Contention 2: “Taking sweet counsel together”

The second installment in Prof Stephen Noll’s series on the Anglican way

Christian fellowship (koinonia) is essentially a matter of Personal relationship, a relationship grounded in the love of the Father and the Son through the Spirit. This relationship is both individual – the Christian being united with God through faith in Jesus Christ – and corporate – Christians being united in the church through the water of baptism and the Spirit of Truth.

On the night before His death, Jesus prayed for his apostles, minus Judas (John 17:12). He then proceeded to pray for the future apostolic Church spread throughout the world in space and time.

“I do not ask for these only [the apostles], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

It’s amazing! Jesus prayed for us, for our church, two thousand years ago. In the words of the Gospel hymn: “What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms.”

Being the church is not only a joy, it is a responsibility. In his farewell address at Ephesus, St. Paul warned the gathered elders in these terms:

I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. (Acts 20:27-31)

True fellowship, Paul says, requires true doctrine (“counsel”) and true discipline (“admonition”) administered by true pastors, because there is an enemy coming from without and prowling within the church (cf. 1 John 2:19). The Bible is clear from beginning to end in showing that the greatest temptations to God’s people come from within, not without. Here is the Psalmist’s complaint:

For it is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. 14 We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng. (Psalm 55:12-14)

Paul himself had to deal with a breakdown in discipline where a prominent member of the Corinthian Church was found sleeping with his mother-in-law and the leaders had turned a blind eye. To them he said:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Corinthians 5:9-12)

Note that Paul does not admonish the so-called brother but rather the pastors. Paul’s concern here is not only with the sin of the “so-called brother” (he hopes that discipline will bring him to his senses), but with the public reputation of the Church. Paul is not squeamish about worldly vices – he knows all about them ( see Galatians 5:19-21) – but he is adamant that the Church avoid “notorious” vices that would besmirch its witness to the pagan world. This concern is the basis for the Anglican Prayer Book rubric authorizing the priest to discipline “notorious evil-livers.”

The problem of notorious immorality involves not just individual sin but corporate heresy, not just false practice but false teaching. Jesus Himself directs this challenge to the pastors in a cardinal chapter on church order (Matthew 18): “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6; cf. 5:19).

Implications for the Global Anglican Communion

I addressed the question of church discipline in my seminar at Gafcon 2008, titled “Communing in Christ” (Chapter 3 in my book), and in particular I referenced “Communion discipline” (pages 121-123). I defended the charge that Gafcon was schismatic in these terms:

We are here this week because, after ten years of patient but futile calls for repentance from the Episcopal Church on the part of the majority of the world’s Anglicans, the Communion, under the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, has flinched. Hence while it may seem that we are the ones who have excluded ourselves, the truth is, as Richard Hooker put it, that this is our reasonable service to God.

Twenty years have now passed and the situation in North America has become more extreme. For anyone who doubts the current doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church USA, please read carefully its “CANON III.1: Of the Ministry of All Baptized Persons”:

Sec. 2. No person shall be denied access to the discernment process for any ministry, lay or ordained, in this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression*, disabilities or age, except as otherwise provided by these Canons.

*Please note: “sexual orientation and gender identity” (SOGI) is a specific legal category that will be used to undermine the religious rights of Christians.

Can anyone deny my exegesis of this passage?

In this canon, “marital status” means that divorced persons have an absolute right to ordination; further, “sexual orientation” clearly includes homosexual practice; and “gender identity and expression” explicitly includes transgendered persons. Acceptance of these practices is not only permitted, but it is required. Any priest or bishop who denies one of these individuals access to ordination on one of these grounds, may be brought up for trial and deposed. (Global Anglican Communion, pages 257-258)

It is clear, as was the case ten years ago, that the Archbishop of Canterbury is determined to maintain koinonia with those who teach that these practices are good and godly. He asks, Pilate-like, “What is truth?” These false teachers will be welcomed fully to the Lambeth Conference in 2020, whose theme is “Walking, Listening and Witnessing Together.”

What does the Scripture say about having fellowship with false teachers? The answer seems clear: have nothing to do with them.

Does this mean I will not shake hands with a false teacher I meet along the way? No, every human being is God’s own creature worthy of respect, and inside every Saul there is a Paul, inside every Judas there is a Peter. Jesus commands us to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). But nowhere does the Scripture enjoin us to have formal fellowship with heretics.

But, someone may quibble, the meetings of the “Instruments of Unity” are not formal councils of the Church since they have no binding authority, as was clear after Lambeth 1998. Surely, however, the meetings have the form of a council and most Anglicans have considered Lambeth Resolutions to be morally if not legally binding. Surely the outside world sees these meetings as representing the public face of the Church, which is the very concern St. Paul has about the man in Corinth.

Out of Love of the Brethren

So what should characterize true councils of the Church? David sings: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1 KJV). Christian fellowship is ultimately a matter of love, such Personal love as proceeds from the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. Hence the first Jerusalem Council could say with conviction: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). When the 2008 Statement claimed that GAFCON is “a movement of the Spirit,” it was claiming to be a true council of the Church.

So my question to Primates, bishops and other leaders who attend GAFCON 2018 is this:

how can you sit in council in Jerusalem and enjoy sweet fellowship with brothers who have been expelled from their churches, sued out of their properties, defrocked from their ministries, and denied even the name of “Anglican” (as was stated in the latest Lambeth Primates’ Communiqué) and then turn around and sit at table in Canterbury with bishops of the Episcopal Church (and others) who have expelled these brothers?

In 2006, Global South leaders addressed the Archbishop of Canterbury in these words: “We will definitely not attend any Lambeth Conference to which the violators of the Lambeth Resolution are also invited as participants or observers.” Canterbury called this “bluff” and GAFCON followed.

My brothers and sisters, has anything changed since then? In terms of Gospel fellowship, have you not by your invitation of brothers and sisters from North America and elsewhere to “take sweet counsel together” in Jerusalem, have you not created a “bond of affection” that cannot be broken?

St. John sums up the Gospel fellowship in this way: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship (koinonia) with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:5-6).

Will we walk together in the light of God and take sweet counsel in the Spirit of Truth? Or will we say one thing and do another?

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Contending Anglican

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