Beliefs Culture Opinion

COMMENTARY: The church could learn lesson on community from the military

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of”Turn Toward the Wind”and publisher of RNS.)

UNDATED _ Maybe I’m missing something. After reading article upon article concerning adultery in the U.S. Air Force, I have found very few that support the notion of individual freedom and personal choice.

Even after a pilot has been trained at the cost of nearly $2 million, the Air Force is willing to discharge First Lt. Kelly Flinn _ who was accused of adultery, among other charges _ rather than bend their code of conduct in her direction.

And when Gen. Joseph Ralston, one of the armed service’s best and brightest, was nominated as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, everyone seemed relieved after he withdrew to save the Air Force embarrassment over his alleged infidelity 13 years ago.

If any individuals deserve to be exempted from the military’s code of conduct because of their accomplishments, Flinn and Ralston certainly do. Both represent a major investment on the part of the military and each had the potential to be a feather in the cap of the Air Force, if the ruling powers had simply swept the dirt under the carpet and put their best foot forward.

But the Air Force wasn’t willing to do that.

Meanwhile, another institution has been embroiled in a similar controversy. This time it’s the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently passed it’s own version of the military code of conduct governing sexual behavior.

In this case, the Presbyterians have asked church officers and clergy to live in”fidelity within the covenant of marriage between man and woman or chastity in singleness.”Opponents of this amendment to the church’s Book of Order say it is primarily an attempt to keep gays and lesbians from church leadership roles.

Both the military and the church have taken what appears to be the same moral stand: Sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong.

But the military, which is not by nature an institution founded for the purposes of promoting morality, has further explained its stand. The rule that defines adultery as a punishable offense targets acts that are”directly prejudicial to good order and discipline.” The military, it turns out, is not so concerned about sex after all. It is”good order”it hopes to maintain. Sex is only a problem when it interferes with this goal.

Presbyterians, on the other hand, cite the biblical mandates prohibiting sex outside of marriage and simply want to hold true to their traditional beliefs. This is understandable, since the church is supposed to be a moral institution.

But perhaps church leaders could learn something from the military. Both organizations are communities. The military is clear about this; the church seems less certain.

In a community, the interests of the individual must be subordinate to the greater good of the entire body _ the military’s”good order.” Church leaders who are”sexual suspects”_ as John Irving so aptly puts it in”The World According to Garp”_ are an individual threat to the group at large: Their motives cannot be trusted; their loyalties are unclear.

Regardless of the moral arguments to be made, when individual sexual behavior is not limited, the entire community suffers.

Individuals will be sexually active outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage; denying this fact will not make it disappear. But the root issue is how communities choose to deal with individual-vs.-community matters.

The military has made it clear it values community over the individual. Now it’s time for the Presbyterians to define their position.