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A Response to UCA Resolution #84

Greg Brown writes to explore why evangelicals should not just walk away from the UCA.

Some (and we need to remember, not all) parts of the UCA have been in great pain since the 2003 Assembly. The furore over what has been incorrectly termed the ‘ordination of homosexuals’ decision caught many evangelicals in the church by surprise, and it is clear that some UCA decision-making processes need to be examined. For some, the pain has been exacerbated by the apparent confusion and inaction of denominational leaders who have failed to understand the level of grief and distress being experienced by many clergy, laypersons and congregations.

The result is that the UCA has lost some of its evangelical membership, and as this happens, the theological centre of gravity shifts slightly towards a more ‘liberal’ position. Some may not think this is a bad thing, but it does mean that we are disconnecting further from an important part of our heritage, and it is also causing others to think seriously about joining the exodus. Can we stem the tide? Do we want to? Do we have the energy to stem the tide? Does God want to stem the tide?

These thoughts are therefore designed to help those who are tossing up staying or leaving, and particularly those who perceive themselves to be ‘evangelical’ who are looking for a rationale for staying.

Rightly or wrongly, this discussion is predicated on the following predispositions of the writers:

• We cannot pin our hopes on the next UCA Assembly. Without pre-empting the report which will be presented at that time, the probability is that the issue of homosexuality and leadership in the church is not going to go away in the foreseeable future.

• Given the above, we need to face the reality that the UCA will comprise pro- and anti- homosexual ordination streams. We are therefore going to have to find a way to live together with integrity in the ‘messy middle’.

• Church splits are extremely painful and difficult to justify theologically (at least in this sort of context). They set back the cause of the Gospel. We need to find better ways to deal with our differences than slinking out the back door, moving (on this basis only) to another fellowship, or starting a new church down the road.

• And finally, a personal and intentional decision to join the UCA because of what it stood for, a tremendous admiration for those who laboured long and hard to birth the denomination, and a strong conviction that God has more to achieve in and through the UCA.

1. Biblical Authority?

Many who are opposed to #84 have identified the authority of scripture as a or the key issue. For them the Bible clearly proscribes homosexual behaviour. Such activity is flagrant disobedience to the Word of God. Their position is that a church that permits or weakens its stance against homosexuality is therefore contravening the specific commands of scripture.

An alternative view is that #84 is not about the authority of scripture at all. It is about hermeneutics – how we understand & interpret scripture.

The Basis of Union indicates that the Old and New Testaments are received as ‘…unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which [the church] hears the Word of God …’ (Para 5). Pro #84 folk are not moving away from this view of scripture. Most would probably be offended if they were accused of doing so. They do, however, understand scripture in a different way to those who oppose the Assembly decision. On this basis, the core issue here is therefore not the authority of the Bible, but what the Biblical text actually means. Of course, we all come to scripture with our own theological biases to help us interpret the text, but as we do so we cannot disavow an entire alternative interpretive methodology simply because we disagree with its assumptions. Nor can we cast aspersions on the integrity of those who hold a different view to our own. What we are called to do is to acknowledge our differences in a manner which honours the Gospel.

So the question must be put to those who are contemplating leaving the UCA over a differing understanding or interpretation of scripture – why choose this one? Why not over different views about the first few chapters of Genesis, or baptism, or eschatology, or one of the many other issues on which Christians differ? Does the Bible anywhere allow us to divide the Body of Christ over differences in how we understand scripture? When Paul asks rhetorically ‘Is Christ divided?’ , it is clear that the only answer will always and ever be ‘No’. That reality must therefore guide our thinking and the decisions we make in relation to being church together.

That said, it is recognised that there is a divide between this issue of homosexuality and that of historical alternate understandings of scripture. Theistic evolutionists and Amillenialists might be viewed with suspicion by some evangelicals, but few would label them as ‘sinful’ merely because they hold those views. The practice of homosexuality is in a different category altogether, according to prevailing contemporary evangelical theology. However, recent church history demonstrates that all sorts of activities have been called sinful by conservative Christians on Biblical grounds – drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking, dancing, Sunday trading – but for the most part, we view those practices in a different light today. The reason for the change is that we have realised and acknowledged that it is possible for two Christians to hold opposite views about an issue without accusing one or the other of violating scripture. We have come to understand that fellowship and unity are not defined by one view or another of such issues. Similarly, living in authentic unity together is going to require us to accept that homosexuality can be authentically understood in various ways without us questioning each others’ views about the authority of the Bible.

2. Biblical emphasis

The process of how we weigh up one Biblical principle against another is also at play here. Those who cannot live in a denomination which contemplates #84 seem to be basing their concerns on five passages which apparently address isolated homosexual acts (most scholars seem to agree that these passages are not addressing what we would understand as a ‘committed homosexual relationship’ today). For them, these verses outweigh all other Biblical considerations. But should they?
Some of those who wish to continue in the UCA (whether they agree or disagree with #84) believe that the Biblical principle of maintaining the unity of believers is more important than further dividing the church over differences in interpretation. For them, the notion of living with diversity in the tension of polarities (a value affirmed consistently through the whole of scripture, and universally acknowledged as a core plank of the Gospel) is more important than a particular way of interpreting a comparatively small number of verses in the Bible. And, in spite of what some conservative Christians may claim, this is not a wishy-washy unity that tolerates anything and everything, but a gritty, gutsy determination to live with and walk beside sisters and brothers who don’t share one’s views.

So we are called to make some sort of judgement here, one which might legitimately be based on the relative importance of these two issues – unity and homosexuality – that scripture itself expresses. Those who remain in the UCA may choose do so because, when they place the two issues side by side, scripture speaks a lot more of unity than it does of homosexuality, so maintaining unity is the more weighted Biblical principle, and therefore takes precedence.

3. Unity

That leads us to consider the notion of Christian unity. What does it mean to be in unity together?

Unity could be thought of as being like-minded – having the same or similar views. So some may feel they can’t be like-minded with those whom they perceive to hold unbiblical views – e.g. views in relation to homosexuality.

Or it may be that unity is equated with harmony – behaving well with and towards each other.

However, such understandings of unity fail to take into account the significance of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:2 – … Show your love by being tolerant with one another … (GNB). By definition, there is no need for tolerance where there are no differences. It is not difficult to live in harmony with people who agree with us. A church in which everybody thinks and believes alike (a likely story!) may be harmonious, but that is not what the scripture is talking about when it addresses the issue of unity. Harmony and like-mindedness are not the same as unity. Biblical unity is all about what happens when people disagree. It has to do with living authentically in Christ in community with those with whom we differ. Whether we like it or not, we are linked with all those who claim the name of Christ. Bonhoeffer helps us to understand this:

… One is a brother to another only through Jesus Christ … What determines our brotherhood [sic] is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us … The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us …

Some understand the UCA as a theological spectrum under a single umbrella. They are neither surprised nor threatened when a theology surfaces under the umbrella which they have not encountered previously or which differs from their own. In fact, they rejoice in this expression of diversity. For them, that is what the umbrella is all about. For them it might even be hypocritical to preach about unity if it can’t be authentically demonstrated.

There can be no doubt that scripture calls us to live in unity with each other, and that means fellowshipping with those with whom we differ. Tenney writes:

If you make 100% doctrinal agreement grounds for fellowship … the only one you can have fellowship with is yourself …

4. Looking Good

There is also the relevant but challenging issue of who we want to accept us and to whom we want to be acceptable. We can look good to ourselves, to each other, to the wider church, to the local community, or to God.

• If we try to look good to ourselves or each other, we intuitively know that we are self-deceiving – the heart is hopelessly dark & deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9, The Message)

• For some the notion of being in unity with conservative/fundamentalist/ evangelical/renewal/neo-pentecostal Christians and/or groups is important. Those who dwell in those particular camps will undoubtedly applaud those who may decide to leave a ‘liberal’ denomination like the UCA. But wanting to look good – accepted and acceptable – to a particular part of the wider body of Christ is seductive. It may suggest a concern with what people think rather than ‘fearing the Lord’, so it will ultimately prove to be a disempowering trap – the fear of human opinion disables (Proverbs 29:25, The Message).

• Others are rightly concerned about how we look to the wider community – those outside the church – perhaps because the community largely understands the Gospel through its perception of the church. They would probably rather see a headline in the local paper saying – CHURCH COMMITTED TO STAYING TOGETHER IN SPITE OF DIFFERENCES – than one which reads – CHURCH SPLITS. For them the former says much more about the Gospel than the latter. For them this best demonstrates the reality that the Christian faith is about living in and with the messiness of a broken world. For them this is being incarnational – the presence of God manifesting itself in and amongst fallen humanity – which is at the very heart of the Gospel.

Some might suggest that we shouldn’t care what the community thinks – that the church’s agenda is not to be set by the world. Paul’s missional strategy, however, appears to have been to start where the people are, and to operate in such a way that most people were open to what he had to say – I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some (1 Cor 9:22 NRSV). We can’t do these things if we are alienated or stand apart from the community.

• Finally, we have no option but to want to look good to God – to be concerned with what God thinks of us. It’s smart, & it’s life-giving. The difficulty is that we have different ideas of how we can do that. We can probably locate most schools of thought in one of two camps – separation or identification.

• The notion of separation has strong Biblical roots. The Jewish written tradition is replete with injunctions, the keeping of which was intended to keep the people of God pure. The theme is picked up in the New Testament, so it is easy to use the principle of separation as the rationale to justify walking away from a denominational system that appears to be ambivalent about the issue of homosexuality. Wanting to be part of a ‘pure’ church is understandable, even admirable, but we must realise it will never happen this side of eternity. The parable of the wheat and the weeds seems to be indicating that it is not our task to purify the church, it is God’s, and even then it is a future task rather than a present task. The present task is proclamation.

At the other end of the continuum is identification, and the incarnation provides the strongest support for this as a principle to guide behaviour. God got down in the mess in Jesus. There is nothing in Jesus’ behaviour in the Gospels which even begins to look like it would justify us drawing apart from anybody, saint or sinner alike. We simply have no right to exclude anybody, or to exclude ourselves from anybody. It is anathema to the Gospel. It is, by definition, contradictory to all that the cross stands for – a notion that ought to be repugnant to evangelicals.

The difficulty with identification is that we may be accused of tolerating sin (as Jesus was!), and those that are considering leaving the UCA over this issue feel they need to do so because they don’t wish to be connected to a theological position they perceive to be wholly anti-Biblical – the ‘guilt by association’ argument. However, as much as we may not like it, those on the opposite side (or sides?) in this debate are also Christ’s people. We cannot ignore Jesus’ words to his disciples when they were questioning the bona fides of someone from outside their own circle: … [W]hoever is not against us is for us. The reality is that we are part of many social systems and relationships that have components with which we are uncomfortable. Our state or federal governments make many decisions with which we don’t completely agree. Sometimes those decisions may even deeply disturb us, but we don’t move interstate or emigrate. We may even vote for the same political party that made those decisions next election! Being part of the UCA system does not automatically mean that we agree with everything it teaches or practices. Once again, the incarnation of Christ can be our guide – Jesus was ‘in the world but not of it’. Perhaps we have to learn to be more robust with those who might accuse us of being soft on sin, and more committed to being able to articulate our position with vigour and clarity. Surely this is how Jesus handled his accusers.

We need to therefore ask ourselves ‘Who do we want to look good to, or for, and why?’


How are we to respond, especially if we hold to the historical, conservative evangelical position in relation to homosexuality? Is there a place for such people in the UCA?

Some propositions:

1. When things are good in a relationship we rarely stop to think about why they are good, or even why we are in the relationship. It is when things get rocky that we begin to ask questions. However, such a time is not always a good time to ask these questions. Our thought processes might be contaminated by ill-will or pain or mistrust. Emotion can get in the way of logic. In times of relational difficulty we need to go back to the values and covenants that led us into the relationship in the first place, and trust that we made good decisions at the time for the right reasons. Separating from the UCA at a time when we feel disappointed or disillusioned is not the answer. We must return to the fundamental principles that have guided us in the past, and allow them to inform us again in this current context.

2. Our post-#84 position is no different to our pre-#84 position – our trust and hope is not in the institutional church, but in a God who is and will ever be faithful to his people. If we are hoping for the church to save us we will always be disappointed. The UCA may well take on a different form as a result of our present debate. That is really God’s business. What must remain as our primary focus is our unswerving commitment to the Kingdom, and God continues to do Kingdom work through human religious systems – including the UCA – every one of which is flawed.

3. As long as we continue to focus on this issue we are off the main game. Church consultant Lyle Schaller refers to arguing about this and similar issues as a ‘recreational activity’. We simply don’t have the time for this type of recreation!

4. Rather, writes Schaller in the same article, we should get on with the business – … a focus on evangelism and mission can become a unifying rallying point .(op.cit., p. 10). Our observation is that those congregations which have acknowledged the pain #84 has caused but have not allowed mission to become derailed have weathered this storm most effectively. The way forward seems clear – get on with fulfilling the Great Commission! Any other course of action is not serving God’s agenda, so whose agenda is it serving?