When both the Presbyterian Church-USA (mainline) and City Church-San Francisco (evangelical), both religious bodies professing Christianity, formally embraced same-sex “marriage” (SSM), they immediately posed an unprecedented challenge to 21st Christianity. If that qualifying adjective “professing” was jarring, you can be sure it was the intended effect. The question Christians must face at some point — and sooner rather than later, since these two bodies will be and, in fact, are far from the last to authorize SSM — is: Can such bodies legitimately be deemed Christian?
Even to ask the question might spark outrage. After all, both claim to follow Jesus Christ. Both purport to teach the Gospel. Both claim continuity with the Christian tradition. But not all churches that claim Christianity are, in fact, Christian. This is why the moniker heresy was employed in the patristic church: churches claiming to be Christian (e.g., Gnostic, Arian, Docetic) were not. Denotatively, heresy is schism. Connotatively, it is false teaching that engenders that schism. Heretics are people who divide the church by a settled teaching so outrageous that it undermines the Faith. The classification “heresy” would have been superfluous had all outrageously false teachers simply abandoned any pretense at Christianity. It was the false teaching parading as Christianity that was the problem.
Pistis and praxis
But only false teaching? That’s the question of the moment. Ecclesial formalization of SSM forces the faithful to ask if praxis (practice) is no less significant than pistis (belief) — and if deviant forms of the former are no less pernicious than the same from the latter. In short: What happens when a church like City Church-San Francisco is not interested in denying ancient catholic orthodoxy but is interested in codifying a violation of a cornerstone of biblical ethics: marriage between one man and one woman?
The first-blush answer is that homosexuality and SSM, though contra-Christian by any standard, do not rise to the level of the ancient heresies, nor are as weighty as the more recent ubiquitous heresy, theological liberalism. Denying the virgin birth or bodily resurrection or deity of Jesus Christ or the divine inspiration of the Bible, for example, is a theological, or “faith-based,” apostasy. It is not hard to make the case, as J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism did, that theologically liberal churches have abandoned Christianity, not merely distorted it. Conversely, formalizing a break with Christian ethics — and SSM does that, at the very least — does not seem to rise to the level of the theological defection of liberalism or of the patristic heresies so as to set a violating church outside the pale of Christianity.
But such a conclusion based on a pistis-praxis distinction cannot be sustained. For Paul the apostle, homosexuality is an act of primal rebellion against the natural revelation of creation (Rom. 1:18–32) and the special revelation of Scripture (1 Cor. 6:9–10). His dire account of pagan degeneration in Romans 1 depicts homosexuality as in some sense an ultimate sin of an idolatrous, depraved society. His persistent verdict “God gave them up” or “over” leaves no doubt that just this sin not only elicits his judgment but is itself evidence of judgment on an idolatrous, creature-worshipping society (vv. 21–25).
Paul’s argument, as well as other unambiguous biblical pronouncements (Gen. 19; Lev. 20:12), leaves no doubt that to practice and defend an unrepentant homosexuality is to set oneself against the triune God. The issue is not whether homosexuals can be forgiven and converted. Of course they can — and have been and are (1 Cor. 6:9–11). The issue is how to classify religious bodies that formally accept unrepentant homosexuals and SSM as normative Christianity.
How Christian must the church be?
Callous though the answer may seem, orthodox Christians must face up to it: a professing Christian body that formally embraces SSM (and is not merely lax or inconsistent in addressing it) is simply no longer Christian. We say this about religious bodies that deny the deity and bodily resurrection of our Lord, just as our forebears said about religious bodies that claimed the Son of God was a created being (Arianism) or that Jesus merely appeared to suffer and die in a human body (Docetism). To refuse to say this about the PCUSA and City Church-San Francisco is to privilege pistis and devalue praxis.
Make no mistake: the Bible offers copious examples of true churches that were seriously deviant. The churches at Corinth and Thyatira refused to address blatant sexual immorality in their congregation. The church at Colossae had succumbed to a destructive asceticism. The church at Ephesus had forsaken their initial love for Jesus Christ. The church at Sardis was spiritually dying. The churches in Galatia were in danger of losing the Gospel. Yet each was a true church. Churches can engage in very bad beliefs or practices and still be genuinely Christian. God’s longsuffering with his Son’s church is wide and deep.
But deliberately disregarding biblical ethics on a matter as fundamental to God’s created order as marriage, and, most significantly, codifying that disregard as normative Christianity, occupies a different category altogether. Codifying blatant violation of Christian ethics is not somehow less disastrous than codifying blatant violation of ancient catholic orthodoxy. It is to call evil good and good evil (Is. 5:20). It is to be contra-Christian. It is, to put it bluntly, to be anti-Christ. The church of Jesus Christ can be a lot of things. It cannot be anti-Christ.
This means that religious bodies formally accepting homosexuality and SSM are heretical. We orthodox faithful summon them back not merely from their waywardness, but back also to what they have lost: nothing less than the Christian Faith.
Andrew Sandlin is president of the Center for Cultural Leadership. His latest book is The Christian Sexual Worldview: God’s Order in an Age of Sexual Chaos. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.