I really hate to be misunderstood, so do read all the words in this post before you start commenting. 🙂
I recently finished reading Ken Wilson’s short book A Letter to My Congregation, in which he explains (to his congregation with the rest of us listening in) his decision to accept LGBT+ Christians into the membership of his Vineyard church.
This comes in the midst of the raging debate about gay marriage, the Church’s response to homosexuality, and the American culture war. In short, it’s not really a safe time or place to be talking about any of these issues. Not if by “safe” you mean “not being shot at, yelled at, skewered, misunderstood, or shouted down.”
By both sides. It’s rough out there, folks.
Ken is one of a few Evangelical voices growing in prominence in this conversation. I use “conversation” loosely since most of what I see passing for “dialogue” on these issues barely qualifies as civil discourse. So after reading the message from the elders of CityChurch (San Francisco) to their congregants about a similar shift, I wanted to read more.
See, most of the argumentative support regarding the Church’s posture toward LGBT+ folks has come from those outside Evangelicalism. And that creates problems for those of us who actually want to live under the authority of the Bible as the Word of God, viewing it as inspired and relevant for life.
When the only arguments you offer are built on tearing down the Bible itself as irrelevant, out of date, culturally aberrant, merely human, twisted mythology, or whatever, you’re going to alienate Evangelical believers.
Maybe I’m an idiot for adhering to my conservative roots in this regard, but here I am, and I’m not going to change what I believe to make someone else happy. I believe the Holy Spirit works with us as the Helper, the one who opens our eyes to truth. So I’ve been praying for wisdom and truth within the community of faith, within valid exegetical frameworks, for the deep questions surrounding our posture toward gays, lesbians, trans+ and others who cross our paths.
As I see it, we now have the following split among Christians when it comes to the Church’s response to these questions:
The YES crowd is currently primarily located among Christianity’s mainline denominations and more liberal wings…. Oh, and Millennials. The solidly-Yes position in Christianity tends to align with people who don’t hold as tightly to Scriptural authority. It’s not across the board, but it’s a generalization that works.
Plenty of people vocally oppose gay marriage, gay relationships, and gay rights. Among Christians, the NO crowd exists as a huge variety – and this is important. It’s way too easy for people to assume that the NO crowd are bigoted or discriminators. Often this is simply not true.
The problem is – and here is where Ken Wilson’s book really shines – the NO position leaves us all in a deep pickle.
Wilson argues that pastors, not academics, work on the front lines of theology. They rarely have time to learn the ins and outs of every Greek word related to sexual behavior in the New Testament, but they do spend a lot of hours each week working with people living in the middle of problems, failure, sin, suffering.
In his pastoral journey, Ken noticed – like the elders of CityChurch did – that our narrative of “love the sinner, hate the sin” isn’t working. It’s breaking people.
Likewise, trying to label same-sex attraction as a temptation (therefore, “not sinful,” though clearly bad / broken / non-normative) while encouraging that person to live a celibate life if he/she cannot pursue monogamous, married, heterosexual sex is also hurting people.
Few of us truly accept the idea that God would create something good (marriage) and then create people to want something entirely different (non-hetero attraction), thus requiring them to forever foreswear that good thing and try to live without it (celibacy). Within Protestantism, this is a very tough sell. And within the science and psychology communities, the evidence is mounting that non-hetero sexual orientation is biological rather than “a choice.”
And then there’s the reality: There are thousands of Christians who identify as LGBT+. They aren’t the rebellious God-haters of Romans 1. They aren’t the inhospitable gang-rapers of Sodom. They are just normal people who, for as long as they can remember, have been attracted to the same sex. And whether that’s a sin or not, these people are our brothers and sisters. And they want healthy relationships grounded in biblical love.
That central category in my drawing above – the MAYBES – are those of us caught between our consciences (and an unwillingness to jettison biblical authority) and our duty to love others.
Hello, everyone. I’m a MAYBE. Are you?
Evangelicals are struggling to find scriptural foundation for anything beyond heterosexual marriage and sex. There is some new work in the field – I heard Matthew Vines speak a couple weeks ago and I found much of his interpretive evidence to be solid overall. You can listen to the core argument from his book in that talk.
Does Vines present a satisfying exegetical argument that Evangelicals are ready to jump on board with? Honestly – no.
But it’s strong evidence that our interpretation of Scripture is as much influenced by our own cultural context as the sentences in the biblical text were influenced by the authors’.
And that should at least make us pause long enough to put down the rifles and angry words and clobber passages and consider that we might need a different approach.
In my drawing above, I see the MAYBEs pursuing two paths out of this cognitive dissonance. The first is Matthew Vines’s approach: Look for a valid exegetical framework that can acknowledge monogamous, homosexual relationships within the boundaries of the Christian walk.
Vine’s argument centers on the recognition that the Bible’s discussion of marriage a) varies within itself (i.e.: OT polygamy vs the Greco-Roman culture of the NT) and b) isn’t anything like our modern view of marriage in the West, which is a union between two equals. Sex-as-conquest, whether inside or outside marriage, isn’t a virtue in our society, while in the ancient world that was one of the primary avenues to power. The rules of the marriage game have significantly changed, Vine argues; therefore, we should be open to the idea that the Bible never explicitly condemns the kind of “gay marriage” being espoused today.
The second is Ken Wilson’s approach, which is to acknowledge the mess in the theological arguments and recognize that it’s going to take some time to get this sorted out…..and that in the meantime, we have scriptural decrees that cover situations like this.
In short, here’s what Wilson says:
- We must acknowledge that the Church sometimes sets aside what seem to be clear biblical mandates when it’s obvious that we must make allowances for broken people in a broken world. The best contemporary example of this is divorce. The textual data on divorce is so tight that up until a few decades ago, churches disciplined or expelled members who divorced and/or remarried. (That happened to my parents.) Yet things changed. Only the most hard-line fundamentalist groups would argue for a 1950s-era view of divorce now. Pastors have recognized that their work in the counseling room isn’t “righteous” if we’re beating people with a Bible-club. Sometimes we must allow for divorce even outside the “exception clauses.”
- Romans 14 sets up a pattern for Christians to follow when two sides are dug in and emotionally battling for control of an issue. Paul discusses the “weak” and the “strong” groups as they sparred over whether to eat meat offered to idols or to observe certain days. The language in the passage makes it clear that the weak (i.e.: those who refused to eat the meat because they thought it was sinful) were condemning the strong (i.e.: those who saw no problem with eating) and the strong were belittling the weak. The argument had gotten that bad.
- In ancient Rome, these groups of believers weren’t arguing over a peripheral issue. Clearly the meat-eating question was a big one for the NT church – Paul takes 3 chapters in Corinthians to sort it out there. People could argue viciously for either side and claim God’s authority. It’s not like these kinds of arguments are unusual in the history of the Church.
- Is gay marriage a similar “disputed” question? Wilson argues that it is, and I think (having read his book) that he’s right. Therefore…
- While we allow the Church and its theologians and pastors time to sort this out, we must follow Romans’ commands to accept one another in the Gospel. The goal is not to stay in this fog of “disputation.” But while we’re here, we are commanded to stop condemning and belittling.
- The Gospel does not demand tolerance. It does not demand that we “affirm” someone else’s ideas or life choices. But it does demand that we accept other believers on the basis of the Gospel.
For that reason, Wilson opened his church to gay Christians for membership. He concluded that until the big questions are answered, his duty is to feed his flock. All of the members.
Neither of the options open to the MAYBEs in this debate will satisfy those who want an iron-clad defense of old-fashioned marriage. I think it’s a lot more attractive to Evangelicals to complain about being “persecuted” than to do the very hard work of living a Romans 14 life: loving people who hold vastly different views, and recognizing that although marriage is a key tenet in church doctrine, it is not a matter of separation.
The Gospel can – and will – survive the gay marriage debates.
Whether the church in general destroys much of its credibility in the eyes of Millennials and the outside world while it sorts it out – well, that’s a totally different question.