Way back in the late 1980s, the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado needed to elect a new bishop.
This led to an interesting series of events, with the various candidates -- there were a bunch -- traveling across that large and diverse state to meet with the faithful and to take questions. As the religion-beat writer at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP), I went along.
It was during that tour that I came up with a set of three questions that I have used, ever since, when probing doctrinal fault lines inside Christian organizations, both large and small. Here at GetReligion, we call these questions the "tmatt trio." One of them is rather relevant to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) and my recent update post on the work of the LGBTQ activists at ChurchClarity.org.
But first, here are the three questions, as stated in an "On Religion" column I wrote about the polling work of the late George Gallup, Jr. It opened with a reference to a speech he gave in 1990.
About that time, I shared a set of three questions with Gallup that I had begun asking, after our previous discussions. The key, he affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. ... The questions:
* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
It is interesting, sometimes, to observe the lengths to which Christian leaders, academics and others will go to avoid giving clear answers to these questions, even the one focusing on the resurrection. The key is to pay close attention to their answers, seeking insights into where they stand in the vast spectrum -- liberal to orthodox -- of Christian life.
Now, look again at the third question: "Is sex outside of marriage a sin?"
In a way, ChurchClarity.org is probing the websites of major churches looking for an answer to that question, since it has obvious implications for how churches approach centuries of Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality. The goal is clarity, as the group's website states:
... We’re focusing on policies that directly impact LGBTQ people. Why? Our reasons are:
* We are in a unique moment where churches are actively working out their policies for LGBTQ+ people and thus a church’s policy cannot be simply presumed or taken for granted.
* Many churches have already come to a conclusion and are actively enforcing non-affirming policies, while sending mixed messages or failing to disclose their policies whatsoever. Whether intentional or not, the human cost to this opacity is real, and, we believe, solvable with clarity.
It’s safe to say that Church Clarity and its Advocates are not alone in believing that greater clarity on LGBTQ policy is needed. The signers of the Nashville Statement, Christians United, Liturgists and The Denver Statement appear to agree as well.
The obvious question, asked podcast host Todd Wilken, is whether small-o orthodox Christian leaders can trust the people at ChurchClarity.org -- who are studying church websites and reporting the results (with direct URLs to the source materials).
I argued, once again, that their intent wasn't all that relevant. We live in an age in which, sooner or later, the culture is going to want clarity on these hot-button doctrinal issues.
To be blunt, there are some liberal leaders -- in the Bible Belt perhaps -- who still do not want to openly state their views on marriage and sex, because they fear conflicts with people in their own pews or in their denominations (perhaps clashes with Global South Christians, such as in Anglicanism or the United Methodist Church).
There are also many, many evangelicals, Catholics and others who don't want to speak clearly because they fear the impact of doctrinal honesty on their careers. Lots of other folks in those pulpits and pews cling to vague, fuzzy statements on gay-rights issues because they hope these questions will, someday, simply go away.
These questions are not going to go away.
Question the motives of ChurchClarity.org all you want, but the survey -- focusing on public statements, posted online -- is producing valid information. Journalists will continue to pay attention.
Once again, here is the liberal Baptist David Gushee, saying what must be said:
"It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it," wrote Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, a hub for Bible Belt progressives. He is the author of numerous books, including, "Changing Our Mind, Kingdom Ethics."
Gushee warned the orthodox: "Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you."
Yes, sooner or later, journalists, or activists, or people in the pews, or somebody is going to ask: Is sex outside of marriage a sin? Religious leaders can answer now, or answer later.