Reason and Scripture

Rev. Bosco Peters recently pertinently tweeted a Facebook post that reminds us that, in 1942, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York released women from the obligation to have their heads covered while in church. Bosco merrily captioned his tweet, “The Anglican Church breaks with the clear teaching of the Bible!”

I don’t know what the percentages would be if a survey were taken across the conservative Christian world, but I am sure that a great many conservative churches show by their actions that they agree with those Anglican Archbishops of 1942. However, I believe it’s a wasted opportunity if the inconsistency is merely humorously pointed out and not enlarged upon. There is a teaching opportunity here!

I believe the 1942 case helpfully elucidates one of the roles that reason rightly has in relation to Scripture. The first and obvious role is to seek out what the words on the page meant as set down in their original languages in their original genres by their original authors, in their self-conscious place within the greater sweep of Scripture, but the 1942 concession shows a second role coming into play. The Archbishops had no doubt what the words had meant to the recipients in Corinth, but they were happy to release modern Christians from obligation to them.

Many conservatives outside of Anglicanism would possibly respond to that with, “Anglicans! What can you expect? Probably modernists with no real commitment to the authority of Scripture.” And, indeed, I don’t know the theological positions of the Archbishops who made that concession, but I don’t need to. A large part of the conservative Christian world has already tacitly agreed that they were right – including even many who take a complementarian view of marital relationships and of male/female responsibilities in the Church.

So, how is our reason functioning here?

Christian reason is, I think, saying, “I am a faculty of sons and daughters of God, to whom God has given privileged insight into His ways, plans and precepts. They are not slaves who are obligated to blindly obey without understanding – it is the Father’s kind intention that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, usually they should understand.”

Christian reason is also saying, “I am nevertheless not a faculty to be exercised autonomously but in relation to the collective wisdom of the Church, including (through Biblically-anchored tradition) the Church’s historic teaching.”

Christian reason would also say, “And I have been led to those conclusions about Christian reason by my iterative reading of the Scriptures in the bosom of the Church – they are not positions adopted independently of the testimony of Scripture itself.”

And so, in the case in point, Christian reason has said, “I have done my homework. I believe I know why Paul’s command about head-coverings was germane in the first-century world, but, even as a complementarian, I can find no ongoing reason for it, and I find that same puzzlement across much of the Christian world. In that circumstance, to obey blindly is to give a false testimony about who we are in Christ. While not criticising those who continue to feel bound (since, “Whatever is not of faith is sin”), the best resolution is to say that the head-coverings command should no longer bind us”.

And that process, I suggest, can provide a paradigm for thinking through other, more controversial modern issues where a departure from traditional practice is suggested. The Scriptures give wider scope for the involvement of our Christian reason in the process than perhaps has been explicitly acknowledged, even though the head-coverings example shows that much of the Church has implicitly recognised the truth.

Some may worry that the use of this paradigm will lead to the willy-nilly supplanting of any doctrine that the modern mind finds uncomfortable, but if you re-read my earlier paragraphs, it should be clear that the paradigm as I understand it has its own safeguards that, if attended to, should keep us on the rails of orthodoxy. I cannot, for instance, see the paradigm supporting any change to the traditional Christian doctrine of marriage as being between a man and a woman. The Holy Spirit has, I believe, shown ample reason in Scripture why that exclusiveness of definition and practice needs to continue and be rejoiced in.

So, I believe that we should acknowledge that the paradigm exists and the process it points to is scriptural and brings to light that there is an extra dimension that is perhaps not usually acknowledged – at least in conservative evangelical circles – in the interplay between redeemed reason and the Scriptures. Our caution should be to make sure that the paradigm/process, if used again, is correctly applied, not to deny the truth of the paradigm.

Advertisements

Raising the Flag of Faithfulness and Purity

In August 2018, Ely Cathedral flew a rainbow flag to mark an LGBT+ pride event that was taking place in the city. The Cathedral Chapter were rightly motivated in wanting to signal compassionate acceptance of LGBT+ people, but misguided in flying the rainbow flag. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ calls everyone to faith and discipleship, and it calls LGBT+ people just as much the heterosexually oriented to faithfulness in their relationships and purity in the their lives. The event whose flag Ely flew, however, included an ‘adults only” party. Any commitment to faithfulness and purity there may be by some in the movement whose flag this is, is accidental rather than typical. By flying the rainbow standard, the Chapter of Ely Cathedral signalled capitulation to a force that remains hostile to the standard of Christ.

Ian Paul (@Psephizo) has a lengthy discussion of the Ely question  here. I won’t spend any more time on that specific occasion here, except to refer to it in my remarks near the end of this post.

I would like us to look ahead twenty or so years and picture what things might look like within Tikanga Pakeha of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP)  if the provisions of Motion 7 (see footnote below), as passed at our May 2018 General Synod / Te Hinau Whanui (GSTHW), have taken root and been honoured on all sides.

  • The ACANZP by then has one or more bishops, and numbers of clergy, who are in same-sex relationships that have been blessed in the Church, and the thing that most surprises visitors from parishes and dioceses that still do not appoint such clergy is that, as these clergy lead in prayer and worship or in celebration of the Eucharist, their sexual orientation is invisible. Their goal, like the goal of every godly heterosexually-oriented servant of Christ, is to lift up Christ and make him visible, and therefore they efface themselves.

    In their preaching and pastoral work, they are known to make the call to faithfulness and purity loud and clear, and to counsel those of whatever sexual orientation to remain celibate if not in a Church-blessed relationship.

    In every church, conservative as well as others, those who struggle with the challenge of celibacy, whatever their orientation or stated identity, are given compassionate, non-judgmental counsel, prayer, and support. No one is ashamed or fearful of making their struggle and faltering known to their pastors.
  • Almost every parish also has some lay couples who are in blessed same-sex relationships, and they display by their actions and involvement that their zeal is for the full-orbed gospel mission given to us by Christ. The same commitment is evident in clergy in same-sex relationships, too.
  • All this initially came as a great surprise to many conservatives who, though having supported Motion 7 for the preservation of church unity, had nevertheless worried that it was a Trojan horse that would shortly lead to gay orgies on sacristy floors.

    Some, consequently, have been able to rethink the issue in the context of the whole counsel of Scripture. Seeing some things in Scripture they had not weighed before, they have changed their view and now support the blessing of faithful same-sex relationships.

    Others do not yet have that confidence, but almost all have come to the view that they are willing to leave the ultimate question in the gracious hands of God, and to receive such people as sisters, brothers and shepherds.
  • Of course, there have been some scandals and some dissolutions of relationships, but no more, proportionately, than among the Church’s heterosexual couples.

That is a possible future, but there are some things that could prevent it happening, and leave the church divided.

  • Foolish alliances with wickedness, such as that made by Ely Cathedral. (Conservatives, too, are capable of such alliances, as witness the support that so many evangelicals have given to Donald Trump, so please understand this caveat as applying to all parts of the Church.)
  • Scandals and relationship dissolutions that proportionately far outnumber those among heterosexually-oriented clergy and laity, so that the suspicion held by many conservatives is not dispelled, that same-sex relationships are somehow inherently disordered.
  • Priests who use the pulpit and altar as a platform for LGBT+ visibility rather than for the elevation of Christ.

Please bear with me as I draw upon a stereotype for humorous effect to illustrate the point: if the breeze from the sleeves of your surplice frequently blows out the altar candles, you may be guilty of the fault I’m naming here! I know that the stereotype is false as a stereotype, and applies only to a minority in gay circles even outside the Church, but I wanted to accompany what I intend as a serious point with a memorable image. Hopefully, I’ve succeeded.

Please bear with me as I draw upon a stereotype for humorous effect to illustrate the point: if the breeze from the sleeves of your surplice frequently blows out the altar candles, you may be guilty of the fault I’m naming here! (I know that the stereotype is false as a stereotype, and applies only to a minority in gay circles even outside the Church, but I wanted to accompany what I intend as a serious point with a memorable image. Hopefully, I’ve succeeded.)

I would add, too, that the breeze that comes from your mouth in your sermon or homily can also blow out the candles.

  • Insistence on changing the doctrine of the Church so that same-sex unions are deemed to be marriages, undifferentiated in any theologically meaningful way from heterosexual unions. The permission already achieved via Motion 7 for blessing same-sex unions will not, I think, lead to many more resignations from the ACANZP than have already occurred, but insistence on changing the doctrine of marriage, I think, will. I hope that those who would like to see such a change will let it lie.

My hope is for the first set of outcomes, but my fear is that the second set may prevail. Let us encourage one another to beware of them.

Footnote: About Motion 7

Motion 29 of GSTHW 2016 resulted in the establishment of a working group which was charged with bringing recommendations to GSTHW 2018 on “possible structural arrangements within the Church to safeguard both theological convictions concerning the blessing of same gender relationships”.

At GSTHW 2018, Motion 7 received the report and adopted for implementation the essence of its recommendations. (That is why you may see the terms “Motion 7” and “Motion 29” used more or less interchangeably in imprecise discussions of this issue.) The same Synod accordingly approved five statutes that amended a number of canons and also created a new one, for purposes that were stated in the preamble to each statute. To make it easy to understand what was achieved, I have listed those purpose statements (rather than the amended canons), below.

Statute 747 “…amending Title D Canon I to provide for immunity from complaint and discipline for Ordained Ministers who either agree, or refuse to agree, to conduct services blessing couples in civil marriages or civil unions in accordance with an amended Title G Canon XIV and to provide immunity from complaint and discipline for those who preach or teach that such services are, or are not, consistent with Holy Scripture and the doctrine of this Church” [and]

“…amending Title D Canon II to provide for immunity from complaint and discipline for bishops who either authorise, or refuse to authorise, a form of service blessing couples in civil marriages or civil unions and who either authorise, or refuse to authorise, Ordained Ministers to conduct such services in accordance with an amended Title G Canon XIV and to provide immunity from complaint and discipline for those who preach or teach that such services are, or are not, consistent with Holy Scripture and the doctrine of this Church”

Statute 748 “…amending Title G Canon XIV to create a framework to allow for Bishops to: a. authorise services blessing those in any civil marriage or civil union; and b. authorising individual Ordained Ministers to conduct such services.”

Statute 749 “…To give effect to the recommendations of the Motion 29 working group by enacting a new Title B Canon XXXVIII to provide for the recognition of Christian Communities and for the affiliation of Ministry Units with them.”

Statute 750 “…To amend Title A Canon I, Title A Canon II and Title B Canon XXI so that the forms of declaration of adherence and submission set out there are consistent with the forms of declaration of adherence and submission set out in the Constitution/Te Pouhere.”

Statute 751 “…To amend clause 15 of Part C of the Constitution/Te Pouhere to repeal and replace the existing form of declaration of adherence and submission”

Not Discerning the Body

Elsewhere, I have acknowledged the mess we delegates made at the August 2018 session of the Synod of the Nelson Anglican Diocese, when we passed a motion stating that Nelson’s relationship with the rest of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP) was “impaired”. The majority, I am sure, meant “impaired” only in a mild, generic sense of the word. We have concerns that we believe need to be raised and discussed and a sense that the relationship is to a degree impaired and will remain impaired until these matters have been sincerely discussed and, with mutual love, resolved, but impaired only in the dictionary sense of the word, as it might be used outside Anglican polity.

I want now to explain why I believe those concerns are justified, and why I decided to support the amended motion even though I opposed its original version. My support turned out to be ill-advised, but only because the motion, amended on the floor from the original, was not carefully thought through, not because the underlying issue was inconsequential.

These are of course just my personal views. I don’t claim to know what swayed the decision of the other delegates.

I strongly supported Motion 29 when it was debated by the Nelson Synod in March 2018, and Synod voted by a small majority (slightly less than 60%) to encourage our General Synod representatives to support it. In its modified Motion 7 form, it was subsequently adopted by General Synod / Te Hīnota Whānui (GSTHW). I continue to believe that Motion 29 was the best way forward for us, the ACANZP.

However, some of what occurred at GSTHW and afterwards was sufficient to raise misgivings in the minds of a significant number in Nelson. I will list those misgivings and then make my own comments regarding them.

  1. The report from the Motion 29 working group had said that their recommendations did not extend to the matter of ordinations. Motion 7 did not carry that caveat forward. 
  2. Auckland immediately announced their intention to ordain those in same-sex unions that have been blessed in the ACANZP, and, of course, +Jim White has now ordained Reverend Chris Swannell. 
  3. Auckland also put forward Motion 13 at General Synod, which would have redefined marriage, and this motion was only narrowly defeated.
    My statement here is wrong!  See Peter Carrell’s comment that I have now appended at the bottom of this post.

My comments are these:

  1. It is my opinion that it logically follows from Motion 29/7 that persons in blessed same-sex unions can be ordained. However, I might be wrong, and so might others who think so. Regardless of whether Motion 7 repeated the caveat or not, there should have been further Province-wide discussion before any ordination occurred. 
  2. I can sympathetically understand why +Jim White would be eager to ordain Chris Swannell, who has given many years of faithful service and is highly esteemed as a pastor by the Russell congregation and by others. Nevertheless, I think it was a mistake and harmful to the health of the Province to pre-emptively announce the intention to ordain and then carry it out. 
  3. Thank God for the wise heads, though only a small majority, who defeated Motion 13. Awkward though relationships and future discussions may be, Nelson remains part of the Province, and it seems to me uncaring that other parts of the Province should try to drive forward by weight of numbers a change in what has for centuries been thought to be a fundamental part of the Church’s doctrine. Frustrating though the wait may be, the discussions need to take as long as they take, even if that is decades more. And if the change is never made, so be it – we’ll still at the end of it have a healthy, unified Province in which – given that Motion 7 has been passed – no faithful, believing LGBTQ person need feel unwelcome.

When Paul reproved the Corinthian church for abuses of the Lord’s Supper, he told them, “…anyone who eats and drinks [the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper] without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29, ESV). Earlier commentators seem to have seen “discerning the body” only as recognising that the bread is a reminder (at the very least) of Christ’s crucified body. However, in the last 100 years or so, commentators have suggested that it also has a reference to discerning the unity of the body which Christ has created, the Church. This comment by Thomas Schreiner is a good summary of the position:

“It is also possible that discerning the body refers to the church. The rich members failed to discern the unity of the body; thus, they harassed the poor and relegated them to second-class status, and thereby imposed the standards of society upon the church. It is difficult to be certain, but perhaps the best solution does not opt for an either–or. In partaking of the bread, believers participate ‘in the body of Christ’ (1 Cor. 10:16); and, ‘Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body’ (1 Cor. 10:17). Paul has already forged a close connection between the broken body of Christ and the one body which is the church. The same connection and link is probably present here as well.” (Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentary), Kindle location 4749).

Personally, I think that Schreiner’s “probably” is too weak. Elsewhere in the Epistle, Paul has:

  • reproved the Corinthians for splintering into sects 
  • reminded them, “…you [the Church] are God’s temple and … God’s Spirit dwells in you. If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Corinthians 3:16‭-‬17, ESV) 
  • told them, in the context of discussing attitudes toward meat that had been offered to idols, “…not all possess this knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:7, ESV), so that they must be mindful and considerate of those whose faith-knowledge is weaker than theirs.

Therefore, it seems to me almost certain that Paul will have seen symptoms of the same sin in the disorder of the Corinthian “Lord’s Supper”. But, even if he didn’t, I think I am justified in using the phrase “not discerning the body” as a rubric for all schismatic or running-roughshod-over  disorders of the kind that Paul deals with in 1st Corinthians and in Romans 14.

Earlier, I defended +Jim White’s probable motivation for ordaining Chris Swannell so quickly, but I said I believed the action was a mistake. If some dioceses and parishes rush to draw implications from Motion 7 and apply them without stopping to consult with other dioceses and parishes whom they know full well are likely to disagree, are they not repeating the Corinthian error that Schreiner describes as relegating other members of the body to second-class status?

I know that Schreiner’s phrase can be turned in the other direction, too, and conservatives charged with having treated LGBTQ believers as second-class. However, if that was your first thought on reading my previous paragraph, I plead with you to look again at Jesus and Paul and John: “Little children, love one another.” Differences will arise between us, but our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles forbid us to act contemptuously or combatively as we seek to resolve the issues. If there is guilt on both sides, that doesn’t exonerate your side!

I understand the zeal with which many want to press forward and right wrongs in the Church’s treatment of LGBTQ believers, but no amount of zeal gives any of us the right to override Jesus and Paul and John and destroy the temple of God.

In Romans 14, Paul is dealing with less weighty matters of controversy than our differences regarding blessings and ordinations. All the same, I think we would do well to take to heart and apply to ourselves his counsel in that chapter:

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Romans 14:4, NIV).

Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:6, NIV)

Let us stop viewing the other side as the unenlightened enemy, and instead see each other as servants each sincerely seeking to please the master whom we worship in common. Let us not dismiss the other viewpoint by accusing its adherents of acting from a base motive, such as on the one hand a supposed desire to maintain an oppressive structure, or on the other hand a desire to subvert the Church into orgiastic license. Instead, let us credit one another with doing what we do with an attitude that is “to the Lord”. And let us entrust one another to the grace of our Master who is able to make his servants stand even when, as a matter of divine fact, they are mistaken about something.

Relationships within the Church of Corinth were impaired because of the failure of many to “discern the body” and be guided and controlled in their actions by that discernment. I sorrowfully believe that relationships between the conservative parts of the ACANZP and those who would press forward beyond Motion 7 without respectful consultation are impaired in just the same way, for just the same reason. The way forward is to acknowledge frankly the impairment and try in Christ to resolve it.

Nelson’s “impaired relationship” motion was a regrettable mess, but masked by the mess is a sentiment that remains true and cries out for loving “discerning the body” consideration by the rest of the Province.

COMMENT FROM VEN. PETER CARRELL

“Dear Trevor,
Unfortunately aspects of your post above involve inaccuracies and it is possible that Nelson General Synod reps did not make sufficiently clear to your synod some aspects of the GS 2018 decisions/texts. Specifically:

1. on the matter of ordination, it was very clear at GS 2018 that little or nothing was said about ordination, precisely, deliberately because that meant that each bishop could work out her or his response to the resolutions in respect of ordination. Auckland is well within that ambit to do what it has done and so is Nelson (in, presumably, undertaking no such ordinations). Whether Auckland should have acted so quickly on the matter is a moot point, but there was no intrinsic reason within the GS 2018 deliberations why they should not have acted as they have done.

2. there was no motion narrowly lost which would have changed the definition of marriage. What was lost was a motion to set up a working group on the theology of marriage, a working group with a four year reporting time frame. Such motions are apple pie and motherhood because they do not ask synod members to make an actual decision to change anything. We have no idea what the majority against change would have been, had actual change been proposed.

Putting this in another way, the question being asked about the meaning of “impaired” involves asking whether it is giving expression to a somewhat vague unhappiness (that the church might one day entertain the notion of change to the doctrine of marriage) in which case, does “impaired” have any meaning at all? Or, is it specifically about disagreement with what Auckland has done re ordination, in which case, is Nelson in an impaired relationship with Auckland and not with ACANZP at large?

Ven. Dr Peter Carrell
Director of Education, Diocese of Christchurch & Director of Theology House
Archdeacon of Pegasus”

image source

Theses for a Colloquium

I wish there would be a global conference of Christians who take seriously the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures – those who believe that, despite the distinctive imprint of the various human authors, the Scriptures do not merely contain the word of God, they are the word of God.

I wish that such a conference would consider propositions and questions set out below in relation to the matter of the blessing – or not – by the Church, in the name of God, of certain same-sex relationships.

I wish that each delegate would commit to allowing their prior position on these matters to be challenged and tested. That is, they would wish their position to emerge as the consensus only if testing proves that it deserves that place. They would not attend with an iron determination that the conference must affirm their view, but with trust in God that their view would indeed be affirmed if it is God’s own view.

Many potential participants might reject the idea, saying “What weight could the decision of such a conference have, however global its membership, over against the consensus of 1900 years of Christian orthodoxy and – before that, 1500 years of Hebrew orthodoxy?” There are two strong answers to that question. The first is, that the conference might well reaffirm the historic position, but much more persuasively than can a statement such as the recent “Nashville Statement” which was produced by a limited cross-section of Christian leaders. And the second is, this is a live issue in a way that it never has been in the history of the Church. Has our God included in His word guidelines that the Church has never before noticed because it never before needed to, and which may significantly modify the way we think and act henceforth?

In the paragraphs that follow, I have arranged the propositions and questions into what seems to be a logical order for their discussion, but others might like to suggest a better sequence.

God’s Design, our Benchmark

  1. The word of God reveals a design for humankind.
  2. This design is the benchmark against which normality and departure from normality must be measured.

Humankind’s Common Predicament

  1. The fall of humankind into sin is a reality, not a myth created to explain evil and adversity that we now “know” (sic) arise simply from the evolutionary history of humankind.
  2. Since the fall, every person’s life is discordant in greater or lesser degree with God’s original design.
  3. The fall occurred in the ethical domain, but its consequences affected the physical and psychological domains as well.
  4. As sinners, each of us in our natural self is separated from fellowship with God in this life, and certain to experience the wrath of God against sin in the final judgment.
  5. As inhabitants of a fallen world, every person also suffers in greater or lesser degree from physical and psychological weaknesses and infirmities.

Implications for Christian Thought

  1. When a social situation confronts us that seems to require correction, we must analyze the problem by the light of the Word of God, not taking as our default position that all such problems are explicable in terms of evolution.
  2. Likewise, we must seek solutions by the light of the Word of God.
  3. We must be aware that evidence – even ostensibly scientific evidence – and opinions put forward from secular quarters are subject to the ethical bias of their proponents and are to be accepted only if they pass Christian scrutiny.

God’s Redemptive Plan

  1. God has a redemptive plan for the ages, “…a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him [Christ – God’s anointed one; the Messiah], things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:10, ESV)
  2. The centuries between the Lord’s call to Abraham and the ministry of Jesus were a time of preparation in which God shaped a nation to which he could send the Messiah, and from which the Messiah could draw his first disciples.
  3. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, were historical events.
  4. Those events introduced the present era, one which the New Testament calls “the end (τέλη / συντελείᾳ) of the ages” (1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 9:26).
  5. The work that Christ did has enabled the fulfilment in the present age of important parts of God’s plan.
    • By the justifying incorporation of believers into Christ, the rupture between God and believers is healed.
    • The gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit empowers believers for holiness and service.
  6. The prayer and practical service of believers is to be directed primarily to two ends:
    • The hallowing of the Name of God by the testimony and actions of believers.
    • The building of his kingdom by the discipling of nations.
  7. In this present era, the kingdom is “now” but “not yet”. It is:
    • present (Luke 17:21)
    • and growing (Matthew 13:31-33)
    • but will not be perfectly realized until the coming of the new heavens and earth.(1 Corinthians 15:50)

Don’t Confuse Evidence and Cause  (Romans 1)

  1. Romans 1 teaches that the behavior that draws down God’s wrath upon a society is the people’s wilful turning from the worship of their Creator to the worship of other “gods”.
    • The explosion in a society of sexual practices that deviate from God’s design is an evidence of God’s wrath, not its cause.
    • The many other sins that Paul mentions in Romans 1:28-31 are equally part of the evidence.
    • If we seem to see an explosion of such sin in the post-Christian world, we must blame the professors and popularizers of atheism, existentialism, and postmodernism, who have tempted the populace away from reverence for God. Abortions and sexual licence are symptoms, not the cause.
    • Likewise, the existence of homosexual relationships is, biblically speaking, a symptom, not a cause.
  2. Paul’s purpose in Romans 1 was not to differentiate between sinners as to blameworthiness but to include all. As John Calvin observed in his comments on Romans 1, “…though every vice … did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that everyone might separately be accused of manifest depravity.

Old and New Testament Prohibitions Allow no Exceptions

  1. The Law of Moses and the New Testament alike contain clear prohibitions against sexual intercourse between males.
    • Some scholars have tried to interpret the prohibitions as forbidding only relationships that are commercial, coercive, inter-generational, or promiscuous. Their arguments were worth considering, but in the end do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. (See, e.g., the overview provided by Ian Paul.)
    • Arguments that loving, faithful same-sex relationships were unknown to the Biblical writers and therefore not considered in the prohibitory texts also fail. (See, e.g., the discussion by John Pike.)

Some Sins are “Abominations”

  1. The Old Testament scriptures identify some sins as “abominations” {to’evah: תּוֹעֵבָ}. They are:
    • any of the practices forbidden in Leviticus 18 (see Leviticus 18:26 & 30) and/or in Deuteronomy 18:
      • adultery (see also Ezekiel 22:11)
      • homosexual coitus
      • incest
      • bestiality
      • child sacrifice (see also Deuteronomy 12:31 & Jeremiah 32:35)
      • The “dark arts”
    • idolatry (Deuteronomy 32:16; Isaiah 44:19)
    • cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5)
    • The sins mentioned in Proverbs 6:16-19:
      • arrogance (see also Proverbs 16:5)
      • falsehood (see also Proverbs 12:22)
      • murder
      • wicked scheming
      • eager participation in evil
      • corruption in judicial proceedings (see also Proverbs 17:15)
      • stirring discord
    • crooked business dealings (Proverbs 11:1 & 20:10)
    • deviousness (Proverbs 11:20)
  2. There are many parallels between those “abominations” and the sins Paul cites in Romans 1:
    • homosexual coitus (Romans 1:26-27)
    • stirring discord (malice, strife & gossip: Romans 1:29)
    • murder (Romans 1:29)
    • falsehood (deceit: Romans 1:29)
    • false witness (slander: Romans 1:30)
    • arrogance (insolent, haughty, boastful: Romans 1:30)
    • eager participation in evil (inventors of evil: Romans 1:30)
    • wicked scheming (heartless, ruthless: Romans 1:31)
  3. There are also evident parallels between the “abominations” and the sins the Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, that will exclude people from the kingdom of God: sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, reviling, and swindling.
  4. It is a mistake, therefore, to select just a purple subset of the “abominable” sins and make them especially prominent in preaching about sin.
  5. It is a mistake to treat others of the “abominable” sins as somehow more respectable.

Don’t Anthropomorphize when Interpreting to’evah (תּוֹעֵבָ)

  1. When expounding what to’evah means in the mind of God, we must not anthropomorphize.
    • While many readers may feel a churning in their stomach at the thought of some of those “abominations”, our unchanging God does not respond viscerally.
    • The Holy Spirit uses to’evah analogically so we mortals can get a sense of the seriousness of certain actions in God’s eyes, not so we can project our human sense of the word back onto God.
    • The divine response is the measured response of a perfect judge. Particular sins are not abominations because they upset the divine digestive tract, but because they are heinous when tested against a divine standard.
  2. When asking why our God declares something a to’evah, we should seek a reason that makes sense in all the contexts where the scriptures use the expression.
    • Even if the immediate reason why adultery is a to’evah differs from the immediate reason why crooked business dealings are also such, there is necessarily a deeper reason that is common to both. What is the offence that is common to both adultery and dishonesty? That is the question we should ask.
    • It is not sufficient to find the commonality in the sins’ discord with the character of God. That is true of any sin, not just those that are described as abominations.
  3. The common reason cannot lie in the physical attributes of the action.
    • The physical attributes of the action of adultery are identical to those of sexual intercourse between a married couple. It is not those attributes, therefore, that make adultery abominable – it is some other aspect of the action.
    • Note, too, from Galatians 4, that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” but Isaac was born “according to the Spirit” even though the physical act of sexual intercourse (viewed just as an act, apart from context) was the same in both cases.
  4. The meaning that best encompasses all the contexts where “abomination” is used is something like this:
    An abomination is any action that works vigorously to destroy or prevent the re-establishment of God’s design on earth.

    • All sins counter God’s design in some degree, but some are especially destructive.
    • When the partners in a marriage are faithful to each other, the relationship becomes a sanctuary that is like the kingdom of God, protecting husband, wife, and any children. Adultery tears down the sanctuary.
    • The sanctuary that is provided by a godly marriage and family is the prototype of the sanctuary that should envelope all in a godly society.
    • Each of the abominations grievously attacks either the prototype sanctuary or the larger one, or both.
    • Of particular relevance to the present concern is this – when a society views same-sex coitus as mainstream, and even something to be pursued by partners in parallel with their heterosexual marriage, that, too, devalues and weakens the sanctuary that marriage should be.

A New View of Those in Same-Sex Relationships

  1. Most who are in same-sex relationships testify that their same-sex attraction was not wilfully chosen and was unwelcome when first recognized.
  2. This kind of testimony is common both to those who assert faith in Christ and those who don’t.
  3. A correct understanding of Romans 1 allows us to accept those testimonies, in that we can see same-sex attraction as collateral damage from the Fall, not a way of life chosen as a deliberate statement of rebellion against God.
  4. The Church has been wrong to treat same-sex relationships as though they were in a different and worse category than other behaviour that is listed in Romans 1:18-32.
  5. This failure of interpretation has led to a significant failure of pastoral and congregational care for those who are same-sex attracted.
  6. The Church’s unbalanced treatment of the same-sex-attracted as worse sinners than others has given tacit encouragement to those who would mock, violently attack or even kill such people.

God has Used the World to Rebuke the Church for its Failing

  1. Many pastors now acknowledge that such past attitudes and practices were wrong, and are seeking to amend the care they give.
  2. Many have not come to this place by, in the first instance, careful study of the Word of God but because of the ruckus being made in the streets about the social injustices experienced by same-sex attracted people.
  3. That is, many pastors’ Bible study prior to the ruckus was superficial and careless, and the ruckus has forced them to return to the Scriptures and take more care about it.
  4. There is a principle of God’s shepherding of the Church to be seen here: though the Scriptures are in themselves sufficient for doctrine, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, God can and will use external means to correct us when we are using the Scriptures insufficiently, as he used an ass to rebuke Balaam.
  5. Therefore, if a church now gives same-sex attracted people and people in same-sex relationships the same warm welcome and appropriate counsel that they would give anyone else who came in, that church is following the Spirit of Christ, not the spirit of the age.

What if?

  1. As God has used the world to correct our pastoral attitude to same-sex attracted people, we should search deeply and ask whether there are further lessons he would have us learn, too.
  2. Any such lessons taken up would not be on the false basis that the Old and New Testament writers had a (supposedly) primitive view of God which we have now transcended, but by study and application of the inspired word of God.
  3. With the new visibility in the world of people in same-sex relationships, we see many such who are using their talents to strengthen society, not to promote licence.
  4. If an abomination is something that works to destroy or prevent the re-establishment of God’s design on earth, might God allow the Church to change its stance toward anyone in a same-sex relationship who has ordered their life in every other way apart from their sexual relationship to support the traditional understanding of God’s kingdom and build it according to God’s design? [This question should not be argued here, but debated more fully later.]
  5. Conversely, should the Church refuse to pronounce God’s blessing on a heterosexual union if the couple concerned shows no plausible commitment to using their union to support and strengthen the Kingdom? [This question, like the previous, is raised here to provoke thought, not for immediate debate.]
  6. Pronouncing God’s blessing (if ever possible) on a union other than one between a man and a woman must never to be understood as consecrating holy matrimony, which term should be reserved by the Church for the union between one man and one woman.
  7. As stated earlier, the prohibitions in the law of Moses and in the New Testament against same-sex coitus allowed no exceptions. Can we affirm that absoluteness as essential then, but able to be softened now?
    • When the Lord gave Moses the law, the people of Israel were a tiny minority, themselves still semi-pagan, in a world rife with pagan depravity. When the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the New Testament, the Church was likewise a tiny minority within Roman and Greek culture.
    • Did God allow no exceptions then because to do so would too greatly have endangered the young Hebrew community, and later the nascent Christian Church? And has the Church now grown to a place of sufficient strength that God’s grace can be formally recognized toward some (but not all) in same-sex relationships, a grace that does not require the relationship to be exchanged for celibacy? [This question to be debated later if, after considering the other issues raised below, it is decided that the Scriptures might conceivably answer such a question “Yes”.]
  8. Even if a softening is arrived at, the love and justice of God is not to be impugned in regard to suffering previously experienced by same-sex-attracted people. The extension of Christ’s dominion has been a work in process since the day of Christ’s ascension. Christ is working through human agents – his Church – and not everything could be achieved at once.
  9. Nor, if a softening is arrived at, would that mean that the suffering was all for nothing of those many same-sex-attracted people who have lived celibately and sought to honour God amidst their struggles.
    • Their struggle was needful because it was faithful to the understanding taught by the Church’s Scripture-respectful scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, and as such it was the will of God for them through that time.
    • Only if a significant majority of today’s generation of similarly Scripture-respectful scholars prayerfully and discerningly agrees together in the kind of colloquium suggested in this paper, could we have confidence that it is the revealed will of God that the time has come to soften the prohibition against same-sex unions.
    • Until (if ever) such a change comes, pastors and church people should continue to counsel celibacy and give open, unashamed, and loving support to those in the congregation who are same-sex-attracted.

Sola Scriptura

  1. To quote the Westminster Confession of Faith (I:VI), “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”. (Cf. Article VI of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles: “… is… read therein, [or] may be proved thereby.”) If the Anglican and Westminster Divines were right, a change such as the one mooted in this paper must pass the test of “good and necessary consequence”.
  2. It may be argued that the counsel of God concerning the main question raised in this paper is already expressly set down in Scripture where Paul says, “… neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). However, we have reached a point where the name of God is being blasphemed among unbelievers because of the Church’s attitude to same-sex unions. It seems incongruous that this issue should be allowed to hide from the world’s eyes the God whose nature (in the words of the Book of Common Prayer’s prayer of humble access) is “always to show mercy”. Because of this incongruity, should we not look to see whether good and necessary consequence after all shows that the maintaining the no-exceptions application of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and similar passages in this later stage of the Christian era is wrong?
  3. The Westminster divines’ “good and necessary consequence” may have intended only that which can be proved syllogistically. It may be that the points that follow in this paper can be arranged into a chain of syllogisms, but – if not – the idea that a syllogistic chain is necessary is not supported by Scripture, and we should remember and apply to the Westminster divines what their Confession itself asserts (XXXI:IV): “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both”.
    • Example: The Scriptures in the Book of Proverbs give us two express but wittingly contradictory instructions about how to proceed when in dialogue with a fool. Proverbs26:4-5,Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.“ It would be impossible to program a set of rules into an android (robot) so that the android could apply that advice, and so it is not possible, or God’s intention, to program a set of rules into us. God intends us to bring a wider understanding to many situations than that which comes from a syllogism.
    • Many expositors have pointed out that the language used to describe the new heavens and earth contains obvious parallels to the descriptions of the pre-Fall Garden, so we are to understand that the τελος (telos) is the restoration, in even greater glory, of the Garden.
    • Therefore, as the Kingdom grows in this present “now but not yet” era, we should expect to see a restoration, at least partially, of Edenic conditions.
    • In the Garden, we see Adam relating as a mature adult to God, when the Lord brings to him the animals to see what he would name them – i.e., how he would classify them.
    • This therefore should provide the template and expectation for how we relate to God’s world and God’s Word, as thinking, reflecting adults and not as those who need a pedagogue.
    • Some may wish to limit the Genesis example to humankind in its endeavours in the fields of the physical sciences, but why? Why not understand that the Lord invites and expects us also to be adults in theology, the Queen of the sciences, and in applied theology? The next point (immediately below) supports that this is indeed God’s expectation.
  4. The Lord Jesus Christ several times rebuked Jews of his day for misapplying the letter of the law because, to summarise the thrust of his rebukes, they had failed to take into account the character of the God who had issued the laws. Moreover, he expected their Bible study conclusions to be informed and modified by lessons learned from outside the Scriptures. If the Lord so rebuked people who were still under the pedagogy of the law, shouldn’t we who know the grace of Christ be ten times as careful not to repeat their error?
    • Mark 3:4-5 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
      • Here, Jesus shows us that there is a greater principle that must be taken into account when considering how to apply a God-given law such as the Sabbath law that covers a particular domain of life. Applying the specific law without regard to the greater principle leads to error.
    • Luke 6:2-5 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
      • The greater principle is found by consideration of the character of God the Word, who gave the law.
    • John 7:23-24 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
      • The higher principle, again: “… judge with right judgment. “
    • Luke 13:15-16 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
      • Notice that the Lord expected the man to let his instinctual but volitional real-world behaviour test and moderate his understanding of the law. (Not the law itself, but his understanding and application of the law)
    • Mark 7:18-19 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
      • The point to take, for the moment, from this passage in Mark 7, is that Jesus taught even those living under the law of Moses that they were expected to engage their faculty of reason and their understanding of human processes when interpreting the law. And if they were so obligated, how much more we!
      • Of course, we will need to debate whether there is any kind of same-sex union that is not inherently included in the things that Jesus then lists that defile a person: “… evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
      • A first-century Jew, reading the law, might have said, “It’s a no-brainer. Eating an unclean food defies a man,” but what Jesus says is, in effect, “You’re right! That’s exactly the conclusion someone whose brain is not engaged will come to – but the conclusion is wrong.”
      • A twenty-first-century Christian, reading the Bible, might say, “It’s a No-brainer. Every form of same-sex union is forbidden by God,” but might the Son of God say to us, “You’re right! That’s exactly the conclusion someone whose brain is not engaged will come to – but the conclusion is wrong.“? We are under obligation to engage our brains and our knowledge of human processes and find out.
  5. Regardless of the points raised just above for discussion, the popular slogan, “Love and justice” should be deprecated because it is too easily used to promote humanistic notions of justice rather than those that pass the test of the Word of God. If a slogan is needed, “Love and light” is to be preferred.

Scripture, Reason, and Tradition

  1. Some Christians hold that the word of God for us is found through the combined means of scripture, reason, and tradition.
  2. Tradition is understood in two ways: (i) Apostolic teaching which was delivered orally during their ministry but which has been included comprehensively and finally in the written scriptures. (ii) Apostolic teaching that was not committed to the scriptures but has nevertheless been carried down to us by the Church. While I prefer the first understanding, I don’t believe that the difference has a bearing on the matters raised in this paper, so no further discussion or declaration is necessary here.
  3. Reason has been understood by some as having such autonomy that it stands alongside Scripture in authority and is able to trump Scripture where the scientific evidence is sufficient. Such a view doesn’t give sufficient weight to the ethical bias brought into all human reasoning by the Fall, or to the testimony that Scripture itself gives to its divine authorship and authority.
  4. Defenders of sola scriptura have therefore limited the place of reason essentially to its role in exegesis, where, with the aid of archaeological studies and studies of cognate languages and neighbouring societies, reason helps us to understand the scriptures in their original languages and social contexts, and to compare one scripture with another and so reach a concordant understanding of the whole that takes into account the sweep of salvation history, and also enables us to accurately understand and apply particular texts.
  5. However, the gospel excerpts quoted above show that our Lord, who fully knew the risks that sin poses to our reasoning, nevertheless expects us to apply to our exegesis insights gained from inspection of the outside world, and from introspection of our own behaviour and feelings.

Some Examples of Reasoned Change of the Application of Scripture

  1. Until about the middle of the 20th century, many churches, Protestant as well as Catholic, forbade or discouraged the use of birth control, believing that to use birth control was to disobey the command to be fruitful and multiply. Many Bible-believing churches are now, however, comfortable with birth control, believing that the command to fill the earth has been sufficiently fulfilled.
  2. The command that women should have their heads covered in worship is also largely disregarded now, seemingly because the cultural background that made the command meaningful and appropriate in the 1st century has vanished and to us it seems an oddity.
    • Even many churches with a strongly complementarian doctrine of the relationship between male and female believe that a person’s commitment to it is adequately demonstrated in other ways, and don’t require head-coverings for their women.
  3. Many Bible-believing churches also lower the lofty standard set by Jesus and will pronounce God’s blessing on the remarriage of a divorced person if convinced that the divorced person has confessed and repented of whatever sin led to the divorce.
    • The churches have not declared that divorce is not a sin that God hates, but that is not the point here. The point is that, manifestly, churches have allowed divorcees to remarry even though the surface meaning of the words of Jesus seems to forbid it.
    • In the matter of remarriage of the divorced, the churches seem to have decided that scriptures such as, “… the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust…” (Psalm 104:13-14), give us permission to extend greater leniency than does the surface reading of the words of Jesus. That is, the church has brought its knowledge of the revealed character of God to bear when deciding how to apply the scripture.
  4. These are less controversial changes of interpretation and application than the one mooted in this paper. The blessing of a same-sex union would indeed be a momentous change. Nevertheless, they do provide evidence that many in Bible-believing churches – including pastors and teachers – believe that God gives us some permission to modify what for centuries was the uncontested view of his will on certain matters.

Where to?

  1. The present Western concern for rights and respect for all could only have arisen in a society that has already been deeply changed by the influence of Christianity. In the Roman world into which the gospel was launched, personhood was a gift given by the state, and given to only a few. Most people, even those who were not slaves, were non-persons to whom no dignity was accorded, and whose feelings were considered unimportant. It took Christianity to change that, and the Church should acknowledge current activism as its somewhat misguided child, not a bitter enemy.
  2. Those who experience same-sex attraction are in a situation not of their own making.
  3. It is consonant with the merciful character of God who is Light, and the present resilience of the Church as a light in the world, that God should permit and bless a same-sex union between partners who have credibly declared their faith in the Son of God and credibly declared their intention to use their life together to support and further the growth of the kingdom of heaven as it  is revealed in Scripture and not as redesigned by man.
  4. Therefore, the Church should consider making a declaration of the kind suggested below.
  5. Such a declaration will not open a “slippery slope” to the legitimation of other actions. If the Church adopts a declaration of the kind below, it will be the product of a comprehensive and prayerful colloquium that does not give congregations the licence to make any other changes except by a similar painstaking process.

Declaration Concerning the Blessing of Sexual Unions

1) The Church will not pronounce God’s blessing on any union, heterosexual or same-sex, where the couple concerned have not shown credible evidence that they intend to order their life together to support and further God’s righteous kingdom.

2) ‎ Any couple seeking God’s blessing over their union must declare their intention to live faithfully together, forsaking all others, until death separates them.

3) The Church will pronounce God’s blessing on a same-sex union where the couple concerned provides the credible evidence and declaration specified in Articles 1 and 2, but will not apply the terms “marriage” or “matrimony” to such a union, regardless of the terminology that the civil authorities choose to use.

4) This blessing will be pronounced because we believe that it exists in reality, as the mind of God toward that union.

5) ‎The Church will pronounce God’s blessing on a heterosexual union where the couple concerned provide the evidence and declaration specified in Articles 1 and 2, and will term such a union a marriage, and holy matrimony.

6) ‎The distinction of terms does not imply a judgment as to the relative excellence or dignity of the persons involved in the two kinds of union, but simply reserves the terms “marriage” and “matrimony” for the kind of union that is ordinarily capable of fulfilling that part of God’s kingdom purpose which has to do with the procreation of children.

Guidelines for Making Comments

If posting a comment on this proposal, please follow these guidelines:

  • Feel free to make comments about the proposal in general but not in its specific detail.
  • Also feel free to point out scriptures I have omitted to address, but you think should have been discussed.
  • Please do not attempt here to rebut my handling of particular scriptures. Neither you nor I, sitting in isolation at our desks or even in a small gathering of other scholars, are competent to resolve this issue; only a major colloquium would have the competency as scholars and the steel as men and women of God to challenge entrenched ways of thinking and perhaps help us to see things in a new light. Let any needful rebuttal happen there.
    • If you do nevertheless submit such a comment, I will delete it and replace it with the text of that third point just above.

Soli Deo Gloria

Image acknowledgement: By Elizabeth Ann Colette (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

No Easy Way, no Hard Way, no Middle Way – only the Jesus Way

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 3

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested … the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21-25)

Good news! God is truly and amazingly good! We can stop striving and straining to get into his favour by good behaviour, because all of us, whether Jew or Gentile, have already blown that chance. St Paul tells us so in Romans chapter 3. We cannot earn our way into God’s kingdom by righteous living, because we have already failed the access test. Our goodness (such as it is) is insufficient: “…all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” and “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans  3:9 & 23).

“Pagan Pass” won’t get you through the mountains to God. St Paul proved that in Romans chapter 1. (See my previous post, A Tale of Three Passes). Nor will “Jewish Pass” take the descendants of Abraham through the mountains on any favoured basis, for God is impartial. “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 2:9-10). Actual behaviour will be judged, not lineage. That is what St Paul argued in chapter 2.

And now in Romans 3, he adds that actual behaviour will always be found wanting. St Paul reminds his readers that, back in the Old Testament, God had already pronounced his verdict on Jews and Gentiles alike: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). The Psalm itself makes it clear that this applies to the whole human race, whom the Psalmist calls the “children of man”, but in case a Jewish reader should somehow think him or herself exempt, St Paul underlines the point: “…we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).

Good news upon good news! Our own efforts at righteousness are futile, but God has not written us off and condemned us to live and die without him. He has provided a different righteousness and made it available to everyone who believes. He can give this righteousness to us because the blood of the Son of God, Christ Jesus, has dealt with the offence our sin caused (that’s what Romans 3:25 means).

God’s righteousness is a free gift. We can have it just by believing that God’s offer is true, but we must believe. The gift is received by faith. It is not bestowed on those who don’t believe. Why, then, do so many who hear the offer reject it, even if they would say of themselves that they want to live good, God-pleasing lives? St Paul’s words in Romans 3:27 suggest part of the reason, and that’s what I will talk about in my next post.

All Bible quotations are from the ESV, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Image:
Agnus Dei.jpg – by Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASaint_Bernard_Catholic_Church_(Corning%2C_Ohio)_-_stained_glass%2C_Agnus_Dei.jpg

A Tale of Three Passes

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 2

Imagine a mountain range, infinitely wide, and so high that even the known low points between peaks are higher than Everest. On the far side of the mountains lies the plain of right relationships with God – the plain of paradise.

Popular opinion has it that there are possibly two passes through the mountains to that place of glory. The first supposed pass we might call the Pagan Pass. Its followers believe that, if you set up idols in the names of gods and worship them in a prescribed manner, the gods will conduct you across Pagan Pass to the land beyond.

A second opinion is that there is a pass especially for the descendants of Abraham, the father of the Jews. Believers in that pass agree that Pagan Pass is a cul-de-sac, but that God’s covenant with Abraham, with the legal riders that God added through Moses, provides a sure way through.

St Paul’s purpose in the first three chapters of Romans (beginning at 1:18) is to show that those passes are illusory. They don’t and cannot get anyone through to the far side of the mountains. He provides those proofs in the section from 1:18 to 3:20, and then introduces the one and only pass that does go through: “For there is no distinction [both of those other purported passes are cul-de-sacs]: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22-25).

It is important to understand that this was the destination Paul was working towards and that everything prior was designed to support that conclusion. If we do not have that understanding, we are likely to misunderstand and misapply some of what he says when he closes off “Pagan Pass” in chapter 1 and “Jewish Pass” in chapters 2 and 3.

The Dead End that’s Pagan Pass (Romans 1:18-32)

Some Christians loudly proclaim that God’s wrath is being brought down on America, or New Zealand, or wherever, by homosexual activity or abortions, or suchlike. They are wrong. They have up­ended what St Paul teaches in Romans 1. Here is what St Paul actually says: ”For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:18, 21‑25).

St Paul teaches this sequence of events:

  1. Despite knowing Him, humankind stopped worshipping the one true God and started worshipping what was not God.
  2. Therefore, humankind incurred God’s wrath.
  3. Therefore, God removed his restraining hand and allowed sin to become rampant. The explosion of sin is evidence of God’s wrath, not the cause of it.

Yes, St Paul mentions sexual deviations first, but in verses 28-39 he expands the list to cover a much greater number of sins: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless”.

As John Calvin says in his commentary, “…though every vice … did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that everyone might separately be accused of manifest depravity.” If you are using Romans 1 to rank some sins as worse than others, you have missed Paul’s point. He’s closing off “Pagan Pass” to everyone, not just to those who commit a particular shortlist of sins.

If you want to trumpet God’s wrath in a way that is consistent with Romans 1, the people you should have in your sights are the university professors and intellectuals who use their platforms to teach contempt for the name or idea of God. Even if they happened to be opposed to abortion and old-fashioned about homo­sex­uality, they would be the ones – according to St Paul – to draw God’s wrath down upon a society. But, actually, I think your vocal cords would be better used to announce with St Paul that, though God’s wrath is evident (regardless of whom is to blame), the mercy God offers in Christ Jesus is greater.

By the way, if you are someone who believes that some forms of same-sex relationship are not sinful, I am sure you nevertheless believe that other forms are, so that discussion does not weaken St Paul’s argument.

The Dead End that’s the “Jewish” Pass (Romans 2)

The Jewish people were right that they were a chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6), but many were wrong about how that gained them, generation by generation, access to the blessings of God. There were two ways their thinking could go wrong. Some might think that blessing and salvation were theirs just by virtue of their descent from Abraham. Others might not count on descent alone, but added to it the condition of a sufficient obedience to the Law of Moses. St Paul’s words in 2:1 to 3:20 combat both those errors.

In 1:18-32, St Paul had shown that the pagan way of life and “worship” was evidence of the wrath of God. One can imagine applause for Paul from a Jewish reader who had read just that far. However, St Paul now turns the tables. He says “…you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1). We find out in verse 17 that “O man” is a representative Jew. Simply being a Jew by descent, therefore, is not enough to evade the wrath of God irrespective of quality of life.

St Paul doesn’t ask his readers to merely take his word for it. In verses 2 to 29, he makes an argument that is based on the judicial impartiality of God, and whose core is found in verses 9 to 11: “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

“There you have it,” St Paul is saying to any Jew who thinks that Jewish inheritance alone will shield a person from God’s judgment, “– it won’t.” And he adds, in verse 27, “…he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

As St Paul develops his argument, he makes a number of statements that can be (and often are) misapplied. This will happen if we don’t remember what St Paul’s overall objective is in chapters 1 to 3, and what his particular objective is in chapter 2. His overall objective is to defeat any idea that either the Pagan or the Jewish pass goes through to God, and to establish that the only viable pass is that of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His chapter 2 objective, however, is to demonstrate the judicial equality of Jew and Gentile before God. In doing so, he makes some statements that, if pulled from their context, would undermine the overall objective. Therefore, we can take it for granted that he does not intend them to be used that way.

Besides verse 10, which I have already quoted above, the passages in question are these:

Romans 2:6-8 – “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Romans 2:14-16 – “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

Those passages seem to open the door to a doctrine of works-based righteousness. Verses 14‑16 are also sometimes used to suggest an answer to the “What about those who have never heard” problem. (Confession: I’ve done so myself). However, St Paul’s chapter 3 doctrine is that there is one and only one pass, and he would never intimate that there was even the roughest, most ill-defined of an alternative way.

In the context of the judicial impartiality of God, everything St Paul says in those passages is true. What is unsaid (because it is not relevant to his chapter 2 purpose), is that no Jew or Gentile (excepting, of course, Jesus) has ever achieved a standard of obedience that is high enough to clear the bar. St Paul will deal with that issue in the first twenty verses of chapter 3, and I will follow him there in my next post, I hope.

Why Gentile Believers don’t need to be Circumcised

I haven’t quite finished this post, though. It’s worth noting that, as well as furthering progress towards his main objective, St Paul has also slipped in the answer to a question that might have been troubling any members of the church in Rome who were from Jewish backgrounds, or who had been Gentile converts to the Jewish faith. The question is “Why do Gentile believers in Jesus Christ not need to be circumcised?” St Paul gives the answer in verses 28 and 29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Note re “A New Perspective on Paul”

I don’t believe it is necessary – for the purpose of understanding the central teachings in his letter to the Romans – to decide between the classic and new perspectives on the view of Judaism that St Paul reflects in Romans 2 and Romans 3. However he saw the Judaism of his day, and however the Jews saw themselves, the arguments St Paul provides are sufficient to show that there is no Jewish “pass” that exists apart from the way provided by Jesus Christ.

 

All Bible quotations are from the ESV, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Image:
By Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 (talk) – This file was derived from Mount Everest as seen from Drukair2.jpg:, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18262217

Not the Sister Benedict Option

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 1

A friend of mine, a Roman Catholic, attended a Catholic boys’ high school. From time to time, he meets some of his old classmates, but my friend is the only one out of them who has continued to believe.

His friends put the blame on Sister Benedict. She was a fierce nun whose disciplinary method was to assure misbehaving boys that damnation awaited them unless they repented and mended their ways. Assailed often by this testimony, all the boys except my friend decided that they were such incorrigible reprobates that there was no point continuing to attend church. Only my friend managed to see past the ferocious sister to the gospel and so continue in faith.

My church study group has just completed a detailed study of the first eight chapters of St Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is plain there that God’s method for encouraging believers to holiness of life differs dramatically from the poor nun’s disastrous scheme. What is more, God guarantees that his way will succeed, and that the well-intentioned sister’s will not, nor any way that is like hers.

Milestone Passages in Romans 1 through 8

There are four passages that serve as milestones in the journey on which St Paul takes his readers in the first eight chapters of Romans. I will quote and comment on them here. (All quotations are from the ESV). If my comments sometimes enlarge on St Paul’s precise words, it is because I am certain that the enlargement accords with St Paul’s prior or subsequent exposition of the topic.


milestone_tr2Milestone 1
at Romans 1:16 marks the start of the journey. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Here (as we will find out when we read on in his letter), St Paul names the themes that will occupy him throughout chapters 1 to 8. We are going to find out that the gospel is about our salvation; that our salvation depends on the power of God; that we lay hold of the gospel’s blessings by faith; and that it’s the same gospel for everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike.


milestone_tr2The second milestone
is Romans 5:1-5. By the time we reach verse 1, we are at the mid-point of our journey. St Paul has proven that justification is by faith apart from works, and so he states what that means for us. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then, in verse 2, he tells us two more things that flow from our justification, and what that can mean for our state of heart. “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Notice the certainty in St Paul’s words!

(i) We stand in a place of grace. We do not oscillate in and out of that place depending on how holy, or not, our behaviour is on a particular day. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who gave and still gives us access, not our success in living a godly life.

(ii) One day we will undoubtedly share in the glory of God. Someone might argue that, by using the word “hope”, St Paul is not asserting here that the glorification of all believers is certain. By the time we have read the final eleven verses of chapter 8, however, it ought to be clear that that is exactly what he does mean. Our hope of glorification is a “sure and certain” hope.

(iii) Because of this double certainty (we stand in a place of grace, and we will ultimately attain to the glory of God), we can live every day of our Christian lives rejoicing.

Verses 3 and 4 then tell us the practical result of living with such certainty. “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” The Sister Benedicts of this world (and there are plenty on the Protestant side of the fence, too) think that Christians need to be kept on the straight and narrow by warnings and threats and reminders of hellfire. The Apostle Paul knows that the true foundation of a vibrant Christian life (as far as it lies with the individual) is the joyful assurance that we stand in a place of irrevocable grace, and that the grace that has seen me safe thus far will indeed see me home.

Verse 5 rounds out the rich content of this milestone passage by introducing the real power that ensures that a believer stays attuned to godliness and makes progress in sanctification, notwithstanding any deviations on the way. “…hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

milestone_tr2The third milestone comes at Romans 8:1-2. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

In verse 1, St Paul repeats in different words what he said in Romans 5:1. “Condemned” is the opposite of “justified”, so “not condemned” has essentially the same meaning as “justified”. This time, though, St Paul doesn’t mention faith. Instead, he says that we are “in Christ”. In those words, he is reminding us of what he taught in chapters 5 and 6: that when we believed the gospel, God in some mysterious way united us with Christ. The only way to enter that state of blessing is to believe the gospel, so to say that someone is “in Christ” carries with it the necessary truth that he or she is a believer.

Verses 2-4 sum up what Paul hinted at in Romans 5:2 and began to teach in detail from that point forward. God will ensure that, as well as grasping hold of the gift of justification, every true believer will take the idea of holiness of life seriously and keep growing in that direction. Notice, too, how in verse 3 this progress is made to depend on the power of God: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.

Someone may point out that this progress depends on us walking in the Spirit and not the flesh. Perhaps our glorification is not so certain after all! However, in a later post, God willing, I will show that St Paul includes in the category of those who “walk by the Spirit”, everyone who has been justified by faith, and that this status is not changed even when a believer makes a deviation into fleshly behaviour. His certainty, therefore, is that the Spirit will bring them back on course in due time.

milestone_tr2The final milestone occurs at Romans 8:28-29, and marks the end of this section of the journey. “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” St Paul’s words resonate with the same joy and certainty that we heard in Romans 5:2.The Apostle has not lessened by one iota the certainty to which he encouraged us back then.

Incidentally, verses 38 and 39 are part of St Paul’s answer to the rhetorical question that he posed in verse 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” I don’t know if St Paul knew the parable of the sower when he wrote his letter to the Romans, but it is interesting to compare verses 35‑39 with part of what our Lord Jesus Christ said when explaining the parable: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21). Paul’s victory cry in Romans 8 shows that no one who has been justified by faith is a “rocky ground” hearer.

Sister Benedict and her fretful cousins, Catholic or Protestant, who beset their charges with scoldings and make them worry about their standing with God, are like Uzzah (2 Samuel 6) who put out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant. The triune God has fully under control the sanctification and ultimately the glorification of those who have believed. Yes, there is a place for pastoral and brotherly reminders and warnings. (See, for instance, Galatians 5:21, Galatians 6:7-8, and 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). Sin can still trip any of us for a time, but such warnings are likely to be fruitless and positively harmful if they are not built on the foundation of the teaching of grace, and if they are not accompanied by the reaffirmation of grace. Passages that show the spirit in which effective correction should be given include these: Galatians 6:1, 1 Corinthians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:15 and Hebrews 10:25

In coming weeks, I hope to add further posts to support this one by summarising the assertions St Paul makes and the proofs he provides in the various logical sections within chapters 1‑8. During that series, or in a post at the end, I will also address the “But what about…?’s” that will probably be asked, citing passages from St Paul himself or the Lord Jesus Christ or other epistles that allegedly contradict what I have said in this post is St Paul’s doctrine. (Spoiler: they don’t).

St Paul wanted us to live rejoicing. Let’s cease doubting and live as he encouraged us!

 

Main image: By ludger1961 – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=305335

Milstone clipart: canstockphoto40726157.jpg