Pope Francis and the Leaven of Ambiguity
The Pope is rightfully being criticized for his decision to sanction the blessing of same-sex couples. But along with the seriousness of his error, there are two critical takeaways from the story. If we miss them, we’ll ignore what Evangelicals need to face in 2024.
It’s well known that several mainline Protestant denominations have departed from biblical positions. I was there at many of their national meetings, participating in debates, discussions, and even General Council meetings.
In each case, it began with ambiguity. “Does the Word really say what we think it says? Could it mean something else? Can’t we listen to those who say it does, considering so many of them are in our own congregations, seeking only to be included?”
How nice it all sounded; how lethal it all became. The Pope’s error began with ambiguity, too. In 2013, when asked about gay clergy within the Catholic church, he shrugged, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
That problem is leaven, which, as Paul noted, spreads insidiously and without containment, until the whole lump is affected. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8) Notice that Paul is talking about a leavening of the Church, not the culture. He addresses it in the form of sexual sin among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:1) then he rebukes an alarming lack of response from the Body itself to the very thing infecting it. (1 Corinthians 5:2)
“Your boasting is not good!”, he warned. (1 Corinthians 5:6) We can only guess what he’d say today. When one of the world’s most influential religious leaders advises a blessing on sin, rebuke is called for!
Pope Francis neither condemned nor affirmed homosexuality itself, so you couldn’t quite say he was “gay affirming,” but neither would you say he opposes it. By refusing to clarify what he meant by “gay” (a practicing homosexual priest or a celibate one?) and “searching for the Lord” (resisting homosexual temptations or yielding to them while claiming to seek God?) he was deliberately ambiguous.
Likewise, when he praised a gay-affirming nun as “a valiant woman who makes her decisions in prayer,” he didn’t quite say she was correct. Instead, he chose the ambiguity of praising someone who endorsed positions contrary to the church he represents, without declaring himself for or against those positions.
That’s the leaven of ambiguity. It shows itself by refusing to call sin what it is, or by calling it sin, but acting as though it’s not. This ambiguity itself is a sin, and the Pope is hardly alone in the practice of it. This sin reaches evangelical ranks, too.
Takeaway #1: An Uncertain Sound
Bestselling author Max Lucado minimized the seriousness of homosexual sin when he appeared on Jen Hatmaker’s podcast. Hatmaker’s endorsement of pro-gay theology was well known by then, yet Lucado chose praise over correction when he gushed, “I think so highly of you. You energize me, to listen to your podcast…you make it so easy and delightful, and yet profound at the same time.”
When Christian artist Lauren Daigle was asked by an interviewer if homosexuality was a sin, she replied, “I can’t honestly answer that. I can’t say one way or another. I’m not God.”
Megachurch Pastor Andy Stanley insists his church’s position on sexuality is traditional, yet he recently hosted a conference featuring two openly gay speakers and one pro-gay theologian.
None of them say they approve of homosexuality, yet they’re ambiguous enough to send the message that even if same-sex relations aren’t good, they’re really not that bad, either.
This ambiguity relegates the issue to an “agree to disagree” status, somewhat like pre-tribulation versus post-tribulation views of the Rapture. We can hold different positions on it without fellowship being broken, or church discipline being invoked.
That, in turn, creates the confusion Paul compared to a trumpet making an uncertain sound, leaving the soldiers guessing whether they’re being called to battle or to dinner. (1 Corinthians 14:8)
Takeaway #2: Making Molehills Out of Mountains
But the Church can’t afford to be unclear about sexual sin and its seriousness. Marriage as a monogamous heterosexual union was established in Genesis, reiterated throughout both testaments, and heralded in the Revelation as representing the consummation of Christ with His Bride.
Indeed, nearly every book in the New Testament names and condemns sexual sin in the clearest of terms. The first case of church discipline we see occurred over its practice among believers. (1 Corinthians 5) The thing itself is not even to be named among Saints. (Ephesians 5:3) Bypassing the Bible’s clear witness against immorality, or the seriousness of the immorality itself, constitutes pastoral irresponsibility and serious doctrinal error.
That’s how so many Protestant churches began allowing pro-gay individuals, and even gay-affirming groups, to flourish within their walls. It wasn’t because they had changed their position, but because they wanted to be tolerant of those who didn’t hold it, and they wanted inclusion in the fellowship for all.
That was the first mistake. Leaven was allowed, tolerated, even encouraged. Yet all the while, those who encouraged it said, “Don’t worry, we haven’t changed our beliefs!”
Perhaps. But they had given notice that their beliefs weren’t important enough to stand on.
That, in turn, emboldened gay-affirming forces within their denomination who organized themselves, then proselytized others. While biblically-based believers hoped the leaven would spread no further, those holding the pro-gay view seized on the ambiguity of their denomination’s leadership and made good use of it.
Ambiguity was an invitation to relentless debates; debates led to schisms; schisms gave pro-gay forces a solid foothold within the fellowship, one they would never give up. Seeing that the battle would never end, conservatives eventually left the churches they’d already lost.
But make no mistake — these churches weren’t lost when they went pro-gay. They were lost when they went ambiguous.
This is why those of us condemning Pope Francis’ recent decision are hardly making mountains out of molehills. Rather, we’re decrying the reduction of a mountain to the status of a molehill because we know that the molehill is on a fast track to becoming a desert.
The greatest temptation we may face may be that of convenient ambiguity, a temptation as old as Eve’s enticement when the serpent asked oh-so-innocently, “Hath God said?”
In 2024, let us answer by rephrasing the question: “God hath said, and we’ve nothing to add, debate, or revise.”
Joe Dallas is an author, conference speaker, and ordained pastoral counselor. He directs a biblical counseling ministry for those dealing with sexual and relational problems, and with their families as well. He is the author of Desires in Conflict, The Game Plan, When Homosexuality Hits Home, Five Steps to Breaking Free from Porn and his latest, Speaking of Homosexuality.