"I Am of the Middle": The Subgroup of
and Its Accommodation to Sexual
A Response to Mark Achtemeier
by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.
July 12, 2006
At the "Hope of the Church"
conference held July 5-8 at Montreat Conference Center, Prof. Mark
Achtemeier of Dubuque Seminary likened significant attachment to renewal
groups* that affirm Scripture's two-sex requirement for sexual relations
(Presbyterian Coalition, Presbyterians for Renewal, etc.) to the
divisions going on in the church at Corinth: "Each of you says, 'I am of
Paul,' and 'I am of Apollos,' and 'I am of Cephas,' and 'I am of
Christ.' Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were
you baptized into the name of Paul?" (1 Cor 1:12-13). According to
Achtemeier, Paul launched a sustained attack in 1 Cor 1-4 precisely
against such a "church of the subgroups" (see the
reporting of Prof. Achtemeier's remarks at
Prof. Achtemeier also includes organizations such as the Covenant
Network and Witherspoon Society in his critique. Since they advocate a
stance on homosexual practice that Paul strongly rejected in 1
Corinthians and elsewhere, Prof. Achtemeier's remarks concerning them
would be at least partly apropos, though understated.
There are insurmountable
problems with Prof. Achtemeier's attempted analogy between what was
going on in Corinth and what is going on today in the PCUSA.
1. It overlooks the fact that
Paul would never have tolerated serial, unrepentant sexual immorality.
It is not likely that the apostle Paul would have agreed with Prof.
Achtemeier's exegesis and application of his own letter since Paul did
not agree that homosexual practice was a matter of relative indifference
that could be tolerated among members of the church, let alone among its
Indeed, similar to the case of the
incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul would have been the first to
denounce Prof. Achtemeier and the other members of the Task Force for
attempting to make it possible for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to
condone serial and unrepentant sexual immorality in its midst, not
only among its members but even among its leaders. Paul's view of
homosexual practice is clear. He regarded it as a severe instance of
sexual immorality, a serious affront to God's creation of male and
female as embodied sexual other-halves revealed in both Scripture and
nature (Gen 1:27; 2:24; Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim
1:10, among many other texts, indeed, the whole fabric of Scripture's
witness on marriage). Historical and literary context suggest that he
regarded homosexual practice as comparable to, or worse than, consensual
incest between a man and his mother (1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10). And we know
that on such matters Paul did not advocate mutual forbearance,
contrary to what the PUP Task Force and 57% of the General Assembly have
Paul could criticize the subgroups
at Corinth because they crystallized around matters of relative
indifference: dietary and calendar practices ("of Cephas"); esoteric
knowledge of heavenly mysteries, allegorical exegesis of Scripture, and
speaking in tongues ("of Apollos"); possibly even insistence that only
the direct words of Jesus (and not apostolic testimony) be accepted as
authoritative ("of Christ"). To compare such matters to tolerating
sexual immorality in the church's midst is a classic instance of
2. It overlooks the fact
that denominations are already subgroups. Prof. Achtemeier
doesn't seem to realize that the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is already
one of the "subgroups" of the church. It is the same blind spot in his
reasoning that got him into trouble previously for warning in the Task
Preliminary Report that no one leave the PCUSA over the
homosexuality issue because “Christians cannot even entertain the notion
of severing their ties with sisters and brothers in Christ without also
placing themselves in severe jeopardy of being severed from Christ
himself” (p. 4). The more zealous Prof. Achtemeier is for maintaining a
sociological unity in the PCUSA, at the expense of serious issues
involving sexual morality, the more sectarian and exclusivist he appears
to become in relation to the church universal. This leads us to our next
3. It overlooks the primary
responsibility borne by the Task Force and the GA for schism.
Prof. Achtemeier appears not to realize that he and the PUP Task
Force generally, by promoting a position of forbearance on homosexual
practice for officers of the church, have threatened to marginalize the
PCUSA, thereby exacerbating its subgroup status, in relation to (1)
Scripture, (2) the historic Christian witness, (3) worldwide
Christianity, and (4) even the members of the PCUSA, the
overwhelming majority of whom do not want to see the PCUSA condone the
ordination of persons actively engaged in self-affirmed homosexual acts.
The PUP Task Force and 57% of the
normally left-of-center General Assembly were determined not to allow
the presbyteries a vote on the Task Force's proposal, even though the
effect of their "authoritative interpretation" was to amend the
Constitution of the PCUSA. Task Force members repeatedly urged, and a
slight majority of the plenary ultimately concurred, that their
recommendation not be referred to the presbyteries for advice (let alone
consent). They knew that they couldn't have mustered a majority vote for
their "authoritative interpretation" among the presbyteries. This is
working for unity and consensus?
In this they showed that they
knew themselves to be a minority subgroup within the PCUSA that would
have to coerce the majority in order to get their subgroup proposal
implemented. Prof. Achtemeier now has the temerity to refer to those who
organize to uphold Scripture's strong two-sex requirement for sexual
relations as potentially divisive and harmful subgroups, when in fact it
is Prof. Achtemeier and others favorable to the ordination of
homosexually active persons who are constituting themselves as a
divisive and harmful subgroup within the church. In violating the clear
command of Scripture and circumventing the clear words of the
Constitution (specifically are regards
the obviously essential character of the sexuality standard in G-6.0106b),
it is this subgroup that is acting in potentially schismatic ways.
4. It overlooks the dangers
in associating oneself with an alleged "middle" that is willing to
accommodate sexual immorality. In reminding his audience of the
Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, Prof. Achtemeier seemed not to
notice the pervasive influence of sin on those like himself, who falsely
claim to represent the "middle" of the church. While chastising
"subgroups" for arrogance, boasting, putdowns, and conflict, Prof.
Achtemeier appeared to be guilty of doing precisely this in attacking
the renewal movement of the PCUSA and in promoting a divisive proposal
that is patently unconstitutional and threatens to alienate the
denomination from Christ's lordship over our sexual lives.
The disease of "middleitist"
(pronounced middle-EYE-tist) has infected many of the PCUSA's
leaders, an often vain desire to be in a self-perceived sociological
(not Christological) middle of a denominational "elite." This desire
threatens to supplant faithfulness to the radical call of discipleship
that Jesus lovingly demanded of his followers. Middleitis is ever in
danger of lapsing into sin because it can cloak a desire to have
power and be esteemed by the powerful in the pretended garb of unity
while losing sight of the fact that Christ and his will for our lives is
the only valid middle. (What is the "middle" in Paul's dispute with
the Corinthian church over the case of the incestuous man in 1 Cor 5?)
As Paul made clear in 1 Cor
5-7--the center section on sexuality in 1 Corinthians that Prof.
Achtemeier avoids, similar to the
Task Force's flawed "exegesis" of the unity/purity theme in
Ephesians in their Preliminary Report--the cross of Christ calls us
to a life of co-crucifixion with Christ, especially in our sexual lives.
This is why Paul commands the Corinthian believers to stop comparing a
case of sexual immorality to disagreements over food laws and to start
"glorifying God" in their sexual behavior. The Corinthian believers,
Paul declares, must recognize that they do not belong to themselves but
to God who bought them with the precious price of Christ's death
(6:12-20). Instead of requiring members and even officers to "flee
sexual immorality," Prof. Achtemeier wants us to accommodate to sexual
Achtemeier quotes 1 Cor 3:21, "all
things are yours," then adds: "The pressure is off, there's no need to
be afraid." Embrace the diversity of church on sexual matters or, at
least, trust God to sort it out. Don't feel like you have to enforce
standards. Paul himself didn't take Prof. Achtemeier's advice in the
case of incest in 1 Cor 5, a case that Paul likened to adultery,
same-sex intercourse, sex with prostitutes, and fornication (1 Cor 5-7).
In context, "all things are yours" refers to church leaders who are not
accommodating sexual immorality (Paul, Apollos, Cephas) and to the
blessings of the Christian life. Embracing or even just tolerating the
actions of the incestuous man (or the actions of persons engaged in
same-sex intercourse and adultery, 6:9) are not among the "all things"
that belong to the Corinthians. Prof. Achtemeier would have done well
to compare and contrast "all things are yours" in 3:21 with the
Corinthian-like slogan "all things are lawful to me" in 6:12, which Paul
repudiates as regards issues of sexual immorality.
Let it be said, too--in contrast to
Prof. Achtemeier's comment that "there's no need to be afraid"-- that
Paul had a godly fear of what would happen to the church at Corinth and
to the man engaged in unrepentant sexual immorality, should the church
at Corinth take no action (1 Cor 5:5-8). If "there's no need to be
afraid" in accommodating to the immorality of homosexual practice, then
why should the church stint itself by persisting in fear of committed
multiple-partner unions and incest?
According to Achtemeier, "Paul's
confidence as he writes to the Corinthians is that this depressurizing
of the ecclesial environment will actually allow us the grace and
freedom to deal graciously with those others across the aisle whom
Christ also loves."
Did Paul not deal graciously with the incestuous man and, by
implication, with other serial, unrepentant participants in sexual
immorality?). If he did, how then can Prof. Achtemeier et al.
characterize as ungracious the church's historic stance against
ordaining those in self-affirming sexual relations outside the covenant
of marriage between a man and a woman?
The truth is that Prof.
Achtemeier has truncated the gospel definition of grace, which
includes God caring enough about us to turn us from
self-dishonoring, self-degrading sexual behavior that mars the image of
God stamped on our sexual being to God-honoring, life-sustaining
sexual behavior that enhances that image. Here too Prof. Achtemeier
would have done well to compare Rom 1:24-27 with 6:12-23: Whereas
God's wrath is manifested in giving persons over to the mastery of
pre-existing impulses for sexual "uncleanness," of which impulses for
same-sex intercourse are a paradigmatic instance, God's grace is now
manifested in delivering us from the primary lordship of such impulses
so that we no longer put our bodies at the disposal of such
"uncleanness" (Rom 1:24; 6:19).
It is a terrible thing to
manipulate the text of Scripture to advance what is essentially an
anti-Scriptural agenda. There can never be true Christ-centered
unity around the toleration of sexual immorality that would have
appalled, and does appall, Jesus. The church should be about
graciously and humbly recovering the lost, not training them to
be content with their lost condition.
I hope that Prof. Achtemeier will
not attribute this essay to "demonizing" him (as he has often referred
to the actions of those who disagree with his stance). I am merely
calling him to account for exegesis and application of Paul's remarks in
1 Corinthians that make the text of Scripture say the near-opposite of
what it actually says in context; and, too, for promoting a schismatic
stance in the church while chastising others for the schism that his
actions, and the actions of others, have provoked. He is a Christian
Prof. Achtemeier asks: Was the
Presbyterian Coalition crucified for you? I ask Prof. Achtemeier: Was
the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. crucified for you?
Robert A. J. Gagnon is associate professor of New Testament at
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.