Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.31.06 PMIs the nature of marriage an “agree-to-disagree” issue for Christians?

Earlier this week, Scot McKnight commented on the decision of Union University to withdraw from the CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) because no action had yet been taken regarding two Mennonite faith-based colleges that opened the door to same-sex marriages among their faculty. Anticipating that other Christian colleges will soon follow Union’s lead, Scot explains why he agrees with Union on the biblical teaching of marriage, but disagrees with Union on withdrawing from the CCCU.

The Gospel and Marriage

Scot believes it is problematic for evangelicals to consider one’s teaching on marriage as more central to the gospel than other issues that divide Christians (baptism, for example). He critiques Union’s president, Dub Oliver, for saying that division on marriage damages our Christian witness and denies the authority of Scripture. Scot believes it is counterproductive to tie one’s understanding of marriage to the gospel in this way. He writes:

I see this connecting-to-the-gospel argument far too often. It is a borrowing of authority — the colonizing of authority if you will — from one thing to another to give the new thing the authority it would not otherwise have.

He goes on:

Let me register this: I disagree with Eastern Mennonite and Goshen, and often do on their progressive courage fronts, and Union and others can do what they want, but this is culture war stuff being used theologically to create division where a kind of unity and bland disregard of differences, some quite at the heart of what many of these schools actually make central, in the past.

Scot is right that the CCCU does not include stringent doctrinal tests for its members. It only requires them to have a public, institutional mission that is “Christ-centered and rooted in the historic Christian faith.”

“Historic Christian Faith”

But therein lies the question. How can a school claim to be rooted in the historic Christian faith when arguing for a vision of marriage that, literally, has no history within Christianity? Does an institution that no longer accepts the unequivocal witness of the Christian Church for two thousand years to the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality meet the CCCU requirement?

Union says no. The CCCU, currently, implies that this is an “agree-to-disagree” issue. In his commentary, Scot recognizes that in the texts that most clearly explicate the gospel, there is no reference to marriage. But this makes me wonder… which doctrines are essential for the church or an institution to faithfully promulgate the gospel? Is there anything besides the gospel proper that might be grounds for disunity?

Who is Creating Division?

I agree with Union’s decision, and, frankly, it appears that Scot is the one reading this situation from the perspective of “culture-war politics” and this is why it has clouded his judgment on this point. Let’s be clear. Union’s decision is not what is creating division here, but the moral heterodoxy of the schools that have abandoned the Church’s witness to marriage.

Who has changed here? Not Union, but the schools who adapted their policies in line with the state’s institutionalization of the Sexual Revolution revision of marriage.

Who has brought about this division? It is certainly not the schools that remain in line with every Christian in history until just decades ago.

It baffles me that one would blame the schisms across the Western Church today on those who uphold Christianity’s historic sexual ethic instead of those who advocate for a sexual revisionism that would have been unfathomable to the generations of the Christians who came before us and, even today, shocks the consciences of the vast majority of Christians outside the West. Only in Western cultures do we call churches “affirming.” Outside the West, the term is “apostate.”

Scot is reading this situation as if it were a fundamentalist reaction to the broader Christian movement. I think he has it backwards. This is schism brought about by those whose “cheap grace” is employed as justification for sexual immorality – the sort of situation that the brother of Jesus warned against (Jude 4), which means that “defending the faith” (Jude 3) in this context is less about maintaining the points of our creed or the planks of the gospel and more about the Church’s moral witness to the sexual ethic described by Jesus and the Apostles.

Pannenberg the Prophet

In the late 1990’s, Wolfhart Pannenberg, who would be to the left of many if not most evangelicals, clearly saw what was at stake in the mainline denominations’ wrangling over same-sex marriage. Appealing to Jesus’ definition of marriage and the New Testament’s witness, Pannenberg wrote:

“These texts that are negative toward homosexual behavior are not merely dealing with marginal opinions that could be neglected without detriment to the Christian message as a whole.”

In other words, the idea that one can simply disregard this element of sexual ethics and not do damage to Christianity is impossible.

Now, there are two ways of relating marriage as a matter of first concern to the gospel. One is to lump everything essential into “the gospel,” which is what evangelicals who call this a “gospel issue” have done.

The other approach is to say that the gospel is not the only thing that is essential for Christians to believe. It’s to say that there are elements of the Christian Story that are non-negotiable, even if they are not included in how we define the gospel (one might consider the doctrine of the Trinity or the authority of Scripture as examples). There may be doctrines about God and man that are not the gospel, but necessary for the gospel’s preservation and delivery.

Pannenberg, I believe, takes this latter approach, and this is why he arrives at a position that calls out the apostasy of institutions that bow before the cultural authorities on marriage:

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

I’m with Union, and with Pannenberg. For the CCCU to imply that one’s position of marriage and sexuality is an “agree-to-disagree” issue is to introduce a moral fog into our churches and institutions that will be devastating to the Church’s witness.

[[Update: Scot McKnight has clarified to me that he does not believe marriage is an “agree-to-disagree” issue for Christians. It is a matter of biblical fidelity.]]