Excommunication and Homosexuality

Nearly a year ago, in a post called “The Excommunication Dilemma,” I explored the question of how churches ought to respond to the problem of homosexuality today.  While allowing that homosexuality was a serious sin that by New Testament standards called for church discipline, I argued that it was inappropriate for conservative denominations to de facto “excommunicate” more liberal denominations for their failure to enact such discipline.  Furthermore, I suggested that in groups like the Anglican Communion, church discipline on a macro scale–say, cutting off the whole of TEC–was a much more complicated matter than simple congregational church discipline, and there were no clear and clean-cut models for how such macro-discipline should be carried out.  However, at that time I still maintained that of course individual churches ought to take a hard disciplinary line on unrepentant homosexual congregants.  But after a conversation with a good friend last week, I’m not quite so sure anymore.

Before you freak out, I am not questioning whether excommunication is a legitimate action to take with regard to homosexuality–in principle, it seems clear that it is (as it is also with a host of other sins, I should add).  I am wondering now whether it is the most appropriate action to take, from a pastoral perspective.  There is a great deal in the New Testament advising great caution in exercising judgment if those exercising the judgment are not themselves above reproach. We think immediately of Mt. 7:1-5:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Or Rom. 2:1-3:

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?

Or of course the famous and hotly-debated passage from John 8: “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”

 

Now of course each of these contains the element, to greater or lesser extent, of concern that the judges not be guilty of the same sin as the guilty.  This seems emphasized in Rom. 2:1-3, is probably broadly present in Mt. 7:1-5, and is, some would argue, the point of Jesus’s dismissal of judgment in John 8 (I will leave aside for now the question of whether that is the only point).  On this basis many would be quick to retort that so long as church leaders are not themselves practicing homosexuals, there is no bar to them pronouncing judgment against those who are.  But this seems to me an altogether too narrow reading of the point of such passages, the sort of legalistic nicety Pharisees would love.  

Taking a somewhat broader lens, is it fair to say that the evangelical churches are, on the whole, knee-deep in hypocrisy when it comes to sexual ethics?  I don’t want to be guilty myself of pronouncing overly sweeping judgments, but from all I hear, they are.  Churches that take a very hard line on any hint of homosexuality are happy to sweep it under the rug when the guy in the next pew is having an affair with his secretary, or when half the men in the church are hooked on porn; divorce is rampant in many evangelical churches, a problem that many are just beginning to address (see, for instance, this encouraging start from the SBC).  Do we have the standing to just start excommunicating (or worse, turning away at the church door) homosexuals?  Of course, many might respond that their own churches are not guilty of this hypocrisy, but I don’t know if it’s that simple…the evangelical conservative churches, like it or not, share a common public identity, they are perceived as a common body of sorts by the watching world, and those individual churches that have their own houses in order can’t pretend to be unsullied by any of the messes of their brothers and sisters.  

And then of course there are the deep problems in the witness the Church is presenting about homosexuality itself.  In many evangelical churches, the atmosphere that prevails is not one of a calm and steady opposition to the sin of homosexuality accompanied by a warm welcome to homosexually-inclined people, a sympathetic recognition of their struggles, and an attempt to patiently guide them.  Rather, the dominant atmosphere is often quite rightly described as homophobia, in which homosexuals are scorned, derided, feared, held at arm’s length, and in which the idea of a “homosexual Christian” is considered an oxymoron.  Because of this, we are incapable of presenting a clear and Biblical witness to the watching world, and to liberal Christians, against homosexuality.  Because so many of us have so often spoken in terms of ungodly homophobia, rather than a compassionate call to put away sin, any action that conservative churches take against homosexuality, even if itself legitimate and rightly-handled, cannot but be perceived as homophobia.  It will take a long time and a mature response for evangelicals to be able to offer an effective witness by their church discipline in this area.  (By the way, my point here about patience and sympathy should clarify that when I call on our churches to “get their house in order” I am not meaning we should start chucking people out left and right–we should be firm with the various sins in our midst, but loving at the same time.)

A third set of issues, which I will not elaborate on here, though I have mentioned it before, is the disconnect between evangelicals’ hard-line stance on certain sexual sins and their complete laxity regarding economic sins.  This too greatly compromises our witness and renders our motives suspect; however, one could easily respond that the sins are sufficiently different that our guilt in the one area is no bar to discipline in the other.

Given the first set of problems, it seems questionable whether evangelical churches even have standing to discipline homosexuals.  Perhaps some don’t, until they get their own houses in order.  For the rest, especially given the second and third set of problems, it certainly seems questionable whether, even if they have standing to enact discipline, such discipline is prudent and likely to accomplish its purpose.  It seems more likely simply to confirm false ideas of the Church that many have formed in recent years and, most seriously, to alienate the homosexuals under discipline, who will have good reason to conclude that they they are being pushed away simply out of fear and bigotry, rather than godliness, and will thus fail to repent.  Could it then be possible that, as a matter of pastoral wisdom and effective witness, evangelical churches should take a much softer line against homosexuality until they can remove the various logs from their own eyes?

I am far from convinced that the answer is yes, particularly in light of the example of 1 Corinthians.  Here is a church that was knee-deep in all sorts of problems, yet that did not keep Paul from urging them to take a hard disciplinary line against the member who was involved in incest.  Many of the factors in that situation were different, of course, so it is hard to use it as an open-and-shut counterexample; however, it does seem to suggest that we are not required to wait until our house is in order before we can take formal disciplinary action.  I am thus not persuaded either way, but I do think this is an important question to think about, at the very least so we can read the concerns of “liberals” more sympathetically, and I’m interested in what sort of input others offer.

 

39 thoughts on “Excommunication and Homosexuality

  1. Donny

    I'm not sure I understand. First, since this is an individual church issue, it obviously has to be handled by individual churches, individual sessions, etc. The grossly wide-sweeping statements about what "evangelicals" supposedly do and think just don't have any traction for me on an issue like this.Second, I'm not sure I understand the sexual ethics point. Sure, if churches are fine with members unrepentantly engaging in those acts, that's one thing, and I'm sure there are churches out there like that. But men struggling hard with those sins and trying to shake them is a different issue entirely.I'm sure I agree with your final point, which, for me, boils down to the idea that if we're not doing well in one area, it doesn't mean we should do equally badly in other areas, just to keep things nice and even. But the generalizations, in this case, are just distracting. It's easy to talk about evangelicals and their divorce, porn, adultery, and homophobia problems, but I just don't see how it helps here.

    Like

  2. Bradley

    You say that you're "far from convinced" on this subject Bradford. Same here. I want to repeat what Donny said in his first paragraph. I don't understand fully how macro-Discipline is supposed to work, in theory or in practice, and this seems awfully related to macro-Discipline. I don't understand how the failure (or success) of distant unknown churches relates to my particular congregation. I'm not saying there *is* no relationship; I'm just saying I don't understand that relationship. Hence, I'm not able to come to any conclusions about how inter-denominational hypocrisy would affect my particular congregation's disciplinary actions upon unrepentant gross sinners.

    Like

  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Byron–Yes, I did, last year around this time–if you look in the archives, you can see an enormous flurry of posts when I was interacting with it.Donny and Brad–You are absolutely right to challenge me to develop more clearly the relationship between the responsibility of an individual church and "the evangelical churches" more broadly. Part of my failure to specify this more carefully was intentional, because I have found that blog posts that leave things open-ended and incompletely defined tend to invite more discussion and interaction than posts in which I have tried to tie up every loose end and anticipate every objection. But, I should have spelled things out a bit more than I did.I do not of course mean to say that because some evangelical church somewhere might be hypocritical in their sexual ethics and response to homosexuality, that means that no evangelical church anywhere can take proper disciplinary action against sinners in their midst. I would have a hard time arguing that Trinity Reformed Church, for instance, ought to forbear from disciplining any unrepentant practicing homosexuals in its congregation. If a church is itself above reproach, and maintaining a fully Biblical posture toward all the various types of sinners in its congregation, it should not refuse to discipline just because other loosely-related churches have taken improper disciplinary action. However, it should not be blind to the context. If other churches with whom it is loosely connected have given a very bad witness in this area, it must take that into account and be very sensitive in how it addresses this sin–it should avoid a legalistic, "Aha! Here's the sin, so here's the punishment!" posture. If a church needs to take disciplinary action against homosexuals, it must make sure that it does so in such a way that this is actually beneficial for the sinner, and a proper witness to the surrounding community. This means that the church must be careful to communicate a proper compassion for the sinner and a balanced Biblical critique of his sin, while also examining itself and repenting of any hypocrisy it has been guilty of. If a church examines itself and finds that it is seriously guilty of hypocrisy in this area, or if it has maintained a very poor witness regarding the sin in the past, then I think it should seriously consider proceeding very slowly with disciplinary action. This does not mean that it cannot rebuke and admonish the sinner, but it may need to hold off on something as dramatic as excommunication until the congregation has the integrity to take such action. The same would go for a church that, while not itself tarnished in these ways, was very closely associated with other churches that were. I'm not a pastor though, so I really am not sure about these particular recommendations. It would be very different in different situations, I expect. And thinking through these particular questions about how local church excommunication ought to work was not really my main point, but was really more of a thought experiment to help us think critically about our mindset toward this issue on a broader level; my chief concern is about the general message that evangelical churches as a whole communicate regarding this issue. And my chief conclusion is that I think we need to be willing to allow that we may have to take a softer stance toward this issue until we are in a position to take a firm stance in full integrity and with a consistent witness; otherwise we will not be helping any sinners, homosexual or otherwise. And we must also recognize that the actions of sister churches have an effect on the kind of witness our own churches give–even if we personally are doing everything right, we may have our options constrained by how we are perceived. What that means for particular congregations is something each will have to carefully examine for itself. Is that a cop-out? Maybe, but I've always maintained that this is more of a questions blog than an answers blog. 🙂

    Like

  4. Donny

    I'm still having trouble. Take this:"And my chief conclusion is that I think we need to be willing to allow that we may have to take a softer stance toward this issue until we are in a position to take a firm stance in full integrity and with a consistent witness; otherwise we will not be helping any sinners, homosexual or otherwise."Honestly, I really just don't understand the argument. Why? And what does "full integrity" and "consistent witness" mean, short of perfectionism?

    Like

  5. Brad Littlejohn

    *sigh* Alas, again Donny, I don't understand exactly why or what you don't understand. The answer to "Why?" I thought I already provided with the passages from Matthew, Romans, and John. Also, I thought I had already provided a description of what I meant by "consistent witness" and "full integrity"–namely, a track record of a fully Biblical testimony against homosexuality, and freedom from blatant hypocrisy. But maybe I'm missing something…Is this not making sense to other people, or is it just Donny? Please feel free to give your input, if anyone else is looking at this.

    Like

  6. Bradley

    I don't understand either. What exactly you mean when you say we need to take a softer stance "until we are in a position to take a firm stance in full integrity and with a consistent witness"? That sounds like it means, 'until other churches shape up'. But then you say, nah, that's not what it means. And then here's your application: "[A church] should avoid a legalistic, 'Aha! Here's the sin, so here's the punishment!' posture. If a church needs to take disciplinary action against homosexuals, it must make sure that it does so in such a way that this is actually beneficial for the sinner, and a proper witness to the surrounding community. This means that the church must be careful to communicate a proper compassion for the sinner and a balanced Biblical critique of his sin." But isn't that how church discipline is *always* supposed to work? How is that an example of "taking a softer stance"? Isn't that the normal stance?

    Like

  7. Donny

    Bradley made a great point. My biggest problem, though, has been just how abstractly the discussion has been framed. In addition to the "softer stance" question Brad had, can you give me an example of "blatant hypocrisy" that would prevent a church from having the right to excommunicate someone for homosexuality? Are any of your points unique to homosexuality, or do they apply across the board? Does hypocrisy and a lack of a "fully Biblical testimony against homosexuality" eliminate excommunication for any sin? Just sexual sins? And what are the parameters for a "fully Biblical testimony against homosexuality"? Do they have to have admitted the possible for "homosexual Christians" (something I still think is troubling)? Or do they just have to have not yelled too much?I know I am, but I'm not trying to be annoying. It's not that you have to have watertight answers and three examples for each of my questions. It's just that due to way it's been presented, I can't really bring your points down to anything I can relate to. I can't really react until I see better what "softer stance" or "full Biblical testimony about homosexuality" mean. If you're trying to speak about churches that are way over the top, incredibly hypocrisy, full of unrepentant sexual sin, then sure. But if you're being perfectionistic about it (which is what "full Biblical testimony" makes me think of), then I wholeheartedly disagree. Then again, disagreeing would be agreeing, since you're still unconvinced, as you say at the end of your original post. And I think agree with that point.

    Like

  8. Donny

    Oh, and yes, I know that was horribly rambly. I need to learn to stop writing when I start confusing myself. But I'm sure you can decipher what I was trying to say.

    Like

  9. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Donny, We seem to run into this problem a lot…I'm very hesitant to nail down concrete recommendations, because there are so many variables…what I'm more interested in is establishing a general paradigm. I will try to spell out answers to each of these questions, but I'm going to wait for a bit, because I've invited input from my friend here with whom I originally had the conversation that led to this post. I'm curious as to whether he understands what I'm trying to say better than you seem to, and if he can help me spell it out better. One thing real quick though–Brad said: "But isn't that how church discipline is *always* supposed to work?" Sure, but is that how it actually does work, with respect to this sin, in evangelical circles? I'm not claiming that I've made some massive Copernican breakthrough…I'm simply suggesting that perhaps evangelical churches have a big blind spot here. But as I said, I'll try to flesh this out more once I hear what my friend here has to say about it.

    Like

  10. Donny

    Sounds good. And also, I tend to get bugged at generalizations like these, unless there's a good driving point to them. And I haven't felt that pointy part yet. Just flat, "Evangelicals suck at sex-stuff."

    Like

  11. Brad Littlejohn

    Alright, Donny, my friend hasn't gotten back to me, so I'll give your questions a stab.First, though, I think you’re right that my main point was about macro-church politics, not individual church discipline after all. I tried to put a finer point on it by addressing the latter, but that missed the mark I was aiming for somewhat. My main concern, I think, was to say that the evangelical churches are, as a whole, too steeped in hypocrisy and have addressed this issue in a sufficiently unbiblical way at times that they do not have the credibility to continue to make this a battle-line issue. They need to back off it somewhat and relax on the fiery denunciations and denomination-breaking, until they’ve gotten their collective house in more order and can be more pastorally effective in addressing the problem.However, that said, I will try to answer your specific questions:Q. Can you give me an example of "blatant hypocrisy" that would prevent a church from having the right to excommunicate someone for homosexuality? A. If there were heterosexual members in the congregation involved in known major sexual sin that was being tolerated, would be an obvious example. Q. Are any of your points unique to homosexuality, or do they apply across the board? A. They are not unique to homosexuality in the sense that in theory the same could be said in the case of any other sins. In practice, they are unique, because the issue of homosexuality poses a unique problem for us right now, because it has become a huge battleground issue–largely because liberals have pushed it aggressively, but at least partly because conservatives have responded poorly, immaturely, and unlovingly. Hence, we need to re-examine our practice and exercise care and wisdom in this area far more than in many others.Does hypocrisy and a lack of a "fully Biblical testimony against homosexuality" eliminate excommunication for any sin? Just sexual sins?A. I never talked about “eliminating excommunication” except in quite blatant cases, as mentioned in answer to the first question. Either one would certainly be cause to think twice about what kind of discipline was appropriate and when. And what are the parameters for a "fully Biblical testimony against homosexuality"? Do they have to have admitted the possible for "homosexual Christians" (something I still think is troubling)? Or do they just have to have not yelled too much?This could take ages to spell out, but I’ll just give the outlines. A biblical testimony against homosexuality would teach that it was a distorted desire, but one that many people, including Christians, struggle with because of biological, emotional, and social causes. It would not act like it was the sin to end all sins, but would maintain that, like any sin, it must be wrestled with and in the end overcome by anyone who wants to faithfully follow Christ. It would recognize the struggles of those tempted toward this sin and seek to offer them support, and would welcome any who were genuinely seeking to follow Christ in this area. If a church was not doing any of these things, it seems that we could reasonably object that, if they had not been using the tools of the Word properly yet, they do not have a right to resort hastily to the tools of discipline. If a church was not teaching on Biblical marriage properly, or offering any counseling for struggling couples, then we might say that it oughtn’t to start excommunicating any adulterous couples right off the block. Another example might be helpful. Imagine a church that had been teaching that alcohol was of the devil and anyone who drank it was going to hell. One of their congregants turns out to be a bad drunkard. Now, they have not been addressing this sin properly and giving the proper pastoral guidance–they’ve been giving a warped message. The church ought to recognize that it has been teaching wrongly and then deal very patiently with the sinner and supply the previously lacking pastoral defect before there is any discipline; otherwise, the discipline would be unlikely to have the desired effect. This is heightened, I think, in the case of homosexuality, where because of the battleground status of this issue, actions are easily misread. Now, this is the individual church level. What if a particular church is above reproach while all the other churches in their area or their denomination have handled this issue very badly? Well then, I think they have to be aware of that, and exercise discretion accordingly. They will have to bend over backwards to make sure they give a consistent witness and a truly helpful pastoral response. They may need to be much slower with exercising discipline than they would otherwise like to be. All of this is not really ground-breaking stuff, I freely admit. I just think that it may be something that many evangelical churches need to reflect on more carefully.

    Like

  12. Donny

    Okay, that was helpful. Some follow-up questions.First, can you explain where you're getting your perception that evangelicals are not responding properly to homosexuality? Evangelicalism is a broad term (even moreso over in Britain, right?), so I'm not really sure what you mean here. You seem to allude to churches excommunicating people simply because they have homosexual temptations, or refusing to provide council to such people. Is that right? Is that a widespread practice? If not, what are the widespread practices that you are uncomfortable with? Second, you spoke about delaying excommunication, even in the case of adultery/homosexuality, if a church hasn't been handling the situation well. Is this unrepentant adultery/homosexuality? This is a pretty concerning area, because allowing grave, unrepentant sin to continue in the church is, well, not a good thing. Sure, if the pastor realizes he hasn't been speaking properly on it, he should repent and correct that. But I imagine if a pastor were truly repentant, he would then immediately want to help that sinning congregant get back on track, too. And if they refuse to, then as in normal cases, excommunication would follow. But also, as in normal cases, the "if they refuse to" is not a process that takes place over two days. Excommunication isn't sudden, no matter what the situation is. So are you just saying, when there was pastoral failure mixed in, it might take a bit longer?Third, just as an aside, do you really think churches have to admit to biological causes of homosexuality to be treating the sin appropriately biblically?Fourth, to toss a wrench into your theological ethics gears, what if the church doesn't agree with you? Take the alcohol example. Plenty of Christians think its wrong to drink alcohol. And in those churches, let's say one of the congregants falls into drunkenness, and the normal sins that come with in (depression, anger, a failure to lead their family, etc.). That church, after the normal period of trying to bring this congregant to repentance, excommunicates that congregant. The church continues on in its anti-alcohol stances. Was the church right to excommunicate the congregant? And yes, the more broad question I'm getting at is this: does a church have to have a completely biblical, worked out stance on a specific issue, or every issue, to excommunicate? I'm having trouble seeing how what your saying isn't some form of ecclesiological perfectionism. Unless your point is simply that where pastors/churches are wrong in their views or inadequate in their counseling practices, they will less effective in bringing about repentance. If that's all you're saying, then sure, that seems pretty clear (as long as we qualify it by remembering that it's the Spirit who works through our fumbling attempts).

    Like

  13. Alexander Garden

    I wasn't going to jump in on this post, but I've changed my mind.My objection has got to do with whom it is we want to have a clear testimony to. Brad is concerned that the church maintains a consistent testimony and compassionate attitude towards the party in the wrong, lest the watching world mistake us for, say, hatemongers. I don't especially care for what the world thinks of us. If we are doing our job properly, they will hate us precisely for that. They hated Jesus for it. My concern is that we can have a consistent testimony to people whose opinion does matter, to the other churches doing it right. And even more — much, much more — to the Judge who determines when a church's lampstand shall be removed.And that flips the tables a bit, doesn't it? If you are trying to stay in the good graces of the world – or at least be able to say, "No, we're not a bunch of dunderheads who scream 'HOMO!' in a crowd of sinners", you don't want to take action against sodomites before getting the rest of your house in order. But if you are concerned with passing the test when the Man comes around, you are going to start by eliminating the most obvious and most heinous sins in your midst. You are going to start by kicking out the unrepentant sodomites and moving on to expelling the stiff-necked idolaters and keep on going until you can answer the Lord with a clear conscience that you, at least, did not build his house with wood, hay, stubble, or anything else that will burn up at the day of judgment.Also, in a more practical, pastor vein, one must consider the other members of the church. My wife was a member at a PCA church in Oklahoma that had, for a while, a cross-dressing man coming to services every Sunday. It tore her and others up that the elders did nothing publicly about it. They kept saying, when asked, that they were doing things about it, but nothing ever happened. Letting heinous sin go on in your midst is bad for the faithful members of your flock.

    Like

  14. If we are doing our job properly, they will hate us precisely for that. They hated Jesus for it.Can you give evidence that Jesus was hated for being a hatemonger?"I give you a new commandment, that you hate one another. Just as I have hated you, you also should hate one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have hate for one another." (John 13.34-35).

    Like

  15. Brad Littlejohn

    *tiptoes out of the room*No, seriously, I will get back to some of these questions/comments; I've just been really busy this week. (And OK, I admit that some of that "busyness" was listening to Newfoundland radio yesterday to hear about the frightful impact of Hurricane Igor…not quite the best excuse)

    Like

  16. I don't especially care for what the world thinks of us.Yes, in one sense, since Jesus blesses those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Yet there is a strong strand in scripture encouraging thoughtful consideration of our reputation with outsiders for the sake of the gospel.1 Peter 4.15: "If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler" (or hatemongerer?)Titus 2.2-3.2: "Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no-one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive. […] Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no-one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility towards all."1 Thess 4.11-12: "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody."1 Timothy 3.7: "Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil."

    Like

  17. Brad Littlejohn

    Alright, let me first answer Alex, since I've tried to answer Donny several times now.I'd expected someone to object along both the lines that Alex raised, and was surprised that no one had yet. The first objection, I think, stems partly from a misunderstanding and partly from a genuine difference. Alex thinks that "Brad is concerned that the church maintains a consistent testimony and compassionate attitude towards the party in the wrong, lest the watching world mistake us for, say, hatemongers" and responds "I don't especially care for what the world thinks of us. If we are doing our job properly, they will hate us precisely for that." To be sure–if we are doing our job properly. I have no problem with being hated as a Christian. My love for Kierkegaard stems above all from how clearly he understood the "offense" of Christianity, and decried all attempts to soften the defense and make Christianity amenable to the ethics and philosophy of the day. However, I think it is critical that we be hated for the right offense, and not for just any offense whatsoever. Too often I have seen the mindset among conservative Christians, "Ha! They hate us, so we must be doing something right!" Well, maybe…it depends what they hate you for. If they hate you for being jerks, then you're not doing something right. Christianity, if it is teaching the Bible, will always be an offense, will be plenty of an offense, and I have no desire to do away with that. But, because of that fact, I want to make sure we don't add on unnecessary offenses that distract from the true offense, which is that God became man in Jesus Christ. Now, to maintain a proper Biblical witness on homosexuality and on many many other sins will inevitably be an offense in our society. But if we are not giving the right witness (which can come from saying the wrong things, saying the right things with the wrong attitude and the wrong actions, or even saying the right things with the right attitude, but at the wrong time or with the wrong emphasis), then we will cause the wrong kind of offense, which will undermine our credibility for the wrong reasons and potentially turn away sinners who might have otherwise been saved. That is my concern. Thus far, you have perhaps misunderstood me. Now for the genuine difference. You said, “But if you are concerned with passing the test when the Man comes around, you are going to start by eliminating the most obvious and most heinous sins in your midst. You are going to start by kicking out the unrepentant sodomites and moving on to expelling the stiff-necked idolaters and keep on going until you can answer the Lord with a clear conscience that you, at least, did not build his house with wood, hay, stubble, or anything else that will burn up at the day of judgment.” This does not sound like the right set of priorities from a Christian standpoint. If anything, this sounds like the mindset of the Jews that Christ and the Apostles attacked so hard: they were obsessed with the coming day of the Lord, and the need to make themselves pure in preparation for it, so that all the evil people would get whooped up on by the Messiah, and they’d be patted on the head. The idea for all the Pharisaical purity laws was to legalistically mark out who was the “True Israel” and purge out all the leaven. What does Jesus do in response? He goes out and embraces all the sinners, invites all the leaven to come hang out with him, stops fearing defilement and exhorts his followers to do the same. This is the struggle with the Judaizers–they want to lay down rules to avoid being defiled and to mark themselves out from all the false Christians, and Paul won’t have it. Our job is to invite sinners in and try to help make them clean, not to throw them out the door so that we ourselves will be squeaky clean. Your Christian whose chief goal is to be able to answer the Lord that he “at least, did not build his house with wood, hay, stubble, or anything else that will burn up at the day of judgment” sounds a lot like the Pharisee who said, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men, such as this tax collector here, for I fast three times a week, etc….” This is not to say there aren’t standards, and there isn’t sin, and there isn’t judgment, but the emphasis has dramatically shifted. We are supposed to “keep ourselves unspotted from the world” but that does not mean, apparently, holding it at arms length–it means that we cling so tightly to Christ that we can embrace the dirty world and remain clean. This then offers some answer to your pastoral concern about not being too slow to discipline sin, lest the rest of the congregation suffer. This of course needs to be weighed in the balance too, and I did not mean to act as if it’s not an important factor. But sometimes the proper response to an uncomfortable congregation is teach the congregation how to respond constructively, not to simply kick the source of discomfort out the door. Don’t get me wrong–of course an abdication of any discipline is a problem in many of our churches just as much as is the over-eager “purge the evil from amongst us” mindset; I’m not suggesting that we react to the one by embracing the other, but that we seek to cultivate a full-orbed a pastoral response (and that means by whole congregations, not just pastors) to try to purify sinners–not leave them alone or try to purify ourselves of them.Donny, I’ll get to you tomorrow hopefully.

    Like

  18. Oh, and I forgot Matt 5.16 and 1 Peter 2.12. Yes, we ought to get on with doing our job, but that job is to be a blessing. On occasion, being a blessing means getting up people's noses, but we ought not to assume that if we're doing the latter that means we're automatically on track with the former.

    Like

  19. Donny

    If Alex doesn't ask about it, I'll add a quick question for when it's my turn again (oh boy, can't wait!): do you believe, Brad, that "purging the evil from our midst" is still, in any sense, the purpose of excommunication? Or is it entirely a matter of trying to bring the sinner to repentance? In the paragraph that you deal with this, I think you and Alex (and I, probably) have some genuine disagreement, but "not to simply kick the source of discomfort out the door" seemed a bit of a strawman, so I'm wondering.

    Like

  20. Alexander Garden

    Brad, I would really appreciate it if you expanded on your argument that holiness is a different thing than it used to be. This came up once before, somewhere, and I noted that I'd been thinking on that but hadn't figured it out yet. I still haven't, and I still can't feel that you're right, though I'm also pretty sure that you're not all wrong.Paul cites a classic purity text in 2 Corinthians 6 as a proof-text. "Come out from among them and be ye clean", case closed. He tells Timothy that if a man wants to be a sanctified vessel in the house of God, he needs to separate himself from crude ones. There is James, about true religion including keeping oneself unspotted from the world.In my post I alluded to the seven letters to the seven churches. Now let me cite them directly. Both the church in Pergamum and that of Thyatira were rebuked for pretty much the same thing the Corinthian church was, and with just as much force. He even cites the stumbling block of Balaam, just like Paul did. Idolatry and fornication are a *big deal*. These are not the kind of things Christ tolerates. These are the kinds of things he forgives; with great forgiveness comes great responsibility.Surely you read 1 Corinthians while forming your argument, or at least the first half-dozen chapters. I really think you must have. Nonetheless, I am going to quote it here, at length: "I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such an one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you."

    Like

  21. Brad Littlejohn

    I finally got some input from my friend, Chris, who was the catalyst for this post. He had some very helpful remarks that I think bring a powerful dose of clarity to the discussion. In particular, it's clear now that to frame the question the way I did at the beginning, in terms of "excommunication" sent us off in somewhat the wrong direction–I framed it that way because that's how the discussion was framed when we were hashing out this issue on my old blog at this time last year (you can find any of this in the Old Blog archives, Alex), and because in our conservative Reformed background, the category of discipline and excommunication tend to take center stage. But stating things that way was confusing, because the wider evangelical world doesn't tend to think or act very often in terms of excommunication, and it sent us into some thickets that made it difficult for me to figure out again what the main point was. I think Chris nails it, and since he refocuses the discussion for us, I'm going to post his whole comment below (under his name) and see if it answers some of Donny and Alex's questions, before I return to try to answer any of them further.

    Like

  22. Chris

    (oh, by the way, I should add that Chris gave me permission to post his remarks here–BL)It's definitely worth asking, as Donny has, whether evangelicals over-zealously excommunicate for homosexuality. To be honest, I'm not sure that I have a firm-enough finger on the pulse of 'the evangelical church' to say. My hunch, though is that they don't. That's not to say that homosexuality has been granted the same status as other excommunication-worthy sins. It probably hasn't. But, the lack of attention to homosexuality is probably due to a) a general sense of soft 'homophobia' and b) a failure really to practice church discipline. While you and I come from church backgrounds that respect this 'third mark' of the church, most evangelicals don't. Most evangelical churches don't discipline their members, whether b/c discipline has itself been excommunicated or b/c church leadership is not well-enough involved to know when discipline is needed.But, back to the original point–should churches ease-up on excommunicating people for homosexuality. Yes and no. If a church justly and lovingly calls for repentance only to have their concerns flouted, then excommunication should still occur. But, I strongly suspect that there are few instances of this kind of proper discipline. What more likely happens is that churches 'excommunicate' gay people before they even join. But now I use the term 'excommunication' more broadly. Rather than meaning 'expelling members from the fellowship', I mean 'preventing people from joining the fellowship'. As I see it, the real issue at hand for evangelicalism is not whether homosexuality is a sin meriting expulsion. Rather, the issue is whether a homosexual is permitted even to join the fellowship of God's people. To frame it as a question: will we allow that a gay man may participate in the life of the church? We seem to think it ok for porn-addicts to be involved. We allow men who regularly get drunk. We accept that women obsessed with their appearance–to the point of worshiping it–may take the eucharist. But, whether intentionally or not, we seem to practice a categorical exclusion of homosexuals. Perhaps this happens primarily because we take a firm stance against homosexuality. And, because of the nature of the issue, people naturally feel unwanted. (That is, while homosexuality is a sin like lying is a sin, it is also unique because it is linked to a person's identity in a way that lying, hatred, and arrogance are not.) Still, the vehemence with which many evangelicals condemn homosexuality so repulses the people affected by the sin that they never make it to church in the first place. Traditional excommunication is never even a possibility. And here's where the hypocrisy comes in. Why do we not equally condemn porn-addicts, drunkards, and gossipers? I don't know for sure. But I suspect it's related to a) our squeamishness with homosexuality and b) or familiarity (comfort?) with these other things. Both a) and b) are wrongs for which we need to repent. And until we do, it's unlikely that homosexuality will ever be a matter for traditional excommunication.Still we ask 'what should be the future of excommunication for homosexuality'? In short, it should be the same as for other excommunication-worthy sins. But before we get our knickers in a knot about expelling for homosexuality, let's back up and ask if we know whether there are any gay people in our churches in the first place. And let's ask whether gay people would want to be part of a fellowship that treats them as second-class Christians. Let's also consider whether our elders keep their children submissive, or a above reproach, or love money (1Tim 3:1-4). Perhaps even more fundamentally, we need to assess whether we actually know what we mean when we're talking about 'homosexuality'. Maybe academics do…maybe. But the vast majority of your grassroots evangelicals, including ministers, have varying opinions. To put it pointedly, if we were to excommunicate for homosexuality what exactly would we be condemning–the orientation? gay sex? longings for emotional connection with the opposite sex? I suspect that definitions would help a lot.A final thought: we need to grapple with the overall aim of this excommunication business. Sure, Paul says to purge the evil and to strive for holiness. James, John, Peter, Jesus, Ezekiel and Moses all agree. And so do we. But, going out on a (creaky) limb, I believe that the goal of being God's people is not to achieve holiness. Holiness is actually a means to an end. It is the vehicle by which we mediate God to the world. The goal of being God's people is to show what it means to be truly human and we do this by pursuing the real life–the holy life, the life that conforms to God himself. But if our pursuit of holiness, e.g., purging evil, prevents people from seeing God, then we must rethink our pursuit. It seems to me that in debating 'what to do with homosexuality', generally speaking, evangelicals have lost sight of this larger vision.

    Like

  23. Thanks Chris, a very helpful comment.I would only add that, in my opinion, by far and away the greatest idolatry in much of the church (at least in the developed world) today is the love of money expressed as acquiescence in the culture of consumerism.

    Like

  24. Donny

    "But, going out on a (creaky) limb, I believe that the goal of being God's people is not to achieve holiness. Holiness is actually a means to an end. It is the vehicle by which we mediate God to the world. The goal of being God's people is to show what it means to be truly human and we do this by pursuing the real life–the holy life, the life that conforms to God himself. But if our pursuit of holiness, e.g., purging evil, prevents people from seeing God, then we must rethink our pursuit. It seems to me that in debating 'what to do with homosexuality', generally speaking, evangelicals have lost sight of this larger vision."You're right; that's one heck of a creaky limb. Almost cracking already.I'll try to take a more detailed look at the post later, but off the top of my head, no, it doesn't really answer my questions. It just seems to create new ones. Like what he means by homosexuals feeling like "second class Christians," what he means by churches allowing drunkards and porn-addicts to communion, what exactly "homosexual" means (a question he himself raised), and others, probably. But this might make it easier: Brad, why don't you tell me how exactly you think that last comment re-framed the issue in a helpful way? I understand you like that it moved away from excommunication, but what exactly do you think replaced that? I'm a bit confused.

    Like

  25. Alexander Garden

    Doesn't help me either."But, going out on a (creaky) limb, I believe that the goal of being God's people is not to achieve holiness. Holiness is actually a means to an end. It is the vehicle by which we mediate God to the world. The goal of being God's people is to show what it means to be truly human and we do this by pursuing the real life–the holy life, the life that conforms to God himself." Holiness is the means by which we mediate God to the world? What? Really? What does that even mean? And the goal of of being God's people is to show what it really means to be truly human? Come again?! The point of being God's people is to belong to God, to know him and have fellowship with him, to be called by his name. Maybe there are a few steps of reasoning that fit in here and I'm missing them for want of context. Such as, we are separate to be holy people so that the rest of the world could see what it looks like when God's people live like they should. I might concede that such a thing could be a secondary or tertiary purpose.If, on the other hand, holiness means being pure as God himself is pure, because then we are fit for his company, then the question is simply what does God tolerate? Does God want homosexuals congregating in the assembly? Does God want sodomites offering offerings at his table? Does God want to gather with a group of catamites? Will God enjoy our worship when they are involved with it? That's the question. Seems like a pretty cut and dried one to me.I feel quite clear what a homosexual is. Homosexuals are men who go around doing other men. They are better called sodomites. Contra Chris, sodomites are not men who sometimes think they might like to do disgusting things with other men, much in the same way that a murderer is someone who has killed someone else without authority or cause, or an adulterer is someone who has actually done someone else's wife, not someone who has thought about doing some else's wife or someone who has wished he could kill another without just cause. (Of course, he who has lusted has already committed adultery in his heart.)Those who are tempted to this or that sin *but resisting it*, deserve our compassion and strong-armed support. Those who are living in rebellion and want to do it in our midst require our warning and an arm with a stiffness that matches that of their neck.

    Like

  26. Brad Littlejohn

    Alex, please tone down your language a bit. Donny, I'd appreciate it if you would actually participate in the discussion by venturing your own opinions, instead of just throwing questions and criticisms from the sidelines. Chris tried to give you a clear statement for you to interact with, and instead all you said was, "Nah, you tell me what you think of it, Brad." So, because of that, time constraints, and the fact that I know Chris will be posting again soon, this comment will be brief, and won't address yet many of the questions that are still hanging out there.I was puzzled by both Donny and Alex's response to Chris's "creaky limb" comment–as Donny put it, "You're right; that's one heck of a creaky limb. Almost cracking already." Whereas, when I read Chris's remarks, my reaction was "Well why would that be a creaky limb? That seems like pretty clearly spot-on to me." It seems pretty obvious that our #1 calling as God's people is to mediate God to the world and seek to redeem it, not to closet ourselves off as the chosen people who get to glorify God and enjoy him forever while we let the world rot. How could the holiness of the Church possibly be an end in itself, when the Church is constituted by its mission, its mission to spread the good news and aid in the renewal of the world? This is the Church's end and its esse, and therefore, whatever other attributes it has must be oriented to and subordinated to its mission. This of course does not mean (and Chris did not in any way suggest) a sort of willy-nilly pragmatism, in which we decide that for the purpose at hand, holiness is a hindrance, and so should be discarded, or unity is a hindrance, and thus should be discarded. Our understanding of how to fulfill our mission is guided by Scripture, which means we recognize these attributes as crucial to any long-term success in fulfilling our mission. But, though holiness, unity, etc., are crucial, they are not ends in themselves. Indeed, the New Testament is abundantly clear in opposing those who over-prioritized holiness in such a way that it tore down the body and turned away some who wanted to be part of it. We see this in the polemics against the Judaizers, in Paul's many warnings about bearing with the weaker brother, etc. Now of course we say, "Well this was food codes! That's nothing compared to sexual ethics!" but while food may seem minor to us, it was anything but minor to them. Alex asked me about 1 Corinthians 5 a little while back, and I hadn't had the opportunity yet to reply properly. For now, I will just say that I am quite aware of it…I believe I mentioned its relevance for this discussion in the original post, and it's a passage I've come back to many times throughout the past year. I do find the unrelenting tone of this passage surprising and difficult in light of what we find in so many other parts of the New Testament. I think this passage cannot be ignored, but neither can we use it to ignore other passages that seem to push very strongly for mercy, for slowness in judging, etc. Moreover, we should remember that while this passage is instructive for us, it is not instruction to us, directly. Paul is addressing a particular circumstance in Corinth, in light of his knowledge of that particular church; while we can and must draw applications for our own time and our own churches, they will not always mean the exact same response, because the particular circumstances are quite different. Finally, I think it is very important to note that what Paul says here plays right into Byron and Chris and I's hands in many ways, because Paul advocates this strong stance against anyone who "is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler," but somehow, in our churches today, we have forgotten the greed, or idolater or reviler or drunkard or swindler part, and focused only on the first one. And given that we're knee-deep in some of those other sins, an uncompromsing application of this verse would excommunicate more than half of our congregations. So perhaps we will have to take things slower.Donny, you asked, "Brad, why don't you tell me how exactly you think that last comment re-framed the issue in a helpful way?" Chris's comment made clear that the problem is not so much with the way that evangelicals excommunicate homosexuals (since they don't very much) but with the way that they turn away any and all homosexuals (including those who earnestly want to serve Christ) at the door, even while ignoring other glaring sins entirely, or, at best, trying to work through those sins within the walls of the church, something they do not necessarily do for homosexuality. Why is it that it's fine for congregants to be enslaved to greed as long as we just preach sermons against greed from time to time, but a congregant with warped sexual desires is ostracized from the fellowship? Now, what part of this concern do you not find helpful, and why, and what do you want to suggest instead?

    Like

  27. Donny

    First, a clarification. Look at this language in your last comment:"Finally, I think it is very important to note that what Paul says here plays right into Byron and Chris and I's hands in many ways…"I don't see myself as on the other side of a battle over these issues, so the idea that any of these verses play into anyone's hands throws me off some. I don't have an established position, and I'm not gunning for your established position. Your original post seemed like more about asking questions and looking for input, so that's what I've been giving. I'm probably not always succeeding, but I'm trying to offer constructively critical questions so we can dig deeper. And that's why I don't have a "position" on this. That, and because it's incredibly difficult pastoral issue that requires more wisdom than I have at 24 years old.Right now, the discussion has branched out and gotten pretty confusing. So let me try to get back to what I see as a couple core issues. First, what provoked me when I first read your post, and what still rubs me the wrong way about some of the comments, is the flippant over-generalizations of "evangelicals." What is the point of this? Why toss so many Christians into a sack and beat them with a stick? Sure, it's easy, but I don't see how it helps. So, instead of comments like "somehow, in our churches today, we have forgotten the greed, or idolater or reviler or drunkard or swindler," can we get some clearer statements on what you are exactly criticizing? Is it some established evangelical theology of homosexuality? Is it the practice of non-excommunication of drunkards? Simply put, before we go any further, we need to know what we're actually discussing.I'm not saying you haven't already brought up plenty of issues. But the over-generalizations have made your central point a bit difficult to nail down. You've mentioned shifting away from excommunication to what Chris brought up. He spoke more about how we approach homosexuals before they join our church communities, how we welcome into the church, etc. If this is where you want to go, then can you explain more concisely and concretely how churches are unwelcoming to homosexuals and how they should be more welcoming to homosexuals?Also, we need to be careful about the way we use the term "homosexual." When you speak about homosexuals who earnestly want to serve Christ, as if the two are entirely consonant and harmonious. When you use the term, can you clarify when you are speaking about the simple inclination, the temptation, the sinful lusting, the practice of the sin, etc.? Obviously you don't need to be annoyingly definitive, but give us a heads up on the way you'll be using the term, so there aren't misunderstandings.

    Like

  28. Chris

    Ok, it's nearly 1am, and I just noticed that Brad and Donny have both posted again. I'm going to bed, but I hope that what I've written below will still be relevant. This post is not for the faint of heart. You guys asked a lot of questions, so I’ve taken the liberty of answering. After addressing my ‘creaky limb’ statement, I’ve taken each of the questions individually. I close with a brief statement regarding a way forward. Byron—thanks for that extra thought. I wholeheartedly agree and I appreciate your efforts in thinking, writing, and teaching to combat this massive idol.Donny and Alexander—Incidentally, I used the phrase ‘creaky limb’ as a rhetorical device. In reality, though, I don’t think it’s such a risky claim. The whole of Scripture indicates that the aim of God’s people was to draw people to Yahweh by their holiness. For the full argument see C. J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (2006). For starters, though, see Gen 12:1-3—the call of Abraham couched in terms of bringing blessing to the nations. See Exo 19:5-6—the raison d’etre of the nation of Israel. The whole nation are to be priests, that is, they are to mediate God’s blessing to the nations. By their holy living, Israel are to bring reconciliation between Yahweh and the nations. From the very beginning, then, holiness is not an end in itself. Later, this is reflected in, e.g., Ps 72 where Solomon seeks God’s help in bringing justice and righteousness (two marks of holy living, if you read Leviticus). Solomon’s aim is ‘to have dominion from sea to sea’ (v. 8). This isn’t a statement of a power-hungry monarch so much as of a man who knows that his responsibility as covenant representative is to ensure that his people fulfill their responsibility. Throughout the Prophetic books, God castigates Israel/Judah for neglecting this, and Jesus takes up the same topic in so many of his teachings. Peter unmistakably refers to the verses from Exo 19 and, in so doing, explicates the passage. 1Pet 2:9 is worth quoting, ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you…’ Peter recognizes that the purpose of his fellow-Christians’ calling is for the sake of drawing others to God. In line with my (not so risky) claim, Peter then goes on to call these believers to holy living. Incidentally, he has already quoted Lev 11:44 ‘…be holy…’ suggesting that the reference to Exo 19 may unite and explain the reason for these two appeals to holiness.Now, to the specific questions. Donny—1. "what he means by homosexuals feeling like ‘second class Christians’." I mean that gay people feel out of place in the church. If you disagree, I ask you a) to speak to gay Christians and b) to read this: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/march11/2.50.html, a short article referred to me by a friend who is both gay and a devoted servant of Jesus. I could also refer you to at least one book, as well as to the biography of a renowned Scottish minster who, almost singlehandedly, brought evangelical Christianity back to the Church of Scotland. 2. "what he means by churches allowing drunkards and porn-addicts to communion." I mean that the church allows people who become drunk to be members in good standing. I mean that on a Sunday men (and perhaps women) take the Lord’s Supper when they have spent hours looking at porn throughout the week. I know both of these things from work in ministry and from being in relationship with people in both situations. If the church allows these things, why wouldn’t it also allow people involved in homosexual relationships? I think it’s because there’s a latent homophobia as well as an overt arrogance. The arrogance manifests itself in thinking that people who don’t face/experience/fight homosexuality are somehow more holy and thus more acceptable to God. 3. "what exactly 'homosexual' means." I mean here that ‘homosexual’ is a not as simple as one might think. Does it refer to someone who practices ‘gay sex’ or someone who is attracted to the opposite sex? Relatedly, how does one become a homosexual? Is it by choice, is it inborn, or is it socially developed? Maybe some of each? I realize that this is a huge question, and it needs concerted attention. But, for starters, we have to reject simplistic answers, a matter which I begin to address below in response to Alexander. Alexander—1. Holiness is the means by which we mediate God to the world? I think I’ve addressed this above.2. "the goal of being God's people is to show what it really means to be truly human?" Yes, but I admit that I put this a little imprecisely. More accurately then, showing the truly human life is the means by which we draw people to God. Here’s the logic. a) In Eden humanity had pure fellowship with the creator and thus lived the truly human life. b) But in Adam all humanity fell, losing that fellowship and the ability to be truly human. c) God’s grace enabled Israel to have relationship with him and thus to achieve something of the real life. d) Israel was meant to draw the rest of the world to Yhwh and thus to the real life. e) Christians are God’s people and thus take up the mission of Israel.3. "If, on the other hand, holiness means being pure as God himself is pure, because then we are fit for his company…," It is only partly true that our holiness permits relationship with God. I agree that holiness enables full relationship with God. But I disagree that our personal holiness (i.e., our proper behaviour) is necessary for partial relationship with God. First, God dwelled among Israel even though they were not holy. Second, Jesus (God in the flesh) associated pretty regularly with unholy people. Third, neither you nor I are truly holy, yet we still have relationship with God. 4. "…then the question is simply what does God tolerate?" God tolerates me in spite of my daily sins. To use language from the Holiness code (Lev 17-26), I ‘profane his law’, yet still he tolerates me. More than that, God loves me and richly blesses me. I know that I am not alone. You and all other believers are just like me, and yet God still tolerates you. 5. "Does God want homosexuals congregating in the assembly?" Yes and no. He does not want homosexuality. But he does want sinners, since only sinners are available (see John 4). Similarly, he does not want people who masturbate. But he does want sinners. He doesn’t want a man who looks lustfully at a women. But he does want sinners. He doesn’t want a child who disrespects her mother, but he does want sinners. Ok. I think the point is clear. 6. "Does God want sodomites offering offerings at his table? Does God want to gather with a group of catamites? Will God enjoy our worship when they are involved with it?" First, may I suggest that you don’t use the designations ‘sodomites’ and ‘catamites’. These are derogatory and don’t communicate charity toward people who sin in these ways. I appreciate that the Bible depicts people from Sodom as practicing homosexual sex, but, as you will remember, the story in Gen 19 is one of violence and thus not a good analogue to the issues at stake today, i.e., committed homosexual relationships.Second, the answers to each of these questions are similar to #5 above: yes and no. The issue that confronts evangelical Christianity is not whether God wants people to sin or whether he condones persistently sinful behaviour. We all know that he doesn’t! But, the fact is, he does permit sinful people in ‘the assembly’, to make ‘offerings’, and he does ‘enjoy the worship’ that sinners bring to him. The issue at stake is, really, what types of sinners evangelicals are willing to allow in ‘the assembly’. To date evangelicals have been reticent, if not wholly opposed, to allowing homosexual sinners. But the great irony is that evangelicals allow other types of sinners…see the sins I mention in #5 above.7. "I feel quite clear what a homosexual is. Homosexuals are men who go around doing other men. They are better called sodomites." Ok. I’ll reply to this, but it would be better to do so by voice rather than writing, since tone of voice would help to communicate my vibe more accurately than lone words. I want to ensure that, though I’m speaking strongly, you know I offer these thoughts in Christian charity. So, again, Alexander, I recommend that you drop the term ‘sodomite’, lest you come across as lacking charity for certain types of people. I promise you that no gay person would take kindly to being called by this term; it’s probably on par with the ‘n’ word. I also suggest that you avoid thinking about these things as crudely as you have here. Fact is, ‘homosexuals ARE NOT men who go around doing other men’. Here’s a definition from my dictionary: ‘a person sexually attracted to people of one's own sex.’ As we all know, ‘sexual attraction’ is not simply the desire to have sex with someone. This is because our sexuality is not merely about the act of sex. Our sexuality does dictate with whom we want to have sex, but, the desire to have sex is not simply a raw, animalistic desire. More properly, sex is the culmination of relationship. It is the sign of deepest intimacy. Put all this together and we see that homosexuality is less about ‘doing it’ than it is about the type of relationship that a person longs for in order to achieve relational fulfilment. I realize that our culture doesn’t generally portray sexuality in these terms, but any expert on relationships and any person who has thought about their own relationships and longings will certainly affirm what I’m saying. Homosexuality is as complex as heterosexuality, probably more so. If we evangelicals are going to have any chance in sharing God’s love to gay people, we have to eschew simplistic answers. This means we have to do the hard work of understanding our own sexuality, something I suspect most of us do not, and we also have to begin to plough through the immense literature on homosexuality. It will be hard, but valuable if we believe that God’s love is for gay people. In closing, I want again to return to the question of how evangelicals might address this massive issue. In thinking about this, I’m reminded of a recent lecture from N. T. Wright in which he argued that, to Paul, the defining feature of God’s people is unity. Yes, Paul advocates church discipline, but he also pleads with believers to love one another and to remember that they are all people of one Lord. Paul, of all people, doesn’t disparage holiness, but neither will he sacrifice unity. Should it surprise us that the most exalted of all Pauline chapters is 1 Cor 13? Love is the essence of our identity as God’s people, and if we fail to love, well, to quote Paul, we are nothing. Again, I don’t mean that excommunication should be considered antiquated, but we should approach the practice with great caution. It is a last resort, not an initial threat. Love seeks unity, not fragmentation. So, as we consider how evangelicals should think about homosexuality, may God enable us to practice love, even for those whose sexual identity cuts across the biblical ideal.

    Like

  29. Donny

    Just for clarification's sake, Christ, I didn't think you said anything wrong per se in your "creaky limb" comment. It was the apparent dichotomy between holiness and spreading the gospel that made me nervous. It shows up again in terms of love/unity vs. excommunication in the closing paragraph of your last comment. Yes, love/unity is primary, but it's the sort of love/unity that sees excommunication as part of that unity. God's wrath and mercy are not at odds with one another, so neither should the church's be.As far as the rest of the answers, I'll wait for Brad to respond to what I just asked. If he's wanting to discuss definitions of "homosexual" so we can allow for devoted, righteous, "gay Christians," then we can move the discussion down that road. But I'd prefer not to get off on that tangent, or the other ones that came up, until we can be a bit more clear where exactly we're discussing here. Like you've pointed out, there are lot of big issues tangled up together here, and the mess is a bit confusing to untangle.One pre-emptive question, though, to clarify a point you made. You mentioned churches were porn addicts and drunkards are allowed to communion, but homosexuals are not. This sort of thing seems to be what Brad was driving at earlier, too, but I'm still unclear. Are these struggling, repentant porn addicts, drunkards, and homosexuals, the former of which are being counseled and helped by ministers, the latter of which are being rejected off-hand, even though they want help? Or are all they unrepentant, and the sin of the former is being ignored, while the sin of the latter is being dealt with? Or is it some combination of the two?

    Like

  30. Donny

    Oh, and one more thing I noticed that I thought I should clarify:"I mean that gay people feel out of place in the church. If you disagree, I ask you a) to speak to gay Christians and b) to read this: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/march11/2.50.html, a short article referred to me by a friend who is both gay and a devoted servant of Jesus. I could also refer you to at least one book, as well as to the biography of a renowned Scottish minster who, almost singlehandedly, brought evangelical Christianity back to the Church of Scotland."I don't disagree. I'm not really in a place to, given my lack of experience. I'm mainly just wanting to learn more about what exactly is being said and why.By the way, the article was very helpful and clear. Thanks for the link. Does that basically what you and Brad and trying to say? If so, then it sounds great. Well, great as in a great observation. Not as in a great situation; the part about the author feeling unable to talk to his church about his situation was particularly saddening.

    Like

  31. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Chris–you are the man. That was all deeply helpful and lucid. Thanks for devoting the time to address all these questions as they needed to be addressed.And I apologize that I have not been able to give this discussion the time it needs to bring clarity to this difficult issue. I'm glad Chris has done a lot of the work for me, and I'll try to clear up a few more things, though it’s taken me three days to find the time to answer properly. First, Donny, with the line about "playing into our hands" I did not mean to give the idea that this was one team vs. another; I meant that Chris, Byron, and I had all made the argument that the crucial problem was a lack of balance in how sins like homosexuality were viewed compared to how sins like greed were viewed; thus, to quote Paul putting both on the same level is to play into the hands of that argument. But more broadly, you’re right–it’s perfectly legitimate for you to simply be asking questions without having to represent an “established position,” as indeed was my original purpose with this post. I got frustrated that the questions seemed to be coming back to the same points over and over despite our attempts at elucidation, and I vented some of that frustration in that last comment. For that I apologize; and thanks for asking the questions. I will try to answer them here.First, what provoked me when I first read your post, and what still rubs me the wrong way about some of the comments, is the flippant over-generalizations of "evangelicals." What is the point of this? Why toss so many Christians into a sack and beat them with a stick? Sure, it's easy, but I don't see how it helps.I should have hedged my comments in the beginning, with something like “some evangelicals.” I don’t have a clear enough reading on the pulse of American evangelicalism generally to know exactly where most of them stand on this issue, and a lot of this is necessarily based on the general vibe that I get, which comes in large part from the militant church-splitting this issue has generated. I can say for sure based on personal knowledge that some evangelicals manifest the kind of “they’re abominable sodomites, let there be no compromise or conversation, may God destroy them” attitude that I’m concerned about…indeed, this seems to be something like the position that Alex has voiced here. And then there is, perhaps worse, the homophobic, “Ewww, gay people. We don’t want to have anything to do with them” attitude, which I think we all know from personal experience is common in our churches. You’ve suggested that I steer clear of openly critiquing Doug Wilson on my blog, so I haven’t brought him up yet, but as you have pressed me for an example of what I am reacting against, I will post this link to his response to O’Donovan’s book on this subject. I was very taken aback by Wilson’s own attitude in that piece, but most troubling by far were the comments at the bottom (all approved by him, I take it, since he moderates comments, I believe), which give a good idea of how folks in our circles think about this issue. You may remember that I responded to some of Wilson’s comments last year here.Now, as to how widely my comments apply–I leave that as an open question, and am interested in hearing testimony on the issue. Chris has provided some, and the article he linked provided more. I suppose I would like to view my polemic here as a polemic against a potential hypocrisy, and a concern that American evangelicals ought to carefully examine themselves as to whether this sort of hypocrisy actually characterizes them. If it does not, I shall be relieved to hear that these concerns were unwarranted. So, instead of comments like "somehow, in our churches today, we have forgotten the greedy, or idolater or reviler or drunkard or swindler," can we get some clearer statements on what you are exactly criticizing? Is it some established evangelical theology of homosexuality? Is it the practice of non-excommunication of drunkards? Simply put, before we go any further, we need to know what we're actually discussing.I think Chris brought a fair amount of lucidity to this question. There’s two or three somewhat distinct concerns here, which I have perhaps not sufficiently distinguished yet.First, those with a “gay” identity, with homosexual desires, are treated as compromised from the outset in a way that people with other sinful desires are not. They are, as Chris, said, made to feel out of place, and do not feel like they can talk openly about their struggle. This is the case, note, even for those who remain chaste. We may say, as Alex seemed to, that our only beef is with those who actually act on these desires, but I don’t think that’s quite true. I think the testimony of the guy in the Christianity Today article would probably be an accurate picture of what you’d find at most evangelical churches. Second, those who actually sin by engaging in homosexuality are treated as sinners of a fundamentally different class from other sinners. As Chris said, at many of our churches, we let people who are deep in the sin of greed come worship with us; we let people who sin by giving in to heterosexual lusts come worship with us, we let people who get drunk come worship with us. But how many of our churches would let a man who has sex with men come worship with us? Now, this can be taken two different ways: a) perhaps this means we should be softer on the gays; b) perhaps this means we should be harder on everyone else. I think that both are partly true. First, it’s not necessarily a problem that we let the greedy and the heterosexually impure and the drunkards worship with us, because to a large extent–they are us. We are all sinning in these ways. And you can’t just make a repentant/unrepentant distinction, because with sins that are besetting sins, or sins of which we have just recently become aware, we often are repentant, but still continue to sin in these ways; hopefully we sin less and less, but we still sin. And worship and communion with the saints is one of the chief ways we come to sin less. So these sinners should still be in our midst, and I suppose so should the homosexuals. Second, in some cases it is a problem that we let the greedy and the heterosexually impure and the drunkards worship with us–if they have absolutely no intention of letting go of their sin, or won’t even recognize it as a sin, or if perhaps we’ve never even confronted them about the sin. Given that we would never let the homosexual worship with us unrepentant or unconfronted, there’s hypocrisy here that must be dealt with.I should mention, of course, that at the churches you and I are familiar with, this hypocrisy is perhaps not as bad as elsewhere…we aren’t friendly to homosexuals, but neither are we soft on fornication, adultery, drunkenness, etc. You and I come from churches that are very unusually pastorally diligent on these sins as well. However, even in our churches, greed and related sins generally escape any attention, as Doug Jones so unpopularly pointed out.You've mentioned shifting away from excommunication to what Chris brought up. He spoke more about how we approach homosexuals before they join our church communities, how we welcome into the church, etc. If this is where you want to go, then can you explain more concisely and concretely how churches are unwelcoming to homosexuals and how they should be more welcoming to homosexuals?In the preceding, I think I answered the first part of that–how churches are unwelcoming to homosexuals. Of course, that was still not terribly concrete, but I think perhaps that proves the problem. I’ve never been in a church where the issue of how to deal with a homosexual member or visitor even came up…so I can’t even give concrete examples from my experience about how it was handled wrong. But given the prevalence of homosexuality today, that seems statistically remarkable, and suggests that something might be wrong in our ministry to such people. Anyway, as for how they should be more welcoming, I would suggest three things as a start:1) toning down some of the rhetoric in preaching and church polemics. There is so much division in the Church right now over homosexuality, and though much of that is the fault of a militant liberal agenda, some of it can be attributed to conservatives who have too little love and too much concern for their own holiness. Many conservatives have used the opportunities afforded by these debates to send a gracious and balanced methods, but others, alas, have not, and have spoken in ways that would alienate any homosexually inclined Christian or homosexual thinking about becoming a Christian. We must make sure we preach a message of grace for sinners, all sinners, from our pulpits, instead of, as is too often the case among evangelicals, a message of judgment for all sinners who sin in ways different from us–e.g., abortion and homosexuality most of all. When we make anti-homosexuality measures a cornerstone of the political agenda of the Christian Right, this sends the wrong message as well. It is hypocrisy to preach so vigorously against homosexuality and not against greed, for instance.2) making a point of befriending and witnessing to homosexual people, and letting them know you care about them as people. This is a no-brainer, perhaps, but I think it is something many of us struggle with.3) in our churches providing open and full support for gay Christians who are struggling to live lives of chastity.4) showing the same kind of patience for a homosexual who’s just coming to the Church and unaware of what’s wrong with his homosexuality as we would show for another sinner of a different stripe. That is, if a homosexual couple wanted to come to one of our churches, we ought to allow them, explain to them pretty soon that we did not consider this sort of relationship acceptable for Christians, and, if they had difficulty understanding or accepting this teaching, we ought to exercise pastoral patience in trying to help them understand, respond, and grow into faithfulness. Also, we need to be careful about the way we use the term "homosexual." When you speak about homosexuals who earnestly want to serve Christ, as if the two are entirely consonant and harmonious. When you use the term, can you clarify when you are speaking about the simple inclination, the temptation, the sinful lusting, the practice of the sin, etc.? Obviously you don't need to be annoyingly definitive, but give us a heads up on the way you'll be using the term, so there aren't misunderstandings.I’ve already hinted at the answer here. There are at least four different groups. There are those who feel themselves homosexually inclined, who consider themselves to have a homosexual identity, like the guy in the Christianity Today article, but who understand what the Gospel requires of them, and live lives of celibacy or heterosexuality. Then there are those who, like group 1, understand what the gospel requires of them, but struggle to live it out, and perhaps continue to fall into homosexual sin, though they are working to overcome it. (Note that such a person actually deserves a greater degree of sympathy than a heterosexual who periodically falls into heterosexual sin, because the latter has a legitimate outlet that the former will never have.) Then there is a group who does not yet rightly understand that the gospel requires them to resist their homosexual desires, or does not understand why it does, perhaps due to the poor and polarized teaching of the churches they have encountered, but which does want to follow Christ according to their knowledge. Fourth, there is a group that either has no interest at all in the demands of the gospel, or else knows them and rejects them, choosing to fully embrace their homosexuality rather than Christ. Obviously the latter should not be allowed in our churches, and they would most likely not even want to be. But members of each of the first three groups it seems should be allowed in our churches, and should receive active pastoral support and, if they are in groups 2 or 3, pastoral challenge and a clear call to mature.Are these struggling, repentant porn addicts, drunkards, and homosexuals, the former of which are being counseled and helped by ministers, the latter of which are being rejected off-hand, even though they want help? Or are all they unrepentant, and the sin of the former is being ignored, while the sin of the latter is being dealt with? Or is it some combination of the two?I think I’ve answered this question, in answer to similar questions.It was the apparent dichotomy between holiness and spreading the gospel that made me nervous. It shows up again in terms of love/unity vs. excommunication in the closing paragraph of your last comment. Yes, love/unity is primary, but it's the sort of love/unity that sees excommunication as part of that unity. God's wrath and mercy are not at odds with one another, so neither should the church's be.To be sure, they shouldn’t be. However, just because God’s wrath and mercy aren’t at odds with one another doesn’t mean it’s easy for us to know what that means…half the debates in theology through the centuries have been devoted to parsing out that relationship. So the tension certainly carries over into the activity of the Church. One thing that does seem clear to me though is that, for wrath and mercy to be working together in the Church, excommunication should be primarily for the good of the sinner. This is not a novel idea, but goes right back to the New Testament and is often emphasized in discussions of the subject. My concern is that this idea is lost in Alex’s rhetoric, in which our chief goal is to be make ourselves holy so that we can’t be accused of accomodating any wood, hay, or stubble.

    Like

  32. Donny

    Thanks for the clarifications. Those help. There are definitely still disagreements between us – I still don't like what I saw in your reviews of O'Donovan's book, I'm uncomfortable with the way "homosexual" or "gay" is sometimes used, etc. – but most seem off topic. One small one, though, is worth mentioning in more detail. Here are a few quotes from your comment:"I can say for sure based on personal knowledge that some evangelicals manifest the kind of “they’re abominable sodomites, let there be no compromise or conversation, may God destroy them” attitude that I’m concerned about…indeed, this seems to be something like the position that Alex has voiced here.""Church. One thing that does seem clear to me though is that, for wrath and mercy to be working together in the Church, excommunication should be primarily for the good of the sinner."I don't so much have a blunt disagreement as more of a reminder and a caution. First, we have to be able to use biblical language. If the Bible calls homosexuals abominable, we have to be able to do that, too. I'm not saying we go around shouting it every chance we get, but still, we can't oppose it based on some larger principle of kindness or tolerance. We can't be more righteous, or kind, than God.Second, excommunication should be for the good of the sinner, but that's only true when they repent. If they don't repent, it was bad for them, to their damnation, but it's still good for the church, for justice's and purity's sake. Ultimately, excommunication is good for the church in precisely the reasons Alex (and Paul) mentioned. Obviously, it should be done in a way that encourages and drives for repentance, but sometimes, that doesn't happen, and in that case, woe to the man who has been excommunicated. To make it a little more vivid, consider Phinehas. Rude, impolite, brash, zealous, and all of that God was incredibly pleased with. And he shoved a spear through someone. With obvious qualifications with the NT (we excommunicate, we don't kill), we have to approve of that for ourselves.I'm not saying you aren't; it's just a matter of balance.

    Like

  33. Brad Littlejohn

    Fair cautions, Donny. And I do not disagree with either. To the first I merely say that just because language is Biblical does not mean it is always, or even often, prudent. My parents always used to make us apply a test when we wanted to say something–"Is it kind, necessary, and true?" The rule was that it always had to be at least true plus one of the other two. All-in-all, I think this is a good policy for most of life. (Plus, words change their meanings and connotations. "Abomination" in Leviticus has a very specific, somewhat cultic sense. In our society, it just sounds like hot-headed spewing.)To the second, yes, fair enough qualification. Chris sent me this link, which I thought you might appreciate. http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/23/what-would-luther-say-a-church-apologizes-for-church-discipline/No doubt it is this sort of thing that makes you all leery and cautious and clarification-seeking.Of course, I think this article needs a qualification–it implies that the ELCA as a whole took this action, whereas, so far as I can tell, this was done by a particular congregation. There are still many fine churches in the ELCA and many fine pastors, one of whom I am fortunate to call my friend and classmate here.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s