Incommensurable Differences?


David Gushee, an American Baptist ethicist writes on the state of evangelicalism and the LGBT debate that has embroiled so many churches:

I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door.

I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable.

Not surprisingly a number of conservative Christian writers jumped at the chance to affirm this statement.

Denny Burke, a Southern Baptist professor of Biblical Studies, writes:

Gushee is absolutely right about this. We have “incommensurable differences” and the differences are indeed “unbridgeable.” On the one side are the traditionalists who believe that homosexuality is a sin. On the other side are the revisionists who believe that homosexuality is not sinful. The differences between the traditionalists and the revisionists go right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Andrew T Walker, Director of Policy Studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention writes:

Gushee will no doubt disagree with my framing of the situation, but whereas he thinks he’s leaving evangelicalism, I believe he is abandoning the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). He is abandoning the very words of Jesus who upholds the sexual binary in Matthew 19:4-6. Those are not words haphazardly written or thrown around intended to score cheap internet points.

But Gushee’s own words bear witness to the claim that he views his affirmation of LGBT relationships as constitutive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He views this issue as a dividing line in biblical interpretation, moral discernment, with the result that we — those who stand within two thousand years of teaching — are “former brethren.” I agree and reach the same conclusion as him, though with the opposite position.

And Rod Dreher, senior editor of the American Conservative writes:

Be grateful, at least, for the clarity David Gushee brings to the conflict. Which side are you on? You must decide. You do not and must not hate those who reach the opposite conclusion. But you must not pretend that we can share a church, unless one side is prepared to keep its views on the matter quiet, and stand down from contesting the issue within the church.

When the right jumps at the chance to agree with you, it may be that hesitation is required. It was for me and I’ve been thinking why that is the case. Because on the face of it, given how many churches have schism-ed or are about to schism, they must be right. The headlines suggest it is not possible to live in the same church and disagree on LGBT inclusion.

I present the United Methodists as exhibit A. I cannot envision them being the same body after their 2019 specially called General Convention. Every mainline body has seen churches leave, including my own United Church of Christ, over this issue. The Presbyterian Church USA has had a little known split over the issue producing the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians . The Episcopal Church has had a split producing the Anglican Church of North America.

I will say that I left the Presbyterian Church USA in the early 90s, because I did not want my identity as a gay person debated. I found myself in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ as a result. I didn’t mind division on this issue. But I didn’t want to be in a church that was divided on this issue. I wanted it settled on the side of inclusion so that we could go on being church and doing church.

But I would note that the conservative Christian writers move their terms around. It’s one thing to say that churches cannot survive this division, whether that is individual congregations or even denominations. It’s another thing to say that Christianity cannot survive this division. When Gushee wanted to leave evangelicalism, that was not enough for them. They wanted him out of the church all together.

It’s clear for all the authors I quoted, that if you support LGBT inclusion in the church, you are not a Christian. They claim Christian anthropology ( a brief look at church history will see a wide diversity of anthropologies), they claim the weight of Christian tradition (a brief look at church history will indicate that this debate is less than a century old), they claim the weight of scriptural witness (again this debate is less than a century old).

They have decided as Andrew T Walker puts it:

“We in the West are in a moment of status confessionis. At such a time, the church must confess what is essential to its foundations or else risk letting in false teachers that would lead the flock astray”.

And yes, I as a gay person, am an affront to what is essential to Christian faith for them. But they might say, isn’t inclusion central, an essential feature of what it means to be a Christian for me? Shouldn’t I be throwing anathemas, equally back at them, if I am true to my belief that LGBT folks should be welcomed into the full life and ministry of the church?

Well yes and no. I believe that inclusion is an essential part of my identity as a Christian. That should be enough to a church where that was held to be the case b.avoid churches that would not support such inclusion. And that is the case. And I do believe and argue for my position. But it would never occur to me to think that because their understanding of Christian faith is different, even fundamentally, from mine, that they are not Christian.

It’s because I’m not apt to think of Christianity as a set of beliefs, even as I have many beliefs. I am apt to think of it as a like a language. Languages admit of many, even incommensurable differences, within them. To say you can cut off Australian English because it is different from Ozark’s English, seems absurd to me. There may be dialects that differ so much that they become another language, but on the whole, languages are flexible enough, even strengthened by their adaptability and diversity, even as languages seek to communicate.

But sometimes those differences, can make it hard to understand one another. For instance, I’m not an evangelical, but I can see when Matthew Vines is reading the Bible to include LGBT folks he is using the same language game as Denny Burke is, in opposing such a move. And given that I am a Christian and have some knowledge of the Bible, I can participate in the debate. Or, as a liberal maybe I’d be on the sidelines, but I can at least see the commonalities in this debate, even as the LGBT affirming and opposing sides differ on significant points.

This is why I’m suspicious of “incommensurable” language. If we are thinking in terms language, incommensurable means it is not possible to understand each other. But that is not the case here. Folks are fully able to communicate. It may be hard, it may require translation work, but it is possible. The problem is that they cannot persuade the other side. And that is not the same thing as a failure to communicate. But because they cannot persuade, because the debate seems never ending, both sides say it is time to call it a day. I remember when John Shelby Spong, argued as much 20 years ago.

And yet we’re still having this debate. As many times as folks have called for the LGBT debate to end, it doesn’t end. That should indicate something to us. For one thing, what seems like an old debate to many of us, is brand new to younger people. I came out of the closet in the mid 90s, where I was reading debates that went back to the 1970s as if it was brand new. And today that happens anew. It is not an old debate for many people. So the need exists for the debate to continue.

I believe, beyond being tired of what they think of as an old debate, one where they have failed to persuade the other side, a group is being ignored. And they are the folks on the sidelines, reading, watching the combatants, and coming to their own determination. We know David Gushee had changed his mind on the subject. We know Rod Dreher did not grow up with the views he holds now. If the main combatants  are tired, for everyone else coming to their own views, it would be wrong to veto further discussion.

I suspect, one reason, why they want the discussion vetoed is that they don’t want to deal with the simple fact that there are LGBT young people in Orthodox churches, in Catholic churches, among Southern Baptists, and in Mormon wards. If there is no debate, there are no LGBT members in their churches, or at least LGBT folks would have no language to identify as such.

Even if I have never walked into a Southern Baptist church, as a gay UCC pastor, I end up being a sign, even a possibility to some Southern Baptists, to some evangelicals who are coming out or into their own on this issue. And that can’t be had for the right. That is why, in the end, they call for an end to the debate. That is why they want to push folks out of the church. And that is why we cannot agree to such calls.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma


Categories: Blog, Culture, Feature, Religion

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