This is an Other Sheep web page
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson
|An Article by Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson, Other Sheep
Coordinator for Thailand
|"Here I am on the cusp of seventy
years of age . . . a Presbyterian
pastor and missionary" ministering to
fifty or sixty "queers and queens" in
"this northern Thai village context."
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson
with Pramote, his Thai partner
of ten years.
|One Gospel, One Church
Dr. Kenneth Dobson
As another denomination is heard from, this time the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada
(ELCIC), the real nature of what is going on has finally dawned on me. The issue of gays,
lesbians, bi-sexual and transgendered persons (GLBT) in the Church is not just another
controversial topic being badly handled. This is more focused and disastrous. What is going
on throughout the Church, spreading like an epidemic, is a tragedy. It is too early to call it a
catastrophe. History will decide that when it is already over.
One denomination after another on every inhabited continent in the world is finding itself
engrossed in a debilitating battle (is there another word for it?) between those who want to
fight on one side or another about the role of GLBT persons in the Church and those who don’
t. This battle is less about whether GLBT people have a legitimate role in the Church, and so
it is less about justice, than it is about whether the Church will go on with its main mission in
support of its central theology or it will re-frame its central theology. Perhaps most churches
already have restructured their theologies (O foolish Galatians!). Now, however, the
theological positions seem to include sexuality and morality at a level of significance never held
I confess I have been deceived for a long time about what was at stake. Like many, if not
most, I thought the fight was about whether we GLBT persons could be ordained and have the
same rights and responsibilities as others in the Church. That’s how the debate was formed,
with the occasional plaintive call for us to stop wasting so much effort on this topic that should
be used for ministry and mission. Of course, for the most part, the effort was being spent at
the higher levels of the Church, the presbyteries, dioceses, and conferences and by their
general assemblies and general conventions, so there was less interruption at the
congregational and program level in the short run, and that made it seem to some extent that
the controversy was really marginal.
But I’ve had an “ah-ha” about what is going on and it scares me more than I have ever been
scared for the Church before. My fright stems from my core belief in the validity of the
Church. The Church of Jesus Christ is valid insofar as the Church proclaims and propounds
the Gospel that we are saved by grace alone from alienation from God, from all basic
dysfunctionality as human beings, from chaos, and from hell itself. A pastor is challenged to
figure out creative ways to say that 52 times a year, not counting funerals. A congregation is
charged to stand for that no matter what circumstances it finds itself. Think of congregations
in Bagdad, Boston, Bangkok, Beijing, Berlin or Bombay (Mumbai) – it soon becomes obvious
that circumstances make a difference that only a solid core of faith can counter if this is to be
one Church in any meaningful sense at all. A Church is chartered to empower, enable and to
defend those who undertake this ministry. The Church is to oppose anything that undermines,
threatens or prevents this ministry. The Church is to understand that everything else, EVERY-
THING that is not about the Gospel of Grace in Christ, is secondary.
Yet here we are. Almost all of our denominations which have had any acceptance or
recognition of we who are GLBT members have been rent or are being ripped by dissent over
this issue, which is not about the Gospel. There is only one way to contend that this debate is
about the Gospel and that is to add to the Gospel and turn it into gospel-plus. This enriched
gospel is not the Gospel.
Folks in the ELCIC have summarized this in a particularly Lutheran way:
What IS the Gospel? We must never tire of asking this fundamental question as it is the
teaching upon which the church stands or falls. What is the Gospel? …the Gospel is,
‘strictly speaking the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification, on account of
Christ.’ [Kolb, R and T. Wengert, 2000. “The Apology of the Augsburg Confession” The
Book of Concord. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. P. 127.]
The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose
from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. To preach Christ
means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes
the preaching. [Dillenberger, J., ed. 1962. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings.
New York: Anchor Books. P. 55.]
Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God has chosen to extend the
promise to us. This is the Gospel. In short the Gospel is about what God is doing
through Christ for us. It is never about what human beings can do to save themselves.
Then the ELCIC advocates turn to criticism of a group that is contemplating withdrawing from
the ELCIC because they suspect the ELCIC no longer supports the Gospel when they
countenance a GLBC presence.
[Some groups]…insist that the traditional faith and practice of the Church … on the
question of human sexuality and marriage is a matter of the Gospel.
This means that [for them] faith alone in Christ is no longer sufficient. One must also
have an unwavering faith in a particular practice of the Church.
But this is to turn the UNCONDITIONAL Gospel of Christ into a CONDITIONAL gospel,
which is no Gospel at all.
In traditional theological terms the Gospel is about justification, being unconditionally forgiven
and loved by God. However, although this is truly the Gospel, the whole Gospel and nothing
but the Gospel, it is Gospel-lite. The 52 sermons of the Christian homiletical calendar are 2-
point sermons. To be authentic they must include something about applications and action.
More to the point, Jesus is Savior who died for us but also Lord who commands us to live for
Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie says the Reformers insisted that justification (God’s
action) can never be separated from sanctification (human response). They are a pair.
Justification and sanctification are related as gift and task, creed and deed, theology
and ethics, faith and life, passively receiving and actively giving in return. No one is a
Christian until he [sic] is both justified and sanctified. [Guthrie, SC. 1968. Christian
Doctrine. Atlanta: John Knox Press].
Justification and sanctification are a pair, but the Reformers and Guthrie considered them
separately since the second is the result of the first. Sanctification, holy God-inspired action,
is the human response to God’s freely given intervention. A great deal of confusion results
when this is not kept clear.
I woke up the other morning realizing that is what is happening. The churches in the Church
are crossing the Rubicon (or the Jordan) one after another onto the side which says, “Our
unity in Christ is not only a unity in the Gospel but also in acceptable response to the Gospel.”
There can be no unity among churches if it is not solely based in the Gospel and dependent
upon Christ’s action alone. Expressions of response, that is, manifestations of sanctification,
have always been contingent, circumstantial and conditional.
Sanctification is the theological context for the discussion of the place of GLBT persons in the
Church, and other matters about the faith and life of GLBT persons, too, if it seems incumbent
to isolate our group for particular scrutiny. We are ready for the discussion to continue if it has
to, and will praise God when it is over.
To be sure, I will not advocate that we abandon the effort to gain full acceptance in the Church
for GLBT persons. I will respect the efforts of those who are trying to use reason and research
to convince the Church of the real nature of the issue and of who we are. I will also maintain a
sense of appreciation for those who want to use more aggressive means. At the same time I
will understand how deep the feelings, fear and faith are in those who are unready or unable
to agree, just as I once did on this and so many issues and as I still do on others. I will also
respect those who for a longer or shorter time have simply withdrawn almost out of the Church
rather than subject the Church to a conflict that is so painful, for this is what I, too, have done.
“Do you want to be a test case?” they asked me, and I took retirement knowing it was not yet
the right time or the right place for me to fight the fight. The issue of gays, lesbians, bi-sexual
and transgendered Christians in the Church is a justice issue and that’s all it is. But we’ll talk
about it theologically under the heading of sanctification, not as an indivisible part of the
It has to be one way or the other. Either the Church of Jesus Christ has unity in the Gospel as
one body created by the Holy Spirit, or the Church is a human institution as indicated by the
fact that basic decisions about its nature and composition are being decided by human agents,
and there is no theological basis for unity.
It is shocking and alarming that one after another whole churches and denominations have
made our sexuality their point of contention and have been willing to break fellowship and
sunder the church over it. Who can be happy with this? But my anguish is only partly due to
the fact that GLBT people have become so hated and despised that advocating in our behalf
can divide churches. I am even more disconsolate that ANY issue which is not the Gospel can
divide the Church. This, I submit, is a matter of grave concern, for a divided church is not the
Church, and so who are we?
I am sure of one more thing: God is going to do something about it.
|This web page was created in the Bronx, New York,
Friday, December 4, 2009
Visits to this page since December 4, 2009.
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