Wes recently wrote a reflection about the Church Clarity website, and what it might mean for someone who differs from a church’s stated beliefs on sexuality to “stay put” as it were, in spite of serious disagreement.
I want to say right away how much I love and appreciate Wes and his writing. He, perhaps more than anyone, has given me a profound vision of committed friendship and helped me to see a path for positive flourishing in the midst of my same-sex attractions. I am deeply thankful to God for his grace to me through Wes.
Furthermore, regarding Wes’s post, I share much of his concern that we not too easily abandon ship in our commitment to a local church, denomination, or broad Christian tradition based on any and every disagreement we might encounter. When it comes to issues not primary to salvation and the heart of the gospel, membership vows should mean a great deal in our decision making. I also recognize that Wes is coming from a context where his broad church tradition is in the midst of significant change in understanding sexual ethics. I am very sympathetic to the tension he must feel as one who affirms the traditional biblical view of marriage and same-sex sexual activity within the Episcopal Church.
However, one of the unique features of Spiritual Friendship is that all of the contributors do not agree on everything. As I read Wes’s post, I must confess that I was not persuaded by his argument. Part of the reason for this likely flows from exegetical differences, as well as the different ecclesial structures in which we are living. Additionally, my reservations flow from the pastoral perspective from which I write. After all, I am a pastor in a local church, so the question of whether to stay or go takes on a particular flavor for me. In other words, I am not asking the question, “Should I as an individual believer commit to stay at a church with whom I am in serious disagreement?” Instead, the question for me becomes, “There are people at our church who regularly attend, seek to become members, be baptized, take communion, and flourish as Christians. In light of these disagreements on sexuality, how can my fellow pastors and I effectively shepherd our church as a whole AND the individual believers of whom our local body is comprised?”
The answer to this question takes on two separate dimensions for me. The first has to do with our definitions of primary verses secondary issues. Is a traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality so pastorally vital that disagreement can only mean parting ways? The second has to do with the nature and function of a local church. Is there a purpose of the local church that would be lost if one remains with this level of disagreement? I’ll do my best to humbly address these two questions one at a time.
Of Primary Importance?
First, are disagreements about same-sex sexual activity (notice I’m speaking of activity, not an orientation) really so important that as pastors we must hedge the ecclesial fence with this issue? In my estimation, the biblical answer is yes. I don’t say this flippantly, or in a way that rejoices in division. I wish there were no division! Furthermore, I am aware of the discussion on this very issue that flowed from James K. A. Smith’s recent post regarding the limits of orthodox Christianity. Does orthodox mean one simply affirms the creeds? Or does it include more, such as traditional sexual ethics? Without rehashing all of the arguments here, I’ll just say that I agree with Derek Rishmawy when he says, “Orthodoxy [in the creedal sense] would be necessary but nowhere near to sufficient for flagging the totality of belief within the acceptable spectrum of normative Christianity.” In other words, James chapter 2 is ringing loudly in my head that affirming the creeds (“You believe that God is one!”) isn’t enough to have confidence your faith is alive and not dead.
And it isn’t just James 2. I cannot wriggle out from underneath the biblical severity with which the authors of scripture speak on matters of unrepentant sexual immorality. Take the logic of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as just one example (Galatians 5:21, Ephesians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:9, and Hebrews 12:14 speak with at least equal force):
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
We see right away that for Paul, inheritance of the kingdom of God is at stake in our response to sin. He knows this is not an easy truth, so he even adds “Do not be deceived” as an additional warning, knowing that there will be those who try to skirt his meaning here. Paul then goes on to list a number of sins that, if continued in unrepentantly, will result in forfeiture of the kingdom. But he does not leave us without hope. The glorious words, “And such were some of you” are a balm to every sinner looking for hope in Jesus. These Corinthians were those who regularly lived in these sinful patterns, and now they do not. They are repentant.
But then notice what Paul says next. He contrasts those who continue in these behaviors with those who have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus and by the Spirit. And so the logic of Paul’s argument says that if one continues in unrepentant sexual immorality (and same-sex sexual behavior is among the immorality specifically named) then there should be no reasonable confidence in one’s justification. Justifying faith is always sanctifying faith, and in this passage the justified are those who do not continue in sin as if everything is fine.
At this point, however, nuance is required. This does not mean that everyone who sins in these ways is not a Christian. Paul is not a perfectionist, and there is so much grace for those who hate their sin and yet continue to struggle mightily. Nor does it mean that every person who believes committed same-sex relationships are biblically permissible is automatically not a Christian. God is incredibly patient in correcting all of our erroneous beliefs, and we must distinguish between those who simply believe an error and those who are unrepentantly engaging in sin. These truths must be kept in mind.
But what it does mean, I think, is that as a pastor who is responsible for shepherding the people for whom I will one day give an account to God, I cannot look a person in the eye who is unrepentantly engaging in same-sex sexual activity and say “Peace! Peace!” where there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14).
This is a question which every faithful pastor must face humbly and with much trembling. Who is a Christian? Anyone who makes a profession of faith? Those who affirm the creeds? All who have been baptized? I don’t believe so. Rather, Paul says the justified are those who, though far from perfect, fight sin (Cf. Romans 8:9-14; Galatians 5:16-24). And you can’t fight sin if you don’t think it’s sin in the first place. This doesn’t make it easy. Sanctification does not happen all at once. There should be a long period of teaching and admonishing and pleading with bent knees and Bibles open. But if there is no change in heart, it would be pastorally irresponsible of me to give such a person confidence in their profession of faith. Furthermore, the Bible says that the church as a whole should give them no such confidence either (1 Corinthians 5:11-13).
The Local Church: A Means of Grace?
This leads to the second question, one which John Starke also brought up on Twitter: What do these disagreements have to do with the nature and purpose of the local church? In my reading of scripture, a local church is the gathered body of Christ, which is meant to serve and build one another up in love (Ephesians 4:14-16) and to admonish and encourage one another to keep the faith and not wander into sin and error (Hebrews 10:23-26; James 5:19-20). Indeed, faithful participation and membership in a local church is a means of grace by which God (through his people) keeps us faithful and turns us back from our wandering. If this is the case, then I would be missing out on this keeping grace of God by committing myself to a local body with whom I do not agree about the very nature of sin. So again, it would seem pastorally irresponsible of me to advise anyone to be a part of a church with a disagreement of this level.
This is especially true for anyone who might need help in a particular area to remain faithful. We all have our different ways in which we are prone to wander. If my struggle was to remain faithful to my wife, it would be disastrous to attend a church that believes marital fidelity is not necessary for a faithful Christian life. The same is true with celibate gay folks like myself. I need encouragement and admonishment and love to help me resist temptations toward same-sex sexual sin—even the committed and monogamous variety. It seems to me (knowing my own weaknesses, and doing my best not to project myself on to others) that my ability to hold to my convictions would not last very long in an affirming church, regardless of my best intentions to be a light. I need God’s grace through those who agree with me on the nature of sexual sin to keep me on the narrow path. This seems to me an essential function of a local church.
The practical upshot of all of this is that to me as a pastor, it seems that the minimum dividing line for ecclesial fellowship in a local church must include an agreement on the nature of sin itself. Without this agreement, I—and my fellow pastors—would have no idea how to shepherd our members. Can we warn those who are happily unrepentant that if they continue in their sin they will prove their faith to be false? Or must we say to those engaged in sexual sin, “I disagree with you, but here is the body and the blood of Christ, be assured you are his,” when I believe the Bible gives no such assurance?
Again, I say this as one who does not glory in division and who yearns (O Lord, make it so!) for greater unity in the church. Commitments to Christ and to one another in the midst of secondary disagreements are beautiful miracles that can only be explained by the Spirit of the living God. But without agreement on what is primary and what is secondary, can the unity ever be more than surface deep?
Given the current cultural climate we find ourselves in, agreement on these things might seem unlikely, even impossible. But God is able to create real unity in the church by showing us the truth of his word by the power of his Spirit. Come, Lord Jesus!