As always, when I write about the issue that will likely divide my denomination in 2019—homosexuality, marriage, and related questions—I do so as a sinner in need of God’s mercy and grace at every moment. I may not be, as Paul says, “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15), but God knows I’m close enough! I stand in solidarity with my fellow sinners.
When I consider my own sin, Paul’s words from Romans 7 resonate with me: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” My only hope in life and death rests not on my faltering attempts at making “progress” in the Christian life, but on my ability to “fall on Christ,” as I heard one pastor say recently. Even the most crippled person—and I am crippled, emotionally and spiritually—knows how to fall.
So to all sinners everywhere, I urge you: fall on Christ alongside me. He will save us if we repent of our sin and trust in him for salvation.
Repentance represents our desire to turn from sin. We bring to God this desire—daily, hourly—and we trust him with the power to change us. Yes, it involves our will and effort, however weak and vacillating, but ultimately it happens by God’s sanctifying grace. Do we still sin? Absolutely. But since Jesus counsels us to forgive our brother or sister “seventy times seven,” we can assume that he himself isn’t less forgiving: and that as we sin and turn to him in repentance, he will keep on forgiving us—without limit.
Indeed, on the cross, Christ’s blood was powerful enough to atone for every sin we commit—past, present, and future. As the song says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” This is also why the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness ought to bring us great comfort: we are not made righteous through anything that we do, but on account of what Christ has done. Because we are united with him through faith (as a bride is united to a bridegroom, the Bible says), what belongs to Christ now belongs to us—including his righteousness. Praise God!
Please receive what follows in this spirit. My occasion for discussing issues pertaining to sexuality is the Nashville Statement, a manifesto produced primarily by an evangelical organization called the CBMW, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. I am not a member, nor could I be, since I believe that women should be eligible for ordained ministry—and I believe this (I hope) for good exegetical reasons. As I’ve said before, N.T. Wright, an Anglican scholar, makes a strong case with which I agree.
Nevertheless, the issues over which I disagree with the CBMW are secondary. Issues pertaining to human sexuality, I believe, are not. I’ve read the Nashville Statement. Alongside a diverse group of evangelicals, I affirm it. I think I even signed it, although I never received feedback that my signature went through. Not that the world waits with bated breath to see if some small-town Methodist minister signs it or not!
I’ve read that the statement could be more “pastoral.” Maybe so, but it isn’t meant as therapeutic advice for pastors and counselors. I’ve read (from some of my fellow UMC clergy) that they can’t sign it because they disagree with the CBMW on issues pertaining to women in ministry. I sympathize, but this is a classic case of “guilt by association”: nothing in the statement itself prescribes “roles” for women in our world—it affirms only the God-givenness of differences between male and female. What Christian would disagree with that principle, even if we disagree over how those differences are to be lived out?
No ecumenical statement says everything that needs to be said on a topic, almost by design: you want more agreement rather than less.
Still, I’m surprised and disappointed by the way some of my fellow orthodox evangelicals have responded to it, especially Scot McKnight over on his blog, Jesus Creed. He’s responded twice—once with glibness and a second time with more thoughtfulness. Either way, I strongly disagree, as I said in the following exchange with Dr. McKnight:
Way too much to respond to today, but your objections regarding Article X seem incomprehensible to me. You ask, “If this were ‘essential,’ why don’t any of the creeds and confessions make reference to homosexuality?” But you know that none of the framers of these creeds and confessions denied the historic, unanimously held Christian conviction that homosexual practice, per se, is sinful. Had they anticipated that in late modernity, somewhere around 1980 and in response to the sexual revolution, a small handful of Bible scholars would begin making a revisionist case (which even many otherwise “affirming” Christian scholars would dispute), perhaps they should have said something. But that’s a lot to ask!
It’s like arguing (spuriously) that Jesus had “nothing to say” about homosexuality, so it must not be very important. Even if that were true, in what possible context would he have brought it up—especially if everyone with whom he ministered already understood that homosexual practice was sinful? The same applies to framers of creeds and confessions.
Besides, scripture itself records the first church council, at which the church ruled that avoiding porneia [often translated “sexual immorality”] was, in fact, an “essential” that Gentile believers would have to observe, even as ceremonial aspects of Jewish law no longer applied. There’s no question that “porneia,” in the minds of the apostles, pointed back to the sexual sins listed in Leviticus 18 and 20.
Finally, what would Paul say about whether or not homosexual practice, like other sexual sins, was less than essential? In 1 Corinthians 5, the issue of incest (which is listed alongside homosexual practice in Leviticus 18 and 20) was important enough for Paul to urge the church to disfellowship this Christian who engaged in it. And notice Paul’s tone! He’s shocked that the church would consider tolerating such sin.
More importantly, what about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9. I know the revisionist argument that somehow Paul says nothing whatsoever about homosexual practice as understood and practiced by Christians today, but you don’t believe those revisionist arguments. Therefore, you accept, I’m sure, that Paul is at least saying that, apart from repentance, this sin, like other serious sins he mentions, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom. If that’s true, then potentially heaven and hell hang in the balance. If so, how can the questions addressed in the Nashville Statement be anything less than “essential”?
Dr. McKnight responded:
I think we’re coming at the word “essential” from two angles: I see the gospel statement in 1 Cor 15 and the creedal type statements about Christ in Phil 2 and Col 1 to be the foundation of creeds, and then they come to fuller form at Nicea and Constantinople and Chalcedon. I see those as “essentials” of the faith. That’s what I was saying. For me “essential” refers to the church’s own official creeds and what they saw as vitally important, and that was a Trinitarian formed statement that did not include specific moral statements.
I do not dispute the clarity of the Bible on same sex sexual relations, but pulling in 1 Cor 6 puts one in the position of making “greed” also an essential. Do you believe that? If one wants to include moral claims on our life in the Bible as essentials, I think we’d be talking about a different list.
In response, I wrote:
The difference is, irrespective of how consistently one lives out or applies Paul’s warning about the sinfulness of greed, no Christian disputes that greed is seriously sinful. In fact, it would be bizarre to imagine that the sinfulness of greed would ever be disputed. It’s unthinkable.
And yet here we are, encouraging a behavior that, as we’re told in the exact same context as greed, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom.
Call it whatever you want—just so long as the word you use means something like “deadly serious.”
No response. Earlier this morning, he wrote in passing that he agrees 100 percent that redefining marriage and endorsing homosexual practice is a “departure from the church’s tradition and practice. No one should question that.”
I couldn’t let that pass without the following response:
Scot, I can only speak for myself. I pastor in a denomination (the UMC) that will likely split in 2019 because of issues that the Nashville Statement addresses. Many clergy in my denomination identify as “moderates” or “centrists” or the “Methodist middle” and say, in so many words, “Can’t we just agree to disagree?” And the whole approach of your blog seems to affirm the same thing: issues pertaining to homosexuality and marriage are strictly secondary; they are matters of adiaphora [inessential to orthodox Christian faith]. Am I wrong?
Because when you say that the revisionist side represents (merely) a “departure from the church’s tradition and practice,” you’re ceding way too much ground, at least for someone like yourself who believes in the church’s traditional doctrine on sexuality. Why do you do this?
From my perspective, as a theologically conservative evangelical, this is not merely a departure from tradition and practice. In a sense, people on “my side” don’t care about tradition and practice: we are Sola Scriptura, right? God’s Word, we believe, has these serious warnings about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, per se. In the spirit of love, for the sake of people’s souls, we can’t condone or affirm homosexual behavior and any sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage, which is by definition between a man and woman.
Why not say that? This issue, whether or not it’s “essential” as you define it, is far more serious than a matter of church practice or tradition. I get why my mainline brothers and sisters are confused about this (I went to Candler, for heaven’s sake!). But why are you? I hope you at least sympathize with those of us who share my convictions.
I don’t expect a response. I’m sure he’s a busy man. But I hope this post has been helpful. I would like for my fellow UMC clergy who disagree with me to at least appreciate why people like me stand where we stand, and why compromise can’t be on the table for us. I believe that my fellow clergy who oppose the traditional stance of our Book of Discipline are gravely mistaken, and far from being loving, risk doing great harm to people who struggle with same-sex attraction.
I urge these clergy—my fellow sinners—to repent, to believe God’s Word, and to heed Jesus’ warning that to whom much is given, much will be expected.