Why churches might need to excommunicate “affirming” members of the congregation

Andrew Wilson has a really good article this morning about non-affirming Christians who affirm the Christian bona fides of affirming Christians. Wilson is interacting with Steve Holmes and Alan Jacobs on this point. Both Holmes and Jacobs claim that affirming homosexual relationships is an error, but not one that should call into question the authenticity of someone’s Christian faith. Andrew makes a number of good points in response to this claim, and I would like to add some more here.

The question before us is whether gay-affirming sexual ethics are a first order issue or a second order issue. Is it an issue that distinguishes Christian from Christian (like baptism)? Or is it an issue that distinguishes Christian from non-Christian (like the deity of Christ)? Holmes and Jacobs are both arguing that the “affirming” position is an error but not one that sets someone outside of Christianity. In other words, it’s more like a difference over baptism than a difference over the deity of Christ. Holmes writes:

It matters to me desperately that salvation depends on our embracing of the forgiveness offered in Jesus and on nothing else. Nothing else. ‘Sola fide’ is not an interesting theological slogan for me. It is—literally—gospel truth. Add this or that condition, and you begin to justify the murder of members of my college or inhabitants of my village. More importantly than that, even, you begin to query the salvation of those who have put their faith in Jesus.

Sola fide. I have to stand on that. Because the Blood flowed where I walk, and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice, complete, once for all, offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.

My question for Holmes is this: How do you treat “affirming” members within your congregation? How is their presence in the congregation compatible with the church’s message and mission? If affirming sexual immorality is a first order issue (which it is), then such a teaching cannot peacefully coexist within a gospel-preaching congregation.

In the church where I pastor, we view it as our mission to call sinners to repentance and faith. If a member of our church were telling sexually immoral people that they need not repent of their sexual immorality to follow Jesus, that would be an existential problem for us. We cannot have members telling sinners that they can follow Jesus and pursue sexual immorality—especially since the Bible so clearly teaches that the impenitent sexually immoral person does not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Anyone contradicting the Bible’s message on this point would be leading sinners away from Jesus not to Jesus.

That is why we would try to correct that member’s error and exhort them to cease and desist of that false teaching. If they failed to respond to correction, then they would be subject to the church’s discipline (Titus 3:10). Persistence in this error could in fact lead to excommunication. In other words, a settled commitment to the “affirming” position would in fact compel us to treat the “affirming” member as an unbeliever and set them outside of the church (Matt. 18:17). How could a faithful, disciplined congregation do otherwise?

Jacobs argues likewise that “affirming friends” need not be regarded as false teachers on their way to perdition. They are simply mistaken brothers like Peter in Galatians 2. So Jacobs concludes:

So if you can be as wrong as Peter was about something foundational for the Gospel and still not be denounced as a false teacher, then I think it follows that if people do not “walk correctly” in relation to biblical teaching about sexuality, they likewise need not be treated as pseudodidaskaloi but can be seen as brothers and sisters whom those who hold the traditional view patiently strive to correct, without coming out from among them, speaking with the patience and gentleness commended in 2 Timothy 3:24-25.

Jacobs is right that not every purveyor of false teaching is a lackey of the Devil. But what Jacobs seems to miss here is the difference between false teachers who respond to correction and those who do not. We have examples in scripture where bona fide believers are the source of error in the church. Apollos was a man mighty in the scriptures who taught accurately about Jesus but who nevertheless was only familiar with John’s baptism. In Apollos’ case, his deficient teaching was an error of omission. He simply did not yet know the full apostolic message. Priscilla and Aquila came alongside Apollos and explained to him the way of God “more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Presumably, Apollos responded favorably to their correction such that Paul would later identify Apollos as a co-laborer in preaching the gospel (1 Cor. 3:5-9).

In Galatians 2, Paul says that he opposed Peter for not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Peter’s bad behavior in this situation had a teaching function, and so Paul says that he had to oppose him “to his face” and “in the presence of all” (Gal. 2:11, 14). Again, Peter did not continue in the Judaizing error but was corrected.

The examples of Apollos and Peter show us that any one of us might be subject to imbibing and disseminating false teaching. As I have confessed elsewhere, I have been in this position before. The key issue is how we respond to correction. There are two kinds of false teachers: those who repent and those who do not. We need to be careful not to underestimate how important our response to correction is. Those who respond to biblical correction reveal that they have the Spirit and are under the command of Jesus. Those who refuse to respond to biblical correction are proving themselves to be devoid of the Spirit and taking orders from another master (Jude 1:19).

Recalcitrance in the face of correction is dangerous, and it is why the apostles would often apply some of the most bone-chilling descriptors to unrepentant false teachers. Unrepentant false teachers are,

“men of depraved mind, rejected as regards the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8)
“evil men and impostors… deceiving and being deceived” (2 Ti m. 3:13)
“perverted and sinful, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:11)
“bringing swift destruction upon themselves… their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Pet. 2:1)
“springs without water, and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved” (2 Pet. 2:17)

Again, the stakes are high here. Response to correction reveals whether you are dealing with a brother or with a wolf. Restoration is only possible for those who repent. Those who persist in false teaching present grave spiritual danger and must be opposed. The more settled a person is in their affirmation of sexual immorality, the more settled the church has to be in saying that they are not Christian.

It would be a tremendous victory for false teaching on sexuality if churches were to treat the “affirming” position as “within the pale.” That affirmation of the “affirming” is a way-station to apostasy. And that is why congregations must continue to treat sexual immorality for what it is—a first order issue.

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