Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Pursuit of Dialogical Christian Conviction on Gays and Lesbians

God speaks where his people gather and are free to be led. The marks of the validity of the conclusions they reach are to be sought not alone in the principles applied but in the procedure of the meeting. Were all free to speak? Was every speech heard and weighed? Did the prophets grant their need to undergo interpretation?
John Howard Yoder on Practical Moral Reasoning: truth inspired by Acts 15 and I Corinthians 14:29

Just to clarify right from the shotgun start of this post, my goal below is not to change the minds of all my Christian friends on the issue of same-sex marriage. I won't be presenting biblical, scientific, logical and experiential arguments to convince them that the Body of Christ should reconsider their widespread approach to gays and lesbians in regards to both the requirements of church membership and marital rights within society at large (I've already done that here, here and here). What I would like to do is jump-start a much-needed dialogue within the Body Christ that simply does not currently exist.

Today, a dialogue about gays and lesbians within Christian circles does not exist for a variety of reasons. One concern is our American obsession with sound-bites and certainty. On the conservative side of the playing field, one-phrase or one-sentence appeals to the Bible and church history, ends most conversations before they even begin ("The Bible clearly says it is a sin" or "Marriage has ALWAYS been covenant between a man and a woman" or creatively "It was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve"). And on the left, one-phrase or one-sentence appeals to a general ethic of love and acceptance alienate those on the right ("Don't hate" or "That's homophobia" or "It's a civil rights issue"). Another concern is that very few Christians on the right genuinely know gay and lesbian people. Most folks can tell you the names of at least a few people they know who are "living a homosexual lifestyle," but they have not taken the time nor put themselves in a position to listen to the unique and personal testimonies of gays and lesbians that they know.

However, the overriding issue in regards to the lack of dialogue on the homosexuality issue within most Christian circles today is because powerful leaders within the church have stifled any sort of extended conversation on the issue. Pastors, priests, rectors and deacons are placed in a position where they simply cannot change their position on the issue, even if they actually took the time to be compelled to. For those of us who attend conservative Christian churches or who grew up in them, think for a moment what would happen within the congregation if the lead pastor (or anyone on the pastoral staff) were to openly advocate for full and equal rights of gays and lesbians within the church or society? It's an absolutely horrifying thought. If a pastor at a conservative Christian church went through the kind of process that my wife and I have gone through in the past few years (biblical study, dialogue, scientific research, prayer, listening to LGBT testimony, reading theology) and changed his/her mind like we have, they would either (A) get fired or (B) have their congregations reduced greatly. That's the overwhelming fear, at least. Perhaps, neither A nor B would happen if a process was set up within church communities that called for a biblical search for truth.

A process like that of the original Jerusalem apostles when they came to a conclusion on the amazingly controversial question of whether Gentiles should be given full membership into churches in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials...
Acts 15:28

And a process like that of Paul's exhortation to the community in Corinth about how to come to truth within their own community on a weekly basis:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
I Corinthians 14:29

This process, no doubt, would take patience and time. It would spur extended, intimate discussions over hot beverages. That's how communities change paradigms and how communities that do not change paradigms come to understand present issues much more deeply. But we must refuse to be magnetically anchored to the status quo.

Indeed, my heart goes out to these Christian leaders. They have paychecks and reputations and social ostracism on the line. Two close friends who pastor churches in more liberal mainline denominations have conducted same-sex marriages and spoken openly about the issue and leaders and laity within those denominations are none too happy about it. They walk on egg shells, speaking carefully and wisely about it. And they do it quite well. It is an issue that ignites uncommon passion in so many, no matter where they are on the issue, while many just try to repress the whole matter (Isn't it funny how sexuality does that in the church?). It's easy for my wife and I--neither of whom are employed by a Christian ministry or church--to think openly and critically about such an issue. It's another thing to start second-guessing the hand that pays and praises you.

6 months ago I sent an email to the lead pastor (who I do not personally know) of a large, local church, calling for a "civil forum" to openly and lovingly present multiple Christian perspectives on the contentious homosexuality issue. In the email, I included a half dozen younger pastors (all of whom I do know) on staff at the church, inviting them into the discussion as well. I did not receive a response on the issue from any of them. This means that (A) they did not have the time or (B) they did not think it was an important enough issue or (C) the risk of addressing the issue was too great for them to deal with it. I suspect that there is a blend of all three factors at play here.

Our present situation reminds me all too much of the biblical debates 150 years ago over slavery. Princeton's Charles Hodge was of one of the greatest conservative theologians who lived during that era (remember, this was when Princeton adhered strictly to biblical inerrancy). The Presbyterian Hodge, however, on the issue of slavery, was stuck between biblical purity and the fear of taking a side in his own denomination's debate. Hodge wrote:

If the present course of the abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and the apostles was wrong.

He rebuked the biblical reading strategy of the abolitionists as an

attempt to tear the Bible to pieces, or to extort by violent exegesis, a meaning foreign to its obvious sense.

This all sounds eerily familiar with our contemporary stalemate over homosexuality. It distresses me that too many of my sincere and passionate Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters (these are folks that have compassion for the vulnerable and marginalized...not the ones holding up signs condeming gays and lesbians to hell--we can deal with them in another post) are, like Hodge, stuck between what they perceive to be biblical purity and an ever-present (and perhaps subconscious) fear of what would happen if they changed their position on this issue.

This is tremendously difficult for many, both leader and laity alike, within the American Body of Christ. We must pull ourselves towards unity and love by demanding a good-faith, public dialogue on the issue. Church leaders, whom are commissioned and paid (most of them) by the Christian community, should lead and organize this discussion. In Christian culture, they are looked upon as spiritual and theological experts and guides to direct this unique activity. They have the respect and authority within most Christian communities to pull congregations along for the ride. However, if leaders lack interest, time or courage to rise to the occasion, the laity must step up. I am absolutely convinced that, when we look back 50 years from now at this moment in time, those Christians "on the right side of history" will be the ones who courageously and passionately pursued a conversation of multiple voices, while taking the time to discern the Spirit of God's movement within our communities, just as the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and the Corinthian Community (I Corinthians 14) did almost 2000 years ago. Now is not the time to pretend like homosexuality is just some sort of societal fad that will go away soon and now is certainly not the time to dig in our heels and demand that our passionate conviction, albeit sincere, is the Absolute Truth with no further discussion. Leaders and laity alike, a "kingdom of priests" (Revelation 1:6; I Peter 2:9), may we have enough courage and self-donating love to model truth-seeking and grace-giving to the rest of the world. Amen.

-Theological Autopilot


  1. Tom, I appreciate this post very much. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for continually challenging me. Keep it coming.


  2. Tommy and Dale,

    You and your wives are some of the best people I know to have actual conversation with about this and other issues. Thanks for the excellent conversations the last two weeks. I wish we got to have more of them! I learn a lot from both of you (and your wives!).

    You model, in other words, what you're calling for here. Good work!