Issues Facing Missions Today 30: A City on a Hill; But Jack Fell Down and Broke His Crown
Three news items regarding the Church and its mission this month stood out as examples of churches giving up their position of being a city on a hill for the nations. Each is a Jack or Jill tumbling down the hill, leaving behind the water of life above in order to have fellowship with the world below, giving up its witness. The path taken by three churches caving to cultural pressures does not seem to be a lonely one, however. I will simply report the stories to the extent that I know about them and then juxtapose an alternative, Biblical vision for the witness of God’s people to the world.
The first story comes out of San Francisco, a city that shares some of the notoriety that was once the dishonor of ancient Corinth. As we might imagine John would have written to the church (cf. Rev. 2-3), ‘To the angel of the Church of San Francisco, write, “Stand fast in the city of sexual permissiveness. I know that some of you have yielded to her sins. Repent, I say. But to everyone who stands fast and does not falter, I will give permission to eat of the tree of life.’
It is, then, no wonder that we hear a sad story about a church in San Francisco this past week, a church caving in to the culture, choosing to remove the stumbling block of righteousness that it might have fellowship with the world. The Religion News Service announced on 16 March that a ‘Prominent San Francisco evangelical church drops celibacy requirement for LGBT members.’ Fred Harrell, Sr, the senior pastor of City Church (of the Reformed Church in America) stated the church’s new position in a letter: ‘We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining’ (March 13). Apparently, walking in the ways of the Lord is an example of discrimination. Harrell further explained that the church’s new ethic was adopted for communal (not Biblical) reasons. He wrote,
‘Imagine feeling this from your family or religious community. If you stay, you must accept celibacy with no hope that you too might one day enjoy the fullness of intellectual, spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical companionship. If you pursue a lifelong partnership, you are rejected. This is simply not working and people are being hurt. We must listen and respond.’
The article points out that City Church has followed the logic of two other ‘Evangelical’ churches in removing the requirement of celibacy for homosexual members—Grace Pointe Church in Nashville, Tennessee and East Lake Community Church in Seattle, Washington. One might also mention the same decision at World Vision last year, although the organization reversed its decision a short time later. The Religion News Service article closes with a quote from Laura Turner, City Church’s communication’s coordinator: ‘Telling LGBT people they have to change before they can become Christians is leading to depression, suicide and addiction and we won’t do that anymore.’ We have here two alleged reasons for these decisions: exclusion undermines community, and calling sinners sinful can lead to suicide.
Whatever one wishes to say about these arguments (and they do beg for a response!), what is missing in the discussion, at least as it is here presented, is any reference to Scripture. Therein lies the great mistake in designating these churches ‘Evangelical’ at all. Of course, a leopard might imagine itself a lion, but it is still a leopard. An essential part of any definition of ‘Evangelical’ is that theology and ethics are Biblical first and foremost. Careful scrutiny of the Scriptures, and then setting them aside for more compelling concerns about community and psychology does not qualify as Evangelical—that is, in fact, an exit from the Evangelical movement. Not a few bizarre, even heretical teachings can be found in the Evangelical movement (e.g., the Prosperity ‘Gospel’), but what binds the lot together is that all believe that they are following Scripture. There are disagreements among Evangelicals over doctrine and, to a much lesser degree, over ethics, but all make their arguments from the Scriptures. There have been attempts by all sorts to explain away the Biblical passages addressing homosexuality, but the arguments flare up for a minute and burn out just as quickly, only to be replaced by other vain attempts to mute the Scriptures and the convictions of the Church for over two thousand years. Undoubtedly, some Evangelicals will be confused by all this—even convinced by it for a time—but they will have to reckon soon enough with mistaken exegesis if the Bible is truly their authority. With City Church, however, we have a setting aside of Biblical authority in order to cater to the pressures from a post-Christian culture.
A second story in the news this past week also had to do with homosexuality. A majority of presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church, USA—a denomination of just under 2 million in the United States—voted to excise words from the Book of Common Order that had previously defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. The Book of Common Order will now permit homosexual ‘marriage’ with the following, open-ended wording:
Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.
In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.
This is different from the City Church story because the denomination has been on the decline for decades as Evangelicals and others leave. Finally enough people upholding Biblical truth have departed the denomination that those remaining can change theology and ethics from the historic teachings of the Church. Like City Church, there is no mention of Scripture. Whereas City Church is trying to attract people from the culture by setting aside Biblical standards, the PCUSA is already the culture. It is a chameleon of culture, a kind of religious expression of the liberal American culture. In doing this, the PCUSA is, of course, not alone. Nor is America alone among Western countries with this cultural pressure. The PCUSA now officially joins the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (‘Evangelical’ being a word for Lutherans, not having anything to do with what everybody else means by the word!), and the Episcopal Church—all declining denominations that have adopted the culture’s values and jettisoned Biblical authority. They are proud owners of the ruins of what once was a city shining on a hill.
A third story this month came on 6th March, when the vicar of St. John’s, Waterloo in Southwark had the grand idea to hold a joint service with Muslims. According to the story reported by Madeleine Davies for Church Times, the vicar, Canon Giles Goddard, concluded the service with an attempt to identify the God of Christians with Allah. He said, ‘Allah, God, is always with us and always around us, and is within us…. So let us celebrate our shared traditions by giving thanks to the God that we love, Allah, Amen.' The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, quickly investigated and corrected the breach of polity, and Canon Goddard was led to apologize for allowing Muslim prayers in a consecrated church. One wonders if anyone thought the theology might be in error as well.
Each of these headline stories this month represents the increasing pressure of culture on the Church in the West to conform to its values. Yet the Biblical vision for God’s people is not conformity to but witness to the world. Isaiah, the 8th century prophet of Israel, spoke oracles against the sinful nations and against sinful Israel for her conformity to the sinful nations. His vision for what God expected of his people was of a city on a hill to which the nations streamed to learn the ways of God. He says,
Isaiah 2:2-3 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
Ethics is mission. If we dilute God’s righteous requirements to attract those who will have nothing of them, we may have community—even large churches—but we will not only have turned off the lights on the hill and silenced God’s revelation of himself through us to the world. We will also have tumbled down the hill to become one with the world.
Let Evangelicals—all orthodox Christians—rather say with Isaiah, ‘Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!’ (Isaiah 2.5). Only then, as Jesus says, will we, his disciples, be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and a city on a hill that cannot be hid (Mt. 5.13-14).
 See article by this title by Kimberly Winston. Accessed online (20 March, 2015): http://www.religionnews.com/2015/03/16/san-francisco-evangelicals-drop-celibacy-requirement-lgbt-members/.
 See Melody Smith, ‘Presbyterian Church (USA) approves marriage amendment,’ March 17, 2015. Accessed online (20 March, 2015): https://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/3/17/presbyterian-church-us-approves-marriage-amendment/.
 Madeleine Davies, ‘Canon Goddard apologises for Muslim prayers in his church,’ in Church Times, 18 March 2015. Accessed online (20 March, 2015): http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/20-march/news/uk/canon-goddard-apologises-for-muslim-prayers-in-his-church.