Sunday, October 19, 2008

Separation from the world -- in an unexpected sense

Recently the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, one of the most conservative theologically around the nation, seceded from the American Episcopal Church and allied with another part of the Anglican Communion based in the more traditionalist "Global South." By numerous accounts, the break occurred because the American church has abandoned basic biblical doctrines, most notably when it consecrated an overtly homosexual bishop.

I sympathize with that view, even though I'm not Anglican -- I'm Presbyterian by nurture (though today I attend a church in a more conservative denomination), and that branch of Christendom has also struggled with similar issues among its clergy. Anyway, focusing on homosexuality can miss the point.

When the Bible speaks against homosexual conduct, only a half-dozen times, it does so only in the context that it's something in which God's people do not participate. Ancient Israel was certainly a minority in the known world of that day; He called it out from among the nations to demonstrate who He was, and it is for that reason that biblical law existed. The same goes for the greater church today -- while we Christians aren't obligated to follow much of the Old Testament law, the overall concept of "holiness," which refers to an attitude of being set apart for His purposes, still applies. For that reason alone, it's entirely appropriate to bar active homosexuals not only from church leadership but also from membership. (Some have asked why Jesus never spoke about homosexuality. He didn't have to -- the Jewish people in first-century Palestine weren't practicing it, at least openly.)

However, since Christianity, which started out as an insurgent movement within Judaism and was originally persecuted from all sides, has become the predominant religion in the Western world, there was always the danger of having the strong demands of the Gospel watered down for the sake of popularity. Some would say that started with the emperor Constantine's adoption of Christianity for what were often considered political purposes, and not even the Protestant Reformation -- which was as much about power politics as recapturing the historic Christian faith -- escaped compromise with the world's way of thinking.

So what does this have to do with gays in the church? Well, if it weren't such a huge part of Western establishment culture, with many of them even growing up in some congregation, they would have no incentive to think about coming in. The real problem, therefore, is that joining a church is a fairly easy process in most cases, with little (if any) examination of personal doctrine and conduct -- just say the right words and you'll be approved. As a result, such things as divorce, sexual relations outside of marriage, greed, slander, gluttony, racism and other sins noted in the Scripture are rampant even in "conservative" churches -- but they simply don't raise outrage the way homosexuality does.

An excellent book I picked up several years ago was Ron Sider's "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?". I don't know if Sider intended to throw the phrase "the Rest of" in the title, but we shouldn't be like the world at all because our LORD calls us to be distinct. Sider wrote correctly, "We would almost certainly strengthen the church if we made if harder to join." Perhaps pastors should preach sermons that drive away everyone except those who really mean business with God -- yeah, some churches might close in the process, but God can certainly use a "remnant."

Though some have questioned the motives of the diocese -- I personally know some people who were highly critical of the bishop's maneuverings -- in leaving, I understand the overall idea. It's not about highlighting certain sins as particularly heinous; rather, it's about maintaining basic standards so that the church can carry out the mission of not only telling but showing the Good News of Jesus Christ. That said, however, Christians should never use truth as a battering ram to maintain cultural authority, so let's not pick on any group of people who aren't professing Christians just because they're not acting like Christians.

No comments: