Monday, March 14, 2005

I received this email today - it is great insight into the church position in dealing with homosexuality.

“Homosexuality and the Challenge to the Church”

John H. Armstrong

The present issue of homosexuality, in particular the matter of homosexual practice, threatens the church’s confession and unity in our time like few issues in the entire history of Christian faith and practice. This might seem to be a bold and daring statement at first but the facts that support it are growing on a daily basis.

When all is said and done, this issue comes down to two simple questions. First, shall we ordain practicing, non-celibate, homosexuals to the ministry of the gospel? And, second, shall we accept into the membership of our churches homosexuals who will not commit themselves to a lifestyle that forbids the pursuit of this sexual lifestyle?

The issue that weighs like a heavy albatross upon a number of mainline churches at this moment is the one of ordination. One has to be asleep to not know that the Episcopal Church (USA) consecrated an open and practicing homosexual bishop in the fall of 2003. This ecclesiastical approval of an aberrant and unchristian lifestyle has shocked the worldwide Anglican community into serious action. Just last week leaders of the worldwide Anglican communion, from the southern hemisphere nations, issued a communiqué that calls for the specific repentance of the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada. If these two historic church communions do not repent of their actions, then the Anglican Church will remove them from the international communion of this church. This action would be both tragic and historic. It will also send a proper signal to a half dozen other groups presently pursuing the same agenda.

At the same time, several major church bodies in America (e.g., the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church USA) are at various stages of debate about accepting same-sex marriage and ordination of ministers who live in same-sex unions. And the Reformed Church in America recent ly had a leader perform a same-sex marriage that will undoubtedly embroil it in a controversy that is just getting started. What do we say to these attempts to rewrite Christian ethics and theology?

Many conservatives sit on the sidelines and complain that all of this is happening precisely because these respective church communions are no longer real churches anyway. Without going into the shallow basis for such an unhelpful, if not arrogant, judgment we need to consider this matter more soberly and without condemnation. Those who are in the more conservative communions should pray for their brothers and sisters in the whole church while they also make sure that they consider the sin that is crouching at their own door. When I see the record of many very conservative churches on sexual sins among their own ministers I am appalled and dismayed. Perhaps we should remove the log from our own eye before we criticize others for the speck that is in theirs.

J. I. Packer gave an address some months ago titled: “A ‘No’ to Same Sex Unions.” In it he explained why he walked out of the synod of the Anglican diocese of New Westminster in June of 2002. In the section called, “why I walked out,” Dr. Packer wrote:

In one sentence my answer is: because this decision, taken in its context, falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth (italics mine).

I do not think it can be said much more clearly and faithfully than that. Packer went on to say that he wrote this statement on the authority of the apostle Paul himself. He then asks a series of questions directed to Paul based upon his counsel in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. These three questions are worth our consideration.

1. What is Pau l taking about in this vice list?

Answer: Lifestyles, regular behavior patterns, habits of mind and action. Not single lapses, followed by repentance, forgiveness and greater watchfulness, with God’s help against recurrence, but ways of life in which readers are set, believing that there is no harm in them.

2. What is Paul saying about these habits?

Answer: They are ways of sin, which, if not repented of and forsaken, will keep people out of God’s kingdom of salvation. Clearly self-indulgence, freedom from self-denial, is the attitude they express and thus a lack of oral discernment from the heart.

3. What is Paul saying about homosexuality here?

Answer: The practice of same-sex physical relationships, on the model of intercourse, should be eschewed by all who are Christ’s followers. There are two words here. The first is arsenakoitai, whic h literally means male-bedders. The second is malakoi, which literally means unmanly, womanish, and refers to males playing the woman’s role in physical sexual relationship. It is most important to note that Paul is speaking of physical action, not inclination.

What then is Paul saying about the gospel?

Answer: Those who cast themselves on Christ in the gospel and so receive the Holy Spirit, as all Christians do (Galatians 3:2), find transformation.

It needs to be admitted, before we go any further, that the issue here is not simply homosexuality. The issue is really sexual infidelity of all kinds. My own treatment of this issue, in the book The Stain That Stays, seeks to grapple with this very issue in both profound and faithful ways. I remain amazed at how reactive many evangelical Christians are to my thesis that sexually promiscuous ministers should be removed from pastoral office and kept out of the ministry for the foreseeable future. The fact that sexual compromise, with regard to the ministry of the gospel, has been going on for well over a generation seems lost on many conservative people. And furthermore, the present conflict is simply a reflection of the ground that we gave up since the 1960s.

A task force of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States, in its 190th General Assembly (1978), issued a paper titled, “The Church and Homosexuality.” This paper states very well my own conclusion to the question of homosexual ordination.

To be an ordained officer is to be a human instrument, touched by divine powers but still an earthen vessel. As portrayed in Scripture, the officers set before the church and community an example of piety, love, service, and moral integrity. Officers are not free from repeated expressions of sin. Neither are members and officers free to adopt a lifestyle of conscious, continuing, and unresisted sin in any area of their lives. For the church to ordain a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person to ministry would be to act in contradiction to its charter and calling in Scripture setting in motion both within the church and society serious contradictions to the will of Christ.

But there is a second major question that the church must face in this present sexual revolution. What about membership in the church? Should homosexuals be removed from the visible community of the church by discipline? Or, should they be kept out of the church in the first place if leaders know they are practicing this sinful lifestyle during the process of membership application?

Here the standard does not fundamentally change, but the application of it must be pastorally administered with very specific wisdom and deep congregational sensitivity. A confession of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ does not mean that one’s lifestyle is perfect. A person who falls, confesses their sin, falls yet again, and then falls even yet again, is not to be driven away. Jesus came to save sinners. He came not to condemn but to restore. If the church is a hospital for sinners, and not simply a haven for saints, then we had best rethink how we p ractice discipline, both positively and negatively. I do not deny that discipline is needed in the modern church. In fact, its absence is destroying many of our congregations. But discipline is much more than kicking people out of the church or keeping them out. And this is one area where the record of even the early Christian church was not always commendable. (At many points in history the church was unable, or even unwilling, to restore certain types of morally fallen people.) I believe New Testament professor, Marion L. Soards, is right when he concludes:

While the church cannot offer approval of homosexual activity, the church can also not deny the validity of faith in less-than-perfect humans. . . . If there is no demand for approval of homosexual activity, there is no reason to deny church membership to the homosexual who takes her or his place along with other forgiven sinners in the corporate body of Christ (italics mine, Scripture & Homosexuality , 76).

Now, you must read the above statement very carefully. Dr. Soards is not saying (as I read him), that the church should endorse homosexual behavior or approve its practice among Christians. He is not saying, “Let Christians live any way they please and remain members in good standing come what may.” He is saying something more nuanced and careful, namely that we must take care that we not drive away homosexual people who are earnestly seeking help. This is an important point and one missed by many conservative Christians.

The Presbyterian statement on “The Church and Homosexuality” (cited above) is worth hearing again.

As persons repent and believe, they become members of Christ’s body. The church is not a citadel of the morally perfect; it is a hospital for sinners. It is the fellowship where contrite, needy people rest their hope for salvation on Christ and his righteousness. Here in commun ity they seek and receive forgiveness and new life. The church must become the nurturing community so that all whose lives come short of the glory of God are converted, reoriented, and built up into Christian community. It may be only in the context of loving community, appreciation, pastoral care, forgiveness, and nurture that homosexual persons can come to a clear understanding of God’s pattern for their sexual expression.

There is room in the church for all who give honest affirmation to the vows required for membership in the church. Homosexual persons who sincerely affirm “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” and “I intend to be his disciple, to obey his word, and to show his love” should not be excluded from membership (italics mine).

Dr. Packer rightly notes that there are at least three major spiritual issues involved in the present struggle over homosexual ordination and inclusion in the life of the Christi an community.

First, this issue entails deviation from the biblical gospel and the historic Christian creed. It does this by distorting the doctrines of both creation and sin. It further distorts the doctrines of regeneration and sanctification, thus affirming that salvation is in sin rather than from sin (cf. Matthew 1:21).

Second, this issue threatens the destruction of my neighbor. Paul writes that we should “flee from sexual immorality” and then reasons that all sexual sin is sin “against a [person’s] own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). He concludes that “the sexually immoral” (for that matter all “wrongdoers,” which is a description of any lifestyle of sin that is not repented of) “will not inherit then kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9, TNIV). Thus Packer is right to insist that this issue is one of life and death for the souls of multitudes of people made in God’s imag e.

Third, this issue involves the delusion of looking to God to sanctify sin by blessing what he condemns. It is both irreverent and blasphemous to argue that we can “go on sinning so that grace may increase” (Romans 6:1). Christian believers have been crucified with Christ, buried with and in him, and raised by the Spirit and in our baptism, in order that “we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). We need to warn all who take his name in Christian baptism that resurrection life is not a life which settles down comfortably into sexual sin, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

The danger in our time, as in others, comes down to our understanding of God. Is he the “great approver” who endorses our every moral whim, or is he the Sovereign Creator who calls us to self-denial and obedient faith? The answer our generation gives, in large measure, will determine the spiritual direction and vitality of the Christian church in the West.

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