The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church got off the plane from Tanzania and offered some reflections on the recent Anglican Primates meeting. In the process, she illustrated very nicely how easy is it to misapply Scripture:
We traveled home from this meeting at Carnival, the farewell to meat (carne vale) that comes just before Lent begins. That is an image that may be useful as we consider what the Primates’ gathering is commending to the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has been asked to consider the wider body of the Anglican Communion and its needs. Our own Church has in recent years tended to focus on the suffering of one portion of the body, particularly those who feel that justice demands the full recognition and celebration of the gifts of gay and lesbian Christians. That focus has been seen in some other parts of the global Church, as inappropriate, especially as it has been felt to be a dismissal of traditional understandings of sexual morality. Both parties hold positions that can be defended by appeal to our Anglican sources of authority – scripture, tradition, and reason – but each finds it very difficult to understand and embrace the other. What is being asked of both parties is a season of fasting – from authorizing rites for blessing same-sex unions and consecrating bishops in such unions on the one hand, and from transgressing traditional diocesan boundaries on the other.
A parallel to this situation in our tradition might be seen in the controversy over eating meat in early Christian communities, mentioned both in the letter to the Romans and the first letter to the Corinthians. In those early communities, the meat available for purchase in the public market was often part of an animal that had been offered (in whole or in part) in sacrifice in various pagan religious rites. The troubling question in the Christian community was whether or not it was appropriate to eat such meat – was it tainted by its involvement in pagan religion? Did one participate in that religion (and thus commit apostasy) by eating it? Paul encourages the Christians in Rome and Corinth to recall that, while there may be no specific prohibition about eating such meat, the sensitive in the community might refrain if others would be offended. The needs of the weaker members, and the real possibility that their faith may be injured, are an important consideration in making the dietary decision.
The current controversy brings a desire for justice on the one hand into apparent conflict with a desire for fidelity to a strict understanding of the biblical tradition and to the main stream of the ethical tradition. Either party may be understood to be the meat-eaters, and each is reminded that their single-minded desire may be an idol. Either party might constructively also be understood by the other as the weaker member, whose sensibilities need to be considered and respected.
She is referring to the controversy that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 8, which says this:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”–yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
The principle of refraining from action that one’s Christian liberty allows for the sake of the brother or sister whose faith is not as mature makes perfect sense, of course, when one recognizes that the action in question is purely a matter of individual conscience. Eat meat sacrificed to idols, no big deal, an idol isn’t anything, as long as you know that it’s just food, go ahead. Don’t indulge if it will scandalize your fellow Christians, out of love for them, but don’t have any qualms for yourself. But homosexual behavior doesn’t fall into that category. It is expressly forbidden in the moral law, and Paul reiterates those prohibitions along with others that prohibit sexual immorality in general. Engaging in it isn’t a matter of Christian liberty, any more than worshipping other gods or murder or envy are. That doesn’t make it a worse sin than any other; but then again, I don’t see anyone within the churches leading the charge to make worshipping other gods or murder or envy acceptable behavior for Christians. (OK, maybe that first one, a little…)
The point is this: the Bishop’s reference to 1 Corinthians 8 is not valid, because the issue in question (homosexual behavior) is not a matter of Christian liberty. The matter of diocesan border crossings, on the other hand, refers to institutional arrangements that in and of themselves have no basis in Scripture (even if one grants that there are bishops in the New Testament, the idea of the inviolable geographical diocese didn’t come until at least a century or more later). To equate the two issues is to say that the arrangements of men have equal footing with the commandments of God, something with which I think Jesus would have had a problem.