Gay debate mirrors church dispute, split on slavery

August 2, 2010


One group of Christians confidently proclaims that a plain reading of the Bible is a slam dunk in their favor. The other side appeals to Scripture’s grand narrative toward freedom and inclusive love.

The argument boils over and ripples through the wider culture. The search for middle ground proves futile. Denominations break apart.

Sound familiar? It could be 2010 — or the mid-19th century.

As U.S. churches and denominations slog through divisive and long-running arguments over homosexuality, many Protestant progressives have sought to claim the historical and moral high ground by aligning their cause with abolitionism.

“I think almost everybody who makes the liberal argument about homosexuality makes the connection with abolition and slavery,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Krehbiel, a Washington, D.C., pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who supports gay rights.

Abolitionists, he said, “were the first to make the argument that the plain reading of the text maybe isn’t the most fruitful way to read the Bible.”

But while there are striking parallels between the slavery and homosexuality debates, historians caution that important differences emerge upon close examination.

In both eras, cultural trends forced Christians to question practices that had long been taken for granted, said Mark Noll, a professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Likewise, the Bible, and how to interpret it, has played a central role both then and now, Noll said.

In the 19th century, even some Northern abolitionists admitted that the Bible clearly condones slavery. Many, therefore, sought other sources of morality and methods of biblical interpretation; conservatives countered that such appeals undermine the power of the sacred text.

As conflict heated up, Noll writes in his book, slavery’s defenders increasingly saw “doubts about biblical defense of slavery as doubts about the authority of the Bible itself.”

At the PCUSA's General Assembly earlier this month, James Joseph, a young adult advisory delegate from Allentown, PA, argued against allowing sexually active gay clergy. “We cannot defend the lowering of our ordination standards in contradiction to so many explicit passages in the Bible ... (which is) the bedrock of our faith,” he said.

The proposed amendment to allow gay clergy passed by a slim margin, but the contentious debate will continue as 173 regional presbyteries decide whether to ratify it.

As with slavery, few Christians are neutral on homosexuality.

“Like the situation in the 1830s and 1840s, once a certain kind of heat is generated it becomes really hard to talk through these various kinds of debating strategies and implications,” Noll said.

Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists (and to some extent, Episcopalians) all split over slavery, mainly along the Mason-Dixon Line. Some re-united centuries later. Baptists remain apart to this day.

Likewise, in the last few years, a number of mainline Protestant congregations have parted with their denominations over homosexuality, though in far fewer numbers than during mid-19th century splits.

But the exodus may not be over, as conservative Presbyterians and United Methodists have threatened to leave en masse if their denomination decides to allow gay clergy and same-sex marriages.

“The parallels to the contemporary debate are fairly striking,” said Mark Valeri, a professor of church history at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.

“You have a long-simmering moral dispute that heats up an ecclesiastical and political question, which results in a division. And the question is, when the division creates branches, how courts adjudicate those disputes.”

Valeri was an expert witness in one such court case, concerning nine congregations in northern Virginia that voted to split from the Episcopal Church.

The churches, which argued that the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire undercut biblical injunctions against homosexuality, appealed to an 1867 law in asking to keep parish property. That law was put in place to protect parishes that divided during and after the Civil War, said Valeri. This spring, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against the congregations.

But there are key differences between the disputes over slavery and homosexuality, historians say.

For instance, many conservatives say that it is not simply the gay issue that is driving them out the door, but a long liberal trend in mainline denominations that stretches back 30 years or more.

Secondly, Scripture shows only a grudging tolerance of slavery, a far cry from its ringing endorsement of heterosexual unions, argues Robert Gagnon, an associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.     

“What kind of legitimate analogy can be made between the two? In my opinion, absolutely none. It’s just night and day,” he said.

Moreover, what seem like similar clashes over biblical interpretation can mask the role of self-interest in the debates.

Southern plantation owners — and the pastors they built churches for — had a huge financial stake in the slavery debate, said Charles Irons, an assistant professor of church history at North Carolina’s Elon University.

Today, it is not easy to see where the financial — or political — advantage lies in supporting or opposing gay rights, he said.

There’s one final difference: Noll notes that the theological crisis over slavery was ultimately decided politically by generals and armies. Almost everyone agrees that the homosexuality debate will more likely be settled by judges and lawmakers.

  1. After reading Francis Schaeffer's writings in "How Should We Then Live" concerning the Presbyterian church and slavery in the USA , my mind begged to compare it to the ongoing struggle regarding homosexuality in the Presbyterian church today. An Internet search quickly yielded this article. I was pleasantly surprised to find an essay that was not, in my opinion, heavily biased one way or the other. I enjoyed the author's forays, albeit brief, into the past and his citing of experts on both sides of the "aisle". Thank you for your intelligent and thoughtful comparison.

    by April Mathis

    December 21, 2015

  2. I found a presbyterian church near where I work. I did NOT know they were just now beginning the phase where they are splitting away from PCUSA. I spoke with 3 members (All of them long time members) and they said they just couldn't believe that at the conference they had some time ago, one heavily learned church leader was telling them "We have to get with the times, that we have to be inclusive of all" I tell you, they were mightily turned off by his words and actions. I am glad of this, for this may be MY church which I shall attend with joy.

    by Gene

    November 4, 2014

  3. Thank you Mike I. When I started to read this article, my first thought was "How can you possibly compare the homosexual lifestyle debate with slavery. A very far strecth indeed. A better comparison might be the churches struggle to minister to and incorporate divorced christians.

    by elizabeth

    April 6, 2012

  4. The Book of Matthew speaks of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the Holy Scripture. In order to accept Homosexual Clergy, we must completely eradicate the Book of Matthew. How do I, in the Good and Faithful Service of God The Father Almighty, continue to be a member of PCUSA when PCUSA has completely disregarded what God has said and done. As a Church, are we openly stating that GOD is WRONG? That is pretty much how I am taking this. I had no idea PCUSA had condoned homosexual clergy until it made the national news yesterday. Thank you for keeping me in the dark. The Holy Bible is quite clear on the topic at hand. Now PCUSA is deviating from the scriptures. May God take MERCY on PCUSA, and may GOD direct me to a church that will follow HIS word. I am afraid I must change denominations now, not because I wish to do so, but because MY denomination has decided to disregard God's Holy Word. The Holy Bible very clearly states that homosexuality is wrong in the eye of God. For MY Church to deviate from the word of God, very clearly states that MY Church disputes God's Truths as presented in the Holy Bible. This disturbs me very deeply.

    by A WV Elder

    October 11, 2011

  5. I cannot believe that this is been disscussed in the church when the bible clearly says it is a sin. THis shuldn;t be debated. This is wrong.

    by Davis

    May 22, 2011

  6. I am drawn to the PCUSA because I admire the struggle. I believe the Bible is pretty clear that the gay life is unbiblical. Yet if I am honest I have no idea why God would care. I also respect Bible teachers who have a well thought out theology that seems to condone same sex unions even though I am not convinced. I just want to go to a church that does not force me to condone something I theologically disagree with, but then I must give the same consideration to those who disagree with me. And btw, while I hold to a concervative theology on this, I sure hope I am mistaken!

    by Steve

    March 27, 2011

  7. This is the most ridiculous articles I have ever read on this website. The author is a master of sophistry.

    by Frank Brito

    February 12, 2011

  8. The comparison of homosexual marriage and the Peculiar Institution of Slavery in the modern world is plagued by some many errors as to be almost impossible to discuss. First lets re-examine the nature of slavery in classical antiquity. Granted in Rome and Greece, the slave owner hand ultimate authority of life or death over their slaves the comparison between the Anglo-American experience and the state of slavery in classical times ends. In the Roman Empire a slave could marry, own property, purchase his or her freedom. Once securing his freedom, the slave could become a citizen of Rome with all of its perquisites and privileges. Slaves in Rome could hold any occupation from dig digger to physician and philosopher, nor where slaves barred from education. Roman citizens could even sell themselves into slavery with what we would recognize as contractual terms the conditions for their eventual re-enfranchisement. roman slaves where directly analogous to indentured servants and in some ways apprentice craftsman during the Colonial period. In both eras, the burdened individual (Roman Slave or Bostonian indentured servant) could be punished severely with whipping and maiming if they violated the terms of their relationship. Only in the Roman masters right to hold the slaves life as forfeit and a property interest in the slaves children was there material difference. As to the practice of selling spouses, indentured servants could also be forceably separated from their wives and husbands. As to the disposition of life and progeny that the Roman master held sway over, it bear in keeping that Roman law empowered Roman fathers with complete discretion over the lives and property of their children until his death. The traditions of Roman slavery where firmly in keeping with the biblical traditions of slavery and distinctly different from the Antebellum experience in America. So any grudging recognition of classical slavery in the Bible is a recognition of a distinctly different institution. To compare Antebellum slavery to Homosexuality, and to use the debates of the Abolitionist as template for the same sex marriage argument is just pure hokum. To assume that the biblical references to a slave's subservience to his master as justification for the continuation of the American institution of slavery is just a historically unfounded rationalization for an evil. While one is clearly evil, both are wrong.

    by Robert Johnston

    August 27, 2010

  9. A great deal of daylight divides the issues of slavery and sexual orientation. How many Africans came to America voluntarily and then willingly subjected themselves to slavery? Now, how many homosexuals are so oriented voluntarily? If you answered something like "none" and "most/all" you probably understand at least one key difference in these issues and can easily see that being pro-gay today is nothing like being anti-slavery in the 19th century.

    by John M

    August 3, 2010

  10. It seems like a pretty drastic stretch to compare Christians who believe homosexual behavior is out of step with God's design to people who endorse slavery. The tenor of this article is essentially "Liberal=Always Good, Conservative=Always Bad." It doesn't speak for all Presbyterians (obviously, since the votes continue to be so close, and only progress to the left because so many conservatives leave each year). The Bible should be read as a whole, as a "grand narrative" indeed, but to pigeonhole those who oppose homosexuality in the church as slavery-endorsing biblicists is a caricature and a straw-man argument.

    by Mike I

    August 3, 2010