Does Anyone Really Believe in the Church Family?

A few weeks ago, I ran across a question on Reddit about Christians giving preference to helping Christians. Someone, who if I recall consider herself a Christian, had heard Christians wishing to especially help Christian refugees moreso than others. She was horrified by this, and asked if anyone agreed and how they could.

Does that thought make you uncomfortable at all? Are you alright with giving special treatment to Christians, at least in your personal life? Some of you probably feel fine about that, while I’m sure at least some of you find this a bit disconcerting, at least in some corner of your mind or heart. 

I’ve thought about this lately, and realized that this must stem in part from one Biblical belief which has largely forgotten (at least at a practical level) in the modern American church. What is this basic belief? The family nature of the Church.

In most evangelical churches, there is a sentiment about the Church as a family, but that is usually all it is: a sentiment, a feeling. People in close churches “feel” like a family. That’s not the point of the Biblical teaching, though. Here’s what Jesus said about family:

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, and even his own life — he cannot be My disciple.

Luke 14:26

The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.

Matthew 10:37

But He replied to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:48-50

The Old Testament also demonstrates the primacy of covenant and worship over natural family:

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’—which neither you nor your fathers have known, any of the gods of the peoples around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other—you must not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity, and do not spare him or shield him. Instead, you must kill him. Your hand is to be the first against him to put him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.”

Deuteronomy 13:6-10

Romans 9 also makes a point about the primacy of grace over natural family relations, but it is somewhat tangential, so I will not look much at it for now. Feel free to peruse it later.

All of this in mind, the Biblical teaching should be clear. Natural family is superseded by the Church family. We are now not, firstly, sons of our fathers, daughters of our mothers, brothers of brothers or sisters of sisters. Rather, the first and most fundamental relationship we have is the new birth from one Father, which makes us children of God and siblings of Christ and each other1 This displaces all of our other relationships. When we become a Christian and enter the Church through baptism, we are re-related. All our previous relationships of family and friends become secondary to our new true family in Christ. We are to, in comparison to Christ and His family, hate them all.

These words, alas, make many people uncomfortable in this day and age, probably because of the liberal (in the classical sense) underpinnings of American society. Embedded in our Constitution and culture is the sense of the individual as the fundamental unit. Every person is his own person and thing, defined by himself apart from all other people. What matters is your own self-determination and preferences.

Most people think this way, even Christians, to some extent and on some level. It is reinforced by the wider culture and legal structures which surround us, embedding itself into our hearts and minds. This has particularly poisoned people’s view of religion. In most people’s minds, religion is a preference, a personal interest. It is no more or less substantial than your interests, careers, or passions. Those are important to you, but are freely chosen and no objective standard really matters. What is sacred is not the religion, but your choice of religion.

If this is the framework, then your religion can’t be a new and superseding family. Religion is a preference! It can’t create obligations to other people, or override any relationships you already had. More importantly, it can’t be used to treat some individuals any differently than others, because it’s all a matter of personal preference, and you can’t discriminate among people based on personal preferences.

We must drop this nonsense. God has recreated us, given us a new birth and identity in Christ. Our old persons and identities are passing away, and only those which join with us in the new life of Christ will last. All of our families and friends outside the Church are not family in the same way that even strangers in the Church are. Our foremost obligations are to the new family, not the old which exists by the flesh.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are to neglect or not love the others. Rather, if we love them, we must seek by all means to bring them into the Church, to make them a part of the new family. Our children, parents, cousins, friends, and acquaintances outside the faith need us to love them into it, that they might in fact receive the high place we wish them to have.

So basically, let us remember that the Church is our true family, over and (when necessary) against all other relationships. This isn’t just a negative fact against the rest of the world. It is a positive one, the beginning of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that His followers would receive more than enough to replace all they gave us for Him. In fact, I had something else to say, but I think I’ll let Jesus finish for me:

“I assure you,” Jesus said, “there is no one who has left house, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children, or fields because of Me and the gospel,
who will not receive 100 times more, now at this time — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and eternal life in the age to come.

Mark 10:29-30

Does Anyone Really Believe in the Church Family?

Brother Bill Is Gay. Now What?

Brother Bill has always been a pretty cool guy. He just celebrated 10 years as a deacon, and taught the youth Sunday school class for the past year after the last teacher moved away. You’ve had dinner at his house many times, and everyone loves his Christmas parties. Just last week he brought his friend to church and his friend repented of his sins and believed in Jesus. So today makes no sense. Today he came out and admitted that he was gay, and plans on pursuing a relationship with someone he met at work. Now you’re all wondering: what do we do?

The recent increased controversy over gay marriage has got me thinking again about what I suspect will be an important issue in the near future for conservative American churches. I specifically don’t include the so-called “mainline” denominations because they went the liberal route of making every essential Christian doctrine optional years ago and have no real opposition to homosexuality in general. Not so for the many evangelical denominations (and non-denominations) in the country. For the most part, we’ve stood against the tide towards accepting gay relationships the whole time.

Brother Bill came out and admitted that he was gay. What do we do?

Now we are slowly facing a new challenge, one that’s accelerating. This challenge is that of Christian progressivism. Unlike the liberalism which barely (if at all) deserves the name “Christian” due to it abandoning historic doctrines like Jesus’ deity, historical resurrection, etc., progressives continue to affirm the core Christian teachings outlined in, for example, the Nicene Creed. Many even affirm the five solas of the Protestant Reformation. But they do make very untraditional moves on social issues, including gay marriage. For the growing Christian progressive movement, there’s nothing wrong with LGBT relationships, and indeed for many progressives these are beautiful things to be protected and cherished.

This brings me back to the story about Brother Bill. With the growth of Christian progressivism, and with the increasing voice progressive bloggers and authors have even in the conservative Christian world, more and more Christians are coming to believe that Scripture does not actually condemn homosexuality. With arguments about the Old Covenant in Leviticus, pagan cult prostitution in Romans 1, and the difficulty of translating arsenokoitai, among others, they persuade many lay Christians beyond sympathy to moral acceptance of gay relationships. The arguments become especially appealing when you, like many people these days, know or have contact with people who are gay and don’t want to condemn them. So for a growing number of apparent believers, what was once a clear cut matter has become at strongest debatable.

Such a movement will likely only increase in steam in the near future, so now those of us in conservative evangelical churches will have to face a new issue: what do we do about people within our churches who think that homosexuality is not a sin, and still believe their position is completely faithful to Scripture? What do we do especially with those who, based on that belief, actually engage in such relationships?

For a growing number of believers, what was once a clear cut matter has become debateable.

Unfortunately, for many of us the first instinct will be to start making judgments about who is saved and who isn’t. They’re wrong on homosexuality? Probably not a real Christian. He’s an activist? Definitely not a real Christian. Honestly, I don’t believe this is within our calling or rights. Scripture records so much sin in the lives of believers, from Abraham’s deceptions to David’s adultery/murder to Peter’s denial, that it is hard to say any sin is outside the realm of a believer to fall. Moreover, justifying and accommodating sin has its own very visible history among God’s people, as seen frequently in the Old Testament, though also in the New. And while Scripture does frequently give us guidelines for discerning false teachers, there are no real rules or commands given to figure out which lay church members are “true” believers.

What then? Are we to ignore sin, perhaps aiding and abetting, and go with some kind of interpretive pluralism or moral relativism where we can’t make any definite statements about right and wrong? Can we make no stand in our churches? As Paul would say, by no means! But what I want to suggest is that we move the “gay issue” from the sphere of individual salvation—who is saved and who isn’t—to the sphere of church membership and discipline, from the sphere of soteriology to ecclesiology.

There are no real rules or commands given in the Bible to figure out which lay church members are “true” believers.

What do I mean? I think instead of trying to figure out who is saved and who isn’t, or what a Christian “can” do or “can’t” do, we should ask instead, “What should the church permit, what should the church discipline, and what should the church excommunicate for?” If we take this approach, instead of thinking, “I think Bill isn’t saved, but I think Jackson is,” then we can simply assume that the people who are in the church match up basically with the people who are saved. How do I think this can work? I’m basing this mostly on Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Thessalonians 3, and some similar passages. So imagine this situation as an example:

You see Brother Dan getting drunk with his co-workers and visiting some less-than-appropriate entertainment. Following Jesus and Paul on this, you talk to him privately about the matter and encourage him to do what is right. Next week, you spot him again. He hasn’t repented, so you take him before another trusted believer, perhaps your pastor or a deacon, and confront him. He has another chance. But he continues his behavior anyway, so you bring him before the entire church and as a church you initiate church discipline, possibly ending with excommunicating him. Once he is removed from the church, you assume that he is not a believer, but hope for his restoration.

“What should the church permit, what should the church discipline, and what should the church excommunicate for?”

This, I believe, is how we ought to handle matters of badly behaving Christians. While we as the church can recognize the ongoing struggle of the Christian with the flesh, we can also recognize and discipline flagrant sin, rebellion, or crossing lines on Christian morality. When people live with their everyday pride and gossip, we might rebuke them as a church but know not to kick them out of fellowship and treat them as an unbeliever. But when people refuse to repent of straight immorality, such as the greed, idolatry, and sexual immorality that Paul often treats like the trio of death, we are commanded to remove the evil person from among us.

So how should we apply this to the current gay debates? First, I don’t think we should bother trying to judge who individually is, in the depths of his heart, a true or false believer. Instead, we look at their church membership initiated in baptism and a confession of faith. Those who are within the church we should treat as fellow believers, and those outside we treat as lost people in need of Jesus. But as a church we must make the following decisions:

  1. Will we discipline (up to and including excommunication) members in gay relationships?
  2. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  3. Will we discipline members who are not in gay relationships but believe that such relationships are okay?
  4. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  5. Will we discipline members who actively promote and teach that gay relationships are Biblically acceptable?
  6. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  7. Will we recognize and/or cooperate with other churches or denominations who disagree on these questions? If so, which ones?

I think the entire debate should take place within these seven questions. On that basis, we can simply assume that people within the church are believers, and assume that people outside are not. Those who refuse to repent of what we have agreed as a church is Biblically prohibited can be disciplined up to and including excommunication if necessary.

Those who are within the church we should treat as fellow believers, and those outside we treat as lost people in need of Jesus.

How would I personally answer these questions? I’m not 100% sure, but I tend to think this: (1) yes, (2) none, (3) no, (4) service only, (5) yes, (6) none, and (7) I don’t know yet. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my overall argument? How would you answer these seven questions? Comment with your thoughts if you don’t mind.

Brother Bill Is Gay. Now What?

An Obligatory Post in Response to the Legalization of Gay Marriage

I spent quite some time this morning working on my last blog post, and the moment I shared it on Facebook I noticed something else in my newsfeed. There was #MarriageEquality, and within moments the message was clear: after all this time and to absolutely no one’s surprise, the United States Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is a Constitutional right and is therefore legal in all 50 states. My immediate response: “Darn, I just finished a big blog post and now I have to write another today!”

On a more serious note, this is a pretty big event. June 26, 2015 will definitely be in the history books. Already there have been tons of extreme reactions on both sides of the main aisles. And of course this issue has occupied my thoughts for most of the day, even though I’m not worked up over it. I don’t have a major theme for my response. So here are my miscellaneous thoughts on the national legalization of gay marriage.

First, this battle was lost years ago. Nothing that new is happening. Public opinion has been moving steadily for decades towards acceptance of homosexual relationships as equal to heterosexual ones. More than that, the idea of gay marriage works perfectly as part of the conception of marriage in the modern world. The West started a very long time ago moving marriage from the sphere of commitment, responsibility, reproduction, social stabilization, etc. to the sphere of “twue wuv” and personal fulfillment. Once that became the dominant paradigm, which happened well before I was even born, gay marriage was a natural and reasonable outcome. To undo the damage, we would have to completely reformulate society’s understanding of what marriage is all about and for. Maybe that will happen, but politics won’t be enough and such a worldview change will take generations.

Next, real marriage is still untouched by legal fictions. If marriage is, as I believe, something with a distinct nature and a specific ontological shape, then it exists before and apart from any legal recognitions. This means that the government may be redefining “marriage” for legal purposes and as an example to society, but it still can’t change the leopard’s spots. The new legal unions between gay couples may be called “marriage” by our society, but that doesn’t make them in any way a real marriage. This means God, too, is unhurt. He will only recognize the marriage covenant as He pleases, whatever government may say.

As well, nothing has changed in our nation to invite God’s judgment. This legal decree is just the latest symptom of existing moral faults in society and government. Those are what fall under God’s “No,” not the enactment of a policy most of the nation was already in agreement with. If God at all intends to bring America down, it will be on the basis of many preexisting faults which led to this act. There is nothing new happening in the Supreme Court decision to affect God’s response to us for better or for worse.

For these reasons and more, Christians don’t need to panic or decry the end of the world. The truth is that, as I mentioned, America has been on this path for some time, so panic now isn’t necessary. Moreover, God’s purposes and the Church have survived far worse. The Church in Germany made it through Nazism. When the first Christians burst onto the scene of the Roman world, their society was even worse than ours was. Yet just in that place God turned the world upside down and Jesus was proclaimed everywhere with great results. Even the atrocious conflicts between Catholics and the Reformers, an evil which grew up within the Church, did not spell the end for God’s people. For God is faithful, and the gates of Hell will not prevail over those who share the Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead.

What Christians must do is prepare to address the new challenges for the Church. First and simply, we must prepare for churches and any Christian organizations to lose their tax-exempt status. That’s very likely at this point. Moreover, it’s not inconceivable that Christian colleges could lose accreditation from federally recognized agencies. Christians in many occupations, if they have any voice, may find themselves fired, suspended, or penalized in pay for opposing gay marriage. But most of that isn’t what I want to focus on. After all, if Jesus is Lord and the government is not we should expect such things. What concerns me far more is the challenge coming to the Church from within. For years there have been people within Christianity arguing that homosexuality isn’t actually condemned in Scripture. Some of them have decent arguments and are serious scholars. Voices for this belief will only grow louder now that gay marriage is a fact of American existence. This means that Christians will have to deal with people within the Church disagreeing on this issue moreso than ever before. Many of these people even have a genuine belief in the authority of Scripture and are convinced that this position is Biblically faithful. How should we handle that? Will we excommunicate them? Will we ordain them or not? Can they serve as deacons? Must we treat them all as unbelievers? To what extent should we feel the need to respond to their arguments, and how do we decide if they are “too wrong” on this matter of Biblical interpretation? We will find this issue confronting most congregations, even the more conservative ones. We need to be preparing answers now.

It is more important than ever for believers holding to the traditional view to live quiet and respectable lives full of grace. We are now, more than we even were before, on the “wrong side of history” in the eyes of most of society. As we go on, it’s probably time to focus on living peaceable and upright lives. If we are modest, reserved, and blameless, we cannot be faulted on character charges. If we are quiet (not silent!) respectful, we will earn a better hearing. But more than anything, if we show radical, unconditional love to all people as we try to live these unassuming lives, our actions will speak the loudest. We must in every way defy the stereotypes of people who believe in traditional Scriptural marriage by being too approachable and easy to get along with for anyone to get away with calling us “bigots” or accusing us of hate.

There’s probably other stuff I might say, but I can’t remember anything else right now. Nonetheless, I think these points are enough for today. We’re dealing with a major change, and who knows what all will happen but God? So these are my 2 cents. Feel free to spend them as you wish.

An Obligatory Post in Response to the Legalization of Gay Marriage

In Defense of My Catholic Brethren

Are Catholics Christians? To phrase it better, is Catholicism truly Christian, a thing which genuinely preaches and follows our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Do faithful, educated Catholics actually know Him?

I do believe the answer is “yes.”

I’ve wanted on some level to make a post on this for a very long time, but in all honesty fear has held me back, fear of how my evangelical Protestant friends, relatives, and other readers will react. I believe this was wrong of me, because if I am right that Catholics and Protestant are united as children born from the Father, then I should be willing to own my brothers instead of be ashamed.

So why do I believe that Catholicism is a legitimate part of the Christian religion, that Catholics are as born again as Protestants? Well, I’m not a Catholic apologist, so I won’t bother answering common objections about Mary, prayer to saints, images, transubstantiation, or baptismal regeneration. I don’t believe in these things, and I do think they’re problematic. My research and discussions with Catholics have at least led me to believe, though, that they are far from damnable heresies.

Where I believe things count the most, Catholics agree with us. We follow one God in the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. We agree that Jesus Himself was/is that Son, God become human for us and for our salvation. We believe He died and rose to set us free from sin and for Him. We believe in the coming final judgment and resurrection of the dead.

The core of this all is Jesus. Unlike every cult, false religion, and demonic ideology out there, Catholics get Jesus right. They trust in the one and only Mediator, the God-man, who lived and died to bring salvation to the human race. They preach Jesus the crucified Messiah and risen Lord. What else must we ask of them?

The truth is that God never listed for us certain doctrines about salvation, or the church, or praying which we absolutely must believe to be a Christian. He only says to throw ourselves on His Son as our only hope. Our good doctrine or bad doctrine, just like our good and bad works, are not the ground of our salvation. That is Jesus Himself. And as long as He alone is our hope and trust, we are promised that we will never perish but have eternal life, even if you’re Catholic.

None of this is to say that right beliefs are unimportant, or that there are no Catholic practices that are legitimately wrong. But the same goes for us. We all have something wrong, and probably all have some big stuff wrong. From what I see of Jesus in the Scriptures, and from the history of His Church, we are in no place to judge others for what we do ourselves on this matter.

The reason I bring this up at all is because I’m convicted about unity. Paul repeatedly commanded believers to have one heart and one mind, pounding unity over and over in his letters. John insisted that everyone born of God must show love to all of his brothers and sisters. Jesus Himself prayed to the Father asking that the coming church would be one just like He and the Father are one. This radical call to unity in Jesus our Savior means it is shameful, even sinful, for me to hide my belief that Catholics are fellow participants in God’s eternal life.

Unfortunately, in the average evangelical Protestant church, no one really knows or understands what Catholics actually believe and why they believe it. So we resort to inaccurate one-liners, gossip, and misrepresentations to maintain the wall of separation. This is clearly a shame. Because of this, I plan to ask some of my Catholic friends to continue guest posts to help give you more of their perspective on things, so that we can at least unite around the common love we have for Jesus and understand each other, even where we disagree.

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.

In Defense of My Catholic Brethren