In a recent editorial in this journal, Robert Bullock observed, “As a result of the overwhelming resources devoted to sexuality matters, it is the church’s mission that has languished.” If anything, his remark is an understatement. Our Presbyterian troubles are having a profound impact upon our faithfulness to our missionary vocation — the continuing fall in membership is only a very superficial indication of a problem much more profound than statistics can define. If we take that vocation seriously, then it should be both normative and formative for the way we go about our arguments as a Christian church. It is high time that we consider the missional impact of our ongoing arguments.
The perspective I bring to the discussion is already implied by the reference to the church’s “missionary vocation.” It is the approach of a mission theologian primarily working on the mission of the church in North America. The guiding conviction of my remarks is that the church is missionary by its very nature, that it exists for God’s mission, and that its calling and sending by Christ through his Spirit is for the witness to God’s love “to the ends of the Earth.” Now, how does that missional vocation translate into our corporate life, where the sexuality debates are the dominant issues?
The church’s missional vocation is enfleshed In the way it lives and conducts itself as a community of witness before the watching world. This is the overarching thrust of the biblical witness: God calls, shapes, forms and sends his people for his mission. Jesus’ calling and instructing of the disciples is, therefore, both normative and formative of the life of the church he intended. The New Testament constantly addresses the character of the Christian community’s witness as essential to its vocation. For Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, it is the constant concern that the community lead its life in a way worthy of its calling. “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 — see Philippians 1:27, Ephesians 4:1). For John, the formation of the missional church is the central thrust in Jesus’ final discourse (John 13-17). This community, of which the disciples are the first generation, is to be governed by a ” . . . new commandment, that you love another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Almost 100 imperatives in the New Testament stress the “one another” character of the missional church (check your concordance!). How the community functions before the watching world is not a marginal issue but a central emphasis of the biblical witness. It is integral to the church’s missional vocation. In our current situation, two major themes in the New Testament’s formation of the missional church appear to me to be especially relevant: the integrity and the unity of the missional church.
The witness of the missional church must be characterized by integrity.
In the earliest apostolic writing, 1 Thessalonians, the apostolic team strongly stresses the transparent ethics of their ministry. Their gospel proclamation did not “spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery”; they spoke “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts”; they “never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5). Paul and Timothy make a similar point in 2 Corinthians: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Even when our arguments get so threatening that we are ” . . . tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming,” we are enjoined to “speak the truth in love,” while growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” . . . (Ephesians 4:14-15). Obviously from the very beginning the church has struggled with the temptation to manipulate the message, to compromise the witness, to betray that incarnational integrity for which Jesus himself is our model and teacher. But there can be no doubt that, for the apostolic formation of God’s missionary people, the integrity of message and method, of corporate witness and evangelistic communication, are essential dimensions of faithfulness.
Further, this missional witness before the watching world is to be pervasively formed by a concern for the unity of the Christian community. We are instructed to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). This unity is already given in Christ: we don’t organize it or make it happen. But we are to maintain it, to make it visible, to demonstrate before the world that there is truly “one body and one Spirit, . . . one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . . ” (Ephesians 4:4-5). Jesus prayed for this unity in his great high-priestly prayer (John 17). The early church worked diligently and often painfully to make concrete that testimony of unity in the actions of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Paul pleaded with his beloved Philippians that they should be “of the same mind, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). Peter instructed his suffering missionary congregations on the shores of the Black Sea that their souls had been purified by their obedience to the truth, that is, their response to the gospel, with the result that they now had “genuine mutual love.” Therefore, he admonished them ” to love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22). Clearly, for the apostolic formation of the missionary church, the visible and practiced unity of the community was normative. We continue to affirm our commitments both to integrity and unity when church officers vow to “further the peace, unity and purity of the church.”
The New Testament is never unrealistic about the formation of the missional church. The constant translation of normative word to authentic formation is always a struggle. Living out this corporate witness committed to integrity and unity is very difficult. We are, after all, a called community of forgiven sinners, living together in anticipation that God will complete the work he has begun in us. There is nothing easy, automatic or fast about the formation and practice of the missional church. Jesus prepared us for that. In the collection of kingdom parables in Matthew 13, he emphasizes that the field of the inbreaking reign of God will be made up of good wheat and weeds that look deceptively like wheat. God’s missionary people will always be a contradictory mixture — just as the original Twelve were! But we are not to pre-empt the sole authority of the judge of the harvest and to cull out the weeds prematurely. Like the sower in that same chapter, we are simply and faithfully to sow good news everywhere, without advance concern for feasibility or productivity — God guarantees the harvest.
From the outset, the Christian community has argued, both about marginal and truly crucial issues. Jesus’ disciples argued about their own rank in the kingdom of God. The Jerusalem church argued about Gentile conversions. Corinthians argued about the resurrection, and Romans argued about weak and strong faith. Much of the New Testament would not exist in the form we have it were it not for the serious disagreements that erupted almost immediately in the newly formed missionary churches planted by the first apostolic witnesses. The way we work through our disagreements is a primary form of our witness. Scripture, as the normative Word of God, actually functions as the formative Word that God’s Spirit uses to “equip the saints for ministry.” That equipping will include the shaping of our arguments as a community of forgiven sinners. This is where commitment to integrity and unity becomes a painful reality.
Consider how Paul deals with the divisions of the Corinthian church. They were divided into various factions, very likely with distinctive theological emphases. But Paul does not address those issues. He does not take sides with the parties of Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). He focuses instead upon the crucial and central message of the cross. His and their calling is to “proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1:17). For Paul, the norm of unity is formed in the church through her submission to the transforming message of the cross.
The entire First Corinthian correspondence is a provocative example for the formation of the church’s missional witness before a watching world. Paul and Sosthenes write to the “church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1:2). But they are certainly not acting in a very saintly way! What a catalogue of churchly arguments is catalogued here, cresting in the great affirmation of the resurrection in ch. 15, apparently because of skepticism in Corinth about this foundational event at the heart of the gospel. Yet nowhere do the apostolic writers tell the Corinthians that their vocation has been canceled, that they are no longer “the saints in Corinth.” They are, as an arguing community, the church placed by God in Corinth to continue the apostolic witness, the “testimony of Christ” that “has been strengthened among” them (1:6). Their calling is to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10), their missionary vocation.
If we take our missionary vocation at all seriously, the integrity of our witness and our testimony to the unity to which we are called must be central concerns as we struggle with the sexuality debates. With time, this is getting more and more difficult. The frustration many of us feel at the time, effort and apparent insolubility of the debates is beginning to wear away at our resolve to proceed with the integrity mandated by Scripture, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I see signs of this frustration both among many of my friends and colleagues who are convinced that the church’s stance on chastity is biblically and theologically faithful, as well as among all those who feel that the church’s commitments on these issues are long overdue for change. But regardless how long the debates may last (think of the Christological debates of the first six centuries of our history!), we dare not submit to the seductive temptation to foreclose the debate with actions and decisions that lack biblical integrity and betray our commitment to unity. To compromise our integrity and dilute our confession of our God-given unity because of our impatience, frustration, unwillingness to keep working away at the issues, profoundly weakens our missional witness to the watching world.
Sensible of the risk I am taking, I will mention some claims and terms heard in the debate, asking that they be scrutinized from the perspective of the missional integrity and unity of our corporate conduct: those opposed to the ordination of gays are said to discount the authentic reality of Christ at work in the lives of those with whom they disagree; those who support changing the church’s standards are said to have set aside the normativity of Scripture; those opposed are described as “homophobic” and “heterosexist”; those in favor are described as “apostate” and “compromisers”; those opposed are said to have no compassion and to reject the pastoral care of homosexuals; those in favor are said to disallow any sense that the gospel brings about healing and transformation. Any observer of the debate could add to the list. Such polarization and political factionalism are, regardless of one’s position in the debate, having a devastating effect upon our witness to the watching world.
For me, one of the saddest aspects of this debate, with particularly questionable implications for our integrity and unity, is the recent emergence of the “confessing church” initiative. It is hard for me to understand friends and colleagues who have contended valiantly and rightly that the Book of Confessions must guide and form our debate and who now, in my view, choose a tactic that could possibly diminish the authority of that confessional tradition. Thus, I have to wonder about the integrity of claims that the meaning of “confessing church” at Barmen and Belhar has no bearing on how we use the term now. Those who are choosing this strategem claim that their action does not mean that they are claiming that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has forsaken its confessional commitments and is no longer validly church. Then what are they saying about all those who do not adopt their strategem? What are they saying about all those who agree with them on chastity and yet understand confessional integrity to require caution with terms like “confessing church” and status con-fessionis? Are they not, in fact, drawing lines as a first step in a process that could result in the division of the church? What kind of judgment then are they making over against their colleagues who, in good faith, cannot take steps that violate the missional imperative of unity? Even to talk about “amicable separation,” or to discount a denominational structure as not ultimately being the true church, seem to me to be dangerous violations of our commitments to integrity and unity.
When the case for the church’s commitment to chastity in sexual practice is made, the argument in Romans 1 plays a major role. While that apostolic instruction must continue to be taken seriously by all sides of the debate, we must take just as seriously the apostolic instruction in Romans 14:1-15:6, dealing with the way in which those who think they are strong should relate to those who, in their view, are weak. One’s interpretation of Romans 1 cannot negate this normative and formative instruction: “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not please ourselves” (Romans 15:1). This is a profound and compelling vision of corporate integrity as we disagree with each other. For the sake of our missional vocation, it is a matter of urgency that we submit to both the normative and formative work of God’s Spirit in Scripture in order to learn how to disagree Christianly. While learning how to do that, we should forswear any actions or decisions that will be blatantly disobedient to the clear instruction of God’s Word to which we, as a part of Christ’s church, subscribe.
Darrell L. Guder is the Peachtree Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Seminary.
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