by Shane Scott
Last week a special conference of the United Methodist Church voted on whether to maintain the denomination’s opposition to homosexual marriage and ordination (called the “Traditional Plan”) or to permit individual churches to make their own decision (called the “One Church Plan”). The Traditional Plan narrowly defeated the One Church Plan, by a vote of 53% to 47%. The One Church Plan was backed by the upper hierarchy of the denomination, but the churches outside of the United States coalesced to defeat the liberalization of United Methodist practice.
Now, of course, denominational organizations are absent from the New Testament, but the Scriptures are certainly not silent on the issues of marriage and sexuality. The Lord Jesus taught that the inherent structure of the created order points to the one man for one woman relationship of marriage as the exclusive context for the “one flesh” enjoyment of sexual intimacy.
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matthew 19:4-6)
How then could any gathering of professed Christians assume the prerogative to blatantly contradict the authority of Christ? The answer to that question is very simple. This is what happens when believers allow their culture rather than Christ to shape their values. And while the corrosive effect of culture can eat away at Christian teaching in lots of ways (greed, racism, exploitation), one of the most pernicious and persistent cultural challenges is in the area of sexuality. Based on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the Christians in that decadent city permitted their immoral culture to distort their faith with all sorts of perverse practices, such as incest (1 Cor. 5:1-2) and prostitution (1 Cor. 6:15).
Our culture also presents us challenges with its fixation on radical individualism (“I have the right to do what I want”) and on radical emotionalism (“I have the right to be happy”). Combine those toxic ideologies that are so deeply ingrained in modern western culture, apply them to sexuality, and the results are as catastrophic as they are predictable. It is telling that the Methodist churches outside of the cultural sway of the west were the ones who took sharp exception to the liberalization plan last week. The issue – as always – is whether Christ or culture is Lord.
This current controversy over same-sex conduct is only the latest manifestation of these larger issues. Right around the same time the United Methodists were debating these matters, one of my favorite actors, Chris Pratt, found himself under attack because he attends a church that one magazine columnist labeled homophobic. Pratt was quick to say that his church was non-judgmental, that “despite what the Bible says about divorce, my church community was there for me every stop of the way, never judging, just gracefully accompanying me on my walk.”
Despite what the Bible says.
He went on to say that “I am a man who believes that everyone is entitled to love who they want free from the judgement of their fellow man.”
Now in the first place, NOBODY believes “everyone is entitled to love who they want.” I am not entitled to love your wife. An adult is not entitled to love a child. This is an absurd statement on its face. But this is what Christianity looks like when it is held captive to culture rather than Christ, when it sells out to the individualism and emotionalism that are the twin pillars of America’s pagan temple.
Here is what Christ actually said. First, you do not have a right to do whatever you want, and you are certainly not entitled to do what makes you happy. Instead, the essence of following him is surrender and sacrifice.
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
Not only are his disciples not entitled to love who they want, Jesus prohibits even fantasizing about loving the spouse of someone else, because he knew that the heart was where this battle must truly be waged, and with extreme measures if necessary.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Matt 5:27-30).
Jesus also taught that forsaking your spouse to marry someone else is not an entitlement; it is adultery.
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18).
These excerpts from the gospel no doubt seem shockingly harsh in contrast to American pop religious culture, but that says far more about the state of religion in America than it does the gospels. A few weeks ago I led a small group in a study of the C.S. Lewis classic Mere Christianity, first published in 1952. Lewis called it that because he wanted to explain the bare-bones basics of Christianity for someone who was not a believer, and so he focused on the big-picture issues rather than the finer points of doctrinal disagreement among believers. In that highly ecumenical work, Lewis laid out what he took for granted to be the view of sexual ethics held by all professed Christians. “There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence’” (p. 95). Even in that day, Lewis acknowledged that chastity was “the most unpopular of the Christian virtues” (p. 95). But it was the Christian view of the subject.
Lewis understood that we have all sorts of feelings and impulses which emerge from what he called our “raw psychological material,” some more amenable to Christianity, like the desire of a man for a woman, and some not, like “the desire of a man for a man” (p. 89). He even allowed that most of our psychological makeup is probably due to our bodies, i.e. genetics and biology (p. 91). But he also recognized that Christianity calls upon all of us to make choices that are contrary to our various impulses, regardless of the factors that generate those impulses. Indeed, he countered the notion that “any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal” as not only a lie but sheer “nonsense,” because “surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health” (p. 100).
I don’t know of any church, of any Christian, that could not benefit from a sober reminder of these “mere Christian” teachings, “mere” because they are fundamental, not frivolous. The way to combat the erosion of convictions is by taking to heart the cross, the centerpiece of our faith, with its challenge of what submission and sacrifice really look like. But with the cross we also get the reassuring promise that we are not on our own, but that as we take up our cross we are simply following the lead of the One who loves us eternally. And with that encouragement, we can follow him until our journey concludes in glory.
But if you are a poor creature – poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels – saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion – nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends – do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all – not least yourself (Mere Christianity p. 215).