David Pearson | Al Miller, buggery and casting stones
I am particularly disturbed by essential elements of the Rev Al Miller's argument in his July 31 article titled 'The plain truth about the buggery law' published in the Observer. Though I have various concerns, it is his comments about the Jamaica Theological Seminary (JTS) that I question here (for transparency sake, I am the immediate past academic dean of JTS).
Rev Miller chided the Rev Dr Garnett Roper, the president of JTS, for his comment that buggery is a moral, not a legal, issue. This was reason for Miller to challenge both Roper's (and Bishop Howard Gregory's) Christian commitment and the trustworthiness of JTS as a training institution for Evangelical pastors. He said:
"Many of our local churches are sending their future pastors and leaders to be trained at JTS. Is this what we should expect of the new generation of church leaders - that we should abandon the clear teachings of the Bible in favour of the personal viewpoints of a minority and humanistic theological reasonings?"
I must state, Rev Miller, that whether or not buggery ought to be criminalised is not a "clear teaching of the Bible". There can be little debate on that. But, more fundamentally, Rev Miller's comment elevates a basic misunderstanding about the nature of educational institutions, even those meant to be training Christian ministers.
Any such institution worth its salt cannot be concerned about toeing the line with regard to a preordained set of ideas. Surely we expect that those who come to be trained for Christian ministry ought to be expected to be committed to some of the most basic tenets of the faith. But to demand adherence to a set of ideas raises a number of issues.
First, among every religious group (with the exception of some of the most destructive cults), there is little agreement as to exactly what the most basic tenets of the faith are, and even where there is the simplest agreement, there is little unanimity as to what those beliefs actually mean.
Therefore, I could not answer in the affirmative if I were to be asked, "Can you assure me that if I send my potential pastor to be trained at JTS that he will be faithful to the doctrines of the Holiness Church (for instance)?" I could only answer and say that we have sought to help to train the minds of our students, giving them a framework to question phenomena and propose alternatives, where necessary, and to shape their character to one that mirrors Christlikeness.
Here is my concern: Is it that if we do not share the exact shade of understanding on a point of Christian teaching, our Christian commitment is questionable? I certainly think that if Rev Al were to think more carefully about this, he would realise that there are very few, if any, even in his church, who believe exactly as he believes or teaches - on anything. For instance, should Christians be divorced and remarried? Is abortion to be forbidden, even if the mother's life is at stake? What ought we to do with a brother or sister who marries a non-Christian?
Apart from these issues, Rev Miller regularly teaches doctrines at his church that are not shared by many Evangelicals, like his prosperity gospel and the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. Should we then question his commitment to the Bible?
Second (and perhaps a subset of the first) is the question of what actually ought to be the main elements of the education that a school like JTS offers. I notice that Rev Miller's concern is not about the ethical content of JTS training, nor even the formation for ministry, essential for those who will go out into the service. Too many of our pastors will pass the test of the buggery law and gain acceptance by the likes of Rev Miller and the Jamaica Evangelical Alliance (JEA), but go on to be real vagabonds in ministry.
A proper theological education for ministry must help those in training gain a better appreciation for the biblical call to act justly and to place other persons' needs above theirs. This was the example of Christ that we must follow, and sometimes we find that four years of training is not enough to break persons out of bad attitudes and practices that are inimical to Christian ministry.
In a country where people are losing hope each day, and where they are finding more and more persons untrustworthy, those trained by the likes of JTS must show themselves to be trustworthy and authentic ministers and caregivers, since this is how they demonstrate Christ's love to the world. My belief in the legality of buggery is not of primary importance to that.
I cannot help but see in this explosive issue the potential negative impact on schools like JTS by comments that are not properly thought out and frankly unfair. Instead of educating our people on the importance of Christian unity among a diversity of opinions on difficult matters, there are too many of us who seem to believe that a protectionist stance on their thinking is the best way to safeguard their interests.
What good is it to demand that believers outwardly toe the line when they neither understand the issue nor have any true commitment to its veracity? But even more serious is the likely impact of this stance on the Church. We ought to be 'a hospital for sinners and not a museum for saints', as a popular saying goes. Jesus said, "I have come to call sinners to repentance and not the righteous."
Too many of our leaders have frazzled themselves with this issue in such a manner as to make some 'sinners' reluctant to associate with the Church. Instead of being dispensers of grace, too many in this debate too eagerly dispense condemnation, mirroring the Pharisees of Jesus' day. They stand ready with stones in hand.