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The Essential Question - by Dr. Robert Sanders

The Essential Question

By Robert Sanders

I have just finished reading David Virtue's interview with Dr. Ephraim Radner, and that in the context of some studies of how the Church Universal has dealt with the matter of false teaching and rank immorality. I do not believe Radner's responses to these matters lead us in the right direction. As a result, I am forced to take pen in hand, or rather, fingers to keyboard, to address this vital issue.

The place to begin is Jesus Christ. According to Radner Jesus was a "stayer" not a "leaver." By this he means that Jesus did not abandon Israel. Rather, he subjected himself to the Jewish authorities, even to death on the cross. This act of humiliation fulfilled the law and the prophets, above all Israel's Exile. As such, it is the pattern of God's redemptive work. Therefore, Christians should submit themselves to Church authorities and stay, not leave.

Further, when David Virtue asked Radner if it was not true that "Jesus finally abandoned Israel," with the implication that there are times when one must separate, Radner replied,

The notion that Jesus "abandoned" Israel is nonsense, David. Indeed, a very pernicious nonsense, if I may state it so strongly. Jesus died for Israel, in the form of Israel, and tied to Israel. The passage you cite (Matthew 23:38) expresses the sorrow of Jesus at Israel's rejection of his love, not his own rejection of their person.

Radner goes on to fortify his point that Christ did not abandon Israel by discussing Romans 9-11, and from there to the notion that "radically supersessionist view of Israel is in fact historically tied to the promotion of separatism and schism within the Christian Church itself ..." Since Jesus did not abandon Israel, we should not abandon ECUSA.

Let us be clear. The primary matter facing us is not whether Jesus was a "stayer" or a "leaver," but whether or not we are "stayers" or "leavers" in regard to Jesus. The question is not whether Jesus abandoned Israel (he did not), but rather, whether Israel or anyone else abandons Jesus. That is the question we face, first and foremost. When that question is placed first, and it must be first, then we can see clearly that Jesus is the Lord of Israel, that he formed a new Israel, that he called people to decide for or against him, and that this decision created a division between those who decided for him and those who did not. This is utterly clear from the gospel records. Jesus knew it, his disciples knew it, his opponents knew it. He was not crucified because he was a "stayer" or a "leaver," but for blasphemy. He was the Lord, claiming an authority above the law and the prophets. As Lord, he decided to stay and be crucified, but he was first Lord, and as the Lord, he created and still creates a division between those who recognize his Lordship and those who do not. By framing the issue in terms of whether Jesus was a "stayer" or "leaver," Radner has defined the issue in terms of obedience to religious authority, rather than in terms of obedience to Christ. This covertly places the Church before Christ, rather than Christ as Lord of the Church.

How is the decision for or against Christ made manifest? From the beginning, Christ's Lordship was first proclaimed in baptism and celebrated in Eucharist. One enters into his body by baptism, and one's life is Christ is sustained by Holy Eucharist. Can just anyone be baptized, can anyone receive the Holy Eucharist? Baptism means surrender to Christ as Lord and Savior. Eucharist means living that commitment in life. Not everyone is admitted to baptism, and for those baptized, not all are automatically admitted to Eucharist. The witness of the New Testament, as well as the teaching of the Church Universal, is that only those who are committed to him can be baptized. Further, once baptized, grossly immoral, unrepentant persons and false teachers are not admitted to the Eucharist. To my mind this is the clear teaching of the New Testament as well as the witness of the Church Universal. This should be obvious.

I find it rather strange that Radner did not address the question of who can be admitted to Holy Communion. Before we discuss whether we should stay or leave, before we decide for or against institutional unity, we must decide a prior question -- With whom shall we share the body and blood of Jesus Christ? That is the first and fundamental question once we have committed ourselves to Christ as Lord.

David Virtue then poses several questions regarding Paul and other New Testament writers who seem to teach that Christians should separate themselves from immoral persons and false teachers. Radner addresses these questions in terms of Paul, and he does to Paul what he did with Jesus. According to Radner, Paul understands that his "people are a trust he has been given," they are his "little children, he is their "mother" a "parent" who is "responsible for his charges, and accountable for their lives unto the end." Paul, like Jesus, is a "shepherd who leaves those who are well in order to find the one who has wandered astray." From this perspective, Paul exercises discipline, and may even ask the Corinthians to "banish one of their immoral members from their midst" but this "is done for the offender's ultimate salvation (1 Cor. 5:5)." Paul also urges his congregations, quoting Radner, "to keep clear of false teaching, false teachers, and immoral persons. He urges them to do this as members of his flock, within a given church. He does not urge them to leave churches and to divide congregations for they are his in a special way!" Furthermore, "Paul never asks that congregations split over their adherence to this or that teacher, however false they may be."

As one reads this section two factors become apparent. First, Radner is thinking of Paul as one who primary task is to maintain unity in the Church, and within that context, exercise discipline. This is similar to his framing Jesus' ministry in terms of being a "stayer" or a "leaver." Paul wants the people in his congregations to be "stayers" not "leavers," and so does Radner. But staying and leaving was not Paul's primary aim, though that is very important. Paul's primary responsibility was to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and to live under his Lordship. If Paul's ultimate aim had been Church unity, he could have applied the solution of ECUSA"s revisionists -- allow all baptized persons to come to the Eucharist. But Church unity was not Paul's ultimate aim. There was a norm that stood over the Church, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. By that norm Paul and the early Church judged that grossly immoral persons and false teachers had violated their allegiance to the Lord, and therefore, they were not admitted to Church fellowship nor to the Eucharist. Dr. Radner doesn't face that fact straight on. In fact, his treatment is a bit muddled. He wants to present Paul as one who "does not urge them [his congregations] to leave churches and to divide congregations," yet Paul insisted that his churches exercise discipline. In the end, these two requirements are mutually exclusive. Here is Radner,

It is from this position that Paul encourages Christians to keep clear of false teaching, false teachers, and immoral persons. He urges them to do this as members of his flock, within a given church. He does not urge them to leave churches and to divide congregations for they are his in a special way! -- but rather to exercise within their own ranks the "discipline" necessary to maintain a clear witness and godly context of common formation.

In light of ECUSA's present apostasy, the phrases of this quotation contradict themselves. Christians are to "keep clear of false teaching, false teachers, and immoral persons," they are to discipline "within their own ranks," yet they are not to "leave churches and to divide congregations." What discipline was available to the early Church or to the Church today? One can think of gentle admonishment, earnest teaching of those gone wrong, rebuke, warning, and finally, exclusion from fellowship and the Holy Eucharist. Now, when a major sector of a Church has gone over to false teaching, elected a unrepentant grossly immoral person to its highest office, refused admonition, teaching, and warning, become incapable of disciplining itself, what course is left? Only one alternative remains -- the faithful must not participate in Holy Eucharist with the apostate. When that happens, the Church as a whole will divide, unless of course we maintain some form of institutional unity while avoiding each other eucharistically. (I will discuss this shortly). As it is, however, in the present circumstance, discipline and Church unity are mutually exclusive.

The practice of the Church of the first few centuries confirms the foregoing. I have just finished reading Werner Elert's incisive analysis, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries. He confirmed what I have known since seminary. The ancient Church excluded unrepentant, immoral persons and false teachers from the Eucharist. Once excluded, they were also excluded from fellowship. Exclusion from Eucharist was done first and foremost to preserve the integrity of the body of Christ. It was done out of obedience. Secondly, exclusion was done for the sake of discipline, to enable repentance. Christ was first, his integrity, and then the discipline, and not vice-versa. Ultimately, for those who would not heed godly council (our present situation), exclusion from Eucharist was the only alternative. Finally, decisions on false teaching needed to be made corporately. Church councils became the primary instrument for making these decisions. This is the positive truth that Radner does advocate.

Throughout the interview, Radner had plenty of opportunities to affirm this legacy, a tradition that continued through the Middle Ages and into early Anglicanism. He did not do so. Rather, the obscured the matter. For example, he stated the following,

Much could be said about particular passages and about the evolution of the practices of discipline and even of excommunication in the developing Christian Church. These are serious and complex matters, often poorly understood by historians. And they should not be dealt with cavalierly, as they tend to be in the midst of present argument.

There are, of course, many things that are "often poorly understood by historians," yet certain matters are quite clear -- there is a vital connection between admittance to Holy Communion and Christian faith and practice.

Further, Radner's response to David Virtue's question on Cyprian was not that helpful. The clear intent of David's question was to bring before us the problem of apostate bishops. Radner diverts the issue, beginning with a discussion of Cyprian's views on the "juridical-canonical" understanding of Church structures, then on to Cyprian's ideas on clerical contagion, and finally, he affirms Cyprian in his notion that discipline must be "discipline within communion," with the consequence that the Anglican Communion as a whole must deal with ECUSA's heretical bishops. Yes, this is true. But what options are open to the primates of the Anglican Communion? Given that ECUSA"s revisionists have been admonished and warned by the primates as well as our ecumenical partners, given that they cannot be expected to discipline themselves, given that Radner thinks that we are "dealing with something akin to madness" among ECUSA's revisionists, given that he thinks that "Dialogue is useless at present, because there is little shared basis of evangelical commitment upon which to follow the persuasive compulsion of argument," and given that the primates cannot depose American bishops, they will have but one choice -- to refuse to share the body and blood of Christ with revisionist bishops and to call on the faithful in the States to do the same. Whether they take this course or do not, we all will face the same question -- "Will we or will we not make Eucharist with those who have publicly and egregiously betrayed the faith?"

Rather than reaching these conclusions, Radner seems to be holding out for "unity" at any cost. At the beginning of the interview he was asked if there were any circumstances in which one should leave the Church. He responded with an analogy, the analogy of divorce. All sorts of people evade Jesus' simple command not to divorce. By analogy, we should never separate from the Church. As Radner puts it, we should ask ourselves the simple question, "Is Christ divided?" and since he isn't, we should not divide. Well, Christ is not divided, but we are divided, and we are divided over Christ. Radner has led us in the wrong direction by a misleading question.

Far more evidence could be presented here to make my critical point, that the fundamental teaching of the Church through the centuries is that notoriously immoral persons and false teachers should be banned from the Eucharist. This was certainly understood at the time of the Reformation by all sides. It was clearly understood by Anglicans. Rome and the Church of England divided, and the issue was doctrine and practice. Both knew it, both felt they must withdraw from the other. The Anglican Church simply thought Rome was in error and set forth its position in the Articles of Religion. One Anglican scholar summarized these Anglican claims in these words,

The errors of the Church of Rome can easily be seen from the statements of the Articles themselves. Thus in its "living" can be proved by the celibacy of the clergy (Article XXXII); in its "manner of Ceremonies," (Article XXIV) and the denial of the cup to the laity may be adduced (Article XXX); in regard to "matters of Faith," the errors are almost too numerous to mention, including the use of tradition (Article VI) the works of supererogation (Article XIV), purgatory (Article XXII), the seven Sacraments (Article XXV), Transubstantiation (Article XXVIII), and several more.(1)

In light of the foregoing, what must we do? Before addressing that question, I would like to discuss one more matter, the matter of doctrine.

As between gross immorality and false doctrine, false doctrine is the more insidious. It is insidious because it so often appears to affirm the normative documents and traditions of the faith. Nevertheless, it takes the fundamental sources of Christian Truth and interprets them in ways that ultimately denies that Jesus Christ is Lord. The heretic Arius, for example, believed in the Scriptures, went to Eucharist, held to the creed of his time, and yet, he understood these sources of Christian Truth in a way that ultimately undermined the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Similarly, the revisionists of today do not deny Scripture, the Creeds, the liturgies, and the great traditions of the Church. Rather, they take these documents and interpret them from an alien perspective that vitiates their saving substance. I have documented this repeatedly in this column and on my web page (www.rsanders.org). The pious revisionists of today never tire of telling us that they affirm Scripture, that they love the Prayer Book and the tradition, that they find worship sublime. But they will rarely, practically never, lay bear the theological perspective they use to distort these sources of Christian Truth.

When this theological perspective is laid bare, it can be seen that revisionist are actually worshipping another god. For example, I am convinced that Frank Griswold is essentially a mystical pagan. I have demonstrated this by analyzing the operant theology of his public speeches. Michael Johnston, author of Engaging the Word, Volume Three of The New Church's Teaching Series, holds a similar position. Spong's theology is so incoherent that it can scarcely be classified. The theological presuppositions of William Countryman's Dirt, Greed, and Sex, have nothing to do with the classical creedal way of interpreting Scripture. These theological approaches smuggle other sources of revelation into the Christian faith so as to undermine the normative revelation of God given in Jesus Christ as known in Scripture. All these people worship in the Episcopal Church, resonate to its liturgies, quote its Scripture, but they do so in a way that substitutes another god for the living Father of Jesus Christ. For that reason, when the orthodox share the body and blood of Christ with them, they are not worshipping the same God. This does terrible violence to the body of Christ.

What must we do? Let me begin with the Episcopate. Bishops are especially called to defend the faith. They are visible signs of unity, and this unity entails agreement on fundamental doctrines and moral norms. None of our orthodox bishops, as well as our orthodox bishops abroad, should be taking communion with the ECUSA's revisionists. Further, no one, laity or otherwise, should be sharing the body and blood of Jesus with revisionist bishops. This is fundamental. Of course, there are many persons, and all of us in some way, who do not hold to the core doctrines of the Church, nor practice holy living. But laity, priests, and deacons are not the visible signs of doctrinal and moral unity. Bishops are. If we must resist, and we must, we must begin there. This implies that orthodox bishops must cross diocesan boundaries to offer Eucharist to congregations with revisionists bishops. The foregoing seems utterly clear.

Further, and this point may entail further debate, we must question whether or not we can take communion from orthodox bishops who participate in Eucharists with revisionists. Why?
To begin with, when orthodox bishops share the body and blood of Christ with revisionists, they give visible and terrible assent to their ideology. That ideology is simple -- profound theological and moral differences are ultimately irrelevant, they are papered over in the sharing of Christ's very body and blood. This profanes and degrades the Eucharist. Secondly, it is a part of the orthodox faith that the faithful should not share eucharist with the heterodox. One cannot be orthodox and share communion with false teachers. For the ancient Church, if anyone shared communion with heretics, they placed themselves outside orthodox fellowship. Let me quote Werner Elert, speaking of the Church of the first four centuries.

All acknowledged that the fellowship of a church can no more be piecemeal than the church itself. Its integrity depends on the integrity of all members. No member may overstep the boundaries of fellowship without the approval of all members. Whoever communicates with a heretic, schismatic, or any man that for any reason is not within the fellowship thereby disqualifies himself from the fellowship. He is guilty of injuring the integrity of the whole. For this reason every member must hold to the sacrament administered within the borders of the fellowship.(2)

Although the faithful must not share Holy Communion with revisionists bishops, this does not, to my mind at this point, entail leaving ECUSA. In the longer term, however, broken communion will lead to institutional division. For the moment, I would prefer that institutional division be approached cautiously for the sake of people and property. Further, we need an immediate discussion over the propriety of taking communion from orthodox bishops who communicate with the revisionists. If we share Holy Eucharist with someone, this implies doctrinal and moral agreement on fundamentals. How can orthodox bishops be orthodox if they share the body and blood of Christ with those who overtly and covertly deny the faith? Unless someone can show me differently, I do not see how they can.

In short, the essential question is not whether to stay or leave ECUSA as an institution, but rather, whether or not we worship Christ as Lord with those who undermine the faith.

1. W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology, An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, London: Church Book Room Press, 1951, p. 273.

2. Elert, Werner, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966, p. 174.

The Rev. Dr. Robert J. Sanders The Rev. Dr. Robert J. Sanders serves as Associate Rector at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Jacksonville, FL. Prior to his service at St. Mark's, he was the rector for twelve years at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Kansas. He has also served in Central America, where he was the Director of Theological Education in the Diocese of Honduras. He did his undergraduate work at The University of the South at Sewanee. He has a Ph.D. in systematic theology.


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