What if the Church is Wrong on Sin?

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In a previous post, we examined a claim that the scriptures on Binding and Loosing in Matthew give authority to the church to determine what sin is and how the Law applies. This claim allows Christians to have scriptural support to make claims that seem antithetical to the biblical record (ordination of women, ordination of LGBT persons, etc). The Church has been given authority by Jesus Christ to bind or loose the biblical record and determine how they apply to our situations. In short:

Persons who say that the church would violate scripture by allowing for exceptions to a normative policy against homosexual relations ignore the fact that scripture itself gives the church authority to do precisely that. For the church to loose the biblical prohibitions against same-sex activity under specified circumstances would not constitute a rejection of biblical authority but, rather, an exercise of ecclesiastical authority granted in the Bible by Jesus himself.

But there’s a problem with this claim: what happens when the Church is wrong?

Let’s look at my home church as a perfect case study. In my United Methodist Church, two simultaneous actions in 1972 brought this question to the forefront.

  • First, the UMC included that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” which is still in our polity but progressives reject today.
  • Second, the UMC included that “tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion” which is still in our polity but traditionalists reject today (and we began RCRC in 1973).

So for 42 years, both wings of the United Methodist Church believe that their church is wrong.

Binding and Loosing when the Church is Wrong

But if authority is given to the Church to determine what is sin, how do you serve within the Church when you believe it is wrong?

Mark Allan Powell, in his previously referenced works, outlines the two incongruent stances and what that will mean for the believer:

  1. The Church is right and the Individual is wrong.
  2. The Church is wrong and the Individual is right.

To both of these scenarios, Powell first states that obedience to the Church’s decision will not be considered a sin by God. If the Church hates the gays, but God is down with the gays, then hating the gays will not result in one’s eternal damnation. When the Church has the authority, acting under that authority (like a soldier obeying unjust orders) shields one from recrimination. Kinda frustrating, but that’s the assumption of the biblical logic.

But wait! There’s more!

There’s two proactive stances that a person who differs with their Church can legitimately hold according to Powell’s interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew.

First, a person can follow the doctrine of the church in action but can protest it in word and vote in “obedience under protest.”

Let us imagine that the church obtusely binds a law and declares behavior to be sinful that would in fact be acceptable to God. In such a situation, I think the typical Christian counsel would be for enlightened believers to abide by their community’s unfortunately unperceptive decision…[an] adoption of what we might call a vocation of obedience under protest.

(Powell, Ex Auditu [19:2003, 91])

Second, a person can protest the doctrine of the church in both word and deed and accept the punishment in “prophetic disobedience.”

In church history, there have been Christians who felt compelled by conscience to violate the teachings of the community, not simply because they believed the teaching to be unnecessarily restrictive, but because they believe that violating the teaching of an errant church was the only way to maintain obedience to God…those believers will be expected to accept their status as outcasts and bear the suffering that this entails, and they will have to hope for vindication either in this life when the church finally reforms or in the life to come when all true prophets receive their ultimate reward.

(Powell, Ex Auditu [19:2003, 92])

So these are two legitimate stances:

  1. Obedience under Protest: The people who disagree with the church can be obedient to the church in action even if they disagree in word and vote.  In this way, whether they are right or wrong, they are being “obedient” to the church and will not be punished in heaven.
  2. Prophetic Disobedience: The people who disagree with the church can be disobedient to the church in action and word and vote. In this way, whether they are right or wrong, they are being “disobedient” to the church and take their chances over punishment in heaven.

Here we see the critical juncture we are in in the United Methodist Church. With the Biblical Obedience movement, the ante has been upped to forgo the safety net of the church in order to encourage the church to change. By accepting their role as the prophets, they accept the punishments rendered to them and recognize that they must abide by the punishment chosen by their community against them (and so far, they have, with the exception of Frank Schaefer).

Both of these stances are necessary for prophetic change within a church denominational system. Therefore, Powell’s logic gives further legitimacy to the Biblical Obedience movement and gives those who choose to live out its tenets a hermeneutic to read scripture with.


Let me step back from this argument and offer some perceptions:

First, while I cannot find fault in Powell’s logic, I find it disconcerting to say that injustice in the church is relegated to “justice deferred” in that people who are right when the church is wrong will receive their reward in heaven.

Second, as a straight ally supporting LGBT inclusion in the United Methodist Church, let me say it clearly: I don’t want to be right in heaven. I want the church to be right on earth and stop hurting people. For those in the Biblical Obedience movement, they don’t want fire insurance for themselves and are willing to risk forgoing the safety net of the church in order to save the church from itself. This is a serious decision and I don’t think outsiders (and even some insiders!) realize the depth of this decision is more than disobedience.

Third and finally, there’s a huge difference between claiming prophetic stance and accepting discipline as an individual (a predominantly progressive choice) and threatening schism and taking a church away from the denomination if it affirms LGBT inclusion (a predominantly traditionalist choice). One of them keeps the onus on an individuals’ relationship with God; the other lumps an entire community together and threatens not only the body of Christ but their very salvation if they end up being wrong in Heaven.


I have one final post on this topic to deal with some lingering issues that Powell’s methodology and conclusions brings up, but let’s stop and see what you think:

  1. How should a member act when they feel they are in the right and their church is in the wrong?
  2. Are there more legitimate stances a person can have other than the two outlined above?

Thanks for the discussion!

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  1. Nathan Mills says

    In theory there may be some who believe that going against the scripture incurs guilt and may jeopardize their eternity, but are still compelled to stop suffering and harm now despite the possibility of loosing their salvation, ie. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

  2. Nathan Mills says

    There are alternative views of sin as well, more than just “missing the mark”. If Sin is “cor curvum in se”- the heart turned in upon itself (a more spiritual less legal understanding of the human condition or original sin), then maybe this debate is easier in some ways. The idea behind this is that without God and without Christ we are self centered, self justifying creatures; we use whatever we can to support our on views and our own understanding. We even use the law to do so. When we experience God’s justification in Christ our hearts are turned out a little towards God and as the turn more they become turned towards the needs of our neighbor. Judgment of others is a symptom of the corruption of humankind part of us justifying ourselves a delusion that one is actually following Jesus Christ. In this line of thought Jesus Christ command to love God and neighbor is the center or highest value for humanity, and that is God’s highest revealed intention above all else in history.

    This is somewhat of an oversimplification but to fit it more neatly into the mold above:

    1. So those who judge others (sin/self-justify) and do not see to the needs of their neighbors (sin/self-justify) but still claim to be followers of Jesus, receive consequence.(#you are not God),(#your are not a disciple if you are still trying to be God, or if you are not seeing to the needs of your neighbor),(#Cheap Grace) (#Jesus didn’t become incarnate, live, teach, and die on a cross, etc so you could judge people)

    2. Those who turn their hearts to God (through God’s justification in Jesus, not their own) and then see to the needs of their neighbors are disciples of Jesus. (#Costly Grace) (#Jesus was incarnate, lived, taught, died, and was resurrected so that humanity could recover from their own selfish ego,love God and neighbor without trying to be God anymore)


    Personally, I have neighbors who need God’s justification and sanctification, and I do not wish to stand between them and God. My own self justified raising was a barrier early in my teenage years, but my experience with Jesus changed that. I can see where every human being needs the Church’s support for their spiritual growth and for their salvation. I’m trying to get people to heaven as disciples of Jesus. ( I agree Jeremy, some heaven here below, and more to come)


  1. […] In the United Methodist Church, we affirm that “LGBT persons are of sacred worth” and are not to be discriminated against…except when it comes to ordination and marriage. While people lift up this sentiment as compassionate orthodoxy or the middle way or even a very progressive position, for non-LGBT persons who support full inclusion, being unable to offer or support persons is an unconscionable position to be in, leading them to decide what to do when the Church is wrong. […]

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