The ink had just dried on a piece I wrote critical of a new book on homosexuality and the church by the Anglican Church doctrine committee, when the May 28 Australian ran an opinion piece that nearly made me unload my Weet-Bix. Dr John Shepherd, the Anglican Dean of Perth, has written one of the most silly and mischievous pieces on Christian morality to have appeared in recent memory.
In this article he says the church should have nothing to do with moral judgments about relationships. What people do is their own business – how dare the church get involved? Be it divorce, homosexuality or whatever, it is none of the church’s business how people choose to live their lives.
Strange, but I had always thought that the church was supposed to be interested in how people live. To say Christianity should be unconcerned about the way people behave and relate to one another sounds somewhat curious. Indeed, he might as well argue that the International Olympic Committee should have nothing to do with sporting rules. If we give up the role of affirming the moral imperatives handed down by Scripture, there is not much left – except maybe holding bingo tournaments. Dr Shepherd obviously belongs to the school that has jettisoned the Ten Commandments for Ten Suggestions.
Indeed, he argues that the “biblical writers were conditioned by their culture” so that we can now, in more enlightened times, dispense with their outdated moralising. He says Paul dropped the food laws and circumcision, and we therefore can pick and choose today what we want to believe and practice. Thus we should “be accepting and supportive of same-sex relationships and homosexual male and female clergy”. Moreover, we are “now free to love as appropriately in our culture as Paul was free to love within the framework of his”.
The fuzziness and foolishness of such thinking needs to be examined more closely. Were the biblical writers influenced by their culture? Yes of course. But the good Doctor does not understand the biblical doctrine of inspiration. God used human vehicles to present his revelation, but he used them in such a way that his infallible word was preserved in the process. Men were inspired as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit Peter tells us in 2 Peter 1:21. Yes their personalities and cultures shine through, but God’s eternal words of truth are also conveyed.
And Paul abandoned certain practices because Jesus did. These cultural identity signs or boundary markers (the Sabbath, circumcision, food laws, etc.) were jettisoned because Jesus had redefined the notion of what it meant to be the people of God. But the moral absolutes of the Old Testament, including the importance of heterosexual marriage, and the sinfulness of homosexuality, were never abandoned or redefined in the New Testament.
We are not entitled to pick and choose the morality we want, in accord with the latest social trends. Our moorings and standards are always found in the full revelation of God as given in Scripture. The “free to love” nonsense which Dr Shepherd speaks of is more in line with another theological liberal (Joseph Fletcher and his Situation Ethics) than with the sturdy morality of Jesus, Paul and the rest of the New Testament authors.
To abandon the clear teaching of Scripture on the issue of homosexuality and replace it with the latest trendy social fads will not make the church more relevant. The exact opposite takes places in such situations. A watered down gospel always results in declining attendance, while a clear affirmation of biblical teaching increases church membership.
Dr Shepherd perfectly echoes the politically correct spirit of the age with his mantra-like warnings about being judgemental and moralistic: “The time has long passed for us to be liberated from the medieval notion that it is the church’s role to be the moral arbiter of relationships”. Or again, he speaks of “encouraging the church to shed the judgemental frame of mind” and how we should not “sit in judgement on [relationships], nor to have the temerity to assume the role of self-appointed watchdog of the so-called moral climate of a particular culture”.
Well, there you have it. The church has no business to make moral pronouncements, no right to speak of sin and judgement, no place for upholding the righteousness and holiness of God. Instead we are to meekly stand by and say “bless you” to any and every type or relationship and morality that modern culture can come up with. One has to wonder, given Dr Shepherd’s views: Is there anything Christians should denounce? The warm fuzziness presented here contrasts sharply with the hard words of Jesus as he cleansed the temple, or warned of wrath to come.
Dr Shepherd concludes by saying we should “get back to basics”. All Christians would agree. And the sooner Dr Shepherd and those like him does so, the better. Jesus warned about wolves in sheep’s clothing. And Paul warned about false doctrine spreading through the churches like a cancer. It seems that we have in this article a pretty good candidate of such warnings.