Tuesday, February 18, 2014


I've been putting off this third installment of the Marriage, Gender series for a while (a year), mostly because I suspect everyone who reads this will be disappointed in some way. But, given the news of UMC minister Frank Schaefer recently, and a host of other similar conversations, it seems like the right time. There are at least a dozen of you to whom I promised a more in depth answer. Well, here it is:

This will not be a post with in-depth discussion of the various biblical passages addressing homosexuality. There aren't a lot of them and you can find intense dissections of all of them with varying conclusions at the drop of a hat. I find many arguments compelling, but none compelling enough to settle the matter resolutely. Like most attempts to find answers in scripture, we get more guidance than command. We have to delve the depths of conscience and context and make judgments. Scripture is not a list of rules and laws, but an authoritative narrative pointing to relationship with God. Things are not always so simple.

I have no problem believing people are born gay. Why? Because I'm not gay and I have to accept the word of those who are - honestly and openly, no matter how dubious the claim or how skeptical I might be. I have no other choice. At the same time, I have to accept the word of those who claim miraculous changes in sexual orientation, no matter how dubious the claim or how skeptical I might be. I believe that it's likely a trauma or abuse in childhood could affect someone's sexual orientation - psychological crap does crazy things to people all the time. I also think it's silly to assume every gay person was somehow abused into it.

All that being said, we need to make clear that reparative therapy - essentially attempts to undue perceived trauma or abuse with further trauma and abuse is categorically evil and should be condemned, even if it's entered into willingly. If indeed an individual believes their orientation is changable (and needs to be changed), there are healthy, therapeutic ways to approach counseling, you know, overseen by trained professionals.

The bigger question for me, especially as someone who takes the Bible seriously, is whether God intended gay people to be that way, or if there was some problem. I don't think there is anything wrong with gay people, nothing less than ideal or sub-optimal - at least not any more than any of the rest of us.

If you're looking from a purely evolutionary perspective, homosexuality is an anomaly. Evolution is driven by a desire to pass along DNA to a new generation. Breeding that produces offspring is important to that end. Homosexuality is both natural and unnatural. Natural in that it is largely genetic, unnatural in that it doesn't line up with biological determinism.

I don't believe God designs any individual. I don't think God chooses our hair color, eye color, our addictions, our immune system, or our sexual orientation. I believe God created the world in the same way I can be said to create cherries by planting a seed. I believe God set in motion various forces in the world that led to creation as we have it. More and more I believe God intends for things to be different, even counter to what might be called ideal precisely because God wants to communicate love to all creation regardless of individual merit. I wrote more about this here.

I don't think God makes us in any particularity, but that God loves all of us equally, regardless of any preconceived disability or deficiency.

As humans, some of us are naturally cautious. We were born that way. Others tend to act before they think. There may be some evolutionary advantages to both inclinations, but it seems like our society favors the former. Evolution favors the cautious - or at least it did when we were mostly prey. I'm a cautious person and I understand completely why it's better to be cautious and I can provide you any number of reasons to back that up - because I have a lot of time to think about such things while I'm not having the kind of fun the adventurous types have most of the time.

I'm not about to say, though, that either of these inclinations is anathema, unintended, inappropriate. The point of life is not to be the right way - to become cautious or to be less so - the point of life is to figure out how to live in spite of (or because of) who you are.

I recognize that people have many different definitions of what it means to live rightly in the world. I want to affirm everyone's right to figure that out and decide for themselves what it means to live rightly. I have no desire to impose my perspective on anyone else in any way. I will defend the right of any adult to make their own decisions for themselves and I believe any discrimination, public or private, based on sexual identity or orientation is a terrible tragedy. From here on out, I speak from my perspective as a Christian about how I think Christians should answer these questions.

As a Christian, my purpose is defined by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose message of self-giving, sacrificial, radical love shapes and informs everything I do. Because of that, I look to the history and tradition of God's people to figure out how to live. Scripture, the Bible, is the main way in which I do that.

When it comes to homosexuality, there is just one question for the Church to answer: Can people of the same sex participate in marriages that reflect God's love and faithfulness in the same way heterosexual people can?

You see, I still believe (as explained more deeply in the Marriage post) that lifelong, committed marriage is the only proper, healthy avenue for sexual expression. So the question is not "can a person act on their attraction to the opposite sex," but "can gay people get married?" The rest sort of takes care of itself.

As to marriage, yes, Genesis says a man shall be united with his wife and they shall become one flesh, but to read modern concepts of marriage into verses like this do disrespect to history.

Throughout history, many societies have had accepted, if never mentioned examples of homosexual relationships. Men would often take younger proteges as lovers. This partly developed because of the oppression of women, who were never considered equal and were (are) treated as sub-human in many places - a regrettable necessity for procreation. We must remember that marriage, for most of human history, had nothing to do with affection or love, it was designed for social stability, for making babies, and for consolidating status and power. In societies where male-male relations were the norm, usually for the elite, these were occasionally the most affectionate and loving relationships men had.

The Judeo-Christian ethic of marriage arose in counter to these societies. Scripture is pretty clear that the sexual ethics of God's people are specifically to set them apart from the societies around them. I'd argue though, as I have in the Marriage post, that primary among this counter-example was chastity and fidelity. You marry a wife and you stick with her, care for her, and turn - neither emotionally or physically - to anyone else.

Obviously the people of God weren't great at learning or keeping these values. There was a lot of polygamy and prostitution was as rife in Israel as anywhere else. But the principle remained the same - and eventually was (mostly) adopted by God's people.

In neither case was gay marriage even a matter of thought. You married for procreation, for social standing (maybe to ensure the continued subservience of women), but not for love. You married a women because you needed kids - life could not exist without offspring - they were the essential lifeblood of society.

Things are different now. There are plenty of offspring in the world. We've also vastly changed the criteria by which we choose marriage. It's almost exclusively based on affection, at least in the Western world (the only world I really know). Which is why we face such a dilemma.

Can people of the same sex participate in marriages that reflect God's love and faithfulness in the same way heterosexual people can?

Some Christians answer no and ask gay Christians to remain celibate. Others say yes, and call those gay Christians who believe marriage is part of God's call on their lives to marry with the kind of self-giving, radical love to which we (often poorly) call all people. The gay christian world has named these two responses Side B and Side A, respectively.

I recognize the importance for an organization to have such an opinion - a general guidance for members, but for individuals, I'm not sure such categories are helpful. Each person has to navigate the challenges of integrating their sexuality and their faith. People are different. We're all different. We will (and should) have different ways of working life out - hopefully with the guidance of a loving community.

Some gay Christians will seek and receive "healing," others will choose marriage to a member of the opposite sex (hopefully with the full knowledge and support of their spouse), others will choose to remain celibate, and still others will choose Christian marriage. Hopefully these choices are reached at the end of a thoughtful process of discernment and supported by the Christian communities around us - communities who challenge us to reconcile our conclusions with reason, tradition, experience, and scripture.

I believe there's a scripturally consistent defense of either answer - Side A or Side B - although I do think many of the most vocal supporters of both sides should be furthered challenged to do a better job of their defenses.

My denomination has chosen side B, at least in theory. We've affirmed that sexual orientation is not a choice (at least for the most part), but we've called gay Christians to celibacy. However, we've done a terrible job of actually living that out. There are few Churches of the Nazarene where even a celibate homosexual would be welcomed and included. I doubt many pastors would take such a person into membership and I suspect an openly gay pastor, committed to celibacy, would not find work in the denomination and would likely have their credentials challenged. Our attitude and our actions do not match up. If we're going to take the position we've taken, we need to really take it - as uncomfortable as it might make us.

Part of our difficulty comes because we've not addressed marriage and sexuality well in relationship to the call of God on our lives. I believe firmly that a Christian's commitment to God trumps everything else; there's nothing we shouldn't be willing to sacrifice if we believe it necessary to fully participate in the Kingdom of God. We've rarely included marriage as part of this teaching.

If we're adamant that God created us human, that there is no distinction between male and female (outside the biological, which is what I argued in the Gender post) - then it really doesn't matter who you're attracted to. It matters whether you're willing to give up the right to partner and marry if it serves the Kingdom of God.

I am extremely committed to the authority of my denomination. The Church of the Nazarene is the tribe that birthed me and raised me. I am committed to her core idea of holiness - that we can have the kind of relationship with God that we were created to have right here and right now - that we don't have to wait for heaven to fully be the people God has called us to be. That's what my denomination is about and I am excited to be a Nazarene.

I won't leave my denomination because of our stance on gay marriage. But I also wouldn't leave if it changed.

Quite frankly, it's really only a matter of time anyway. It might be fifty years down the road, but I think it's coming whether anyone around today likes it or not. I don't know anyone under the age of 35 who's really passionate about defending our current position. There're certainly lots of Nazarenes who agree with our stance, but I don't see (m)any who are really going to make keeping the Church of the Nazarene Side B a priority in life. I see a lot of young Nazarenes who are exceptionally passionate about changing our position. In the end, I think passion will win out.

Regardless, I'm here for the long run. I'm sticking with my denomination because I believe God is in control. I believe that the Holy Spirit of God is living and active. I believe that if someone is following Christ honestly, in communion with brother and sisters who all declare together "Jesus Christ is Lord," that God will work it out in our lives. We will receive guidance and direction and discernment and we'll figure it out together. Even if we end up some place totally different than we thought when we started.

As for me, personally - there are a lot of heterosexual couples I would not marry. I'd want to know them in a pastoral way - to know their lives as they live them and not as they present them to me in a few meetings. I'd want to know they are committed to the radical love Christ calls us to in marriage. I'd want to know they could or least wanted to live out marriage as an example of God's love for God's people. I'd need to be satisfied they'd wrestled with the call of God to give up everything - even marriage - before I'd feel comfortable marrying them.

I'll gladly pray at any wedding at which I'm asked to pray. People can always use prayer. I want to pray blessings on every wedding and every couple; marriage isn't easy and we need all the support we can get. I'd pray at a wedding I'm diametrically opposed to happening; I believe that much in prayer.

I also believe I have no right to marry a gay couple, even in protest. This could, of course, be challenged in court, I suppose, but if the denomination who gives me my credentials tells me I can't marry certain people, I'd have to forsake those credentials to do such a wedding - and thus would no longer have the credentials to do it.

Sadly, as a minister in a conservative, evangelical denomination, I've not come across many gay Christians. Our paths don't cross much. Most of the gay people I know have been so hurt by the Church they want nothing to do with Christ. For them, this is a moot issue.

I know it's a cop out, but I don't see much point in answering a hypothetical question when I don't face the real situation. I can't marry a gay couple, nor do I know any who want a Christian wedding well enough to even consider it. I'm not in a position to vote for any sort of change in my denomination and I don't expect I ever will be. I'm not even entirely sure we should be making straightforward designations at the denominational level: we marry these people and not these. I'm perfectly happy to be part of my tribe while we do the hard work of figuring things out. There's a lot to figure out and a lot I just don't know.

What I do know is that God loves everyone. Jesus Christ died to show unconditional love and forgiveness to all people. I know there is peace and joy in our future and I long for each and every person alive to experience those things here and now. I know that we're called - all of us who claim Jesus Christ as Lord - to walk together in love and grace, when we agree and when we disagree.

My denomination must live up to its words and embrace gay Christians as brothers and sisters. We all need to stop demonizing and condemning those brothers and sisters who disagree with us about the place of marriage in the life of gay Christians. Whether we agree about marriage or not - we agree about Christ - and I have faith God can work out these differences. In fact, my faith depends on it.


Anonymous said...

"I don't believe God designs any individual. I don't think God chooses our hair color, eye color, our addictions, our immune system, or our sexual orientation."

I would encourage you to look more into a theology known as "deism." From what you said in this above quote, one might say that you are making a case from some form of deism. Taking in account of your whole article idk that I would make that claim, but this could be a slippery slope for theology.

Ryan said...

I can see that criticism, and thanks for your response.

Deism's main claim is that God is not involved in the world. I do believe wholeheartedly that God is involved in the world - it's partly why I can say with confidence that God will work out our ethics if we're seeking to be like Christ.

I do believe God created the world and thus created all of us, but I think God is much more concerned with relationship. Part of that relationship was allowing creation to have a real part to play in ongoing creation. God lets God's creation make choices that God has decided to live with - that's part of God's amazing love.

I don't know how this all works out in practice. I'm excited about the future of investigation and speculation as we begin to figure it out. I do know (or at least I believe) the world is much too complex to be explained by a God pulling strings.