The more determined men become to despise the teaching of Christ, the more zealous should godly ministers be to assert it and the more strenuous their efforts to preserve entire. And more than that, by their diligence to ward off Satan’s attack.
As my study drew to a close and I realized how the naturalistic liberal and the supernaturalistic Christian hermeneutics were mutually exclusive, it meant I must chose one over the other. One hermeneutic would grant an equivocation of same-sex attraction and the other would not. I had to make a final decision. I could not have it “both ways.” As the depth and richness of God’s Word was now plain to me and I can see how sexual morality can be tracked from creation to the present day, I came to ask a much more sobering question: “Is the Episcopal Church’s embrace of the liberal hermeneutic with its unqualified equivocation and unconditional acceptance of same-sex expression an error that affects salvation?” Is the gospel itself at stake?
The St. Matthias Day Statement put it this way:
5 – God’s people united in and by God’s word
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
The visible church of Christ is a congregation of believers in which the pure Word of God is preached and in which the sacraments are rightly administered according to Christ’s command in all those matters that are necessary for proper administration…(Article XIX)
5a. The visible Church of Christ is a place where the life-giving and life-changing word of God is faithfully proclaimed.
5b. Redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships or affirming or blessing sexual activity outside marriage is contrary to God’s word.
5c. When a church does either of these things it therefore becomes difficult to recognise it as part of the visible Church of Christ. Consequently such matters fall outside the scope of acceptable ecumenical diversity and are a legitimate ground for division between churches.
Sam Allbery, himself a priest in the Church of England who lives with same-sex attraction and holds to the authentic Christian teaching about sex and marriage, put it this way on pages 69-70 of his book, Is God Anti-Gay?:
So isn’t homosexuality an issue over which Christians may legitimately disagree? …Does it affect the gospel?
Two passages indicate that homosexuality is a gospel issue. As we saw earlier, Paul talks about homosexual practice in the context of warning his readers that the unrighteous will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6 v.9). In this category he includes those whose practice homosexuality. Along with all the unrighteous, such as people heading for destruction. Their only hope is the gospel, the outworking of which will include a new identity and repenting of their former lifestyle. To deny this truth has huge consequences. A church leader who teaches that even certain kinds of homosexual activity are OK is actually sending people to destruction. It is not the same order of disagreement as Christians have over, say, baptism, or the practice of certain spiritual gifts. In the case of homosexual practice, the gospel is very much at stake.
In Revelation 2 v 20-21 Jesus rebukes the church in Thyatira for their tolerance of a false teacher: “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.”
This is someone whose teaching leads others in the church into sexual sin. Jesus promises judgment on her and any of her followers who do not repent (see v 22). But the responsibility lies not just with them. The church – including the many who do not follow her – are rebuked for tolerating her. So we are not to tolerate in our churches those whose teaching leads people into sexual sin. They must be confronted, their ministry forbidden, and their teaching refuted. This is a gospel matter. If we allow this to be a matter of acceptable disagreement within our fellowships, Jesus will hold it against us. Some forms of tolerance are sinful.
So it is a gospel matter.
I had two questions left: “Was I hanging on by holding to the ‘ecclesiastical root’ fallacy?” and “What does my oath to uphold the Scriptures mean now?”
The ‘ecclesiastical root’ fallacy sees the orthodox origins in the catholic creeds, the Thirty Nine Articles and earlier BCP liturgies still retained in TEC’s 1979 BCP as permanently sanctifying, or at least relativizing, any subsequent developments regarding those standards and their function. But if a church like the Episcopal Church never enforces its standards as they were intended, or so attenuates its ministerial vows taken at ordination that the substance of the standards has no practical significance, then those standards have gone, whatever nostalgic function they might still fulfill on paper. When a church’s procedures are uncoupled from biblically orthodox teaching, the game is more or less over. If I can hold office in a church, embrace the naturalistic hermeneutic and teach with impunity that Scripture is a sociological artifact, that the Virgin Birth is a fiction, that sin is no more than a failure to live to my potential, that the cross is a moral and inspirational example, that the resurrection of Jesus is one’s own inward psychological enlightenment, that there is universal salvation, then these things are part of the functional creed of that church no matter what it purports to say in its historical standards.
So it all came down to my ordination oath. You might be surprised in our post-modern era that oaths are still taken and valued, but if you think about it some of our most trusted public servants still take and are bound by an oath: the President, judges and magistrates, witnesses in a court of law, men and women in public service and the military, and ministers of religion. In my case it was an oath before God, asked by the Bishop of Lincoln and recorded by the Registrar of the Diocese. It is an oath subsequently renewed when I assumed each new position.
An oath sets the boundaries and the lines of authority in your office and ministry. In the Episcopal Church and in the Church of England there is an oath to accept the Holy Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. But the Church of England adds a Declaration of Assent, subsequently printed at the front of every order of service with the oath we had sworn. It sets the first ordination oath in a very specific context. The Bishop asks:
The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.
Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?
Priest I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness…
As a priest I am bound by my first oath in the authority of the Scriptures as the final authority. Articles XX and XXI help me understand how I am to interpret my canonical obedience to a bishop insofar as it is agreeable to the Scriptures. I am also bound by oath to study the Scriptures within a specific matrix of historic formularies as they are agreeable to the Scriptures:
- The historic catholic creeds (The Apostles, Nicean, and Athanasian)
- The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion
- The Book of Common Prayer, 1662
- The Ordinal
And so the integrity of the gospel is sustained.
When I returned to the United States in 2001 I transferred from one diocese in one Province of the Anglican Communion to another: The Diocese of Lincoln in The Church of England to The Diocese of New Jersey in the Episcopal Church becoming what is called “canonically resident”. I was not reordained. My oath sworn to a more specific set of standards still holds with the same binding quality as on the day I made it. It is just as if I were a military officer living and serving in another country. That soldier does not serve the interests of the other country in which he lives. He is bound by his oath.
To paraphrase the Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge, ministers take an oath to honor the rule of the church’s assemblies; when those assemblies make a decision, one must actively support, passively submit or peaceably withdraw. One does not have the option of simply ignoring the ruling creating some kind of default congregationalism and carrying on regardless. One also does not have the option of mounting a kind of perpetual guerrilla warfare within the church, keeping your quarter acre lot out of the hands of the Episcopal Church (where is your integrity then?). Further, once the gospel cannot be defended within the assemblies of the church, that church has lost the key marks of the word and of discipline (Article XIX). It is not a church any longer. It is thus no sin to separate from such a body.
Actively support, passively submit, or withdraw peaceably? I decided with a deep sadness that it is time for me to seek to withdraw peaceably. I told the congregation at the end of July and eight weeks later I took that strange phone call from a member with a message of a memo from the Bishop of New Jersey.