My grandfather, of blessed memory, was, among other things, a lay preacher in the Anglican Church. The word “Anglican” basically means “English.” The Church of England is the official Church of the United Kingdom. The Queen is its nominal head, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is its functional spiritual and administrative leader. He is viewed among the bishops, not as a pope, but rather as “first among equals.”
The Episcopal Churches of the world are connected to the mother Church in England, and each is presided over by a bishop. The word “Episcopal” originates with the Greek episkopos, meaning simply “overseer.” A bishop is the overseer of an administrative area – a diocese (This word comes from the Greek dioikesis, meaning “administration” or “management.”). There are some 38 dioceses in the Episcopal Church, encompassing roughly 77 million church members worldwide.
One of those dioceses – the one in New Hampshire – recently made waves by approving the elevation of an openly gay priest to become its next bishop. At the same time, it gave local bishops tacit approval to permit its priests to perform “marriage-like” ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. The decisions, made by the dioceses’ highest law-making body, have created a furor throughout the Episcopal Church worldwide.
Liberals in the US are celebrating the moves as opening the door to “full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.” Archbishop Peter Akinola, leader of the 17.5 million-member Anglican Church in Nigeria has branded the bishop’s election as “a Satanic attack on God’s church.” The bishops are split along these lines.
What it amounts to is this: the denomination of which the Queen of England is the titular head is, in part, approving of homosexual and lesbian behavior among its priests and parishioners. It is doing so in the face of Scriptures that declare such behavior to be “detestable,” “defiling” and “perversion” and “shameful” (Leviticus 18:22,24; Romans 1:26-27).
The other night, I watched an interview on television with a representative of the Episcopal Church. The interviewer asked him how the Church could sanction such behavior when both the Bible and church tradition clearly forbid it. He replied that, “the Bible is not the final authority. The Holy Spirit, working in concert with the Church, is” – or words to that effect.
Former Episcopal bishop, John Shelby Spong, noted for his radical views, explained to the Washington Post that “Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the Church and Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong.”
If Spong and the other official are right, what then is the role of Scripture in determining anything for the Church? At what point do we say, “The Bible is simply irrelevant to what it means to be a Christian in our time”? The point is: it is the Bible itself that is under attack here. If it has no moral authority for the Church, then the words of Moses, Jesus and Paul mean nothing. When Paul writes, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God…” he is telling an untruth.
Ignoring what is said in the Bible about homosexual behavior is the beginning – at least a beginning – of a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies, among other things, the complete repudiation of Scripture. What then would be the basis for Judaism and Christianity? Tradition alone? No, Spong has already rejected that as a valid authority. We are left then with “the Holy Spirit, working in concert with the whole Church.” But if that’s happening, which segment of the Episcopal Church is the Holy Spirit working in concert with: the Nigerian sector, which says the New Hampshire position is a work of the devil, or the New Hampshire faction that says it is the work of the Holy Spirit?
If we remove both Scripture and tradition from the equation, then how do we determine when and where the Holy Spirit is working? Against what standard do we measure?
Who’s influencing whom?
The Archbishop of Canterbury has called an emergency meeting of bishops for October to discuss the matter. The Anglican and Episcopal churches have been caught up in the larger culture war that is taking place on a daily basis in the West. At the moment the Church has little or no influence on society, but the liberal elements of culture are certainly influencing the moral theology of the Church.
In all areas where the Anglican Church has abandoned its moral authority in favor of diversity and inclusion, it is losing ground. In the UK, the Church is virtually dead in the water, as it is in Canada. In the US, only 12 percent of Episcopalian churches report an average attendance of more than 225 people, the minimum deemed necessary to support church programs. The Episcopal Church has more than 7500 parishes in theUnited States, yet 2,334 of them – more than a third — attract fewer than 50 attendees at services. That is insufficient to support a full-time pastor.
In Africa, where the Episcopal churches are holding the line on traditional, Biblical sexual morality, the churches are growing and thriving. Does any of this remind you of the famous line of Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel who said: “…For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail” (Acts 5:38b, NIV)?
The Creator did not intend that human morality should be determined humanistically. He has provided us with moral and ethical commandments, the meaning and application of which is not usually ambiguous. When Church leaders, no matter how venerable and entrenched their denomination, depart from Scripture as their guide for moral behavior, they have thrown over the one sure basis for determining what it means to be a Christian. Morality is then left hanging by a skyhook. Moral relativism, with all of its attendant evils, is the natural result. Anarchy and nihilism lie at the bottom of that slippery slope.
As I mentioned earlier, in our time, Christian churches have largely lost their moral authority, either by rejecting Biblical commandments out of hand, or by hypocritical practice. Prevailing societal mores – or the lack of them – are affecting the Church far more than the Church is influencing society in moral directions. Put another way, the Church is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the once-Christian West.
Which denominations within the Body of Christ will stand up for the Scriptural teaching on homosexual behavior? Who is willing to take the inevitable attacks that will come from the “homosexual community” and from the ideological Left?
It is not a matter of “imposing” our morality on the world; it is a matter of setting an example of faithfulness to it within our own Biblically based communities. It means understanding what the Bible teaches, and then being willing to live by it, no matter the cost in terms of persecution. So long as the Church is a house divided against itself over such issues, it will have no credibility with the watching world.
When the Protestant Reformers risked their lives to defy a corrupt Roman Church, they created for themselves a motto: Sola Scriptura – “The Bible alone.” They were no longer willing to take orders from a Magisterium that had departed from Scripture and that sold indulgences and ecclesiastical offices. It appears that at least part of the largest Protestant Church on the planet has now abandoned that noble slogan. A Church without the Bible is merely a humanistic church. It is man, beginning and ending with himself. The late Francis Schaeffer often warned that taking such a path will lead only to despair. He was right. Schaeffer also wrote, “All people, whether they realize it or not, function in the framework of some concept of truth.” If we eliminate the Biblical sense of truth, what are we left with? Apart from the Bible, there can be no moral absolutes.
In our time, the Church is facing a crisis of epistemology. The chauvinism of scientific truth has largely obliterated any sense of revealed truth. Writes Schaeffer, “The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth…On every side you can feel the stranglehold of this new methodology – and by ‘methodology’ we mean the way we approach truth and knowing. It is like suffocating in a particularly bad London fog. And just as fog cannot be kept out by walls or doors, so this consensus comes in around us, till the room we live in is no longer distinct, and yet we hardly realise what has happened…this change in the concept of the way we come to knowledge and truth is the most crucial problem, as I understand it, facing Christianity today.”
The modern Church is attempting to reform its ideas about sexual morality in an epistemological fog. It is torn between Biblicism and humanistic rationalism. Nothing is clear. The voices of compromise are loud and strident. The Church of England, and other Protestant churches that are wrestling with the same issues, are like Jerusalem in Isaiah’s day: “Jerusalem staggers, Judah is falling; their words and deeds are against the Lord, defying his glorious presence. The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them!” (Isaiah 3:8-9).
Some of Isaiah’s other words seem chillingly relevant too: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:20). Woe, in other words, to humanists who reject God’s input from their moral machinations.
It would be wise at this juncture to again reconsider the prescient words of Gamaliel: “…if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.”