Rob Renfroe, a minister at The Woodlands United Methodist Church near Houston, Texas, writes a very interesting article in the current issue of Good News magazine, published by the Good News Movement, a group of evangelical United Methodists. In “An Appeal to Leadership — Listen and Lead,” Renfroe argues that the sexuality issues currently dividing his church point to far deeper differences.
He explains, “we do not believe that homosexuality is the issue that is dividing the church. That would be like saying that the primary issue facing a patient with a staff [sic.] infection is his fever. I wish homosexuality was the issue that divided the church. It would be enough. But it’s not. The divide runs much deeper than our differences regarding sexual practice and it centers on four key issues.”
This is a keen insight. The issues related to sexuality point to more fundamental issues of biblical authority, the nature and character of God, and the meaning of the Gospel. Renfroe helpfully spells out the four key issues as he sees them.
First, “The nature of moral truth. Is moral truth determined by the unchanging character of God? Or is it determined by the ever-changing experiences of human beings?”
This is absolutely essential. If moral truth (as contrasted with our fallible moral judgments) is determined by our own changing experiences, then moral truth really does not exist. It is nothing more than mere social construction. In truth, righteousness is determined by God’s unchanging character — as is sin.
Second, “The authority of the Scriptures. Do the Scriptures speak truth to all peoples in all cultures at all times? Or were they wrong when they were written, culturally determined in their declarations, and hopelessly out of date for persons enlightened by the truth contained in the last sociological surveys?”
Again, absolutely crucial. If the Bible is not a truly transcultural revelation from God, we have no authority for speaking to anyone outside of our own culture. Furthermore, we cannot apply the moral wisdom of an ancient people in an ancient age to our contemporary context. This leaves the church in a disastrous predicament, and silences the Bible.
Third, “The revelatory work of the Holy Spirit. Is the revelatory work always in accordance with the Scriptures? Or can the Spirit amend and even contradict the Scriptures?”
Renfroe’s expansion of this point is crucial to his argument:
Even the most conservative Christians believe that it is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to illumine the Scriptures, reveal more of its meaning, and show us how to apply the eternal Word of God to the issues of our contemporary time and culture. But liberals, at least the more radical ones, go much further than that. They believe that the living Christ not only offers new insights into the Scriptures, but that he also corrects, amends, and even contradicts it. As one retired elder in our annual conference said to me, “The church created the Scriptures so we can recreate them.”
We now see some, even some claiming to be evangelicals, who claim that the Holy Spirit has led them to believe and to act in direct opposition to the Bible. This is an insult to the Bible and to the Holy Spirit. The assumption of individual autonomy, wedded to a radical concept of the Holy Spirit as a spiritual revolutionary, leads some to attempt to remake Christianity in their own image — and then to claim that the Holy Spirit led them there.
Fourth, “The uniqueness of Christ. Do we confess him as the only-begotten Son of God, the unique Savior of the word, and the supreme Lord of the universe? Or can he be particularized to our experiences, relativized for a Western culture, and trivialized into just one of many ways to God?”
As Archbishop Peter Jensen claims [see below], if we will not defend the plain teachings of the Bible on sexuality, we will not defend the Bible’s clear witness to the uniqueness of Christ. Rob Renfroe makes essentially the same point here. If the Bible’s teachings on sexuality are culturally relative, then so is its message about salvation — and its witness to Christ. At this point, we then have no authority for knowing who Jesus Christ really is or why the question really matters.
Clarifying the issues is a first step toward answering the crucial questions. Rob Renfroe has done a commendable job of clarifying the issues that face not only his denomination, but all Christians today. All four of these points come down to biblical authority. There is just no way around it.