My favorite scene from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy:
Ron: “Mmm. San Diego. Drink it in. It always goes down smooth. Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diago, which of course in German means a whale’s vagina.” Veronica: “No, there’s no way that’s correct.” Ron: “I’m sorry, I was trying to impress you. I don’t know what it means. I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone knows what it means anymore. Scholars maintain that the translation was lost hundreds of years ago.” Veronica: “Doesn’t it mean Saint Diego?” Ron: “No. No.” Veronica: “No, that’s what it means. Really.” Ron: “Agree to disagree.”
This classic scene from Anchorman illustrates an absurd application of the phrase, “Agree to disagree.” Does “San Diego” mean “Saint Diego,” or was the translation lost hundreds of years ago? Of course Veronica Corningstone is right and Ron Burgundy is wrong, regardless of whether they “agree to disagree,” or whether they declare it a “disputable matter.” San Diego means Saint Diego. But they may still “agree to disagree” as a way to, in essence, call a truce and spare the relationship. After all, Ron’s ignorance isn’t doing anyone any harm. What does that have to do with Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender in the company of Jesus?
“Disputable Matters” in Romans 14
In Chapter 4 and 5 of ALTMC Wilson discusses Romans chapter 14 as a template for handling controversial issues in the church. In Romans 14 Paul alludes to a conflict between the “strong” and the “weak.” The “weak in faith” refrained from eating meat, which they were persuaded was “unclean,” or drinking wine—they ate only vegetables. And they treated certain days as more sacred and special than others. The “strong” had a faith which allowed them to eat meat, drink wine, and to regard each day as any other. Paul exhorts each group to refrain from judging the other, or treating the other with contempt. “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them… One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:3, 5, NIV). Wilson’s basic argument can be summarized as follows: 1) The “weak” had strong moral convictions about eating meat and observing certain special days (e.g. the Sabbath). These were most likely the Jewish Christians. They would correspond to the “conservatives” today, who have strong moral convictions about homosexuality. The “strong” of Paul’s day did not share these convictions and felt free to eat meat and treat each day the same. Most likely these were the Gentile Christians. They would correspond to the “liberals” today, who do not share the conservatives’ beliefs about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. 2) The morality of eating meat or observing holy days was a first-order moral issue of Paul’s day, rooted in Old Testament commands, and threatened to split apart the church. It would correspond to the issue of homosexuality in the church today. 3) Paul commands the “weak” and the “strong” to respect each other’s convictions regarding meat eating and holy days. They should not judge or hold each other in contempt. The person who is convinced that eating meat is wrong should obey their own conscience. The person who in not convinced that it is wrong is free to eat. Likewise, in the church today those who believe that homosexual activity is a sin are free to believe so. Those who do not believe that it is a sin are free to believe so and act accordingly. Each person should do what they are convinced is the right thing, and not judge the other. They should “agree to disagree.” 4) Issues which are not “Dogma” (an essential truth of Christianity) or “Doctrine” (central teaching of a Christian tradition) are “Opinion” and should be treated as “disputable matters.” This is particularly true when faithful Christians, both citing biblical truths, disagree on an issue. The heart of Wilson’s argument is that in Romans 14 Paul is dealing with a first-order moral issue for which there were compelling scriptural arguments to be made on both sides. It was “disputable” because it was not a clear-cut case of right or wrong, biblical or unbiblical, moral or immoral. Rather, both sides were making reasonable appeals to Scripture and were convinced in their own consciences. Regarding the issue of eating meat and drinking wine, Wilson writes:
The vegetarianism of the weak may have been to avoid meat improperly drained of blood. While this practice is widely considered acceptable to many Christians today, there is strong biblical reason to avoid it, even for those not obligated to keep kosher. After all, this practice was first introduced in the book of Genesis in the time of Noah, to reinforce the sanctity of life— the image of God in humanity. (ALTMC, Kindle Locations 1597-1600).
And regarding the observance of “special days,” Wilson takes the view that this refers to Sabbath observance (this is not established by the text itself, which does not mention “Sabbath” (sabbaton), but it’s a possibility). He writes:
Take Sabbath-keeping, a matter that has receded to the status of a secondary moral or even a “merely ceremonial” concern in the contemporary church. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that observance of the Sabbath is binding on Christians. It is, after all, a command enshrined in the Ten Commandments. Even more, it is embedded in creation—God having rested from his work on the seventh day. In this sense, Sabbath-breaking could be regarded as a sin against nature, because it violates God’s created order. (ALTMC, Kindle Location 1620-1623).
According to Wilson, the contention between the strong and the weak was truly over first-order moral issues. However, while it is certainly arguable that “the weak” believed these were moral issues, it is abundantly clear that Paul counted himself among “the strong,” who did NOT consider these moral issues at all. Paul writes, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself” (verse 14). Here Paul is echoing the teaching of Jesus, who said, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them… For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:15, 18-22, NIV) [Side note: Isn’t it interesting that Jesus calls out “sexual immorality” (Greek porneia) as something that truly does defile a person? Jesus and his audience would have included homosexual activity, along with adultery, incest, and bestiality, as porneia. Refer to any good theological dictionary of the New Testament. Also refer to Thomas Lyon’s excellent discussion of porneia in his post, On the Road Between Ephesus and Thyatira: An Alternative Model to Ken Wilson’s in ALTMC, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3] Paul’s words also reflects Peter’s vision In Acts 10, where the Lord says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (verse 15). Paul continues to clarify this in Romans 14, where in verse 20 he again reiterates, “All food is clean…” The point could not be any clearer. The Jewish food laws no longer had any bearing on Christians. Eating or drinking certain things did not make one “unclean.” Eating meat, or refraining from eating meat, was not a truly a moral issue, regardless of what “the weak” believed. The same is true of the “special days” which were no longer required. Hence Paul writes to the Galatians, “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you” (Gal 4:10-11, NIV). In other words, you are no longer under that Law, including the observance of special days, you are free in Christ! Observing “special days” was not truly a moral issue, regardless of what “the weak” believed. Paul clearly expresses that the issues of dispute in Romans 14 were not truly moral issue at all, but rather issues of ritual uncleanness and tradition, which had no moral bearing on Christians whatsoever. Furthermore, Paul’s rationale for treating this issue as a “disputable matter” was NOT that there were compelling biblical arguments on both sides of this issue, so “agree to disagree.” The “weak” were “weak in faith” precisely because they had not appropriated the truth: that food laws and observance of special days were no longer binding upon the people of God. As James D. G. Dunn writes in his Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38B, Romans 9-16:
In this case the weakness is trust in God plus dietary and festival laws, trust in God dependent on observance of such practices, a trust in God which leans on the crutches of particular customs and not on God alone, as though they were an integral part of that trust. …Paul is quite clear that the position they hold to is one characterized by a deficiency in faith. By implication they are putting too much weight on the outward form of the covenant people (2:17–29); too much weight on their physical (fleshly) membership of Israel (13:14); they are not living out of complete dependence on God like father Abraham (4:19–21). Paul is in no doubt: the attitude thus expressed is deficient, “weak.”
So why didn’t Paul simply correct “the weak” and instruct them to stop refraining from eating meat? Why didn’t Paul simply tell “the weak” to stop observing special days? He writes, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14, NIV) In other words, despite the fact that all foods are clean and acceptable, if someone is convinced that certain foods are “unclean” they should abstain, for the sake of their own conscience. The food is “unclean” for that person. If at some point their faith becomes strong, and they come to understand (as Paul does) that no food is unclean, they could then eat without sin. Do you see the distinction? Let me make a silly analogy. Remember the children’s rhyme, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”? Well, we know that stepping on a crack does not break your mother’s back. But if someone were convinced that it really would, they shouldn’t do it! It is not a matter of whether stepping on a crack is actually a moral issue—it is clearly not! Stepping on cracks in itself is amoral, not a matter of right or wrong. What is a moral issue is doing something that you are convinced in your conscience is wrong. Something that is not objectively a moral wrong can become a moral wrong if it is a matter of conscience. But this argument does not work both ways! If something truly IS a moral issue, a sin, then one’s conscience on the matter does not change the fact one way or the other. Abusing a child is a moral wrong whether or not one believes it to be. The fact that a person can justify it to themselves, or that their conscience is not bothered, does not thereby make it morally neutral. Female infanticide (as was and is practiced in many cultures) is a moral wrong regardless of what one may believe about it. As Saint Augustine said, “Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.” When it comes to sin, there are moral absolutes which do not depend upon individual belief or conscience. These are never “disputable matters.” We cannot “agree to disagree.” The disputable matters of Romans 14, eating meat and observing certain special days, were not first-order moral issues. They were morally neutral cultural boundary markers which threatened to split the church along ethnic lines. This point is beautifully made in N. T. Wright’s brilliant paper, Communion and Koinonia: Pauline Reflections on Tolerance and Boundaries.
In all these things he wants Christians to stop thinking of themselves as basically belonging to this or that ethnic group, and to see the practices that formerly demarcated that ethnic group from all others as irrelevant, things you can carry on doing if you like but which you shouldn’t insist on for others.
Carry on doing it if you like—as long as it’s not harming anyone, and you don’t insist on everyone else doing so. But actual issues of sin and morality are not disputable matters! N.T. Wright goes on:
At this point there can be no dispute, no room for divergent opinions: no room, in other words, for someone to say ‘some Christians practice fornication, others think it’s wrong, so we should be tolerant of one another,’ or to say ‘some Christians lose their tempers, others think it’s wrong, so we should tolerate one another’. There is no place for immorality, and no place for anger, slander and the like. And then, immediately, as though to emphasize the point I’m making, Paul concludes the passage by saying (v.11) that ‘in that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but in Christ is all in all.’ Paul is absolutely clear about the standards expected of the new humanity, and equally clear that distinctions relating to ethnic, social and cultural origin become irrelevant.
Paul’s advice on actual moral issues is NEVER, “Just do what your conscience tells you,” or, “Agree to disagree.” Paul believed, as we should, that certain things were harmful and sinful and should never be done, regardless of what one may believe about them. There are moral absolutes. People, even Christians, are sometimes genuinely wrong about what is acceptable moral behavior. They may even cite a Bible verse or biblical concepts such as “freedom” and “love” to support their actions. But the existence of disagreement does not qualify something as a “disputable matter” if it is a matter of morality.
Dogma, Doctrine, Opinion
Ken Wilson cites Roger E. Olson’s book The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity, as being helpful in thinking through the criteria of what can be considered a “disputable matter.” He summarizes Olson’s categories as:
Dogma: Olsen [sic] defines dogma as truths essential to Christianity itself; to deny them is to follow something other than Jesus. Christian identity is at stake… Doctrine: Olsen defines doctrine as a secondary category of teachings central to a particular tradition of Christians. These can be very significant matters that define entire traditions: predestination or free will; how we understand the saving work of Jesus; the nature of church and sacraments… Opinion: Olsen defines opinion here as matters of speculative nature about which there is no consensus in the church (used in its broad sense.) Examples might include the age of earth, mode of baptism and criteria for ordination… (ALTMC, Kindle Locations 1726-1727, 1735-1737, 1739-1740).
These categories allow Wilson to determine the following “reasonable criteria” for what is to be treated as a “disputable matter” in the church:
1. When it doesn’t involve a matter of basic Christian dogma such as we find in the great ecumenical creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian, etc.). 2. When the debate brings two or more biblical truths into dynamic tension (e.g. mercy-judgment, law-grace, free will-predestination) so that both parties make reasonable appeals to Scripture. 3. When faithful Christians take different views on the issue. (ALTMC, Kindle Location 1743-1744, 1746-1748, 1756)
Therefore, because the matter of modern-day same-sex activity between committed persons fulfills all three criteria, it should therefore be treated as “Opinion” and as a “disputable matter.” However, when Roger Olson defines “Opinion,” he is clear that it only includes issues on which there is not consensus because they “are not clearly taught in Scripture” (Kindle Location 689, emphasis mine). They are “Mere guesswork without strong justification,” or “Speculative interpretations of obscure passages of Scripture” (Mosaic, Kindle Locations 689-690, 730). Olson gives examples of Opinion such as, “Beliefs about intelligent life on other planets, the age of the earth and the exact details of the events of the end times such as the identity of the antichrist” (Mosaic, Kindle Location 708). In other words, these are topics which are not clearly taught in Scripture, they are speculative. To include the issue of same-sex activity, on which there has been two millennia of church consensus, as “Opinion” is to misunderstand Olson’s categories. While few would argue that same-sex activity is a matter of Dogma, it would best fit Olson’s description of a “secondary belief” or “Doctrine.” Olson writes, “’What saith Scripture?’ is the touchstone of the doctrine category. Beliefs that seem to be clearly revealed in the biblical witness but not essential to belief in Christ are placed there” (Mosaic, Kindle Locations 728-729).
Are Issues of Sexual Morality “Disputable Matters”?
In a different letter Paul writes to a church where their consciences were not bothered by the fact that a man was sleeping with his father’s wife. In fact, they were proud of it! Look how “free in Christ” we are! No legalistic adherence to irrelevant Old Testament rules here! How did Paul handle this situation? Did he commend them for acting according to their conscience? Did he insist that those in the church who felt that incest was wrong refrain from judging those who did not?
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?… I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. …Expel the wicked person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:1-3, 13, NIV)
Wait a minute, aren’t we supposed to act according to our conscience and not judge those whose conscience differs from ours on moral issues? And certainly sleeping with your father’s wife is not a matter of Christian Dogma or Doctrine, according to Wilson’s definition. It’s not in any of the Creeds. There’s certainly a tension between the biblical concepts of law and grace, judgment and mercy. And didn’t the Corinthian Christians have a good argument to make about “freedom in Christ”? Weren’t they Spirit-filled believers? So shouldn’t this have been treated as a “disputable matter” and “agree to disagree”? No! Paul tells them to throw the guy out! In fact, Paul goes on to instruct the church in Corinth:
…You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Cor. 5:11, NIV)
You can see where the logic of “agree to disagree” leads. There are innumerable issues upon which “Good Christians” may disagree that should nevertheless not be considered “disputable matters.” Is it okay to marry more than one woman at a time? Aren’t there “Good Christians” who believe so, and with some scriptural arguments? Should we therefore treat this as a “disputable matter” in our churches today? If you’re 25 years old and single is it okay to have sex with your boyfriend or girlfriend, as long as you’re monogamous and plan to someday marry them? There are certainly “Good Christians” who believe so, and could make a scriptural case. Should we treat this as a “disputable matter” in our churches and youth groups? Is it okay to have an abortion as a means of birth control, when a pregnancy would be problematic? There are certainly “Good Christians” who believe so. No, because these are issues of morality, where matters of sinning are involved. They are not issues where there’s “no harm” if one does them or doesn’t do them, they are matters of sin. There are indeed things which Christians may disagree upon, and behave differently, without harm. In the Roman church the eating of meat, drinking of wine, and the observance of certain special days was among them. There was no harm or sin if one did them or did not do them, as Paul made clear. “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Cor 8:8, NIV). It was not a moral issue. The Reformers referred to matters such as this as adiaphora, or “matters of indifference.” These were actions that morality neither mandates nor forbids. They are Olson’s “Opinion.” Today there are many examples of adipahora in the Christian church. Am I allowed to dance? Am I allowed to drink or smoke? Can I read Harry Potter novels? Am I allowed to date in high school? There are many opinions among Christians on these issues. I believe that Scripture neither clearly mandates nor clearly forbids these things, and one is not sinning in doing or refraining. So if someone in the church felt strongly that they should not date in high school, I would encourage them not to do so! There is certainly no harm in them refraining. If Scripture did clearly mandate or forbid it, and if it were an issue of sinning, it would not be adiaphora! It would not be a “disputable matter”! Matters which are not truly “moral,” which do not involve sin, and which are not clearly prohibited in scripture, may be regarded as “disputable” in the church. But some things are harmful regardless of what we may believe about them, or regardless of what our society’s prevailing view is. Can modern-day homosexual activity be considered a “disputable matter”? As Richard Hays writes in his brilliant The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic:
Though only a few biblical texts speak of homoerotic activity, all that do mention it express unqualified disapproval. Thus, on this issue, there is no synthetic problem for New Testament ethics. In this respect, the issue of homosexuality differs significantly from matters such as slavery or the subordination of women, concerning which the Bible contains internal tensions and counterposed witnesses. The biblical witness against homosexual practices is univocal. (Moral Vision, Kindle Location 10849-10852, emphasis mine) Romans 1 presents, as we have seen, a portrayal of humankind in rebellion against God and consequently plunged into depravity and confusion. In the course of that portrayal, homosexual activities are— explicitly and without qualification— identified as symptomatic of that tragically confused rebellion. To take the New Testament as authoritative in the mode in which it speaks is to accept this portrayal as “revealed reality,” an authoritative disclosure of the truth about the human condition. Understood in this way, the text requires a normative evaluation of homosexual practice as a distortion of God’s order for creation. (Moral Vision, Kindle Locations 11010-11014, emphasis mine) If Romans 1— the key text— is to inform normative judgments about homosexuality, it must function as a diagnostic tool, laying bare the truth about humankind’s dishonorable “exchange” of the natural for the unnatural. According to Paul, homosexual relations, however they may be interpreted (or rationalized: see Rom. 1: 32) by fallen and confused creatures, represent a tragic distortion of the created order. If we accept the authority of the New Testament on this subject, we will be taught to perceive homosexuality accordingly. (Moral Vision, Kindle Locations 11024-11027, emphasis mine)
Sins such as sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (which Jesus mentions in Mark 7 as the sins that truly defile) are not “disputable matters.” On this there can be no debate, at least not if we accept the Bible as authoritative and are following the way of Jesus.