Apparently conservative theologian and proponent of “masculine Christianity” John Piper is at it again. (Whatever happened to “Christian hedonism,” to borrow Piper’s own term, anyway? This Piper seemed like a guy I could have a beer with.) Today Piper tweeted this quote from Wolfhart Pannenberg: “The church that approves of homosexual relations has by that act ceased to be a true church.”
Piper has a lot of good company. Not long ago I was in a meeting in which a newly divorced man in church leadership took heated issue with my query about how the church might engage the largely un-churched gay population in my neighborhood with the love of Jesus. This person seemed incensed by my question.
It’s strange that so many of us spend so much time trying to distinguish the “true” church from the “false” church- as if this were our duty or privilege. Last time I checked, Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares makes no such claim on us as followers of Jesus (Matthew 13:24-30). This kind of judgment belongs to God.
A lot of talk has been made throughout centuries of church history and today about the “purity” of the church. People have even been executed as “heretics” in the name of protecting such purity- and I find this part of my tradition’s history deeply shameful. I would ask, to echo Wendy Farley in a recent lecture delivered to her women’s theology class, whether this expression of Christianity is one that we would wish to uphold as authentic Christianity.
It seems to me that the “purity” of the church consists in acknowledging those most basic tenets of our faith necessary to salvation and agreeing not to crucify one another over the more peripheral issues. Nothing could be more impure than lording over others our own interpretations of Scripture to the degree that we then declare our religious nemeses “tares.”
Lest there is question as to whether another’s lifestyle is in keeping with the claims of Christ, Jesus offers a helpful rule of thumb for how to treat them: we are to treat them as “pagans and tax collectors” (Matthew 18:15-18). (Matthew Kelly, a pastor in Nashville, Tennessee, has some helpful reflections on how to interpret this passage at the blog, “Ministry Matters.”) By Jesus’ own model, that would mean being in loving relationship with these “pagans and tax collectors”- not for the sake of simply telling them they’re wrong, or shunning them as sinners, but because they can teach us something about the depth of God’s forgiveness. In fact, Jesus spent most of his time with these kinds of “undesirables,” be they pagans and tax collectors or thieves and prostitutes, and instead reserved his harshest criticism for those of us who call ourselves “religious” or more spiritual.
It seems to me that whenever we identify ourselves as the wheat and point fingers at the tares, we are in most danger of falling into this second category.