We are material and immaterial

Over at Hugh Hallowell’s website there’s a giant debate between him and a commenter named ‘pastorboy.’ The debate is essentially over how Hugh worked with a homeless couple to get them a home and get them off the streets. Hugh got this couple a house even though the couple is unmarried (but is getting married) and gave no indication of whether or not he shared the Gospel. ‘Pastorboy’ took issue with this, noting that the couple was sinning and that they needed to hear the Gospel of Christ. Hugh’s response on whether or not they were saved was,

They are saved –  from the hell of sexual assault, the hell of living on the streets, the hell of no hope, the hell of hunger, the hell of being alone in the world

It’s debates and arguments like these that often leave me shaking my head – both sides are so entrenched in their viewpoints that neither side is willing to concede they could be wrong in some areas and work together to find common ground. In essence, both sides are right and both sides are wrong.

It is easier for me to begin with Hugh’s position because, on this issue at least, I tend to agree with him more than I disagree. I think all Christians will agree that helping the poor is good, but I like that Hugh went beyond the system to help this couple. Too often the local church “help’s” the homeless by putting them in vans, bringing them to the church, giving them a special service (so they’re not mixed with the general population of the church) while feeding them, and then sending them home. While I do understand the danger of helping the homeless – as there are homeless who are mentally ill and/or extremely violent and prone to act out in violence – there are others who are homeless and harmless. All they need is help, they need someone to take care of them. Some are homeless because of a defect in the economy while others are homeless because of a defect in themselves, but both are harmless and both are worthy of our displayed love. The Church would be better off if we did what we could to help the homeless or at the very least worked to repair a damaged system in order to help the homeless more (rather than throwing violent/anti-social people into homeless shelters along with those who genuinely need help and will receive it).

The only problem I see with Hugh’s response to ‘pastorboy’ is his description of “salvation.” I can’t tell if he’s being hyperbolic and subsequently egging on ‘pastorboy’ or if he truly views salvation in that manner. But without making any assumptions on whether or not this particular homeless couple knew Christ (there’s no way I could know and it’s unfair to assume they’re not Christians just because they’re co-habitating and homeless; fact is, she needs someone to look over her and being homeless doesn’t mean you can’t be saved…after all, Jesus was homeless), I would argue that salvation applies to both our soul and body, to both the material and immaterial. That is the importance of the Incarnation, that as He took on our humanity, He redeemed the whole of our humanity. This means that both our material (body) selves and immaterial (soul/spirit) selves have been redeemed by Christ.

If we think that we are ‘saving’ people by giving them homes and food, we are only partially correct. They still have an immaterial side that suffers from the ravages of the world and the darkness of sin; it should be out of love and not obligation that we introduce them to Christ so that the light of Christ, our Hope, should eradicate the darkness in their souls. We know that someday their bodies will be resurrected from the grave to reign with Christ eternally, so it only makes sense to treat their bodies with respect now (that is, feed them, clothe them, house them, and treat them like family…even if they don’t accept Christ, for they are still in the image of God), but we must also attempt to heal their souls as well so that they might partake in the resurrection.

Now, it could very well be that Hugh believes this, but simply withheld it in order to make a point to ‘pastorboy,’ the point being that salvation goes beyond saying a prayer or having your soul saved, that salvation also refers to the salvation of our bodies as well as our souls (which, who are we without either? if “I” am saved, then shouldn’t both my soul and body be included, since “I” am composed of a unique soul and body?). Thus, when I say I have a “problem” I am only referring to the response. If Hugh does actually believe that salvation is mostly physical, then yes, he’s wrong. But I don’t know Hugh, so I’m not about to assume that’s his position.

In looking at ‘pastorboy’s’ (who I’m assuming is John “The Baptist” Chisham [sic]) position, I see a problem that is all too common among conservative evangelicals. The problem is how they view the world; whereas ’emergent’ Christians tend to elevate the material above the spiritual, evangelicals tend to elevate the spiritual above the material. The big term for this is misplaced metaphysical dualism, which simply says that both views are wrong. The fact is the spiritual and material are equal because both are created by God. Should we assume that our immaterial aspect is of the same substance as God we would be committing heresy. Rather, our immaterial aspect is different than God’s immateriality, for He alone is truly immaterial, and was created by God, just as our bodies were created by God. Should we devalue our flesh or curse it then we are devaluing the flesh of Christ, for He took on our flesh and in so doing lifted up our flesh. He continues on in our flesh (albeit in perfect form), indicating that the physical aspect of man is just as valuable as the immaterial aspect of man.

I also take issue with his quick condemnation of their cohabitation, mostly because while I agree that it’s wrong (as I believe Hugh also made clear he believes it’s wrong), it’s not the biggest issue this couple is facing right now. Before going any further, it would behoove ‘pastorboy’ and those who agree with him to read John 4:1-42 where Jesus talks to the woman at the well. In that speech, she admits that she is living with a man who is not her husband, but what does Jesus do? Does He lecture her on the sanctity of marriage? Does He tell her how she needs to marry the man and in the mean time move into a different home? Does He chastise her as a sinner and then lead her through the Roman Road to get her to say a prayer? He does none of these things. Rather, He already knows she views herself as a sinner, as someone who is not even worthy to worship God. But instead of making sure she really knows she’s a sinner, He reveals Himself as the Messiah to her. Rather than hold a mirror up to her darkness, He reveals Himself as the light of God who casts away all darkness and in turn gives her hope! He never once tells her to go marry the man, but rather lets her go into the town and spread the good news of Christ.

Now, I don’t think the above gives us a license to co-habitate or normalizes such actions, but rather demonstrates that sometimes there are bigger issues. The woman in Hugh’s story, without her partner, would face almost certain sexual assault, brutal beatings, and other horrible things. Likewise, she went from a middle-class lifestyle to being homeless (due to bad circumstances). So we look at her situation as follows:

1) If she is a Christian, then she has all these problems, which can lead to hope being snuffed out (even those with the Holy Spirit can have this happen – look at David). If she’s a Christian, then we have a ‘double-duty’ to help her get out of her situation; chastising her on her living conditions with her partner doesn’t really aid her in her predicament.

2) If she’s not a Christian, then she still has all of the above problems plus she’s without the hope of Christ. How would attempting to correct her living conditions help her on either predicament?

I don’t understand why there is a big divorce in the Gospel between physical needs and immaterial needs. The Gospel is meant for the whole of man, for the whole person, so it only makes sense that in sharing the Gospel we would meet the needs of the whole person, both spiritual and physical. While feeding and clothing those who need it, we would share the story of Christ with them (if they aren’t already Christians). We would show them that just as they are physically poor and oppressed, they are spiritually poor and oppressed as well and that only Christ can truly heal both problems. Whether we should take care of their physical needs or spiritual needs is not an either/or issue or a matter of prioritizing one above the other; both are to occur simultaneously. Likewise, we treat the person with dignity and respect not as a means to a goal (salvation), but rather because the person is made in the image of God, and should they reject Christ, but accept your help, then continue offering help and continuing building that relationship with them. They bear within them the image of God and therefore we are to treat people as ends in themselves.

Never neglect a person’s spiritual needs to the preferment of his physical needs, but never commit the opposite error either.


2 thoughts on “We are material and immaterial

  1. Indeed, it is not an either or, but a both and… This dualistic imbalance in Christianity shoots holes in the witness of all sides. Also, is it really any of our business as to what goes on within their room? For all we know they could be extremely conservative Christians or Muslims, and he is taking the floor and giving her the bed.

    The whole appearance of evil thing is vastly over-rated… especially when tied into economic necessity. Granted no one should force a young couple into a sin prone situation, but since they were already doing the motel thing, it was likely a non-issue, unlike say a couple stranded teenagers hundreds of miles from home.

  2. Thanks for your lengthy response. I appreciate the time you put into it, and appreciate your thoughts.

    One of the things we are committed to as an organization is not writing Christian Porn. Many, many orgs will tell you about the work they do and somehow tie it all up with a happy ending and a salvation story to make Christians feel good about themselves. None of those orgs will be us, however.

    I deal with victims of spiritual abuse all day long. Homeless people who had to say a ‘sinner’s prayer’ before they will get blankets or food, women who were sexually assaulted by a ‘minister’ (much more common than one would think) and those who were thrown out by there parents when they told Mom they were gay (because Mom’s preacher told her that was what God wanted).

    I follow the Jesus path (albeit, from afar). I know no other, am interested in following no other. The people I work with feel the love of Jesus, because they ARE Jesus (see sheep and goats story).

    When you are dealing with victims of abuse, they need to belong way before they can believe.

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