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My Journey on Sexuality Issues

2014-08-13 19.59.43This 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.

Red logo in circleBack 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.

gendersAnd, 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.

argumentsAnd, 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.

1719063-pen_canyonAs I looked across the Divide, I saw brothers and sisters and friends on the other side whose presence and experiences became valuable to me.

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.

Comments (18) | Trackback

18 Responses

  1. AJ Bernard August 15, 2014 / 2:27 pm

    I think that once we determine the Bible’s position on sexuality, attempting to revise our own position in any way which contradicts the Bible’s stance is problematic. Because if we succeed, then we can do it for a different topic; adultery, lets say. I know the Bible prohibits adultery, just like I know the Bible prohibits same sex activity. I can become emotionally wrapped up in WHY this married man actually loves this other woman, and how deep their passion and emotions are for one another, and how they really should have been together in the first place, but what I cannot do is to say that because of these emotions it is therefore ok for them to be together.

    We all have the proclivity to sin; it’s in our very flesh. We’re all born as liars, thieves, scoundrels and swindlers. This is why we must be born again.

    I know my position is not popular; I’m actually afraid to put my name on this post.

    • Rob Nystrom August 16, 2014 / 7:23 am

      We do that all the time. What is the Bible’s position on slavery? Does it ever explicitly condemn the practice? No. Do we universally condemn slavery now? Yes. Or, arguably the role and equality of women. How about divorce? Remarriage after divorce? Snake-handling as a sign of faith? Jesus did some of it, i.e. the woman at the well. In Wesleyan tradition we always use scripture, reason, tradition, and experience to inform our beliefs – no snakes for me!

  2. Gary Bebop August 15, 2014 / 2:36 pm

    I hope you won’t allow yourself to slide into confusion on this issue. “Keep the faith” is what we are called to do, not to cut a thinner slice of doctrine to accommodate popular opinion (which is always changing). You mention Paul’s word of 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, but Paul also has a word to say in 1 Corinthians 11:18-19. Check it out…

    • Craig L. Adams August 15, 2014 / 3:37 pm

      I’m not wanting to accommodate to popular opinion. But, I do think God loves everyone, and that people need to come to Christ as they are. And, I am, theoretically, always open to the possibility that I may be wrong. I have much to learn… always.

  3. Credendum August 15, 2014 / 3:07 pm

    What an excellent post! I tweeted it.

    I admit that I feel torn on this issue: being gay and holding to the traditional Christian view of sexual ethics is very difficult. Some of the statements and views and arguments made from the traditional camp can be stupid, infuriating, and outlandish. I also think you’re right: the revisionist side is getting better in their arguments.

    I try, but I just cannot fathom changing my mind on this issue. Actually, for me in particular, the thought is frightening. I can’t get past the apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: these will not inherit the kingdom of God. I’m sorry, but I can’t gamble my eternal state on this issue. I’d rather be single and celibate in this life, no matter the heartache and torment, and live forever with Christ than to have temporary pleasure and eternal torment.

  4. jwlung August 15, 2014 / 7:35 pm

    Thanks for sharing. One voice that has been totally drowned out in the melee is the voice of Christians who have been freed from the compulsions associated with same-sex attraction. Healing is available for those who seek it. Sometimes that healing is the gift of celibacy, sometimes it takes other forms.

    I agree that the denomination will continue to be torn apart by this issue.

    You are a tremendous gift to the Church.

    • Craig L. Adams August 16, 2014 / 7:30 am

      No single narrative is going to fit everyone. What it means to be “gay” or “lesbian” is not the same for everyone who experiences that. Many years ago a sociologist who studied these matters said that he thought people should be talking about “homosexualities” rather than “homosexuality.” So, (as they say) mileage will vary. And, yes, there are people who found ex-gay ministries helpful and affirming. And, it is important that those voices not get lost in the mix — though it seems that they are. The fact is that some of the leaders on Side A are themselves former leaders of ex-gay ministries. And, many people who were in those ministries did not find the experience affirming or helpful. I think the ex-gay narrative needed to collapse — because true categorical change in the nature of people’s sexual attractions is very rare. It does happen, but the how and why is not known. Thus, “change” — in the sense of categorical change from “gay” to “straight” — cannot be the goal. Holiness is the goal, and the essence of holiness is to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as we would love ourselves.

      Thanks for your very kind words.

      • jwlung August 16, 2014 / 11:01 am

        I agree that “ex-gay” needed to collapse, but not for the reasons you describe. Timothy Whitaker’s article that you list in the sexuality section of your blog explains why. If we would premise our discussion on what we know that the Bible teaches about the nature of the human person (Whittaker) then we would have a much different conversation about same sex attraction.

        I want to respect the spirit of your post, so please forgive me for suggesting that your understanding of the possibility of change may be as incomplete as my own. The very existence of side “A” depends on denial of the possibility of “categorical change.”

        The best evidence suggests that the compulsive desire to act upon sexual attraction to persons of the same sex can be healed. The rate of success for treatment through psychotherapy is the same as any other unwanted compulsion. At least it was before party “A” began its campaign to outlaw and prohibit mental health professionals from providing such therapy for those seeking it. Healing when sought through participation in ministries focusing on Holiness is common, and quite glorious to behold.

        The intractable division of our church could be healed if all of us desired Holiness more than life itself. You obviously know that; I pray your work will continue to bear fruit.

        • Credendum August 16, 2014 / 4:40 pm

          JW Lung,

          And what of those earnest souls who, for 17 years, wanted nothing more than to be “healed” and still experienced not an ounce less of same-sex attraction? What about people like me? The promise of “change” from the “ex-gay” camp seems deceptive at best to hurting people like me. You can’t just promise “change” to everyone when so very few, relatively, actually experience it.

          IMO, the “ex-gay” promise is the CAUSE of the Side A movement.

          • jwlung August 16, 2014 / 9:21 pm

            Have you read Leanne Payne? Again, there can be no such thing as an “ex-gay.” We are all broken. We are especially prone to brokenness and bentness in our sexuality, for many reasons.

            I admire your choice to be celibate. There is nothing wrong, or necessarily even disordered in sexual feelings for persons of the same sex. Christ loves us all, even in our brokenness and confusion. Rest in Him.

  5. William L. Bingham August 15, 2014 / 9:35 pm

    In 1988 I was chairing the NC Conf. Board of Church and Society and at that time my view of homosexuality was ‘clear as a bell’; the position of the UMC was correct. In the intervening years I have needed to come into contact with and to work in relationship with a number of Gay and Lesbian people.

    At the same time, I have read careful analyses like the text, “Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality” by Jack Rogers, which was prepared for Presbyterians; and like a careful study by Mike Watts, who is a local scholar who reads in Greek and Hebrew and provides insights rarely developed by other scholars. Others have also called other writings to my attention. These writings have convinced me that what I thought was so crystal clear about Biblical literature condemning homosexuality, is really not so clear at all.

    So I have been thrown back to the following understanding. The chief question for all of us who are concerned about this issue and its effect on UMC Ministry, must answer the question, “Is homosexuality (1) a life-style choice as many suggest, or is it somehow (2) a life given, or God given Orientation? My current experience, (I’m now 80), is that as I see various people develop working relationships with Gay people, they eventually are led to see that a large number, maybe 10%, do not fit in category (1). If therefore there are a number of persons who would be described by (2) above. For to fit in category (1) would require, somehow, a masochistic psychosis, for their daily life is full of threats and other uncomfortable situations.

    So I am convinced that for some people, a Gay Orientation is simply ‘who they are’. And if that is who they are, I know that they are loved of God, even as I know myself to be loved of God. Therefore, I can and do love them, as they are; and I need to be and am willing to be in ministry with them also, as I am in ministry with so many other people.

    • jwlung August 16, 2014 / 3:44 pm

      I’m wondering how you would respond to Bishop Whitaker’s article, referenced in the Sexuality section of this Blog.

      By the way, Harold Leatherman married my wife and I 46 years ago in First Church, Morehead City.

  6. W. Kevin Drane August 16, 2014 / 4:22 pm

    Lord, I come before you praying for our United Methodist Church. Our wineskins are seemingly ready to explode… do we need new wine in a new wineskin? or shall we keep our old wine in an old wineskin? Lord, help us to know. Help us to be respectful… in either or rather, all positions… let the love of Christ guide our dialogue and our attitudes & actions. It saddens me to see such strife and animosity that seems so prevalent. Come Holy Spirit and guide us, counsel us so we might bring praise, glory & honor to the Trinity we love. Creator God, please help us to heal as brothers & sisters in Christ. I am a Christ follower first & foremost and my pleasure as a Methodist is secondary. Almighty, heal our brokenness…
    Holy One, please be with those involved in this arena… those who struggle. Aren’t we all broken vessels? How many of us have sin in our lives? Lord, help me in my brokenness. I don’t want to judge. I want to minister to everyone who struggles with whatever kind of brokenness. Jesus was so excellent at speaking with grace and with truth. Holy Spirit help me to be that kind of pastor… one who speaks with grace & truth. Fill me with your spirit so I might be the hands & feet of Jesus as I walk this path of sanctifying grace. Lord, bring your power to those that can have an impact… Let the outcome you desire for our church and for our individual lives come to pass. I pray in Jesus name. Amen.

    Thanks for this post and may God bless you each and the ministries you pursue.

  7. williamfrancisbrown August 23, 2014 / 9:16 am

    The language of this post is loaded. Using the term, “sexual minorities”, as just one example, immediately implies the assumption (and the immense baggage that accompanies it) that gays and lesbians are a victim class. I think that the essay represents a confused humility. What so often is left out of these analyses is an evaluation of the bigger picture: the cultural context of the past 50 years. It strikes me as very odd that one can read an essay of this type, but never once encounter a consideration of why we might be in such a state of sexual confusion today. Where is any consideration of the mighty cultural influences (pop as opposed to the moral compass of a Biblically informed worldview)? This is not an ambiguous teaching. There will always be scholars who want to find ways around what is clear in the Bible. I don’t deny that there is room for interpretation and nuance in many areas, but this is not one of them.

    When the culture enforces a false view of something as basic as human sexuality, then there will be casualties in denominations that are already slipping from a Biblical worldview, such as the Episcopal and UMC churches.

    Far from being an ostracized minority, gay, lesbian, transgender choices are celebrated by our cultural institutions: media, government, education, music, and especially Hollywood movies and TV. So, if you partake in these you will be influenced and many will be brainwashed. It’s the battle that rages in the world. Our choices and perception of reality are influenced to a huge degree subconsciously by all these inputs. It may be common and even normal to have a period of insecurity re. sexual identity, especially in the early adolescent years. And for many, well before that time. If those confusions are reinforced by the media and the cultural milieu, then many will accept these as affirmations.

    I see nothing but psychology at work here. There is no gay gene. It’s not genetics, it’s brainwashing. In our naivete, let’s not overlook how these folks got that way. Let’s apply more wisdom and insight and not accept the pop cultural lies and obsession with false sexuality. Balance has been lost and individuals suffer when we disobey Biblical morality. The sacramental beauty of sex itself is a casualty. If we get something as basic to Christian morality as life, the family, and sex wrong, history shows that the church suffers. It may seem so, but it’s not loving to embrace false teaching. It only leads to more hurt and pain. I fear that the UMC will become another social club and just an extension of ‘the world’. Many of my acquaintances at home and work think it is already there.

    • Craig L. Adams August 23, 2014 / 10:32 am

      I made the corrections in your comments that you specified. I left the last two sentences in because (as a matter of fact) I share that fear: that churches have become social clubs with little in the way of Christian discipleship.

    • Craig L. Adams August 23, 2014 / 11:31 am

      Saying: “it is not genetics, it is brainwashing” in no way explains the phenomenon of exclusively same-sex attracted people. I’m not suggesting anyone can explain it, I am asserting that same-sex attracted people do exist. I don’t think this is a matter of rhetoric or theory. Like intersex people and others, they are, in fact, a minority. I don’t think it is either wrong or misleading to refer to them as such. People who are romantically / sexually attracted to their own gender tend to remain that way for all of their life. I am not convinced that anyone knows what causes this, not do I think anyone knows how this could be changed. Telling such people that their condition is an illusion — the result of media brainwashing — and that they can simply choose one day to not be attracted to people of their own sex is teaching and promoting a falsehood. Yes, I do think psychology needs to be at work here to help us to understand. Much work remains to be done, but the best information I can gather suggests that categorical change in sexual attractions — i.e., from “gay” to “straight” — is extremely rare — if it ever actually occurs at all.

      Yes, culture has changed and we are now having to face this issue in a way that previous generations did not. The Sexual Revolution was certainly part of this. But, so was the change that occurred in our concepts of marriage. Our current ideas of love and marriage — as in: “and they both lived happily ever after” — where fulfillment is found in finding the perfect and most desirable mate — are certainly not the ideas of marriage which were current in Bible times — far from it. The church (at least in the USA) has heavily bought into the current cultural ideas of marriage as a route to personal fulfillment — and thus, raised the question of why gays and lesbians should be left out of this. So, I see the problem of cultural captivity as being very much within the church — as well as without.

      I think it would help us all if we could get beyond “us” vs. “them” thinking on this issue. We need to listen respectfully. People need to stop shouting. We need to find places where people can feel free to open their hearts to one another without judgement. While this certainly will not ensure consensus, it might help us all to understand what is at stake here. I think, in conversations around this issue, people often have blinders on to protect them from insults and misinformation from the other side — and while that is understandable, it is not helping communication.

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