Two Ways Forward

Two ways forward lie before the Anglican Church in the province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. One way is to adopt the recommendations that have been made in the report of the Working Group that was formed in consequence of Motion 30 as agreed at the 2014 General Synod / te Hinota Whanui. To choose that way is to choose to divide our Church. There is not the slightest possibility that conservative parishes and clergy will agree to remain part of a body that had accepted the recommendations framed as they are in the Working Group’s report. Nor could any conceivable amendments make the recommendations acceptable.

The other way is to analyse why the Working Group has got it so badly wrong and to start again and do it right this time. I hope that that is the path we follow, and so I offer my own preliminary analysis here.

A Hopeful Starting Point

Reports from those who attended the 2014 General Synod / te Hinota Whanui say that there was a prayerful sense of unity among the delegates despite the extreme differences in views regarding the blessing of same-sex relationships. It was that feeling of unity, it seems to me, that paved the way for Motion 30. Two integrities were sensed, and a way was to be sought, if possible, to formally recognise those two integrities within the processes, structures and liturgies of the Church, as a common faith in Jesus Christ was acknowledged, and a common desire to serve his kingdom.

The ideal way forward for the working group would have been to begin with that foundation and work very carefully forward: “This is what we have in common; where does that lead us in respect of the charge that Motion 30 has given us?” Every part of the report prior to the recommendations themselves needed to be statements that could be affirmed by all parties. Such a process may then have led to recommendations that all parties could support. I acknowledge that even then it may not have done so, and that the recommendations might still have needed to be adopted by majority vote within the working group, but:

  • I am sure that the liturgical recommendations would have differed in significant ways from those presented in the current report, and have come much closer to something able to be accepted within the conservative parts of the Church.
  • The preliminary sections of the report would have given the General Synod / te Hinota Whanui a clear overview of the issues involved, as seen from both sides, so far better equipping delegates – and, afterwards, the diocesan synods – to evaluate the recommendations and accept or reject them.

Recognising Integrity Despite Diversity

When I say, “I disagree with my sister on this or that issue of doctrine or practice, but I believe that she holds that position in integrity,” it should mean that I have put on her moccasins and walked as far as I possibly could in them. I have started at a point where we were standing together and I have explored in all sincerity the processes of reasoning and the life experiences that have led her to her current belief, and I have asked myself at every turn, “Would God have me make the same decision here?”

Since we are talking about two integrities, we must suppose that at some point I have answered that last question, “No, my sister made a mistake at this turn; I can see why she made the turn that she did, but I cannot follow her.” Nevertheless, that deliberate process of having walked in her moccasins is what enables me to affirm with conviction that her position is one of integrity. An affirmation made on any lesser basis, merely some feeling of good will, is hollow.

And, of course, my sister has a responsibility to reciprocate, not perfunctorily dismissing my position because it differs from her own but understanding my arguments and journey and sincerely testing her own convictions against them. Only when she has done so will her affirmation of the integrity of my position be meaningful. “Let us not love in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth.”

Integrity in the Way Forward

The report that the Way Forward Working Group has produced contains some useful observations and findings. Nevertheless, it shows signs of the pressure of time under which it was produced. Its preliminary sections are one-sided, representing the view of the majority who are in favour of the blessing of same-sex relationships and failing to give respectful acknowledgment of the views of the minority who are not. If the Working Group’s recommendations are to form the foundation of the ongoing recognition of two integrities within the Church, surely its own proceedings and report should have modelled that very thing, but they do not.

The Emmaus Road

Page 5 of the Report handles the “Emmaus Road” passage from Luke 24 in a way that many conservative scholars would consider fast and loose, eisegesis rather than exegesis. I am not saying that the Report’s viewpoint is necessarily wrong. With fuller exposition, it might conceivably be acceptable. However, the Report presents its viewpoint as though it was accepted already on all sides and thus it discounts the other supposed integrity.  This is not a wise foundation to lay for the Report’s later recommendations.

Living “in the Now”

The first paragraph of Motion 30 uses the phrase, “in the now”. The Report (on page 5) has turned this into the question, “What does it mean to be human in the now?”  I believe that the instinct of most conservatives would be that this is the wrong question. The correct question is, “What does it mean to be Christian in the now?” Our first duty is to Christ. Observing Christ and listening to his Word, we learn best how to serve humanity. We do not firstly observe humanity for the purpose of learning how best to serve Christ, because – according to orthodox doctrine – humanity is fallen and not a safe guide as to its own best interests.

Again, I acknowledge that there is a debate to be had here, and the Report’s point of view might on deeper consideration turn out to have merit. My point is, it seems wrong and disrespectful for the Report to proceed summarily as though the debate had already been had and the result already agreed.

Complicated vs Complex

Indeed, “now we see in a mirror, dimly,” and “…I know only in part…” (Report, p.6) However, even while stating that, the Apostle Paul makes it clear in the surrounding chapters (1 Corinthians 12 – 14, in particular but also in the entire epistle) that there were clear solutions to most of the differences with which the Corinthian community was struggling. Conservatives will see in their more liberal brethren too great a readiness to appeal to complexity when, after all, the matter is merely complicated and can be solved with prayer and sweat, and consideration of the first principles of what it means to be in Christ.

By including this appeal to supposed complexity, the Report has weakened its chance of persuading conservatives to take seriously its recommendations.

Questionable Appeal to Hebrews

On page 8, the Report appeals to Hebrews 1:1-3a to support its assertion that, “So it is throughout Christian history that Doctrine had to be thought out, and lived out in the worshipping life of the church, with reflections and ongoing decisions made through Councils and Creeds.”  While the assertion may be correct, no conservative is likely to agree that it follows as such from the Hebrews passage. By prefacing that section of the Report with such careless handling of scripture, the Working Group has again undercut any persuasive power the Report may have had for conservative readers.

Unbalanced Bibliography

Other commentators (see, e.g., http://anglicandownunder.blogspot.co.nz/2016/03/a-way-forward-section-5-critical-review.html) have noted that the Report’s bibliography is unbalanced:

  • “…for the most part, recent Anglo-American liberalism and rather obscure” (Brian Kelly, March 31, 2016 at 8:07 AM).
  • “The strangest thing about this imbalance is that even those **evangelicals who favour SSM** have been ignored, even though these scholars are explicitly trying to ground their work in scripture and meet the objections of opponents. That is to say that working groups charged with seeking *a way forward* are ignoring the very works that are arguably the least polarising and the nearest to centre ground” (Bowman Walton, March 31, 2016 at 10:13 AM).

This omission subtracts yet again from the value of the Report, leaving the appearance that the Working Group has not adequately canvassed the options.

Incidentally, the conservative minority in the Working Group must share the blame here. I think everyone on all sides should be well-read in the full spectrum of views, but one would think that the Working Group’s conservatives should have been especially careful to see that the various conservative viewpoints were at least acknowledged in the Report.

Unacceptable Liturgy

Motion 30 upheld the Church’s traditional doctrine of marriage as monogamous and between a man and a woman. By entitling Form 1, “The blessing of the relationship of those who have entered a civil marriage,” and using the word marriage repeatedly in the Form and constructing the Form so that it can be used to bless same-sex unions, the Working Group has in conservative eyes de facto changed the definition of marriage. The adjective “civil” in the title does not alter that fact. The Form as proposed is unwise and another reason why the Working Group should be asked to start again.

Unity that Recognises Two Integrities?

On page 6 of the Report there begins a section entitled, “When we speak of ‘two integrities’ how can we also speak of the unity of the Church?” Although the section as a whole makes some useful observations, the opening paragraph ends with a question that detonates a petard that hoists the Working Group itself: “What would it be like if we as a Church committed to respect one another’s differences, held with integrity, in a harmonious way?”

How can the Working Group credibly hold that out as a hope for the Church when they have not modelled it in their own proceedings and product? I do not ask that question contemptuously but with a sad heart and the hope that the Holy Spirit might use it to bring conviction of sin. There is no shortcut to meaningful mutual recognition of integrity.

Two Integrities Regarding the Identification of Sin?

The “two integrities” section of the Report makes a distinction between first order matters (Māori tikanga) and second order matters (Māori  kawa or kaupapa). The Report hopes to find there some paradigm for recognising unity despite diversity. However, for that to be relevant to the blessing of same-sex relationships, both sides of the debate would have to agree that this is a second order matter. Clearly, that is not the case as far as conservatives are concerned. Sexual connection with someone of one’s own gender is seen as one of the sins that Christ calls his people to forsake, no less nor more than fornication or idolatry or adultery or theft or greed or drunkenness or swindling (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Conservatives have carefully examined and found unconvincing the case that some have tried to make that in those Corinthian verses Paul is referring only to a limited subset of homosexual activities and that others are not in view. Therefore, the only conceivable way forward is for both sides to acknowledge that this remains a first order matter and to seek on that basis to appreciate one another’s point of view. I am of the view that a cogent argument founded in orthodoxy can be found for the blessing of faithful same-sex relationships, an argument sufficiently strong that conservatives can at least acknowledge its force even if not finally agreeing with it. Only on that basis will two integrities be able to coexist in true unity.

The Immediate Way Forward

I said earlier that the Report contains useful observations and findings, but what I have written focuses on its inadequacies. For a wider overview that covers the valuable as well as the bad, I recommend Les Brighton’s paper.

Rev. Bosco Peters has made some suggestions as to how the Report’s recommendations might be amended to improve them (An Improved Way Forward?), and I appreciate the work he has put into devising and explaining his proposed changes. I wish I could believe that changes of this kind could resolve the matter, but as I have tried to show in this paper, the Working Group has failed to model the cooperation of two integrities in the production of the Report and in its content, and therefore if General Synod / te Hinota Whanui presses ahead and adopts it, even if amended along the lines suggested by Bosco, schism is inevitable.

I therefore conclude and urge that the only way forward that can preserve our unity is for General Synod / te Hinota Whanui to

  • declare that the Working Group’s report is inadequate for its intended purpose, and
  • commission them (or a new group) to start again.
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What Does the Bible Teach about Everything?

Kevin DeYoung’s book. “What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?” (DeYoung, 2015) is an excellent exposition from a learned man who holds to a conservative position on this currently controversial topic. I agree with almost every point he makes en route to his conclusions but I think he falls at the final hurdle and draws some absolutist conclusions that are unwarranted. This post is the first of a series I will make, in which I will discuss those places where I believe DeYoung misses the mark.

Despite my disagreement with some of his major conclusions, I believe that his book deserves to be read by everyone who is weighing these issues.

What Does the Bible Teach about Everything?

The book’s introductory chapter is entitled “What Does the Bible Teach about Everything?” It is the right starting point and a brilliant one. DeYoung argues that the central plotline of the story of Scripture is, “a holy God making a way to dwell in the midst of an unholy people.” In this story, “[t]he Promised Land was a type of Eden” and “[t]he Promised Land was a lens through which God’s people were supposed to look back to the Eden that was and look forward to the Eden that was to come again” and, in the New Testament, “the picture of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22 is a portrait of Eden restored.” I think most conservative scholars would agree with him so far.

DeYoung cites further passages from the New Testament and correctly states, “The garden, the land, and the temple did not prefigure a day when holiness no longer mattered”. He also cites Revelation 21:8, “But … the sexually immoral … will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death” and therefore concludes that “determining what constitutes sexual immorality in God’s mind has everything to do with the storyline of Scripture.” That leads him to pose the question, “Is homosexual activity a sin that must be repented of, forsaken, and forgiven, or, given the right context and commitment, can we consider same-sex sexual intimacy a blessing worth celebrating and solemnizing?” The rest of his book attempts to prove that the answer to the first part of the question is, unequivocally, “Yes”, and to the second part, “No”.

However, I believe that DeYoung has already demonstrated in this introductory chapter some ways in which his perception is blinkered, and I believe that the answers to the two parts of his question are not as unequivocal as he thinks

His summary is too compressed when he says, “As often as God had made a way to dwell in the midst of his unholy people, just as often had they squandered their God-wrought restoration. So God sent his Son…” (p. 12) (emphasis mine). I am sure that DeYoung believes with the writer of Hebrews that the acceptability to God of the Old Testament structures and sacrifices was entirely dependent on the foreknown sacrifice that would be made by Christ. Every sacrifice, from Abel’s through those of the Job, Abraham, and the first and second temples was only accepted because of Christ. The old Covenants and even the people’s failures under them slowly prepared the way for the coming of the Saviour. Despite all the unfaithfulness of Israel, and against the background of that unfaithfulness, the pedagogy of the law prepared a people from whom Jesus Christ could draw his disciples. Those disciples, further enlightened by what Jesus taught on the Emmaus road, were equipped to take the gospel of salvation by grace through faith to the world. The time had arrived of which Simeon spoke after the birth of Jesus, “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”.

The storyline of Scripture describes a concave arc, down from Eden through the fall and the increasing depravity of mankind, and then upwards – despite the many grave failures of God’s called people – through the old Covenants to the era of the new Covenant and at last the new Heavens and Earth. This storyline includes the news that the kingdom of God has intruded into the world and has begun to change it – see Matthew 13:31-32, “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches’” and Matthew 13:33, “He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.’” We therefore live in a world where the kingdom is partially realised but not fully so, and where the degree of manifestation of the kingdom has changed with time.

DeYoung’s summary misses the element of what we might call God’s practical graciousness toward his people along that whole arc from the Fall to the present time. None of those whom God has accepted have been perfect in their repentance or faith or holiness or even in their understanding of what holiness ought to be, but their imperfection in those areas has been covered by the blood of Christ, just like any of their other sins. DeYoung concentrates on the end points, the perfection of Eden and of the new heavens and earth, but in Eden, the Fall had not occurred and in the new heavens and earth, its every last vestige will have been removed. What, though, of us who are not there yet? What does the gospel set out as the strategy for our sanctification, we who struggle against whatever stumbling blocks were put in our way by our birth into a fallen family in a fallen world, and our life in a still-fallen world?

By missing God’s practical graciousness and by failing to recognise that we are at a different place on the storyline than even the Apostles were, DeYoung has failed to see some possibilities that may be open to the Church in our present time that were not open in previous generations. I will enlarge on that in future posts, as I respond to other chapters of DeYoung’s book.

Pragmatism – or Something Else?

Peter Carrell has kindly made some comments at Anglican Down Under on my previous two posts, and I want to reply here to one of those points. My response to other points will follow in a later post or posts

Peter says inter alia that my post “opens up a possible way forward towards blessing of same sex partnerships which might, just might receive agreement in our church if we saw our way to a pragmatic, pastoral approach.”  NB: you need to read that sentence in its full context to understand Peter’s own view of the matter – don’t read it as an affirmation of my position. However, here I simply want to discuss the use of “pragmatic”, as it is not a word I would use myself in connection with what I have proposed in my posts.

I do think that there is a kind of pragmatism that is Biblical. For instance, Jesus tells us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves in our dealings with the world. We therefore need to weigh the biblical options and act in any particular situation so as to best serve the πραγμα of the gospel. Nevertheless, I would rather avoid using the word pragmatism in case anyone should misunderstand it to mean something sub-Biblical. Rather, I understand that it will be a momentous thing for the Church to make the kind of change that I have advocated, and, if it happens in a way that includes conservative Christians, it will be because the Holy Spirit has brought the great majority of us to that viewpoint. If that comes to pass, it won’t be as a capitulation to expediency but as a true, principled application of the Word of God.

I have already posted a review of Ken Wilson’s book, “A Letter to My Congregation.” Wilson is a conservative pastor who is troubled by the disconnect between what he sees as the gospel testimony and good character of LGBT people he encounters and the prima facie Biblical prohibitions of such relationships, and he is deeply touched by the anguish of soul they feel. I don’t believe he is the only one troubled that way. I think it is likely there are many thousands of conservative pastors and teachers worldwide who are similarly concerned. Is this just the spirit of this age working to deceive, if possible, even the elect, or is it the Spirit of Christ urging us all to revisit the matter and think it through again, bringing to bear on it the whole revelation of God? I think it is the latter, and we will come in the end to a common, Word-based understanding.

The Just Justifier

I believe that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.

I believe that the inspired Word lays out the story of God’s people as a concave arc, from the original paradise of Eden, down through the Fall and ever-increasing depravity of mankind, then upwards through Sinai and the Cross of Christ to paradise fully regained in the new heavens and earth.

I believe that no scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction or training in righteousness if it is interpreted in a way that wrenches it from its particular place on that arc. Careful exegesis shows that some scripture is always timelessly applicable, but that must be shown passage by passage; it must not be not be adamantly presumed. Yes – by all means make it a working hypothesis in your personal Bible study that any Scripture that you have newly come to is one of the timeless ones, but understand that deeper study may require you to change that understanding.

I believe that God intends us to engage our minds with his world and his word. The prototype for this is found in Genesis 2, when God brings the animals to Adam “to see what he would name them” – that is, how he would classify them.

I believe that our intellectual faculty was corrupted by the Fall, but that it shares in the restoration being brought about by God’s grace. While sometimes God has given his people a command and required obedience without explanation, as in the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, this is not the paradigm for our general relationship with his Word. A person who worships God mindlessly does not worship God as He actually is.

I believe that the prohibitions in the Mosaic Law and the New Testament against same-sex relationships allowed no exceptions, but that was because of the place that had been reached on the redemptive arc when those prohibitions were given. At Sinai, the Lord was setting up walls to protect the Hebrew people from the corruption of the surrounding nations while he prepared the way for the coming of Christ. In the New Testament era, the apostles were the servants of Christ as he began to build a church whose mission would include the task of cleaning the Augean stables of the pagan world. At both junctures, less than a total prohibition would have put the main objective at risk. Without it, we would not have come to the place of widespread grace where we find ourselves today.

On the basis of those beliefs, I believe that the time has come when the Church can:

  • Heed the testimonies of LGBT believers who tell us that their orientation dates from earliest childhood and that it was not wilfully chosen, and that supposed re-orientation therapies do not work for them, no matter how whole-heartedly they engage with them.
  • Heed their testimony that they are not able to form a meaningful, soul-satisfying heterosexual relationship, yet feel barred by the Church from entering a relationship with someone of their own orientation.
  • Hear their anguish at this state of affairs.
  • Recognise that a faithful same-sex union is not a threat to the Kingdom of God if it is welcomed and guarded with the same pastoral care as a heterosexual union.
  • And therefore declare that, while same-sex unions were not part of God’s pre-Fall design for humankind, faithful unions of that kind are covered by the grace of Christ in his redemptive plan and can be accepted and blessed within the Church.

The God who reveals himself to us through the Scriptures is a God of blazing light and overwhelming holiness. If we were to see him, our first reaction would be like Isaiah’s or John’s: “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”, and “I fell at his feet as dead.” But, just as he did for Isaiah, God has sent an angel – Christ Jesus himself – with a coal to purge our unclean lips, and Jesus himself lays his right hand upon us and tells us to “fear not”, for this God reveals himself as both love and light. Through the cross of Christ, he has provided the act of mercy by which he can remain just and be the justifier of everyone who trusts in Jesus. The mercy of his love is able to triumph over the judgment of his light without dimming the latter. It is the post-conversion work of the Holy Spirit that shows us where we must amend our ways so that they conform more perfectly to his light – and I do not believe that the Spirit any longer requires believers to foreswear same-sex relationships, but simply to ensure those relationships strengthen and bring glory to the Kingdom of God.

Dear faithful, conservative pastor-teachers, I appeal to you. Please lift your eyes from your systematic theologies and look unblinkingly at the God whom your studies should have revealed to you. Engage both your heart and your brain. Cease selling God’s love short by trying to make his judgment triumph over his mercy when you deal with LGBT people, by demanding of them what, after all, God does not. Recognise instead that, as Cranmer put it in his great Eucharistic prayer, God is “the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.” Be imitators of him, your Saviour.

Abominations and the Father’s Kingdom

In prior posts concerning Motion 30 and the events that have led to it, I have suggested that parties on both sides have been guilty of failing to take seriously enough our obligation to preserve unity in the body of Christ and to deal patiently and lovingly with those in the Church whom we believe to be in error on this or that matter. Although in different words, I have charged that many people on both sides have been dismissive of the other party’s position and have been trying to win a debate instead of trying to win each other’s heart to a deeper commitment to Christ.

Now, I want to take up a related topic where I think emotion rather than rational exegesis may often prevent fruitful, soul-engaging discussion happening. That topic is the meaning of the word “abomination”– a word that looms large in any Christian discussion that touches on the area of homosexuality. I believe that there is only one meaning that can be ascribed to that word that fits all the contexts in which our God uses it in Scripture. Any deed that by its nature fights strongly against the development or presence among us of God’s kingdom is abomination.

When many Christians think of homosexual activity, they focus on its physical aspects and feel revulsion. Therefore, when they read in Leviticus 18:22 “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” they take that as meaning that God feels the same sick churning of stomach as they do at the thought of the physical act. The Lord, however, applies the exact same word to a number of other human deeds, and while the anthropomorphic “churning of stomach” interpretation might suit some of those contexts (e.g., human sacrifice and bestiality – Deuteronomy 12:31; Leviticus 18:23), there are others where it does not.

Graven images of so-called gods are an abomination to the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:16), but what do you feel if you travel overseas and go into a temple and see some of those abominations? Do you feel revulsion akin to your revulsion at the thought of homosexuality? I doubt it – I think what you feel in this case is more likely to be a deep sadness at the darkness and oppression that the idol represents, and anger at those who perpetuate the wrong.

A false balance is abomination to the Lord,” but do you feel revulsion in your gut when you hear of a crooked businessman? Probably not – perhaps an emotion that is in the neighbourhood of righteous anger. And – if so – ask yourself why you are angry? What is the state of affairs that is stirring you so?

Heterosexual adultery, too, is an abomination (Leviticus 18:20 & 26), but does your stomach churn in revulsion when you think of its physical aspect? Again, I doubt it. Your emotion is more likely akin to what you feel about idol worship or crookedness in business. Your heart is indeed agreeing with God, but the agreement is not based on visceral feeling; it is the agreement of a heart that has been shown by the Holy Spirit how good the kingdom of God is and is therefore grief-stricken at any state of affairs that damages it.

Therefore, as we reflect on the trend in secular society around us to normalise homosexual relationships, we must excise the “gut-reaction” definition of abomination from the debate and use instead a definition that is true to all the contexts in which our God uses the word. I fear that many who oppose change in the Church’s stance regarding same-gender relationships do so because the idea offends their sense of sexual aesthetics, not because “abomination” means the same to them as to God. Abomination, however, is anything that is radically contrary to the coming and presence among us of the beauty and peace and safety of God’s kingdom. Any abomination tears the heart of God because of the damage it does, and if our heart has learned from the Holy Spirit, that is how we will feel about abominations, too, for the exact same reason. Visceral reaction will have nothing to do with it.

Please (!) re-read the previous paragraph carefully and note that I have not said that conservatives are wrong for opposing any change in the Church’s stance; only that many oppose change for the wrong reason. Their error on that point then makes it impossible for them to interact with love and concern with those on the other side of the controversy.

Digression: There are two distinct sets of Hebrew words that have both been translated into English as “abomination. The one that is used in all the scriptures cited so far is to`evah. It is a strong word. As I have argued above, it points to states of affairs that are fundamentally damaging to God’s kingdom. However, there is a second set of words that are weaker in their implication. They are the cognate words shiqquts, shaqats, and sheqets, which I will refer to collectively by the abbreviation sqts. They imply something that is an “abomination” because it is contrary to the rules of the religious cult.

With only one exception, it is words from this latter family that are used in connection with unclean foods. (The exception is Deuteronomy 14:3, where to`evah is used. I believe the exception can be explained and does not undermine the case I am making, but I will not overload this post by including the explanation here). God had the power to command the Hebrews to view certain foods as an sqts abomination, and the Son of God equally had the authority to repeal that command. He could do so because you can eat shellfish without your action launching any kind of attack on the kingdom of God, but Jesus would never have said that it’s no longer an abomination for a shopkeeper to use crooked weights and measures; such behaviour is inherently anti-kingdom.

The Law of Liberty

We learn from the Scriptures that God set up and blessed the pattern of heterosexual relationship between man and woman (Genesis 2). Further, the general doctrine that God is creator of all teaches us that all those erogenous zones that make sex so enjoyable are his design and doing. And passages such as Proverbs 5:19 and the Song of Solomon 4 and 5 show us that God encourages couples to take sensual delight in the beauty of each other’s body. Nevertheless, God lays down laws for such relationships. In God’s design, a marriage is to be between just one man and one woman – “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and if adultery does occur, the act is an abomination.

If we consider these laws in the light of the petition “thy kingdom come,” it is easy to see their function. They enable a man to be sure that the children that his partner bears are indeed his own, motivating him to protect them and provide for them and to protect their mother and provide for her, too, while she is less able to fend for herself because of pregnancy and child-rearing. It keeps all three parties – husband, wife and child – surrounded by kingdom-like sanctuary. Because this is a fallen, imperfect world, God tolerates some exceptions to the core pattern – for example, divorce and polygamy – but adultery is always, ever “abomination.” Divorce and polygamy are undesirable but can be permitted, but adultery mounts such a savage attack on the sanctuary and also on marriage as a type of Christ’s relationship to the Church, that God permits no exception.

The same kind of analysis can be made in respect of all the other commandments of the Decalogue. Idolatry, murder, theft and false witness are all destructive of the kingdom, and all are abominations.

“These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”   (Proverbs 6:16-19)

The apostle James speaks of God’s Word as “the law of liberty”. His laws – whether written in ink in the Bible or written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit – liberate us and those around us into the blessed estate of His kingdom. Every abomination is a would-be destroyer of that liberty, our own and others’. I believe that if our discussion uses this kind of definition of “abomination”, there will be at least an outside chance that the parties will meaningfully hear each other.

Paul’s Example of Patience – Part II

My topic here as in Part I is Paul’s example of patience. To expand this topic further I now need to sketch the sequence of events that occurred around the time of the writing of the two epistles that we know as 1st and 2nd Corinthians. (There were in fact four letters, fragments of some of which may possibly be found in “2nd” Corinthians.)

Paul wrote 1st Corinthians early in his final year at Ephesus, sometime before Pentecost, as we can see from 1 Cor. 16:8. Later, in the third or fourth quarter of the same year, he wrote from Macedonia the letter we have as 2nd Corinthians (see 2 Cor. 7:5).

We can now infer from the content of 2nd Corinthians some other events that must have occurred in between the two epistles.

  • Paul learned that his earlier letter had been rejected by the Corinthians.
  • To try to deal with the situation, he paid a quick visit to Corinth sometime during the summer months, before he left Ephesus permanently. We know this from 2 Corinthians 13:1, “This is the third time I am coming to visit you.”
  • The visit was a painful one: “I made up my own mind not to pay you another painful visit” (2 Cor. 2:1).
  • During that visit, he had indicated that when he finally left Ephesus he would come to Corinth first before going on to Macedonia: “I intended to come to you first so that you would get a second opportunity to see us, and through your help to go on into Macedonia and then from Macedonia to come back to you and be helped on our way into Judea by you” (2 Cor. 1:15-16). However, he subsequently changed his mind and reverted to the itinerary that he had described in 1 Corinthians 16:5-6, because, “I appeal to God as my witness, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth” (2 Cor. 1:23).
  • On his brief visit, he was treated scornfully by some of the Corinthians, but chose not to use his apostolic authority to silence his opponents immediately, as is apparent from 2 Cor. 10:1, “I who am meek when present among you, but am full of courage toward you when away,” and 10:10, “…some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but his physical presence is weak and his speech is of no account.”
  • After he had returned to Ephesus, he wrote the letter he describes in 2 Cor. 2:3-4, “… out of great distress and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears, not to make you sad, but to let you know the love that I have especially for you.” We do not have a copy of that letter, unless some fragments of it have found their way into our “2nd” Corinthians. (As that question does not affect the points I want to argue, there is no need to discuss it here.)
  • He entrusted the letter to Titus to deliver to Corinth, and was delighted to learn when he met Titus again in Macedonia that the letter had been effective and the Corinthian church had repented of its errors, as we can see from 2 Cor. 7:6-9.

Look at the example the great Apostle give s us! Bad-mouthed by some of the Corinthians during his brief visit, he does not exercise his supernatural apostolic authority to silence them. He does not yet implement the warning he had given in 1 Cor. 4:19-21, “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord is willing, and I will find out not only the talk of these arrogant people, but also their power. For the kingdom of God is demonstrated not in idle talk but with power. What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” No, he meekly retreats and continues to try to win the Corinthians over by whatever he wrote in the letter that – praise God – was to cause them such fruitful pain.

My previous post drew out from 1st Corinthians that, whatever particular error he was dealing with, Paul exhorted his hearers in the patient confidence that the Holy Spirit was present and able to make his words fruitful. We also saw that he often gave two kinds of corrective teaching, dealing first with the presenting issue as such, but then adding teaching that encouraged his hearers to reconsider the whole issue from the perspective of the body of Christ and their relationship to it.

Knowing that, we can understand why he chose not to make use of his disciplinary power during that summer visit. He still believed that the battle for the hearts and minds of the Corinthians could be won, and he was willing for the sake of the Corinthians and the sake of Christ’s body to accept seeming humiliation in the meantime.

Applying Paul’s Example to the Motion 30 Controversy

Paul was humble, loving and patient. This is the example he gives us in the Corinthian epistles and the example we should surely aspire to.

Some will correctly observe that there was a limit to Paul’s apostolic forbearance. If the final four chapters of our 2nd Corinthians are in their correct place (and I believe they are; these chapters are not the “painful letter” that Paul wrote between our 1st and 2nd Corinthians), a minority at Corinth still opposed him, but Paul would deal decisively with them on his next visit:

This is the third time I am coming to visit you… I said before when I was present the second time and now, though absent, I say again to those who sinned previously and to all the rest, that if I come again, I will not spare anyone…
(2 Cor. 13:1-2)

Paul was patient with the Corinthians, but his patience expired after perhaps nine months. The matters that led to Motion 30 have been under debate for decades; can those who believe themselves correct on these issues therefore appeal to Paul’s example and say, “Time’s up – no more debate”? Perhaps – but only if you can swear that these decades of debate have been carried out in the same spirit of humility and concern for the Church that Paul showed in all his dealings with the Corinthians. In my opinion, that’s not the case – or not the case on a large-enough scale. Instead, I seem to have seen two castles built on opposite hills, with the residents of each castle shouting across the intervening valley, “Repent,” but (unlike Paul) giving the opposing side no sufficient grounds why they should do so. Sufficient grounds in terms of the shouter’s own presuppositions, for sure, but not in terms of the presuppositions of the other side.

An occasional envoy has been sent from one castle to the other, only to be wined, dined, tested against the host’s favourite shibboleth, found wanting and dismissed. An occasional book written in the library of one castle has been read in the library of the other, but principally so its weak points could be identified and the whole dismissed thereby. There has been a pretence of God-fearing debate and dialogue but only a smattering of the real thing.

Or my perception may be totally wrong! I would therefore be glad to be pointed to the records of genuine heartfelt debate and wrestling together over these matters, with each side prepared to recognise, at least in principle, that they might be wrong in this or that point of their platform.

I need to say, finally, that in this posting I have mentioned two castles, but there is of course a third building in the vicinity, the building where the neo-Arians dwell. I believe it is a shanty of wood, hay and stubble and not relevant to this posting; therefore I have ignored it.

Paul’s Example of Patience – Part I

The patient way that the apostle Paul dealt with the problems that had arisen in the Church at Corinth gives us an example that can guide us when we think we perceive problems in the Church. His humility shows us the attitude that we, too, should manifest, and his ongoing forbearance gives us an inkling of the time-span over which we also might need to remain patient.

The Starting Assumption

(Note: all Biblical quotations below are from the NET Bible, © 1996-2005 Biblical Studies Press).

Consider Paul’s words that follow immediately after his opening salutation in 1 Corinthians:

I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus. For you were made rich in every way in him, in all your speech and in every kind of knowledge –just as the testimony about Christ has been confirmed among you – so that you do not lack any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:4-9)

Paul is about to enter into a long struggle to correct errors of doctrine and practice that had crept into the Corinthian Church, but he does so from the premise that the Corinthians are true believers in whom the Holy Spirit is working, and that God Himself is committed to enabling them to stand firm. Paul of course personally knows the people of Corinth, but I am convinced from his whole process with the Corinthians that he would have acted in the same with a Church whose people he knew only by reputation.

There is another factor, too, that would have been part of Paul’s understanding from the beginning, even though he does not put it into words until the closing chapters of 2 Corinthians:

…[some] people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness…               (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

As is clear from reading the whole of 2 Corinthians 11, Paul does not mean that everyone who is swayed into adopting a pernicious doctrine is him or herself a false apostle. There is a battle for souls going on, during which even some of the saints may be temporarily deceived. The right response is not to excommunicate forthwith every holder of the wrong doctrine but – to the degree that God has laid a responsibility on you – to fight for their soul, even at considerable cost to yourself.

How the Assumption is Played Out

1)   Divisions Around Particular Leaders (1 Cor. Chapters 1-4)

Paul describes the error (chapter 1:10-12), then over the next 3½ chapters delivers teaching that aims to call the Corinthians back to their foundation in Christ. He Intermixes reproof with the teaching, and chapter 4 ends with a stern warning, but even there the warning is tempered with love (4:14), and as the saga continues to unfold we discover that Paul will again and again postpone the exercise of Apostolic discipline, hoping instead that the message will get through and those in error will come to their senses.

2)   A Heinous Moral Error (1 Cor. 5)

Here, the issue is black-and-white. It is not that the Corinthians have been misled by the spirit of the times, they have run ahead of that spirit and condoned a relationship that even the world around them thinks is scandalous. Paul gives no latitude here; the Corinthian Church is called upon to act immediately and decisively. As usual, Paul couples his injunction with teaching that turns the readers’ eyes back to Christ: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.

As we will see over again, Paul’s nouthetic method is not to say, “What you are doing is disgusting – stop it.” Instead he says, in effect, “Please, please see how badly your action injures Christ and harms his body, the Church.” Indeed, if someone refuses to see and does not repent excommunication must happen, but Paul’s first desire is always that we should see.

3)   Legal Disputes and Fraudulent Behaviour (1 Cor. 6:1-11)

Much needs to be said about this passage because of the relevance of its final paragraph to the present controversy – so much that I will not try to do so here. I will come back to it in a later posting.

In the meantime, I appeal to readers on both sides of the controversy not to prejudge what I might say!

4)   Another Moral Error (1 Cor. 6:12-20)

Here Paul deals with a misunderstanding of what our freedom in Christ means. Yet again, Paul tries to direct his reader’s thoughts to their relationship with Christ, and their debt to Him:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that anyone who is united with a prostitute is one body with her? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one united with the Lord is one spirit with him. Flee sexual immorality! “Every sin a person commits is outside of the body” – but the immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.

5)   Meat Offered to Idols (1 Cor. Chapters 8-10)

Paul approaches this divisive problem in two ways. He does does not challenge the freedom, as such, that Christians have to eat meat that has been offered to idols, a freedom that some in Corinth had clearly grasped and some had not. The first lesson that Paul teaches, therefore, is that we must use such freedoms – if we use them at all – in a way that does no harm to the wider body of Christ: “…by your knowledge the weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed. If you sin against your brothers or sisters in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

Chapter 9 gives us an example of this principle in action, in Paul’s refusal to require financial support from his churches, even though as an apostle to do so he had every right to do so.

Having given in chapters 8 and 9 one important reason for the Corinthians to change their behaviour, Paul then in chapter 10 gives an even more sobering one, in case any in Corinth are tempted to extrapolate their freedom into liberty even to be present at pagan rites:

So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking to thoughtful people. Consider what I say. Is not the cup of blessing that we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? Am I saying that idols or food sacrificed to them amount to anything? No, I mean that what the pagans sacrifice is to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

6)   Selfish Divisions at the Lord’s Supper          (1 Cor. 11:17-33)

I will bypass the first part of chapter 11 because of the disagreement that exists about how it applies in the modern church. The message of the second part, though, is clear: “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk,” and, “the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.

Paul’s corrective is yet again to turn his readers’ attention to the fundamentals, this time to the solemn meaning of the sacrament, so that, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.

7)   Jealousies About Spiritual Gifts      (1 Cor. Chapters 12-14)

In chapters 12 and 14 Paul gives teaching that is aimed to correct the Corinthians’ understanding of the function and purpose of the different gifts. In those two chapters, he repeatedly directs the readers’ attention to their part in the body of Christ and their responsibility to it, for example: “God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another.” (12:24-25) and “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church” (14:12). In those chapters he gives teaching that addresses the specific issue, but he places them either side of what we know as chapter 13, where he gives even more profound instruction; exhortation that is applicable to every eventuality that the Corinthians – or any believer – might meet in their life.

8)   Denial of the Resurrection  (1 Cor. 15)

Here, Paul gives teaching that contradicts the error and couples it with a firm reproof: ‘Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Sober up as you should, and stop sinning! For some have no knowledge of God – I say this to your shame!’ (15:33-34), Nevertheless, he does not demand excommunication of those holding the errant belief. It is evident that he intends to allow time for the readers, even those whose faulty belief and immoral behaviour demonstrate the paucity of their knowledge of God, to reflect on the teaching he has given and mend their belief and their actions.

Conclusion

Do you see a common thread here in the way Paul has approached all of these problems? We are not islands unto ourselves; as believers in Christ, every step that we take and every word that we speak and every sentence we write must be done in an awareness of our relationship and Christ and our interconnectedness with every other believer in His body, the Church. He does not seek mere “tick the right boxes” obedience from his readers; he wants to see them transformed by the renewing of their minds.

Paul dispatched this letter, full of such wise counsel so lovingly framed, and it was not received well. In Part II of this essay, I hope to explore what we can learn from Paul’s actions as he dealt with the ongoing recalcitrance of the Corinthian Church.