A Time to Embrace – part 3

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.

12 thoughts on “A Time to Embrace – part 3

  1. Jon Sauls

    Have been for same-sex marriage for a couple months now, but this has more to do with how I view personal freedoms and equality. As far as full inclusion into the Church, I still find myself in neutral ground, playing with both sides. Let me explain exactly where I am at.

    Yes, I still believe same-sex sex is sinful based on how I view scripture and even non-biblical perspectives, but at this point I am quite tired of caring. Not to mention, I don’t believe God intends for us to get so revved up about sin issues. We are all sinful and yet we worry so much about what is “right and wrong.” So in this sense, I have come to the conclusion that I just don’t need a solid conclusion on this issue. This is not to say that I don’t fully engage any and all perspectives with hopes that it will improve mine, but in the end, this turns into a tedious process that imho hinders the Kingdom of God.

    Furthermore, I find myself passionately standing up for GLBT people because I am so disgusted by the ways they are treated. I am quite pissed off! In fact, if people didn’t know any better, they would think I believe same-sex sex isn’t sinful.

    In conclusion, I am done trying to answer all the “important” questions about sin issues. I am far more interested in helping others to come to their own conclusions instead of thinking that my way of thinking should be law. Yes, I have my opinions, but so does everyone else.

    I would make a direct comment about your post Brett, but I think you understand my perspective based on everything above. All I would say is that I believe we differ on our hermeneutic. Interestingly, we both have a hermeneutic of love, but we slightly disagree about what this looks like.

    So, now that I have explained how I am a walking contradiction (by societies standards) on this issue, any thoughts Brett?

  2. Brett Post author

    Hey John, as far as supporting gay marriage from a social-political perspective while abstaining from lending your support in a personal-religious context, yes I understand where your coming from. I also understand your frustration about this whole argument being a massive waste of time from a kingdom perspective. I agree in the sense that I too wish we could get over our sex issues and move onto some other more pressing global crises as denominations and churches (e.g. the ecological crisis), however I do think this is a question we have to tackle head on and not brush to the side. Which likely points to our area of disagreement because your willing to remain neutral and “not make a decision on this issue.” While I’m sympathetic to this stance, as church leaders when LGBT folks come to our churches and ask, “Could I potentially be a leader in this church or not?” We have to give them a straight answer and not hem and haw. Make sense?

  3. Starla Harrison

    Jon,
    Can you explain hoe your hermeneutic differs from Brett’s ? What, specifically leads you to believe that same-sex sex is sin ?

    Thanks so much,

    Star**

  4. Starla Harrison

    Brett,
    I have a question for you. DO you believe that passionate sex is necessary for successful marriage ? I know quite a few people who have been involved in the gay lifestyle, but who say they have been delivered, have repented and either are now celibate & single or have become successful in heterosexual relationships. DO you think these people are lying to themselves ? DO you think people who are married, but who have had a lifetime of same-sex attraction struggle should give up hope of a same sex intimacy, or would it be understandable to leave the marriage if a person of the same sex came along who seemed to be the “love of their Life?”

  5. Starla Harrison

    What about pedophiles ? When i was a student, I did my group therapy hours w/ sex offenders groups. There are pedophiles who say they are not attracted to adults of either gender at all. Only children. That is their “sexual orientation.” There is even an organization called the “Man-Boy Love Association” (MBLA)that is pushing for laws to chng to legalize sexual relationships between men and boys. They say they were born this way. Hasn’t been so long ago that homosexuality was listed as a paraphilia (sexual perversion)in the psychaitric diagnostic manual, DSM. This is part of the slippery slope argument against acceptance. But, really. Where and how are lines drawn ?

  6. Jon Sauls

    As much as I agree that we need to have a straight answer, I just don’t think it is this simple because I don’t truly align myself with either side. I think there is in fact a third option that transcends the “love the sinner, but hate the sin” perspective, but also doesn’t accept that same-sex sex as okay. As I have told you before, my life would be so much easier if I simply accepted your perspective; it would free me from this paradoxical dilemma. However, my interpretation of scripture will not allow me to do this. This comes to the difference in our hermeneutic of love. You would say that “any interpretation of Scripture that results in oppression, suffering, discouragement, and pain in people’s lives is the wrong interpretation,” but in my opinion this makes no sense. Take any other “sin” that is clear in the Bible and you can justify it by using this perspective. On the other hand, I believe one can stand against things like same-sex sex and still show just as much love. You may not think this is possible, bit I would argue that it is quite possible with other sin issues so why not here? Starla, hope this clear some stuff up. there is much more I could say, but I may be late for work. Eager to here a response and sorry if my response was a bit aggressive. It is the only way I knew how to respond.

  7. Brett Post author

    Hey Starla, as far as how I’d advise a couple where one is experiencing same-gender attraction: I guess the short version is I’d base my advice on the singularity of them as couple: the “level” or “intensity” of the attraction, and the health of their marriage at that point. Based on limited research/ conversation with people my understanding is that same-sex attraction is more of a sliding scale issue (greater or lesser degrees) rather than a binary issue (either gay or straight) so that likely factors into the decision for a married couple to work through this as well as the anecdotal testimonies of those who have allegedly been “healed” of their same sex attraction.

    The pedophilia slippery slope argument has always made zero sense to me because we’re talking about two consenting adults in the same-gender marital scenario. I have no idea why people feel this translates to sex between adults and young children – which is always incredibly destructive to the mental, emotional, physical, and psychological development of children. That’s why it’s illegal.

    Jon, I respect where you’re coming from – supporting same-gender marriage from a political perspective while still feeling it’s a sin and shouldnt be encouraged by the church – but I’m not understanding why you feel this is a “third way” or a stance that “transcends” some other positions. Again, I don’t begrudge your position it’s just that its not really different from the majority of young Christians I know who support gay marriage politically but still don’t want to push for full inclusion in our churches (aka a lesbian women could serve as a deacon, small group leader, Sunday school teacher, elder, or priest/pastor.) Am I missing something?

    Also, I’m not really interested in an argument trying to compare how much I love LGBT people vs. how much you love them. To me this completely misses the point. In fact, for the sake of argument I’m willing to concede that you love them more than I do (not because of you’re stance on the issue – I just know you’re a great person!) however that doesn’t change the fact that I think you’re perpetuating a position that relegates LGBT folks to the status of 2nd class citizens within the church – which, in my opinion, isn’t good.

    As far as the hermanuetic of love potentially leading to the legitimation of any sin in the Bible, I’d say “yes”. Now before anyone gives birth to an actual cow, let me explain that on a practical level this won’t often be the case. For example, unrighteous anger is said to be a sin in the Bible and my hunch is this will continue to be affirmed. Why? Because outbursts of anger continue to bring destruction to people’s lives. To me though, that’s the key. It’s because anger causes destruction and pain that its evil- not “just cause.” It isn’t just a random list of do’s and don’ts. It’s evil because it wreaks havoc, because its violent and destructive, because its ruins lives and fails to encourage human flourishing, life, and wholeness. Another example could be the pedophilia question that Star brought up previously. I’m not aware of anywhere in the Bible that this question is explicitly answered, which begs the question: how will we draw a conclusion? My answer, drawing on the NT, is that you’ll know a tree by it’s fruit, or put another way you’ll know by the “fruits of the Spirit”. In other words, does this situation evidence or result in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control in people’s lives? From what I know of pedophelia… um, no. How about bitterness? No. Perhaps lust? (Sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage). Nope, probably not. Same- sex marriage? Yes! (imo :) Obviously this could be a blog post in and of itself, but I think this is what Paul’s getting at when he talks about the negation of the law in Christ and how for Christians, “all things are permissable, but not all things are beneficial.” To summarize, although its bit counterintuitive, I think the negation of the law by love often causes us to obey the law before we’re even asked, but in a few revolutionary moments it causes us to reject the law altogether.

    Hopefully this clarifies. Feel free to push back if I’ve misunderstood your position on anything! Thanks!

  8. Jon Sauls

    Okay let me clarify my position on your first two points because I think I understand what happened. Based on things I have read from you in the past, I believed you to have the stance that if I in any way opposed full inclusion of LGBT people within the Church, this means I am not capable of the showing the same amount of love as you. At some point when I spoke to you in the past about this issue, I heard this message. I do not think you were trying to say this or even meant this (who knows, maybe you do), but this is what I personally had received from our talks; that there had to be a transcendence of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” issue because this often is a cop-out, but I also didn’t think same-sex sex was okay. In fact, for a few months now, I have been in a state of trying to reconcile my belief that same-sex sex is a sin and trying to truly love people. So this was my interpretive lens when I read your post and follow-up comment.

    What can I say, I take things seriously and whether you meant to or not, you helped send me down a path of trying to bring together two perspectives that typically don’t fit together. The funny thing is, I am thankful beyond reason because you unknowingly and unintentionally invoked me to follow a path that made me understand a bigger part of the Kingdom and gave me a new perspective of humility. This is more-so what I was getting at in my previous comment when I said I just don’t care anymore. Because I had taken this issue and tried to solve it and all I found was destruction because all I found, whether I side with one side or the other, was legalism within my soul. So my first comment was a cry for it all to end, not because this issue isn’t important, but because all I now see is a debate that is more about who’s legalism would reign supreme. And no, I in no way am saying anything about you Brett (at least I am not trying to), this is just how I now feel about this issue and issues like it. And yes, I will keep pondering on these issues anyways because it is my nature and they are important, but never too much, because I don’t like what I find within myself.
    Pretty heavy eh? Lol.
    And I understand what you are saying with your third point and I think it is a good point.

    Sorry I have turned this comment section into multiple what-should-have-been-blog-posts that focus on Jon finding his way. Thanks. Thoughts?

  9. Brett Post author

    Hey John,
    No problem. I can definitely understand your confusion and am not in the least bit upset with you for asking questions or for steering this blog post in new directions. Hopefully we can grab breakfast or lunch next time your in town :)
    -BT

  10. Maegan Ciolino

    Cuz,
    Thanks for posting the video I shared with you! Thanks for diving into cold waters. This topic I am sure gets you into a lot of trouble down in Texas. You’re a brave soul. I have a lot of friend who’s families, for religious reasons, have issues with their sexuality and I will be passing on your posts to them. It is all about starting a conversation. It is easier to ignore a difficult topic that has been stigmatized for centuries rather than look introspectively and methodically at the subject matter. Send my love to the family and take care!

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