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The United Church and Ordination of Active Homosexuals: A Critique


This article originally appeared in Christian Week, April 15, 1988 and later in A Crisis of Understanding (Burlington, Welch Publishing Company, Inc., 1988)

The United Church and Ordination of Active Homosexuals: A Critique

Victor Shepherd

In 1984 the highest court of the United Church of Canada, the General Council, commissioned a National Coordinating Group to prepare a report Toward a Christian Understanding of Sexual Orientation, Lifestyles and Ministry (hereafter referred to as the Report). It was endorsed by the Division of Ministry Personnel and Education and the Division of Ministry in Canada. The 118-page report was circulated among the pastors of the United Church. Many of them reacted strongly to its antitheological bias. The central thrusts of the report include:

1) A view of the Bible which uses the word “authority” but which deprives the Bible of any authority;

2) The elevation of an ideology which denatures the gospel and which denies the shape and direction which God wills to impart to human existence. The abstract category “justice” is clearly the controlling principle of the report, although the report nowhere defines “justice”;

3) An insistence that the quality of a relationship is sufficient to legitimize sexual (genital) intimacy;

4) A devaluation of the Fall so thoroughgoing as virtually to deny the Fall. (This theological tenet, which speaks of that distortion of the entire creation which rendered God’s incursion in Jesus Christ necessary, is startlingly underused in view of the place the doctrine has occupied at all times in the history of Christian thought.) With the devaluation of the Fall, there is a corresponding devaluation of redemption, there really being nothing which needs redeeming;

5) The absence of any discussion of the holiness of God and what God’s holiness requires of covenant people who are themselves called to be holy. It is incomprehensible that so central a Biblical category is overlooked when the Report claims to be “in substantive agreement with our Biblical understanding of responsible human relationships” (p. 6);

6) An unawareness of the malleability of human sexuality. (The report mentions only three “orientations”);

7) The defamation by definition of those who are still persuaded that a Biblical view of the place and purpose of sexual intimacy reflects the intention of the Creator.

Perhaps the last-mentioned point will prove to be the occasion of greatest sadness and pain for most readers of the Report. Bullying is always offensive, no less so when the bullying is verbal. It occurs, for in stance, when a word or expression used to describe the position held by someone who disagrees with the Report is defined in such a way as to slander the person of whom it is used. A lamentable case of this occurs when the Report speaks of “heterosexism” as “a systemic form of oppression in which the beliefs and actions of society reinforce the assumed inherent superiority of the heterosexual pattern of loving, and thereby its right to dominance. . . .” (17) But the issue at hand has not primarily to do with “dominance” (i.e., a heterosexual relationship which is marred by exploitation) but of obedience to the will and way of God. The category confusion is glaring. Its pejorative twist is unmistakable. “Assumed inherent superiority” ascribes haughtiness to anyone who questions the Report’s assumption that same-sex genital intimacy is righteous. In other words, the assertion here slanders by definition all who maintain that their faithfulness to Jesus Christ constrains them to uphold marriage as the God-ordained context for sexual intimacy. The vocabulary (“assumed inherent superiority . . . dominance”) equates theological disagreement with what is commonly regarded as humanly vicious and socially retarded. Readers should recognize the ad hominem approach here and shed any false guilt concerning it.

The same tactic is evident in the glossary at the end of the Report. There heterosexism is defined as “a systemic form of oppression supporting the belief that heterosexuality is the only [emphasis theirs] legitimate form of sexuality; linked to homophobia.”(66) Herein anyone who deems the Biblical understanding of sexual intimacy to reflect God’s purpose is defined as oppressive and labelled as homophobic. Homophobia, as the Report makes clear, is irrational fear, i.e., a neurosis. Accordingly, all traditional Christians who regard marriage as the God-ordained setting for genital intimacy are looked upon as neurotic.

The Report begins well enough. “Following the example and teaching of Jesus, all persons, without exception, are to be welcomed, cared for, and loved as our neighbour.”(3) The second assertion similarly cannot be faulted. “All people who profess Jesus Christ and obedience to him are eligible to be full members of the United Church of Canada.”(3) Alas, it is the only time, “obedience” appears in the entire Report. Christ’s word, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) is never adduced; indeed, the Biblical conviction that there is no love for God without obedience to God, where obedience aims at conformity to God’s will and way, is entirely lost to sight.

Wesley’s quadrilateral — Scripture, tradition, reason, experience — while not identified as his, is referred to again and again throughout the Report and even regarded as a framework which comprehends the ethos of the United Church. Wesley, however, would have repudiated utterly the use made of it in the Report: the four items are looked upon as equally normative. For Wesley, Scripture was the authority, the unnormed norm; tradition (chiefly Patristics, Reformation theology and Church of England formularies) were a distinctly subordinate norm, with reason and experience less authoritative again. The Report assumes that each of the four is co-equal in authority, and then incorporates this assumption into its deliberations.

Needless to say, the crux of the Report is its approach to Scripture. The note on Scripture is prefaced by a presentation of three approaches to truth: “absolutist,” “relativist,” and “pluralist.” In every case it is assumed that there is insight (like gold nuggets) to be found in Scripture (amidst much gravel, presumably), the distinction among the three approaches being the proportion and relation of gold to gravel. Disagreement among proponents of the three approaches arises over what is insight and what is only impediment to the full flowering of one’s humanity. The deleterious assumption is that one or another of these approaches yields not only insight about the creation but even a knowledge of God. No one, however, in the Reformed tradition can agree with this, convinced as we are that only God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ yields knowledge of God.

Confusion is evident when we are told that “… both pluralist and absolutist approaches will agree on the importance of what is at stake in any discussion about what is true.”(30) But surely what is at stake does not determine what is true. Of ourselves, are we reliable guides as to “what is at stake”? Surely what is at stake for the salvation of humankind and concomitant holy living which glorifies God has to be revealed to us fallen creatures; otherwise how could we ever distinguish what is true from socially useful or personally convenient fictions? The Report is sound when it insists that a knowledge of the context is essential to gaining the fullest sense of the text. Nonetheless, this admission should not be used to posit an ambiguity in the text whenever the text does not support the view one wishes to espouse. Ultimately, all of Scripture is the contextual key to any part of Scripture. This Reformation conviction is entirely absent.

The Report’s nontheological approach to Scripture is again evident in the assertion, “The Bible, in dialogue with our contemporary experience, helps us envision ourselves and the world in new ways that will heal, liberate, and empower us.”(12) No doubt the Bible does do this. And so does a textbook on psychology, a good novel, a penetrating poem, a profound film. All of these do the same thing in exactly the same way. The capacity to do this is not unique to Scripture, this capacity being found in any product of culture which facilitates human reflection and promotes self-understanding. The next sentence in the Report confirms the misunderstanding: “The authority of the Bible is its ability to inspire.”(12) Shakespeare and Milton inspire! The authority of Scripture lies elsewhere.

The same outlook is apparent when the Bible is spoken of as “. . a resource for our identity as religious people. We are related to it intimately.”(32) This psychological statement concerning our identity yet falls far short of a theological affirmation. Different groups acquire their religious identity through different documents to which they are intimately related: Methodists, through Wesley’s hymnbook, Anglicans through the Book of Common Prayer, Lutherans through the Augsburg Confession. Still, none of the above groups affirms these documents to have the same force as Scripture, nor to function in the same way.

The same devaluation is apparent in “The Bible, in dialogue with our modem experience, gives new ways to imagine ourselves and the world that heal, liberate and empower us.”(32) But this is precisely what psychotherapy does! And when there is added, “Here is the Bible’s inspiration, and thus its authority,” the reader can only conclude that the prophetic/apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ (i.e., Scripture) has neither more nor less authority than the psychotherapist.

Missing completely from the treatment of Scripture is any understanding that the Bible is normative for Christian faith and conduct, why it is this and how it functions in the church. In other words, there is no discussion of how Scripture subserves the unique authority of Him who is head of the church and Lord of the cosmos. Surely Christians read and heed Scripture because the prophetic/apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ, vivified by that Spirit power which Jesus Himself bears and bestows, brings disciple and Lord together. In this encounter worship is elicited, obedience is constrained, and service is enjoined. In a word, the Bible functions not primarily by providing insight (although this is provided) but by being the occasion of the transformation of fallen creatures into the likeness of Him who is the pledge of a renewed creation and the agent of humankind’s renewal.

Once again the theological undervaluation of Scripture is apparent in the Report’s contention that “The Bible is the basic document for our communal and self-understanding. In it we find witness to God’s faithful love for Creation.”(12) The Reformed church, however, has always known the primary witness to Jesus Christ to be not merely the “basic” document, ie., not merely constitutive of the church, but determinative for the church. To be sure, in Scripture we do find witness to God’s faithful love. God is love. (1 John 4:8) When this love meets a fallen creation, this love “burns hot,” that is, love takes the form first of judgment and then of mercy. “Judgment” and “mercy” imply something which “love”, in its dictionary definitions, does not: God’s love for the creation contradicts us with God’s “No!” to us even as it summons us with an inviting “Yes.” “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

While the Bible is certainly witness to God’s saving act (John the Baptist and Paul point to Jesus), as the Bible is read in faith and the Spirit is bestowed it ceases to be merely a witness to the Christ-event and becomes part of that event itself. For instance, the apostles are witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus only as they are made part of the event of the resurrection of Jesus. The event of the resurrection is the raising of Jesus to life, the vindication of Him and His way thereby, together with the transformation of the apostles in such a way that they now cannot but speak and act and suffer in His name. To affirm that the apostles are part of the Christ-event is only to affirm what Jesus himself stated during his earthly ministry when he commissioned his followers to speak in his name: “Whoever hears you hears me.” (Luke 10:16) This must not be weakened to, “whoever hears you also hears me” or “may hear me.” Obviously Jesus Christ cannot be collapsed into the apostles and prophets, cannot be reduced to those whom He calls and equips to testify to Him. At the same time, He is not heard and obeyed apart from them. To say the same thing: while Jesus Christ cannot be reduced to Peter, James, and the women who greeted him on Easter morning, neither is He known except insofar as their testimony is known. Our coming to hear, heed, love and obey the living One Himself always takes the form of hearing, heeding, loving and obeying the testimony of His witnesses. They are not to be equated with Him. Nonetheless, unless their testimony is acknowledged as authoritative, His lordship (i.e., His unique authority) is simply denied. The Report maintains that “The United Church has always located itself within ‘mainstream’ Reformed understandings about the authority of the Bible.”(33) Yet nowhere does the Report’s use of Scripture reflect a Reformed understanding. The Report fails right here.

Not surprisingly, the Report’s overall mishandling of Scripture is reflected in its approach to specific passages. For instance, it states that we are created sexual beings.(18) (Implicit in this statement and dealt with explicitly throughout the Report is the notion that to be a sexual being necessitates being sexually active, or at least provides divine sanction for sexual activity regardless of one’s being unmarried or the gender of one’s partner.) The point Scripture makes so very tellingly, however, is not that we are created sexual beings, but rather that we are created sexually differentiated. The difference between these two assertions must not be minimized. All of the distinctions in the creation which differentiate people — poverty and wealth, learning and ignorance, deprivation and privilege — can in principle be overcome and even should be overcome. Yet there is one difference which we are not to try to overcome since it has come from the hand of the Creator (and for this reason is magnified in the text): sexual differentiation. The implications of this notion, when considered alongside the implications of, “We are created sexual beings,” point up a crucial divergence which the Report nowhere probes or even acknowledges.

In the same way the Report says in several places that the Bible assumes everyone to be heterosexual. (e.g., 47) The Bible, however, everywhere understands people to be what they do. The very fact that Scripture is unbending concerning same-sex genital intimacy attests its awareness of the proclivity for this very thing to occur. When Paul speaks of such an occurrence as a sign of a disordered creation (although, of course, not the only sign) we are told that he was acquainted only with heterosexual men who “perverted” themselves by going “against their God-given heterosexual nature.”(36) In the first place the Report exaggerates unconscionably in prefacing this statement with, “according to current scholars,” implying that there is scholarly unanimity on this point. A few scholars have suggested this (R. Scroggs and V.P. Furnish come to my mind) However, anyone who is acquainted with the literature on Romans and I Corinthians knows that the categorical “according to current scholars” is unsupportable. In the second place it cannot be assumed that Paul was unaware of the supposed distinction between perversion (heterosexuals who engage in homosexual practices) and inversion (homosexuals who engage in homosexual practices). In the third place it is most likely that Paul knew his environment so thoroughly, given the sexual practices of Greece and Rome (whose citizen he was), that he was acquainted with the variety of genital practices in the ancient world.

Readers of the Report will be puzzled at the arbitrary restriction of “orientation” to three: heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual (the lattermost being new to the Report, earlier discussions in the United Church having mentioned only the first two.) Yet any pastor or family physician knows that human sexuality is extremely plastic; that is, it can be molded into any shape very readily. There are heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pedophilia, fetishism – and several others listed in the textbooks. There is no end to the number of ways in which people are sexually aroused.

Despite the arbitrary restriction, the fact that even three are brought forward as three whose practice is equally acceptable dovetails with the Report’s repeated insistence that marriage and the family are “human-shaped institutions” (e.g., 9), and that these institutions “have evolved over time.” No one will question that many of the customs surrounding marriage and the family are “human -shaped” and vary from culture to culture. Nonetheless, to admit this is not to concede that holy matrimony (and the support of children which it provides) are merely human-shaped products of an evolutionary process. In light of Scripture as a whole and Ephesians 5 in particular, Roman Catholics speak of marriage as a sacrament. Protestants do not speak of it as a sacrament; at the same time, Protestants do recognize marriage to be no mere convention. Since marriage is the metaphor for the relationship between Jesus Christ and his people, to speak of marriage as only human-shaped implies that we are the creator and the measure of the bond between Jesus Christ and his people. To say this is but to say that there is no bond at all between disciple and Lord which can be trusted to endure amidst turbulence, treachery and death.

Time and again the Report cites the prevalence of exploitative marriages as sufficient reason for denying that marriage is divinely sanctioned. Yet there is evident logical confusion in citing the tragedy of women shackled to abusive husbands as a ground for repudiating marriage itself with its aspiration to lifelong fidelity. The fact of exploitative relationships anywhere in life cannot settle the theological issue of what God wills for our good and can redeem for our blessing. In the same way the fact of heterosexual tyranny cannot settle the theological assessment of same-sex genital intimacy. Admittedly, “the emergence of feminist consciousness and the questions that have accompanied it” (17) will properly stimulate renewed theological probing of husband/wife relationships and the manner in which marriage too is subtly marred by sin. But to say that the emergence of feminist consciousness denatures or even can denature marriage as divinely ordained is to commit a category error: sociological developments do not determine theological truth. At the very least, the fact that marriage is the description of the bond between Jesus Christ and his people means, given the election of the church from all eternity (Ephesians 1:4), that Christians do not project the nature of Christ’s bond with his people from their experience of their own (sin-riddled) marriage; rather, they repent of and reform their marriage as they look away from themselves to their Lord and recognize that unions which are meant to last forever are forged by unspeakably costly love. In sum, the election of the church means that the nature of Christ’s union with his people becomes the redemptive model for the nature and nurture of marriage. This point escaped the Report entirely in its devaluation of marriage and family. Once again, the Report has stood the truth of God on its head.

The ideological basis of the Report appears in many places, not least in its insistence that “the faithfulness, compassion and justice which characterize God’s desire for our relationship to the world undergirds our understanding of our sexuality and our sexual behaviour.”(34) Repeatedly the Report states or implies that it is the quality of a relationship — e.g., caring, committed, tender — which legitimizes sexual activity. It is argued that since love is the highest Christian virtue (which it is) therefore love is an adequate criterion by which to judge every relationship (which it is not). The presupposition here is that love is the sole guide in the Christian life; that alongside love the claim and command of God is abolished; that whatever seems to be compatible with love is by that fact good, irrespective of all other considerations. Yet there has always been Christian consensus that love continues to need the command of God to guide it. In stating that love for God and neighbor are the two great commandments, Jesus never suggested that the others had been set aside; rather, love for God and neighbor are the proper fulfillment of the others. God is loved only as God is obeyed. The notion permeating the Report, however, is that the concrete command of God concerning sexual relationships has been abrogated by the quality which we think we perceive in the relationship; this quality legitimizes sexual activity. The Report is aware of the implications of this inasmuch as it endorses sexual activity between unmarried persons, perhaps aware that the same argument legitimizes extramarital affairs, and certainly unaware that it also legitimizes polygamy.

Never mentioned in the report is a Biblical understanding of the place and purpose of sexual intercourse. Intercourse between husband and wife seals and cements marriage, marriage being the richest expression of human intimacy. Into this unique context of intimacy and self-giving and support children are born. These two functions — deepening the bond of marriage and generating children — exhaust God’s purpose for intercourse. We should note that Jesus himself endorses this. Genital intimacy for any other reason is sin. The question can be asked, “If nonprocreative sex within marriage is good in itself, then why is nonprocreative sex between adults of the same gender also not good in itself?”(82) only if it is first denied that God has a purpose for sexual activity in creatures who are sexually differentiated by God’s ordination. The absence of this understanding is glaring in the Report’s special pleading (which yet remains unconvincing) that Scripture’s prohibition of same-sex genital intimacy can be reduced to Israel’s need for children to ensure the survival of the nation.(35) Scripture also prohibits bestiality – in order to ensure the birth of children?

In the same vein had the Report had a rigorous discussion of how the holy God wills to shape the holiness of the covenant people it would have avoided its unconvincing convolutions in speaking of “sexual expression.” “If there are no appropriate, accepted ways for me to express my sexuality, then I will distort myself and attempt to deceive others, and we will both be living a lie.”(40) If “sexual expression” is meant to be genital expression,” then all people who are not sexually active are living a lie! If “sexual” and “genital” expression are not identical, then what is “appropriate” must be specified if the statement is to have any weight. Jesus, Elijah and John the Baptist (not to mention many others in the Christian tradition) were unmarried. How did they express their sexuality? If genitally, then Jesus was a fraud. If nongenitally, there must be appropriate, accepted ways which are nongenital. If there are no such ways, then all of the above-named persons were living a lie. This argument is absurd.

The slant of the Report is obvious when we are told of “. . the longing for a church that is just and faithful.”(11) The order is crucial. At the same time we are not told what “just” means in this context. And “faithful”? Faithful to what? to whom? No mention is made of that faithfulness to God which is characterized by obedience. (Romans 1:5) On the same page we are reminded that “the church must have a moral centre.” But of course that church does not have a “moral” center. To seek one is to oust Jesus Christ and replace him with an ethical construct fashioned after our own predilections. The church’s center can only he the church’s Lord, who always comes to us “clothed with his gospel.” (Calvin) And one form in which the gospel (good news) comes to us is his claim upon our obedience in concrete, specific situations.

Logical problems abound in the section on “Theological Assumptions.”(12) It is maintained that “truth is evolving; our understanding of truth is provisional and contextual.” But is truth evolving? Our perception of truth may be evolving. It may also be shrivelling. What constitutes evolution of truth and what criteria allow us to recognize it are never mentioned. Moreover, there is much ambiguity surrounding “truth.” Truth is normally predicated of a statement which corresponds to fact (e.g., it is true that the sun is 92 million miles from the earth.) Yet “truth” is also used in English to mean reality (In fact this is how the word is used in John’s gospel.) Reality is certainly not evolving, even though our grasp of it may be. (And again, may not be. Not every item of modernity is an advance on the riches of the Renaissance or classical antiquity. In many areas there has been a lamentable decline.) “Truth is evolving” is clearly a major presupposition of the Report. It is an assertion which cannot be substantiated; it has nothing to commend it; and it betrays imprecise use of language.

The same imprecise use of language is found when the Report discusses Christian understanding of truth. Our understanding of truth (not truth itself this time) is said to be “provisional, conditional and contextual.”(3) Admittedly, theological formulations are provisional inasmuch as the verities of the faith must be rethought and rearticulated in every generation in view of world occurrences; provisional as well, to the extent that our articulation of the gospel never fully enshrines the glory of the gospel itself. Nonetheless, if the above statement were to be helpful it would have to be expanded or qualified greatly. Is the elemental and essential Christian confession that Jesus is Lord provisional? that righteousness comes by faith? that the mercy which God pours unreservedly upon undeserving people grounds God’s claim upon their obedience unconditionally? Are these provisional? It is as though it were said that all theological statements are relative. The only appropriate response would be, “relative to what?” The “what” is precisely what is never enunciated in the Report.

Similar ambiguity is present – and exploited – in the statement, “We affirm the acceptance of all human beings as persons made in the image of God regardless of their sexual orientation.”(3) To say that all human beings are the beneficiaries of Christ’s cross and the recipients of God’s mercy should not be allowed to prejudge or skew the issue of what sexual conduct is acceptable to God. The fact that God embraces everyone does not mean that God endorses everything. This is but an instance of many theological assertions in the Report which are too vague or too confused to be helpful.

The Report’s urging upon the church a greater cultural captivity than that which handicaps the church already is apparent. The Report cites the fact that by the 1980s it was apparent that many single adults were sexually active and couples were living together before they were married.(16) It refers to an earlier General Council which was constrained to make a theological pronouncement on this phenomenon. The presupposition is that the church reflects society, must reflect society, in order to be faithful to God. Who, or what, then, is God? Is God simply a projection of cultural trends? Lost to sight in the early church’s conviction that faithfulness to the living God required the church to be a counter-culture movement — and to pay the price for such faithfulness. The fact that the Report wants the world to set the church’s agenda is attested by its insisting that “sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS demand that in the interest of health and survival we become knowledgeable about sexuality, and about how and with whom to engage in sexual activity.”(18) The Christian’s sexual conduct is now to be controlled by epidemiology!

The National Coordinating Group, in an apparent oversight, permitted the publication of a sentence that should have been the touchstone for the entire document: by faith and God’s saving grace, there is no aspect of our being that is immutable and immune from transformation.”(40) Alas, it was not the touchstone; everywhere the Report denies this very thing.

The question facing the United Church of Canada is the question which a puzzled Nicodemus put to Jesus about being born when one is old. Can a denomination be born again, born from above? (John 3:3) At another time, in another context, Jesus replied to skeptical disciples, “With God, all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27)