Orthodoxy, Sexuality, and the Local Church

James K.A. Smith’s post about orthodoxy, Christian creeds, and sexuality has provoked much commentary, most of it far more thoughtful than anything I could write here. I agree with Smith’s critics that his case against labeling revisionist sexual theology as “heresy” is weak and relies on a reductionistic appreciation of doctrinal formulations. I don’t necessarily agree with some who say Smith obviously is bowling to knock down the traditionalist pin. We must read others as we would like to be read. Prying into hidden motivations is always tempting when we encounter something we feel strongly is wrong, but it’s a temptation we should resist.

Since most of the commentators in this exchange are far more learned on the historic Christian theology than I am, I’m not going to pretend to add anything revelatory to the discussion. But I want to make one quick point, one that everyone in this exchange, from Alan Jacobs to Alastair Roberts, probably agrees on, but one that gets easily lost in theological disputes online.

There is an inextricably pastoral purpose to defining orthodoxy and declaring what’s outside it to be anathema. Smith is right that being wrong is not necessarily the same as being heretical. One major reason this is true is that the assembled congregation, the covenanted local church that is guided by overseers and whose members exercise the keys to the kingdom, must respond to the wayward member(s) in a particular way, according to the error. Church discipline does not exist to make every member agree on every theological dispute. But it does exist to enforce the boundaries that demarcate the embodied faith of the church. And it also exists to do practical spiritual warfare on behalf of the wayward member.

When Paul calls on the Corinthians to expel the man who is sleeping with his step mother, he is calling the church to protect its boundaries by executing its one appointed means of disenfranchisement. In doing this, the church also wages spiritual warfare that is intended for the man’s ultimate redemption and restoration. By throwing the member outside the camp, the Corinthian church was to assert its identity, its authority, and also its mission.

The proper end of heresy is excommunication. When the Christian faith is betrayed, the body of Christ must respond the same way that the Corinthian church, threatened by a member’s unrepentant immorality, did. The relationship between orthodoxy and ethics is more tight than we might assume, particularly if the local church is to protect both its confession and its purity by exercising the same power–the power of church discipline.

What does this mean for this particular debate? Three suggestions:

  1. The idea that we can infer from silence in historic Christian creeds what doesn’t rise to the level of “heresy” is a nonstarter, because the responsibility of the local church, as explained by Paul to the Corinthians, does not end merely at examining members’ personal doctrinal statements. The man whom the Corinthians excommunicated may not have failed a test of the Apostles’ Creed, but by being thrown out of membership on account of his unrepentant immorality, he was subjected to the same key-wielding power that governs his confession. The practical responsibility of the church with regards to heresy is the exact same as it is to unrepentant sin.
  2. Therefore, it follows that the real question is not whether homosexual sex is a violation of Christian creeds. The question is whether or not it is sin. Because the embodied community of God has the same obligation toward the heretical member as it does toward the unrepentant member, dividing orthopraxy from orthodoxy is simply kicking the theological can down the rhetorical road. For the covenanted people of God who wield the embodied authority of Jesus, heresy is sin, and sin is heresy, and the practical response to both depends not on sophisticated distinctions between belief and behavior, but on the question of doctrine itself.
  3. The reason this is important is not only that we can have an orthodox confession, but also so that we make practical distinctions between churches that have irreconcilable differences. Smith’s proposition is so attractive partially because it appears to relieve the hostility between churches that are “LGBT affirming” and churches that are not. If we can simply agree that this is a theological disputation, but not a fault line in basic Christian confession, we can, perhaps, start bridging personal and institutional gaps. But I submit an alternative thesis. I believe one reason there is so much heat and rancor in the Christianity and LGBT debate is because too many people, on both sides, are trying to behave as if this is a family skirmish amongst people who really do belong in the same pew. It is not. This is a fundamental question of what it means to be human. There is no reconciliation possible between churches that teach disparately about this, because there is no reconciliation possible between a church and a non-church. Embracing this, and quitting once and for all the delusion that this is a matter of some brothers and sisters being mean to other brothers and sisters, might actually relieve some of the anger and bitterness.