By Joe Rigney

Wes Hill has written a post setting forth five theses on church discipline. Wes and I attended seminary at the same time, and I count him a friend and a brother. A year or so ago, he and I had a fruitful conversation on just these issues at a theological conference. Given my respect for him and his influence, and given that he contrasts his view with his previous background as a Calvinist and a Baptist (a church background which I still hold), I thought it would be good to interact a bit with his theses.

First, Wes questions whether 1 Corinthians 5-6 is as directly relevant to the present situation of church discipline and same-sex sexual sin as some conservatives contend. However, in doing so, he makes a surprising claim about the passage.

When Paul addresses same-sex sexuality in the immediate context, he is speaking of its practice outside the Church; he doesn’t say one word about how to handle homosexual sin among those who are inside the church (6:9-11)

This is an odd way of reading that text. Here is 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Does Wes want to argue that Paul would not include homosexual sin within the category of “sexual immorality”? This reading seems especially strained in light of the next chapter, when homosexual sin is included in the sin list (6:9-11)? Or does he think that the particular sin in Corinth (a form of incest involving a step-mother) restricts the use of pornos later in the passage? It seems far likelier that bringing up the pagan indictments of incest is simply Paul’s way of heightening the criticism of the Corinthian church, not a way of restricting church discipline to those areas where there is agreement with non-Christians.

Put another way, the argument is fairly straightforward.

  1. Paul considered homosexual sin to be one variety of sexual immorality.
  2. Paul says that those who bear the name of brother and are guilty of sexual immorality ought to be ostracized / excommunicated (purged from among us).
  3. Therefore, those who openly practice homosexual sin should be ostracized / excommunicated.1

Second, Wes argues that the present cultural confusion on sexual issues ought to be a mitigating and chastening factor in our exercise of church discipline in sexual matters. The church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is almost incomprehensible in the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution. In one sense, this is undoubtedly true.

However, I’m not sure that the cultural moment is as much of a mitigating factor as Wes suggests. We must take care lest we begin to regard the biblical teaching on sexual ethics and marriage as a form of divine positive law, as opposed to a reiteration of natural law, which is evident to all men by nature. Paul argues that the sinfulness of homosexual erotic activity is “contrary to nature” and thus evident to all men (Romans 1). Now, of course, as Richard Hooker argued, “wicked customs” can smother natural law. But whatever wicked customs have arisen to smother natural law on sexual matters in the post Sexual Revolution West, they don’t overthrow the clarity of nature’s witness, especially when coupled with the universal teaching of the church up until the previous generation, and the current witness of the greater part of the church worldwide. Indeed, the church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage is designed to underscore the clarity of nature’s witness in the face of our sinful truth-suppression, and the church’s discipline is designed to underscore the gravity of willful violations of natural and divine law. Also, we must not forget that the Episcopal Church (TEC) is precisely one of the denominations that broke with the 1900 year clarity and consensus of the church.

What’s more, I’m not persuaded by Wes’s claim about the difference between Paul’s day and ours:

The church must now address something Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 never had to confront: how to disciple people so that they are able to recognize as sinful a set of behaviors they’re used to thinking of as holy.

While that claim is narrowly applicable to sexual relations with a stepmother in 1 Corinthians 5, it’s evident that pagan Corinthians clearly regarded all manner of sexual immorality as permissible and good. What’s more, in some cases, they clearly sought to link sexuality and holiness, as in the case of temple prostitutes. Whether or not they regarded their disordered sexuality as a constituent part of their identity in the way that many do today, I’m not competent to answer. Regardless, unless Wes wants to argue that Paul would refrain from disciplining someone who bears the name brother and yet flagrantly visits a temple prostitute, it seems to me that Paul knows exactly what we’re facing today. The question is whether we will face the sexual permissiveness of our day in the same way that Paul confronted the sexual permissiveness of his day.

Perhaps I can put it this way: given the mitigating factors that Wes highlights in the modern world, I come away with the impression that he thinks that church discipline can only be exercised in Christendom-like conditions (i.e. when biblical ethics have been so culturally enshrined that biblical commands are fully comprehensible to the average church member). But that standard would make church discipline impossible in the first century Roman world. Let’s not forget that, in 1 Corinthians, Paul was encouraging church discipline, on sexual matters, for those in the church, in a pagan context, in which all sorts of sexual immorality was tolerated and celebrated in the wider culture, and in which the gospel had only been planted within the last few decades (!). Paul is clear that a number of the Corinthians have been saved out of rampant sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:9-11). But neither the wider sexually permissive context, nor the previous participation of church members in that sexual sin, leads Paul to hold back on his call for discipline and excommunication for willful violation of sexual ethics.

Ironically, this is where Wes’s tentative comparison between the racism of men like Dabney and the present confusion on sexual ethics tells against his own practice. Isn’t part of our criticism of the antebellum South that they approached the endemic racism in their churches in precisely the way that Wes says he wants to treat gay sexual sin today—with a lament for the existence of slavery and its “excesses,” but with no disciplinary teeth attached? I wish that Southern churches in Mississippi would have actually exercised church discipline on wicked slave masters, who flagrantly violated the command to love their black neighbors as themselves. Would that some Presbyterian ministers close to Dabney had confronted him about his virulent racism. In my judgment, one of the lessons that we ought to learn from America’s sad history of racial injustice is the importance of exercising church discipline when professing Christians flagrantly violate the law of God.

Finally, Wes urges the church to recognize and own her complicity in the sexual confusion, especially in relation to her catechetical role with respect to sexuality and marriage. And in this Wes is surely right. And Jesus notes that lack of knowledge is in some sense a mitigating factor in God’s judgments. However, while this may mitigate our discipline in relation to confused lay people in the pews, it ought to heighten our condemnation of shepherds who are deliberately sowing confusion on precisely these matters.

But, as Derek Rishmawy has noted, Wes (and Alan Jacobs) have been extremely reluctant to identify professing Christians who teach the goodness of homosexual activity as false teachers. In other words, there appears to be a deep inconsistency in holding that a) lay people have been inadequately catechized and therefore shouldn’t be disciplined for gay sexual sin, and b) priests and bishops who teach the goodness of gay sex should not be condemned as false teachers and defrocked. If a) is a mitigating circumstance for lay people, then there is even more gravity to addressing b) forcefully, clearly, and soon.

Wes’s desire to “shepherd sexual sinners with appropriate gentleness” would carry far more weight if it was accompanied by a clarion call for repentance on the part of the false shepherds in the mainline denominations. And by clarion call, I mean the sort of thing that Ezekiel and Jeremiah do when they confront the false shepherds of their day. A call for gentleness and prudence toward confused sheep might be welcome, if coupled with an equally forceful condemnation of the wolves who are preying upon them. Sadly, it seems to me that Wes’s call for gentleness extends to those like Matthew Vines, Jeff Chu, Rachel Held Evans, and others who are fostering the very confusion that Wes laments.

In this, I think Jesus is our model. Jesus notoriously extended mercy and grace to refugees from the world, even to the grave sexual sinners of his day (though, importantly, he was quite clear to the woman caught in adultery that, even as he did not condemn her, she should nevertheless “Go, and sin no more”).

At the same time, Jesus was less than gentle with the false teachers of his day, the Pharisees who nullified the commandments of God in order to establish their tradition. Indeed, I can think of no better designation for those who nullify the clear teaching of nature and Scripture on sexuality and marriage than Sexual Pharisees. First century Pharisees declared “Corban” and then felt free to disregard the fifth commandment (Mark 7:6-13). Twenty-first century Sexual Pharisees declare “Tolerance, Diversity, and Inclusion” and feel free to disregard the seventh. In both cases, the tradition of men nullifies and voids the commandment of God.

What’s more, Jesus lamented that the people of Israel would not come to him to be gathered under his wings (Matthew 23:37), much as Wes laments that many professing Christians today are so confused about sexuality and marriage that they reject the Bible’s teaching on such matters. But Jesus didn’t merely lament or have compassion on those who lacked a good shepherd. He also called down curses upon the hypocrites of his day, who not only refused to enter the kingdom, but placed barriers in the path of others (Matthew 23:13).

Thus, my appeal to Wes is that, if he wishes to chasten our hasty application of church discipline on homosexuality in the present cultural moment, then we must also become far more forthright and clear on the grave error and sin that is taught by revisionist false teachers on sexual ethics. And the reason we ought to be more forthright and clear on the gravity of the error, including exercising discipline on such false teachers, is precisely because we wish to love people. Church discipline not only expresses our condemnation of high-handed sin, and not only aims at the restoration of the individual sinner, but it is also our attempt, however fallible, to preserve the holiness of God’s people in order that God’s gracious presence will continue to abide with us.

Joe Rigney is assistant professor of theology and literature at Bethlehem College & Seminary and author of The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. He is a pastor at Cities Church.

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  1. Some Christians note that Paul includes a number of other sins in 1 Corinthians 5 (greed, swindling, drunkenness), and that we don’t see the same zeal for purging with respect to these sins. Two factors seem relevant. First, insofar as someone publicly and forthrightly calls greed, swindling, or drunkenness good and embraces such practices, I have no doubt that the same churches that exercise church discipline on those who practice homosexual sin would exercise discipline on those who high-handedly commit the other sins as well. Second, even if, for the sake of argument, the church is failing in its obedience to Paul’s exhortation to purge the drunkard and the greedy, failure in that area should not be used to justify failure to purge the sexually immoral. If anything, we should work the other way. Obeying Paul with respect to sexual sin should lead us to apply the same measures to the other sins that he lists (as well as similar sins more broadly), insofar as such activities are embraced as good and right.)

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