THE QUESTION: Looked at internationally, what’s the status of churches’ policies on the same-sex issue in the wake of the United Methodists’ important decision on this February 26?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
You may have read that in late February the 12.6-million-member United Methodist Church held a special General Conference in St. Louis, seeking to settle its painful conflict over the gay-and-lesbian issue and avert a split. The delegates decided by 53 percent to support and strengthen the denomination’s longstanding ban against same-sex marriages and clergy living in such relationships.
Though U.S. bishops, officials, and academics had advocated leeway on gays, the vote was not a shock. A 2015 poll by the denomination found 54 percent of U.S. pastors and 54 percent of lay leaders (though only 41 percent of lay members over-all) favored keeping the traditional policy. Another poll of U.S. members, released just before the St. Louis conference, showed 44 percent identify as conservative or traditional in belief, 28 percent as moderate or centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive or liberal.
Moreover, United Methodism is a multi-national denomination whose U.S. component has declined and now claims only 55 percent of the global membership. The congregations in Africa and Asia are growing, and that buttresses the traditionalist side. Unlike the Methodists, most “mainline” Protestant groups in North America and western Europe that recently liberalized on the same-sex issue had no foreigners casting ballots.
International bonds have always been central in Christianity. Currently, conservative and evangelical Protestants in North America, including a faction within liberalizing “mainline” groups, are united in sexual traditionalism with most of the Protestant and indigenous churches in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, eastern Europe, and Latin America. Add in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the vast majority of the world’s Christians belong to churches that have always opposed gay and lesbian relationships.
This broad Christian consensus results from thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and traditions. This is the context for the West’s serious clash of conscience — between believers in that heritage versus religious and secular gay-rights advocates — that confronts government, politicians, educators, judges, journalists, and ordinary citizens.
Another reality is that religious change occurs slowly and this question is relatively new. The U.S. Supreme Court only legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, after several North American religious bodies had changed their thinking:
— In Reform Judaism, the faith’s liberal branch, as recently as 1983 an official rabbinical anthology stated “there is no question that Scripture considers homosexuality to be a grave sin.” But in 1996 the rabbinate supported gay marriage as a civil matter, though distinguished this from Jewish marriage. The current standard from 2000 still avoids the “marriage” word but supports rabbis who provide an “appropriate Jewish ritual” to affirm same-sex couples, and equally supports rabbis who remain opposed.
— In 2003, the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated its first bishop living in a same-sex partnership. Only in 2015 did the U.S. denomination drop a church law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman and provide wedding rituals for same-sex couples. This July, the Anglican Church of Canada will consider authorization for same-sex weddings. The result has been a division within the international Anglican Communion, whose bishops will again confront the problem at a conference next year.
— In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to permit pastors and lay officials who live in “lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” Some local congregations have offered same-gender weddings.
— The Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2011 ratified a constitutional revision to remove a ban on clergy and lay officers who are unwed yet sexually active — whether gay or straight. Then new language approved in 2015 defines marriage as “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” thus allowing same-sex weddings.Those three “mainline” Protestant policy changes caused breakaways by conservatives. For the foreseeable future, there’s no prospect that global Catholicism or Orthodoxy will reconsider. But western Protestants persist in their decades-long debate, so here’s a quick summary of some of the arguments:
Liberals say “love” is Jesus’ sole overarching commandment and that requires openness to couples who identify as gay or lesbian. Conservatives say there are other moral absolutes, and note that all biblical references to same-sex behavior are negative, whether in the Old Testament (see Leviticus 18:22) or New Testament (e.g. Romans 1:24-27).
But then, liberals say Leviticus was a culture-bound, now-outmoded “holiness code” containing many Jewish laws that Christianity has never observed. Yes, conservatives respond, but the Leviticus 18 passage forbids not only homosexual acts but adultery, incest, and bestiality, which virtually all Christians believe are permanent sexual standards.
Regarding the Romans passage, liberals like pioneer Robin Scroggs (“The New Testament and Homosexuality,” 1984) have contended that Paul was targeting predators who exploited boys or slaves, so his teaching is irrelevant to today’s question of sex between consenting adults. But conservative Robert Gagnon (“The Bible and Homosexual Practice,” 2001) argued that ancient Jews and Christians were well familiar with, and rejected, consenting-adult gay couples in surrounding pagan culture, and that Paul would have used specific Greek words for pederasty if that was his concern.
Liberals argue that Jesus never condemned same-sex partnerships, and that changing of views about marriage is legitimate because there was polygamy in the Old Testament. Conservatives observe that Jesus taught that marriage is exclusively heterosexual as well as monogamous (Mark 10:6-8, Matthew 19:4-6).
Liberals note that Christianity dropped the Old Testament’s circumcision and kosher food commandments, and eventually prohibited slavery, so churches today are free to change thinking about something like homosexuality. Conservatives say circumcision and food rules were eliminated by direct divine revelation in the New Testament, and the Bible never commanded slavery but only set regulations if it existed.
Liberals say the ancients could not know, as modern society does, that gay orientation is inborn and not chosen, like left-handedness. Conservatives say actually behavioral science provides no certainty on the causes and, regardless, the Bible’s moral teachings remain in force.
For further reading:
— Episcopal Bishop John Chane offered this typical religious argument for same-sex marriage: http://thewildreed.blogspot.com/2009/11/christian-case-for-same-sex-marriage.html
— Methodist Walter Wink was among early proponents of the view that the Bible provides no sexual ethic: http://www.godweb.org/wink.htm
— Lutherans publish a major liberal analysis at book length: “Homoeroticism in the Biblical World” by Martti Nissinen (1998)
— Presbyterian Robert Gagnon’s book cited above is the major work on the traditionalist side. His biblical case is summarized here: www.robgagnon.net/homosexGayMarriageQuestionRespLeeJefferson.htm
— This non-religious societal argument against same-sex marriage appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy: http://harvardjlpp.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/GeorgeFinal-1.pdf
Also on the traditionalist side are Orthodox Judaism (see https://rabbis.org/rca-protests-court-ruling-on-same-sex-marriage), and Islam, per this strict fatwa from the president of the Fiqh Council of North America: http://www.albalagh.net/qa/0155.shtml