Friday, June 22, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, June 22, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A deeper look at ecumenical movement as Pope Francis goes to Geneva to mark the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches
It was an interesting scene yesterday when the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church traveled to Geneva, the historic home, one of the major branches of the Protestant Reformation, and there spoke to the World Council of Churches representing that organization's 70th birthday. Reuters reported, "Pope Francis called on Christians Thursday to break down barriers of suspicion and fear that have divided them since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and to work together to help the most needy." Reuters went on to say that, "Pope Francis made a day trip to Geneva to mark the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches and then that council was identified as a fellowship of 350 mostly national churches representing Protestant communities and some Orthodox Christians." So what's going on here?
First of all, what in the world is the World Council of Churches and what is the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church doing addressing that organization? The Roman Catholic Church, we should note, is not a member of the World Council of Churches. The World Council of Churches is a part of the great ecumenical movement, a massive movement of mostly liberal-minded Christians during the 20th century, seeking to indicate the unity of the Christian church by the ultimate goal of having a common communion, a common identity within a world or global context of Christians.
Going back to 1948 when the World Council of Churches began, you can see that it followed in the same basic pattern or impulse as the United Nations. The roots of the Council, however, go back far beyond World War II. You'd have to go back to the early decades of the 20th century when the ecumenical movement as an interchurch movement basically began amongst college students and amongst efforts to mobilize college students for world mission, but that happened at a very interesting moment in world history. It happened even as many of the liberal Protestant denominations were redefining missions away from conversionism and instead towards a form of social action.
The student volunteer movement and other ecumenical movements of students during the first decades of the 20th century represented at least at the start more conservative and more liberal Christians, with the more conservative Christians thinking of conversion and taking the gospel to the nations and the more liberal Christians thinking of mobilizing those very same college students for a more overtly political mission. Then came the historic traumas of the 20th century, most importantly those two world wars. They both redefined the landscape, not only politically and nationally, but also theologically.
Liberal Protestantism moved in even more liberal directions, after World War I, in the period between the two world wars, and then especially after World War II. The World Council of Churches grew out of that ecumenical impulse and many of those student movements, and there is no question that those who founded the council intended for it eventually to become an historic, physical, visible representation of the unity of the church, with all Christian churches joining the council, but it was never so from the beginning.
The Roman Catholic Church was standoffish to the ecumenical movement, mostly because the Roman Catholic Church claimed to be the one true church. Furthermore, the irony of the Pope speaking on the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches is that, even as the Wall Street Journal's coverage noted, one of the major stumbling blocks to that kind of institutional unity of the church is the papacy itself, because the Pope claims supremacy over all of Christianity. Needless to say, that's a bit of a stumbling block.
Is disunity a greater scandal than the scandal of abandoning doctrine and accepting theological minimalism?
Going back to August 23, 1948, when the World Council of Churches was established, its mission was to be "a fellowship of churches which accept Jesus Christ our Lord his God and Savior." The constitution of the Council states that its primary purpose "is to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance toward that unity in order that the world may believe."
Now in that statement, of course, you hear echoes of Jesus's words in John chapter 17 about the unity of the church, but looking back to John chapter 17, we must be reminded that the true unity of the church is not institutional and in this age, it is not visible. Rather, it is spiritual and theological. If you're seeking for the kind of organizational or institutional unity of the church, as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in United States they try to demonstrate, the problem is that the only way to achieve that kind of unity is by adopting a certain form of theological minimalism. The only way you can claim that kind of visible unity is either to change your theology or to minimize theology. In any event, that meant abandoning the historic confessional Protestant theology of most of the member churches.
More properly, we understand, according to Scripture, that the unity of the church is indeed doctrinal. It is theological. It is based in the faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is centered in Christ because in Christ we find that true unity, but that's the Christ revealed in the New Testament, not the Christ of modern liberal theology.
We also hear, I've to ask a basic question, which is the greater scandal? An apparent disunity in the church which is made visible by different denominations and names of churches? That will be a scandal of one sort, but is that a greater or a lesser scandal than the scandal of changing the churches' theology, abandoning doctrine, and accepting some kind of theological minimalism, basically a theological version of a lowest common denominator? That too is a scandal, even as liberal theology is a scandal. You put the two of those together in the balance, and there could be no question that having different denominations, each of which continues in historic Christianity, is a far lesser scandal to having one united church as defined by the World Council of Churches that is united in something less than biblical Christianity.
I often quote Sidney Mead on this, the American church historian, who said that the presence of different denominations is understandable given a certain formula. It's almost as if it is as simple as math. The formula is this: Theological conviction plus religious liberty equals denominations. We have Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians and Anglicans, and you could go on down the list because we have different theological convictions, even as true gospel-minded Anglicans and Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians, add Lutherans and others to the mix, hold to the one true Christian faith.
We hold to the Trinitarian faith of the church. We hold to Jesus Christ in the gospel as the apostles preached it, but we organize our churches according to some different convictions, concerning church order, church leadership, and indeed, the ordinances or sacraments depending upon the language the church uses. But it's a far lesser scandal, for example, to have gospel-minded, scripturally-committed Baptists and Presbyterians divided over baptism than it is to have on the other hand churches that claim to be united but are united in something far less than the gospel.
The news here is that the Pope went to Geneva, one of the most famous cities of the Reformation in the 16th century, the city most closely associated with John Calvin, but Geneva is also now very representative of a post-Christian era. Geneva is now more defined by the international organizations, they call it home, and its favorite son is not so much John Calvin as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Prior to Vatican II as the Council was known in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was basically defined as being anti-ecumenical by its very essence. All that changed with Vatican II, but it didn't change entirely. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, isn't a member of the World Council of Churches and can't be a member of the World Council of Churches because the Roman Catholic Church would not allow. Here's the irony of the Pope's visit: most of the members of the World Council of Churches' churches to participate in the mass of the Roman Catholic Church.
As I mentioned, the papacy itself represented by Pope Francis in Geneva is one of the major stumbling blocks, even to the World Council of Churches. But the point made by Francis X. Rocca in his article covering this development in the Wall Street Journal is that Pope Francis, who has a very deep ecumenical impulse, is finding that the world has changed and that his impulses are being checked by disagreements over moral issues. The headline in the Journal is this: "Culture Clashes Hurt Pope's Hopes for Christian Unity."
Rocca points to the contemporary context. He defines it as, "A period of momentous cultural change in the West as more liberal churches have accepted abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality." The point is that this clashes with the majority of Christians around the world who are definitely not joining that moral revolution.
But the week before, the journal also had a very interesting piece having to do with the development in South America, where Argentina is moving towards the legalization of abortion. The big issue in this story is that the Roman Catholic Church in Argentina, as we saw weeks ago when Ireland was largely silent on an issue of the churches' basic conviction, that is abortion. Why was the church silent? It is because it has been so marginalized and its voice has been so compromised by a succession of sex abuse crises, but also because of the priorities of the current pope, Pope Francis, the very Pope who went to the World Council of Churches yesterday in Geneva.
‘Such were some of you’: Why language really matters — and always matters — in the discussion about same-sex attraction and sexual desire
But we shift from Geneva back to the United States, where you find conversation about many of the same issues. And of course, as we're thinking about the culture clashes and the big theological and moral challenges of our day, there is no way to escape the constant and seemingly unavoidable conversation, almost every day, about the issues that go these days under the rubric of LGBTQ. That comes to mind with a conference announced, sponsored by some who identify as evangelical or great tradition Christians. The conference is to be held at the end of July in St. Louis, Missouri. The name of the conference is Revoice. The use of the word there is, of course, not accidental. This is the labeling of the conference, and by using the word revoice, the organizers of the conference indicate they want to change the voice of evangelicalism on these crucial questions.
What's really interesting about this conference is how much attention that it has received even before the event has been held. Normally, there's more conversation after this kind of conferences held than before. That may yet be the case, but there's no doubt at this point that there is a great deal of evangelical conversation about this conference even before it has been held. The question will be, why. Some of those questions are immediately answered by a closer look at the call for the conference itself, the materials released on the website of the conference known as Revoice.
It's very important to take the organizers at their word when they write: "Revoice exists because we want to see LGBT people who adhere to the historic Christian sexual ethic flourish in their local faith communities. We envision," they wrote, "a future Christianity where LGBT people can be open and transparent in their faith communities about their orientation and/or experience of gender dysphoria without feeling inferior to their straight, cisgender brothers and sisters; where churches not only utilize but also celebrate the unique opportunities that life-long celibate LGBT people have to serve others; where Christian leaders boast about the faith of LGBT people who are living a sacrificial obedience for the sake of the Kingdom; and where LGBT people are welcomed into families so they, too, can experience the joys, challenges, and benefits of kinship."
What's most important at the onset to recognize is that those who've organized this conference are identifying as Christians who adhere to the historic Christian sexual ethic, and what's also important is to understand that this places this conference in a very different place than others who are also talking about the LGBTQ issues. And some of those others are arguing for a reversal of the historic Christian biblical understanding of sexual morality and of sexual behavior.
When it comes to sexual behavior and expression, the organizers are also very clear. They wrote: "We believe that the Bible restricts sexual activity to the context of a marriage covenant, which is defined in the Bible as the emotional, spiritual, and physical union of a man and a woman that is ordered toward procreation." Now the statement goes on when they say, "At the same time, we also believe that the Bible honors those who live out an extended commitment to celibacy, and that unmarried people should play a uniquely valuable role in the lives of local faith communities. Together, these two convictions," they said, "constitute the traditional sexual ethic, because it represents the worldview that the Bible consistently teaches across both the Old and New Testaments and that Christians have historically believed for millennia."
Let's be very honest and clear and note that the organizers of this conference are stating their agreement with the historic Christian sexual ethic that centers in marriage as the union of a man and a woman and that is a covenant union oriented towards procreation. They are very clear about that, and for that we should be thankful. So, why then would there be controversy? This is where we need to look closely and we're also going to have to listen closely.
As we look closely, we will notice that there are a couple of issues that come almost immediately to attention on the website of the conference known as Revoice. One of those issues is the kind of language that is used pervasively. For example, in that first statement I read referenced to LGBT people. Language is very important here. And so we really need to ask the question, do we want biblically and theologically to refer to individuals as LGBT people, especially when we're talking about Christians, or do we want to talk about, especially as we talk about Christians, believers who may be struggling with one form of temptation or with one set of issues or another?
The language becomes more problematic with the conference with references to, for example, sexual minorities, and as we think about that for a moment, we come to understand there's something more here than just words. This is a part we must presume of the revoicing that the conference organizers want to take place. But this is where biblically minded Christians had to think very, very clearly, even as we think very, very compassionately.
The question is this: Do we really want to speak of believers with our understanding of the gospel and of the holiness to which we are called and the sanctification, that is God's work in the life of believers, do we really want to define persons in this way? Is the use of the language such as LGBT people or references you may hear to LGBT Christians or to gay Christians, is that right languages that the clearest language we should use? What is implied in that language?
Well, at least a part of what's implied in that language seemingly is that this kind of sexual orientation or sexual identity gets right to the very being of an individual, and that becomes a huge question as we want to think carefully. That very issue becomes far more complicated when we think about the history of a term like sexual minorities.
Kevin DeYoung recently pointed to the origin of that term as we know it in a book written in Sweden in the 1960s entitled The Erotic Minorities: A Swedish View. But as DeYong points out, when you use the word minority in this kind of context, you're not just using it descriptively. The use of the word minority, given the background in the politics and sociology and cultural analysis of the 20th century, you're talking about a group that is presumed to have a certain political status and a certain identity.
Other issues that come immediately to mind appear from the language on the website. For example, one session bears the title "Redeeming Queer Culture and Adventure." Some of the texts concerning that session includes this statement: "Christians have often discarded the virtues of queer culture along with the vices, which leaves out culturally connected Christian sexual minorities torn between two cultures, two histories, and two communities. So questions that have until now been largely unanswered remain." Listen carefully to the language, I quote exactly: "What does queer culture and specifically queer literature and theory have to offer us who follow Christ? What queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time?" Then cited Revelation 21:24-26.
At this point, we realize we've entered into a very different conversation. Now, we're being directed to look at the virtues of queer culture. This is where Christians have to ask some very fundamental questions, and these questions are sometimes new questions to Christians in the 21st century. We're having to think about issues, we're having to answer questions we've never had to confront before.
There can be no honest question. The implicit in this language is the assertion that queer culture as it is defined here has something morally and theologically positive and profitable to add to Christianity. There can honestly be no other interpretation of language which ask what queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time. But that means that we also have to look from the end of the biblical story back to the beginning to the doctrine of creation, and here we have to understand that at least some of the speakers at this conference are arguing that in the garden, that is before the fall, there was some form of a same-sex sexual attraction, something that bears some kind of meaningful connection with what is now claimed to be LGBT identity.
One of the individuals involved in the conference and a book published just last year asked the question: "Is it too dangerous, too unorthodox, to believe that I am uniquely designed to reflect the glory of God? That my orientation, before the fall, was meant to be a gift in appreciating the beauty of my own sex as I celebrated the friendship of the opposite sex?" That's an astounding question.
We should remember that one of the recent turns in the argument for accepting homosexual behavior as well as homosexual orientation is the argument that homosexual relationships and homosexual desires were present before the fall. Thus, a part of the goodness of God's creation, but that is actually contradicted by Scripture. It's not only contradicted by explicit texts of Scripture, it's contradicted by the flow of biblical history and by any kind of biblical theology that understands the inherent connection between the perfection of creation in the beginning and the perfection of the new creation at the end. In between, of course, is sin and God's act of redemption. But it's not just sin and God's act of redemption, it is also God's creation of a church in Christ and Christ union with that church.
Furthermore, it is Christ's call to holiness and obedience in that church. So, sanctification and holiness are central to gospel Christianity, and thus we raise the question as to whether or not what is defined by so many as sexual orientation is actually compatible when put in this context with our understanding of the gospel and sanctification.
Honest Christians recognize that something that might be defined as a sexual orientation exist. We understand that a pattern of sexual attraction and sexual desire comes as known to us even as it is often, as we know it, unbidden. It's unchosen. We understand that, but this is where biblical Christianity points out that even as there is such an orientation or such a pattern of sexual attraction, that has to be measured over against the plan and purpose of God, the glory of God in creation and God's explicit teachings in his word. This is where we must ask: Is a desire as set over against a behavior also understood to be the result of the fall and is that desire understood to be in itself sinful? Here's where the wealth of the Christian tradition would require us to understand that a sinful desire is sinful in itself, even if that sinful desire does not end in the actualization of sexual or sinful misbehavior.
My biggest concern in this conference and in the language that is used and in the conversation that many evangelicals are now having is that what you see in this conference is the acceptance of the idea that our sexual identity or any individual's sexual orientation becomes a defining issue that isn't changed by the gospel and isn't transformed by sanctification.
I did not say that coming to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ results in any kind of immediate transformation of sexual desire. What I am arguing is that holiness and sanctification as revealed in the New Testament means that progressively whatever sinful desires mark us should become less a part of us and we should seek to identify with them in a lesser way, not in a greater way, by the Holy Spirit's work in our hearts and in our lives in sanctification.
But finally, as we try our best to think compassionately and clearly about these issues, I think we have to turn to a text such as First Corinthians chapter 6, verse 11, where Paul writes: "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." Now in First Corinthians 6 as in Romans chapter 1, Paul mentions specific sins, but by implication, he is indicting the entire human race. But speaking of our identity as sinners saved by grace, he says, "Such were some of you," and then uses the language of being washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. It can't be an accident, and we must not miss the power of that verb tense: "such were some of you."
That's not just a message for those who've organized and will be attending the Revoice Conference. That's a word for every single Christian all the time.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
More information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.