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Reply to Mark Achtemeier


by Robert Gagnon

Mar. 2, 2005


I thank Mark for his response to my “Reflections on the Achtemeier-Layman Controversy.”  

I am glad that Mark feels that he is under no coercion from me to take my advice. To act merely under coercion would be a lose-lose situation for the church and for Mark. It is certainly his right not to clarify his views, just as it is the right of his friends to express concern. If there is “speculation,” it may be, perhaps, that Mark is helping to fuel it by avoiding a short answer to a straightforward questionwhich, again, is his right to do.   

For myself, I never thought this was about “introducing a class of ethics students to a range of views.” I thought it was a question about whether an important and beloved leader in the renewal movement of the PCUSA, who is currently playing a key role on a Task Force dealing with issues of sexual purity, has shifted to a view and policy about homosexual practice more in keeping with the Covenant Network than with Presbyterians for Renewal. No more, no less.  

I occasionally teach a class on Scripture and homosexuality at Pittsburgh Seminary. When I do, I present the different arguments on various matters and assign the best reading I can find from those with different views than my own. If I were to make comments like “I am unwilling to say that homosexual behavior is . . . a sin” or “I have come to the conclusion that the church needs to support homosexuals who commit themselves to monogamous relationships,” then I would be doing more than introducing students to a range of views. When I make comments about my own views—and I do, of course allowing students the right to express differing views—I know that I am informing the class about which of the range of views I subscribe to.  

Mark worries that if he responds to the two allegations in question he will give “credence to” the principle of public interrogation of classroom presentations, which in turn “would damage the life of both church and seminary.” I disagree that it will necessarily establish such a principle or damage church and seminary. More importantly, I just think that it is a little too late to introduce this concern. Mark has already given a firm response to four of the six allegations, stating: “This is categorically false,” “This claim is false,” “This claim is false,” and “This claim is false.” Furthermore, it is problematic to continue to demand the retraction of an article on the general claim of distortion and fabrication if one contests only a series of lesser allegations.   

Mark points us to two previous public statements, neither of which give any kind of assurance that he did not make the two key statements that he is alleged to have made.  

One is the text of a message to the National Celebration of Confessing Churches made a full three years ago. I comment on it in my “Reflections” as already introducing two problems. First, Mark claims in the address that church discipline over sexual ethics concerns—even discipline that is exercised rarely, reluctantly, as a last resort, and with the aim of swift restoration of the offender—is “unscriptural” when in fact it is patently scriptural (compare the case of the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5 with 2 Cor 2:5-11; 7:8-13; Matt 18:15-20). Second, there is the trivializing “two car” analogy. This raises the question whether Mark is suggesting that we should either (a) stop prohibiting the ordination of those who engage in serial unrepentant sexual relations with persons of the same sex or (b) start prohibiting the ordination of persons who own two cars. And then there is the additional problem that this statement is already three years old and Mark, by his own admission in the other article, is still in the process of transition on the issue of homosexuality. 

The other article, “Remarks to John Knox Presbytery” dated Nov. 16, 2004, presents Mark’s own candid struggles in moving from “demonizing” homosexual persons to a greater appreciation of their humanity and genuine Christian faith. I have had a similar experience. It is good to recognize that persons beset by homoerotic desires are not moral werewolves who howl when the full moon comes out. They are people like you and me. It is amazing that this should ever surprise us because we too struggle with an array of unwanted desires, sexual or otherwise. And yet it does surprise us. 

While Mark’s remarks are moving, what I don’t hear in them is any concern for the risk, so far as eternal realities are concerned, that persons who engage in serial, unrepentant immorality of a severe sort (in Scripture’s terms) put themselves in.  

According to John 8:11 Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “Go and from now on no longer be sinning.” While the saying is well known, it is often not recognized why Jesus said it, which in turn relates to why he rejected the punishment of stoning. The answer becomes apparent when we recognize that the statement in John 5:14 is parallel: “No longer be sinning lest something worse happen to you.” The  “something worse” than being stoned in this life is “resurrection of/to condemnation” rather than “resurrection of/to life” (John 5:29), that is, the loss of the life to come that Jesus so often warned people of during his ministry. The problem with a capital sentence is that it is terminal. In short, dead people don’t repent, whereas Jesus’ efforts to reclaim the lost were aimed at transformation. The message of Christ’s “love for all of us sinners” is at the same time a call not to conform to self-dishonoring impulses of the flesh, “lest something worse happen to you.” We don’t urge people to live holy lives out of hate but out of love and concern for their future destiny.  

There is an unfortunate tendency for many in the church today to think: Unless I think that conduct ‘x’ is not a sin or at least not a sin that puts one’s inheritance in the kingdom at risk, I cannot truly love the perpetrator of conduct ‘x.’ This is an anti-Christian view. Jesus reached out to the biggest economic exploiters (tax collectors) and sexual sinners in his day not because he believed that their sins were inconsequential or even non-sins but rather precisely because he believed such behavior put them at serious eternal risk.  

Why would we ever think that these two things, loving outreach and intensified ethics, do not belong together? If someone is putting his or her life at risk, for example, by skating on thin ice, it is not love to say nothing or, worse, affirm the act (“Have a nice day skating on thin ice!”) and work to dismantle any disincentives (signs, fences) for skating on the thin ice. And if my children disobey me after I warn them not to skate on thin ice, I don’t discipline out of hate but out of love. 

That’s why Augustine formulated the saying, “Love, and do what you want” (Dilige, et quod vis fac; Homilies on First John 7.8), to show that love cannot be watered down to mean permissiveness and tolerance. His illustration for the saying? A father disciplines rigorously his child, while a “boy-stealer” caresses a boy. Which expresses love? The father, of course. So if you act out of love you can do what you want, meaning that you can implement disincentives as regards the commission of sinful behavior. Perhaps it is best to conclude with Augustine’s own words on the subject:  

If any of you perhaps wish to maintain love, brethren, above all things do not imagine it to be an abject and sluggish thing; nor that love is to be preserved by a sort of gentleness, nay not gentleness, but tameness and listlessness. Not so is it preserved. Do not imagine that . . . you then love your son when you do not give him discipline, or that you then love your neighbor when you do not rebuke him. This is not love, but mere feebleness. Let love be fervent to correct, to amend. . . . Love not in the person his error, but the person; for the person God made, the error the person himself made. (7.11; NPNF, slightly modified)


Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon is Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.


© 2005 Robert A. J. Gagnon