Note: You can download a 279MB audio version here.
Valley Presbyterian Church of Phoenix, Arizona, a congregation of the Presybterian Church (USA) is having a formal, church-wide discussion regarding whether or not active homosexual persons will be permitted to serve as leaders in the church. The booklet they put together to describe the process reads,
We, the sitting Elders on the Session of Valley Presbyterian Church, are seeking to discern God’s will and direction for our congregation on the issue of ordination standards for ruling and teaching Elders and Deacons.
They invited prominent voices on both sides of the issue to actually come to the church and give lectures and have debates. One session was a debate between Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Seminary, a well known opponent of the affirmation of homosexual practice; and J. Daniel Kirk, formerly of Fuller Seminary—I say “formerly,” because he is a recent convert to the view that we ought to grant full acceptance to practicing homosexuals in the Christian church.
These two are heavy-hitters, especially Gagnon (because he has done a great deal of highly respected work in the field), and Valley is to be commended for going to some trouble and expense. They appear to expect their people to do some difficult mental work and time-consuming reading. I like that.
But take note of this statement in that official church booklet describing the series of lectures:
After a decision is made, we will remain a congregation of Christian disciples who have been blessed by God with many resources and talents to carry out Christ’s work in this world.
It seems to me that a decision has already been made. When it comes to an issue like the affirmation of homosexual practice, the decision to view it as a viable Christian position over which we should not divide is itself a judgment, a decision. Whatever decision is made, they will “remain a congregation of Christian disciples”? Is it not possible that one of the two available decisions will, in fact, take them out of that category? Would they debate the Trinity, the historicity of Jesus Christ, the resurrection? Or pick other moral issues: would they debate slavery, pedophilia, polyamory, or plain old grand theft auto? Which debates in the Christian church are healthy, reflective of God’s choice not to give direct answers to all our questions on a given topic; and which are themselves signs of ill health, or of wolves entering the flock (Acts 20:28–31)?
Kirk feels that the issue shouldn’t be divisive, that instead debates over it are threatening the unity of Christ’s body. “We have not handled this situation, this controversy, in such a way as to promote unity in the church,” he said. “We’ve handled it in such a way that we’re splitting and dividing as we’re so prone to do.” He opens his talk by admitting that the Bible doesn’t permit homosexual practice, but he believes the Spirit is speaking anew—similar to the way the Spirit led the early church to full inclusion of Gentiles.
Gagnon, of course, disagrees (and I’d like to point out that Gentile inclusion was one of God’s original stated purposes for the Abrahamic covenant; it wasn’t an innovation). After many minutes of intensely careful biblical exposition and theological reasoning, Gagnon ends in a particular blend of scholarly acumen and righteously angry fulmination that you don’t hear very often. I was so struck by some of his final comments that I transcribed them. (If you’re pressed for time, skip to the bolded paragraphs.)
You Judge When You Exonerate
After the debate there were questions from the floor. The first was, “Do you feel that [someone] engaging in an active homosexual relationship can be eligible to be ordained as an elder or deacon?”
No, I hope it’s clear from everything that I said that that would not be possible. Just as a person that’s involved in an active adult-consensual incestuous relationship would not be allowed, just as a person who is involved in an active consensual polyamorous relationship would not be allowed to be ordained—because such persons, according to 1 Corinthians 6, and certainly implied in other places, are at great risk of not inheriting the kingdom of God. And when you think of the case of the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5, which is the closest parallel, what’s Paul’s relationship to the incestuous man? The Corinthians pride themselves in their ability to tolerate that relationship. Paul says, “You’ve become inflated with pride and arrogance over your ability to tolerate. You know what you should’ve been doing instead? You should’ve been mourning.”
Why? Where do you mourn? You mourn at a funeral. That person, that offender, is at high risk of being excluded from the kingdom. I love him, Paul says, more than you do, and I love him enough to be able to say this, that there must be temporary remedial discipline to hopefully bring him back into the community of faith. Because everything is at risk for him, and if he doesn’t come back he is likely to be excluded.
Now that’s not passing judgment in any sort of negative way. That’s simply applying the standards that Jesus and God give us in the witness of Scripture. You judge when you exonerate somebody; when you give somebody a pass for a reform of behavior that God and Christ do not give a pass to. You can just as much judge doing that as you can making up a condemnation that God or Jesus don’t give.
So we actually must simply reiterate the witness of God and Jesus in Scripture. If my children, when they were young, were going to touch a hot stove, and I said, “There, there. Knock yourself out and experiment,” [do] you know that state social services would not regard that as love? They would regard that as parental abuse, and they would take the children out of the home—because I do nothing while they’re engaged in behavior injurious to themselves; I don’t warn them. It’s not love in the church when you don’t warn persons engaged in behavior injurious to themselves and others.
Stop with the Pretense
Another question from the floor was, “With all the problems in the world, you really think Jesus cares about this issue.”
Gagnon replied with some frustration,
Wow, to have that question asked makes you feel like, “Gee, I am the world’s worst communicator!” Because I think I pretty clearly showed that Jesus regarded a male-female requirement as foundational for sexual ethics, that Jesus said that if your eye or foot should threaten your downfall, because it’s better to go into heaven maimed than to be thrown into hell full-bodied, and he said that in the context of sexual purity issues.
Paul, whenever he dealt with his converts, [the] first thing he dealt with was the issue of idolatry. And after that was squared away, what was issue number two for Paul, in all his letters, where he recounts what he told them previously? Sexual purity [was] number 2.
Where do we get this notion that this isn’t important? You see how much society devotes itself to getting sex? The way it wants to have it? We’re obsessed with it. It grabs us holistically. It affects the whole being, such that Paul could even give the example of a man having sex with a prostitute, which you’d think would just be a commercial exchange of funds and would have no investment of the person’s life. And he says, “Even when you do that, you become one flesh with the person. While you’ve joined to Jesus in one spirit, you’re now going to take this body in a holistic way and join it in an immoral sexual union with another? And you think that that doesn’t matter to God?” Would you want to substitute in that question, you know, “Why would God—there’s so many problems in the world—why get worked up about the fact that a man is sleeping with his sister and it’s a consensual, adult relationship? Why get worried about the fact that you have a ‘throuple‘ here? Or you have five persons, where they’re all having sex with each other on a regular basis—they’re committed, they’re loving, they’re consensual—what is the big deal? Stop getting so hung up on the tired old principle of monogamy.” But I don’t hear people make those kinds of statements, because they would be laughed at if they made them.
This is more serious still. We have leap-frogged over the issue of polyamory and adult consensual incest to approve something that in Scripture is regarded as a more foundational violation than even those two. We’re now going to have to go back and do a mopping up operation and now be more consistently disobedient to the will of God.
If you think that homosexual practice makes no difference, I don’t know why you’re not promoting polyamory in the church. You ought to be, because the basis for limiting the number of persons in a sexual union to two is the duality of the sexes—which you now say doesn’t make any difference, despite the fact that Jesus called it foundational.
If Jesus is that wrong about sexual ethics, something that he regarded as the very foundation of sexual ethics and sexual purity—if he is wrong about that, I don’t know why you even bother listening to him. Because he then ceases to be your Lord in any meaningful sense. Either when he means it—and he bucks the entire culture when he says it—he means business and this is central and we get with the program, or stop with the pretense that somehow Jesus is our Lord.
It Isn’t Really Jesus Who Is Lord; You’re Lord
And there was more, in Gagnon’s final remarks:
When you regard something that is regarded in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation as foundational for all sexual ethics as something that we can subvert at will in the church, irrespective of Jesus’s view, and irrespective of the priority that Jesus places on it, I think we have done damage not only to the specific issue of how we deal with the question of homosexual practice, but any issue—any issue in ethics, any issue in doctrine. We simply don’t care about the authority of Scripture. This has been the source of our problems to begin with, right? Historically, when the church has wrestled with questions about what we should believe and how we should behave, this has always been determined with Scripture having the top priority, not just being in first place above a list, but way over everything else. And the degree to which something in Scripture is regarded as a core value is the degree to which you really have a tough case to override it or claim that the Spirit is working at cross purposes with something that is clearly viewed as a core value from the beginning to the end of Scripture and emphasized by Jesus and the apostolic witness to him….
That’s what this discussion is about that you’re having in this church. You’re having a discussion about whether what Jesus thinks takes priority is to be given priority. You’re [in] a discussion about whether what Scripture as a whole…regards as essential is to be viewed as essential anymore in the church. And if you don’t think it is, then stop playing the game. Stop playing the game with Scripture. Stop making the pretense about the affirmation of Christ as Lord, because it isn’t really Jesus who is Lord. You’re lord. And you’ve used Jesus as a cipher into which you impute your own ideological meaning and make him say, like a marionette puppet, whatever you want him to say. But I suggest to you, that is not a good look for the church. And when the church does that it ceases in any meaningful way to be a representative of the body of Christ in the world. And there are warnings in Revelation 2–3 by the risen Christ to such churches. You do not want to go down that route. Thank you.
I can only pray—and I am praying as I write—that the regenerated people in that church will heed his richly biblical words.