Fidelity to the historical teaching on human sexuality is not a silver bullet. We do the church as disservice by suggesting that fidelity here is the linchpin on which church growth depends.
Church growth works until it doesn’t
More than twenty years ago I sat with some British Christians in their living room and talked about church growth. They were leaders in the church I had grown up in–a small, building-less congregation affiliated with the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.
Since moving to the United States some five years before this conversation I had not only felt called into ministry, but had swallowed the pill of American confidence in the inevitable victory of the church over the pressures of culture.
As we talked I recall saying “if a church is faithful in its ministry it will grow.” Even as the words left my lips I realized my immense hubris.
This was a church that had faithfully been preaching the gospel weekly for years and had neither a building nor had it grown very far beyond 100 attenders. It was ruled by a session and a part-time pastor was responsible for much of the teaching. In an instance I had called all of that into question. I was ashamed.
The recent Methodist decision
This conversation came to mind when I read of the decision of the United Methodist Church to affirm the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality and to continue to bar (in theory not in practice) non-celibate homosexuals from ordained ministry. Make no mistake, it was a good decision and I’m grateful for it. We must, however, guard our rhetoric around this matter lest it betray us further along the line.
Beyond the usual images of people waving rainbow flags in protest, I’ve also heard delegates from the majority world (and here in the USA) saying things like, “Christianity is growing in Africa. We affirm traditional marriage. That affirmation is part of the reason we’re growing.”
My own experience in Presbyterianism
In my own journey out of the PC(USA) into ECO I heard similar arguments. The PC(USA) is declining, we were told, because it has rejected the Bible’s teaching. Make no mistake, the PC(USA) did reject the Bible’s teaching on a variety of doctrines. I don’t dispute that.
What I dispute is that had they not rejected those doctrines they would be growing rather than shrinking.
The implication is, of course, that being conservative means that your church will grow and flourish. That isn’t necessarily true.
More, pursuing this line of argument will inevitably lead to disappointment should decline follow. It fails to recognize that orthodox Christianity is, once more, a minority report.
Don’t be a Bildad
Evangelicals are in danger of echoing the pseudo-wisdom of Job’s conversation partner Bildad. In concern and response to the terrible suffering that had overtaken Job, Bildad offered a defense of God that centered of His justice and implied that, whatever else, God would (almost automatically) reward those who remained faithful to Him.
Bildad queries, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 9.3).
Bildad draws a straight causal line between what is happening in Job’s life and the divine. The implied alternative is that either God is the cause of sin or Job (or his children) have sinned.
In truth God is not the cause of sin nor had Job sinned.
The remedy, according Bildad, is to remain faithful. Then God will “rouse himself for you and restore you to your rightful place” (8.6). He continues, “Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great” (8.7).
And, later, “God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers. He will fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy” (8.21).
There’s so much about this that rings true.
Faithfulness is always the best course of action.
Fidelity is the perpetual right choice.
Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome.
Doing the right thing has inherent value that is enjoyed apart from any possible additional benefit that might accrue to us by doing it.
Turning from sexual sin and trusting in God’s provision of grace in Christ has its own value. It not only saves us from God’s righteous anger against sin, it also frees us to pursue God himself.
Turning from sexual sin does not, however, mean that life will be a bunch of roses. In the case of the same sex attracted person, for example, the immense challenge and pain of unfulfilled longing must be deemed to be a shadow of the blessing of being united to Christ and to Christ’s body, the church.
Every time someone intimates that making the right choice on sexuality will lead to church growth, they make a profound mistake… about the nature of grace, the state of the world, and the nature of the church. And every time we do it we make it more likely that when real suffering does come for the church, we will not be sufficiently formed to be able to handle it.