Based on William Stacey Johnson’s book A Time to Embrace in part one of this series we covered a handful of cultural-philosophical arguments leveled against same sex marriage. In part two we turned to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and reviewed a few of the more prominent verses that touch on ancient homoerotic practices, explored their historical background, and speculated on how they may or may not inform our perspective of same-sex relationships today. In this third and final post we’ll dig a bit more into how we approach the Scriptures and why the church needs to begin affirming same-sex relationships, however a brief word is in order on the context of this post before we jump in.
This argument will not convince the hardened skeptic among us; instead, it’s pointed at those within the church who find themselves on the fence of the “gay marriage” debate. It’s for those stuck between a powerful majority prepared to invoke the clobber passages at the drop of a hat on the one hand and a smaller but equally passionate group calling for full inclusion of their LGBT friends on the other. It’s meant as a cup of cold water for those in the parched desert of indecision – a barren place if ever there was one. It’s for the pastor or church leader who, while sympathetic to the plight of LGBT persons in our culture, hesitates in speaking out at the risk of splintering their congregation.
Our Approach to Scripture
I’ve often reflected on how I can be so confident about my decision to never attend a church again where my wife couldn’t be fully embraced as a women every bit as capable, mature, and called by God to lead and teach as any man on God’s green earth – because truth be told – this wasn’t always the case.
I can still recall various conversations with other men through the years on this topic (it’s interesting that these conversations always took place with other men in much the same way the LGBT discussions are nearly always held without LGBT people). We’d normally begin with some non-sense about women being too emotional to lead and top it off with a discussion of 1 Timothy 2 (women should keep their heads covered, hair long, and mouths shut). I admit to being a bit shocked later on when I learned the cultural background of those verses and others like them but it wasn’t enough to convince me; I was a Bible believing Christian after all and couldn’t risk 2,000 years of church tradition over an issue like this. And so it might have continued to this day had not fate intervened and led me to join the staff of a church that, while relatively conservative on every other matter, happened to embrace women at every level of leadership. And what did I observe? Women were thriving. Seriously, they were kick ass teachers, counselors, pastors and elders. In many churches I’d either attended or heard of, women were second class citizens of sorts, free to run the bake sale (anything food or children related was normally within their domain) but not much beyond that and this either frustrated them, at which point they were often labeled “strong” women – which wasn’t a compliment, or it turned them into docile mousy women who embraced their oppression and even thanked God for it. Neither of those seemed very healthy to me, however now I observed them as equals, now they had a place at the table and it was exhilarating to behold. This experience was incredibly formative for me because from it I gained the following hermeneutic (method of interpretation) that’s guided me ever sense: any interpretation of Scripture that results in oppression, suffering, discouragement, and pain in people’s lives is the wrong interpretation.
I believe this is what Jesus was getting at in his encounter with the pharisees at the end of Mark chapter 2. Jesus and the disciples were walking through a wheat field on the Sabbath and as they went they ate a few heads of grain. When the pharisees saw this they chastised the disciples for breaking the Sabbath laws (aka working on the ‘day of rest’) and Jesus responded with the most interesting answer: he said, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, the purpose of the law is to be a life giving force for good in people’s lives. It’s not about arbitrary rules sent down from on high “just because”, rather it’s purpose is to encourage “Shalom” (peace, wholeness, goodness, health) in human society. What Jesus’ critique reveals is that the very Scriptural commands meant for the flourishing of men and women can, with the passage of time and the tradition of interpretation that springs up around those passages, be used for their oppression. The perfect example of this type of process are Jesus’ commands around divorce. It’s pretty clear that Jesus forbids divorce except in the case of adultery but a little historical research shows the “why” behind this. The situation in the 1st century is that men were leaving their wives over nothing – “You burned dinner again! I’m outta here.” – which resulted in the impoverishment and suffering of these women. Jesus doesn’t like this, not one bit, and so he gives this command that the only reason a man can leave his wife is in the case of adultery. Now fast forward 2,000 years and what do we see? Abusive men use this passage all the time as a power play to prevent their wives from leaving the relationship. In fact, even pastors will encourage a women in an abusive relationship to “make the best of it” because unless the man commits adultery, biblically speaking, she’s forbidden from leaving. In other words, the very passages Jesus’ meant as a protection for women are now being used to oppress them. It’s actually pretty sick if you think it. This is why as Christians, as people who live and move and have our being in the midst of the God who is known to us as love, we absolutely must have a hermeneutic, an interpretative approach to the Scriptures, of love itself. Otherwise we run the risk of taking the very passages originally intended as something life-giving and beautiful and turning them into demonic structures that bring pain and misery to people’s lives.
Hopefully it’s abundantly clear at this point that although technically we’ve been discussing women in leadership and the biblical parameters for divorce, really we’ve been talking about same-sex marriage all along. Having said this, coming to the place as individuals where we can embrace same-sex marriage is different than coming to this conclusion as religious institutions, communities, and churches. What rational can possibly be provided for church leaders to ‘step off the cliff’ so to speak and begin to openly affirm their LGBT brothers and sisters as denominations and church communities as well? Wouldn’t it be better for the revolution to occur on an individual basis rather than risking schism by pressing the issue at a communal level?
Naming God’s Activity in the World
There’s a part of my evangelical heritage that I love, a piece of spiritual insight that’s not only stuck with me but actually increased through the years even as I’ve drifted from my conservative roots in other ways, and the insight is this – God is up to something new in our world. In this vision, God is much more than a word or abstract concept, He is living and active, interested in much more than simply preserving the past but always moving us forward. This is why we get in small groups and ask questions like, “So what has God shown you this week?” or “What is God doing in your life?” because the expectation is that He is in fact up to something. Of course this raises an excellent question – how exactly do we spot God’s activity in the world? Or put another way, how do we know when it’s really the Spirit? Here’s what my churches taught me. Wherever the good and the beautiful and the true are occurring – that’s God! In other words, the little seedlings of God’s Spirit aren’t in big things like political power, prestige, fame, or riches but rather are evidenced in little things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness, and self control. So when I look out into the world what I’m looking for are these little shoots of the presence or activity of God – these little moments of grace, those startling encounters with generosity and kindness. This is why the single most important factor in someone making the switch from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting it is to actually be in relationship with LGBT people. Why? Because as we encounter them as individuals and as couples we begin to recognize these seedlings of God’s presence in their lives and relationships. We realize that they aren’t the demonic caricatures portions of our culture have made them out to be. They are every bit as capable of love, kindness, and compassion as anyone else and their relationships are capable of just as much beauty as more traditional marital relationships.
Now having said this, it’s wonderful as individuals to learn to see God in unexpected places but what I’d argue is that it’s an absolute non-negotiable for us as churches. As church leaders, I believe that one of our most profound duties is to recognize the activity of God in the world and help communicate that to people both within and outside the church. But frankly, we’re failing to do this on the questions of same-sex marriage and the full inclusion of LGBT persons in our church communities. I believe the reason this is the case is because we currently only see risk from one perspective – the risk of moving too quickly, of being too hasty. In other words, we’re on the defensive when it comes to these questions because we’re afraid of the misstep, the wrong turn, and the mis-interpretation. In short, we’re being driven by fear. However what often goes unnoticed is that we have a profound risk in the opposite direction – the risk of failing to name the new things God is up to in the world, the risk of refusing to recognize the good, the beautiful, and the true in same-sex relationships. It seems right now that all we’re conscious of is what we have to lose by stepping out: who might leave, what might go wrong, and what we might lose; rather than what we might gain, what justice might be done, what positive example we might set for those within and outside the church. My point is, there’s risk in both directions, so the questions is, which one will we choose? And let’s not kid ourselves either, by failing to do anything we are in fact making a decision in favor of the status quo.
So as Churches here’s our situation: we have people wanting to get married, raise children, and join our churches. They’re asking that we trust them and believe in their relationships. They’re asking us to affirm the activity of the living God in their lives. I believe it’s up to us to not merely tolerate them but to name what God is up to, celebrate it, and consecrate it. We need to declare that the days of second class citizenship for our LGBT brothers and sisters are over. That we refuse to give into fear and hesitation and that we affirm the good, the beautiful and the true wherever it is found and that these relationships bear the evidence of God in them. God is doing a new thing, a thing we might never have guessed or foreseen, but to turn our backs on them now would nothing less than sin.