I have often been invited by my denomination (PCUSA) to debate proponents of homosexual lifestyles, especially those who advocate the ordination of practicing homosexuals. One of the stock refrains that I hear in nearly every debate is that Christians who believe the practice of homosexuality is a sin and who refuse to ordain practicing homosexuals are guilty of an ugly and punitive exclusiveness that is contrary to the open, inviting, and inclusive spirit and practice of Jesus.
Those who oppose homosexuality are accused of "a selective reading of a few Old Testament texts," as the refrain goes, and are dismissed as legalists who fail to understand the grace of Christ that is offered in the gospel to all persons, regardless of their condition. Repeatedly I have been reminded that since we all are sinners, heterosexuals have no right to single out homosexuality as a deviant lifestyle.
So runs the argument, which usually garners easy assent in our permissive day. But the argument is mistaken—and rendered so by Jesus himself.
In many respects, Jesus was inclusive. He offered forgiveness and fellowship to outcasts within Judaism, and to Gentiles outside it, in a way that was unprecedented among Jewish rabbis. But in other respects, Jesus was more exclusive than his Jewish contemporaries: he refused political alliances with Herod Antipas, the "fox" (Luke 13:32) who beheaded John the Baptist; he refused to replace God with Torah (or with any ideology); and he refused to identify the kingdom of God with any of the prevailing sects of Judaism.
The first century pulsated with a plethora of mystery cults and Greco-Roman religions, including quasi-emperor worship, many of which penetrated into Palestine. Judaism, often thought of as ethnically and religiously homogeneous, was actually a patchwork of royalists (Herodians), isolationists and purists (Essenes), liberation movements (Zealots and Sicarii), and renewal movements (John the Baptist and Jesus), in addition to establishment Pharisees and Sadducees.
How did Jesus relate to this diversity? Consider only the two most centrist sects, the Pharisees and Sadducees. There is no record that Jesus sought to engage the Sadducees—or the Sanhedrin dominated by them—with his message and movement. There are, to be sure, isolated references in the Gospels to Jesus' disputes with Sadducees and the Sanhedrin, but it was they—not he—who initiated contact. For his part, Jesus remained aloof from the Sadducees and from their considerable influence on Judaism.
Jesus, however, did seek to engage the Pharisees with his message and movement. Why the Pharisees and not the Sadducees? The answer seems to be that on confessional grounds—belief in divine providence, the sinfulness of humanity, the resurrection from the dead, and the existence of the spiritual world of angels and demons—Jesus and the Pharisees shared common ground. (That is why they disagreed so!) Of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said: "Obey whatever they say to you, but don't follow their example" (Matt. 23:3, nlt). The Sadducees did not share this common confessional ground with Jesus, and the New Testament leaves no record that Jesus shared the kingdom with them.
Nor was Jesus' response to the Sadducees unique. There is no record that Jesus sympathized with either the Zealots or Herodians, two influential (though vastly different) political parties. As for the Essenes—a rigorous and respectable sect in first-century Judaism, knowledge of whom has been greatly enhanced by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls—they are not once mentioned in the New Testament.
Unlike the general tendency of mainline churches today, Jesus did not forge alliances with the dominant ideologies of his day. He spoke of his way as steep, narrow, and difficult, as opposed to the broad and easy way that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13-14). He characterized his coming not in terms of harmony and tranquillity, but as a sword that cuts and divides (Matt. 10:34), taking precedence over all other allegiances, even causing division among intimate relationships, "father against son … daughter against mother" (Luke 12:53).
Step by step in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus sets forth his teachings in contrast to other ways. God and Mammon are opposed to one another, they divide the world, and one cannot serve them both (Matt. 6:24). Indifference to the rigorous nature of the kingdom of God has catastrophic consequences: many who assume they belong on the inside with Jesus find themselves standing outside the kingdom, hearing from the Lord, "I never knew you" (Luke 13:23-30).
The early church followed Jesus' particularity with reference to purity of doctrine and fellowship. Those who cause division and act contrary to the doctrine once taught should be avoided, "for they do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 16:17-18). The adulterated gospel of Galatia was a false gospel, no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-10). Representatives of a false gospel in Philippi are "evil workers," "dogs" to be shunned (Phil. 3:2). The sharp rebukes of false teaching and teachers in the Pastoral Letters, 2 Peter, and Jude illustrate the zeal of the early church to maintain purity of faith and defend it from corruption. With the single exception of Philemon, every book of the New Testament mentions doctrinal error and testifies in one way or another that to preserve the purity of faith and unity of the church, false doctrine and exclusion of those who practice it must be condemned.
The gospel proclaimed by Jesus produced a "crisis," to use the language of the fourth Gospel. It demanded hearing, discerning, deciding, following, and thus forsaking and excluding incompatible alternatives. The "table" to which Jesus invited people was not defined by Torah or the tradition of the elders, much less by the heterodox vision of Hellenism: it was defined and determined by himself.
The first order of business
Browse through the religion section of a good bookstore today. There are no fewer than a dozen big sellers on the shelves that, with considerable erudition and scholarly authority, intend nothing less than a wholesale reformulation of Christianity. Their authors are Episcopal bishops, members of the Jesus Seminar, professors, Re-imaginers, New Agers, and mainliners of all sorts. They are not "outsiders," but in one way or another they are connected with the church.
What these diverse and often impressive studies share in common is their dissatisfaction with confessional and creedal Christianity and their attempt to replace it with something more palatable. Invariably, the point of attack is the person and work of Jesus Christ. If Jesus can be unseated as Son of God or compromised as the sole Savior of the world or demoted from one who sits at the right hand of the Father and will someday judge the world, then Christianity can be made into something other than the evangelical faith.
In the second century, Irenaeus, the brilliant defender of orthodoxy, argued that an improper estimation of Jesus Christ lies at the root of all heresy (Against All Heresies). Just as an entire building is rendered fundamentally true by a properly laid cornerstone, so a proper Christology determines right theology and ecclesiology. The first order of business, then as now, is to recover the centrality of the "second article" of the Apostles' Creed relating to the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is because the saving benefits that Scripture and creed ascribe solely to Jesus Christ are increasingly in our day being ascribed to creation and human nature.
In most mainline denominations, there is confusion over whether Jesus is the Lord, or a lord; whether God's will is known uniquely from Scripture and creed, or whether God's will is known through changing social custom; whether the love of God is known through Christ, or apart from Christ; whether apart from grace we stand condemned as sinners, or whether our nature is condoned by God without redemption and transformation; and whether the work of Christ on the cross and sanctification by the Holy Spirit alone render life pleasing to God, or whether unredeemed human nature is sufficiently pleasing to God.
American church captive
We need to ask the question: What does American pluralism have to do with "our common salvation" (Jude 3) that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all?
We Americans are deeply committed to the just and equitable access of all citizens to the rights and freedoms guaranteed by a constitutional democracy. Whether theologically conservative or liberal, most of us affirm the values of tolerance, inclusiveness, diversity, and pluralism. These values, in fact, seem so inviolable and inherent that we reflexively transfer them to the mission of the church.
We may even assume that these American values are interchangeable with the purposes of the church. The result is that we are now experiencing in the mainline the reverse of what happened in seventeenth-century Puritan America, where church norms were imposed on society at large, violating certain civil rights by narrow theological concerns. Today, civil norms, as defined by pluralism, inclusivism, and tolerance without regard to merit, are being imposed on the church, threatening to jeopardize its message and mission.
I think most Christians agree that the love of God and the death of Jesus Christ for sinful humanity obligate Christians to acts of compassion, aid, and defense in the name of that love, even for those with whom they disagree. The results of such acts can indeed be described by terms like inclusiveness and tolerance, and are, in my judgment, the noblest expressions of it. But such attitudes and acts derive not from themselves but from the love and justice of God. (See "Are You Tolerant?" CT, Jan. 11, 1999, p. 42.)
The problem arises from assuming that pluralism, diversity, and inclusiveness are in themselves Christian values. They are not automatically so. Today, however, pluralism is asserted as a primary value itself. Marvin Ellison (in Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality [Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996]) gives architectural shape to a very different ethic and church when he claims, "The fundamental ground rule for liberating sexual ethics is that voices from the margins must be brought to the center of the conversation on their own terms." If Ellison is right, the church's one foundation is no longer Jesus Christ her Lord, but "voices from the margins." Pluralism, not theological and confessional orthodoxy, guarantees a place at the table.
I believe that Ellison's position and those like it are mistaken because they hold the church in a Babylonian captivity to ideologies and norms that cannot be interchanged with the "faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Nowhere in Scripture or creed are pluralism, inclusivism, and diversity declared the specific ends of the church. They indeed play a role, but they play a role in subordination to the great ends of the faith, not as replacements for them!
Liberating the church
Years ago Dorothy Sayers argued in Creed or Chaos? for a hard and solid Christianity over a soft Christianity. Sayers vigorously challenged the assumption that the way to make Christianity palatable was to dilute its theological content, or strip it altogether and substitute soft and vague concepts of Christian sentiment.
Sayers describes our predicament today in the mainline American churches. We have ceased calling sinners to repentance, and church discipline is lax or nonexistent. We have been less than zealous for the truth of the gospel and purity of faith. We have failed to teach our children the faith. We have been indifferent to apostasy, mission, and personal holiness.
Mainline Protestantism has historically championed the ideals of liberal democracy. In doing so it has too comfortably and uncritically regarded society as a social extension of the church. That accommodation is no longer possible—if it ever was. The pluralism of modern culture is not only not compatible with the evangelical faith, but increasingly inimical to it.
The confusion in the mainline today with regard to cultural norms is due to our continuing to think of the church in Constantinian terms as a national institution, a Volkskirche, that gives voice to the dominant culture. That is the wrong model. The church is no longer a majority church, but a diaspora church. We need to unlearn old ways. The task before us is neither to imitate the culture nor blindly react to it, but to pray for sanctified wisdom that the church may become a critical, confronting, and compassionate voice for salvation within the culture.
The church of the former East Germany may be an instructive model for us today. During its 40 years in the wilderness of communism, the church was forced to be the church neither for communism nor against it—for in either case, communism would be a controlling factor; it was the church within communism, holding fast to its creedal foundations, and accepting its mandate not to mirror society but to bear witness to it from the sole promise of the gospel. The allegiance of the church in East Germany to the mandate of the gospel produced an identity and power against which the state was increasingly defenseless. Although the church did not set out to overthrow communism, it played no small role in its eventual downfall.
Today, we too must differentiate between the norms of society we inherit and the greater norms of the church to which we have been called. Athens is not interchangeable with Jerusalem, nor the city of God with the city of man. Let the church be the church! We must indeed render to Caesar what is Caesar's: equal access—even to those with whom we disagree—to the rights and responsibilities of a constitutional democracy. But we have a higher allegiance to render to God what is God's. Let the church be liberated from a false allegiance to ideological pluralism and liberated for the great ends for which it was created—to glorify God and bear a redeeming witness to the world.
James R. Edwards is professor of religion at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more