Reflecting back on some of the reactions I got about Church in Crisis, and also to my “Wielding a Serrated Edge with Care,” I’ve realized that there are three questions that have to be carefully distinguished in dealing with this issue: 1) How do we respond to gays? 2) How do we respond to Christians and churches that are not responding to gays properly (e.g., are ordaining them)? 3) How should Churches respond to churches that are not responding to gays properly? It’s the relationship of the latter two that I particularly want to clarify here.
As for the first question, O’Donovan certainly touches on this issue a fair amount, and I think he is generally on the mark--as far as treating it like any other sin, preaching the Gospel with sympathy, etc. As Donny has suggested, we need to be careful that in speaking and listening sympathetically, we don’t omit Biblical word of judgment, but I think O’Donovan says this clearly at various points as well.
The second question is the one I was primarily addressing in my “Wielding a Serrated Edge with Care” (though, of course, I wasn’t addressing simply the gay issue). This is a question about Christian charity, not about homosexuality, or about church unity. It is the question that must be answered by ordinary Christians in pews, and by church leaders, denominational leaders, and denominations themselves about other denominations, over which they have no jurisdiction. That is the difficulty of Protestantism, of course--there may well be a church discipline issue here, but 95% of fellow Protestants are in no position to adjudicate on it. The PCA, and indeed the LCMS, cannot decide what disciplinary action the ELCA should take towards its churches. It can express an opinion about what it would do in like circumstances (an opinion that should be constructively, rather than destructively worded), but that’s it. To do otherwise would be like my parents deciding how my friends ought to be disciplined. The PCA, and indeed, the LCMS, certainly cannot decide what disciplinary action should be taken against the ELCA itself, or against TEC. To attempt to do so would be like my parents deciding how my friends’ parents ought to be disciplined.
Given the current situation of Protestantism, most church leaders and even denominations do not have a position of authority from which to enact judgments upon churches and denominations that may need judgment upon them. They can only speak as ordinary Christians to erring Christian brothers--admonishing them from the Word, and seeking to pursue single-mindedness with them. What they cannot do is say, “Well, heck...this church ought to be excommunicated, and no one’s doing it, so I’ll just personally excommunicate them...decide that I’m not going to treat them like Christians anymore.”
No, we can’t do that. We can’t decide that the local Episcopal Church is no longer Christian because they ordained a homosexual, and so we won’t treat them as Christian anymore. We may confront them, but we confront them as brothers, not as pagans.
This point could be summed up as “If your brothers are misbehaving, remember that they’re your brothers, not your children.” Now, this question is not part of O’Donovan’s discussion, because he is working in a Protestant communion that still has sufficient institutional unity that it can ask, “How shall we discipline erring churches in our own midst?”
O’Donovan is thus interested in addressing the third question--how should a Church (that is, a body like the Anglican Communion) respond to individual member churches (or member denominations, like TEC) that have taken unbiblical action regarding homosexuals (and other matters)? Since O’Donovan deals with this at some length (as I am still working through), I just want to address one crucial issue that is lurking in the background that he doesn’t address, an issue which we all too often take for granted.
If church discipline is what is called for in this situation, what does that look like? What does church discipline mean on a massive scale? In the New Testament, of course, we have no testimony as to what church schisms on a large scale might look like; what we do have is a fair bit of instruction and some examples about how individual sinners in the church should be disciplined. The Church, from these passages, has been able to develop a fairly complete and Biblically grounded set of procedures to use in reprimanding and if necessary excommunicating unrepentant sinners. In recent centuries, Christians have been quite ready to apply the paradigms of excommunication on a grand scale, excommunicating not only entire congregations, but entire groups of churches, or even denominations. I almost said “Protestants have been quite ready...” but then, it is only fair to note that they learned this strategy from the late medieval papacy, and from the acts of the Reformation-era popes that created Protestantism by means of such mass excommunications.
Now, my question is, can this application be so easily made? Is rebuking and excommunicating an unrepentant congregation or a group of unrepentant congregations really the same sort of thing as rebuking and excommunicating a single unrepentant sinner?
There are at least three very important differences that I can think of. First, the larger-scale action, in addition to multiplying all the other risks that excommunication on a smaller level involves, risks severely harming the unity of the Church. The judgment may be wrong, in which case, unnecessary and potentially harmful schism has occurred; but even if the judgment is right, such a decision may have devastating repercussions that break fellowship even among those who are united in the truth. Second, while I am the last to deny the reality of corporate sin, and corporate responsibility for sin, it seems dangerous to apply a tool as severe as excommunication to a large group of people, only some of whom may be guilty. It is as if a father committed murder and his whole family were sentenced to death. Can we really unchurch a whole congregation, even if there be ten righteous within it? Or a whole body of churches, even if there be ten righteous churches within it? This seems a very cavalier way to proceed. Third, the point of excommunication is to invite repentance and restored fellowship. When someone is truly cut off and alone, this is often effective. But when it happens on a massive corporate level, the cut-off body are likely to seek solace and solidarity in one another, rather than to be moved to repentance and restoration. Instead of being simply unchurched, they are likely to simply consider themselves a separate denomination, and go their merry way, and then proceed to confuse fellow Christians and the world about what is and isn’t the Church.
So, while it may be quite true that The Episcopal Church has crossed an important line that warrants disciplinary action by the Communion, it is far from clear how such discipline ought to be exercised. We simply have no good precedents for it--there are plenty of bad precedents, like medieval popes excommunicating whole nations when their kings were disobedient, or like the Presbyterian Church kicking out 30% of its member churches in 1837--but no clear precedents we’d like to follow. Many are loudly shouting, “Kick them out! Discipline them! Cut them off!” but we need to say “Hold on! How? Is there a Biblical and helpful way to do this?” And saying that does not mean you’re being soft and wimpy on the sin, as lots of conservatives seem to think. It is merely to recognize that the Church has never satisfactorily developed any clear understanding of how church discipline should function on a large, institutional scale, and the Bible provides very limited guidance. Such an understanding must be reached before we can even begin to decide how institutions like the Anglican Communion should respond to serious sins like those in TEC. And that’s the discussion we need to be having, but which seems to be almost entirely neglected in the current debate.