Yesterday this short 2014 reflection by Alan Jacobs turned up on my Twitter feed. In it, Jacobs poses a difficult theological and ecclesiological question to churches who are “on the journey,” as they say, towards affirming homosexuality.
Assume for the sake of argument that God has not changed His mind about sexuality. You can then evaluate that church’s changing position in one of three ways:
- The church’s view on homosexuality was always determined by the social environment. Changing social and cultural circumstances enabled the church to understand the same set of facts in new ways, and evolve towards a more authentically Christian position, one that harmonizes Gospel fidelity with embracing and affirming homosexuality.
- The church’s view on homosexuality has been authentic, but it is now changing under social and cultural pressure.
- The church’s views of homosexuality have always been determined by the dominant culture. This is no different.
Note that there is no way to read this story as one of consistent faithfulness to a Gospel message that works against the grain of a dominant culture.
And that’s the key issue, it seems to me — that’s what churches and other Christian organizations need to be thinking about. Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome. How do you plan to keep that from happening again?
This reflection helps me to understand a dynamic that I have lately found difficult to articulate: why it is that when a church flips on homosexuality, everything is up for grabs. The other night in Waco, I was having a conversation with some Evangelical academics. One of them said that his local church, one in a denomination that has historically been conservative, is having “conversations” now about its stance on homosexuality. We know where this is going: once the “conversation” process starts, there is only one way it can end. Once you put something as fundamental as human sexuality up for fundamental reassessment, the fact that it’s even a matter of contention shows how far towards heterodoxy the church has gone.
Anyway, that professor said that he has changed his mind on the issue, and has adopted the more progressive stance. I told him that that was, in my view, incompatible with orthodox Christianity. His response to that was interesting: he said that his church does, in fact, hold to Christian orthodoxy — something that is true, in the broad tradition of his denomination (I’m being deliberately obscure to protect his privacy). What’s happening now with them, he said, is that they are expanding the definition of orthodoxy on matters sexual.
I disagreed. In the conversation around the table — which, I hasten to say, was friendly — I said that the overwhelming weight of Scripture and Tradition is binding on us. I agreed that the church itself, and Christian families and individuals, have treated homosexuals cruelly in the past, and that must stop. No question about that. But that does not mean one can or should change one’s theology, especially on so fundamental an issue, and one on which Scripture and Tradition can only affirm the contemporary liberal view if you torture them.
“It sounds like you’re saying that taking my position puts you outside of Christian orthodoxy,” said my new friend.
Yes, I said, that’s it.
We agreed to disagree, implicitly. Everybody around that table, I believe, was a good person, though clearly not everybody could be correct in his or her views on the matter at hand. I was grateful for the irenic nature of our conversation, which continued for a short while longer. I asserted that churches that affirm homosexuality don’t stop there. It opens the door for all kinds of revision. Besides, it does nothing to grow the church. Granted, a church that takes a righteous stand is correct in the eyes of God, even if it costs that church most of its congregation. But if what was considered righteous for almost 2,000 years among Christians is now considered bigotry, and the change happened in only one generation, it is not only fair, but necessary to ask: What makes us so sure that we’re right and every other generation of Christians back to the Apostolic Age were wrong?
Jacobs’s pointed question at the end — How do you plan to keep that from happening again? — reveals why affirming homosexuality is the equivalent of removing the keystone that keeps the arch standing. A church that can rationalize such a radical revision of settled Christian doctrine is capable of rationalizing anything. The fact is, there is nothing that keeps this from happening again, should the social consensus on any other issue change, putting the Christian tradition on the losing side of cultural dominance. The Christian church’s view of human sexuality (not just homosexuality) and the body is so deeply rooted that you cannot simply change it when the cultural winds start blowing another way, without doing serious, perhaps fatal, damage to the authority of Scripture and Tradition. We are seeing that play out right now, and will see it over the next half century.