Spiritually Discerning the Redefinition of Marriage

When the church chooses to follow the changing tides of culture, rather than hold forth the unchanging Word of truth, it sows the seeds of its own destruction.

Between the 11th and 15th of January 2016 the Primates of the Anglican Communion met to deliberate over a number of issues, including the question of a growing demand for affirming homosexual unions within the Western provinces. This week, in his Presidential address to the General Synod, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke of the Primates meeting, the beauty and energy of the Anglican communion coming together in unity, as well as the crucial process of decision-making and development not being a matter of canons and rules, but one of discernment by the Spirit, based in relationship – but apparently not in revelation. Amidst all the Christian-sounding terminology, what is it that the archbishop was actually saying?

When Welby’s address is read in conjunction with the recently published letter of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to Jayne Ozanne, a homosexual activist and director of Accepting Evangelicals, a clear pattern and approach to the questions of marriage and human sexuality on the part of the Anglican church emerges, which reflects the radically changed priorities of the established church – a process that has been going on for many decades – to declare man’s word for the cultural moment rather than God’s unchanging word to the world.

So whilst the Archbishop’s address had much to say about the mutual foot-washing ceremony of the Primates at their meeting, who will wash away the stain of profanity when Christian leaders fail to put out of the church clergy who call good evil and evil good (Isa. 5:20); who incorrigibly redefine God’s most basic institution (the only one that predates the Fall of man); who ordain or ‘marry’ those openly living in shameful sexual immorality rather than excommunicating them; and who then accuse those upholding the truth of being disturbers of church unity? Such leaders have certainly forgotten that judgment begins at the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17) and that those charged to teach are subject to stricter judgment (Jas. 3:1).

The Archbishop’s address to Synod spoke much of the importance of unity in the church (something no true Christian should dispute when properly defined), and a catholicity typified through the sacrament. But he does not tell us what Scripture requires before we partake of the sacrament so that real unity might be preserved and we not eat and drink judgment on ourselves – that is, self-examination and discernment of the body (1 Cor. 11:17 ff.) involving, in the Anglican Prayer Book, confession, true repentance, the determination to leave sin behind and the affirmation of God’s law.

In fact, Scripture is plain that God permits factions in the professing church, exposed by the Lord’s Table, “in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:19). This makes Holy Communion not an instance of mere institutional, superficial unity, but a manifestation of grace and judgment in the body of Christ, to preserve real unity in the truth of the gospel. As such, to eat and drink in an unworthy manner, is to eat and drink judgment on oneself.

According to St. Paul, this is the discipline of the Lord that takes place through the proper administration of the sacrament (1 Cor. 11:29-32); suspension from the table and excommunication are the very essence of church discipline, revealing the seriousness of the covenant meal. It is the denial of access to the Lord’s Table for habitual, unrepentant violations of God’s law. The apostle Paul specifically models such discipline for gross sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5 when he addresses a case of incest between ‘consenting adults.’ This perversion was being tolerated in the Corinthian church, so Paul writes:

Are you arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you… Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump…? Let us therefore celebrate the festival not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people.

We should note Paul’s emphasis on truth and sincerity with respect to defining true Christian fellowship. Paul is explicit that this sanction of ostracism or expulsion is not in regard to the non-believer, but pertains to the one that claims to be a brother or sister in the faith and lives flagrantly contrary to it. Yet Justin Welby has been at pains to say that there have been ‘no sanctions’ applied to the North American church for its heretical position on marriage and human sexuality; their flagrant violation of God’s Word is instead met with procedural ‘consequences.’

By contrast, St. Paul is abundantly clear that the church is to judge those within it in this matter of sexual immorality, to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13). Of course, Paul’s injunction would be seen by many Western Anglican leaders today as unloving, intolerant, homophobic, transphobic etc. But if marriage can be redefined and bishops may support such a notion, or if homosexuality can be seen as normative, then there is no logical reason why two consenting adults in such a legally incestuous relationship (either by blood or marriage) covered here by Paul, should be in any way reproached or subject to sanction in the church. In fact it is difficult to see how any form of discipline could be consistently and logically applied. For Archbishop Welby to attempt to paper over the seriousness of the toleration and endorsement of sexual immorality in the church in the name of sacramental unity is a serious misuse of the meaning of Lord’s Table.

This error is compounded by the fact that nowhere does Archbishop Welby speak in his address of the church as pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), of the upholding of the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42; Jude 1:3), or the defense of the faith of which marriage and biblical teaching on sexuality is a central part (2 Tim. 3:15; Eph. 5:22-33). Likewise there is no mention of the Christian pastor’s duty to confront, correct, rebuke or put out of the church those causing division by teaching error or living immoral lives (Titus 3:10; Rom. 16:17-18; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:19-20; Matt. 18:16-17; ). Instead, all is couched in the vagueries of acceptance, discerning relationships and human flourishing, whilst God’s glory and the holiness of his bride does not seem to be a stated priority.

The church’s calling, for Welby, is to be a symbol of unity, but such a symbolism is empty without a clear understanding of what Christians are unified in and around. The church’s unity is not to be bought at the price of truth, and our calling is not without specific purpose in terms of the righteousness of God and his design-plan for human relationships. The gospel is not a vacuous wish that human beings flourish doing as they please. These things make the Primates’ ‘vote to walk together,’ in the midst of profound divisions and divergence of practice regarding the most humanly visible symbol of the gospel – ‘marriage’ – a hollow victory. Scripture rightly asks, Can two walk together, except they be agreed” (Amos 3:3, KJV)?

In explaining the process by which developments in understanding are accepted or rejected in the Anglican communion in a manner that leads to consensus (a process called ‘reception’), Archbishop Welby offered a couple of very telling illustrations: “Issues in 1920 around contraception, in Lambeth 1930 and 1948 around divorce, were at the time seen as threatening the unity of the communion as seriously as issues of human sexuality now.” The process of reception in these developments was, he suggests, “a discernment of the Spirit based in relationship.”

This statement is important for two reasons. First, the question of the clear teaching of Scripture and historic interpretation of the church is not the focus of this reception. Rather, we are told such matters are to be resolved by subjective discernment in a relational conversation. But surely here the Christian must protest that whilst the Holy Spirit is the teacher who leads us into all truth, we have no biblical warrant to think that he leads us contrary to the very inscripturated word he has infallibly inspired. The idea that by a relational process the ‘Spirit’ can lead Christian leaders to deny God’s Word is simply nonsense. Rather, as the prophet Isaiah says, “to the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, there will be no dawn for them” (Isa. 8:20).

We might rightly ask, then, what is the basis of this discernment? Are Christian leaders to discern the spirit of the age and act accordingly, or with the aid of the Holy Spirit, rightly divide the Word of truth? The Christian discerns truth from error on the basis of God’s Word, not some alternate subjective standard. Human ‘discernment’ emerging from reflection on human relationships does not create truth de novo. God’s revealed truth is not the product of human collective consciousness. As such, Christian relationship or communion is a by-product of our fellowship in God’s unchanging truth, it is not productive of new truth that would abrogate what God has spoken to create a new kind of communion.

In Jesus’ High Priestly prayer for unity in John 17 he declares, “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me… Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Jn. 17:7, 17). It is inconceivable that the church being sanctified by Christ can speak of unity, communion, relationship and human flourishing without reference to the only thing that makes them possible – our mutual submission, by the grace of God and working of his Spirit, to Christ and his word of truth in Scripture.

Second, the examples of ‘reception’ regarding changed attitudes on contraception and divorce that Welby’s speech says initially looked to create a rift in the church, every bit as much as the issue of human sexuality, illustrate the problem. For a start, in both cases the result was eventual drift into liberalism in respect first to contraception and then to divorce. In 1920 the bishops rejected artificial contraception and considered induced abortion utterly abhorrent. By 1930 the bishops approved the use of birth control without specifying contraceptives. Now it’s a non-issue, as for many bishops is abortion.

In hindsight there is no doubt that the transformation in thinking regarding contraception helped produce the libertinism of the sexual revolution, and the liberalization of cultural attitudes to divorce heralded the collapse of the family. Marriage had been historically upheld as between one man and one woman for life, but in 2002 General Synod voted for change on marriage and divorce rules. Thus the inference of Welby’s references to ‘reception’ are that contraception was once an issue threatening division in the church just like sexuality is now, but we got past it, maintaining our unity, and we will do the same again with the question of human sexuality.

In fact, in tracking with the resolutions of Lambeth Conferences, what we see is largely a paralleling of social shifts in the humanistic culture and its growing rejection of Christian doctrine. For example, by 1968 at the tenth Lambeth Conference, Welby’s discernment process discovers that clergy need no longer assent to the 39 Articles of the church, whilst arguments against female priests are deemed ‘inconclusive,’ in plain contravention of Scripture. By Lambeth 1988 some provinces are ordaining women priests, and by 1998, eleven women bishops attend Lambeth!

Regarding homosexuality, resolution 10 in 1978 ‘discerned’ a need for a deep and dispassionate study of homosexuality in the name of science. By 1998 it was the most hotly-debated issue at the conference, with a vote carried to begin a ‘listening process.’ In 2008 the issue remained very much in the limelight and there is little doubt where the discernment process is leading now. What a surprise that the results of this ‘discernment process’ in the twentieth century were to increasingly echo the surrounding cultural changes in attitudes toward questions from contraception to capital punishment.

How can it be the case that the Spirit of God should consistently lead the church to modify their position to agree with moral and social shifts in an unbelieving world? How can the New Testament teach what church government, marriage, justice and human sexuality should be (for 1900 years) and yet the ‘Spirit’ now show the twentieth and twenty first century Anglican Church, by degree and through collective discernment, a contrary perspective? Welby says “Primate’s meeting, Lambeth Conferences and ACC’s are not a question of winning and losing, but of discerning.” It is ironic that the only loser in the church’s discernment seems to be God and his revealed Word when subjected to the infallible reception of the moment.

Archbishop Welby therefore told Synod that the priorities of the church are freedom, order and human flourishing, where the authority is found, apparently not in Scripture, but in a ‘discernment process.’ Such a view sets forth an evolving God, not the God of Scripture who declares, “I am the Lord, I change not” (Mal. 3:6). It takes little reading between the lines of the Archbishop’s speech to see the defenders of Scripture and orthodoxy being subtly impugned as ‘power-hungry’ elements in the church, hiding their true motives by “masquerading as a desire for order.” The truth, however, is that Welby’s doctrine of order and freedom, used as it is to justify a ‘diversity’ in the church leadership that tolerates and promotes homosexual relations as well as a possible embrace of homosexual ‘marriage,’ is antinomian to the core, masquerading as grace and freedom.

According to Welby, the only true ‘disaster’ for the Anglican church is if one ‘element’ tries to grab the wheel, thinking they know how to avoid shipwreck, and thereby excessively ‘overcomes’ the other apparently legitimate perspectives within the communion. Once again Scripture is not seen as the norming-norm, since it seems God himself does not know how to avoid disaster for the church. Deliverance for the church in Welby’s view is found in “unity which relishes and celebrates the diversity of freedom” – a slogan which sounds more like an LGBTI leaflet than the teaching of a Christian bishop who should be preaching that the future of the church is only safeguarded by faithfulness to the gospel and the total word of God.

Freedom is not ‘human flourishing’ exhibited by man doing what feels right to him. Lawlessness according to the gospel is not freedom but slavery (Jn. 8:34; 1 Jn. 3:4). The freedom which Christ brings is not freedom to sin but freedom from sin – that is the liberty into which the Christian is delivered. To hold otherwise is to preach another gospel that is no gospel. Moreover, the grace of God does not prevail, as Welby claims, ‘in beauty of relationship’ as though grace is an all-inclusive abstraction emerging from simple human interaction. Grace in Scripture is covenantal and is purchased and ratified by the blood of Christ – hence a truly Holy Communion. The covenant has terms that are laid down by God so that to walk in grace requires confession, repentance, and faith, turning from sin, and obedience to God’s word (1 Jn. 1:5-2:6). Any other view is to turn the grace of God into licentiousness, which is blasphemous. Only if we walk in the light as Christ is in the light do we have fellowship with one another and cleansing from sin (1 Jn. 1:7).

The Archbishop’s address then ends with an ambiguous reference to a unity that sets free those bound by rules that neither Jesus nor Paul could have imagined; rules that have emerged out of a desire for power rather than an expectation of God’s kingdom. We are left to guess exactly what these rules are, but given his admonition to love those who oppose us, the context at Synod, the issues at hand and the cultural Marxist rhetoric of power and human flourishing that he employs, it is hard to see the ‘rules’ as referring to anything other than an orthodox insistence on church discipline and steadfast commitment to biblical sexual ethics. Yet Jesus clearly upheld the totality of God’s law (Matt. 5:17-20) and leaves us nowhere to run in terms of the definition of marriage from the beginning of creation (Matt. 19:5). The apostle Paul equally confirms the meaning of marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33 and condemns homosexual practice and all lawlessness as contrary to the gospel itself (1 Tim. 1:7-11). So we are forced to ask, which rules stifling human flourishing is Archbishop Welby referring to that some in the Anglican Communion are clinging to?

In such an atmosphere, what does all of this mean for the bishops and pastors when the church takes its cues from the drift of the culture? The published letter from the Archbishops of York and Canterbury to homosexual activist, Jayne Ozanne, seems to imply that the pastor must see himself not as God’s representative and spokesperson, resting humbly on the authority of God’s word, but as a broker between human desires, as dictated by the culture, and the church’s tradition, updatable by ‘reception.’ This moves the pastoral focus from preaching God’s word and caring for the flock of God, to increasingly ‘apologizing’ for God and those that represent his standards – something we have heard ad nauseam from Justin Welby for the alleged sins of the church toward a socially constructed class of people that previous generations did not even recognise the existence of – the LGBTI.

This lack of recognition was not hatred or mental illness, for the simple reason that reality isn’t socially constructed; you cannot define a new type of human being into existence with a few letters from the alphabet! There is only one type of human being and that is the male and female person made in God’s image, made for Holy Communion with each other and with their Maker – the male and female sexes that God has created to be in union with the other. Every form of redefinition of human beings by the imagination of man and every other sexual practice outside of God-ordained marriage constitutes a fundamental falsification and disordering of reality.

When the church fails to uphold the truth in this, the result is that salvation is no longer seen as regeneration and sanctification by the Holy Spirit, whereby we are transformed and conformed to God’s righteousness and holiness by the renewing of our minds (Titus 3:5; Rom. 12:1-2). Instead salvation is by social justification and revolution. This means that a person is allegedly saved “in their sins” or lawlessness, rather than “from all lawlessness.” (Titus 2:14). The church’s role then quickly morphs into the blasphemous affirmation and blessing of people in their sinful lifestyles, participating in profane revolutionary action against God’s creative and redemptive order.

It is transparently the case that the relational “conversation” on matters of sexuality to which the Archbishop’s letter refers is not ultimately about human sexuality, but about biblical authority. The Bible is not ambiguous about human sexual conduct and the degrading and sinful character of homosexual practice, amongst many other sexual sins including adultery, fornication, incest, polygamy, bestiality etc. In fact, if these texts do not prohibit homosexual practice then the interpretation of Scripture is hopeless (Lev. 18:6-23; Deut. 27:20; Matt. 19:9; Rom 1:26-32; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10). This is why previous generations had no problem understanding this matter. It is social and political pressure since the beginnings of the sexual revolution in particular that have influenced churchmen to simply echo the voices of sexual revolutionaries. The church has been captured by humanism and as a result is largely concerned to reflect back to the culture its own desires rather than the righteous standards of God.                                                                                                                   

This is amply illustrated by extracts from the Archbishop’s letter in reference to LGBTI issues: “the Church of England’s understandings of these matters is a matter for discussion at the present time in our ‘Shared Conversations.’ The outcome of these conversations is not yet known.” Then, amidst citing appeals for the church to repent of its homophobia and affirming its commitment to better ‘rebuke’ such attitudes, they go on to affirm previous decisions and findings that require a commitment to “minister sensitively and pastorally to those Christians who conscientiously decide to order their lives differently.” Critically, they favourably cite the House of Bishops’ pastoral guidance on ‘Same Sex Marriage’ in 2014, emphasizing that “members of the church who enter same sex marriages should “be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments.” They add, “The Christian doctrine of marriage continues to be a subject of discord, but the rejection of homophobic prejudice is undisputed.”

Evidently, then, this ‘conversation,’ as stylized by the bishops, is already loaded to facilitate the defeat of orthodox biblical teaching because it already assumes the validity of ‘Christians’ practicing and living in these alternate lifestyles; the LGBTI psychological and socially constructed identity; their complaints against the church and the need to rebuke ‘homophobes.’ The social theory of cultural Marxism is clearly present in that it is simply assumed that the church and its doctrines are oppressive and supress normal and natural human desires that should be given free reign.

The truth is that once you have accepted, as the Archbishops clearly do, that “LGBTI” et al. is a real matter of human identity, rather than mere social construction, any denial of the normative character of their actions becomes a denial of ‘human rights’ and an assault on their dignity and person and consequently is ‘homophobic,’ ‘transphobic’ or any other number of regularly enumerated mental crimes and disorders. As such, anyone standing on biblical truth regarding marriage and sexuality, declaring its abiding authority for the church and human community, is de facto grouped with the oppressor, trampling on human rights and clinging to outmoded tradition.

What the Anglican Church’s ‘conversation’ is engaged in, therefore, is the attempted rationalization of sin in order to alleviate the reality of guilt which all those practicing sexual immorality feel. In other words, this whole matter, that ultimately requires the rejection of biblical truth, is about the public justification of sin so that no one need feel guilt and have to deal with it by repentance and faith in the work of Christ at the cross. As such, the orthodox resistance to homosexual acts and ‘gender fluidity’ on the basis of Scripture must be broken in order for the rationalization to hold, because if the institution of the church preaches God’s standards, a reminder of sin and guilt remains, and the need for atonement lingers.

Only when the church is forced to accept sin as normative moral behaviour can social justification be realized and the threat of exposure to guilt be erased, thereby ostensibly denying the need for a biblical gospel. This requires that the new morality, as a new standard, is enforced as the new public good, even by the church. This agenda has largely been accomplished already because, as noted, the bishops’ language in the letter refers to LGBTI ‘Christians,’ as though you can habitually abide in those lifestyles and consistently be a Christian. They also refer to those who are ‘married’ homosexuals as Christians and so according to these leading bishops, none of these LGBTI ‘Christians’ should be denied access to the sacrament, which obviously repudiates the notion that any of these lifestyles are a matter for church discipline and so consequently they are not a matter of sin at all!

The conversation on these terms is already over. This already constitutes full acceptance of homosexuality and other forms of sexual confusion, as well as gender dysphoria as normative, even if not ‘formally’ yet a procedural redefinition of marriage. The matter of human sexuality, in fact, is already essentially resolved by the bishops’ uncritical adoption of the language of Queer theory. The ‘listening’ and ‘conversation,’ then, is simply a matter of gradually persuading the hold-outs defending Scripture to concede or be isolated. This has already been threatened by Archbishop Welby, who is warning the African provinces of possible ‘consequences’ for defending laws criminalising homosexual practice in their own countries, despite the fact that it was criminal in the U.K until 1967.[1]

Where is the church’s concern over ‘White Colonialism’ now (so present in Welby’s presidential address) that the Western church wants to force the African church to adopt its revolutionary attitude regarding marriage, sexuality and family? St. Paul does not engage in decades of ‘listening’ and ‘conversation’ with those who deny the authority of God’s word or with the openly unrepentant sexually immoral. He doesn’t open up an apostolic dialog on the incest at the church in Corinth as to whether it should be accepted. He does not ask the church in Rome to form a commission to investigate dispassionately the matter of pederasty and homosexual practice in the Greco-Roman world – instead he gives us Romans 1 on the authority of God’s law. That is the church’s role – to be faithful to God’s word and to call to repentance leaders who deny revealed authority, and to shepherd in faith and love those struggling with sexual sin into the freedom of the sons of God. Without God’s word as the final standard for the pastoral office, institutional authority is empty and meaningless.

Other churches should watch and learn from what is happening in the Anglican Communion, for it is almost certain to formally split. The fracture is already there and it is irreconcilable. It will not be long before the depth of the fissure is revealed and the primates go their separate ways; this will be for the good of the church. The present conversation is a cloak for the inexorable movement to full acceptance, carried out in the name of ‘unity,’ which is little more than an institutional idol. The church is being reduced to a social movement echoing the word of the culture, and remaining ‘intact’ (preserving its existence) is increasingly becoming its sole purpose. The Church of England is smashing away at the remnants of its own foundations, gladly serving up to a lost world, already sickened and decayed by humanism, more humanism to accelerate its death.

The irony is that in the name of relevance, unity and even evangel, the established church has spent much of the last seventy years presiding over its growing irrelevance and decline. In the name of serving community it has become more and more ambivalent to the need of people for the gospel, the teaching of God’s word and the faithful administration of the sacrament. The result of this antipathy to biblical faith has been the rapid numerical collapse of the Church and its slippage into social and theological irrelevance.[2] Anglican bishops have been increasingly reduced to administrators and managers in the U.K, expertly supervising the functional extinction of the Church of England. What will be left, if this continues, is a shell for institutionalized humanists to dwell in and draw their pensions till all the bell towers fall.

We must remember, however, that the irrelevance and apostasy of churchmen does not mean the irrelevance or impotence of God – on the contrary. This crisis and judgment on the church is his covenantal act of clearing the debris of man’s sins and folly in order to rebuild with a people who will bring forth fruit befitting repentance. The gospel is still the power of God unto salvation and a faithful church will see gospel life and truth restored in our nations, for his word cannot return to him void (Isa. 55:11). But God also declares through Isaiah that for those who reject the law and testimony of God, “there shall be no dawn” (Isa. 8:20). In short, apostasy and rebellion has no future. Choose you this day whom you will serve!

[1] See Harry Farley, “African churches could face 'consequences' for supporting criminalisation of homosexuality,” Christian Today, http://www.christiantoday.com/article/african.churches.could.face.consequences.for.supporting.criminalisation.of.homosexuality/79726.htm, accessed Feb 19 2016.

[2]See Farley, “African churches could face 'consequences,'” http://www.christiantoday.com/article/african.churches.could.face.consequences.for.supporting.criminalisation.of.homosexuality/79726.htm. The spending and renewal and reform proposals will do nothing to halt or change this prediction unless the COE returns to the gospel. ‘Modernization’ will merely accelerate its collapse. The growing and healthy churches in the COE are conservative and evangelical.