Thursday, May 14, 2015

Real Unity Must Be Grounded In Real Truth

How many times have we heard this narrative? The church needs to "get with the times", stop being so stodgy and primitive and start being more "affirming" and "nuanced". We are "alienating people" and being so judgmental which drives them away. We have to ditch the certainty, the claims of absolute truth, get rid of the "patriarchy" and "homophobia" to welcome people, we have to stop talking about sin and God's righteousness and focus on "love" and "forgiveness", as if we can talk about some without the others.

I will answer my own question. We have heard it a lot, and the clamor is growing louder. We hear it from megachurch "pastors", we hear it from "Red Letter Christians", we hear it from religious bloggers and authors like Rachel Held Evans. It is getting to the point where, if you only base your understanding of where the church is today based on popular media outlets you might assume that the only safe place for Christians is a church that stands for nothing.

That would seem true if you weren't really paying attention because the opposite is happening. One after another we have watched denominations bleed people and die. Some are still hanging around because of institutional inertia but they are dead nonetheless and while they have been dying a slow death of a thousands compromising cuts, the fatal blow is often the embrace and normalization of deviant sexual practices hidden behind the false piety of obfuscating religious language like "affirming". In spite of the clear historical record on this question, not to mention the historic teaching of the church and the clear revelation on this topic in Scripture, there remain those who insist that compromise is the only way to save the church. Case in point a recent article by Ted Grimsrud, The "end" of the Mennonite Church USA. Ted is a smart guy and some of his writing on non-resistance is quite good but on this issue he has allowed his desire for "peacemaking" to morph into something quite different. Ted writes:
I suspect that if Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) is in its final days, at least as the institution we have known these past 15 years (and I sincerely hope it’s not), it might be in large part because of lack of clarity about its purpose. And this lack of clarity about purpose has made it much more difficult for leadership in the denomination to find ways to negotiate recent controversies and pressures.
What he is really talking about, although not obvious from that paragraph, is the raging controversy in the MC USA over the issue of the normalization of homosexual behavior. It is an all too common conversation in "mainline" denominations, and that is really what the MC USA is, a virtually indistinguishable part of the "progressive" wing of the church with a few historic oddities thrown in. As an interested observer of all things Anabaptist I have kept an eye on what has been going on here and it seems that further schism is inevitable. It is heart-breaking, not least because it is a completely avoidable situation.

Let me state clearly for the record that the schisms we see over and over again in mainline groups are not being caused by those awful homophobic "conservatives", rather the schisms are the doing of those who have decided in the course of a decade or so that an issue that was a settled matter in Scripture and in the church across the spectrum was suddenly going to be reversed to coincide with a change in cultural attitudes. It is those who demand normalization of sin and the muzzling of those who would rightly point it out as sin that are the catalysts for schism. Case in point from Grimsrud's essay:
Clearly the issue is not “homosexuality” or LGBTQ Mennonites and their friends who are simply trying to remain part of a church and a tradition that they identify with. The problem, I’d suggest, is more that some Mennonites have not learned how to respect and live with difference and other Mennonites have not learned to let those who can’t live with differences self-select themselves out of the fellowship.
Actual it is pretty clear that the issue is homosexuality and the attempt by some to force acceptance of something that has never been acceptable behavior in the church or society. Note the language being used here. Those who hold to the same position that the church has held for millennia are now being told to shut up about it or to "self-select themselves out of the fellowship ". That is the epitome of the sort of intentionally vague language that gives us terms like "micro-aggression" and "privilege" but what it means is "shut up or get out". It is the segment of the church that holds to the age old teachings that are now being informed that there is no room for them at the table unless they muzzle themselves but in a bitterly ironic twist they are also the people being labeled divisive and intolerant.

What is missing here from the conversation, as is so often the case, is how deeply unmoored this discussion is from the historic belief and practice of Anabaptism. One of the core teachings of Anabaptism as expressed in the Schleitheim Confession is "the Ban" on those who are recognized as part of the church but have fallen into sin. They are not "affirmed" or "given space", they are excluded from fellowship and the comfort of the Lord's Table in keeping with 1 Corinthians 5. This is done in love and with the hope of restoration but it was done. Now we are told that the only way to keep the Mennonite Church USA together is to functionally enforce the Ban on those who do not embrace sinful behavior. This is not simply a modification of the Ban but flipping the Ban on its head. Now I recognize, from personal experience, that there can be a tendency to over-enforce the Ban and start lumping in stuff that is not clear cut sin (like specifics on attire, etc.) and you can see some great conversations on this on Dwight Gingrich's blog, most recently in this post: “The Holy Scriptures Must Be Our Ruling Standards”. Having said that the employment of boundaries in the church, as un-PC as that might be, is as old as the church itself and the occasional abuse of the practice does not negate the need for it. Based on our current climate I would say the need is greater than ever.

1 Corinthians 5 is not talking about being intolerant, it is specifically dealing with open sin in the church and sin of a sexually deviant nature, "a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans". A man having sexual relations with a man or a woman with a woman would certainly be understood to fall into this sort of fellowship excluding sin. What Grimsrud and others are demanding is that the church set this aside and instead enforce the rule that the only transgression worthy of being removed from the church is recognizing as sin what the Bible and the church have always defined as sin.

We cannot "save the church", assuming for a second that the church needs saving, which it does not, by creating a unity based on abandonment of truth. Unity is critical, it is non-negotiable, it is a command of Christ but nowhere in the Scriptures can we read and come away with the notion that unity is only possible when truth itself is abandoned. We need to strive for unity within the church, across the various legitimate traditions and streams of the Christian faith, in more than just word but in deed, but we can never unify the church around a lie.

1 comment:

Aussie John said...


Far too often it is forgotten that unity is in Christ. In other words it is unity in the common position we enjoy indwelt by His Spirit.

It is not manufactured by human means, as so many appear to be convinced.

Unanimity is not unity!