New American Bible Society policy defends (a) ancient orthodoxy, (b) evangelicalism or (c) both?

Let's start with a few old questions about Christian doctrine and church history.

First, what does does the Roman Catholic Church -- at the level of its Catechism -- teach about the definition of marriage and the moral status of sex outside of marriage?

Second question: What doctrines do Eastern Orthodox churches around the world affirm on these same topics, which have implications for issues such as cohabitation before marriage and premarital sex?

Third question: What do the vast majority of Anglican churches around the world teach on these same issues? Ditto for United Methodists?

Come to think of it, what does the ancient Christian document known as the Didache have to say on issues linked to marriage and sex?

I could go on. However, let's jump to a current news story that is linked to these issues. In particular, I would like to call attention to the Religion News Service report that was posted with this headline: "Employees quit American Bible Society over sex and marriage rules." The overture is quite strong:

(RNS) -- One of the oldest nonprofit organizations dedicated to distributing Bibles around the world will soon require all employees to adhere to orthodox Christian beliefs and heed a conservative code of sexual ethics.
Employees are resigning in protest of the new policy, which will effectively prohibit sexually active LGBT people and couples in cohabitating relationships from working for the American Bible Society. But the organization stands by it as a measure intended to bring “unity and clarity.”

The key word in that lede is "orthodox," with a small "o." It would have been possible, I guess, to have used phrases such as "ancient Christian beliefs" or even "traditional Christian beliefs." Both would have been accurate in terms of history. In this context, the use of "conservative" is fine, since there are "liberal" churches that have modernized their doctrines on these subjects.

However, strange things start happening soon after that strong, factual opening, Note, for example, the end of this paragraph:

The American Bible Society, founded 202 years ago to publish, distribute and translate the Bible, presented its “Affirmation of Biblical Community” to employees in December. It requires employees to “refrain from sexual contact outside the marriage covenant,” which it defined as man and wife.

Now, let's be clear. It is accurate to state that the American Bible Society document defines "marriage covenant" in this manner. However, the implication is that there is something unique or controversial about that doctrine -- as opposed to it being a restatement of 2,000 years of basic Christian moral theology (return to the questions at the top of this post).

Now, look what happens in a Twitter item promoting this RNS story:


Wait. Why switch from calling this a statement of small-o "orthodox" Christian thought and begin saying that these doctrines are somehow uniquely "evangelical"?

You can see the same basic idea repeated over and over, as critics of the American Bible Society doctrinal statement dig into their talking points. It appears that -- to do some serious damage -- folks had to switch to the politically loaded semi-curse "evangelical." Click here for some background on debates about that term.

Let's look at some examples in this RNS report:

The affirmation is just the latest sign that the organization has shifted away from its ecumenical roots toward a more narrow evangelical identity. That shift began in the 1990s when the American Bible Society changed its constitution to make it a ministry that undertakes “Scripture engagement.” Previously it published Bibles “without note or comment.”
“This is a clear manifestation, or a logical conclusion, of the evangelical takeover in the 1990s,” said John Fea, a historian at Messiah College and author of the book “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.”

Again, consider this question: What part of this doctrinal statement is uniquely "evangelical," as opposed to being in line with common doctrines that are Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, etc?

Later on there is this:

The new affirmation has led several employees to quit on principle. They said they didn’t want to work for an organization that so tightly circumscribes its workforce and its message to evangelicals only.

Again, what part of this doctrinal covenant makes it an "evangelicals only" document? Will this new ABS policy drive out traditional Christians in other churches and communions?

So what is going on here?

First, RNS got things right in the lede. Bravo.

Then it appears likely that the source activists lobbying for this story took over, with RNS tuning in few counter-arguments or statements from people on the small-o "orthodox" side.

I would assume that the primary opponents of this ABS document are active members of liberal Christian churches that have modernized their teachings on sexuality and, thus, have every reason to oppose the Catholic-Orthodox-ancient consensus. Why not say that? Why not offer on-the-record material discussing the doctrines behind this clash, rather than adding fog by using the politically-charged "evangelical" label?

It is also crucial to note why the American Bible Society, and many other religious groups, are putting these kinds of doctrinal specifics into print. They aren't doing this because they want to do so, they are taking this step because of emerging legal realities.

The roots of these decisions can be found in recent government actions and court decisions (think HHS mandates) requiring religious nonprofits to be much more specific about the doctrines that define their voluntary associations. In other words, there are now solid legal reasons for being more candid, as a defense strategy when being sued by those who oppose these doctrines.

This story isn't going away. So be careful out there.

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