It seems logical that Christians using the same holy text would come to the same conclusions on social, cultural and religious issues.
However, in practice that proves to be the exception, rather than the rule — especially when such contentious topics as homosexuality come to the table.
Some professors from local religious colleges and universities said these ideological differences stem, at least in part, from differences in the people practicing the faith.
The difference in opinions on homosexuality in Christian sects may come from differences in Scriptural focus, according to Goshen College Professor Keith Graber Miller.
“Part of what’s going on is we’re reading texts through different lenses,” Graber Miller said. “(For example,) Mennonites look most to the New Testament, focusing specifically just on the life and teachings of Jesus... The canon in the canon is the Sermon on the Mount. Lutherans may look more on Paul’s writings and Romans.”
Graber Miller teaches several courses in the Bible, Religion and Philosophy department at Goshen College, including co-teaching a course called “Human Sexuality,” as well as teaching a course called “Sexuality and Religion.” He said the topic of homosexuality, as well as other controversial topics, has come up in his classroom several times. Graber Miller is also an ordained pastor in the Mennonite faith, but he does not currently work in that role.
Graber Miller said he has seen changes in the polarization within Christian sects, coinciding with convergence in thought between members of different sects at the polarizing ends. This theory comes from scholar Robert Wuthnow and his work, “The Restructuring of American Religion.”
In other words, people at the far left and far right of polarizing issues within a sect are seeing more in common with members of other sects, religions and churches than they see with members of their own church or congregation.
“This is the phenomenon happening now,” Graber Miller said. “It’s breaking down what it means to be a member of a congregation.”
Notre Dame Sociology Professor Elizabeth McClintock said she speculates that larger changes in society could have an impact on the lives of religious members of a culture. While most of her experience comes from studying broader culture, rather than religion specifically, she said she can speculate some possible trends.
“I think it has to do with attitudes toward gender, specifically with anxiety over changing gender arrangements between spouses,” McClintock said. “Homosexual couples are seen as a threat because they undermine the gendered basis of marriage and parenting. A couple that does not differ on sex or gender cannot divide household, employment or parenting responsibility according to gender.”
McClintock, whose research focuses primarily on gender, sexuality and inequality in context of romantic and sexual relationships, said these feelings might be exacerbating by women’s increasing employment and emphasis on men functioning more as homemakers. Those feeling this emphasis in a negative way may feel threatened by homosexuality and gay marriage, she said.
“Similarly, because many homosexual couples are childless, they may be seen as a threat to those who feel that marriage should be for procreation (as opposed to those who think marriage is for companionship and love) or to those who feel that women are obligated to have children,” she said.
In terms of religious and Scriptural interpretation, Graber Miller said the homosexuality issue is a case study on what people take from the Bible.
“(This shows) what grids or interpretive views we take to Scripture,” he said. “I think we do ourselves a disservice if we say we interpret it all flatly or literally. People feel like it’s a test case for whether we can take the Bible seriously or not.”
Graber Miller said other contentious topics are female leadership in the church and slavery.
“Some people get frustrated that the church is following the culture,” he said. “To me, it seems like the church should be leading the culture. That might have an affect on how we treat the marginalized.”
A basic fear
Beyond religion, Graber Miller said those unfamiliar with homosexuality may fear the unknown.
“A lot of it is our own fear,” Graber Miller said. “The fear of our sexuality, the fear of the fragility of our marriage. We have been focusing so much in the last 30 years on same-sex sexuality that we’ve ignored other things (like adultery and sexual abuse)... We’ve been paying attention to the wrong things.”
People believe they are doing the right thing, no matter what side of the issue they’re on, according to Graber Miller.
“I do think people at various sides of the issue are trying to be faithful and stay as close to teachings as possible,” he said. “They’re not trying to be malicious. They’re just so different in their interpretation.”
Looking to the future, Graber Miller said he sees a point where homosexuality is accepted within culture as a whole. He cited evidence from younger age groups, even those who lean conservatively, with at least 48 percent acceptance of homosexuality, though sometimes that percentage reaches into the high 70s.
“It’s a shift,” he said. “We’re almost to a point of no return... Overall, in the whole country, a younger generation is growing up asking, ‘Why is this a problem?’”
No matter what a person’s opinion is, he said, they should read broadly and thoughtfully on both sides of the issue to fully understand everything.
“You should include progressive and conservative views of Scripture,” he said. “Think critically of what you’re reading. Talk to people who are gay or lesbian about their journey. Talk to people on both sides about their thoughts... Think about what you’re afraid of, what drives your perspective on the issue. Think of how Jesus would act today.”