Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jesus' Warning to Those Perpetuating False Teaching

Recent news from the Diocese of New Hampshire shows that, like many other parts of the Episcopal Church (USA) today, it is suffering from declining numbers---of both kinds, people and contributions. The two are related, of course, but not necessarily in direct proportion.

Some commenters on this news wanted to ascribe the reason to the failure of Bishop Robinson's message of welcome to GLBT persons; apparently they are not exactly flocking in to fill the places of those who have left, or perhaps been driven away. But I think the problem is not so much a "failure of welcome" as it is a case of being too welcoming. If people are made to feel welcome in their lifestyle, no matter how much it may fall short of the standards which Jesus set, then what, exactly, would be the reason for their needing to come to church? As the great Christian writer J. Gresham Machen observed, 
[A]ccording to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin. . . .  [Today's liberal church] is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task—she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance.
The real problem, however, is even greater. For the attitude, or mindset, of which I speak prevails not only in New Hampshire; it pervades the Episcopal Church. Take, for just one small instance, this recent example, which I owe to A Blog-Spotting Episcopalian. It is a "Letter to the Editor" of the Beaufort Gazette in South Carolina, written by a retired minister:
By the Rev. Roger William Smith

Thank you for publishing the article Dec. 13 about divisions in the Episcopal Church.

Let me begin by saying there are large numbers of us in this church who believe the actions taken by our General Conventions in 2003 and 2006 were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not at all in violation of the authority of the scriptures. To that end, a group of us holding to this belief have organized ourselves into St. Mark's Chapel in Beaufort. If the Diocese of South Carolina or the people of St. Helena's Parish decide to separate themselves from the church, we're staying home.

A number of people and parishes in this diocese share our view.  Some of us are members of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, calling ourselves "Episcopalians for a United Church."

From your article, one might get the impression a majority of South Carolina Episcopalians are in favor of leaving the Episcopal Church. I doubt that. I am grateful for my friend and colleague, the Rev. Jeffrey Miller, rector of St. Helena's Parish, who stated if the diocese makes any decisions on these matters, "we'll bring them back, and we'll talk with the parish about those." My experience as rector of St. Helena's Episcopal Church for 10 years tells me the majority of the parishioners, if given a voice in the matter, will opt for staying home.

Miller is right when he says the rift in the Episcopal Church is not just about the consecration of openly gay bishops. The primary disagreement we have is over biblical authority -- whether or not the Bible is authoritative for our lives, period. Absolutely!

But how we interpret the scriptures and what we regard to be their authority is -- and always has been -- a divisive issue in the Christian Church.
The Rev. Smith has put his finger squarely on the problem. Just what is the "authority" of "the scriptures"? Surely it can be none other than the Lord Jesus? It is indeed, says Fr. Smith---but only "for some of us"!!
For some of us, the supreme authority is to be found in the inclusive teachings of Jesus.

He ate with street walkers, tax thieves and other rejects, declaring it is the infirm, not the well folks, who need a physician. When a woman found to have committed adultery was about to be stoned by religious leaders, Jesus ran them off. When they were gone, he asked the woman, "Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?" The woman said, "No one, Lord." Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more."

If we are going to focus on the authority of the Bible, the highest authority of all is that which commands us to live in a manner that reveals the unconditional love of God.
If I were trying to "represent Jesus in the world", Fr. Smith, I would be careful about picking and choosing just the parts of His message that I liked, and glossing over the rest. For example, you cite the sinful "tax thieves," and then quote what Jesus said to the adulterous woman, as reported in the Gospel of John. But what was that advice? Was it just to say "I do not condemn you?" No, it ended with this: "Go and sin no more." So Jesus' forgiveness was not unconditional---it was given on the expectation that the sinner repent, and not continue with his sinful ways. (Jesus laid exactly the same condition on the sinful tax collectors, as I have discussed in this post.)

Thus I submit your bishop is more correct than you are, Father Smith, when you go on to say:

As for the matter of openly gay bishops, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, the Bishop of South Carolina, believes the Holy Scripture is "pretty clear" on the matter.

"While everyone is welcome to come to Christ and into His kingdom, there are certain standards," said Lawrence. "A gay person who is in a partnered relationship does not meet those standards."
Who is doing the better job of "representing Jesus" here? The one who asserts that His love is simply "unconditional", and is yours to claim regardless, or the one who says that yes, Jesus loves all sinners, but calls on them to repent of their sins, and to live up to higher standards?

Fr. Smith, however, is not done with his interpretation of the Gospels yet. For you see, that remark about what Bishop Lawrence saw as "pretty clear" was a set-up:
If because of certain "standards" a person is welcome to receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and communion but not the sacrament of ordination, such a person is only partially welcome. Where is the unconditional love? We have a considerable number of bishops and other ministers who are divorced and remarried; certainly the teachings of Jesus are "pretty clear" on that subject.

Why are these church leaders dispensed from "certain standards?"

I have been ordained in the Episcopal Church for 54 years. I am sure that in that time there have been occasions when I have fallen short of certain "standards." But never once have I given thought to leaving my beloved church, nor has anyone asked me to.
Your quotes around the term "pretty clear" reveal the subterfuge behind your analogy, Father Smith. Shall we see just how clear the Gospels are on the subject of divorce?

According to Matthew, Jesus said:
5:31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ 5:32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
There is an exception in Matthew for a spouse's immorality, is there not? But you must be taking Jesus' word according to Mark, who reports no such exception at all:
10:2 Then some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 10:3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 10:4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 10:5 But Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. 10:6 But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female. 10:7 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, 10:8 and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 10:9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10:10 In the house once again, the disciples asked him about this. 10:11 So he told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 10:12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Now, Luke must help resolve this contradiction. Let's look at what he reports:
20:27 Now some Sadducees (who contend that there is no resurrection) came to him. 20:28 They asked him, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a wife but no children, that man must marry the widow and father children for his brother. 20:29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died without children. 20:30 The second 20:31 and then the third married her, and in this same way all seven died, leaving no children. 20:32 Finally the woman died too. 20:33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For all seven had married her.”

20:34 So Jesus said to them, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 20:35 But those who are regarded as worthy to share in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 20:36 In fact, they can no longer die, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection. 20:37 But even Moses revealed that the dead are raised in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 20:38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live before him.” 20:39 Then some of the experts in the law answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well!”
Well, that certainly clears things up, does it not? Finally, please consider the case of the Samaritan woman at the well, who had been married no less than five times. We have John's account of how Jesus received her:
4:4 But he had to pass through Samaria. 4:5 Now he came to a Samaritan town called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 4:6 Jacob’s well was there, so Jesus, since he was tired from the journey, sat right down beside the well. It was about noon.

4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 4:8 (For his disciples had gone off into the town to buy supplies.) 4:9 So the Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you – a Jew – ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?” (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.)

4:10 Jesus answered her, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 4:11 “Sir,” the woman said to him, “you have no bucket and the well is deep; where then do you get this living water? 4:12 Surely you’re not greater than our ancestor Jacob, are you? For he gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and his livestock.”

4:13 Jesus replied, “Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. 4:14 But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.” 4:15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” 4:16 He said to her, “Go call your husband and come back here.” 4:17 The woman replied, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “Right you are when you said, ‘I have no husband,’ 4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband. This you said truthfully!”

. . .
4:39 Now many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the report of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I ever did.” 4:40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they began asking him to stay with them. He stayed there two days, 4:41 and because of his word many more believed. 4:42 They said to the woman, “No longer do we believe because of your words, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this one really is the Savior of the world.”
So it's all "pretty clear", isn't it, Father Smith? Jesus obviously disapproved of divorce; that much is clear. At the same time, He recognized that divorce was a fact of Jewish life, recognized since the time of Moses. (That churches in recent times have seen fit to relax the standards for allowing people to remain communicants after divorce, and even to serve as clergy or bishops, is no argument to relax the standards still further; the churches have done enough to undermine marriage and family life as is.) But as far as Jesus' reception of divorced people is concerned, I would say that John's account lets us conclude that He regarded them as He did tax collectors: they should repent of their sinning, and sin (i.e., divorce) no more. As He put it in Luke 17:3-4:
17:1 Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 17:2 It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 17:3 Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. 17:4 Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Thus, to those who, like Bishop Robinson and Father Smith, want to read the sin out of Scripture, I would say this: Be very careful how you interpret the Gospel of Our Lord to those who harken to you. (Especially, please note verse 17:2 immediately above.) Yes, Jesus excluded no one from his company. But by the same token, He excluded no one from his call to "repent, and sin no more."


  1. Great posting. I am reminded of the book "I'm Ok-You're OK" to which I silently add the subtitle, "and Who Needs God Anyway."

  2. "(That churches in recent times have seen fit to relax the standards for allowing people to remain communicants after divorce, and even to serve as clergy or bishops, is no argument to relax the standards still further; the churches have done enough to undermine marriage and family life as is.)"
    OK, here's a link to a brief history of the canons in the Episcoopal church.

    What happened in 1973, or thereabouts to bring about the change.

  3. Thank you, Mister Curmudgeon.

    I am in the Diocese of South Carolina, and I find it hard to believe that there are those in a strong area of orthodoxy still trying to over-ride and "out-think" the minds of thousands of Christians around them. Such is the way it began 40 years ago. It doesn't fly so well in this day and age.

    I read the comments a while back by this supposed "priest" and wondered where he got his learning from and how he was hired into this area!

    Thank you for your treatment of his letter to the editor of that newspaper. I could see his errors when he wrote it.

    You are doing a wonderfully competent job.


    Milton Finch

  4. I am thinking that maybe God's love is unconditional, but God's approval is conditional.