(In the larger ecumenical church this pattern is not unusual.) In any case, it is instructive to note that thoughtful people exist among Christians who might be classified as “progressive traditionalists.” On the question of homosexuality, they include Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Helmut Thielicke, Karl Barth, Robert Benne and Alexander J. McKelway. What follows is a modest attempt to rescue them from invisibility.
In an important journal article, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen urges us to ask better questions in the homosexuality debate. She focuses on two considerations that in this series I have not have space to discuss: (i) the possible causes of homosexuality and (ii) the possible fluidity of one’s sexual disposition. (I believe these matters would only elaborate, though not invalidate, my argument.) She concludes that although anyone’s sexual disposition is a “complicated interplay of nature, nurture, and human freedom,” what I have called a “strong involuntary sexual disposition” actually exists. In her words: “Primary homosexuals do exist – that is, persons with a consistent and longstanding pattern of attraction directed almost exclusively toward members of their own sex.” While this condition is statistically rare, it is “neither casually acquired nor easily discarded.” She therefore urges us to adopt a greater tolerance for ambiguity. She also wants us to uphold a principle of equity (as opposed to actually existing double standards), and to get away from blanket condemnations. Each case, she says, needs to be dealt with “on a compassionate, individual basis.” Her plea for a case by case approach is not far from my proposal for “responsible discretion.” (Van Leeuwen, “To Ask a Better Question: The Heterosexuality/Homosexuality Debate Revisited,” Interpretation, v. 51, 1997, pp. 143-58.)
What “responsible discretion” would look like is discussed at greater length by Helmut Thielicke (who in theology, to say the least, is no flaming liberal). His overall position on homosexuality is almost identical to my own. A good Lutheran, he understands what we Reformed sometimes struggle to grasp, for he knows that the gospel is harmed as much by legalism in the church as by laxity. Alive to the ambiguities, he regards homosexuality as a “borderline situation” (not as an open and shut case). With pastoral considerations uppermost in his mind, he affirms the need to interpret Scripture’s plain sense, as I do, in light of advances in modern knowledge. (He refers, among other things, to the work of Theodor Bovet.) He agrees that homosexual activity is “contrary to nature” (in the sense of being a “disorder,” not an “abomination”). He also understands that a homosexual disposition is “largely unsusceptible” to reorientation, that it directly affects “the core of personhood,” and that celibacy is only for those with a “special calling.” Abstinence pertains to those who are seeking a life partner. For many, “to live ethically with homosexuality” means to achieve “an acceptable partnership.” What I have called “relative sanctification” through fidelity and commitment, he calls achieving “a relative ethical order, even though in principle it is contrary to the order of creation.” When homosexual believers are beset by ostracism, anxiety and self-doubt, they may even be told, in a pastoral setting, that their condition “can become the vehicle of a blessing and a creative challenge.” (Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, Harper & Row, 1964, pp. 269-92.)
Thielicke criticizes Karl Barth (and rightly so) for the position he took on homosexuality in Church Dogmatics. However, like many others, Thielicke was unaware that Barth later changed his mind. In light of conversations with medical doctors and psychologists, Barth came to regret that he had characterized homosexuals as lacking in the freedom for fellowship. In the end he, too, found it necessary to interpret the plain sense of Scripture in light of advances in modern knowledge. (Barth and Thielicke, by the way, both played a role in decriminalizing homosexuality in German society.) (Barth, Offene Briefe, 1945-1968, Zurich, 1984, pp. 542-43.)
Another Lutheran theologian, Robert Benne, has also called for “a nuanced and compassionate approach to the issues concerning homosexuals.” Sexual relations, he believes, are normed by a “divinely created structure.” This normative structure – namely, the bonds of marriage between male and female – is attested by Scripture and upheld by church tradition. (The tradition is “rather unequivocal.”) Nevertheless, homosexual activity is “not some specially heinous sin that cuts one off from God’s grace.” Abstinence is commended as the “heroic response” that the church ought to expect of homosexuals. (Since he does not speak of celibacy as a special charism, Benne’s summons to “heroism” strikes me as slightly Pelagian.) Because abstinence will not be possible for all, however, “the church should discreetly support those who try to maintain the bonds of fidelity. Such behavior is certainly a lesser evil than the promiscuity practiced by part of the homosexual community.” He concludes with this important observation: “The church accepts many less-than-ideal arrangements among its members – divorced clergy, for example – and can certainly accept and affirm those homosexual Christians who take the difficult road of fidelity.” Note that Bene’s reference to “divorced clergy” is a pointed recognition of existing double standards. Why should divorce be less problematic in clergy, biblically speaking, than committed same-sex unions? (Benne, Ordinary Saints, Fortress, 1988, pp. 150-52.)
Finally, it has remained for our own Alexander J. McKelway, in the pages of this journal, to draw out the conclusions for ordination. Like the other “progressive traditionalists,” he accepts the standard ecumenical position that marriage is normative, and Scripture binding. At the same time, he also adopts a principle of “discreet toleration” toward same-sex unions. He calls it “qualified acceptance without approval.” Presupposing “responsible discretion” by judicatories and candidates alike, he appeals to existing precedent in our church: “We have long recognized the legitimacy and usefulness of particular homosexual ministers and officers who have not sought the church’s approval or disturbed the peace.”
Most importantly, McKelway appeals to our common solidarity in sin and grace. On our solidarity in sin, he writes: “Concerning the ordination of homosexuals, homosexuality itself constitutes no impediment. In the absence of scandal or offense, the church has always granted office to sinners – there being no other candidates.” And on our even greater solidarity in grace: “Concerning, however, the ordination of ‘avowed’ or ‘self-affirming’ homosexuals, no one may require the church to accept or ordain in them that which is not in conformity with the will of God. While the church recognizes such elements in the lives of all its officers, its ordination is an act of faith that God will set aside and overrule that within us which distorts his image or injures his people” (italics added). Once again indefensible double standards are swept aside. If all church officers have sin in their lives, why single out those who deal acceptably with homosexual activity? No good reason exists why the church’s “responsible discretion,” as it applies to all ordination candidates, should not be extended to include believers who live responsibly in same-sex unions. (McKelway, Outlook, June 18, 2001 and March 11, 1996.)
Karl Barth suggested that interpreting Scripture involves three phases: explicatio, meditatio and applicatio. Progressive traditionalists agree with non-progressive traditionalists that explicatio is binding, but depart from them on meditatio and applicatio. Their relation to revisionists is much the reverse, especially to revisionists who believe (for whatever reason) that the plain sense (explicatio) can simply be dispensed with. Progressive traditionalists will insist that difficult texts cannot be reduced to silence, even though (as our confessional documents acknowledge) they must be interpreted responsibly within a broad scriptural as well as contemporary context.
In the sexuality debate, progressive traditionalists are therefore uniquely placed to “think outside the box.” For they can discern significant elements of truth in each of the polarized, divisive factions that are driving our church toward schism, unnecessarily though catastrophically. They urge our church, instead, to a renewed sobriety. They point us to the “Third Way” of a larger, more generous orthodoxy than is evident in our current debates.
Posted March 13, 2002
George Hunsinger is the McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.