From time to time, faithful Christians have been called on to take a stand for the gospel. In the 1st century it was over circumcision and Gentile inclusion in the church. In the 4th century it was over the nature of God and the divinity of Christ. In the 16th century it was over the authority of Scripture and justification by faith. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was over the possibility of miracles and the historical reliability of the Gospels. And in the 21st century, it is over marriage, gender and sexuality.
Of course, this is not a new issue. Outside the church, this is an issue that seems all but over with now. Arguments have been made, campaigns have been fought, and votes have been cast. Today, same-sex marriage is legal in 29 countries, including Australia and the UK. Similarly, inside the church, this debate has continued for decades. Churches have split, new denominations have been formed, and movements like GAFCON have begun.
And yet, this issue is bubbling to the surface again.
In the UK, the Church of England has produced an ongoing resource called Living in Faith and Love, to discuss differing views around sexuality, marriage and identity. This resource has been difficult to respond to, as it offers a variety of views with no clear conclusions. But come 2022, when the Church of England moves from a time of listening to a time of discernment, decisions will need to be made about our continued fellowship.
In Australia, the recent Appellate Tribunal Opinion has raised similar questions over the fellowship of the Australian Anglican Church. The Tribunal has decided that there is no impediment to proposed services to bless same-sex unions. Dr Mark Thompson, principal of Moore College, has said that if this opinion is acted upon, it may have “devastating consequences” for the Anglican Church of Australia.
How we respond to all of this is a difficult and complicated question. Godly and faithful believers will no doubt differ in what they think we should do. There are no easy answers or simple solutions, and we should pray for our leaders who will need to make wise decisions in the coming months and years. But for many of us regular Christians, we may want to ask a simpler question first. Does this really matter? Is this issue something we should make a big deal over? Do we really need to take a stand?
To be honest, we are tired of this issue. It has caused countless arguments, cost us friends, and made evangelism even harder than it already was. This war of attrition has taken its toll. I imagine that many of us would be quietly happy if we could just let this issue go. It is so personal. So divisive. So offensive to our culture. After so much time spent fighting, we might well ask – is this really worth it? Is this worth taking a stand over?
After all, can’t we just agree to disagree? Why are we fighting so much over this issue, and not others that we disagree over? How can we tell if this is a hill to die on? Where is the line? How far is too far? Put simply – when should we take a stand?
Taking a stand over where to sit
To explore this question, let us go back to a disagreement between two apostles in the early days of the early church. The time when Paul took a stand against Peter over… seating arrangements!
In Galatians 2, Paul recounts the time in Antioch when Peter stopped eating with the Gentile Christians:
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Gal 2:11-13)
What was the issue? Seating arrangements! Who eats with whom? Had we been there that day, we may well have asked Paul, “Is this really an issue you need to take a stand on?” And yet, this was so serious to Paul that he publicly condemned Peter before the entire church (Gal 2:14). That’s a big deal. You don’t get more senior than the apostle Peter! Would you have done that? Would you rebuke the Archbishop in front of everyone at the church picnic?
As bizarre at it might seem, this early disagreement between Christians can help us today to work out when we should take a stand.
Drawing the line
One common approach for deciding when to take a stand is to determine which theological red lines must not be crossed. We might tolerate you up to a point, but deny this doctrine or embrace this practice, and we will take a stand.
The problem with the red line approach is that apostasy rarely happens in such dramatic fashion. People don’t plot a course for shipwreck. They drift away (Heb 2:1). Moreover, those who are actively seeking to steer the church in a more liberal direction understand that it needs to be done slowly and cautiously. If someone draws a red line, you don’t cross it straight away. You gradually move closer and closer to the line, until crossing it no longer seems like such a big deal. To borrow a phrase from the dated but ever-relevant Yes Prime Minister: they will use ‘salami tactics’ – taking ground slice by slice.
This appears to be what we are seeing in the Anglican communion today. In the UK, we are listening to a variety of opinions and opening up a conversation. Yet, slice by slice, we are moving toward what feels like an inevitable acceptance of what God has deemed sinful. Similarly, in Australia, blessing same-sex unions moves closer to solemnising a same-sex wedding, without actually crossing the line. Yet once one is accepted, are they asking much more to accept the other?
In Paul’s day, the main issue was over the question of circumcision. You can imagine Paul’s red line: Demand that a Gentile must be circumcised, and all bets are off. But the issue with Peter wasn’t over circumcision. It was a few steps before that. Peter was just choosing where to eat. And so, you can hear the debate taking place in Antioch:
“Come on Paul, we’re not talking about circumcision here. It’s just seating arrangements! What’s the big deal if Peter wants to sit with his own people? It’s part of his culture. It’s what he’s grown up with. It’s certainly not a big enough issue to take a stand over.”
Yet Paul didn’t simply operate with red lines. Though the primary issue for Paul was circumcision, to him the simple act of refusing to eat with Gentiles was enough for him to take a stand.
The Circle of Trust
A slightly different approach is to draw a circle around what we deem to be ‘essential doctrines’. Whatever is inside the circle is sacred. Whatever is outside is secondary. On matters inside the circle, we take a stand. On matters outside the circle, we live and let live.
Attached to this approach is the well-known saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
One problem with this approach is deciding what goes inside the circle. Who makes the call? And on what criteria? How small (or large) should this circle be?
But there is a deeper issue. Many so-called secondary issues find their root in primary, gospel issues. Heresies never occur in a contextless vacuum. They are chameleons, rearing their heads in different forms at different times. And what might seem like an insignificant matter at first can in fact undermine the entire gospel. This is why the circle approach doesn’t work. Seemingly innocuous secondary issues can slowly pull your core doctrines out of the circle.
This is the problem we face with the current debate over sexuality and marriage. In the Appellate Tribunal’s opinion, they stated that the blessing of same-sex unions,
…does not necessarily involve denial of God or repudiation of the Creeds or rejection of the authority of Holy Scripture or apostasy on the part of bishops or synods prepared to support such measures (Paragraph 180).
Notice the circle of central doctrines: God. Creeds. Authority of Scripture. Sexuality and marriage do not appear to be ‘essential’ doctrines. Surely, they are secondary matters of interpretation. They are outside of the circle. We can still believe in the same triune God and come to different conclusions on this question. This is hardly Nicaea – can’t we just agree to disagree?
We could say the same thing about Paul in Antioch. Would you have put ‘seating arrangements’ inside or outside the circle? Surely, this is a secondary matter. It doesn’t even come close to touching on the early formulations of the faith. And so, you can imagine the argument:
“Paul, as always, is getting too carried away. We still all agree that Christ died, was buried and was raised on the third day. We still all confess that Christ is in very nature God, and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow. When it comes to seating arrangements, let us work toward a good disagreement. We need to listen to and respect both Pauline and Petrine perspectives. There is space in the church for both Gentile and Jewish expressions of our faith.”
And yet, Paul wasn’t interested in drawing a circle. He knew that this ‘secondary’ issue was strong enough to pull the entire gospel out of any circle we drew.
Pulling at the thread
So, how did Paul know when to take a stand?
In Antioch we find that Paul neither drew a line nor a circle. He pulled at a thread.
If you are like me, you cannot leave a loose thread on your jumper alone. It must be pulled. And at that moment, one of two things can happen. Either you pull at it and a small piece of thread comes out. Or, you pull – and keep pulling – and keep pulling – until eventually you’ve completely ruined your new jumper.
This is what Paul was doing in Antioch. He was pulling at the thread of ‘seating arrangements.’ Was this a harmless, inconsequential matter – a small piece of thread that easily comes out? Or would this unravel the entire gospel? And so, he pulled:
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:14-16)
As Paul pulled on the thread, what did he find?
- By separating himself from Gentiles, Peter was reverting to Jewish law.
- In doing so, he was proclaiming that we are saved by works of the law, not through faith in Jesus Christ.
- Not one will be justified by works of the law.
- If people revert to the works of the law, they will not be saved.
- In this one seemingly harmless act, Peter is unravelling the truth of the gospel and placing people’s salvation in danger.
Now compare this to Acts 16, when Paul encourages Timothy to be circumcised. At first glance, you might think that this is a more serious matter for Paul – a line not to cross, a doctrine inside the circle. And yet Paul conducts the circumcision himself! Two seemingly similar actions, and Paul has opposite responses. Why? Because he pulls at the thread. Paul didn’t circumcise Timothy because he was reverting to the law, but because he wanted to proclaim the gospel to the Jews. In this instance, Paul finds nothing but a small piece of thread coming away from the jumper. But in the matter at Antioch, the entire gospel was unravelling before him.
What’s at stake?
Like Paul, we need to pull at the thread of sexuality and marriage. Is this a harmless matter that has no bearing on the gospel? Or will the blessing of same-sex unions unravel the entire gospel message? Let’s pull on the thread, and see what is at stake:
First, the authority of scripture is at stake. The Appellate Tribunal Opinion is wrong. The blessing of same sex unions does reject the authority of Scripture. Jesus is clear that marriage involves the union of a man and a woman (Matt 19:5). If this verse is not clear, what verse is clear? And if Scripture is not clear, what functional authority can it have over our lives? It simply becomes a canvass on which we can project whatever interpretation suits our times. And if this is so, how can we be certain about anything that Scripture teaches? How can Scripture make us wise for salvation or train us in godliness if its meaning is unclear and dependent on our own interpretation?
Secondly, souls are at stake. God specifically mentions those who practice homosexuality, along with others such as idolaters and adulterers, as those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10). Blessing same-sex unions commends what God has condemned. But even worse, it actively encourages people to continue in behaviour that will send them to hell. We will have done the opposite of what Paul commands, saving the flesh so that their spirit might be destroyed (1 Cor 5:5). What at first appears as understanding and loving is in fact cruel and evil.
There is much more we could say and many others who have articulated these arguments better than I. But already with a little pull of the thread, we find the entire gospel unravelled at our feet. If we allow this to happen, people will be damned and not know the way to salvation. On this issue, we must take a stand.