Christ, culture and the struggle over same-sex relationships

By Derek Olsen

Recently the Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, a senior figure within the Russian Orthodox church gave an address at the Annual Nicean Club Dinner at Lambeth Palace in London. His remarks were focused on the concern he had for the future of the dialogue given liberalizing trends within the Anglican Communion. The Metropolitan repudiated the Episcopal Church for the ordination and consecration of women and for the consecration of Gene Robinson (not “Jim Robertson” as the Metropolitan stated…) and suggested that a similar fate was in store for the Church of England if it did not side-line its plans for the consecration of women as bishops. Instead, the Metropolitan framed the debated as a matter of capitulation to the culture:

We are also extremely concerned and disappointed by other processes that are manifesting themselves in churches of the Anglican Communion. Some Protestant and Anglican churches have repudiated basic Christian moral values by giving a public blessing to same-sex unions and ordaining homosexuals as priests and bishops. Many Protestant and Anglican communities refuse to preach Christian moral values in secular society and prefer to adjust to worldly standards.

Our Church must sever its relations with those churches and communities that trample on the principles of Christian ethics and traditional morals. Here we uphold a firm stand based on Holy Scripture. ….

What can these churches say to their faithful and to secular society? What kind of light do they shine upon the world (cf. Mt. 5:14)? What is their ‘salt’? I am afraid the words of Christ can be applied to them: If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men (Mt. 5:13).

In reading the Metropolitan’s words, I’m reminded of the classic work by H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. In this book, Niebuhr lays out five basic modes through which Christians construct the encounter between Christ—his shorthand for the faithful proclamation of the Gospel—and culture—the human environment, the backdrop in which we live and move. One mode is represented by nothing less than antagonism: Christ against Culture. This view demands that there be no accommodation with the culture; that the word of the Gospel is antithetical to human society and that it must be rejected and purified from the ground up. Significantly, Niebuhr illustrates this stance with the example of Leo Tolstoy, the only Eastern Orthodox Christian profiled in the book.

A second mode is complete capitulation: Christ of Culture. This view sees no discontinuity at all between the culture and the Gospel and sees Christ as an example of what is best in the culture and a model into which we all hope to grow. Again significantly, Niebuhr identifies this view with the Liberal Protestantism of Ritschl, Rauschenbusch, and others who, in Niebuhr’s day appealed to “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.”

The other three modes that Niebuhr lays out are more complex: Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ Transformer of Culture. The ordering of the book as well as its content leaves no doubt that Niebuhr’s favored solution is the last: Christ, the One who offers a transformational redemption to both humanity and the cultures they inhabit. Unsurprisingly, the Reformed theologian associates this approach with both Augustine and John Calvin—though he also includes our own F. D. Maurice firmly in this camp.

What I take away from Niehbuhr is the fundamental conviction that there is no culture—past, present or future—that either has, does, or will embody the Gospel teachings. Just as all humans sin and fall short of God’s loving hope for us, our cultures will as well. A true proclamation of the Gospel must always and inevitably include a condemnation for the ways that the Gospel is perverted in that culture. Just as surely it must identify and uplift where the Gospel is alive and at work within the culture and must encourage those movements which further the faith and habits of the Gospel.

Holding Niebuhr in mind, it’s easy to see the Metropolitan’s characterization of his position and the Anglican position as a clash between Niehbuhr’s first two modes: the metropolitan sees himself upholding a “Christ against Culture” perspective while accusing liberal Anglicans of a “Christ of Culture” perspective. Indeed, it’s easy to caricature the whole conflict between the warring Anglican parties along these two lines but—like all caricatures—it is a gross over-simplification and one that, more often than not, is false in both of its identifications. Furthermore, I see both sides perpetuating these mistaken identifications and digging into these positions, neither of which should be truly accurate.

With regard to liberalizing Anglicans—those who agree with the ordination of woman and those who will accept patterned homosexual clergy however conditionally—we need to take a hard look at ourselves, our theologies, and our motives. It is true that the prevailing Western culture has moved in a permissive direction over the past decades. Why are we in favor of these developments? Is it because it just seems right or because we have friends that we don’t want to disappoint—or because we truly believe that these innovations are demanded by the Gospel? All too often I see defenses of the liberal position that are based primarily in “rights” language or are grounded by warm personal anecdotes about friends, In advancing our arguments in this way, I fear that we do nothing more than confirm the caricature and, worse, ally ourselves with it. This does no service to our cause. I see the ordination and consecration of women and the ordination of people in committed exclusive life-long relationships blessed by the church—gay or straight—as mandates proceeding from the truth and morals of the Gospel. I sincerely hope that those who believe as I do understand it in the same way. It is only when we proceed from these bases that we can respond to the Metropolitan with a firm “no” and still look him—and ourselves—in the eye. We must ask ourselves whether we pass the Niehbuhr test—are we simply capitulating to the pressures of a permissive culture or do we understand the necessity for Christ to transform and rightly order our practices and relationships? Are there points where we clear identify the Gospel to be in conflict with our wider culture?

On the other hand, those who have taken for themselves a conservative label—whether they be Anglican, Russian Orthodox, or some other group—often fall short of the high ground they claim. While they may appear to be standing with Christ against Culture, all too often a deeper examination of their position reveals them to be nothing more than followers of a Christ of Culture as well. Assuredly, their culture is not the current contemporary Western culture, but sometimes the Gospel becomes nothing more than an excuse for the imposition of yet another human culture, especially one fashioned by nostalgia. Too often language about “traditional morals” is not an appeal to principles of virtue or the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church but to a by-gone all-too-human culture where women and gays stayed in their respective homes and closets.

The hard edge of the Gospel cuts against all human constructions of power and propriety. Sometimes its call to repentance, love, and virtue align with platforms either on the Left or on the Right. But neither platform ever captures the Gospel’s clarion. All platforms fall short. We inevitably fall short. But for all Anglicans, all Christians, who care about the on-going proclamation of the Gospel in a culture which needs to be redeemed by it, we must remain committed to holy conversation—with the Spirit and with one another, holy listening—to the Spirit and to our neighbors, and saturation in the Scriptures and Sacraments which are the trustworthy vehicles of the Gospel.

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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