I have discovered new sources, for example, I was unaware of the peer-review journal, “Theology & Sexuality: The Journal of the Institute for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality” I do, the Lord willing, intend to come back to theology and sexuality and utilize some of the sources that I have downloaded. Here is one source example that has challenged my traditional view:
      Loughlin, Gerard. “Pauline Conversations: Rereading Romans 1 in Christ.” Theology & Sexuality: The Journal of the Institute for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality. 11 no. 1. Sept. 2004, 72-102.

  2. mm Julie Dodge says:

    Ron – so great! And critical in a good way.

    I will confess that I skimmed, REALLY skimmed, Thatcher. Why? Because from the outset it was clear that he had a bias and I knew what his conclusions would be.

    What I long for is a truly unbiased exegesis of these issues. And then I have to wonder if I would be unbiased enough to receive it.

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Julie,
      I felt Thatcher adequately stated his perspective; perhaps that is why I stayed with him as long as I did. Also, it was a real vocabulary builder for me – understanding the “words” goes a long way in learning…there is still so much I don’t understand; at least at this moment, I am not willing to fall back on a shallow embedded faith – I want to search for deeper meanings that give confident assurance that my faith/belief is properly grounded.

  3. Michael Badriaki says:

    Ron, excellent post! I love how you have weaved some of the past reading with the recent ones in your reflection. I was encouraged by your perspective about the need for a contextual and theological understanding of sexuality. You write, “Reading Thatcher has created a desire (not an exhilaration) to pursue a theology of sexuality that I and the congregation I serve might be contextually and culturally relevant. I have review several books and downloaded a number of peer-review articles to broaden my understanding and expand the possibility of incarnating the Word in my context and community.”

    I am on such a journey and I am learning a lot. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks, Michael
      Navigating the journey is a challenge … fortunately we do not travel alone. I am constantly encountering seekers much like myself … we all have one thing in common, we have not achieved a perfect knowledge and so can learn from each other.

      Blessings in your travels … we shall encounter each other again; I also appreciate learning from you.

  4. Richard Volzke says:

    Ron,
    Like you I may be considered by many to be a very conservative evangelical, but honestly I am very middle of the road. I consider myself a socially responsible evangelical, because I believe we need to help all in need whether they are Christians or not. We are called not only to love the world, but also commanded to get into the messy and complex lives of others.
    Richard

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks Richard,
      I am much on the same path; frankly, I don’t get “shook-up” with a determination to correct what I feel is false or misleading. There is one very prominent reformed theologian that has really made what I consider harsh statements concerning women in ministry. In fact, reading different theological perspectives can be very helpful. In my case, I have never really read deep enough to set a theology of sexuality. I do see the need, as a leader in a congregation and in area ministries to pursue such a deeper study as time permits. Certainly, we must seek to help all in society as we seek to follow the Lord and be reconciled to God and to another.

  5. Ron,

    You did so much good work here. It was a privilege to read your post. I love your courage to take on Thatcher. Frankly, I did not read that book completely, but I did read Marin’s more completely and thought it an important read. When I read Marin, it was not only what he said that impressed me but also what he did not say. Whereas, Thatcher said a lot — and I agree with you — he did seem to have some arrogance and agenda in his tone and voice. That was troubling to me as well.

    I would recommend that you do read Marin. It is quite different and is more of an easy read than Thatcher, more popular, less “perfect.”

    I am, like you, processing all of this right now. As I said to Michael in a response to him, I am glad there is mystery in the Kingdom of God. This way I do not have to feel bad if I don’t understand everything. And on this issue I certainly have more questions than answers.

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