The Matt Nevels story in the Times Free Press caused a national sensation among thinking people the past two Sundays, and no doubt we will hear more about the young journalist who wrote it, Joan Garrett, a practicing Christian whose work met her editor’s requirements for fairness, insight and human interest.
The story is about a conflict in a big Chattanooga-area church over the doctrine against adultery. Matt Nevels had a homosexual son, Stephen, who died of AIDS in 1992. In sympathy with homosexuality and its cultural cause, Mr. Nevels and his wife, Frances, left Red Bank Baptist and were unchurched for the next 17 years. They did so because the pulpit of Fred Steelman, its minister, would not back down in a proclamation of Christian doctrine about homosexuality. The Nevelses were offended that the church did not alter its stance on a sin whose consequences fatally afflicted their son. The reserve of church officers during his suffering came across as unjustified personal animus.
Mr. Nevels changed his mind about homosexuality to avoid a division between himself and his son. He didn’t want to burden the young man with any duty of repentance. The story recounts his growing doubts about the authority of the scriptures. Who is any Christian minister or church member to declare that sexual relations should be confined to the marriage bed alone? Everyone has sinned. Who are we to “play God” and say that the sexually active Nevels son is under a temporal judgment for violating God’s law? Judge not — and so on.
Full counsel of God
The “Tempest in my soul” story and its deluge of praising letters a week later highlight several things about the majority report in Christendom. The newspaper supports this majority report that discounts the powerful claims of fixed ethical standards and gives great weight to human society and the mores of the moment. The perhaps inescapable sociocentrism of the journalistic trade makes possible a Christian reading the narrative to wince at God’s requirement for sexual purity, as if it were an unreasonable burden.
We can see the outlines of the majority report best from the vantage point of the minority report. This perspective rises from long and consistent teaching from that theological fountainhead, the Protestant Reformation that rediscovered God’s sovereign grace.
A high regard for God’s commandments might have made less remarkable Red Bank Baptist’s teachings about sexual cleanliness. The Bible places sexual self-government under provisions of the seventh commandment on adultery. Christendom is governed by the law of God as summarized in commandments, with protections of marriage being just one of 10.
The Rev. Steelman is made to appear in a tenuous position in the story, defending the long-time outlawing of homosexual acts. A sermon on homosexuality came three years after the Nevels’ son’s death.
Dr. Steelman’s position might be seen as less hesitant and embarrassed had it been shown that the church holds fast to every point of God’s holy standard for human conduct. American Christianity has long tended toward a low regard for God’s law, calling those who care about it legalists, as if every argument touching on God’s law also is an argument for works salvation. Christianity rejects works as a means of salvation. The anti-law position is called antinomianism. Antinomianism is a false defense of grace, and is widely taught in Chattanooga and across the South, making it difficult to identify sins such as those in Galatians 5 and many other places.
One way for the Christian church to cover every issue is to teach expositorally vs. topically. An expositor will preach from a book of the Bible and account for every verse he comes upon. Expository preaching makes it impossible to ignore difficult passages and commits the minister to confirming the validity of all of scripture. An expository ministry lets the text dictate the sermon, not the other way ‘round.
Covenantal nature of church membership
The story also highlights the lightness with which Americans view church membership. Mr. Nevels separated himself from public worship, church discipline and the sacraments in his casting himself out.
Now the civil magistrate is given in the law of God the power of the sword and the authority of the death penalty, whether against crime or national defense. The death penalty is the magistrate’s means of civilly suppressing evildoers.
Similarly, the church has the authority of a spiritual death penalty, namely excommunication.
A church member involved in a public sin is confronted with facts of his sin. He is given occasion to repent privately or publicly and restored to fellowship. A person confronted in church discipline but who refuses to repent and make restitution is subject to correction. These steps include debarment from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and ultimately excommunication. An excommunication of a rebellious and unrepentant church member is binding on earth and in heaven (Matt. 16:19), and is a spiritual death.
Mr. Nevels, in cutting himself off from the service of God on His day, brought himself under a self-exclusion from God. The newspaper said he is attending public worship once again at Red Bank Baptist, and so may again be taking part in the life of the Christian body. His return brings warm greetings from graying friends, but he arrives with the expectation that church doctrine will be weakened under a new minister — mushy at least on the point of marriage and adultery.On Sunday night the minister preached on Romans 1, Dr. Steelman told me, a chapter giving no quarter to sins of the flesh.
Christ gave spiritual authority to the apostles and, through them, ordained Christian ministers. The church holds the keys to the kingdom and there is not ordinarily salvation outside of her. One should not enter church membership lightly.
Arriving members in my denomination are asked a series of terrifying questions that hint at the obligation of church membership.
➤ “Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in his sovereign mercy?”
➤ “Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor the live as becomes the followers of Christ?”
➤ “Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?”
➤ The final question of five is: “Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?”
In opening the church to a newcomer, the minister is to “briefly admonish those making a profession of faith as to the importance of the solemn obligation they have assumed[.]” Church membership is a covenant. It is granted to give a person of God access to the sacraments, faithful preaching and accountability to church government.
Church membership brings duty and benefit similar to those of being in a family. You are subject to a head (Jesus Christ and his ordained elders) and you obtain an interest in the family estate (temporal and eternal blessings).
Sin and its consequences
Supporters of homosexuality have much to say about the evils of judging other people and the benefits of love. Mr. Nevels wants “a Red Bank Baptist that teaches the Bible but doesn’t talk about ‘the gays.’”
Given its sociological framework, the story posits Rev. Steelman as representing just the opposite — Christian orthodoxy. One import of biblical teaching about love is overlooked in the Times Free Press story and in the 49 public comments.
The scriptures teach that love is obedience to God’s commandments. You cannot love your neighbor by feelings. Love is not a mental appreciation of your neighbor, or charitable sentiments. Love is an act. Love is an act God commands. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2,3).
The Christian has a duty to love his neighbor by seeing him through the grid of God’s fairly detailed roadmap for life and society. A father’s duty to a wayward son is to impress upon him his sin, and to receive back into the family one who confesses it to God (and, if necessary, in public). The parable of the prodigal son tells of the father’s forgiveness, and also the son’s sorrow. The account of mournful sinners who meet Jesus tell both of His great mercy and their agonizing shame for sin.
Sin is any thought, word or deed that breaks God’s law by acts of commission or omission. Every human being is a sinner, and only Christ lived a perfectly holy life. In the main, our duty is ti love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.
The ban on homosexuality is the negative side of a positive requirement for sexual chastity. Chastity is obedience to God’s commands regarding sex, whether in our acts, words or ideas. One cannot be a practicing homosexual and love his neighbor as God requires. Paul in Romans 1 and 2 alludes to homosexuality as a sin and a crime. Though gays claim their deeds are liberating and demand that the culture give them special legal status, they are by biblical mores celebrating a lethal judgment upon their souls. They promote the burning out of their inner man; sexual sins are the only kind against one’s own body (1 Cor. 6:18).
How repentance is crucial in Christianity
The Times Free Press newspaper story alludes to repentance, and notes the homosexual son perished “unapologetic to the end,” holding his male lover’s hand. Repentance is an evangelical grace and a gift of God. No sinner repents of his own mind and strength. It is, rather, condescension by the Holy Spirit, according to Christian teaching — a gift to one God intends to save. No sin is so small but that it deserves damnation. And no sin is so great that it can bring damnation on those who truly repent, the Bible teaches. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
As perhaps should be expected, the story leaves open the question of who is right — Matt Nevels the offended father, or the Rev. Steelman, defender of biblical doctrine? Miss Garrett gives enough material from both sides to let the reader understand that the struggle as one over the truth. Who is true and right, and who errs? Should God’s church defend every truth as it comes under attack — as from the homosexual lobby, media and culture? Should the church teach a law of God even if few obey it? When a church member has a boy with AIDS or a son being sent to prison for first degree manslaughter, should the church alter fundamental teaching to solace a grieving family?
The church is God’s bride. His word through her, if faithfully preached, will split families. A man’s enemies will be those in his own household. The Word of God is as sharp as a two-edged sword, and divides men asunder for God’s purposes and glory.
“Tempest in my soul [:] A son’s secret brings a Southern Baptist minister to his knees.” Chattanooga Times Free Press, Joan Garrett, June 24, 2012
“A gratifying response” Times Free Press, July 1, 2012. Emails from unidentified readers of the above story
The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, “The admission of persons to sealing ordinances,” (Atlanta: Committee for Christian Education and Publication, 2000) 5th ed., pp 57-7
Tim Keller, with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), pp 99-109
Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 30, “Church Censures,” 1647