This article originally appeared in print only in the Christian Research Journal. The full is now available for free at the CRJ site.
Christians weary of the tumultuous debates over human sexuality sometimes wonder whether such a divisive conflict is necessary. After all, many of those promoting arguments in favor of affirming sexual relationships outside of traditional marriage also affirm the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Christ, and confess Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Why shouldn’t they be recognized as brothers and sisters despite their disagreements with the classical position? Christian orthodoxy rests on not merely the creedal formulas but on the entirety of biblical revelation. Scripture teaches that human sexuality and marriage, in particular, are far from being non-essential, residing at the very heart of the Christian faith because God made us male and female in order to tell the world about Christ and His church. That is, God intends that the one-flesh union between husband and wife refer to, bear witness to, and make visible the union between Jesus and His church. Since marriage refers to Christ and His church and the sexual bond consummates the union, sexual relationships outside of biblical marriage obscure, misrepresent, and even blaspheme Christ and His bride. Therefore, to reject what the Bible reveals about sex and marriage is to reject the gospel.
When, in August 2003, the theological drift toward heterodoxy that had been a strong current in The Episcopal Church (TEC) for decades became a roaring flood with the consecration of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire, many traditionalist Episcopalians began to plan their exit strategies. While the Church had already been divided over the question of sexuality, the consecration represented for many the Church’s formal embrace of theological revisionism and her departure from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
At the time, and still today, a number of those who held the traditional view, even some who eventually left TEC, found that language of “departure” — the language of apostasy — too harsh. After all, though TEC affirms homosexual relationships and ordains non-celibate homosexual clergy, she continues to profess the core tenets of the faith: that God is triune, one Being in three Persons, and that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God — truly God and truly man — born of a virgin and lived a life of perfect obedience, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose again bodily on the third day, and ascended into heaven. TEC still teaches that the Holy Spirit resides in the church and in the hearts of all who believe and that He will preserve the church until the Lord returns and establishes His kingdom. While there are a good number of clergy and people within TEC who deny these things, they remain embedded in her liturgy and creeds. Is it fair, then, to say that TEC has “departed” from the faith because traditionalists disagree with her about sex? Can we say that about anyone who, while maintaining creedal orthodoxy, has become sincerely convinced that the sexually inclusive, “affirming” side is right and that the traditional view is the fruit of historical ignorance and cultural prejudice?
Many of the traditionalists who left TEC participated in the founding of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) in 2009. But only two years later in 2011, controversy erupted when the rector of a prominent Virginia ACNA congregation initiated a ministry partnership with the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, a man who ordained non-celibate homosexual clergy and blessed same-sex relationships. Opponents charged that the rector had betrayed the founding principles of the ACNA and compromised the gospel. Defending himself, the rector pointed out that the bishop trusted in Jesus as his personal Savior and affirmed the historic creeds. We agree on the essentials, to paraphrase his argument, doesn’t that make him my brother? In his opinion, which many now share, differing views on sexuality may require denominational separations because of differing practices, but they should not lead to anathematization.1 We Anglicans, for example, disagree with our Baptist friends regarding infant baptism while recognizing our underlying union in Christ. If we can agree to disagree about a sacrament, should we anathematize people over sex?
THE CREEDS AND THE BOUNDARY OF ORTHODOXY
The word “orthodoxy” comes from two Greek words, orthos, which means straight or right, and doxa, which means opinion. To be orthodox is to hold the “right opinion” or to believe what is true. The Apostolic and Nicene Creeds reside at the very heart of the Christian faith. A person who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity or the person and work of Christ, which these Creeds define and enshrine, has stepped beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. His perception of God and the person of Christ would so greatly diverge from that of the orthodox Christian that it would be correct to say that he serves another deity altogether. That the creeds define orthodoxy is generally accepted by professing Christians who disagree about sexuality, but does orthodoxy wholly consist in the creeds? Is there more to it?
The church fathers who gathered at Nicea in 325 to defend the full divinity of Jesus and the ontological unity of the Godhead did not have a formal creed. They possessed the Scriptures and the regula fidei — “the rule of faith” — a formulaic summation of biblical doctrine regarding God’s nature and Jesus and His work passed on from the earliest days of the church.2 If you were to ask Athanasius, the great defender of orthodoxy, what he thought he was doing at Nicea and its aftermath, he would likely say: defending biblical truth as it has been passed down to us from the apostles. Referring to the Arians’ biblical arguments, Athanasius writes, “Nor does Scripture afford them any pretext; for it has been often shown, and it shall be shown now, that their doctrine is alien to the divine oracles.”3 Arius taught that the Son was created, not eternal, and not of the same substance with the Father. He and his followers believed they were making biblical arguments. Athanasius, however, did not recognize the Arian interpretations of biblical texts as valid: “the Arian [heresy], as it is called, considering that other heresies, her elder sisters, have been openly proscribed, in her craft and cunning, affects to array herself in Scripture language, like her father the devil, and is forcing her way back into the Church’s paradise.”4
The Nicene fathers articulated biblical revelation in such a way that the Arians could not affirm it, defining Christian orthodoxy with regard to the Trinity and the person of Christ. But the Nicene Creed was never intended to be the sole measure of orthodoxy. Decades after the clarification of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople (381), a British monk named Pelagius taught that human beings, apart from God’s grace, can do everything God’s law requires. Pelagius was a creedal Christian, thoroughly Trinitarian, believing Jesus to be both true God and true Man. Nevertheless, he was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418 because the church has always understood that orthodoxy means submitting heart and mind not just to the creedal formulas but to the fullness of biblical revelation, moral proscriptions included.5