Homosexuality, Sin, and Grace
This is the seventh installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
One facet of the conversation about welcoming persons described as LGBTQ into congregations is the matter of sin. Concisely stated, some think that a sexually active same-sex lifestyle is sin; and others do not. For those who think it is sin, even within long-term, committed relationships, a failure to be repentant is a further moral shortcoming that disqualifies one from complete acceptance and participation in the total life of the church.
Much has been said by sincere, thoughtful people in defense of both ways of viewing same-sex behavior. Strong arguments for both positions are not likely at this point in the conversation to be persuasive. A middle way needs to be found that allows people of integrity to live with the position of the other.
Perhaps a way can be found by thinking deeply about sin. Here are some key thoughts that may help us live with what we perceive to be the sinfulness of the other, and to live with ourselves despite our own sinfulness.
First, sin corrupts our best human capacities—kindness, generosity, patience—and instead the perceived flaws of others become targets of attack, and those persons become the objects of our defection or neglect. As Neal Plantinga points out in his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to be - A Breviary of Sin, “When we put others on a tight moral budget while making plenty of allowances for ourselves…we exhibit a corruption of emotion, intention, speech and disposition. By such abuse of our highest powers, we who are fearfully and wonderfully made, we creatures of special dignity and responsibility, evoke not only grief and consternation but also blame.” (p.3)
Sin can be thought of as that which corrupts and disrupts what is good. Long-term, monogamous same-sex relationships can display the beauty of commitment and mutual support that Christians have long seen as the intent for heterosexual marriage. Rather than corrupting the good, same-sex unions can be as much a force for good in our fractured world as successful traditional marriages.
To speak of sin without grace is to ignore the magnanimity of God; but it is also a distortion to speak of grace without sin. The truth of God’s grace is cheapened by trivializing sin just as making sin central reduces grace to a place of lesser importance than the offense that necessitates it. Since none of us are without sin, it may be better—a third way—to concentrate on one’s own penitence and need for grace, and to be less insistent and impatient about another’s.
This is the sixth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
In my childhood our minister used to read the Ten Commandments every Sunday in dramatic fashion. Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai couldn’t have done it more effectively. I wondered watchfully whether thunder and lightning might show up.
Rarely do I have that kind of fear in church these days. No longer do we sternly warn unrepentant people about “eating and drinking judgment unto themselves” during communion. Our current, kinder invitations to the table are more likely to refer to “those who are truly sorry for their sins.” Similarly, our funeral services are no longer filled with dire warnings about how those of us still here should be living our lives. It appears that fire and brimstone are no longer in our seminary curricula. It’s been boxed up along with “What a worm am I” theology, opened for inspection now and again, but no longer the driving force it was to earlier Calvinists.
Nonetheless, remnants remain of past preoccupations. Some congregations hesitate to nominate divorced persons for church office. If a young couple is “living in sin”, neither one is very welcome in the church choir. If someone’s child expresses a desire to identify as something other than the gender assigned to them at birth, we have trouble getting past “male and female created He them.” Women with wives aren’t often pictured together in the church directory.
Is it possible, and maybe even true to scripture, for us to worry a little less about sin—not abandon it, mind you, but find a proper emphasis for it? Neal Plantinga wrote a book-length exposition of the nature of our sin, somewhat amusingly subtitled A Breviary of Sin. I recommend this book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, if you are interested in a deeper understanding of what sin can look like. But seriously, how about some balance? We need it all, don’t we? We need the Law and the Gospel. We need to know how we’ve messed up and also how God takes care of it. Arguably, we may need assurance of forgiveness before we can totally own up to our brokenness. My former pastor, Roger Van Harn, argued that we need assurance before confession.
So how are we to live with our own messes as well as our neighbor’s? With kindness, not condemnation. Call it “messy solidarity.”
Think of those people who have helped you the most. Is it the moralists who are quick to warn and give advice? I think more often it is those who give us hope by showing us in their words and manner that they too experience the human condition in all its complexity and perplexity. They bring us healing and strength because they do not run away in the face of our imperfections, or their own. Paradoxically, we help each other heal our wounds when we are in solidarity with each other in the middle of our struggles. When we walk side by side and listen rather than speak, and seek to understand rather than judge, it is then that we can give—and receive—the compassion mediated for us by Jesus Christ.
This is the fifth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
The CRC Synod of 2016, and in particular its decisions around same sex relationships, cause me to wonder about my tradition’s strong emphasis on rules and on “knowing our sins and miseries” and what sometimes appears to be a de-emphasis on love and mercy. Why do people have such a compelling desire to name sin, when we are told so clearly that God loves us while we are yet sinners? I don’t mean to deny the reality of human sin or the importance of naming it, avoiding it, repenting of it, and seeking forgiveness. And let me be clear, I am not ceding the argument that same-sex behavior is sin. But even if you believe that it is, does that specific “sin” fall under different rules than other sins? Are those who engage in such “sin” somehow undeserving of the patience extended freely to those who sin in other ways?
Part of the reason for a strong emphasis on sin may be psychological. Lots of folks like life to be clear, especially about our ethical choices. It’s so much easier if we know exactly what we may and may not do. Tell me the rules and I will try to live by them perfectly, and woe to those who make it obvious to me that they are not following the rules. God hates sin, right?
Such binary thinking about right and wrong easily can become distorted. For example, because none of us follows all the rules perfectly, our personal imperfections can become, in the recesses of our minds, self-loathing. And if we can’t forgive ourselves and fully take in God’s forgiveness, how will we ever extend forgiveness to anyone else?
A truth about us is that we are God’s beloved. Even though nothing about us is hidden from God, God loves us anyway. That’s such wonderful news that it’s hard to absorb. Furthermore, it’s humiliating to have our imperfections seen. Our embarrassment makes us want to hide. Yet, God’s mercy washes over us like a waterfall. The drips of our baptism are but a tiny symbol of the deluge of grace that God extends! Because we are lavishly loved, we no longer have to worry about putting on some sort of disguise of righteousness.
Once we are conscious of this reality, it becomes unnecessary to look microscopically at anyone else to find their flaws and call them to perfect living. Recognizing our own need for mercy and knowing in our bones that God’s mercy is already available to us more completely than we’d ever imagined, allows us to be compassionate with others rather than judgmental.
This is the fourth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
The conversation in the church around LGBTQ+ matters is an opportunity for us to examine our hearts. Viewing the discussion as a threat leads to fear responses in which some voices are silenced, and the power of some over others is exerted. But viewing this particular situation as an occasion to look at one’s own motivations and fears can lead to changes in the ways we live with each other in the presence of all of our imperfections and differences.
What changes our hearts? It’s recognizing our own personal need for God’s mercy and realizing that God loves us as we are. God’s generosity toward us is inexhaustible. If you can take in the truth that you are loved that seriously, then love toward others cannot help but spill out of you.
Conversely, if you find yourself impatient with others who have different ideas about what is ethical, if you judge the actions of others without compassion, if you put your energies into creating policies that condemn and exclude people from fellowship, if you believe it is your job to vigorously defend the purity of faith against anything you perceive to be immoral , then consider the possibility that you may have a distorted heart. You may, in fact, have failed to apprehend the radical nature of God’s love for you, which, once you’ve taken it in, will transform your heart and the way in which you live with others. You will become a conduit for others to God’s capacious heart.
This is the third installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
The famed psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that a fundamental need that humans have is to belong. We need to feel we are beloved to our mothers and fathers and families. We need to feel that we have friends who want us to be their friends. We want to feel that we are integral to others with whom we share neighborhoods, classrooms, and places of worship. Deprived of a sense of belonging, people will distort themselves in order to be part of a group or to have a relationship.
Belonging is fundamental to our faith as well. We believe that so strongly that we say out loud often and in each other’s presence that our only comfort, in life and in death, is that we belong to our faithful Savior. I don’t literally think that belonging to God is our only comfort for it is clearly evident that God comforts us with gifts of human love and many other things. Belonging to God who will never be separate from us is our ultimate comfort, however, and the source from which our earthly comforts come.
If God is inclusive enough to embrace all except those who reject God, how can we be anything less with each other. God doesn’t say to us, “You must earn your belonging.” God doesn’t say, “Only those who are without sin and thus earn their belonging are mine.” God does say, “I love you because you are mine.” Can you believe it? Before you knew it, before you were in your mother’s womb even, God already knew your soul and loved you. And while we are still less than our Creator wants of us, God still loves us like crazy.
In the face of that kind of belonging, I cannot help but look in the face of another and remember that they belong too. They—the returning citizen, the Muslim refugee, the transgendered person, the nonbinary child, the woman with a wife and man with a husband—they all belong. Those whom Jesus calls “brothers and sisters” belong to me too. They belong to my faith community. They belong with me to our faithful Savior. No longer strangers, no longer aliens, but like children at home.
This is the second installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
The Reformed tradition of Christianity has placed strong value on a particular way of knowing things. We pride ourselves in being careful thinkers. Knowing things through our minds, and putting our thoughts into words, and exegeting the Word has led to great insights of faith. It also has led to dogmatism about what we know and a constant vigilance about orthodoxy, i.e., right ways of thinking. And it has led to neglect of other ways of knowing truth, and the Truth, and to a loss at times of the bigger picture, the gestalt.
The mystical tradition of Christianity, much older than Reformation thought, has been lost to many present-day Christians. We need to regain our ability to see mystery. We need both things, really. We need faith between our ears that expresses itself in textbooks and propositions. And we also need faith that is less about head knowledge and more about knowing in our bones. We need the faith we experience when the Spirit moves us beyond words. We need faith that emphasizes love as the driving force, the center, the greatest of these.
When people on all sides of contentious issues cannot love one another, it means we have not gotten the big picture clear yet. When we fail to make room for discerning people to conclude divergent things about what the Scriptures are teaching about the origins of gender fluidity, the permissibility of same-sex relationships, the primacy of gender complementarity, and the like, then we are missing the overarching truth that love wins. Not doctrinal precision. Not rightness. Not sinlessness. Not grace and truth, but grace as ultimate truth. Love wins!
If the institutional church is to thrive, it must come to this revolutionary way of experiencing anew what God keeps doing with us over and over. God loves us like a great parent, in the presence of all our flaws. This is Christianity’s core knowledge, and it is transformative for how we live together and how we represent God to the world.
This is the first installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
I recently read the illuminating book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, by Elizabeth Edman (2016, Beacon Press), and it prompts me to reframe my thinking. For quite some time, debate within the Christian Reformed Church has focused on scriptural exegesis and on the orientation vs. practice dimensions of homosexuality. That focus has been propelled by our proclivity to get our thinking straight and to use our presumed rationality to develop formal policy. We have been content to intellectualize about these matters and to base our positions on the exegesis of a limited number of Bible passages. The time has come to shift the conversation about LGBTQ+ individuals in the Christian Reformed Church. Within the CRC and the broader Christian church, the assault on queer people in the name of religion must stop. Not only do these continuing attacks deny the inherent worth of queer people, they ignore other ways we have of knowing what is right and true, and they blaspheme God's love and mercy.
This is not the forum for a full exploration of my epistemological assertion that we have multiple ways of finding truth. Nonetheless, I think it is evident that our observation of people in our lives and in our congregations reveals that queer lives add value to our fellowship. I believe it is time to move beyond kindness, mercy, tolerance, and forgiveness as reasons for welcoming LGBTQ+ persons and instead recognize that the body of believers needs its queer brothers and sisters. Non-queer siblings benefit from seeing God at work in their LGBTQ+ siblings. The latter bring fresh expressions of faith, poignant insights into scripture, and valuable theological insights. The witness of LGBTQ+ people shapes our understanding of God and of what faith calls us to be and do.
Members of our churches for too long a time have operated with a false binary: People are either good or bad. The truth is, darkness and light coexist in each of us. We have said, “This thing you do, this same-sex relationship you have, makes you bad.” This way of thinking makes people consider the “other” as something less than Christian, maybe even something less than an image bearer of their Creator, and perhaps even causes people to despise LGBTQ+ sons and daughters of God.
People of faith and the Christian Reformed Church as institution must own this wounding it has done to fellow Christians who are queer. It is time to repent of this victimizing that is antithetical to our understanding of God's grace and instead seek forgiveness from our LGBTQ+ family members. Living in a less binary way with each other requires humility from all sides; it means making room for the possibility that your insight, your interpretation of things, may one day be found wrong.
It is time for the Church to be far more interested in how people treat each other than in doctrinal perfection or dogmatic statements about sin. Applying litmus tests for who may or may not be part of the church is not credible. Looking for those who have not been included, for whatever reason, and bringing them into the wide flow of God's mercy is a primary task of the church today.
It is not enough for churches to be welcoming and for church leaders to be kind. Instead, we must preach that demonizing LGBTQ+ believers is violent and anti-Christian. God does not require us to perfect ourselves, to free ourselves of every sin, in order to earn God's love. To the contrary, God is running towards us, while we are yet imperfect and incomplete. We accept that people of God will break the Ten Commandments, and we allow all of us commandment breakers into the church. I am not saying here that same sex orientation or same sex relationships are a sin which must be accepted as a reality just like we do other sins. I personally do not think a homosexual orientation or committed, long-term same sex unions are sinful. But for those who do believe they are, I simply think you must respond in the same way God responds to you.
We should stop our fight over the interpretation of a few passages of scripture. We are being tested in our understanding of love. It is not a test of the LGBTQ+ person's faith or of someone's desire to stop sinning and be morally pure. It is a test of our apprehension of God's grace, and of whether we have taken in the reality that God loves us as we are, despite the particularities of our own wounds, and of whether we can love as God loves.
Ultimately, if someone cannot touch others with healing hands, we must question whether that individual has understood the touch of God's healing hand and felt God's liberating love deep in the marrow of their own bones.
How fully are we loved? While we were yet sinners, God loved us. Could it be that we are so enamored of calling out sin that we have forgotten to love? LGBTQ+ folks and their allies are calling us to put down our fists, stop worrying about what some believe to be the sin of another, and instead trust that God has got this.
There is something going on here that is bigger than our understanding, and bigger than the traditional exegesis of a few passages, and bigger than our current church policy on homosexuality. That bigger thing is our understanding of God's love, and that is the very heart of our faith. What faith in God's love enables us to do is put down the whip of righteousness and put on the clothing of grace.
At a time when people are dismissing the church's authority and Christians themselves as hypocritical, LGBTQ+ persons can help the church re-establish credibility. In the Reformed tradition we make reference to a “priesthood of all believers.” Who do you understand to be a priest? Probably it is someone who makes God real to you and who invites you into sacred spaces. Do you consider queer people to be priests? Is there a way in which LGBTQ+ folks call church members into authentic Christian life? Answering affirmatively is necessary to living in community—gay, lesbian, straight, gender-nonconforming, inquiring, transitioning—all of us, together.
The time is now to expand our idea of “us”, and to remember, as Anne Lamott memorably puts it, that God loves us so much that He keeps a picture of us in His wallet. That kind of unqualified love must be our greatest aim.
By Rachel Held Evans
Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.
I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. And he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from.
Today we look at the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2.
“Reclaiming Our Light” Right from the start, Matthew shares with the reader two important elements of his identity: 1) that he is gay, and 2) that he is a theologically conservative Christian who holds a “high view” of the Bible.
“That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life,” Matthew writes of the second. “While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is ‘useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’ (2 Timothy 3:16-16).”
Now for some, this may seem like a conflict. I remember being told by pastors and church leaders that “gay Christian” (or "bisexual Christian" or "transgender Christian") is an oxymoron and that no one who holds a high view of Scripture can support same-sex relationships. But Matthew’s aim with God and the Gay Christian is to show that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.”
It’s an ambitious goal, and it’s one that Matthew tackles by bringing his story and insights alongside the research of dozens of scholars whose work on the topic he studied meticulously for four years, dropping out of Harvard so that he could devote himself to learning what it meant for him to be gay and Christian.
“My prayer,” he writes, “is that [the book] opens up a conversation in the Christian community that is truly in the spirit of Jesus. The fiercest objections to LGBT equality—those based on religious belief—can begin to fall away. The tremendous pain endured by LGBT youth in many Christian homes can become a relic of the past. Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound. Together, we can reclaim our light.”
A Tree and Its Fruit Matthew speaks highly of his Christian upbringing, his loving parents, and the conservative Presbyterian church “filled with kindhearted, caring Christians” in which he was raised. Like a lot of us, he asked Jesus into his heart when he was very little—just three years old. And like a lot of us he, “recommitted” a few times before middle school….just to be safe.
Matthew loved God, loved his family, loved Scripture, and loved the Church. And yet, for years, he held on to a secret that he knew might very well jeopardize his relationship with them all: he knew he was gay.
This reality generated a lot of anxiety in Matthew’s life. He had observed what happened to a friend of his who also attended his church, a young man who often shared his musical talents with the congregation on Sunday morning and was celebrated as bright, committed, and kind—a beloved member of the community…until he came out as gay. Matthew’s friend encountered stigma and shame regarding his “decision” and eventually gave up on church, Scripture, and his faith.
But Matthew didn’t want to give up on his faith.
Even Matthew’s father once told his son that he assumed that if God was against homosexuality, then God wouldn’t make anyone gay, so those who “struggle with same sex attraction” could develop heterosexual attractions over time with enough effort and prayer.
But Matthew couldn’t change his sexual orientation.
Finally, Matthew worked up the courage to come out to his family. When I saw that Matthew had titled this section of his book “My Dad’s Worst Day,” tears gathered in my eyes. It breaks my heart that we have created a culture in which a son or daughter bravely telling the truth about his or her sexuality can bring such devastation to a family.
You have to read the story for yourself to catch the full impact, but I’m happy to report that, after many months of struggling, questions, and tears, Matthew’s parents came around to supporting their son, fully. The testimony of their love for him shines through the pages of this book in a way that makes me both hopeful and sad because not every gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender child is this fortunate. For many, simply telling the truth is the beginning of a nightmare.
Along with his parents, Matthew began carefully studying the Bible’s few references to same-sex behavior (which will be examined, at length, throughout the rest of the book), and rethinking his position on the matter.
Though he had always been taught by his church that homosexuality was a chosen and sinful “lifestyle,” this teaching did not match up with Matthew’s lived experience.
“As I became more aware of same-sex relationships,” he wrote, “I could not understand why they were supposed to be sinful, or why the Bible apparently condemned them. With most sins, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the damage they caused. Adultery violates a commitment to your spouse. Lust objectifies others. Gossip degrades people. But committed same-sex relationships did not easily fit this pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they seemed to be characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self sacrifice. What other sin looked like that?”
This led some in Matthew’s church (he had come out to a small group) to accuse him of “elevating his experience over Scripture.” But as Matthew points out, he wasn’t asking his friends to revise the Bible based on his experience, he was asking them to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible.
Christians have often had to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible in light of new information, he argued, just as many did when they concluded slavery was immoral in spite of biblical instructions that seem to support it. Furthermore, while Scripture tells us not to rely solely on our experiences, it cautions Christians against ignoring experience altogether. The early Church decided to include Gentiles without requiring them to undergo circumcised or obey kosher, a controversial conclusion based largely on Peter’s testimony and experience. In Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus says that believers will recognize false teachers by the fruit in their lives. If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree. This assessment is typically made based on experience.
“Neither Peter in his work to include Gentiles in the church nor the abolitionists in their campaign against slavery argued that their experience should take precedence over Scripture,” writes Matthew. “But they both made the case that their experience should cause Christians to reconsider long-held interpretations of Scripture. Today, we are just as responsible for testing our beliefs in light of their outcomes—a duty in line with Jesus’s teachings about trees and their fruit.”
…Which raises a few questions.
If same-sex relationships are really sinful, then why do they so often produce good fruit—loving families, open homes, self-sacrifice, commitment, faithfulness, joy? And if conservative Christians are really right in their response to same-sex relationships, then why does that response often produce bad fruit—secrets, shame, depression, loneliness, broken families, and fear?
Eventually, after careful study and in light of new information, even Matthew’s father changed his mind. Matthew writes: “Instead of taking the references to same-sex behavior as a sweeping statement about all same-sex relationships, my dad started to ask: is this verse about the kind of relationship Matthew wants, or is it about abusive or lustful behavior? Is this passage about the love and intimacy Matthew longs for, or does it refer to self-centered, fleeting desires instead? After much prayer, study, and contemplation, Dad changed his mind. Only six months before, he had never seriously questioned his views. But once he saw the fruit of his beliefs more clearly, he decided to dive deeper into the Bible. In that process, he came to what he now regards as a more accurate understanding…”
Telescopes, Tradition, and Sexual Orientation Before getting into a more detailed analysis of the various biblical passages involved, Matthew takes Chapter 2 to argue that new information about sexuality ought to compel Christians to rethink their interpretation of Scripture. He reminds readers that Galileo was accused of heresy by the Church when he presented evidence that contradicted centuries of tradition and accepted biblical interpretation regarding the earth’s place in the universe. It would take Christians many years to change their minds, but eventually they did.
“Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forbearers or for the authority of Scripture,”he writes. “They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered. The traditional interpretation of Psalm 93:1, Joshua 10:12-14, and other passages made sense when it was first formulated. But the invention of the telescope offered a new lens to use in interpreting those verses, opening the door to a more accurate interpretation.”
Similarly, in recent generations, our understanding of sexuality has radically changed.
For example, for most of human history, homosexuality was not seen as a different sexual orientation but rather as a manifestation of normal sexual desire pursued to excess—a behavior anyone might engage in if they let their passions get out of hand. Matthew highlights multiple examples from history and literature to show that this was simply the assumption for many centuries.
“I’m not saying gay people did not exist in ancient societies,” Matthew writes “I’m simply pointing out that ancient societies did not think in terms of exclusive sexual orientations. Their experience of same-sex behavior led them to think of it as something anyone might do….No ancient languages even had words that mean ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’”
Of course now we are beginning to understand that, while human sexuality is complex and is perhaps best understood as existing along a continuum, many people report having fixed same-sex orientations that do not change. (Others experience sexual attraction to both men and women. Still others lack sexual attraction altogether.) “Reparative therapy,” which seeks to change sexual orientation, has been shown to be ineffective and potentially dangerous, discouraged most notably by many of the very Christian leaders who once promoted it within the Church.
In addition, in the ancient cultures from which the Bible emerged strict, patriarchal gender roles were the norm and where procreation was a matter of survival. Because women were presumed to be inferior to men, nothing was more degrading for a man than to be seen as womanly. (Guess some things never change, huh?) So in Rome, it was considered acceptable for an adult male citizen to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines regardless of gender, but only if he took the active role in the encounter. A same-sex encounter that placed a man in a passive (considered “womanly”) role would be considered humiliating. (This explains why same-sex rape was—and is— sometimes used to humiliate an enemy after defeat.)
All of these ancient understandings of sexuality affect how same-sex behavior discussed in Scripture, and all of them should call into question the notion that people—and the Church—have a held just one single “traditional” view of same-sex behavior.
In light of new information and experience, maybe it’s time to reexamine some of our assumptions and interpretations.
...Next week, we'll look at just a single chapter from God and the Gay Christian, which addresses celibacy.
Questions for Discussion: 1. How have your experiences—or those of friends and family—shaped how you are approaching this conversation?
2. What do you think of Matthew’s response to the challenge that he is “elevating his experience over Scripture.”
3. Is it helpful or fair to compare evolving understandings of human sexuality to evolving understandings of, say, the solar system or slavery?
By E.T. Sundby
Several denominations and para-religious groups accept homosexuals if they are “non practicing” (i.e. celibate). Is this scriptural?
Another issue that some denominations are struggling with is requiring that the homosexuals remain celibate. You could sum up this argument by labeling it a “love the sinner but hate the sin” with the “act” of homosexuality seen as the sin. Therefore the homosexual is ‘ok’ if they simply don’t ‘practice the sin’ – i.e. they must remain celibate.
There are several problems with this doctrine. Starting first with the fact that such a doctrine is unscriptural. Celibacy is discussed in a couple of Bible passages. The most prominent is Paul’s discussion of the topic found in First Corinthians, chapter seven. He states in these passages that it is “good for a man not to marry” (1 Corinthians 7:1), because “one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided.” (1 Corinthians 7:33-34 NAS). While “one who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, (and) how he may please the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:32 NAS).
However, Paul clearly states that celibacy is his recommendation, and not a command (1 Corinthians 7:6). More importantly, he says that celibacy is a gift not all are given (1 Corinthians 7:7). He goes on to explain that if a person does not feel comfortable being celibate and the temptation is too great (i.e. they don’t have the gift of celibacy), that person should marry (1 Corinthians 7:2). Even then married people should “not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time”, then they should “come together again so that Satan will not tempt you” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Bringing these thoughts together we can see that Paul is recommending celibacy as a way of life so that a person can devote more of their time and attention to the Lord. However, Paul is not commanding everyone in the ministry to embrace such a lifestyle! Furthermore, he realizes that few are given this predisposition and that forcing celibacy upon someone who hasn’t been given this gift is an open invitation to much misery and temptation. Therefore, only people who feel comfortable with celibacy should do so.
“Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 (NIV)
Celibacy and the Ministry
Another important note is that Paul’s admonishment regarding celibacy is primarily targeted towards those who “serve the Lord.” We now refer to such people as those “in the ministry”. The Catholic church takes Paul’s recommendation one-step further, and mandates that all those in the ministry (i.e. priests and nuns) must take vows of celibacy. Most other denominations denounce this policy, believing that such an edict demands celibacy when not all may feel comfortable with such a lifestyle. Paul himself supports this second viewpoint. Clearly stating in His letters that celibacy is a gift not all are given.
Paul recommends marriage for those who are not given this gift. In First Timothy, Paul states that a church leader (or in today’s terms we would say an pastor, bishop, overseer, deacon, priest, or church elder) should be “above reproach, the husband of but one wife.” (1 Timothy 3:2). Notice Paul didn’t say above reproach and single! In another scripture Paul, speaking about the other Apostles, states that several of them took their “believing wife along with (them).” (1 Corinthians 9:5) Nowhere do we hear Paul or others condemning these Apostles because they were married! These married men included James, the brother of Jesus, who is widely believed to have been the overseeing pastor for the mother church in Jerusalem. These passages make it clear that Paul and the other Church leaders accepted and even approved of marriage within their ranks.
So what of us? Is it possible that all homosexuals have been given the gift of celibacy? Are we all called into such a ministry? Doubtful. First the entire gay population isn’t even Christian! Secondly, nowhere in history do we see God commanding an entire nation (“nation” defined as a group of like minded people joined together by some bond that may be physical, political, social or spiritual in nature) of people to be set aside for the ministry. Even the Levites, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, who were set aside for the priesthood, did not represent the entire Jewish population nor were they required to be celibate!
If God truly has set aside the entire homosexual community for this honor then we are witnessing an historic event never before witnessed sense the dawn of creation! Such a deviation from historical patterns is highly unlikely, or believable, for we serve a God that is the “same yesterday, and to day, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8).
While it is true in one sense that all Christians are called upon to be ‘in the ministry’ as worthy ambassadors of Christ and Christianity (2 Corinthians 3:6, 5:20). Paul makes it clear that this is not the type of ministry he is talking about. If for if it were, then using the churches logic, all Christians should follow a life of celibacy! This is absurd! What Paul does say is that while some are called to full-time ministry others serve the Lord through their families and the community. Its clear we all serve, but we serve in different capacities. Likewise, not all are called to a life of celibacy.
Do I have the Gift of Celibacy?
When it became clear that a relationship with a man was not right for me, the only alternative seemed to be celibacy. I was faithful to this principle until my mid-twenties, but I was miserable. I was serving God to the best of my ability but I didn’t like being alone. The very thought of never having a loving, sexually fulfilling, life-sharing relationship with anyone tore at me. I began to have misgivings about serving such a cruel God. The situation only got worse when my sexual feelings became stronger with denial. It was driving me half-crazy, just as Paul had predicted it would.
This was not consistent with my past experiences with the Lord. In the past God had always blessed me when I did His will to the best of my ability. Now instead of being blessed, I was miserable. How had I missed it? Or was I missing it? Perhaps the church’s doctrine had missed it? I could now see that celibacy was a gift given by God to some but not all people. But how would I know if I had this gift? Scriptures didn’t seem to offer any clues. On one hand the church was telling me and the rest of the gay population that we HAD to have this gift. Yet, my own heart was telling me I was miserable. Someone, be it the church or myself, was not seeing the truth of God’s will.
There was no further help from the Bible, so I started talking about this issue with many of my friends – gay, straight, Christian and non-Christian alike. One day while we were at work, the discussion turned to relationships and the different problems we encountered. We were a pretty close-knit group, and there were few things we wouldn’t discuss with each other. Someone asked why I hadn’t started dating again after my last disaster of a boyfriend. I replied by bringing up the issue of celibacy and the church’s doctrine regarding sex outside of marriage. I was intentionally vague because I hadn’t yet had the guts to tell them I was gay. My problem, I explained, was that I didn’t know if I had this “gift of celibacy” or not, but that I’d been practicing it per the church’s doctrine.
They found this to be an interesting and novel problem as none of them were Christian. These friends thoughtfully, logically, worked the idea through. One of my co-workers, after much deliberation shyly asked; “Well, Elaine, are you happy?” My answer was a quick “no!” “Well then” he replied, quite pleased with having solved my dilemma, “I guess you don’t have the gift!”
His statement shot straight to my heart. How could I have been so dense! I laughed at myself; at all the absurdity, heartache and misery I’d put myself through! It was so blindingly obvious once I heard the words, utterly clear and honest. He was one hundred percent right. My own misery testified daily that I surely didn’t have this gift! God had never destined me to live alone. If He had, I would be at complete peace about it.
If I, as a gay person, didn’t have this gift then the church’s doctrine must be wrong. Worse yet, it was a doctrine that attempted to condemn an entire group of people to a lifestyle few could follow. Paul warned us against such false acts of ‘piety’, saying that without the “gift” of celibacy our lives would be fraught with constant temptation and misery. Perhaps even destroying our very relationship with God in the end.
“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Colossians 2:20-23 (NIV)
This is an excerpt from the book, Calling the Rainbow Nation Home by E.T. Sundby
By Ken Wilson
I'm an evangelical pastor (founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor) who has publicly stated that I can no longer enforce any exclusionary practices aimed at men and women in gay partnerships. I know many evangelical pastors who are privately troubled by the current approach to gay people. These pastors are in a state of conflicted conscience, looking for a way to honor both their evangelical faith and the gay and lesbian people who are coming to their churches, or are loved by people in their churches.
Many pastors counsel conflicted parents of evangelical faith who are in a psychological torture device: forced to choose between accepting their child who is gay or honoring the faith that saved them.
I have proposed a path for these pastors that allows them to embrace people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender and to accept them fully — welcome and wanted — into the company of Jesus. I wrote A Letter to My Congregation when I realized my views had changed and I needed to communicate the intense theological, biblical, pastoral, and spiritual process that I had been through to get to this new place.
Why was I willing to let divorced and remarried couples know that they are welcome and wanted while refusing that same welcome to gay and lesbian couples?
It began with a burr beneath the saddle of my conscience: why was I willing to let so many divorced and remarried couples know that they are welcome and wanted while refusing that same welcome to gay and lesbian couples? How could I say to the remarried couples, whose second marriage was clearly condemned by the plain meaning of scripture, “You are welcome and wanted,” while saying to the two mothers raising their adopted child together, “I love you, but I hate your sin”?
A story from C.S. Lewis’ life helps point the way.
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A priest going against the grain
C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia and the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century, fell in love with a divorced woman, Joy Davidman. Her husband was an alcoholic (and not a Christian) and their marriage fell apart. Lewis had never been married. His beloved Church of England, hewing to the biblical teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, refused to sanction this union on the grounds that in marrying Joy, Lewis would be marrying another man’s wife, making them both adulterers.
But there was one priest who was willing to go against the grain, Father Peter Bide. Lewis turned to Bide, a former pupil who had become an Anglican priest, after the bishop of Oxford refused to marry Lewis and Davidman. Bide knew that Lewis was asking for something that wasn’t consistent with the teaching of the Church of England. But this naïve priest prayed about it. That’s right. He asked Jesus what he should do. What a concept! As if Jesus were alive and might talk back! And he felt led by the Spirit to perform the wedding.
During the ceremony, which took place in the hospital room where the bride was battling cancer, he placed his hands on her and prayed for her healing. She went into an unexpected remission almost immediately and Lewis and Davidman had a blessed reprieve in which to enjoy their union. They had what so many of us long for, including people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender: someone to pair bond with, someone to cuddle with at night, someone committed to care for the other should the other — as so many of us eventually do — get sick and die.
Most evangelical churches have remarried leaders. No one speaks of loving these remarried people but hating their sin.
That was then, over 50 years ago. This is now. The most theologically conservative expressions of Christian faith in the 21st century — Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism — wouldn’t blink at the thought of blessing the union of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. The Catholic Church would do so by annulling Davidman’s first marriage. Most evangelical churches would ask her a few questions (if that) and determine that God was surely blessing this new marriage.
A third way for evangelicals on same-sex marriage
I studied the scriptures on divorce and remarriage extensively as a younger pastor. I studied the early church fathers and the Protestant Reformers. Their grounds for allowing remarriage were extremely strict, based on a plain reading of scripture. This older consensus held sway in the church — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — until it was flooded with remarried couples after World War II.
Today, most evangelical churches have remarried lay leaders and board members. Some have remarried pastors. No one speaks of loving these remarried people but hating their sin. Instead, they are fully accepted into the life of the church. A veritable cottage industry of evangelical books exists to help the conscientious Bible reader make sense of the biblical prohibitions in light of their historical context and apply their teaching in light of the experience of the remarried people we know, love, and often, are.
As I reflected on this issue, the thought hit me like a punch in the gut: if we gave the same considerate reading to the handful of texts condemning same-sex sexual practices that we give to passages on divorce (what did they mean in their historical context and how should we apply them today?), we would likely come up with a very different approach to gay, lesbian, and transgender people. We might even find a way to fully include them in the life of the church as we have done for so many remarried people.
And I wondered: are we reluctant to consider this possibility because it’s virtually impossible to finance an evangelical congregation without remarried people, while it’s easy enough to do so without gay, lesbian, and transgender people simply because there are fewer of them?
Then, the knock-out blow occurred to me: how would that square with the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one which has wandered from (or been driven out by) the rest of the flock?
With much trepidation and a sometimes paralyzing dose of fear, I opened myself to the possibility that my received tradition on this subject might be wrong. So I have proposed what I am calling a “third way” between the longstanding and polarized binary — either “love the sinner, hate the sin” or “open and affirming.”
Why Christians can agree to disagree on gay marriage
Some have objected that this “third way” is just “open and affirming” in disguise. But I maintain that this “third way” — I call it “welcome and wanted” — is not equivalent to “open and affirming” for two important reasons.
First, it grounds the full acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender people in a much-ignored portion of scripture: Romans 14-15, in which Paul introduces a category he calls “disputable matters.” The upshot is this: the church in Rome was splitting over disputes about first order moral issues — like whether or not eating meat sacrificed to idols constituted idolatry (one could make the case!), or whether ignoring the command to rest on the seventh day was a sin against one of the Ten Commandments, even a sin against nature, since God himself rested on the seventh day in the Genesis creation account.
If how the biblical prohibitions of same-sex sexual practices apply to modern same-sex couples is an example of a “disputable matter,” then it follows that the church can “agree to disagree” on this question, while practicing full acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, not to mention full acceptance of those who disagree with whether such people sin by having sex with their covenanted partners.
The biblical “ideal,” if there is such a thing, is not marriage, but celibacy.
I realize that in the current climate of intense controversy over this issue, that would be hard to pull off in many local churches, but that, too, seems to be Paul’s point: Jesus is more powerful than other lords (like Caesar) precisely because he is risen from the dead, and can empower those who follow him to do improbable things — like remain in a unity of the Spirit despite sharp disagreement over important questions. In fact, this demonstrates his resurrection power: he can do what mere religion can’t — keep people together who watch different cable news-entertainment networks.
Second, the “third way” questions why people who accept the gospel of Jesus Christ think they have any business assuming that our acceptance of one another “in Christ” is contingent on granting each other our moral approval. The “affirming” in “open and affirming” implies that the congregation so tagged offers its moral approval to gay couples. But what does that have to do with the gospel? Isn’t the whole point of the gospel that God accepts us thanks to the faithfulness of Jesus and not because he approves of all our moral choices? And that we are to do likewise with each other? Where does this insistence that our unity depends on granting each other moral approval come from?
In any event, the biblical “ideal,” if there is such a thing, is not marriage, but celibacy, according to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Marriage, according to both, is a concession to human weakness. “If you can’t remain celibate, it’s better to marry than to burn,” said Paul. Hardly a ringing endorsement of marriage. This business of granting marriage some privileged moral status is far from the New Testament ideal.
Call me naïve, but I think there’s a third way for evangelicals in the gay marriage debate, and it’s a way that honors the Bible and the power of the gospel better than “love the sinner, hate the sin” or “open and affirming.” Whether or not it works is another matter. But I think it’s time to give it a try, especially if it could bear witness to a risen Lord better than the current rehashed moralism that we’re calling the gospel.
If you are an evangelical pastor who has felt the same troubled conscience that I have over your exclusion of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, you might try what the pastor who married C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman did: ask Jesus what you should do and do that, come what may.
Ken Wilson is the senior pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor. He is the author, most recently, of "A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embrace People Who Are Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender into the Company of Jesus."
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