After the presentation of the nine (or eight) theses given in the previous post, I received an email from one of the participants, which voiced concern about sacrificing righteousness for the sake of unity. This gave me the opportunity to clarify my thoughts in a lengthy response, which I shall post here in two segments. Here's the first, much longer section:
First of all, then, I think you are mischaracterizing my position when you speak of it as a willingness to sacrifice righteousness for the sake of unity. In fact, I think it is deeply problematic to articulate the problem in these terms. I do not think we should set up two poles, righteousness and unity, and play them off against each other in a kind of zero-sum game. Properly understood, neither is possible without the other. Our unity in Christ through one table, one Spirit, one baptism, is the only possible basis for righteousness--a house divided against itself cannot stand. Only as we are nourished by the common life of the body of Christ are we enabled to pursue righteousness and purity, to grow up into maturity, into the fullness of Christ. A purity of individuals or sects that holds aloof from the common table of the Body is no true purity. Likewise, unity that is not founded upon Christ’s gift of justification and sanctification to his people, which does not unite us in a common commitment to and pursuit of holiness, is not Christian unity; at best it is cooperation and compromise, which, while occasionally valuable in their proper place, cannot be the foundation of the Christian Church.
But of course, things are more complicated than this, because both unity and purity exist in the tension of the already/not yet. We certainly know this to be the case with purity. We have all been washed, we have all been sanctified, the whole Church bears Christ’s name and is robed in His righteousness. And yet, we wear the robe badly, and our own soiled garments underneath often peek through, so we must constantly strive to cleanse ourselves and one another. As we seek to grow in purity, however, we must remember that what counts above all is the commitment to strive; we are all riddled with sin in our various ways, and so the presence of actual sin in our midst, while it must never go unconfronted, is an inevitable feature of our pilgrimage. Likewise, we are not called upon to create unity--we already are one in Christ--all who have been baptized in his name, who listen to his word and eat around His table. Unity is a starting point, not a destination. And yet, of course, we cannot rest secure in this; just as we are simul justus et peccator, we are simul unus et divisus. We must patiently strive to overcome these divisions in love, and sometimes, when they are severe enough, they may be beyond our ability to overcome, but never God’s. When our efforts fail, we await God’s action to restore the alienated party to oneness of mind or else, perhaps to cut it off and kill it for the life of the body. But we must remember that this latter, fearful act of judgment is ultimately God’s, not ours; even when excommunication is pronounced, it is not so much a putting of someone outside the fellowship of the body, as a recognition that they have already put themselves outside and must therefore be called to repentance.
Probably you agree with all this, but my point is simply to say that I do not want us to act as if we find ourselves standing on some neutral ground and weighing before us two alternatives--righteousness and unity. Rather, we find ourselves already in unity, and called to maintain it and pursue it, while also growing in righteousness, a task that requires naming and rebuking the sins in our midst--something that is part of the task of unity, rather than opposed to it. Ephesians 4 and 5 seem to me to be a wonderful statement of this simultaneous reality of and call toward unity and purity in the Church. Paul demands both, and the key for achieving this is love (4:2, 16).
So my concern is to discern what forms this pursuit of righteousness takes within a body that is inescapably unified.
Before going on, I should flesh out what seems to me an implication of us being “inescapably unified”:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26)
That is to say, at one level, we do not have a choice as to whether to be “contaminated” by a particular sin in the Body--we already are. If certain branches of the Church are practicing or condoning serious sin, then the whole Church suffers, and the whole Church, in a sense, bears responsibility. This notion of corporate responsibility is clear in the Bible, as in your example of Israel in the wilderness, where the whole is often held responsible for the sins of the many. We can learn from the example of great Old Testament leaders like Nehemiah and Daniel, who both pray to God confessing the sins of Israel--sins which are not theirs (see Neh. 1, Dan. 9). They recognized that the whole people of God bore responsibility for the sins of the people, even those who had not personally taken part. So, I think it is first of all important that conservative Christians acknowledge our “participation” in the sins of more liberal churches, a participation that exists whether or not we remain in outward fellowship with them. This is of course not to say that “Oh, we’re all tainted already, we might as well sin boldly now.” Obviously, we can always fall more deeply into sin, and a concern to avoid being led astray may require an attenuated fellowship with serious sinners; but we should be under no illusions that we can purify ourselves of all stain by picking and choosing our brothers in Christ.
Mere fellowship with a sinner, then, does not constitute sin. Dishonest fellowship--fellowship which tries to ignore sin--does constitute sin. If I believe a fellow Christian is in serious sin, then I must (prudently, patiently, and charitably, to be sure, but firmly) let him know that I think so, but then I can, and indeed must, continue to fellowship with him as long as he is willing to let me. If he is hardened in his sin and wants nothing of my advice, our communion will likely be severed, despite my continuing attempts to reach out to him. But if he is willing to listen to me, even though he may disagree and is convinced that his actions are defensible, then I should remain in fellowship with him, and indeed, attempt to discern whether I cannot learn something from him, while still maintaining an uncompromising opposition to what I see to be sinful.
With the current chaos about homosexuality in the Church, I certainly do not want to call on Christians to put their hands over their mouths, look the other way, and pretend like nothing is wrong. That would be sacrificing righteousness for the sake of unity. By all means, we must maintain a faithful and fearless witness to the truth (though, I would add, whenever possible we must do this in charity and patience, with particular concern for the well-intentioned weaker brother, rather than unnecessarily alienating and dividing by fire-and-brimstone rhetoric). But this action, this standing up for righteousness, is not an action against unity, but is rather a call to unity in Christ in the midst of a house divided. Why then should this stand be an act of division? “Divisions will come, but woe to the one through whom they come,” as O’Donovan says. If an individual, or a church, or even a denomination, makes a stand for righteousness, then, no matter how charitably they do it, divisions will come. But let the unrighteous be the ones who break fellowship, not the righteous. Why not say, “This is Christ’s Church, and we are worshipping Christ, so by golly, we’re not going anywhere unless you throw us out!” This, it seems to me, is the general pattern of how the faithful in Israel resisted the widespread unfaithfulness of the people of God in the Old Covenant, and in the New Covenant, we are summoned to even greater charity, patience, and faith that God will defend his Church.
Now, though I feel strongly about this, perhaps there are cases where a separation is necessary. But is homosexuality really that point? I do not want to minimize the sin, but certainly, there are worse ones--blasphemy and idolatrous worship being near the top of the list.
When talking about the practice and condoning of homosexuality, it seems to me that we have to be careful about discerning two different phenomena. One is the product of a deep-seated rejection of the Bible’s authority and rebellion against God, which may manifest itself in a high-handed contempt for God’s word or else in a hypocrisy hidden underneath a veneer of piety and faith. This kind of sin is utterly destructive, and must be resisted fiercely (though still with the aim of bringing the erring brother or leader to repentance). This, I take it, is the sort of sin that Paul warns against in 2 Tim. 3 and Ephesians 5 (Titus 3, the other passage you cited, seems to be a warning not so much against the impure, as the divisive, and so would support my concerns more than yours, though, as I have been arguing, the two cannot be separated). If a Church leader has a person like this in his flock, he must discipline him; if a leader himself is like this, the leaders to whom he is accountable have the responsibility to remove him. If proper disciplinary action is not being taken, then fellow-believers may need to shun the sinner, even while still holding the promise of fellowship if repentance occurs.
Then there is the Christian who practices or condones homosexuality while genuinely desiring to serve God and build up the Church. These exist--I have met them. And it should be no surprise to us that they exist, because within our own circles, there are well-intentioned Christian leaders with huge moral blind spots (e.g., I would suggest about war and greed--more on that below). Now, with folks like this, more patience is necessary--a willingness to work toward common understanding while refusing to compromise on allegiance to Christ and His Word. If this “well-intentioned” sinner is a fellow layman, then patient instruction, dialogue, and occasionally rebuke is in order. If he is a church leader, then for one’s own sake or one’s family’s, it may be prudent to find a different church home, but the leader and his congregation should not be shunned. If you are a leader, in the position to discipline a layman or clergyman sinning in this way, then formal disciplinary action may prove necessary, but should not be your first resort. If we cannot learn to distinguish this latter kind of sinner from the former, and to address him in patience and love, with a willingness to learn and repent of our own errors, then we are not being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ep. 4:3)
It occurred to me after reading your email that perhaps there is a problem with our readiness to invoke Paul’s exhortations to shunning and excommunication in the current context. There’s two reasons. First of all, my main concern has not been to say, “How should church leaders address the sins, homosexual or otherwise, of those under their authority?” Obviously they should address them, by instructing, rebuking, and if necessary, formal discipline. This is what I would call the vertical dimension. My main concern has been to address the horizontal, and perhaps what we might call the “reverse-vertical” dimensions--that is to say, how does the believer who is not in authority over an erring brother (or the church which is not in authority over an erring sister-church) engage him (horizontal dimension), and how does he engage an erring leader (reverse-vertical dimension)? So, of course the Bishop of Edinburgh ought to do his job and refuse to ordain the homosexual curate; but, given that he didn’t do his job, what’s my job? Do I take it upon myself to “un-ordain” him? Do I still accept that he is a leader in the Church? If not, do I still accept that he is a brother in the Church? How should other churches treat him, and treat the Bishop who ordained him? How should other denominations? These are the questions that are vexing me. This is not a matter of tolerating unrighteousness for the sake of unity, but simply a matter of discerning the appropriate and lawful means to resist unrighteousness. I can strongly believe that a thief should be imprisoned, but that does not mean that I have the right to seize him, convict him, and lock him up in my basement for ten years.
Now, I do not deny that there is a time and a place for “horizontal” or “reverse-vertical” judgment, in which a believer or a congregation must withdraw the right hand of fellowship from those in gross sin, but even in such cases, should we not act with great fear and trembling, and praying that such a break of fellowship may be a very temporary meausure?
Second, however, it seems that even for those leaders responsible to exercise discipline, like Rowan Williams in the Anglican Communion, Paul’s exhortations cannot always be carried over so easily in our setting. For leaders of small house-churches, or even men like Titus or Timothy, who seem to have been responsible for overseeing quite a few churches, discipline is a personal, relational, face-to-face action. Practiced this way, excommunication can be quite effective. However, to lop off a whole branch of the Church, containing thousands of churches and millions of members, both faithful and unfaithful (the sort of action many conservatives are clamoring for today), does not work the same way. Obviously, the sheep must be cared for and protected from wolves, but turning the whole flock loose is not the way to do it. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what exactly is the way to do it, but clearly, it is complicated, and requires great discernment and patience. For this reason, I want us to be less hasty to condemn leaders who are struggling to address the problem.