A New Way to Dialogue about Homosexuality
The following is something I plan to propose to our denomination as a way to dialogue about this very divisive issue of homosexuality. I hope to move us beyond the usual exegetical and experiental arguments in a way that brings the two together. I offer it as a post because I want to "test the waters." OST offers fewer vocational repercussions than throwing it directly to the wolves in the denomination. I’m looking for your helpful critiques on this one. Thanks.
As of the 2005 General Synod meeting, the churches of the RCA have been instructed to participate in “an honest and intentional denomination-wide dialogue on the issue of homosexuality.” Some are hopeful at this recommendation and others are pessimistic. One does not need to converse long with a group of pastors, around a table at a consistory meeting or at coffee hour with a group of Christians before the dialogue becomes debate. The one group quickly becomes two: for and against, liberal and conservative, us versus them.
The two sides shore up their arguments from Scripture and experience and an impasse is quickly reached. The first of two sides will point to the passages in scripture that condemn homosexual behavior. Their interpretation “proves” that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful. Their opponents will point out (and rightfully so) that their interpretation fails to consider the context into which those words were written and may not be as easy to interpret as they portray. Rather than prohibit consensual, homosexual relationships these others see references to sexual activity in the context of ritual worship (Leviticus 18:22) or pederasty (I Corinthians 6:9). Ending, finally, on the passage from Romans 1:26-27, each side will argue the place of nature in this debate.
The progressive side will argue that Paul does indeed condemn homosexual behavior in this passage, but it may again refer to exploitative behavior within ritual worship. Regardless, it is certain that Paul does not know as much as we do. That is, Paul may know about sexual behavior, but has no knowledge of sexual orientation. If that’s the case, as the argument goes, God may have intended some men and women to be born with a homosexual orientation. Experience shows that homosexual couples share in fruitful relationships and homosexual pastors minister over fruitful churches. The more conservative side will quickly counter (and rightfully so) that just because something is part of our nature doesn’t mean it’s within God’s intentions. Alcoholism and birth defects are often cited.
Conflict over controversial issues is not new to the Christian community. Perhaps the first and certainly one of the most well known is the church in Corinth. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is meant to address the issues that threaten to tear their church apart. It seems that the source of much of their division is a mantra that has developed among the people. We find at I Cor. 6:12 and 10:23, “all things are lawful for me.” This mantra has lead some people in a direction that, to others, seems far from the will of God. In response, Paul neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.
Paul could have written in reply, “Indeed! All things are lawful for you, proceed as you wish.” But he didn’t. On the other hand, Paul could have written, “All things are not lawful for you, stop everything that you are doing.” He didn’t write that either. Instead, Paul wrote, “All things are lawful for you, but…” He followed that “but” with three qualifications: 1) not all things are beneficial, 2) not all things build up, and 3) I will not be dominated by anything. Paul seems to be advising the Corinthians that all things are lawful as long as they are beneficial, build up the community, and are not leading the people to be dominated by anything except to love one another.
Consider the example of speaking in tongues. While Paul desired that all the Christians would do it as he did, he wanted to make sure that they maintained order in their worship with one another. While speaking in tongues was beneficial, without interpretation it could not build up, and their chaotic worship showed that they were being dominated by a lust for power and prestige rather than love for one another. In their debates, the Corinthians would have done well to ask themselves three questions in regard to their life together: Is my action beneficial? Will my action build up others in the community? Does my action show that I have become a slave to something other than love? These same three questions may be a guide for us in the next three years as we dialogue together over the issues that threaten to tear our church apart: homosexuality, marriage for homosexual couples, and the ordination of homosexual ministers, elders, and deacons.
Consider the example of marriage. Marriage is beneficial. The ups and downs of life’s journey can be difficult to navigate alone. In marriage we find one who allows us to trust, teaches us to love, and fills us with hope. It is in marriage that we discover who we truly are and see how our actions affect others, where our sensitivities lie, and how we can grow into Christ. Also, marriage builds up the community as we provide those same gifts for our marriage partner and, together, create a safe space to raise up the next generation. Finally, marriage, in order to succeed, must be dominated by nothing except love. Long work weeks, childish habits, infidelity, and stubborn points of view all put the marriage relationship in jeopardy. Are these things any less true when they apply to couples whose sexual activity may take a different form?
Or, consider the comparison of homosexuality and alcoholism. It is quite clear, and becoming more so, that these two behaviors are rooted in our nature and beyond our choice. How would alcoholism hold up to our three questions? Is it beneficial? Considering the cost to the body and wallet it is not. Does it build up others in the community? No. Rather, it destroys all kinds of relationships. Have I become a slave to something other than love? Yes. I’ve become a slave to alcohol. What about the same test with regard to homosexual relationships? Are the negative and destructive aspects of alcoholism anywhere to be found within the context of committed, homosexual relationships?
In our life together, Scripture should certainly be central to our conversation. Also, our conversation ought to take seriously the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. This 3-question test comes directly from I Corinthians and allows us to interpret our experience in a way that is faithful to the Spirit’s work within the Christian community. Assuming the opportunity presents itself, in three years we would have to answer these questions with a definitive “yes” or “no.” There will undoubtedly be fear about whether we have answered them correctly or not. With trust and humility we move forward with our choice. Only God knows if we will have answered wisely, but time will tell. In the words of Jesus, “You will know them by their fruits.”
We may never know for certain the full meaning of Scripture on every issue. We may never know everything of what God intends for each human life. But this three-question test may be a guide that leads us into the right decision. If, in the end, our decision results in division and destruction we may have answered incorrectly. Thankful for God’s grace, we can repent, together, and begin again. If, on the other hand, we’ve witnessed the growth of the Spirit’s fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control) and a harvest of righteousness it may be that we have answered correctly. Thankful for God’s grace, we can continue our journey, together, more fully into God’s kingdom. Let the dialogue begin.