Category Archives: Current Issues
Keller on how the church should speak to the issue of homosexuality:
Keller on how the church should handle the shift to transgender identity in the broader culture:
By Kevin DeYoung
So you’ve become convinced that the Bible supports gay marriage. You’ve studied the issue, read some books, looked at the relevant Bible passages and concluded that Scripture does not prohibit same-sex intercourse so long as it takes place in the context of a loving, monogamous, lifelong covenanted relationship. You still love Jesus. You still believe the Bible. In fact, you would argue that it’s because you love Jesus and because you believe the Bible that you now embrace gay marriage as a God-sanctioned good.
As far as you are concerned, you haven’t rejected your evangelical faith. You haven’t turned your back on God. You haven’t become a moral relativist. You’ve never suggested anything goes when it comes to sexual behavior. In most things, you tend to be quite conservative. You affirm the family, and you believe in the permanence of marriage. But now you’ve simply come to the conclusion that two men or two women should be able to enter into the institution of marriage–both as a legal right and as a biblically faithful expression of one’s sexuality.
Setting aside the issue of biblical interpretation for the moment, let me ask five questions.
1. On what basis do you still insist that marriage must be monogamous?
Presumably, you do not see any normative significance in God creating the first human pair male and female (Gen. 2:23-25; Matt. 19:4-6). Paul’s language about each man having his own wife and each woman her own husband cannot be taken too literally without falling back into the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage (1 Cor. 7:2). The two coming together as one so they might produce godly offspring doesn’t work with gay marriage either (Mal. 2:15). So why monogamy? Jesus never spoke explicitly against polygamy. The New Testament writers only knew of exploitative polygamy, the kind tied to conquest, greed, and subjugation. If they had known of voluntary, committed, loving polyamorous relationships, who’s to think they wouldn’t have approved?
These aren’t merely rhetorical questions. The issue is legitimate: if 3 or 13 or 30 people really love each other, why shouldn’t they have a right to be married? And for that matter, why not a brother and a sister, or two sisters, or a mother and son, or father and son, or any other combination of two or more persons who love each other. Once we’ve accepted the logic that for love to be validated it must be expressed sexually and that those engaged in consensual sexual activity cannot be denied the “right” of marriage, we have opened a Pandora’s box of marital permutations that cannot be shut.
2. Will you maintain the same biblical sexual ethic in the church now that you think the church should solemnize gay marriages?
After assailing the conservative church for ignoring the issue of divorce, will you exercise church discipline when gay marriages fall apart? Will you preach abstinence before marriage for all single persons, no matter their orientation? If nothing has really changed except that you now understand the Bible to be approving of same-sex intercourse in committed lifelong relationships,we should expect loud voices in the near future denouncing the infidelity rampant in homosexual relationships. Surely, those who support gay marriage out of “evangelical” principles, will be quick to find fault with the notion that the male-male marriages most likely to survive are those with a flexible understanding that other partners may come and go. According to one study researched and written by two homosexual authors, of 156 homosexual couples studied, only seven had maintained sexual fidelity, and of the hundred that had been together for more than five years, none had remained faithful (cited by Satinover, 55). In the rush to support committed, lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships, it’s worth asking whether those supporters–especially the Christians among them–will, in fact, insist on a lifelong, monogamous commitment.
3. Are you prepared to say moms and dads are interchangeable?
It is a safe assumption that those in favor of gay marriage are likely to support gay and lesbian couples adopting children or giving birth to children through artificial insemination. What is sanctioned, therefore, is a family unit where children grow up de facto without one birth parent. This means not simply that some children, through the unfortunate circumstances of life, may grow up with a mom and dad, but that the church will positively bless and encourage the family type that will deprive children of either a mother or a father. So are mothers indispensable? Is another dad the same as a mom? No matter how many decent, capable homosexual couples we may know, are we confident that as a general rule there is nothing significant to be gained by growing up with a mother and a father?
4. What will you say about anal intercourse?
The answer is probably “nothing.” But if you feel strongly about the dangers of tobacco or fuss over the negative affects of carbs, cholesterol, gmo’s, sugar, gluten, trans fats, and hydrogenated soybean oil may have on your health, how can you not speak out about the serious risks associated with male-male intercourse. How is it loving to celebrate what we know to be a singularly unhealthy lifestyle? According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the risk of anal cancer increases 4000 percent among those who engage in anal intercourse. Anal sex increases the risk of a long list of health problems, including “rectal prolapse, perforation that can go septic, chlamydia, cyrptosporidosis, giardiasis, genital herpes, genital warts, isosporiasis, microsporidiosis, gonorrhea, viral hepatitis B and C, and syphilis” (quoted in Reilly, 55). And this is to say nothing of the higher rates of HIV and other health concerns with disproportionate affects on the homosexual community.
5. How have all Christians at all times and in all places interpreted the Bible so wrongly for so long?
Christians misread their Bibles all the time. The church must always be reformed according to the word of God. Sometimes biblical truth rests with a small minority. Sometimes the truth is buried in relative obscurity for generations. But when we must believe that the Bible has been misunderstood by virtually every Christian in every part of the world for the last two thousand years, it ought to give us pause. From the Jewish world in the Old and New Testaments to the early church to the Middle Ages to the Reformation and into the 20th century, the church has understood the Bible to teach that engaging in homosexuality activity was among the worst sins a person could commit. As the late Louis Crompton, a gay man and pioneer in queer studies, explained:
Some interpreters, seeking to mitigate Paul’s harshness, have read the passage [in Romans 1] as condemning not homosexuals generally but only heterosexual men and women who experimented with homosexuality. According to this interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at “bona fide” homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstances. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any Jew or early Christian. (Homosexuality and Civilization, 114).
The church has been of one mind on this issue for nearly two millennia. Are you prepared to jeopardize the catholicity of the church and convince yourself that everyone misunderstood the Bible until the 1960s? On such a critical matter, it’s important we think through the implications of our position, especially if it means consigning to the bin of bigotry almost every Christian who has ever lived.
Source: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org (June 17, 2014)
By Christopher Yuan
In March 2012, Matthew Vines posted a video on YouTube suggesting that “being gay is not a sin,” and that the Bible “does not condemn, loving, committed same-sex relationships.” He spoke eloquently from the heart with poise, conviction and vulnerability. The video quickly went viral.
Vines is a bright young man raised in a Christian home. At age 19, he left Harvard University after his third semester so that he could come out to his family and friends in Wichita. He knew that his father would not agree with the way he reconciled his sexuality with Scripture. So Vines sought to arm himself with biblical scholarship on the affirmation of same-sex relationships and strove to convince his family and church that they were wrong—that homosexuality is not a sin.
Vines’s new book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, expounds further on the arguments made in his video. His aim is not to present new information, but to synthesize gay-affirming arguments and make them accessible for a broader and younger audience. Vines does a good job fulfilling this goal. Unfortunately, his book consists of some logical and exegetical fallacies, and it does not address the shortcomings of the authors to whom it is most indebted. And although Vines professes a “high view” of the Bible, he ultimately fails to apply uncomfortable biblical truths in a way that embraces a costly discipleship.
Good and Bad Fruit
God and the Gay Christian begins with an emotional appeal from Matthew 7:18, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.” Vines states that universal condemnation of same-sex relationships has been damaging and destructive for those who identify as gay Christians, producing bad fruit (depression and suicide, for instance). In contrast, Vines asserts that loving, same-sex relationships produce good fruit. Additionally, he claims that the biblical authors did not understand sexual orientation as a fixed and exclusive characteristic. Recognizing that celibacy is a gift, Vines contends that this gift should only be accepted voluntarily. Citing 1 Timothy 4:3, Vines even argues that those who forbid gay marriage are false teachers who promote hostility toward God’s creation.
Six biblical passages directly address homosexuality, and Vines insists that none address same-sex orientation as we know it today. Thus, in Genesis 19, the sin of Sodom is not related to loving, consensual same-sex relationships, but to the threat of gang rape. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are not about committed same-sex relationships, but about the improper ordering of gender roles in a patriarchal society (men taking the receptive, sexual role; women taking the penetrative, sexual role). Paul in Romans 1:26-27 is not referring to monogamous, gay relationships, but instead to lustful excess and the breaking of customary gender roles. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul does not condemn same-sex relationships as an expression of one’s fixed and exclusive sexual orientation, but instead condemns the economic exploitation of others.
After discussing these six passages, Vines passionately argues that God blesses the marriages of same-sex couples. Marriage as a one-flesh union is a reflection of Christ’s love for the church. This relationship between Christ and the church is not a sexual union based upon gender complementarity. Therefore, Vines asserts that “one flesh” refers to a binding covenant of deep relational connection that is not dependent upon gender differences. For Vines, “sexuality is a core part of who we are” and same-sex orientation is “a created characteristic, not a distortion caused by the fall.”
In Vines’s 2012 video, he presents himself with a gentle and winsome demeanor. The tone of God and the Gay Christian is quite different. Unlike others who advocate respectful dialogue on this divisive issue, Vines charges that those who do not affirm same-sex relationships are sinning by distorting the image of God and are essentially responsible for the suicides of many gay Christians. Insinuations like this do not help to foster respectful dialogue on this already divisive issue.
Emphasis on Experience
Throughout the book, Vines declares that he holds a “high view” of the Bible. From this perspective, he says, one can still affirm gay relationships. One of the main weaknesses of God and the Gay Christian is that Vines’s methodology of biblical interpretation clashes with the high view of the Bible he claims to hold. A high view of Scripture is more than just talking about Scripture. It is learning from Scripture. Vines certainly talks about Scripture, but he tends to emphasize his experience and tangential background information, downplaying Scripture and its relevant literary and historical context.
Experiences do inform our interpretation of Scripture. As a racial minority, biblical texts on sojourners and aliens mean more to me than to someone who is not a racial minority. However, experiences can also hinder the interpretation of Scripture. Although it is impossible to completely distance the interpretive process from one’s experiences, it is important to recognize our biases and do our best to minimize them. A high view of Scripture involves measuring our experience against the Bible, not the other way around.
It appears to me that Vines starts with the conclusion that God blesses same-sex relationships and then moves backwards to find evidence. This is not exegesis, but a classic example of eisegesis (reading our own biases into a text). Like Vines, I also came out as a gay man while I was a student. I was a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in dentistry. Unlike Vines, I was not raised in a Christian home. Interestingly, a chaplain gave me a book from a gay-affirming author, John Boswell, claiming that homosexuality is not a sin. Like Vines, I was looking for biblical justification and wanted to prove that the Bible blesses gay relationships. As I read Boswell’s book, the Bible was open next to it, and his assertions did not line up with Scripture. Eventually, I realized that I was wrong—that same-sex romantic relationships are a sin. My years of biblical language study in Bible college and seminary, and doctoral research in sexuality, only strengthened this conclusion. No matter how hard I tried to find biblical justification and no matter whether my same-sex temptations went away or not, God’s word did not change. Years later I found out that the gay-affirming chaplain also recognized his error.
In God and the Gay Christian, Vines relies heavily upon other authors, many of whom also began with a strong gay-affirming bias. John Boswell was an openly gay historian. James Brownson, a more recent scholar, reversed his stance on the morality of same-sex relationships after his son came out. Michael Carden, a fringe gay Catholic who dabbles in astrology, has written on the “homo-erotics of atonement” and contributed to the Queer Bible Commentary, which draws upon “feminist, queer, deconstructionist, utopian theories, the social sciences and historical-critical discourses.” Dale Martin, an openly gay man, believes neither that Jesus’ resurrection is a historical fact, nor that the historical Jesus believed he was divine. These views do not represent a “high view” of the Bible.
Leaning upon experience rather than biblical context leads Vines to some inaccurate interpretations. For Vines, “bad fruit” in Matthew 7:17 refers to the experience of emotional or physical harm. But this does not line up with the storyline of the Bible. Under Vines’s definition, crucifixion, martyrdom and self-denial would all be considered “bad fruit.” Matthew 7:14 reads, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Following Jesus is not easy and can result in very difficult trials. Vines also neglects to note that two different Greek words are translated into one word, “bad.” “Bad tree” literally means a rotten or diseased tree, while “bad fruit” is literally wicked or evil fruit. From the context of Matthew 7, “bad fruit” does not mean emotional or physical harm but refers to sin.
For Vines, “sexuality is a core part of who we are.” This perspective makes his experiences (feelings, attractions, desires, orientation) essential to his identity. Our society may place a great emphasis upon a sexual identity, but Scripture does not. As a matter of fact, our identity should not be placed in anything (such as our sexuality, gender, or race) other than Jesus Christ.
Vines asserts that the biblical authors did not understand sexual orientation as we do today, as a fixed and exclusive characteristic. It is one thing to say that the biblical writers were ignorant. But it is a whole different matter to claim to hold to a “high view” of Scripture and imply that the author of the Bible, God himself, does not understand sexual orientation.
Vines is wrong to claim that orientation is fixed and exclusive. Although male sexuality may be more fixed, the latest research in lesbian and feminist studies shows that female sexuality is quite fluid and not as fixed and exclusive as Vines claims. The view of same-sex orientation expressed in God and the Gay Christianmirrors Vines’s own gay-male experiences. But according to the latest research, it does not represent the broader gay and lesbian community.
God and the Gay Christian includes a good amount of historical background information. For a non-academic book, it is impressive to see all the references to primary sources, such as Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Josephus, Jerome and Augustine. It is disappointing, then, to see insufficient interaction with the actual biblical texts. Investigating historical context is very important, but this must go hand in hand with the investigation of a passage’s own literary context. It is easy to deconstruct one or two seemingly inconvenient words in light of tangential background information, but only if one disregards the immediate historical and literary context in which these words appear.
Vines discusses why Christians do not obey all the laws in the Old Testament. However, he does not discuss why Christians do obey some laws in the Old Testament. There is much discussion about the relevance of Old Testament law. But where the New Testament reaffirms it, Christians remain obligated to obey it. Paul reaffirms Leviticus 20:13 in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, using a compound Greek word (arsenokoitai) taken from two words found in the Leviticus passage of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Vines dismisses this important allusion. He contends that the parts of a compound word do not necessarily help uncover the meaning. As an example, he states that “understand” has nothing to do with “standing” or “under.” Yet etymologists (those who study of the origins of words and the historical development of their meanings) can trace the origin and meaning of “understand” to Old English.
Vines notes the use of arsenokoitai in the vice lists of three second-century texts. Even though he admits the vice lists are of limited help, he tries to link arsenokoitai to economic exploitation through word association. Vines might have a case if every vice in each list is related to economic exploitation. But these lists contain a variety of vices, related and unrelated. For instance, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 mentions idolaters, adulterers, drunkards, and slanderers.
Vines also asserts that arsenokoitai is only minimally associated with sexual sin because it is not always mentioned alongside other sexual sins—and when it is, it is separated by three words. This is insignificant, and ignores other, more relevant historical information. The Greek Old Testament was probably the most widely read piece of literature among first-century Jews and Christians. The two words, arsen (male) and koite (bed), occur together six times in its pages. On four occasions, the reference is to women lying with men, and on the other two (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) the reference is to men lying with men. Vines and others who rely upon second-century texts to explain arsenokoitai, dismissing the Greek Old Testament, are inconsistent in applying background information. Again, their biases prevail in their attempt to interpret Scripture.
For Vines, Leviticus 20:13 is not a universal condemnation against same-sex intercourse. Rather, it is “centered around the proper ordering of gender roles in a patriarchal society.” Men were not to act like women by taking the receptive role. Ironically, Vines dismisses Philo (a first century Jewish philosopher) for explicitly linking Sodom’s sins to same-sex behavior, but then affirms Philo for linking the sin of Leviticus 20:13 to “being treated like women.” This is another example of bias and an inconsistent use of background information. If the sin of Leviticus 20:13 is merely a matter of men adopting the woman’s sexual role, then only the man in the receptive role should be condemned. However the verse states that “both of them have committed an abomination.” Both men are condemned.
Vines exhorts gay-affirming Christians to help usher in a modern reformation by “speaking the truth,” which for him starts with personal life stories. Indeed, we must share our personal experiences, but experience should not replace truth. I completely agree with Vines that many gays, lesbians, and other same-sex attracted people have struggled to reconcile their faith and sexuality without much help from the church. Some churches are unwilling to talk about homosexuality, afraid that it will open up a can of worms. Other churches only talk about the immorality of it, while neglecting to discuss how the transformative message of the gospel is also for gays and lesbians. We must do a better job of walking with those who are working through issues of sexuality, regardless of whether they are acting upon their temptations or not.
We have failed to provide gospel-centered support for same-sex attracted Christians. As a 43-year-old single man who did not choose singleness, I know firsthand the challenges of obedience. But there are also blessings, just as marriage involves challenges and blessings. The church must have a robust, practical theology of singleness which involves more than just abstinence programs and the Christian singles ghetto (also known as the “college and career” group). We are not ready to address the issue of homosexuality (or even sexuality in general) if we have not first redeemed biblical singleness.
We have failed to walk alongside same-sex attracted Christians to whom God has provided a spouse—of the opposite sex. Vines limits the power of God by actually believing that there is no possibility for gays and lesbians to marry someone of the opposite sex. He even believes that encouraging such marriages “is not Christian faithfulness,” because they would most likely end in divorce. In this, he offhandedly dismisses many marriages that have not failed. Certainly, there are challenges with these relationships, and getting married should never be the main focus. But fear of failure should not trump gospel-centered living.This is true Christian faithfulness.
We have failed to offer Christ to the gay and lesbian community. We have also failed by giving the impression that orientation change and reparative therapy is the solution. Sanctification is not getting rid of our temptations, but pursuing holiness in the midst of them. If our goal is making people straight, then we are practicing a false gospel.
Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but was accused of being a friend of sinners. Too often, we are more like the older, self-righteous brother of the prodigal son, and our hearts are hardened toward the lost. This is truth at the expense of grace. But the approach that Vines suggest—grace at the expense of truth—also misses the mark. It overlooks the theology of suffering and gives us Christ without the Cross. Jesus, who personifies love, came full of grace and full of truth (John 1:14). Might this be how we live as well.
Christopher Yuan (www.christopheryuan.com) is co-author, with his mother, of Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope (WaterBrook Press). He teaches the Bible at Moody Bible Institute and has an international speaking ministry.
Source: Adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com (June 9, 2014)
As Christians we have the great privilege of knowing that God speaks to us through his Word, the Bible. There is no other book like it—no other book that rewards us with God’s own words. But to know what God says to us, and how God means for us to live, we need to do a little bit of work. Every Christian, and every preacher in particular, has to go from the text to today. We all wonder, “But what does this mean to me?” or “What does this mean to my congregation?”
Every word of the Bible was written at a certain time and in a certain context. Even the most recent of those times and the nearest of those contexts is at a great distance from us in time and space. Thus, when we read the Bible, we have to determine how those words apply to us today in our very different times and very different contexts. It is not always a simple task.
We have all seen situations—and many of us have caused situations—where we have been sloppy in going from the text to today. The young man who marches three times around a young woman and waits for her walls of romantic resistance to crumble is not properly understanding how to go from the text to today. Similarly, the muscleman who tears a phone book in half while quoting, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is not properly accounting for the context of that verse.
There are different ways Christians attempt to get from the text to today in ways that are faithful and accurate. I’m going to borrow from my friend James Seward and display one of these ways with a triangle that has four T’s on it. Look at figure 1 and you’ll see it: One triangle, three corners, four T’s.
We will begin with the right side of the triangle. Let’s let the top corner represent our text—any text within the Bible. The bottom-right corner will represent today. You can see this in figure 2. What we are prone to do is to hurry our way from the text to today, just like that young man and that muscleman. We underestimate or under-appreciate our cultural and chronological distance from the text and are too quick to assume we know how to apply the text to our lives today. We sometimes get it right, but often we do not. Every Christian acknowledges this as a potential problem and different traditions attempt to deal with it in different ways.
I am convinced that the most faithful way to deal with it leads us to the bottom-left corner of the triangle. The TT down there stands for them/then—the people for whom the words were originally written (see figure 3). What if, instead of going straight from the text to today we go from the text, to them/then, and only then to today? In this way, before we apply the text to ourselves, we attempt to understand what the words meant to those who first heard them. So when Paul wrote the church in Philippi and said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” what did he mean? What did he mean to communicate to them/then? Once we have established what the text meant to them/then, we can more accurately apply it to ourselves—to us/now.
How can we go from the text to them/then? Broadly, through prayer, through meditation, and through study. We pray and ask the Holy Spirit to illumine the text so we rightly understand it; we meditate on the text, expecting that God will reward this deep contemplation with greater understanding; we study the text through cross-references, word studies, sentence diagraming, commentaries and other resources. We do all of this to understand what the text meant to the original recipients.
Once we have done that—once we have a solid understanding of what the text meant to them/then, we are prepared to visit the third corner of the rectangle. Now we take what we have learned and we ask how it is meant to impact us today. How do we do this? Largely through prayer and meditation, though some further study may be involved. Now we pray and ask God to show us how he can apply his truth to the specifics of our lives and times; we continue to meditate on the text, looking for immediate application, and still trusting that God will use our deep contemplation to give us insights into his Word. You can see this all in figure 4.
In his book Expositional Preaching, David Helm gives an example of how he, an experienced preacher, was too quick to go from the text to today. He had determined that he would preach 2 Corinthians 8-9 at time when his church needed a financial boost. Even before he began his sermon preparation he knew what he would say—he had a major theme, he had an outline, and everything else he needed to make a great, Bible-based appeal for money. But as he dove into the text he realized that his understanding of the text was too simple: this text isn’t about regular and cheerful giving to meet the church budget, but about a famine relief collection for churches full of Jewish Christians. He came to see that this collection was meant to serve as a test of these Corinthian Christians so that if they gave generously, it would show that they aligned with Paul and the gospel over against the so-called super-apostles. When he went from the text to today he had one sermon, but when he went from the text to them/then to today he had a very different one, and one that more faithfully understood the original meaning of the text. I suspect almost every preacher—every expositional preacher, at least—has had a similar experience at one time or another.
A couple of weeks ago I quoted David Helm and his concern with lectio divina. His concern is exactly this—that lectio divina may too quickly move from the top of the triangle to the bottom-right. It moves from one corner to the other through prayer, meditation and contemplation, but in all of that may not adequately account for the distance between the text and today. This is true, at least, when lectio divina is done apart from serious study and serious work in the text prior to that contemplation. On the other hand, people who value study may be too reliant on their effort while short-changing both prayer and meditation (and I put myself squarely in this camp). And this is why I find this simple triangle so helpful. In three corners and four little T’s it helps us move from the text to today in a way that faithfully captures what God means to communicate to us.
Source: http://www.challies.com (June 2, 2014).
By Ernest C. Resinger
Many who regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Yet in spite of the evidence against them, they consider themselves to be just what their teachers teach them — that they are ‘Carnal Christians’. And as carnal Christians they believe they will go to heaven, though perhaps not first-class, and with few rewards.
That something is seriously wrong in lives which reveal such features will readily be admitted by most readers of these pages; no argument is needed to prove it. But the most serious aspect of this situation is too often not recognized at all. The chief mistake is not the carelessness of these church-goers, it is the error of their teachers who, by preaching the theory of ‘the carnal Christian’, have led them to believe that there are three groups of men, — the unconverted man, the ‘carnal Christian’ and the ‘spiritual Christian’.
My purpose in this essay is to argue that this classification is wrong and to set out the positive, historic, and biblical answer to this ‘carnal Christian’ teaching. The argument from Church history is not unimportant, for it is a fact that less than two-hundred years ago this teaching was unknown in the churches of North America, but I am concerned to rest my case on an honest statement of the teaching of the Bible. I have written after study, private meditation and prayer, and after using many of the old respected commentaries of another day, but my appeal is to the Word of God and it is in the light of that authority that I ask the reader to consider all that follows.
I must also confess that I am writing as one who, for many years, held and taught the teaching which I am now convinced is erroneous and which has many dangerous implications. As one who has deep respect for many who hold this position, I am not going to attack personalities, but to deal with principles, and with the interpretation of the particular passages of Scripture on which the teaching is built.
In matters of controversy it must ever be kept in mind that a Christian’s experience may be genuine even though his understanding of divine truth is tainted with error or ignorance. The opposite is also possible — a man’s intellectual understanding may be good and his experience poor. I pray that if I am in error on this or any other doctrine I shall be corrected before I leave this world. I trust I am willing ever to be a learner of divine truth.
I know that one of my motives is the same as that of many who hold this erroneous view, namely, to advance biblical holiness and to seek to ‘adorn the doctrine of God our Savior’.
To accomplish my purpose it is of the greatest importance that the whole subject should be set on a proper foundation. I do not want to make a caricature of the view of others and then demonstrate success by tearing it apart. I shall also seek to avoid disproportionate and one-sided statements. The danger that we may ‘darken counsel by words without knowledge’ is still with us. I pray that this effort will elicit truth and that the existence of varied opinions will lead us all to search the Scriptures more, to pray more, and to be diligent in our endeavors to learn what is ‘the mind of the Spirit’.
My greatest difficulty will be to achieve brevity because this subject is so closely related to, and interwoven with the main doctrine of the Bible, particularly with justification and sanctification, the chief blessings of the new covenant. The subject therefore involves a right understanding of what the gospel really is and what it does to a person when applied efficaciously by the Spirit. Our view of this matter will also affect our judgment of the relationship of the Ten Commandments to the Christian in the area of sanctification, and of the biblical doctrine of assurance.
Some of the fundamental questions which need to be faced are these:
1. Are we sanctified passively, that is, ‘by faith’ only, without obedience to the law of God and Christ? If sanctification is passive — a view represented by the slogan ‘Let go and let God’ — then how do we understand such apostolic statements as ‘I fight’, ‘I run’, ‘I keep under my body’, ‘let us cleanse ourselves’, ‘let us labor’, ‘let us lay aside every weight’? Surely these statements do not express a passive condition, nor do they indicate that by one single act we may possess the experience of ‘victory’ and thus become spiritual and mature Christians.
2. Does an appeal to the so-called ‘carnal Christian’ to become a ‘spiritual Christian’ minimize the real conversion experience by magnifying a supposed second experience, by whatever name it may be called — ‘higher life’, ‘deeper life’, ‘Spirit-filled life’, ‘triumphant living’, ‘receiving Christ as Lord, and not merely as Savior’, and so on? The words we read in 2 Corinthians 5:17, ‘Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’, do not refer to a second experience but rather to what happens when any real conversion occurs.
3. Has the ‘spiritual Christian’ finished growing in grace? If not, what is he to be called as he continues to grow in grace? Do we need to make yet another class whose members are the ‘super-spiritual Christians’?
4. Who is to decide who the carnal Christians are, and exactly what standard is to be used in determining this? Do the ‘spiritual Christians’ decide who the ‘carnal Christians’ are? Does a church or preacher decide where the line is to be drawn that divides the two classes or categories? Since all Christians have sin remaining in them, and since they sin every day, what degree of sin or what particular sins classify a person as a ‘carnal Christian’?
5. Do not all Christians sometimes act like natural men in some area of their lives?
6. Do not the inward sins, such as envy, malice, covetousness, lasciviousness (which includes immorality on the mental level) demonstrate carnality as much as do the outward and visible manifestations of certain other sins?
In Romans 8:1-9 there is a division stated, but it is not between carnal and spiritual Christians. It is a division between those who walk after the flesh (the unregenerate) and those who walk after the Spirit (they that are Christ’s). There is no third category.
Again, in Galatians 5:17-24 we have only two classes or categories — those that do the works of the flesh and those that are led by the Spirit. There is no third or fourth class or group.
My purpose, then, in these pages is to contend that the division of Christians into two groups or classes is unbiblical. I want also to show the dangerous implications and present-day results of this teaching.
The interpretation that I will seek to establish is a result of studying the proven and respected commentators of former days, such as, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, John Gill, and John Calvin; and theologians such as Charles Hodge (of the old Princeton Seminary), James P. Boyce (founder of the first Southern Baptist Seminary), Robert L. Dabney (the great theologian of old Union Seminary, Virginia) and James H. Thornwell (distinguished Southern theologian who was Professor of Theology at Columbia, South Carolina). I have also examined the writings of John Bunyan and searched the old Confessions and Catechisms, such as The Heidelberg Catechism, and Westminster Confession (that mother of all Confessions), the Baptist Confession of 1689 (The London Confession, later known as the Philadelphia Confession), and the Declaration of Faith of the Southern Baptist Church.
In all these sources there is not one trace of the belief that there are three classes of men. All of them have much to say about carnality in Christians, and about the biblical doctrine of sanctification and its relationship to justification, but there is no hint of the possibility of dividing men into ‘unregenerate’, ‘carnal’ and ‘spiritual’ categories. If the sources I have named had come across the ‘carnal Christian’ theory, I believe that with one voice they would have warned their readers, ‘Be not carried away with divers and strange doctrines’ (Hebrews 13: 9).
I confess that I take up my pen in this controversy with deep sorrow. Although the teaching that I wish to expose is so relatively new in the church, it is held by so many fine Christians, and taught by so many able and respected schools of the present day, that I can only approach my present undertaking with caution and anxiety.
We live in a day when there are so many books and such a variety of teaching on the subject of the Christian life that Christians are ‘tossed to and fro’, and liable to be ‘carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (Ephesians 4:14). There is also the Athenian love of novelty and a distaste for the old, well-tested, and beaten paths of our forefathers. This excessive love of the new leads to an insatiable craving after any teaching which is sensational and exciting, especially to the feelings. But the old paths lead to a ‘meek and quiet spirit’ which the apostle Peter commends: ‘But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price’ (I Peter 3: 4).
The Issue in Controversy
At a church service that I attended recently, the preacher, a sincere minister, was expounding 1 Corinthians chapter 3, and he said to a large congregation, ‘Now after you become a Christian you have another choice — either to grow in grace, follow the Lord and become a spiritual Christian, or to remain a babe in Christ and live like natural men.’ He used 1 Corinthians 3: 1 — 4 to state that there were three categories of men — the natural man, the spiritual man, and the carnal man. He described the carnal man as being like the natural man who was unconverted.
This is the essence of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching. One reason why it is so widespread is that it has been popularized for many years in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible. A statement from these notes will indicate the precise nature of the teaching: ‘Paul divides men into three classes: “Natural” i.e. the Adamic Man, unrenewed through the new birth; “Spiritual” i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God; “Carnal”, “fleshly”, i.e. the renewed man who, walking “after the flesh”, remains a babe in Christ.” (Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 1213, 1214.)
It is very important to observe the two main things in this Scofield note. First, the division of men into three classes; second, we are told that one of these classes of men comprises the ‘carnal’, the ‘fleshly’, ‘the babe(s) in Christ’, ‘who walk after the flesh’. To ‘walk’ implies the bent of their lives; their leaning or bias is in one direction, that is, towards carnality.
We ought not to miss three very salient and important facts about the teaching:
First, we note again that it divides all men into three classes or categories. With this fact none of its proponents disagree, though they may present it differently and apply it differently.
Second, one class or category is set out as containing the ‘Christian’ who ‘walks after the flesh’. The centre of his life is self, and he is the same as the unrenewed man as far as the bent of his life is concerned.
Third, all those who accept this view use 1 Corinthians 3: 1-4 to support it. Consequently, if it can be established that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men — regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ — the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching would be confronted with an insurmountable objection. It would be in conflict with the whole emphasis of Scripture and of the New Testament in particular.
Before I turn to some of the errors and dangers of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching it may be wise to indicate what I am not saying.
In this discussion of the ‘carnal Christian’ theory I am not overlooking the teaching of the Bible about sin in Christians, about babes in Christ, about growth in grace, about Christians who back-slide grievously, and about the divine chastisement which all Christians receive.
I acknowledge that there are babes in Christ. In fact there are not only babes in Christ, but there are different stages of ‘babyhood’ in understanding divine truth and in spiritual growth.
I also recognize that there is a sense in which Christians may be said to be carnal but I must add that there are different degrees of carnality. Every Christian is carnal in some area of his life at many times in his life. And in every Christian ‘the flesh lusteth against the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:17).
All the marks of Christianity are not equally apparent in all Christians. Nor are any of these marks manifest to the same degree in every period of any Christian’s life. Love, faith, obedience, and devotion will vary in the same Christian in different periods of his Christian experience; in other words, there are many degrees of sanctification.
The Christian’s progress in growth is not constant and undisturbed. There are many hills and valleys in the process of sanctification; and there are many stumblings, falls and crooked steps in the process of growth in grace.
There are examples in the Bible of grievous falls and carnality in the lives of true believers. Thus we have the warnings and the promises of temporal judgment and of chastisement by our heavenly Father.
These truths are all acknowledged and are not the point of this present discussion. The question we have to consider is: Does the Bible divide men into three categories? This is the issue at the heart of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching.
The teaching that I am opposing involves nine serious errors: