A Response to the Statement from City Church San Francisco on Its Ministry to the LGBT People

The letter makes it sound like there's this growing evangelical debate, represented by different perspectives in discussion. There isn't.

That’s not to say you won’t find folks who will argue and talk about this issue all day long, or that many won’t go down this road. But the real guts of the debate, with evangelicals academically wrestling with Scripture, hermeneutics, and theology isn’t happening. This isn’t a “dividing” issue where different opinions line up on the gridiron of faith. There are many of those, and you can trace their debates back thousands of years. The stadiums change, but the many perspectives on worship, predestination, and church polity are making the same defensive and offensive plays they did in AD 325 and 1536. This simply isn’t one of them. This is a “defining” issue. It defines if you are a Christian church. It doesn’t divide Baptists from Presbyterians the way an ounce of water does.

 

[Editor’s note: The Elder Board of City Church in San Francisco, formerly in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and now in the Reformed Church in America (RCA), released a statement on changes of how it will minister to those who are considered a part of the LGBT community. This is a response to this statement; the full statement follows the response.]

Dear friend,

I’m so sorry.

Thanks for forwarding this letter from City Church this morning. You’ve been a good friend and I want to speak to you plainly.

This stuff breaks my heart. The letter makes it sound like there’s this growing evangelical debate, represented by different perspectives in discussion.

There isn’t.

Rob Bell and Matthew Vines have tried to frame this as a question which evangelicals are wrestling through and sometimes changing position on. They insist such a dialogue is happening. It isn’t. No one is really arguing over it. There is no argument that has any exegetical and academic credibility.

That’s not to say you won’t find folks who will argue and talk about this issue all day long, or that many won’t go down this road. But the real guts of the debate, with evangelicals academically wrestling with Scripture, hermeneutics, and theology isn’t happening. This isn’t a “dividing” issue where different opinions line up on the gridiron of faith. There are many of those, and you can trace their debates back thousands of years. The stadiums change, but the many perspectives on worship, predestination, and church polity are making the same defensive and offensive plays they did in AD 325 and 1536. This simply isn’t one of them. This is a “defining” issue. It defines if you are a Christian church. It doesn’t divide Baptists from Presbyterians the way an ounce of water does.

What’s more, presenting this as a pastoral issue in this letter is both prejudicial and inaccurate. Prejudicial because framing the question around pastoral care makes you appear uncaring if you disagree. You’re setup to fail in that conversation. Inaccurate because it simply isn’t a pastoral issue; it’s a biblical, moral, and theological one. Confusing your categories in this discussion isn’t helpful. It feels like a bait and switch.

It’s a bit like this: imagine your company is cooking the books and you discover it’s happening. You report it to your boss and he shakes his head, pats you on the shoulder and says with a smile, “Oh don’t you worry about that. It’s really just a matter of business etiquette. Let’s talk about how we can work on being more polite. You aren’t against politeness, are you?”

I don’t see this letter seeking a dialogue either. Human flourishing and personal suffering are not hermeneutical principles. Personal happiness is not a guide to biblical interpretation. The problem with trying to build a biblical, historical, and theological argument is how formidable a task it is. And it’s even more formidable with this issue because it won’t work. The error this letter advances is so profound and universal it amounts to a complete abandonment of all Scripture, 4,000 years of the Judeo-Christian heritage, and 2,000 years of church history – in which, and this is vital – there is not a single voice of dissent over this issue and practice. It is, quite literally, so completely outside the mind, worldview, and spirit of our history, creeds, and bible that it’s a bit astounding.

This letter’s position reminds me of a strange phrase from Jeremiah. Several times God tells the Israelites they’re doing “something that I did not command or mention, it never entered My mind.” That’s an odd thing for an omniscient God to say, but that’s exactly what’s supposed to startle you. What they were doing was so far out there, so removed from who God is and contrary to what He’s said, that it doesn’t compute.

And what happened to “Blessed are those who mourn?” Man of Sorrows was His name, wasn’t it? It wasn’t Man of Flourishing. A hermeneutics of happiness has to perform a lot of mind twisting gymnastics to get around that. I guess it’s popular. Most modern prosperity preachers seem to be amazing gymnasts already.

The most startling thing about Romans 1 is not what it says about sex. It’s how it describes folks who won’t listen to God. In nature God has made it plain who He is. From clouds to sequoias to kids, it’s all obvious. Man’s denial is incoherent. Romans describes intellectual ostriches burying their knowledge of God unreasonably in the ground. Think of it this way. It’s as if they refused to believe in the air. “There is no air,” they say. “We don’t breathe!” You might say that’s just silly and kind of nuts. That’s the point. The inevitable fallout of that nuttiness is moral insanity and rational darkness.

It’s also untenable to say that God has not made His will plain in the Word. Look at the extreme candor and clarity of the scripture about intimacy. The bible is very blunt and clear about sex. Going on to ignore all of that is kind of like saying “Not only am I not liking this air stuff, I’ve had it with gravity too.” The irrational position of this letter is another part of the growing fallout.

Someone might respond and say I’m wrong to lump City Church into Romans 1, that it’s obvious your church still believes in God. Of course they do, and there are many earnest and sincere believers in your community. That’s abundantly clear. That isn’t what I’m claiming. What I’m saying is this – in this particular letter it simply isn’t the God of our ancient writings, our ancient witnesses, and our ancient creeds anymore. This isn’t the God of Romans. And my fear is now this. Where there is a new god, there must always be a new gospel.

I think Keller put it well: a god you create, where you pick and choose what you think is “flourishing,” is just a Stepford god. Like the robot women in the old sci fi B-movie The Stepford Wives, where husbands are quietly getting rid of their wives and replacing them with obedient, pretty, and servile android spouses. It’s just a god who does what pleases you, can never offend you, and in the end can never save you.

There is much more to say and too little time to say it. I’ve probably said too much. Perhaps I’ve overstated my case, but I don’t think so. My advice is simple and comes from 2 Corinthians 6, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.” I’m afraid it’s time to leave. This has happened many different times in our history and division never goes very well for anybody involved. It’s still the right thing to do.

As it’s written, “There must be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you” ( Corinthians 11:19.).

The worst part is how bad this goes for the name of our precious Savior.

And that’s why I’m so sad.

Christopher Robins

Christopher Robins is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is planting Glory San Francisco.

________________________

A Letter from the City Church Elder Board – March 13, 2015

Dear Friends,

I want to speak with you on behalf of the Elder Board of our church about a pastoral conversation we have been having over the past 9 months. In May of 2014 the Board asked me for a book that was clearly grounded in Scripture that we might study on pastoring our brothers and sisters in Christ who are part of the LGBT community. We read Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation. The book is rare in that it shows great empathy and maturity to model unity and patience with those who are in different places on this conversation, all the while dealing honestly with Scripture. Since our church already lives in the reality of a multiplicity of viewpoints held with humility, this book seemed to us a good choice. I want you to hear where we have arrived as a Board and invite you into a conversation and healthy discussion about how we arrived there.

Why are we talking about this now?

1. God is bringing LGBT Christians through the doors of City Church.
As you read this perhaps you, your friend, or family member are one of them. They desire to follow Jesus, and are eager to live faithfully to the gospel and desire spiritual growth. Some have been living celibate lives and want to know if we can talk out loud about this. Others report they have become Christians at City Church. Some report that while they were raised in the church, they left it, but have returned and experienced great renewal. And many hope for a life long partnership one day that will fulfill their basic human need of belonging, companionship, and intimacy. Others are already married or partnered and know this is a safe place for them to grow in their relationship.

2. Our pastoral practice of demanding life-long “celibacy”, by which we meant that for the rest of your life you would not engage your sexual orientation in any way, was causing obvious harm and has not led to human flourishing.
(It’s unfortunate that we used the word “celibacy” to describe a demand placed on others, as in Scripture it is, according to both Jesus and Paul, a special gift or calling by God, not an option for everyone). In fact, over the years, the stories of harm caused by this pastoral practice began to accumulate. Our pastoral conversations and social science research indicate skyrocketing rates of depression, suicide, and addiction among those who identify as LGBT. The generally unintended consequence has been to leave many people feeling deeply damaged, distorted, unlovable, unacceptable, and perverted. 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.

3. We feel a growing sense that this counsel is not necessarily the way of the gospel.
While members of the LGBT community have always been welcome at City Church, we prevented people from joining our church if they were unwilling or unable to practice lifelong celibacy. As a Board we have been asking the central question “What does the gospel require?” At the heart of the gospel are these questions: “Who belongs to Christ’s body? And how do they belong?” We believe the thrust and focus of the gospel is the breaking down of former boundaries of exclusion and the expanding of the welcome of Jesus to all.

How did we seek to answer our questions?

1. As a church within the Reformed Tradition we go directly to Scripture to find counsel and to reengage the verses that talk about same sex activity. 
For so long this has been a “case closed” kind of issue for evangelicals. But in recent years, multiple respected evangelical scholars and theologians have begun to wrestle with this and a healthy debate is underway. Asking questions about what the Scriptures say on this issue must always be coupled with asking why the Scriptures say what they do and what kind of same-sex activity is being addressed. Scholars and leaders who have previously been united in their interpretations are coming to different conclusions. This does not mean that your view must change, but it does counsel humility with how we each hold our views. Given the status and variety of these opinions, what has become clear to us is that there is no longer clear consensus on this issue within the evangelical community.

2. We engaged Ken Wilson’s book to see how this might be understood in a church with a wide range of viewpoints.
Like the rest of our church, our Elders and Pastors bring a variety of perspectives to this, but we are unified in our desire to stay together in community and mission. Our Board and Pastoral Staff have agreed that our practice will err on the side of grace and inclusion. Our challenge is to hold our views with humility and do as Paul says in Romans 14 when speaking to Christians who could not come to consensus in their interpretation of the 1st and 4th commandments. This was no small disagreement as it concerned Mosaic legislation. In the face of this major disagreement, Paul exhorted them to stay united saying, “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another” and “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

3. In all of this, we are looking to Scripture to understand how Jesus would counsel us to care for the LGBT members of our community.
If Jesus were the pastor of City Church, what would he say to the people who are asking if they can belong?  As we consider the life of Christ, his example of love, his call to embrace the outsider and cast down, and his patience with those earnestly seeking him, what is a Christ-like response?

Summary: What has actually changed here?

On one hand, nothing. This aligns with our existing core vision: the doors of this church are as wide as the arms of the Savior it proclaims. We remain passionate about having as many people hear the gospel as possible. City Church will continue to receive into membership all those with a credible profession of faith and expect the same commitments represented in their membership vows.

On the other hand, we want to be clear what this now means. We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining. For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage. Please pray for our Board as we continue to discuss pastoral practices with our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for our denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as it does the same.

One sad piece of news: two of our Elders, Tyler Dann and Bruce Gregory, resigned from the board. We received these resignations with sadness and understanding. These are fine members of our church who love Jesus deeply.

Going Forward

The Board would like to invite you into this discussion in safe settings where all can voice disagreement, concern, push back, agreement, and discovery. We recommend the book we’ve read entitled A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson. The book is not a “take sides” approach but a more honest pastoral-level acknowledgement of what many churches, including ours, are like: diversity of opinion, respect for one another, living in unity.

I want to be clear. I’m not asking you to change your mind. I am asking you to be willing to engage in dialogue about fulfilling one of our core commitments: to be a church not just for ourselves but also for all those who God brings through our doors. I realize that this kind of dialogue is hard, even painful. A disagreement among friends causes tension. Our pastoral staff and elder board hope to be models of this engagement and supportive of your participation in it. Our shared value of looking to the Scriptures for every aspect of faith and life will be our guide.

We welcome you to invite pastors to your CGs, Bible studies, and other organic gatherings to talk and discuss further. We will soon announce a series of exploratory meetings for those who are looking for more in-depth engagement with Scripture. And we will be hosting authors and theologians to hear their stories and consider their scholarship.

We want to talk about this difficult subject in healthy, responsible, biblical, and even personal ways. As a church that is 18 years old, with a diversity of opinion on everything, I believe we can do this. We can hold our views with humility and respect the views of others. Let’s give the watching world something they never see…grace, understanding, listening, loving, and yes disagreeing, driven and undergirded by the gospel of grace. I call us all to this higher road, and am confident we can do it!

I will be at the Sutter campus after the 2nd service and Matt Nault at the Mission campus to make further remarks about this letter. Please use this link to respond with questions to help us provide helpful resources and frame future gatherings.

On behalf of the Board, and for the gospel,

Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor

Elder Board:
Sean Burgess
Micha Hohorst
Anne Kinderman
Alex Lim
John Matheny
Jordan Van Horn

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