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Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.31.06 PMIs the nature of marriage an “agree-to-disagree” issue for Christians?

Earlier this week, Scot McKnight commented on the decision of Union University to withdraw from the CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) because no action had yet been taken regarding two Mennonite faith-based colleges that opened the door to same-sex marriages among their faculty. Anticipating that other Christian colleges will soon follow Union’s lead, Scot explains why he agrees with Union on the biblical teaching of marriage, but disagrees with Union on withdrawing from the CCCU.

The Gospel and Marriage

Scot believes it is problematic for evangelicals to consider one’s teaching on marriage as more central to the gospel than other issues that divide Christians (baptism, for example). He critiques Union’s president, Dub Oliver, for saying that division on marriage damages our Christian witness and denies the authority of Scripture. Scot believes it is counterproductive to tie one’s understanding of marriage to the gospel in this way. He writes:

I see this connecting-to-the-gospel argument far too often. It is a borrowing of authority — the colonizing of authority if you will — from one thing to another to give the new thing the authority it would not otherwise have.

He goes on:

Let me register this: I disagree with Eastern Mennonite and Goshen, and often do on their progressive courage fronts, and Union and others can do what they want, but this is culture war stuff being used theologically to create division where a kind of unity and bland disregard of differences, some quite at the heart of what many of these schools actually make central, in the past.

Scot is right that the CCCU does not include stringent doctrinal tests for its members. It only requires them to have a public, institutional mission that is “Christ-centered and rooted in the historic Christian faith.”

“Historic Christian Faith”

But therein lies the question. How can a school claim to be rooted in the historic Christian faith when arguing for a vision of marriage that, literally, has no history within Christianity? Does an institution that no longer accepts the unequivocal witness of the Christian Church for two thousand years to the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality meet the CCCU requirement?

Union says no. The CCCU, currently, implies that this is an “agree-to-disagree” issue. In his commentary, Scot recognizes that in the texts that most clearly explicate the gospel, there is no reference to marriage. But this makes me wonder… which doctrines are essential for the church or an institution to faithfully promulgate the gospel? Is there anything besides the gospel proper that might be grounds for disunity?

Who is Creating Division?

I agree with Union’s decision, and, frankly, it appears that Scot is the one reading this situation from the perspective of “culture-war politics” and this is why it has clouded his judgment on this point. Let’s be clear. Union’s decision is not what is creating division here, but the moral heterodoxy of the schools that have abandoned the Church’s witness to marriage.

Who has changed here? Not Union, but the schools who adapted their policies in line with the state’s institutionalization of the Sexual Revolution revision of marriage.

Who has brought about this division? It is certainly not the schools that remain in line with every Christian in history until just decades ago.

It baffles me that one would blame the schisms across the Western Church today on those who uphold Christianity’s historic sexual ethic instead of those who advocate for a sexual revisionism that would have been unfathomable to the generations of the Christians who came before us and, even today, shocks the consciences of the vast majority of Christians outside the West. Only in Western cultures do we call churches “affirming.” Outside the West, the term is “apostate.”

Scot is reading this situation as if it were a fundamentalist reaction to the broader Christian movement. I think he has it backwards. This is schism brought about by those whose “cheap grace” is employed as justification for sexual immorality – the sort of situation that the brother of Jesus warned against (Jude 4), which means that “defending the faith” (Jude 3) in this context is less about maintaining the points of our creed or the planks of the gospel and more about the Church’s moral witness to the sexual ethic described by Jesus and the Apostles.

Pannenberg the Prophet

In the late 1990’s, Wolfhart Pannenberg, who would be to the left of many if not most evangelicals, clearly saw what was at stake in the mainline denominations’ wrangling over same-sex marriage. Appealing to Jesus’ definition of marriage and the New Testament’s witness, Pannenberg wrote:

“These texts that are negative toward homosexual behavior are not merely dealing with marginal opinions that could be neglected without detriment to the Christian message as a whole.”

In other words, the idea that one can simply disregard this element of sexual ethics and not do damage to Christianity is impossible.

Now, there are two ways of relating marriage as a matter of first concern to the gospel. One is to lump everything essential into “the gospel,” which is what evangelicals who call this a “gospel issue” have done.

The other approach is to say that the gospel is not the only thing that is essential for Christians to believe. It’s to say that there are elements of the Christian Story that are non-negotiable, even if they are not included in how we define the gospel (one might consider the doctrine of the Trinity or the authority of Scripture as examples). There may be doctrines about God and man that are not the gospel, but necessary for the gospel’s preservation and delivery.

Pannenberg, I believe, takes this latter approach, and this is why he arrives at a position that calls out the apostasy of institutions that bow before the cultural authorities on marriage:

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

I’m with Union, and with Pannenberg. For the CCCU to imply that one’s position of marriage and sexuality is an “agree-to-disagree” issue is to introduce a moral fog into our churches and institutions that will be devastating to the Church’s witness.

[[Update: Scot McKnight has clarified to me that he does not believe marriage is an “agree-to-disagree” issue for Christians. It is a matter of biblical fidelity.]]


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21 thoughts on “The Gospel, Marriage, and Sexual Schismatics”

  1. andrew says:

    thx for this blog article – i had not heard of union’s situation but applaud their move.

    in the end, i learned from this article that: 1) pannenberg disagrees with mcknight, that 2) pannenberg is more “left” than union, proving that union is not necessarily “the right” in the terms of the american culture war, and that 3) pannenberg thinks scripture unequivocally calls homosexual behaviour sin (i.e., thus, it’s categorically different from the ‘mode of baptism’ discussion).

    but, two questions: first, why not just drop the terms “left” and “right”? you use the former, and it seems to function even as a conceptual category for you. i think that what will distinguish christian boldness from “conservative” boldness in future days will be that the former is always joined to an expansive *theological* vision. if anyone can help us to stand more firmly on theological ground amidst culture wars, pannenberg can (he’s the deepest theological mind of the last 100 yrs in my opinion! and he’s from another culture) – which leads to my second point, namely that detailing #3 could help us converse in a more deeply theological way about this topic. this is far more important than #1 or #2, and frankly should eclipse those two points entirely.

  2. David Shane says:

    “Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism.”

    A good point. Something I never got reading the blogs of progressives like Rachel Held Evans is their insistence that conservatives were doing to much harm by fighting this culture war – as if we were the people who started the war and wanted to change the long-standing beliefs of our culture and the Church on these matters.

  3. J Dawes says:

    Hear, hear! Pannenberg is exactly right on who the schismatics are.

  4. Joel says:

    Yes, those who do not faithfully uphold the Christian view of marriage are those who are causing division in the church that is unified around the truth.

    But the best way to handle schismatics in a coalition that is supposed to be orthodox is not to abandon the coalition to the heterodox, but to influence the coalition and those schools by encouraging both to stay faithful to the biblical definition of marriage. By leaving the coalition, Union abandons its responsibility to both the schools and the coalition. It loses much of its capacity to influence the group. It encourages the moderates/liberals to consider conservatives schismatic. Why not wait to leave until you’re forced out, like Machen did with the PCUSA?

    I agree with Union on marriage, but not on this course of action. Thoughts?

    1. Tim says:

      How long is long enough, Joel? The CCCU has known about this issue and been unprepared to deal with it for two years. Union’s responsibility is not to the schools and the coalition, but to be obedient to the Lord.

      1. Joel says:

        Tim, I agree that CCCU should take action. My guess is that they never really had that much of a common philosophy of how to handle these sorts of things; that would be step one of taking action, which should have been done preemptively.

        But my question is how should Union and other schools take action? Leaving the coalition is one action; remaining in the coalition, developing a philosophy/theology of the mission of CCCU and the way to maintain its identity and doctrinal commitments, and pushing the organization to take appropriate action to preserve the evangelical confession and identity of the organization is another type of action. I’m inclined to think that the first should be attempted for longer, quite a bit longer probably. I suggested in my first comment that rather than having a specified time to wait before leaving an unfaithful organization one might wait until one is not allowed to continue with the organization or until one is hindered from one’s calling by participating in it.

        I don’t think Union is there yet; I think a lot could still be done. And the fact is that a good number of evangelical colleges don’t have a battle plan; a good number have no concept of church discipline, much less of Christian school discipline. I know the well-known Christian liberal arts school I attended did not have an understanding of the value of removing professors who disagreed substantively with the statement of faith. I can’t expect a coalition formed of schools like that to understand the value of removing these Mennonite schools from membership.

        I think the Gospel Coalition and similar organizations are doing a lot to convince people that that sort of thing makes sense and isn’t intolerant (in a bad sense) but loving. We need to keep doing that in the organizations where we’re called rather than leaving those organizations at this point.

        What do you think?

  5. Curt Day says:

    I am a bit confused about the issues. Were the decisions made to allow same-sex couples as faculty members partially because some nonChristians are allowed to be faculty or because these decisions acted as public position statements on same-sex marriage?

    Unlike Trevor, I believe part of the problem with the current division in the Church over same-sex marriage is because of the positions taken by the Western Church. In particular, its insistence on opposing same-sex marriage in society rather than just in the Church has been unnecessarily divisive. Such also makes the same-sex marriage issue into a culture war. In fact, not less than a few Christian bloggers, writers, and pastors view American Christians as being in a culture war because of the changing legality and societal view of same-sex marriage.

    There is no question that the Church cannot allow same-sex marriage among its members. But for the Church to insist on the same standard for all members of society in which it resides is another matter. Younger members of the Church are put into a bind simply because more of their friends and acquaintances belong to the LGBT community. And when the Church demands that society rejects same-sex marriage and thus tries to marginalize those in the LGBT community, it creates an unnecessary relational dissonance for our younger members have.

    So while same-sex marriage can never be an agree-to-disagree issue within the Church, how Church members feel that applies to society must be an agree-to-disagree issue. Otherwise, it will unnecessarily drive younger members away from the Church because their intuitive sense of justice will be too offended.

    1. Simply replace “same-sex marriage” with any other sin and see how that sounds:

      I am a bit confused about the issues. Were the decisions made to allow slave owners as faculty members partially because some nonChristians are allowed to be faculty or because these decisions acted as public position statements on slavery?

      Unlike Trevor, I believe part of the problem with the current division in the Church over slavery is because of the positions taken by the Western Church. In particular, its insistence on opposing slavery in society rather than just in the Church has been unnecessarily divisive. Such also makes the slavery issue into a culture war. In fact, not less than a few Christian bloggers, writers, and pastors view American Christians as being in a culture war because of the changing legality and societal view of slavery.

      There is no question that the Church cannot allow slave ownership among its members. But for the Church to insist on the same standard for all members of society in which it resides is another matter. Younger members of the Church are put into a bind simply because more of their friends and acquaintances own slaves. And when the Church demands that society rejects slavery and thus tries to marginalize those in the LGBT community, it creates an unnecessary relational dissonance for our younger members have.

      So while slavery can never be an agree-to-disagree issue within the Church, how Church members feel that applies to society must be an agree-to-disagree issue. Otherwise, it will unnecessarily drive younger members away from the Church because their intuitive sense of justice will be too offended.

      1. Curt Day says:

        Not sure if slavery is comparable to same-sex marriage. For one thing, slavery always involved the involuntary participation by one person into a hierarchical relationship. BTW, the Western Church did not uniformly come out against slavery.

        Same-sex marriage occurs when two consenting adults of the same gender enter into a special, permanent relationship involving the whole person for both partners which allows for equality between participants. And what we might have to consider is whether same-sex marriage should be tolerated in the same way we allow for the practice of different faiths. We believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father, but that does not cause us to legally prohibit the practicing of other faiths.

        That we can have two such different results stemming from filling in the blank for a particular sin indicates that your initial statement of replacing ‘same-sex marriage with any other sin’ does not yield the results you seemed to have anticipated.

        The real issue here isn’t whether same-sex marriage is sin. If we were considering rules for either the Church or the content of our preaching about Biblical sexual morals, then what the Scriptures say about homosexuality would primarily determine what we should say or enforce. But that is not the case. We are determining laws which will rule over a society we share with nonChristians. Thus, IMO, one of the most important issues in determining whether we should allow for same-sex marriage in society is how we should share society with others. Should we share it as equals or should we seek some sort of privileged position in a society revolving around a religiously based hierarchy?

        1. Barry johnson says:

          I particularly like your last paragraph. Don’t want a theocracy.

  6. McKnight got this one wrong, really wrong. It is an instance of why Union pulled out – the academic community is so slow to consider its own boundaries and feeds the narrative that there is a softness toward historic Christianity and morality. I don’t think this is true of McKnight, but in this case he exemplifies what Union is concerned about.

  7. Brandon says:

    I applaud Union University for its decision, but am also very confused. The CCCU has been home to Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant schools for many years. Aren’t doctrines like the Trinity and justification by faith alone “gospel issues” as well? Why did those issues not matter to Union University? Is the marriage issue more important than those issues?

  8. Haze says:

    I could “agree to disagree” with a Christian who genuinely believed that the texts that seem to condemn homosexual activity in general actually don’t do that at all. That’s a disagreement about our reading of the text, not whether the text is telling the truth or not. However, people who espouse such views tend very quickly in my experience to move onto arguing that Scripture can’t be trusted on these points anyway, possibly because even they realise how weak their Scripture-based arguments are.

  9. Paul says:

    “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” ‭Jude‬ ‭1:4‬ ‭

    “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” 1 Corinthians‬ ‭11:19‬

    The hijacking of grace and using it for perversion is apparent amongst progressive professing Christians. If we embrace this, we are in no way teaching the true grace of God; rather, the end and resulting fruit is the celebration and license of sin which manifests itself clearly and unmistakably. If we partner with, engage with and praise false teachers who promote sexual immorality and the murder of innocent lives, we are promoting evil. The blood of innocents cries out but folks who love to embrace and praise the promoters of sensuality, mysticism and evil makes us question who is standing on the authority of God’s holy precious word? Who is submitting to the Lordship of Christ? Who is walking in repentance?

    God is not mocked. You sow to the flesh you will, not if, reap corruption.

    If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”
    ‭‭1 John‬ ‭1:6‬ ‭

    “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,”
    ‭‭1 John‬ ‭2:4‬ ‭

    “I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.”
    ‭‭1 Peter‬ ‭5:12‬

    “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” ‭‭2 Peter‬ ‭2:1‬ ‭

  10. Trevor says:

    I really like these two paragraphs:

    “Now, there are two ways of relating marriage as a matter of first concern to the gospel. One is to lump everything essential into “the gospel,” which is what evangelicals who call this a “gospel issue” have done.

    The other approach is to say that the gospel is not the only thing that is essential for Christians to believe. It’s to say that there are elements of the Christian Story that are non-negotiable, even if they are not included in how we define the gospel (one might consider the doctrine of the Trinity or the authority of Scripture as examples). There may be doctrines about God and man that are not the gospel, but necessary for the gospel’s preservation and delivery.”

  11. Susan says:

    It is a gospel issue as I see it because the gospel is about acknowledging our sinfulness before a holy God, repenting, and believing on Jesus (His person and work). Implying that one can be right with God and continue on in unrepentant sin is the lie that satan wants to propagate. He wants lots of company in hell!

  12. Eagle says:

    This is schism brought about by those whose “cheap grace” is employed as justification for sexual immorality – the sort of situation that the brother of Jesus warned against (Jude 4), which means that “defending the faith” (Jude 3) in this context is less about maintaining the points of our creed or the planks of the gospel and more about the Church’s moral witness to the sexual ethic described by Jesus and the Apostles

    Trevor the Gospel Coalition can’t talk about moral authority on gay marriage when it has enabled child sex abuse cover up in Sovereign Grace. TGC hasn’t repented of its racket of a statement supporting CJ Mahaney. TGC has ignored the plight of many people who were sexually abused in SGM and claimed that they were divisive. Sexual sin is sexual sin, and child sex abuse is sexual sin. TGC needs to come clean and repent in this area.

  13. Jonathan says:

    why the outrage against gay marriage?
    your support for men dong homemaking so their wives can work is also apostate and not that different to embracing gay marriage…

  14. Silas Wubbel says:

    Both Carly Fiorina and Sen. Lindsey Graham have indicated that government officials have a duty to recognize same-sex “marriage.

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​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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