In Dubiis Libertas: Opening Up the Sexuality Conversation at Christian Universities (Mark Bruce)

In recent posts, I’ve called on evangelicals to have a genuine conversation about sexuality, in fitting with their Reformation heritage as Christians who are “reformed and always reforming.” In this guest post, my colleague Mark Bruce explains why it’s especially important — and difficult — to have such conversations at Christian colleges and universities.

Mark BruceWhen asked for a shorthand definition of Pietism, I’ve sometimes (tongue in my cheek) offered a response like this: “Pietism is a Christian movement that grew out of the experience of Europe’s seventeenth-century ‘Wars of Religion,’ wherein a small group of believers realized that perhaps slaughtering one another by the millions over matters of doctrine really wasn’t, after all, such a hot idea.”

Cringeworthy as such a statement may be for its historical reductiveness, I think it does contain two important grains of truth: Christians, generally, have a historically spotty track record when it comes to having productive conversations about hot button issues. We also tend to be slow learners, especially in a “shoot first, regret our enmity later” sort of way.

Such enmity, I suspect, stems from two entirely reasonable — but nevertheless contradictory — impulses when it comes to matters of doctrine. On the one hand, we’re understandably reluctant to change things we relate to eternal, capital-T truth — reluctant, even, to talk about such change. On the other, we’re aware that, as human beings whose reason is as darkened by the fall as every other aspect of our perception, there may be a difference between the Truth and what we have come to regard as that Truth. When doctrinal controversies arise, both impulses come into play strongly, and we often wind up with stark divisions between those arguing that we have, in fact, been wrong about something, and those who, on the other hand, fear that even raising the possibility of such mistaken-ness might be a sin from which the faith itself may never recover. While ranges of opinion often exist between these two extremes, those at the extremes can and have become so passionate (and so entrenched) that violence, whether real or rhetorical, has seemed the only answer. The warring extremes, rather than considering moderated positions themselves, wind up catching everyone in their crossfire.

One of the most important historical innovations of Pietism, I think, is that its founders — having witnessed the extremes of violence to which extremes of belief in the maintenance of doctrinal purity can lead us — searched successfully for ways out of that impasse. One was simply what’s often referred to as the “turn inward” of Pietism: the valuing of the individual’s relationship with Christ rather than that individual’s adherence to doctrinal abstractions. Another was the idea enshrined in the oft-repeated Pietist motto, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”

The traditional Latin phrase is In necessariis unitas; in dubiis libertas; in omnibus caritas. A fuller translation of the Latin might read “In necessary matters, unity; in uncertain matters, liberty; in all matters, love of God and neighbor.” While the phrase itself likely predates Pietism, it was the early Pietists that made it a foundation of their approach to theological thinking. Their innovation is as stultifyingly simple as it is useful and profound: rather than allow themselves to endanger one another by the natural impasse of doctrinal debate described above, they, via the second clause in that motto, built that brand of debate into the very structure of faithfulness itself.

The Latin terminology is particularly helpful in this regard: in dubiis libertas. Dubius comes from the same root as the English word “double.” It refers to something that goes in two directions at once, that vibrates. By extension, it refers to uncertainty, something in flux. The phrase as a whole, then, suggests that there should be freedom (libertas) where we experience uncertainty. “Liberty in uncertain matters” means that beyond the very few ideas deemed essential by denominations in the Pietist tradition, matters of doctrine are, in essence, there to be debated as much, if not more, than they are there to be resolved. The phrase also suggests that such ongoing debate and inquiry is part and parcel of a life of faith. It may be less important for us to entrench ourselves on one side or the other than to allow such matters to continue being debated openly. To let them vibrate, energizing minds and lives in the process.

I think the idea of libertas in dubiis provides a useful starting point for rethinking how Christian colleges and universities might go about inquiring into matters of sexuality, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision. The first step, I think, is for us to acknowledge, openly, the reality that issues of sexuality fall under the category of dubia rather than necessaria. This is not a progressive position, but rather an essentially conservative one for most denominations: none of Christianity’s historical creeds touch on sexuality one way or the other. The core faith statements of the denomination with which my own institution (Bethel University) is affiliated (Converge Worldwide’s Affirmation of Faith and its Gospel Declaration) do not identify anything about sexuality as a matter of essential doctrine. There is nothing about sexuality in what my institution publicly advertises as its core values. Nor do matters of sexuality arise in its Affirmation of Faith. I suspect something similar is the case for many — if not most — Christian institutions of higher learning. What this suggests to me is that both my institution and denomination have never put questions of sexuality in the category of necessaria, never put them on the level of such matters of doctrine as, for example, the resurrection, the nature of Christ, and the Trinity, etc. To assume that questions of sexuality belong in the category of necessaria is to innovate on tradition, not to maintain it.

Affirming the above gives us space to affirm another important cultural reality: that there is not, currently, consensus about the issue of how Christian colleges should respond to LGBT persons. Not in our culture at large, not within Christianity more broadly, nor even specifically at institutions where “homosexual behavior” has historically been prohibited. The issue of same-sex relationships — regardless of one’s particular position — is currently one for which multiple perspectives are in play. A number of these perspectives have strong (or at least cogent) arguments and proponents whose commitment to the faith itself is difficult if not impossible to question. All of them — like so many difficult questions believers have faced over the millennia — claim scriptural authority.

Why, then, do communities at Christian universities still seem to have such trouble debating matters of sexuality in productive ways?

One answer may lie outside the realm of doctrine per se. While my own institution, for example, does not mention sexuality in its key doctrinal affirmations, it does get more specific about sexuality in another kind of document. Our Covenant for Life Together currently lists “homosexual behavior” among a number of other behaviors that it asserts “should not be present in the lives of believers.” Employed by many Christian colleges and universities, such “community lifestyle agreements” serve a number of positive functions by enforcing standards designed specifically for the communities they help define. They encompass much more than lists of “thou shalt nots.” Bethel’s document, for example, spends much more time and energy on matters such as the cultivation of loving community, the pursuit of truth as a special calling of the institution, and commitments to anti-racism and sexism than it does on matters of sexuality.

For these reasons, I hope the following remarks will not be read as a condemnation of Bethel’s Covenant (or anyone else’s) as such. However, it seems likely to me that prohibitions about same-sex behaviors in such documents may nevertheless play a significant role in forestalling productive debate about sexuality. The problem with such prohibitions is that they force a situation in which, even while questions about sexuality might really be matters of dubia rather than necessaria in a theological sense, those questions are treated as settled in the realm of insitutional identity and policy. If it is inescapable, regardless of what our individual convictions might be, that there is not currently consensus on these issues within Christianity (or even, if we’re honest, within particular institutions), then insisting on what should be one position within a larger debated as fixed in terms of institutional policy causes obvious problems.

We can open up the debate so we can have it freely, or shut it down artificially in the name of maintaining an identity (and simply saying “our way or the highway”). But what we cannot choose to do is both of those things at the same time. We can’t try to debate and inquire into a question freely and openly under an already-institutionally-imposed answer. No institution can debate an issue and treat it as a foregone conclusion simultaneously.

Hence, I think, the kind of frustration many of us who work at Christian universities feel when the matter arises. We sigh, shuffle, hem and haw, and generally wish we were someplace else. We find ourselves trying to be hyper-careful about what we say so as to avoid institutional or social stigma. Those who harbor non-traditional views on the matter look at the official, institutional stance, and hesitate to speak freely for fear of losing employment or other disciplinary action at the institutional level. Those who hew to very traditional evangelical views about sexuality also draw back from speaking as openly as they might for fear of being labeled by more left-leaning colleagues as intolerant or narrow-minded — or even for fear of consequences to their own employment should an open debate lead to policy change.

The result is that we all know we need to talk about this, but we all feel gagged. It’s as though we’re trying to play a soccer match in which the rules forbid Team One from touching the ball at all, and Team Two won’t touch the ball for fear of what Team One might say about them if they do. So the ball just sits there as we all look at each other, horribly uncomfortable, feeling like idiots, as the moments tick loudly. No wonder we’re all frustrated, tired… and stuck.

Meanwhile, we have to wonder how the LGBT students under our care are faring in the midst of our inaction.

So one useful question for traditionally Christian universities might be to ask how, in the case of debates over same-sex relationships, we might more fully allow dubia to be treated as such. One move in the right direction might be to begin to see matters of sexuality for what, in most cases, they already are and have always been: matters of institutional policy and identity rather than matters of essential doctrinal purity. Another important step, though, may be be to determine what to do with policies that may be forestalling truly open and productive debate. What can administrators do to ensure that faculty members need not fear institutional censure for simply advocating non-traditional (or even traditional) positions? What kinds of alterations to institutional policies might faculty members productively advocate? What kinds of forums and guidelines might we be able to set up to make our discussions work better?

The answers matter, because the debates on the ground are only going to intensify, and the question of how we deal with same-sex relationships at Christian universities may even be imposed upon them externally as the public implications of the Supreme Court’s rulings play out over time. If institutional policies are hampering us from being prepared to engage in this debate honestly and fully, such policies could be the death of us. It’d be a little like having a fire start in one’s church and refusing to prevent one’s fellow parishioners from burning to death because the church’s bylaws include a strict water conservation policy. I would suggest that Christian universities can not only do better than this, but go even further to model what real inquiry — and even passionate disagreement — can look like when carried on in full freedom among sincere persons of faith. With libertas in dubiis; caritas in omnibus.

Mark P. Bruce is Associate Professor of English and English Department Chair at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has previously published several articles on the medieval life and modern afterlife of the fourteenth-century document known as the “Declaration of Arbroath,” and edited The Anglo-Scottish Border and the Shaping of Identity: 1300-1600 (Palgrave, 2012) with Katherine Terrell. He is at work on a book concerning chronicles and romances written within the Anglo-Scottish marches in the late Middle Ages.

38 thoughts on “In Dubiis Libertas: Opening Up the Sexuality Conversation at Christian Universities (Mark Bruce)

  1. I would hope that this, “Meanwhile, we have to wonder how the LGBTQ students under our care are faring in the midst of our inaction,” would be the priority over and against one’s job or how the institution polices faculty. Obviously these concerns are of extreme importance and without jobs one would not have an impact on students, but I would hope the care and formation of students would be the drive and not the protection of one’s job. Again, I understand the need to focus on the other, one I continually understand more as I’ve transitioned from being a student to and adjunct. However, the more I hear from students within the LGBTQ community or allies of the LGBTQ community that say “we have professor support in the closed door of his/her office,” the sicker I get sick to my stomach because I’m experiencing the harm it does to these students.

    With that said, I do appreciate, even if it is 2015, the call for conversation and hope that institutions such as Bethel will have challenging and life giving conversations of what life and policy look like with, in, and through the LGBTQ community. I had the opportunity to spend time with David Gushee at an event at the ECC’s MidWinter conference this past January. Although paraphrased from memory his words in our conversation have been ingrained in me and even kept me up at night in regards what does participation at places such as Bethel look like. He said: LGBTQ students will always be happy to find safe places in otherwise unsafe communities for them to discuss their sexuality and/or faith in light of that sexuality. However, when faculty or staff find themselves under a covenant or restrictions that close door support will eventually not be enough for the student to feel safe and affirmed. Eventually one will have to come to the conclusion if their support and affirmation of students is more important than their job. Again, this is paraphrased from my memory.

    Prayers for the Bethel community and all Christian Universities as you continue to discern, explore, and participate in these conversations. And especially these conversations would be guided around the reality the LGBTQ community is made up of people, not issues.

  2. “The problem with such prohibitions is that they force a situation in which, even while questions about sexuality might really be matters of dubia rather than necessaria in a theological sense, those questions are treated as settled in the realm of institutional identity and policy.”

    Thanks for this Mark! As a one who has transitioned to “church planter” as my primary role (I will be teaching as an adjunct at Bethel next year as a secondary role), and as we are considering planting with a denomination that has a strong pietist heritage (the Evangelical Covenant Church), you have put into words the tension I feel as last week the ECC did a “double-down” on its’ position on human sexuality. The tension I feel is not due to the fact that I disagree with their postion at this point in my journey. The tension I feel, which you have put into words for me, is that a “compassionate line drawing approach” shuts down dialogue and healthy debate. It has moved this conversation from “dubia” to “necessaria” (or keeps the conversation as “necessaria” which is not going to be discussed).

    As a lead team of our church we have been drawn to David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw’s book “Prodigal Christianity.” In it they argue that there may be a third way for churches between “Open and Affirming” and “Open and not Affirming”. That way is what they call “Open and Mutually Transforming”. The notion is very akin to what I hear you advocating for in this post. But I believe for one to be in a mutually transforming dialogue and relationship, one must be truly open to hearing the others position to the point that one is truly open to changing one’s position. And if one does continue to hold differing positions to truly create space for unity in diversity. Of course if the conversation is about a matter labeled “dubia” not “necessaria” that helps. Yet I agree with you, at Bethel, and in the ECC, policy statements continue to make these conversations feel like a matter of “necessaria” not “dubia.”

  3. Dear Mark & Chris,

    Let me first clarify that the interpretation of Bethel’s documents I offer below is my own; I have no authority to speak for the Bethel administration in any way, shape or form and I do not pretend to do so.

    Having said that, I would argue that Bethel’s position on sexuality does not need to be listed in our core values to be considered essential because (per our Covenant for Life Together’s very specific prohibition of “homosexual behavior” and strong affirmation that “sexual intercourse and other forms of intensely interpersonal sexual activity are reserved for monogamous, heterosexual marriage”) this is an integral part of our mission to help students become “whole and holy persons” and is an important part of what we mean by being “Christ-followers” (since Christ clearly affirmed marriage as quoted above–see Matthew 19:4-9). It would not particularly make sense for Bethel to have a sex-focused statement of core values (frankly it feels like that would be a bit weird) but those ideas certainly undergird our core values.

    I completely concur with Bethel’s position as I’ve outlined above. Christians down through time have understood marriage as being between a man and a woman, everything in scripture that refers to homosexual behavior is in the negative, and there is a powerful positive case that the male-female relationship in marriage is a picture of the relationship between God and His people (God and Israel in the OT, Christ and the Church in the NT) and thus the sexual difference is essential to the nature of the marriage relationship. Given both the positive and negative scriptural cases and the testimony of the church through two millennia, what could we as Christ-followers discover in a discussion of this that would lead us to overturn this enormous weight of evidence on how we Christians ought to view marriage? For these reasons, I would argue that this does fall under “necessaria” and not “dubia” and that Bethel’s core documents suggest that this is so.

    This does not mean we cannot and should not have discussions surrounding this. We should, especially since it does have an important impact on so many people. The question is: what precisely should we discussing? As a Christian university, we take some things as foundational beliefs (the existence of God, His incarnation as Christ Jesus, the Bible as the word of God, salvation through Christ’s work on the cross, etc.) and we believe that loving people and seeking their good never requires that we affirm sin as good. I would argue that we need to more clearly articulate why we believe Bethel’s position on Christian marriage and sexual morality is the only one consistent with scripture and the understanding of the church down through time, taking that as a starting point for our discussions at Bethel. We could then focus our energy on discussions such as how we as Christ-followers should live rightly in a society in which “homosexual marriages” are legal or what it means for LGBTQ people to live as whole and holy persons given that legitimate sexual expression for Christians is limited to heterosexual marriage. On this latter point, for example, Wesley Hill’s works on how he as a Christian who is same-sex attracted has sought to faithfully follow Christ and how we need a more robust understanding of Christian friendship instead of being so single-mindedly focused on marriage for the fulfillment of relational needs could be profitable material for reflection and discussion.

    In Christ’s love,

      1. Thanks for your kind words, Chris. I’m honored to have you and Mark as my colleagues too and appreciate the spirit in which you both make arguments.

    1. I think you make good points. At the same time itself, the Covenant recognizes that the expectations outlined in it are not “necessaria” but “dubia,” stating: “We recognize that not all devout Christians share these rules and expectations. However, certain issues are important for our educational mission and our life together at Bethel.” That statement suggests that the things outlined in the Covenant are not doctrinal necessities. The fact that the Covenant has changed on issues such as alcohol consumption by faculty members and dancing indicates to me that the things contained within it are open to discussion, reinterpretation, and change.

      That being said, it’s very heartening for this alum to see such conversations taking place among faculty members, and in a public forum. I’m grateful to see this participation!

    2. Hi Andy:

      Since we’ve worked together a fair amount, I know you know I like and respect you as a fine scholar and wonderful colleage with whom I love working–so I hope you’ll take the following as it’s intended–as a bit of good-natured sparring between friends.

      Let me use a silly hypothetical to try to demonstrate what registers to me as the problem with the kind of argument you’re making here:

      Let’s say we find ourselves in disagreement over which is the better beer: Coors or Corona. We probably both hate both of those (well, I’ll take a Corona, absolutely ice cold, with a lime wedge on a really hot day), but I’m shooting from the hip, here, so go with me for a sec: imagine you’re the proponent of Corona and I’m the defender of Coors. We decide to have a debate so that we can both put our arguments on the table. However, just before the debate begins, I insist that, since it’s a clear given that the case for Coors is so obviously superior, that judgment should the the starting point of the debate, which should then really concentrate on on whether Coors is better because of the quality of its hops or the quality of its malt. The upshot, I suspect, would be that you’d wind up saying nothing or leaving the table, and I’d wind up talking to myself. In other words, that would be no debate at all.

      The fact is that the debate about sexuality, as it exists on the ground within Christianity more broadly, within Evangelicalism less widely, and even, if we’re honest, at our own institution, is one that takes questions such as *whether or not* homosexual behavior is, in fact, sinful, and *whether or not* passages like Matthew 19 speak to the issue of homosexuality at all are some of the most important cruces of the debate. Or even *whether or not* affirmation or non-affirmation, as Dale points out, are really the only responses available to us. Understand that I’m not saying, here, that I *personally* think such questions *ought* to be important points in the debate–my feelings on that matter are immaterial here–but rather that they *already are* the important points in the debate as it is playing out on the ground: in the arena of public debate within Chrisitanity, in peer-reviewed and popular work by Christian scholars, in discussions in hallways and dorm rooms–and nowhere more powerfully than in the moment-to-moment lives of our LGBT students (who, as Robert rightly reminds us, should be our primary concern, no matter what else). If we’re going to engage in that debate in an academically responsible way, we can’t simply ignore that reality and play our own game off in a corner without reducing ourselves to irrelevance at best or institutional navel-gazing at worst. We need to take the debate on where it really lives, not where we’d prefer it to live.

      While the traditionalist (or non-affirming, to use the current lingo) arguments, as you point out, are very strong, part of the reality of the debate is that a range of non-traditional (or affirming, or in-between) arguments have had time to develop a similar degree of weight and cogency over the past decade. At present, there exists a range of arguments within the broader Christian community concerning sexuality. And as I point out in the article, all of them have proponents that argue their points cogently in both peer-reviewed and popular work, whose committment to the faith and to scripture is difficult to dismiss, and all of whom claim scriptural authority (or at least claim to be concerned about taking scripture seriously, and engage in professional-level exegesis). To do what you’re suggesting, and start the debate with the premise that the non-affirming position can be the only correct one from a Christian perspective, would essentially be the same as deciding not to have the discussion at all.

      Take, as one example, your own Matthew 19 reference. I’ve seen that passage referenced, time and time again, as though the fact that it speaks to the issue of homosexual relationships and marriages (or speaks to the only kind of gender-distribution in a marraige that God condones) is so obvious as to require no argument whatsoever. Honestly, that reading has always confused me. As a literature scholar, I have numerous discussions with my own students about the difference between reading a text and reading *into* a text; between honestly listening to what that text has to say on its own terms and imposing our own terms upon it. One of the guidelines I often use is that if one’s interpretation of a single sentence of a passage winds up seeming far afield of the meaning of the rest of the passage–especially if that interpretation speaks to a matter of contemporary concern, rather than the concerns of the text’s first audience–it’s likely that one is reading into the text rather than reading it. In the Matthew 19 case, the subject under discussion is clearly divorce, and the sentence in which Jesus brings up the “what God has put together” idea is part of his response to their question about whether divorce is lawful. Seeing that passage as relevant to discussions of gay marraige, then, has always seemed like a stretch to me, for two reasons:

      1. It seems anachronistic: Since the ostensible subject of the passage is so strongly apparent (divorce), and since the concept of marriage between same-sex couples was not an alternative available in the culture in which the author of Matthew wrote, it seems like a reach indeed to treat the passage as though it speaks, somehow, to the question of what gender-combinations qualify one for marriage. To read the passage as through it is relevant to that issue, to my thinking, is to impose upon it both questions and cultural categories that were not available to its author or first audience. The very definition of anachronistic reading.
      2. It seems to miss the point of the passage. Once again, Jesus questioners did not ask “What combinations of gender are lawful in marriage?” They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce?” Jesus’ response is a resounding “no way!” (save in cases of infidelity).His point about marriage as a covenant between two that was created by God that no human being is qualified to dissolve. That point seems so strong, to me, in that passage, that it seems like quite a monumental segue to force the passage to talk about which genders can marry. It’s a little like taking the “to be or not to be” speech in *Hamlet* and concentrating on the line about the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in order to argue that Shakespeare supported the right to carry projectile weapons.

      Obviously this is hardly a real exegesis of the passage, but I bring it up in order, I hope, to show that the traditionalist reading of Matthew 19 isn’t necessarily something that can be treated, without argument or inquiry, as a foregone conclusion. There are arguments to be made, homework to do, discussions to be had about that passage. Doubtless we could have a fascinating discussion about it.

      But how much of the richness of such a discussion would be lost if we decided to insist from the outset that there was only a single interpretation that we could discuss (to the point of writing that interpretation into institutional policy)? That none of the other interpretations (as cogent and as present in the scholarship as they might be) should be relevant to the discussion? How realistic or even responsible would such a discussion be?

      Personally, I think we could do a lot more good by having that conversation than by ignoring it. And I would maintain that the very existence of such a vigorous debate over these issues puts them *precisely* in the category of “uncertain matters,” whether we choose to treat them as such or not. I think we should. And that we should talk about them. Preferably over something a little tastier than either Coors or Corona.

      1. Mark,

        Thanks for your long and thoughtful reply. It’s been fun to work with you too–here’s to more Shakespeare in interim! Spring 2017?

        I enjoyed your hypothetical, though since I grew up in a Muslim country, I confess that I’ve never really learned to appreciate beer (nothing against it, just never acquired the taste). Anyway, you’re right, that approach would be silly if we were discussing the best beer, baseball team, or bbq restaurant or some other triviality. And it would be silly for most substantive issues we could discuss, such as if we were discussing the pros/cons of same-sex marriage as a public policy. But my point was that at a Christian college we must do this with some issues or we’re not in any sense a Christian institution. So for example, people can and do debate whether salvation is through Christ or whether God exists, but at Bethel we believe those are core truths because they are essential to what it means to be Christian (e.g. people can debate them but ultimately if you reject the existence of God, or salvation as being in Christ, you are no longer in any orthodox sense a Christian). That doesn’t mean we can’t discuss those issues (we must as students often doubt this and many other things) or even that we can’t disagree within those points (there are many understandings of exactly how Christ saves us that we can and should discuss), but we do ground our arguments in these core truths of the faith.

        My argument is that based on the overwhelming evidence of scripture and tradition that Christians have likewise always understood marriage in the same way (at least before the post-modern move in the last few decades), the fact that marriage is male/female is likewise a core truth. I say that for all the reasons I outlined before but most especially because otherwise it completely destroys the picture of God’s relationship with us that human marriage is designed to represent. Thus I don’t see why it could potentially be okay to reject the consistent understanding of Christ-followers for two millennia of what marriage is, given that that understanding is based on the consistent pattern in scripture. We disagree about this so I’m not going to belabor that point further. I acknowledge that given where our society is, you are almost certainly right that we will have no choice but to have this discussion, but I think it’s deeply problematic.

        One other comment. Of course, you’re right that Matthew 19 is about divorce, not same-sex marriage. My point was simply that in answering firmly that what God has joined together men should not separate, Christ affirms who God joined together in marriage, e.g. man/woman. So even though He isn’t addressing same-sex marriage, it shows what true marriage is. That isn’t reading into the text; it’s pointing out how Christ refers to the marriage relationship in answering their question and making the not unreasonable connection that He is affirming marriage as it was understood in His society, which was always as a male-female relationship. Christ wasn’t at all afraid to say radical things and challenge the premises of questions, so if marriage should not have been limited to heterosexual relationships, one wonders why He wouldn’t have challenged them on that premise? Having said that, I think the much stronger argument for understanding marriage as heterosexual is the point I made above that human marriage is a picture of the far greater relationship between God and His people as that picture only works with a clear difference between the spouses.

        More I could add, but I’ll stop there.


      2. @Andy — You seem to be contradicting yourself when you say there are non-negotiable core beliefs, but students do and must debate, doubt, and disagree about them. I would say students are no different from anyone else regardless of age or position. There should be room for debate, doubt, and disagreement not despite core beliefs but because of them. If they are real, then they are secure. The only credible fear a Christian institution may have is that too many of their core members will reject core beliefs and cease to be Christian, thereby compromising the institution. If this is a real possibility, then how does preventing it by mandating no discussion on these topics really help? It may in fact do more harm than good. At no point in the Bible do we see a mandate to defend faith by suppressing speech or thought, and if you look at how Jewish communities have handled the problem of unity in diversity much stands out in Christian history and thought for its scandalous legalistic and punitive qualities.

        Christians have not always understood anything the same way, even within the same time periods, but you can point to some broad consensus positions that have completely abandoned later such as the geocentric solar system and the legitimacy of slavery. At a key point in the later reformation the right to overthrow and even kill one’s political leaders was momentous for European and North American history; previously it was inconceivably criminal and even blasphemous. The situation we have now is similar to these shifts or the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. New information of a strongly empirical nature is in direct contradiction to the interpretation of human anthropology as comprised of two genders and two “sexual orientations.” As a point of fact this binary model is an 18th century construct; earlier views saw gender and sexuality as a spectrum, and the ancient biblical world new emasculated or otherwise feminine men as third gender. If the early church valued a certain model of sexuality it was asexuality. Much has changed and then changed again. I would submit that we are not being responsible to scripture or tradition if we attempt to deny the history and change within them; it is only by participating in that ever-changing history with an eye to what has been received and what now needs to be given that it remains vital and continuous.

        This single issue should not be described as so momentous that it is the equivalent of creedal dogma. It is neither new nor strange to hear Evangelicals interpreting “virgin Mary,” “descended into hell,” will come again,” and “one holy, apostolic catholic church” in a wide variety of ways including highly non-literal ones, all of which are no more than 500 years old. Rarely are these points of faith matters of deep controversy, so it is more than passing strange for moral teachings about homosexuality to be treated as impinging on the integrity of the church and one’s salvation when divorce and other sins focused on by Jesus, Peter, and Paul are given much stronger treatment in the Bible.

      3. @Gerry–Thanks for your comment. I don’t think what I said is contradictory. As I pointed out in my reply to Mark, it’s not that we shouldn’t discuss this at all, but that we should articulate what the Christian position on this issue is, just as we will discuss arguments for and against the existence of God or the deity of Christ, while taking a clear position on what the right answer is (even while there can be much disagreement about how we get there, what things at the margins mean, etc.). So it’s a discussion but of a particular kind.

        I completely concur that “that we are not being responsible to scripture or tradition if we attempt to deny the history and change within them” but I disagree that the morality of homosexual sex has been controversial in earlier Christian history. The idea that sex was limited to marriage and marriage was male/female was taken as an obvious point and looking at the positions of the church in its Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant manifestations shows this consistently up until the last few decades. Even if all the things you say about sexuality are true (and I have many concerns about them, but don’t want to pursue that rabbit trail at this time), I don’t think it changes the position of the church on marriage for all the reasons I stated earlier (and that’s without making the natural law argument, another rabbit trail I am declining to pursue here).

        Obviously we disagree on this, so while you are very welcome to reply, I will most likely conclude here.

        Respectfully, Andy

  4. Hi Mark,

    Your article popped up in my fb newsfeed from a friend who is a Bethel alum. I’m a librarian at the school down the road (you know, that one that just changed its name to the ever confusing University of Northwestern). While I enjoyed the tone of your article and agree that open discussion is vital, I can’t help but think that there’s a category problem in placing sexual behaviors within the In necessariis unitas; in dubiis libertas; in omnibus caritas paradigm. I don’t have the creeds in front of me, but I don’t think any of them mention a behavior like adultery either. Yet I still wouldn’t place opinions on adultery under In necessariis unitas, or in the next clause for that matter. It just doesn’t make sense to put moral proscriptions there. But that’s not to say that adulterous behavior is not de facto off limits in a biblically faithful Christian sexual ethic. On the other hand, even if we did locate sexuality within this paradigm, it does not follow that because something is being hotly debated today and tradition hasn’t explicitly addressed it, it must therefore not be dubia (as you seem to suggest). E.g., the debates over Arianism throughout most the 4th century did not change the truth that there was one God existing eternally in three Persons prior to that late doctrinal formulation. Indeed it’s the cultural moments that have caused the church to reflect on God’s revelation and formulate responses to new issues not explicitly set out in Scripture. And arguably, a proscription against homosexual behavior is more explicit in scripture than our doctrine of the Trinity. And the latter is definitely under necessaria.

    I also think your beer analogy in reply to Andy suffers a category confusion as well, in that it seems to assume what it argues for. If couched in the marriage debate, one’s preference for this “beer” or that “beer” presupposes that both fall under the category of the “delicious fermented malt beverage”. That is, it seems to assume that SSM and male/female marriage are just different brands of the same essential thing. I realize that your analogy was off the cuff, but to a traditional marriage person like me, it just doesn’t make sense. The analogy I see playing out in culture (and in evangelical circles as well) is more like placing a glass of lemonade and a glass of La Trappe Quad on the table and then insisting that both are beer and should be drunk responsibly. Traditionalists like myself keep saying, “there’s only one beer on the table (and it’s amazing).” Of course while lemonade and beer share some qualities (they are both drinks best served cold and satisfy thirst), they are also different in kind (one is alcoholic, the other isn’t). So with SSM and male/female marriage: both include two people, consent, and orgasms that satisfy sexual desires. But they are still different in kind because male/female sexual relations have a biological complimentarity and potency beyond just satisfying companionship and sexual desire. Of course, you don’t have to be a Christian to make that argument. The discussion you call for would be much more fruitful, I think, if everyone could acknowledge their assumptions. But the rhetoric of “SSM”–like your beer analogy–assumes what it argues for: that a marriage is any combination of two people regardless of biological sex. Open and serious inquiry into our presuppositions needs to happen on both sides of the sexuality debates.

    Finally, thanks for your post. I hope that christian universities and institutions show how to engage the issues rigorously AND support and love those in their midst who struggle with identity and sin–whether addiction, fornication, vanity, sloth, or homosexual acts. I know that taking homosexual acts off the “sin list” is the point in contention, but I don’t think naming it as a sin precludes discussion any more than calling a same-sex union a marriage does. The onus on both sides is to show how those terms make better sense of the world.

    Kind Regards,


    1. ###On the nature of the subject under discussion:

      I think there might be a little confusion, here, over exactly what I do and don’t mean to discuss here. When I’m talking about “uncertainty” about sexuality in the Christian community, I’m speaking on a broad, cultural level–and not trying to do anything more than simply reflect a cultural reality (not a preference). In other words, I’m simply saying that if one looks across the broad culture of those who self-identify as Christians, and even as evangelicals, one does not find uniformity of belief or opinion on the matter of how to treat (especially) committed, covenanted same-sex relationships (I don’t think anyone in the Christian community–even those who are affirming toward same-sex relationships–is advocating adultery or promiscuity). Certainly there are individuals and smaller communities like congregations and denominations that remain firmly convicted either at the polar opposites of full affirmation or full rejection (or at some point along the continuum in between), and that’s fine. But the reality of this lack of uniform belief obtains, as I explained in the original article, at both scholarly and popular levels. There are strong arguments to be found on all sides. I’m not trying to judge at this point whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m simply noting that *is* a thing. And it is *Dubia*–as a culture, we’re not sure about this one, even if some individuals and smaller groups are. And it’s something that I do think we need to acknowledge and deal with in a productive ways. As I mentioned at the beginning of the original article, Christians have gone the way of entrenching themselves and taking potshots at those with whom they disagree very often in the past, and historically that’s never ended well. I’d like to think we can decide to do better.

      ###On bad analogies

      I have to apologize for the beer analogy. I was trying to keep things light, but in so doing I wound up using an analogy that was so silly that its silliness clouded the point I was trying to make (this is a kind of disease with me–I tend to enjoy being silly way too much. Just ask my daughter). One thing I was NOT trying to do was suggest that discussion about sexuality takes place at the same ethical level as that of one’s preference for beer (or between good beer and lemonade). Of course that’s not the case. The point I was attempting (and failing) to make with that analogy was that it’s useless to have ANY debate on a question concerning which there are multiple points of view, and then constraining that debate by insisting that **one** of those viewpoints should be both (a) accepted as true from the outset and (b) be the only viewpoint that has a place at the table. To do so is, essentially, to choose to have an entirely different debate, or none at all. To use perhaps a higher-level analogy, it would be like having a presidential debate in an election year, but saying that the Green Party platform would be considered, *a priori*, to be the only correct position, and while Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, etc., would be allowed to participate in the debate if they desired, the only questions they would be allowed to discuss would be centered around determining the strongest reasons why the Green Party platform was superior to all the rest and/or the best ways of implementing the Green Party’s agenda. That would be a great discussion, perhaps, for the living room of the Green Party candidate, but useless as a way of laying out and evaluating all the different platforms that exist, in fact, on the national political stage. The fact that the particular debate in question exists at a much higher level of ethics and morality than either the beverage or the presidential scenario only makes it *more* important to engage fully and well, not less.

      ###On what counts as *necessaria* vs. *dubia*

      One of the arguments both Greg and Andy make is that something needn’t necessarily be part of the creeds in order to be considered *necessaria*. Once again, allow me to clarify what I’m placing in that category here: for me–and, I think, for most Christians throughout history–what I put in the *necessaria* category are those things that are absolutely necessary to believe if one is adopt the label of “Christian” (at least an evangelical one) in a meaningful way. For example, we might say to someone who rejects the resurrection, the reality of Grace, or the forgiveness of sins, “well, nice little religion you’ve got there, but you should probably call it something else.” I’m speaking entirely on the level of doctrine here. Of belief, not of behavior. (Not that behavior is not an important thing to consider; but for purposes of focus, I’m not considering it here.) So the question is, “Is belief that marriage can only exist between one man and one woman” an essential *doctrinal* point–one which one must believe and accept, as dogma, in order to meaningfully adopt the label “Christian?” Does it belong at the same level as credal statements about the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the reality of Grace, etc.?

      One thing that might be worth recognizing, here, is that those credal doctrines did not drop, fully formed, out of the sky, direct from the mouth of the Almighty. Rather, they emerged from *debate* within several different councils in the early centuries of the Christian era. Greg asserts that such debates (over Christology, for example) did not affect the eternal nature of God. Of course this is true (as, I would hasten to add, it is most certainly true that, because of the fallen state of humanity, not even our credal statements are adequate to explain God). But I would also acknowledge that the existence and process of those early church councils is evidence that favors the position for which I’m arguing here. The fact that we now consider the current doctrine of the nature of Christ (both God and Man simultaneously, of one substance, *homoousious* with the Father, etc.) may have been the eternal, capital-T truth all along, but those early councils were only able to determine this through a process of deliberation and debate concerning what, for them, was a range of contemporary positions much like the range of contemporary positions on sexuality. All those early “Christological heresies,” (Adoptionism, Nestorianism, Arianism, Docetism, etc.) began life as species of a genus of beliefs about the nature of Christ, adopted by sincere Christians who, for themselves, were *all* entirely convinced that their positions had come from a combination of reading of the Scriptures, reason, tradition, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. ALL of them claimed these things, all of them thought they were correct. The brilliance of these councils existed in their ability to consider arguments and ask *whether or not* they could or should be treated as orthodox, or whether they existed outside of orthodoxy. What would have come of, say, the First Council of Ephesus if they had started the debate by saying “sure, let’s debate this, but let’s start the debate by assuming that only Nestorianism can be considered the correct doctrine, and constrain the debate to determining the best reasons why that is the case.”

      It’s important to remember what I think is another important parallel between these early councils and the current considerations concerning sexuality: both are trying to consider essentially new things. When I teach about those councils, I often ask my students to exercise a lot of historical imagination: Those students are used to Christianity as a relatively old, very culturally-established religion. Those earlier Christians were not. Those in the first generations after the life of Christ had the job of taking their *experience* of the entirely novel event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and make sense of it theoretically. They were all interested in being faithful, scriptural, and spirit-filled, but Christianity turned out to be a really hard thing to explain. Exactly who is this Christ? What is he like? What is his relationship to God? (And no, by the way, we’re not actually *eating* people, but it really is Christ’s body and blood, but…). Consequently a number of different theories arose to explain these difficult relationships–and the only way those early Christians arrived at what we now consider orthodoxy was by examining all of them. On purpose. Similarly, I think we have come across an essentially novel historical situation: the existence of covenanted, monogamous, faithful, same-sex relationships. I am not interested in making a judgment about the rightness or wrongness of such relationships–at least not yet. But I do want to suggest that these are a *new* phenomenon, unprecedented in the cultures in which Christians have lived before us (John Boswell has argued otherwise, but I have to admit I find those arguments a bit stretched), and that I think our best precedent for dealing with new phenomena as the Body of Christ is to look to our own tradition: when our forbears had to deal with the novel event of the resurrection, they worked through numerous theories and debated them hard over several centuries in order to arrive at what we now regard as the orthodox positions. We need to do the same with the new phenomenon with which we are confronted in the present. The question is not (entirely) one of whether this phenomenon is consistent or not with pre-existing orthodoxy; the question is how to determine what orthodoxy *is* for this unprecedented phenomenon.

      Confronting new things is hard. Really hard. Especially when those new things raise the possibility that we might need to rethink a lot of what we believe–and rethink it at a sufficiently deep level as to acknowledge that the possibility exists, at least, that our current beliefs might, just might, be mistaken. (I am not, here, suggesting that this is the case; only that a genuine debate about the issue has to have the courage to enter in to the discussion with the acknowledgement that such a realization is one possible outcome. We have a word for this in academe: inquiry). For that reason, I think we all confront such new phenomena with a lot of fear. What the two arguments to which I’m responding do, in part, I think, is express some of that understandable fear. But, at the end of the day, what both recommend is engaging in a debate, but only in a way that remains absolutely safe, *only in such a way as to foreclose any possibility that the debate might lead to change*. That’s not much of a debate.

      Be assured that I’m not suggesting that that this debate *ought* to lead to a change in how Christian universities treat same-sex relationships. The only thing I think the debate *ought* to do is remain fully authentic, fully open, and academically responsible. But part of taking that responsibility means being open to the possibility that changes in policy may, in fact, be one possible outcome (though not the only or necessary outcome) of the conversation. Of course, as Greg suggests, we need to be just as open to other possible outcomes, such as the maintenance of the status quo.

      Personally, I take a more optimistic–or, in keeping with the Pietist language, irenic–stance. I think truly open and authentic dialogue and study may well lead us to possibilities and alternatives as yet unconsidered–even unimagined–in our considerations of these issues. Those early councils arrived, through their dialogues, at a new and stronger understanding of the nature of the divine that they never could have developed without them. In the same way, I’m enough of an idealist to imagine that our understanding of the issues and of each other, as both deepen through our conversations–and as it is guided by powers that understand much more than we do–can create more, not less, potential for revealing alternatives that remain faithful to scripture, tradition, contemporary realities, and (most importantly) *caritas* all at once.

      1. For conservative Protestants, especially those over age 45-50, I think this is generally *not* a matter of dubia that homosexual sex (focused primarily on gay men) clearly identified as a major sin throughout the Bible, and many may believe that any non-coital sex is wrong, no matter who is doing it.

        The problem for older folks is that they’ve been running on the fumes (or old assumptions) of the remains of a more or less Catholic position that has been progressively accommodated to cultural changes and supreme court decisions about contraception, abortion, sodomy, and divorce over the course of more than a century but most dramatically since the 1970s. They can’t refer to a magisterial tradition or authority on these issues, so they fall back on Mosaic Law, St. Paul, etc. It may be a poorly articulated position, but that is because it was so recently just what most people seemed to assume — the general public, professional psychiatrists, and the courts have changed radically in the past 40 years. Unless you deal with this generational divide directly, I doubt you can have a meaningful dialogue encompassing four generations. The differences just between Xers and Millenials on sexuality and marriage can be pretty big.

      2. Thanks for the substantive reply Mark. It is very difficult to attempt a descriptive and neutral line whenever engaging a topic as volatile as this one. A few thoughts in response…

        The way in which you describe the early trinitarian/christological debates seems quite pleasant as you commend such a debate to happen today. Athanasius, however, probably wouldn’t have recognized such a such a debate was happening after his third or fourth exile 😉 . And I don’t think his interlocutors were really open to genuine debate as you’re calling for. Indeed it was Constantine’s Arian-leaning kiddos who “decided” the debate for most of the fourth century. And Eusebius of Nicomedia wasn’t like, “hey, can we just hug this out?” Let’s face it, it got pretty ugly and both sides were trying to stamp out the other. So, I truly appreciate your call for debate and I hope we do better with this issue than the fourth century church did with their issues. But perhaps I’m too much of a realist: it’s going to get ugly (as if it hasn’t already).

        I mention this because it’s easy for conservative Christians to become caught up in a “dire” historical moment *like no other* so that our eschatological impulse overrides simple trust in God’s providence (e.g., Left Behind, doomsday judgment emphases, etc.). Sure the trinitarian and christological debates were fraught with ill will, political intrigue, and enmity, but it wasn’t the “end of the world”. God was in control and he directed history to his ends even through the ugliness.

        You suggested that my argument was an expression of “understandable fear.” I know you say this with all charity. And I’ve thought about this point a lot on a personal level. Am I just a stubborn old curmudgeon hating change because it will upend my privileged place? Is that what Christian institutions are doing? Certainly there are many conservative christians (donors included) who are fearful about the moral decline and de-christianizing of America (usually those who love Fox news and David Barton). I’m definitely not one of those. (Ironically, the fourth century debates saw the beginning of christendom, and today’s its demise). I’m not afraid that Christianity will lose cultural influence. I’m not even afraid that it will apostatize. I’m pretty certain that no matter the situation, God will preserve his people as a witness to his enduring love.

        Whatever the driving motivations for one’s stance on sexuality, everyone on all sides needs to step back and evaluate them. Is it fear, animus, expediency, vanity, jealousy? We need to lay those things down before we enter the room, then look each other in the eye and say: “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”

  5. I love this piece and just the general willingness to engage in this issue, since it all too often it seems that Christians are afraid to engage in this issue for fear of being called either a bigot or a heretic and putting themselves in a bad spot professionally. It’s refreshing to see respectful dialogue given the vitriol I see by people on both sides of this issue on a regular basis.

    For a number of years, I wanted to move toward an affirming position of same-sex relationships, given that there seemed to be something wrong with the way the Church dealt with the issue. However, given that the traditional non-affirming views of relevant Bible passages were the default and I was loathe (and in many ways still am loathe) to adopt liberal views about anything, I maintained my opposition to homosexuality in all contexts. But about two years ago, after one particular friend came out to me, I started to reexamine the relevant verses and became satisfied that they didn’t necessarily rule out all form of same-sex amorous relationships.

    I realize a lot of people are horrified that Christians like myself would embrace what they would consider heretical views, but I found that too many on the non-affirming side did not take seriously the concerns of people like me. For many Christians, thinking about the sort of truly awful experiences of gay Christians (especially youth) produces a yearning to reject traditional thinking about homosexuality. I know other Christians about my age and also part of Converge churches who admit that they aren’t completely convinced that the Bible says homosexual acts can be acceptable who are nevertheless outspokenly pro-gay (e.g. rainbow FB profile pic). I don’t think it’s due at all to disregard for the Bible or a desire to be a rebellious or compromising Christian but rather due to strong feelings of empathy that are familiar to us as Christians. Even so, much of the Church just wants to say the Bible is clear on this and then either push for conversion therapy or, more commonly these days, encourage lifelong celibacy. Due to the damage done by conversion therapy and its lack of success, the push for lifelong celibacy seems relatively reasonable, but even in that, a lot of young gay Christians find themselves wondering if following Christ means they will always be alone, not just sexually but in all the non-sexual ways straight married Christian couples live life together and care for each other. I think we often don’t even think about the enormity of what we are asking when we tell a person who wouldn’t choose to be single that he or she must be single—until death—as a condition of being a member in good standing in a Christ-centered church.

    I do hope that Bethel will commit to having this conversation continue, even if having the conversation may open up doors to change that may be uncomfortable to a number of thoughtful Christians. I’d also recommend that people who care about this issue read Torn by Justin Lee. I consider his book one of the most enjoyable and approachable on the subject. Even if one doesn’t agree with everything he says, he concludes his book with a lot of ideas and recommendations that should be reasonable to those who view same-sex relationships as incompatible with the Christian faith. I also would love it if Bethel would welcome Justin to speak on campus, as Biola and a number of other Christian schools have done.

  6. I think you’ve gotten too deep in the weeds. The main thing inhibiting discussion and change is parent and donor expectations connected to a long history of policies and marketing at many schools that position themselves as taking an active role _in loco parentis_. In these environments (maybe especially those where students commonly marry before or soon after graduation) there are strong expectations and assurances of guidance, support, and a community focus on chastity which is understood in conventional (heteronormative) terms. Whatever faults this model may have, it is apparently highly successful and widely recognized for achieving its goals and all but eliminating the problems other colleges have. (I’m thinking about Donna Freitas’ research here.) If you want to have a transformative discussion at these colleges about what is lacking in their policies and practices, you probably have to present it as supporting and building on those policies and practices rather than undermining them. Doing this is a way others find credible is likely to be very challenging.

    1. Hi Dan:

      I think this is a valuable idea–i.e. presenting this discussion as part of a larger program of guidance concerning the ethics of sex on CC campuses. I wish I was more convinced that such guidance is truly effective and consistent on Christian college campuses (I think mine sends, at best, a lot of mixed messages–and isn’t anywhere near as sophisticated as anything like Freitas’ feminist critiques of hookup culture), but your point is taken just the same.

      On the other hand, I do want to be very wary indeed of conflating discussions about sexuality (especially if and when we’re talking about things like covenanted, same-sex relationships) with discussions about adultery and promiscuity. I don’t expect, at my own institution at least, that policies and expectations concerning those things will change, even if, someday, the policies on same-sex relationships do change (and I frankly have no idea whether that will ever happen). Promiscuity and cheating are still promiscuity and cheating, regardless of the gender combinations involved, and I don’t want to start implying (along with the slippery-slope crowd) that having a deeper debate about matters of committed same-sex relationships (and indeed deeper understanding of human sexuality in general) somehow means abandoning sexual ethics altogether. Those are separate issues. At the the same time, I take your point that it might be a very important thing to make sure that those more conservative external audiences (that want Chrstian colleges to play parent) are reassured that that they’re separate issues, and that Christian sexual ethics aren’t going to go away simply because we’re having more open conversations about sexuality more broadly.

      Finally, while I also take your point that concerns about finances and donors are always present (whether we like them or not), I hope very much that we won’t make fears about losing donors an obstacle to academically responsible inquiry. I think Christian colleges have generally done a good job keeping those things separate, and hope that we can continue to do so. I would hate to think that we’re so fearful about finances that we can’t serve God without asking Mammon for permission, first.

      Thanks for your helpful comments!


      1. I agree with your intentions. I am just hoping there may be a pragmatic way to work toward your goals without being tripped up on things that may be non-negotiables even if they are not a true matter of consensus in a particular community. What this might look like is support not for “playing parent” (which sounds awfully dismissive) by enforcing a bunch of sex-focused rules but by being being a better family. E.g., one that is able to talk about thought and behavior in a much broader way. A family that is attentive to and respectful of big historical changes and intergenerational differences.

        To a good extent the main obstacles to a healthy discussion may not have to do with homosexuality pers se. They may be entirely heterosexual and intergenerational. The inability to admit, include, and value the fact that there are faculty and unofficial campus churches or other organizations with a critical and reformist outlook definitely predates and goes deeper than sexuality debates.

        On the point of “Mammon,” it is needlessly polarizing to equate donors and basic financial realities with even metaphorical demons. There ought to be a healthy, mature way for any organization to have broad stakeholder discussions about the obvious tensions between ideal and material values, mission/identity versus solvency. Religious institutions do not live on bread alone, but they don’t run at all without it. The two cultures problem and occupational biases of people who have never been responsible for a payroll versus those who are kept awake at night because of it is just so much gas waiting for the spark of language that describes the other as childish or corrupt.

      2. I’d be interested to see you elucidate in more detail why, precisely, discussions of homosexual practice in the context of a Christian university ought to be kept distinct from other issues in sexual ethics. Is not the church’s theological anthropology – along with its implications for sexual conduct – a coherent whole? This being the case, I would contend that questions of homosexual practice, formally speaking, cannot be separated from other questions of sexual ethics. What is it specifically about exclusive and permanent same-sex partnerships that distinguishes them from other questions in sexual ethics? Even if, materially speaking, no one tries to dispute the church’s disapproval of promiscuity and divorce, this doesn’t entail that the question of homosexual practice can be quarantined from the wider logic that informs Christian reflection on issues in sexual ethics.

        So more to the point of your post, I’d more or less concur with a commenter above that simply because an issue is controverted doesn’t make it an uncertain matter. If, for some reason, there was an influx of non-trinitarians into the Bethel student body, this would not suddenly render the university’s affirmation of an orthodox doctrine of God an uncertain matter, even if it were disputed. Likewise, simply because a portion of the faculty in the Arts and Humanities wants to affirm certain kinds of same-sex relationships doesn’t make the question unclear as a doctrinal or exegetical matter. In this I would concur with Luther in his debate with Erasmus that the multiplicity of views on a given topic does not obviate the perspicuity of scripture.

      3. @Observer – I think you are mis-stating my comments and Bruce’s. He can answer for himself, but I think it’s pretty clear he was not saying “the presence of controversy implies no clear position.” He was saying these are issues where there really is not a clear position articulated in protestant evangelical churches, so they ought to be seen as belonging to the category of non-essential and uncertain matters open to debate and a range of acceptable positions. I would rather say there is a diversity of poorly articulated or under-articulated positions that large numbers of conservative protestants insist are solid and beyond debate. Getting to a point of agreement that things have actually been a mess for a very long time will take some work and must be done ahead of anything else. I wanted to offer that as a caution to Bruce.

        A lot of older conservatives really do believe there is a clear and non-negotiable position they have assumed all their lives. There are protestant denominations that borrow Catholic language like “intrinsically disordered” in statements on homosexuality. The DSM had pathological diagnoses for homosexuality as recently as 1986. Probably a majority of conservatives in the baby boomer generation (and certainly their parents) saw the identification of homosexuality with a mental, moral, and/or spiritual illness as self-evident because it was generally affirmed in secular society, by psych professionals, the military, and even leading liberal politicians taken by conservative evangelicals to be the epitome of secularism. Conservatives thought they had a clear position, and then suddenly they found out their kids and grandkids were operating from completely different assumptions. A lot has changed in only 10-20 years.

        I think it’s fair to say evangelicals have had a kind of (mostly unwritten) doctrinal consensus that sexual activity apparently proscribed in the bible is to be considered wrong for all time and in all contexts. Some may even hold to a biblical anthropology that has no categories other than male/female and no licit sexual expression (mainly for men) other than heterosexual. This is more or less in line with Orthodox Judaism and Catholics who take their church’s teachings pretty much at face value. Those groups understand their position is based on identifying sex with marriage and both with procreation in fairly exclusive terms. Evangelical conservatives, by contrast, want to have the conclusions without the premises, and that just is not working out. At some point this will have to be admitted, and that’s when there might be an honest and productive conversation. Things will change as a result, so those who want no change are digging in their heels now and saying there is nothing to discuss.

      4. Dan,

        I guess in this case I have, somewhat, misunderstood your point – and probably Professor Bruce’s as well.

        Nevertheless, that being the case, I suppose I just disagree with you: in fact the churches have formulated a response to current social acceptance of certain kinds of homosexual partnerships. You wish to construe the issue as complex, and it most certainly is in its application, but ultimately there are really only two positions. Either the scriptural condemnation of homo-genital contact is legitimate, unqualified, and universally applicable (just like we might view the scriptural condemnations of fornication or adultery), or it isn’t. If one wants to say that it isn’t, then you have to start arguing things like, “Well, if Paul was really alive today, then he’d see that the contemporary gay rights movement is all about love, permanence, and exclusivity, so what he said isn’t applicable in this situation.” Because this argument essentially requires us to go beyond the text and read the mind of a first-century Jew who is no longer living, many conservatives have rightly rejected this position. That’s why so many are simply not open to recognizing the revisionist position as a legitimate one in the ecclesial marketplace of ideas (if you will). Whatever response you might come up with to the various complex situations we will encounter in this life, making the specious exegetical decision to abandon the text and try to read Paul’s mind just isn’t one of them. Trying to import a conversation the terms of which most people in the evangelical and catholic world already find ridiculous seems very problematic to me. I’ll admit, I cynically believe that attempts to “create a conversation” where I just don’t think there is one is a duplicitous, strategic ploy to force acceptance of same-sex partnerships within the church. I won’t say more, since I don’t think anyone here – especially Professor Bruce – is consciously behaving as such, but I am concerned more broadly nevertheless.

      5. @Observer — I’m not aware of any ecumenical position on homosexuality. I think you’re describing the “presumed consensus” I was referring to earlier. The relatively recent impression that the moral and legal status of homosexual people and behavior was a settled (because unquestioned) matter is strong, but it is just that, an impression. In Protestant circles I don’t think you can point to any kind of coherent position on marriage and sexuality on par with the Catholic positions which have long been rejected in their premises by most Catholics and Protestants, including conservatives. Despite rejecting the premises, North American Christians and the nation’s highly Christian/Protestant-inflected secularism largely retained the conclusions. But over the course of 150 years or so the conclusions have been abandoned as well. In the US there has been an utterly logical, legal progression from reaction to the Comstock laws (regarding contraception) to later decisions on divorce, abortion, sodomy laws, etc. By no means have Protestants or even most Catholics done anything but accept these changes as mostly welcome and emancipatory with brief hiccups of dissent at the moment a particular decision is reached. If you take the historical long view, you do not see a conservative consensus but ineffectual bouts of conservative reaction to a battle they already lost and then appear to learn almost nothing from.

        You claim there is a “scriptural condemnation of homo-genital contact.” This is only (partly) true for men, and it was traditionally interpreted as a condemnation of genital-anal or genital-oral contact typically associated with men by regarded as wrong even for an opposite sex couple. Mosaic law as understood from ancient times to Orthodox Judaism today has always placed female homosexual activity in the category of a minor peccadillo. Christians too remain most focused on and hostile to gay men. The problem with male homosexual acts in the ancient biblical and medieval view is not the “contact” but the fact that it is “against nature,” i.e. non-procreative.

        If you want to condemn homosexuality from a traditional “biblical” Christian position here is what that will look like:

        * Lesbianism is more or less irrelevant because there’s no generative potential (“male seed”) being wasted or mis-used.
        * Male homosexuality is wrong because “sodomy” (oral or anal sex) functions in the same way as masturbation and artificial contraception — they make sexual gratification an end in itself by removing the generative potential.
        * “Sodomy” is a sin for heterosexual married couples too, for the same reasons.

        So if you’re going to be consistently “biblical and traditional,” you’ve got to oppose all these things or at least caution against excessive narcissism and avoidance of procreative sex. The Protestant reformers did not produce a different view on these matters; the Catholic position last articulated in 1968 reflects approximately what most Protestants also had thought up to the early to mid-20th century. But by 1968 it was seen as reactionary by many American Catholics and possibly most Protestants. There was an is no consensus.

        To be fair there is a moderate “do what you want but don’t go too crazy with it” position on contraception and non-coital sex for heterosexual married couples among Eastern Orthodox Christians, Modern Orthodox and Reform Judaism and probably a good deal of conservative Catholics who really don’t feel the need for an ironclad logical sexual ethic grounded in Aristotelian metaphysics. But once you back off the idea that sex should be intrinsically procreative, you’ve left behind the traditional and logical mainstay of Judaeo-Christian opposition to same sex marriages. If you try to reassert the centrality of procreation on the other hand, you will see how much division there is on very basic views about sex, gender, and marriage among conservative heterosexual Christians. I think an honest admission of this is necessary to really treat the whole matter fairly and comprehensively instead of singling out gay people as if they are “the whole problem” rather than the threat of instrumentalized relationships and sexuality, which would be a good contemporary application of Augustine.

        Regarding your reading of biblical texts on points of morality as “universally applicable” and unchanging for all time I wonder how you understand all the exceptions. Even if we assume male-male sex is indeed being described where many people think it is in the New Testament (and this is by no means equally clear or a traditional reading in every case) it is still typically lumped in with other things and described as being on par with other vices that are rarely if ever singled out for anywhere near such concern. This selectivity also seems to be coupled with denial about how moral sanction for things like slavery or an inferior social status for women have been radically revised later despite the lack of warrant for doing so on the basis of what a text says or what its authors intended. The rationale you are using against new information and historical change as a basis for significant interpretive revision is applied to support other positions like young earth creationism just as it was used in the past to “refute” a heliocentric understanding of the solar system. The weaknesses of this type of position should at least be clear enough to preclude claims of unassailability. Augustine in his commentary on Genesis warned against closing yourself off to new information and privileged competent scientific findings as a source of truth we must be open to accepting even if it means changing our understanding of received doctrines and biblical texts. Karl Barth in a similar vein said it was a denial of Providence to believe one’s understanding of the gospel could not change, and he pressed this idea on acquaintances in South African who had reconciled Apartheid with the gospel.

        I think your other comments about “revisionism” are bound up in a particular conception of “sola scriptura” that not all Protestants accept and certainly not Catholics or Jews. I don’t think anyone is really claiming to “read Paul’s mind” when they do historical scholarship, but if they do it convincingly they seem to be getting at an understanding of his intentions and ways of thinking. I don’t see why this would be disregarded or seen as any more problematic than an untrained reading of an English translation of writings generally attributed to Paul.

        Regarding your remark that this is “a conversation the terms of which most people in the evangelical and catholic world already find ridiculous” that is simply not true. As of 2013 60% of Catholics favored same-sex marriage, including 54% of weekly mass attendees. Only half that many (or fewer) white Protestant Evangelicals take that view, but there are rather significant contextual differences for these two groups. Protestants tend to credibly believe that social acceptance of gay marriage under secular law will quickly lead to acceptance of it — or pressure to accept it — in their churches. For Catholics that’s just not in the cards. Again, I think this helps show that any idea of a “Christian consensus” is entirely fictitious; the reality is it’s a shambles, and gay people cannot be made scapegoats to blame for this.

      6. Dan,

        You’ve said much in your response to my comment. I think I will try to address some of what you’ve said under a couple of different headings and call it good.

        1. In my comment below, I already articulated the ecumenical consensus on homosexuality: that fidelity in marriage and chastity outside of it is what is expected of us. If you can find a prominent exception to this – aside from Luther’s absurd endorsement of bigamy in the case of Philip of Hesse – be my guest. Nevertheless, from this expectation proceeds quite naturally Paul’s argument in Romans 1 that homosexual behavior – both male and female – is παρὰ φύσιν. Little in the way of explanation here is required, that’s why this isn’t an issue, unless you wish to willingly depart from the internally coherent logic of the bible’s theological anthropology. The real impression here is your willing obfuscation of what is a non-issue for the vast majority of Christians through history.

        2. I don’t think I get what you mean about Protestants accepting the conclusions but rejecting the premises that Roman Catholics have advanced. If by this you mean that Protestants are not bound to the utilization of Aristotelian models of anthropology and causation then, duh, of course they aren’t committed to the premises. But the conclusion that homosexual behavior is unethical follows from the fact that Paul believes and teaches that homosexual behavior – both male and female, I’ll add – is against nature. It is against nature because it departs from the natural, ordered fittedness of men for women and women for men. The use of Aristotelian anthropology and causation has indeed been a prominent feature of much reflection in the church since Thomas. Nevertheless, the deeper scriptural argument that marriage has fundamentally to do with procreation – and therefore with the fittedness of men for women and vice versa – is not an exclusively Aristotelian-Thomist kind of argument. Everything from Luther’s Genesis commentary to Barth’s defense of sexual dimorphism in CD III/2 stands as evidence of this. I’d also refer you to the work of Christopher C. Roberts, especially his book Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage. Nevertheless, I think you essentially concede this anyway, so I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. If you’re wanting to argue that we really shouldn’t adopt scripture’s moral logic, that’s fine, but this will not work for the churches whose faithfulness to scripture binds them to this vision of redeemed human life.

        3. Contraception is not an especially difficult problem for those of us who defend the traditional understanding of marriage. For a very long time, people have known and recognized that people engage in forms of sexual activity that do not result in procreation. This is not the same thing as non-procreative sexual activity. A great deal of coital sexual activity doesn’t result in procreation, especially coital sexual activity partaken of after a certain age. I draw a couple of conclusions from this. The first is that there are non-procreative activities that can be engaged in without obstructing the procreative purpose or function that marriage ultimately constitutes. Oral sex, anal sex, and various forms of mutual masturbation in themselves are formally no different than coital behaviors that nevertheless don’t result in procreation. Homosexual instantiations of these kinds of behavior lack wider procreative dimensions – since they’re engaged in by people of the same sex – and are thus unethical. Again, this is why Paul condemns homo-genital contact. It doesn’t have to do with excessive passion, dishonor, shame, etc. – despite what folks like Dale Martin try desperately to prove. But again, you basically concede all of this, so I don’t understand where you’re going with it.

        4. You make a hermeneutical point about the application of this kind of reading to the text of scripture, and how, were it consistently applied, we would be obligated to defend slavery, the subjugation of women, as well as a geocentric and very young universe. To this I suppose I’d say that the ownership of one person by another is not contrary to the divine law, at least in my view. So in this sense, I wouldn’t say slavery is technically wrong. Chattel slavery is wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with the ownership of other people, such as (1) the non-recognition that certain groups of people ARE people and (2) that chattel slavery is universally brutal and inhumane. If it were humane, then it would be a classical form of slavery, and would not, in my view, be morally wrong in a technical sense. Your point is strongest in the case of women. It is certain that the cultural and moral world of the bible is infused with what we might call patriarchy. To what extent are we bound by scripture as an authoritative canon to replicate this state of affairs? I’m not myself sure at this point, though I think it’s clear that the moral dimensions that accompany discussions of gender make it exceedingly difficult to both defend the ordination of women and the fundamental equality of men and women and yet also adopt whole cloth the bible’s condemnation of homosex. Since I do not hold to the ordination of women – partly on the basis of the order of creation and partly because I do not believe that women can properly represent Christ at the celebration of the Eucharist – this, it seems to me, is less of an issue. For all his excellent work on the matter of sexuality in the bible, Robert Gagnon’s case would be strengthened if he simply conceded that gender hierarchy as well as a procreative vision of sex proceed from largely the same source. So I’ll concede that you bring up a very good point.

        5. If Karl Barth says it’s a denial of providence to think your understanding of the gospel cannot change, then perhaps he effectively retracted his Nein! to natural theology. Others of us will, however, retain a more fully consistent Christocentrism no doubt.

        6. Finally, your use of polling data is interesting. I nonetheless consider much of said data specious for a variety of reasons. Beyond this, I have no clue how you could possibly know with any measure of scientific certainty that “Protestants tend to credibly believe that social acceptance of gay marriage under secular law will quickly lead to acceptance of it — or pressure to accept it — in their churches.” Moreover, you’ve missed my point about consensus. If I’ve alluded to a consensus, I’m speaking more generally about the official positions of the various churches and the professional theologians and clergy who do and have served those institutions. I think my point still stands that the number of people who actually wish to change the church’s position on this matter is quite small, notwithstanding the (predictable) inability of the laity to grasp the totality of implications entailed by the teaching of scripture and of the church.

        I’ve consumed a sufficient amount of time and energy thinking of and composing my responses, so I’ll have to say farewell to this particular discussion. Your engagement, Dan, is appreciated.

  7. Wow – I just want to say thank you to everyone who has commented. I’ve never been great at sparking or sustaining conversation here, so a lot of credit has to go to our guest-poster, who not only chose a timely topic and approached it from an interesting angle, but set the right tone and maintained it with his detailed follow-up comments. Thanks, Mark! But thanks to the rest of you for adding your voices to a robust, irenic conversation. I’ve learned a lot listening in! Now, if I could only prompt more conversations on some of my posts about less current events…

  8. To Observer’s last concern — that “attempts to ‘create a conversation’ where I just don’t think there is one is a duplicitous, strategic ploy to force acceptance of same-sex partnerships within the church… Obviously, I do think there is a conversation to be had here around questions that are less settled than we might have thought. But I’m not unsympathetic to the concern. As I commented yesterday on my “Evangelicalism after Obergefell” post, “this will not be a genuine conversation if progressives approach it from the assumption [presumption?] that it will inevitably ratify beliefs they already hold.” But by the same token, I wrote, it won’t be much of a conversation if it’s permitted by leaders “so long as it’s understood that it can only endorse the ‘traditional’ position.”

    1. I think the issue I have, though, is that the burden of proof really is upon those who wish to alter the consensus of the church catholic, which says that we are to be faithful within marriage and chaste outside of it. Those who wish to argue that we ought to change this historic position really shouldn’t be so surprised when many in the church – both evangelical and catholic – simply reject the proposal. After all, millennia of biblical interpretation and church teaching stands behind the rejection of homosexual behavior. Revisionism has only the cascade of cultural change behind it – which actually counts for a lot – along with a very thin argument about what St. Paul might or might not think if he were alive today. When churches, church colleges, and religious non-profits say, “No thanks,” and apply discipline to those who dissent, we can’t be overly upset. So in this sense I’m fully supportive of “privileging” the traditionalist position simply by virtue of the fact that I don’t think this is an open question at all. As I said, I’m open to creative and pastorally devised application of biblical injunctions about certain forms of sexual behavior, but for the church to behave as though it’s an open question is, in my view, wrong. Those who disagree are free to start their own ecclesial realities should they dissent from the traditional position, but those who maintain that the church has been correct are also free to both advocate for their position and work to discipline those who disagree with it.

      To illustrate my perspective I’ll say this: I myself am pursuing ordination in a denomination in which, as a member of the clergy, my vow to teach in accordance with the canon of holy scripture entails that I teach that sexual behavior is reserved for the permanent and exclusive union between a man and a woman in marriage. Were I to teach otherwise, I would be disciplined and ultimately removed from the ministry. If others within my church body were to teach otherwise, I would advocate their censure and removal from the office. I do not desire to be part of a ministerium that acts otherwise. By extension, the church colleges affiliated with my denomination would apply the a similar standard of discipline to those on the faculty. Because these colleges are bound to the mission and doctrinal position of the denomination, treating the issue as ambiguous or open – when in fact it is not – would be disingenuous. Those who wish to do so ought to go elsewhere.

      Now, all that being said, as a recent graduate of Bethel, I understand where some of this is coming from. The stipulation that faculty do not advocate for homosexual relationships in the classroom certainly stops many in the humanities disciplines from expressing what they really think about the issue. I certainly harbor no ill will toward those who disagree with the traditional position on this matter. But I think honest questions have to be asked about the ecclesial identity of the community in which one finds oneself. It might be the case that this is not an open question over which committed Christians may disagree, but instead a clear and settled one. If that is the case, perhaps the most constructive thing to do is seek out a community in which these really are open questions, rather than badgering into debate those who just don’t see any real merit in changing the church’s position. I’m personally unsure whether Bethel is (or can be) the kind of community where this is an open question. I just don’t really know.

      1. I would suggest that those who want to continue the Church’s beliefs against affirming same-sex relationships should feel a burden to engage in the conversation rather than dismiss the questions being raised. Choosing to not entertain these questions is the right of every Christian individual and organization, but I’d assume those who hold such views strongly care about their future in future generations of believers, and if one chooses to dismiss the questions being raised, they are, I believe, ceding the young Christians asking these questions to more liberal churches assuming they don’t give up on church altogether. The momentum is on the side of increased same-sex affirmation, and I don’t believe the non-affirming side will help itself by resting on its laurels. But when it does engage, it often makes the mistake of focusing just on scripture (Romans, I Cor, etc) and not adequately addressing the human factors that a lot of gay Christians and their friends are confronting.

      2. While I think I’m pretty much done with this conversation in this particular forum (partially because it’s starting to get a little unwieldy here; partially because other deadlines are pressing!), I’d like to make what I think are two important distinctions regarding Observer’s points here.

        First, while I think Obersever is right in noting that *within the church* an expectation of doctrinal uniformity is reasonable, I’ll reiterate that I think it’s important to note that not all church doctrine is immutable (though this varies according to the polities of different denominations). As I pointed out in the original article, for example, Converge Worldwide’s statements concerning sexuality exist only in *Resolutions*, which are policy documents. Such documents are mutable in ways that the core affirmations of faith are not–at least in the sense that additional resolutions can be adopted by vote of CW’s board at annual meetings. So, while expectation of uniformity with current policy is certainly reasonable, it also seems reasonable to note that policy itself can change. Not quickly or easily or without consensus–which is a good thing. The point is simply that while conformity to official doctrine within the church is a reasonable expectation for clergy, the idea that doctrine (especially when it’s part of policy documents and not part of core faith affirmations) is immutable likely overstates the case.

        Second, I think it’s even more important to note that a university *is not a church*. A church may quite reasonably expect its ministers to preach a message that stays within a denomination’s doctrinal boundaries. But the core mission of a church is precisely that: preaching its message. The core mission of a university is *not* the dissemination of a consistent message; the primary mission of a university is *inquiry*–which is as much about pushing boundaries, making new discoveries, and questioning received wisdom as it is about accurately understanding the past and present status quo. For that reason, university faculty, even at religiously affiliated universities, cannot be considered the equivalents of ministers in the church. We’re scholars, not pastors. That doesn’t mean that pastors don’t learn, or that part of the job of a scholar can’t be pastoral, but it does mean that the core mandate is different. The kind of inquiry that scholars do requires full intellectual freedom. Where a minister’s primary job may be to say “this is what is true!”, a scholar’s job is to say “wait–are we really *sure* that’s true?” Think of it, if you like, as a sort of system of checks and balances: churches and religious universities, I suspect, work best together not when they expect uniformity across both, but when they work to keep each other honest. Consequently, I would suggest that it is not only allowable, but imperative that scholars a Christian universities enjoy the intellectual freedom to question–and even adopt–positions in ways that would not be appropriate for clergy.

      3. Let me make clear that I’m interested here in how we answer a question, not what the answer is. But I wonder what everyone thinks of Observer’s claim that “…the burden of proof really is upon those who wish to alter the consensus of the church catholic.” There’s an argument to be made for that position as a “historic” consensus (not a contemporary one, surely). But as you might expect given my recent “Reformed and Always Reforming” post, I’m not convinced that’s how a Baptist, Pietist, evangelical institution like Bethel ought to operate. In Bethel’s Covenant for Life Together, the stated “rules and expectations” are “based on:

        • our understanding of the Bible and its authority for our faith and life;
        • our desire to promote wellness and health in all areas: social, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual;
        • our theological and cultural heritage;
        • our understanding of our mission and calling.”

        Does the third bullet give us some version of “consensus of the church catholic”? Perhaps it should, but I tend to think that line is meant more as a nod to Bethel’s Baptist and Pietist distinctives, which don’t tend to give that kind of privilege to the weight of tradition.

      4. @Chris

        To quote C. J. Roberts in his dissent in Obergefell: “The premises supporting this concept of [male/female] marriage are so fundamental that they rarely require articulation.” Although Roberts is appealing more to natural law and socio-historical realities, I think the argument has force when placed in the realm of Christian ethical discourse as well. We can’t expect something to be enshrined as doctrine that has needed no articulation for so long in the Christian community. Historical consensus does not need a creed to make it’s force felt in today’s discussion. And I am weary of finding novel interpretations of Scripture which have no precedent in church history.

      5. @Greg:

        I’d be wary of making blanket statements about church history in light of sexuality. There’s a pretty strong corpus of scholarship that argues that that history has been anything but consistent–Mark Jordan’s work, to mention just one instantiating example. As scholars, I think we have a responsibility to do our homework and engage that scholarship, even if we still wind up disagreeing with it. At the very least, one thing of which _I’m_ becoming weary is what appears to be a penchant on both sides (but especially the more traditionalist one) for assuming that there is cultural, historical, and scholarly consensus on these issues when, in fact, there is not. At the very least, the assertion that there is such consensus is one that requires substantiating argument, not one that forestalls it.

      6. What basis is there for referring to an authoritative “church catholic” if you are not Anglican, Orthodox, Catholic, or part of a few odd Protestant churches that can also trace out their lineage of apostolic succession? For everyone else, especially conservative Protestants who make a point of not participating in ecumenical discussions, any claim to catholicity amounts to mystifying one’s personal “ecclesial reality” as a “universal consensus.” In fact there is simply no ecumenical consensus on the definition of marriage or chastity. (See my last long comment above.) If you believe I am mistaken then please identify some sources that illustrate a broad consensus.

        Maybe we could agree that “revisionism” is an unhelpful term here? I assume you don’t want to argue (especially in a Protestant context) that there has never been any revision to traditional doctrines or biblical interpretations that were previously seen as uncontroversial.

        It’s also important to be clear on other key terms like “homosexual behavior” that have no universal, transhistorical consensus definition. Before 1940-1950 “sodomy” between a man and a woman was typically regarded as dirty, indicative of effeminacy or homosexuality on the part of the man, and it was criminalized. The focus on “wrong part touching wrong part” goes back a long way, but the focus on same sex attraction as a disorder is relatively modern. Both Luther and Calvin harp on it, while Augustine and Aquinas focus on the upending of “natural” procreative relations which they recognize are also more commonly subverted by heterosexual couples. These are rather different views, but you could say they agree in condemning penetrative sex between men for different reasons and without much (if nay) thought given to female-female relations.

        On the morality of non-coital sex, contraception, masturbation, and “Onanism” there really is something like a consensus in marital ethics in church history until the 18th-19th centuries. Augustine said a marriage is invalidated by contraception. Luther equated it with abortion, and his idea of Onanism (withdrawal from intercourse prior to ejaculation as a means of preventing pregnancy) was that it’s “far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity — a sodomitic sin.” (Rabbinical tradition has wrestled with this text in similar ways but has generally not come to such a harsh and unambiguous conclusion.) Calvin likewise said it was “doubly monstrous” as it had an abortive intention and effect in his view. If you want to find a massive revision in Christian doctrine and practice touching on sex and marriage, this is it.

      7. Dan, thanks for this post as well. As I was responding to your comment above, you posted this response as well (I believe). I think much of what you say here is addressed there – but I will just clue you in that I’m actually a Lutheran, so I am confessionally committed to the church’s catholicity as a matter of subscription. This catholicity, I’ll add, is not guaranteed or limited by the tactile succession of bishops in my view – even if such an episcopal succession is desirable and useful – but has rather to do with the preservation of the apostolic deposit as it is received in the church. Scripture is of course the norming norm of all teachers and teachings, in my view, and the gospel is the preeminent standard of reform, but I find myself nevertheless committed in a general sense to the visible oneness and catholicity of the church through time and location. Since I do not tie this understanding of catholicity and apostolicity to episcopacy – at least not too closely – then perhaps it could be (and is) appropriately and usefully deployed by conservative Protestants in the free church tradition as well. If I remember correctly, Calvin has some similar rhetoric to what I’ve expressed here in his Institutes.

      8. I understand better where you’re coming from now. On Lutheran grounds of the type you’re describing you’re really in a unique position relative to free church evangelicalism and conservative protestants whose confessional background has been essentially forgotten or else construed as breaking sharply with the “church catholic” in the 16th century. In some sense you might see yourself as one of G. C. Berkouwer’s “accidental protestants” and an “evangelical catholic” — this is really a unique standpoint very different from that of “Evangelicalism” as most people mean it today. I’ll just respond briefly for the benefit of anyone else who wants to read through all this and that will be it for me.

        1. I don’t see “fidelity in marriage and chastity outside of it” as a meaningful consensus in the modern era once the definition of “marriage” came into question due to the rise of mass contraception, the social enfranchisement of women, and the recognition of homosexuality as an innate disposition many people are born with. If you want to say there was a uniform pre-modern theological anthropology grounding a common notion of marriage and chastity before this, I think historians could quibble with that, but it’s really beside the point for our purposes because it was based on ethical and biological arguments about sex, gender, women, and homosexuality many Christians now find repugnant and science tells us are demonstrably false.

        2. By saying conservative Protestants like the Catholic conclusions but not the premises I meant to convey that “fidelity in marriage and chastity outside of it” for Catholics has meant (for a very long time) that what you are calling the “fittedness” of male and female is tied to its procreative potential and purpose along side the unitive function. There are implications to this that you wish to ignore, but they are part of any premodern “consensus” position among Christians regarding sex and marriage. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin leave no doubt that what they understood in their time as a willful and persistent attempt to obstruct pregnancy was morally repugnant and comparable to abortion or sodomy. An expressed intent to behave this way would be seen as grounds for denying permission to marry or indicate a valid marriage had never occurred. John Paul II in his encyclical on the family in the modern world suggested this sort of behavior could vitiate matrimonial consent. If your notion of “fittedness” is substantially different and does not yield these conclusions, then it indicates there is nothing like a consensus between contemporary Protestants and Catholics or between your position and premodern traditional teachings on marriage because your idea of fidelity and chastity is comparatively liberal.

        3. I thought you were defending the claim that there is an Evangelical (Protestant) and (Roman) Catholic consensus on the definition, meaning, and practice of marriage and chastity. This sort of statement perfectly illustrates my point that there is no such consensus: “Contraception is not an especially difficult problem for those of us who defend the traditional understanding of marriage.” Who is “those of us?” It absolutely is a problem for Catholics (and others) who defend a traditional understanding of marriage that prioritizes the procreative nature of sex and male/female “fittedness.” Your personal accordance of greater latitude to the ethical options of a heterosexual married couple is not Catholic enough to please traditionalists on that side nor is it in step with most Protestants, even on the Evangelical spectrum. Retaining any notion of procreative potential as necessary for “ethical sex” will raise hackles with Evangelicals — and not just the laity. It also creates the problem of construing gay people as having been given an innate desire for “fittedness” of their own that can only be gratified through immorality within the traditional framework. Again, pressing this kind of argument on a broad swatch of Christians will do nothing to show a broad consensus but rather reveal the depth and breadth of their questions, doubts, and disagreements.

        4. Your willingness to defend some forms of slavery and “patriarchy” (rather than “complementarianism”) is, if nothing else, remarkably forthright and (as you seem to realize) a big divider. So again, a sign of non-consensus. It’s regrettable to me that you seem to feel logically compelled to take these positions mainly to block for a patriarchal, heteronormative status quo in your church rather than any intrinsic merit the positions may have. Only a true theonomist really believes and acts as if they are “bound by scripture as an authoritative canon to replicate [its] state of affairs.” What you describe of your own calculations sounds much more political and pragmatic — “let’s block women and gays but not look at deficiencies among the assumptions and habits of white heterosexual males.” To the extent that you are willing to entertain the possibility of somehow recovering a “biblical world order” as opposed to dealing with new information in the present, consider the possibility that this is a form of escapism. I see it as an understandable response to risk but an irresponsible response to necessity.

        5. I personally would like that.

        6. The polling data was just a way of exposing how different Evangelicals and Catholics are on this issue. Beyond that I speculated it may have something to do with the fact that Catholics know what a church marriage is as opposed to a civil marriage, and how one might be married legally but not in the eyes of the church. That is just a guess. It wasn’t really an important point as we weren’t discussing “the number of people who actually wish to change the church’s position.” If you want to answer that question you can only look at particular churches. The total number of people seeking change may well be a minority, but it is a growing one that has the strong logic of Tillich’s “Protestant principle” behind it inside and outside the churches. If you wish to oppose it with “Catholic substance” (even as a Lutheran) that doesn’t happen by a default posture that emphasizes blocking people from the sacraments and ejecting them from the church. Even if you don’t like Tillich, it’s not a bad way to think about the (divided) church with its opportunities and perils.

  9. I’ve been asked by a friend to read and respond to what you’ve said, Dan, so I have obliged.

    1. I suppose at this point you and I just disagree. Whatever social and moral problems might accompany the use of contraception and the enfranchisement of women—and I think there are many—I don’t see how either served to obviate the church’s commitment to the notion that we shall forsake all others and be faithful to our spouses, and that on the other hand we shall remain celibate outside of the marital bond. Sure, social change has facilitated behavior contrary to that norm, but that doesn’t delegitimize the expectation. I also agree that homosexuality is an innate disposition, but I highly doubt—if it truly were an innate disposition—that we have only become aware of it recently. If people truly are immutably and unchangeably attracted to persons of the same sex—which definitely seems to be the case many times—then it is obvious that people have always been aware, to some degree, of that fact. Whether there was “a uniform pre-modern theological anthropology grounding a common notion of marriage and chastity” really depends on what you mean. If you wonder whether sexual difference fundamentally grounded the way marriage has historically been understood, then yes, there has been fundamental consensus. If sexual behavior was understood to be fundamentally oriented to procreation, then yes, there has been a fundamental consensus. If you’re speaking about theological anthropologies generally constructed respectively along the contours of neoplatonism, Aristotelian realism, or nominalism, then, no. Ethical and biological arguments about various facets of sex, gender, women, and homosexuality might now be rejected, but such rejection is not premised upon a repudiation of the underlying logic over which is suspended a broadly biblical, Christian conceptualization of sexuality. For example, we recognize that women have cognitive parity with men—a concept that would have been ridiculous to many within the Christian tradition. That this is the case doesn’t negate the fact that women remain fundamentally different from men, both biologically and in the psychical correlates to their anatomical difference. The underlying logic of the position—that men and women are different—is nevertheless retained, even if we recognize that women have the same cognitive capabilities as men.

    2. How do you demonstrate deductively that if one takes a procreative understanding of marriage as normative, then it logically and incorrigibly follows that you must then conclude that certain activities that don’t end in pregnancy are unethical? In fact it does not follow. The church has always recognized that certain marriages and certain behaviors don’t result in pregnancy. This is, as I’ve already demonstrated, quite distinct from suggesting that those behaviors are non-procreative. Most coital acts without artificial contraception don’t result in pregnancy. Does this mean they are non-procreative? No. This is a reality that Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all would have recognized, no doubt. Off the top of my head, here’s a sort of awkward example of what I’m getting at. When Luther recommended that Philip of Hesse take a second wife on the side, thereby committing bigamy, quite understandably, many of Luther’s contemporaries were outraged. Why? Because Philip was already legitimately married to another woman, and thus could not take a second. (I’ll bracket the question of polygamy for the sake of argument here, although that is quite another debate). Interestingly, Philip desired a second wife because he wanted children, but his first wife was barren. Nevertheless, Luther’s contemporaries recognized Philip’s first (and actual) marriage as legitimate, even though it was unfruitful from a reproductive standpoint. They knowingly endorsed and defended Philip’s engagement in sexual behavior that did not result in pregnancy. Does this mean that Philip’s coitus was non-procreative? Whatever the case may be, his contemporaries in sixteenth-century Germany defended the marriage as legitimate, even though Philip was to produce no heir by his first and legitimate wife. What Luther’s and Philip’s contemporaries recognized, as everyone has, is that not every sex act results in pregnancy. The marriage of the elderly, and thus the infertile, has never been prohibited, and yet such people engage in sexual acts that will never produce children. The tradition already has the logical scaffolding necessary to construe certain acts as participating in the goal of procreation without actually engendering pregnancy in every instance. This is true prima facie. So in this case, what is so wrong or even inconsistent with applying this very logic—a logic resonant within the tradition itself—to other forms of non-coital sex between married couples? That is what I believe I have done: extended the logic of the church’s endorsement of certain kinds of non-reproductive behaviors to other kinds of non-reproductive behaviors. No leap of logic is herein required, no matter how apparent the immorality of mutual masturbation, oral sex, and certain kinds of birth control might have been to many within the tradition. The issue is entirely intuitive rather than deductive. Nevertheless, we are far afield. Ultimately, no word of scripture can be adduced that condemns oral sex or mutual masturbation between married couples. Ancient people during biblical times certainly may have objected to such ideas, and they may have had wonderfully consistent reasons for saying so—reasons grounded in the moral logic that comes through in scripture. Nevertheless, because a clear teaching from God’s word cannot be found, then it remains a matter of legitimate debate, and I think I’ve articulated clear and compelling reasons to think that contraception and non-reproductive sexual contact can be ethically and legitimately used within a marriage. You wish to think that because there is latitude on these questions that there isn’t a fundamental, underlying agreement. I’m inclined to believe—along with Girgis, George, and Anderson in their book, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense—that marriage exhibits essential, identifiable features that are centrally and definitionally constitutive of marriage as an institution. Those essential features—permanence, exclusivity, comprehensive union, procreation, etc.—can have what natural lawyers call remote implications. As you’ve noted, many conclude that certain kinds of non-coital sexual contact are unethical as a consequence of marriage’s procreative purpose. But I would suggest that this is, rather, a debatable and remote implication of marriage’s procreative purpose, rather than a conclusion that follows deductively from the premise that marriage is procreative. I would refer you to Girgis’s, George’s, and Anderson’s text for elaboration on this point, especially if you wish to understand why artificial contraception doesn’t obviate the procreative purpose of sex (and marriage, by extension). My books are halfway across the country. I would happily find page numbers, but I don’t have the text with me. I’d also add that this line of argumentation is very helpful in debunking the hilariously ill-conceived left-wing nostrum that, “Well marriage always used to be about property, but you conservatives mistakenly think it’s about love . . .” So to sum up, I’d say I embody and maintain the moral logic deployed by those who would nevertheless disagree with me about the specific kinds of non-pregnancy-inducing behaviors are permissible—because everybody permitted some. It’s not whether they’re permissible, it’s which ones.

    3. I’m not sure I agree with you that the procreative essence of married sex will “raise hackles” with evangelicals per se. Maybe some ill-informed megachurch preachers and a great many well-meaning but unreflective lay people. But I think most professional theologians and seminary-educated pastors in conservative protestant denominations would agree that sex and marriage are fundamentally and definitionally oriented to procreation. So in this sense, I’d say there IS a Protestant-Catholic consensus on the meaning of marriage, insofar as both groups believe—mostly and officially—that marriage is permanent, exclusive, procreative, and unitive. Just look to the modern marriage movement as evidence. It is the site of the greatest, most public, and most fruitful Protestant-Catholic ecumenical engagement that I can think of, perhaps apart from the prolife movement. If you think my personal accordance of latitude is unsatisfying to the various traditionalist strands you’ve identified, I’d direct you to Robert George, the Roman Catholic philosopher and jurist teaching at Princeton, who has written on both sides of this discussion. In the book I referred to above, he and his coauthors more or less negate the question (as I have done), suggesting that contraception and non-coital sexual acts don’t disrupt marriage’s fundamentally and essentially procreative pattern. But in his more recent text, Conjugal Union, coauthored with Patrick Burke, he makes a natural law argument against non-coital sexual behavior. So for whatever that’s worth, I’m quite confident that there is a Protestant-Catholic consensus on the procreative function of marriage, even if there is disagreement as to whether contraception and non-procreative sexual contact actually sabotage marriage’s essentially procreative orientation. I won’t comment on the desire of gay people for a fittedness of their own, since I don’t think it’s relevant to the question of whether same-sex relationships are ethical or not. The question of whether such relationships can actually embody the fittedness that is described in Genesis 2 is immaterial to whether certain individuals feel that they can. If we had a time machine, we could just travel back and ask the Yahwistic composer of this section of the Pentateuch . . .

    4. I don’t see my moral ambivalence toward slavery as particularly remarkable. Again, I would condemn the sort of slavery that was practiced in the American South and the Caribbean because of its brutality and inhumanity, not because I think that the divine law delineates a natural human right not to be owned by another person. I am not an expert on the abolitionist movement or its literature, but my guess is that most opponents of slavery since the eighteenth-century would make their case with two arguments. The first would be on the basis of the Declaration of Independence and a vaguely Lockean conceptualization of natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Not everyone would have concluded—obviously—that this entails the abolition of slavery. But I think most people who did and do oppose slavery would appeal to this sort of idea. The second kind of argument they’d make is a theological one that I would make: that new world slavery was brutal and inhumane, and therefore unchristian. Do you think that anyone in the South would have defended brutalizing other people as morally justifiable? No, they would have either qualified their definition of what it means to brutalize, abuse, and exploit another person, or they would have defended such activity as permissible under certain circumstances. No one ever argued that it is ethical to treat people in ways that scripture fundamentally condemns. Just like no one has ever “defended” adultery simpliciter; they have instead sought to qualify or somehow or other escape the charge of having actually committed adultery. So again, Dan, we have a consensus. Regarding women and the language of patriarchy, I’ve intentionally deployed that, even as I regard it as fundamentally and essentially indistinguishable—in principle—from what is actually being described by those who advocate a sort of “complementarianism.” What is especially odd, in my view, is when people try to suggest that the genders are complementary (and thus not equal), and yet women and men have interchangeable functions in church, family, and society. My guess is that very few people actually make this argument consistently. Further on, you say that I’m just trying “to block for a patriarchal, heteronormative status quo” in my church. I severely protest such calling into question of my rational and moral character. I could sit here and say that all you wanna do is advocate for sin, filth, and contempt for God’s word, but I have restrained myself from making such charges because of my commitment to civil engagement with those I disagree with. Your moral grandstanding is obnoxious, and really should stop. You go on to say that, “What you describe of your own calculations sounds much more political and pragmatic — ‘let’s block women and gays but not look at deficiencies among the assumptions and habits of white heterosexual males.’” This is nothing more than a throwaway line posing as an argument. You’ve already proven yourself to be better than that, Dan. In your final point in this paragraph, you invite me to deal with new information and to consider that I might be engaging in escapism. To charge me with intellectual escapism is, again, an attempt to call into question my character, not an argument that I am in fact trying to escape from certain inherently inescapable facts about our world or God’s revelation. The first part of this statement—that I should perhaps be willing to deal with new information—is somewhat more discursive. I’ll say this: simply because the orthodox church hasn’t dealt with allegedly new information in the way you prefer it did doesn’t mean that there isn’t a response or that it isn’t legitimate. Moreover, I would suggest, with theologians such as Luther and Robert Jenson, that the bible itself embodies and infuses us with a nova lingua dei, a new language of God and of the Spirit. This new language of the Spirit animates the church as she proclaims God’s word from the canon of scripture, thus establishing and guaranteeing continuity, faithfulness, apostolicity, and catholicity. We needn’t “recover” a lost biblical order, for the grammar of the biblical text and the community created by it has existed in faithfulness to God’s word since God disclosed himself in the history of revelation. The body of Christ herself as the totus Christus embodies, enacts, and declares this grammar, this shape and manner of life as she engages the study and proclamation of God’s word, becomes obedient in prayer and service, and as she performs the ritually constitutive acts of her being as the church in baptism and Eucharist. No real reconstruction is necessary, because this community shaped by the grammar—moral and otherwise—of scripture actually exists today. You and I can really and truly be a part of this community without the necessity of retrieval, as if the church’s identity has somehow been lost or tarnished. This of course relates very nearly and dearly to how we deal with questions in sexual ethics. By no means am I suggesting that evolution is impossible within this community known as the church. Rather, such evolution nonetheless occurs in continuity with the deposit that has been handed down in the church from the prophets and apostles. So for example, I’ve entertained Paul Hinlicky’s suggestion that we can “recognize” but not “bless” same-sex relationships—recognizing that such relationships, while sinful and unethical, can be necessary in certain cases. Our being as simul iustus et peccator, to borrow Luther’s terminology, dictates a certain pastoral flexibility that is commonly required in sensitive situations. I would direct you to an article by Hinlicky in which he delineates two different theologies of reconciliation—in his case, two different theologies of reconciliation operative in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America circa six or seven years ago. I am quite amenable to Hinlicky’s proposals, concerns, and his generous disposition towards others. I invite you to a considered generosity like Hinlicky’s of this feature of the church’s catholicity.

    5. Fair enough.

    6. I agree, this wasn’t the most germane point to the discussion. But because I don’t think the revisionist case—I know you dislike this word because you are desperately working what I see as a rather fruitless angle on this whole discussion—is, as of right now, exceptionally bad as a theological argument about sex, I doubt that the majority of global protestant and catholic clerics and theologians will actually buy the argument that the religious left in the US has been peddling to them. I would’ve included the European religious left, but such a group is probably about as uninfluential and small as any. You suggest that I perhaps adopt a Tillichian “protestant principle, catholic substance” kind of line in order to reckon with a divided church. As it stands now, and in the foreseeable future, I just don’t see a divided church. My own denomination will not change its position, I’ll put money on that. I suspect that the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox churches, and most conservative protestant denominations will continue teaching the traditional position and discipline those who dissent. The only people who will give in to the cascade of social and cultural pressure to accept homosexual behavior will be a dissident evangelical left and wads of millennials who will never really darken the door of a church anyway. The protestant mainline has already adopted full inclusion, and yet has proceeded to continue the steep decline into oblivion amidst plunging rates of replacement. Meanwhile, according to Pew, evangelicals constitute the same sized portion of American society that they did in 2007. In fact, I heard some research stating that churchgoing evangelical millennials are actually more supportive of the traditional conceptualization of marriage now than they were a few years ago. Again, this could be a polling fluke, but nonetheless an interesting observation from a sociological perspective. Communion between the churches on this issue has already been severed, and any continued debate from here out will proceed upon the predictably scripted lines that it has here.

    I’ve enjoyed the conversation, but this will have to be my last post on this thread.

    1. Ending this conversation is a good idea. It seems we’re mostly speaking past each other now and running down long winding rabbit trails. Under your #2 for instance you pose a question that has nothing to do with any actual theological position I brought up or that anyone has ever held, to my knowledge. I am confused by the way you speak of “the church,” “ecumenical consensus,” the “orthodox church,” and deny there is a divided church — apparently due to an overarching Catholic-Orthodox-Lutheran unity on sex and marriage. I take this as a polemical construct — a royal ‘we’ that gets away from serious analysis to engage in parochial chest thumping. If I precipitated that retort by inviting you to consider your semi-modern ecclesial imaginary as an escape hatch into creative but irresponsible anachronism, then I’m going to interpret it as touché. 😉

      I would like to be understood as not advancing or supporting a full position on how sexuality and marriage should be understood in any tradition today. I hoped to clarify that extreme and emphatic consistency about procreation in Catholic theology (plus institutional enforcement mechanisms) makes same-sex marriage within that church about as close to impossible to arrive at as it possibly could be while obviously creating other problems. On the Protestant side, where the emphasis shifted to the unitive purpose of marriage some time after the Reformation, there is no comparable conversation ender on same sex marriage once such a question is possible to articulate. Neither is there a conversation ender based in plain moral authority when heterosexual Christian couples have a worse than 50% divorce rate and not a few resort to IVF and expensive, sometimes hopeless, fertility treatments in an effort to counteract the work of a decade’s worth of chemical contraceptives.

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