A reader asked me about my post, Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic,
I do appreciate your panoramic treatment of the Scripture story when you deal with issues. It’s refreshing, totally. However, in the spirit of “what would you do if…” questions – what happens if you are brought to a position of leadership in a local church where there is congregational support to ordain to leadership a non-celibate gay or lesbian? Where would you come down on that matter? Just trying to figure out where your “gray” becomes “black and white”.
I’m not sure I answered well. I’m not sure this is going to be much of an answer either.
There are two good stories from the Gospels about sinners and repentance. The first is that of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, and then that of the Adulterous Woman in John 7:53-8:17. Both are about sin, judgment, repentance, and mercy. I’ll use the John story (which the ESV notes the earliest versions of the Greek we have do not include this passage) to illustrate this point.
2 Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11 ESV)
Here, Jesus confronts her accusers. You who have not sinned, he says, may throw the first stone. He tells her accusers — you too are sinners. And therefore, while you may be right in judging her, you have no business imposing the punishment of the law upon her. He then tells her that he does not condemn her either.
“From now on, sin no more,” Jesus tells her.
In each of these stories, we are not told what comes next. We do not know how her life turns out. We do not know if she sinned again or not, just as we do not know if the church in Corinth kicked out the man who married his step-mother. Or not. If “the adulterous woman” did not sin again, then good for her. She experienced mercy and took it to heart, and it changed her life.
But if she did sin again, then were the Pharisees right in getting their stones ready to hurl? Was Jesus wrong in forgiving her? Is forgiveness here only a one-shot deal? Once you meet Jesus, and are forgiven, that’s it, you’ve used it up? Anything you have coming next you’ve earned?
And even if she sinned again, can we honestly say that encounter with Jesus didn’t change her? I met Jesus, and it has changed me. It has not stopped me from sinning, as much as I try sometimes. I know I am forgiven and redeemed, despite what I do. Or what the consequences of my actions are.
We live in that next moment, in that bit of the story we aren’t told so we have to write it ourselves. And it is agonizing. I get the fear some (many?) might have that without the kind of moral order the law imposes, chaos would reign. The purpose of God’s good creation, and its inherent meaning, would be thwarted, perverted, denied. And they might even be right about that.
But if our repentance is solely, or even mainly, about our becoming right with God, about us living out our created (as opposed to our redeemed) purpose, then we’re lost. Because we cannot.
I like how Michael Spencer, the late prior of Internet Monk, put it in 2004 when speaking of the Prodigal Son:
I think it’s provable again and again that what we are comfortable saying to an unbeliever, we aren’t comfortable saying to a Christian. The Gospel is for Christians, too. We love the story of the Prodigal son. Now, what about the day after the party? What if the son messed up again in a week? What if he doesn’t live the life of a grateful son? Or to be more realistic, what if he sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t? Does that change the Father? Does the older brother get to come back into the story and say “Aha!! I was right!” Christ died for the sins of Christians, and we need to hear that over and over again.
Which means, as awful as it is, there will be sinners in our midst. People who don’t change. People who only kind-of change. People who can’t change. People who won’t.
And we are no less the people of God.
“But if we aren’t a changed people, what could it possibly mean to be redeemed and called by Jesus Christ to follow?” It depends on what you mean by change. Too often, I think conservatives and traditionalists are effectively defending, either consciously or not, a respectable church, one in which there is little daylight between being a good believer and being a good, bourgeois citizen. That church is, or should be, the place where people who do not sin, or are only really sinners in theory, meet. (Let me be fair — mainline liberals are defending this too, and the gay-friendly church is also peddling a version of bourgeois respectability that is as conformist, pietistic, and intolerant as any traditionalist version.) In the callous and violent world of collapsing mass modernity, in which far too many people have been reduced to things of pleasure and profit for each other, the greatest change we can make — the thing we who live right now are empowered by Jesus to do — is to meet those broken by this world and be something truly human, something truly divine, for them. To be God’s love. To show that resurrected life is possible in a dying world.
Anything else, right now, is secondary.
How we deal with the day after, with the response to “go and sin no more,” is open. It is for us to write. We can be good traditionalists, and toss those out who continue to sin. It is something the church does and, unfortunately, does well.
But I am not called to do that. The people I serve — whoever and wherever they may be — are not called to do that. (And it takes all kinds to make a church.) The people I know, the people most dear to my heart, the people for whom I wrote a book and sing my songs, have all been broken by a world (and this includes the church) that has called us, time and again, sinners. That world has hurled stones at us without conscience or regard. We do not need more condemnation. We aren’t going to listen to “sin no more” — even if we really want to hear it — because we know that some kind of abuse naturally comes next, like mushrooms sprout after a heavy rain. That belonging, being part of something, is always conditional. On being something we cannot be.
And yet, we know Jesus. We have met Jesus. He has come to us, forgiven our sins, commanded us to walk, told us who we really are, and invited us to follow.
(You want an unresolvable tension to live in? This is that tension…)
I may not be the best follower Jesus ever claimed. I probably tolerate too many sinners, and too much sin. And honestly, I’d like to see the church do that too. Perhaps I am wrong. In this, though, I know I am forgiven.