Wesley Hill has waded into the discussion about the proper deployment of the term “orthodoxy” when it comes to current controversies about sexuality. I won’t rehash the whole debate here. But to summarize, James K. A. Smith and Alan Jacobs have recently made the case that those who affirm homosexual relationships and same-sex marriage can nevertheless be “orthodox” Christians. An affirmation of untraditional sexual behavior need not nullify an affirmation of the creeds. Hill basically agrees with them about this.
Hill is always thoughtful and reasonable, and his post yesterday is no exception. He also has been a consistent opponent of homosexual relationships and same-sex marriage, and I am very grateful that he and I are agreed on that much.
But still, there remains some disagreement over how to deal with the so-called “affirming” position within the church. And from where I’m sitting, the disagreement is substantial and worth the time to work through if at all possible. Here’s what I mean. Hill writes:
I want to mount arguments for traditional, male-and-female marriage that appeal to the creedal grammar that my opponents and I both affirm. As much as lies within me, until I have good reason to believe otherwise, I want to assume that my interlocutors who affirm same-sex marriage and who say the same creed with me each Sunday do so in good faith, and deserve to be answered on the basis of the orthodox Christian theology they profess. Insofar as this is what Smith’s post was aiming at, I’m with him 100 percent…
As much as I think the revisionist view of the morality of same-sex sexual intimacy is blatantly and tragically wrong, I cannot see that all of those who hold it have ceased to be my brothers and sisters in Christ, and therefore I cannot see my way clear to remove myself from fellowship with them.
In responding to this, I should stipulate up front that some of our differences are no doubt ecclesiological. He is an Anglican, and I am a Baptist. But still, the issue of who the church recognizes as Christian is a fundamental question that all disciples of Jesus must face. And here, Hill makes the case that even though he strongly disagrees with those who promote the “affirming” view, he still must recognize them as brothers and sisters in Christ and maintain fellowship with them.
And it is here that the substantial difference emerges. And to see it, you have to think about how this stance plays out in the life of a local church. I am a pastor. Suppose a man in my congregation comes to me and says, “You know, I feel like the Lord is leading me to marry so-and-so. So-and-so is married to an ungodly man. She desires a godly husband, and I want to be that for her. So she is going to divorce him to marry me.” The man goes on to explain that his relationship with this other man’s wife is actually not contrary to his commitment to Christ but will enable both he and the other man’s wife to follow Christ more faithfully. (That may sound far-fetched to you, but I have actually heard this defense of adultery before.)
As a pastor, what is my proper response to this would-be adulterer? Shall I confirm his affirmation of credal orthodoxy and then let the adultery slide? He is after all not renouncing any fundamental doctrinal commitment. We are merely having a disagreement over a forthcoming divorce and remarriage. Since we have so much in common otherwise, should I just celebrate our common “credal grammar” and continue to make appeals to him while staying united in fellowship?
I hope that readers can see that such a response would be pastoral malpractice on my part. My actions would suggest affirmation even though I may personally hold a traditional view of marriage. The only proper response to such an interlocutor is to call that brother and sister to repentance and to make every effort to restore the sister’s marriage insofar as it is possible to do so. If the brother and sister resist calls to repentance, then the faithful and loving response is for the church to pursue that couple with church discipline. If they continue to resist the church’s call to repentance, then they must be excommunicated–meaning that they must be set outside of the church and no longer treated as a brother and sister in Christ.
Christ commands us to do this (Matthew 18:15-18). The apostle Paul rebukes a church for failing to do this (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). It is not that Christians can never be in error without being excommunicated. It’s that the church can never be indifferent or passive toward brothers and sisters who fail to respond to such reproof. The church ultimately has to refuse to recognize sexual immorality as consistent with an authentic Christian commitment.
If the church’s obligation is clear with respect to adultery, why is it unclear with respect to homosexual immorality? If I understand Hill (and Smith and Jacobs) correctly, their argument would treat homosexual immorality as a special case in the life of a church. If someone sincerely holds to credal orthodoxy and sincerely holds to a revisionist view of marriage, then the church must not disfellowship them but must continue to recognize them as Christian. This seems to me the opposite of what scripture commands us to do. This seems like a sure fire way for the church to lose its distinction from the world altogether.
One final thing: If a church that holds to traditional marriage allows members to affirm the sanctity of homosexual relationships, what is the difference between the traditional church and the so-called “affirming” church? A church will either recognize gay marriages or not. A church will either ordain “affirming” clergy or not. There is no in-between position at the practical, congregational level. And if a traditional church does not enforce moral boundaries in a way that is consistent with its traditional beliefs, then its ecclesial practice is no different than a church that affirms homosexual relationships. It is a de facto “affirming” church.