Yesterday, I wrote about the relative size of two groups in the denomination: gay-opposers and gay-supporters. Their contrasting views of homosexuality are clear. What might be less clear are their differences in other areas.
Gay-opposers speak often and openly of their support for “Biblical morality” against those who would undercut or weaken it. This concern is genuine, and has been shared over the generations by Brethren conservatives who opposed greater acceptance of many things considered un-Biblical by the church: consumption of alcohol, profanity of speech, premarital sex, divorce and remarriage, and so forth. Without too much work we could develop a long list. For some conservatives, the church has “tolerated” so many things that they wonder whether it will draw a clear line against anything they understand to be Biblically immoral. So homosexuality is not a single issue; for them, it is the final straw.
And yet in the Brethren context, the current stand of conservatives for “Biblical morality” is inconsistent. It has shifted with the cultural currents. Traditionally, Brethren conservatives made a point of “the covering” for women, jewelry, and neckties for men. No more. Traditionally, Brethren conservatives exercised caution about voting and other things that might contaminate them with too much of “the world.” No more. But more strikingly, Brethren conservatives used to drew a line in the sand on nonresistance, requiring that members in their congregations refrain from serving in the military. In fact, beyond their baptismal confession of faith, this was one of the most sacred lines Brethren conservatives insisted upon when it came to advocating for “Biblical morality.”
But consider the following. Only 18% of Brethren Gay-opposers say that entering the armed forces is “usually” or “always” wrong; one of every five Gay-opposers (21%) says “it is wrong to help in any war by fighting;” and 15% of Gay-opposers think Brethren young people should be counseled against joining the armed forces. All of these figures suggest that the vast majority of Gay-opposers in the denomination — about four-fifths — reject a central moral premise that Brethren have affirmed as “Biblical” since the 18th century.
The group they consider morally lax, on the other hand — Brethren Gay-supporters — take a strikingly different view. Nearly half of Gay-supporters (47%) say that entering the armed forces is “usually” or “always” wrong; over half (54%) say “it is wrong to help in any war by fighting;” and nearly half (47%) of Gay-supporters say Brethren young people should be counseled against joining the armed forces.
Taking all of this into account — and recognizing that we are talking about general patterns that have individual exceptions — Gay-supporters are about two and a half times as likely as Gay-opposers to embrace what the church has defined as “Biblical morality” in the area of nonviolence — and to reject what the church has called sin. I am trying to be fair to all sides in the way that I write this, but you can probably surmise that the selectivity in the way Biblical morality gets defined by each group is one of the reasons I wrote before that Brethren should hesitate before trumpeting their own adherence to “Biblical morality.”
As a sociologist, my conclusion is that: 1) all groups in the church, right and left, define “biblical morality” in ways that are selective; and 2) their hierarchy of issues — whether they elevate virtues of sexuality or nonviolence, both of which can be called “biblical” — derives in part from the modern cultures in which they participate, not just from the Bible.
My conclusion is also that a withdrawal of Gay-supporters from the larger body of culturally conservative Brethren would likely be a small withdrawal. But it would be one that would sap the energy that remains in the “Brethren peace position.” Brethren conservatives should consider this carefully, for there are still traditional Brethren who would like to draw a clear line on homosexuality and preserve a Brethren peace witness. It would not be easy to do the latter without the passion for nonviolence of Brethren Gay-supporters.