The prophetic stand of the ecumenical churches on homosexuality

by Max L. Stackhouse

Over the last quarter century, a debate has raged in the Ecumenical Protestant churches belonging to the National and World Councils of Churches. It is about sexuality, particularly homosexuality. The discussion has been intense. In fact, more church documents, statements, background papers, study books, and proposals have been written on human sexuality in this period than in any comparable period of church history. More than one hundred and fifty of the most important documents from Catholic, Evangelical as well as Ecumenical Protestant sources have been collected in a recent set of volumes, and it is likely that the results can already be discerned, although some advocates argue that debates are just getting started. 2

What seems to be clear is both that significant modifications have taken place among the Protestants, and that these modifications have taken place within a reaffirmation of the classic tradition, much in the way that the ancient prophets recalled the covenants of God of old and adapted them to changing situations. It is certainly so that these stances both reflect and will have a substantive influence on the raging cultural and political debates over “family values” generally and homosexuality particularly in the years to come. Disagreements, of course, continue; but the results are rather clear:

1. The churches affirm that genital activity should be confined to a heterosexual marriage, and all intimate relationships should approximate the ideals of that rite.

2. Most churches support the human and civil rights of homosexual persons, but resist giving religious approval to homosexual behavior or same-sex marriage.

3. Most churches (some ambiguously) deny ordination to advocates of or those involved in homosexual practice, which is not viewed as equal to heterosexual marriage.

4. Most have adopted feminist theories of justice in regard to equality of dignity, opportunity, status, and pay, but resist attempts to turn all questions into gender issues.

5. Pastoral care for adults who are single, gay, unable to procreate, or divorced is seen as morally and spiritually required, even if their situations are not approved.

In brief, the overall results of quarter century debate reflect a rejection of a radical effort to overturn the classical position, and they are remarkably consistent. The official statements are quite consistent with the classical traditions, even if each is stamped by its tradition’s distinctive concepts. The inclusion of “justice feminism,” which is likely to increase, has significantly modified the classical uses of traditional symbolism; but not the basic teachings about the normative character of the heterosexual family.

The debates, however, have been so multifaceted, so laden with cross-cutting arguments and sensibilities, ideologies and conceptions, that the case for these decisions taken as a whole has nowhere been made. Because I largely agree with them, it is the purpose of this paper to set forth an understanding of the logic by which they make sense. This is all the more necessary in view of recent efforts to grant co-equal moral status and economic benefits to same-sexed companionate relationships. 3

The deeper background of the controversy

It is an enduring, reasonable, and coherent conviction of those religions born out of the Biblical traditions, that the authors of the Adam and Eve stories of Genesis were inspired to see the human situation with a degree of revealing accuracy. God created humanity and gave to this earthy creature a dignity that was nearly godlike, enabling a communion with God as well as a capacity to exercise freedom and to recognize the laws and purposes of God, thus also to chose against them. This most precious of creatures was also distinguished into male and female, a differentiation that both makes possible an interaction between them that is similar to a relationship with the Creator and makes them potential partners in the processes of creation.

It is also against the distortions of the patterns implied in this story that the prophets protest. They take the breaking of the basic patterns of the moral stage of life as an indicator that the dramatic judgments and renewal of salvation history are necessary, as we see in Ezekiel and Hosea. And it is to this story which Jesus turned (Mark 10:2-12; Matt. 19:3-6) when the issue of responsible relationship was debated in his day. Something of the right order of life, the good ends of existence, and the engaged participation in the sustaining contexts of life, and their relation, are implicit in it. It is thick with meaning.

As to the basic normative structure stated in these texts for human sexuality, three elements are primary: First, the fundamental relationship that humans are to have with God and with each other is to be one of fidelity in communion (Gen. 1:27-8). One is not to live only by or for oneself. Persons, in the Biblical tradition, are to be respected and honored. Each is made “in the image of God.” (Gen. 1:26) Here is the deepest root of what became, later, spoken of as the “soul,” the seat of human “dignity,” the source of “conscience,” and thus the center of all rights and duties and the core of that freedom and knowledge that allows personal responsibility.

And yet, individualism is not the chief implication of this insight. Persons are not only rooted in a relationship to God, but is intended for human relationship. “It is not good that one should be alone.” (Gen. 2:18) The question is whether there is a normative character to the relationship. We are given the freedom and power to name the realities they discover under God’s care and to till the garden and to keep it, but we are not to decide matters opportunistically, to use the creation only to satisfy felt needs, or to deny the integrity of the primal relationship which brought all that is into being. (Gen. 2:15-17) It is right to be faithful; it is wrong to violate limits: “of this tree you shall not eat”. Personal and relational existence, morally and spiritually considered, is rooted in a God-given right order of things that, in some measure, everyone knows.

Moreover, we are to use the resources of creation—the world, the mind, and the body—to see that life flourishes. The command “be fruitful and multiply” is one of the earliest and most repeated of the commands. That which defies or stultifies life is contrary to that purpose. The capacity to reproduce is a gift; generativity is a mark of how God invites creatures to participate in the blessing of ongoing creativity. This means, among other things, that humans are to see their sex as a part of the ongoing flow of life, as a blessed link in the generations, becoming fathers and mothers to the generations of tomorrow in a way that can be honored, and then honoring the fathers and the mothers who went before.

To be sure, the mere proliferation of progeny is not the sufficient mark of vision of or responsibility to the future. The serving of God and fellow humanity may call some to stand beyond the ordinary functions of life, as saints and sages in many traditions testify. Further, the formation of affectional bonds that knit together lives in mutual affirmation may itself be generative of social relationships that are to be even more honored than mere parenting, as we see in the life of Jesus. This motif is present throughout the Bible, not only in stories such as those of Abraham and Sarah, or of Jacob and Leah, but also of David and Jonathan and of Ruth and Naomi, and among the first disciples of Jesus. (Mk. 10: 28-30). It may even be that greater moral integrity will be recognized by God in some same-sexed affections than is found in many opposite-sexed relationships. Thus, we dare not prematurely attempt to separate the “wheat from the tares” in this life. Nevertheless, these affections are not something that can and should displace the common expectation that we should seek to approximate the primary structures and purposes of human sexuality given in creation.

Not only are fidelity within a framework of created order, and fruitful generativity within a framework of honorable affectional relationships part of the moral fabric established in the deepest structures of human life, humans are called by the Biblical tradition to form and sustain social institutions where both fidelity and fruitful generativity become part of the common life. When a man and a woman in their differentiation and their complementarity see each other as truly other, yet the same as the self (“…flesh of my flesh”, Gen. 2:20-23), they are no longer bound only to previous kin relationships. They are invited to form new intimate bonds without guilt: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen. 2:24-5) 4

Thus, to fidelity and fecundity is added family, a social and institutional matter that always takes place amidst the various structures of society that give it a specific stamp. Real families, of course, almost never are formed within an idyllic setting of plentiful goodness, although falling in love echoes that primal sensibility. Real families are almost always found in situations of temptation and distortion. Love inevitably takes place in the context of social history where betrayal, scarcity, and pain are well known. At times the family shape has been patriarchal, sometimes matriarchal, always at least a little tribal or clannish, historically often feudal or manorial, recently bourgeois or suburban, and increasingly “dual-career”. Each pattern suggests that the actual shape of family life and thus the operating definitions of fidelity and of fecundity are worked out in the context of a civil society at large. Therefore, even if the demand to embody “one flesh” remains, precisely how it is to be related to a fidelity to the right order of things, or to generative fecundity, becomes also partly an issue of the whole fabric of society. The conflicts over these are already known in the hostilities of Cain and Abel, and in the establishment of the arts and crafts by which the larger structures of civilization are created and sustained. (Gen. 4)

Yet, while the existential integration of these three aspects of morality is ever fraught with conflict, the primal Biblical witness tells us that from the beginning life entails both a dignity of each person and, in regard to the secondary issue of sexuality, a calling to live in a normed relationship under God—a heterosexual and monogamous one marked by fidelity, fecundity, and family as a critical structure in the fabric of civilization. This that has been seen as valid within and beyond the tradition wherever it has been encountered and all who approximate these patterns, from whatever culture or religion, are recognized as married. All other options are seen as adjustments, exceptions, compromises, or relative approximations.

Although parts of the tradition would accent aspects of this heritage with different emphases, this is the triadic standard by which sexuality is classically perceived. Sometimes in history one or another of these three aspects of a full moral vision has been under attack and has to be defended by prophetic outcries; but all are necessary to the whole. It would be an error, one which parts of the tradition have made from time to time, to take one or another of these and to make it the whole in the assessment of human sexuality. Thus, a view that accents only the right order of things can become legalistic; one that accents only fecundity can ignore affection; and one that accents only “traditional family values” can fail to see the changing place of family-life in the fabric of social history. The parts belong to a basic pattern that repeatedly has to be reaffirmed by being reformed in a changing context. 5

It must be emphasized that this pattern stands within a larger vision, one that suggests that marriage is not in itself an ultimate matter. God, in this tradition, has no consort and is neither sexed or gendered, even if human images of or language about God is. Further, Jesus instructed us that “there is no giving or taking in marriage in heaven,” and the ultimate vision of the New Jerusalem has no mention of marriage. 6

When we speak of sexuality and the moral forms it is to take, therefore, we are speaking within the confines of history, not of the most ultimate aspects of redemption. That is a matter that must be left to God.

Still, historical matters are not to be decided by historical experience alone. It would also be an error, in this view, to begin with an understanding of this or that person’s sexual inclinations or desires, and then to construct a moral vision or a spirituality that would support whatever is the case. That would subordinate a normative ethical vision to individual feelings and denies that historical experience itself is experienced as being under norms that history neither contains nor exhausts. For one thing, the image of God that gives each person moral integrity is no more sexed or gendered than is God and persons can claim rights or know duties that history denies. For another, the prophetic tradition appears in the Biblical heritage when Nathan called even the priest-king David to account for violating these norms to meet his own desires. (2 Sam. 11 & 12) So also, when the priests of Baal tried to install a fertility cult in the land, Elijah was raised up to stop it. (I Kings 18 & 19). Christians share this prophetic tradition (Mk. 10: 11-2; Mt. 19: 9-12) and later used it also to restrain excesses on the other side of the sexual spectrum. Against certain Gnostic, Montanist, and Cathar movements, which held that male and female were interchangeable or that spirituality opposed materiality so that to procreate was to enslave souls in matter, Christian theology called marriage a “holy estate.”

Christians generally believe that this prophetic tradition was most fully revealed in a messiah whom it anticipated. In this presence of God in human flesh, the love of God is made concrete. Jesus Christ reveals in life, more than any other historical event, the integrating order, purpose, and context of life, and thus this love is to be appropriately manifest in each area of life. 7 This is what gives the basic patterns of life, more or less obvious to all, their inner conviction and personal coherence for Christians. Love, like the possibilities given in creation, has in it both freedom and order that take on both existential intensity and transcendental significance. Without freedom it is only instinct; without order, it is mere emotion. Authentic love integrates these and links them to both faith and hope. Without fidelity, it loses logic; without hope, it loses purpose.

To be sure, distinctive expressions of freedom and structure are proper to different relationships in life. Honoring the right order of things as a sign of faith and enacting generative fertility as a sign of hope, both proper to the formation of family life, can be organized within this general normative framework in a number of ways. Indeed, it is not unlike every other area of life that is to be lived as a context in which the grace of God’s love can be made manifest. There is no single blueprint for politics, economics, culture, law, education, any more than there is for sexuality. But that some patterns lack or threaten or deny or exclude these qualities must be acknowledged.

In fact, most Christians believe that everyone knows something of these normative standards and qualities, for what is revealed in scripture and in Christ accords with how God formed all humans at their deepest levels. These religious themes are not something imposed on people, or distinctive to one religious group, but are revealing of how life is really constituted. That is why many believe that all morally honest people know that something is wrong with relationships that are driven only by instinct or emotion or that do not sustain fidelity or hope. And that is why people feel violated by the infidelity of those they love, lament the prospect of infertility, resent social policies that weaken families, and turn to extreme ideological or life-style strategies to overcome these difficulties.

For this reason, the Christian tradition has held that it is proper for the church to guide the formation of public thought and the institutions in which sexuality is most directly expressed—especially the family, but also education, law, and economics as they influence or inhibit the formation of the social channels in which sexuality can find expression. The earliest Christians began to advise believers on how to live their sexual lives as we can see in both the Pauline and Pastoral letters and early books of moral instruction. Further, whenever Christians had a chance to shape the civilization, they formed patterns for the expression of sexuality that sustain fidelity, fecundity, and family, infused with love, and developed critical stances toward attitudes and policies that distorted these, even when these distortions came from sources within the faith. 8

Distinctive Protestant perspectives

The Biblical view represents the deepest context within which current approaches to sexuality are debated in Christian circles; but we must note also a secondary context and turn, later, to a tertiary context, the current gay-advocacy suspicions of the biblical and the theological traditions. It may be that Protestant views are especially problematic in this regard, for Protestants are often suspicious of natural law arguments.

In most Protestant views the focus is more on creation and grace than on nature and law, a distinction that manifests itself in, for example, the moral priority of fidelity in relationship over the role of fertility in procreation. Often, in fact, Protestants are doubtful of the view that grace simply completes or perfects nature. Grace is held to be constitutive of creation in most Protestant views and they often hold that what we call “nature” is “fallen”—the purposes intended by God are contorted, garbled, or made ambiguous in the actual operation of things. What we examine when we study what is “natural” is what is distorted, incomplete, or contingent, even if it bears traces of God’s grace in the capacity to be reformed toward order, purpose, and reliable relationship. 9 Thus, in most Protestant traditions, humans may, or even have a duty to alter “natural” patterns of life to limit its defects, and to use technology to alter what is out of accord with God’s intent so that it may more nearly approximate grace-full principles, purposes, and relationships. This tradition, for example, has come to advocate (sometimes slowly, but actually in concert with these accents) social reform, a right to divorce or abortion under certain conditions, the equality of women (including in church offices), technological innovation, and birth control as moral obligations.

Further, Ecumenical Protestantism feels a compelling responsibility both to interpret and to shape the common life on theological grounds. This perspective tends to reject the view that theology and theologically-grounded ethics are private matters, pertinent only to believing selves or particular religious groups, and to insist that it is a decisive mode of public discourse, pertinent to all members of society and necessary to the framing of policies that govern all. Those who wish to relegate theology to the margins of political debate and reduce the moral influence of religion on the common life on the grounds that we live in a morally and religiously pluralistic society, or that only secular rationality ought to be the basis of public policy, will find their most persistent opponents less among those who want the state to accept their particular dogma, than among those who hold that “ecumenical” theology rooted in grace is more rational and universal than secular or sectarian positions.

The contemporary debates in the ecumenical churches about homosexuality are, thus, neither new nor only about the inner life of churches. They echo of convictions that touch the nerves of the civilization’s heritage. It is unlikely that we can grasp the profound bases of reservation about homosexuality in our society if we do not understand that it is rooted in a fundamental theological conception about the nature of human identity under God and of how human life therefore ought to be lived in society. On the whole, this public theological tradition has held that what is found in symbolic and mythic form in the Genesis stories and reinforced by Christ is, in fact, the most public and universal truth that humanity knows about the basic normative structure for sexuality. It is how God wants us to live.

These deeper convictions have been challenged in recent years, and that has caused much controversy that bears on this issue. It may well be that we can identify some of the deeper issues in the debates by pointing to certain developments in our history that demanded a re-reading of scripture and a reconstruction of our theological ethics in view of various challenges. Each one is a marker of a larger transition from earlier practices and perspectives to present debates.

One involves the conviction by Martin Luther that the Roman Church had misinterpreted the scriptures by presuming a sharp contrast between spiritual and material reality, and thus falsely given a privileged status both to celibacy and the capacity of the priesthood to confer grace through sacramental performance. 10 It was an order of creation graciously given by God to sustain life and constrain lustful tendencies in society, but it was not the actions of the church that conferred the grace, even if marriage continued to be celebrated in and registered with the church as a part of the church’s proper, public role. Implicit in this challenge is a repudiation of the synthesis of “lower” nature and “higher” grace that had been worked out in medieval theology. Grace and nature are woven together in a more subtle mix.

The other was the recovery of the Biblical theme of covenant, especially by the Calvinistic wing of the Reformation. The covenant was the forming of a new institution under God that would allow the orders of creation to sustain and bless life, even when they are distorted by sin. All people are to form covenants of commitment that give shape to life in ways that approximate, under conditions of sin, the patterns and purposes of holy living that God intends. 11 This is true in regard to power and politics, in regard to culture and learning, and in regard to wealth and economics. States, universities, and corporations are potential centers of covenantal responsibility. It is even more true in regard to sexuality and family life, for these are the most widespread and most directly personal of covenantal spheres. Marriage, understood as covenant rather than as sacrament or as contract 12, is the primary theological-social relationship by which the defects of the fall, known in broken nature and manifest in lustful desires, find their evils constrained and their residual graces, effaced but not obliterated by the fall, enabled to approximate holy living. Each of these areas or “orders” of life (e.g., religion, politics, economics, culture, law, education, and family) are distinct; but properly structured by a theologically grounded covenantal ethic, they strengthen both the whole fabric of civil society and the soul of each person.

This covenant was to take place in accord with the laws and purposes of God, as discerned and made manifest in the mutual pledges of “troth”—enduring faithfulness under God—between a man and a woman, as confirmed by the community of witnesses to be in accord with the first principles of righteousness and the well-being of society. The wedding, thus, is a public declaration before God and the people, and society’s public honoring of, a valid covenant of marriage, which will actually have been made privately in pledges of love.

Puritan contributions; Puritan conflicts

There were many variations on these themes in the several Protestant traditions, but the adoption of the covenantal model in the rites of marriage that soon followed stands as a symbol of a shift from sacrament to covenant as the primary, way of understanding not only human sexuality, but the social and ethical context in which sexuality was to be understood in much of modern theology and society.

Because of frequent confusions, we must note the difference between the views of the Puritans, who first mediated this covenantal view to the Anglo-American world, and the Victorians, who reasserted an older tradition that spirituality and materiality, grace and nature were contraries, and thus that the more religious or moral one was, the less concerned with the physical side of life one would be. This view not only fed moralistic protests against the rising influence of the biological sciences and of economics, but issued in a prudery in regard to human sexuality, to which the term “puritan” is sometimes applied. However, like most Protestant traditions, this heritage did not think that sex was evil or bad, an indicator of inferiority, or a brutish necessity that had to be endured. While undoubtedly laden with residues of patriarchy, the Protestants thought God created not only sex, but marriage, before the Fall for our companionship, increase, and well-being, even if, after the Fall, sex was sufficiently distorted that the covenant became all the more necessary as a decisive way of limiting sin and of providing a means whereby we could, by the grace of God, sense the joys of heaven. 13 At the same time, it must be admitted that in many Protestant sermons and households, this larger tradition became temporarily wedded to Victorian presumptions (as later generations were to Romanticism, Existentialism, or Freudianism), and the notion was lost that the ecstacies of sex both echo the bliss of creation and anticipate the joys of the kingdom yet to come, even if they are not redemptive per se. 14

Sex in marriage, thus, was designed not only to regenerate the species, thereby connecting us ethically, biologically, and socially to the nurture of the future, it was also to regenerate the spirit, remind us of the divine life, and empower the spirit to rightly order life so that the paired complementarity of God’s design of humankind could be concretely manifest in ways that would also overcome the terrors of loneliness and ego-centrism to which humans are prone. Sinful humans would be drawn into structured bonds of interdependence that link the interpersonal unit of the family to the institutional composition of civil society, and tie the affections of the soul to Godly living. Fidelity to and in this covenantal relationship was an emblem of our fidelity to God’s covenantal design for life as it was to be actualized in all areas, even if it sometimes led to the sufferings of the cross. The attention given to familial covenants thus becomes a manifestation of a very high estimate of sexuality, not of its low estate. In this context, humans had a “duty to desire.” 15

This tradition never advocated celibacy (or, disengagement from politics or vows of poverty as marks of faith). Nor did it speak of the “rights of privacy” as an individual right—although it often sought the independence of the church, of the press, of the school, and of business, as well as the home, from too much state intervention. Covenanted “societies” had a sacred inviolability and were the primary units in which persons worked out their gifts and callings. 16 It cannot be said that all moral difficulties were overcome by these developments or that those who lived according to this view were fully righteous, any more than it can be said that every Hebrew after Sinai refrained from idolatry, adultery, and covetousness, or every Catholic after receiving the sacraments a lived holy, pure, and sanctified life in accord with the highest possibilities of human nature. But these developments can be said to offer a prophetic interpretation of the previous biblical and theological traditions that is both faithful to their deepest structures of reason and revelation, and conducive to modern, complex civilizations in a way that brings greater possibilities of free will guided by and toward just order.

Decisive in this development for our questions was the growing sense of distinction between sin and crime. In accord with the larger heritage, the Protestant churches argued, compellingly, that not everything that has been treated as sinful (such as some abortions) should be criminalized and not all that is criminal (such as some civil disobedience) should be treated as sinful. Indeed, each of them could be, like just revolutions, the least evil option which one may be called upon to undertake with an humble courage, while holding with confidence to the promise of forgiveness offered to those who seek to discern how God wants us to live in this world. We should be tolerant, especially legally, but we should not engage in or approve behavior that increases the likelihood of abortion or war, even if some people genuinely feel desires that could lead to those results. Similarly with homosexuality.

The distinction of sin and crime augmented the tendency to see marriage as a voluntary act, not a sacramental one, and thus aided the growth of contractual views of marriage in the culture. Yet these distinctions did not exempt sexual feelings and behaviors from moral and theological guidance; indeed, all human life in these areas is subject to theological discernment, ethical evaluation and social judgment, and the standard remains the enduring, faithful, equitable, monogamous, heterosexual, covenantal model. Preferably, they are also to be fecund, but should use proper means of birth control, which the state must allow, to make sure that children are wanted, well-spaced, and cared for.

Those who live in other kinds of relationships—separated, divorced, unfaithful, abusive, homosexual—may well be accepted as members of churches and recognized as persons under God’s care; but their inclinations and their behaviors, whether intended or not, are among those that are not affirmed as ideal. It is indeed likely that, in this view, few or even no marriages fulfill all aspects of the kind of covenant such as God established with Israel or Christ with the church, and thus every human approximation to the marriage covenant has elements that are deficient or problematic. That is what most ecumenical Protestants affirm when they were alert to the tradition’s deepest roots, and that is why the Old and New Testaments, which witness to these covenants, are deemed revelation and are taken as the standards for our relative covenants.

That is also the basis for the Protestant view that “all are sinners in need of the grace of God”. Sin, in this view, is less the intentional betrayal of some principle or norm than a basic condition that makes saving grace necessary whatever our intentions, and even in spite of our best intentions. In addition to this “state of sin” which we call “original,” there are of course particular “sins”, specific acts that we do, duties we neglect, attitudes that we take, feelings that we savor, egoisms that we indulge, either wilfully or without moral or spiritual protest, that are contrary to what we know to be right and good and fitting. Even more distorting are the rationalized forms of denial of our sin or of justifications for our sins, which compound the fault. The resistance to the ordination of gay clergy is, at its deepest levels, rooted as much in this issue as it is in certain behaviors. Protestant pastors are not inclined to argue that separated, divorced, unfaithful, or abusive relationships are fully compatable with the ideal, and in most of theological history homosexual pastors did not claim that their situation was normative either. It is suspected that under contemporary ideological confusions, they are likely to distort the normative message, thereby morally and spiritually legitimating sin or sins with the authority of their office.

Temptations to rationalize a particular bias attend us all, not only gay clergy. Yet, in spite of the general condition of sin and our particular list of sins of omission or commission, Ecumenical Protestants hold that we can make some relative discernment as to the marks of a properly covenantal relation, just as we can, with a relative degree of confidence, tell the difference between better or worse political regimes, better or worse corporate behaviors, and better or worse academic institutions. And in this area, Ecumenical protestants throughout their history and still today are doubtful whether homosexual relationships are or can be as nearly approximate to the ideal as heterosexual ones. Congregations thus are suspicious of non-married clergy, even if the distinction between sin and crime and their own awareness of their own defects leads Protestants to believe that “it takes all kinds to make a world”, and that Christians ought to “live and let live” in terms of legal policy. 17 In accord with this emphasis, a number of the ecumenical churches have increasingly advocated the decriminalization of homosexuality, even if they have not moved toward approving it. 18

More recent Protestant disputes

Among the intriguing issues surrounding the debates about these teachings is the fact that those who oppose this general consensus frequently link their objections to economistic interpretations of the origins and function of classical moral concepts and thereby undercut, perhaps unintentionally the theological tradition. This can easily be seen in a recent article written by Walter C. Righter. As the Episcopal bishop accused of heresy for ordaining a priest who has been living with a United Church of Christ clergyman, he puzzles about the possible reasons for such charges, now that they have been dropped. He notes that some studies show a link between homophobia and misogyny and he speaks of pent up anxiety about change in moral standards to which many are “accustomed.” Such irrational motivations are presumed to be behind the opposition to his actions, not theology or morality. When he does speak of these, he says that the Ten Commandments “long thought to be a moral code for all ages,” are now held to be “a property code” designed “to preserve property rights that no longer exist.” Indeed, the entire debate about the family, he claims, is primarily about a “fault line between the past and the future” in regard to property and society, and “we are privileged with the necessity of forming a new social contract.” He ends with a text from “Star Trek”: “Boldly go where no person has gone before.” 19

Although many find the whole idea of heresy quaint, even offensive, it is doubtful that the perspectives offered by the bishop will be persuasive to believers, even if most agree that misogyny, homophobia, reactive anxiety about change, and the applications of property issues to persons are frightful. The view he advocates undercuts the very prospect of a normative theology and an enduring morality able to assess and guide changing experience in changing societies. However, his perspective has wide currency in parts of academia and many advocacy movements in the Ecumenical churches, many of which already practice some form of pastoral blessing of same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless, as we can see in recent decisions by the United Methodist, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, all of which repudiate such views in favor of the classical, covenantal tradition, Protestant Christians are unlikely to adopt such views—even if they do not want to condemn individuals and seeking to reconstruct the wisdom and insight present in Scripture and the Reformation. They are more likely to hold fast to the prophetic tradition that was willing to judge distortions of God’s covenantal laws and purposes. In this, they recognize the indispensable place of theology and ethics in social analysis, both to understand why people do what they do, and to offer guidance as to how we ought to live. Because religions vary and religious conflicts are sometimes the most intense, many seek non-religious concepts to interpret social realities. Some things about humans are, in fact, rather constant: most people want and need companionship, and basically like sex, peace, and plenty. They avoid loneliness, conflict, and sexual and economic poverty. But sexual activity, material plenty, and both personal companionship and social solidarity tend to be more reliably present when a stable way of linking them is found, and the only durable way of linking them has been the family. But the family, it turns out, is rather fragile on its own under conditions of a sinful and broken world. It requires an embodied sense of sacredness to stabilize it, and that sacredness must be graced by a divine righteousness and purpose.

“Religion,” in other words, and both the critical reflection on it and its ethical implications for all the aspects of society they influence by means of theology, are the distinctive human activities that distinguish humanity from other creatures of the earth. It will not do to see all human motivations in terms of psychodynamic impulses or economic interests. Our most profound, determinative nature is not “natural” in the biophysical sense, but spiritual and moral. Insofar as these structure the social realities of life, they cannot be ignored in the analysis of the fabric of society. In fact, the kind and quality of religion turns out to be critical for the kind of social, ethical, and material systems developed in civilizations—the roles, relationships, institutions, rules, and expectations that guide us. And it is doubtful that the ethical norms for that religion can be gathered from science fiction.

For such reasons, one wide stream of the theological heritage is essentially reasserting continuity with the wisdom of previous ages and adapting it to today: sexuality, the formation of households and homes, the nurture of children and the development of ways to aid those in need, ought to take place in the covenanted relationships of a differentiated civil society which recognizes the reality of the basic orders of creation or spheres of life, and that we can know, with some degree of reliability, what some marks of such relationships are. Thus, some in the churches are seeking a deeper analysis of the concept of covenant as a moral theory for familial life in civil society. In view of all the issues of sex and marriage, household and work, home and religion, corporations and schools, welfare and society, this question continues to haunt the churches’ efforts: can we construct a viable ethic for family life in a globalizing civil society, given the changing intellectual, economic, and psycho-social transformations at hand.

One the whole, the Ecumenical Protestants do not oppose these transformations. In fact, many of them may well be rooted in attitudes and institutions that the Reformation and its implications engendered. Most Protestants do not want to be forced into becoming sectarians, hostile to culture, unable to perform marriages as a civil act, opposed to justice for women or minorities, or angry about the secular or pagan character of everything around them. Instead, they do want to live in, participate in, have a voice in, and shape things toward a more just and loving society. They simply do not believe that the present movement to make gay coupling equal to heterosexual marriage is likely to do that, or how God wants people to live.

On the whole, also, the answer is a prophetic one: love, indeed, just love is best grasped when linked to a basic appreciation for the way God created humanity for fidelity, fecundity and family, a recognition that much is fallen, and neglected dimensions of our theological heritage of covenantal understanding may be still laden with valid, pluralistic, and dynamic possibilities more faithful and more graceful, and (thank God) more adequate to the deep and enduring needs of humanity than the alternatives. The alternatives are, to put it most sharply, false prophecy.

In one way, the unintended result of the churches’ explorations stands as a challenge to the churches and clergy as well as to society in general. It is not clear that contemporary religious leaders realize what an impact, and thus both an opportunity and a responsibility, they have in influencing souls and societies. Decisive, I believe, is a “prophetic” recovery and recasting of the covenantal tradition, linked to a fresh vision of how the family may find its place in a civil society where dual careers, a corporate economy, and a limited state in a global society are our likely future.


1. Some portions of the following materials also appear in my Covenant and Commitments, (Westminster/John Knox, 1997).

2. See J. Gordon Melton, The Churches Speak on Sex and Family Life (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991); and The Churches Speak on Homosexuality (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991). Cf. Mary McClintock Fulkerson, “Church Documents on Human Sexuality and the Authority of Scripture,” Interpretation, XLIX/1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 46-58.

3. Many of my views on these matters are more fully stated in my Covenant and Commitments (Louisville: W/JK, 1997), espec. Chapter 1, from which some parts of the following are drawn.

4. So far as I have been able to discover, every creation myth has a division of male and female linked with an ethic of order and fertility, but this is often among the gods. Humans stay home and honor their activities. The Biblical story is distinctive in that it locates sexuality in creation and calls for humans to leave home and to create new institutions. Historically, a major debate about this new community has been in regard to the priority of fidelity to the right order of things or of fecundity, or, as Thomas wrote, of fides and proles, but some have argued that this third factor is central to the biblical record, and decisive for the formation of the nuclear family. See Otto A. Piper, The Christian Interpretation of Sex (New York: Harper, 1941).

5. Particular judgments or policies ought, I believe, include a synthesis of the three basic modes of discourse, often called deontology, teleology and ethology (or sometimes contextual). See my “The Trinity as Public Theology,” in Faith to Creed, ed. M. Heim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), pp.162-97.

6. However, the City which welcomes all peoples and is planted for their healing is “adorned as a bride.” (Rev. 21:2)

7. See, among the many treatises on this, Diogenes Allen, Love: Christian Romance, Marriage, and Friendship (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1987).

8. See John T. Noonan, Contraception (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1965), which is as yet unsurpassed as a general study of the institutions guiding marriage in the early church, as well as of contraception specifically. Important information is also present in Kenneth Stevenson, Nuptial Blessing: A Study of Christian Marriage Rites (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1983).

9. This view is not held by all Protestants equally. Some quite “conservative” views hold that a great deal can be known about God’s creational intent by studying nature, and some quite “liberal” Protestants have almost identified “creation” with “nature” as understood in the Enlightenment or even in Romanticism, and thus take whatever is found in “nature” as what God intended. We shall see later that some confusion in Protestant thought about nature, specifically in regard to homosexuality but also in regard to ecology and technology is a source of contemporary debate.

10. The best treatment of this reorientation can be found in John Witte, Jr., “The Transformation of Marriage Law in the Lutheran Reformation,” The Weightier Matters of the Law: Essays on Law and Religion. Ed., John Witte, Jr. and Frank S. Alexander. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988. Pp. 57-97.

11. A very helpful treatment of these themes is Joseph L. Allen, Love and Conflict: A Covenantal Model of Christian Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984).

12. As mentioned above (n. 13), the term compactum signals a voluntary agreement, but it also included the notion that the terms of the agreement were pre-given, and can be morally or legally voided if these terms are not met. See John Witte, “From Sacrament to Contract: The Legal Transformations of the Western Family” Criterion (University of Chicago Divinity School) forthcoming. Later a distinction between “covenant” and “contract” begins to suggest that “social contracts” are wholly constructed by human will, and voluntary, mutual actions between adults are exempt from theological-ethical evaluation. Similar ideas can be found in Rousseau, but became influential in ecumenical circles in regard to sexuality at the hands of the Quakers. See Towards a Quaker View of Sex (London and Philadelphia: Friends Home Service Committee, 1963). Cf. P. Ramsey, “On Taking Sexual Responsibility Seriously Enough, Deeds and Rules in Christian Ethics (New York: Scribners, 1967).

13. See, especially, the superb study by Edmund Leites, The Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986). It is fascinating that such an emphasis should be made in regard to sexuality in marriage simultaneously with the relative reduction of accent on the sacraments in worship. It is quite likely that this development parallels what Max Weber proposed with regard to economics, namely, the movement of the ascetic ethic from the monastery to the world of work. So, in this area, the “foretaste” of heaven is found as much in the disciplined ecstacies of the marriage bed as in the transubstantiated elements at the altar.

14. It is in protest against this loss and the Victorian denial of the religious significance of sensuality, so far as I can see, that prompts some today to press in the opposite direction, although some do so in the extreme. See, e.g., Sexuality and the Sacred, ed. James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994).

15. E. Leites, “The Duty to Desire: Love Friendship, and Sexuality in Some Puritan Theories of Marriage,” Comparative Civilization Review, No. 3 (Fall, 1979), pp. 40-82. See also Mary S. Van Leeuwen, et al., After Eden (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) for what may be the best feminist treatment of many of these themes.

16. See E. S. Morgan, The Puritan Family, rev. ed., (New York: Harper, 1966); and the striking new study by Stephen Innes, Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England (New York: Norton, 1995).

17. Very few studies of this matter seem to exist; but these accents can be seen in the attitudes of the most “liberal” heirs of the Puritans when they met to discuss these matters and were surveyed by Yoshio Fukuyama. See “The Views of General Synod Delegates on Human Sexuality,” (New York: UCBHM, 1977).

18. See J. Gordon Melton, The Churches Speak on Homosexuality (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991).

19. quot;Behind the Charge of Heresy,” Boston Globe (August 4, 1996), pp. D-1,3.

About the author

Max Stackhouse is professor of Christian ethics at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ.