I do not, as a matter of policy, comment on the posts of other individual bloggers. I will make an exception when 1) the other blogger refers to me by name; 2) comes here to comment; and 3) is civil. Matt Rhodes, who blogs at Faith and Family, qualifies on all three counts. So Matt, this one’s for you.

He begins by noting that I didn’t deal with the Gene Robinson’s sermon as a whole. I will admit that I haven’t listened to the sermon that provoked this post (I will do so when I get a chance, however). I responded off of Jeff Walton’s report (found at the IRD). So if once I’ve listened to Robinson’s sermon, if I believe I have misrepresented him in any way, I will say so and apologize. Until then, I assume the accuracy of Jeff’s report.

Matt then wrote:

I must take issue with your understanding of the situation in the ECUSA where ‘congregations, priests and members are fleeing in droves.’ Of the 7,100 individual parishes in the ECUSA, 83 have left – that’s 1.1 percent.

I’m not sure where he’s getting his numbers. By my count, just the four dioceses that have left the Episcopal Church–Fort Worth, San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, and Quincy–account for 151 churches. While I don’t know an exact number, I think it’s fair to say that hundreds of congregations have left. In addition, there’s the matter of membership and average Sunday attendance, both of which are down drastically in the last 7-10 years. Again, I think it’s fair to say that hundreds of thousands of Episcopalians have voted with their feet, and that the vast majority of those voting have been against turning the Episcopal Church into the United Church of Christ with fancier dressed clergy. That’s pretty drastic.

Matt then goes on to respond thus to another commenter:

Undergroundpewster refers to feeling that Bishop Robinson has discovered truth and is operating under self-delusion. I would contend that it is not delusion or the discovery of truth, but an understanding of the Bible as he has arrived at it.

Given what I know of his history, I suspect Robinson first came to a realization about his sexual orientation and preferred sexual behavior, and then went to the Bible to try to justify it. But I could be wrong about that.

One of the marvelous things about any Christian denomination is that, for millennia, Christians have engaged in deep study of the Bible and n the area of scriptural interpretation. Just as you and I may disagree over whether the Bible is literally the word of God or rather man’s understanding of God’s word, our understanding of the Bible and the meaning that we get may also differ.

There are a couple of problems here. One is that by putting the nature of Scripture as an either/or, Matt unnecessarily divides what ought to be held together. That God speaks to His people through the Bible has been the teaching of the church since its inception. That it also records the responses of human beings to God is obvious. To refuse to acknowledge the latter makes the Bible a Christian Koran, dropped from heaven without human input, something that all but the most extreme fundamentalists have always rejected. To refuse to acknowledge the former, however, is to undercut any authority that Scripture would otherwise have. If it is only the record of humanity’s perceptions of God, then anything that we don’t like (say, it’s teaching on sexuality) can be tossed out as irrelevant to a new age. This is not at all like the matter of interpretation, which involves various people examining various biblical passages and coming away with different understandings based on where emphasis is placed and how one understands the relation of the part to the whole. Instead, this is a matter of rejecting that God, rather than mere man, is speaking to us through Scripture. That way lies the chaos that now engulfs the mainline denominations.

The second problem has to do with what constitutes a valid interpretation. Jeff Walton says that during the Q&A that followed Robinson’s sermon, he gave the standard line about what the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality “really” is:

Robinson claimed that the seven verses specifically prohibiting homosexual behavior were each addressing an understanding of what homosexuality was perceived to be: a disordered action of a heterosexual “behaving badly,” rather than a different orientation. In that context, Robinson asserted, Scripture’s authors were not aware of monogamous committed homosexual partnerships, and thus those were not addressed in Scripture.

It is true that the writers of the passages that deal with homosexual behavior didn’t know anything about sexual orientation, but that’s beside the point. They weren’t addressing orientation or desires, they were addressing behavior. It is not the attraction that is condemned per se, but the behavior that it leads to. Biblical scholars such as William Countryman have been making arguments like Robinson’s for years, but there are fewer and fewer of their fellow scholars who buy them, especially since they’ve been answered so effectively by scholars such as Robert Gagnon. So instead, the ground has generally shifted to the experiential and the vaguely moral/theological (the “justice” and “equality” arguments).

My point is that Robinson’s different “interpretation,” aside from being one that literally no one thought of before the 1970s, is on very shaky ground, ground that is in the process of being abandoned, and ground that has the air of an ex post facto attempt to justify an ideological stand that was already in place (not just by him, but by gay advocates in the mainlines churches in general).

I’m confident that Undergroundpewster would be offended if someone felt that his understanding of the Bible was wrong and called him deluded. No matter our differences of opinion, any debate – in the realm of theology or anywhere else – should always be tempered with respect. My wife and I have differences of opinion from time to time on church issues, but we view each other’s opinions – and always those of others – with respect.

Undergroundpewster may speak for himself (and I’m sure will in the comments). Personally, I think “deluded” is a fair term if it is heard as descriptive rather than pejorative. I don’t think there’s any question that Robinson has convinced himself, against the evidence, that what he does in bed is perfectly OK with God, and that the Bible doesn’t indicate that He has any problems with it. Another way to say that is that he is deluding himself. That’s something we all engage in at times, I’m afraid, including Episcopal bishops.

Matt also takes issue with my response to Robinson’s treatment of Acts 3:1-10 when he writes:

“Finally, with regard to your last paragraph, a listening of the complete sermon would clarify the use of Acts 3. I agree completely that God healed the man through Peter and John, but it was not God that allowed the newly-healed man into the Temple – it was that he finally met the rules of man that finally allowed him into the Temple. It was not just healing, however, but a new view of this person by the Temple officials – just as the view of the ECUSA towards ALL of our brothers and sisters has changed and they are being welcomed.

It is true that there are a couple of different perspectives from which to see this story. The man’s admission into the Temple following his healing does indicate that they viewed him differently once his disability had been dealt with. But as is so often the case, this story isn’t first and foremost about the Temple officials, or even about the man entering the Temple–it is about the man’s healing by God in the name of Jesus Christ. It is a story about transformation, about a life being changed, in this case through an act of physical healing. My point again was and is that Robinson was ignoring the central thrust of the story precisely because it is about the one thing he doesn’t want to acknowledge, which is that being a disciple of Christ doesn’t mean that He puts His stamp of approval on our desires, but that we are to conform ourselves to Him. That is only possible inasmuch as we are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, whose message to all of God’s people is that He loves us too much to leave us as we are, but desires that we be molded into the shape of His holy and righteous and loving and gracious and merciful and just Son. Ignoring a substantial part of that by claiming that God doesn’t care about our sexuality as long as it is free of abuse and loving simply doesn’t jive with the message that comes through from one end of Scripture to the other.

Matt has a couple of things to say about me and commenters here (“I saw very little evidence of faith or even of a Christian mindset in the post,” and “spout the same tired lines of fear and hatred that we’ve been hearing for the last seven years”) that I think are way off base, but he’s welcome to his opinion of those he disagrees with. I appreciate the opportunity expand on my views in dialogue with him, and hope he will continue to come by and speak him mind.