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Conflict over gay clergy challenges core beliefs—and shows radically different interpretations of the Bible
Any Christian who reads the Bible has a reading strategy—what theologians call a hermeneutic. No one thinks it “unbiblical” to apply such a strategy to the Bible, even when, by doing so, one ignores or modifies what seems on the face of it to be a clear biblical injunction.
For example, the penalty in the Bible for adultery is death by stoning. But not even the rigorous Protestant reformer, John Calvin, was eager to enforce marital virtue by such Draconian means. Christians concluded a very long time ago that some rules apply to ancient Israel but not to the church (like keeping a kosher table), or to the early church but not to the church throughout the ages (like naming church leaders apostles). The tricky question is how one distinguishes the timeless from the transient in the teaching of the Bible.
Tradition clearly plays a role. When Christian tradition repeats the biblical prohibition of gay sex, it confirms for conservatives their conviction that the issue is not in doubt. The ban belongs to what is timeless and unchangeable in Christian sexual ethics rather than to what is timebound and mutable. Which means that the consecration by Episcopalians of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire is a dramatic symbol to conservatives of a church gone terribly wrong.
Liberals disagree. In their view, Jesus preached an inclusive message that embraced the outcasts and marginalized of his society. This inclusive message of God’s love is the timeless good news that renders ancient prohibitions obsolete. For liberals, the consecration of an openly gay bishop is the prophetic act of a church accepting the full implications of its gospel.
In short, conservatives and liberals differ in their strategies for reading the Bible, their conception of religious authority, their grasp of the central tenets of the Christian gospel, and their image of the essential nature of the church. Religious disagreements among Christians don’t get more serious than this.
Moderates would like to find a safe middle ground between these two competing positions.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one.
DAVID C. STEINMETZ is the Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School of Duke University.