Father Rick Morley is to be congratulated. Despite the controversial subject matter of his September 5th letter to the editor (“As With Slavery, Time May Soften Views Against Gay Bishop”), it was both thoughtful in its presentation and irenic in its tone. Fr. Morley’s exhortation to “debate the issue of homosexuality and biblical morality” in humility and with “the fear of God” is well taken. Such matters are too important to fall prey to the propagandistic hysteria that exists on both sides of the issue.
While I applaud the spirit of Fr. Morley’s letter, I find his analogy between past Christian thought on slavery and modern Christian thought on homosexuality to be fallacious. His argument is basically this:
- Many people of faith once asserted that the American institution of slavery was sanctioned by the teachings of Scripture. This theological grid prompted such people to denounce the Emancipation Proclamation as unbiblical twaddle.
- With time, these segments of American Christianity came to recognize that the Bible could never be construed to countenance the injustice and cruelty of slavery.
- Today, a number of Christians assert that homosexuality should not be embraced and celebrated as normal, healthy human behavior. Their reasoning (similar to their 19th-century counterparts who supported slavery) is based on Scripture. Just as some Christians once rejected the emancipation of slaves on supposedly scriptural reasons, many Christians today reject the ordination of a gay bishop on the same grounds.
- The passage of time may have the same effect on the thinking of modern Christians with respect to homosexuality as it did on 19th-century Christians who were pro-slavery. To wit, biblical sanction of homosexuality may eventually (and rightly?) become the predominant viewpoint within Christendom.
The problem with this logic occurs on two levels:
- Fr. Morley is correct in his assertion that many Christians erroneously believed slavery to be biblically licit. But his emphasis on this fact belies the largely Christian underpinnings of abolitionism in the northern regions of the country.
Thomas Weld, who became a Christian under the preaching of 19th century revivalist Charles Finney, was among the first abolitionists to paint the struggle against slavery as a struggle against sin.1 The Christian community in the North followed suit, and soon pro-slavery pulpiteers in the South had to contend with stinging biblical retorts from their abolitionist counterparts.2 The Golden Rule was the linchpin of Christian abolitionist thought.3 “Treat others,” Jesus taught, “in the same way that you wish to be treated.” On this basis, abolitionists posed a poignant and damning question: How many southern slaveholders would willingly trade places with their slaves for even one day?4
Armed with this potent argument, abolitionists proceeded to build a cumulative scriptural case against slavery:
How, too, would slaveholders answer Exodus 21:16, “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death”? Or Proverbs 22:22, 23, “Rob not the poor…for the Lord will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them”? And Jeremiah 22:13, “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work”? And in the New Testament, James 5:4, “Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabbaoth.”5
Fr. Morley has omitted a significant part of church history from his analogy. Yes, some Christians did justify slavery with the Bible; but plenty of other Christians who also reasoned from the Bible arrived at the opposite (and correct) conclusion. This brings us to the second problem with Fr. Morley’s logic.
- His analogy does not even attempt to grapple with the inherent veracity or falsehood of either perspective on homosexuality. Note the unfounded assumptions that are implicit in his analogy:
- Those who opposed the emancipation of slaves on scriptural grounds (an incorrect position) are analogous to those who now oppose homosexuality on scriptural grounds. The implication is that the latter perspective on homosexuality is false.
- Those who supported the emancipation of slaves on scriptural grounds (a correct position) are analogous to those who now sanction homosexuality as acceptable on scriptural grounds. The implication is that the latter perspective on homosexuality is correct.
This is the more egregious of Fr. Morley’s errors. I have no doubt that he would agree when I say that the right side won the argument on slavery — he undeniably implies this in his letter. In doing so, however, he admits something important: one of the camps on slavery was objectively and irrevocably wrong. The falsehood of their position was (and is) independent of the passage of time. It was wholly incorrect from its inception, regardless of the temporal nature of the opinions or feelings of those who espoused it.
The same possibility exists for either position on homosexuality–one objectively adheres to ultimate reality, the other does not. In portions of his letter, Fr. Morley seems to be open to the possibility that those who decry homosexuality might have the correct position. His analogy, however, presumes that this view is incorrect.
I respect Fr. Morley’s overarching premise: Just because someone reasons from Scripture, it doesn’t make them right. Pro-slavery Christians are a case-in-point example, and Fr. Morley is right to point this out. Nevertheless, his homosexuality analogy breaks down because some who reasoned from Scripture were right on the issue of slavery. If we are correct to reason from Scripture that homosexuality is vice rather than virtue (and I believe the biblical data bear out that we are–but that’ll have to wait for another article!) then Fr. Morley’s appeal to the passage of time as a “softener” of such views is 1) misguided, and 2) more analogous to Christians who supported slavery than those who opposed it.
1. Peter Marshall and David Manuel, From Sea to Shining Sea (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 397-398.