Friday, January 28, 2005

Answers for Earl

In recent comments concerning how Christians shouldn't be expected to simply tolerate homosexual practice among fellow Christians, I set off an avalanche of questions by reader Earl Apel of Cincinnati. Earl is no newcomer to Presbyterian cyberspace. His good-natured and sincere--although sometimes off-kilter and illogical--questions and comments indicate a nice guy you'd often rather hug than spar with.

It appears that Earl couldn't let my posting go however, returning five times to leave comments. Let me see if I can succinctly clear away a few of his queries and challenges:
  • Does the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) consider homosexual practice an atrocity? The Authoritative Interpretation says such things as "the practice of homosexuality is sin." It talks of the need to "repent of homosexual practice." It says, "the New Testament declares that all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life." So, is sin something light and meaningless? To God it is such an atrocity that it separates us from God. Jesus had to die to cover the price for the atrocity of sin. Yes, I would say that homosexual practice, like any other sin, is, to both God and believers, an atrocity.
  • The church is supposed to be open to homosexual persons, isn't it? Yes, definitely. No change of mind there. The church opens its doors to all to come in and experience God. In addition, being a homosexual person is not the same as practicing homosexual sex. The orientation is not the sin; succumbing to temptation and then to homosexual practice is the sin. It's not unlike appreciating pretty things not being a sin, but succumbing to greed and stealing them is.
  • You want a clear answer for what homosexual practice is. How about this for a try: Acting on same-sex temptations. Paul says to Timothy: "Shun youthful passions" (2 Tim 2:22). I think that's pretty clear, for a heterosexual or homosexual person. We don't ask, "Well, is THIS little kiss okay or THAT little touch? How much can I get away with and still not break the law?" Shun it all, as difficult as that will be. "Flee!" we're told.
  • What is it about homosexual practice that equates with evil like the Nazis? You're the one bringing in Nazis and equivalence. I was talking about two analogous things, not two equal things. But while we're at it, sin is sin. Any failure to live up to the righteousness of God demands separation from God. It is only by grace through faith that any of us is forgiven, but we cannot be forgiven for sins we refuse to call sins. So homosexual practice, just like fornication or adultery or lust or hatred or lying or whatever sin, including Nazi genocide, equates with separation from God, apart from confession, repentance, and Jesus Christ's atoning work.
  • Why can't all churches just be like College Hill, which simply loved you and taught you about Jesus? It's wonderful that a fine church like College Hill embraced you and showed you the love of Christ. Yes, all churches should be that way. But I would suspect that even College Hill, during the time of Jerry Kirk and Hal Schell and later with Pat Heartsock, also stood for God's Word and helped lead people toward transformation in Jesus Christ. There is no more disconnect between lovingly caring for a homosexual person and calling that person toward fullness of discipleship than there is between lovingly supporting a businessperson sent to jail for fraud and helping that person move beyond this sin. Churches are hospitals for the sick. We all need the care and correction, both.
  • Why pinpoint the sin of homosexual practice as an atrocity when there are plenty of other sins? You're absolutely right: sins like lying, cheating, gluttony, and Sabbath breaking are also atrocities. But none of them have dedicated advocates trying to erase the biblical record and all of Christian practice to say they are perfectly okay, such as homosexuality currently has. The battle is engaged precisely because there are those who wish to reverse our Christian standards for no better reason than the secular pendulum swing of sexual license.
  • Should charges be brought against every ordained Presbyterian, because all sin? No. Charges should be brought only against those who refuse to repent, considering their own devices and desires superior to God's will.
  • If I like the Authoritative Interpretation so much, as you quoted me saying from last June, and the Authoritative Interpretation says Presbyterians should work to decriminalize private homosexual acts, why then do I say that homosexual practice is an atrocity that should not be tolerated, and the guilty need to be brought to justice? Earl, I'm pleased! First, that's a fine logical argument you're mounting. Second, you actually remembered something I wrote seven months ago! Cool! Your logic is great, but you started with a faulty premise. I was not writing about criminal courts for homosexuals in society; I was referring to judicial remedies, if necessary, for practicing homosexual persons within leadership of the Presbyterian Church. But--the blame is mine on this one. I wasn't sufficiently clear. Thank you for giving me a chance to clarify that.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Punishing the wrong party

In the public square in Philadelphia, in a country where freedom of speech is enshrined in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution, it appears that something very ancient and very wrong has occurred. It reminds me of the Book of Acts.

An odd thing kept happening to Paul. He would be preaching God's Word, such as in Philippi (Acts 16) or Jerusalem (Acts 21 and 22). The Word would infuriate those opposed to God. They would become riotous and intimidating, even physically violent with Paul. The Roman authorities would be called in. And what would they do? Would the authorities rescue and defend Paul, arresting the riotous individuals who were disturbing the peace and assaulting Paul?


They might extract Paul from the situation, but HE was the one arrested, flogged, punished, and imprisoned. The illegal acts of the mob were being done against Paul, yet the authorities charged HIM with the crimes. "Odd," we think. "What an unjust legal system they had back then!"

But it's not only "back then." If the facts and video we're getting from Philadelphia are at all correct, it appears that Christians are again being prosecuted when they are the victims of lawlessness, rather than the perpetrators. (See several accounts and video linked to an article on the WorldNetDaily website.)

Here's what happened: Homosexual groups hold a public "Outfest" in Philadelphia. A Christian group decides to witness at the festival, using signs and public preaching. It is probably not the most diplomatic or even effective move on the part of these Christians, but it ought to be their right. In the open marketplace of ideas on a public street, two very different ideologies should be able to be presented.

But the Christian voice is not treated equally. First, they are accosted by "Pink Angels," kind of like Storm Troopers for the gay movement, who encircle the Christians with blocking pink panels, shout obscenities and blow whistles to drown out their witness, impede their free movement, and generally harass the Christians in an aggressive manner.

Next the police show up, but what do they do? Do they referee, so that each side is allowed to have its say in a reasonable manner? Do they cause the Pink Angels to stand down and behave themselves? No. The police ignore the harassing Pink Angels and concentrate on forcing the Christians to leave the area. Eventually the Christians, set upon and harassed by the mob yet unwilling to forfeit their right of free speech, are arrested by the police, while the mob cheers.

Now, out of that Christian group, four adults and a 17-year-old young woman face trial for a number of felony and misdemeanor charges, which could land them in jail for up to 47 years. And the Pink Angels, the mob that was the aggressor in denying free speech to the Christians? They are celebrating their victory, thanks to the Philadelphia police.

In Philippi and Jerusalem, with the Roman authorities, and in Philadelphia, with its police authorities, the Christians remain the fall guys.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

You will have trouble

It has been both sad and sobering to watch the dreadful news of the Indian Ocean tsunami playing out. The hippest of the hip on a Thai beach or the poorest of the poor on the Indian coast met a suddenly similar watery death, and the numbers keep mounting on the death odometer at a clip of tens of thousands a day.

What has been a little crazy to me is the apparent discovery of the problem of evil by so many in the secular press. "How could this happen?" they ask. "What does this say about a good God?"

Granted that this is an immense catastrophe bearing with it unfathomable misery, but is this the first such event some have managed to notice? Where have they blithely been through previous earthquakes and floods and massacres of similar scale? Just as one would think that insecurity was first invented in New York on 9/11, or values were first discovered in the November elections, to read the pundits, it seems that tragedy first appeared on December 26.

But there has always been untold misery and massive loss of life. Life itself has never been safe and never can be made so.

Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble." Granted, in John 16:33 he was speaking to his disciples more of the tribulation or persecution kind of trouble. But his words have a wider meaning that is so true: In This World as compared to The Age to Come, we're going to have trouble. Get used to it. We're not going to be spared it or somehow get beyond it. Trouble is the normal state, not safety, not ease, not invincibility. Trouble. Tragedy. Hardship.

But Jesus didn't leave it there. He didn't set out to leave a quaking mass of pessimists. Jesus continued, "But take heart! I have overcome the world." There is the inbreaking of the Age to Come," even during This Age. Jesus has come. The end has begun. Deadly waves and dead bodies won't be forever. Some day all of this writhing in agony will be behind us. Some day tsunamis will be no more.

The great theologian George Eldon Ladd always gives me hope. In The Gospel of the Kingdom, Ladd writes:

Throughout the course of This Age, two forces are at work: the power of Evil, and the Kingdom of God. The world is the scene of a conflict. The forces of the Evil One are assaulting the people of God; but the Gospel of the Kingdom is assaulting the kingdom of Satan. This conflict will last to the end of The Age. Final victory will be achieved only by the return of Christ. There is no room for an unqualified optimism.... There is, however, no room for an unrelieved pessimism.... We are not rosy optimists, expecting the Gospel to conquer the world and establish the Kingdom of God. Neither are we despairing pessimists who feel that our task is hopeless in the face of the evil of This Age. We are realists, Biblical realists, who recognize the terrible power of evil and yet who go forth in a mission of worldwide evangelization to win victories for God's Kingdom until Christ returns in glory to accomplish the last and greatest victory....

[Jesus said] "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." This is the Good News of the Kingdom. Christ has wrested authority from Satan. The Kingdom of God has attacked the kingdom of Satan; This evil Age has been assaulted by The Age to Come in the person of Christ. All authority is now His. He will not display this authority in its final glorious victory until He comes again; but the authority is now His. Satan is defeated and bound; death is conquered; sin is broken. All authority is His.... [pp. 137-140]

I can live with that.

Yes, tsunamis will wreak enormous mayhem and death. We live still in This Age, deadly and evil as it is. Death and destruction still do their dirty work. But Jesus Christ has broken into This Age and has brought with him The Age to Come. We taste it now and sorely long for its fulfillment. We want an end to agony and incident. Well, that day is coming! And as it draws nearer, even with tsunamis remaining, we already have Jesus.

And for this weary soul, that is more than enough--that and the promise that Jesus has already overcome the world.

(For a far more eloquent commentary on this matter, read what British theologian N. T. Wright has written in The Independent. Thanks to fellow blogger Scott Collins-Jones for the lead.)