My Response to Wade Burleson Concerning Total Inability/Depravity and the Idea of Degrees of Sin, With a Focus on Sexual Deviancy

The following is a brief exchange I had with Wade Burleson on Wartburg Watch.  For the full context of the conversation, please see Wartburg Watch, E-Church post for 5.26.2013.

I want to post this because I think it is a great illustration of how even those pastors with good hearts and the best of intentions are ultimately thwarted in their ability to truly empathize (in my opinion) because they are perpetually ham-stringed by the inconsistent and incongruent doctrines they hold.  For those pastors like Wade, who seem to have good intentions and sympathy for victims of church hyper-authoritarian abuse, the intention of my responses to him was not to denigrate them, but to illustrate how they must actually suspend their doctrine, or outright contradict it in order to truly relate to people, and victims in particular.  Wade suggests that I misrepresented his beliefs; and while I did apologize for possibly misrepresenting what he thinks, I stand by my assertion that what he thinks is not consistent with the doctrinal beliefs his own church website confirms.  Specifically, in the area of Calvin’s first and most egregious false theological point:  total depravity.

Total depravity is wholly evil because it does, in fact, create a system of moral relativism for both man and God.  There can be no true good or evil in the world if man is, in fact, totally depraved.  This a point I have made before on my blog and on others, and is yet to be refuted.  And this what I believe Wade and other neo-reformed/Calvinist pastors miss, and what I was trying to convey to him.  Whether or not I succeeded remains to be seen.  However, I must confess that I hold out little hope.  It seems that reformed Christians are unusually reticent to concede that a world view based on the idea that all truth is a function of self-contradictory and mutually exclusive ideas with no anchor in the existential reason which hems in man’s life and world–by God’s purposeful design, I might add–is, in reality, NO truth at all.

At any rate, here is the brief three post exchange:

Argo:

With all due respect to Wade, what he is saying is that God is no respecter of persons when it comes to sexual deviants. There is no difference to God between a grown single man and grown single woman consenting to sex outside of marriage and a man raping a child. Both are equal sins to God, who does not equivocate on sin of any kind,really. And this is the root of his doctrinal problems, in my opinion. It is functionally moral relativism.

The fact that Wade labels sex with a child as a “crime against humanity” is a difficult idea to square with the reformed idea that God alone is responsible for any “good” we do which He will accept; otherwise known as Total Depravity. It isn’t rational to declare that there can be a “crime” against that which is perpetually deserving of divine punishment as a root function of its existence.

It is commendable that Wade believes that those guilty of violating civil law should be held accountable, but it is not particularly consistent with his theology. The problem with neo-reformed theology is precisely what Wade admits above: to God, ALL sin is the same sin, since the root of the human condition is depravity and wickedness. A victim of a crime is never in a moral position to judge or condemn his or her abuser because, again, to God, there is no functional difference between the depravity of both people. The ONLY option a victim has is to extend forgiveness, not because they understand that love is the most important commandment, but because they must acknowledge that their own pain and suffering is just as much proof of the fallen human condition as the abusive behavior of the perpetrator.

See, when the human being becomes tangential to the holistic evil which categorically defines them, there can be no rational distinction between good and evil in a human’s life. Calvinism is evil precisely because it makes morality relative. ALL of man’s existential context is EVIL; thus, there can be no “right” or “wrong” in our lives as far as God is concerned. And this is why no victim can ever expect to see true justice done in a reformed church. They need to recognize that evil is REAL, and that evil is the willful actions of the ABUSER, which is proven by the wicked outcome of UNJUST pain and suffering on the part of the abused. The abused has an audience with God; and they have every right in the world to demand justice upon the perpetrator, to declare his deeds objectively evil, and to avoid him forever. But you won’t get that at Wade’s church I suspect because it is not his doctrine. If you are “bitter” because your abuser is admitted into the church where you go and is given equal deference by the doctrine the preach (that we are all just the same little sinners before God) then I submit that there will never be the kind of vigilance which needs to be maintained when in the company of rank abusers. The doctrine doesn’t even allow us to declare people actually psychologically abnormal. For what is abnormal? Why, it is merely “sin”. And we all have that.

This goes back to my original response on the other thread in which I declare that what Wade meant to say is that it really does not matter what a person does or does not do in God’s sovereign and determined “plan”; for good and evil for the totally depraved are relative only, and so there can be no real condemnation or judgement for any “sin”. For sin is merely THE synonym for being human. And it is, of course, hypocritical (in Calvin’s theology) for one person to judge the person-hood of another person.

This is why this theology must lack empathy by definition. It is utterly hostile to humanity.

Wade Burleson:

Argo,

You are not representing what I am saying accurately at all. I believe both this world and in hell, the judgment is WORSE for the child abuser. For this reason, God does not treat all sins the same. How He metes out different punishment in hell is something I can’t answer, but the fact Jesus said, “The day of judgment will be more tolerable for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah than the people of Tyre and Sidon” indicates that judgment from God is measured in degrees. I have always believed this, so I would appreciate an acknowledgment that you have misunderstood and/or unintentionally misrepresented by beliefs. I know it is not intentional and is most likely due to my poor abilities of communication.

What I am saying is something that some dare not admit in our politically correct culture. The unrepentant homosexual and the unrepentant adulterer will join the child abuser in hell. How a just God metes out punishment that is different and suitable to the severity of the sin is something I cannot answer.

A sin committed against an unwilling person (i.e. rape, child abuse, etc…) is far worse than a sin committed against a consensual person (i.e. homosexuality, adultery). My point is both are sins. One worse than another, but both are sins. Yes?

Thanks for your comment.

Argo:

@ Wade Burleson:

Wade,
I will concede that you truly believe what you say you believe. To deny that would be presumptuous, and wrong, and so I do not want to “put words in your mouth”.

Otherwise, I am forced to stand by the ideas I expressed in my posts. My concern is that, though you certainly believe what you believe, the doctrine you espouse is inconsistent with that. In short, I do not think you have thought through the doctrine completely to its “logical” conclusion. Total inability to please God, or Total Depravity (same thing; there is no logical difference) is an ABSOLUTE construct. There can be no degrees of an absolute, by definition. If man is totally unable and totally depraved, then the end of man is his depravity. Not only is no sin according to this doctrine “worse than another”, but EVERYTHING man does must be considered evil; for there can be no GOOD in absolute depravity. So when you declare equivocations of sin, according to your doctrine (that I read on your church’s site) you are not being consistent. There is no way a victim of abuse can be declared less of a sinner than the abuser if both are ABSOLUTELY unable to please God. Again, it is the reliance on the absolute-ness of the invective “TOTAL” that destroys the concept of morality and makes man’s existence the root of ALL that is evil. If you want to declare degrees of sin, then you must jettison the idea that man is totally unable to please God, and yes this must include the unsaved. The end of man MUST be GOOD, and I mean GOOD as a function of being OF GOD (Created by Him); and in conjunction with man’s creation must be his morally “neutral” innate ability to WILL; that is, to do and choose whatever he chooses and does, and this must be wholly apart from God. It is this root ability and root morality of “good as a function of being of God” that makes man both able to please God and to displease God; to reject Him and to accept Him. Man himself is not the standard of evil; so he cannot then be TOTALLY unable or TOTALLY depraved. Man’s depravity then is only a function of his ability to ACT on his own behalf. Which, again, means he is not totally unable. On the contrary, he is justly rewarded or condemned by God because he is totally ABLE, and chooses to do or not do.

And no, I do not concede that homosexuality is a sin, necessarily, nor do I concede that sex of two consenting adults who are not married is sin. In this I could be wrong, but as of yet I would have no way of knowing how these activities are sin apart from my own (and your own) subjective assumptions concerning morality based on what is ultimately a subjective choice to believe in the bible. “Sin” must be rational, as well as biblical, in my view in order for it to be used in a way that is not a club to compel subjective versions of morality. It cannot be a function purely of “the bible says so, so its sin”. There must be an observable and measurable violation of another human being’s property, mind, and/or body. This MAY be the case with homosexuality or consenting adult sex, but I do not believe that it is necessarily so.

Thus went the exchange.  I feel that I was about as clear as I can be regarding the exclusivity between what Wade thinks and the doctrine he holds.  I understand that these can be confusing concepts, and so I do not in any way believe that Wade, nor many other–if not most–pastors purposefully intend to equivocate or mislead people.  Not at all.  But it is important that the inconsistency between thought/action and doctrinal assumptions be illuminated in the hopes that at least some will accept that it is better to preach truth and to also hold to it, rather than to preach it and yet not grasp its fundamentals.

One thing I wanted to mention but did not feel was constructive to do so on the blog is:  I find it strange and not wholly relevant to discuss the broad spectrum of sexual sins when discussing the rape/abuse/exploitation of minors.  I understand the point to some extent–that it is merely a matter of mere vagaries in definitions which separate one sex sin from another; and yet, I think the point is utterly baseless, and worse, obfuscates the real issue:  crimes against victims who possess no capacity to concede, accede, understand, accept, deny, or defend themselves.  To answer a question about giving some kind of spiritual succor or acceptance to a convicted child molester with an appeal to “homosexuality is wrong, too”; “sex outside of marriage is wrong, too”, seems…hmm, incompatible; as if we are discussing two different things.

Wade’s point is that the bible defines sin, not man’s culture…and I get that, but I’m still not sure what his point is or was in the context of the subject at hand. I took his statement to mean that, to God, no one sexual sin is worse or better than the other, and so to hold child molesters in some kind of special “sin category” is doctrinally flawed. Wade denied this, saying that there are degrees of sin, which is fine, but I’m left with:  why then mention homosexuality at all?  If homosexuality is indeed a lesser sin than child rape, why is homosexuality included in the discussion at all (not to mention that “degrees of sin” is utterly incompatible with the doctrine of total depravity/inability).  It seems to me that the only reason to include any other type of sexual sin in a discussion of child rape/molestation is to convey the idea that really, at the end of the day, all sin is the same sin; the victim is no better than the abuser.  For both deserve hell for their very existence, always and perpetually, and so, again, the victim needs to understand that the same way the abuse “proves” man’s total depravity and God’s perpetual need to convey judgement, so do the effects of the abuse.  And because of this, the victim is never in a position to judge the abuser; and is also perpetually obligated to “forgive” him or her, regardless of whether or not any active justice on the part of the victim is pursued; whether or not the abuser repents, or even stops abusing.

Now, I am in no way suggesting that Wade actively thinks this.  I am SURE he does not.  But I am also saying that I do not understand how discussion of other kinds of sexual sin (some of which are debatable because their immorality is subjective; e.g. sex between two unmarried consenting, mature adults) are in any way relevant to the wholly evil crime of child sexual abuse.  The negative effects of which have been objectively cataloged for decades by trained psychologists/psychiatrists/physicians.

I think mentioning other sexual sins is used to prove a neo-reformed doctrinal point:  don’t judge, because we are all equally sinful in God’s eyes.  This of course is a lie, but it is a cornerstone of reformed thinking.  And Wade, I understand is reformed.  So he will make doctrinal points when he can, understandably, because that is his job.  Even though he may not necessarily see or affirm the logical conclusions of those doctrinal points.

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3 thoughts on “My Response to Wade Burleson Concerning Total Inability/Depravity and the Idea of Degrees of Sin, With a Focus on Sexual Deviancy

  1. I went and read the thread and had the same confusion you did. And I guess because I have heard one of Wades congregants say many times on other blogs that sin is sin and God sees it the same way. AS in God sees all sin the same way. Sin is sin. I totally reject that premise. But then I see that thinking on many SBC REformed blogss so what else is new. They have argued that being fat is as big of sin as deceiving someone. (Lots of fat pastors in SBC? The YRR guys always bring that one up when defending their guys on something)

    So, I assumed that is what he was really communicating: those sins are the same. But he comes back and basically agrees with you they are not the same sins. Or perhaps that they would not be “judged” the same way but still are same sins to God? I am still in a muddle.

    I have seen this quite a bit in some of those threads when victims speak up on them. I find it confusing.

    I don’t think his doctrine fits who he wants to be but when I heard that part about the AW Pink letter to his grandfather, I think I get it. This doctrine is family heritage.

  2. Lydia,

    I really appreciate that comment. It helps confirm my initial observation. That the doctrinal point Wade was making is that one cannot decry child molestation without also injecting the idea of human depravity IN GENERAL. That is his reformed point, I believe, whether he is conscious of it or not.

    I loved what you said about “his doctrine doesn’t match who he wants to be”. Brilliant observation; and poignantly concise. That really was my point. I think Wade is a good man whose doctrine unfortunately presents a constant stumbling block. In the midst of his altruism he instinctively works in some despotic point about “those without sin, cast the first stone”…which is irrelevant to the discussion.

    I like Wade, but no one is reformed unless they are reformed FIRST. At the end of the day, it always boils down to the idea that there can be no such thing as a victim when we are all evil at our root.

  3. “I think Wade is a good man whose doctrine unfortunately presents a constant stumbling block. In the midst of his altruism he instinctively works in some despotic point about “those without sin, cast the first stone”…which is irrelevant to the discussion. ”

    Yes, I hate that one. It is so taken out of context but that thinking is very prevelant. They leave out the part that Jesus said that in a context of trumped up charges. According to Leviticus the man had to be there, too. They were not following the law.

    The “all sins are the same” is a total depravity construct. It is necessary to keep up that charade. Give me original death! Augustine introduced “original sin” as in inheriting Adam’s sin.

    If you listen to Reformed types preach long enough you pick up on a few things: They tend literalize scripture where it is metaphorical or poetry. They tend to totally eschew the Jewishness of Jesus within that historical context. (Romans is a great examle as is Hebrews)

    Lots of wrong teaching on the law, etc, because the Reformation ignored the Jewish context. Gee, some of those guys like Luther were anti sematic!

    It has gotten to the point, i can hardly listen anymore. For example, Piper’s Neo REformed definition of Sovereignty which is basically taking over, sounds more and more like Allah Ak’bar to me. It is a negation of all of God’s attribute which render moot their definition of “Sovereignty”.

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