Tag Archives: homosexuality

Vines: God and the Gay Christian

Matthew Vines is out to show that the Christian case in favor of same-sex relationships is not the exclusive purview of the liberals.

As an Evangelical, who seems to me to hold a view of scripture that is something akin to inerrancy, Vines writes God and the Gay Christian in order to establish what he calls, in his subtitle, “The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.”matthew-vines

The way in which Vines is committed to scripture means that the whole thrust of the book is to open up new ways of understanding passages that people have long taken to stand in condemnation of same-sex relationships. The problem, in short, is not what the Bible says, but how we have been interpreting it.

Vines precedes his scriptural argument by making three important appeals: (1) the “fruit” of the traditional position on sexuality has been destructive to people who know themselves to be gay; (2) in the ancient world, the idea of sexual orientation was not the same as our idea–in Rome people assumed most men would be attracted to both men and women; and, sexual rules assumed a patriarchal view of the superiority of men; and (3) the church’s understanding of celibacy has always been that it is a state entered into voluntarily by those who know themselves so gifted and called.

Point 2 is important, and I anticipated awhile ago that it would come to take an increasingly central place in debates about homosexuality.

Point 3 also needs to be weighed: are we “changing the definition of celibacy” by demanding such a way of life for those who are not so gifted, and feel no call to such a life?

Vines’ first two chapters of biblical exegesis examine the Sodom and Gomorrah story and the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse in Leviticus. He rightly distances the Sodom story from specific connotations of homosexual attraction or desire and does a fine job contextualizing Leviticus within a framework of laws and of cultural ideas that we no longer see binding.

Vines’ exegesis of Romans 1 is a mixed bag.

He brings in a number of important points, including some cultural considerations. The “unnaturalness” of same-sex intercourse might well be seen as a problem of “excess desire” rather than “wrongly directed” desire as such.

The problem, however, is in showing that “excess” desire is what Paul himself had in mind. And here’s where we get to a running undercurrent of the book that I did not find persuasive.

Vines regularly distinguishes between Paul’s understanding of homosexuality as expressive of “lustful” desire and our modern ideas of it as something that can be expressed in love, even within relationships of fidelity and commitment.

The implication seems to be throughout that if Paul had only known about the kind of homosexuality we’re talking about he would have been on board. I’m not sure that this argument holds. It might very well be that he would continue to say that there is an inherent problem here, that it is by definition an expression of lust due to the fact that it is wrongly ordered.

Vines says, “We have to remember: what Paul was describing is fundamentally different from what we are discussing” (italics original). I’m not sure that works. Or, if it does, we have to be very careful how we wield such an instrument–we might find that it’s so blunt that it destroys the Bible’s capacity to address us about much of anything. God-Gay-Christian-Book-Cover-Matthew-Vines1

In this chapter, and the following on 1 Cor 6, Vines puts some important pieces in place. We often read “nature” in Rom 1 as referring to an order of creation; however, in 1 Cor 11 that same word is used to talk about appropriate length of hair. One of the best pieces of interpretive advice I received came from a classicist who said, “For ‘nature,’ read ‘culture.’” Vines opens up the importance of recognizing how cultural mores are possibly shaping Paul’s discourse in ways we would fundamentally disagree with.

But Vines’ argument has a number of weaknesses. While it is true that we have an idea of homosexual orientation that the ancients did not share, it is also the case that Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6 largely delineate actions that typify people’s behavior. He complains about translations that capture this, such as “men who have sex with men,” but the complaint seems to arise largely from his wanting to have room to say that same-sex sex itself isn’t the issue.

This seems to be the point at which Vines is never quite able to pin down the biblical writers. There is a gap between the cultural milieu he establishes and what the scriptures say, and his argument is not quite up to the task of demonstrating that this gap is filled by the former being the reason for the latter.

Matthew Vines has put a good deal of important information on the table. And his is one of a number of significant voices in the new chorus of evangelicals who are committed to scripture while advocating for the full inclusion of same-sex relationships. In many ways, I see this volume as indicative of where the argument for same-sex relationships is moving among more conservative Christians.

And, Vines frames the argument with some issues that might, in the long run, be the sorts of questions that help create a culture in which Evangelicals read the Bible differently.

For those who are waiting for a book to come along and tell them what to do with irksome passages that seem opposed to same-sex relations, this will no doubt be received as a God-send. For those demanding a higher degree of argumentation, this book will not likely persuade, but it might outline a way that others (such as James Brownson) have or will yet fill in with greater skill.

**In compliance with Federal guidelines, I hereby disclose to you, the unsuspecting reader, that I was supplied a free copy of this book by the publisher.**

World Vision and Being a Disciple

This week, as the World Vision kerffufel was unfolding, I saw a phrase from Denny Burk that caught my eye. He concluded from his survey of scripture:

Thus it is impossible to be a “follower of Christ” while endorsing or participating in a same-sex marriage.

The idea of being a follower of Christ caught my attention. Immediately I began to think of this in terms of discipleship. And I slowly began to see that it might truly be impossible to be a disciple and continue to support an agency that allows for homosexual marriage as it brings relief to needy children.

What does it look like to be a disciple? Three stories run almost back to back, demonstrating what being a disciple might look like in such a situation.

In Mark 9, Jesus has just predicted his death (vv. 30-32). Not understanding what Jesus was saying, what kind of Messiah they were following, the disciples rambled off on their own conversation.

An embarrassing conversation.

A conversation about which of them is greatest.

Not seeing the crucified messiah before them, they did not see the mirror of the Cruficied that was showing them what the life of following must entail.

And so Jesus had to show them. The kingdom of God is not like they think it is. “Being first,” says Jesus, “entails being last, and servant of all.”

Jesus then takes a child: the low person on the ancient totem pole of social hierarchy. His words are stunning: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me isn’t welcoming me but God, who sent me.”

To reject World Vision is to play the part of the disciples: to place ourselves in the place of being rebuked by Jesus for pursuing greatness through power. To find ourselves rejecting the Jesus who is in the child for the sake of our own attempts to build the kingdom of God in our own image.

The story continues.

John hopes to clarify that the disciples as a group provide the boundary markers, protecting the name of Jesus, and the kingdom it brings.

“Teacher!” says John. (BTW: in Mark, if you want to find someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, look for the person who calls Jesus “teacher.”) “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we forbid him because he doesn’t follow us.”

To be a disciple is to think that our group circumscribes the sphere where God’s blessings are known. Clearly if you’re not with us, you cannot truly be a follower of Jesus.

Right?

Wrong.

Jesus says, “Don’t stop him! … Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

To pull out of supporting an organization that is doing the work of God in the name of Jesus because they do not follow us in the particular way that we are following Jesus–this is to play the role of the disciples.

And the disciples are rebuked by Jesus for placing themselves at the center of the kingdom of God, remaking its upside down nature after their own image.

In the wake of these two rebukes, the third story is all the more shocking.

It’s only 20 verses later. In Mark 10.

The people are bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them (Mark 10:13-16). The children. The ones about whom Jesus has said, “If you receive one of these, you receive me, which isn’t receiving me, but the One who sent me.”

The disciples, the ones who were just rebuked for thinking that they form the wall of partition between Jesus and the world, they hindered the children.

The disciples missed their chance.

In striving to protect Jesus, they refused to embrace the children.

They missed Jesus.

And they placed themselves in the mortal danger of causing one of the little ones to stumble (that’s at the end of ch. 9).

Withdrawing from support of World Vision in order to faithfully follow Jesus, in order to keep those children from the mercy being offered in the name of Jesus, this might truly be the only way to be a disciple.

Because being a disciple looks like playing power games that blind us to the upside down nature of the kingdom of God.

Because being a disciple looks like establishing our own Jesus-follower bona fides while spurning the notion that Jesus is present in the children standing in front of us, coming through us to find the blessing of Christ.

The roller coaster of the week gone by will be forgotten by most of us in a few weeks time. But what it managed to do for a brief instant was lay bare the tendency that resides deep within us.

It laid bear the rut that is easiest to fall into for those of us who follow Jesus most closely.

It is the danger of being a disciple. It is the danger of being of the company of disciples who fail to see that the cross changes everything.

It is to bring ourselves under the words of Jesus’ rebuke.

It is to be sent out from the presence of Jesus with the calling to relearn to find him: not in the world circumscribed by people like ourselves, but in the face of the child who comes to us in order to find Jesus.

Marriage, Sex, and Procreation

It seems that everywhere I turn, folks are responding in some way to the North Carolina amendment 1, which solidifies NC’s legal ban on gay marriage and also forbids the state from recognizing civil unions of both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Today I want to respond to one way that my evangelical Christian friends have stood in opposition to gay marriage. This is particularly pertinent to evangelicals, though there are some ramifications for Catholics as well. Here’s the argument from The Gospel Coalition website:

Marriage is more than a union of hearts and minds. It involves a union of bodies–and not bodies in any old way we please, as if giving your cousin a wet willy in the ear makes you married. Marriage, to quote one set of scholars, is a” comprehensive union of two sexually complementary persons who seal (consummate or complete) their relationship by the generative act—by the kind of activity that is by its nature fulfilled by the conception of a child. So marriage itself is oriented to and fulfilled by the bearing, rearing, and education of children.”

Evangelicals have no ground to argue on such a basis because we have embraced birth control.

You cannot simultaneously say that marriage is thus tied to sex-which-produces-children and then turn around and support the use of contraception which inhibits the production of said young ‘uns.

But then, what about other people who cannot make babies through their sex? Should the church refuse to marry any woman who has gone through menopause? Does entering mid-life without a partner mean that you should consider yourself doomed to die without a partner, even if you at long last discover a true companion? Do we refuse marriage to everyone over the age of 50something?

What if a couple in your church wants to marry, but the woman had a tumor as a child that has rendered her incapable of having children? Should the fact that their sex life will not be able to fulfill the telos of marriage as rearing children render her unmarriagable in the sight of the church?

And if this great and grand vision of marriage-for-raising-children fails? What do we do with infertility? It would seem that the stipulations laid out here would make infertility a viable cause for divorce. If violating the one-flesh union through infidelity is grounds for divorce, why not impeding the Great Purpose of child-rearing through inability to reproduce?

It is convenient for evangelicals to grab onto arguments about reproduction when we want to argue against something that we already oppose on other grounds. But I doubt that very many of us actually want to embrace the ramifications of such arguments as they come into the everyday lives we live ourselves.

This is an argument we have to leave aside. At least, most of us do. Because it strikes at the heart of what too many of us consider normal, and what none of us is willing to change.

The problem is, we’re too busy getting the speck of this argument out of our neighbor’s eye to notice that in so doing we’re clobbering him with the plank in our own.

Regarding Amendment 1 in North Carolina

I consider North Carolina home.

My Opa lives in the same house I have been going to for holidays and summer breaks my whole life.

My other grandparents are buried in a small town’s small church graveyard alongside several generations on my dad’s side.

I went to college and grad school in North Carolina. It’s where my immediate family is, as well as numerous friends. So I care what happens there beyond just the normal interest in the affairs of our nation.

And so, for all my Christian friends back home, my two cents:

You don’t have to vote for Amendment 1, even if you don’t think God approves of homosexual behavior.

As Christians, we have to be able to differentiate between different spheres within which we live. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 5: What have I to do with judging outsiders? Those who are outside God judges. But do we not judge those who are inside the church?

We have a responsibility to guard the morality of the church in a way that God has not given us responsibility to guard the morality of the entire world.

Perhaps as importantly, however, we have the challenge of figuring out how to implement our dual calling to (1) love our neighbor as ourselves / do unto others what we would have done for us and (2) be dutiful Christian citizens in a pluralistic society.

When we hold positions for reasons that are clearly and fundamentally religious positions, we must take extra care not to impose these on our non-Christian neighbors–if, in fact, we would love them with our religious convictions in the same way we would have them love us with theirs.

In other words: if you don’t want the convictions of your Muslim neighbor to be forced on your through the laws of the state, you should not force your Christian convictions on your neighbor through that mechanism.

In this case, the issues tied to the amendment as I understand it (and I may be wrong here) extend far beyond what we dealt with in Prop 8 in California. Not only does this amendment forbid marriage, it forbids the state’s acknowledging of any other sort of domestic partnership:

Sec. 6. Marriage.
Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.

This would seem to suggest that people will stand to lose medical coverage, hospital visitation rights, rights of inheritance and the like that could be assured through domestic partnership laws if this amendment were not in place.

In other words: this is not merely about a definition of marriage, but about foundational civil liberties.

If my understanding of the amendment is correct, I would suggest that Christians not only have the freedom to stand against it, but are conscience-bound to vote against it. This is about being truly treated as equal under the law, something we should be at the forefront of making sure is the case for everyone–not just people like us.

When Jesus was walking around, doing his thing in Galilee, the “opposite” of being a faithful member of God’s family was, without a doubt, being a Roman military officer. Not only an idol-worshiping pagan, but an agent of the force of arms that kept God’s people subjugated on the land God had promised them for their own.

And yet, the kind of ministry Jesus embodied, the kind of word he proclaimed, was such that a Roman centurion came up, asking for one of Jesus’ authoritative words on his slave’s behalf: “Please, save him… only say the word and he will be healed.”

Is this how those outside the church see us? Is this how we extend ourselves on their behalf?

The challenge for us when we feel that the “outsider” and “opposition to God’s people” is bearing down is to be those who so love our neighbor that even the consummate “other” would see us as an ally, ready to stand together against the enslaving powers that bind us all.

Can we, even if we disagree, be people of self-giving love, who will do for our homosexual neighbors what we would have done for our straight selves?

North Carolinian Christians, you are free to vote against Amendment 1 and in this vote to love your neighbor as yourself.

Gay Conversations with God

This weekend I read James Alexander Langteaux’s Gay Conversations with God. I heard Langteaux interviewed on a podcast and followed the trail to the book.

This is a challenging book for me to respond to, so let me start by answering a bit more about why I picked up this book.

First, a lesson I am slowly learning in my life is that it is much easier to disagree with an idea than a person who embodies it. As I continue to grow in my understanding of the place of homosexual Christians in the body of Christ, I feel that it is incumbent on me to listen to their stories and to learn to love better than I do.

Second, there was a challenging moment for me in the podcast interview I heard.

In Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul, I did some wrestling with the question of homosexuality. At the end, while coming to a traditional position about male and female as God’s intention for sexual intercourse, I left the door open like this: God can surprise us.

In particular, I pointed to the issue of circumcision in the NT, where a clear commandment, pertaining to participation in the covenant promises of Abraham, was overturned. God told Peter, “I have made this clean.” At least in theory, it might not be the case that the Biblical stricture has the last word.

Langteaux told a story during the podcast, relayed more briefly and somewhat differently in the book, about his own wrestling with God about homosexuality. He demanded of God to let him know whether it was a sin to be gay. As he sat exasperated, he opened his Bible at random. And he turned to Acts 10, Peter’s vision informing him that the old laws of kosher (and, by implication, circumcision) no longer applied.

In the podcast, this story includes an episode of speaking in tongues–the kind of Spiritual experience that Acts and Paul at times appeal to as proof that God has shown up outside the lines.

So I wanted to hear more.

After reading this book, would I recommend it? To some…

I would recommend it to gay people who are struggling with God from the context of their gay identity. Where Langteaux is outstanding is his recurring insistence that “God hates fags” is, itself, the abomination.

The God who sent his son into the world to die does not hate but loves the world. Including his gay image-bearers.

“God loves you. Believe this and go from there.” That’s how I would summarize the pulse, and strength, of the book.

In general, I anticipate that the book will not be well received by any but the most sympathetic of audiences. It is not a book that strives to place homosexual behavior or identity within any sort of traditional Christian framework at all. Of course not, right? It’s about a gay man coming to grips with himself as both gay and beloved of God.

But it is over-the-top in ways that, while probably helpful to those who need the book most from the gay-person-struggling-with-God end of things will no doubt put off most who hold a non-affirming position.

I know that others will experience even more acutely than I did the frustration that the book, as much as it talks about God and sexuality, isn’t problematic because it’s about gay sex so much as it’s problematic because it seems to relish promiscuous sex, youthful lust, and serial partners that typify what’s wrong with all sex in the west.

There is a lot of pain from the church that fills the authorial voice Langteaux has chosen for this book. To capture that pain in a book that still beckons people to find in Jesus the friend of sinners, real sinners, to capture that pain in a book that summons all of us to forgive anything we have against anyone–that is going to be a gift to GLBT folks who need to know that “God is love” is not undone by those of us in the church who aren’t.

As a bible scholar, I was less than happy with the Biblical discussions in the book. But this isn’t an exegetical book, it’s not even attempting a biblical argument for homosexuality. It’s about the experience of finding the God of love.

Regarding the style, the book has a strange quasi-poetic thing going on, with the last words of sentences and clauses rhyming for long stretches. I found this strange and distracting, but I’m sure others will differ on this.

Finally: the title is not descriptive of the contents. This is not a book of conversations with God, but rather the telling of a story with the sense that God is looking on.

I have always believed that a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument. (34)

That fairly well sums up the book. Several moments of his experience are sufficiently heartbreaking to call forth one of those, “What on earth have we done?!” moments for us in the traditional and institutional church. But many of us will also have the arguments in the back of our minds, and others stirred up by the stories themselves.

Homosexuality: Silence and Story

I am grateful to Tony Jones for returning, once again, to engage ch. 9 of Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, after first critiquing the chapter last week.

He summarizes my three-fold engagement with scripture:

  1. We can’t run to the OT on this, but need to begin with the NT interpretation of the place of sex within the Christian story.
  2. Jesus is silent on the issue. I take this to be a slight argument against Jesus’ approval of homosexual practice–Jesus was Jew, and where he disagreed with his Jewish contemporaries we’ve heard about it.
  3. This leaves Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 as the principal sparring grounds for our exegetical debates about homosexual practice.

To points 2 and 3, he has this to say:

First, we don’t use Jesus’ arguments from silence to uphold ethical evils such as slavery, racism and rape. So what’s the argumentative force of arguing from Jesus’ silence on homosexuality?

Second, this leaves a couple of verses in the traditionalist camp, hardly enough to exclude one whole segment of society from full participation in the church.

I think that this is a strong counter-argument to a biblicist approach to homosexuality. Having one or two verses in our pockets is not sufficient to create blanket ethical statements for the church. But I’m working from another angle.

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Everything we believe and practice as a church has to be integrated into the larger narrative of the God at work in the world through the people of Israel to reconcile the entire cosmos to Himself in Jesus Christ.

In the book, I argued that the larger, redemptive dynamics of that story were sufficient to overturn practices of slavery and of excluding women from pastoral ministry and teaching. This was on the basis of a couple of considerations: (1) the overall trajectory of the story toward social equality and liberation; (2) the indications that inequalities and subjugations entailed in hierarchical relationships are dynamics of a disordered world and therefore subject to redemption; and (3) varied testimony in scripture.

The narrative of scripture undermines the complementarian efforts, for example, to uphold 1 Tim 2:11-15 as universally normative for male-only leadership in the church.

I increasingly feel the weight of the argument that point 1 is a factor in favor of full inclusion of homosexuals in the church.

It was factors two and three that kept me from allowing the trajectory toward freedom and liberation to play a decisive role. What I mean is this: first, whereas the indications in scripture are in favor of subjugation of women and other humans as slaves are distortions of the world as God intended, the narrative within which Paul’s critique of homosexual practice is embedded in Rom 1 is the opposite. There, homosexual desire and practice itself is depicted as an outcome of a world gone astray from God.

Also, there is no counter-testimony on this issue such as there is on so many others such as those pertaining to women in the church or ethnicity and the people of God.

So the bottom line of my response to Tony’s post is that it’s not simply two verses, but how those verses fit within the larger story line of the biblical narrative.

This is why I suggested that a different means of argumentation would have to be offered to convince me that homosexual desire and practice is o.k. within the biblical narrative. One of these is a reconsideration of what the “new creation” looks like that is both making itself felt in the present and toward which we are straining–the new reality that we are to realize in an incipient way within the church.

The second is a compelling work of the Spirit in and among my brothers and sisters (yes, I will call them that gladly) who are practicing homosexuals such that their acceptance by God as they are becomes an undeniable testimony of God that they should be received by the church as such.

To my mind, the call to affirming and embracing is an uncircumcision argument: a plea to recognize that God has accepted and embraced those whom we could never anticipate, based on scriptural exegesis, would be accepted as they are.

Our story has taken any number of unexpected turns. If the embrace and affirmation of practicing homosexuals is one of them, it will be one of those moments that could not have been anticipated beforehand, calling us to reimagine a bit more broadly the place of sexuality in our story.

Based on Tony’s first engagement with my chapter, I think this is where he is, and where I’m not yet ready to go.

To me the issue is less the content of a couple of verses and more the overall narrative withing which those verses find their coherence.

Homosexuality: Identity and Scripts

I’d like your help.

I’m involved in some discussions about homosexuality in the church, and we’re using Mark Yarhouse’s book, Homosexuality and the Christian as our jumping-off point. There are two ideas he puts forward that I would love some broader feedback on.

First, Yarhouse issues a word of caution about quickly embracing the idea and language of gay identity.

Instead, he suggests we think about a three-tiered understanding (probably more like three points on a spectrum) of a person’s sexual predilections: (1) attraction; (2) orientation; and (3) identity.

The difference between 1 and 2 might be persistence over time or strength / prevalence of a given way of being attracted.

The third, “identity,” is something that has literally only become possible over the past century or so. To claim an identity based on sexuality is a relatively modern invention. People before wouldn’t have said, “I’m straight” or “I’m heterosexual” or “I’m homosexual.” Each is a sociological label that tends to carry with it a set of expectations of not only attractions but also practices.

And, since such an identifying label defines “who we are,” those attractions and practices tend to become normative. Living an integrated, healthy life is largely a matter of knowing who we are and acting in step with that.

Yarhouse suggests that avoiding the language of identity is important for giving people space to process how they will respond to attractions, and whether or not they will be in any sense defined or bound by them. Thus, someone might choose to say, “I am a Christian, and I am a Christian who is attracted to other men.”

This point dovetails nicely, it seems to me, with what Jenell Williams Paris wrote about in The End of Sexual Identity. We might do well to resist the notion that our sexuality defines who we are.

Do you think that such a separation is helpful?

The second place I’d like more discussion is on the idea of “scripts.” First, as we talk about scripts, it is important that we not look at these pejoratively. Each of us has an understanding of what it means to act out a part we have been given.

As a professor, I have a certain sense of what it means to faithfully teach or write or get mired in committee work that I perform based on my understanding of what script comes along with the role I’ve been assigned. Similarly, my understandings of what I do because I am husband or father.

Social setting and experience and myriad other factors come together to provide us with scripts. It’s part of life.

What Yarhouse contends in the book is that there is a powerful and compelling script for acting out the role of homosexuality on offer from the gay community, but that there is no compelling alternative coming from the Christian world–and this is a huge problem that we need to address.

Here is how Yarhouse sees the gay script (p. 49):

  • same-sex attraction signals something natural (even God-given)
  • same-sex attractions are the way you really are
  • these attractions are at the core of who you are as a person
  • same-sex behavior is an extension of that core
  • self-actualization in such behavior is crucial for your fulfillment

In other words, the script communicates quite strongly that sexuality is at the core of our identity, and that living in accordance with, and in expression of, that sexual desire is how we live healthfully.

In contrast, Yarhouse outlines what a traditionalist Christian script might look like for someone experiencing sexual attraction (p. 51):

  • same-sex attraction is but one of many distortions of nature that we all experience as part of life that is not the way it is supposed to be
  • [same-sex] attractions are not the defining element of your identity
  • you can choose to integrate same-sex attraction into a gay identity…
  • … or, you can center your identity around other aspects of your experience
  • the most compelling aspect of personhood for the Christian is one’s identity in Christ

I’m curious what you think.

Have we as Christians, both heterosexual and homosexual, bought in too much to the idea that our sexuality is at the core of our identity as persons? Do we all need to put sex on more of a back burner when it comes to who we truly are?

Also, is there a compelling, alternative Christian script–perhaps one that sits less like Yarhouse’s, as a counter-point to the homosexual script, that we should be promoting for everyone alike or for those who experience homosexual attraction in particular?

The End of Sexual Identity

Once upon a time I was in the practice of saying that the church has something wonderful for GLBT people–the same thing it has for folks who consider themselves heterosexual; namely, that your sexuality is not the most important thing you have to say about yourself.

Your sexuality is a part of who you are, but you are more than the complex of desires, experiences, abuses, successes, fulfillments, frustrations, satisfactions, brokenness, wholeness, sinfulness, and fidelity that pertain to your sexuality.

Jenell William Paris thinks that an uncritical acceptance of the notion of sexual identity is at the core of the church’s problems in its thinking about sex. In her book, The End of Sexual Identity, Paris uses her training as an anthropologist to help us step back and see that the ways we so easily fall into talking and thinking about sexuality are culturally conditioned. And in this case, the church has too readily adopted our culture rather than creatively developing a more healthy and holy Christian counter-culture.

In laying out the problems with sexual identity, Paris begins with the troubles with heterosexuality.

There are several problems with the idea of heterosexuality. One of these is that it presumes a binary of homosexual / heterosexual, whereas the range of human sexual desire falls along a continuum with several intermediate stages between.

A further problem is that this binary has a particular function. It was created, in the past one hundred years, as a way to distinguish what was labelled “deviant” behavior from “normal” desires and behavior. Thus, it was created to be a label that communicates moral superiority.

This last point has a further implication: the idea of “being” homosexual or “being” heterosexual is new–and is therefore an anachronistic grid for reading scripture. More importantly, it elevates an identity based on sexual feelings to a place that scripture assigns to our belovedness by God.

Who are you? The answer to this question should not be, “heterosexual,” and therefore beloved of and faithful to God; instead, it should be, “beloved of God.” Once we cling to heterosexuality as our identity marker, we then create communities where this is required to the extent that we are not able to tell honest stories of struggle–or of grace.

The book offers a pervasive dismantling of simplistic assumptions about sexuality. In her chapter on homosexuality, Paris reminds us that there are different ways to configure homosexual activity. Though we base the label on desire for a same-sex relationship among equals, in the ancient world there were age and power dynamics that sustained homosexual activity; others who engage in same-sex sex might do so for professional reasons: in some cultures religious reasons in others as professional entertainers or prostitutes.

In place of sexual identity, Paris advocates that we strive for sexual holiness within our fundamental identity as God’s beloved children. Sexual holiness will wrestle with issues of behavior, desire, hopes, histories, choices, relationships, and others as well.

With such a reconfiguration, we are faced with two important outcomes: (1) sexual identity does not become an identity marker for the people of God such that we exclude, include, divide, and the like based on the category of sexual desire; and (2) we are freed to respond to one another, and grow in community together, as people who are all in some ways more and in some ways less healthy, holy, broken, whole, sinful, and faithful in different aspects of our sexuality.

Put differently: if we could stop acting like calling ourselves “heterosexual” meant that we were sexually whole and holy, our sexuality could become a growing and more healthy component of our identity as God’s beloved children in Christ.

Who should read this book? Pretty much everyone. If I were a campus minister, I would read this with my leadership groups, and then have my small groups study it. I think all youth pastors should read this so that they can start thinking about how to transform the minds of their students. I think all pastors should read this so that they can help their churches avoid the pitfalls of reifying notions of identity that cut against the grain of biblical descriptions of identity and wholeness.

I think you should read this so that you can help me continue to think through the issues Paris raises and how her insights clear the way for a better way forward as Christians who celebrate sex as a gift given to us by God and yet have found it very difficult to integrate sexuality into our understanding of our selves as those beloved children of God who were created good, but have fallen, and are now being restored in Christ.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 6)

Since I will soon be returning from vacation and have to deal with the firestorm created by my position on Christians and gay marriage, this will be the last in the series!

In essence, I have argued that we need to be able to separate what we are called to do as the people of God (the ethical norms God wants us to uphold in our communities) and how to posture ourselves toward those who do not hold to these norms–largely because they are not part of that community. In other words, on this particular issue, to hold to a traditional Christian position that homosexuality is not God’s intention for human sex is not yet to answer the question how do we love our gay neighbor as our heterosexual self?

There is good reason to think that the answer to the latter is to be agents of extending the life-giving blessings of marriage even to those whose marriages do not conform to our understanding of the Christian norm: God’s healing power is freely given to outsiders and even enemies; God’s power to feed the hungry is given to outsiders; Jesus condemns Law-keeping as an excuse for not loving neighbor; Jesus calls us to love and bless the evil and the good even as God our Father does; James warns us that religion is not about believing the right things but a doing of the right things which includes caring for our neighbors’ needs.

Photo: Eastern Illinois University

Let me speak now to those who object to this, and take up a few of the more frequent objections along the way.

First, we should be aware of how much marriage guidance there is in the NT, and how little of it we either follow ourselves or demand to have written into law. For example, Paul says that a Christian can only marry another Christian. Should we demand that the laws of the U.S. fulfill this standard? Note that this is much more significant in terms of the Christian narrative than hetero- versus homosexual sex. This is about whether a person who is a member of Jesus’ own body will join that body to someone who is not in Christ.

If we don’t want the state to enforce other Christian marital standards, why the requirement of heterosexuality?

Second, people have drawn attention to the fact that once gay people can be married, the sorts of opportunities that open up to them include adoption. It seems to me that this should be one of the driving forces behind Christians getting in line to support gay marriage. One of the quintessential characteristics of a just society is one in which the orphan is cared for. The moving of a child into a stable home, rather than being raised in an orphanage of some type, shuttled about to various foster families, or even aborted would seem to be a tremendously Christian reason for supporting gay marriage.

The simple fact is that most of us Christians who are married and capable of having our own children do not adopt. We neglect our duty to love the orphan, and also want to close down an avenue for them to be cared for? The objection to this line of thinking is that being raised by gay parents is somehow inherently bad. But how? I know that the real life challenges of being a heterosexual parent create at times tense environments and moments that will be the subject of my and my friends’ children’s therapy visits. Are committed homosexual couples going to have an inherently more challenging home life? Is there any evidence for such an idea?

Third, what about other moral issues concerning sex and marriage? What about pedophilia or polygamy?

Pedophilia is easy: there is a minor to be protected from the coercive power of the adult. That is an entirely different category.

Polygamy is challenging in that it has some biblical precedent. The idea that two people become one in marriage did not stop Jacob from becoming one with Leah and also becoming one with Rachel. But here I have a similar concern as with the pedophilia case, though it’s not as cut and dry. Polygamy tends to thrive where there is a significant power dynamic in favor of, usually, men who accumulate various wives for themselves. I can see monogamy laws as a form of protection to a wife who has been promised in marriage the affections, care, and single-hearted devotion of her husband (and vice versa).

Finally, I do want to keep asking: Why is this particular Christian standard the one we think our civil society should uphold for all? Is not worship of God more important? Why not mandate church attendance? Is giving to the poor not more important than, or at least equally important as, whom we choose to have sex with? Why not mandate a more extensive system of food banks and extend welfare programs? Why not require people to adopt childless parents?

I know that these are not the kinds of debates in which people’s minds are changed overnight. But at the end of it I want, as much as anything, to ask that we recognize that the issue of gay marriage is difficult, because our calling to live in a certain way does not thereby define whom we are called to love or how. The love of God cannot be contained by laws or within certain communities. And we are called to take that love, and God’s blessings, into all the parts of the world in which God has placed us.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 5)

Inasmuch as I’m still on vacation, and still not able to get any sort of access to the internet, I figured I’d keep putting up posts on how God’s desire to bless the whole world might mean that Christians should participate in such blessing without requiring, first, that people act like us. The God who causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the evil and good alike, I’m arguing, wants us to work toward extension of God’s blessing to all around us–even when we believe they are acting outside of and even against the will and work of God.

In other words, the New Testament itself demands of us that we not only assess what we are supposed to do as God’s obedient and faithful people, but that we not require of others that they so act before they receive God’s blessings from our hand (or God’s). (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

In short, the argument has been that if we want to know how we who believe homosexual activity is sinful should treat our gay neighbors, we can do little better than looking at how Jesus treats Gentiles and other outsiders. Jesus enacted, and proclaimed, the love of God that brings rain and sun on the evil and the good alike–without demanding, first, that the evil become good. And he calls us to do the same: to be children of our heavenly Father who so showers His blessings.

A recurring apprehension I hear when I suggest that this applies to advocating gay marriage in the state is that it undermines our responsibility to uphold the standards of God. Is it not our duty to shine our light by living differently and calling people to something different rather than blessing their sin?

Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment. My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!” ? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? (James 2:13-17, CEB)

What is the faith that God will approve? It is a faith that puts belief into action by caring for the people who are around us. While we are tempted to spiritualize this, deferring to “taking care” of people by calling them to repentance, the NT consistently looks at material provision, caring for people as they are embodied and part of the social world around us, as the means by which such care is to be extended.

These passages, altogether, frighten me a bit. They tell me that the very things we are most prone to look to as indicating and expressing our faithfulness to God are the things that are most strongly preventing us from exercising the law of love that shows us to be children of our Father in heaven.

Why would I rather approve of homosexual marriage in the state than enforce a Christian heterosexual standard? Because I would rather be found guilty of extending the blessings of divine provision for human flourishing (marriage, stability, comfort, healthcare, inheritance) beyond their proper bounds than of hoarding them for the people of God alone to enjoy. These passages together suggest to me that such indiscriminate dissemination is what it means to be a child of the one true God.