While browsing in a bookstore recently, I saw a quote attributed to St. Augustine:
If you believe only the parts of the gospel that you like, and reject the parts that
you don’t like, it is not the gospel that you believe, but yourself.
In the difficult years leading up to next month’s General Conference, one thing has become clear: the troubles that threaten to split the United Methodist Church are rooted in a false division of the Gospel, in which many professing Christians embrace the parts they like, and reject the parts they don’t like.
For 2000 years, the Christian teaching about sexual morality could be summed up in a simple phrase: fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness. This is the Gospel about sex, revealed in Jesus Christ. It is a vital part of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). But it is now obvious that the Gospel the church has long proclaimed is not welcomed as good news by many, and even by some who bear the name of Christ. Many Christians now speak and act as if the “traditional” Gospel is a mixture of good news and bad news: good news about the forgiveness of sins and our new life in Christ, but bad news about sex for anyone other than married men and women. Moreover, in our post-sexual revolution culture, many persons we seek to reach with the Gospel reject celibacy and fidelity as the worst kind of news, and dismiss the church’s teaching about sexuality as judgmental and even dehumanizing.
In our self-expressive age, some Christians have chosen to believe only the parts of the Gospel that affirm themselves. But early on, the church recognized that wrongly dividing the Gospel is the essence of heresy, the false teaching that leads necessarily to false living, broken people, and a divided church. The recycled heresies of our time leave us with only half-truths in a truth-starved world, and leave the church struggling to rediscover true unity in Christ.
C. S. Lewis once noted that the church’s teaching about sex is so obviously contrary to human nature and instinct that either the church’s teaching is wrong or our human nature has gone wrong. I once heard a Reformed pastor say that he is convinced that many Christians in the pews—and the pulpits—secretly do not believe that we have good news about sex for all people. In other words, these silent Christians believe that what the church has long taught to be the Word of God for the most intimate of human relations is not now—and by inference never has been—good news for the life of the world.
Confronted with our age’s visceral rejection of Christian faith and ethics, is it possible that some traditional believers also have become doubtful about the goodness of biblical teaching about sexuality? Have we forgotten that we have good news to tell the world that is the gift of the loving and wise Triune God? Have we become timid and silent in our witness?
For too long I was among the forgetful. How could mandatory celibacy for homosexual persons be good news? I wondered. My personal journey of discipleship over these years is the story of the Holy Spirit leading me to embrace the Gospel with fresh conviction and joy; to rediscover and embody in my own life the whole truth about our new nature in Christ, the good news that awakens our blinded instincts and redirects our disordered desires so that we might share the Gospel with confidence, compassion, and urgency to doubtful and hurting people.
Many who profess belief in the Gospel today—or who want to believe—will find it hard to accept that faith in Christ includes good news about human sexuality. Could it be that our age will find Christian faith believable only when the good news that began in the mind of God, and took flesh in Jesus, and that has been the church’s life for 2000 years, is reborn in those of us who seek to rightly divide the Gospel word today? Such a rebirth will require the renewal of our minds, the reordering of our instincts, the recommitting of our flesh and blood lives, the healing of our relationships, and the rekindling of our witness of living and telling the good news of God’s redeeming love. It is the rebirth of the Gospel in us, not in part, but the whole.
So while you are praying for the upcoming General Conference, let me suggest that there is another urgent question for all of us to lift up in prayer: Do I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ has good news about human sexuality for all people? If we cannot answer that question with confidence, then let us own up to our temptation to believe human wisdom over the Gospel, and renounce it. But if we do believe, then let us now pray to become the kind of people in whom the Gospel of fidelity and celibacy becomes believable. Though some will reject it, millions of people in our sexually disordered and half-truth world are desperate for forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and wholeness, the good news of God about sex that the world can neither provide nor even imagine, but that is ours in Jesus Christ.
A familiar greeting among contemporary Christians goes like this: “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.” Maybe the greatest challenge and opportunity for traditional United Methodists in these days is to prove in our living and our telling that what we call the Gospel really is Good News; all of it, all the time, and for every person.