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The Obligation To Assume
May 17, 2006
On Monday, Joe Carter, he of Evangelical Outpost fame, posted on his web site discussing an article Andrew Sullivan had published in Time Magazine entitled “My Problem with Christianism.” There is one aspect of Carter’s article I would like to discuss today: the preamble. This is how Joe began: “While I believe that he can be as intolerant as Fred Phelps, I consider Andrew Sullivan to be a brother in Christ. Our differences of opinion—and they are profound—are trivial when compared to that relationship.” If you were so inclined, you could read the complete article and the subsequent commentary here.
I can’t imagine why Joe began this article with a comparison of the intolerance of Fred Phelps (the “God Hates Fags” preacher from Topeka, Kansas) and Andrew Sullivan. It was an odd way to begin an article, but I will pass that over to get to the statement that I wish to discuss: “I consider Andrew Sullivan to be a brother in Christ.” This statement caused an immediate reaction among Carter’s readers, the majority of whom are, I presume, Christians. Sullivan is, after all, proudly homosexual and an advocate of homosexual rights. Richard John Neuhaus has argued, correctly I believe, that homosexuality is the polestar of Sullivan’s journalism, so obsessed is he with this aspect of his identity. He is a vocal advocate of the rights of homosexuals to marry and has been a pioneer in issues such as gays in the military. Sullivan considers himself a Christian and is a practicing Roman Catholic, though he constantly criticizes the Church for its views on homosexuality.
Among the comments posted on Carter’s site is this one by “Eric and Lisa:” “I find it curious that you call Sullivan a brother-in-Christ. A man who unrepentantly engages in homosexual activity. So curious that I wonder if you would ever see fit to say that anyone who says they are your brother-in-Christ are not?” Glenn asked a similar question. “Just curious, by what criteria do you consider Sullivan a ‘brother in Christ?’ I know he waves his catholicism about pretty boldy, but his ‘Christianity’ could be entirely civil and not spiritual. I’m not trying to pass judgement here, but what fruit has his tree produced? What testimony do we have of his faith in the work of Christ? By what means do we consider him a brother and not reprobate?”
Joe responded that he bases his assumption that Sullivan is saved upon his earlier profession of faith, pointing to an interview with Sullivan in the Right Wing News. Sullivan said:
As to one’s own faith, I think it’s possible to maintain a prayer life, a relationship with the Jesus of the gospels, and an attempt to live out those ideals in one’s life while remaining a proud gay man. In some ways, I think the experience of marginalization that homosexuals have can deepen their spiritual life. Jesus’ message, after all, was that faith belongs to the excluded; and that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The exclusion of gays from the Catholic church is an opportunity to grow closer to Christ, not further away. But it might mean that to reach Jesus, one has to bypass the hierarchy of the church.
Carter went on to say that he would “even go so far as to say that Sullivan appears to be a very immature believer. But I’m not sure that I can say that he is not my ‘brother.’” He said, correctly, of course, that “I’m not sure I have the authority, though, to say that he is ‘one who is predestined to damnation.’” For indeed humans are not able to make such judgments. In answering Eric and Lisa Joe says, “Unfortunately, I know plenty of believers who believe that certain activities (pride, gluttony, etc.) are not sin and are not completely repentant. But I’m not ready to write all of them off as apostates just yet.” He then provides a fairly lengthy explanation of what he meant by “brother in Christ.”
Let me clarify what I mean by a ‘brother in Christ’ by defining what I don’t mean when I use that term: I don’t mean that I know their salvation is assured (only God knows the answer to that one); I don’t mean that I have evidence of his regeneration (he appears to have a long way to go on the road to sanctification); and I don’t mean that he is not on the road to apostasy. All it means is that I take him at his word: that he confesses to being a follower of Jesus Christ.
Obviously I take issue with Sullivan’s unrepentant homosexual behavior. But while I truly believe his sin has ensnared him in a trap of self-deception, I think he has convinced himself that his behavior is not a sin. This doesn’t let him off the hook, but I do believe it is different from someone who does recognize that they are committing sin and they do it anyway.
What it ultimately comes down to is that I am not ready to excommunicate Sullivan from the fold â€“ at least not yet. I may eventually get to the point where I no longer believe that he is really a ‘brother in Christ.’ But for now, I’ll still make room on the pew for Sullivan, Pat Robertson, and a few others whose ‘fruit’ I consider questionable.
I provide this as background information so you can understand what I will discuss next. I was intrigued by Carter’s affirmation of Sullivan’s faith and immediately dedicated some effort to attempting to decide what I believe on this issue, which really goes far deeper than just Sullivan. I will use this example of Andrew Sullivan to springboard a discussion on who we are to assume is a brother in Christ. This article represents my thoughts. As I understand it, there are two main issues here. The first concerns a profession of faith made by someone who is outside the authority of a “true” (a term I will define shortly) local church. The second concerns a profession of faith by someone who is involved in ongoing, unrepentant sin.
Not too long ago I posted an article (which you can read here) called “The Ultimate Human Judgment” in which I discussed when and how humans can judge the faith of other humans. Much of what I believe on this issue is summarized by Dave Swavely in his excellent book Who Are You To Judge?. Here is what Swavely writes in regards to the acceptance of a profession of faith:
“[R]egarding who are the wheat and who are the tares, they [the apostles] left that judgment to God - except in the case of those who were under church discipline. The biblical writers did not attempt to determine or distinguish true believers from false believers within the church. They accepted people’s profession of faith, as long as it was a credible or biblical profession; and they treated all members of the church as believers, unless the process of discipline proved otherwise. We should therefore do the same.”
How we define a credible profession of faith may vary slightly from church to church, but it should definitely contain an affirmation that the person is saved by grace through faith, should affirm many of the doctrines concerning the nature of God and the person should have been identified with the church through baptism or other forms of membership. If a person has professed faith, been baptized and been received into membership his claim to be a believer has a certain level of credibility. Conversely, if he has refused to be baptized and to be received into membership we would have a good reason to be concerned about his profession.
It seems clear from this explanation that, in order to assume that a profession of faith is genuine, the person must attach himself to a “true” church. How we define a true and false church has been the source of much dialogue and disagreement in the centuries since the Reformation, but I am inclined to agree with the three marks proposed during the Reformation and which are summarized in the Belgic Confession, Article 29, which says “The marks by with the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preaching therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.”
When a person has made a profession of faith and is a member in good standing of a true church, as defined by these three marks: the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline, I believe that we are under an obligation to assume that this person’s faith is genuine. I quote again from Swavely:
I would suggest that when someone has professed personal faith in Christ, been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and identified with the church, we are then under obligation from Scripture to make no negative judgment about the validity of his faith. That obligation remains even when a professing believer seems to exhibit a lack of fruit, or even if he commits repeated and heinous sin, because in those cases the other members of the body of Christ are called to encourage, admonish, and if necessary discipline him according to the process Jesus outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. Each of those means of sanctification are based on the presupposition that in most cases the Holy Spirit is present and operative in the sinner’s life. Otherwise they could not be effective in helping that person to grow in grace and to put away the sin against which we all continue to struggle.
This is important, for we have affirmed that a person can be involved in ongoing and unrepentant sin and still be assumed to be a believer, provided that he is within the context of a local church and is receiving necessary discipline. For, as Swavely has pointed out, unrepentant sin leads to discipline, a process which still assumes the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. Thus we can still assume of such a person that the Holy Spirit is operative in his life.
I think that most believers would agree with me to this point. But, of course, things are not always so simple. In the case we are examining today, Sullivan is not a member of a true church. This places him in the company of many today who consider themselves Christian but reject the local church as being fundamental to the nurture and development of their faith. Furthermore, his profession of faith is made within the context of Roman Catholicism. If he holds steadfastly to the doctrines of Catholicism, as he claims to, he cannot affirm such fundamental doctrines as justification by grace through faith alone, the very heart of the gospel. What are we to do, then, with a profession of faith made by a person who is outside the God-given oversight of a true church?
I would suggest that in a case like this, it would be helpful to consider what would be different if Sullivan were to be a member of a true church. Like everyone else in North America where churches abound, he has had every opportunity to place himself under the authority of a biblical church. And this is exactly what we would expect of a person who has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We would assume that such a person would be naturally drawn towards other believers. Yet Sullivan has decided not to place himself within such a church. He has even suggested that he must “bypass the hierarchy of the [Roman Catholic] church,” which marginalizes him based on his sexual preferences. He has removed himself from authority and accountability. It is clear that, if he were to attend a church that exercised biblical church discipline, Sullivan’s homosexuality would have placed him under the discipline of the church. This would have been done lovingly in an attempt to save him from his own sinful behavior. If he was not convicted of his sin and did not turn in repentance, it would be assumed that he was not saved and the church would bear the sad responsibility of excommunicating him in the hope that this drastic action would cause him to repent.
Now for the issue of Sullivan’s homosexuality. Were he a member of a true church, and even if he were under the process of church discipline, we would be obligated to assume that his faith was genuine, despite his homosexuality. As it stands, though, he is outside the realm of the church’s authority and thus I feel we have no obligation to make such an assumption. We do not need to understand his sin to be despite the Holy Spirit being operative in his life. It is just as likely that his unrepentant sin is evidence that the Spirit is not operative.
As I understand it, then, because of Sullivan’s unrepentant behavior, and because he has deliberately avoided placing himself within a true church, the proper context for all believers, I feel that we have no obligation to assume that he is a true believer. Of course this does not necessarily mean that he is unsaved. By God’s grace he may be. Neither you nor I can know for certain. But neither do we bear the obligation of assuming that he is a brother in Christ.