Commentary: Bishop of cheap grace

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor  |  June 9, 2003 at 3:06 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 9 (UPI) -- Let's suppose a homosexual who left his wife and two daughters for a male partner is nominated CEO of the Coca-Cola Co. –- would that be all right? Of course it would. His love life should have no bearing on his career, as long as he keeps the two separate; that's his civil right.

Now let's suppose the nominee is an executive who, while working for Coke, has openly stated that he only drinks Pepsi because he finds it a more satisfying beverage -– would it still be okay for him to become Coke's boss? No, it wouldn't, because by publicly supporting a competing product he would have damaged his own credibility -– and Coke's reputation.

In a sense, the latter has now occurred in the Episcopal Church, whose New Hampshire diocese has elected Canon V. Gene Robinson bishop. The Rev. Robinson has walked out on his wife and children and lives with another man, which is of course legal, from a secular point of view.

But here's where the analogy to the fictitious Coke executive with a preference for Pepsi comes in: Robinson's "company" is a church, which has assets and products to protect. The most important assets are: the Church's definition as the Body of Christ, and the authority of Scripture, which Anglicanism's 39 Articles of Religions clearly affirm.

The Christian Church and Judaism teach that the family is an order of creation, and homosexual behavior falls short of the will of God, according to Scripture. Of course all of us do fall short of God's will. But Robinson is not anybody. He aspires to be a bishop, an overseer within the Body of Christ.

As its name indicates, the Episcopal Church places an enormous emphasis on its bishops and their ordination in the "historical succession" reaching all the way back to the Apostles –- so much so, in fact, that it recently obliged the much larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to accept the same standards before entering into full communion with it.

Scripture demands of a bishop that he "must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife... He must manage his family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect" (2 Timothy 3:2-4). He must also be "of sound doctrine," according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

This is the ecclesial equivalent of a corporation's insistence that its CEOs conform to certain standards and surely not promote a competitor's wares (the Church's wares in this particular case would be its values). But there is more to this. The mark of a Christian is discipleship. A disciple picks up his cross and follows Christ. He doesn't moan, "Gee, God, this cross you put on my back is too heavy for me."

Yet this is precisely what Canon Robinson is saying. He found marriage and family life too heavy a burden. He, a priest, found it too much of a cross to rein in sexual desires that according to Scripture are unacceptable to God. All this is humanly understandable. People are that way. Who are we to judge?

But even if these burdens seem unbearable -– surely, we are entitled to ask Robinson this question: Would it really have been too heavy a cross for you to refrain from aspiring to the miter and the crosier? Honestly now, would this be too much to expect of you, if only to protect the Episcopal Church from further erosion, after it has already shrunk to a mere sect with 2.1 million members -– well below one percent of the U.S. population -– because of all its shenanigans?

Theologically speaking, aiming for the bishop's throne under these circumstances is a prime example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to call cheap grace –- a false teaching which according to this martyred theologian has produced "millions of spiritual corpses" in Germany.

Bonhoeffer said this was the result of an erroneous bow by the German Protestant Church to the spirit of the time, a kowtow to secular agendas. Cheap grace, a doctrine that dismisses the need for bearing one's cross, is the wrong-headed faith of the Me generation.

Abusing the liberating Christian message of man's justification by grace through faith in Jesus' vicarious death and resurrection, this selfish religion dispenses with the need to adhere to Biblical norms. Its doctrine is: do your own thing, it's cool. You are forgiven, thanks be to Christ!

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Minneapolis in late July, may yet reverse this election in New Hampshire. In the meantime, though, the televised images of smug New England Episcopalians playing fast and loose with the Biblical message contrasted starkly with the amazing news clips of Pope John Paul II during his Pentecost visit to Croatia.

They showed this valiant 83-old pontiff weighed down by his heavy vestments in 100-degree temperatures, shaking with Parkinson's, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of faithful. He would not retire, he once said, because "Christ did not come down from the Cross either."

Ecce homo –- behold this man!

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