In Good Conscience

How can a Christian in good conscience worship in a church that celebrates Gay Pride? That’s how.

We’re approaching June, Gay Pride Month. Good time to get ahead of a tough topic. It’s tough for while many young evangelicals are returning to older church traditions, that number including some entering the Episcopal church, a tradition that in 2015 amended its canons regulating marriage, permitting same-sex marriage. It celebrates Gay Pride Month.

This troubles many conservative Christians. They rightly ask how any Christian in good conscience can worship in a church that celebrates Gay Pride.

Good question. I raised this question with a good friend, a mentor. He’s conservative, ordained in the Episcopal church. He took me to the story of Naaman (II Kings 5). Here’s my recap of the story.

Naaman was a Syrian who served the pagan king of Syria, a country that routinely raided Israel, capturing Israelites to serve as slaves. One of those slaves was a young girl who happened to become a servant to Naaman’s wife. This proved providential, as one day Naaman became afflicted with a grievous skin disease. The young girl suggested to Naaman’s wife that Naaman ought to meet a prophet in Samaria. He’d heal Naaman.

Naaman’s wife told her husband who told the king of Syria who told Naaman to Go! For good measure the king wrote a letter of introduction to the king of Israel. For good measure Naaman brought along gifts of silver, gold, and clothing.

But this made the king of Israel suspicious. Is the king of Syria setting me up for some sort of raid? I can’t heal anyone. But the king had heard that the prophet Elisha could. He sent Naaman to him. When Naaman arrived, Elisha didn’t meet him. His servant did. He told him to immerse himself seven times in the Jordan River. He’d be healed.

Naaman was indignant. A lowly servant telling a man of my high stature what to do? And the River Jordan? It’s filthy compared to our rivers in Syria. Naaman stomped off, mad as hell.

Fortunately, Naaman’s servant intervened. He urged Naaman to swallow his pride and do as the servant said. So Naaman did. He immersed himself in the Jordan seven times. His skin was healed; like the skin of a little baby.

Naaman was humbled. He came to faith, offering Elisha the gifts of silver, gold, and clothing. No thank you, Elisha said, I’ll take nothing. Fair enough said Naaman. But he asked if he could take some soil back to Syria so that he could worship on soil from Israel. Naaman didn’t want to worship any god other than the God of Israel. Elisha granted his request.

Then Naaman made an odd request. He asked for future forgiveness for his role as the Syrian king’s servant. In this role, Naaman physically supported the king when he bowed to pagan idols. Naaman bowed with him, supporting his weight, in effect worshipping a Syrian idol. He asked that Elisha “see to it that God forgive me for this.”

Naaman didn’t need forgiveness. “Everything will be all right,” Elisha said. “Go in peace.”

Everything will be all right? Yes. Elisha recognized an idol is nothing. So did the Apostle Paul. Many in the church in Corinth didn’t however. They felt meat sacrificed to idols defiled them. Paul said no, the problem was their weak conscience. For Christians with a strong conscience, “an idol is nothing” (I Cor.8:4). Elisha wanted Naaman to be a man of good conscience, recognizing that in bowing down with the king, he was bowing down to… nothing. It won’t defile him. It’s not sin.

That’s why Elisha adds, Go in peace. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom, our word flourishing. Elisha is telling Naaman to go, serve, seek Syria’s flourishing. Naamar must have thought, seek the flourishing of Syria? Ya gotta be kidding… it’s an idolatrous nation.

But God wasn’t kidding. This is reminiscent of God’s command through the prophet Jeremiah to the Judeans in exile in Babylon: seek Babylon’s flourishing. The Judeans must have thought, seek the flourishing of Babylon? Ya gotta be kidding. The Babylonian army had razed the temple in Jerusalem, tore Judean children to pieces and raped Judean wives. And Judah was supposed to seek Babylon’s flourishing? Yes. The sons of Judah took God seriously. They served King Nebuchadnezzar, hoping he’d eventually “come to his senses” (Dan.4:34), a phrase denoting how his conscience eventually convicted him. It worked. He did.

Christians of good conscience can worship with those who worship idols. They recognize an idol is nothing. This is how my friend sees his work in the Episcopal Church. It has good bones, a subject I addressed a few years ago. These good bones—traditions, sacraments, faith formation—date back as far as the third century AD. Even with its ebbs and flows (common to all faith traditions) Anglicanism has held to an orthodox view of the gospel for most of her history.

It’s only recently that she’s gone astray, worshipping an idol: Gay Pride. But an idol is nothing. Like the father who waited and prayed for his prodigal son to come to his senses, there are orthodox Christians who feel called to worship in the Episcopal Church, waiting and praying that she will come to her senses.

And let’s not kid ourselves. Conservative Christians have their own idols, most of whom they’re as blind to as are our liberal brothers and sisters in their idolatry of Gay Pride. Idols are Equal Opportunity Blinders.

At the end of the day, this issue seems to boil down to calling and the strength of one’s conscience. My aim is to widen our imagination a bit, recognizing how a healthy conscience widens the range of traditions where Christians can indeed worship.

ClaphamInstitutePodcast
PODCAST

The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.

7 Comments

  1. An excellent reminder of a basic Christian truth: “an idol is nothing”. As an evangelical, I struggle with the idolatry I see in the evangelical church. If there was ever a tradition in need of reformation, it is the modern evangelical church.

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I wonder if Elisha would have responded differently if Naaman’s service had been not to the king of Syria, but to a high priest who was worshipping idols in Jerusalem? Seems like the idol in question is a little closer to home.

  3. That is a good question, one I have never considered and really don’t have a good answer for.

    Perhaps someone else might offer one. Let’s stay tuned.

  4. I’ll give answering the question a try: Naaman and we ourselves are always free to shout “idolater!” Knock over the idol, shove the King to the ground – whatever. Isn’t the question: what’s the best move at the moment? Every circumstance is different. Jesus could have tipped over tables in the temple every day if He wanted to – but He didn’t.

  5. Mike and Dave, I’m not sure I see the point about Jesus in the temple with the money changers. Jesus was just as displeased about the money changers in the temple everyday it was happening. Shouldn’t the I think the important point is that the Pharisees should have knocked those tables over every day! They failed to do so! Just because Jesus didn’t turn the tables over everyday didn’t mean that it was no big deal the other days. I agree circumstance, context and prudence are all important factors, but I just don’t see Jesus waiting being an example of that type of prudence… he was metaphorically throwing over tables his entire public ministry wherever he went. That is why the Pharisees wanted to kill him and plotted to do so very early on.

    To go back to the example of Mike’s conservative Episcopal mentor, I’m sure it hasn’t been easy to remain to the Episcopal church. I think it’s admirable he’s not washed his hands of them and is prayerfully seeking its reform. I can imagine someone doing that well would have similar enemies just as Christ. If he has spoken the truth to his superiors, to his congregation, he probably has a target on his back. It makes me think that Christ illuminates the difference between being complicit with the church you are a member of and all their dogmatic and moral statements and actively trying to reform it in light of one’s rightly formed conscience, i.e. formed by authoritative orthodox Church teaching. Thomas Moore comes to mind here. He tried his best to remain a part of the Church IN England in silence, but he was not allowed to remain silent. His hand was forced because those in power ultimately knew where he stood on King Henry the VIII’s attack on the Church and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. He had a target on his back, but he also was seeking to silently and prayerful reform the Church without bowing to an idol. He sought prayer and silence, but he didn’t hide in his silence or suggest compliance. He actually actively wrote and published against King Henry the VIII while seeking to be silent in the public courts.

    Mike, I want to challenge your point because I think you are undermining your previous arguments in earlier posts. If I understand correctly, you make the parallel of seeking the flourishing of an idolatrous sinful nation like Israel did in Babylon as an equivalent of being in the Episcopal Church and not worrying about Gay Pride because it’s “nothing”, a false idol. All one needs to do is quietly worship in the tradition and pray they come back to the truth of the gospel. I don’t think that is a reasonable response in light of what you just wrote on how the primary metaphor of the gospel is marriage. Isn’t an attack on marriage nothing short of full blown heresy then? (I say that as a friend and know that you appreciate a thoughtful challenge).

    To draw on the Babylonian exile, it seems the sons of Judah had a well formed conscience. I’m thinking particularly of those who refused to bow down to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar and were thrown in the firery furnace. They knew what they could and couldn’t silently go along with. Not all idols are nothing, especially when everyone around you thinks they are the real deal.

    I do see your point that conscience is very important. Idols are all over the Christian tradition throughout history. But orthodoxy has preserved in part because idols have been cut off and the truth has been fiercely fought for. People in conscience have broken in communion with each other because of the biblical imperatives to do so.

    Conscience obviously plays a critical role in reform. I think you are subtly suggesting in your piece that our own idols sometimes make us hypocritical because we are more concerned with the speck in our brothers eye than our own. Or to put it differently, we aren’t actually fighting over the truth as much as we are protecting our own idols and pointing the finger at the reform that needs to happen “in that tradition over there”. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how one forms a right conscience and what the proper authority conscience should play in the Christian life. How should we go about seeking to reform our traditions as Christ would call us to? I’m genuinely wrestling with this because my own tradition is once again in need of reform.

    God bless,

    Finally, I think there is a clear difference between those under the name and banner of Christ and the pagans like Naaman. The episcopal church is claiming to be under the banner of Christ and preaching the truth. To this I think the response is clear, idolatry must be called out actively (not to say anything about discretion).

    God bless,

Leave a Reply to Newt Beck Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.