Behind the Buzzword: “Historic Christian Teaching”
November 12, 2015
If you peruse the websites and articles written about homosexuality or ordination of women, the phrase “Historic Christian Teaching” or “traditional Christian teaching” shows up a lot. You’ve probably seen statements like these before:
We adhere to historic Christian teaching on sexuality.
We lift up historic Christian teaching excluding women from ordination.
We will protect the traditional Christian perspective .
However, the phrase seems to be an exclusive position. Can one support historic Christian teaching and be inclusive of LGBT persons and female clergy?
Is it just about history?
“All possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (Vincent of Lérins, 5th century)
To some, “Historic Christian Teaching” refers simply to “historic,” referring to what Christians have collectively believed for the longest time. There’s two main sources of historic teaching:
1.Decisions by the Ecumenical Councils: While one would assume Christian teaching has been flat over 2000 years, that’s not the case. It took Seven Ecumenical Councils over 700 years after Jesus Christ to come to some consensus on doctrine–and even that consensus is rejected by Eastern churches.
2. Doctrines articulated by the Creeds. The three main Creeds were solidified 300-500 years after Jesus Christ, with some tweaks since then.
If that’s all that “historic Christian teaching” means, then that would be fine because none of the Councils or Creeds make any statements about human sexuality or women’s ordination. Even if you throw in the whole of the Patristics and Church Fathers, one only finds a handful of statements related to homosexuality.
However, the phrase persists in being most often used in the contemporary debate over LGBT inclusion in various church traditions. If this is the case, and we aren’t talking about Creeds or Councils, then we need to examine this creeping definition of “historic Christian teaching.”
Re-Definition of Historic Christianity?
A perfect example of the creeping definition comes from The Rev. Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, who wrote an article about his denomination’s struggles with having progressive and conservative voices on LGBT inclusion. In doing so, he renames the two sides:
[T]he two groups should never be called “conservative” and “progressive” and they should never be viewed as equivalent groups. What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox.
There’s myriad problems with this scenario (see previous article, main points below).
First, claiming “historic Christianity” is not an easily definable task. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants are far apart on a great many issues, both in their history and today. And if you expand the circle a little bit wider to the Anglicans and Pentecostal/Charismatics traditions, you end up with a real mix of beliefs and practices. If three or all five of these historic arcs of Christianity are “historic Christianity,” there’s a very narrow definition of traditional Christianity that can possibly be used, limited mainly to those aforementioned councils and Creeds.
Second, referring to the dissenting voices from the majority opinion as “a re-imagined church” is a ridiculous claim from a historical perspective. In Tennent’s list of dissenting voices in Christian history, he neglects to include those that are staggeringly important to the history of the church, such as “the dissenting Fathers that stayed after the Great Schism, each “traditional” side of Great the Awakenings, the Counter-Reformation, and many other issues.” Many of these that Tennent would categorize as heterodox were, in fact, firmly rooted in attempts to serve the ailments of contemporary society by means of scriptural Christian dissent.
Therefore, to divide based on a social issue and name one side “historic Christianity” is a grievous error. For many of the above groups and movements in our Christian history that Tennent calls a “re-imagined church,” they were in fact living lives devoted to the heart of their connection with God as they see it upheld by Scripture, and only in retrospect are we able to vindicate or vilify them.
What Would Jesus Do?
What we see in the case study above, and in the contemporary use of the term, is that “historic Christian teaching” has moved beyond its original effort to seek theological unity to become the divisive morality police of the late 20th and 21st century.
And yet it is troublesome to this argument that, at times, Jesus did seem to care more about morality and right action than right belief. He placed doing the right thing above the restrictions of the law. That “historic Christian” message would have eternally valid things to say about LGBT relationships or about women in church leadership because those are moral questions.
But if you can hear the crickets, that’s because Jesus’ teachings on women’s leadership and LGBT relationships are not present in the Bible. He talked more about excluding people from God through purity, money, inhospitality, judgementalism, blasphemy, and other myriad sins that he said plenty about.
Maybe our call today is to draw out the historic Christian teachings of hospitality, charity, love for God and neighbor, and the ever-widening circle of God’s love for people of all genders, identities, orientations, ethnicities, and other markers of the human condition. That is the real Christian tradition, sometimes forgotten, sometimes outright violated, but a tradition worthy of Christ nonetheless.
A Christian can be committed to historic Christian beliefs found in the Councils and Creeds AND be supportive of women’s ordination and LGBT inclusion. They are not antithetical or oil-and-water that contemporary usage of the term “historic Christian beliefs” may imply. One does not separate from the deep apostolic well of Christian tradition by affirming such things, no matter what a Twitter troll may say.
My hope is that this buzzword returns to its proper usage.
As a practical matter, whenever you encounter that buzzword in the wild or in conversation, it’s important to ask the person what their sources are for historic Christian teaching. And then to inquire whether they apply those sources evenly, or perhaps if what is in them is even relevant. Unless you are debating the Trinity or God’s nature, then you probably aren’t talking about a Creed or Council affirmation that is the basis of historic Christian teaching.
Rev. Jeremy Smith is a United Methodist clergy person who blogs about faith, young clergy issues, technology, internet theory, and geeky topics.