Fire? No. Repentance? Yes.
April 20, 2015
Recently Pastor Scott Sauls of Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville posted an open letter of sorts to his fellow Christians. In it he expresses sorrow over a column by the New York Times’ Frank Bruni which predicts a coming collision between Christians and homosexuals. Of course, the collision is already taking place. It is Bruni’s conviction that the Bible’s prohibition against homosexual sex is bigotry and that Christians must be made to abandon what the Bible teaches about sexual ethics. In his article Bruni quotes Matthew Vines as a reliable source on Biblical exegesis, something Mr. Vines certainly is not. The point is that Frank Bruni is not out to discover the truth. He is committed to calling Christians to abandon whole portions of the Bible and identifying as bigots all those who do not. I do not think Mr. Bruni would blush at such a description.
I have never met Scott Sauls. But he is my brother in Christ and a fellow pastor in the PCA. I have no reason to doubt that he is anything but a decent man who loves Jesus. What is more, there are things in Scott’s post with which I’m sure all Christians can agree. But I am troubled by its vagaries and what I believe are a series of false choices. In this time when we are in the midst of massive social change regarding sexual ethics, marriage, and human identity we owe the world clarity about what the Scriptures teach. Additionally, those of us who are pastors owe the church something far more robust than vague or sentimental notions of what it means to love sinners.
The following are a few thoughts that came to mind as I read Scott’s post.
1. I see more love.
Perhaps Pastor Sauls and I serve in very different places but he seems to see much more hate within the church than do I. As far as I know my heart I am not being unduly cheery. In fact, optimism is not something I am known for. But I am grateful for the fact that the church I serve welcomes all sinners (including me!). In fact I know men and women who struggle with same sex attraction who have been received graciously and called to holiness within our fellowship.
Scott admonishes Christians to cease calling down fire from heaven upon homosexuals. While I certainly do not deny that there are Christians who harbor hatred in their hearts toward sinners of various stripes I think the example of Christians pleading for the death of homosexuals is quite small. I grew up in a very conservative Southern Baptist church but never once heard the sorts of things that Scott seems to be attributing to those rascally “fundamentalists”.
Scott’s examples of such behavior are the hapless Pat Robertson and the strange little Baptist cult in Topeka, KS once led by the late Fred Phelps. This tiny group (made up mostly of Phelps family members) tends to make headlines for their grotesque and universally condemned behavior. For Scott to call Christians to apologize for the behavior of the Phelps cult seems akin to asking responsible surgeons to apologize for the behavior of a witch doctor. It simply does not mean anything.
2. It is our doctrine, not our style which is the problem.
The real problem the activist core driving the homosexual agenda has with the church is not its style of communication but its doctrine. It won’t matter how many times we say, “We love you,” so long as we refuse to obliterate the Scripture’s prohibition against homosexual sex. We must continue to declare and demonstrate our love for all people including homosexuals. However, let us not be so naïve as to believe that by doing so we will quell the violence in the hearts of those who demand we celebrate their sin.
It is interesting that Scott begins his post by referencing Frank Bruni’s article wherein the New York Times columnist states that Christians must be made to abandon their belief that homosexuality is a sin. Mere tolerance is not and never has been the desire of unrepentant sinners. Only whole-hearted approval will satisfy. And that is the one thing Christians cannot accommodate. Our doctrine is the problem.
3. Let us not accept the world’s redefinition of human identity.
I could certainly be wrong but Pastor Sauls seems to accept “LGBT” as a category of personal identity. I am NOT saying he approves of homosexual behavior. The last thing I read from Pastor Sauls on the topic made it clear that he upholds the biblical prohibition on homosexual acts. That is a good thing. However, I am concerned that the church has ceded too much ground to the world in regard to personhood. That is, many Christians are granting that gay, bisexual, transgender etc. are proper categories of human identity. The Bible however categorizes homosexuality only as a sinful behavior never an ontology. The move to accept gay, lesbian, or transgender as identities will inevitably lead to the acceptance of the behavior. After all, once we grant that a person is gay, how can we then deny him the right to be gay?
Make no mistake. The world’s redefinition of the self is an attempt to dethrone God as Creator. It is man’s attempt to be who he is apart from what God has designed and decreed. We do not love well those struggling with homosexual lust by granting to them an identity which is contrary to the design and will of God.
4. Let us not be unequally yoked to unbelievers.
Scott makes reference to Shane Windemeyer’s surprising friendship with Dan Cathy. Windemeyer, a homosexual, was shocked to find that Cathy a Christian who believes what Christians have always believed about homosexuality is not in fact a hater or bigot. Indeed, this is true of the vast majority of Christians. Their commitment to biblical sexual ethics springs from love for God not hate for homosexuals.
However, I wonder how the church can follow Scott’s prescription for partnerships. How would he define the limits (if any) of such partnerships? Certainly we are to have connections to unbelievers. Jesus and the apostles demonstrated this for us. Woe to us if we do not befriend and build relationships with unbelievers! I rejoice every time a church member introduces me to an unbelieving friend. I praise God for this.
However the same Scriptures which call us to reach out to the unbelieving also commands us to not be unequally yoked to them. Did Jesus or the apostles ever find common cause with unbelievers? What common cause will we find with anyone who finds our beliefs offensive and even dangerous? How long will we be able to partner with homosexuals on a given project before we feel it necessary to call them out of their sin which damns their souls and destroys their bodies?
5. Jesus said things that made sinners uncomfortable (and worse).
Scott points out Jesus’ practice of attending gatherings which at times got him in trouble with the self-righteous religionists of the day. Of course we must be very careful to point out that Jesus never blessed sin. Jesus never had an ambivalent posture toward sin. Indeed the gospel accounts make clear that Jesus went about calling sinners to repent. There were times when the crowds, scandalized by Jesus’ teaching, abandoned him in droves. So we must be very careful to not construct an ethical framework entirely on the fact that Jesus went to a party at Levi’s house or allowed a woman of ill repute to wash his feet. He was God incarnate after all.
Pastor Sauls makes a statement that left me puzzled. He writes: “Another thing we Christians must accept is that Jesus never once scolded or shamed a person whose sexual ethic was incongruent with his.” This simply is not true. When Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman at the well he named her sexual sin. This was no doubt rather humiliating for the woman who was well aware of her reputation. She even tried to quickly change the subject. It is a humiliating thing for any sinner to be confronted with their sin (I know this firsthand). Humility, after all, is essential for repentance. I suppose I just don’t know where Scott is going with this line of reasoning. I hope he is not suggesting that Christians cease calling homosexuals to turn away from their sin.
After all, this is about more than “incongruent” sexual ethics. Do we still believe that homosexuality is a sin as damning as all sins? Do we believe that homosexuality still belongs in the biblical lists of damning sins like drunkenness, adultery, fornication, greed, murder, orgies and the like? Or has our granting the status of personal identity to the sin of homosexuality so clouded our judgment that we are no longer able to identify it as a damning and profoundly damaging sin?
6. Speaking the truth is love.
Pastor Sauls writes: “Paul also modeled this approach when he insisted that it is not Christians’ job to judge those outside the church. It is kindness, not ethical scoldings or lectures, that leads people to repentance.” That is a statement that could use some clarifying. Does Sauls view any mention of the Bible’s prohibition against homosexual acts as “scolding” or “lectures”? Do we not tell the adulterer to abandon his adultery and the liar her lying? Does doing so constitute a violation of love or is it an expression of love?
It is a sadly misguided practice to be silent in calling sinners out of their sin supposing to do so is unloving. I don’t think Pastor Sauls is recommending such a course. However, the problem is that I am not sure. For instance, if he were a part of, say, the PCUSA I would assume that he was pressing for the normalization of homosexuality. And this is perhaps the biggest problem with his post. It is too vague.
The souls of men and women are at stake. Certainly we must meet sinners with kindness and compassion. We must remember that we are saved sinners whose only hope is the mercy of a sovereign and gracious God. Thankfully I see a great deal of kindness in the church. But I do not understand how being silent or even unclear about a sin that the Bible holds forth as particularly damaging could be construed as kind or loving.