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David Mills on Conservative Avoidance
In my years in the Episcopal resistance, I often ran into conservative men and women who would explain to me that though they rejected some liberal innovation, “it is not a hill I am going to die on.” More than once someone told me that he would not fight an innovation right after telling me that he thought it completely unbiblical. Friends in other churches have told me that they have heard the same declaration from those who ought to have been their allies.
Often such people will concede that the innovation is heretical, or may well be heretical, but then claim that the battle has been lost and the innovators have won, or that the issue is not a “Gospel imperative,” or that opposing the innovation is either “not a hill I am going to die on” or “not a trench I want to die in,” or that the people on the other side are good and godly people whose good work cannot be denied, or that we cannot make a definitive judgment when sincere believers disagree.
To be fair, sometimes the excuse may have been a good reason badly expressed. To say that “it’s not a trench I want to die in” may mean that you are not called to activism—to speak at meetings and organize petitions and the like—though you will resist the error firmly in your own place and time. In an imperfect church and world, Christians must pick their fights. However, most of the people I am writing about meant by such high-minded phrases that they would accept the innovation and act as if it did not matter, despite thinking it either wrong or likely to be wrong.
These are obviously very bad reasons for avoiding what they admit may well be the teaching of Scripture and for living peacefully with innovations they admit are or may well be heretical. Bad as they were, I don’t remember anyone ever looking guilty as he gave one of them, though I thought that they surely knew how flimsy and self-serving their arguments seemed to the rest of us. They often gave them with as much intensity and conviction as if they were saying, “I will not sell my children into slavery.” It still strikes me as odd, this complete lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment.
The main issue during my time as an activist was the ordination of women. Many conservative Episcopalians came genuinely to believe in it, but many—the people of whom I am speaking—did not. They would tell people like me, usually under the cloak of night, that they really didn’t agree with it, or had problems with it that would not go away, or were sure that it would eventually be proved wrong. Several priests told me that they did not believe that women should be ordained, yet had women priests serving as assistants in their parishes.
Most obviously felt that their doubts made us comrades, though their doubts were secret and ineffective when mine were public. They sometimes made a cozy disparaging remark about some conservative supporter of women’s ordination, as if he were in a different camp than they. I found this the oddest part of the business.
I would have thought that such people would be moved by seeing that each reason could apply equally well to innovations they opposed, including the approval of homosexuality and “inclusive” or goddess liturgies, were these innovations ever officially approved. Having granted one innovative reading of Scripture, they could not logically rule out another. They could not answer the insistence of the innovators that a similar “paradigm shift” will someday reveal to them the godliness of homosexual marriages or prayer to God the Mother. They could not with any confidence declare that they would never come to believe in these things, against the Christian tradition they inherited, as they have come to believe in the headship of women, against the Christian tradition they inherited.
As some predicted (including me), some of these conservatives are already invoking these excuses to justify their inaction as the homosexualists press in their churches for the approval of sodomy and others move for the approval of liturgies that remove the Father and the Son. One could predict their current capitulation because these excuses are the natural responses of the conservative faced with paying the cost of conserving the faith given him to conserve. They are the sorts of things you say when you are trying to have your cake and eat it too.
It may therefore be worth briefly examining each excuse. None of them work. None of them come close to working.
First, a biblical truth can never be lost, because it is God’s truth, and he does not lose them. To act as if a Christian teaching should not be held and (when appropriate) fought for because some official body has overruled it gives that body authority over Scripture. At this point, you have not simply made a tactical judgment, you have turned against God’s own instructions.
And further, you have set a dangerous and unstable precedent. Even if the biblical truth at issue seems to you a minor one, you have parked on a steep slope, put the car in neutral, and let off the emergency brake. Take your foot off the brake for a second and down you go. Trade places with someone who has not your training or experience or persistence, and you will soon see him careening out of control down the hill.
Second, the excuse that depends upon an idea of “imperatives” divides the Christian teaching in a way it cannot be divided. Our compromising friends seem to mean by “Gospel imperative” any truth obviously bearing on our salvation, thus leaving the rest up for discussion. They will fight over Christology (they claim), but not over ecclesiology, morality, or anything else they call un-imperative.
But to the biblical writers, and to the formative theologians of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism alike, every revealed truth is a part of the web or structure of the Christian revelation. Christianity builds us a home, and homes require not only foundations but also buildings on top of them. Some truths may be more foundational than others, as being the truths upon which the others logically and metaphysically are built. This does not make these truths more imperative than the others, so that you must accept them but may equivocate on or deny the others. A foundation without a building on top of it is not yet a house, much less a home.
You cannot obey the first two Commandments as “Mosaic imperatives” and ignore the others. The last eight follow logically from the first two and show us how to live them. In fact, the first two would not be much use to us if we did not have the others to tell us what they mean. In the same way, if the Bible teaches male headship, it does so because that is the only way we are to—and presumably the only way we can—live out the “Gospel imperatives” in a historical community of men and women.
The third excuse, that an innovation is “not a trench I want to die in,” fails for the same reason. Any trench Scripture digs for us is one to die in, even if the trench is now in enemy territory. God has ordered us into the trenches, and it is our job to jump in without complaining about his choices. We must remember that we do not know his strategy. Not to die in your trench is desertion, and in the army you may get shot for it. We have no idea what future victory may be won because we stayed in the trenches and died when prudence said to retreat, or whether God will send in new soldiers and overwhelm the enemy just when we are about to die.
The Other Excuses
The fourth excuse was the godliness of the people on the other side. The people I am talking about applied it to the ordination of women, which they felt seemed to contradict St. Paul’s teaching but offered in contrast the admirable ministries of ordained women they knew.
The existence of godly ordained women is vexing, but for pastoral and not theological reasons. One does not want to deny their gifts or hurt their feelings. One can easily see where they went wrong, and sympathize with their reasons. But I would feel the same way about some homosexual couples I’ve known, whose “marriages” were, as far as one could tell, far healthier than many normal marriages.
However, if what they are doing is at best only a simulation of the reality God intends, it is in some way unfair and harmful to them—and to those now under them—to treat it as that reality. Something will go wrong sometime, if it is not God’s will. No matter how godly they are and (apparently) effective their ministry, the fact that they are women acting in a male role will necessarily have some effects, probably serious but perhaps very difficult to discern.
Even secular studies now find that a single mother simply can’t function as a father, nor a single father as a mother. Children suffer when the roles are confused, no matter how good and loving and energetic the single parent may be. The same thing, surely, happens when women are ordained to headship, to lead a body that ought to have a man as its head.
The final excuse—that when believers disagree, Christians cannot speak definitively—gets us exactly nowhere, as there is no issue on which sincere Christians do not sincerely disagree. This argument would have stopped St. Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Francis, William Wilberforce, and every other reformer in church history from doing anything at all useful. Paul would not have opposed James’s conditions for including gentiles in the Church had he refused to be dogmatic when sincere believers (including senior apostles) disagreed.
Logically, the excuse gets us no further, because by “believers” our friends can only mean “people who agree with me when I expect them to agree with me,” which is not an objective criterion for discerning truth from error. They are arguing in a circle: Sincere believers disagree. Who are the sincere believers? The people who disagree.
None Very Good
None of the excuses otherwise orthodox Christians give for avoiding the painful position of opposing popular innovations excuse them. They give themselves away by admitting, at least in private, that they know better. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, deserters from God’s army, who want to choose the battles of his they will fight for him.
It would be infinitely better for them if they reconciled themselves to the inevitable: If you are a Christian, you will generally be an eccentric. You will be someone who upsets the consensus by pointing out the places at which it differs from the faith. You will be out of step, and some people will not like you. Some of the people who do not like you may well have power over you. You will suffer for offending them.
Six or seven decades ago you would have had to point out that the new approval of contraception was in truth promoting unchastity. (This must still be said, of course.) Three or four decades ago you would have had to point out that many churches’ racial policies were racist, and that the churches’ implicit nationalism was idolatrous. Today you will have to point out that the ordination of women and (in some churches) the approval of sodomy is a rebellion against the sexual order God created.
I suspect that the obvious inadequacy of our friends’ excuses, and the contradiction between their adamant defense of the Christian teaching on issues not yet officially lost (especially homosexuality) and their avoidance of that teaching on issues now lost in their churches, show that they are acting and believing out of character. They know better, but they are, as a friend puts it, “happily inconsistent.”
Avoiding conflict can easily become a habit, and one that will lead you farther and farther down. Once you have learned to be happily inconsistent on one issue, you can easily be happily inconsistent on others you now feel strongly about, should strong temptation to compromise ever come your way. You will find yourself agreeing to things that you would have fled from in horror just a few years ago—if you can recognize your corruption at all. As Alexander Pope wrote of vice:
Vice is a monster of so frightful a mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.