Trashing 19 centuries of doctrine?

Whenever I get on my high horse about the ways in which mainstream journalists abuse the term “fundamentalist,” I always urge journalists to simply allow religious believers to describe their beliefs. It is also fair game, of course, to describe the people’s actions in the public square, then ask them to explain how their beliefs shape those actions.

However, a GetReligion reader sent me a Des Moines Register story almost two weeks ago that was so troubling that I’ve been stewing over it ever since — trying to decide precisely what to say. Yes, the word “fundamentalist” plays a role in this, as you will see. But that word only points toward a larger issue of accuracy and fairness in this report.

This is your basic culture-wars story about divisions inside churches that are wrestling with issues of marriage and sexuality. Here is the opening:

Immanuel Lutheran Church in Waukee is five miles down the road from Walnut Hills United Methodist Church in Urbandale. But they have moved further apart, philosophically, since the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on April 3, 2009, to legalize same-sex marriage. …

In January, the Waukee congregation overwhelmingly voted to drop out of its denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — or ELCA — and join another Lutheran denomination. The congregation didn’t agree with the ELCA decision to allow ordination of noncelibate gay pastors. Immanuel became one of 17 ELCA congregations in Iowa and 276 nationwide to vote on leaving the denomination. Most voted to leave; some have not completed the voting process.

The parishioners at Walnut Hills United Methodist Church also took a church-wide vote, but with a very different result. Their vote was overwhelming, too: Parishioners voted to become a “reconciling congregation,” one of 10 United Methodist congregations in Iowa that have taken that step. It means their church not only welcomes gays and lesbians but accepts their sexual orientation as part of their human condition.

Now, it is a good thing that the Register team attempted to explain what these splits are all about. It is also good that we get to hear from some participants as they talk about issues of biblical authority and interpretation.

But something goes terrible wrong in some of the background material. The story uses a classic device — the outside, expert observer. Thus, readers are introduced to a scholar from a secular campus who is allowed to provide a basic set of facts that will serve as a framework for these conflicts.

Ready? This passage is rather long, but it’s hard to understand what’s going on without reading it:

As pastors look out on their congregations, they see a dividing line that runs down the middle of their pews. Pastors know one congregant considers homosexual behavior a sin that Christians must speak out against, while another believes same-sex marriage is a good and moral step toward a more just society. …

Ultimately, the difference comes down to this: Is the Bible the written word or the living word? Is it open-and-shut, or open to interpretation? It’s a battle of traditionalists vs. progressives. Traditionalists point to Romans, to Leviticus, to 1 Corinthians, each of which calls homosexual behavior a sin. Progressives say you must read Bible verses in the context of their time: God also outlawed eating pork, but that was because back then pork wasn’t safe.

“The issue for conservative Christians revolves around the sanctity of the nuclear family as they understand it,” said Mary Sawyer, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University. “When fundamentalism started in the early 1900s, it was a reaction to the social gospel, to liberal Christianity. One of the things emphasized was personal morality, particularly sexual morality and not having sex outside of marriage. Marriage being between a man and a woman is something that to them isn’t debatable because it’s Biblically based. …

“This is based on passages of the Bible that progressive Christians say is misinterpreted. (Progressives say) you don’t take one line out of Bible and hang the truth on that without reading it in context of the whole chapter.”

Note that the newspaper’s word for those on the doctrinal right is “traditionalist.” Well, that’s better than “fundamentalist.”

Then note that scholar also, accurately, says that the movement that is accurately called “fundamentalism” started in the early 1900s and that, yes, biblical literalism — “inerrancy” is the preferred word — was and is a key part of that movement. But note, also, that there is no content given for the doctrinal approach used by the ancient churches of the Christian faith. It’s the shallow fundamentalists of the 1900s vs. the nuanced progressives who want to read the Bible in context, who want to move beyond simple, isolated proof texts.

What? Where did the other 1900 years go? Where did centuries of thought among Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Wesleyans, the Reformed and others go? Are the conflicts over issues as basic as the definition of marriage and the sinfulness of sexual acts outside of marriage simply rooted in a showdown between fundamentalists, accurately defined, and progressives?

Obviously, that is too simplistic. You can tell that this scholar’s explanation is too simplistic because the Register story — while never explaining or labeling this third point of view — actually allows a sympathetic local pastor to articulate another approach to these conflicts.

It’s not that the Rev. Mike Housholder, of Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, avoids talking about homosexuality. Housholder posted an eight-page Q&A on the church Web site shortly after the ELCA vote. But he fears a pithy quote in a newspaper article would be taken out of context — by either side — where a sermon or longer conversation would not. …

His church’s teaching is clear: Sex is a gift from God, shared within marriage between a man and a woman. Anything else is sin. But well-meaning Christians, Housholder said, often lose their balance. On one side, they fall into the ditch of fundamentalism, defining a good Christian as following certain rules. On the other side, they fall into the ditch of relativism, changing God’s rules to fit their fancy.

“We’re a hospital for sinners, not a hangout for morally perfect saints,” Housholder said. “First, Jesus commands us to love everyone. When Christians hate, we lose our moral center and our mission … .

“Second, we’re all sinners in need of a savior,” Housholder continued. “There aren’t different categories of sin. I get nervous when people want to elevate sexual sin as somehow being more of an issue spiritually than other sinful behaviors. Once we’ve established that, then we can speak what we believe to be God’s truth in love regarding sexual boundaries. …”

So, is this pastor a “fundamentalist” or a “progressive”? Where does he fit in Sawyer’s mini-lecture on biblical authority?

This is the paradox that has had me stymied for more than a week. On this Register report is very complete and complex. It contains quite a few voices representing different points of view and we get to hear from these believers in their own words. However, this story also has one of the worst chunks of background material I have ever seen, one that allows a single scholar to slash 19 centuries worth of doctrine off the timeline of church history.

So this story is very, very good and very, very bad. Color me confused.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Alan

    By Sawyer’s definition the pastor in question is clearly a fundamentalist: He clearly opposes any other sexual relationship than that between a married man and woman (“Anything else is sin”), and Sawyer states that fundamentalists are defined by their belief in “the sanctity of the nuclear family as they understand it.” Don’t really see a problem there.

  • Rev. Luke Zimmerman

    “When fundamentalism started in the early 1900s, it was a reaction to the social gospel, to liberal Christianity. One of the things emphasized was personal morality, particularly sexual morality and not having sex outside of marriage.”

    Dr. Sawyer’s quote seems inaccurate in describing the origin of the Fundamentalist movement. Read the 1910 “Five Fundamentals,” and there isn’t an emphasis on personal morality, sexual or otherwise. The movement was a reaction against Liberal Christianity’s rejection of orthodox understanding of Christ’s identity and work and the Scriptural record of it. That was the major conflict between Liberalism and Fundamentalism.

    Dr. Sawyer completely misses that Liberal Christianity was highly concerned about personal morality. In fact, one could argue that a lived-out personal morality was the heart of late-19th Century/early-20th Century Liberal Protestantism. One can note the intersection of Liberal Protestantism with the Temperance Movement, Sunday School Movement, and post-millennial eschatology. (Liberal Protestantism and Abolitionism could also be linked from a generation earlier.)

    Now how is that personal morality defined? Is there such a thing as “sin”? Those questions reveal the conflict between Liberal Protestantism and the Fundamentalist Movement could be seen: not whether personal morality is important. But that isn’t addressed by the Dr. Sawyer’s quote. Rather, her statement appears to dismiss any notion of personal morality in Liberal Protestantism. Perhaps that is true today, but it is not so when examining the history of Liberal Protestantism.

    So not only is the “outside expert” employed, but her analysis that tries to provide historical background is flawed…..and never discusses the place of “traditional Christianity” (as in Roman Catholicism and non-Fundamentalist Confessional Protestantism).

  • Bern

    The prof over simplies IMHO in comparing the rise of “fundamentalism” in the “1900s” as a reaction to/against the “social gospel”. As you say, it’s a statement without historical context–and readers who haven’t a clue about what the social gospel is won’t be helped by it’s being defined, here, as the “opposite” of fundamentalism, (whatever THAT is). In effect, however, the prof is not setting up the tension between the way the Bible is being interpreted: her rather superficial quote simply serves to bolster the previous paragraph which summarizes how the Bible is interpreted in “traditional” vs. “progressive” churches. Since “progressive” is rapidly being turned into a dirty word–much the way “liberal” has been (and by the same people)–it is not necessarily so that readers will read “progressive”=”good” and “traditional”=”bad”.
    And, hey, the reporter got a lot of good quotes from a lot of experts. Better than a lot of other stories!

  • Crimson Wife

    Since when did “inerrant” become a synonym for “literalist” regarding the Bible? Catholic Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe the Bible is without error but do not take a literal reading of every passage. Certain things may be considered true in a metaphorical sense.

    The CCC states in section 107 that the books of Scripture are “without error”. Later in section 115 it states: “According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.”

  • Jerry

    But he fears a pithy quote in a newspaper article would be taken out of context

    That’s a marker for a wise person.

    Color me confused.

    But to the meat of your issue. Part of the problem is that there is no one way of approaching this topic from what I’ve read. The wikipedia article has significant challenges identified. So I don’t know how your issue could have been addressed in anything less than a PhD or at least a Master’s dissertation. I’m amazed the article was as good as you outlined.

    But I’m certainly aware that an “expert” opinion as in this case can be extremely misleading. Maybe it would have been better to not refer to history at all and simply let the parties state their points of view and then stop.

  • Ryan

    So, is this pastor a “fundamentalist” or a “progressive”?

    Neither – he’s definitely Lutheran! Both in his use of Luther’s falling off one side or the other of an issue and in his great explanation – its just what I would have said being a Lutheran Pastor myself.

  • MattK

    “God also outlawed eating pork, but that was because back then pork wasn’t safe.”

    Really? God said that is why he outlawed pork for Jews? Where? What verse? Some people say that is why God outlawed pork, but I am not aware of anywhere prophet shouting “Thus sayeth the LORD, thou shalt not eat pork lest you get sick”.

    Maybe, the reporter has in mind Exodus 15:26, but I think that has more to do with the plagues God visited upon the Egyptians than on any health consequences from eating pigs, the law against which had not yet been uttered.

  • dalea

    What the expert overlooks, or fails to understand, is that a century ago Lutheran Churches in the Midwest were neither liberal nor fundamentalist. Instead, they were European churches that immigrants had brought with them, including all the various religious factions of their homeland. This is one example of the problems that arise when Lutherans are lumped in with standard US Protestants.

    For Lutherans, the usual tension is between Pietists and the Liturgical or Hierarchal. The small Midwestern town I grew up in had 3 distinct Swedish Lutheran Churches: very pious, moderately pious and not pious. And I can remember the battles among these churches over school dances. The very pious wanted no dancing, the moderates would settle for folk dancing, the unpious said this was no different from peddling indulgences and supported dances. My understanding is that the closer Lutherans are to saved by grace alone theology, the more likely they are to be LBGT tolerant and supportive.

    This story confuses by lumping Lutherans in with other US Protestants. Lutherans in America have a very different history, theological discourse and differences. Among Gay Lutherans, the idea of Biblical authority is frequently termed works righteousness, the idea that by doing certain things one can attain salvation. This story does not use any Lutheran terms.

  • Dave

    Some time ago I encountered a theory that pork was banned as a social justice measure. Unlike other meat animals, pigs can be raised on fodder that humans could also consume. Pork is thus a luxury of the well-to-do that takes food from the mouths of the poor.

  • Pastor Spomer

    “But he fears a pithy quote in a newspaper article would be taken out of context…”

    Amen to that brother!

  • Pastor Spomer

    “My understanding is that the closer Lutherans are to saved by grace alone theology, the more likely they are to be LBGT tolerant and supportive.”

    I beg to differ, Dalea. My experience indicates the reverse. Remember, there is a distinction between salvation by grace alone and weakening the requirements of the law. Romans 3:31 “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.”

    God bless,

  • tmatt

    Back to journalism, folks.