Theology and Sex: Do we write a Three Views book or a new creed?

Earlier this week, Tim Tennent posted an excellent article to distinguish perspectives and positions in theology. If you haven’t already read it, you should go do that. You might notice my comment at the bottom of the post. I build on that below.

Here I’m going to: (1) summarize how Tennent defines perspectives and positions and draw some logical conclusions for the church, (2) note how these categories should alter what I wrote last week on the UMC Divide, (3) ask whether human sexuality is a theological perspective or position, and (4) make a note on the crisis of authority in the post-Reformation Church.

A Summary of Perspectives and Positions according to Tennent

Theological perspectives allow for a “generous orthodoxy” (my words). We have different views about these matters, but we’re not calling anyone a heretic or unChristian for disagreeing.[1] Want to see all the sides of one of these debates? Zondervan has made a whole series for it––31 volumes. You can get Four Views on HellFive Views on the Church and PoliticsTwo Views on Women in Ministryor even Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide.

While we celebrate that “generous orthodoxy” regarding perspectives, we allow no such variance for our positions. These are the core doctrines of the faith, “matters where the church has historically spoken with a single voice,” according to Tennent. You hopefully won’t find Two Views on Whether the Son was Created or Three Views on Christ’s Nature: Human, Divine, or Both? That’s because these matters are settled in the church. The early church convened councils, wrote creeds, and excommunicated people over them.

If someone teaches a belief contrary to a Christian position, there is no room for “generous orthodoxy.” We’re dealing with heterodoxy or heresy. The proper response isn’t to write a Three Views book, it’s to correct or excommunicate the heretic.

Perspectives, Positions, Sex, and the UMC Divide

Given the current controversy in the American church and especially the United Methodist Church, the elephant in the room throughout Tennent’s article is our theology of human sexuality. Which category does it belong to––perspective or position? Though the article doesn’t mention human sexuality directly, readers surely glanced in the elephant’s direction while they read this line in a paragraph on core doctrines: “We are told that we are ‘on the wrong side of history’ and we should ‘get with the times.’”[2]

Whether we treat this as a matter of perspective or position will change every aspect of how we handle this controversy. A few people took issue with the comparisons in my last post between United Methodists who flout our stance on baptism and those who flout our stance on same-sex marriage. To use Tennent’s definitions, I believe they were arguing that one is a perspective (generous orthodoxy!), the other a position (heresy!) That misses the point, as I was comparing the two regarding fidelity, not doctrine. If covenant matters, then all of the covenant matters.[3]

Though the categories of perspective and position don’t change that part of my post, they do draw two other parts into question.

1 — I listed several areas where a United Methodist church and clergyperson would be expected to keep covenant. That list is a medley of the two categories. It includes perspectives like women in ministry, itineracy, and baptism practices.[4] It also includes United Methodist doctrine, which in itself is part perspective (e.g. Wesleyan soteriology) and part position (e.g. the bodily resurrection).

Underneath that list, I said, “These questions do not ask for full agreement, only obedience.” That was a statement too broad for a medley of perspectives and positions. You don’t have to fully agree on itineracy, just obey. But on the eternal divinity of Christ, you must agree.

The denominational perspectives require obedience for the sake of fidelity.
The positions require agreement for the sake of orthodoxy.

The other item I included in that list was same-sex marriage. Is it a perspective that requires obedience or a position that requires agreement? This brings another part of my post into question.

2 — I said that I believe the church needs dissenters who will keep dissenting. I included those with different views on same-sex marriage as needed dissenters. If this is a perspective, then we should welcome appropriate debate on the issue. If it’s a position, then as Tennent says, it is “not a point of discussion;” debate and disagreement about same-sex marriage should be tolerated no more than Arianism.

I treated our debate over same-sex marriage as a matter of perspective, not as a matter of position. (Or at least, not as a matter so settled as to close the door on discussion.)

Is our theology of human sexuality perspective or position?

If we say this is a perspective, we can keep full communion, even while differing on this matter of theology.[5] But we’ll have to answer why the church’s consistent historical position on sexuality has come back up for debate. If the church has always taught sex as unitive (uniting two into one flesh) and procreative––prohibiting it whenever it didn’t have these two meanings––what permits us to question these now? Could historical teaching on Christ’s humanity or eternal divinity also come back into play?

If we call this a position, we’ll say the church has historically spoken with a single voice. This is not a point of discussion. We cannot keep full communion with those who disagree. They’re not orthodox Christians. But if we rely on tradition here, we’ll have to answer how the situation is different from as recent as the 15th century, when women’s ordination and the confessional view of baptism looked much closer to prohibited positions than permissible perspectives. Moreover, we’ll need to answer whether Protestant churches have truly held to the historical position of the church––that sex must have a unitive and procreative meaning. The Roman Catholic Church would surely argue that our perspective on contraception is a violation of the church’s historical position on sexuality.

I don’t conclude here with an answer. Tennent’s post has given me helpful categories to name my confusion. I’m a traditionalist on human sexuality. From Scripture and the church’s tradition, I’m convinced that sex is properly unitive and procreative. But I’m unsure whether I can call this a perspective or a position. The difference is glaring. Do we write a Two Views book with each other (it’s already out there), or do we say this is no point of discussion and correct or excommunicate the heretic?

The Crisis of Church Authority

Most of the church’s major theological crises were settled when there was a definable church. Then, as now, they did not have one side arguing from the Bible and another denying the Bible. Instead, they had two sides arguing their position from the Bible. They were able to convene ecumenical councils as one body, identify orthodox belief and heresy, and write creeds that specified Christian belief.

A theological crisis like this over human sexuality reveals the trouble with church authority after the Reformation. A denomination can convene a council, but that council speaks for the denomination, not for the Church universal. A council speaking for a denomination is, by definition, clarifying a perspective, not a position. Without an ecumenical council, where do we go to confirm and clarify positions in question?

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[1] Well, most of us aren’t, anyway.
[2] When I run a Google search for “wrong side of history” and “church,” six of the first seven articles are about human sexuality.
[3] For a better direct comparison between doctrinal points, see my discussion of our treatment of human sexuality in relation to same-sex marriage.
[4] That we would include baptism as a perspective is especially interesting, and almost all of us would. Tennent supports this by saying that both views of baptism have theological arguments to support them and that historically, “the church has not found common ground on every aspect of baptism.” We can certainly say this today, but could 15th century theologians have said the same? Or would they have called baptism (or at least infant baptism) a matter “where the church has historically spoken with a single voice”––a position?
[5] This point especially comes into focus as the UMC and The Episcopal Church discuss full communion.