One criticism I’ve seen of mainline churches is that they don’t do a very good job of connecting theology to congregational, individual, or public life. Whether or not this is true as a general matter, one area where it does seem to me to happen is the public debate–particularly in American Christianity–over the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the church. To hear people talk, you wouldn’t know that theologians have been grappling with these issues for literally decades or that over this time, a rich body of biblical and theological material has been developed supporting the case for the full equality of LGBT people. (Case in point: this recent exchange between Ross Douthat and William Saletan; to read this, you would never know that there was more than one “Christian” position here.)
It would seem that very little of the work that has been done in rethinking Christian attitudes toward LGBT people–largely by academics in theology and biblical studies–has filtered down to the congregational level and out into the public sphere. We still find ourselves rehashing the same half-dozen or so “clobber texts” and framing the debate in terms of “traditionalists” who uphold orthodox faith and “liberals” who are moral and doctrinal relativists. What this leaves out is, for example, the robustly theological (or theological-ethical) case for equality that has been developed by people like James Allison, Eugene Rogers, Gareth Moore, and others, or the work that has been done on the meaning and context of the relevant biblical texts. Bringing this to bear on the discussion would scramble the usual narrative of “liberals” being indifferent or hostile to theological arguments.
Mainline congregations have often exhibited good instincts in this area, basing their stance of equality for LGBT folks more on concrete experience than theory. But this leaves mainline Christians ill-equipped to make the case in theological and biblical terms, and they often end up ceding the theological high ground to their conservative opponents. It also allows more conservative forms of Christianity to be seen as the sole legitimate public expressions of the faith.