Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Grace, Progress, & the #UMC (@DrewBMcIntyre)

Do evangelicals have a double standard when it comes to sexual ethics? That’s the claim made by Drew McIntyre in a post on authority in the sexuality debate. Drew mentioned me in a Tweet about the post. His main point is that conservatives and evangelicals are not taken very seriously when they appeal to scripture to oppose same sex practices because they do not take seriously what scripture says about other sexual sins like adultery and divorce. That is, evangelicals look the other way when someone in their church when a man cheats on his wife but get all hot and bothered when two men show up together. This is a double standard, and nobody like a double standard.  Drew and I have discussed this issue before, and I think we stand in basic agreement. A couple of ideas came to mind as I read, though, so I thought I’d share those here. I’m not disagreeing with Drew’s main assessment, but I would want to put a couple of things slightly differently. Here goes. 

Grace never looks the other way

In the course of his argument, Drew suggests that evangelicals have long stalled over one question in particular. He writes: 

“The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?”

I would urge caution in putting the question in a way that suggests evangelicals have extended grace to adulterers and divorcees by compromising on and ignoring something that scripture clearly forbids. In the Bible, adultery is always condemned, and divorce is condemned in most circumstances. (Even in cases where scripture allows for divorce, it is never seen as good, right, or God honoring.) Ignoring sin is never a grace-filled way of dealing with that sin. When one of my children sins against another one, it is grace to lovingly discipline and teach them to confess their sin and seek reconciliation with the one they have wronged. It’s not fun and often tries my own patience, but this sort of instruction is a means of grace to help my kids grow in Christ likeness. To ignore their sin and give them the impression that their errant behavior is acceptable would be sin against them on my part, as would losing my temper and dealing harshly with their sin. Either path would only lead them further into the destructiveness of sinful habit. Ignoring sin is never grace. If the cross teaches us anything, it should be that the triune God never ignores sin. He would take the weight of the penalty on himself rather than ignore our transgression. Grace always deals with sin and never looks the other way. Any attitude among evangelicals that does look the other way on some (but not all) sexual sin is cowardice, not grace.
When going forward means going back

That sets up the next point. If grace means dealing with sin rather than ignoring it, then the answer is not to ignore what scripture says about one action because we’ve already ignored it on other actions. We do not now compromise on same sex practices because we’ve already compromised on adultery. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Few have put the principle more clearly than C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man” (Bk. 1, Ch. 5).

If evangelicals have taken the wrong road by compromising on biblical sexuality when it comes to adultery and divorce, then it is not progress to likewise compromise on same sex practice. The answer is not to continue down the wrong road; it is to go back and take seriously all of scripture and seek to apply it to the Church and ourselves for the sake of the world and for the glory of God. If evangelicals want to answer Drew’s question, it means confessing and repenting of the sin of cowardice and gracelessness. It means being faithful to all of scripture, not just our favorite bits. Sometimes going forward requires turning around.
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9 thoughts on “Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Grace, Progress, & the #UMC (@DrewBMcIntyre)

  1. In my experience it is the liberal clergy who disregard the Christian sexual ethic generally, including ignoring heteros who “shack-up.” That is not to say that traditionalists are hard-liners on the matter, just that liberality is a mindset that carries over into many areas. Some liberal pastors seem to have a covert quid pro quo that goes something like this: I'll give you heteros a pass but you've got to agree with me on the GLBT agenda. Before leaving the UMC we were appointed a liberal female pastor. We knew at least two heterosexual couples in the congregation who lived together, not married. There was a lot of talk from the pulpit about “love and acceptance,” but never was there any mention of Christian sexual standards, and some of us—those who were paying attention—were bothered by it. Not long afterwards the pastor was instrumental in getting a youth minister appointed who was a same-sex marriage supporter. That's when we left. Clearly when a “Christian” church rejects Christianity it's time to go. Your C. S. Lewis quote was so appropriate. “Progressivism” is a misnomer, especially today, since it implies some sort of progress or positive evolution. With regard to sexual ethics what we have today is just the opposite. It is a devolution (“devil”ution).


  2. Matt, we get it. You think homosexuality is a sin. However, Methodists of good faith disagree on whether “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”. Why keep hammering the same disputed interpretations? You will not change anybody's mind. The issue is how can we get along and “Agree to Disagree”. Please come up with viable solutions, thanks.


  3. I am aware of several situations in my conference where charges of adultery have been filed. However, I do not know of any that went to trial. Usually the offending clergyperson was quietly counseled by the bishop and DS and turned in his (yes all were male) credentials. Sadly, I don't think this is all that unusual. It sometimes makes the press, but without a church trial, it is not as big an embarrassment to the church.

    I am a bit disturbed by your mention of prudence as a determining issue about whether charges should be filed. It is much easier to overlook violations of our covenant than to hold one another accountable, but isn't the integrity of the church and the order of elders is at stake when we overlook such violations?


  4. A lot probably depends on the culture of one's Annual Conference and resident bishop as to whether something like that is prudent. I would not for pastoral reasons (why charge a widow?). Probably more important is the creation of a culture that expects the highest standards of sexual expression from all clergy, rather than just gays and lesbians (who, as best as I can tell, are the only clergy who are held to any kind of standard for sexual behavior). I wonder if anyone has been charged and/or significantly punished in the last 30 or so years for sex outside of wedlock or adultery? That would be interesting to know. I would also add that, though I disagreed with Schaefer's breaking of the covenant, the circumstances that surrounded his charges were questionable (the statute of limitation was nearly up, and the one who brought charges was the disgruntled son of a former musician who did not attend the church).


  5. So Drew and Matt, do you think I should file charges against the elder I know who lived with her fiance for years before they were married? By the way, she was recently widowed. The statue of limitations (6 years) has not expired.


  6. Matt,

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful response. I tagged you because I wanted just this kind of feedback. I suppose my post was getting at moral authority. I suspect that if evangelicals wish to be taken seriously about same-sex marriage, they will need to be seen as approaching their own sexual failures with equal seriousness.

    I'm glad UM evangelicals have you as a voice, Matt. Thanks for the exchange.


  7. I agree with all that you have said. My question to you is, just how is this going to happen within your denomination? What would be required? And do you believe your leadership has the spiritual fortitude to accomplish this?

    Do you honestly, truthfully believe that the UMC as a whole can maintain any credibility once the dust settles that has been kicked up in the all the chaos that is within the denomination over homosexuality? And my final question is, do you really think this is a case of compromising? From a lot of the blogs I've read coming out from the UMC community is a greater love for the UMC then for the truth of Scripture. Everyone seems to want to present and proclaim unity at any cost for the sake of their love for the UMC. Its startling for those of us not affiliated with your particular denomination. It seems a lot has been revealed. And the biggest revelation for me is that the UMC seems to has its eyes turned so inwardly that other than in the most topical manner, it really seems to care very little of what the world is witnessing, and what Christians from differing denominations are witnessing and realizing.


  8. Perhaps one of the defining differences Drew isn't recognizing is that evangelicals don't celebrate adultery or divorce; rather we grieve it and we offer God's grace through Jesus Christ to deal with all of the many ways we frail, messed up human beings miss the mark of God's full intention for our lives. I care deeply for a lot of people engaged in behavior I don't believe is affirmed by God's Word. I don't always do so well myself! Matt, I think you rightly point out we all stand in need of God's forgiveness and grace, but it's no favor to change the standard.


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