Tabletalk gives Biblical sexuality to Scott Sauls...

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The latest issue of Ligonier's monthly magazine, Tabletalk, has a two-page piece teaching Biblical sexuality—specifically the Seventh Commandment—written by Tim Keller's former assistant pastor, Scott Sauls. Readers will remember Sauls is the pastor who ordained a woman deacon during Keller's Redeemer morning worship service back in May of 2009, and later apologized. Now serving as Senior Pastor of Nashville's Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA), his most recent Tabletalk piece is illustrative of the impotence of Reformed pulpits, today. Before we get to the actual text of Saul's piece, though, readers who are unaware of the Reformed world's social register should be introduced to Tabletalk's reputation. Mike Horton provided Ligonier this blurb:

Tabletalk has been a key ingredient in the diet of Christians conscious of their spiritual vitality. — Michael S. Horton

And here's Al Mohler:

Month by month, Tabletalk represents an oasis in a desert of false spirituality, mindless Christianity, and vapid conviction. Tabletalk represents theological rigor, biblical Christianity, and authentic Christian devotion. It is an antidote to the world of superficial Christianity. Read it and grow. — R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

So now, we know what to expect in Pastor Sauls's article because Tabletalk is known for teaching with "spiritual vitality," for being an oasis in the middle of a desert of "vapid conviction;" Tabletalk's articles are "theologically rigorous," providing "antidotes" to this "world of superficial Christianity." Is this what we find in the article by Pastor Sauls?

Not exactly...


By Scott Sauls

The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the seventh commandment “requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior” (Q&A 71). Said differently, the seventh commandment calls for more than mere restraint from sexual activity outside the one-flesh union of marriage. It also calls for sexual purity in thought and speech.

So far, so good.

As once-taboo expressions of sexuality become mainstream, and as colleagues, friends, and even family members share news of a pending “no fault” divorce or a same-sex or cohabitating heterosexual relationship, more and more Christians—especially when friendships and family ties hang in the balance—feel an urgency to sympathize instead of condemn, to support instead of separate, to affirm instead of deny.  And yet, we are still left to wrestle with the biblical text.

"Once-taboo?" What is that? Does Pastor Sauls merely mean "once-hidden and shameful?" If so, he's right; there is no hiddenness or shame attached to sodomy any longer. As he says, this sexual perversion is now mainstream, both outside and inside the church.

Then he writes that our "family members share news of ...a same-sex or cohabiting heterosexual relationship," yet it's unclear whether the same-sex relationship is a cohabiting relationship? It would have been more clear if Pastor Sauls had written (or the editor had changed the text to) "a cohabiting same-sex or heterosexual relationship." But that would have placed same-sex and heterosexual immorality on the same level, and that's still risque within the conservative Reformed church—hence the confusing order of the words.

Pastor Sauls moves from the sins of fornication, unbiblical "no-fault" divorce, and sodomy, towards the Church and Her response. Christians, he points out, find ourselves in a very awkward place because our "friendships and family ties hang in the balance." Thus we "feel an urgency to sympathize instead of condemn, to support instead of separate, to affirm instead of deny."

Yes, this is the entire point of the many-hours of preaching, talks, and Q&A sessions Pastor Sauls hosted a couple weeks ago at his church in Nashville featuring a Covenant Theological Seminary student who was joined by Pastor Sauls and his associate, Pastor Ken Leggett, in calling the church to "feel an urgency to sympathize instead of condemn, to support instead of separate, to affirm instead of deny." Not affirm sodomitic physical relations, of course, but rather sympathize with, support, and affirm those people who desire to identify publicly as "same-sex attracted" Christians.

Then, after his second paragraph sets up the loss of taboos across our culture and the pressures we face because of this loss of shame among our friends and loved ones, Pastor Sauls ends the paragraph with this statement of God’s commands and our submission to His commands:

And yet, we are still left to wrestle with the Biblical text.

Seriously? A preacher of the Gospel writing in the Reformed publication of record amidst the maelstrom of sexual anarchy that is crying down God's Word and commands as "homophobia" and "hate speech" addresses some of the most conservative Christians in our nation and sums up our position by saying "And yet, we are still left to wrestle with the Biblical text?"

Note that Pastor Sauls doesn't call us to obey God, but to wrestle with Him. Or rather, not to wrestle with God, but to wrestle with His Word. Or rather, not to wrestle with His Word, but to "wrestle with the Biblical text." Can we all see how very far, rhetorically, the following statements are from each other?

SAULS DIDN'T WRITE: And yet, God's command remains firm: "Do not commit adultery."

HE WROTE: And yet, we are still left to wrestle with the Biblical text.

Contrast Pastor Sauls's exhortation to the North American Reformed church with the rigorous and convicting exhortation given by the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church living within a culture identical to our own in its shameless embrace of sexual perversion:

Or do 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.  - 1Corinthians 6:9-11

Or this from the Apostle Paul's letter to the church in Galatia:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  - Galatians 5:19-21

Is the Apostle Paul's rhetoric inspired? Is he a model to be copied in the method and tone of his exhortations to the Church of Jesus Christ living in the midst of a culture shamelessly pursuing sexual perversion? Again, let's remember that prior to accepting his present call to the pulpit of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville Pastor Sauls was Tim Keller’s assistant at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (also PCA) in Manhattan. His use of rhetoric is familiar to us and we keep his time at Redeemer in mind as he continues:

Jesus affirms that from the beginning, “God made them male and female, and the two will become one flesh.” A qualified elder must either be single and chaste or a one-woman man—the “husband of one wife.” Jesus restores dignity to a woman caught in adultery, but also tells her that she must stop committing adultery (John 7:53-8:11). To the scribes and Pharisees, he calls for a deeper and truer application of the chastity principle. Even lust—fantasizing about women in general versus covenantally desiring one woman in particular—comes from an adulterous imagination (Matt. 5:27-30).

Pastor Sauls gives a couple pro forma quotations of Scripture, but then summarizes another passage this way: “Jesus restores dignity to a woman caught in adultery.”

Really? What Jesus actually said to the adulterous was “I do not condemn you either.” Does anyone think this woman who had been on the verge of being stoned to death, publicly, for committing adultery left Jesus feeling dignified?

No, she left feeling relieved and grateful and loved. "Dignity" is not the operative word for any of her feelings when she had just been caught "in the very act" of adultery, particularly when Jesus' parting words were "From now on, sin no more." In what world does the absence of condemnation followed by a public admonition to stop committing adultery equal restored "dignity."

Next, Pastor Sauls takes Jesus' declaration that the man who looks on a woman with lust “has already committed adultery with her in his heart” and tones it down into that man having only "an adulterous imagination." Repeatedly, Pastor Sauls minimizes the seriousness of sexual sin.

With pornography, the hookup culture, and nonconventional expressions of sexuality becoming mainstream, classic biblical teaching is becoming less popular in our late modern times. Yet, if the true relevance of Scripture is that Scripture shows no interest in being relevant—that is, it shows no interest in being adapted, revised, or censored in order to stay current with the ever-shifting times—then the sex question is one with which sincere believers must wrestle. We must remain committed to being countercultural where the culture and the truth are at odds with one another.  This, and this alone, is what will make Christians truly relevant in the culture.

What exactly are these "nonconventional expressions of sexuality" that are "becoming mainstream?" Does Pastor Sauls mean sexual immorality that is an abomination before God? Could he not have written that "sexual perversions" are "becoming mainstream?"

Instead, our point of reference is turned from God's Moral Law to society's conventions. We must not speak of sodomy. We must not speak of men lying with men and women with women. We must not speak of effeminacy and homosexuality as the Apostle Paul does in 1Corinthians 6:9. Rather, Pastor Sauls teaches us to speak and think of "nonconventional expressions of sexuality."

And what's with "expressions of sexuality?" Are we talking about effeminacy or copulation? And if copulation, can we stop beating around the bush? "Expressions of sexuality" is such an effeminate way of speaking; it's so mincing and prancing and limp-wristed.

Then this: “classic Biblical teaching is becoming less popular." Once again, the wording of Pastor Sauls is man-centered. A thing is “classic” because it has been commended by generations of men. It has no reference to God. Instead of writing "classic biblical teaching is becoming less popular in our late modern times," could Pastor Sauls not have said, “God’s Law is becoming more hated in our late modern times?"

Pastor Sauls continues: “Scripture shows no interest in being relevant.” This objectifies Scripture in such a way as to leave the Holy Spirit Who inspired it behind. Scripture does not show interest or intend this or that. It is the Word of God and cannot be separated from God’s interest and God’s intentions.

But then, who in their right mind would think of writing of God having “intentions?"

Then once again Pastor Sauls calls his conservative Reformed Christian readers to the wrestling mat: “the sex question is one with which sincere believers must wrestle."

It’s only a question and we are not called to obey, but merely to "wrestle."

Then Pastor Sauls ends the paragraph by leading us toward the aspiration of being "truly relevant to our culture," and I find myself wondering how much the Apostle Paul brooded over his relevance? To my mind, nothing assures a man of irrelevance more than worrying about his relevance. As I've pointed out repeatedly, Redeemerites and their hipster friends have a wrong view of contextualization. For them, proper contextualization is dulling the knife whereas for the Apostle Paul, Jesus, John the Baptist, and every other prophet of Scripture, contextualization is sharpening the knife.

“Is not My word like fire?” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer which shatters a rock?"  - Jeremiah 23:29

As Doug Wilson says in his post on this article, Pastor Sauls makes some "true and valuable observations," and thus Sauls continues:

Jesus, who was a lifelong unmarried and celibate man, affirmed sex within the male-female marital union. He invented sex. Sex is not a no-no. It is not taboo. It is a gift that invites husbands and wives to taste Eden together—naked and without shame, known and embraced, exposed and not rejected. Proverbs invites a husband to find satisfaction in his wife’s breasts. Song of Solomon pictures a husband and wife as admiring and adventurously enjoying one another’s naked bodies. Paul, also unmarried and celibate, says that except for short seasons of prayer, able-bodied husbands and wives should give themselves to one another sexually. History will culminate in consummation between Jesus and His bride, the church—a “profound mystery” that every believer, married and unmarried, can anticipate in the new heaven and new earth. And yet porneia—the Greek umbrella word for sexual immorality—represents any departure from the male-female marital union.

Yes, it's important to remind us that Jesus was single and celibate. Singleness doesn't get much support among the sort of family-values conservatives that subscribe to Tabletalk and frequent homeschooling and Republican conventions.

But then Pastor Sauls sums up Jesus' teaching on sexuality tepidly, saying He "affirmed sex within the male-female marital union."

Dad used to lament, "Why do Evangelicals always have to say things positively?" Every writer and speaker knows the power of command and prohibition, yet Pastor Sauls simpers and coos about Jesus "affirming" sexuality within marriage.

Jesus "affirms," and then come the "invitations."

Sex "is a gift that invites husbands and wives to taste Eden together" and "Proverbs invites a husband to find satisfaction in his wife’s breasts." Will you be patient with me and read the whole Proverbs passage Pastor Sauls is referring to?

Drink water from your own cistern And fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, Streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone And not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love. For why should you, my son, be exhilarated with an adulteress And embrace the bosom of a foreigner? For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, And He watches all his paths. His own iniquities will capture the wicked, And he will be held with the cords of his sin. He will die for lack of instruction, And in the greatness of his folly he will go astray.  - Proverbs 5:15-23

Now of course I am not proposing that Pastor Sauls should have quoted this whole passage, the negative with the positive. Yet note the difference between how Scripture teaches the Seventh Commandment and Pastor Sauls teaches it. Scripture's rhythm of instruction is always negative/positive/negative/positive and warning/encouragement/warning/encouragement and curse threatened/blessing promised/curse threatened/blessing promised. So why are we Reformed pastors today incapable of reproducing this rhythm? Why must we always speak of affirmations and invitations, of Scripture being "liberating?"

Then this: "Paul ...says that except for short seasons of prayer, able-bodied husbands and wives should give themselves to one another sexually."

Actually, the Apostle Paul does not limit his command concerning the necessity of the practice of sexual intimacy to the “able-bodied”, but it is politic of Pastor Sauls to make that addition to the sacred text since it will reassure his readers that he is a reasonable man who is opposed to sex that is in any way painful for husband or wife. Nice addition.

Pastor Sauls gives a positive summary of the blessing of sexual intimacy within marriage which is so plainly commended in Scripture, and he is good and right to do so.

Then this:

Why is Scripture seemingly so liberating about sex inside heterosexual marriage, but so limiting for every other setting? Tim Keller says that it’s because sex is the most delightful and the most dangerous of all human capacities. Sex works a lot like fire. It can warm, comfort, and purify. But if not handled with care, it can also burn, infect, scar, and destroy. I have seen this play out in scores of pastoral situations over the year. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” says the sacred proverb, “but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).

No sermon or article in the Reformed world today is complete without the obligatory Tim Keller quote, and this one is better than most. Then Pastor Sauls quotes a serious warning found in Scripture, and that's helpful. But note the whining at the beginning of the paragraph leading into the quote by Pastor Keller. The paragraph's setup demonstrates the incessant talk of ourselves that permeates Reformed preaching and teaching today. We start with "WHYYYYY" and are answered with "Because it will make YOU more HAAAAAPPPPPYYYYY!" On the other hand, how else do you explain the Seventh Commandment to the rich and pampered Reformed?

"Why is Scripture seemingly so liberating… and so limiting”—seemingly, you understand—that’s the weasel-word this time. It’s all about us and nothing about God. We would hurt ourselves and each other, and we don’t want to do that, do we?

So then, what is the way forward on this issue? I’m going to propose something out of the box. What if we Christians, especially those of us who want to be salt and light to the culture but who still affirm the ancient Judeo-Christian vision for sex, became more concerned with the biblical sex ethic “in here” than the one “out there”?

Pastor Sauls says he’s going to propose something “out of the box,” but of course there's nothing here that is in any way "out of the box." Rather, what Pastor Sauls writes is perfectly predictable in standing there on the sweet spot just shy of any likelihood of attack by the New York Times. The one thing necessary is not Biblical faithfulness and zeal for God's honor and the salvation of sin-sick souls, but demonstrating how very reasonable and attuned to the concerns of our culture we are.

Pastor Sauls goes on to set in opposition wanting to be salt and light to the culture "but" still affirming "the ancient Judeo-Christian vision for sex."

Once again, Pastor Sauls doesn’t speak of God’s authority and commands, but rather of still [at this late date] affirming [not teaching or preaching or commanding with all authority] the ancient [as in very old and out of tune; “ancient” is a pejorative] Judeo-Christian vision [not God’s Word or God’s command, but merely a shared “vision’] become more concerned with the Biblical sex ethic [not more obedient to God’s commands, but "more concerned with that objectified Biblical "ethic," and if that isn't a word to put you to sleep, what is?]

Finally, Pastor Sauls reveals his outside-the-box proposal to be turning readers' attention to "in here" rather than "out there." But what or where is the "here" to which he refers?

Ligonier's constituency, certainly; but more, every Reformed home and church. Certainly this is a commendable exhortation as long as it's not simply a ploy to tone down those nasty culture wars Redeemerites are always running from in abject terror. And it is precisely here that the Kellerites and R2K men always meet. Both are adamant about the necessity of Christians disengaging with the lost and going private in the security and complacency of our own homes and churches. Our attention is to be turned away from "out there" to "in here"— right where sinners lost in their sin without God and without hope in this world will never be offended or saved. "In here" where preaching is safely private and can never be misunderstood as culture warring.

Pastor Sauls continues:

The wise and lovely Madeleine L’Engle helps us with her reminder that “We draw people to Christ…by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

While we consider whether to follow "the wise and lovely" Madeleine L'Engle's recommendations concerning our methods of evangelism, might it be helpful to know she was a universalist?1 L'Engle being convinced and telling others that the eternal torments of Hell pose no danger to anyone would likely be the reason for her recommendation that evangelism techniques always be "lovely." But what about Pastor Sauls? Is he certain loveliness is sufficient for the work of calling souls to flee the dangers of Jesus' everliving worms and everlasting fire?

I mean, I'm all in favor of lovely Christians. I'm married to one and the father of a number of others. And one of my sons tells me my Prius C is that. Lovely. But listening to Sauls preach lovely sermons and reading his lovely articles and blog posts makes me plead, can't we puhleese be done with effeminacy in the pulpit?

Quoting the lovely L'Engle about the sort of evangelism that works is Sauls's segue into this:

The telling of the light will backfire where there is no showing of the light. Rather than condemning “sex in the city,” what if we shifted our concern to being and becoming the “city on a hill” that Jesus intends for us to be?

Yes, of course this is what Pastor Sauls and his fellow Redeemerites think they're all about, but their "city on the hill" seems more like a tent hiding in a cave.

What if we affirmed that being unmarried and sexually chaste (like Paul and Jesus) is a noble, fruitful, and “far better” calling? What if we started repenting of marriage-olatry, shifting our emphasis toward the marriage to which all other marriages are but a shadow—the mystical union between Jesus and Bride, which is inclusive of believing husbands and wives, as well as widows and widowers, divorcees, and other unmarried men and women? What if we focused on redeeming sexuality inside the church first, repenting of pornography, coarse joking, immodest behavior and dress, and other habits that objectify the image of God? What if we became intentional about reducing divorces where there are no biblical grounds, and nurturing love, lingering conversation, hand-holding, fidelity, forgiveness, and living face-to-face (in intimacy) and also side by side (on mission) inside marriages?

This is the strongest part of the article, but the rhetoric, tone, and posture the whole way through the preceding paragraphs by Pastor Sauls have been so apologetic and weak that this ending ends up being too little, too late. Which is to say the medium is the massage and Pastor Sauls's medium has been hedge words and phrases.

Then at the very end we return to warnings against irrelevance:

For unless and until we become this kind of countercultural community among ourselves, any zeal for biblical chastity “out there” will fall on deaf ears. And rightly so.

* * *

Rev. Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., and author of Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides.  He is on Twitter @scottsauls. 

Yes, yes; of course. Pastor Sauls was asked to handle the Seventh Commandment because the Church in America today—particularly the rich Reformed church—is looking for "a way forward for those who are tired of taking sides." And the teaching of Pastor Sauls is perfect-pitch for those who want to pay lip service to God and His Word without taking up their crosses. Pastor Scott Sauls teaches and writes in such a way that none of us need feel the slightest twinge of guilt as we studiously avoid "taking sides" as we go gently into that good night.

Once again, and in his own words: "A way forward for those who are tired of taking sides." Which is no way forward, at all.

  • 1. "All will be redeemed in God's fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones."  - L'Engle, A Stone for a Pillow
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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