The question takes various forms:
- Can progressive evangelicals who advocate same-sex marriage share a measure of unity with the rest of the global church?
- Is it possible to see one’s view of sexual ethics as a dividing line between evangelical churches (similar to debates over baptism, speaking in tongues, etc.), but not something that necessitates a divorce within evangelicalism as a whole?
- Can believers simply “agree to disagree” on this contentious issue and allow various views to exist within what is commonly accepted as “orthodoxy?”
David Gushee, an ethicist who now supports same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships, recently wrote an article explaining why conservative and progressive evangelicals are headed for a divorce. According to Gushee, the nature of marriage and sexuality is merely the tip of the iceberg because there are “a hundred other fractures” – questions related to biblical authority and political involvement.
Gushee sees these debates as a replay of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy from a hundred years ago, and he concludes:
“Conservative and progressive evangelicals need to let each other go their separate ways, acknowledging that despite shared faith in Christ we have become two separate religious communities.”
Paul Louis Metzger, founder and director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture, pushes back against Gushee’s recommendation, appealing to Christ’s concern for unity. “How can we go our separate ways unless we no longer belong to the same Christ?” he asks.
Quoting Wolfhart Pannenberg, Metzger worries that disunity in the body of Christ is the leading cause of “a world free from all religious ties.” Instead, we should fight to remain together in order to avoid presenting a “dismembered” Christ to the world.
Unity and the Drawing of Lines
I agree with Metzger that schism in the Church is a tragic thing, and schism should be avoided whenever possible. But I also recognize we cannot avert schism merely by appealing to unity.
Today, one of the common complaints from the progressive side is that evangelicals are always “drawing lines” and “making distinctions” and “policing boundaries” and declaring “who’s in and who’s out.” One wonders what they’d say about the apostles, whose concern about boundaries stands out in so many of their letters, right in line with Jesus’ frequent warnings against false teachers.
Like Jesus, the New Testament writers made constant appeals to unity, but they also drew bold, dark lines regarding what constituted genuine Christian teaching. Flip through any of the letters of Paul, Peter, Jude, and John, and you can’t help but notice the contrast between sound doctrine and error, unity and schism, what constitutes true teaching versus false.
Where Did the Schism Start?
Schisms are indeed tragic, and Christians are right to resist them and seek any other avenue of resolution. But in our efforts to avoid schism, we must not fail to ask the question: Where is the division coming from?
Back in 2009, N. T. Wright, then the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, wrote that the actions of the Episcopal Church (USA) had initiated a schism would tear apart the fabric of the Anglican Communion. “The Americans know this will end in schism,” he wrote.
“Jesus’ own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behavior outside heterosexual monogamy,” Wright went on, and then, explaining why this is not and can never be an “agree-to-disagree issue,” he wrote:
“This isn’t a matter of ‘private response to Scripture’ but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.”
Wright is right, and Gushee is wrong. Gushee positions this debate as if it is merely between progressives and evangelicals. No. The bigger picture shows that those who redefine marriage and sexuality do so in opposition to the global Christian church and the entire Christian tradition. It’s not progressives vs. conservatives, but progressives vs. every Christian and Church that has ever been.
The latter part of Wright’s statement above is clarified in the starkest of terms in a nearly-400 page book by S. Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams entitled Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. This new book provides an exhaustive account of both Scriptural exegesis and the Church’s vision of human sexuality. They write:
The issue is not whether the Bible addresses homosexual practice: it does. It is not whether diverse interpretations on this issue have existed in the history of the church: they have not. The issue is, rather, what is authoritative for the church in the formation of its convictions and in its practices.
Page after page in this book demonstrates the internal consistency – or as the title suggests, the “unchanging witness” – of the church’s interpretation of biblical sexual ethics. After I read this book, it was clearer to me than ever that today’s schisms are a result of error, not truth. The authors continue:
On the issue of homosexual practice, no person or church or group should say that biblical texts mean something other than what the church has said all along because both Scripture and the church have consistently said the same thing. The issue comes down to this: the authority of Scripture and the relevance of the church’s teaching. That is where we wish to leave the matter, for that is the point at which some in the church are dividing from the rest of the church universal, from the teaching of the church in other centuries, and from what must indeed be considered the teaching of all Christians.
The Progressive Promotion of Schism
In his appeal to unity, Metzger quoted from Wolfhart Pannenberg on how devastating our divisions are for the church’s witness. But when it came to the church’s unchanging witness on sexuality, Pannenberg, in the 1990’s, warned about the inevitable schism that would occur if segments of the church began to advocate new views on marriage. He wrote:
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.
Schism may be occurring, and it is indeed tragic. Let us weep over it, pray against it, and love the world we’ve been called to serve. But let’s not underplay the seriousness of the progressive assault on the entire Christian tradition’s understanding of marriage.
As Maxie Dunnam, a United Methodist, has asked:
“If we can’t trust the church in our understanding of marriage, then whom are we to trust?”