Erring Shepherds, Ancient and Modern

The Church of England’s surrender on sexual morality

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” So God declares in the opening verse of Jeremiah 23. In the 2019 Book of Common Prayer, the daily office gives this text as the Old Testament lesson for the evening of January 24. The chapter goes on to give a thorough rebuke of that day’s prophets and priests—those tasked with the spiritual care of God’s people. Though directly aimed at the Israelites, this passage of Scripture encapsulates well the contemporary state of the Church of England (as well the Scottish and American episcopal churches, among others).

The latest evidence regarding the Church of England came out on January 18th. Its bishops concluded a six-year process known as Living in Love and Faith, which sought to assess the church’s doctrine and practice regarding matters of human sexuality. They announced their refusal even to consider formally recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages next month. That’s the good news. However, they signaled two additional actions they will take. They said they would and have since issued an apology to persons in the LGBTQ community for when the church has “rejected and excluded them.” Moreover, they “will offer the fullest possible pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony for same-sex couples.” The plan to do so involves publishing “a range of draft prayers, known as Prayers of Love and Faith, which could be used voluntarily in churches for couples who have marked a significant stage of their relationship such as a civil marriage or civil partnership.”

In other words, the bishops announced the surrender of Biblical orthodoxy on matters of human sexuality. Their words amount to a near-total capitulation on every principle and practice in the debate except the technical definition of marriage and the accompanying church liturgy for it. But make no mistake, those exceptions will fall, too. For any principled, doctrinal ground on which these hold-outs stand has been torn from under them (Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, assured Progressives that “This is not the end of that journey but we have reached a milestone and I hope that these prayers of love and faith can provide a way for us all to celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships.”)

The fact that this betrayal of orthodoxy comes from the bishops, the shepherds of Christ’s church in England, establishes their parallel with the men who failed God’s flock in ancient Israel. But the links do not end there, abounding throughout the rest of the text as well.

First, the book of Jeremiah diagnoses the central problem for Israel’s shepherds back then as a rejection of God’s Word. Speaking of the prophets, God asks, “For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened?” (23:18). The issue today, as then, is not merely one of knowledge but of obedience. Listening in this verse means more than hearing, which the preceding term “paying attention” would cover. To listen means to do in reaction to, to submit to Scriptural authority. Foley Beach, Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America and Chair of the GAFCON Primates Council, rightly declared of the English bishops that, “Their actions…reject the authority of Scripture.” In that rejection, these actions clearly, brazenly violate the Church of England’s own foundation principles, encapsulated in the Thirty-Nine Articles’ declaration (Article 20) that, “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written.” Nor may the church confuse and confound by trying to “expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” Yet both routes we see taken by the Church of England on this issue. In fact, they do the second in service of the first, giving unfaithful interpretations of the Bible in order to go against its requirements.

In so doing, these bishops continue to replace Scriptural authority (and church historical practice as well) with the new orthodoxy of the sexual revolution and other pieties of the contemporary Left. Yet this approach gets the relationship between society and the Bible backwards.  The Word of God does not conform to the trends of any society, whether its cultural mores, political agendas, or social fashions. Instead, in Jeremiah we read, “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (23:29). Fire cleanses and a hammer, in its breaking, also re-forms. Through the illumination of the Spirit, God’s Word cleanses our hearts of sinful dispositions and helps to mold us into the image of Christ. God’s Word does so for us as persons and as communities, in both the Church and society.

Second, as these errant shepherds, old and new, share a common root of their error, so they share common branches. Among the sins of Israel, Jeremiah laments that, “the land is full of adulterers” (23:10). He continues that, not only the people, but the “prophets of Jerusalem…commit adultery and walk in lies” (23:14). We see a similar manifestation of sin today. The sins of human sexuality, now more fully accepted by the bishops, are violations of the commandment not to commit adultery. The text in Jeremiah may even be consciously considering homosexuality, since God says, “all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah” (23:14b). In the church’s refusal to call for repentance and seek sanctification on the part of those living sexual lives contrary to Scripture, they contribute to making the land full of adulterers. In similar fashion, by ministers within the church openly living such lifestyles, they, like their ancient counterparts, are shepherds who not only approve but participate in open, defiant transgression.

Third, this approval and support has real, dire consequences. God continues that the ancient, wrong shepherds “do not profit this people at all” (23:32). Their “care” actually causes harm. Of the prophets, God condemns that, “they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil” (23:14). By strengthening the hand of evil, today’s bishops empower those who then oppress the faithful in Christ’s flock. Those who do affirm and attempt to live by God’s Word become the object of cultural scorn, facing losses of employment, friendships, and more. Many of these bishops, rather than protecting them, join in heaping opprobrium on them. Moreover, we often miss that those affirmed in their lifestyle also suffer from actions like those taken by the English bishops. For these persons are left dead in their sins. God can and does work through His ministers, by His Spirit, including through His Word, to cause repentance and restoration. But rather than lead to righteousness, these bishops strengthen the hand of sin, so that more feel vindicated rather than convicted. The shepherds in Jeremiah’s day did the same thing. “They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” (23:17). No wonder so few turn from this sin in our context. So approving may gain cultural acceptance and avoid hard conversations. But its damage is immense and possibly eternal. Room exists for the bishops to acknowledge and seek to correct poor pastoral care for those struggling with or indulging in sexual sin. We still must speak the truth in love, not rancor. But they instead actively affirm the sin, essentially calling it something other than it is.

Fourth, while the bishops’ actions hurt God’s flock, as much as it neglects their duty to those outside the church as well, these deeds dishonor God. Jeremiah 23 condemns prophets both in Samaria and in Jerusalem for their condoning and participating in sin. But he says that, while the Samaritan prophets did “an unsavory thing” (23:13), those in Jerusalem did “a horrible thing” (23:14). The difference stems less in what they did than in whose name they committed their sins. The Samaritans “prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray” (23:13). These men taught and approved sin in the name of a false god. Those prophets in Jerusalem seemingly sinned in God’s name, wherein they would “speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (23:16). One might think the Samaritans worse in engaging in idolatry. But God seems even more angered by the Jerusalem prophets attributing their words to His and their evil as His good. So we should especially condemn the actions and words of the English bishops. Others uphold sinful views of human sexuality under the banner of explicitly non, even anti-Christian creeds. But these bishops affirm these sins while claiming to, in so doing, “reaffirm their commitment to a ‘radical new Christian inclusion founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it.’”

Finally, as Jeremiah so clearly describes what we just saw and will continue to see from the Church of England and like-minded bodies, so the book gives us hope despite current events. In the chapter’s opening verses, God assures those erroring shepherds that “I will attend to you for your evil deeds” (23:2b). He will not leave wolves acting as pastors to prey on His people forever. Instead, He promises, “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more” (23:4). God has done so in the past and He continues to do so now. Faithful bishops (and presbyters as well as deacons) continue to serve in the Church of England, even if they have not had their way here. Moreover, much of the broader Anglican communion still hold to Biblical, historical orthodoxy on this and other matters. These other parts of global Anglicanism have help to revive that faithful care in places like the United States with the creation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). And, of course, we have brothers and sisters in other manifestations of Christ’s church across the world, too, for which we can and should praise God.

Beyond these provisions, the text points to a greater, in fact the greatest, mercy of God. God also promises that “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (23:5). The righteous Branch is none other than Christ. He does justly as our King, never condoning sin but upholding righteousness in His deeds and decrees. And He is as our Prophet and Priest. Therein, He is the Good Shepherd, the Head of the Church, who cares for His sheep to the point of laying down His own life (John 10:15). The text continues by saying why He must lay down His life, that because of our sin and need for redemption, “this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’” (23:6). Herein, we see the meeting of justice and grace, of righteousness and mercy, that is the Gospel. Unlike the English bishops, we must never flinch from calling sin by its name and in its nature. But neither must we stray from the offer of grace found in the person and work of Jesus, as told in Scripture. He is our righteousness, regardless of the sins with which we struggle. God says of the Christ, that, “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.” In past troubled times, under the scourge of unfaithful ministers, God’s church took this promise to heart. So should we in these, our own times of trouble.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Adam Carrington

Adam Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College, where he has taught since 2014. He is a graduate of Baylor University and Ashland University. He has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, Washington Examiner, and Public Discourse.