Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“What Harm Can It Do to Study the Issue?” first appeared in the July/August 1998 issue of Touchstone.
What Harm Can It Do to Study the Issue?
Alan P. Medinger on Homosexuality
Francis Osgood and several fellow clergy, along with several leading laymen, approached the Reverend Hugh Benchley, the head of their denomination, with a proposal. They believed that the church should study whether or not it would be appropriate for their denomination to cut off all assistance to the poor and needy. They threw out a few reasons having to do with the modern economy—jobs were available for everyone—and the fact that some modern studies showed how much people are damaged psychologically by receiving charity, and they offered a few references to Scripture, including the one that said if you didn’t work, you shouldn’t eat.
Benchley was shocked. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “We are not going to cut off all of our programs for the poor and needy.” “No, no,” cried Osgood. “I am not saying we should cut them off, just that we should study the subject. After all, how can we know whether or not we should do this if we don’t discuss it? We have new economic and psychological understanding now—knowledge that wasn’t available 2,000 years ago. We really don’t know what God is saying about charity. Let’s just keep an open mind and enter into dialogue about it. Appoint a commission of experts in the field and let’s see what they come up with. What harm can it do?”
If there was anything Benchley feared it was appearing narrow-minded and not open to new things. The idea sounded crazy to him, but he could not muster up any reason to oppose appointing such a commission that would not make him appear closed-minded and reactionary. And after all, Osgood and his colleagues were among the best-known free thinkers in the church—the kind of people who were always grabbing media attention.
So Benchley agreed to appoint the commission to study Christian charity. That was 20 years ago. The first commission included Osgood and several of his friends, along with some church traditionalists and, as you would expect, it was unable to reach any kind of consensus. So another commission was appointed, and then another and another. Regional groups were appointed to study the subject, and eventually the church asked every local parish to enter into dialogue on it.
Some profound changes happened in the church during those 20 years. Somehow, an idea that at first had seemed absurd—abolishing Christian charity—gradually became an option, something to be considered. At the prompting of their leaders, many laymen started to question certain Scripture passages such as the one in which Jesus said that whenever we did it to one of the least of these. . . . Perhaps they shouldn’t take the Bible so literally. After all, they weren’t fundamentalists, were they?
During this process, starting slowly, but with increasing frequency, the church’s soup kitchens and homeless shelters started closing down. Programs for the physically handicapped and for the addicted ceased operations. While one faction in the church was fighting for their closure, another fought as strenuously to keep them open, but the great mass of people in the denomination—those in the middle—were just confused by it all and gradually lost any enthusiasm for keeping programs open. Making matters worse for the advocates of Christian charity, the people who ran the soup kitchens, the shelters, and the support groups found all of their time being taken fighting out the battles on the commissions, and their ministries floundered.
Eventually, Osgood and his group prevailed. Many of the charity-minded people couldn’t take it any longer and had left the denomination. Others were worn out and simply capitulated.
An absurd story? Of course. Realistic? Absolutely.
Some years ago people started to come before the mainline denominations to suggest that we ought to question and to study some of our most fundamental beliefs about morality, about marriage, and about ordination. Of course they did not word their proposals this way; they phrased their suggestion much as Osgood did his. They maintained that they merely wanted open discussion and inquiry. But they were lying; their agenda had already been clearly set: to change the church’s teaching on human sexuality.
These factions, like Osgood’s, did not come with a strong case in support of their proposals but merely offered some suggestions that might cause anyone who prided himself with having an open mind to feel he had to agree to study the matter. In most of the mainline denominations, there were Benchleys who would ride with any current tide and who were beset with an almost pathological need to appear “reasonable.” And so most of the mainline denominations embarked on their decades-long quest to “study” human sexuality—especially homosexuality.
Although most of the old-line denominations are in their second or third decade of this process or, like the United Church in Canada and the Episcopal Church in the United States, appear finally to be winding it down—in favor of the Osgoods—other churches are just now getting into the process. The Mennonites, some Baptists and some Reformed groups are in this position. For those who are at this place, I would urge you to consider taking a quite different approach from that taken by the old-line denominations.
What might Benchley have done differently? I like to picture him looking straight in the eyes of Osgood, and stating very calmly and emphatically, “NO!” No explanation, simply no. Pope John Paul II said with respect to women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church that he had no authority to discuss it. I like that kind of approach from a Christian leader. As regards certain basic givens of our faith, there are things we have no authority to discuss. I believe that this would include not only matters such as those laid out in the Church’s historic Creeds but also matters of basic Christian morality and matters of love and charity. Just being willing to consider that such basics of the faith need to be reconsidered is to undermine all authority in the Church. It is to question Scripture and the Church’s ability, led by the Holy Spirit, to interpret God’s written Word.
This is exactly what has been happening in the mainline churches in their considerations of human sexuality. The debates became a place where all Christian authority was openly challenged. For example, take this from a recent letter from Episcopal Bishop Spong to the archbishop of Canterbury regarding the Anglican Church’s stand on homosexuality: “I regard that use of the Bible [to teach the sinfulness of homosexual relations] as nothing more than irrelevant prejudice based on a view of scripture that has been effectively challenged by at least a hundred years of biblical scholarship.”
A major role of the leader in any organization is to keep the organization focused on its primary mission. Surely, this is as true for the Church as it is for any organization. The leaders of churches are given their authority by God, and central to this is the authority to say no. But it takes an extremely strong person, be he a parent, a boss, or a bishop to simply say “No” and not let himself be drawn into arguments that quickly evolve into the “dialogue” that the other side is seeking to promote. Sometimes a clear and emphatic “No!” is the better way. Would you not want that to be your response to anyone who came to you with an outrageous or foolish proposal?
However, in reality many of us are not that strong. Therefore, I suggest for church leaders an alternate response, another one-word answer, “Why?” Make the other side present a strong case before you will even consider their proposal. In this way keep control of the agenda. Insist that they come up with strong evidence that Paul didn’t understand homosexuality, that homosexuality is undeniably inborn, that homosexually oriented people can’t change, that homosexual men and women can’t live a chaste life like other single people.
It is interesting how Jesus in his encounter with church authorities always stayed in control of the agenda. When he was asked by the scribes and Pharisees by what authority he was healing people, he did not consider it appropriate to answer the question, so he simply asked them a question about John the Baptist (Mark 11:27–30). At the time of his trial and passion, Jesus simply refused to answer certain questions put to him by the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities. Others he did answer. He could do this because he was about his Father’s business. He knew what his Father’s business was and he was not willing to let anyone distract him from it.
In 2 Timothy 2:23 Paul writes that we are to “have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” And he goes on to say that we should correct our opponents gently and that “God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth” (v. 25). Note that it is God who may change their minds, not us.
In Titus 3:9 we are told to “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.” Ask anyone in the Episcopal Church or United Church of Christ who participated in these controversies over the years whether or not they believe the controversies have been unprofitable and futile. How many years of true ministry have been lost as godly Christian men and women have engaged in these stupid, senseless controversies? In the fledging Church Paul did not want believers distracted from the primary work of making disciples and spreading the gospel. One way to avoid such distraction was to declare certain subjects to be too far off bounds to warrant discussion.
To refuse to discuss whether or not homosexual behavior is acceptable to God, or even to demand that the other side come up with powerful reasons before we agree to discuss it, will not necessarily win the battle. If the denomination is being taken over by leaders who do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and who do not recognize the authority of Scripture, nothing may save the denomination from sliding into total apostasy. However, the refusal to enter the controversies will leave believers much more free to do the real work of the Church as the years pass and the denomination’s destiny is being worked out.
There is one final reason not to get into these controversies that hits close to home in our ministries. The mere fact that recognized orthodox believers are participating in the controversies can throw the weaker among us into confusion. Within many homosexual persons is a powerful force crying to believe that it is okay to have sex with another man, another woman. The confusion over the matter, the fact that both sides have agreed that it is debatable, can be the straw that tips these precious souls over into homosexual experimentation. The mere debate itself undermines the Church’s teaching authority while our weaker brothers and sisters need to hear clear, strong voices.
Those who will not condescend to debate the issue will be attacked furiously. But they can take heart in the knowledge that they are standing in support of foundational truths that have guided God’s people in how they should live from the time of Moses on. After almost 2,000 years of church history, these truths remain clear today to every Christian church except for some declining groups in the West. Churches should feel as confident in this as they would in refusing to consider a proposal to do away with all Christian charity. Christians don’t have to be belligerent to take a stand not to negotiate. They simply need to be strong and willing to pay a price for truth. “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:13–14).
This article has been reprinted with permission from the June 1998 issue of Regeneration News.
Alan P. Medinger is the director of Regeneration, an ex-gay ministry with strong Episcopal ties. He has also written articles for Mission & Ministry, the quarterly of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, among them, “Meeting the Deep Needs of the Heart,” “The Cost of Cheap Grace,” and “A Deep Longing for Purity.”
“What Harm Can It Do to Study the Issue?” first appeared in the July/August 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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