A divisive debate over the Bible spotlighted Episcopalians' OK for gay bishop

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003

As the Episcopal Church agonized over the confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop and now as his endorsement threatens to split the denomination some have wondered why homosexuality is such a divisive issue in Christianity.

Why don't all Episcopalians and other churches simply recognize that gay people are sexually active and move on? After all, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws this year and Canada plans to legalize same-sex marriages.

The reason, in short, is the Bible the word of God in the eyes of Christians.

Until very recently, all Christian branches agreed that same-sex activity was immoral because of their age-old understanding of God's will taught in the Scriptures.

Most of the world's Christian bodies maintain that belief. But in the last quarter-century, liberal scholars from some so-called ''mainline'' Protestant denominations in Europe and North America have argued against traditional Bible interpretations, often in books from church publishing houses. They say the Bible's overwhelming overall message is loving acceptance and justice for all people.

This has gradually influenced leadership circles in the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and United Methodist Church. Yet the new biblical theories have failed to convince legions of rank and file American churchgoers.

To go to the source of the argument, two biblical passages are crucial:

''You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination'' (Leviticus 18:22, an Old Testament law repeated with the death penalty in Leviticus 20:13).

''God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error'' (the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:26-27).

Conservatives say God fixed the sexual pattern in Genesis 2:24: ''Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.'' Jesus repeated that teaching twice in the Gospels: Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-9.

At the Episcopal convention, the Rev. Kendall Harmon of South Carolina said that the Old and New Testaments send the same message that sex is limited to a woman and a man. ''There is no tension, no qualification, no development and no equivocation,'' he said.

Another conservative point: No biblical verse hints at approval for same-sex activity.

Liberal authors commonly say Leviticus 18 was part of a Jewish purity code that barred practices associated with paganism, including many laws Christianity eliminated, for instance the kosher rules in Leviticus 17. Conservatives reply that the gay ban is embedded alongside laws against adultery, incest, bestiality and child sacrifice that Christianity kept.

Regarding Romans 1 and other New Testament passages, liberals often say these merely meant to oppose same-sex activity that was exploitative (using slaves or boys). A related argument: Paul thought men were heterosexual in nature and should shun homosexual acts, but some today believe people are born with a disposition toward being gay.

In the heftiest conservative book on the subject in recent years, ''The Bible and Homosexual Practice'' (Abingdon), Robert A. J. Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary argues in detail that all same-sex variants were well known in the ancient world so it's obvious the Bible opposed same-sex activity across the board, not just certain types.

But the Rev. Walter Wink of New York's Auburn Theological Seminary, a United Methodist clergyman, disagrees with Presbyterian Gagnon's reading of Scripture.

''The Bible has no sex ethic,'' Wink says. ''It only knows a communal love ethic'' exemplified by Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself, which requires Christians to understand gays' experiences.

Societies' changing codes of sexual conduct should be assessed against that standard and in light of modern knowledge, he says.

Wink acknowledges that ''a lot of churches are not going to change'' for the present, but he's convinced they will eventually shed old Bible interpretations that are ''life-denying and intellectually dishonest.''

''In 50 years most of us will look back and say, 'Why were we so slow? Why was this so difficult?''' he said.

Bishop-elect Robinson believes biblical conservatives will ''come to know that they are wrong, in this life or the next one.''

Gagnon agrees that the traditional view is not popular in universities or the media. But he insists that the Bible's entire authority is under threat. If people can deny such a clear and specific scriptural teaching, he says, it raises questions about the point of adhering to the faith in the first place.

Says Gagnon: ''When we reach the point where it is no longer the word of God for us in any meaningful sense, there is no more reason to be part of organized Christianity.''

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