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When being affirming isn't loving

A Holy Bible lays on rainbow flags.
A Holy Bible lays on rainbow flags. | Getty Images

Two events of the last week witness to a significant shift in the times in which we live. The first is a sermon by megachurch Evangelical pastor Andy Stanley that seemed to concede ground to gay partnerships within the Church. The second is a worryingly ambiguous comment from Pope Francis on the possibility of blessing same-sex unions.

In his Sunday sermon at North Point Community Church, Stanley responded to criticism that he had held a conference that featured gay-affirming speakers. He stated that North Point continues to teach that marriage is between a man and a woman, but that if gay Christians choose to marry, in response, “we draw circles, we don’t draw lines.” In a letter published Monday, the pope reaffirmed that the Church does not recognize gay marriages, but added that “we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude,” and that “pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage.”

While it is inappropriate to speculate on the motives in each case, one thing both Stanley and the pope appear to share is a commitment to the therapeutic anthropology that pervades modern Western society and the implicit assumption that any significant challenge to this from a traditional Christian perspective is unloving or bigoted. Affirming people in their sexual and gender identities seems to be the order of the day and, as with the pope and Andy Stanley, pastoral strategy must therefore be developed in isolation from (and, arguably, in opposition to) traditional Christian teaching. The ethic of “love as feeling” rather than “love as directing to the truth” is strong.

Two things stand out at this point. First, Stanley and the pope seem to have missed something very basic: Christian pastoral strategy cannot be developed in isolation from Christian anthropology. Both the question of sexual identity and the politics that surround it are not primarily concerned with sexual behavior. They are actually about what it means to be a human being. For Christians, far more is therefore at stake in this debate than the question of which sexual acts are moral and which are immoral. Once sex becomes recreation and once it is detached from the body’s own sexual script, what it means to be human has fundamentally changed. Sexual complementarity, the telos of marriage, and the analogy between Christ and the Church all lose their significance.

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In a society like ours, therefore, how we think about what it means to be human has undergone a significant change. The anthropology of modern Western society is fundamentally incompatible with a Christian doctrine of man. Failure to see this and then try to argue that codes of sexual morality are negotiable and can be subordinated to pastoral strategies of love and affirmation is to contradict central tenets of the Christian faith.

Second, the emergence within the orthodox church of voices prepared to identify Christian teaching and practice as the problem in this area may seem edgy and prophetic to those involved — “Didn’t the Church get slavery wrong?” — but in reality it is as unprophetic as is possible. The Church has always had — and needed — prophets because she is a fallible institution made up of fallible people. And yes she has made some terrible mistakes, not least with the matter of slavery. But what is interesting today is the inverted role of the modern prophet. While Isaiah and his colleagues saw their task as calling the people away from the anthropology of the wider world and back to that of the covenant God, today’s prophets seem to see their task as being religious mouthpieces for the priorities of the wider culture, calling the Church away from a Christian anthropology and toward that of the world around. It is one thing to have The New York Times, The Atlantic, and MSNBC pointing to the Church’s teaching as problematic because it will not recite the liturgy of the world. It is quite another thing to have Christians effectively proffer precisely the same criticism of brothers and sisters in Christ.

Prophets warn the Church when she is too close to the world. They do not go to the world to tell the pundits that the Church is not worldly enough. The pope’s ambiguity and Stanley’s casuistry serve only to embolden the representatives of the pseudo-prophetic industry of Christian leaders who delight in telling the world that, yes, the Church really is the problem.

The rhetoric of the Christians who blame the Church for our current problems will likely become more pungent, encouraged by these recent moves of Francis and Andy Stanley. And it will no doubt prosper in an environment where the term “culture warrior” is now routinely applied by those same pseudo-prophets only to those who wish to maintain standards of public behavior and decency at previous levels and not to those who have initiated an active war against them.

The Church’s track record on framing its theology in terms of the anthropology of the surrounding culture is a tragic one. It led many of her branches to support slavery in the 19th century. That should stand as a warning to those who would place the tastes of the day at the heart of their pastoral and theological strategy. Today, the therapeutic anthropology of sexual identity and authenticity dominates the culture. It is worrying indeed that influential voices within the Church are helping to create the rhetorical and pastoral approach that will serve only to further marginalize those who seek to minister faithfully to this generation.

For all her faults, the Church is ultimately the solution. Conforming her to the world can only be part of the problem.

Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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