“You will know them by their fruits.” Address to the Covenant Network by Dr. Mark Achtemeier, 221st General Assembly

Presbyterian Church (USA), Detroit, Michigan, June 16, 2014

 

I have a new life-motto. It says, “When I make a plan, God laughs.” For those of you who don’t know me, I should tell you that I am an odd choice for the Covenant Network to invite as your speaker today. There have been previous General Assemblies where I worked very hard to pass the constitutional ban on gay people serving in the ordained ministries of the PC(USA). I am co-author of the declaration of faith that the Presbyterian Coalition adopted to unite its members in their opposition to gay inclusion. I keynoted the National Celebration of Confessing Churches, which rallied conservative congregations to stand fast in the struggle to keep the constitutional ban in place.

And yet here we are today. I remain fully committed to a high view of biblical authority. But I stand before you as a chastened disciple who now recognizes that the witness of scripture comes down overwhelmingly on the side of gay inclusion.

I have written a little book, called The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage.[1] It tells the story of the journey with the Bible that has brought me from that former place to this one. I will only be able to give you a small taste of what’s in it in our time today. But if you’d like to read the full story, we have copies here and in the exhibit hall bookstore. If you ask nicely, I think my friends at Westminster John Knox Press might be willing to sell you a copy.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I have to tell you, I never intended to embark on this sort of life-altering journey. But one of the things that rocked me out of my conservative complacency was a growing awareness of the effects traditional teaching was having on the lives of gay people.

I remember one time when an older man approached me after a speaking engagement and started telling me his story. He had served among the top leadership of an evangelical parachurch ministry. He was a charismatic guy with a beautiful family and a very successful ministry. But he had also experienced a life-long struggle with same-sex attraction.

Word of his difficulties had gotten out, and his evangelical friends had responded as evangelicals often do, with compassion and concern and encouragement. They had prayed with him and for him. They supported him through an intensive program of spiritual counseling and rehabilitative therapy. They had given him opportunity to publicly re-commit himself to his faith and his ministry and his family. They walked alongside him as supportive friends and colleagues.

He was leaning against the wall telling me all this, and I remember being taken aback as he slid down the wall to the floor and started to weep. None of his efforts at faithfulness had worked. None of his prayers for deliverance had been answered. In the end he had lost both his career and his family. He couldn’t understand why the God he loved would abandon him this way. His life was shattered and his faith lay in ruins.

You need to understand, this was not an isolated episode. I kept encountering devout gay Christians who struggled with all their might to follow traditional church teaching. Some succeeded at it. They were doing all the things my conservative colleagues and I believed they should do. And the result of this heroic faithfulness was broken and despairing people. I saw deep depression, shattered families, bitter alienation from God. One of these friends committed suicide.

Now I knew my Bible well enough to know that these outcomes were the exact opposite of what the Bible tells us to expect from faithful discipleship. Psalm 1 tells us what we should expect to see. Those who follow God’s path…

…are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:3)

It was patently obvious that none of these individuals was prospering, nor could they choose their way out of being gay. They had all tried desperately to make such a choice, and none of them succeeded. Over and over again the results of their valiant discipleship turned spiritually and psychologically and emotionally toxic. I was at a loss to explain this stark contradiction between the Bible’s description of the fruits of faithfulness, and fruits I was actually seeing.

It started me wondering if I’d missed something in the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality. I had always assumed that the scriptural case for the traditional, exclusionary teaching was straightforward. You have these seven or eight references to same-sex behavior, depending on how you count, scattered throughout the Bible (people sometimes refer to these as the “clobber passages”).[2] They all lean in a pretty negative direction. How could this kind of scriptural argument be wrong? I found some help with this puzzlement in a witness from the ancient church.

Appeals to Scripture can go astray

In the year 177 A.D. the Roman authorities executed the bishop of Lugundum, a city in Roman Gaul. A brave Christian steps forward to assume the mantle of leadership in his stead. Today we know this person by the name, Irenaeus of Lyons.

Once in office, Irenaeus discovers that hostile Romans are the least of his problem. An even greater challenge is a bewildering array of counterfeit Christianities that are confusing his flock. These distorted versions of the faith talk about Jesus, but they bear scant resemblance to anything Christ and his apostles actually taught.

Irenaeus is quite sure of this judgment, because he himself stands only one generation of teachers removed from Jesus’ apostles. Irenaeus had received instruction from Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, who himself had sat at the feet of John, the son of Zebedee, the beloved disciple of Jesus.

The problem Irenaeus faces is that these counterfeit Christianities back up their teaching with Scripture quotes. His people are wondering how a teaching supported from the Bible turn out to be mistaken. This question resonated with me, faced as I was with a biblically supported traditional teaching that was producing toxic fruit in the lives of people who followed it.

Irenaeus answers. Imagine, he says, that someone has a mosaic picture made out of colored stones. And all these multicolored fragments together form a beautiful portrait of a King. Now suppose, he says, that another artist comes along and disassembles the original mosaic, sorting all the stones into little colored piles. And now this person re-assembles all the stones into a new mosaic, and travels around showing off the picture, saying “Behold the King.” Only this time, in place of the original portrait, the new arrangement of stones forms a crudely-drawn image of a dog. Every single stone in that new mosaic comes from the original portrait of the King. But that does not make it a true picture of the King.

This, says Irenaeus, is what the false teachers are doing with Scripture. Like the individual stones making up a mosaic, they take individual quotes from all over the Bible. But the quotes have been rearranged in such a way that they no longer present a true picture. Individual scripture quotes can lose their connection to the “big picture” of God’s love in Christ that is the Bible’s true focus.

Discerning faithful uses of Scripture

Irenaeus helped me understand that being able to cite Bible passages in support of a particular teaching provides no guarantee that the teaching is faithful. So where does that leave us? If biblical support is no guarantee that a teaching is true, how can we ever find our way through the maze of competing Bible interpretations?

Jesus himself actually gives us a simple test for telling the difference between true and counterfeit teaching. Guess what it turns out to be: “You will know them by their fruits.” By their fruits!! The toxic and destructive fruit I had seen springing up in the lives of people who followed the exclusionary teaching was prima facie evidence that the teaching was misguided. Jesus says it, right there plain as day in Matthew 7:16.

This was a very hard thing to admit after all my work as a conservative activist. But this and other evidence was so compelling, there was no way to get around it. I knew at this point that the church’s categorical condemnation of same-sex relationships was an error.

What I didn’t know yet was how to put together all the biblical teaching about marriage and sexuality in a comprehensive way that was true and life-giving and faithful.

I wish there was time today to lay out for you the details of that positive scriptural case. Suffice to say, using our traditional, time-tested Presbyterian guidelines for biblical interpretation allowed me to fit the whole of biblical teaching about marriage and sexuality into a comprehensive picture that even included the clobber passages. No portion of Scripture had to be left out or watered down. And this comprehensive picture yielded a positive case for gay marriage that I and a lot of others found absolutely compelling. If you read the book it’s all in there.

For now I need to talk with you a little more about this discovery that the traditional condemnations were in error. It is an error with a grievous cost.

Assessing the damage

I know it is fashionable these days to grump and grumble about all the time and energy and passion the church expends in wrangling over issues of sexuality. Surely we would be better off focusing our time and attention on more productive matters of discipleship — so goes the standard complaint.

I am going to take issue with that complaint today. I continue to be haunted by a survey the Barna organization did a few years ago. The Barna people talked to unchurched young people and found that over 85% of them viewed the church as hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay.[3] In 2011 they found that 59% of young Christians leaving the church cited sexual intolerance among the reasons.[4] The church’s error on this issue is undermining the credibility of Christian witness for an entire generation.

And it’s completely understandable! These young people who leave the church over this issue, and the vast multitudes of former Christians who now identify as “spiritual but not religious”— they have in their hearts enough residual Christian formation to sense that this teaching of exclusion and condemnation doesn’t sound at all like Jesus. And they are right! It is not a true picture of the King.

What’s more, the Barna figures don’t even touch upon the vast multitude of spiritually attuned gay people who have fled from Christianity because our mistaken teaching convinced them that the Christian God is their enemy.

Now maybe this is simplistic, but I am an evangelical who thinks the Christian Gospel is the most stunning, incredible, wonderful news that could ever come to human beings. When I think how this one error is denying that good news to thousands upon thousands of gay people and discrediting the church’s proclamation for whole generations of young people — well, brothers and sisters, this sounds to me like a Gospel emergency! How could faithful disciples of Jesus *not* step forward to correct the errors and address this tragically unfolding spiritual catastrophe? I just don’t see how we can sit on the sidelines with this disaster playing out right beneath our noses.

Abiding in Christ

What, then, shall we do? The answer is tricky because of the situation we find ourselves in as a church. These errors have a history that we can’t just undo at a single stroke.

I want to propose, as a guiding compass of what we do, the words of Jesus found in John 15:5:

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Our first priority as we respond to the challenges of the present hour is to nurture our connection with Christ the true vine. He is the source of our church’s life, and he will be the source of its healing.

Abiding in Christ will inevitably affect our relationship to the Bible. You cannot have fellowship with Christ, the incarnate Word of God, apart from a vital connection to the written Word of God. So let us have done with hemming and hawing about the Bible, brothers and sisters. I know there has been suspicion in some quarters that if we allow ourselves too open an engagement with the Scriptures, the result might be to undermine our efforts toward justice and inclusion, most especially with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors. This suspicion is a myth and it needs to be set aside.

For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, and it cuts in the direction of compassion and wholeness and justice, brothers and sisters! Let us set aside our hesitations and take our stand on Christ as he is known to us through the witness of the Scriptures. For apart from him we can do nothing.

Abiding in Christ will change our relationship to our brothers and sisters in the church, most especially those with whom we disagree. It means that we are joined together with all our fellow believers in the one body, no matter how cantankerous or disagreeable they may seem. I think God deliberately throws us together with people who disagree with us, in order to burnish the sharp edges off our pride and self-will, and to remind us that the foundation of our common life is Christ and not ourselves.

So the next time you encounter fellow believers with whom you disagree, treat them as the women and men they truly are: beloved children of God, brothers and sisters called together with us in the one Spirit, sinners redeemed alongside us on the cross of Calvary, and joint heirs of Christ’s Kingdom. And if we encounter times when frustrations overflow, if we find ourselves on the receiving end of accusations and bitterness and abuse, let us rejoice in the opportunities God gives us to return good for evil and blessing for reviling, and so give witness to the love of Christ.

Abiding in Christ will also give us a love for the truth. No one has the power to undo with a single stroke the damage of generations of erroneous teaching. But it is within our grasp at this Assembly to move our beloved church one step closer to a truthful witness.

Honesty in our corporate witness has been a problem of late. When the official organs of our denominational polity work together to bring censure and condemnation upon the heads of pastors who follow their consciences in performing same-sex weddings, our whole church is acting publicly as though we enjoyed a consensus on this issue. You and I both know that such consensus does not yet exist. In pursuing these charges, our church acts as though it could speak with one voice on the marriage issue. It is a false witness to the world and it needs to stop.

I am relieved to note that none of the pro-marriage overtures before this Assembly would compel any Presbyterian to hold a view with which they disagree, or to participate in a ceremony of which they disapprove. Those whose consciences require it need the freedom to refuse participation in ceremonies they view as unfaithful. Those of differing conscience need the freedom to pastor without prosecution. Our whole church needs a Directory for Worship rather than a Directory for Litigation.

We trust that God will one day lead our church to consensus on these issues. But in the meantime, the overtures before this Assembly provide the opportunity to restore a truthful witness to our denomination’s life, founded in enduring Presbyterian commitments to freedom of biblically-formed consciences and mutual forbearance toward those with whom we disagree.

A final blessing

Finally, brothers and sisters, abiding in Christ has one other implication that we should never overlook. That implication is joy. God has given us an amazing blessing and privilege to be servants of the whole church in this particular time and place. I hope we can all give thanks for these gifts. I know of no better words to leave you with today than Paul’s charge in Philippians 3:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (vv. 4-7)

May God richly bless this 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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[1] Available from major booksellers, or see the publisher’s site: http://www.thethoughtfulchristian.com/Products/0664239900/the-bibles-yes-to-samesex-marriage.aspx

[2] The passages are: Genesis 19:1-29, Judges 19:1-30, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:18-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Jude 5-7.

[3] “Study: Youth see Christians as judgmental, anti-gay.” USA Today Oct. 10, 2007. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-10-10-christians-young_N.htm, accessed Jun 17, 2014.

[4] “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” https://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church, accessed Jun 17, 2014.