Column: Christianity not intolerant, just demanding

Whatever else it may have been, the recent election was not really about social issues. The candidates did come down on their party’s side of the major ones: abortion, LGBTQ rights and welfare, but their campaigns were not defined by them. However, these issues are by no means going away. The divide on these issues is starker than ever, with rhetoric increasingly tending toward outright demonization of people holding the opposite view. Perhaps nowhere else in American society have these issues exerted as much pressure and caused such bitter divide as within Christianity.

Of these issues, the one driving the biggest split in Christianity today is homosexuality. Churches and denominations are wrestling with this question: Can you be a Christian and live as a gay or lesbian? Framed in this way, it does seem hard to swallow that many denominations of Christianity continue to answer "no." How can a religion exclude a whole class of people and not be intolerant?

In defense of the churches that haven’t conformed their teaching to modern sensibilities, I want to answer this question with another one: What can religion ask of a person? As a Christian, I will focus on what Christianity can and does ask of it adherents rather than religion in general.

That mainstream Christian denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have readily conformed their theological positions on homosexuality to societal norms is an indication of how these denominations view their faith.

The modern assumption about religion seems to be that it is something extra that you can tack onto your life to provide a sense of meaning or purpose. In this understanding, religion is a means to an end — what counts is that sense or feeling your religion is giving you. Claim to objective truth and morality are cast aside and religion becomes subjective. It is reduced to a single facet of one’s personality, just another preference that can be replaced if its demands outweigh its benefits. I think this is the kind of religion Hillary Clinton had in mind when she began talking about “freedom of worship” instead of the constitutionally guaranteed “freedom of religion.” It is something that you do on your day of rest in your church, synagogue, mosque or temple, but stays there during the week. It’s an activity a person does, not one of their defining traits.

Christianity doesn’t naturally fit this mold. From its beginning, it has demanded a radical response. The Bible is full of statements such as: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” and “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” It’s not a list of rules to follow to get to heaven, but a new and comprehensive way of life. Christianity asks its followers not to incorporate it into their lives, but to completely reorient their lives around it.

That’s why I don’t think statements like one made by Lutheran campus minister Frank Anderson several weeks ago really reflect what Christianity is about. He was quoted in an Oct. 27 The Daily Gamecock article as saying: "My concern is always someone who's struggling with their sexuality might end up in a ministry that really is antithetical to their belief of who they are sexually, and that can be very damaging.”

The underlying assumption of this comment is the same subjective, self-oriented view of religion that has become commonplace in our culture. Pastor Anderson seems to think that students with same-sex attractions need a God that molds himself to their character and choices, rather than molding their character and choices to him.

The truth is that the God of Christianity has given a strict sexual ethic: celibacy or complete faithfulness in marriage. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you will instantly stop sinning, but it means submitting your will and your desires to God.

That’s why some denominations have continued to maintain that you can’t be a Christian and persist in homosexual acts. They believe that doing so is saying to God: “I’ll submit to you and strive for obedience in every area, except my sexuality. That’s off-limits.” The prohibition on holding anything back from God doesn’t apply only to homosexual behavior. It also covers heterosexual acts outside of marriage, greed, lying, injustice and much more. Anyone who refuses to submit every aspect of their lives to God cannot be a Christian. Nothing can be held back; a person cannot have even the smallest space in which they say to God, “This is mine and you can’t have it.”

This is a radical ethic and one that is probably off-putting to most people used to the modern conception of religion. You may ask yourself, can a religion legitimately ask so much of a person? I believe the answer is "yes." Christianity makes such difficult demands because it tells us that our existence on Earth is only the briefest of preludes to eternal life — either eternal joy with God or everlasting misery without him. It holds that people’s actions and beliefs here on Earth determine their eternal future. Christians are asked to make sacrifices in their earthly existence, but we believe that they do not compare to the joy that lies ahead.

British scholar and apologist C.S. Lewis wrote: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I don’t deny that Christianity’s rigid ethic can be difficult to live by. But when you consider what it offers, an eternal relationship with the being that is ultimate reality Himself, the source and origin of all good things, the sacrifices pale in comparison.

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