As evangelicals watch megachurches and other institutions wobble in their convictions about marriage, we have sought to buttress support by elevating the traditional view of the doctrine to a matter of orthodoxy. Always up for a good statement — or even a mediocre one — evangelicals in 2017 attempted to codify their views on marriage and sexuality in The Nashville Statement. Controversy, as they say, ensued.
Despite the organizer’s plea several weeks after the statement was released that it was “never our aim to make signing the Statement a test of orthodoxy,” those same organizers celebrated when churches and universities adopted it as a litmus test for employment. Indeed, the Statement’s initial press release suggests the organizers were more comfortable equating it with orthodoxy than their later protestations would indicate. “I am signing The Nashville Statement,” Rosaria Butterfield announced, “because I stand with biblical orthodoxy, the only witness for hope and peace and God’s blessing.” Her modest endorsement even claimed the mantle of Martin Luther: “By God through the merit and power of Jesus Christ, here I stand.”
There is much we could say about the valence of appealing to “orthodoxy” while evangelicals’ social capital erodes and confidence in our institutions evaporates. While trust in authorities has diminished everywhere, evangelicals have chronic problems maintaining their boundaries across their diffuse networks and parachurch ministries. While some evangelical-adjacent denominations have reasonably effective means of maintaining internal discipline, congregationalist polities have fewer mechanisms of control. On matters of sex and marriage, evangelical churches have long accepted contraception, made their peace with remarriage after divorce, silently acquiesced to the whole gamut of artificial reproductive technologies, and have raised a generation who shrug at cohabitation and premarital sex. The combination of widespread evangelical complicity with the severing of sex and procreation and the scandal of evangelical divorces have together undermined our confidence that our institutions will maintain fidelity to Scripture on same-sex marriage. Such anxieties have intensified debates about which doctrines are regarded as necessary to participate in the evangelical world.
Of course, this is not the first time evangelicals have strengthened their rhetoric in response to a theological crisis — which makes it easy for critics to dismiss the idea that marriage is a matter of orthodoxy. It has become customary in some quarters to invoke historical analogies to debunk moral views without investigating the accuracy of the underlying claims. It is enough to know that a community that once discriminated on the basis of race now discriminates on the basis of sex: one need ask no further questions about the reasons for each position, as both can be subsumed under the idea that the community is merely trying to maintain its “privilege.” In the same way, one can trace a line from fundamentalists’ efforts to make six-day creation a matter of orthodoxy through inerrancy to marriage, without ever having to consider the respective plausibility of each position. Instead, the internal politics of evangelicalism are dismissed as reaction, all the way down.
There are aspects of this worry that resonate, to be sure. Conservative Christians frequently buttress their opposition to same-sex unions by arguing that theirs is the stable and consistent position of Christians throughout history. Augustine prohibited same-sex unions — we prohibit same-sex unions. The line of continuity is clear and unambiguous. That story is accurate so far as it goes. But it also obscures how the significance of those prohibitions have changed as their cultural contexts have changed. As the distinction between acts and persons has eroded, the possibility of judging wrongful acts has been displaced by a pervasive and unrelenting therapeuticization of our moral lives — which renders the prohibition on same-sex unions almost unintelligible today in a way they would not have been during Augustine’s time.
Christians have not been immune from such trends: mainline Protestants have long accommodated them, and given them a social legitimacy they would have never attained otherwise. Mainline denominations have often functioned as a foil for evangelicals who sought to build a bulwark against the world’s encroachment into the church. Some corners of evangelicalism self-consciously adopted the dictum that an institution that is not proactively being conservative will soon become progressive. Despite their invocations of tradition against Protestant liberalism, though, such communities are not so much ‘conserving’ as instrumentalizing what they have received while reacting against perceived threats. Social pressures on traditional religious believers have sometimes prompted us to inflate our rhetoric regarding the clarity and certainty of our positions.
But the use of intensifiers in an argument is often indicative of anxiety rather than real confidence. At some point, the reactionary does protest too much. Moreover, starting theological reflection in an oppositional context tends to distort one’s own commitments by creating emphases that would not be needed otherwise. Evangelicals in the 1980s and 90s anxious about feminism sought maximal theological protection in the Trinity, only to discover in the 2010s that they had endorsed actual heresies (the irony needs no comment). So it sometimes goes when the sociological horse drives the theological cart.
Such are the dangers of invoking “orthodoxy” to settle matters of contested moral or doctrinal significance. Yet those difficulties do not entail that the category is never warranted, or that there is no such thing as a ‘moral orthodoxy.’ For all the struggles along the church’s path into “all truth,” the convergence of Christians’ judgment on marriage and sexuality is as much an article of faith as is our belief that we will be united in any other respect. As even Aristotle understood, practical action has its own criterion of truth. The unity on moral judgment to which the church is called may only be finally achieved in the eschaton: but it is incumbent upon Christians here and now to preserve what unity they already enjoy, and seek to embody what unity remains.
At the outset of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he appeals that they would “all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” The ESV’s use of “agree” at the beginning of the verse, though, misses the brute literalism of Paul’s exhortation. The King James Version is nearer his thought: Paul wants the Corinthians to “all speak the same thing.” The difference is crucial. Public speech binds the church together: it is the visible manifestation of the church’s invisible life, the exterior sign of her internal substance.
That internal substance certainly includes the church’s “mind:” there is to be no disagreement about how the church sees the world. But Paul’s concern for unity is not limited to sound doctrine: he also includes ‘judgment’ within his commendation, a term that connotes the intentionality or directedness of an opinion, its practical orientation. In 1 Corinthians 7:40, Paul issues his judgment that a widow will be happier if she does not remarry, a conclusion he supports by appealing to his dependency upon the Spirit. The unity Paul wants for the church is expansive, not minimalistic: the integrity of the body of Christ includes the community’s speech, its doctrine, and its moral life.
That integrity demands a coherent and common moral outlook, which the church embodies through her judgments. We understand well how contradictions function in speech. It is a basic and inviolable rule of logic that “Suzy is red-haired” and “Suzy is not red-haired” cannot both be true at the same time. Such a norm is no false importation of Hellenistic thought into the Scriptures: every sentence of the divine revelation depends upon it. If a community attempted to affirm both sides of the contradiction, it would soon lose its purchase on reality and its ability to communicate. But practical reason also has its laws, and its own contradictions: it is morally wrong to take an innocent human life, and affirming that one may do so contradicts the norm.
The possibility of practical contradictions, though, means that communities must concur in their moral judgments in order to remain both coherent and united. Just as a community cannot sustain itself while affirming both that the sky is blue and not blue, so it cannot survive if it affirms both that innocents may be killed and that they may not. For several generations, starting with the affirmation of contraception at Lambeth in 1930, Protestant moral theologians have attempted to escape this problem by endorsing moral exceptions to practical norms. The attempt to quarantine exceptions, though, was doomed to fail from the outset. An exception to a rule is simply an absurdity, as Oliver O’Donovan argues. Once we say there is an ‘exception’ to the prohibition on killing innocent individuals, we have “in effect, abandoned our responsibilities to reality.”
The imperative to pursue practical unity arises from the vicarious character of life within the people of God: as “members of one another” (Romans 12:5), what one person does implicates us all, demanding either our affirmation or renunciation. In Paul’s only explicit judgment on sexual sin, he hands over a man in an incestuous relationship to Satan (1 Corinthians 5). Yet there is no individualism in Paul’s thought; no sense that the community is free from its own responsibility for the matter. As he pointedly asks him, “Ought you not rather to mourn?” (5:2). In this case, the leaven of the incestuous relationship will infect the whole church if it is not actively renounced (5:7). Publicly naming a sin creates a context that establishes the terms for full participation in the community, and that demands affirmation by all its members.
At the heart of this vicariousness is the fact that Christians are bound together in a common life through love. While 1 Corinthians 5 lays out the negative dimension of this principle, there is a positive aspect as well. For Augustine, loving the good within another person’s life means the benefits that they enjoy become ours — which, on his view, eradicates whatever superiority monastics might have over the laity. “Love is a powerful thing,” he writes in his commentary on Psalm 121(120), “a powerful thing.” In loving the celibate, a person “fulfils it through that other.” In affirming the good within a monastic’s life, the married person accrues the same benefits to themselves. “He marks those who have taken this course, he loves them for it, and in them he carries out what he is unable to do himself.”
We can see how vicariousness matters in friendships. When one person loves another, neutrality toward their choices is ultimately impossible. Moral disagreements (which are inevitable) become an invitation to deepen our understanding of the moral field and of both persons’ perception of it. But if differences persist, friendship will be impaired: love requires us to affirm the person, whose identity is irrevocably shaped by the moral choices they make. The more fundamental the moral choice is, the more difficult it will be to sustain friendship through disagreement. Moreover, when we love someone, their moral choices become plausible for us in a unique way. If we both face difficult financial circumstances, our friend’s choice to defraud their neighbor invites us to do the same — or demands our renunciation. As Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (15:33).
The imperative to remain unified in moral judgment is especially important in trans-generational communities, which are responsible to both their past and future. While a community might be able to manage disagreement about a fundamental question for one generation, the formation of future generations requires a clarity that affirming multiple positions destroys. To that extent, correctness in morals is measured across generations: the fruitfulness of a community arises out of the seeds of judgment it plants. Fidelity to God’s moral order will only become clear after the second or third generation.
Still, even if a canon of correctness is required for communities to remain coherent, invoking ‘orthodoxy’ ends disagreement about what that canon is and alienates those who disagree from full participation in the community’s life. Such a stance is doubtlessly hazardous. Unlike in matters of faith, it seems plausible that the church could encounter a situation that is genuinely novel, which would demand a discernment that invocations of ‘orthodoxy’ would prematurely foreclose. The advent of genetic engineering might be one such crisis: the ability to directly alter the genetic makeup of future generations is a deep challenge to Christian theological anthropology. An answer to such a question must find, in one important sense, a new path — a path limited, but not obviously marked out by, an orthodox Christology.
Other criterial troubles also arise once we begin down the path of determining what moral views are ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Theoretically, every moral conviction imaginable can be held to a standard of correctness. Yet that would be so exacting as to be practically untenable. To be sure, ‘orthodoxy’ signifies centrality: all manner of doctrinal positions might be correct (or incorrect), without themselves rising to the level at which we would want to invoke such a freighted term. But sorting out what practical commitments are sufficiently central to the church’s witness is itself an impossible tangle. Why should marriage make the list, but opposition to slavery not?
Still, opposition to a ‘moral orthodoxy’ cannot devolve into a creedal minimalism, which bifurcates the communities’ verbal expression of the faith from the practices that have embodied it. The church says the creed, yes: but in doing so, she makes what theologian David Kelsey calls an “existential commitment” to its contents. As Austin Farrer once wrote, “no Christian deserves his dogmas who does not pray them.”
By naming the reality within which the church lives and moves and has her being, the creeds set the practical context out of which she acts. They are both descriptive and formative, as they concentrate the Christian imagination on those aspects of our story to which we must steadfastly adhere. The creeds carve the path through the landscape of doctrines that we all must walk. We announce that we ‘believe in one God’ to all who have ears to hear, and so bind ourselves to the contents of God’s revelation before the world. The creeds are not statements of morals, but with every phrase they implicate those who say them in ways that demand certain moral stances and preclude others. The thought that moral judgments are permissible for the church because they are not named in the creeds deflates their significance, reducing them to abstract, intellectualized statements of belief instead of morally formative distillations of the reality that demands our obedient conformity.
At the same time, it is odd to defend some standard of ‘moral orthodoxy’ when Christians who broadly affirm the creed remain deeply divided about the nature and importance of practices internal to the church’s witness, namely, baptism and communion. As long as disagreements about practices fundamental to the church’s inner life are not taken with sufficient seriousness, appeals to a ‘moral orthodoxy’ on marriage will necessarily sound like special pleading that is animated by culture-war anxieties. This is especially true for Baptists, who in the American context often eagerly appeal to the univocal witness of the church to buttress their convictions on marriage. Yet Baptists are almost totally alone among the major Christian communities in their willingness to rebaptize other Christians — Catholics, Orthodox, and even other Protestants — who have been baptized in the name of the Triune God. Rebaptism is a rejection of the bedrock practice for Christian unity: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). Neither Catholics nor the Eastern Orthodox require it of Protestants.
A “conservative” form of creedal minimalism lurks here, which regards the unity of the church’s witness on moral issues as little more than a backstop against an encroaching progressivism. If our conviction about a ‘moral orthodoxy’ is to be genuine and powerful, it must arise out of a commitment to the church’s unified witness that goes deeper than a mere modus vivendi. If the ecumenical project of the 1960s and 1970s floundered on the shoals of a vapid liberalism that was beholden to the pieties of a progressive global politics, the coalition of evangelicals and Catholics that forged a conservative political witness was on no better footing.
Still, if there is such a thing as a ‘moral orthodoxy,’ baptism and communion would be natural places to look for criteria to identify the practices that belong to it. Both are doctrinally-saturated moments in the church’s life that bind her together and demand acknowledgment from her members. They are intrinsically tied to the contents of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as they make manifest the gift of His life through His death and resurrection and, in so doing, invite and empower us to conform the pattern of our own existence to the same.
Is a commitment to marriage as an exclusive, lifelong union between a male and a female a matter for Christian orthodoxy? Not for those who would affirm a so-called “inclusive orthodoxy,” which regards the affirmation of same-sex unions as an expansion — rather than a repudiation — of the church’s teaching on marriage. Such an approach attempts to preserve the theological significance of marriage by moving its covenantal dimension to the foreground, and relegating sex-differentiation and the procreative powers otherwise inherent to the union as optional. In that way, the link between the positive description of marriage and the negative prohibition on same-sex unions is broken: if marriage means nothing more than a ‘covenant,’ anyone may enter it. In some cases, the ‘generativity’ or ‘fruitfulness’ that covenantal unions are supposed to lead to is redescribed in ways that bear no relation (typological or otherwise) to the birth of a child from the union of male and female. As a result, the rationale for limiting the ‘covenants’ of ‘marriage’ to only two individuals is lost along with almost any other theological grounds for norming sexual activity within those covenants.
The debate over marriage’s relationship to Scripture lies here, in the theological significance we ascribe to the union of male and female and to the ‘fruit’ of their union, rather than in the meaning of the various prohibitions on same-sex sexual activity. It is a mistake to think of marriage as a matter of (mere) morals: it has its own doctrinal valence, such that altering its form or content will reverberate throughout one’s theological and doctrinal framework. As David Torrance has written, marriage is “grounded in God’s own creative activity; it has its true place within God’s redemptive work; and it belongs to the inner structure of the Church as the Body of Christ.” At the center of a doctrine of marriage lies the beatitude of God, which overflows into his creative work — a work that is confirmed and, in a limited way, repeated through the procreation of the child who is the external manifestation of the male and female’s inner love for each other alone.
To invoke God in the context of marriage is, of course, to wade into a morass of difficulties. While some quarters have responded to the abuse of such invocations by denying their legitimacy altogether, Paul’s torturous explication of male and female’s togetherness in Christ in 1 Corinthians 11 depends upon just such a move: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Paul underwrites his normative ethics in the chapter with appeals that range from Christ’s relationship to God to the angels to the deliverances of ‘nature.’ New Testament scholars will caution us against reading later Trinitarian doctrines back into early texts. Yet it was the repudiation of those doctrines that left certain evangelicals without the appropriate safeguards against misemploying Paul’s teachings about the sexes: whatever else ‘head’ might mean, one can only accept a hierarchy between the sexes by introducing an illegitimate subordination into the inner life of the Trinity.
At the same time, marriage is a practice of the church in which she confirms her position between Creation and Consummation through bearing witness to unions that bind together the covenant and the procreative power intrinsic to male and female. In witnessing the blessing of marital unions, the church confesses that they are consecrated unto God, and that they have been swept up into God’s plan to bless the world through the birth of children and the new birth of saints. Because the community stands witness, every member of the body has a stake in the marriage’s outcome and is given an opportunity to vicariously participate in its goods through their affirmation and approval. Insofar as such a union is sacralized by the church, it is brought into correspondence with the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the joy that attends such a union is itself a harbinger and foretaste of the joy that will mark the consummation of Christ and his bride. That eschatological union, though, is not barren: it opens up into an endless fecundity of time, which the generation of children here and now participates in ‘as in a mirror darkly.’
The Gospel gives marriage unique content, and establishes special moral demands upon those who enter it. Those who marry are charged with looking beyond this world, the form of which is fading away, and regarding themselves as not married (1 Cor. 7:31). Crucially, though, this demand upon Christian marriages does not contradict the good of procreation, but confirms and intensifies it. Procreation within the kingdom means the child is on loan to the parents, and it is their privilege and task to refer their child to God.
Such a sketch is hazardous, of course, and leaves much unsaid. Yet such a thick, doctrinally-saturated context is necessary to see how prohibitions on alternate forms of sexual practice arise, and why they are important to maintain. The absence of children is not necessarily a contradiction of procreation: if the couple maintains a willingness to have children in the way God has ordained, neither incapacity nor voluntary renunciation of their sexual powers contradicts that order.
At the same time, enjoying the sexual pleasures of this world while foreclosing or denying procreation’s possibility entangles them in a practical contradiction, in which they attempt to simultaneously affirm the temporal, bodily character of their marital life while rejecting the form of fruitfulness (children) that God ordains to accompany it here and now. Protestant churches have tried to embrace that contradiction by affirming contraception, instead of empowering their members to conform their sexual lives to the order of time that God has inscribed within them. The affirmation of same-sex unions simply builds on this structural incoherency, by regarding as licit a form of sexuality that declines to honor fecundity as an end of marriage. The church that affirms same-sex unions must regard natural sterility as a feature of marriage, rather than a radical disclosure of the sovereignty and grace of God in giving children to whom He will.
The theological implications of affirming such unions are vast. Severing the interconnection between creation and covenant leaves the former without its proper theological ordering, and empties its theological significance. Fertility and fecundity can no longer function as natural signs for the blessing of God, as “fruitfulness” need no longer remain tethered to the paradigm of conception, gestation, and birth that marks the origination of human life from the loving union of male and female.
Moreover, such a move demands we overhaul the grammar of filial bonds: mother and father would no longer have the same determinate conceptual content, as what constitutes ‘parenthood’ no longer remains uniquely tied to marriage. Such a wholesale reconfiguration of our anthropology would be inefficient in the extreme, as it would demand reinventing kinship bonds from the ground up. But it would also reconfigure the significance of our creedal commitments, which open with the scandalous claim that “We believe in One God, the Father Almighty.” While the eternal generation of the Son from the Father is a begetting unlike human procreation, the iconoclasm required to emphasize the difference only has purchase if they are analogous.
At some level, doctrine and practice do come apart. A ‘moral orthodoxy’ must, in the last analysis, be an orthodoxy that is constituted by the church’s affirmation of the reality created by God and the prohibitions that derive from it. That affirmation is embodied within our practices: who we agree to marry (or refuse to) is a mark of our fidelity to the truth. The church’s manifest failure to abide by the reality of God’s creation through its consecration of remarriage and its sanctioning of contraception has undermined the integrity of its witness on the centrality of sexual differentiation to marriage. In that light, her appeals to ‘orthodoxy’ at this juncture will invariably be a clanging gong to a world that can only see the exclusion of gay people as arbitrary and unfounded.
It is true that marriage is a central doctrine for the church, then. But abstracting that truth from the whole context of both Scripture’s witness and the historical moment we find ourselves in will lead to distortions. A non-reactionary appeal to a ‘moral orthodoxy’ must be comprehensive: fragmentary appeals that comfort Christians in our pews by cloaking their views in the grammar of ‘orthodoxy’ are merely stones disguised as bread. This is not an apologetic concern, at least not primarily: the church should be anxious for its standing before God for violating the pattern for marriage and procreation that he has laid down in creation, rather than concerned about its witness to the world. The real question before us is how Christian churches can recover the life of God that undergirds our practices of marriage, and so embody an orthodoxy within them that is, in fact, good news to those around us.
Ultimately, the question of whether the church can sustain its coherence while endorsing same-sex unions can only be finally answered on the far side of the eschaton. But while we wait for the great disclosure of the meaning of history, the church is also empowered to judge in the interim the fruit of our choices. And at this juncture, we can only be blunt. Those who relentlessly invoke history to expose Christians’ complicity in racism, sexism, and all other manner of evils have been reluctant to name the history of the affirmation of same-sex unions within Protestant communities for what it is: a tragic season full of animosity, rancor, distrust, subterfuge, and hostility. It has divided communions, and in some cases broken them outright. Has the affirmation of same-sex unions borne fruit within the church? Have its advocates practiced forbearance as they have sought the recognition of same-sex unions — or have they, in effect, adopted the sub-Christian grammar of rights in their demand for recognition? If an ecclesiastically-centered ‘fruitfulness’ is the mark of Christian marriage, have those communions that have affirmed same-sex unions borne it by winning the nations to Christ? The answers to these questions seem apparent to this writer. There is little about the legacy of the church’s incorporation of gay marriage to rejoice about. Even if this were a movement of God, the divisions and disunion it has wrought is a terrible judgment upon us.
Still, asking those who affirm same-sex unions to forbear with the church as she discerns the path forward can only be just if the church meaningfully accompanies them in their distress, and empowers them for a life of chaste and joyful service to the kingdom of God. The manifest failures of our churches to do so have left many gay Christians feeling isolated and alone, wondering whether there is a meaningful life for them within the boundaries of a ‘moral orthodoxy.’ There is an urgent need for discernment about the ways Christians have alienated such individuals, and for meaningful ways they can make them feel fully at home in our churches.
That history has sown confusion and uncertainty, which have diminished many believers’ convictions about traditional understandings of marriage. For many conservatives, the arguments against same-sex unions seem more weighty because they are backed by the tradition. Now, though, widespread disagreement makes the arguments against same-sex unions seem less secure than they would otherwise. The seeds of those early arguments have now flowered into the impression in some quarters that the arguments are more or less equally persuasive. One option for the church would be to ignore this recent history, and evaluate the arguments for same-sex unions independently.
Another path would be to excavate that historical context, and lay bare the ways such arguments came into currency. Whatever approach the church takes, the persistence of disagreement is a reason to urgently come to a resolution, rather than diminish the centrality of marriage to the church’s witness. Sustaining unity across disagreement on such questions is a temporary moment of the church’s life, as she learns to negotiate a present that is distorted by sin (on every side). Maintaining that unity demands forbearing with those who disagree, recognizing the church’s own failure to form imaginations in accordance with the Gospel. The confusion of the laity lies at the feet of those shepherds of the faith who gave sanction to practices like divorce and contraception that have deformed Christians’ imaginations.
At this juncture, there can be no accusations of disingenuousness or bad faith toward those who object to the ‘traditional’ account of marriage. The church’s responsibility on these questions is to heal what wounds of division she can, through firmly recovering the deep reasons for her views. The patient work of deliberation demands reaching behind our current presuppositions, and retrieving forgotten resources in order to renew the Christian witness on these questions.
Still, the affirmation of same-sex unions cannot bear fruit for the church, because it entangles her in a contradiction and asks her to renounce the creation that God has deemed ‘good.’ Good Christians will doubtlessly disagree with this claim. Yet those who do so walk a path that departs from what Scripture reveals and what Christian churches have taught regarding the inter-dependency of sex, procreation and marriage. Such a path is hazardous to themselves, and scandalous to others: by introducing dissension on marriage, they have undermined countless believers’ confidence in the authority of the institutions they have claimed to defend. Perhaps advocates of same-sex unions within the church would do better if they followed Karl Barth’s counsel to those theologians who rejected the Virgin Birth: even if they cannot understand the doctrine, they might instead “treat their private road as a private road and…not make it an object of their proclamation,” such that if they “cannot affirm it and so (unfortunately) withhold it from their congregations, they must at least pay the dogma the respect of keeping silence about it.”
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- To be sure, there are important difference between the theoretical rationality that grasps such a law and the practical reason that comes to judgments about action: practical judgments sometimes lack the surety and concreteness that theoretical conclusions have, especially when they are about particular situations. ↑
- While a doctrine of marriage needs at some point to be filled out to include answers to what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 11, that task is distinct from determining whether male and female are necessary to its structure. That is a much easier job, and one on which there is much wider ecumenical agreement. ↑
- The claim that such a view poses a problem for adoptive relationships is a mistake, and indicative of how little those who affirm an ‘inclusive orthodoxy’ have understood the traditional view. ↑