Friday, January 27, 2006

McLaren, Morality, and Moratoriums: Should we be Silent Where Scripture Speaks?

For the years that I have been aware of his work, my normal reaction to the views of Brian McLaren has been that of "uneasy appreciation." I have appreciated his work because of the potential it has to serve a prophetic function inside evangelicalism, but have been somewhat uneasy concerning his sometimes seemingly cavalier treatment of Biblical truth.

This past week in an article written for Leadership Journal, my uneasiness with McLaren has regrettably been vindicated. The January 23 article entitled Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question: Finding a Pastoral Response ( the pastor of Cedar Ridge Church calling for a "moratorium" on "making pronouncements" about homosexuality. But although McLaren's concerns about homosexuals are rightly grounded in the sinful way they have often been treated by those in the evangelical church, his refusal to speak decidedly on a subject clearly addressed by God's Word is ultimately the result of the same mistake: a failure to look to the clear teaching of the Bible as the final authority of our belief and practice.

On the one hand, McLaren raises some very relevant issues in the article. Beginning with an example from his own church of a couple wanting to know Cedar Ridge's "position" on homosexuality, McLaren recalls that his response came in the form of another question: "Can you tell me why that question is important to you?" McLaren continues with the following: "I hesitate in answering 'the homosexual question' not because I'm a cowardly flip-flopper who wants to tickle ears, but because I am a pastor, and pastors have learned from Jesus that there is more to answering a question than being right or even honest. We must also be. . . .pastoral." So far, so good! Certainly there is wisdom in knowing not only the concerns, but also the motives of those who inquire about the Christian worldview so that both sides understand each other.

Other legitimate issues that McLaren raises are the political side of this debate, which often sidetracks Gospel preachers from their true calling, and the propensity of Christians in earlier years to treat homosexual people with such disdain as to treat sin and sinner alike. "We fear that the whole issue has been manipulated far more than we realize by political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency. We see whatever we say get sucked into a vortex of politicized culture-wars rhetoric--and we're pastors, evangelists, church planters, and disciple-makers, not political culture warriors." He then goes on to state that even with the assumption that homosexual behavior is sinful, "we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do." In short, McLaren is calling for caution in the area of "political speech," and reckless abandon toward treating all persons, including homosexuals, as human beings created in the image of God. No genuine follower of Christ would seek to contradict either of these contentions.

But then comes the bombshell: "Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality."


Are we really hearing a pastor admit uncertainty on where he stands regarding the question of homosexuality? For starters, how about the most obvious understanding of Romans 1:26-27? How about moving from there to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

And yes, I've watched the "hermaneutical acrobatics" performed by the theological left in an effort to neuter the clear teaching of these texts. If these are who McLaren is referring to when he says he wants to keep his ears atuned to "scholars in biblical studies," I'd rather take the authorial intent of Paul and run with that.

Nevertheless, McLaren concludes in the article that perhaps we need a "moratorium" on any pronouncements related to homosexuality for at least five years. But what if no new answers come in that time period? "If we have clarity, we'll speak; if not, we'll set another five years for ongoing reflection." In the end, McLaren's suggestion is for five years of silence on a subject the Bible addresses with clarity, followed by . . . .most likely . . . . another five years of silence!

Having grown up within evangelicalism, and having borne witness to the many "unChristian" things said and done to homosexuals, I share McLaren's concern that this particular group might be mistreated. But the answer to our concerns is not to ignore the Biblical passages that address it. Instead, the answer is to further expound on the truth God has given us. The 1 Corinthians passage, for instance, paints a very balanced picture of how the church should view homosexuality:

I. Homosexuality is a Sin. In verse 9, Paul cleary states that the "unrighteous" will not inherit God's Kingdom, and then proceeds to give a broad range of examples concerning what it means to be "unrighteous." The list is not exhaustive, nor is it intended to elevate action over nature. In other words, Paul isn't saying that someone is unrighteous because they are a fornicator, adulterer, or theif. He is saying that someone is a thief, adulterer or fornicator because he or she is "unrighteous." In short, in listing these behaviors, Paul means to give a description of behaviors that are reflective of our fallen nature. Found clearly in the center of his list are two words: "homosexuals" and "effiminate." Both terms refer to same-sex activity as a raw perversion of God's intention for human sexuality. Therefore, homosexuality, among other things, is a reality because sin is a reality and our sin nature is a reality. But the resulting conclusion is clear: Homosexual behavior is an "abomination" (Leviticus 18:22), and "unnatural function" of human sexuality (Romans 1:26-27), and an affront to God's design in marriage that perverts the picture that union should portray of the union between Christ and His Church (Genesis 2:24-25, Ephesians 5:22-33).

McLaren's primary concern in this article was that pastors remain "pastoral." Yet a pastor who will not share lovingly the truth of God with his sheep is in the end, anything but pastoral.

II. Homosexuality is not the only sin. Obviously the text in 1 Corinthians isn't primarily about homosexual behavior, but sinful behavior in general that points to an unredeemed nature. This stresses the point that the issue isn't just homosexuality in particular, but also all sin in general that is an affront to a holy God. Although I have never personally struggled with homosexual urges, my flesh has often reared its ugly head in the form of greed, covetousness, and gluttony, which means that from God's perspective, my unredeemed nature is just as pronounced as that of my homosexual friends.
In addition, the Romans passage dealing with homosexuality continues with another Pauline list of sinful behaviors, among which are included those who are "unloving, unmerciful," and "murderers." Much media attention was given several years back to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual young man from Wyoming who was severely beaten by two others and left to die while tied to a fence. Followers of Jesus Christ should be the first in line to condemn outright such an atrocity! But the answer to such violence isn't laws that demand stricter punishment for "hate crimes." The answer is the Gospel, and the Gospel cannot be clearly spoken unless the need for the Gospel is also clearly spoken. This means that Christians who see homosexuality in Biblical balance will state clearly that it is sinful, while at the same time being careful to always cast that statement against the backdrop of all human sinfulness. McLaren's concern that many evangelicals have "singled out" homosexuals, and that this particular form of sin has become the new conservative "whipping boy" is largely legitimate. The answer however isn't a moratorium on truth, but rather a more comprehensive presentation of it.

III. Homosexuality is a sin Jesus died for. One of the great things about this Corinthians passage is how Paul describes all these sinful expressions of human depravity in the past tense. "Such WERE some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God." (6:11 NASB). In the midst of our morally relativistic culture, the church must contend earnestly for the truth that homosexual behavior is sinful in order to proclaim the good news that Christ delivers from such sins!

McLaren's concern is essentially the same as Paul's in Ephesians 4:15, "but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ." That passage occurs within the metaphorical context of church growth as a building project (cf. 4:16). In short, Paul is saying that disciples are made by the proper balance of speaking God's truth in the spirit of God's love.

Let's play a bit more with that analogy, shall we? I'll be the first to admit that in our earliest opposition to homosexual behavior, evangelicals became too comfortable with speaking "truth" with no regard for love. In a sense, that is very much like trying to build a house with hammer, but no nails. The result is that no joints get fitted, no walls get held together, but the wood gets badly bruised in the process, as one simply hammers away.

But the "moratorium" approach called for by McLaren is analogus to the other extreme: trying to build a house with no hammer. In this scenario, we want to build the body, but not in any way that requires the "piercing nails" of God's truth. Someone might get hurt! Someone might get offended!

McLaren correctly states that "being right isn't enough." However, being right in one's own mind concerning what God says about homosexual behavior is a neccesary start to correctly engage those trapped in sinful lifestyles. I believe McLaren is genuine and earnest in his suggestions. But given what the Scriptures teach about this subject, his silence on this matter is no less than cruelty to the church he serves, and no less than treason against God's truth!

Responding to sin in love is a lesson evangelicals have learned slowly, and in regard to homosexuality, our understanding of how to face it has been progressing. But our understanding of it as sin has not, and must not change, for the good of the homosexual, and for the glory of God.

Further resources:

Read other responses to this article by:

Mark Driscoll;

Steve McCoy;

Doug Wilson;

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