[NOTE FROM TIM: This article was posted on Baylyblog back in 2006. Church of the Good Shepherd is now called Clearnote Church, Bloomington.]
The 2006 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met a few weeks ago and approved a measure that clears the way for practicing homosexuals to be ordained and installed as pastors and elders of the church. Many news organizations covered this event, but no one commented on the most newsworthy aspect of this radical step--namely, that the measure was itself the product of a Task Force that included a number of evangelicals, and that the evangelicals were instrumental in selling this proposal to the church. How does it happen that evangelicals promote the normalization of sodomy and advocate a plan that clears the way for sodomites to shepherd God's flock? There's a lesson here--a very important lesson--particularly for evangelicals who think all that's important is that people "love Jesus" and have prayed the sinner's prayer. Please read on...
Now I ask you, lady, not as though I were writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (2 John 1:5-11)
The late Elizabeth Achtemeier was adjunct professor of Bible and homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and served on the board of Presbyterians Pro-Life, a reform organization within the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA). Particularly because of her courageous opposition to some of the most poisonous aspects of feminism within mainline Presbyterianism, it came as no surprise that Elizabeth was appointed to the PC(USA) General Assembly's blue ribbon Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity as a representative of those on the evangelical end of the denominational spectrum.
This so-called "PUP Task Force" was formed several years ago to try to mediate the chronic tensions over sodomy that have split the PC(USA) since the mid-seventies. The denomination made a conscious effort to balance the membership of the PUP Task Force between those who still hold to Scripture's condemnations of sodomy and those who have rejected Scripture's condemnations and demand the Church endorse sodomy by accepting practicing sodomites as members and placing them in the office of pastor and elder.
When Elizabeth died in the middle of the Task Force's work, her son Mark Achtemeier, a PC(USA) seminary professor teaching systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary, was appointed to take her place and he served on the Task Force through the completion of its work this past year. The Task Force brought a number of recommendations to the (national) General Assembly this year, all of which were carefully crafted to end the divisive battle over the normalization of sodomy.
Up until this time, those seeking to normalize sodomy and to ordain sodomites to the offices of pastor and elder had to contend with PC(USA) denominational standards that forbade such ordinations. If churches defied these standards, they could be brought up on charges, although through the years a variety of technicalities were used to escape accountability. True, the denomination's definitive guidance was a roadblock to those seeking to normalize sodomy, but the practice across the country was a far cry from that definitive guidance. Lesbians and gays were active at all levels of the church as members, leaders, and officers, and there was little accountability for those who flaunted their rebellion against God's Word.
Yet even as they rebelled against Scripture's doctrine of sexuality and got away with only a few slaps on the wrist, the sodomy lobby worked feverishly to change church law so that sexual perversion would no longer be formally condemned and informally overlooked, but positively celebrated. Nothing less would do. Thus for years every level of church government found its time consumed by the battle, and people grew so weary of the controversy that the PUP Task Force was appointed and given a mandate to find a way out of the quagmire.
This year's national General Assembly was D-day, and the Task Force released its recommendations a few months before the Assembly so there would be plenty of time for commissioners to weigh its recommendations before the assembly convened. When those with biblical commitments saw the report and read through its recommendations, they were sickened to see that the Task Force had thrown in the towel and called it quits. Assuming the General Assembly adopted the Task Force recommendations (which it now has), they knew the definitive guidance would become obsolete. Rather, local rule would prevail. True, in theory this meant conservative churches and presbyteries could enforce the definitive guidance if they so chose, but only within their own jurisdiction. Meanwhile, liberal churches and presbyteries would be cut loose to do as they thought best--including ordaining and installing self-affirming active sodomites as pastors and elders. Really, the recommendations amounted to a ceding of the historic Presbyterian principle of connectionalism to the all-American ecclesiastical default of congregationalism.
But as shocking as the parameters of the surrender were, the shock turned into disbelief when the names of those who had signed on to the surrender included a number of evangelicals, including Elizabeth Achtemeier's son, Mark. People were flabbergasted. How could Elizabeth's son betray Scripture and the souls under his protection in this way? Did he care nothing for those tempted by same-sex intimacy? Was he really prepared to join the long line of self-proclaimed prophets who cry "Peace, peace" where there is no peace? As the smoke cleared, there was no denying that Mark Achtemeier had been co-opted by the sodomites...
He explained his support for the Task Force's surrender by making public statements about how close he had grown to sodomites, what good friends they were, how sincere they were in their prayers, and how clear it had become to him that the sodomites he had come to know during the course of his Task Force work loved Jesus more and were better Christians than he was. (The best way to get a sense of Achtemeier's betrayal of the Lord is to read this address he gave on November 16, 2004 to John Knox Presbytery, the presbytery in which I was ordained in 1983, and held membership for over eight years.)
Lest there be any confusion, Achtemeier was not speaking about men and women tempted by same-sex intimacy who are committed to living chaste lives in the power of the Holy Spirit, but rather men and women who constantly give themselves to the practice of sexual perversion and call it good. These are the ones Achtemeier came to believe loved Jesus more than he did. And so he voted in favor of a proposal that will give over to sodomites the shepherding of God's flock.
To those who view homosexuality as the final frontier for the work of embracing diversity within the Church, it might appear that all previous ages of Christians have been too prudish and censorious to acknowledge those among us who are tempted by same-sex intimacy. But from the founding of the Church in apostolic times, sodomy has been a well-worn path of temptation. And from love for the souls under her nurture and care, the Church has warned souls to flee from it. So it's nothing new. We read in 1Corinthians that the Corinthian church had men and women within its membership--and quite possibly serving as pastors and elders--who had been sodomites and had repented of their sin and were sodomites no more:
(D)o you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; emphasis added)
These dear brothers and sisters were washed and sanctified, having been saved from sins such as idolatry, adultery, thievery, effeminacy, and homosexuality. Note well the past tense of the statement "such were some of you," but also the warning this section begins with: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God." The most basic reading of the New Testament makes it clear that those who cling to their sin do not know God. They do not have faith, they have not been washed in the blood of the Lamb, and very soon they will be cast into hell where, according to Jesus, the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. This is the inescapable meaning of another similar New Testament warning:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7, 8)
What are we to say then about the sodomy lobby within the church today?
We must not say this lobby is only in the mainline churches and has little application to evangelical, fundamentalist, or other Bible-believing Protestant churches. Such a serious misunderstanding of the attack of the Evil One upon the church of our time is inexcusable. It's the sort of willful naïveté Scripture relentlessly condemns.
The warning for evangelicals
About seven years ago, I had spent several years working closely with a seminary professor of impeccable evangelical credentials who had spent his years within evangelical churches. At the time, I was Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and this professor shared with me the work of opposing evangelical feminists in their attack upon the biblical doctrine of father-rule.
We were speaking on the phone one day and I said it was important that we not lead church members to think that the battle over father-rule was only a lover's quarrel. Instead, we needed to make it clear that feminists were unfaithful to Scripture; that they were rebels against Jesus Christ and must be disciplined by their churches. I lamented that many of CBMW's leaders (including, I should mention, the professor I was speaking with) fell all over themselves to assure their readers and audiences that they were on warm personal terms with their esteemed colleague with whom they were debating, Dr. So 'n So; that they had nothing but the highest respect for him as a Bible scholar; that they didn't question his commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture; and that the friendliness of their exchange was proof of the warm personal regard they had for each other.
"This is completely wrong." I said. "These men are enemies of God who are leading His little ones astray, and it is our responsibility to warn the sheep--not cozen up to the wolves."
My friend's response led to a tidal change in our working relationship. He said, "Tim, your years in the PC(USA) are causing you to misunderstand this battle. These men are not our enemies--they are fellow believers! You're used to opposing men who aren't Christians, but you have to remember that these men are Christians. They love Jesus and we have to treat them as brothers in Christ, with love."
There are many things in this exchange that we could take time to unpack, but let's focus on my friend's claim that discipline is appropriate in doctrinal matters within mainline denominations where people aren't really Christians in the first place, but it's not appropriate within evangelical denominations, churches, and seminaries where it is our brothers in Christ who are opposing God. Surely no false shepherd should ever be exposed because we are jealous, resentful, or have personal animosity toward him. Rather, he should be exposed because he's a false shepherd, and his discipline is a protection for the sheep he's seeking to devour. This is why Paul commands Timothy:
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. (1 Timothy 5:19-21; emphasis added)
When an elder opposes the biblical doctrine of father-rule, writing articles, giving lectures, and preaching sermons against husbands exercising authority in the home, and in favor of women serving as pastors and elders, that elder needs to be confronted gently usually in private), and led to repentance. But if he is proud and refuses the church's correction, the Apostle Paul's instructions are clear: he must be rebuked publicly, in front of the church, so that those watching and listening to his rebuke "will be fearful of sinning" themselves. And just in case the elder's reputation, wealth, position, number of published works, or academic pedigree might cause a young pastor to treat him with kid gloves, the Apostle Paul calls upon God, Christ Jesus, and His chosen angels as witnesses to his demand that Timothy do this nasty work faithfully, not giving in to "bias" or "partiality."
So, contrary to what my professor friend said, it is precisely those who claim true Christian faith and who have been given positions within the Bible-believing church who are to be disciplined in this way. To argue that discipline is an inappropriate tool to use to correct believing pastors and elders who hold office within Bible-believing churches is to turn the explicit instructions the Apostle Paul gives Timothy on their head.
How have we gotten to the place where we think of public church discipline as something that is inappropriate for use with real Christians in Bible-believing churches?
Clearly, such arguments are the "bias" and "spirit of partiality" the Apostle Paul warned Timothy against. And when we accept the discipline of liberals who oppose evangelical Christian faith, but oppose the discipline of those who profess evangelical Christian faith, we have betrayed God's flock for the sake of our own personal relationships or career advancement.
Speaking candidly, it's hard to say who is more unfaithful to the Lord--the one who opposes the biblical doctrine of male headship or the one who claims that his evangelical feminist colleagues ought not to be disciplined because they're real Christians who simply have a different take on the passages of Scripture under debate.
Now jump back with me to Mark Achtemeier and ask yourself how different he is from my professor friend? Both men believe that pastors and elders who oppose the Scriptural doctrine of sexuality should not be disciplined if, in their own judgment, these men are "real Christians" who "love Jesus" and hold to their errors "sincerely" or "in good faith." Really, what does it matter that the error is feminism among evangelicals and sodomy among mainliners? Is either error more justifiable, biblically? Is Scripture clear in its condemnation of sodomy but unclear in its condemnation of feminism?
No, both errors are condemned with great precision in God's Word and in both cases their condemnation is lodged in God's creation order in the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall. God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve; and God created Adam before Eve to the end that all men across history would know that woman is not to exercise authority over man. So whichever error is being advocated, whether the one advocating the error is a professor at Dubuque Seminary or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; whether he reads Donald Bloesch or John Frame; whether he speaks at venues where he shares the marquee with the Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, R. C. Sproul, or Mark Driscoll; whether he publishes with Westminster/John Knox or Zondervan; whether he votes Democratic or Republican; whether he speaks of the infallibility or the inerrancy of Scripture; no matter what his theological pedigree or how close our personal friendship is, he is to be warned privately, with gentleness; and if he doesn't repent, he is to be disciplined publicly so that others will see his discipline and will be "fearful of sinning."
To sew the button on with iron thread, evangelicals watching Mark Achtemeier's compromise with the sodomy lobby and listening to his explanation of that compromise need to recognize that Mark Achtemeier is only doing what we evangelicals have been doing already for many decades with a host of sins equally condemned in Scripture, including fornication, divorce, adultery, greed, and feminism. We have taught and (sometimes) preached against these sins, but been unwilling to discipline those guilty of them as long as they claimed to have a personal relationship with Jesus, they worked for an evangelical parachurch organization, they professed in a seminary where they had to sign on to a statement of faith that included the word 'inerrancy', or they held membership in an evangelical or Bible-believing church.
We're foolish if we think our compromises will stop with our own pet sins within evangelicalism, and not continue on to the point where, with Mark Achtemeier, we also are conniving at the sins we presently find so scandalous within the mainline denominations.