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DURHAM—Many Christians have fought with each other over a great many issues since the apostles Peter and Paul disagreed publicly over the place of the Jewish rite of circumcision in a church that baptized uncircumcised gentiles.
Some conflicts seem in retrospect fairly trivial—questions such as when Easter should be celebrated, how one should make the sign of the cross, or whether one should kneel when receiving the Eucharist.
Other controversies seem more important by comparison. When early Christians asked whether they worshipped one God or three, and debated whether Jesus was human or divine (or both), they were arguing over matters so central to their faith that they were inescapable.
Which is why it seems so odd that mainline churches have been pushed to the brink of schism by an argument over sex. Not that Christians have failed to argue over sex in the past. In the 16th century, Protestants argued vigorously for lifting the Catholic ban on married clergy and allowing divorce with the possibility of remarriage.
But Protestants and Catholics never would have split western Christendom if sexual matters were the only issues on the table. Far more important for both were fundamental questions concerning the relative authority of Scripture, tradition, and bishops in defining matters of human salvation. After all, one cannot talk usefully about sex until one has established the moral frame of reference in which to do it.
Which may be why the current debate over the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions is so intense. In the end, it is not just about sex. It is about the moral and religious framework within which sexual issues can be decided. For liberals and conservatives alike, sex is the concrete and visible sign of a series of theoretical and less obvious disagreements over central matters of faith.
Conservatives have argued from the beginning that the crucial issue for them is the authority of Scripture. Liberals have replied that the issue is not whether Scripture is authoritative, but how it is read. Both positions are, of course, correct. How you read a biblical text depends on what you think of it, and what you think of it is influenced by how you read it.
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.