With that said, what different word would do? I suppose traditional could work, for the reasons Smith mentions. But that seems to lack something of the moral and ecclesial force it needs in order to flag the importance of the uniformity of opinion on the issue in church practice and history. What’s more, the implied binary term, un-traditional, still manages to carry with it a bit of cachet in our culture that is unhelpful.
I’m tempted to suggest a difference between a catholic sexual ethic versus an un-catholic or revisionist one. That term would be close in sense to traditional but give a clearer testimony that this view is the only one that could plausibly fit the Vincentian Canon or criterion of catholicity (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”). In which case, someone could be “orthodox” creedally while “un-catholic” as to ethical practice, and we would have a better sense of the situation.
I am not committed to that language. Perhaps apostolic could do. Or maybe I’m being too finicky and traditional is enough. The point is that whichever term we might choose, it would need to give an unambiguously clear signal that this is a very, very serious deviance from historic Christian belief. And it’s an issue that, if gotten wrong, has serious moral and spiritual repercussions.
The matter of sexuality and gender is one of the most controversial questions facing the church today. The conversations are inevitable and necessary, and we must not shirk them. Nor can we take them lightly. As Smith says, how we have these conversations matters. We need to conduct them with the love, grace, charity, and the courage of those whose lives are marked by the confession of God’s forgiveness.
I also think it’s pastorally wise to keep a clear eye on the distinction between teachers and congregants, and the sort of responsibility we apportion to those involved. With Wesley Hill, I want to be able to conduct conversations on the basis of shared convictions. Paul appealed to Peter as a brother, on the basis of the gospel they shared, to live consistent with that gospel. But it’s worth recalling that Paul was also ready to claim that anybody who persisted in denying that gospel the way Peter seemed to be doing risked anathema (Gal. 1:6–9). Paul was personally, lovingly engaged in calling his brother to the truth yet was crystal clear about the importance of that truth.
I suggest we be similarly clear on exactly what sort of conversation we’re having.
Derek Rishmawy is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This article was adapted from a post on his blog, Reformedish.