Periodically, we like to take stock of our work and mission. How can Covenant best serve the Anglican Communion and wider Christian family? And how do we think about the breadth of our writing? For the next few days, we present perspectives that we hope you enjoy. —Eds.

By Wesley Hill

I’ve often thought about what I might say if I ever wrote one of The Christian Century magazine’s “How my mind has changed” features (which I’ve enjoyed reading for years). Since I began to discern, while still in high school, that my calling was to become a theologian, my mind has changed about a lot of doctrinal topics but maybe about none more than ecclesiology.

There was a time, in my zealous, pietistic youth, when I would have vigorously and exegetically defended the notion of a “pure church” comprised only of members whose behavior was deemed to match their profession of faith. Chalk it up to age and occasional bitter experience, perhaps, but I can’t — or won’t — do that anymore. And that’s a large part of why I contribute to this blog.


If you go to our “About Us” page, you’ll find a glancing reference to one of the greatest of all Anglican bishops and theologians, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey (1904-88). Ramsey was a formidable advocate of the visible catholicity — or universality — of Christ’s church, and this made him suspicious of any effort to restrict ecclesial belonging only to those who could pass certain moral litmus tests. In his gem of a book on the resurrection of Christ, he summed up his view memorably. Eyeing various theological proposals floated throughout church history for wriggling out from the paradox of the church’s “mixed” character, Ramsey wrote:

One attempted solution has been to regard the true Church as the society of the morally pure and perfect. “Out with the weak and out with those who lapsed under persecution. Out with the harlots and the fornicators. Out with those who fail to reach a certain measurable standard of moral obedience!” This solution has been attempted by many Puritan movements both in early and later centuries. It does violence to the true meaning of the Church. For the holiness of the Church is the holiness of the Spirit whereby the members are made holy. To use visible standards of morality as a test of membership is to transfer merit and glory from Christ to the members themselves, and to set forth the Church as a society of the moral rather than a family of the redeemed. By this procedure fornication may be expelled, but pride and self-righteousness may eat their way within.[1]

I can already hear my Calvinist friends harumphing a bit in the wings, and they’re right that the New Testament isn’t lacking for instances of excommunication: “Drive out the wicked person from among you,” as Paul channels Deuteronomy (1 Corinthians 5:13), isn’t exactly an anomaly (compare Matthew 18:17; 2 John 9-11). So is Ramsey “simply wrong”? I’m more certain now, Calvin fan though I remain, that Ramsey is right: Putting these excommunication texts into practice is a far more fraught affair than I thought previously, and maybe not even really practicable at all, except in desiccated (and often collaterally damaging) form, given our present state of ecclesial division. I have argued before on this blog that we can’t simply abandon the effort to follow the apostles’ teaching on church discipline, but it is far from clear to me how exactly we’re to do so. Bluntly, there’s no through train from these New Testament texts to our dilemmas today.

The locus classicus for this understanding is Jesus’ parable of the weeds — or the wheat and the tares, as many of us know it from the Authorized Version — in which a field owner counsels against the fool’s errand of trying to disentangle a wheat lookalike from the real thing: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:30). Like St. Augustine, Ramsey reads this as a parable about the post-Easter community of Jesus’ followers — the Christian church. There are commentators who think that’s the wrong way to read it, and they point to the somewhat different interpretation offered in Matthew’s Gospel just a few verses later (13:36-43). But it’s hard to avoid the force of the Augustinian insight that, for all our vaunted — and theologically appropriate — aspirations to experiential holiness, the church always falls far short of where it ought to be — we, the church’s members, always fall far short of where we ought to be, and we take our place alongside those we’d prefer to consign to the nether reaches of redemption. As Václav Havel, the late celebrated president of the Czech Republic in the late ’90s said when considering the Communist overlords he’d formerly resisted, “The line [between good and evil] did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but through each person.”

If you think Jesus foresaw and laid the groundwork for the church as it exists today, as I do, then it’s next to impossible not to read his parable of the weeds as impinging on our community too. As Dale Bruner says in his pastoral commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,

Jesus’ strong No to a too-rigorous separation of good from evil… argues against a too exclusive church… Christians who separate others from themselves or themselves from others too promptly or too severely are confronted by this inclusive parable. This parable guards the church against break-off communities.[2]

The enticing habit of moral purging, in other words, seems, at best, to go against the grain of Jesus’ teaching and, at worst, to contradict it.

Let me see if I can make all this a little more specific and biting, though. As some readers will know, I gained a minor reputation in early adulthood for writing about being gay and, at the same time, committed to the so-called traditional Christian sexual ethic which says that sexual intimacy is off limits outside the bond of male-and-female matrimony. I’ve written two quasi-memoirs about my stumbling attempts to inhabit this ethic and to try to find joy and hope and love amid sexual abstinence and, at the same time, sexual and relational frustration. And — to return to the “how my mind has changed” theme — I still haven’t, almost two decades on, found reason to change my mind about the sexual ethic. I frequently wish I could be persuaded of a more progressive, permissive one. But I still feel constrained by what I think Scripture teaches: that God ordained the “union of husband and wife,” as the Episcopal Prayer Book has it, “for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their knowledge and love of the Lord.”

I still believe that. But what I don’t believe anymore is that anyone who is unsure about that teaching, who has serious challenges to bring to it, who struggles to live up to it or within it, who wonders whether it should or will change, who opposes it for reasons they believe to be in keeping with the gospel, is simply an enemy to be opposed. I’m with Gamaliel, the high priest at the time the apostles were preaching Jesus’ resurrection, who counseled patience in the face of inscrutable contemporary deviations from what he thought the divinely given tradition had taught him: “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39).

I’ve come to think the reason Gamaliel, Jesus-disbeliever though he apparently was, gets quoted in the book of Acts is that his rationale was commendable. We believers in Jesus, too, have to wait for Judgment Day for God to sort out the wheat from the tares — for God to sift through the ways I and my tribe, “traditionalists” on sexuality, have been more Levite than Samaritan to gay people left for dead along the church’s highway to supposed triumph. We have to wait for God to expose the ways a supposedly enlightened “progressivism” has left believers bereft of any way of understanding Scripture as the Word of God for people today and therefore constantly exposed to whatever wind seems to be promising compassion in the here and now, often heedless of its hidden costs. We have to wait, ultimately, for God to bring us all, traditionalist and progressive alike, to see our shared poverty, our common need for God’s mercy in Christ. In the meantime, and in spite of spirited urges for mutual anathemas, we’re apparently called to “wait for one another” (1 Corinthians 11:33). We’re called to wait as long as it takes to maintain our visible unity, our line of direct descent from those who experienced Jesus’ transforming mercy firsthand.

A few years ago, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) was leaning into its battles over sexuality, Dale Bruner (whose commentary I quoted earlier) said this:

There is a zealous conservative wing in my own Presbyterian denomination which, in its laudable desire for doctrinal and moral purity, excoriates… a questionable ethic in such a way that it seems sometimes to be panting more for separation than for truth… If I believe my Presbyterian Church is doctrinally sound and in danger of being morally unsound, let me, from within the church, seek to maintain the former and change the latter, for this mix (unhappily) is the makeup of all churches from the beginning (see Corinth!).[3]

Something like this is what the Covenant blog, and the proposed Anglican Covenant from which it takes its name, is trying to promote in the Anglican Communion. Sign me up for it — again and afresh.

[1] A. M. Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ (London: Collins, 1961 [1945]), 98.

[2] F. Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, revised and expanded edition, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 31, italics added.

[3] Bruner, Matthew, 32.

About The Author

Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan and an assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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4 Responses

  1. Alex Wilgus

    I am astonished that this article rests on a glaring equivocation regarding the meaning of a “pure church.” The meaning given by Ramsey above, like Augustine before him, has to do with a Church that cannot accompany or tolerate those who fail to attain to the Church’s moral standard of conduct. It does not include division over whether *the terms* of that standard are being held among the Church’s shepherds. The “church of the pure” is one that would excommunicate the gay teen who has a hard time not hooking up, but who continues to show up for confession and are working toward resisting and eliminating such behavior. But the true Church is rightfully intolerant of those false teachers who would deny or diminish the Church’s *teaching* on moral matters. To insist upon this is not to insist upon the purity of individuals within the Church as constitutive of their membership. It is insisting on the purity of the Church’s teaching. The wheat and tares parable is indeed speaking of the Church, but not her doctrine or the shepherds entrusted with guarding it. It seems willfully deceptive to take quotations that were speaking about the former and apply them to traditionalists defending the latter.


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