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.