Sin and Error in the Church
One of the most striking things about the Bible is its reality. It has often been observed, for example that only one of its heroes – the Son of God himself – is without sin. Sometimes the sins of the saints are very serious indeed.
The Bible’s reality includes its description of the Church. As Acts 4 draws to its conclusion with a description of the wonderful generosity of Christian people to those in need, we may think that the presence of the Spirit has led to instant and complete holiness. Then comes the story of Ananias and Sapphira to bring us back to reality. Grievous sin exists in the Church itself. Sometimes those who sin are merely outward Christians; sometimes their faith is much more than that.
And so in page after page of the NT we have the same testimony. One of the key obligations for receiving the Supper of the Lord is that people who have offended each other are reconciled (1 Corinthians 11). Paul has to urge that two women workers become reconciled (Philippians 4:2-3). Paul himself had a sharp conflict with Barnabas about Mark (Acts 15:37-40). Peter had to be rebuked by Paul (Galatians 2). And so the list goes on, including serious offences such as sexual immorality, greed and litigiousness (I Corinthians 5-6) and false teaching (2 Peter 2).
Why am I talking about this?
Because I heard a strange argument recently. When the question of sexual ethics and the teaching of the Bible was raised with a senior leader, the reply was – well look how bad your church is. There followed a long list of sins and offences, some of them very serious: corruption, adultery, strife, false teaching. This is all very tragic. But it is not equivalent to changing the doctrine of the church and actually blessing what God condemns.
I am sorry to say, having been Bishop now for many years that nothing would surprise me. Indeed, knowing my own heart, nothing would surprise me. Indeed knowing the Bible, nothing would surprise me. Our own doctrine tells us how bad we are, even though the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts. Our own Prayer Book majors on the confession of sins and with very weighty words indeed. And I hope our practice assumes the possibility of sin and even crime in our midst – it is always wise for two people to count the offertory for example.
Of course this is not the whole story. Christian people, blessed by the Holy Spirit of God are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. The Christian church so often shines in the darkness and Christians live for God sacrificially and lovingly. But this side of eternity we are far from perfect.
But that is what puzzled and worried me about this argument. It was as though the person did not know how bad the church can be and is in his own culture. You can find tribalism, sexual immorality and false teaching in all the churches. You may even find the leadership turning a blind eye to it. But– it is one thing to point to the sins of the church. It is another thing altogether to justify an official change in doctrine and practice to incorporate them! After all, no-one is pretending that greed is good or that corruption is Christian. But many are actually officially changing the teaching and practice of the church in a way which denies scripture. That is the problem.
You cannot justify your own doctrinal failure by pointing out that other people are sinful.