By Wesley Hill

In recent days, there’s been a discussion of the boundaries of orthodoxy in some corners of the evangelical blogosphere. James K.A. Smith, the prolific writer and professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, kicked off the discussion. Since his opening salvo, there have been a number of responses — by Alastair Roberts, Derek Rishmawy, Alan Jacobs, and others. Here’s the gist of Smith’s argument:

Now, no one for a second can deny that [male-and-female, ordered-to-procreation] views of sexual morality and marriage have been the historic teaching of the church. … But it is surely also worth pointing out that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate such standards. If the adjective “orthodox” is untethered from such ecumenical standards, it quickly becomes a cheap epithet we idiosyncratically attach to views and positions in order to write off those we disagree with as “heretics” and unbelievers. If “orthodox” becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to “us” in order to exclude “them.” And then you can start folding all kinds of things into “orthodoxy” like mode of baptism or pre-tribulation rapture or opposition to the ordination of women—which then entails writing off swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy.

So perhaps we should be more careful with how we use the adjective orthodox. It can’t be a word we flippantly use to describe what is important to us. The word is reserved to define and delineate those affirmations that are at the very heart of Christian faith—and God knows they are scandalous enough in a secular age.

Smith’s concern is that speaking of traditional Christian sexual ethics as orthodox (as opposed to calling them biblical or traditional) is not only a category confusion but a potentially dangerous one: If we decouple orthodoxy from its conciliar definition, who knows what content might arise to fill it out? Meanwhile Smith’s critics have replied that if we don’t see the traditional scriptural sexual ethic as entailed by the ecumenical creeds, then we’re in danger of downplaying the seriousness of its rejection in vast swaths of the modern church.


Without entering fully into the fray, I want simply to offer a kind of exegetical footnote to the debate, as well as a question for those — including most of us who blog here at Covenant — who choose to remain in a Christian communion in which there exists profound disagreement over the matter of what constitutes sexual morality (i.e., in particular provinces of the Anglican Communion: the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church in Wales, and others).

First, the exegetical footnote: One of the things that has struck numerous biblical interpreters is the strategy St. Paul employs in Galatians 2 in his confrontation with Peter over Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentile Christians. On the one hand, that strategy is uncompromisingly confrontational: “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned” (2:11, NRSV). Paul’s rebuke of Peter is so strident and unyielding because Peter’s behavior calls into question the fundamental character of his adherence to the gospel: “I saw that [Cephas and Barnabas] were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel” (2:14). There is something about Peter’s decision to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentiles that is inextricably bound up with belief in the gospel: the message about Christ and the embodied response to that message are mutually implicating in some fashion. As John Barclay has put it,

Paul’s “good news” is composed of the announcement of an event, the death and resurrection of Jesus as the gift of God. But the meaning of that event, and its quality as unconditioned gift, is discovered only in its social embodiment, in social experience and practice. If … justification by faith means God’s recognition of worth solely on the basis of the Christ-event, the continuation of ethnic distinctions [as Peter and Barnabas practiced] at meals in Antioch is not just a communal malfunction, but an outright denial of justification by faith.

This aspect of Galatians 2 may offer some comfort to Smith’s critics.

And yet, on the other hand, Paul’s rhetorical strategy depends on highlighting what he agrees with Peter about. Taking verse 15 of Galatians 2 as the continuation of Paul’s rebuke of Peter, we find Paul reminding Peter of what Peter already knows and believes: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Paul, in other words, is seeking to change Peter’s errant behavior by appealing to the theological convictions Peter holds, which are in conflict with his behavior. Those convictions, Paul notes, are the common ground on which they meet: “we,” Paul says — meaning, “you and I, Cephas” — “know that a person is justified.” Paul doesn’t need to change Peter’s mind on the importance and truth of the theology of justification by faith; what Paul needs to do instead is convince Peter that his behavior is out of step with that theology, a theology that Paul and Peter affirm together!

The matter between Paul and Peter in first-century Antioch and the disputes facing Western churches over the legitimacy of same-sex sexual practice in the 21st century are obviously only faintly related. But perhaps Paul’s approach to Peter may suggest a way forward for us. Like Paul, I want to insist that there are certain behaviors and embodied actions that are so profoundly out of step with conciliar, creedal Christianity that they warrant not mere tolerance but public rebuke. Same-sex sexual behavior and same-sex marriage are radical departures from scriptural, historic Christianity, and those of us who are convinced of that must continue to sound the alarm.

But also like Paul, I want to appeal to my fellow Christians who disagree with me on this matter on the basis of what we share in common. I want to mount arguments for traditional, male-and-female marriage that appeal to the creedal grammar that my opponents and I both affirm. As much as lies within me, until I have good reason to believe otherwise, I want to assume that my interlocutors who affirm same-sex marriage and who say the same creed with me each Sunday do so in good faith, and deserve to be answered on the basis of the orthodox Christian theology they profess. Insofar as this is what Smith’s post was aiming at, I’m with him 100 percent.

But now a question. Several years ago, when I was seeking to discern whether the Episcopal Church’s stance on same-sex marriage (which is permitted, unless a diocesan bishop disallows it) meant that I could not be Episcopalian with a clear conscience, I read Bishop Daniel Martins’s account of why he, a theological conservative, remains in the Episcopal Church. Here is what he wrote:

Those colleagues and friends of mine who are desperately wrong about the moral theology of sex? Most of them—not all, but most of them—say the Nicene Creed every Sunday without crossing their fingers. Most of them—not all, but most—will sing full-throatedly this Easter about Jesus rising from the dead and walking away from his tomb, and really mean it. Really. Most of them—not all, but most—sincerely believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God (and, of course, to contain all things necessary to salvation). Most of them—not all, but most—desire and intend to follow Jesus the Christ, the Risen One, as Savior and Lord, to be his faithful disciples. They get one very important thing very wrong. But they get a whole bunch of equally or more important things very right. I cannot in good conscience presume to unchurch them, nor allow them to presume to unchurch me. Rather, I am obligated as a disciple of Jesus to “live out what unites” me to them, which is none other than the blood of Christ and the water of baptism.

When I read that, I realized it carried the force of conviction with me. It neatly and succinctly summarizes the theology that has led me to make my home in the Episcopal Church: As much as I think the revisionist view of the morality of same-sex sexual intimacy is blatantly and tragically wrong, I cannot see that all of those who hold it have ceased to be my brothers and sisters in Christ, and therefore I cannot see my way clear to remove myself from fellowship with them.

But — and here is the question that keeps me up at night — how does one do this, in the day to day of church and denominational life? How does one stay in fellowship with Christians one believes to be very wrong about an extremely urgent matter, appealing to the shared convictions that bind us together, and yet also continue to pronounce that those with whom one is in fellowship are “not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14)?

Periodically, I find myself revisiting an essay by theologian Robert Jenson on just this question. Jenson poses a hypothetical:

Can those who affirm the catholic doctrine of the ministry join in a Eucharist celebrated by an unordained person? Certainly not. But need they depart altogether from a denomination that sometimes permits such things? Perhaps not, though the call is close.

And then he extends the hypothetical even further:

Can those who defend the necessity of what used to be called marriage join in moral witness to the world with those who do not? They obviously cannot, and they must raise their voices to make their own witness. But need they immediately depart from a body they deem morally heretical at this point? The call is even trickier.

And with that, the essay ends — and continues to haunt.

About The Author

Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan and an assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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6 Responses

  1. Gayle Heatherington

    The elephant in the room is the authority of Scripture. This is the issue that has caused me to leave the Episcopal church. It is a much larger issue than just one outcome of it – same-sex marriage.

  2. Hannah D

    I’ve been having similar thoughts lately. Not about same-sex relations necessarily, but rather that I’ve been making friends with unbelievers I work with, and it’s not just a workplace friendship; we spend a lot of time hanging out together in general. It got to a point recently where it scared me, because I was afraid that I was spending too much time with them, and I was worried that it would negatively affect my walk with God. I thought about it and realized a few things: first, we need to have relationships with unbelievers. It’s one thing to reach out with the gospel, but sometimes cultivating a relationship, investing in them, and making it personal can be more effective. This I already knew, but the fear remained that I may not be strong enough myself in my own faith to help them. Which made me realize second that we need Christian fellowship as well. We need balance. Being with unbelievers can be so draining, and when you are by yourself, it’s harder to be vocal about your faith. I think, yes, we need to be active in investing in unbelievers, but we need to make sure we have a network or support group of fellow believers to get encouragement from. And my last point: Jesus spent so much time with unbelievers that he was judged for it. But there were also times when he left everyone and went by himself to a secluded place to pray. Again: balance. We need to be filled up with the spirit so we can pour out and enrich the lives of others.

    I believe the same can apply when we interact with those of shared faith, who differ in certain particulars. Right? First of all, I believe we need to define what is necessary for salvation. To me, that is belief in Jesus as the Son of God, that he died to save us from our sins, he rose on the third day and conquered death, and accepting the gift of salvation he offers. As long someone believed that, then I would consider our faith shared. I am their sister in Christ. Everything else is a detail. Granted, in the case of same-sex marriage, it is an important and serious detail. And I know that the fruit we produce in our lives can reflect the state of our hearts and salvation, but how can we as humans determine that for one another? And yes, to live a lifestyle contrary to the gospel would definitely seem like bad fruit and tempt one to believe that their faith is invalid, which honestly, could be true. But could it be perhaps that they are maintaining rather than no faith, perhaps just a weaker faith, or that they are maybe confused? That sounds harsh; hear me out. I believe no one can truly study the scriptures on this issue of SSA and conclude that the Bible condones it. So if they are okay with accepting SSA, maybe they just haven’t taken the time to prove their beliefs, to put them to the test, but instead they just want to believe it’s ok because the world and people seem nicer that way.

    I dunno. I’m no expert. Just my thoughts. Feel free to affirm or challenge as you feel led.
    Or enlighten me. That’d be good too.

    But did you see that? After I defined what I believed the basis of a shared faith is, everything became a little murky. I guess to me what is important is whether or not retaining the belief that SSA is okay will affect one’s salvation. That I would like some clarity on. I don’t believe it would. But what I know for sure is that retaining that belief definitely should not stand in the way of me engaging in fellowship with anyone who held that belief. It may mean I’m going to be more cautious about our friendship, that I may seek counsel from others about things we discuss when we differ, and that I take what that person says with perhaps more than just one grain of salt. But to cut them off entirely? I don’t think so.

    The last question – staying in contact while knowing they are wrong, appealing to shared convictions, and pronouncing their actions as inconsistent. I guess what I think is that if that is the case, go to them directly. Ask them about why they believe it. Challenge their belief. If you want to know how to help or perhaps influence them to reconsider, I think it’d first help to understand why they held that belief. They may never change their mind. But maybe it’s not up to us, but God to change the heart. We can influence and encourage, but at the end it’s not really up to us. The Holy Spirit convicts, right? As far as staying in contact goes when they won’t change, I dunno. There are so many factors. But I wouldn’t just jump ship. I’d suggest that you do all you can within your power and leave it up to God. Maybe if they are negatively affecting you or trying to get you to change, some distance could be ok, or maybe you could call in reinforcements. Get some like-minded believers to back you up. I dunno, man. I guess bottom line, don’t be passive. Speak truth and cling to what is right. If the community holds the belief, I’d say find a new community. (I’m referring to like, church community. Like if the entire church preached, teached, and believed that way.) But if it’s just an individual, or even a few individuals, I would try to reach out. Maybe even agree to disagree for now and hope over time the truth is revealed. Any thoughts?

    • Michael Tessman

      Mature believers are encouraged to give reason (in theology, it’s called “apologetics” – not as in “I apologize for = I’m sorry for”) or testimony, or to bear witness to why they believe as they do. So interactivity with non-believers is to be encouraged, as long as you aren’t looking for agreement or affirmation. You can be friendly with many people without having to “be friends” in the serious sense. We overuse the term friend to our peril.

  3. Strong on moral conviction, strong on unity

    […] I want to insist that there are certain behaviors and embodied actions that are so profoundly out of step with conciliar, creedal Christianity that they warrant not mere tolerance but public rebuke. Same‐sex sexual behavior and same‐sex marriage are radical departures from scriptural, historic Christianity, and those of us who are convinced of that must continue to sound the alarm.12 […]


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