Sabbatical Blog Interruption

I’m taking a sabbatical this summer from June 5 to September 3, graciously granted by the Pastoral Team and Financial Oversight Team of our church.  I’m very grateful for time for rest and renewal.

In an effort to surrender my pastoral work this summer, I’m logging off Facebook, not checking email even once, and even changing my phone number during my sabbatical! And in keeping with that effort, I’ll be holding off on blogging as well. The City Church of Long Beach LGBTQ Study Team will also be on hiatus this summer, to resume in September.

I’m looking forward to extended times of silence and solitude this summer, including kicking it off my sabbatical this coming Monday with a 7 night, 8 day retreat of silence at a monastery. My hope is to ‘come to the end of myself’ as my spiritual director says – to let all of my anxious energy, all of my drive to achieve, all of my concern about what people think of me to be sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Who even knows what will be found underneath. Ultimately, I’m just hoping to meet Jesus there and to journey a little closer with him.

For those who haven’t been on my blog much, if you’re interested, these have been some of the most read posts:

When My Son Came Out
How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church
What If I’m Wrong?

Until September…

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What If I’m Wrong?

false beliefDo you ever have an awkward moment in a heated conversation when the unwanted thought creeps in, “What if I’m wrong?” For me it often happens later, while showering or taking a walk. Out of nowhere, it dawns on me that there might be another way to look at what I so passionately said could only be my way.

I hate those moments.

Perhaps you are like me and you like to be right. Or perhaps you find that thinking in new ways is disorienting. Or perhaps it feels threatening to consider the ideas of someone you have disagreed with for so long. And yet, you and I both know that actually considering the perspectives of others is how we grow – whether we adopt those perspectives or not.

After all, there’s no learning apart from engaging deeply with ideas that you do not currently hold!

What’s at Stake

Having LGBTQ conversations in the church is like picking your way through a minefield. Doing it as a pastor is like picking your way through a minefield with a flock of sheep. There’s really no safe way to do it.

A pastor said to me in a shaky voice, “But if I change my stance what would I say to my church?” I’ve talked to parents whose marriage has been threatened because they see their daughter’s sexuality so differently. I have gay friends whose choice to be celibate cost them their gay community. I have many gay friends whose choice just to come out of the closet cost them their Christian community. Ouch. I deeply grieve those losses; I have had a few of my own.

In addition to the relational landmines, for us evangelicals there’s also a particular spiritual conundrum that we find ourselves in. More and more of us are asking the question, “What if I’m wrong?” For the first time, we are considering the possibility that what we’ve always thought about sexual morality is not what God thinks about it. That’s when the double whammy hits us – that we could be wrong either way.

Justin Lee, in his excellent book, Torn, goes back and forth all book long about his own personal struggle of coming out as gay and trying to reconcile that to his faith in Jesus. Towards the end, shares a profound thought:

I realized there was no “safe side” on this issue. If I supported gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by encouraging people to do something wrong, but if I opposed gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by putting myself and others back under the law and making Christ “of no value” (Gal 5:2).

Justin realized that there was a cost if he was wrong. And he knew that regardless of where he came out on the question of whether same-sex sexual activity could be moral or not, there was still a cost.

Is There a Cost of Being Too Moral?

As a parent I’ve experienced the temptation to be overly moral any number of times. I don’t want my kids to get hurt or get in trouble, so I holler “No dating till you’re 30!” or whatever the equivalent is in the situation at hand. The problem, of course, is that instead of doing the hard relational work and the give and take of ideas, I just use my authority to shut down the conversation. Later, in my right mind, I can see that “No dating till you’re 30” is probably going to have some pretty negative effects and doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

I’ve heard a number of people propose that, since there’s some question about the morality of same-sex sexual activity, we should just be more conservative to stay on the safe side. You know, just rule out anything that might be a sin.

Author and pastor David Schmelzer addresses that directly in a way that I thought was helpful (and unnerving):

Is it worth mentioning that the possibility of being wrong cuts both ways? Yes, you can be wrong by being too permissive. But you can also be wrong by being too restrictive. It seems entirely possible to me that, on Judgment Day, God will wonder why we kept so many people away from the Kingdom of Heaven. What gave us that right? Jesus even weighs in directly on this side of the discussion. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”

Both Schmelzer and Lee force me to face an uncomfortable reality – that it really matters if I’m wrong – and that I can be wrong not just by being overly permissive; I could be wrong by being overly restrictive. There are consequences to both errors. And then I struggle with the pastor thing. For me personally, as a pastor, I have to wrestle with the consequences of potentially leading people into sexual sin on one side or into religious slavery on the other.

My Personal Misgivings

Two months after my son came out to me and Katy at Starbucks (that story here), I was spending a Saturday morning holed up journalling. It had been a hard week for me personally, so I was praying through it all in writing. Timothy had finished coming out to our family and his friends and he let me know it was time for me to start telling people. That week I broke Timothy’s news to our church leadership team, my discipleship group, my best friend from high school, and three friends who are pastors. Most, but not all, of those conversations went well.

Then comes this entry:

May 30, 2015
At this point in the game, I still feel so conflicted over the issue. And I feel frustrated with you, Father. The scriptures just don’t seem all that clear anymore, and this is a big issue with huge stakes. So what are we to do in this case of a big issue with no clarity? I hear [gays on the conservative] side saying, “As best as we can tell, we’re right, and we feel invigorated by our sacrificial commitment to the Lord – but we’re really lonely, sad, and somewhat repressed and wonder whether we’re missing out on a huge part of the life that Jesus would have for us… not to mention the fact that we seem to be closing the door of the gospel on both LGBT people and the younger generation.” I hear [gays on the progressive] side saying, “As best as we can tell, we’re right, and we feel finally free from all the guilt, loneliness and repression we suffered under – but we still wonder sometimes if we’re being [sexually] immoral.” Neither side seems completely satisfied or convinced. And neither is completely convincing. And the stakes are so high.

I look back now and have a lot of empathy for myself as a dad in that situation. My son had come out to me, and I was undone by it. I started studying the scriptures at a depth that made my masters and doctorate at seminary look like kindergarten. I was reading voraciously and talking to every expert I could get my hands on. I prayed like a revivalist on steroids. And more often than not, God did not seem to be giving me the answers that I was seeking. Not an easy season.

One of the things that bothered me the most was that I couldn’t get the question out of my mind: What if I’m wrong? I mean, this is my son we’re talking about. What if my position leads him into sexual sin? What if I deface God’s image in him? What if I guide him wrong? God, what are you saying?

God the Father

In the next few weeks I’ll share more about where my journey has taken me. But for the time being, let me say this: I’ve encountered God as Father in new ways, and that’s a game changer.

Standing on the sandy cliffs above Blacks Beach in San Diego, screaming at God because I was so upset at him for making my son gay, I experienced something very profound. Overlooking those cliffs was not one crying father, but two. I’ll unpack it in a later blog, but in that moment of despair, I realized I had a Father who not only cared for my son more than I did, but who cared for me on my journey, too. 

That day I was looking for answers, but I got something more. One of my favorite authors speaks to that experience in a way that I’ve reread a hundred times:

So what if God exists?…What difference does that  make?…We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want–scientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all–would not in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all.  For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around here, knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.  It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence.  That is the miracle that we are really after.  And that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.
– Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

That day, and so many days afterwards, I experienced the miracle of God’s presence on this very tricky journey. And that’s been enough, even when over and over I confront the question, “What if I’m wrong?”

Is God Big Enough to Handle Us Being Wrong?

Often in this process I’ve had to ask myself a different question, also: Is God big enough to handle us being wrong? There’s so much at stake, and yet God is still God. I am not. And my trust will have to rest on Christ alone.

A month or two ago our Study Team had a remarkable conversation around these questions. One of my friends on the team, Larry Dove (who said he’d be glad to have this in the blog) emailed us all later that night. Larry is a pastor up in Central Los Angeles and had done some thinking as he drove back up into the heart of the city. His response captures the kind of humility and dependence on God that I think we all need:

Driving home last night I pondered on the question – “what if we are wrong?” In summary, there is a possibility that we could/will encounter some erroneous thoughts, ideas, and premature conclusions over this issue. But our dependence on the Holy Spirit to continue to guide and drive this process in love (towards each other and the LGBTQ community) will keep us on the road of truth and reconciliation. I am not afraid of getting it wrong. I am more afraid of being convinced I have it absolutely right!

That’s what I’m counting on. As Jesus teaches us in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.”

How You Read the Bible Changes How You Approach LGBTQ Questions

13135371“Make sure you don’t listen to LGBT people’s stories until you’ve established what the Bible says about it.” That was the counsel of a pastor friend of mine when he heard that our church was going to be discussing human sexuality in the church.

We didn’t take that approach.

As our Study Team looked closely at Acts 15 in our sixth session, we realized how the early church handled disagreements about inclusion – and it was to listen to stories first. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the bible is not crucial – of course it is!  It just means that all readings of the Bible are affected by our cultural context. As a friend of mine says, “There’s no view from nowhere” – meaning, there’s no way to read the Bible without bringing your own perspectives and experiences to it.

I realize that some of the folks reading this blog don’t claim to be Christians, so I’m guessing this conversation may seem esoteric. Just to catch you up to speed, from the Christian point of view, the Bible plays a critical role in how we understand God, people, history, morality, and culture.

As we think about the Bible, I want to ponder it in three ways not necessarily connected to each other: a graphic, a theological construct, and a parable. I find these to be helpful ways to get at the connection of the Bible and questions around LGBTQ persons in the church.

A Graphic: Three Types of Beliefs

I think people hold their different beliefs with differing degrees of conviction, depending on the belief. On this idea I found the Study Team readings from Greg Boyd* particularly helpful. In terms of Christian theology, I’d paraphrase Greg Boyd here by saying that there are core beliefs, important beliefs, and opinions.Cylinder with labels

I think of core beliefs as those foundational building blocks of the faith, around which there is general agreement across the church. There are not a lot of these. The way I think about these building blocks is that they are best summarized by the historic statement of the Christian faith, the Apostles’ Creed. That statement focuses mostly on Jesus, but includes the Trinity, that God made the world, the unity of all believers, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life. Notably, it doesn’t include how God made the world, or exactly how Jesus is both God and human, or how salvation works, or anything about Hell. It’s not that those are unimportant. They just are not core beliefs.

Important beliefs, the middle category, might include all sorts of things like views on women’s ordination, baptism, and end times. Opinions, the last category, are less weighty matters, like what kind of music to have in worship or what qualifications to have for a youth pastor.

If core beliefs are indeed limited to the Apostles’ Creed or some other summary of the Christian faith (like many churches post on their websites), then it’s inherent to this whole conversation that there can be differences around important beliefs like the morality of various sexual practices. Those important beliefs about sexual morality, gender identity, and leadership qualifications are, well, important. But it’s hard to imagine that they are core beliefs. If we’re willing to admit that, wouldn’t it be realistic and helpful and even edifying to embrace people with differing views around these important beliefs… including beliefs about LGBTQ people in the church?

A Theological Construct: Is The Bible Inerrant?

The second perspective on how the Bible informs what we think about LGBTQ issues has to do with the weighty theological construct known as inerrancy. Holding to inerrancy, or not, makes a big difference in how you think about the topics at hand.

In our tenth session together, the Study Team considered The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics as well as numerous other articles and books about how to understand the Bible (see Session 10 in our Syllabus). Browse through them briefly, and you’ll get a sense for them. The Chicago statements tend towards being very clear about how clear the Bible is. One of the affirmations that stood out to me during our Study Team session was Article VII from the second statement:

We affirm that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.

After the diligent work we’d done on Genesis 1 & 2 and on the best traditional and progressive arguments on Romans 1, I really struggled with the simplicity of the Chicago Statement. Frankly, it seemed oversimplified. It’s not that the biblical texts don’t have meaning, it’s just that it’s so darn hard to figure out what that meaning is, particularly as a single text is weighed with all the other texts, each with their own emphases. But this isn’t an issue with just LGBTQ issues. Sociologist Christian Smith summarizes the breadth of the tensions Christians face on various issues:

The disagreements, to be specific, are over inerrancy (inerrantism versus infallibalist), providence (Calvinist versus Arminian), divine foreknowledge (Arminian versus Calvinist versus Open views), Genesis (the young earth, day-age, restoration, and literal views), divine image in humanity (the substantival, functional, and relational views), Christology (classical versus kenotic), atonement (penal substitution, Christus Victor, and moral government views), salvation (TULIP versus Arminian), sanctification (Lutheran, Reformed, Keswick, and Wesleyan), eternal security (eternal versus conditional), the destiny of the unevangelized (the restrictive, universal opportunity, postmortem evangelism, and inclusive views), baptism (believer’s versus infant baptism), the Lord’s Supper (spiritual presence versus memorial), charismatic gifts (continuationism versus cessationism), women in ministry (complementarian versus egalitarian), the millennium (premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism), and hell (the classical view versus annihilationism).

…On important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality.

Even very conservative scholars like D.A. Carson* recognize this wide spectrum of beliefs amongst those who hold a high view of scripture. So I struggle with how inerrancy is defined by the Chicago Statements and how it plays out in churches because it assumes a degree of certainty about what it calls the “literal, or normal, sense” of scriptures that I (and I believe most others) don’t see there.

Personally, I’m far more comfortable with how the Bible describes itself in 2 Timothy 3:16, which is that it’s inspired by God and it’s true: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” It seems that God was content to give us a Bible that doesn’t make itself starkly clear on all points, and yet is still inspired. I think that’s exactly the Bible God meant for us to have!

Practically speaking, this means that when we look at the Bible, there can be room for different perspectives on the same events and their meaning. Why else would there be four different Gospel accounts, after all? Or why include two different histories of the same kings in Israel’s history, each with very different emphases? Or why would Hebrews and Romans look at predestination so differently?

From my experience, which is limited for sure, inerrancy is more of a mindset about certainty than it is a theology. That longing for certainty prioritizes clarity, which leads to neatness and cleanness in the realm of theology. That tidy theology then tends to domineer the experiences and perspectives of sexual minorities, often attempting to smother differing ways to think about the Bible passages dealing with sexuality and gender.

I know people who are not inerrantists who fall on all sides of the spectrum of belief about LGBTQ issues, including both traditionalist and progressive. What encourages me about these people is their openness to dialogue, their curiosity, and their willingness to wrestle with the bible’s variety and nuance. I find this perspective a lot healthier in many areas, including conversations around sexuality and the Bible.

A Parable: Three Umpires

About twenty years ago, when I was trying to figure out how to think about postmodernism, I came across a parable that made a lot of sense to me. Now it helps me think about how the Bible speaks to questions surrounding inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. It goes like this:

Three baseball umpires are sitting at a bar talking about the game. ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes,’ says the first, ‘and I call ‘em the way they are.’

The second umpire protests, “There’s balls and there’s strikes. I call ‘em and that’s the way they are.”

The third umpire thinks for a minute and then speaks up. “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.”

Modernists approach truth as if it is easily and directly discernible; they believe they have direct access to meaning, therefore they say “I call ‘em the way they are.” The postmodernists leave everything up to the subject, with no connection to a separate reality that’s out there, so they say “I call ‘em and that’s the way they are.” Then there are what might be called the Critical Realists, those who recognize that there is indeed a reality out there which we’re trying to understand, but we don’t see it perfectly (it’s as though now we see through a mirror, dimly).  The Critical Realists realize that because of their own perspective and experiences, they can only do their best to get at that reality. Thus, they say “I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.”

I’ve grown tired of the easy answers on both sides, whether it’s throwing down a clobber verse out of context or it’s a pronouncement like “whatever you feel is right is right.” The clobber-er sounds like the first umpire to me, and the feel-er sounds like the second; one lays claim to the one true interpretation, and the other implies there’s no absolutes out there besides their own experience. I suppose they are similar in that they each try to define reality exclusively.

As I engage with more and more people around the Bible and LGBTQ concerns, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the best I can do is to say with the third umpire, “I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.” I’m doing my best, and it’s not easy, not neat, and not clean. And as best as I can tell that’s actually how the early church handled tricky questions about inclusion of the Gentiles, evidenced by the fact that their solution was short-lived and reversed a couple of times (see Mark 7, Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 8, 10, Romans 14-15, Revelation 2).

When it comes to sexuality and gender issues in the church, it’s not just the Bible that we’re talking about, although it is that. It’s how we view the Bible.

 

*D. A. Carson notes that “I speak to those with a high view of Scripture: it is very distressing to contemplate how many differences there are among us as to what Scripture actually says… The fact remains that among those who believe the canonical sixty-six books are nothing less than the Word of God written there is a disturbing array of mutually incompatible theological opinions.”

*Greg Boyd, Benefit of The Doubt. Chapter 8 – A Solid Center. Chapter 9 – The Center of Scripture.

 

How Having Gay Friends Has Changed My Theology

pd_A-Walk-in-The-HillsDavid* and Ann* were two of the first gay people I met after my brother came out to me in the early 1990s. In moments of great vulnerability, each of them shared with me that they were attracted to people of the same sex. My memory is a bit hazy (I’m almost 50, after all) but I think I was the first person either of them had told about being gay. They both immediately shared that they wanted God to change their desires, and I was on board with that. I prayed that they would become straight, and I processed with them as they went through counseling, what was called ‘reparative therapy’ at the time.

But neither of their desires changed. What did change, however, was my theology.

I’ve known these two Christians for over twenty years. I’ve seen them wrestle with God, almost lose faith, and come through to the other side of some dark times. David is now married to another Christian man, and Ann is a committed single. Both are still attracted to people of the same sex. So do you think those friendships might have affected my theology? You bet.

My understanding of how prayer works, when God heals, and what it means to be made in God’s image were all pretty simple twenty five years ago. All three of those theological constructs have changed because of knowing David and Ann. I’ve had to allow a bit more mystery into my theology, a bit more flexibility, and a lot more grace. Before, everything was neat and tidy for me. And that’s not even to mention having to do a lot of rethinking about human sexuality.

Shifting Away From Tradition

At a pastors’ conference, Joe* approached me and asked to talk away from everyone else. On a long walk through the hills, he shared that he’d never thought much about his traditional views on sexuality until the day he came home early from church and walked in on his teenage son watching TV in a dress. That was the beginning of Joe’s journey of rethinking his theology.

I often talk with Christians who once held a traditional perspective about LGBTQ morality but have since become ‘affirming’ because a close friend or family member came out to them. For example, progressive New Testament scholar James Brownson shares in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality that his son coming out was a major motivator for him to re-evaluate his thinking.

As I wrote in my last post about  How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church, there’s something powerfully motivating about shifting your thoughts from abstract theology to real people, especially people you love. Having LGBTQ people in your life whom you love deeply typically changes you. Here are two of the big ways:

  1. Your attitude becomes less judgmental. Unfortunately, this often comes only after a lot of tears or a few shouting matches. Crushing the spirit of a friend or loved one has a way of making you reconsider how you see them. Whether or not your perspective on morality shifts, this is still a theological shift because it means that Jesus is breaking open your heart for others in new and good ways.
  2. Your theology becomes ‘affirming’ – either because you re-evaluate your reading of the bible (for those who value scripture highly), or you simply allow your experience to dictate your morals and don’t want to condemn the sexual activity of your friend or loved one.

The one instance where I often see a lack of theological shift is when a parent finds out that a child is LGBTQ and, instead of processing that in a healthy way, clamps down on that information, turning it into a family secret. Often these families can feel like fortresses, where vulnerability and intimacy cower in the corners. If you’re part of a family like this, I’d be glad to be a safe place to process or help you find one. (contact me here).

Shifting in Other Ways

Last month, Ernie* invited me over to his house and shared with me that he’s gay. He told me of the struggles he’s had in different churches, the loneliness he’s felt, and the deep connection he has to Jesus that has come from his costly commitment to celibacy. Even though we were the only two in the house, he mostly whispered all of this to me, which seemed appropriate since it seemed we were on holy ground. I felt so honored, so privileged to be there with him, to listen to him, and to be able to be with him on his journey.

Having friends like Ernie changes you. Through conversations with my friends who are not embracing their same-sex attraction, my theology has changed. In particular,

  1. I’m realizing that I (and the church) idolize marriage – we view it as the highest form of relationship. We’re strangely uncomfortable with those who are single, always trying to set them up with someone –  which is ironic since our founder was single. Celibate author Wes Hill has done the church a tremendous service in his website promoting spiritual friendship – which historically has been viewed as a higher form of relationship than marriage. Talk about being counter-cultural!
  2. I’m seeing how I (and the culture) obsess over sex – we view it as paramount in our personal identity. Those who are celibate in our midst stand as a stark contrast to the way our culture glorifies and commodifies sexuality, and we’re forced to rethink what it means to be made in the image of God.
  3. I’m realizing that my theology of discipleship has gone soft. Jesus says, “Let any who would come after me take up their cross daily and follow me,” but I want to negotiate with Jesus, haggling down the cost of following him. My friends who are choosing not to act on their same-sex attraction remind me of what it means to follow Jesus at all costs.

Final Thought

David, whom I mentioned earlier, came to see me recently. I met his husband, we walked through the neighborhood, we caught up. Just before we parted, he started to cry as he talked about how he’s met God on his journey since coming out to me twenty-five years ago. David caught me by surprise when he said, “Amidst all of the pain of this process, I wonder if God brought me into your life all those years ago so that you’d be better prepared to welcome your son when he came out.”

I think David is on to something.

 

*Most of the names and identifying details in this blog have been changed.

How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church

Prayer Labyrinth
Our group in Malibu walking the prayer labyrinth

Recently I was at a unique gathering in Malibu. Our group was made up of a dozen individuals from around the U.S., differing ages and ethnicities and genders, covering a spectrum of experiences and beliefs about how to be LGBTQ in the church; gay, straight, trans, and everything from celibate to questioning to dating to divorced to married. All we held in common was that we follow Jesus and love scripture.

I was asked this question, “What do you think is the value in LGBT people naming and defining their sexuality? How is that helpful or harmful for the heterosexual majority community and the church?”

This is going to sound a bit dramatic, but I responded by saying I think that the LGBTQ community is saving the church. I’m not saying it’s been worth the cost to that community; I grieve that cost and I sorrow over my own complicity in it. What I am saying is that I’m grateful for the gifts I’ve received from the LGBTQ community.

Below are some of the ways I think God is using the LGBTQ community to help the church.

  1. No longer is “LGBTQ” a theological issue, now it’s real people.  It’s people like my brother, Porter. People like my son, Timothy. By coming out, the LGBTQ community has forced the heterosexual community to deal with real people and not just ideas untethered from the world we live in. Jesus emphasized the importance of dealing with real people, so by coming out, the LGBTQ community has been serving the church by enabling us to be more like Jesus. Thank you, friends, for your incredible resilience and strength in reminding me that you are people, not issues. I’m sorry for treating you otherwise too often.
  2. We’ve had to face our judgment. In his book unChristian, David Kinnaman points out that, statistically speaking, the first three terms non-Christians use to describe Christians, in order, are 1) anti-homosexual, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. How devastating is that!? Those last two are the very things that Jesus spent a lot of time confronting – in fact, more than any other. So the LGBTQ community has provided the opportunity for Jesus to speak to those of us in the heterosexual community in the same way he spoke to his followers 2,000 years ago. Friends, I’m so sorry for my own judgment and hypocrisy. I’m also sorry for how often I’ve been silent and forced you to speak up alone when it would have been so easy for me to stand up and speak with you. Please forgive me. While
  3. We’ve had to face hard conversations that we’ve previously avoided. Facing hard conversations is what the church is all about, and yet we’ve shied away from that mandate. Instead, we’ve become like the culture and hidden. In fact, we have failed to have these conversations in places where the culture around us has faced them squarely. The LGBTQ community has forced our church to have this conversation, and this conversation is training us to have other conversations. Friends, thank you for the courage you’ve demonstrated every time you’ve come out to someone. I want to be as courageous as you. I could never quantify if it’s worth the cost to you, but I can say that I’ve gained by your sacrifice. 
  4. We’re rediscovering what identity is, what it means to be made in the image of God. The church has simply equated being heterosexual/cisgender (and preferably married!) with being human. It’s like how White, male, Western theologians can be unaware of their Whiteness, maleness and Westernness when doing theology because often they live in an echo chamber only reading their own stuff… until they read Black theology or Feminist theology or Liberation theology. In the same way, the LGBTQ community helps the majority/straight community figure itself out more. And along the way, it helps us uncover our assumptions about being made in the image of God. Friends, thank you for surfacing my assumptions, for helping me see humanity through another lens, and for the implicit invitation to think more deeply about what it means to be made in God’s image.
  5. The LGBTQ community is helping us rediscover grace, because it’s raising the crucial questions: How are people accepted into the community around Jesus? Do people have to become straight/cisgender to be accepted? Is grace really enough? In new ways, we’re getting at core gospel truths because our assumptions are being exposed, and we’re seeing that we’ve layered a lot of culture on top of the gospel. Friends, thank you for reintroducing me to grace – it’s alway better than it was the last time I knew it.
  6. The LGBTQ community is driving a deeper look at scripture.  The majority/heterosexual community is not allowed to get off with easy answers and proof-testing anymore. Just throwing out a reference to Leviticus or Romans was so easy, and so misguided – like throwing out a reference in Joshua to justify war. And not only do we have to be careful and thoughtful with scripture, we’re starting to have to become transparent in our theology of scripture – now we’re having to show our cards on how we approach scripture. We didn’t have to do that before. We could get away with saying, “we just follow the bible.” Friends, you’ve help me (and us) think more clearly, enabling us to love God more with our mind. Thank you.
  7. The LGBTQ community is helping us rediscover unity. Because there’s such diversity around these issues, the church is having to wrestle with unity again. Who is in and who is out? What are the qualifications for unity in the body of Christ? These are really important questions that the church is facing at a new level. While denominations are splitting, there’s also been a lot of movement towards a more sacramental unity, as opposed to the ideological unity that currently presides over the evangelical world. Friends, I wish it weren’t so painful for you. I wish our battles about unity weren’t being fought over your bruised and bloodied souls. I’m so sorry. May God have mercy on us all, healing his church and ‘reconciling to himself all things’ (Colossians 1:20).

Finally, to my son, to my brother, to my LGBTQ friends at City Church and in Long Beach and in the broader community, whether you’re in church or not, I want to say these words:

Thank you for how gracious you have been to me personally as I try to figure out what to do with you. That sounds so awful, and it is. I’m so sorry for how I’ve participated in the injustice that has left you in the petri dish as those of us in the majority culture fight over the microscope. It’s embarrassing to write it. Please forgive me.

Thank you for how you’ve led me back to Jesus time and time again by exposing how unlike him I am, by helping me think more deeply about scripture, by calling me to love people more freely and especially by how you’ve shown me grace, cared for me, and loved me well.

You have shown Jesus to me. You have been Jesus to me. Thank you.

Best Progressive Arguments on Romans 1 (Part 3)

sacredheartLast week I spoke with a guy who needed to process the impact of twenty of his friends leaving his church because the church decided to begin a conversation about the potential inclusion of LGBTQ people in church membership. A different guy told me last week, “It won’t do you any good to talk about homosexuality” because people from his church background don’t talk about things like that.

I was struck in both of those conversations that it’s so hard for people coming from a traditional perspective to really listen to the thoughts and insights of those from a more progressive position. In so many ways, it’s not much different from how hard it is for people from a progressive perspective to listen earnestly to those from a traditional perspective!

In my last blog I looked at what I think are the five best traditional arguments from Romans 1 that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. Today I want to summarize what I think are the five best arguments that same-sex sexual activity is not sinful, again from Romans 1. Regardless of your perspective, would you be open to listening in to this conversation?

By way of context, the progressive arguments here are that the morality of monogamous, covenantal, same-sex sexual relations (a.k.a., marriage) is what’s on the table, and not other sexual activity.

1. Paul Critiqued the Same-Sex Cultural Climate of His Day, Not of Ours

In Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 we looked at the differing views on the word ‘nature.’ Most progressives understand that word in Romans 1:26-27 as having to do with cultural convention (e.g. ‘It’s just unnatural for people to skydive!’), just like Paul uses that word in 1 Corinthians 11:13-14 to describe how it’s ‘unnatural’ for men to have long hair.

Progressives argue that Paul uses a number of key phrases describing excessive passion (‘shameful lusts’ in 1:26 and ‘inflamed with lust’ in 1:27) to highlight the culturally degrading form that homosexuality took in that time. As the Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 by James Dunn puts it, Paul’s description of homosexuality “is a characteristic expression of Jewish antipathy toward the practice of homosexuality so prevalent in the Greco Roman world.” Therefore, Paul is not critiquing consensual, monogamous homosexual expression but, rather, the form it took in his day.

Another approach to this same argument is that there is a cultural normativity that makes same sex marriage fine now, even while it wouldn’t have been in Paul’s time. (A parallel would be that Paul prohibits women from braiding their hair in 1 Timothy 2:9, almost certainly because the cultural norm then was that prostitutes braided their hair – but that norm has changed in our culture.)

2. Paul is Addressing Sexual Exploitation Pastorally

While there’s some disagreement on whether the Greco-Roman world knew much about covenantal same-sex relationships, scholars agree that the dominant forms of homosexuality were coercive: pederasty (adult males with adolescent boys), prostitution and master-slave sex (2/3 of the Roman world were slaves or freed slaves).  If you’d like to read some of the ancient source material yourself, here’s a quick summary.

Paul’s comments in Romans 1:26-27 would have been received as remarkably empathetic and pastoral by those in the congregation who had been sexually exploited in the ways he described. The progressive argument here is that Paul is not dealing with mutual, covenantal same-sex relationships in Romans 1, but instead he is condemning the rampant sexual exploitation of the culture and giving a much needed voice to those who had been victimized by it.

3. The New Testament Moves from External Sins to the Heart

Jesus taught that the real issue behind murder was anger and that what lay behind adultery was lust, and he summarized the Old Testament law into just two commands, both about love. Paul built on that move from externals to internals when he wrote things like:

  • Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8
  • For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14

Progressives like James Brownson articulate this theological move like this:

Jesus sought to focus attention concerning purity, not primarily on external behaviors, but on internal states… In the New Testament generally, and in Paul’s writings in particular, purity is primarily a matter of the heart and one’s internal disposition. The fact that Paul in Romans 1:24 links “the lusts of their hearts” with “impurity” confirms the connection between these two ideas in this passage in particular.

The argument here is that the core issue going on in Romans 1:26-27 is not the condemnation of externals, (in this case, the manifestation of all homosexual sexual expression) but rather about the impurity that drives lustful actions. Therefore, channeling sexual desire in healthy and godly ways within marriage, whether straight or gay, honors God and reflects biblical teaching.

4. Church History Has Gotten It Wrong Before

While progressives recognize that church history has consistently read Romans 1 as condemning same-sex behavior, they also point out that church history has gotten some things wrong in the past and that engaging in careful study and discussion of scripture is always healthy.

For 1,500 years the church consistently held that the correct way to interpret Genesis 1 and other passages was that Earth was in the center of the universe and that the sun moved around it. When that idea was challenged with the research and teaching of Copernicus and then Galileo, the church strongly resisted reinterpretation of the scriptures. For example:

  • In a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10, John Calvin warned against those who say, “that the sun does not move and that it is the earth that moves.” He goes on to call those who believe that the earth moves “stark raving mad” and “possessed” by the devil.
  • Martin Luther said, “The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth” and elsewhere Luther refers to Copernicus as “a fool who went against Holy Writ.”

Progressives argue that being open to reinterpreting Romans 1 is simply part of the age-old process of doing theology. They say that just as Calvin and Luther were wrong on the earth standing still, new insights and understandings of history, science, and scripture, indicate that the traditional interpretation of Romans 1 banning all homosexual practice is wrong and the church should not be completely bound by its tradition of interpretation.

5. Christians Have Not Always Read This Text the Same Way

The vast majority of us who read Romans 1:26 immediately see it as referring to lesbianism: “Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” However, that was not always the case.

James Alison points out,

we have several commentaries on these words dating from the centuries between the writing of this text and the preaching of St John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century. None of them read the passage as referring to lesbianism. Both St Augustine and Clement of Alexandria interpreted it straightforwardly as meaning women having anal intercourse with members of the other sex. Chrysostom was in fact the first Church Father of whom we have record to read the passage as having anything to do with lesbianism… what modern readers claim to be “the obvious meaning of the text” was not obvious to Saint Augustine, who has for many centuries enjoyed the status of being a particularly authoritative reader of Scripture. Therefore there can be no claim that there has been an uninterrupted witness to the text being read as having to do with lesbianism. There hasn’t.

Progressives point out that even with parts of Romans 1, there has been diversity of interpretation throughout the church’s history, and that doesn’t necessarily make Augustine (!) or modern interpreters apostates. Instead, diversity of interpretation can be a mark of faithfully engaging the text.

Final Thought

Personally, as I reflect on my own journey of thinking about these things I remember reading all of the Christian literature available to me in 1990 when my brother came out to me. I read all of the conservative arguments, but there were no progressive arguments available – at least not that I could find (remember, there was no internet!). I point this out to say that the conversation is different now because there are two sides to it.

I’ll continue to explore that conversation in coming weeks.

If you’d like to read related blogs:

Romans 1: Best Traditional Arguments (Part 2)

On Tuesday, I sat down for coffee with J., who at had just come out to his family and friends. He cried a couple of times as he shared his story, including when he told of his father hugging him afterwards – a rare occurrence.

J. was raised in a church nearby, but he’s stopped attending because God feels distant and he doesn’t want to put on his ‘happy church face’ and show up. But he couldn’t have been clearer about wanting to follow Jesus. “For the first time I’m actually open to considering having a partner – but I won’t do it if it’s not right. And I don’t want to just convince myself the bible says something if it doesn’t.” Then he leaned in, “So what do you think God wants for me?”

Well, that’s a good question.

In my own attempts to answer it, I thought I’d look at the best arguments on Romans 1 from the traditional perspective (in this blog) and from the progressive perspective (in next week’s blog). As we think on the scriptures and wrestle with the issues, I will try to remember that we’re actually talking about real people, like my new friend J.

Here are what I’ve found to be the five best traditional arguments from Romans 1 against same-sex sexual behavior. As a good friend of mine just reminded me today, I would be remiss not to mention at the outset that the whole point of the traditional arguments are that God loves gay people and wants their best. With that in mind, let’s dive in.

1. Same-Sex Behavior is Contrary to God’s Creational Order

In Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 (which basically covered the nature of the word ‘nature’) I outlined this argument, so I won’t say much more about it here. In the simplest of terms it goes like this: God created male and female sex parts to work together, so doing sex otherwise is immoral.  To summarize the argument in a more scholarly way, Richard Hays writes that:

[since] the complementarity of male and female is given a theological grounding in God’s creative activity… when human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.

2. Paul Uses Additional Terms to Emphasize Creational Intent

In addition to the immediate context of Creation just mentioned, Paul seems to be referring specifically to the Genesis 1 account in Romans 1:26-27 by the use of two key terms for ‘women’ and ‘men.’ Here’s the break down of those terms from one of my seminary professors:

Paul does not use the normal terms for women (gyne) and men (aner) but two terms (thelys and arsen) that may well allude to God’s created order, as they are used in the Septuagint of the creation account, “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27 LXX). (Grant Osborn, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series)

Using those terms is a way for Paul to ‘double down’ on his emphasis that the only godly way to have sex is the way God designed it in the Garden of Eden, namely, between a man and a woman. In a sort of repetition of point #1, this shows Paul’s commitment to the original design as the only moral way to behave sexually.

3. Same-Sex Behavior is the Third of Three Sinful “Exchanges”

Paul’s overarching argument in Romans 1 is that the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) are disconnected from God, caught in unhealthy/sinful ways of living, and in need of a Savior. Paul builds his argument with a series of three ‘exchanges’:

  1. [They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for idols (1:23)
  2. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie (1:25)
  3. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (1:26)

Paul uses the same greek work (‘exchange’) to emphasize how, because of each of these scenarios, the Gentiles have distanced themselves from God and are suffering for it and in need of rescue. The parallel items at the back end of each of the ‘exchanges’ look like this:

idols : lies : same-sex acts

Essentially, this argument says, since idols and lies are always immoral, the parallel activity of same-sex behavior is immoral.

As one renowned scholar put it, “Paul’s attitude to homosexual practice is unambiguous. The third appearance of the word “changed’ (cf. vv 23 and 25) seems to imply that the action described (“changing the natural use to that which is contrary to nature”) is of a piece with and direct result of the basic corruption of the glory and truth of God in idolatry.” (James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary Romans 1-8)

4. The Text Condemns All Same-Sex Behavior

This argument says that, for the sake of drawing all people to Christ, Romans 1 highlights the sinfulness of all same-sex behavior, as opposed to just pederasty or temple prostitution. In an interesting twist, Romans 1 critiques female-female sex, which was far less common than male-male sex in the ancient Greco-Roman world, suggesting that Paul was trying to cover all his bases.

In addition to that, Paul uses key words that clarify the range of whom God holds responsible in cases of same-sex behavior. In an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, James DeYoung writes that “The terms ‘toward one another,’ ‘men with men,’ ‘in themselves’ and ‘their error’ all argue for adult reciprocal mutuality and mutual culpability, which would not characterize pederasty.  As the error is mutual, so is the recompense.”

Therefore, since Paul includes both male and female same-sex activity while implicating both parties of such activity, he clearly defines all same-sex activity (and not merely exploitative same-sex activity) under the category of “shameful lusts” (1:26).

5. Church History

For two thousand years (that’s a long time) the church has consistently held to these interpretations (and some other ones which I don’t find as convincing) of Romans 1. That much history is not something to trifle with. There should be strong reasoning to consider even having conversation about an area of theology that has enjoyed such unanimous support for so long and so widely, much less to consider changing that theology.

In their book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams summarize their findings from looking throughout scripture and church history at these issues:

In the context of the current confusion, we intend to demonstrate that Scripture and the historic, orthodox church consistently have warned that homosexual practice is sin.  We will show that the suggestion that homosexual practice is acceptable before God is contrary to Scripture and to what all the church everywhere has always taught.

Next week, I’ll look at the five best arguments for a progressive interpretation of Romans 1.

Here is Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 (What is the Nature of the Word ‘Nature’)

Here is Part 3 of this series on Romans 1 (Best Progressive Arguments)