Scripture Clearly Teaches…?

Albert C. Winn
Moderator of the 119th G.A, PCUS, and
President Emeritus and Professor of Doctrinal Theology,
Louisville Theological Presbyterian Seminary

Address to the Covenant Network’s Commissioner Convocation Dinner
216th G.A., Richmond
June 25, 2004

Our local Covenant Network group in Salem Presbytery is engaged in dialogue with some of the brothers and sisters who disagree with us. One of the aspects of the Call to Covenant Community that first attracted me was its insistence on maintaining unity despite disagreement. As I have listened to these brothers and sisters with care and respect, one thing that has clearly emerged is that they are earnest Christians who believe in the authority of Scripture, and that they are unshakably convinced that Scripture clearly teaches that all homosexual acts are sinful.

It can be shown, I believe, that the texts cited may be condemnations on homosexual activity by those who by nature are heterosexual – activity from which love is entirely missing – activity undertaken for sexual adventure, seeking new thrills. But I find that such discussion does not convince, and only confirms their suspicion that I am one who likes to twist Scripture to agree with my own convictions.

Perhaps a more fruitful area for discussion is to face the fact that Scripture is ambiguous regarding many important ethical questions. A major portion of my long life has been spent wrestling with the scriptural ambiguity regarding war and peace. There is an abundance of war passages, not only in the Old Testament but in the New as well. God is called a warrior. “Holy war” is an almost sacramental service of God. God orders Israel to engage in genocidal warfare. People are punished, notably King Saul, for sparing the life of enemies. God fights with Israel, and sometimes for Israel while Israel sits still. Right on down to Armageddon.

But there are peace passages, too – in the Old Testament as well as in the New. God’s dream of a world where nation does not lift up sword against nation and they study war no more. Jesus’ answer to genocide: “It is not the will of my Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” His instruction to go beyond limited revenge – eye for eye, tooth for tooth – to love of enemies and prayer for them.

Thesis, antithesis, but no synthesis. Clearly we are called to decide which of the “clear teachings of Scripture” we should follow.

God seems to value human responsibility and freedom so highly that God again and again confronts us with the necessity of weighing alternatives and choosing.

  • “Slaves, obey your masters in all things.”
  • “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to preach deliverance to the captives, to set at liberty those that are bruised.”
  • “Let your women keep silence in the churches.”
  • “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

So, in the current controversy, we have texts condemning homosexual practice, and we have Jesus’ sympathy for and welcome of those excluded by the “purity laws” of the Old Testament. Ambiguity demanding a choice.

It seems to me that our current ordination vows give us some guidance for our choice: “Will you perform your ministry” – as Minister of the Word and Sacrament, deacon, or elder – “in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and guided by our confessions?” Fortunately all three agree on many, many essentials of faith and practice.

But in these difficult ethical issues, sometimes they do not. Then the order becomes important. Obedience to Jesus Christ comes first. Jesus is Lord of human society. Jesus is Lord of the church. Jesus is Lord of Scripture, and asserts that Lordship from time to time.

Perhaps the best confession of faith is the earliest and shortest. Just three words: Jesus is Lord.

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