David C. Steinmetz serves as Amon Ragan Kearns Professor of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School of Duke University. He is a respected church historian who has contributed much to our knowledge of the Reformation. In a recent opinion column published in several newspapers, Professor Steinmetz addressed the controversial issue of homosexuality as it plays out in church debates. His analysis is too important to miss.
Dealing specifically with the debate over the ordination of homosexuals to the ministry, Professor Steinmetz observes, “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.” He’s right, of course. Our stances on issues of sexuality reveal the larger contours of our theological and biblical commitments — and our worldviews.
This is how Professor Steinmetz lays out his case: “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.”
Therefore, “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.”
Any possibility of compromise between these two positions? “Moderates would like to find a safe middle ground between these two competing positions. Unfortunately, there isn’t one.” Right again, Professor Steinmetz. There is far more than sex involved in these controversies. The authority of Scripture is the fundamental issue. In some sense, it is always the fundamental issue.
BE INSTRUCTED BY THE PROFESSOR: David C. Steinmetz, Gay Clergy: A Liberal-Conservative Divide of Biblical Proportions, The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star [Virginia], May 20, 2005.