and God: What’s at Stake for Conservatives
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
won by these thinkers, an example of which was the ordination of
women. Of late, revisionist efforts have focused on blessing the homosexual
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
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
conservatives to assert the sinfulness of homosexual intercourse
was actually better interpreted in such as way as to be irrelevant to the
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
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
interpretation. Instead, conservatives assent to a model sometimes
called the Anglican Tricycle: Scripture is the big wheel in which the
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
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
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.
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
consider themselves to have been the victims of exclusive theology.
David Dean ’06 is a Religion concentrator in