The 2018 General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP) voted to permit clergy to bless same-sex unions that had been contracted under New Zealand Civil law, provided the Bishop of the Diocese gave his permission. At the same time, it was made plain that no Bishop was required to give that permission, and that no Bishop could require his/her clergy to conduct such blessings against their conscience, nor disfavour them because of it.
Some clergy, followed by many in their congregations, withdrew from the ACANZP as soon as the motion was passed, but were they right? On the other hand, the Bishop of Christchurch has come under criticism because he has agreed to permit such blessings even though he is not yet convinced that there is a case from the Word of God for them. Are his critics right, or is he right in the concession he has made?
The purpose of this post is to discuss the first of these questions, keeping in mind the principles for preserving fellowship which Anthony Norris Groves set out in his 1836 letter to J N Darby, and which I believe to be an apt summary of the Biblical standard for us in such matters —see my previous post. (Groves would, I expect, have been horrified at the idea of same-sex blessings, and I am not drawing upon his letter to imply otherwise. I simply want to draw upon his wisdom in the matter of when it is or is not right to separate from other professing believers.)
In a further post, I hope to extend the discussion to the question of the decision by the Bishop of Christchurch to permit such blessings.
I need to stress that my purpose in this post is not to advocate for same-sex blessings. There will be nothing in the post that does so advocate. I simply want to discuss the question of whether it is right to separate from those who do advocate them. It will quickly become obvious that I believe that such separation runs contrary to the Scriptures, and so I hope that I can change the thinking of those who believe separation is necessary. Therefore, I run the risk that my passion against separation will be interpreted as passion for same-sex blessings. I ask you not to conflate the two.
- Scriptural quotations in this post, except where otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
- I will often abbreviate “same-sex blessings” to “ssb” from this point forward.
Are Advocates of Same-Sex Blessings the Kind of False Teachers from whom Separation is Commanded?
I think all sides would agree that it is scriptural that teachers who bring certain kinds of teaching into the Church are to be identified as false teachers and separated from. There are a number of passages on that subject in the New Testament, but the ones that I think most relevant to the present controversy are 2 Peter 2, Jude, Revelation 2:14 and 2:20, and 2 Corinthians 6:17-18 with 1 Corinthians 5:9-11. I do not want to impede the main flow of this post, so I have appended near the its end excerpts from those places, with my comments interpolated to—I think— prove the case that proponents of same-sex blessings do not match the profiles that Peter, Jude, Paul and the Lord Jesus give here.
Nor does the advocacy of ssb (if indeed it is wrong) parallel the kinds of false teaching that are condemned by Paul in Acts 20 (“savage wolves … not sparing the flock“) or 1 Timothy 1 (“myths and endless genealogies“) or 1 Timothy 4 (“…forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods …”) or 1 Timothy 6 (“...depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”) or 2 Timothy 3 (“lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power …“).
The shoe does not fit, and proponents of same-sex blessings are right to refuse to wear it. Any opponents of same-sex blessings who use these passages to justify separation are mistaken.
Is Disagreement about Sola Scriptura Grounds for Separation?
Neither the content of what ssb proponents teach nor their own manner of life fits the profiles of false teachers as given in the New Testament. Nevertheless, it is obvious that, to reach the view they have, they must have a wider view of how the Word of God is discerned than the view encompassed in the orthodox Protestant doctrine of “sola Scriptura“.
Among those who give support to same-sex blessings are many—perhaps even a majority— who are creedally orthodox. They don’t recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed—they believe every word of them. In the matters that the Church fathers deemed to be core matters of faith, they are as orthodox as any fundamentalist Protestant; perhaps even more so. Like all orthodox scholars, they give reason its place in the exegesis of the Scriptural texts as texts-in-themselves. However, unlike many in Protestant orthodoxy, they allow modern knowledge (or alleged knowledge—I am being neutral here) to have a place, too, in their interpretation and pastoral application of the Scriptures, and this leads some of them to believe that God indeed may extend his blessing to same-sex relationships.
Their view on same-sex relationships is therefore one they have come by faithfully, so to speak, and one that still gives the Scriptures first place in their theology; just not the sola Scriptura voice of Reformation Protestantism. Now, no matter how strongly you believe that sola Scriptura is correct, is it nevertheless right to, in effect, excommunicate those who do not hold it? There is no fault to be found with their confession of faith or the Christian probity of their lives. Why then are you separating from them?
I am not arguing that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is incorrect, just that the word of God gives no reason for separation from faithful believers who do not think so, or for bringing Church discipline down upon them.
Listening Again to A. N. Groves
Compatibility with the Common Life
Let me repeat something from Groves that I quoted in my previous post, but this time including a clause (here emphasised) that I replaced by an ellipsis last time.
“I ever understood our principle of union to be the possession of the common life or common blood of the family of God… The moment the witnessing for the common life as our bond gives place to a witnessing against errors by separation of persons and preaching (errors allowably compatible with the common life), every individual, or society of individuals, first comes before the mind as those who might need witnessing against, and all their conduct and principles have first to be examined and approved before they can be received; and the position which this occupying the seat of judgment will place you in will be this: the most narrow-minded and bigoted will rule, because his conscience cannot and will not give way, and therefore the more enlarged heart must yield.”
If we were to pluck Anthony Norris Groves straight from his 19th Century milieu and put the question to him, I expect that he would think that living in a faithful same-sex relationship was not compatible with the common life, and nor would condoning such a relationship be compatible in his eyes. We are not living in the 19th Century, however, and we have a great deal more data available to us regarding the circumstances of same-sex attraction, to the point where very few pastors would see its origin in an individual’s life as his or her conscious rebellion against God’s norm. I am confident that, in those congregations that have left the ACANZP over the matter of same-sex blessings, someone who approached the pastor for counseling over same-sex attraction or involvement would receive a much more empathetic reception than would have been typical in evangelical churches 75 or 100 years ago . The counsel would be for celibacy, and the stance would be, no partaking of the Eucharist while a same-sex relationship was ongoing, but there would be compassionate warmth shown toward the person.
Pastoral attitudes have therefore changed, correctly influenced by information from outside the Scriptures. What, then, of those who, having a different view on Scriptura, think that the gospel allows us to presume God’s blessing on faithful same-sex relationships? Is holding such a view, even if mistaken, incompatible with the common life? My own view, of course, is that it is not incompatible. Acceptance of faithful same-sex relationships is not a scandal and it does not promote licentiousness. Someone who does not accept ssb has no warrant to separate from a pastor and congregation who do. They do far more damage to the body of Christ and its witness by their leaving than the occurrence of same-sex blessings in other congregations (if mistaken) will ever do.
Absence of Constraint
Returning again to Groves: “…we felt ourselves bound to separate from all individuals and systems, so far as they required us to do what our consciences would not allow, or restrained us from doing what our consciences required …” and “…were we not as free to join and act with any individual, or body of individuals, as they were free not to require us to do what our consciences did not allow, or prevent our doing what [our consciences] did [require]?”
The motion passed by the ACANZP does not constrain any Bishop to permit, nor any clergy-person to carry out, the blessing of a same-sex union, and it does not redefine marriage. It does, however restrain those opposed from taking action in the courts of the Church against clergy who do permit or pronounce such blessings. Are those who are leaving doing so, then, because their consciences are ablaze with the urgent need to bring their fellow clergy into court and they cannot abide remaining in a communion that will not, in this case, permit it? And, seen in that light, is their act of withdrawal not somewhat less than grand and godly?
I understand: to one who does not believe that the blessing of same-sex unions can ever be justified Biblically, it seems that such blessings undercut the Bible’s injunctions to holiness of life, removing such unions from the roster of things that need to be repented of when one has believed in Christ. I understand the anxiety that would cause in you for the wellbeing of other congregations and same-sex attracted people in them. But why do you see departure as the necessary way to express your concern, when by doing so you separate yourself from many whose orthodox confession of faith gives you no good grounds for saying that the light and life of Christ is not in them? Are you making agreement with you on this matter the litmus test of true faith? If so, where is your confidence that the Holy Spirit is able in his own measured time to make believers realise that they have strayed into error, if indeed they have done so?
No! In the midst of such differences, let us have the same spirit as that expressed by Groves when he said, “I would INFINITELY RATHER BEAR with all their evils, than SEPARATE from THEIR good.”
Turning the Appeal in the Other Direction
I have suggested that those good and faithful women and men who have separated from the ACANZP over the matter of same-sex blessings have made a mistake, and this despite the fact that their position regarding homosexual relationships is the prima facie doctrine of Scripture and has been taught as such for most of the past 2000 years.
I believe that most of those who support same-sex blessings would sincerely wish that those who have left had not done so, but I also believe that a few have taken a “good riddance” attitude, and I find that appalling! It shows no recognition and no regret that this departure is a tearing apart of the Body of Christ. Do you love Christ at all, that you should receive news of a schism with cheerfulness?
Therefore, I appeal to those who have enjoyed the sound of “good riddance” on their own tongue or in their heart, please think again. Even if you think it an “evil” that those who have left were opposing same-sex blessings, should not your attitude still be the one put forward by Groves, “I would infinitely rather bear with all their evils than separate from their good”?
Next time, God willing: “The Errant (?) Bishop”
Appendix: Comments on Passages about False Teachers
(2 Peter 2:1) But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.
- Those who oppose ssb of course believe that it would be destructive to the health of the Church to permit them, but should it not first be proved from the Word of God that their introduction must necessarily be destructive? I suggest that many advocates of ssb do so from a background of orthodox faith—i,e, not one of liberalism—and are as anxious as any other orthodox believer to protect the Church against licentiousness.
- The rejoinder is likely to be made that it is indeed destructive if some are excluded from salvation because they have accepted this teaching and so have entered into a same-sex relationship which they would otherwise have eschewed. I have no dispute with those who, opposing ssb on what they believe are scriptural grounds, see ssb teaching as destructive in that way. However, I think that applying 2 Peter 2:1 as grounds for separation from present proponents of ssb may be to use the verse in a shallow way, as a proof text that conveniently validates an already-chosen course of action rather than compelling it. The reason I think that is because such a course seems to ignore the examples that Peter immediately gives of kinds of destructive behaviour that he has in mind, and which do not match what I see from those who advocate ssb.
They will even deny the Master who bought them..
- This might be true of some at the extremes of liberalism. It is not true of most.
(2 Peter 2:2) …many will follow their licentious ways …
- How many of those advocating ssb are living licentiously? In the large numbers of the Church, you will surely find some, but the behaviour of that minority should not dictate your treatment of the majority.
(2 Peter 2:3) And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.
- I see no evidence that those promoting ssb are doing so to somehow enrich themselves, and certainly no evidence of an attempt to deceive.
…by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes [God] condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly;
- The licentious homosexual behaviour that was evident in Sodom and Gomorrah was a symptom of a much wider rebellion against God. It is wrong to isolate homosexuality as though it were the defining reason for God’s judgment.
- In any case, Peter puts licentiousness at the forefront, and (to reiterate), licentiousness does not characterise the lives of those who advocate ssb.
(2 Peter 2:9-10) …the Lord knows how to … keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment —especially those who indulge their flesh in depraved lust, and who despise authority.
- Advocates for the blessing of faithful same-sex relationships argue that sexual expression within such a relationship is not intrinsically lustful or depraved, just as sexual expression within a heterosexual marriage is also neither of those.
(2 Peter 2:12ff) …These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed. They slander what they do not understand, and when those creatures are destroyed, they also will be destroyed, suffering the penalty for doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed…. (etc, to the end of the chapter).
- Anyone who thinks Peter’s description here is applicable to present-day Christian advocates of ssb deserves to be sued for slander!
(Jude 2:4) …certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
- My earlier comments on similar statements by Peter cover Jude’s words, too.
(Jude 2:7) Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
- I am convinced that the Scriptures present sexual connection between persons of the same gender as always unnatural, as measured against the benchmark of God’s original design for humankind.
- However, I recognise that proponents of ssb are trying to make the case that there are kinds of faithful same-sex relationship whose primary driver is the desire for companionship and support from someone with whom each partner feels at one, and only secondarily (though powerfully) for sexual consummation of that relationship.
- The ssb advocates therefore want to hold that the love and grace of God covers such relationships when they are entered into by couples who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are by no means trying to introduce sexual promiscuity into the Church.
- I therefore do not believe that Jude’s words can serve as a guide to the attitude that others in the Church should take toward ssb advocates.
(Revelation 2:14 – the words of Jesus!) But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. (Revelation 2:20) But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
- Balaam and Jezebel were deliberately trying to set all God’s people on a path of idolatry and immorality. I don’t think that anyone in the congregation who sees a same-sex union blessed by their minister is going to take it as a nod to lower their standards of morality, do you, or to take up idol worship, if the overall content of the minister’s preaching is seeking to reinforce orthodox belief in Jesus Christ and the worship of him as the eternal Son of God? The words of Jesus to Pergamum and Thyatira are severe and important when parallel cases arise anywhere in the Church, but the advocacy of same-sex blessings is not a parallel case.
(2 Corinthians 6:17-18) Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters,says the Lord Almighty.
- It is clear, because of the way 2 Corinthians 6:13 connects seamlessly to 7:3 if the intervening verses are ignored, that the section from 2 Corinthians 6:14 to 7:2 is an interpolation into 2nd Corinthians from some other letter of Paul’s. It seems to fit the letter mentioned in 1st Corinthians 5:9, but it does not matter if it is from a different letter. Either way, the latter verse makes it clear what kind of separation Paul was advocating, and the 2nd Corinthians passage should not be applied without that context.
(1 Corinthians 5:9-11) I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then 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 or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.
- We have established above, I think, that supporters of ssb cannot be characterised as sexually immoral or greedy, or idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers.
- If you think that professing Christians who are in a faithful same-sex relationship are sexually immoral, you may think that Paul’s words oblige you to separate from them. I hope that you don’t, but I can understand that you might.
- However, are you also obliged to separate from someone who, because they faithfully believe that a faithful same-sex relationship is not immoral, do not themselves separate from people who are in such a relationship?
- If you do separate for such a reason, I think you may be setting up a dangerous rule, and one that does not have Christ’s blessing: “You will not separate from someone or some system I think you should separate from, therefore, I must separate from you.”
Image source: Split Apple Rock: (c) Can Stock Photo / AustralianCamera