Saturday, September 02, 2017

Division, faith, ethics

One of the more unfortunate responses to the Nashville Statement (of which, to be clear, I am not a fan, despite being broadly in agreement with its ethical positions) is to complain that this statement is divisive.  You can find the complaint here, for example, on a blog which I have on other ocassions found useful and encouraging.  It's unfortunate because of two things: firstly, it complains that the statement does exactly what it aims to do; and secondly, it implicitly claims that division is always bad.  The second claim is obviously the important one, and it doesn't work.  The NT is full of commands to divide from people - off the top of my head, one might consider 1 Corinthians 5, or 2 Thessalonians 3:6.  These two references are particularly pertinent, as they don't command division from people who take erroneous doctrinal stances, but from people who persist in ethically forbidden behaviour.

That helps with countering a particular form of the 'division is bad' argument, which makes it an issue of whether we believe in justification by faith.  In the same post I linked earlier, you will find essentially this argument: if you divide from anyone over anything other than faith in Christ, you are saying that justification requires faith in Christ and this other thing, in this case a particular take on sexual ethics.  And therefore you are denying the heart of the gospel.

It's worth picking over the logic.  The idea is that if I divide from someone else who professes faith in Christ, then I am claiming that this person is not a Christian, and therefore I am saying, or at least implying, that I think they're not justified.  Therefore I am making justification depend on faith in Christ and right doctrine or behaviour, and this will not do.

Let me counter some of that.  Firstly, it is worth noting that the NT is clear that certain kinds of behaviour rule out inheriting the Kingdom of God, regardless of the faith you profess - see Galatians 5:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  Without getting into the detail of how that works, it seems clear that if your understanding of justification sola fide makes these verses untenable, your understanding is wrong.  Secondly, division from another person who professes faith in Christ ought not to be understood as a final judgement on them as to their justification - by what power or right could we possible pass such a judgement?  It is more like a warning shot.  It says 'friend, we consider your doctrine or behaviour to be such that we cannot regard you as a true Christian; and therefore we call you to consider whether you are in the right with God, and to repent'.  That is a severe thing to say, but it could be a mercy if it brings repentance!

Thirdly, in the final analysis, this is just a rehash of the Counter-Reformation calumnies against justification by faith alone, but given a perversely positive spin.  The Counter-Ref claimed that Protestants taught that so long as you believed in Jesus you could behave as you liked - there was no motive for ethical living, because your faith would guarantee you salvation regardless of what you did.  Of course, the Roman apologists of this era were appalled at such a suggestion.  Now, though, it is expressed as if this were a positive thing: we can all just disagree about sexual ethics, because it doesn't really matter what you do, so long as you believe in Christ!  But this is a desperate caricature of the beautiful doctrine of justification by faith alone.  If you think that justification by faith alone means 'trust in Christ and it doesn't matter how you live', then you have missed the point.  The person who is justified by faith in Christ is given a heart to obey Christ.  The person who does not obey Christ does not love Christ, does not trust Christ.  This is all in the New Testament, front and centre.  You can deny the gospel by your behaviour, as well as by your doctrine.

I hope the Nashville Statement disappears soon.  I don't think it's fit for purpose.  It lacks theological rigour and gospel tone.  But there is a serious need for division in the church.  If we take the NT warnings about ethics and the Kingdom seriously - read again some of the verses I've linked above! - the least loving thing we can do is to try to fudge the issue.  Eternal life is at stake. We must be clear.

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