Christianity in Chattanooga made a public exercise of church discipline this week, drawing so much interest that the expulsion of a pro-homosexual family from a church made Page 1 in the local newspaper.
The controversy in the Southern Tennessee city has provoked considerable interest in far quarters, where homosexual activists decry any public declaration that their lifestyle is either deviant or sinful. The controversy centers around family members of a lesbian police detective in Collegedale, Tenn., just north of Chattanooga, whose purported wife was voted spousal benefits. (The two were granted a marriage license by Maryland, whose papers are denied any validity in Tennessee law, which holds any homosexual marital contract void and unenforceable.) Officer Kat Cooper’s family members came into conflict with their church government, which Aug. 18 in a closed meeting demanded the family publicly repent of support for homosexuality. No further negotiations were sought, and the meeting ended in expulsion.
Recognizing church’s lawful scope of government
Much of the criticism of Rev. Ken Willis the minister and his government body at Ridgedale Church of Christ comes from area people who reject the idea that Christianity and its primary emissary to mankind — the church — have a police power.
Columnist David Cook defends “gay Americans *** whose hearts and faith have been crushed by Christian homophobia.” In a column addressed to Mr. Willis’ church, he says, “ *** we have to walk away from the false idol of strict literalism, and instead trust-fall into a God that doesn’t know how to do anything but love. You want a good example of what that looks like? Go find the Coopers, the ones you just kicked out of the church.”
Skeptics, agnostics and liberal Christianity don’t object to the idea of police power per se. Often they are enthused by the exertion of police power in the welfare state against a broad range of peaceful human activities. But regulation of people’s affairs in the church is a no-no. The exercise of church discipline is intolerant, unloving and hostile. It is unchristian for the Rev. Willis and his board to make any demands about public morals.
Let’s ask a simple question. Why did Christ create the church? To expand God’s kingdom by bringing all peoples and nations, soul by soul, to bow the knee to the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ. This mission is widely known and constantly discussed among Christians. The church is a divinely chartered corporation bearing the gospel message, one that has two parts: God’s grace, and God’s wrath.
The ministry of the state is to bear the sword justly. As the state’s sword is steel, the church’s is spiritual. By steel, the state keeps the peace in the streets. By the sharp edge of God’s word, the church establishes peace by grace, mercy, charity, love and demands for repentance among sinners. The church defies sin and death; it brings light and liberty into the world — freedom from enslavement to sin and enslavement to man.
The church’s authority to exercise a disciplining rod is from the founder. His conversation with Peter gives insight into this authority. Jesus says in which He says His church will be founded on Peter’s declaration, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Christ goes on the say the church has the keys to the kingdom of heaven, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Excommunication is the spiritual equivalent to capital punishment. Death under it is spiritual, not temporal. If I commit a public sin, say homosexuality, am confronted by the elders of my church and refuse to admit the sin or repent of it in public, I am subject to removal from the communion table. I am excommunicated. If I do not repent, the rod of discipline becomes a sword in the afterlife. To a secularist looking into the mysteries of religion, this act may seem like mere churchianity, an irrelevance. But Christ says God will honor a lawfully enacted excommunication, and as I am bound to perdition by the church, God will bind and ratify my lost state. Heaven is denied me, I am not forgiven. I turned away from grace on earth; it is turned away from me in that future state.
The power of excommunication is subject to abuse. Think of rival popes hurling bulls back and forth or throwing from the church reformer Martin Luther. But misuse does not deny the power exists.
Briefly, questions about particulars in Chattanooga. Was the family of the lesbian detective excommunicated, or was the dismissal something less? How ample were the steps taken to expel the sin and the contumacious sinner? Were the accused afforded a real hearing? Could not the Coopers have delineated their love for their relation and hatred for her sin of homosexuality? Did they? The meeting — a trial, really — was hastily called, giving the accused no time for preparation. Possibly, if individualistic Americans, members of the family became huffy in the confrontation and stormed out.
These questions don’t shake too violently the overall story line. A church acts upon those under its authority, and unthinking people deny the house of God any such authority.
Overlooked by critics: Old Testament laws fulfilled, vacated
A second line of attack is by agnostics who conflate Old Testament laws with New Testament duty. Pam Sohn, editorialist at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, calls the expulsion “the pinnacle of hypocrisy.” She tries to shock her readers by putting a cop in her headline. “The land of the faith police” decries people’s judging one another, as the saying goes. She attacks Christianity through what St. Paul calls the “schoolmaster” provisions of Mosaic law, given by God to His old covenant people. Mrs. Sohn’s primary proof that Christianity is idiotic and harsh is a TV show.
In the “West Wing” show, the federal president, Josiah Bartlett, confronts a TV Bible show host. “I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?”
This line of attack comes from script writers and newspaper pundits who do not know the basic outlines of the world’s most far-reaching system of faith and culture. Mrs. Sohn, as do many Times Free Press Facebook commentators, stumbles across the gully separating old and new covenants. God in the Old Testament disregarded every race but one. He showed favor exclusively to Israel, rising from the seed of Abraham. God made exhaustive and detailed claims upon the 12 tribes and the kingdom of Israel for didactic purposes, to make clear His sovereignty over them and their dependence upon Him. From washings, worship and food laws, He demanded total love, total obedience. With Christ, the midpoint of human history, God broadens the work of the Holy Spirit, and now has in view salvation of the entire world. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son,” John 3:16 reminds us.
Since the coming of Christ, the rituals, having been fulfilled in what they symbolized through the death of Christ and His resurrection, we are set free from the burden of those rituals. The ceremonial laws are expired. Mrs. Sohn, please make note. The same goes for the judicial laws of that Israelite body politick except for “the general equity thereof” (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19, “Of the law of God”).
This second attack through the old testament unfairly treats the laws of Israel in historical terms. The slavery/service and dowry laws in Israel have a godly rationale. The context of the passage cited above is the purchase of a female Hebrew, a fellow believer, occasioned by that person’s economic distress. Families could not sell daughters into prostitution. Only in one sense could a daughter be sold to pay debt, that into a quasi-premarital relationship with the acquiring family. The passage declares the law protecting the woman’s rights in terms of the dowry. Dowries are not entirely alien today. We have a system security for wives, too, but child-support payments imposed by a court come after a family breakup. In old Israel, the security had to come before marriage in form of a dowry, paid to the woman’s father and kept in trust for her. Moderns think a dowry is “buying a wife;” that’s just silly.
According to basic teachings in the Bible, God makes claims of every soul in terms of His law. If one loves God, one loves Him according to the template of His commandments. “If you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus says. “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me. And he who loves Me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself in him” (John 14:15, 21).
The outward administration has changed (from temple to church), but the character of the same unchanging God shines through both covenants, the scriptures teach, though more brightly in the new covenant.
Sources: David Cook, “The church that stole Jesus,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, Aug. 21, 2013
Kevin Hardy, “Church ousts gay cop’s family,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, Aug. 21, 2013
“The land of faith police[;] On mercy, love and homosexuality,” unsigned editorial [Pam Sohn], Chattanooga Times Free Press, Aug. 23, 2013
Rousas John Rushdoony, “The fifth commandment,” Institutes of Biblical Law (The Craig Press: 1984, 1973), pp 174-176. A discussion of the continuities and discontinuities of God’s law across the two testaments is in David Bahnsen’s By This Standard[;] the Authority of God’s Law Today (Institute for Christian Economics, 1985).
I very much appreciate your faithful efforts to shine the truth on this matter in the public arena of the media. It is very sad that the ham-fisted mishandling of Scripture is such a ready foil in the media. Of course, the vapid feel-good pseudo-christianity that passes for the real thing these days is partly to blame. Broad evangelicalism has marketed hatred of doctrine and love of self as the foundation for living the Christian life. Into the resulting narcissistic vacuum it is easy to pour a great deal of false doctrine and moral relativism. I appreciate the clarity you bring to distinguishing the unchanging moral precept from the regulatory application God made within the unique context of the theocratic kingdom of Old Testament Israel.
I’m not sure the metaphor of policing and sword are as helpful as you might hope, but I appreciate the point you are making. The church is required by her Divine Master to exercise a real spiritual authority. The metaphors used by Scripture for this spiritual authority tend away from the physical coercion connoted by sword and police. Shepherding, farming, parenting, and the like are common Bible metaphors for the kind of authority exercised within the church. Thus Paul speaks to the Corinthians of bringing a rod, and of putting out the immoral person. The exercise of this authority is symbolised through the metaphor of opening and closing with keys by the ministry of the Gospel. Yes, Christ’s authority includes the symbolism of a sword, as well, and you are making an important point here. However, the mediate exercise of Christ’s authority in the church through His under-shepherds is not usually referenced in this way.
But again, I very much appreciate the point you are making with regard to the seriousness, the force, the reality, the necessity, and the ultimate weight of the exercise of church discipline. I appreciate that you are highlighting a troubling disconnect between the common acceptance of a real authority where God has appointed it in the civil realm, and the common rejection of God’s appointment of a real authority for our spiritual good in the ecclesiastical realm.
I also greatly appreciate the clear point you make that the God of Love cried up by all these critics of church discipline and rejectors of moral absolutes, this God of Love calls His people to love Him, and to live that love for Him by walking according to His commands. According to 1 John 5.3, any claim to love God while rejecting His commands is a false claim.
Vaughn, thank you for these comments. I am making some changes from my original text.