jQuery Slider

You are here

The Scripture and Unbelieving Church Leaders

The Scripture and Unbelieving Church Leaders

By Dave Doveton
September 7, 2023

The recent Times survey in which a small portion of Church of England clerics were asked to give their opinions on a wide range of subjects -- including sexual ethics and whether they thought England was still a Christian country -- has resulted in a flood of commentary on the results. Some have questioned the methodology used in the survey, but it is clear that a considerable number of CofE clerics and bishops do not believe what the scriptures teach regarding sexual ethics.[i]

Dr Ian Paul, who has rightly highlighted the very flawed methodology of the survey goes on to make an important observation; "despite very clear statements about the doctrine of the C of E in canon law, despite the clarity of the Articles and Ordinal as founding documents, and despite the clear statement made by clergy at ordination that they believe and will expound the doctrine of the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it, it is very clear that many clergy do not. Because of this almost unbounded diversity of views within the C of E, we have lost the ability to speak clearly on any major issue -- other than those where our views will not cause any real dissent."[ii]

This survey came at a time when the newly elected Archbishop of Southern Queensland (Brisbane) Jeremy Greaves, came under scrutiny. He is not only an outspoken supporter of 'same sex marriage', but he also rejects key understandings of Christian truth as expressed in our creeds, saying he would be happy to 'abandon the creeds'[iii].

This is not a mere wrestling with doubts which many of us from time to time as fallible human beings find ourselves doing, while we hold onto the foundational truths as expressed in the creeds. This is much more serious and consequential.

The writer to the Hebrews after recounting how the Israelites lapsed in their belief, in a characteristic admonition to his hearers sounds a severe warning "Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God."[iv]

The word translated 'fall away' is apostēnai, which involves a deviation from basic doctrinal truth. He has observed that some of this congregation risk the same heart condition that the early Israelites displayed. The danger of unbelief is that it has evil consequences, and further it is necessary for fellow believers to alert and call back by mutual exhortation those who have been hardened (v 13).

Unbelief is a recurring theme in John's gospel. In John 5, when Jesus confronts the spiritual leaders of the day, the Pharisees, he outlines the real issue which lies behind their arguments against him.
"You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?" John 5:39-47 ESV
The Pharisees of course do not accept Jesus' testimony about himself. They do not believe that he is the Christ, at the same time claiming their adherence to the TORAH and Mosaic teaching. According to Jesus, the root problem however is not their reading of scripture, but unbelief. Despite their confession of faith, they show that they do not in fact believe Moses' writings (the TORAH) because they do not believe Jesus. Unbelief in Jesus and his word is related to unbelief in the Old Testament ethical law and by implication those who reject the sexual ethics of the Torah are in unbelief.

Furthermore, Jesus explains that the root of unbelief is a heart attitude.
"How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek glory that comes from the only God?" John 5:44 ESV

Seeking human approval above honouring God is a sure sign of a heart problem. The Pharisees are not in the end honouring God, because they are concerned with human approval, not the approval of God. Paul expresses it well concerning those under the Old Covenant,
"But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God." Romans 2:29 ESV.

Furthermore, from Jesus' remarks, searching the scripture with a wrong heart will produce the wrong conclusions -- as we see from those who produce revisionist readings of the TORAH -- especially regarding the TORAH's teaching on sexual behaviour. The Pharisees were respected leaders who were very religious and very pious but had constructed a religious system that did not ultimately spring from true belief and the desire to honour God. In Matthew 15 Jesus reveals how the Pharisees belief system sprung from false hearts.
"... Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 'this people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'" Matthew 15:7-9 ESV

Most orthodox Anglicans would have been shocked by the Archbishop of York's statement in a BBC interview where he confirmed his belief that sexual immorality was not sinful[v]. He is not the first churchman to have this opinion. In an essay examining Karl Barth's personal life (who had a long-lasting affair with his secretary), Samuel Parkison notes how this theologian, learned and competent though he was, justified his own sin of adultery. To see why this could be, Parkison consults a great theologian from the past, Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory wrote at length on the necessity for purity of heart when theologising because our spiritual state will affect our intellectual apprehension -- for as Jesus stated, it is the pure in heart who shall see God.[vi]
"Discussion of theology is not for everyone," he says, "but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun's brightness."[vii]

Religious systems can turn people away from Christ when they are constructed with an eye to appease contemporary cultural norms. They can seem very spiritual and pious, but are deceptive and lead people not to life, but death. To these, Jesus sounds a very severe warning,
But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God." John 8:45-47 ESV

Leaders who seek human approval above the honouring of God is a theme that is also examined in the Old Testament. One instance of this is found in 1 Samuel where God proclaims through the prophet his sentence on Eli and his family.
"And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him, "Thus says the Lord, 'Did I indeed reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt subject to the house of Pharaoh? Did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? I gave to the house of your father all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel. Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?' Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: 'I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,' but now the Lord declares: 'Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed"1 Samuel 2:27-36, ESV.

Eli's sons had offended God by their sexual immorality and by profaning the sacrificial offerings. However, we note that the judgement of God fell not only on his sons, but Eli as well. Because Eli was both their father and their spiritual leader responsibility fell on him. He was responsible not only for the irreverent cultic practices, but for honouring his sons above God. Eli had honoured his sons above honouring God, and this is ultimately why he is judged. The clear message here is that Christian leaders have a responsibility before God in several respects for those they oversee. They are responsible for their own behaviour, but also for the behaviour and doctrine of those under them.

In the Anglican Ordinal, priests promise to "...banish error in doctrine with sound teaching based on holy scripture"[viii]. Bishops in like manner, are obviously further called to exercise "authority and oversight", which of course includes discipline. Most Primates and Archbishops of the Global South -- both affiliates and non-affiliates of GAFCON -- have made their orthodox doctrinal positions clear and have maintained discipline. Archbishops have a certain moral authority if not canonical authority over other bishops -- they are primus inter pares. Bishops have canonical authority over diocesan priests. If those who have authority sit on the fence or turn a blind eye where other bishops or priests are openly promoting false doctrine, they are dishonouring God. If they place collegiality or unity above their responsibility to banish error, they are dishonouring God. Allowing subordinates to continue leading the church astray is to dishonour God, and to risk standing before the Divine judge.


[i] Over half of those who replied to the survey (53%) support priests being allowed to conduct same-sex weddings if they wish; 59% would offer blessings to same-sex couples if allowed, 62% said they supported a change to the Church's current opposition to premarital sex, and 64.5% said that the Church should change its teaching that "homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture".
[ii] https://thecritic.co.uk/concern-trolling-the-clergy/
[iii] https://davidould.net/new-assistant-bishop-of-brisbane-is-happy-to-abandon-the-creed/
[iv] Hebrews 3:12
[v] See https://christianconcern.com/news/archbishop-of-york-says-sexual-immorality-is-not-sinful/
[vi] Matthew 5:8.
[vii] Parkison quoting St Gregory, What Are Theologians For? The Case of Karl Barth's Adultery, The Gospel Coalition, February 2, 2023.
[viii] An Anglican Prayer Book, Anglican Church of Southern Africa, p588.

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top