And then – just when he suspected many in the audience were thinking he meant unrepentant sexual activity by gays and lesbians – Achtemeier made it clear what he really had in mind: a 1987 Nissan. His family’s second car, for him a symbol of a middle-class consumer perk he is still unwilling to give up, even though he knows that in some impoverished places children go hungry every day and die when they can’t afford the medicine they need. He believes in the Bible and he knows the Bible teaches to love your neighbor as yourself, to give away your coat if someone else has none.
Still, he’s not willing to give up the car.
It’s not just gays and lesbians who struggle with holy living – it’s Christians like him, Achtemeier said, church-going people who have sin in their lives they may not be ready yet to admit even to themselves, much less to repent of.
“The Bible calls all of us to holiness, and not just in matters of sex,” Achtemeier told the Confessing Church Celebration, a gathering of approximately 800 evangelicals from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Do we believe in the authority of Scripture or not?”
Achtemeier, an associate professor of systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Seminary, was one of a number of speakers Tuesday who offered the Confessing Church Movement both plain speaking and some challenges to their own thinking.
Among their messages:
o Don’t leave the PC(USA). Catherine Purves, a pastor from Pittsburgh, used the analogy of the denomination as a ship taking on water – using the passage from the fourth chapter of Mark of Jesus being in a boat with his followers during a fierce storm, and of them awakening him to calm the winds. “We are trying to control a growing sense of panic, because it feels as if the ship may be breaking apart beneath us,” Purves said. But “Don’t grow weary of this struggle and seek to save yourself by jumping ship,” she preached. “The ship you abandon may be God’s ark.”
o Don’t back off from demanding that the standards of the church be upheld. “I personally cannot be party to schism,” said John Huffman Jr., a pastor from Newport Beach, Calif. But Huffman said he’s reached a hard decision, even though he’s prayed for his anger to soften. If those who want sexually active gays and lesbians to be ordained don’t begin to comply with the church’s Constitution, which forbids such ordination, Huffman said, he’ll recommend that his congregation begin withholding per capita funding from the denomination, beginning in January 2003. He’d ask that the money be put in escrow for a year, to see if the denomination comes around. If not, he’d designate all the money for mission – give it only with strings attached, not for the general work of the church – starting in 2004.
o Don’t get ugly. But don’t give in. Huffman said he has “a passionate love” for some of the people with whom he differs – and he learned, from his graduate studies of battles among Presbyterianism in the 1920s, that the church has always had controversy and that some emerged from those battles embittered and punitive. Purves warned that both conservatives and liberals in the church are in danger of acting “in fear and desperation” – forgetting that the church belongs to Jesus and doesn’t depend on their own political plotting and scheming. But Huffman also said those in the Confessing Church Movement should be willing to say “enough is enough” – and to ask that those who say they cannot follow the Constitution to “peacefully remove themselves” from the PC(USA) and go to one of the few denominations, such as the United Church of Christ, that does ordain homosexuals
o Don’t single out gays and lesbians for scrutiny as sinners, if you care about holy living. Look at yourself instead.
In his remarks Tuesday afternoon, Achtemeier spoke of how hard it’s been to think of giving up his family’s second car (“I’ve got teen-agers, for crying out loud!”) and how that’s made him understand how much more difficult it must be for a gay or lesbian to consider giving up an attachment to a partner with whom they share an intimate and loving relationship, share a life.
“We must cling to the Bible’s teaching on sexual holiness,” Achtemeier said. But he called it unfaithful, ungodly and unholy to try to run gays and lesbians out of the church or to single them out for condemnation or to treat them as though their unholiness will pollute the righteous purity of everyone else.
Jesus didn’t approach holiness like the Pharisees did, Achtemeier said – Pharisees who were afraid that sin would contaminate them, whose response to it was to wall off and separate themselves. Instead – in the fifth chapter of Mark – Jesus walked into the grieving crowd outside the home of a girl who had died, went inside and took the girl directly by the hand, restoring her life.
Achtemeier also spoke of the areas in which heterosexuals, if they are honest with themselves, often struggle – in building loving, compassionate marriages day-to-day; in sins like pride and greed and gossip and arrogance; in how they use their time or treat their families; in the kind of movies they watch or what they look at on the Internet; in filling their homes and their driveways with possessions they don’t need.
Sometimes, the best a person can do in trying to live a holy life is to take baby steps, he said. What they need from churches is help and support in finding the way home, not condemnation. “Does it make sense to demand complete and miraculous healing as the price of admission?” he asked. “When was the last time God worked on your timetable?” Jesus met with sinners, prayed for the men who drove spikes into his arms, Achtemeier said. But Jesus never said, “first get your life together and then I’ll come eat with you.”
And if people really care about holy living, Achtemeier said, there is no coherent way to argue from the Bible that homosexual activity is an abomination, but the struggles that heterosexuals have with loving their neighbors “we can put off to another time.”
The Next Steps
On Wednesday, the final day of the Confessing Church Movement celebration, those who came will talk about what to do next. The sessions of their congregations have issued confessional statements – most of them centered on three points, voicing belief in the authority of Scripture, that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and in the need for holy living and for sexual activity to be reserved for marriage.
During the closing session, the participants – about half elders, half ministers, according to those organizing the celebration – will be asked to commit to “I will” statements about what they’re willing to do next to change their congregations, their presbyteries and the denomination.