This week I attended a forum held here in Grand Rapids for discussing sexuality issues. It was nice to actually meet in person some people I know only from the Internet. And several of the presenters had interesting things to say — as people who strongly disagree about the morality of same-gender sex interacted with each others ideas and experiences.
This issue has been tearing the United Methodist Church apart. During all the recent talk about denominational schism I have kept quiet here. I am on the sidelines now. If the church wishes to split (which I don’t imagine it does), so be it. It seems to me that the current position on gay and lesbian issues in the United Methodist Book of Discipline does not allow for a “Third Way” (agree to disagree) of any sort. Any proposal for one would be allowing for limited, regional violations of the Discipline. Surely that won’t pass Judicial Council muster — and it shouldn’t. Does the United Methodist Church have a way forward? I don’t know. I really can’t imagine that the God we know through Jesus Christ is much concerned with the survival and fate of our various human denominational institutions. The apostle Paul had a bit to say about the factions humans create within the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 — and he wasn’t in favor of it.
Back in June, Richard Peck and Tim Tanton contacted me by email, asking if I would write a brief personal essay about my own perspective on sexuality issues. They said they were collecting such essays to be a part of an online forum of sexuality issues which would be hosted on UMC.org. So, I dashed off something which is basically a shorter version of what I am posting right now. I haven’t heard back from them in quite a while, so I don’t know if the Forum is still in the works or not.
But, here is my account of my own journey (so far) on this issue. I need to say a little bit about myself before I say anything about “the issue.”
You see: I realized a long time ago that my feelings and opinions about sexuality issues don’t have that much to do with sexual minorities (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or transgender people) at all.
I came to Christ in the context of holiness revivalism and I am thankful for the path to which my early mentors in the faith pointed me. Scripture and prayer have been vitally important ever since then — in the ongoing development and growth of my faith.
I think that that Scripture, prayer and service are the life-blood of the Christian experience. I am as convinced of this as I ever was. So, whatever helps me to honestly understand Scripture, and to engage myself in the life of prayer and service is all to the good.
For Christians, Scripture is a story, centering on the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, the various divergent parts of Scripture are understood in relation to Christ.
And, the traditional view on sexual morality arises from what some of us see in the teaching of Jesus — a high regard for the law of Israel, but with a re-appropriation that Jesus calls “fulfillment” (See: Matt 5:17-20). This is not a slavish and thoughtless keeping of rules — it is a reflection on the rules of the past to discern their abiding significance for our day. It reflects the spirit of the Psalmist whose prayer was: “Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.” (Psalms 119:27 NRSV). (I’ve reflected a bit further on this here: How Jesus Fulfills the Law – Matthew 5:21-37)
And, I am reminded that I am still a traditionalist on sexuality issues at various times. Back in the days when I regularly counseled young couples preparing for marriage, I was continually reminded that I was a traditionalist on gay and lesbian issues — even though those issues never came up in our discussion. Gay marriage doesn’t fit in my paradigm. I interpret marriage from a theological standpoint. Discarding the notion that Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce points Christians toward a heterosexual, monogamous standard for sexual behavior would leave me with nothing to say. (And, of course, in addition to that, there are several Biblical statements that explicitly condemn same-gender sex — and some of these appear to be categorical rejections.)
That’s not to say that I’ve successfully thought through all the issues here. I certainly haven’t. I’m not sure anyone has. I read the writings of people on the revisionist side of the issue (what I prefer to call Side A) and generally do not find their arguments either helpful or convincing. It is always possible that this is because I am extremely stupid, and just don’t get it. I’ve met some gay and lesbian and transgender people and I like most of them. So there is no personal animus on my part — nor any personal history with same gender sex.
But, at one point (many years ago) I got to wondering about this issue in a very personal way. I had been involved in heated arguments about this. And, I came into the arguments knowing I was right. But, for me it was a theoretical issue. It was a personal-morality issue. It became for me a boundary issue — people who did not feel same-gender sex was a sin (or, worse yet, said the Bible did not condemn it — an obvious and demonstrable fallacy) were simply not worth talking to.
And, yet, I wondered why I got so upset about this. It was not a personal issue for me. I didn’t get so upset about the discussion of other moral issues. So, what was there is this that aroused my anger and defensiveness? Some gay Christians on the Internet engaged me in conversation and I found the conversation enriching. I heard a whole other side of the issue that I had not imagined. I found that I was quite wrong about who is worth talking to! In July of 2003 I joined the conversation at a (now defunct) web site called Bridges Across the Divide. (The web site is archived here). The bridging conversation that was going on there seemed amazing to me — such respectful conversations in the midst of such sharp disagreements! (By the way, Justin Lee also briefly describes his involvement with these same discussions in his book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.)
For me the issue was originally theoretical. It was: What the Bible says. I encountered very little in these conversations that caused me to change my mind about that. What I encountered were the personal dimensions of the issue. I was not sexually attracted to people of my own sex. I didn’t know what that was like. I hadn’t gone through the deep inner conflict these people spoke about — the conflict between a drive they did not choose and could not change, and their position as persons of worth in the Body of Christ. In some cases, they were very angry. And, it began to impress me that these people — in spite of their anger — were willing to speak to me at all. We became friends.
So, the conversation changed me. It created conflict within me. It helped me to see some of the deficiencies of my position. It helped me see how little I really know.
I realize that many people feel that dialogue is one more attempt at indoctrination. I certainly understand that. I have experienced that too. But, I know from personal experience that we desperately need open-hearted communication on the issues of sexuality if we are going to be able to minister to anyone in this world today. We need to understand one another’s struggles and insights and perspectives. We need to allow ourselves to be stretched. We need generous spaciousness — that will allow for differences of opinion.
I have not changed my mind. Maybe some day I will. (The Side A arguments are getting better. I think Justin Lee’s book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate is an extremely helpful resource for all sides. And, I am very impressed with James V. Brownson’s recent book Bible, Gender, Sexuality.) Or maybe some day we will all come to understand a lot of things we don’t understand now. But, until then I want the love of God to stretch me across the otherwise-unbridgeable gap to my brothers and sisters on the other side. It is time for us to commit to understanding and listening.