The Common Good
February 2004

Why the Evangelical Church Needs the Liberal Church

by Richard J. Mouw | February 2004

A Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for Reformed orthodoxy.

The Presbyterian Church (USA)—like many Christian denominations—has been starkly divided over the role of gays and lesbians in the church. It feels to many, as author Richard Mouw puts it, that the church is getting ready for "divorce court." Should the church split or stay together? The authors of these two articles—both Presbyterian, one liberal and one conservative—differ on many things, but they are in accord about whether unity—or schism—is the best way forward.

There is so little room for genuine give-and-take in our Presbyterian discussions these days, while at the same time so much hangs on how our conversations go. The issues that we are discussing are not simply topics about which we happen to disagree. They are matters that are vitally connected to the question of whether we can stay together as a denomination. In that sense, our present Presbyterian debates do not feel like friendly arguments over the breakfast table, or even the more heated kinds of exchanges that might take place in the presence of a marriage counselor. Rather, it often feels like we are already getting ready for the divorce court, under pressure to measure every word that we say with an eye toward the briefs that our lawyers will be presenting as we move toward a final settlement.

I hope with all my heart that we can avoid the divorce court. I want us to stay together. I do not have a clear sense of what it would take to avoid what many of our fellow Presbyterians apparently are convinced is an inevitable separation. I do sense, however, a strong need to keep talking.

The church, some insist, is not some mere voluntary arrangement that we can abandon just because we do not happen to like some of the other people in the group. God calls us to the church, and that means that God requires that we hang in there with each other, even if that goes against our natural inclinations. I agree with that formulation. And I sense that many of my fellow evangelicals in the Presbyterian Church (USA) would also endorse it. The question that many evangelicals are asking these days, though, is whether we are expected by God to hang in there at all costs. I think that this is an important question.

I genuinely believe that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely, the cause of Reformed orthodoxy. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people with my kind of theology have acted in the past, and I am convinced that splits inevitably diminish the influence of the kind of orthodoxy that I cherish, for at least two reasons.

First, the denomination from which the dissidents depart is typically left without strong voices who are defending their understanding of orthodoxy. This is what happened in the early decades of the 20th century when J. Gresham Machen and his colleagues broke away from the northern church. As long as he remained within the northern church, he had a forum for demonstrating to the denomination’s liberals that Calvinist orthodoxy could be articulated with intellectual rigor. When he and his friends departed, this kind of witness departed with them. The evangelicals who stayed on in the northern church generally did so because they were not as polemical as the Machen group; they were not nearly as inclined as the Machenites to engage in sustained theological discussion. This meant that the quality of theological argumentation suffered for several decades—some would even say up to our present time—in mainline Presbyterianism.

THE SECOND WAY in which the cause of Reformed orthodoxy was diminished has to do with what happened to the conservatives themselves after they left the mainline denomination. They quickly began to argue among themselves, and it was not long before new splits occurred in their ranks. The result was that conservative Calvinism itself increasingly became a fractured movement.

I worry much about what would happen to Presbyterian evangelicals ourselves if we were to leave the PC(USA). When we evangelical types don’t have more liberal people to argue with, we tend to start arguing with each other. I would much rather see us continue to focus on the major issues of Reformed thought in an admittedly pluralistic denomination than to deal with the tensions that often arise among ourselves when evangelicals get into the debates that seem inevitably to arise when we have established our own "pure" denominations.

I have learned much in my life from people who my fellow evangelicals are quick to label as liberal Protestants. For example, in the environs in which I was nurtured spiritually and theologically, Harry Emerson Fosdick was considered an arch-villain. As a college student I decided to form my own assessment of Fosdick’s thought, and I read extensively in his writings. There was much in his theology that I found disturbing. But I also was deeply moved by many of his sermons. His articulate address to issues of war and peace, and his profound commitment to the betterment of the human condition, left a strong impression on me. And even though I continued to search for a more traditionally orthodox basis for my political commitments, I drew much inspiration and solace from the witness of Christian people of more liberal theological convictions who modeled for me a courageous commitment to the biblical vision of justice and peace.

I take my common history and shared commitments with such folks very seriously. And it is precisely because of this that I want so much to stay together in our denomination. A friend of mine, also a Presbyterian evangelical with a history similar to my own, put it well to me recently. "It hurts like heck to be labeled a homophobe by the folks we are presently arguing with," he said. "When it was the issues of race and militarism and gender, we were all in it together, and folks like us were out of step with much of the rest of evangelicalism. The homosexuality questions, though, are different ones for us. Here we feel we have no other choice but to draw the line and stay with what we take to be the clear teachings of the Bible. We simply have to live with the accusations of being the mean-spirited ones. I do wish, though, they would give us a little bit of credit for having some integrity on this matter! I would like to get beyond the name-calling and really wrestle together with the underlying theological issues."

I have spoken often to evangelical audiences about sexuality issues. And I have always made it very clear to them that my views on same-sex relations are very traditional. I am convinced that genital intimacy between persons of the same gender is not compatible with God’s creating or redeeming purposes. But that kind of clarification of my understanding of biblical teaching for evangelical groups has usually been a preface to a plea for sexual humility. I have often told the story of hearing a conservative spokesman express his views in this way: "We normal people should tell these homosexuals that what they are doing is simply an abomination in the eyes of God." When I heard that, I tell my audiences, I wanted to get up and cry out, "Normal? You are normal? Let’s all applaud for the one sexually normal person in the room!"

The fact is that none of us—or at least very few of us—can honestly claim to be normal sexual beings in the eyes of God. The truth of the matter is that the labels we typically use in describing sexual orientation are blatant examples of false advertising. My homosexual friends are not very "gay." They have experienced much pain and loss in their lives. And the rest of us are not very "straight." We are crooked people, often bruised and confused in our sexuality.

None of this should be shocking to Calvinists. We are living in the time of our abnormality. We are all sinners who have been deeply wounded by the stain of our depravity, and we are nowhere more vulnerable and given to temptation than in the sexual dimensions of our being. In our sexual lives, as in all other areas, we know that while we may be on a journey toward wholeness, we are a long way from our destination. We are already the redeemed sons and daughters of God, but "it doth not yet appear what we shall be." So in our brokenness we journey on, knowing that "when he shall appear"—and only then—"we will be like him, and we will see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

This is an important time for each of us to be honest about our sexual condition. We evangelicals have nothing to brag about in this area. It is not enough for us to tell those with whom we disagree strongly about sexual orientation questions how wrong we think they are. Nor is it very helpful for other folks to keep insisting that we can solve most of our theological problems in this area by focusing on a Jesus who cares deeply about a generic, unnuanced "inclusivity." If that is all we have to say to each other, there is no hope for the continuing unity of our denomination.

When I was on the faculty of Calvin College, I helped to arrange a special evening lecture on campus by my friend Virginia Mollenkott, who had recently come out publicly about her lesbian orientation. Many of the things she said to a packed auditorium that evening were off the theological charts for most of us, including myself. But I will never forget how she concluded her talk. This is how I remember her words: "You may disagree with everything I have said thus far, but I hope we can at least agree on this," she said. "Whatever your sexual orientation, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that you have to do or agree to before coming to the foot of the cross of Jesus. The only thing any of us has to say as we come to Calvary is this: ‘Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come.’"

I believe that in that plea she was expressing good Reformed doctrine. We do not have to have either our theology or our ethics well worked out before we can come together to Calvary. All we need to know is that we are lost apart from the sovereign grace that was made available to us though the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, our only hope for moving on together as partners in the cause of the gospel is to bow together at the cross of Calvary, acknowledging to each other and to our Lord that we all need to plead for mercy to the One who is, in the Heidelberg Catechism’s wonderful words, our "only comfort in life and in death," and who "at the cost of his own blood... fully paid for all [our] sins" at Calvary. And then, having experienced together the healing mercy that comes from the one who alone is mighty to save, we can journey on as friends—no longer strangers to each other—who are eager to talk to each other, and even to argue passionately with each other about crucial issues of Christology, atonement, and discipleship, as servants who are "wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him."

I want with all my heart for this to happen to us in the Presbyterian Church—that we take up our arguments about the issues that divide only after we have knelt and laid our individual and collective burdens of sin at the foot of the cross. Needless to say, if it did happen, I would be surprised. But then, the God whom we worship and serve is nothing if not a God of surprises.

 

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. This article is adapted from a presentation at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians national conference held in November in Washington, D.C.

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