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It’s how as well as what

23 December 2022 By John Stackhouse

Putting God’s glory ahead of avoiding lawsuits

The issue of same-sex marriage continues to wedge deeply into North American life. With the passing of a U. S. Senate bill legalizing it, debate will surely heighten across the United States, even as Canadian families, churches and denominations continue to debate the issues.

As we make up our minds about what to say, are we giving equal thought to how we will speak? And how we will listen?

It’s not just same-sex marriage, either. The so-called deconstruction of inherited faith by disillusioned Evangelicals offends many of our fellow churchgoers as sheer abandonment of the gospel, while Critical Race Theory receives frenzied opposition from many people who clearly don’t understand it.

Meanwhile, some churches have been responding to leadership scandals by listening harder to their lawyers than they do to the Scriptures. Witness the recent reinstatement to pastoral ministry of prominent Southern Baptist Johnny Hunt, reliably accused of sexual assault.

Four fellow pastors, assigned to assess the psyche of this man less than a year after he first denied raping a colleague’s wife and then soft-pedalled the incident, have now pronounced him fit for pastoral ministry.

Leaving aside whether they were qualified or capable to make such a judgment, what’s striking is the utter absence of the victims in the statements by these leaders, let alone any apology.

Yes, such mentions might have opened Hunt to a criminal charge and his enablers to a lawsuit – which brings me to my point.

How we defend and commend God’s truth matters as much as our commitment to correct doctrine and sound ethics.

The Apostle Paul was a theologian. Getting the truth right was a key value in his training of Christian churches.

But when Paul tells the Philippians he prays for their "knowledge and full insight" (Philippians 1:9 NRSV), he does so in the context of three other crucial elements.

First, love. "This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more." Love must walk with "knowledge and full insight," but as it does it must be so abundant that it overflows.

Second, the result of all this truth and love is "to help you to deter mine what really matters." And what really matters?

Finally, "So that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God." Our aim in preparing for the Last Judgment is to both avoid all evil and produce rich good – such that others will experience God more fully (God’s glory) and give Him more praise.

"God loveth adverbs," said Puritan Joseph Hall, and how we defend and commend God’s truth matters as much as our commitment to correct doctrine and sound ethics.

Jesus told His disciples repeatedly that they simply had to believe and obey His commandments. But He also said others would recognize them as His disciples by their love.

Disagreements are inevitable in the church of God. The Bible is a complex book, life is often complicated and often there is no theological and ethical choice available to us that will not offend and even hurt people we care about. We have to make hard decisions that will not please everyone.

Paul told churches to separate from notorious sinners, yes. But everyone who remained was a sinner too. Yet Paul gave churches these marching orders: "With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:2–3).

For Christians and Christian organizations, there are worse things than being sued. There are worse things than losing face, money, property or power. We must tell the whole truth and we must tell it out of love.

Is that what’s happening in all these public controversies? Or less publicly in my own circles?

Overflowing love, abounding in knowledge and insight, so focused on proper priorities that sin is avoided, righteousness is achieved and onlookers moved to praise God?

That’s what the Book says. How are we doing?

And how are we doing what we’re doing?

john g stackhouse

John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at Illustration: Mini Wide

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