The United Methodist Church has decided to divide over the issue of same-sex marriage. This is not surprising, given the longstanding disagreements on this matter that have afflicted the denomination. The UMC has arranged the separation in a remarkably civil way: The proposed solution, formulated by a committee of members drawn from both sides of the debate, will (hopefully) avoid the rancor and distress and disputes about properties and pensions that have marked other such denominational splits in recent times.
It is odd, however, that this is the issue that has produced the division. Same-sex marriage has not become plausible or imperative by virtue of its own merits. It has only become plausible as a function of much wider and deeper shifts within society’s understanding of the self. The sexual revolution was always but a symptom of the selfhood revolution whereby expressive individualism came to dominate how our culture understands the purpose of life. And that means that any church where same-sex marriage is significant enough to cause divisive debate is a church where significant parties have already absorbed the spirit of the age regarding personhood, love, sex, and sexuality—whether intentionally or by cultural osmosis. And that in turn means it is a church where significant parties have already abandoned basic Christian anthropology and an orthodox understanding of biblical authority.
The United Methodist Church has been a theater for numerous battles over basic orthodoxy. At the Juicy Ecumenism blog, Mark Tooley has pointed out the church’s failure to deal with Bishop Joseph Sprague, who denied Christ’s eternal deity and bodily resurrection. One UMC church hosted a conference where the resurrection was denied. And a pungent response to Tooley from a UMC minister indicates that exactly what constitutes orthodoxy and belief in the UMC is disputed even among United Methodists. All this, in a sense, makes a split on an issue like same-sex marriage profoundly odd. Is the definition of marriage more important than the resurrection? In fact, does not the Christian definition of marriage itself depend upon Christology, of which the resurrection is a central component? Therein lies the risk: To fight over same-sex marriage while tolerating heresy on foundational doctrines is to make oneself vulnerable to the charge of being motivated less by fidelity to the Christian faith and more by homophobia. I am not saying that the UMC conservatives are motivated by homophobia, of course; but I am saying that, after so much else has been allowed to pass without division, making same-sex marriage the hill upon which to die does render such an accusation plausible.
This touches on two further difficulties Christians face on the issue of same-sex marriage. First, there is the broad cultural problem: This issue cannot be isolated from the much deeper cultural pathologies that have formed over many years. The helpful exchange between Rod Dreher and Robert P. George last week highlighted the various problems traditionalists face on this issue, particularly the cowardice that has characterized too many.
But courage is not enough. We live in a time and place where the foundational issues upon which same-sex marriage rests were decided long ago. For my generation, the aesthetic argument that kept my parents’ generation in check—homosexuality as disgusting—was barely plausible. For the rising generation, with taste buds shaped by everything from sitcoms to Internet pornography, this aesthetic argument is as ridiculous as that which (to use Freud’s famous example) makes a man find kissing a woman to be delightful but using her toothbrush to be disgusting. And the forces that have made morality a function of aesthetics, and rendered traditional Christianity distasteful, are too pervasive to allow for much hope that the situation can be changed for the better within the next few decades at least. A revolution so long in the making and so comprehensive in scope cannot be undone without an equally chronic counter-turn.
Second, and returning to the UMC split, the Christian church cannot expect its rising generation of young people to hold the line on traditional sexual ethics and marriage if that generation is not properly catechized in the basics of the faith. Same-sex marriage is not really the issue. Thorough catechesis is. At the risk of tautology, if Christian marriage makes sense, it only makes sense within the framework of Christianity, on the basis of an ethics rooted in Christian doctrine. There is no point in dividing a denomination or congregation over same-sex marriage if that division is not driven by a deeper commitment to creedal Christianity.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.