Every year in recent memory has brought yet another mainstream, Protestant denomination into the tumultuous debates and traditional compromises of our present age. Whether the debate is in regards to same-sex marriage or openly homosexual clergy, it seems that such controversies and debates have become the norm.
Interestingly enough, each time such a debate occurs, the same appeals are heard from either side: “The Bible says…”; “Scripture clearly teaches…”; “We know from the Bible that…”
Despite appeals to the same source (the Protestant Bible), neither side is ever convinced of the other’s. The debate continues, and one side will eventually emerge as victorious.
Most recently, the Episcopal Church (USA)—the American branch of the Church of England—saw its markedly “liberal” manifestation emerge victorious in the blessing of same-sex unions and transgender clergy. While the Episcopal Church has been a doctrinal and moral nightmare for years, it seems it is truly nearing the end of its shuffle, as scores of bishops and entire dioceses are looking elsewhere for ecclesiastical fellowship. And yet, despite the “clear” prohibition of such resolutions in the Holy Scriptures, the Episcopalians (among others) are able to debate such an issue and see a position that most “conservative” Christians would consider to be “un-Biblical” win the day.
How does this happen?
Rick Warren has recently speculated on Twitter that this is all due to losing a focus on the Bible:
>@RickWarren Sad news: how America’s oldest denomination has collapsed after abandoning the Bible as the authority.
But is “abandoning the Bible” really to blame? Is that the heart of the issue? I don’t think so.
In fact, the dissenting bishops and clergy of the Episcopal Church both made appeals to the Bible as the authority for their viewpoints. The conservatives, such as David Thurlow, made statements like:
For two thousand years the Church has had clear teaching regarding Christian marriage and Biblical norms of sexual behavior… through previous statements and resolutions the Church has pledged itself not to make any change to this traditional teaching.
On the other hand, the openly gay Gene Robinson (a bishop of the Episcopal Church) has said:
We have allowed the Bible to be taken hostage, and it is being wielded by folks who would use it to hit us over the head…. The sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexual sex but was a failure to care for the poor, the widows and the orphans. Scripture is not as plainspoken as some would have us believe.
Indeed, it is not.
And because the Holy Scriptures (at least in part) lack a generous perspicuity, and because they are “capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters” (St. Vincent of Lérins, Commonitorium), the Church must rely upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit in Tradition in order to maintain any semblance of order, apostolic succession and fidelity to the one, true faith of Jesus Christ and His apostles. And again, as St. Hilary of Poitiers once wrote, “Scripture is not in the reading, but in the understanding.” (Ad Constantium Aug., Bk. 2.9) It is not enough to simply possess the Holy Scriptures, or even to regularly read them—one must also be filled with the same Holy Spirit that aided in their composition and collection as the paramount portion of the Church’s sacred Tradition. This “mind of the Spirit” is found alone in the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Back in 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) also passed a resolution that allowed openly homosexual men (and women) with “partners” to serve as ordained clergy. While most “traditional” and “conservative” Christians reacted with disdain at such a decision—also describing it as un-Biblical and an abandonment of traditional, Biblical, Christian beliefs and values—it was yet again a prime example of Sola Scriptura in action (no matter how much those on the “conservative” side of Protestantism would hate to admit it).
For example, the ELCA news release at the time contained this interesting tidbit:
Pastor Richard Mahan of the ELCA West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod was among several speakers contending that the proposed changes are contrary to biblical teaching. “I cannot see how the church that I have known for 40 years can condone what God has condemned,” Mahan said, “Nowhere does it say in scripture that homosexuality and same sex marriage is acceptable of God.”
But others said a greater acceptance of people who are gay and lesbian in the church was consistent with the Bible. Bishop Gary Wollersheim of the ELCA Northern Illinois Synod said, “It’s a matter of justice, a matter of hospitality, it’s what Jesus would have us do.”
Again, nowhere in these statements do we find men (or women) claiming that they have “abandoned the Bible,” as Rick Warren lamented on Twitter. On the contrary, the justification for everything that they’re deciding is that such beliefs are “found in the Bible”—according to both sides simultaneously.
Does this mean that the Bible is openly contradictory? Not at all. Does it mean that we should abandon the Bible? Of course not. In fact, the Orthodox Church has an enormous amount of love for and veneration towards the Holy Scriptures.
What is necessary, however, is to be joined to the fellowship of the one, true Church. Because the Orthodox Church produced and canonized the Scriptures, the right understanding of the Bible is found in the Orthodox Church, and the Church has taken measures to ensure that this is never compromised and never lost—no matter what culture wars erupt and no matter what the spirit of the age might bring.
While the Scriptures clearly teach that actively homosexual behavior and relationships are a sin, we are not left with one’s personal interpretation of the Bible in order to establish and maintain this belief. It is not simply a matter for debate. Joined with the “plain reading of Scripture” are the decisions of bishops in councils and the writings of various Church fathers that help both corroborate this understanding and establish the mind of the Church on such matters. This consensus is the conscience of the entire Church (along with the Holy Spirit), and this ensures that it can (and will) never be changed.
While Rick Warren is right to lament the demise of the Episcopalians and their Christian principles, the issue is not due to their abandoning the Bible. The real issue is abandoning Holy Tradition and the unity of the faith that can alone be experienced in the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Vincent Martini has a BA in Philosophy from Indiana University and is an Orthodox convert / layman in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He resides in northwest Arkansas.