Russell Moore, the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention, has described the belligerence with which the church has traditionally spoken to culture about matters of sexual morality. Assuming that the culture at large shares the church’s convictions and conclusions, Dr. Moore described the church’s usual form of address to those who would dare to question its teachings as a version of, “Hey, you kids get off my lawn.”
In the past it was enough for the church to simply state her prohibitions and to make her affirmations.
Premarital Sex – No
Pornography – No
Promiscuity – No
Abortion – No
Sexual Violence & Abuse – No
Marriage – Yes
Adultery – No
Divorce – No
Monogamy – Yes
Polygamy – No
Heterosexuality – Yes
Homosexuality – No
I think of this as the algebraic approach to theology and ethics. It’s all about the bottom-line, about giving the “right” answer. We reduce complex moral and spiritual questions to “sound bite” answers which are then used to “litmus test” people, to determine which “side” they are going to be on in the fight. But I was never very good at algebra. In fact, when I was growing up, this time of the year was always the worst.
Mid-May was when my folks always got the note from school telling them that if little Dougie was going to advance with his class in the next school year that he was going to have to spend some time in remedial summer school in a math “do-over.” I struggled mightily with algebra. But when I took geometry, suddenly a switch was thrown in my head and I excelled. To the shock of everybody, not the least of whom was me, I was near the top of my geometry class! And when I think back on what that was all about, I have come to the conclusion that I did better in geometry than I ever did in algebra because they involved different kinds of thinking.
Algebra is about the “what?” Getting the answer “right” is what matters in algebra. But geometry is equally interested in the “why?” How you get to the “right” answer is just as important as the answer itself. And what I hear Dr. Moore saying is that spiritual algebra is not going to work for the church anymore. Because the traditional church is out of step with where most Americans are according to the public opinion polls, it’s not going to be enough for the traditional church to merely stake out the territory that she occupies. Dr. Moore is urging his part of the church to recognize that the era of spiritual geometry has arrived.
And this means that when the church speaks to culture about what it is that she believes and values, the church is going to have to talk with culture not just about what it is that she thinks, but about why she thinks the way she does. And when this conversation begins, it won’t be long before it becomes clear that apart from the divide that exists between the church and culture on questions of human sexuality, that there is an equally dramatic divide inside the church. The bottom-line is that we who are Christians don’t think alike on questions of sexual morality anymore. Where once there had been a rather broad consensus among Christians of all stripes, one no longer exists, especially within the Protestant family of churches.
I can’t think of a Mainline Protestant denomination that isn’t prayerfully and painfully sorting out urgent questions of human sexuality these days. Earlier this month I got a pastoral letter from the faculty of the seminary where I did my doctoral work, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church USA. In advance of their denominational General Assembly in Detroit later this summer at which matters of human sexuality will be vigorously debated and policies for the church concerning gay marriage and ordination will be considered, that faculty called on their denominational leadership to embrace “a season of mutual forbearance” in which, together, they “might seek the mind of Christ.”
Now, allow me to translate that for you non-Christians in the room here this evening. That means that they don’t agree on what they think, and they don’t want that fact to be the cause of another church split. They want their progressives and their traditionalists to stay in community with each other. And that’s where most Mainline Protestant Churches are today. Within our own communities of faith as Christians we don’t agree; our algebraic bottom-lines are different. And when you start to probe why this is the case, what you will discover pretty quickly is that we are working with very different theorems in our geometric calculations.
For more than five years I was part of my own denomination’s Task Force on the question of “What is the Gospel message to our church as we relate to gay and lesbian Christians?” Great effort was made to insure that voices from across the spectrum of conviction within my church were represented among the members of this Task Force. To use James Nelson’s standard typology of the representative stances on homosexuality that exist within the Christian community – “Rejecting-Punitive,” “Rejecting-Nonpunitive,” “Qualified Acceptance” and “Full Acceptance” – three of these four positions were well represented by people on the panel.
The “Rejecting-Punitive” position was deemed from the outset of our conversation to be fundamentally inconsistent with our denominational commitment to “unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; and charity in all things.” The track record of my denomination has invariably been on the side of defending the civil rights of sexual minorities regardless of our interpretation of Scripture. It’s just hard for us who are members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to think in “punitive” sorts of ways. But the other three positions – “Rejecting-Nonpunitive,” “Qualified Acceptance” and “Full Acceptance” – were all in the conversation. And it is from that experience that I think that I can identify some of the watersheds that result in Christians winding up on opposite sides of the questions on human sexuality.
The first watershed has to do with the foundational question of whether or not we believe that we have access to the mind of God? This is a question about revelation. “Has God spoken and acted in such a way that who God is and what God wants can actually be known by us?” When a Christian says that the Bible is the Word of God, or contains the Word of God, or bears witness to the Word of God, this first watershed question is being answered affirmatively. But immediately on the heels of this “yes” there follows the second watershed question: “So, what does God think about human sexuality? Is this something that God really cares about?”
Just because you believe that God has spoken and acted, and that you have a reliable record of that speaking and acting in the Bible does not mean that you have to believe that God has spoken about everything. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” And this means that while I claim to have a reliable revelation of God in the Bible, I do not claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of God or God’s will, and this is where the debate about human sexuality in the Christian community rages most fiercely today.
“Does God have a design for our sexuality as human beings that norms our behavior?” Some Christians, looking at the dizzying array of sexual expression found in the Hebrew Scriptures – polygamy, concubinage, endogamy, rape, incest, adultery, prostitution and divorce – conclude that there is nothing normative about it at all. But other Christians find a Divine design for our sexuality in the Order of Creation. Traditionally Christians have understood Genesis 1:27-28 – “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply…” – and Genesis 2:24 – “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” – to establish a heterosexual, monogamous and covenantal design for human sexual expression, and regard all of those other biblical descriptions of alternate sexual arrangements to be deviations from this norm, the deliberate and willful stepping over of a divinely established boundary. And this raises the next watershed question.
“Does the Bible ever address the question of sexual orientation, or does it regard all same sex behavior as always being a matter of something that a constitutionally heterosexual person willfully chooses to do as an act of sinful rebellion against their God given nature?” What do we do with the idea, one which by the way is quickly becoming the consensus, that people are “created gay”? “When did you decide to be straight?” the gay panelists on my denomination’s Task Force often asked their straight counterparts. And then said, “If you say that when your sexual awakening occurred you just instinctively found yourself attracted to members of the opposite sex, then you need to know that our experience was exactly that same, it was instinctive, but our attractions were entirely different.” And this raises the next watershed question.
“How will we who believe that the Bible is the Word of God ‘weight’ other sources of knowledge about ourselves and our world as we draw our conclusions and settle our convictions?” A standard tool for Christian theological reflection is something called the “Quadrilateral.” What the Quadrilateral says is that there are four sources for our knowledge of God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition. And the critical question in this system is which of the four has primacy?
When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out, and they do all the time, which one functions as the referee? When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four is supposed to step up and settle the dispute? Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to say tradition. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians tend to say experience. Mainline Protestant Christians tend to say reason. Evangelical and Confessional Protestant Christians tend to say Scripture. And how you answer this question will go a long way to determining how you will wind up doing the theological geometry on questions of human sexuality.
The last watershed question that I will quickly mention in closing here this evening concerns the proper response to what is determined in good faith to be a violation of what God intends. Understand, in today’s church this is something that cuts two ways. Those of us who wind up on the “rejecting” side of a question about human sexuality have got to then figure out what how we will relate to those who are on the “accepting” side of it, and vice versa. “When something is conscientiously determined to be a sin, be it homophobia or homophilia, what will you then do with those with whom you disagree? Will you, can you, stay in community with them?”
Because we do the geometry on questions of human sexuality using such different theorems, this is the critical question for those of us who are Christians in a Mainline Protestant Church today. The tools I’ve used to stay in mine are two. First, I accord those with whom I disagree a “good faith” assumption. This means that I start by trusting them when they tell me that they are just as committed as I am in knowing God, and that they are just as concerned as I am in wanting to know and do His will. And second, I remember that I am a Christian solely on the basis of forgiveness. God doesn’t love me because I get the answers right. God in Jesus Christ just loves me. And because I believe that God loves those with whom I disagree in exactly this same way, I choose to remain in communion and conversation with them, no matter how challenging that may prove to be for me. DBS+