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Today's theological fault lines mostly concern matters of earthly morality.


By Carl R. Trueman
The Wall Street Journal
Nov. 10, 2022

The website of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., says the congregation "is committed to anti-racism and radical solidarity with folx on the margins." Last month the church featured a "special guest" for the children's sermon at weekly worship. Isaac Simmons, who uses the stage name "Ms. Penny Cost," donned a high-slit sequin dress, denounced capitalism and praised liberation theology. In a follow-up post after the event, Rev. Andy Oliver, the church's pastor, wrote: "Ms. Penny Cost was an angel in heels appearing to shepherds in the fields on the night shift, telling them that Good News had arrived on their doorstep. What was once the margins is the center."

Churches are increasingly in the middle of cultural and moral controversies. Mr. Oliver's denomination has dramatically fragmented over issues of sexuality, with many congregations leaving to join the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination founded in 2022 as a conservative alternative.

The Catholic Church is being torn apart, too. The Synodal Path in Germany, an ongoing national consultation of bishops and laity, has pressed for progressive changes in doctrine and discipline. Traditional Catholics distrust Pope Francis's Synod on Synodality, a global listening effort, as a project to surreptitiously change church teaching, which has seemingly over-represented the input of disaffected laity.

The same applies to religious schools. Last year a priest at the University of Notre Dame wore a Pride stole while attending a "Coming Out Day Celebration" sponsored by PrismND, the university's "official LGBTQ+ undergraduate student organization." The school's student newspaper, the Irish Rover, recently reported that a faculty member was openly offering support to students seeking abortions. North Park University, affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, is in a legal dispute with Bradley Nassif, who claims to have been fired from the faculty because he maintained traditional Christian views of marriage and sexuality. And where there are no open conflicts, such as at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, that often means progressives have foreclosed debate.

Conflicts and schisms are nothing new. In the 1920s American Protestantism underwent heated debates over the truth of biblical accounts of miracles and whether evolution is consistent with Christian teaching. But history isn't quite repeating itself. Denominations divided and congregations split, but life in general proceeded as normal. The issues currently dividing Christians--sex, sexual identity, the definition of a person--can't easily be isolated from society at large.

Whether you believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead may have formerly determined where you worshiped on Sunday, but it had no effect on where you worked or played. Differences on such matters, to borrow from Thomas Jefferson, neither picked any pockets nor broke any legs.

Unlike earlier debates over, say, the incarnation or resurrection, new disagreements have wider social implications for Christians--and everyone else. Institutions that maintain traditionalist positions draw not simply ridicule from the wider world but widespread calls for punitive actions against them.

Rejecting the values of the sexual revolution may not break anyone's leg, but today the breaking of hearts is regarded as equally violent and unacceptable. Examples include the Obama-era contraceptive-coverage mandate, battles over the legitimacy of same-sex adoption, and vandalism of churches leading up to and following the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

The message of these events is clear: The terms of belonging to civil society have changed. In the early 20th century, debates about Christian orthodoxy took place within an America where the basic elements of Christian moral teaching were generally accepted. Today, such thinking stands at odds with the politics of identity that dominates elite institutions. That sets the scene for external culture war and internal civil war.

There's one more oddity of our present religious woes. Whereas the problems for Christian institutions in the early 20th century might be described as having been a crisis in the understanding of God--could he become incarnate, rise from the dead and reveal himself to his creatures?--the problems of the early 21st century are different in kind.

They can be characterized as a crisis in what it means to be human. Are embryos persons? Are sex differences morally significant? Is "gender identity" different from sex? It's ironic that disagreements about the creature may prove more devastating to the church than those about the Creator.

Mr. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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