We've lost the distinction between prophetic pronouncement against sin and bullhorn pronouncement against social agendas. These words are from a faster paced discussion of the same topic and yet, they probably reach higher than anything I can say in this longer piece.
If nothing else is gained from this article (or you’re already feeling bored), I hope that the short slogan above sticks with you (tweetable mind you). But in the meantime, I hope to step back a few steps from that attention grabber for my entry on the issue of homosexuality and Christian ethics. Confession up front. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have all the questions. But these are the questions and answers that I’m bringing to the table that have led to my prophetic versus bullhorn dichotomy.
Why I’m Writing
The world is in turmoil over ethics. Particularly, the world is besought by ethics of the LGBT sort. Even the most recent Olympics became a platform for the discussion of LGBT ethics. And if we somehow manage to find sleep at night, we awake to wrestle with the issues of procreation and contraceptives. None of this is surprising. The world’s ethics change like the seasons. As I recently read, philosophers rule the world—just two hundred years after they are dead. Inevitably the world’s ethics are ruled by these philosophers and as such change with the passing of time.
But it remains to be seen why the church’s ethics are in turmoil. The church’s ethics—not in the minimalistic sense of what’s right and wrong, but in the sense of how the church is to apply itself to the world—should not be the same as the world. Ours should be grounded in the unchanging truth of the Scriptures. Acknowledging that interpretations may vary over time and application will look decisively different in each age, it remains shocking that we are in unimaginable confusion over issues of sexuality.
While the church can paint with broad strokes the things it determines to be right and wrong, it has often lost how to live and communicate these truths. The church has been called to both orthodoxy (the correct path of thinking/believing) and orthopraxy (the correct path of living). But this has gotten confusing in an age that is bending the concept of society and social engagement at every seam. In the chaos, the church has lost the tree (the sin of homosexuality) for the forest (the social agenda of homosexuality). Or maybe it is the other way around. In either case, the church has revealed an ethic that is rotten at its core. Let me articulate this practically.
The test of a good theology is that it can address every text. Like a scientific hypothesis, outliers to a paradigm must be addressed. A theology must address the outlying “trouble texts.” Similarly, a healthy Christian ethic should be contextually transferable and able to adapt to any situation. The doctrinal truths of Christianity (orthodoxy, e.g. the incarnation, the Trinity, etc) should impact ethics (orthopraxy) around the world and throughout time. And yet the church has often found itself with an ethic that is crippled and misguided. Today’s ethics toward homosexuality is in a similar place. I believe this is an indication that the church generations directly before us have neglected ethics for too long. And now we are reaping what has been sown (in this case, absolutely nothing).
This is why I am writing. The church needs people to start braving the overgrown paths of ethics. My answers almost certainly are not right. But I am scared to leave my children with no answers to criticize and build upon. What I am confident about is that better questions should be asked in the here and now. And that’s what I am trying to do: provoke better questions. To do this requires a new perspective on where we’ve lost our way. So I’m presenting a dichotomy to demonstrate this. This in itself is dangerous and reflects that I am a child of this age. But even a poor dichotomy will do for now. The dichotomy I am putting forth is between the sin of homosexuality and the social agenda of homosexuality. Again we've lost the distinction between prophetic pronouncement against sin and bullhorn pronouncement against social agendas. My belief is that in losing this distinction the church has greatly confused their ethic.
The Sin of Homosexuality
To assuage the conservative wrath machine, I will quickly state that homosexuality is a sin. But recall that I’m not leaving ethics at the primitive state of “declare what is right and wrong.” Our ethic must move towards application in the world. So what is homosexuality? If we define the term too loosely we will lose sight of our ethic. If we define it too narrowly we lose biblical integrity. The church must understand that homosexuality is specifically the sexual act of a man with a man or a woman with a woman.
It is my opinion that Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 are clear in their reproach of homosexual practice. Now, it is true that these passages can be contextualized as merely opposing the male cult prostitutes of the surrounding countries. This contextualization can be valid and helpful but it remains to be seen how it changes anything in light of Paul’s, albeit controversial, writing. For the church must admit, that in Christ we have not been freed to worship however we desire but we’ve been called to worship in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23-24). Apart from a relativistic moral paradigm, truth remains determined by the benevolent revelation of God. And apart from an extreme hermeneutic of contextualization, the orthodox church has remained steadfast in its belief that homosexuality is a sin. In so doing the church must understand that this is specifically the sexual act of a man with a man or a woman with a woman. This is the kernel. This is the link between homosexuality and sexual immorality. And this is the reminder that there are other sexual sins that must be addressed even when they do not have an aggressive or abrasive social agenda.
I know that the liberal church will not like this assessment. In accordance with the wealth of information of this subject I would not dare attempt to insert something here that would change the hearts of men and women. That is beyond me. But it is important to understand that I affirm the church’s stance that homosexuality is a sin. And it is important that I affirm this because of what I seek to say directly against the church next.
The Social Agenda of Homosexuality
This is the forest in which we live. The social agenda of homosexuality should not be surprising. With the denigration of the family (the church’s fault) and the rising masculinization of women, also known as feminism (also the church’s fault), there was nothing left to distinguish between what a fitting relationship is and is not. The church’s response in these matters has been to sulk back and take pop-shots at the social agendas of these movements instead of address the pertinent sin(s) inside of its walls.
Let’s take a step back though and unpack what I’ve just insinuated. I’m sure I just made someone mad at my sweeping generalizations but hear me out. The church must soak in this next sentence like a sponge: The social agenda of homosexuality is the outworking in society demanding the public acceptance of private sin.
Now let’s break that down. First, demanding the public acceptance of a private sin is a social agenda. We are all aware of this because we see it in the news each day. The push for same sex marriage has influenced everything from fast food consumption to craft supplies. This is a social agenda that moves for equality throughout ever industry. It would be silly to imagine a social agenda seeking to do any less. Our society is made up of these elements and it is right to think that nothing is off limits within the realm of our social orders. So we have seen this movement push upon cake makers, photographers, and even pastors. This is a progressing and successful social movement.
It also demands public acceptance. The arena of ethics that is springing up has been, at its roots, an arena of social/public resistance. Society norms always lag behind social movements. This has been independent of whether or not these social movements were right or wrong. Unfortunately, the world is often experiencing this as they seek to modify their thinking to make room for new expressions of old sins. In either case, there is always a movement seeking to further the understanding of society or push a new philosophy. In case of homosexuality, many elements of its social agenda have been fought and pushed back until this point. It doesn’t meet the philosophy of the sexually conservative (whether in the church or out of it). It has seen pushback in the arena of athletes. But it has also experienced recent success in both. If the church were honest with itself, we can admit that we have chosen this place to stand our ground and fight.
Finally, the social agenda is pushing a private sin. This is where the church needs to pay attention. Homosexuality is a private sin that many, if not all of us, have never been a witness to. We have been bombarded with the social agenda. But that is not the same as being bombarded with the private sin. The reaction from conservative Christians these days would not inform us that this is true. We have somehow lifted up the private sin and placed it before our eyes every time we see the social agenda. And we’ve done so at the expense of normalizing other sins in our own eyes. This is why a conservative Christian feels uncomfortable watching two men or women kiss on television, but will not blink when the next scene captures a couple in adultery or some other form of sexual immorality. But this example is not the main point. The truth is that most sins are private sins. And many in the church have made a mastery of making sure that their sins are kept private. This, of course, has caused our ethics to rust alongside our Bibles. And this is why the social agenda of homosexuality has caught the church off its guard and with its pants down.
The church in its frail ethic has been turning its eye away from private sin. In the ever-increasing wave of the prosperity gospel and perverse focus on evangelism without discipline the church has permitted sin to fester in private. Not all sins have been of a sexual nature but I don’t think Paul drew such harsh of lines (1 Cor 6:9-10). But these sins have not been as private as the church would like to think. The world has been as aware of this festering problem of private sin and noticed that it has gone unchecked. Discipleship and church discipline are dirty words in the evangelical church and as such Jesus Christ is a dirty word in the world.
How This Dichotomy Effects Our Prophetic Voice
This dichotomy has been adequately, though not completely, laid out. Certainly more could be said to shore up the distinctions. But what is to be said about its value and application? And where should the value and application be applied? If these questions are confusing, then perhaps our ethic needs evaluation. So let me paint the landscape as I see it.
The church has confused itself and its congregants. There has hovered over the church the false presumption that its realm of influence is the realm of social agenda. This has been a mistake. Despite where we might disagree with the social agenda of homosexuality (and we should) Paul’s point is clear that about the realm of judgment the church should be concerned about in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:12). So why have we entered into the fray against the social agenda instead of maintaining our biblical role against the sin of homosexuality?
First, Jesus Christ certainly brought a matter of social awareness to Jewish faith that was the heart of early Christian ethic. Therefore concern for social issues is inherently Christian. The United States of America has enjoyed periods of time where agreement was acknowledged on social issues (while not addressing sin issues). These years of no Christian ethic are catching up and the church is responding to the social issues as it believes it should. However, the responses have not been unilateral. In the Scriptures, social concerns are typically portrayed as for the marginalized and oppressed. In this way, without a proper definition of sin, the liberal theology with its endorsement of the homosexual agenda (liberation theology in particular) has tried to stay true to the word of God. The church needs to learn from this and step back from its social engagements until we have proper means for addressing sin, as defined by the Scriptures, in our congregations.
Second, the church is fractured. In a day where one’s opinion can be voiced via social media, the tendency has been for “spokesmen” of the church to speak without the convening of the church. This has not been done with the intent to harm the church, but it also has not been done in the best interest of the church. Congregants can voice their opinion in support or disagreement with the social agenda much easier, often and provocatively than their pastor or the church-unified can speak against the sin of homosexuality. Setting aside the fact that it benefits news agencies when this occurs, this has led to a great disparagement of balance in perspective. The common mode of “speaking out” against homosexuality has become taking a stand against the social movement, typically provoked by the latest media news story, instead of being focused on the Scripture first and the uniformed statement of the church.
The world, growing accustom to these types of outbursts from our scattered affiliations, have accepted these as confused and uneducated statements of the church. And congregants alone are not to blame. For every well-meaning popular pastor/theologian who voices their opinion on the latest breaking news or court ruling, the world continues to be persuaded that concern over sin has been abandoned and that homosexuality has been targeted unfairly.
It is at this point that prophetic pronouncement and bullhorn pronouncement come into play. We have lost the singular voice of the church for a tweet. The medium is really not what matters though. The problem is that as a non-homogenous group the church has long since forgotten to address the homosexual sin and the congregation cannot seem to get past the homosexual agenda.
With confused ethics, we have not known where we should take our stand or against what it should be taken. But with each day, more and more stands are being taken and almost all of them via social media. As such, many of these revolve around our lack of comfort with the social agenda and not our concern for those in captivity to the sin of homosexuality. If we’re being honest, it has been the public nature of the social agenda that made us concerned in the first place. The sin of homosexuality has lain dormant and ignored by the church. But the church congregants have felt accosted by the social agenda. The church has communicated that we don’t care what happens in the privacy of the heterosexual house, but we sure don’t appreciate seeing two men or women holding hands and kissing in public. Permit me to say—this is stupid and not Christlike.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
The obvious question is “What now?” How is the church to adjust and make a positive movement? If the dichotomy stands then the choice is simple. The church must slowly remove itself from the social discussion. We must set down our bullhorns and lay aside our social media personas for the sake of returning to the prophetic voice. Let’s return to addressing sins within the church (1 Cor 5:12; Eph 5:1-14; 1 Pet 4:17). To do this, the church must take up the Scriptures. They must take up the church fathers as they interpreted the verses on homosexuality. Pulpits across America must be littered with sermons that address sin (including sexual immorality) at its root: our rebellion toward God. Then the pulpit can return to its purpose, proclaiming the power of God in Christ to undermine sin, death, and the devil. All sin. All death. Every devil. Not just the ones that have social agendas behind them.
Together, not separated, the church then moves forward. It must shore up its proclamation that sin is sin and must make no allowances for the rightful reign of sin in the church—no matter its form. Then in faithfulness the church, reborn, can step out in gospel proclamation, not social defiance, against the sexual immoralities that our society revels in and those that they prohibit. This requires the church to step back from its hypocrisy of attacking the social agenda of homosexuality without addressing the private sin and without caring for those who are fighting their same sex desires. This doesn’t mean abandoning the social arena forever. It means to step back and address our in house issues first. The church must instill a gospel message that can move as a biblical ethic against addiction to all forms of sexual immorality and against all sin.
After addressing these issues directly, and after returning to a biblical model of church discipline and discipleship, the church can then begin to enter the social arena. How will that look? I’m not sure. At first it might look like Judah affirming the righteousness of the deceptive Tamar. But in the long run I imagine it will look like Christ’s interaction with the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery.
Joshua Torrey is a New Mexico boy in an Austin, TX world. He is husband to Alaina and father to Kenzie & Judah and spends his free time studying for the edification of his household. These studies include the intricacies of hockey, football, curling, beer, and theology. You can follow him @AustinPreterism and read his theological musings and running commentary of the Scriptures at The Torrey Gazette.