For some time now, I have been pursuing the question of the proper use of the Bible in Christian ethics, using the issue of same-sex relationships as a test case. This essay is the tenth in this series, which is a sub-series within a larger 35-essay series on Christianity and the contemporary moral crisis that began July 01, 2021. Though there is much more to be said, it is now time for me to end this series by stating in a positive way my view of the proper way to use scripture to address this issue.
The Question of Teaching Authority
Investigation into the proper “use” of scripture in Christian theology and ethics presupposes someone or some group that “uses” it. Who is that? Are we speaking about individual believers, exegetes, and theologians? Or, are we speaking about churches and denominations? Individuals are free to “use” scripture according to their understanding to construct their personal theological and ethical systems. But the opinions of individuals possess no authority for others. No Christian is obligated to accept an individual’s opinion as binding Christian doctrine. The discussion about same-sex unions is ultimately about what the church should teach and what moral behaviors the church should promote, accept, or condemn for its members. In contemporary society a person is legally free to have sex with whomever they please as long as there is mutual consent. In these essays I am not discussing sexual ethics for contemporary society. I am discussing whether or not the church should affirm those who claim to be Christians and wish to participate in the life of the church while also living in a same-sex sexual relationship. How should the church use scripture in its deliberations?
It is not enough for exegetes to opine on what the scriptures say about same-sex relationships. The church has to decide what it should say to itself and the world about this matter in obedience to scripture. The church may wish to hear the opinions of individual exegetes, historians, and theologians as part of its deliberations. But no matter how ingenious or sophisticated they may be, these proposals possess no doctrinal or ecclesiastical authority. The church as a community must decide in the spirit of obedience whether or not it should affirm same-sex unions as morally acceptable Christian behavior within that community.
Christian denominations often acknowledge areas where diverse private opinions on theology are allowed and different areas where private choices of ways of life are permitted. But nearly all Christian denominations hold adherence to some doctrines necessary and anyone who teaches a different doctrine is deemed a heretic. The recalcitrant person may be stripped of their office and excluded from teaching within the church. Likewise, anyone guilty of behaviors deemed by the denomination as immoral is subject to discipline and perhaps excommunication. And a person who rejects the church’s moral teaching and teaches others to do the same may be subject to excommunication.
The Weight of Tradition
A church’s official doctrine and moral teaching are the result of long-term communal experience and reflection on scripture, perhaps reaching all the way back to the apostles. Whereas most churches do not hold their confessions of faith to be infallible and irreformable, they are, nevertheless, slow to accept proposals for radical change. There is much to consider, too much for any one individual to grasp and too important to rush the process. On the matter of the moral status of same-sex unions, it would be difficult to find a moral or doctrinal teaching on which there is a greater and longer-term consensus within the world-wide church. The church is right to be skeptical of proposals that interpret the scriptures in ways radically different from the way it has understood them for 2,000 years. As I demonstrated in my reviews of works by Karen Keen and Robert Gnuse, critics of the tradition can achieve no more than opening a mere possibility that the Bible does not condemn loving, non-coercive homosexual relationships along with its clear condemnation of exploitive same-sex intercourse. Gnuse admits that Paul probably would have condemned even non-coercive same-sex relationships, if he had been asked about them. The leap from these meager, tentative, and speculative exegetical results to affirmation of same-sex unions as morally equal to traditional marriage is huge and completely unwarranted. It seems to me that those who make this giant leap do so for reasons other than desire to obey scripture and use their exegetical gymnastics as a diversion to distract readers from the real reasons for their decision.
Church Decision Making
How does the church make decisions on doctrine and morals? The first thing on which to get clear is that the Christian church does not claim the freedom to create doctrine and moral law arbitrarily or to change it to fit the spirit of the age. Faithful churches acknowledge that they are charged with passing on the faith as they received it from Christ and his apostles. For my part, I will not acknowledge any institution as the church that will not make this confession or that I sense does not make it sincerely. Hence the church’s decision-making process should focus on remaining faithful to the original gospel and moral vision in our present circumstances. I am suspicious of any church that seems to allow other concerns to divert it from this task. Churches, too, can be carried away by grave error and even become heretical.
The second thing to keep in mind is that the decision-making process of the church cannot be made completely formal and procedural. For example, it cannot be carried out through the mechanisms of direct democracy wherein a majority of the living members can legislate for the whole body. Nor is the church a representative democracy. It is certainly not a dictatorship. The goal is not to canvass the will of the people but to discern the will of God and seek God’s guidance on how best to remain faithful in the present age. On matters that a church—a local congregation, a denomination, or the ecumenical church—confesses and teaches to itself and the world, the community as a whole must come to consensus on the issue, and this may take a long time. And the process of coming to consensus may take place quite informally. And of course on most doctrinal and moral issues the present consensus was achieved centuries ago and reaffirmed by many succeeding generations of believers.
With respect to the challenge of those who argue that the church should affirm same-sex unions on the same basis as it affirms traditional marriage, what factors should the church consider? If it is determined to remain faithful, the church must continue to read scripture as the standard of its faith and morals. Because it is open to deepening its understanding of God’s will, the church will not refuse to listen to voices that propose new interpretations of scripture. But the church did not begin to read and interpret scripture yesterday. Hence it listens to those new interpretations only in light of what it has been taught by tradition. Tradition embodies the long-term, time-tested wisdom of the faithful about the meaning of the scriptures, and a church that desires to be faithful will not discard it lightly. The burden of proof will always fall on those who challenge the wisdom of tradition. Moreover, the church will exercise discernment about whether or not these new voices speak with sincere desire to seek the will of God or speak deceptively. Both Jesus and the beloved disciple tell us not to be naïve about new teachings:
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15-16). “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
My Final Word
I cannot speak for the whole church or any particular congregation or denomination, and I possess no authority to obligate anyone to obedience. However, I urge believers individually and the church corporately not to be deceived by sophisticated arguments that, contrary to the unanimous Christian tradition and against the grain of reason, claim that scripture does not condemn and perhaps even approves of same-sex unions. I believe these arguments possess moving force only for those already persuaded by the spirit of the age, which elevates the authority of a subjective sense of identity and well-being above reason, moral law, traditional wisdom, and scriptural teaching.