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You simply can’t redefine sin by the discernment process

For the past half a century or so, America’s mainline churches have shown an increasing enthusiasm for embracing ideas that are unequivocally condemned in the Bible—an inclination that has seriously undermined their standing as arbiters of morality among much of the population.

The curious thing about the controversies embroiling America’s mainline churches—partly, but by no means exclusively, about sexual behavior—is that they involve doctrines promulgated by folks who claim they have God’s enthusiastic support for flagrantly flouting scriptural authority.

They claim they can “discern” God’s mind because his revelation to mankind was not, as the church formerly taught, completed in the incarnation, earthly ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to them, it is an on-going affair, continuing apace forever—well, at least until they “discern” when God wants them to stop.

Now “discernment” is a very ancient concept. Indeed, since the church’s very inception, Christians have been trying to discern the word of God. But until quite recently, for the orthodox, at least, it was a reasonably straight-forward process.

Folks who wondered what God thought about something or other, looked it up in the Bible, and the scripture told them what God’s opinion was. Today, however, the folks who dominate the leadership of our mainline churches appear to “discern” God’s mind by conceiving outlandish notions and then taking a vote on whether or not to implement them. And as they are usually the only folks debating the issues and voting on them, they invariably carry the day.

Judging from the results, however, one might be tempted to think that if these people spent as much time reading The Bible as they spend talking about it, and voting on what they “feel” it means, the results would be rather different.

For example, a bishop noted for his enthusiasm for overthrowing doctrines established in the days of the Apostles once declared: “It took the Church 30 years to realize that gentiles could be Christians. [And] it took 1,830 years for the Church to realize that slavery was wrong …”

Yet, sad to say, if he’d bothered to read the Bible before opening his mouth, he might not have made such a fool of himself. He was wrong on both counts, you see. A glance at the Book of Acts would have told him that within a couple of years of the resurrection, St. Philip had baptized an Ethiopian eunuch—a gentile if ever there was one (Acts 8:16-39).

He would also have learned that St. Peter had his vision on the roof of the house in Joppa and baptized the gentile Roman centurion Cornelius and his entire gentile household (Acts 10:1-48) long before the execution of St. James the Great in AD 43 (Acts 12:2).

What’s more, he would have found out that in AD 43, the Council of Jerusalem decreed, citing Scriptural authority and Christ’s revelation, that it was wrong for Jewish Christians to ask gentile Christians to undergo the rite of circumcision. In other words, the Council affirmed that, from its very inception, the Church had always been open to gentiles.

The notion that it took the Church 1,830 years to wake up to the evils of slavery is similarly ridiculous. Read St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon, a member of the Church at Colossae. It concerns Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, who had gone to Rome, converted to Christianity, and devoted himself to helping St. Paul, who, at the time, was in prison awaiting trial.

Rome had a remarkably efficient secret police. As a runaway slave, Onesimus was in constant danger of betrayal, arrest, and summary execution by crucifixion. In the circumstances, the only prudent course was to send him to Philemon, with a letter aimed at effecting a reconciliation between master and slave.

This, then, is Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. No impartial reader could possibly construe it as evidence that Paul condoned slavery. Far from it. Paul’s letter, in fact, so radically redefines the relations between master and slave that both states are rendered utterly meaningless. Moreover, his message cannot be interpreted as applying only to the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul reiterates his redefinition of the master/slave relationship in his Epistle to the Colossians (Col. 3:22-4:1).

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from St. Paul’s injunctions to slaves and their owners is that, on this and many other important matters, Christians by no means always follow The Bible’s teachings. This, of course, shouldn’t be altogether surprising. It is, after all, what sin is all about. GPH✠

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