Editor's Note: This is the fourth and final essay in the series. The earlier essays may be found here, here, and here.
"Replacing the Christ with a Code"
by the Rev. Thomas B. Woodward
This will be the most important and also the most difficult part of this series on "The Undermining of the Episcopal Church." It is most important because the notion of a static Christian morality undermines not just the Episcopal Church – but the Christian faith itself. It is most difficult because few of us are able to distinguish the Christian faith as separate from our favorite Christian morality.
When the leadership of the Network and similar groups call the Episcopal Church heretical or “non-Christian,” what they are referring to is not our failure to adhere to the historic creeds of the church or to Jesus Christ as savior. What they are referring to is our adherence to a moral code that is not identical to their own! While many “orthodox” Christians may believe their code is moral, as we shall see, that code is not in any way Christian.
When some church leaders from around the world charge homosexual people in loving, committed relationships with sexual immorality or rebellion against the will of God, they undermine the very basis of our faith – not just as Episcopalians, but as Christians.
These are strong statements, and I want to address them – not by adding to the polemics, but by focusing on several crucial underpinnings of Christian morals and morality. In this essay, I will address the nature of revelation, the problem with a single or “authoritative Christian ethics,” the unacknowledged ways moral principles often conflict with one another, the empirical record of necessary and sometimes sudden shifts in Christian ethics and morality at critical times, and the bizarre notion that there is a timeless “faith once delivered to the saints.”
The Nature of Revelation
For Episcopalians and most Anglicans, revelation has not been propositional; that is, it is not a set of precepts and rules. It has been primarily an understanding of the response of Israel to the actions of God in the world and through the person of Jesus Christ. We refer to Jesus Christ as the Word of God in good part because he is “What God meant to say.” After the great dancer, Pavlova, performed one evening, a patron asked her, “What did you mean by that dance?” She responded, “Had I been able to say it in words, I would not have danced it.” So, too, with God. God sent Jesus to live among us because Jesus was "what God meant to say" to us humans.
The Word of God is found primarily in the life, teaching, parables, and actions of Jesus, recorded in the Gospels:
- the calling of the tax collector, Levi, as apostle [Luke 5:27-32]
- Jesus' eating (“having table fellowship”) with those branded as the greatest sinners [Mark 2:13-17, Matthew 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-32 and 15:1-2],
- the Beatitudes [Matthew 5:1-12], in which Jesus describes those who constitute the Kingdom,
- the parable of the Wedding Feast [Matthew 22:2-14 and Luke 14:15-24], where those furthest from the moral and spiritual center of the community are welcomed and honored,
- the parable of the Leaven [Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21], in which the Kingdom is described as the mixture of the purity of the flour and the corruption (that is the New Testament usage of the word) of the leaven,
- the honoring of the Samaritan [Luke 10:29-37], the Syro-Phoenican woman [Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:21-28], the rich Zaccheus [Luke 19:1-10] and the poor [Matthew 25],
- Jesus’ demand that love – not outward observance – is the measure of morality [see, for instance, Matthew 23:25-26. For an analysis of the rejection of the purity code by Jesus, see “The Parables of Jesus from the Inside,” by Thomas B. Woodward, Sewanee Theological Review, Volume 47:1, Christmas 2003],and
- Jesus’ constant undercutting of the religious establishment and the purity laws in his parables and teaching.
What Does a Christian Morality Have to Do with Jesus?
Here is what C. H. Dodd wrote in Gospel and Law: The Relation of Faith and Ethics in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1951, p. 39): “Since the church ... is one with Christ as the body with its head, it follows that its members are to find in Him an objective standard of ethical conduct.” That makes sense, doesn’t it? Then why – instead of looking to the Word of God, whose vision of the Kingdom is so expansive – have we spent so many years looking to the words of the author of Leviticus and of Paul? We need to remember that Paul does not claim Jesus as his inspiration for narrowing the Kingdom by excluding those who, from all we know of the Gospel record, would have been precious to Jesus. He does that on his own.
This same concern is echoed by Jacques Ellul, William Stringfellow’s French compatriot:
“… This is why Jesus attacks the Pharisees so severely even though they are the most moral of people, live the best lives, and are perfectly obedient and virtuous. They have progressively substituted their own morality for the living and actual Word of God that can never be fixed in commandments.” (The Subversion of Christianity, Eerdmans, 1986, page 70)Oddly enough, most unchurched young people in this country seem to have it right. When told of the condemnation of Bishop Gene Robinson’s consecration and of gay and lesbian relationships by segments of our church, they ask: “What happened to Jesus? and what happened to the Christian principle of love?”
Conclusion #1: The preoccupation with homosexual relationships as sinful may be rooted in Biblical material and supported through the church’s tradition, but it does not represent Christian morality except, mistakenly, in name.
Rejoinder: But aren’t there statements in the Bible declaring homosexual activity sinful?
Mark Noll, writing in The Christian Century last year, noted the similarity between our debates about homosexuality and those in 1845 concerning the Bible’s view of slavery. He recounts a great debate in which Nathan Rice argued the specific proslavery texts and Jonathan Blanchard argued for the “general principles of the Bible” and “the whole scope of the Bible” in language remarkably similar to our debates today. While Rice won the hearts of the Biblical fundamentalists, Blanchard’s argument has come to represent Christian ethics by virtue of its links to the teaching and life of Jesus.
Speaking to the same issue, Henry Ward Beecher conceded that a defense of slavery [similarly, I maintain, to a rationale for condemning homosexual relationships] could be teased out of obscure, individual texts of scripture, but surely the defining message of the Bible was something else entirely. In his sermon of January 4, 1861, Beecher strenuously appealed to the general meaning of the Bible, as opposed to the pedantic literalism that undergirded the proslavery view:
"I came to open the prison-doors," said Christ; and that is the text on which men justify shutting them and locking them. "I came to loose those that are bound"; and that is the text out of which men spin cords to bind men, women, and children. "I came to carry light to them that are in darkness and deliverance to the oppressed"; and that is the Book from out of which they argue, with amazing ingenuity, all the infernal meshes and snares by which to keep men in bondage. It is pitiful. [Quoted in Noll]
The Utter Foolishness of a Single, Authoritative Christian Morality
Early Christianity was often referred to as “The Way,” which many Chinese Christians consider to echo or reflect the notion of Tao. [See “These Three Are the Treasures” in our Wonder, Love and Praise hymnal.] One of the benefits of the description is its accurate portrayal of the young church as different from surrounding groups that were dependent on structures with strict rules for the ordering of their lives. Though humankind seems to have a penchant for the security of rules and proscriptions, Jesus refused to give into that penchant. Instead, he spoke of human qualities in the Beatitudes, as Paul did of the marks of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5. In what we have in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus speaks in hyperbole and metaphor, but not with rules and regulations. Christianity is not a set of rules and regulations to which one gives assent; it is a response in faith to the revelation in Jesus Christ.
If we are judged, Paul and Jesus both suggest, we are judged by the quality of our caring and of our relationships. The question is: How do your life, your relationships reflect the gifts of the Holy Spirit? What are the marks of Christlike love in your life with other people? You can’t get there by a list of do’s and don’ts!
We need to remember that our moral life is grounded in faith – in our relationship with God though faith. “We betray ourselves when we identify Christianity with a particular morality,” writes Ellul. “There have been Christian moralities through the ages, but Christianity is a faith and involves a relationship of faith as a community – it has never been a morality, in competition with other moralities, though many inside and particularly outside the church have attempted to make it so.” We must not embrace a morality that transforms our religion of faith and grace into a generalized list of do’s and don’ts that may or may not reflect current circumstance.
Ironically, if there were a perennial Christian morality, it would look much different from ours today. If it were to be patterned only on the words and teaching of Jesus, we would all be pacifists, fully and absolutely committed to the poor, with slight regard for what are now called "family values," and with even less respect for civil authority than what is embedded in our prayer books.
Here is what happens when we base our moral code on selected Biblical passages: in our history, that kind of thinking has led to our providing moral and military support for crusades and the Inquisition, centuries and centuries of church inspired anti-semitism, the segregation of our churches by race, the subjugation of women in marriage and in the culture, and on and on and on. Each and all of these confident moralities of their times fails the tests of divine love and of any real relationship to the person and the teaching of Jesus. They fail especially when compared to Jesus' teaching in the parables of inclusion and reversal, such as the Leaven, the Marriage Feast, the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and the Publican. Yet, despite all we should have learned from that history, we continue to enshrine our personal prejudice into what we hold out as a timeless code of conduct. When we do that, we settle for the antithesis of a Christian morality.
Conclusion #2: Our moral rules, even when blessed with small Scriptural warrant and use over time, may, in fact, contradict the Truth or the Way as revealed in Jesus Christ – or in the overwhelming witness of the prophets and writers of the Wisdom literature of the Bible. When they do, we should abandon them, as our forebears have done over and over again through the centuries. Otherwise, we bring disgrace upon our faith and upon our God.
Morality – Even Christian Morality – Often Conflicts with Itself
I was once involved in a public debate on the subject of abortion with a very articulate and very conservative priest at a clergy conference. He argued sanctity of life, and I argued the spiritual values and principles of several exceptions to an absolute ban on abortions. At one point I said, “I am afraid to say ‘sanctity of life,’ because I fear I may have to give up important exceptions – and you are afraid to allow even a single exception for fear of having to give up your belief in the absolute sanctity of life.” We discovered that we were arguing about a paradox. When we acknowledged that life can conflict with life and that we are not often in a position to choose between good and evil, but among goods or between the lesser of several evils, we found that we could live together with love and mutual acceptance.
Any absolutist version of Christian morality has no place for that insight and reality. Living morally as a Christian is full of doubt and discernment and struggle. While Christian pacifism is thoroughly Biblical and a powerful witness to the teaching and person of Jesus Christ, we stand in awe of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s struggle between that deep, deep strain within himself and the opposing morality of resisting Hitler’s evil with violence.
As an example of how quickly things do change, consider that following World War I, it was largely the influence of ethicists and theologians at Union Theological Seminary that helped our nation develop what some have called a "national pacifism" in response to the horrors of that war. It was in the early 1940s that many of the same faculty at the same seminary helped American Protestantism come to terms with the necessity of Christians to participate in World War II as an expression of their faith. That conflict between religious principles remained through World War II and future conflicts, as young men struggled with the effects of their religious upbringing in deciding whether or not to file as conscientious objectors to participation in armed combat. Many found they could count on their church for support for either conclusion!
Our understanding of Christian marriage has undergone exactly the same kind of enormous changes over the centuries, from a time when polygamy was practiced in parts of the church, through the use of marriage to achieve various political goals, the long history of our subjugation of women, the issue of remarriage after divorce, and our continuing struggle to come to terms with some understanding of equal partnership within marriage. The “good old days” were not good for anyone – neither the men who had most of the perquisites, nor the women who were subjugated.
Conclusion #3: Our increasing knowledge, understanding, and perspective do change the "contents" of our moral response to God.
Rejoinder: Doesn’t that mean that St. Paul may not have gotten homosexuality right?
Given all we know about real people in real relationships, living out their lives with all the marks of the Holy Spirit and in full dedication of their lives together to Jesus Christ, do we even have to ask? Our inherited moral codes regarding homosexual relationships were based on little more than a few verses from the Jewish purity code and the feeling that such behavior was "sick" or “nasty” or “dirty.” Today we have a choice. We can choose to hold on to that inheritance, or we can base our morality in the context of observing the loving, caring, and committed relationships among people we know. Sexual and interpersonal morality should be no different for married heterosexual couples than for partnered same-gender couples; there is behavior that is hurtful and cruel in both, as well as behavior that is loving and life-giving in both. We can tell the difference. Really, we can.
“But I Believe in the Faith Once Delivered to the Saints!”
The obvious question is “Which saints?" David Rhoads, in his recent book, The Challenge of Diversity, identifies four quite different understandings of Jesus’ teaching about love among the four evangelists and three pretty much mutually exclusive understandings of atonement. The diversity of ritual and ethics and theology was incredibly rich and diverse in the first centuries of the Christian Church. So the question is proper: Which saint? Was it Peter or Paul? Matthew or John? Irenaeus or the author of the Didache? and on and on.
When you get right down to it, “the faith once delivered to the saints” usually translates to “What I wish Jesus had established as an ethic for all time.” However, as noted above, Jesus’ ethics bear little resemblance to what those who nowadays call for “the faith once delivered to the saints” have in mind. The use of the phrase, “the faith once delivered to the saints” can mean only one thing: “Beware! Christian hoax ahead!”
Conclusion #4: You have to squash an enormous diversity of insights and awareness if you want to propose an unchanging Christian morality for all generations. When you do that, the result will be the opposite of a faithful response to the Scriptures as the Word of God.
Rejoinder: But isn’t it true that the Bible says certain things are right and certain things are wrong?
It may be argued that, on the whole, we don’t pay much attention to very much of anything Biblical writers urge upon us, unless their urgings happen to match our prejudices.
However, in response to the Rejoinder, the Bible doesn’t say anything. It is more faithful to say “St. Paul says/teaches that . . .” or “The author of Leviticus says/teaches that . . .” The Bible does not teach that women must have their heads covered in worship; Paul does. Because it is Paul who teaches that, not the Bible itself, we can deal with that requirement in the light of everything else we know. That is also true of other matters. (Hint, hint!)
The Episcopal Church has no reason to fear diversity in experience and in faithful response to the loving gifts of God. God did not die shortly after Biblical times. God has not delegated to the Anglican Communion Network or any other group the responsibility to exclude or to impose limits to the elements of Creation eligible for God’s blessing! There has been no parting of the clouds with God’s voice addressing Martyn Minns or any of the Network’s fundamentalist dissidents, crying out: “Narrow the Vision! Narrow the Vision! Punish those who honor my Creation!”
Here is the deal: The Episcopal Church could sacrifice the centrality of our Book of Common Prayer, our reverence for Holy Scripture and its study, our understanding of life as sacramental, our belief in the authority of the laity in the governance of the church, our trust in the vows our clergy make, and our longstanding refusal to countenance a morality which is neither Christian nor moral. Even if we bartered away those topics I have addressed in this series of essays, what would we get in exchange? We would get to revert to the primatial oversight we rejected at the birth of our church – and we would gain the evil authority to proclaim that such people as Michelalangelo Buonarroti, Sir John Gielgud, W. H. Auden, Ned Rorem, Lily Tomlin, and thousands upon thousands of men and women who have given their lives for Jesus Christ have, according to St. Paul’s teaching and Lambeth 1.10, no place in the Kingdom of God.
That is a proposal we can and must refuse. Our bishops must turn it down for the sake of all that we hold precious.