By Eric Carpenter
It was a bright and sunny day. A middle-aged woman had wandered into our Sunday worship. As I was greeting people after the service, she came up and introduced herself.
“Hi! I’m Joy and I have an important question for you.” She began haltingly. “A few months ago−uh, well, I was praying. Then, all of a sudden, some strange sounds came out of my mouth. It was like−like a language.”
She looked at me to see if I was tracking. I was! So she went on, “I asked a few Christian friends about it, but they gave me different answers. It was confusing.” I nodded. “Tell me more,” I encouraged her.
“Well, you see, some said it was a gift of God called ‘tongues.’ You know−to use in prayer.” Joy hesitated, but then rolled on. “A few others scoffed at me. They said the gift of tongues is not for today. It’s not from God. Avoid it. Could be the devil, they warned me.”
She fixed me with a stern look. “Pastor, what do you think?”
It was quite a question, especially for a first-time meeting in the church atrium. I was struck by the diverse counsel Joy had received. Some believed the experience was a useful gift from God. Others labeled it as unhealthy, even evil, something to avoid.
Divergent opinions exist about prophecy as well. Some argue that like apostolic ministry, prophetic ministry ceased with the so-called Apostolic Age. I myself grew up assuming that apostolic and prophetic ministries had ended with the passing of the original Apostles (around 100 A.D.).
Yet others (as I wrote in my previous article) are beginning to view these ministries and gifts as available for today. More and more Christian leaders not only advocate for receiving all the gifts, but also point to Ephesians 4 as a framework for the ministries of the Church. They champion these gifts and ministries for today and as crucial for the expansion of the kingdom.
Our views on these issues are critical. Our understanding and participation in these gifts and ministries are significant not only for individuals like Joy, but also for our churches. I invite you to think deeply with me about these issues and embrace the hope of transformed ministries.
When Perfection Comes…
Joy and I met later in the week for a longer discussion. I explained the primary passage people refer to when talking about the cessation of some gifts like tongues, prophecy, healing, interpretation−you know, the ones considered weird.
Joy and I read aloud 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 NIV.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
I was prepared to discuss the phrase, when perfection comes, and its differing interpretations, but she simply said, “Oh, so when Jesus comes back, that is when those things will cease!” And I said, “Ah … yes, basically.” (When Paul uses the phrase face to face in verse 12, it seems like a strong indication that the perfect refers to Jesus Christ in his second coming.)
Many Christian leaders have been using 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 to conclude that we are living in a time of history when some of the miraculous manifestation gifts have ceased. They cross-reference this passage with James 1:22-24 to argue that perfection in the Corinthian passage refers to the Word of God. However, there are problems with this interpretation. First, Paul used the mirror illustration in 13:12 as an analogy for not seeing or understanding clearly. He didn’t equate the Word of God with the mirror. Second, James used the mirror analogy in a completely different way. It demonstrated how we are to respond to the Word of God.
More people have come to recognize that the Corinthians text doesn’t actually support a cessationist view. Yes, some gifts will cease, but that will take place when Christ returns and we all live in his manifest presence. In fact, I think that these very passages argue in favor of the gifts in full operation today.
However, the reservations that many leaders have about the manifestation gifts and the apostolic and prophetic ministries are much greater than a single passage of Scripture. I contend that these reservations are rooted in our understanding of the current age in which we live. Let’s look at this.
The Day of the Lord
Nowhere in Paul or in the rest of the New Testament do we find the idea that the completion of the canon of Scripture would fundamentally change how the Spirit of God works within the Church. Nowhere do we find the authors of Scripture talking about a different “age” or “dispensation” between the time of the original Apostles and the Church today. This is a construct of later theologians and not found in Scripture.
The Apostles saw history in three ages:
- Pre-messianic age (O.T.)
- Present age of the Church (initiated by the Messiah’s first advent, established by the original Apostles)
- Age to come (to be initiated by the Messiah’s Second Advent).
The initial proclamation of the gospel by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2 is striking. To help those gathered at Pentecost understand what was happening, he quoted from the prophet Joel.
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy. Acts 2:17-18 NIV
He continued this quote, referring to end times events and the day of the Lord.
… before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. V. 20b
The Apostles understood that the Messiah and Pentecost had introduced the “Last Days,” and that we would be living in these “days,” or this “age” from that time until the second coming of Christ. We are living in the “last days” now.
Pentecost was the beginning of the Church and the time following is this age− a time when the Spirit is being poured out on all people. The Spirit’s presence and power are available now and until the return of Christ.
In writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul referred to the age in which we live. He defined this time by quoting Isaiah:
As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time [kairos] of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 (Quoting Isaiah 49:8)
In other words, right now is the time/age of God’s grace and favor. Paul urges the Corinthians not to miss the kairos moment. Incredibly, the favor and grace of the age to come is already spilling out. Don’t miss it! Experience it!
The author of Hebrews referred to this age too when he warned:
It is impossible [to bring back to repentance] those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age …[and who then turn away from God]. Hebrews 6:4-6a NIV [NLT]
In his warning, the inspired author refers to the age we are presently living in. The Lord’s abundant resources are given us to use until the coming age. We will be renewed and refreshed by the heavenly gift (perhaps communion?) and enjoy both the Spirit and the Word. Certainly, one does not replace the other, or reduce either, but both are part of God’s favor and grace in this age. We will even taste the powers of the coming age. In Paul’s time, he didn’t anticipate an age between the apostolic age and the age to come. There is no intermediate age where the works and gifts of the Spirit are somehow restricted. God’s Kingdom is advancing. He is equipping his Church with the resources of all the spiritual gifts and the comprehensive five-fold ministries of Ephesians 4:11. Then one day, the Kingdom will be fully consummated.
Many theologians have argued that Paul believed Christ’s return was imminent. He had no category of a post-apostolic time/age. Again, this is a later construct of theologians. To help clarify the idea, look at the two timelines below.
Timeline #1 depicts the Jewish understanding of God’s salvation history and timing. The Messiah comes and establishes the new age.
Our Present Age is the dynamic era of his Spirit− pouring out upon the Church, flowing into the world, empowering both men and women. It is a time of prophecy and dreams, a time of spiritual gifts revitalizing the Body of Christ. It is a time of grace and favor. It is a time when the power of the coming age spills out into our age, but is not yet fully realized−the “already but not yet.”
Churches of the Present Age
This understanding should affect our pastoral care and counsel to people like Joy. This perspective on the age we live in should lead us to encourage Joy in the thoughtful and biblical use of the Spirit’s gift already given to her. His desire is to edify Joy and others like her (1Corinthians 14:4).
This understanding should affect how we see our churches as well. For instance, when the realization that our own church didn’t reflect the fullness of ministry depicted in the #2 timeline above, it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. We have been a church of “word and sacrament.” However, we are not yet a church that reflects ministry where the Spirit is poured out. We haven’t even had a category for prophetic ministry, let alone desires and goals for it. Now the Spirit urges me, impels me, to lead change. All the gifts of the Spirit are for us all. All are part of the vast resources of the Godhead, destined to accomplish His purposes in the world, through the Church.
Note: The following article gives some background to City Classis’ recently approved Framework of Life Together (Link to Framework). Bill White (City Classis) is a planting pastor of City Church Long Beach. Here is one discussion on “Disputable Matters”. City Classis’ Framework will be discussed at the Regional SUMMIT April 17-18.
At the City Classis meeting in February, as we considered the weighty topic of how we could move forward given the theological differences among us surrounding human sexuality, a number of people brought attention to the need for more earnest, biblical discussion around what Paul calls “disputable matters” (Rom 14:1). Since I was on a team of leaders from our local congregation that spent 20 months looking at biblical passages about LGBTQ inclusion in the church, I offered to host a two hour bible study over lunch. Upwards of twenty elders and pastors gathered for a spirited conversation.
So here’s my take on how that bible study went, as well as the overall tenor of the classis meeting. Of course others might nuance it differently, but at least this is one window into that time together.
Like our classis, the room was more or less equally divided between those who would say they take a more traditional approach and those who would say they take a more progressive approach. To warm up and see if we could model the kind of dialogue that the Apostle Paul seemed to think was possible for followers of Jesus, we started off looking at a couple of key passages before we got to Romans 14. Could a real dialogue be possible between dedicated, passionate followers of Jesus who see things so differently?
We broke into teams to look at the best traditional arguments against LGBTQ inclusion from Genesis 1-2 and at the best progressive arguments in favor of LGBTQ inclusion from those same texts. The key was that each team had people with both perspectives on it. So a group of traditionalists AND progressives worked on the best traditional arguments, and a group of both progressives AND traditionalists worked on the best progressive arguments. Then, one of the progressives presented to the room the best traditional arguments, followed by one of the traditionalists presenting the best progressive arguments.
No straw men here! We weren’t taking pot shots, we weren’t throwing around putdowns like ‘homophobe’ or ‘low view of scripture.’ We were wrestling with what’s really there in the bible, and trying to sort out what it means today. There were plenty of questions and lots of clarifying, and mostly a lot of love and respect. People actually listened.
Wrestling with Genesis 1-2 from different perspectives…
After not nearly enough time in Genesis 1-2, we moved on to Romans 1 with the same procedure. We read the text out loud in our diverse groups and then dug in again and wrestled with the scriptures. The conversation was so rich that we all wished we’d had more time. It yielded references to Augustine, various Greek words, ancient Near East culture, modern science and fancy words like ‘etiology’ – and long lists on the board of the best traditional and best progressive arguments from that text.
(Aside: The arguments lined up quite similarly to those of the LGBTQ Study Team here at City Church of Long Beach. In case it’s helpful to review the best arguments from both sides, here is the blog I wrote afterwards summarizing our remarkable journey through that text as a blended group of progressives and traditionalists seeking truth together in scripture.)
The rest of our time in bible study was spent in the end of Romans, where Paul wrote vigorously to keep the church in Rome together in the midst of major disagreements. In essence, Paul describes a middle category of beliefs that lies between essentials and opinions. These beliefs are truly important, and yet sincere followers may find themselves understanding them differently because of how two or more biblical truths exist in dynamic tension. We worked and wrestled together to discern what qualifies as a disputable matter, what the limits are to not causing ‘someone else to stumble’ (14:20), and whether this applies to how congregations treat other congregations.
One of the things I found particularly helpful was agreeing together that Paul’s intent for using the disputable matters approach in Rome was certainly not to replace proper discipline nor to promote an “anything goes” mentality. It was to manage life together across theological differences where those in covenant relationship highlighted different emphases in scripture to the point of causing real tension.
In the formal business meeting, after more intense conversation, debate, and disagreement – all marked by great respect and love and, really, affection – the classis ended up overwhelmingly (84%) approving the proposal (included in this Regional Synod of the Far West newsletter) that stops just short of a disputable matters approach to LGBTQ inclusion in the local church. This almost-but-not-quite approach is meant to honor the request of a few congregations for more time for study and discussion.
Throughout all of these conversations, the most compelling insight for me and I’m sure for many others was simply that we began to model a disputable matters approach. I wasn’t articulate of it till later, but we were starting to live into the very thing we were talking about. Even as we discussed difficult passages like the creation narrative, Romans 1 and, ironically, the phrase ‘disputable matters,’ we recognized differences, we traced how those differences were based in scriptural understandings and convictions, and we continued in community together while having challenging but honoring dialogue. Not everyone agreed but everyone stayed in the room, and doors remain open for continued dialogue, debate, and growth.
Enclaves of Hope
As any number of commentators have pointed out, since the 2016 presidential election our country has become increasingly fractured and then deeply entrenched in their separate camps. Sadly, this seems to have been true in our gathered, denominational life as well. Yet there are some places where the borders are porous, where there is real progress being made in fierce and gracious conversations.
For example, I’ve heard that the most recent Rocky Mountain Classis meeting was marked by great dialogue around the three frameworks Rev. Eric Carpenter proposed to the Regional Synod for how to have these conversations. Also, Bruce Bugbee reported last month that the Regional Synod executives had their best connection ever and made deep commitments to better dialogue. Wes Granberg-Michaelson used the phrase ‘enclaves of hope’ in a Sojourners piece to describe just these phenomena. He was referring specifically to the City Classis dialogue around human sexuality, but I’m certain he’d say the same about the Rocky Mountain Classis dialogue as well.
In a local context, I can say that living together in honest diversity centered around Jesus is actually possible. As a response to the denomination-wide invitation of the past five presidents of the RCA, City Church of Long Beach started a group in 2016 as a venue for those who disagreed to gather around scripture, centered on Jesus, and to have have Spirit-led conversations about human sexuality. This January, that LGBTQ Study Team concluded, and the entire group (traditionalists and progressives and those in between) presented to the congregation our united perspective, which was a disputable matters approach.
In the two months since that Sunday, not a person has left our church. In those same two months, I and the other pastor at City Church of Long Beach haven’t had a single significant conversation with anyone in our congregation about questions of LGBTQ inclusion! It’s not that we avoid those conversations (we had anxiously prepared for them!) – they simply did not materialize. Instead, the congregation has focused on what God has been up to in our midst and in our community. We’ve had more conversions and baptisms than we had all last year, and we’re gaining ground in both budget and attendance. Conversation led to clarity, which led to consensus, which freed us for mission. Our radically diverse church (no one ethnic group or age group is a majority) has come to realize that the person of Jesus, the mission of God, and the leading of the Spirit are enough to keep us together.
On this journey with City Church of Long Beach and with City Classis, I’ve become increasingly convinced that our inclusion into the Body of Christ is constituted not by our assent to a set of principles but by Jesus’s own initiation towards us, as evidenced in our baptismal vows. This sacramental view of what it means to be part of the God’s family is not just theory. In these fierce and loving classis conversations about disputable matters and in other places all over the region, we are moving from theoretical discussion to lived reality. I am convinced that real dialogue and real partnership are still possible for those who disagree.
The following is an open letter from Rev. Eric Carpenter to the Rocky Mountain Classis. This is something Rocky Mountain Classis is doing to move their conversation forward regarding the right questions for churches to consider in the LGBT discussion and denominational unity. What we believe will guide the steps we take. Share your thoughts…
LGBTQ: What is the right question?
By Eric Carpenter
At the last General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, the delegates requested that a denomination wide discussion take place “in light of the current state of contention and division.” The RCA provided three questions that should be included in this discussion:
- How do we understand the biblical calling to live together in a unity of fellowship and love for one another?
- Are we willing to see the Reformed Church in America embark on a serious division, and what is our part in bringing reconciliation and restoration?
- What do we believe is God’s intended future for the Reformed Church in America?
I confess, that as I read the above questions I had a profound sense of disappointment. Progress cannot be made if we simply remain in vague generalities. I am concerned that if we don’t ask the right questions, then our denominational discussion will prove unfruitful and we will simply keep kicking the proverbial can farther down the street.
My conviction is that if we are going to move towards resolution we have to not only name the “current state of contention and division,” but also discuss the nature of the contention and how we believe the Lord is calling us to pastorally address our present state. In other words, in light of the present struggle, where do we go from here!
Naming the Issues:
I believe there would be a general agreement regarding the dilemma that we face as a denomination. The issues aren’t simply beliefs and convictions about the LGBTQ community, or even simply the authority of scripture in light of these issues. But an important reality to be named is that we have leaders within the RCA (pastors, church planters, elders, professors, teachers) that have extremely divergent convictions regarding LGBTQ issues. In both beliefs and practice around these issues, we do not have unity.
On one side of these issues, are the self identified “Conservatives” or “traditionalists” (pastors, church planters, elders, professors, teachers) see these issues through a lens of righteousness and sin. These leaders hold to a traditional view of marriage and sexuality, and any same-sex sexual activity is considered sin. These leaders see these issues as not only clearly stated in scripture, but also historic and orthodox.
On the other side of these issues are the self identified “Liberals” or “Progressives” who do not share in these beliefs and convictions regarding the LGBTQ community. These leaders (pastors, church planters, elders, professors, teachers) believe that a same-sex covenant marriage can fall under the blessing of God. They are “open and affirming” of same-sex covenant relationships, believing and advocating that gay persons in same-sex marriages should be allowed to serve at every level of leadership within the church. Some of these leaders are advocating for constitutional change within the RCA, allowing the denomination to become “open and affirming.” Other progressive leaders simply want to be allowed to live out their convictions without facing reprisal or discipline.
Three Pauline Resolutions:
In the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul, we see him handling a number of different issues and disagreements. Depending on the nature of the issue or disagreement, he gives different council and wisdom. He prayerfully considered each situation, and then gave direction and a course of action based on the nature of the situation. I think there are three approaches or resolutions that we can find in Paul, and then discuss which one the Lord is calling us to in light of the issues that we face.
1) Disputable Matters:
This phrase comes from Paul, in Romans 14. He was talking about a few controversial issues at the time. He says, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” Rm. 14: 1 One matter that Paul considered “disputable” was: is it okay for a follower of Christ to eat food sacrificed to an idol? He was encouraging the Christians to no quarrel but to love one another even though they may disagree with each other on this issue:
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” (vs. 13)
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (vs. 19)
So I think a very legitimate and important discussion is not necessarily what everyone believes about homosexuality, but would this be an issue that is “disputable” and therefore we seek to love one another well in the midst of disagreement. If Paul was the leader of the RCA, would he speak verses 13 and 19 to us as sisters and brothers in Christ?
It is interesting to note that Paul had his convictions about this subject (see vs. 14) yet decides not to argue his point but to argue for unity in the midst of diverse opinions on this subject.
If we believe that these issues surrounding homosexuality fall in the category of “disputable matters” then we should let words of Jesus in his priestly prayer be a lens through which we proceed:
“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity.” John 17: 22-23a
I believe that a modern day issue within the RCA that is a “disputable matter” is infant baptism. Though the denomination has pretty clear views on this subject, in practice we allow our leaders and churches to live in diverse convictions and practices. Should issues surrounding homosexuality ultimately be handled as we do infant baptism? I know leaders on both sides of the issue that would advocate this kind of pastoral approach. I think people of these convictions should be allowed to discuss their point of views. They should be able to express their reasons why they believe we should handle our present conflict as a “disputable matter.” And this should not simply be a temporary fix until one side “wins”, but this should be an approach that is established and permanent.
2) Breaking of Fellowship:
There is another instance in Paul’s letters that he does not encourage unity in the midst of diversity, but says that sin must be dealt with. He is rebuking the Corinthian church for celebrating sexual sin rather than removing the perpetrator from their midst.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 1 Cor. 5: 1-2
Paul does not want discussion on this matter; he has already passed judgment (see vs. 3) and is reprimanding the church for inaction. This is not unlike the words of the resurrected Christ to the church in Thyatira where he held against them that they “tolerate” (see Rev. 2: 20) a false prophetess and her teachings.
If we believe that the issues surrounding homosexuality fall in the category of the “Breaking of Fellowship”, then we then we should let words of Jesus in Matthew 18 regarding the dealing with sin be a lens through which we proceed:
“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Mt. 18: 17
I think a modern day example of this is the exclusiveness of Christ. The RCA has removed pastors or churches for being Universalists. This was not an issue to live in unity over, but to be dealt with and then the individual “removed from community” if they do not repent. Is homosexuality this kind of issue?
I do ask this question of both sides of the issue. I know both conservatives and progressives that do not believe we can live in diversity over this issue. If homosexuality is indeed an issue of social justice, then we must not compromise in any way. If homosexual activity is exclusively a matter of righteousness and sin, then we must not compromise or tolerate in anyway. I think people of these convictions should be allowed to discuss their point of views. Why do they believe that this is a “deal breaker” for them, and not a disputable matter?
3) Separate for Mission:
There is one more option that I see in the life of Paul. I think it is less clear and precise but worthy of consideration. In Acts 15, we see Paul and Barnabas’ successfully advocating for Gentile believers in the Jerusalem Council. But then right after that, surprisingly and somewhat sadly, Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement about whether to bring John Mark, who had abandoned them previously. We are told that their disagreement was so sharp they decided to separate and pursue their own next mission.
They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. Acts 15: 39-40
I am sure that Barnabas and Paul still considered one another “brothers in Christ.” They still were connected to the church of Antioch and to one another. And yet, they separated to pursue God’s next mission, yet in different directions with different companions. We learn that this separation was for a time, but in some way it was resolved (see 1 Cor. 9: 6 and 2 Tim. 4:11)
I could not think of an example within the RCA such as “Infant Baptism” or “Universalism”, but I do think we see an example or form of this in another denomination. Our Episcopalian/Anglican sisters and brothers have separated over these very same issues. They have avoided a complete split, but have established a three year agreement of separation. They are still unsure how this will be resolved in the coming years. Perhaps this option should be considered if we are ultimately not sure if this present matter is “disputable” or something that we must break our unity over. But regardless, I believe it is a pastoral and denominational response that is worthy of consideration. What could this potentially look like for the RCA? How do we begin the process of separation with the possibility to explore and evaluate further? People of this perspective should be able to share their perspectives.
Determining a Way Forward:
I am not writing as a “conservative” or a “progressive”, I am writing as someone longs for resolution so that we might began to focus more and more resources on mission rather than this area of conflict. I have strong theological convictions about homosexuality, but I am undecided regarding the best way forward. I think these “pastoral responses” would potentially be very fruitful discussions that could potentially indicate the direction that we should take.
If a majority the assemblies that are going to be having this denominational discussion found themselves supporting one of the three options, that could provide huge clarity to future General Synods and our future General Secretary.
Recommended Process and Questions:
Seeking the presence and the counsel of the Holy Spirit, I would like to put forward a suggested process for our discussion.
- Forming the Discussion: Send out this position paper which builds the argument for shaping our discussion around Paul’s three pastoral responses.
- Pre-Classis Study and Prayer: In preparation for the discussion, can we invite classis members to study and pray through the three following passages: Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 5 and Acts 15.
- Questions for Discussion (Part 1):
- What do you think makes an issue a “disputable matter?” What do you think makes an issue one that we should “break fellowship over”? What do you think makes an issue a “separate for mission” one?
- In your opinion, do you think the questions and convictions surrounding the LGBTQ community should be handled as a “disputable matter”, a “breaking fellowship” manner, or a “separate for mission” matter? Why or why not?
- What ways would we be able to “live in unity in the midst of disagreement” with regards to the LGBTQ community?
- What are the options/recommendations before us if we ultimately decide to “break fellowship” over these issues?
Questions for Discussion (Part 2):
- What do we believe is God’s intended future for the Reformed Church in America (In light of our discussion)?
- Is there enough unity within our classis to make a recommendation, or should we simply report the content of our discussion?
- If we have enough unity as a classis, what would our recommendation be?