on sexuality and the grammar of orthodoxy

Alastair Roberts says that Jamie Smith “den[ies] the place of the creed in teaching us Christian morality”; what Smith actually says is that “that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate” the traditional understanding of sexual morality, which is incontestably true, isn’t it? I seriously doubt that Smith would in any way dissent from Roberts’s claim that “the creed is the touchstone of Christian ethics, the document disclosing its true grammar.” Roberts seems to have fundamentally misconstrued Smith’s post as being about the sources of Christian ethics, when in fact it is about the way we use the term “orthodoxy.”

I believe that Roberts is absolutely right to suggest that the grammar of credal orthodoxy is a generative one, from which the whole of Christian ethics emerges. But it does not inevitably do this in obvious ways, ways that Christians are generally agreed about. Smith’s example of pacifism is a telling one. For the Christian pacifist, the very heart of the credal grammar is that in Christ God is at work reconciling the world to himself, and that therefore the whole life of the Church is to participate in that reconciliation, which enjoins a steadfast refusal of armed conflict. For the Christian pacifist, the Christian who believes that wars can be just has simply failed to grasp that credal grammar. And yet most Christian pacifists do not say that just-war Christians fall outside the scope of orthodoxy. And I think they don’t say this because they recognize the difference between grammatical rules that are explicitly stated and the consequences that implicitly follow from those rules.

The argument about whether Christians are permitted to participate in war can therefore be conducted within the ecclesia, within the koinonia of those who belong to Christ. But this does not in any way imply or suggest that the questions at stake are adiaphora, matters about which we can simply “agree to disagree.” They must be worked out with fear and trembling, and we must face the fact that some people in the debate are seriously and consequentially wrong.

This example shows that by noting that a particular issue does not fall within the boundaries of credal orthodoxy one is not thereby condemning it to insignificance. Smith makes this point explicitly. But I think that many of the people who want to say that sexuality is a “first-order issue” for the church are afraid that that’s what’s going on — and in many cases they’re exactly right. Many, many people really do want to claim that since sexuality is not addressed in the creeds it’s something about which we can expect and tolerate a virtually infinite range of opinions. But to deem questions of sexuality adiaphora, no less than dumping questions of war and peace in the same class, would be a tragic error and a complete abdication of Christian ethics.

That said, I just don’t think we can avoid that tragic error by claiming credal status for traditional (what I would call biblical) sexual ethics. I say this for three reasons:

1) We cannot logically and consistently elevate sexual ethics in this way without doing the same for other positions (on war and peace, on slavery, on usury, etc.) which have similarly been claimed by many Christians as being necessarily generated by the grammar of the creeds.

2) To say that sexual ethics is a “first-order issue” on a par with the creeds themselves is inevitably to decenter the creeds themselves: to see them as having failed to specify, to make explicit, absolutely essential matters. They then become creatures of their time and place, products of the disputes that just happened to dominate their moment in history, rather than documents of permanent, binding validity for later Christians. This implies a lower pneumatology and a lower ecclesiology than I believe is healthy.

3) The flip side of the previous point is this: by declaring the issues that most occupy us at the moment, and most occupy us at the moment thanks largely to our mass media, as “first-order issues” for the whole of Christ’s Church in all times and places, we are courting parochialism and presentism. We should, instead, have the humility to wait to see if the whole of Christ’s Church, acting in conciliar unity, agrees with us. Perhaps we can argue that it should: perhaps we can call for a new Ecumenical Council. (And if our disputes over sexuality have the effect of bringing about the kind of unity in Christ that would make a new Ecumenical Council possible, it will have been a blessing in disguise.)

But as it stands we are living through in-between times, what Auden calls “the Time Being,” and as he notes, “To those who have seen / The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” When we believe our brothers and sisters in Christ are wrong, terribly wrong, about sexuality, let us borrow a strategy from so many Christian pacifists over the centuries and tell them they’re wrong — without telling them that they’re not our brothers and sisters — without casting them out of the koinonia. That would be the easy path, the simple path, but not, I am convinced, the Christ-like path.