Having followed the Kirk’s debates on ordination of homosexuals (slightly at a distance) and having studied in some depth (for an MTh dissertation) the very similar discussion in my own denomination (the URC) some features of the discussion strike me forcefully:
- I find myself in agreement with the “revisionists” on the substantive issue of whether people of homosexual orientation can be ordained without the imposition on them of celibacy
- I find the arguments on the other (“traditionalist”) side to be far more consistent and compelling than those on the side I agree with (although I think they are also very thin and unconvincing)
Why are the arguments of the “revisionists” so very poor?
In general they neither argue clearly that there is a source of authoritative moral guidance outside the Bible nor attempt to show that the moral teaching of the Bible does not condemn homosexual practice. They HAVE to do one of these two things to have any counter to the very clear and simple position of their opponents:
- the Bible is the highest moral authority
- it says, in the New Testament, that homosexuality is unacceptable
- therefore homosexuality is unacceptable
To avoid this being an unavoidable consequence one would have to show that one of the two premises is wrong. On the whole the revisionists do not even attempt this.
They find it hard to argue against the moral authority of the Bible, since to do so would fatally undermine their own position.
They sometimes attempt to deny the second proposition by arguing that what is denounced in the Pauline writings is not homosexuality as we now understand it, but this becomes highly technical and does not carry any great rhetorical force.
What they mostly do is develop a parallel argument:
- the Bible says that love is the highest value
- homosexual practice is an expression of love
- it is not loving to denounce people
- therefore we should not denounce homosexual practice
This line of argument is not without merit, especially where one actually knows particular homosexual Christians, but it does not have the clarity and rigour of the traditionalist argument, nor does it in any way refute the latter.
This means that in effect logic (the logic of premises clearly stated and conclusions drawn from them) is all on one side.
The reasons this doesn’t make more difference than it does are various:
- the major premise about the authority of the Bible is believed more or less strongly by different people
- there is an increasing implausibility to the proposition that homosexuality is wrong as people’s experience changes with changing social mores
- there is a greater emotional charge to the hurt done by the denunciation for people who know well people who are impacted by it
So what can be done to move things forward? First I think we need to think more carefully about the actual nature of the authority of the Bible, especially in matters of ethics. Personally I think the Calvinist approach is a significantly less adequate one than that of the Lutheran tradition. Luther was much more serious than Calvin about the implications of the fall in ethics, in my view, in ways that were influenced by his more thoroughgoing eschatology. We should revive and develop the “two kingdoms” Lutheran ethical programme, which works far better in a post-Christendom world. This would allow us to have a proper debate about the relationship between morality and Scripture rather than either the simplistic short-circuit that ignore eschatological issues (“traditionalist”) or the half-hearted compromises of liberal moralising.
Secondly we need to return to the actual texts on this basis and have a mature conversation about them, especially in regard to ministry. What do the “household codes” really mean for us today? This would involve us doing some real thinking about the nature of ordination and the role of the minister that is urgently needed in our denominations as this role changes in ways that we have neither theologised nor defined, leaving our ministers confused and resentful in ways that are deeply damaging to our mission.