“Because I do not love you? God knows I do!”
(2 Corinthians 11:11)
There are growing signs that the ecclesial weather is changing and our churches are not prepared.
As the broader culture becomes more insistent about its moral narrative, Churches have become less certain. Universities, media personalities, and political representatives vocalise a secular righteousness with increasing confidence, while ecclesial leaders pray that kicking the can down the street will do the trick.
Last Sunday I preached on 2 Corinthians ch.10 at Mentone. The Church in Corinth was known as an ‘inclusive’ community: they had welcomed ‘false apostles’ into their midst and they had accepted members who followed the sexual ethics of the city. The Apostle Paul responded by pointing out that their accommodation didn’t strengthen Christian unity and witness, but rather they had caused significant harm to both these things. As he later exclaims, “you put up with it easily enough” (11:5).
The Apostle takes a very different posture to the one we are seeing many clergy adopt in the current climate. Instead of moral silence, Paul speaks up. Instead of accommodating heterodox ideas, Paul tackles them. He also explains his motivation for speaking up and calling out bad ideas; he wants to see the church built up (v.8) and the Gospel grow out (vv.15-16). He isn’t driven by bigotry and narrow mindedness, it is love that galvanises him into action. Paul loves the Corinthians too much to simply hand her over to divisive and destructive ideas. For the Apostle, such de facto fellowship contradicts the identity of the local church,
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17)
Over the past month, there have been developments regarding how Christian Churches in Australia are handling the issue of same-sex marriages. While the outcomes are yet to be determined, the signs are ominous and Christian denominations across the nation must discuss and decide how they are going to respond.
The initial incident relates to the Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta. The Anglican Communion in Australia formally holds to the classical understanding of marriage. There are, however, some who wish to navigate around this by instituting ‘blessing ceremonies’ for same sex couples. In August, the Wangaratta synod voted to permit same sex blessing ceremonies for couples who have been married (67 in favour, 18 against, and one abstention). Retiring Bishop John Parkes led the way in calling for his Diocese to support the practice.
The Primate, Archbishop Philip Frier, responded to concerns raised among numerous Anglicans across Australia by referring the matter to the Appellate Tribunal. It is believed that this process may take many months, and the outcome is less than certain. Archbishop Frier asked that Wangaratta refrain from using their newly adopted service until after the Tribunal has looked into the case. Bishop Parkes subsequently agreed to delay, although I believe some kind of ceremony still proceeded over the weekend, following the very public wedding of two male Anglican priests.
Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral and member of GAFCON Council, Australia, Rev Kanishka Raffel, referred to the move in Wangaratta as apostasy, the formal walking away from the faith. He asked, how can one bless (in God’s name) something God does not bless? Indeed, how can one invoke the name of Jesus for a union that Christ opposes?
The Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, noted parallels with the situation in Canada which gave rise to the breaking of the global Anglican Communion,
“The circumstances of this event are reminiscent of the actions of the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada in 2003. It is now universally acknowledged that those events were the beginning of the ‘tear in the fabric of the Anglican Communion’. Moreover, to claim the authority of our Church to carry out a service of blessing contrary to the biblical view of marriage and the doctrine of our Church will certainly fracture the Anglican Church of Australia.”
What will Churches decide?
We need to appreciate that this is not a merely theoretical or hypothetical question. No Christian denomination or Church in Australia can afford to play dodge ball with the marriage issue. As far as I can see, there are only three options available for churches and denominations: choose capitulation, accommodation, or faithfulness.
Most Christian associations will reject the first option. The second, however, is finding traction among some associations. For example, this was the approach adopted by the Uniting Church. But of course, accommodation is in reality just a politically correct and ultimately dishonest way of capitulating to the new sexual narrative. It demonstrates that either we don’t know what the biblical understanding of marriage is or that we don’t believe it’s so important that agreement is necessary for Christian fellowship and unity. It is this disingenuous compromise position that some Anglicans are also advocating.
Doing nothing is not a solution. To ultimately decide on inaction is a form of accommodation. In Victoria, at least one same sex wedding has already been conducted in a Baptist Union Church. There are at least a few Baptist Churches that have either already sanctioned same sex blessing services or are considering them. Further, recent events have once again demonstrated that there are clergy and churches who have no intention of giving up their cause. Davidould.net last week revealed the public stance of yet another Church, St John’s Toorak,
“We deeply regret that at the present time, it is not legally possible for Anglican clergy to conduct marriage services for couples of the same sex. We look forward to the day when we will be able to do so. Until this legal problem is addressed, however, the clergy of St. John’s would be pleased to welcome any couple, including couples of the same sex, to have a service for the blessing of their marriage, including a renewal of vows, following a legal marriage conducted by a celebrant licensed to do so.”
Over the weekend the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle Dr Peter Stuart publicised intent to begin practising same-sex blessings, following approval by the Synod. In his letter he explained,
“Conversations about human sexuality
There is no doubt that these ‘Private Members’ Bills will cause anguish to some in the Diocesan community as well as being a cause of celebration for others. In a real way the debate that has being underway in the Anglican Communion for over 20 years, and is a very current debate in the Anglican Church of Australia, will be a live debate in the formal processes of our Diocese. Our engagement with and response to LGBTIQ+ Anglicans has been actively discussed for some time.
The Doctrine Commission of the General Synod has published a series of essays as part of this conversation (https://anglican.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Marriage-Doctrine-Essays-Final.pdf)
I shared with the clergy recently a summary of the main standpoints of Anglicans that has been workshopped by Bishops Stephen Pickard and Michael Stead –
1. The church should exclude those with LGB identity because it is a sin
2.The church should encourage a person to repent of LGB identity and seek to live as a heterosexual
3.The church should fully and unreservedly welcome people who are LGB, but expect them to live in singleness and abstinence
4. The church should fully and unreservedly welcome LGB couples who live a celibate life
5.The church should fully and unreservedly welcome LGB couples who live in a legally
recognised civil relationship/same-sex marriage
6. The church should endorse a liturgy to bless the marriage/relationship of LGB couples
7. The church should solemnise LBG marriages as a religious marriage
All of these views are expressed within our Diocesan family and will be present within the Synod.I have written previously to the Synod about my experience of the National Meeting of Bishops. I am looking forward to Bishop Pickard assisting the Synod frame this significant conversation.
The Primate has already referred a similar regulation to
Blessing of Persons Married According to the Marriage Act Regulation 2019 from the Diocese of Wangaratta to the Appellate Tribunal. Should our Synod pass this regulation and/or the Clergy Discipline Ordinance of 1966 Amending
Ordinance 2019 it is likely, and to be welcomed, that the Primate would refer them also to the Appellate Tribunal. The combined processes of Diocesan Synods, the General Synod and the Appellate Tribunal over the next two years will fashion what is lawful in the Anglican Church of Australia and what approaches Diocese’s will take.”
It is clear how Peter Stuart wishes to proceed. The argument is simple, effective, and completely misses the point of Christian praxis. To summarise, the suggestion is, given the diverse opinions within a denomination it is only appropriate that freedom is given to clergy and churches to practice whichever position they see fit. It’s as though Peter Stuart read Judges 17:6 and mistook it to be an endorsement!
“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
The longer Christian associations kick the can down the road, the harder it will be to pick it up. The Church should never be treated in such a reckless way. She is precious and holy to God. Delaying or wishing away difficult decisions will only result in further confusion and harm. Not only this, these matters relate to real people who are made in God’s image; to offer them misleading hope and blessing amounts to a grave betrayal of trust and truth. By following the Gospel, our churches ought to be safe and welcoming communities for people who don’t identify as heterosexual. As people who have ourselves experienced sexual brokenness and sin, and have come to know God’s love and mercy in Christ Jesus, how can we not embrace others? But blessing that which God does not bless is not loving our neighbour but is performing the worse kind of misrepresentation.
Of what use is a doctrinal statement if churches can freely ignore or reject articles without consequence? Of what benefit is a definition of marriage if churches and pastors can circumvent the rules and pursue alternate avenues without disciplinary procedures both defined and enacted? These clergy and churches have either broken fellowship or they have not.
If a pastor or Church no longer subscribes to the theological convictions of the Church/denomination surely it is a matter of integrity that they resign and leave the Church and/or denomination. If they refuse, surely it is the responsibility of the broader fellowship to call them to repentance, and should they persist in their views, they ought to be disaffiliated.
To borrow Paul’s analogy in Ephesians ch.4, our associations are becoming like ships without a rudder, being blown and tossed about by whatever cultural wave is currently landings on the shore. The difficulty is, in the face of intense cultural conditions and fears of losing people and especially money, many leaders don’t want to touch the rudder. In the meantime, the ship is getting beaten up and the Sirens of Sirenum scopuli are luring churches closer to the rocky shoreline.
Will not God honour the faithfulness of his Church? Will God be displeased if we choose his good design? Choosing faithfulness is unlikely to win over many fans among the cultural elites but why should we allow their agenda to determine our actions? It may be counter-intuitive in today’s climate, but remember, Christian sexual ethics was also foreign to First Century Corinth. Paul makes the very point to the Church in Corinth that trusting and living out Christian sexual ethics will not detract from Christian unity and Gospel growth; the opposite is the case. The Church will be built up and the Gospel will grow out (2 Cor 10:8; 15-16).
Will our churches choose faithfulness over accommodation. Do we desire Gospel unity over religious diversity? We can’t predict how everyone will respond, whether those inside our churches or in the community at large, but we can be assured that God will honour the faithfulness of his people.