Saturday, August 16, 2003

Who's Right?

The following is excerpted from an Associated Press report posted on the web:

“Until very recently, all Christian branches agreed that same-sex activity was immoral because of their age-old understanding of God's will taught in the Scriptures.
Most of the world's Christian bodies maintain that belief. But in the last quarter-century, liberal scholars from some so-called "mainline" Protestant denominations in Europe and North America have argued against traditional Bible interpretations, often in books from church publishing houses. They say the Bible's overwhelming overall message is loving acceptance and justice for all people.
This has gradually influenced leadership circles in the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and United Methodist Church. Yet the new biblical theories have failed to convince legions of rank and file American churchgoers.
To go to the source of the argument, two biblical passages are crucial:
- "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22, an Old Testament law repeated with the death penalty in Leviticus 20:13).
- "God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error" (the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:26-27).
Conservatives say God fixed the sexual pattern in Genesis 2:24: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." Jesus repeated that teaching twice in the Gospels: Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-9.
At the Episcopal convention, the Rev. Kendall Harmon of South Carolina said that the Old and New Testaments send the same message that sex is limited to a woman and a man. "There is no tension, no qualification, no development and no equivocation," he said.
Another conservative point: No biblical verse hints at approval for same-sex activity.
Liberal authors commonly say Leviticus 18 was part of a Jewish purity code that barred practices associated with paganism, including many laws Christianity eliminated, for instance the kosher rules in Leviticus 17. Conservatives reply that the gay ban is embedded alongside laws against adultery, incest, bestiality and child sacrifice that Christianity kept.
Regarding Romans 1 and other New Testament passages, liberals often say these were merely meant to oppose same-sex activity that was exploitative (using slaves or boys). A related argument: Paul thought men were heterosexual in nature and should shun homosexual acts, but some today believe people are born with a disposition toward being gay.
In the heftiest conservative book on the subject in recent years, "The Bible and Homosexual Practice" (Abingdon), Robert A. J. Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary argues in detail that all same-sex variants were well known in the ancient world - so it's obvious the Bible opposed same-sex activity across the board, not just certain types.
But the Rev. Walter Wink of New York's Auburn Theological Seminary, a United Methodist clergyman, disagrees with Presbyterian Gagnon's reading of Scripture.
"The Bible has no sex ethic," Wink says. "It only knows a communal love ethic" exemplified by Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself, which requires Christians to understand gays' experiences.
Societies' changing codes of sexual conduct should be assessed against that standard and in light of modern knowledge, he says.
Wink acknowledges that "a lot of churches are not going to change" for the present, but he's convinced they will eventually shed old Bible interpretations that are "life-denying and intellectually dishonest."
"In 50 years most of us will look back and say, 'Why were we so slow? Why was this so difficult?'" he said.
Bishop-elect Robinson believes biblical conservatives will "come to know that they are wrong, in this life or the next one."
Gagnon agrees that the traditional view is not popular in universities or the media. But he insists that the Bible's entire authority is under threat. If people can deny such a clear and specific scriptural teaching, he says, it raises questions about the point of adhering to the faith in the first place.
Says Gagnon: "When we reach the point where it is no longer the word of God for us in any meaningful sense, there is no more reason to be part of organized Christianity."”

There are several interesting points that this story brings to mind.

First, the story points out the central problem faced by our Protestant brothers and sisters – no final teaching authority, no way to define doctrine. Here we have folks on two very different sides of an issue, and both claiming to rest their views on the authority of Scripture. It should be clear that the idea of sola scriptura is flawed. Obviously both sides to the debate on human sexual conduct can’t be right; Scripture does not contradict itself. But where can Protestants turn for a final authority? It seems that without the authority of a teaching Magisterium it is almost impossible not to slip into the fog of error.
A second point comes to mind and is found in the quote: “They say the Bible's overwhelming overall message is loving acceptance and justice for all people.” Our liberal friends seem to think that it is God’s nature to accept whatever we happen to want to do, whenever we want to do it. They appear to believe that God is just sitting around in heaven loving us and approving of everything we do. They also seem to think that God’s nature is capable of changing with the times. The problem with this idea, of course, is that is defines away the problem of sin; if whatever we do is “okay” then no mode of human conduct can be considered sinful. Of course, if there is no sin there is little need for redemption, or for God for that matter. God does love us, but as the above quote points out, God is also just. As Paul wrote in the book of Romans, he gives us what we deserve. He also measures what we deserve by an absolute standard – truth and good do not change with the times. There is nothing is Scripture that would lead us to think otherwise.
It is also interesting that it appears to be the goal of the “liberals” here to simply wait out those more orthodox Christians. It seems clear that the majority of folks in the pew do not wish to sanction “same-sex” marriage. It doesn’t matter to those leading their churches though. Their strategy is not to appeal to truth but finally to simply wear down the opposition. This has been the strategy of “liberals” for a long time. It began with the 1930s Lambeth Conference that sanctioned divorce among Christians, and continues to this day. We are allowing the erosion, perhaps the destruction, of a Christian civilization bit by bit, one brick at a time. It’s like the apocryphal frog placed in a pan of cold water on top of a stove. As the heat is turned on he is oblivious to his predicament until he is boiled alive. I believe we Catholics are called to try to oppose this effort wherever and whenever we can. It seems clear that most of the mainline Protestant denominations are being slowly dismantled from within and will not long be around to help us. I believe that, in the long run, it won’t work because the liberals are forgetting one thing, the victory against evil has already been won and there is one Church that will not be worn down. I think this is one thing that Catholics can give thanks for at all times.

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