No, Homosexuality is Not Just an "Ethical Issue"
Yes this is another post on homosexuality. Believe me I’d rather talk about something else too. I don’t relish the thought of people thinking I’m a nasty conservative. I don’t like the idea of being labeled homophobic. I’d rather spend time encouraging courageous brothers and sisters who battle to overcome their same-gender attraction. And frankly, I’d rather talk about something other than sex.
But every generation in the church has some parcel of truth to defend and this is the plot for the present generation. It sounds nicer to be argue about the doctrine of Scripture or original sin or something less intensely personal. But then again I’m sure those controversies would be no fun either (and probably need to dealt with in our time too!).
So whether we like it or not the controversy over homosexuality is here to stay. Especially in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Especially as long as my denomination continues to hesitate between two opinions.
A Tempest in the Twin Cities
As most everyone knows by now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voting last month in Minneapolis, approved a resolution allowing gays and lesbians in “life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships” to be ordained. The United Church of Christ (UCC) has gone down this road already. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has flirted with the idea. The official, though not undisputed, position of the RCA is that homosexual behavior is sinful and marriage is between one man and one woman.
These four denominations–the ELCA, the UCC, the PC(USA), and the RCA–share a Formula of Agreement which states, among other things, that we recognize each other “as churches in which the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered to the Word of God.” There are any number of reasons for the RCA to extricate itself from the Formula of Agreement. The recent action by the ELCA is one of the strongest.
Over a week ago I argued that it’s time for a formula of disagreement. Since then RCA spokesman Paul Boice has reiterated the RCA’s commitment to the Formula of Agreement. In an article by the Christian Post, Boice is quoted as saying “Cutting ties with the ELCA over their Assembly’s narrow decision would witness to the world that Christians will fight and divide themselves from one another, and break the bonds of Christian fellowship, over such an ethical difference.” Boice also explained: “The official stances of our two churches [RCA and UCC] differed, and continue to differ today, as with the ELCA.” But, “the difference on this ethical issue did not involve the core of the gospel; in other words, we still recognized one another as churches.” And later Boice argues that “If we began cutting ties with every denomination with which we had a difference, we would be unfaithful to our Lord’s call to seek the unity of his body and do serious harm to our witness and mission in the world.”
Unity Does Not Answer the Question
From what I know about Paul Boice he strikes me as a decent fellow, probably an evangelical in some sense of the word. But his explanation for maintaining official ties with the ELCA is very disappointing.
For starters, playing the unity card is an overused trick. Every Christian in the world believes in unity. We’ve all read John 17 and Ephesians 4, and we know that unity is a good thing. But the question is always “unity with whom and on what grounds?” It’s not fair to position the two options as “maintaining our present ecumenical agreements” or “sinfully dividing over every little difference.” Obviously, some division is not called for. But some is. Sometimes “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:19).
Unity must always be based on truth, and visible external unity must be pursued only with those with whom we share real spiritual unity. Surely the history of the church teaches us that unity is not a simple matter of joining hands with anyone who goes by the name of Christian. Unity with Arians and Gnostics and Socinians is not the sort of unity we ought to prize. Just as there is schism that masquerades as principle, there is also faithless compromise that goes by the guise of unity.
In fact, the whole ecumenical enterprise ought to be challenged as a bureaucratic waste of time. I’m certainly not opposed to Christians of different stripes working and worshiping together. I love my pastors group which consists of a PCA pastor, a Baptist pastor, a Sovereign Grace pastor, and me. Where did we get this notion that unity is only achieved when denominational officials sign paperwork together? And why do we think that leaving denominational agreements means ruining our witness for Christ? Isn’t purity an important witness too?
And let’s be realistic, are lots of new converts being made in the congregations of the World Council of Churches because a watching world can witness our unity? Hardly. The denominational ecumenism of the past 60 years has done little that is relevant to the average Christian in the pew and even less to win the world for Christ because it has been a unity based on doctrinal indifferentism and progressive politics.
The bottom line, of course, is that unity with those who encourage sexual immorality is not the sort of unity Jesus prayed for. Are we really to believe that if the Apostle John and Philip started having sex together in a committed monogamous relationship that Peter (not to mention Jesus) would have been ok with that? Or to put it in similar terms, are we to believe that if John started a church and ordained a man having gay sex with his partner that Peter would have thought, “Well, Jesus said we should be one. So no biggie.”
Come on, let’s be serious. Does anyone honestly think that if we could take a time machine back to 60 AD and we found (what we certainly would not find) Timothy and Titus sleeping together that Paul would have told the other churches “Relax, it’s only an ethical issue”? We can do all the mental gymnastics we want with word studies and the dialectics of Lutheran or Reformed hermeneutics but at the end of the day it takes an extraordinary degree of historical re-invention, not to mention hubris, to imagine the Apostles and the Church Fathers marching in gay parades and defending their associations with those who would.
And then there’s Jesus. It’s hard to imagine that the Son of God who promised not to relax one of the least of the commands of the Old Testament–this same Jesus who lovingly confronted the woman at the well and who upheld the sanctity of marriage in the strictest terms against the liberalizers of his day–would have blessed homosexual intercourse in direct disobedience to Leviticus 18 and 20?
Yes, the Gospel is at Stake
I have argued time and time again that there are not just two sides to the homosexuality debate. There are three: homosexual behavior is bad, homosexual behavior is good, homosexuality doesn’t really matter. The deviousness of denomination-speak blinds many evangelicals who know homosexuality is wrong into tolerating it as ok. In the RCA for example, there is very little chance in the next five years that the majority of the denomination will side with those who argue that same-sex unions are a blessing from God. But many may lack the courage to say that the promotion of homosexuality is flat-out unacceptable. Instead they will be lulled into thinking that we should simply agree to disagree and move on to “the really important issues.”
This is the underlying presumption in Boice’s statements about homosexuality being just “an ethical issue.” And if any RCA folks are reading this, you can be sure that this same argument for toleration of the ELCA has been and will be offered as a reason to tolerate gay marriage and gay clergy in the RCA itself. Too many “evangelicals” end up saying, “Hey, it’s not my thing. I wouldn’t support it. But the gospel isn’t at stake. So let’s not fight over this any longer.”
So why is Boice wrong when he says “the difference on this ethical issue [does] not involve the core of the gospel”? Let me suggest several reasons.
1. Promoting homosexuality is a violation of the catholicity of the church. Sure many in the West are arguing for the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, but for 99% of our history the church has considered homosexual behavior to be sinful. (And before anyone mentions slavery at this point I would encourage him to read Rodney Stark’s book For the Glory of God where he debunks the myth that the church was pro-slavery for 1800 years.) No one had to write a confession about homosexuality, because it was an implied status confessionis issue. No church would have tolerated a difference of opinion, let alone a deviant practice.
True, church tradition is not infallible. But when we make a decision (accepting homosexuality or tolerating those who do) that virtually every single Christian who has ever lived would consider unthinkable, we ought to pause and wonder if we’ve drunk too much from the spirit of the age. We would be wiser to listen to the testimony of our brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world who know that homosexuality is not an agree-to-disagree kind of issue.
2. Homosexual behavior is so repeatedly and clearly forbidden in Scripture that to encourage homosexuality calls into question the role of Scripture in the life of the denomination that accepts such blatantly unbiblical teaching. Luke Timothy Johnson, New Testament scholar and advocate of legitimizing homosexual behavior, is commendably honest when he writes, “I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.” At its root, support for homosexual behavior is not simply a different interpretation of Scripture, it is a rejection of Scripture itself.
3. Far from treating sexual deviance as a lesser “ethical issue”, the New Testament sees it as a matter for discipline (1 Corinthians 5), separation (2 Corinthians 6:12-20), and an example of perverse compromise (Jude 3-16).
4. Most importantly, commending homosexuality involves the core of the gospel because it urges us to celebrate a behavior the Bible calls us to repent. According to 1 Corinthians 6 unrepentant homosexuals (along with unrepentant thieves, drunkards, idolaters, adulterers, revilers, swindlers, and money-lovers) will not inherit the kingdom of God. Heaven and hell literally hang in the balance.
Of course, homosexuality isn’t the only sin in the world. But I know of no one who is advocating idolatry or championing stealing as a special blessing from God. Yet, many are advocating homosexuality, and the ELCA not officially endorses it. It is not an overstatement to say that such advocacy is in danger of leading people to hell. This isn’t because homosexuals are worse sinners than all the rest, but because unless we all turn from our sin and fight against it in faith–with victories and defeats to be sure–we will face God’s wrath. In tolerating the doctrine which affirms homosexual behavior, we are tolerating a doctrine which leads people farther from God, not closer. This is not the mission Jesus gave us when he told us to teach the nations all that he has commanded.
In short, those who pervert the grace of God into a license for sensuality are false teachers who do not preach the gospel rightly (Jude 4; Titus 2:11-15). A true church does not encourage people in deliberate sin when it ought to call them to repentance.
A Personal Word to My Fellow RCAers
I’ve been in the RCA my whole life. I’m convinced that the best and worst thing about our denomination is that we don’t like controversy. This is good in so far as it keep us from majoring on the minors and focusing on each other’s faults. This is bad in so far as it keeps us from acting decisively and courageously. There are some denominations who can’t say yes to anything. That’s not us thankfully. But we often have a hard time saying no. We are a small group, tight knit, held together by relationships that stretch back into seminary, college, and family reunions. But the word of God calls us to a higher standard than niceness and warm relationships. It calls us to truth and grace–the truth that sets us free and the grace that transforms and forgives.
We are not called to be abrasive and arrogant, harsh and hateful. But we are called to be strong and courageous, willing to do the hard, uncomfortable, painful act of holding each other accountable and saying no to ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2:11). Let us not be cowed into silence by those who claim that all that’s at stake are two different interpretations of Scripture on an ethical issue. There comes a time when we must rule certain interpretations–no matter how sincerely held–out of bounds with Christian orthodoxy, unfaithful to Scripture, and unacceptable in our churches and in the churches we officially affirm.
While we do not want to be deserving of the words, let us not be afraid of epithets like “mean-spirited” and “intolerant.” Jesus himself commended the church at Ephesus because they did not “bear with those who are evil” and hated “the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:2, 6). Besides, If we tolerate homosexual behavior and advocacy in others, we undercut the efforts of men and women in our congregations who struggle–in faith and repentance–to overcome same gender attraction.
Let us refuse to take the easy way out. Let’s not allow what we know to be unbiblical under the auspices of unity and mission. We must not cry “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace. With hearts of love and theological backbones of steel we must not compromise on homosexuality. Adding an amendment to our Book of Church Order in the near future would be one way to settle things, for the good of the denomination and the peace and sanity of all involved. Dropping the Formula of Agreement would be a place to start.