A couple of weeks ago Union University made news by practicing secondary separation (or at least what fundamentalists have been pummeled over the last 70 years for practicing under that label): they broke fellowship with an organization of professing believers—the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities [CCCU]—because the Council had failed to censure two member institutions—institutions that had capitulated to the prevailing Zeitgeist on the matter of homosexual marriage. Union president Dub Oliver explained: “Our faithfulness to the authority of Scripture takes precedence,” adding, “Our advocacy for Christ-centered higher education means that we must stand with institutions that share our commitments.” He concluded, “The reason we are passionate about this is because what we are talking about is not a secondary or tertiary theological issue—marriage is at the heart of the Gospel. To deny the Bible’s concept of marriage is to deny the authority of Scripture.” But here’s the thing: the CCCU has for years had as member institutions schools of various branches of the Churches of Christ, a Seventh Day Adventist School, at least one (very) Roman Catholic school, and a few other nominally “Christian” institutions that have given little thought to the details of the Christian Gospel and the authority of the Word of God for decades. These theological errors are not separation-worthy, but homosexuality is? Hmmm.
Example 2: Last week I stopped by a church blog that I frequent. Again, I applauded the author’s powerful argument regarding the use of Hillsong music in his church: due to Hillsong’s “normalization of immorality” (again, homosexuality), the author reckoned, “our music ministry will no longer use any material written by Hillsong.” But then came the curious caveat. The author admitted that Hillsong had long ago abandoned sound doctrine, but argued that “we were never concerned that using this song would lead our people into prosperity theology or wild charismaticism.” So his church had continued to use Hillsong music. But homosexuality? That went too far. Now it has become time, the author concluded, to “watch out for those who cause confusion regarding sound doctrine, and turn away from them.”
On the one hand I’m happy about these decisions—I rejoice in them as refreshing matters of biblical obedience. And maybe I should do nothing but offer a hearty “Amen” and applause to both. I agree with the willingness to part ways with disobedient brothers and appreciate their courageous stands in the face of stiff opposition. Overlooking or endorsing homosexuality IS a big deal. A really big deal. And I’m glad that these two men and the organizations they represent are refusing to shrug their shoulders and look the other way.
But I struggle with the implied suggestion that the error of homosexual marriage is a bigger deal and a greater affront to the Gospel than the denial of justification sola fide, or that advocating for homosexuality is a bigger threat to God’s people than advocating for a prosperity “gospel” that boasts no more of the Gospel than my pet rabbit. It seems that homosexuality has temporarily become more of a gospel issue than, well, the Gospel. Why is this the case?
Two responses to this trend have come to us from the confessional community (Carl Trueman and Scot McKnight). These argue convincingly that the bare evangelical model, despite all its talk of the Gospel, offers an insufficient basis for determining what constitutes a “big,” “important,” and therefore “gospel” issue, instead leaving the church to posture rather arbitrarily according to the prevailing winds of the day. At one time we pounded on smoking and drinking and rock music, but that’s much too 1970—the 21st century whipping boys are homosexuality and egalitarianism on the left and “legalism” in the right. That’s where the conservative evangelical will take a stand and practice “secondary separation.”
Now, admittedly, the 21st century evangelical watersheds do seem a bit more serious than those from 1970, so I must be charitable. Scripture itself tells us that homosexuality, especially, is a “bigger” or at least a more advanced sin problem than others (so Rom 1:24ff). Still, I think Trueman and McKnight are on to something: the bare evangelical model may be able to see that homosexuality is a big issue, but it has trouble offering a unified explanation as to why it is a big issue. To do that, one needs more than the Gospel and a few Bible verses. We need instead a holistic network of collocated theses that connect the doctrines of God, Scripture, creation, law (natural and biblical), the imago dei, the relationship of Church and culture, the state of man (both old and new), sin, atonement, sanctification, perseverance, pneumatology, apologetics, ecclesiology, the ordinances, and even eschatology. In short we need to take our stands within comprehensive traditions. Without them, we may experience the meager satisfaction and applause that comes from picking at the scabs of homosexuality and egalitarianism, but we risk ignoring the melanoma spreading beneath.
We cannot save the Christian faith merely by erecting a fortress around a few gospel loci and supplementing that defense with occasional sorties against ethical brigands. Instead, we must take our stand in the ontological and epistemological foundations from which the Gospel and its ethic flow.