Commentary: Two kinds of Christianity

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor  |  July 21, 2003 at 6:37 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 21 (UPI) -- There is much more at stake than homosexuality at the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church next week, more even than the unity of global Anglicanism. Should it approve the consecration of an actively homosexual cleric as bishop of New Hampshire, the existence of two radically different kinds of Christianity will be there for the whole world to see.

There is on the one hand an anthropocentric Christianity, which is prevalent in North America and Western Europe. Its theology, rooted in 19th-century German liberalism and the social gospel of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, sets out from human problems and "asks for solutions on this basis," according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who condemned such thinking as unbiblical.

On the other hand, there is the Christ-centered orthodox theology that is thriving in Africa, Asia and South America and radiating from there into the northern hemisphere. It remains faithful to what Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred by the Nazis, described as "the way of all Christian thinking, (leading) not from the world to God but from God to the world."

As Bonhoeffer wrote in his prison cell, "The Church's word to the world can be no other than God's word to the world." This means: no fads, no "isms," no accommodation to worldly ideologies or desires. Bonhoeffer, who was hanged for opposing a vile ideology that had crept into the Church, made it clear that the "Word" to be preached is Jesus Christ and salvation in his name - period.

The dividing line between these two worldviews runs through all Protestant denominations and to some extent Roman Catholicism. There is no doubt which side is doing well and which side isn't. Christ-centered orthodoxy is growing robustly, including in the United States, while anthropocentric liberalism is shriveling.

In another 10 or 15 years it will amount to no more than a sect, which by traditional arithmetic the Episcopal Church has already become. By an old rule of a thumb a religious body whose membership was smaller than one percent of the U.S. population used to be considered a sect. Of the nearly 280 million U.S. citizens, a mere 2.1 million belong to the ECUSA.

What does all this have to do with the impending consecration of Canon V. Gene Robinson as bishop? Everything. According to the New York Times, 200 bishops and delegates at the Episcopal Convention in Minneapolis from July 30 until Aug. 8 have agreed to wear buttons saying, "Ask Me About Gene," and to offer testimony about his worthiness.

This alone reveals a tragic misunderstanding of the nature of the Church. Worthiness in the secular sense is not the issue here. This is not a criminal court featuring character witnesses. Neither is it a political convention with cheerleaders praising candidate Gene as a good guy.

The Church is neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International, unless you define it from Niebuhr's theological starting point, which was: human needs, powers and responsibilities. In this, Niebuhr followed his German master Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), a theologically tragic figure who had discarded Jesus as "cosmically irrelevant."

While human rights must obviously be among the Church's concerns, they are nonetheless penultimate issues, like all ethics, which according to Catholic and Lutheran teachings are superseded by the ultimate question - the God question. Scripture alone addresses this question, as the Confession of the Anglican Church clearly states in its 39 articles.

According to both the Old and the New Testaments, whose authority this Confession acknowledges, homosexuality is against the will of God, as are other things that are now legal under secular law, adultery, for example. To discriminate against a homosexual or an adulterer in the secular realm would be illegal and morally wrong.

From the Christian point of view, they never cease to be brethren either, like all other sinners, whom to judge is not our province. Like those, they are promised forgiveness, if they repent. This has been Christian theology for nearly 2,000 years. However, what the Episcopal Church is about to do - and what other denominations have already done - is to edit the need for repentance out of one particular sin, which happens to be the flavor of the day.

Since this is doubtless designed to keep these particular sinners on the membership rolls, it amounts to nothing less than the auction of indulgences, a repeat performance of the ghastly rummage sale of grace that triggered the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The Rev. Robinson has left his wife and two children, undergoing an appallingly unbiblical church ceremony including a reverse exchange of wedding rings, before setting up house with another man. That's legal enough. However, in so doing he violated the laws both of the Old Testament and of Jesus Christ - and yet Robinson endeavors to be an overseer of the Church, whose mission is to proclaim God's word. And it appears other overseers see nothing wrong with that.

By all traditional theological standards, this is no longer the Church of Christ; neither is the North Elbian Lutheran Church in Germany, whose presiding bishop, Maria Jepsen, has just accepted the patronage of the regional Christopher Street parade, a homosexual event; nor is the Anglican diocese of Vancouver, which blesses same-sex unions; nor will be the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should it decide to permit the same in two years' time.

We can take this argument further: What must radical Muslims, already disdainful of Western Christianity, think of the United Methodist Church whose Chicago bishop Joe Sprague rejects all traditional tenets of the faith, including the eternal divinity of Christ, yet was acquitted of the charge of heresy?

What must they think of the Lutheran Church in Denmark, where a pastor has lost his faith in God but nonetheless remains in the ministry, much beloved by his parishioners?

Small wonder that Osama bin Laden & Co. view Christianity as a rotten religion that can be blown away with a few good terrorist attacks. Of course bin Laden is wrong. What he sees are hollow and putrid remnants of the Church of Christ in the West - remnants with fine ceremonies, lots of good taste but no power of faith.

That's not the true Church anymore. The real Church - Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and otherwise - comes to us from the South. Happily, it does so with more force and in larger numbers than ever before in its 2,000-year history.

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