Evangelical conservatism vs. Christ, an example

career, life

There’s been a lot of coverage recently about the oxymoronic support by evangelical Christians of the current US president, whose actions do not seem to promote Christ in any way. At the same time, many other Christians vehemently oppose that same president. People on the outside might very well be confused.

I don’t want to add to the current debate, but I do want to share an example that might help differentiate between evangelical conservatism and what I would call a more Christ-based approach. Below is an updated version of a 2003 post about the ordination of a gay bishop. In it, I argue that support of the ordination of a gay bishop in the ECUSA (Episcopal Church of the USA) was the more Christian approach, as opposed to the culture-based, anti-LGBTQ evangelical outlook. I am editing it for clarity (adding labels, putting former popover quotes at the end of the post) and updating the introduction.

(Some may ask, what do I mean by “more Christ-based”? As better minds than mine have pointed out, Jesus was a radical liberal who reached out to everyone. His earliest followers lived communally, sharing everything, and one of their biggest early debates was whether to include as Christians people who weren’t of their original faith, Judaism. They came out on the side of inclusion. Their descendants have not always met repeated versions of that challenge with as much grace as their predecessors.)

In 2003 I was network administrator, webmaster, and graphic designer for the most-attended Episcopal parish in the United States: Christ Church, in Plano, Texas. I was not a parishioner, just the IT/web person. It was a fun challenge: among other things, I made everything from Windows 3.1–XP and Mac OS 7.x–X communicate via a terminal server.

I knew more traditional Episcopal churches through friends, and Christ Church was different. For one thing, it was founded by the Cardinal Rector, instead of being an established church where the parish hired the priest. There was a whiff of a cult of personality. The sermons were often not based in the liturgical readings, and differed from the Anglican Communion’s teachings (which allowed women and LGBTQ people to be ordained, for example). Christ Church was not “Catholic Lite,” but closer to evangelical Protestant teachings. (Since this post was originally written, Christ Church has left the Anglican Communion to join the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA. The ACNA does not support LGBTQ marriage rights and does not ordain women beyond the level of deacon.)

The ratification of Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire provided an opportunity for exclusivity and self-aggrandizement. Please note: While I think most anti-gay Christians are sincere in their beliefs, I don’t trust the people leading the movement. Richard Rorty provides a succinct explanation for this mistrust:

There is, after all, not much basis for anti-Semitism in the Christian scriptures. Its prominent role in the history of Christianity is the contribution of Christian ecclesiastical organizations. Those organizations would not have been unfaithful to Scripture if they had abstained from incitement to contempt and to sadistic brutality against Jews, but they would have lacked a way of bolstering the bigoted exclusivism that was one of their chief sources of money and power.

The situation is the same, nowadays, for homosexuals in the United States, who find themselves confronting two main enemies: ministers of the Christian religion who cite Leviticus 18:22 and gay bashers. The former are, unfortunately, considered respectable members of the community. Indeed, they exert very considerable political influence, even at the national level. These ministers sometimes try to distinguish themselves from the gay bashers by saying that even though sodomy is an abomination, Christians must be kind and merciful even to the most disgusting and shameless sinners. The gays and lesbians, however, persist in thinking that if the churches would just stop quoting Leviticus and Paul on the subject of sodomy, would stop saying that tolerance for homosexuals is a mark of moral decline, and would stop using tax-exempt funds to campaign for repeal of pro-gay ordinances and statues, there would be fewer gay bashers around.

Many gays and lesbians who are themselves religious believers might well agree…that the homophobes have the right to bring religious reasons into the public square in order to urge the passage of laws to ensure that homosexuals cannot get married, can be discriminated against in employment and housing, and can be arrested for having sex. But they find it strange that such a large proportion of time, money and energy of the Christian churches in the U.S. is devoted to this purpose. They are struck by the fact that religious reasons are now pretty much the only reasons brought forward in favor of treating them with contempt. Except for the mindless gay-bashing thugs, their fellow churchgoers are the only people who still think that sodomy is a big deal. So gays and lesbians might reasonably conclude that the reason Christian pulpits have become the principal source of homophobia is the same as the reason that they were the principal source of European anti-Semitism—namely, that encouraging exclusivist bigotry brings money and power to ecclesiastical organizations.

Suddenly there were press conferences, plans for creating a new “organization” apart from the ECUSA, plans for an onsite meeting of church leaders from all over the US, and online statements against religious gay rights. To preserve my job I initially didn’t speak against this. Then I did, and of course lost my job.

(By the way, I find it interesting that while conservatives think it should be reasonable to ask liberals to stay with a church despite differences in belief—women are asked to stay with the Catholic Church, e.g., even if they want to be priests—they also find it perfectly reasonable to abandon that same church when they are asked to accept something they disagree with.)

So here they are, the Christian reasons to oppose evangelical conservative arguments against ordaining a gay bishop.

Evangelical view: It’s against the teachings of the Episcopal Church.

Christian response: Slowly but surely, the Episcopal church has been reforming its views and treatment of homosexual church members. The process has been remarkably similar to the change of policy for the ordination of female priests, which also threatened a split in the church in the 1970s.

From the 1976 General Convention:

Resolution A-69: It is the sense of this General Convention that homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.
Resolution A-71: This General Convention expresses its conviction that homosexual persons are entitled to equal protection of the laws with all other citizens, and calls upon our society to see that such protection is provided in actuality.

In 1990 Bishop Righter ordained a priest in an openly gay committed relationship, and a hearing was called to determine if this was heresy. The charges were dismissed, and more openly homosexual priests were allowed to be ordained.

In 1993 Bishop Otis Charles of Utah came out after his retirement, and spoke movingly of feeling “diminished” by the Church, particularly during the debates on the issue. In accordance with accepted theology dating back to St. Augustine, that Charles had hidden his homosexuality could not invalidate his work as a bishop; the personal lifestyle or sanctity of clergy cannot invalidate the sacraments they perform.

In 1994 88 bishops signed a statement that gay men, living in committed relationships “marked by faithfulness and life-giving holiness” should be allowed ordination.

So it seems that the Episcopal Church has been accepting gay men into the priesthood for some time; what’s changed now?

Evangelical view: It’s against the teachings of the Bible.

Christian response: This is the argument of “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Many scriptural references used in this argument do not even mention homosexuality. Instead, they exhort the reader against impurity, idolatry, obscenity, and so forth. The classification of homosexuality as part of the impure behavior is recent, and begs the question.

There is a passage in Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:9, specifically mentioning “homosexual offenders”; but this is the same letter in which Paul says that women should cover their heads when praying, but men should not, because man “is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.” Paul’s attitude on gender and homosexuality was an uncritical acceptance of the culture of his time and place. How can we uncritically accept such cultural relics?

You will hear people offering the following quote from Jesus:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:17-18)

However, the quotes from Paul are not part of the law of which Jesus speaks. As well, cultural change has been accepted in changing the law. What Episcopalian—or any Christian—do you know that walks 30 paces outside the community to bury their feces, or quarantines women during menstruation? Yet these are “jots” of the law. We choose what to retain and what to discard in the spirit of the law.

Evangelical view: A gay bishop will not be able to teach the value of a traditional (heterosexual) marriage. Also, some dioceses are already refusing to ordain priests who believe only a traditional union is a valid one.

Christian response: This is another instance of begging the question, so let’s take it from two possible answering views:

  • Only heterosexual marriage is acceptable and right. In this instance, a gay bishop is no less capable of teaching about traditional marriage than a celibate bishop.
  • The important aspect of marriage is faithful and loving commitment in the eyes of God, not the gender of those involved. Using this, we describe a nun as “marrying” Christ. And this is a telling description, because marriage is very similar to faith, and teaches a great deal about faith to the participants. It is an act of free will, dedicating yourself to something more than yourself, allowing you to demonstrate faith in almost every aspect of your life. (I do not speak solely of religious faith here. Faith is an act applied to ourselves, others, God, science, nations, ideologies, art, and much more.) To refuse the opportunity to partake and learn from marriage is not only exclusive and narrow, but cruel.

Evangelical view: A gay priest taints the priesthood, and seriously undermines or outright invalidates any sacraments or other priestly work he performs.

Christian response: Some time ago this question was addressed by the early Christians. Some believed that sacraments performed by sinful priests were not valid. The “founding fathers,” who realized that there were no perfect priests (or anyone else, for that matter), decided that the office was sacred even if the person was not. In other words, not the priest but God made the sacrament valid.

A priest wrote a letter to the editor of BBC News addressing just this, and explained it very well indeed. [Sadly the BBC link I had no longer exists, and I relied on it to give credit to the priest. My apologies to the now-anonymous priest for not properly crediting him.]

To oppose Canon Robinson’s consecration is one thing; but to declare his ministry invalid is, quite technically, schismatic if not heretical. Ever since the Donatist movement in the 4th century, the main body of the church has held, that the moral character of a minister has no effect on the validity of his sacramental ministry. Some conservatives seem to be willing to jettison any article of the faith rather than their negative view of homosexuality.

Evangelical view: While the quiet ordination of homosexual priests is tolerable, the open confirmation of a bishop will hurt the Church spiritually and in the eyes of the public.

Christian response: The question is not what is perceived by the public, but what is right. If it is right to include homosexual men and women in the priesthood and to bless their unions, then it would be a deep spiritual wound to resist that. If it’s wrong, but done in the belief it is right, then the Church’s spirituality is still intact because they are doing the best they can. The community of leaders in the Church are not making this decision because it’s a popular one.

Evangelical view: The majority of church members are anti-homosexual and will leave. Also, if we accept the majority are anti-homosexual, shouldn’t the bishops obey the masses?

Christian response: The Church is not a democracy and never has been. At no point has the majority opinion been recommended as the best way to decide the ethics of an issue.

Some people will leave. Some people will stay and learn. Some will join. None of these actions should determine the moral decision made by the bishops.

Evangelical view: It will make the work of the clergy more difficult.

Response: The Episcopal clergy should already have been dealing with these issues. In 1985 the 68th General Convention urged “each diocese of this Church to find an effective way to foster a better understanding of homosexual persons, to dispel myths and prejudices about homosexuality.” In 1988 the General Convention asked the clergy to speak out against violence against gays, and also to bear witness against the idea that AIDS was a punishment from God.

In 1994 the Standing Commission on Human Affairs reported to the General Convention that, “In this Decade of Evangelism, we seem intent on alienating and keeping out one of the few identifiable groups of people who want to be welcomed in.” Going a step further, they asked that the church promote understanding of homosexuality, actively fight against local attempts to marginalize homosexuals, openly deplore “gay-bashing,” and call to task members promoting an anti-tolerant view.

Apart from all of the above, when was it ever thought the work of the clergy was, or should be, made easier? Being Christ-like does not mean taking the comfortable way out on ethical issues.

Evangelical conservative view: Even without Biblical support, homosexuality is just unnatural and therefore wrong.

Response: Let’s examine the word “unnatural,” which has several meanings. The first, against natural law, would seem to imply this is a result of environment over genetic tendencies. Yet there are animal species displaying bisexual and homosexual behavior, measurable neurological differences between homosexual and heterosexual men, and twin studies which show identical twins are more likely to have the same sexual orientation than fraternal twins.

The next, inconsistent or deviating from accepted customs or social norms, is applicable in some cultures but not others. Previous societies did not define “gay” and “straight” as we do, and in fact many societies took homosexuality and bisexuality as a matter of course. The behavior was used as a bond between military men, as a means for younger men and women to gain access to levels of society older men and women controlled, and promoted a society less likely to have internal conflict and more interested in supporting each other.

Since sexual orientation is built-in, so to speak, it’s clearly not unnatural in the sense of contrived or artificial. Likewise, the last definition of unnatural—inhuman, or violating natural human emotion—has no application to a widespread, innate tendency with social value in those societies accepting it.

Evangelical view: We do not want to appear aligned with other groups supporting homosexual rights.

Response: Appearances, like the opinions of the majority, should not be a deciding factor in determining the rightness of an issue.


P.S. If you made it this far, you might need a break! Here’s the Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper, on the divinity of Donald Trump.