Reflections on the Achtemeier-Layman Controversy
by Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon
Mar. 1, 2005
Prof. Mark Achtemeier
Rev. Parker T. Williamson
The recent controversy between The
Layman's Executive Editor Parker Williamson (go
Mark Achtemeier (a professor of theology at Dubuque Theological
Seminary) has focused in large part around whether Prof. Achtemeier “told
a seminary class . . . that his position on homosexuality represented a
departure from the biblical tradition.” This focus is misplaced and
reminds me of another story.
On Oct. 14, 2004, The Layman
came out with an article entitled
“Draft paper suggests possibility of ordaining ‘committed’ gays.” It
described ten theses produced for the Task Force by William Stacy Johnson,
a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and the
discussion that followed. The theses advocated the church’s acceptance of
committed homosexual relationships. At one point in the discussion there
was an interesting exchange between Prof. Johnson and Rev. John “Mike”
Loudon, another member of the Task Force:
“We're not advocating promiscuity” [Johnson said.]
But, Loudon replied, “There are only two views: Biblical and
“Isn't that just the difference in interpretation?” Johnson asked.
“You're not saying that those on the other side have non-Biblical
views, are you?”
Loudon did not answer.
I suspect that Rev. Loudon did not
answer Prof. Johnson directly partly because of the social awkwardness of
the moment and partly because of the intimidation factor of facing a Task
Force that would have expressed outrage at a “Yes” answer.
Yet this question will continue to be
put to those who uphold an other-sex prerequisite for valid sexual unions,
as proponents of committed homosexual relationships insist that they are
being “biblical” in the “deepest” sense. And the answer to that question
must be a compassionate but unequivocal:
Yes, your views on this issue are “non-biblical.” Scripture itself
establishes clearly that support of any homosexual practice, committed
or otherwise, is an extreme non-biblical view. I would be doing you an
injustice if I deluded you into thinking otherwise.
This is a major point of my work on
the subject. The scriptural witness for maintaining an other-sex
prerequisite is pervasive within and across Testaments, strong, absolute,
and countercultural. Moreover, no compelling historical reasons exist for
assuming that falsely called “new knowledge” about homosexual orientation
or non-exploitative homosexual relationships would have changed the views
of Scripture’s authors. Whether one agrees with Scripture’s witness
against homosexual practice or not, one cannot say, reasonably,
historically, that Scripture has any other witness, nor that a two-sex
requirement for sexual relations was merely of marginal concern to the
Now, what are we to make of Prof.
response to The Layman and the subsequent uproar against The
Layman registered in letters to both
Presbyweb (Feb. 9-12) and
The Layman (Feb. 9-15)?
I was heartened by Mark’s insistence
that he “could not in good conscience hold to any position that
contradicted biblical teaching.” But I was equally disheartened that,
although “categorically” denying that he referred to his views on
homosexuality as a “departure from the biblical tradition,” he left
undenied the two most damaging allegations:
He said that he was unwilling to say that homosexual behavior is either
a sin or not a sin.
He said he has come to the conclusion that the church needs to support
homosexuals who commit themselves to monogamous relationships.
The absence of a denial of these two
allegations, which incidentally was also pointed out by Parker Williamson
in his rejoinder, was a glaring omission in view of the strongly
worded refutations that Mark gave for each of the four other, lesser
allegations made in The Layman article (there were only six
Why is this a problem? Mark’s key
insistence in his response is that he is “absolutely bound to the
authority of Scripture.” Yet such an insistence is meaningless, at least
as regards core values in sexual ethics, if one is “unwilling to say” that
homosexual behavior is a significant violation of God’s sexual standards
or if one “concludes” that the church should offer support for committed
The real issue is not whether persons
admit that they have denied Scripture at significant points but
whether in fact they have. Remember Stacy Johnson’s challenge:
“You’re not saying that those on the other side have non-Biblical views,
are you?” Well, if the church weren’t saying that, then we might as well
endorse the Covenant Network’s program, an action that would represent an
obvious departure from a foundational value in Scripture’s sexual ethics.
Many of the letters that vehemently
attacked The Layman for its article were premised on the conviction
that Prof. Achtemeier could not possibly entertain the views attributed to
him, since in previous writings he had shown himself to be a defender of
Scripture’s authority. Indeed, many of those who reacted strongly seemed
to assume that the article occurred in a vacuum, without any prior history
that might suggest a shift in Mark’s views.
Yet indications of a shift in Mark’s
views had been publicly evident for some time. For example:
Already in a 2002 speech at a national Confessing
Churches meeting, Mark stated categorically that it would be “an
unfaithful and ungodly and unscriptural and unholy application”
of the Bible’s teaching on sexual holiness to entertain any church
discipline for continual, self-affirming acts of homosexual practice. He
even compared engaging in homosexual behavior, regularly and
unrepentantly, to owning two cars. Can anyone imagine making similar
criticisms of Paul’s recommendation of disciplinary actions in the
comparable case of the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5?
In the October 2003 PUP Task Force meeting that
discussed papers on the Bible and homosexuality, virtually every
statement of Mark’s reported by
The Presbyterian News Service,
Presbyterian Outlook, and
Presbyterian Layman suggests criticism of what Mark would
later call “a slam-door, firmly articulated ‘no’” to homosexual
practice clung to by a certain “constituency” of the PCUSA. For example,
he assessed the case for sexual complementarity as “very slippery”;
questioned “What is [a homosexual person] able to repent of?”; implied
that homosexual orientation, if innate, may be part of God’s “creation”;
characterized “the heart of marriage” merely as “covenant faithfulness”
(rather than, say, a reunion of a man and woman into a sexual whole);
and classified appeals to explicit texts such as Rom 1:24-27 as an
“enormously vulnerable” “proof-texting approach,” even when done in the
context of a broader discussion of creation and social-scientific
Later Mark was a major contributor to, and avid
supporter of, the Task Force’s Preliminary Report to the 2004 General
As I have noted elsewhere, this Report seriously distorted the
interrelationship of the themes of unity and sexual purity in Ephesians.
It even flatly declared that Presbyterians “cannot even entertain the
notion of severing [institutional] ties [in the PCUSA] with sisters and
brothers in Christ” over the homosexuality issue “without also placing
themselves in severe jeopardy of being severed from Christ himself.”
There is much else that could be said
about hints of a shift in Mark’s position but the above references are
sufficient to show that there is a context for this article that has
generated a firestorm within renewal circles. Nobody in the renewal
movement of the PCUSA has pushed Mark into making the kinds of statements,
public and private, over a two-year period that have led some of his
friends to wonder about his views on Scripture and homosexuality. His past
remarks have lent an unfortunate air of plausibility to the allegations
made by some of his students.
At the same time, even if the
allegations were true, we have hope for better things in the future for
someone who has manifested in previous writings a concern for Scripture’s
defining place in the life of the church. Exploratory positions might not
harden into settled convictions.
Three other “red herrings” can be
identified in this controversy:
The real issue is the timing of the article.
Most critics of the article assume that had The Layman just
waited longer before publication Mark might have set the record straight
on the two key allegations noted above. But there is little reason to
make such an assumption. When Mark issued his demand for a retraction he
had an opportunity to refute these allegations but chose not to. Nor did
he complain that The Layman had given him insufficient time to
answer their repeated inquiries (six phone calls in seven days with an
acknowledgement on his spouse’s part that he had received the messages).
Mark didn’t respond to The Layman because he has little regard
for The Layman and did not want to feed into what he pejoratively
perceives as The Layman’s self-appointed role as Grand Inquisitor
of the PCUSA. Perhaps, too, there may have been some fire behind the
smoke, some truth behind the allegations that Mark could not have
explained to supporters.
The real issue is academic freedom.
to what some have suggested, including at Dubuque, there is no question
here of Mark’s “academic freedom” being put in jeopardy by the article.
The Layman doesn’t have that kind of clout in PCUSA seminaries.
The only damage that such an article might have on Mark is on Mark’s
standing with the renewal movement of the PCUSA. And it could have such
an effect only if Mark chose not to deny, or not to explain adequately,
the two key allegations made in the article that he has yet to
challenge; or, worse, if Mark should support a Task Force proposal to
gut the church’s historic and scriptural stance on sexuality.
The real issue is trust in the classroom. As a
faculty member myself, I can well understand Mark’s feeling of betrayal
at students reporting what he said in a classroom setting to a news
service. At the same time I can’t say that I would criticize a news
service, or student informers, if a report appeared about a PCUSA
seminary faculty member promoting committed “threesomes” or adult
incestuous unions. And yet, from Scripture’s perspective, an other-sex
prerequisite is even more foundational for sexual ethics than monogamy
or a certain amount of blood unrelatedness. The only reason why Mark’s
comments to his seminary class were at all newsworthy is that Mark has
played, and is playing, an important role in the renewal movement in the
PCUSA and, so many thought, in representing the values of that movement
to the Task Force. It will certainly do Dubuque Seminary no good to
engage in a witch hunt of, or punish, students who contacted The
Layman. Nor will it help Dubuque’s fundraising to give an impression
to renewal circles in the PCUSA that they are more concerned about
plugging leaks than maintaining the priority of Scripture in sexual
Focusing the controversy on timing,
academic freedom, or trust in the classroom all deflect from the real
issue: Is a trusted leader of renewal in the PCUSA in transition to a view
on homosexual practice more in keeping with the Covenant Network than with
Presbyterians for Renewal? And, if so, what effects will this have on the
Task Force’s final report, the church’s decision on sexual ethics, and
this leader’s long-term influence in the renewal movement? These are
legitimate questions and concerns. Angry denunciations of the questions
and concerns will not sweep them away.
Whatever Mark’s views on homosexual
practice currently are, I believe that it is in Mark’s best interest to be
a bit more candid to his supporters about where he stands, even if his
response is only: I haven’t made up my mind if committed homosexual unions
are sinful or, even if sinful, undeserving of church support as an
alternative to promiscuity or abstinence. Currently Mark is allowing
people to defend him on the assumptions that he (1) firmly subscribes to
Scripture’s opposition to all homosexual practice and (2) had every
intention of calling The Layman back to set the record straight
before publication. If it turned out that Mark allowed people to make a
vociferous attack on his behalf that was based on premises that he knew to
be false, it would not speak well of him.
If, too, his views are still in flux,
does that mean that, contrary to one of the allegations, he has not
“come to the conclusion that the church needs to support
homosexuals who commit themselves to monogamous relationships”? Or is it
possible that at least some of his views on the issue are already
relatively fixed? At least one would be his view that official
ecclesiastical endorsement of homosexual unions and ordination of persons
in such unions cannot be church-dividing issues.
In the interests of full disclosure,
let me say that I shared a penultimate version of these reflections with
Mark in the hope that he might take the initiative in clarifying these
matters, thus making the publication of these reflections unnecessary. He
declined to discuss the matter with me.
In closing, it is my great hope and
the hope of many that Mark will maintain his compassion for persons
experiencing homosexual desire precisely in the context of firmly
upholding Scripture’s core stance on marriage and sexual intimacy. That is
the only context in which true love, truth in love, can be exercised.
Jesus wedded compassion for sexual and economic offenders with an
intensified ethic, an aggressive outreach to the lost with a call to his
followers to take up their crosses, deny themselves, and lose their lives.
Mark is a good man, with great talents, a nice sense of humor, and
wonderful zeal for the church. If anyone, including myself, has erred in
putting undue pressure on Mark or not giving Mark the space that he needs
to sort things out in his own mind, then may Mark forgive. But in
forgiving, may he also acknowledge why so many of his friends are
concerned and why we will be grieved if we discover that he has
transitioned from the scriptural view on human sexuality to one that is
Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon is
Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,
author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon Press, 2001)
and co-author of Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Fortress
© 2005 Robert A. J. Gagnon
For Mark Achtemeier's
"Response to Robert Gagnon" go
here (Presbyweb) or
here (The Layman).
For my "Reply to Mark
Achtemeier" go here.