A few months back, it was requested that our community define two things:
- Under what scriptural authority do progressives determine that women can be ministers, that divorcees can be leaders, and that LGBT persons can be clergy or be partnered? We addressed this in the post “The Church, not the Bible, determines Sin.”
- If authority is given to the Church to determine what is sin, how do you serve within the Church when you believe it is wrong? We outlined two such ways of living in the post “What if the Church is Wrong on Sin?“
Those are both excellent additions to the conversation as they give scriptural warrant to a faith tradition to loosen traditional Christian stances on minority groups, while also negotiating how to live within a faith tradition that isn’t in sync with your values.
However, there’s still a lingering aspect that bears examination in light of the previous two posts: How do you get more alignment in the church along ethical teachings in a systemic way? If what the corporate body believes is so important, how do we get more uniformity along ethical questions?
Mark Allan Powell, a New Testament professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, wrote an article in Ex Auditu (19:2003, 81-96) that we’ve been using for our conversation. Let’s see what he has to say on this topic.
The Need for Catechism
Powell addresses this question of how to systematically deal with changing ethical considerations in a faith context:
“The divisive ethical issue is symptomatic of a fundamental problem, perhaps a failure at entrance (catechetical) level to articulate its confessional theology as a hermeneutical approach to ethics.” (pg. 94)
In a similar vein, United Methodist superintendent Sky McCracken, in his Facebook comments replying to the Schismatic 80, claimed several times that “poor catechism, and failure to make disciples who make disciples is the root cause” of the United Methodist Church’s troubles. I’ve seen similar comments elsewhere as conservative evangelicals seek to see how it is there is so much diversity on this topic in their heretofore uniform churches.
Catechism refers to the ways how a faith tradition articulates and transmits its values, methods, and beliefs. In early Christianity, the beliefs were memorized by the devotees as a prerequisite for baptism. Our Creeds work very well as question and response test before baptism, which they might have been used for. Today, parents go through catechisms before they baptize their children, newcomers to a faith tradition go through new member classes, youth go through confirmation, and Mormon high schoolers go through seminary. There’s a process by which any faith tradition molds and shapes devotees so that when they become “part of the whole” they reflect the whole’s values.
So for Powell and others, the problem is on the Church’s desk: the Church isn’t keeping the doorway narrow and effective enough to maintain a common theology to address ethical questions. If the catechism process of baptism and membership was strengthened, then we’d have less of these ethical debates within the Church. As a recent evangelical Catalyst article says:
If baptism is no longer a journey into death and resurrection, if baptism is merely a symbolic ritual tacked on to worship at the end of a perfunctory “membership class” — and membership in a declining institution at that — then we no longer have a functioning catechumenate. Instead, we simply have a series of failed educational programs.
Catechism and LGBT Identity
Throughout this series, I’ve found Powell’s hermeneutic to be powerful (binding and loosing) but some of his conclusions rub me the wrong way. This particular point about catechism falls short when it come to the debate about the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church.
Catechism is less applicable when people enter into a faith community before they have determined their orientation, or perhaps are partway through denying it. No matter how rigid the doorways and how robust the self-examination, an intrinsic identity like orientation or gender identity will always go through, not left behind like a baptismal garment. It carries through, and then forces the ethical question later in life.
In this context, the reason why the LGBT question is so powerful and important in the church is that it changes the ethical question. The decision is how a faith’s hermeneutic applies to “us” not to “them.” No matter how strong our confessional theology is–the result of the catechumenate process–the ethical question will still come up regardless. We are not automatons who never change after we walk through the door: our identity in Christ is forever, but our beliefs about how Christ would act change over time.
When it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, a stronger catechumenate process and confessional theology will not eradicate the LGBT debate from our churches because it is an intrinsic identity that endures and forces the church to determine what to do with “our” people who are hurting from an oppressive polity towards LGBT persons.
LGBT Inclusion Because of Confessional Theology
Or will it? Could a better catechumenate process actually help with this conversation? Here’s one last Powell quote:
“Disagreement with the church’s ethical teaching might be symptomatic of fundamental disavowal of the confessional theology in which the ethical teaching is supposedly grounded.” (pg. 94)
Absolutely not. It is through my confessional theology of knowing Jesus Christ and believing that God interacts with the world through a Wesleyan model of grace that I can affirm an ethical teaching in opposition to the Church’s. It is through my seeking orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthokardia (right heart) that I can affirm LGBT inclusion. It is through my robust examination of Wesleyan theology, Methodist history and doctrine, and classic Christian theology that I do affirm LGBT inclusion.
Huh. Maybe Powell is onto something. Like my take on Powell’s work, it’s the hermeneutic that I believe is enduring and powerful in my Wesleyan tradition. The confessional theology and application of that theology on ethical stances yields my embrace of full inclusion.
Maybe Powell is right, but the catechumenate pedagogy needs to change. Like the goal of college isn’t depositing knowledge but teaching people how to think qualitatively. The goal of a math class isn’t to remember logarithms but to know how to reason quantitatively. Maybe catechesis is teaching how to live holistically, body and spirit. By teaching how to think and see and feel, we’ll have a robust church that can stand the test of time and can properly weather any ethical questions from inside or outside.
In that sense, perhaps I do stand with Powell and McCracken and hope for a better catechism. I hope for one that seeks to teach how to live rather than simply what to believe…and that could truly be a way forward for churches seeking LGBT inclusion.