Gender Identity, the Body of Christ, and True Love: walking on the cliff's edge
by Thomas Loghry
Any observer of the American political scene would likely judge that the battle over same-sex marriage is a thing of the past; marriage has been redefined in the United States and religious conservatives, inasmuch as they disagree, have largely accepted this political reality. The new front for the battle of redefinition has been planted squarely upon the issue of gender identity, with efforts appearing across the United States to give persons access to the gendered bathrooms and sports teams that match the gender with which they identify. Coincidentally, the central headquarters for the Advent Christian General Conference and the location for the 2017 Triennial Convention are found in the state of North Carolina, a notorious battleground for this issue. North Carolina’s decision to reject what has been called the “Bathroom Bill” has caused many organizations to spurn the state and to refuse to host their company events there.
Apparently, and with no surprise, Advent Christians are not among those who have chosen to shun North Carolina. I am fully confident that I can speak for almost all Advent Christians when I say that we believe we should not contribute to gender confusion, and that we thus approve of North Carolina’s decision as a matter of course. To do otherwise, to contribute to that confusion, we believe would be to fail to show proper love. (This is not even to speak of the practical safety considerations)
However, I hope we would also say that it would be wrong if a transgendered person entered into one of our churches and we failed to welcome them with loving arms; as Christ has welcomed us, so ought we welcome them. Nevertheless, as suggested above, it would not be loving for us to invite a confused man to a Women’s Bible study. To do this would only further enable his confusion; we would be participating in the work of deception. Far from loving, it would, in fact, be hateful. However much we might wish to tell him what he wants to hear, that he is a she, his created body protests against any authority that we might suppose to redefine him. He is a he, as God created him to be.
When we consider Christian fellowship, we are likewise drawn to consider a Body. The Body of Christ is no less a substantial reality than the body of any male or female. This is the Body that Paul describes as being made of up many members, a point Christ made clear to Paul'[
on the road to Damascus when he asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” That day, Paul discovered that the Christians he was persecuting were the present and substantial Body of the ascended Christ. This led Paul to eventually describe Christ’s Body as being made up of many members, of whom the inclusion of each member serves to the greater health of the entire Body.
Though Paul describes the Body as being made up of many members, and thus of many persons, we recognize that many persons is not all persons. Had Paul been persecuting any other religious sect or people group, however equally unloving it would have been, it would not have prompted the personal confrontation he received from Christ of, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The Body of Christ, while perhaps not constrained by human systems of organization, nonetheless has a form and thus boundaries that locate its presence. The atheist, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist are not members of the Body of Christ. To say otherwise, would, in fact, be unloving because it would deceive a person who either knows or is a person who is in fact not a member of the Body and is thus bound for destruction. While I expect you don’t find this controversial, one could imagine a person asking, “Why not? Why can’t they be considered members of Christ’s Body?”
Well, what would you say? At this point, you would be forced to consider what it is that actually makes a person a member of the Body of the Christ; you would need to define the boundaries.
Now I would be the first to recognize that we are not saved by a perfect theology. I describe this as God’s “margin of grace” toward us. However, even this “margin of grace” has edges that are set both by what is objectively true and ought to be confessed and by the degree to which we are subjectively able to confess these truths. The basic implications of this for the Body of Christ are as follows:
1. The Body of Christ is defined by those who confess that God in the co-equal, co-eternal, co-existent persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has redeemed mankind in the incarnate work of Jesus Christ the Son.
2. The Body of Christ may include those who are at present partially ignorant of these truths and are thus unable to confess them, but who are nevertheless looking unto God for their salvation and not unto themselves.
To only affirm 1 would make it so a person is effectively saved by the possession of a perfect theology rather than by the perfect person of Christ. To only affirm 2 would make it so a person is effectively saved by the sincerity of their theology rather than by the reality of Christ that stands behind a faithful theology. 1 is saved by perfection; 2 is saved by sincerity; the Christian is saved by Christ.
What this means in practice for defining the Body of Christ, and thus properly loving others, is that we must work to objectively define the Body of Christ within identifiable theological boundaries even as we work with those who do not properly understand those boundaries. Neither work can be neglected without failing to properly love. Admittedly, the work of helping others to understand those boundaries appears more loving than the task of setting boundaries. However, the task of defining boundaries is decisively important for properly demonstrating love.
If we love God, we are compelled to love His truth so that we may come to a closer knowledge of Him. Thus, if we claim to love God, we cannot be apathetic to seeking the truth. In the course of seeking the truth, we must give account for those revealed truths that outline the Body of Christ. If there are those among us who are ignorant of these truths, we must lovingly seek to bring them to a fuller understanding. However, if they refuse to recognize these truths, despite our steadfast and longstanding efforts, we must eventually recognize that they are not members of the Body of Christ. If we love them, we must do this or else risk affirming their self-deception.
As Advent Christians, we tend to view this as controversial, yet is this not what we see Paul doing throughout the New Testament? The revelation of Christ represented the fullest increase of God’s revelation to Man. However, we understand that for a long time before Christ’s incarnation, God had been about the work of revealing himself in a special way to the Jewish people. Accordingly, Paul often went first to the synagogue to share the Gospel with the Jews, a pattern with a theological basis, as found when he writes to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Those faithful Jews who expected to be saved were expected by Paul to receive this further revelation of Christ as the Messiah. They became responsible for their response to the revelation of Christ. Failure here to confess Christ as God and Savior would mean they would be cut off from God, even as the Gentiles were being grafted in by such confession.
This same responsibility applies to anybody who is confronted with the truth today. Failure to eventually conform to the truth is to separate oneself from the Body. Thus, returning to the earlier point, if we love God we must love the truth. If we love others and they are to love God to the fullest, they must be lovingly taught the truth about God. If they refuse to conform to the truth, they are not a part of the Body. Admittedly, this is a sad reality, but it is one we must recognize if we are to properly love others.
The result for those who reject the truth is that they do not have “fellowship” with us. This does not mean that such persons cannot sit in our churches or listen to our teaching. This does not mean that we would cease to love them or that we would break off our friendships with them. This does not mean that we could not share a meal together.
What it means is that we could not share every meal together. For those who are not members of the Body of Christ, it means that we cannot share with them in the bread and cup, the Body and Blood of Christ, because this is a meal for those who are members of the Body of Christ. This means we do not call what is not of Christ, of Christ. When we call persons Christians who are not, in fact, Christians, we do not show them love but hatred.
If you are reading into this the presence of non-Trinitarians in our denomination, you are not wrong to make that application, but what I am speaking to here goes beyond whether or not there continues to be a non-Trinitarian presence in our denomination. What I have been describing here is our basic responsibility to love others by speaking and living according to the truth. If we only speak the truth and our words are not eventually met by actions that accord with the reality of which we speak, our actions will, in the end, speak louder than our words. When we maintain membership and church association with anyone, we are saying that the views such persons hold are those of the Body of Christ. Advent Christians have rightly welcomed into membership any person who is a member of the Body of Christ. In so doing, we have been faithful in displaying the love for one another that Christ desired for us in his John 17 prayer. However, we are faithless in showing the love of Christ when, for whatever reason, we call people members who are in fact not members of the Body of Christ. Our responsibility here demands that we recognize where the edge of the cliff lies. It is not that we decide where the edge lies but that we identify where one would fall off; the edge exists whether we like it or not.
“Rescue those being taken off to death, and save those stumbling toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we didn't know about this,’ won't He who weighs hearts consider it? Won't He who protects your life know? Won't He repay a person according to his work?” Proverbs 24:11-12