Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Church of Corinth...in Atlanta

I recently came across a year-old post that compared my congregation, St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta to the Church in Corinth. I'll let you reach the post for yourself at The Church of Corinth Lives... in St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta, but the thrust of Johnny Helm's article was to compare the tolerance of sexual immorality in the Corinthian church (1Cor 5) to St. John's celebration of our gay pastor, Rev. Bradley Schmeling.

At the time, the committee on appeal's had summarily removed Pastor Schmeling from the ELCA roster of ordained minister's while the Churchwide Assembly was moving to exhort bishops not to prosecute pastors such as Schmeling and to commission the committee on human sexuality to draft proposals for changing ELCA to allow gay ministers to live in committed, chaste same-sex unions. In other word, the ELCA seems to be reaching an historic tipping point toward the full inclusion of homosexuals both in the pew and the pulpit.

Like many well-meaning Christians, Mr. Helm's sees this as a dangerous and immoral move within the Church. I do believe he goes too far when he claims that St. John's, indeed the whole ELCA denomination, is now an apostate church because of the way we "treat the Ten Commandments, the Biblical condemnation of particular lifestyles (adultery, sorcery, homosexuality, etc.), and the entire Word of God."

I accept that there are reasonable biblical arguments on both sides of this issue. So I welcome Johnny Helm's candor to voice his comparison of St. John's to the biblical church of Corinth. I want to extend the comparison and see if we can avoid quarrelsome division. Here is my response.


I want to thank you for taking the time to write about my congregation and our pastor. I especially appreciate your effort to think through this biblically. To be sure, we disagree on whether the kind of homosexuality that the Bible speaks against bears any relation to the committed and monogamous relationship that Pastor Brad and Darin actually have.

For example, while scripture condemns certain sexual relations between men and women, it does not follow that God condemns all forms of heterosexuality (1Cor 7:1-2; 8:36). To the contrary, Paul recommends marriage as a hedge against the temptation of sexual immorality. In like manner, the condemnation of certain same-sex relations does not condemn all forms of homosexuality. Chaste same-sex marriage may well be the best hedge against the temptations of same-sex promiscuity. Regardless of orientation, it may be "better to marry than to burn" (1Cor 7:9). You probably don't buy what I'm saying, but let's move on to other ways St. John's is like the Corinthian Church.

Like the church in Corinth, St. John's is a Spirit- and grace-filled church (1Cor 1:4-7). God is present in our worship services, and people are open to the Word and Wisdom of God (1Cor 2:14-16). We are a Bible-believing and Christ-confessing church (1Cor 15:1-4). In fact, our Church Council recently voted that we would become a "Book of Faith" congregation. This is a program within the ELCA to renew engagement and commitment to the Bible.

We are a congregation that that seeks the highest gifts of prophecy and love (1Cor 14:1). As a congregation, our prophetic voice speaks God's grace to those who have felt rejected by the Church and we speak against the misunderstand of though who unintentionally place limits and exclusions on grace, whether that be through racism, sexism or heterosexism. Instead, we shun quarrelsome division (1Cor 1:10-15).

As a congregation we practice hospitality and unconditional love. We are a community centered around the Lord's supper (1Cor 11:17-34). We follow Paul's admonition, "when you come together to eat, wait for one another" (v. 33). We do not serve straights first and gays last. We do not give loaves to the rich and crumbs to the poor. All are welcome. All share in the same food and the same drink.

Are we perfect? No, and the church of Corinth was flawed as well. But we do place ourselves in God's hands that we might be conformed to his will. As good Lutherans, we hold together both Law and Gospel. We trust the Holy Spirit and scripture to lead us into truth and holiness. We know that God treasures us and that we hold God's treasure within our earthen vessels (2Cor 4:7). We are a new creation in Christ, and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2Cor 5:17-19). This is what was great about the church in Corinth, and may it be said of St. John's as well.

The biblical test is to judge the tree by its fruit. As you surely know, the early Jewish Christians had major problems with Gentile Christians who were not getting circumcised as Scripture so clearly commands. What settled the question was not simply a biblical debate, but the Apostles in Jerusalem recognized that the Holy Spirit had been poured out on uncircumcised gentiles (Acts 15:1-29, see also Acts 11:1-18). It was this recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit that gave Paul such courage to speak on behalf of the Gentile churches and not to make salvation by grace dependent on act circumcision and other acts of the flesh. Paul encouraged the Corinthian to remain as uncircumcised as they were when God had called them (1Cor 7:17-20). Indeed this was "the life the Lord had assigned" them. Gay Christians generally believe that their orientation is as God assigned it to them, and God calls them as they are. Bedrock Lutheranism maintains that salvation is only by grace through faith, no preconditions.

At St. John's we sing this little song.
Welcome, my full welcome,
all my children come to me.
I will make a way for you,
I will make you holy.
God alone is holy, and God alone draws us into his holiness. "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything." (1Cor 7:19). In this spirit, we wish to say that being straight is nothing, and not being straight is nothing. And we wish to say it with the fellowship we share.

Again I don't expect that you'll buy everything I say here. But I want you to know that we can both take the Bible seriously and disagree. I hope that someday you'll be able to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in congregations like St. John's. In any case, hold us gently in your prayers.

May God's peace be with you.

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