At present, one of the most pressing issues for many Christians is the churches’ stance on homosexuality and the “inclusive” or “exclusive” theologies that attempt to inform that stance. With regard to this issue, many conservative Christians have taken an “exclusive” position, claiming that the homosexual lifestyle is wholly incompatible with Christian morality. In some cases, as has been claimed, homophobia is precisely the root of the conservative opposition to “inclusive” theologies. Regretfully, many conservatives are as ready to use Scripture to force LGBT individuals out of their churches as their predecessors were to enslave Africans and subordinate woman using the same. In response, theological progressives remind us that we should always be suspicious of a “Christianity” that is quick to pass judgment, preferring a Christianity that errs on the side of acceptance.
Over the past two decades, a position of growing strength in many denominations has favored re-evaluating the church’s stance on issues of gender and sexuality. This camp, which has at times been called “revisionist,” maintains that God continues to be active in the world in such a way that God’s Revelation to humankind becomes more complete with the passage of time, and thus doctrine must be revised accordingly. Great victories have been won by these thinkers, an example of which was the ordination of women. Of late, revisionist efforts have focused on blessing the homosexual lifestyle, and thus many LGBT Christians found a hero in Gene Robinson, who was consecrated the first openly gay bishop last year and as such shepherds the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire.
Bishop Robinson took part in the well-attended panel discussion “Gays and God: Being LGBT and a Person of Faith” at Harvard’s JFK Jr. Forum on September 21. He articulated his position passionately, saying that the Church should be a place welcoming to vulnerability and arguing that condemnations of any specific lifestyle prevent individuals from being honest about the persons God has created him or her to be. Most salient to the current debate, however, was Bishop Robinson’s upholding of the authority of Scripture as the standard for Christian morality. Bearing this claim in mind, he explained how each of the seven passages used by conservatives to assert the sinfulness of homosexual intercourse was actually better interpreted in such as way as to be irrelevant to the conversation. Again, his comments were passionate and compelling, and I left with much to consider about my own position on the divisive issue.
But of all that was said, one comment was essential to the future of the church. With respect to the conservative bishops who claim that his ordination represented a break with 2000 years of scriptural interpretation and church tradition, Bishop Robinson said, “I wish they would at least be open to the possibility that they might be wrong.” Indeed, openness to this uncomfortable position must be the starting point for any thoughtful Christian, for decisions motivated by our own prejudices are inherently sinful and must be avoided at all costs—particularly those decisions that relate to God and others’ access to Him.
Because of the importance of those decisions, they have usually been made (at least in the Episcopal Church) on the basis of recourse to scripture, tradition, and reason—often referred to as the “Anglican Tripod.” The theory behind the Anglican Tripod says that, given any decision, first consultation must be made to Holy Scripture. If the text is ambiguous or silent, then church tradition is consulted. If tradition is also unclear, then the decision is made on the basis of reason, though informed as best as possible by scripture and tradition. In the case of homosexual “exclusion”, Bishop Robinson and those of like mind have argued that the Scripture is practically silent. Further, because the tradition has dealt with interpretations of homosexuality that are inaccurate—revisionists remind us that the capacity for a lifelong, monogamous homosexual relationship was not recognized until relatively late in the twentieth century—a new, more reasonable theory regarding homosexuality must be developed. Further, in accordance with other accepted mandates of the church, the revisionists say that homosexual individuals can best be encouraged to live Christianly when offered the full means of grace found in such sacraments and ordinances as the Eucharist and Holy Matrimony.
While not everyone in the church agrees with this position, the statement has been maintained by some—Bishop Robinson an important exception—that any opposition to this reasoning can only come as a result of homophobia. However, this assertion is entirely untrue: Not only are many conservatives thoughtful and articulate in objecting to “inclusive” theologies, but they do so on grounds they consider to be foundational to Christianity.
One such foundational issue at stake for conservatives regards the interpretation of Scripture. As Bishop Robinson made clear during the discussion, all sides recognize the Bible as absolutely authoritative for Christians. But conservatives do not agree with the use of the Tripod as the rubric for interpretation. Instead, conservatives assent to a model sometimes called the Anglican Tricycle: Scripture is the big wheel in which the deposit of faith is vested, and tradition and reason are the smaller wheels used only to clarify the meaning of otherwise clear Scripture. This position is maintained because conservatives believe God’s Revelation is not continual but rather was made complete by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Further, conservatives maintain that the answer to human problems cannot come from human beings, but rather must come from outside the human system—that is, from God. Because reason is tied to humanity, and because tradition can be merely reason repeated, conservatives reject these as legitimate sources for the answers to existential questions. Rather, because these answers must come from outside of ourselves, we must look to Scripture as the source of God’s answers. Though many maintain the ambiguity of Scripture, conservatives believe there is no issue on which the text cannot be a vehicle for God’s guidance, and, because tradition and reason are not necessarily part of the outside-of-self-Revelation, recourse to any extra-biblical source must inherently involve ignoring the testimony of the faith once delivered to the saints.
But more than Biblical interpretation, the issue of ultimate importance for conservative Christians is that of the position of human beings before Almighty God. Christian theology has always been guided by a low theological anthropology, meaning that Christians do not believe humans are capable of earning a place in Heaven by their actions, however virtuous those actions may be. Conservatives maintain that an individual must present his or her entire self to God in a spirit of full contrition, first confessing to be intractably sinful and wholly incapable of change and then relying on God’s grace alone to afford a place to stand in the Divine presence. From the conservative perspective, maintaining that any part of oneself is not sinful—for instance, one’s sexuality—would be tantamount to confessing God as the Ruler of one’s whole life, with the exception, that is, of the one “safe” place that needs no confession. To conservatives, this would be as senseless as electing Ronald Reagan President of the United States while keeping Jimmy Carter as President of Georgia: irrespective of the sinfulness of the area one holds back, so doing is an affront to God, for God’s reign in the Christian’s life must be total or not at all. Any attempt to remain ruler of any portion of one’s own life completely precludes the possibility of God’s rule. Because conservatives maintain that no aspect of human life will be free from God’s divine judgment at the last day, they maintain that arguing otherwise would be a direct violation of the commandments given in the perfect Revelation of Jesus Christ, not to mention a profound disservice to the world they have been called to serve. Conservatives believe they have been given a message from God to offer humankind, and that altering the message is in no one’s best interest. Most importantly, however, conservatives maintain that any heightening of the aforementioned theological anthropology will diminish the profundity of Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross. Because conservatives believe that the cross represents the extreme measures that God has taken to shower love on humanity, they refuse to allow the importance of this seminal event to be denigrated in any way. If in resolving “to know only Christ and Him crucified” they must offend reasonable human sentiments, they are willing so to do.
As an aside, it is important to mention that the question of “choice” is irrelevant from the conservative standpoint. Most conservatives, following Martin Luther, believe in “the bondage of the will,” which means that they consider no human able to “choose” anything about himself or herself, virtue or vice, and therefore whether one has “chosen” a lifestyle has no bearing on one’s fundamental need to repent entirely for one’s perfect sinfulness before an perfectly Holy God.
From the conservative position, these points are not peripheral. Many have claimed that conservatives should hold their tongues and allow individuals to make their own decisions about “non-essentials” in the faith. Indeed, many in the Episcopal Church maintain that the issue of homosexuality and ordination is “adiaphora”—literally, “that which does not matter.” But, from the conservative position, these “non-essentials” have overwhelming and undeniable significance for those issues that are, in fact, essential.
Admittedly, conservatives have sinned enormously by tolerating the type of homophobia that says the only homosexuals worthy of mention are those who commit suicide to be free from their guilt. The burden is on the conservatives to foster a church environment in which homosexuals truly are welcome. But the distinction between “welcome” and “affirmed” must be maintained: Everyone is welcome, but welcome only to repent at the foot of the cross. If that position is ever revised, then conservatives will consider themselves to have been the victims of exclusive theology.
Jeffery David Dean ’06 is a Religion concentrator in Adams House.