The following essay is excerpted from a chapter in When Churches in Communion Disagree, ed. Robert Heaney, Christopher Wells, and Pierre Whalon (Living Church Books, available soon from Amazon.com).
By Wesley Hill
One of the prominent themes for discussion and debate in the Episcopal Church at present is the theological status of moral disagreement. How are we to give a theological account of disagreement among Christians over moral issues, and how might we point the way toward its resolution or at least amelioration? The pitched battle for same-sex marriage (or marriage equality) rites has all but dissipated, at least in its most recent form, given the outcome of the 79th General Convention in 2018 — which “memorialized” the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, thus guaranteeing that a traditional understanding of marriage as the union of male and female will remain available as one teaching, alongside the recently approved alternative marriage liturgies. Via Resolution B012, the 79th General Convention also made rites of marriage for same-sex couples available in every diocese and parish that wishes to use them, while providing a mechanism for traditionally-minded bishops to appropriate oversight of such parishes to another bishop. This truce of sorts, whereby two teachings about marriage sit uneasily alongside one another, seems to have lowered the temperature on at least one moral disagreement. At the same time, General Convention signaled a recognition that more theological work remains to be done by commissioning a Task Force on Communion across Difference, the report of which was published in 2021 (available online in The Blue Book 2021).
After long centuries, the divided churches of East and West are by now used to reflecting theologically on the status of doctrinal disagreement. But we are much less sure of the status of moral disagreement. In our own context, work on what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called “good disagreement” has in many ways only just begun. The Church of England Conversations regarding sexuality in 2015-16 were forthright in acknowledging that theological reflection on moral disagreement was still in its infancy, and they postponed any possibility of a common mind on the matter for the foreseeable future, while calling for Christians to “consider together what the practical consequence of disagreement might be” and enjoining charity and Christlike humility in the process.
As we Anglicans continue to engage the question of the theological status of moral disagreement in our own churches and ecumenically, one of our tasks is to return to Scripture for illumination and instruction. Just here, one particular text has recommended itself as especially germane in Anglican debates about sexuality: the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15, in which Peter, Barnabas, and Paul recount to James and the other Jerusalem apostles and elders the effects of their missionary proclamation of Jesus as Messiah among the Gentiles. That the Gentiles receive the Spirit apart from being circumcised and observing other dictates of the Mosaic law counts, says Peter, as certification that they are acceptable before God through Christ as they are and do not need to be circumcised in order to attain justified status (vv. 7-11). For many readers in recent decades, this text has suggested, by analogy, that there is warrant for the full inclusion of lesbian and gay couples in our churches, apart from their having to accept traditional heterosexual behaviors or mores. Additionally, perhaps more for “traditional” or “conservative” readers, Acts 15 has loomed large in discussions of moral disagreement because of the manner of adjudicating such disagreement that it displays.
I do not want to relitigate these long-running debates. I do want to offer three theses arising from reflection on Acts 15 that ought to help guide our discernment of the theological status of moral disagreement. Put differently, I won’t argue for one particular “side” in the disagreement over sexuality. I will argue for how I propose the two opposed sides ought to go about appealing to Acts 15 in the context of their disagreement.
My first thesis is simple: The disagreement over the circumcision of Gentile converts in Acts 15 is best understood as a genuine moral and theological disagreement.
Many modern interpreters would have us approach Acts 15 as an example of a disagreement about “ceremony” or “ritualism” as opposed to “morality” or “theology.” For first-century Jews, however, the circumcision of the flesh was not disconnected from what we would call the moral or ethical life. Not only was circumcision commanded in the Mosaic law and thus part and parcel of what the law would describe as a life of obedience; it was also understood as the visible and effectual renunciation of the evil impulse that dominated Jewish understanding of temptation, moral struggle, and the quest for a life of virtue. For the Jerusalem apostles to disagree with Paul and others about whether Gentile believers in Jesus as the Messiah needed to be circumcised is therefore properly a disagreement about moral behavior with theological, and not just sociological, ramifications. Acts 15 is much more relevant to our current moral and theological disagreements than we might have initially thought.
My second thesis relates to the much-discussed verdict that James renders in Acts 15:13-21. After Peter, Barnabas, and Paul complete their narrative recounting of how God performed signs and wonders through them among the Gentiles and bestowed the Spirit on the Gentiles without their having first gotten circumcised, James summarily concludes: “Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets” (vv. 14-15). However, as several readers have pointed out, this translation reverses what the Greek says: “with this the words of the prophets agree.” Many who have sought warrant in Acts 15 for the inclusion of non-celibate LGBTQ believers in the Church today have placed enormous weight on the direction of James’s formulation in the latter, more literal translation. James appears to subordinate the inscripturated prophetic word to the missional experience of Peter, Barnabas, and Paul; which, in turn, may seem to warrant the subordination of the supposed scriptural prohibition of same-sex sexual intimacy to the experience of observable LGBTQ holiness and acceptance in contemporary contexts.
Were this the only possible construal of the text, it would seem to forecast the settling of moral disagreement by one “side” of our current ecclesial division simply giving up its position and capitulating to the other side. Those who believe that they should not (or cannot) bless same-sex unions as Christian marriages would, like James, need to allow contemporary experience to override their prior understanding of Scripture and thus surrender their previous belief. Here, however, it is crucial to note that St. James still treats the words of the prophets as abidingly authoritative. It is not so much that experience alters or reconfigures the scriptural word. It is that experience is treated as illuminative of the scriptural word, with Scripture retaining its authoritative role albeit in a newly unveiled form.
What Acts 15 envisages, in other words, is a more complex, dialectical and hermeneutical process, in which missionary experience sheds new light on Scripture and in which Scripture, in turn, validates or confirms what experience has taught. The party at the council in Jerusalem concerned to safeguard the scriptural deposit is not shown to be simply in the wrong. Their understanding of Scripture is, to be sure, transformed, but their basic commitment to scriptural authority is left intact. This, finally, suggests my second thesis: The search for reconciliation and unity of mind does not require either “side” in an intractable moral disagreement to surrender its conviction regarding what is good. What is required is a willingness to be led by the Spirit into new understandings that may recast, without necessarily overturning, previously held convictions.
This way of framing the quest for unity is commonplace in ecumenical theology. Many have suggested that a similar posture ought to obtain when the churches face moral disagreements. Oliver O’Donovan has tied this approach to the churches’ moral disagreement over human sexuality. As he writes:
The only thing I concede in committing myself to … a process [of dialogue between “gay-affirming” Christians and “traditional” Christians] is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the Church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape — a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think — and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject! — is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live. (Church in Crisis, p. 33)
This is the posture Acts 15 encourages. Instead of prompting the question, “How can the other side be made to see things my way?” the text appears to suggest that both “sides” of a moral disagreement may find themselves transformed as they together engage the experiential and scriptural contours of their disagreement. The disagreement may or may not be thereby resolved, but it will almost certainly be given a more promising shape.
Third and finally, Acts 15 suggests that moral disagreement is enclosed within the missional, reconciling purpose of God and is superintended by the Spirit.
When we attempt to draw connections between Acts 15 and our contemporary experience of moral disagreement, we should attend to the placement of the chapter in the larger structure of Acts as a whole. First, we have the opening frame: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” This framing implies that what will follow in the narrative to come is the record of what Jesus continues to do and teach after his ascension, through the agency of the poured-out Holy Spirit, including the vicissitudes, detours, and tensions of the Acts narrative. And this providential work in the midst of conflict and brokenness is foregrounded when the opening of chapter 8 records the outcome of the persecution the believers in Jerusalem endure. As St. Luke says, “all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:1). The violence the Church suffers is made to serve her mission, as Jesus had forecasted at the narrative’s beginning (1:8). Persecution leads to the fulfillment of Jesus’s prediction. The Lord guides and governs even the narrative’s most unassimilable elements, bending them to a higher purpose.
The same pattern holds with respect to chapter 15. The disagreement between the apostles over the status of uncircumcised Gentiles becomes the doorway into the second missionary journey of Paul, leading to evangelism in Macedonia and elsewhere. The conflict among the apostles was not ancillary to this outcome. It was ingredient to it.
This suggests, I believe, that we must do more than merely ask about the theological status of moral disagreement and how to go about achieving unity of mind and spirit among contemporary believers. We must also inquire into what we might call a pneumatology of moral disagreement. Acts 15 suggests that our task is not merely to strategize an end to moral disagreement but also to probe, amid ongoing disagreement, what God’s strange purposes might be in permitting believers to remain at odds with one another over moral matters (cf. 1 Cor. 11:19).
Such an inquiry should not lead to theological fatalism. We should not use the Spirit’s ability to work in and through human recalcitrance and folly as an excuse to rest content with disagreement, throwing up our hands and declaring that it must be God’s will for us since we cannot find a way beyond it. But nor should we fail to recognize that the Spirit can make use of human conflict as well as concord. The command to maintain unity of Spirit, even in its breach, will be caught up in the Spirit’s work of judgment and purgation. How might our moral disagreement appear in a new light if we ask, through prayer, study, and debate, how God is acting in, through, and beyond it?