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What Kind Of ‘Hospital For Sinners’ Is Church?

Does it do spiritual surgery to heal brokenness, or prescribe theological opiods to mask the condition? At issue at First Baptist Jacksonville
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My friend Denny Burk put me onto a pretty amazing video of Heath Lambert (pictured above), a Baptist megachurch pastor in Jacksonville, Florida. Denny writes about the recent travails of a congregation in Florida which has been trashed by local media for adopting a statement of faith about sexuality and gender, one that is completely orthodox, but which is a horrible scandal in today's culture. Last October, the congregation of First Baptist adopted the following statement, and insisted that affirming it is a requirement for membership in the church:

As a member of First Baptist Church, I believe that God creates people in his image as either male or female, and that this creation is a fixed matter of human biology, not individual choice. I believe marriage is instituted by God, not government, is between one man and one woman, and is the only context for sexual desire and expression.

Genesis 1:272:24Matthew 19:5Romans 1:26-271 Corinthians 6:9-11


You can't expect progressives to be thrilled by that, but it really is basic Christianity. Denny writes:

For three months, no one outside the church really paid any attention to this. Why would they? The statement is simply a declaration of what all faithful Christians everywhere have believed throughout the entire 2,000-year history of the church. If there is such a thing as old news, this is it.

Nevertheless, last week news media in Jacksonville picked up the story and began weaving a distorted narrative about the statement and what it says. Some said that the statement was designed to keep gays from attending the church. A lie. Others said that the statement was an expression of bigotry and hate. Also lies. As the lies kept getting airtime in local and social media, the entire community was being stirred up against this historic Baptist church in the heart of downtown Jacksonville.

So Heath led the church to hold an open mic forum to address the community directly. He invited not only the members of FBC Jax but also members of the community to come in and express whatever concerns or ask any question they had. In a video invitation, he told Jacksonville that if they were brave enough to come to a mic and speak, he would be brave enough to answer their concerns.

You can watch the entire presentation here. The way Pastor Lambert conducted himself, both in the gracious style and uncompromising stance of his presentation, is really a model. I wish I had his skills. I bring it up because of this angry statement made by Katie, a lesbian member of the community (though not of this church), who came, issued her condemnation, and then walked out of the church before hearing the pastor's response. That itself tells you something: the woman had no interest in dialogue, only in telling the Baptists that they are wrong, and hateful. A progressive's idea of dialogue: "So, enough from me telling you why you are wrong; let's hear your apology."


I've cued the video to where the statement starts:


The lesbian woman chastises the pastor and the church for its position. She says that the decision to require members to affirm a statement to be a member of the congregation turns the church into "a club. This church is no longer a religious place of worship welcome to all." The statement is unwelcoming to LGBT people, and will make them resent the church.

"Is that what you want? To drive a greater wedge between God and queer people?" she says. Katie says Christianity is "not about" the position taken by this congregation. According to Katie, what makes a church and its people bigots are "the moment they decide to do anything that restricts the rights of any other person, solely because they are gay."

She ends by telling those present that they should leave First Baptist and find "a congregation that truly lives in God's word" regarding loving thy neighbor. Then she walks out.

Leaving aside the LGBT issue, what struck me about this short speech of Katie's is its assumption about what Christianity is, and what church is for. There's actually a serious theological chasm here that goes beyond the LGBT issue, and is at the heart of so many divisions in the church today.

Heath Lambert believes that the Christian faith is about reconciling fallen man to God, and in helping repentant sinners to live godly lives on earth, and in making it to heaven to spend eternity with God. He believes that the Bible, which tells us who God is, tells us how to do that. The life of the local church, then, is to bring together people who profess Christianity within a certain tradition, for worship and praise, but also to equip them to change their lives to live more faithfully, according to the standards put forth in the Word of God. Far from trying to drive queer people away from God, First Baptist is trying to reconcile them to God, in the same way it tries to reconciles all sinners to God, first through repentance. Pastor Lambert is very, very clear about this in his words in the video.

Katie seems to believe that the purpose of the church is for people to come together ... but for what? Does she really believe that churches should not have statements that define what it means to be a member of that community? She cannot possibly believe that. There is nothing at all wrong with a progressive church saying that to be a member of that community, you have to affirm that homosexuality is not sinful. I mean, it would be theologically wrong according to orthodox, biblical Christian teaching, but nobody could plausibly say that this voluntary association of religious believers has no moral right to define itself. Is there any other organization in Jacksonville that Katie would hold to the same standard? The Democratic Party, the Kiwanis Club, the Junior League, Black Lives Matter -- they all have things you have to affirm to be a member of those communities. Besides, I very much doubt that Katie would fault a church for expecting its members to affirm homosexuality. This only goes one way.

What if First Baptist expected its members to affirm a statement saying that drinking alcohol is morally wrong, and that to be a member of the congregation, they promise to abstain from drinking? She might well disagree with the statement, but how could she possibly say that the church has no right to set that standard, according to its understanding of Scripture?

My point is simply this: there is a big gap between people who believe that Christianity (and church) is meant to transform us, and those who believe that Christianity (and church) is to affirm us. In my own Orthodox tradition, every person is affirmed in his or her worth as a creature made in the image of God. But we are also told that we are all fallen, and that the point of being part of the Church is to deepen our repentance, and to be healed of our brokenness. This is the work of a lifetime. We measure our brokenness by the model given us by Jesus Christ, and by the Bible. A man might not struggle with sexual sin (hetero or homo), but he might be afflicted by a passion to anger quickly. He will not be helped by a church that tells him it is fine to be angry. A woman might be as chaste as the fallen snow, but struggle with jealousy. She is a sinner, just like the man who stands next to her in church, struggling to order his own lust for others. You see my point. The church is a hospital for sinners, and doesn't require people to be well before they show up for treatment, but tell me, where is the hospital that heals people by convincing them that they aren't sick?

I understand why Katie hates the moral stance that First Baptist Jacksonville has taken. But her complaint that they have no right to set a moral standard if it conflicts with homosexual desire (or anything else) is unreasonable. I doubt very much that she would apply that standard across the board, with other moral issues, but let's say for the sake of argument that she is consistent, and that she believes every church should be open to all. And by "open," she doesn't mean "allowed to come worship there" -- First Baptist doesn't turn people away at the door, but says that if you want to be a member of the congregation, as distinct from a visitor, you need to affirm what the congregation believes. She can only mean that it must affirm everyone who shows up.

How would that work, exactly? Let's say a man who is an open racist starts coming to church. I would at least initially be happy with that, because he needs to be in church to hear what God thinks about hating people on the basis of their race. But he should expect to be challenged on his racial beliefs, and he has absolutely no right to expect the church to affirm his racism. Katie would no doubt say that racism is sinful, but homosexuality is not. OK, fine -- but then she's saying that church is not just a place you show up to experience vague, watery "love," but it's there to transform you.

Based on her statement at First Baptist, Katie is an adherent to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the pseudo-Christian "religion" that says the central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself, and that God wants us all to be nice to each other. What's the point of that? There's nothing there. It's childish. It's unserious. It's why MTD churches are doomed.

But you know, that's how a lot of churches approach their mission today. Several of this blog's Methodist readers reached out to me last week to say that their congregations are in the process of discerning whether or not to stick with the United Methodist Church, which is affirming homosexuality, or leave over the issue. One of the readers said that the "stay" side -- that is, those in the congregation who want to remain in the UMC -- contend that their church needs to be "open and welcoming." Another reader said her church's "stay" advocates say that times have changed, and the church has to also. In responding to these readers, I said they need to think about what church is for, and what Christianity is for. Is church supposed to be nothing more than The Community At Prayer? That is, does the church have a purpose other than to be where members of the community gather on Sunday? Is it supposed to transform their lives? Save their souls? And if so, then transform them from what to what? Save them from what?

This can't be avoided. The Christian faith is spiritually therapeutic, and always has been. The question is, will it be about therapy (healing) insofar as the medicine it provides restores what is diseased and broken in the soul -- or will it be about doling out spiritual opioids to mask the pain, and leave the sick man unchanged?

You know where I stand on the issue. And look, if we were talking about a progressive, pro-LGBT congregation, though I would fundamentally reject their theology, I would certainly assume that they would intend to convince church members to repent of their anti-LGBT beliefs. Why wouldn't they?

The fact is, they certainly do, as the dwindling number of Episcopalians who adhere to Biblical teachings on homosexuality know. Whether Katie knows it or not, arguments like hers are tactics used in a strategy to make Christianity that's orthodox on LGBT issues marginalized, and ultimately obsolete. The late Richard Neuhaus offered "Neuhaus's Law," which stated that, "Wherever orthodoxy is optional, it is eventually proscribed." It's a statement about how theological progressives operate within churches: first make beliefs they reject optional, and then, once in power, outlaw them.

Anyway, to restate the point: the core issue in these disputes is no only whether or not affirming homosexuality is in line with Biblical teaching. It's also about what church, and Christianity, is for in the first place. Hats off to Pastor Heath Lambert for such a compassionate but firm defense of the orthodox position. If you are an Evangelical living in northeast Florida, you might want to go visit First Baptist Jacksonville sometime.

UPDATE: Last week I wrote about a new garbage essay by San Diego's "Cardinal Screwtape,", Robert McElroy, in which he droned on and on about "inclusion" of the "marginalized" in the life of the Catholic Church, especially of LGBT people. It was super-woke, and came from a man Pope Francis made cardinal last year. It was the kind of talk that Katie from Jacksonville would love.

But Catholic Bishop Robert Barron offered a more sensible take on the McElroy essay -- a take that's relevant to this blog post's discussion. Excerpts:

Again and again, we hear that the Church must become a more inclusive and welcoming place for a variety of groups: women, LGBT+ people, the divorced and civilly remarried, etc. But I have yet to come across a precise definition of either term. What exactly would a welcoming and inclusive Church look like? Would it always reach out to everyone in a spirit of invitation? If so, the answer seems obviously to be yes. Would it always treat everyone, no matter their background, ethnicity, or sexuality, with respect and dignity? If so, again, the answer is yes. Would such a Church always listen with pastoral attention to the concerns of all? If so, affirmative. But would a Church exhibiting these qualities never pose a moral challenge to those who would seek entry? Would it ratify the behavior and lifestyle choices of anyone who presented him or herself for admission? Would it effectively abandon its own identity and structuring logic so as to accommodate any and all who come forward? I hope it is equally evident that the answer to all those questions is a resounding no. The ambiguity of the terms is a problem that could undermine much of the Synodal process.

In order to adjudicate this matter, I would suggest that we look not so much to the environing culture of the present day but to Christ Jesus. His attitude of radical welcome is nowhere on clearer display than in his open-table fellowship, that is to say, his consistent practice—countercultural in the extreme—to eat and drink not only with the righteous but also with sinners, with Pharisees, tax collectors, and prostitutes. These meals of sacred fellowship Jesus even compared to the banquet of heaven. Throughout his public ministry, Jesus reached out to those considered unclean or wicked: the woman at the well, the man born blind, Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery, the thief crucified at his side, etc. So, there is no question that he was hospitable, gracious, and yes, welcoming to all. 

By the same token, this inclusivity of the Lord was unambiguously and consistently accompanied by his summons to conversion. Indeed, the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in his inaugural address in the Gospel of Mark is not “Welcome!” but rather “Repent!” To the woman caught in adultery, he said, “Go and sin no more”; after meeting the Lord, Zacchaeus promised to change his sinful ways and compensate lavishly for his misdeeds; in the presence of Jesus, the good thief acknowledged his own guilt; and the risen Christ compelled the chief of the Apostles, who had three times denied him, three times to affirm his love. 

In a word, there is a remarkable balance in the pastoral outreach of Jesus between welcome and challenge, between outreach and a call to change. This is why I would characterize his approach not simply as “inclusive” or “welcoming,” but rather as loving. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that to love is “to will the good of the other.” Accordingly, one who truly loves another reaches out in kindness, to be sure, but at the same time he does not hesitate, when necessary, to correct, to warn, even to judge. My mentor, Francis Cardinal George, was once asked why he disliked the sentiment behind the song “All Are Welcome.” He responded that it overlooked the simple fact that, though all are indeed welcome in the Church, it is “on Christ’s terms, not their own.” 

An overall concern that I have, very much related to the consistent use of the terms “welcoming” and “inclusivity,” is the trumping of doctrine, anthropology, and real theological argument by sentiment, or to put it a bit differently, the tendency to psychologize the matters under consideration. The Church doesn’t prohibit homosexual acts because it has an irrational fear of homosexuals; nor does it refuse communion to those in irregular marriage arrangements because it gets its kicks out of being exclusive; nor does it disallow women’s ordination because grumpy old men in power just can’t stand women. For each of these positions, it articulates arguments based on Scripture, philosophy, and the theological tradition, and each has been ratified by the authoritative teaching of bishops in communion with the pope. To throw all these settled teachings into question because they don’t correspond to the canons of our contemporary culture would be to place the Church into real crisis. And I sincerely do not believe that this shaking of the foundations is what Pope Francis had in mind when he called for a synod on synodality. 

That's great -- and it has application beyond Catholicism.


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Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
We were forced out of a Mennonite congregation that eventually was meeting to celebrate one another's sins, rather than guiding us out of them by the power of God's Spirit. That became the haunt of Ichabod - the Spirit had departed. The Anabaptist beliefs had not failed, but those who placed trust in their ethnic community over God's Word. Ethnic blood was thicker than holy water.
schedule 1 year ago
Bogdán Emil
Bogdán Emil
That really is a strikingly clear update, cogent and terse.
schedule 1 year ago