The Limits of Orthodoxy

Finding unexpected sources of agreement is a rewarding part of any good dialogue. But identifying crucial and important aspects of disagreement is equally thrilling, even if it is far less appreciated. Most of the time in discussions like this, people tend to get lost in confusion and miscommunication and never make their way to the happy shores of clear-eyed, uncompromising differences of opinion. Such disagreements, though, are often genuine sources of creativity and promise. Forcing ourselves to find new reasons to offer in hopes of persuading makes us return to and reevaluate our own commitments, and gives us again the possibility of changing our minds or renewing our confidence. Such unabashed differences are where Sharp and I have come to, I think, at last. While resolving them is (alas!) outside the scope of this essay, I will say one or two words about them. 

First, though, I appreciate Sharp’s critiques, as they allow me to clarify a few of my remarks, out of which will come one of our central disagreements. Sharp has suggested that I have just escaped inconsistency in my rejection of using church attendance as a normative basis for making decisions about gay marriage. On his reading, I come “perilously close” to saying that the “bitter dividing of the mainline denominations” represents proof of their failed attempts to hold together traditional orthodoxy with gay marriage. 

The confusion is an understandable one, and perhaps hangs on my use of spatial imagery—‘dividing’ and ‘hold together’—to describe two separate phenomena. The fact that the two points come from different points in the text is perhaps some clue that I meant two different things, even if not a sufficiently obvious one. I take the observation that the mainline denominations have bitterly divided over this issue as a given at this point—but I brought it up in a strictly descriptive manner, to explain why some moderate-progressives have made ‘unity despite disagreement’ a central plank in their approach to this issue. 

The later claim that the mainline denominations have struggled to hold together traditional views of the core of the faith is, I think, more controversial. By it, I mean something different than the sociological divisions, and so I certainly don’t take the declining numbers or the divisions as evidence for its truthfulness. Conservatives who have left such denominations have frequently used the diminished orthodoxy outside of sexual ethics as part of their justification for leaving, so in that sense, numbers are irrelevant to the claim. Instead, what I had in mind was something like what the PCUSA struggled over in 2006, namely, whether they should enforce the adoption of revised, more ‘inclusive’ names for the members of the Trinity. Nor is the PCUSA alone. The UCC has long had a policy of replacing traditional forms of speaking about God with gender-neutral or inclusive terms. My concern about holding together gay marriage with traditional orthodoxy is a doctrinal one: it is about the way in which various intellectual positions hang together, or don’t, regardless of who is in the church or not. 

Of course, it is possible to think that revisions in the doctrine of God are disconnected from the logic of gay marriage, and that there is nothing in the latter that requires the former. It’s not clear to me whether that is Sharp’s position, but he challenges me to be more attentive to those gay-affirming Christian advocates, including those who identify as “more theologically traditional.” (I did not intend to make them ‘irrelevant’: indeed, by acknowledging that fractious dispute is most likely our future, I think I tacitly acknowledged their existence and power within the church.) The question, however, is whether such “theologically traditional” organizations are internally coherent, and whether gay marriage itself has any substantive bearing on how the Church speaks of and understands God, such that to affirm gay marriage implicitly—even if the advocates do not themselves recognize it immediately—commits one to doctrinal positions that depart from traditionally orthodox formulations of God’s identity. 

This is far too deep of a question to even begin to adequately take up in the time remaining. However, it is—I think—the heart of the disagreement over whether or not affirming gay marriage is compatible with traditional orthodoxy. While feminine pronouns and imagery have been deployed often on the edges of the tradition, they have never been given a central programatic position in the church’s inner life of worship, as contemporary advocates wish to see done. The question of the nature of the tradition, and the boundaries of what counts as ‘traditional’ is near the heart of whether it is possible for churches to become inclusive and remain orthodox

One way to frame the question is, ‘how many steps from the doctrine of God is the doctrine of marriage?’ The church’s view of marriage is not determined in the first place by the categories of love, inclusion, harm, suffering, or self-expression. It is normed in Scripture by the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ bearing witness to the love of the Father through sacrificing himself for the Church. If gender does not matter theologically for *our* marriages, then why does the gender of the Incarnate Lord matter? And if Christ’s maleness is fungible, able to be replaced without loss by any other gender, then why should we view his instruction to pray “Our Father” as in any way binding on us? Surely, that too can be dismissed as an accident of history, an archaic relic of a patriarchal culture that had assumed a gender binary where there need not be on. To put the point differently, it may be that the grammar inherent in the gender asymmetry of Genesis 1-3 is assumed throughout the entire revelation, and that it is not annihilated in Christ but is redeemed and restored. If so, then denying that grammar its central, organizing role through embodying forms of life that run against it, invariably will impinge upon our knowledge and understanding of who God is.  

These connections are elusive, and need far more work to unpack them than I could possibly provide here. But they are the kind of structural ties that I was alluding to in describing marriage as an ‘architectural doctrine.’ They are forms of reasoning about marriage and God that evangelicals do not often practice, as we tend to think that theological arguments can be settled through exegesis alone. But they are levels to which doctrinal approaches to marriage much eventually reach, if we are to fully see what hangs on our doctrine of marriage and what forms of life we allow within the church to embody it. Some Christians have taken to describing the difference between the traditional view and the revised view as ‘cosmological.’ Showing marriage’s proximity to the doctrine of God is one way to unpack that claim, and to explain why those who affirm gay marriage are simply incoherent in their attempt to affirm traditional views of the Trinity. 

It is not enough, then, to simply look at the bitter divisions of the past as instructive on this score. Some of those divisions have been compatible with seeing each other as Christians. Others have clearly not: heresies are a real feature of the Church’s life, and while they have served an important role in invigorating and furthering orthodoxy, that instrumental purpose has never sanctioned one’s knowing participation in one. Nor is it enough to assert that the “legitimate possibilities of the gender of one’s spouse” do not put us near the boundaries of the tradition. It is on this question where the disagreement lies, and it is this question to which we would need to devote all our time and energy to understand and resolve. 

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