Christian Theology and Homosexuality

 Since I’ve been writing for a while now about the Bible, Christian theology, and homosexuality, I’m intending to move on to other discussions, especially about the place of the church in the political world. But this recent post by Rod Dreher, which builds off another article by Lawrence Farley, has compelled me to get out one more observation on the subject. What I’m concerned about in both of these articles is not the opposition to gay inclusion in the church (although obviously these authors and I are on opposite sides of that issue), but that the framing of the problem reveals a pernicious but common category mistake that plagues most discussions of Christian sexual ethics and the church.

The gist of both Farley’s and Dreher’s arguments is that revising Christian disciplinary conventions about homosexuality (in response to rapidly changing social and scientific understandings of human sexuality) is problematic because it poses a challenge to fundamental precepts of Christian theology and what Dreher terms “Biblical orthodoxy” or a “Biblical view” of humanity. First, the claim that this argument is theological in nature is incorrect in a way that fatally compromises its premise. Second, positing either that there is such a thing as “Biblical orthodoxy” or that the Bible is capable of presenting a fixed model of human anthropology are dangerously mistaken claims.

I’m specifically responding to these articles now because I constantly read arguments from both sides of this debate that refer to the question of gay inclusion in the church as a “theological” issue, and I think that it’s a tremendous mistake to frame the issue this way. On the one hand, most people (myself included) have a tendency to shorthand any discussion about things that pertain to religious stuff as “theological.” However, Farley takes this comparison one step further by drawing an analogy between contemporary debates over homosexuality and the Arian controversy:

The debate over the nature of Christ—was He God Almighty in the flesh or not—raged on and on. Eventually it became apparent that continued debate with Arius and his supporters would not result in consensus, since they were following a different set of first principles. As this involved something basic to Christian discipleship there was nothing for it but to take canonical action and to anathematize Arianism . . . It seems that we may be rapidly reaching this now over the issue of homosexuality. The issue is not marginal, but basic to salvation and to what a life of Christian obedience to God looks like.

The fatal flaw of this setup is that disputes over Christian sexual ethics are completely different from debates over theology proper. Why? Because theology has to do with God, not people. (Not to be flip, but that’s why it’s called “theology” and not “anthropology.”) The Arian controversy, being entirely about God, perfectly fit all of the markers of a theological dispute. The Church’s (eventual) decision to definitively proclaim Christ as uncreated and fully divine profoundly shapes the Christian discussion about what Christ’s sacrifice was all about and how humans properly relate to God in light of this irruption of the divine-human boundary. Furthermore – and this is critically important – the decision to reject Arian theology is completely unaffected by changing human culture. It is an eternal truth that is not, and cannot be, swayed by the change and advance in human knowledge, because it belongs to the theological realm of truth, which does not operate on the same level as scientifically and culturally determined truth.

Discerning proper Christian understanding and action regarding homosexuality, on the other hand, is not a theological question. This problem is fully different from something like Arianism, because it is completely, entirely, and in all ways about us. It may be affected by our theological understandings proper, and it may be strongly influenced by our readings of the Bible and Christian tradition. But it is also amenable – crucially so – to evolving human understandings about ourselves. Human culture is constantly changing; that is something that is both unavoidable, but also a distinctively and properly human thing. There can be for human beings no absolute anthropological condition because human beings are, by nature, mutable.

See these two? They're different.

See these two? They’re different.

A central point of Christian theology has always been this simple observation: God is impassible, but humans are changeable. In fact (swinging back to the Arian controversy), our mutability is critically related to our status as beings created by God. Since God is unchanging, and has a reality that is not affected by human beings, then by extension theological observations about God also remain immutable, and cannot be altered by variations in human culture. But just as divine unchangeability is a crucial fact about God, so human variability is a critical reality of our existence. Attempting to deny this fact by freezing human relationships and anthropological self-understandings into a mold that is eternally true actually imputes to created human beings characteristics that are proper to God. Saying that there is a biblically-revealed anthropology that is eternally valid and must be adhered to for all ages fails to recognize the essential nature of human beings, both individually and corporately.

Finally, there is no such thing as “Biblical orthodoxy.” There is just “The Bible,” which Christians have used to fashion a theological edifice known as “Christian orthodoxy.” Christian orthodoxy is defined by one’s adherence to theological decisions and understandings about God’s nature (primarily regarding Christology) and the purpose and outcome of God’s salvific action for humankind. The Bible allows us to get to the point of creating an orthodox Christian theology – it provides the literary raw material that we peruse to converse about God and create theological formulas in the first place – but conflating the two is a category mistake of the first magnitude. The Bible is susceptible to many different readings (just ask the Arians, who were reading the same text!), but only some of those readings actually get us to the Christian gospel and Christian orthodoxy.

While there are plenty of works by Christians on human anthropology that are an important part of the Christian tradition and well worth reading and pondering, they are not definitive of orthodox Christian theology. As befits writings about mutable, created beings, the conclusions of these authors are not the final word on who human beings are, or how we understand ourselves, and what our self-understandings mean when it comes to our reception and embrace of Christ’s gospel. The anthropological understandings that we create are provisional, because we humans are ourselves rather provisional. The ability, and even necessity, to change is in fact one of God’s great gifts to us. It’s really kind of a pity that we often seem so eager to reject it, and then ascribe that rejection to God’s biblically-revealed plan.

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Comments 4

  1. I’ve been enjoying all of these recent blogs – new perspectives on things I think about a lot as a gay married Christian. But this one takes the cake for helpfulness. I’ll be referring lots of people to this page in the future. I now want to be much more careful with how I use the word “theological”!

  2. Hi Tim,

    You write that, “The fatal flaw of this setup is that disputes over Christian sexual ethics are completely different from debates over theology proper. Why? Because theology has to do with God, not people.” But theology is about more than just “God proper”. Theology is also about being addressed by God based on the premise that God (theo) speaks (logos).

    So, for example, we can talk about the Church and about the sacraments is theological because even though it isn’t conversation about God proper, it is talk about the way in which God *gives Himself* to us. Thus, ecclesiology, sacramentology, liturgy and so on all falls under the rubric of “theology”.

    Your dichotomy between anthropology and theology proves insufficient then precisely because these things aren’t mutually exclusionary—as if there were some arenas of the created order which God simply didn’t factor into! So, Paul, following Jesus, can argue that marriage is a mystery—it *actually* communicates something about Christ and the Church precisely because it is conformed to the shape of salvation, the way in which God has given Himself to us.

    So, I don’t think your central claim holds water. What do you think?

    1. Thanks for your question; I really appreciate the opportunity to clarify and flesh out some objections.

      When I say that the question of homosexuality is not a “theological” issue, I don’t mean to say that I think that it is only an issue of human concern, and not a useful topic of discussion in a specifically Christian context. What I am saying is that it is not a first-order doctrinal question, because it is not a debate over the nature of God proper, and it is the conclusions that proceed from those debates that constitute the real heart of Christian doctrine. David points this out in his latest post when he talks about the traditional hierarchy of theological disciplines, with “theology” proper as the pinnacle of Christian doctrinal reflection. I don’t think that it’s an accident that the major divisions of Christianity prior to the Reformation were driven by disputes over the formulations and understandings of theology proper, rather than issues of church discipline or practice.

      The other disciplines that you mention, or other fields that one could include – liturgical theology, sacramental theology, ecclesiology, theological anthropology, etc. – are worthy subjects of discussion in the church, and certainly tremendously important to ordering life and practice. But even the fact that they are already defined by their accompanying adjectival qualifiers makes clear that they are adjuncts of the central discipline, which is “theology” proper; none of them could even exist as fields of study without plain old unqualified “theology.” Furthermore, as I’m pointing out here, the decisions about doctrine concerning God do not change with the times, while the objects of reflection in the qualified disciplines are subject to revision and updating as necessary, in light of changing human circumstances that are considered against the background of unchanging theological definitions. Questions of human nature considered by theological anthropology are particularly prone to revision, since we humans ourselves are rather culturally malleable.

      Your reference to Paul in Ephesians actually provides a great example of what I’m talking about here. First, when Paul says that “this is a great mystery,” he is specifically referring not to marriage, but to the Genesis quotation that he’s just cited. For Paul, the thing that is the “great mystery” isn’t marriage, but the text’s underlying referent; that is why he immediately makes the assertion that he believes it refers to “Christ and the church.” Paul is trying to work out what it means for Christ to be one with the church, and in order to find an analogy that can make concrete this relationship, he reaches for a cultural convention – marriage – that he believes will help his audience grasp a relationship that would otherwise remain abstract. But notice that Paul is articulating his point through an analogy to human conventions about marriage and its underlying power dynamics they existed in his time and place, and this relationship was completely dominated, both culturally and legally, by men, in a way that is nearly inconceivable in contemporary Western culture. (One of the reasons that it is increasingly difficult to explain Paul’s point in this passage to modern audiences is that the power relationships in contemporary marriages have evolved so significantly from Paul’s era.) Paul wants his readers to be “imitators of God” within the confines of the institutions that they live in, and he uses those institutions to explain how Christ loves the church (and then wants his readers to reflect that love in their own relationships).

      Is it useful to discuss marriage, what marriage entails, and how it is bounded within the church, in reference to orthodox Christian doctrine? Absolutely! Certainly insofar as marriage has been incorporated as a liturgical rite, Christians have every right and obligation to hash out how it should function in the church and what it should mean for its members. My point is simply that it’s possible to have the institution, even within the church, change over time, even as we ourselves change, in a way that it is not possible to alter theological definitions.

  3. If I may ask, out of complete ignorance: Isn’t the goal of a Christian life to eventually embody theology anthropologically?

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