"If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.” Carl F.H. Henry

Why Are We Having This Conversation? Thoughts on the Smith-Jacobs Orthodoxy Debate

Recent articles by James K. A. Smith and Alan Jacobs (two scholars I have enormous respect for) have provoked an online discussion about whether homosexuality and same-same marriage are at all synonymous with orthodoxy. The question is whether orthodoxy should be reduced to something as ostensibly moralistic as sexual ethics.

I’ll confess that the whole discussion is disappointing, so much so that it is prompting me to ask the question: Why are we having this conversation?

The answer, at least it seems to me, is that there appears to be growing reluctance about Christian sexual ethics in general. They are unpopular and divisive. They are increasingly the line in the sand that draws boundaries between cultural acceptability and a Christianity that so strives to keep up with the Joneses down the street.

The way that Jacobs and Smith write, one comes away thinking that the traditional biblical sexual ethic has some work to do to prove its orthodoxy bona fides. I respectfully disagree. I want to take the burden off of the Christian sexual ethic having to prove itself orthodox and put the burden on those who would believe it isn’t a part of creedal orthodoxy.

So let’s be very clear what is happening as questions of whether sexual ethics meet the threshold of orthodoxy: We are rejecting the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 19, who re-affirms the creational framework that undergirds biblical anthropology starting in Genesis. We are rejecting two thousand years of unambiguous, unchanging church teaching. We are saying that biblical distinctions of what constitutes the body of Christ from the culture around it does not have a distinguishing sexual ethic any longer, in opposition to 1 Corinthians 5. We are saying that Paul was mistaken in warning of eternal damnation for unrepentant sexual behavior (1 Corinthians 6). (On this point, I would direct you to John Piper’s excellent commentary on whether affirming homosexuality constitutes heresy and J.I. Packer’s 2003 essay on leaving his denomination over this issue). We are rejecting an apostolic sexual ethic reaffirmed in Acts 15.

So, to those who are reluctant to believe the Christian sexual ethic an essential component of “orthodoxy,” a series of questions:

  • Can someone be an unrepentant adulterer and “orthodox”?
  • Can someone be an unrepentant liar and “orthodox”?
  • Can someone unrepentantly abuse their spouse and be “orthodox”?
  • Can someone be an unrepentant racist and “orthodox”?
  • Can someone be an unrepentant pedophile and “orthodox”?

Ask yourself, how far are we willing to take this question of allowing some biblically prohibited ethics to gain a foothold of acceptability and not others — especially where there is clear teaching on the matter, and the clear teaching on the matter has eternal destiny at stake? (Before someone accuses me of doing so, let me just say that I am not equating homosexuality with pedophilia. I am making a hermeneutical equivalent, not a moral equivalent). That questions like these are not answered in the creeds, is that supposed to give a sufficient explanation to make it adiaphora? That seems, to me, not to be a problem of the boundaries of creedal orthodoxy, but a failure to understand the historical setting that gives rise to creeds in the first place. Or, are ethics somehow intertwined with orthodoxy? Or, re-stated: What hath ethics to do with Christology?

All of what’s above matters because intrinsically disordered ethics reveal an intrinsically disordered Christology. The approach in the Jacobs-Smith argument seems to unwittingly detach ethics from questions of Christology. Nothing could be further from the New Testament witness. Christ’s active obedience to YHWH’s Law (ethics) is what fulfills the righteousness necessary to obtain our salvation. The unrighteousness of our ethics are seen against the backdrop of Christ’s righteousness and his ability to uphold and fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). The righteousness of Christ reflects the righteousness of God’s holy law. Better yet, he fulfills it (Romans 10:4).

When we cast doubt on the integrity and centrality of ethics to the Christ event, we do damage to the totality of Christology. Ethics is central to orthodoxy if only because the ethics of Jesus are central to our salvation, and the path of discipleship central to our recognition of His Lordship. We should not separate out ethics from our understanding of how God made us and who Christ is, for in the economy of salvation, it’s our ethics that condemn us, but it is Jesus’ ethics that save us. Ethics has as its goal the fulfillment of living out what is true, which is inseparable and indistinguishable from our task of being conformed into the image of Christ, the truly ethical person (Romans 8:29). When we are ethical, we are living in accord with true humanity. When we are living ethically, we are living in accord with the Christ through whom all things were created (Colossians 1:15-17)).  When we reduce ethics to questions of mere action and moralism, we overlook the centrality of ethics to creation theology and the structural integrity of the created order, which is exactly what debates over sexual telos are about. So, while I appreciate Jacobs’ post about what, exactly, defines heresy, affirming or allowing what is as clearly prohibited as any other teaching in Scripture — as I’ve tried to show — leads back to a deficient Christology. This is a “sin against the faith” — how can rejecting the words of Christ, and the created order to which he gives telos, ever not be?

All this means something simple: If our ethics can accommodate something as patently unbiblical as homosexual practice or same-sex marriage, if we can muster a soft orthodoxy around it, then Christ’s Lordship means nothing. It means nothing than revising whatever cultural standards are pressing in on the church.

On an issue such as same-sex marriage, we must begin by recognizing its foreignness to Christianity. It’s entirely unintelligible from the perspective of Scripture. To make the text endorse same-sex marriage or to excuse homosexuality is to do violence against the text in the same way that prosperity preachers do violence against the text. This means that same-sex marriage is coming to the church externally; and it means that our reluctance to deal confidently with this controversy is a revealing insight into the state of the American church, even by purported conservatives. If we cannot resolutely and proudly stand on this issue, what else are we willing to cede or shrug our shoulders about? Someone will affirm homosexuality and same-sex marriage on two grounds: Accommodation or cowardliness. There is no middle ground in this debate. Any intellectually honest scholar who respects the Bible as inspired revelation or is willing to accept the clear meaning of the text, knows that the Old and New Testaments condemn homosexuality. It’s only the exegetical hucksterism of certain revisionists that are now attempting to contort Scripture into a gay-affirming hermeneutic. To be clear, I am not accusing Smith or Jacobs of being either revisionists, cowards, or accommodationists (I respect both men and have benefited greatly from their thinking), but the trajectory of their argument supplies those with more insidious motives than they the pathway to affirm homosexuality.

If the Scriptures can be made to affirm what it obviously prohibits, the Scriptures can be bent to anything. And for what? For cultural popularity? Because we’re afraid of what a family member or someone of certain academic or cultural status will think? Don’t we have the Word of God that predicted moments like the ones we’re in? The Christian ethic stood athwart Gnosticism in its beginning, and so now the Christian ethic must stand athwart a newfound Gnosticism that reduces the body to little more than the sum total of its desires. In calling His creation “good,” God intended more for our embodiment than just a sensate pleasure factory.

One other element I that I cannot help shake is the pastoral malpractice that questions like this breed in the lives of Christians who do not see this as an intellectual exercise. This is the element that brings me grief. Imagine you’re a woman in her twenties battling same-sex attraction, or perhaps where a same-sex relationship developed but ended — what do you say to a woman like this amid this conversation? These are pastoral questions with embodied significance. It is never just an academic debate when the consciences and souls of faithful saints are in the crosshairs. What do you tell her when her conscience, affections, and loyalties to Christ and her sexual desires are in tension because she’s a faithful Christian who takes the words of Jesus seriously? Should we really put forward questions that invite doubt on the church’s teachings? Unhelpful, speculative debate about biblical teaching overlooks the pain & confusion this sows in Christians battling same-sex attraction. In the interest of intellectual debate, defining biblical teaching down to the level of adiaphora hurts faithful Christians looking to Christ’s sufficiency. If this isn’t essential to the Christian faith, if this isn’t an issue of orthodoxy, then I don’t know what to tell my same-sex attracted brother and sister? Do you?

In the words of Maxie Dunnam, “If we can’t trust the church in our understanding of marriage, then whom are we to trust?”

So how can the Christian sexual ethic be anything other than an essential component of orthodoxy?

One of the great paradoxes about this discussion is that while those having it are doing so purportedly in the name of preserving unity, it is exactly these types of conversations that create disunity. They rend division in the church where there has not been prior division. So, again, how does this conversation occur without some type of harm being done, whether to believers or church unity?

One final word: This is the exact type of conversation that false teachers are wanting Christians to have. They want Christians to debate this; they want to be seen as within the fold of orthodoxy. By not making this an issue of orthodoxy, we undermine orthodoxy by giving quarter to heterodoxy. False teachers want us to question God’s Word so as to allow false teaching to gain a foothold. They want the church to not divide over issues that are worth dividing over. Don’t let them. Which means there are some conversations we shouldn’t be having. Like this one.