Tag Archives: homosexuality

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.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 4)

Since I’m on vacation and away from internet access, I continue my series on how we should be reading the New Testament and its implications for how we handle issues such as gay marriage. For those of us who believe in Jesus as the revelation of God’s saving power, Jesus as the resurrected Lord over all, taking up the NT is taking up our book, the stories and letters written for our communities, addressing us as the insiders, telling us what it means to faithfully follow God.

Too infrequently do we realize that this means that the characters in the stories with whom we bear the greatest similarity are the Jewish people whose understanding of God’s work is getting reconfigured. Thus, the story of Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4 tells us as much as them that God’s blessing cannot be confined to us as the insiders; Jesus’ healing the centurion tells us as much as them that God’s blessings and Jesus’ authority reach beyond the people of God even to those who could rightly be labelled “enemy”; and the parable of the Good Samaritan warns us that faithful keeping of the Law of God can keep us from seeing the neighbor whom we are called to love.

In all of this, there is something to be learned for Christians who hold to a traditionalist view of marriage as something God has ordained to be between a man and a woman. Once we have said this much, we still have not yet said what it means for our posture toward those who disagree, whom we would see as not practicing what falls within the sphere of God’s instruction for humanity.

Perhaps I can now put it more strongly: these stories together demonstrate that what God wants of us is not to restrict God’s blessings to the people of God, but to participate in showering these blessings indiscriminately among the people of the earth.

And, this blessing does not mean simply calling them to join the people of God, a “spiritual” concern above and before anything else, but means a true extending to them of all the blessings that come from the authority of Jesus, the mercy we have in our power to extend, the food with which we can feed the hungry, the medicine with which we can feed the sick–all the blessings that God bestows upon the world.

Today I want to add one more NT passage to the mix, to show that all this is not merely hermeneutical trickery on my part. Jesus tells us directly: it is not our business to restrict the blessings of God to those whom we love. This is not the character of God whose children we are.

“I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you because of your faith so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous… Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:44-48, CEB).

The blessings of God indiscriminately shower down upon the earth. And if we are truly God’s children, we are to be agents of such showering in our own world as well. The gay marriage issue is difficult because it is easy to point to the Bible and say that homosexual lifestyles are wrong. But it is even more difficult because God demands that we not restrict the fullness of life and blessing of God to those who do what is right, to those whom we love, to those whom we can address as brother and sister.

Love is not about demanding that people act like we do or believe like we do before receiving the blessings of God that we can help bring about in the real world. Love is about bestowing the blessings of God so that the people around us will see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven–this is exactly what it means to be, as the church, the light of the world. It’s not about keeping God’s Law so people will see how pious we are, it means loving our neighbor, truly, as ourselves, so that they will know themselves loved by our God and Father.

Being part of the in crowd is not, can never be, prerequisite for someone being the recipient of our love, of the blessings of God.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 3)

In Part 1 of this series I illustrated the danger of thinking that we as the insiders can contain the blessings of God–we might find ourselves attempting to throw Jesus off a cliff. In Part 2, I continued with a story that shows how these blessings come even to those who stand against the very purposes of God–a Roman centurion receives the blessings of Jesus’ authority.

The point of this is to show through a series of engagements with NT stories that we must not only consider how we are to act in order to please God in our standing before him, but must also consider how we must act toward our neighbor who will not so act if we are to truly please God. In all, it seems that upholding our moral standards, or obeying God more generally, as a barrier to extending the fulness of God’s blessings to the world around us is a crucial mistake that might make us more the outsider than we realize.

The quintessential example of failure to extend blessing due to adherence to the Law is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Image: therubicon.org
The Lawyer comes to Jesus, and correctly enumerates what must be done to obtain eternal life: love God, love neighbor. Like us, he knows that both are crucial, and that the doing of one cannot be an excuse to not do the other. And, like us, he is keen to make sure he knows who this neighbor is. How far does love extend? What must it look like?

The story that ensues is familiar. But too often, we fail to dig deep enough into the failure of love that is illustrated.

The man is beaten, and lays within an inch of his life. In fact, for all that someone can tell by looking at him, the man is dead. Why is this important? It’s a crucial factor because priests were forbidden to contract corpse impurity for any but their closest relatives. In other words, for a priest, and perhaps a Levite, to leave an apparently dead man unattended to was nothing less than upholding the Law of God.

Was the man who loved his neighbor the one who kept the Law of God and thereby kept himself pure to act on the people’s behalf in the Temple service?

Was the law-keeping obedient one the person who did what was necessary to obtain eternal life by loving neighbor?

No.

The person who was neighbor to the man, and therefore acted with the love that leads to eternal life, was the non-Law-keeping Samaritan, the half-Jewish “other” who bound the man’s wounds, entrusted him to the care of the inn keeper, and paid for him to come to full health and strength.

When we wrestle with how the ordinances of God might impact our status toward outsiders, we are too often in the place of the priest and Levite–upholding the Law of God and thereby claiming that we are loving neighbor even while we leave our neighbor without food, without healthcare, without a true participation in the blessings God has given us.

These NT stories are merely about legalists who don’t really understand God’s Law. They are about people who understand all too well the Law that differentiates them and separates them from the world that lies beyond the people of God. But Jesus takes hold of the biblical storyline that demands we recognize God as the God of all–and that we extend the blessings of God as far as God’s own Lordship itself extends.

These are stories that call us to love the outsider, that demand of us that we set aside the law of God–not as a means by which we live faithfully, but–as a means by which we determine who is worthy to receive the good things that God has bestowed upon God’s people, the good things by which God pushes back the brokenness and fallenness of the world.

Love is not depicted in any of these stories as demanding that someone enter the people of God, it is depicted as a realization that God’s blessings burst beyond the people of God, enveloping even those who will not place themselves within the space marked off by that God’s rules and people.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 2)

On Thursday I began a series in which I want to develop an interpretive framework for wrestling with issues of homosexuals in civil society for those Christians who do not believe that homosexual practice falls within the realm of acceptable Christian action.

In short, the hermeneutical move is this: Christians reading the NT are now more in the place of the first century Jews than the first century Gentiles. We are the “insiders” who know what God has done to redeem and reconcile a people and what it means, at least in general, to faithfully follow this God.

In short, what we find at several key moments is that the blessings of God are not confined to the people of God–and that these blessings overflow and come to outsiders even without their agreeing to become insiders. We began with Luke 4, and the reminder Jesus gave of how the power of God to feed the hungry and heal the sick went beyond Israel in the days of Elijah and Elisha–and this enraged his audience.

It presses the question of whether we, too, are not enraged at the idea that our community might not lay exclusive claim to the blessings of God?

The decentering ministry of Jesus is visible elsewhere as well. In Matthew 8, after Jesus comes down from the mount of his famous sermon, a centurion approaches him, asking for a servant to be healed.

Gentiles are outsiders. Uncircumcised, unkosher, Sabbath-breaking outsiders.

But things here are even worse.

The Roman occupation of Galilee and Judea is a potent reminder of the failure of God’s promises in the prophets to come to fruition. The promise of being free in their own land to worship their own God under their own king is daily thwarted by military and political subjugation to Rome.

This Gentile who stands before Jesus is not only a reminder of, but an active agent in the failure of Israel to enter into the civil, religious, and political life that God has promised God’s people.

And he comes to Jesus to ask for healing. And Jesus heals his servant.

This means at least two things. One: the man saw in Jesus, the very definition of the “insider” for the new people of God, something powerful. Two: he saw in Jesus someone who would be wiling to share that power for the good of even a Gentile centurion.

He had faith in that power, in Jesus’ authority, and that it could and would be used for him.

Here, we might say, is an example of an outsider coming “in” in order to receive the blessing. But did he? Yes, he had faith in the work of Jesus. But Jesus commends him as an insider without demanding that he actually become an insider first. He blesses him, heals his servant, without the man joining himself to the Jewish people–and without the man leaving his post as one who stands against the freedom of the people of God or leaving his life behind to follow Jesus in his mission.

Questions that present themselves to us: do outsiders see anything in the church that they would want part of for themselves?

When they do see something that looks like a good–a blessing bestowed by the power and authority of God–do we willingly give to them out of the abundance of what God has given us? Or do we demand that they become like us first, enter into the community of faith in order to know the blessings of God?

Will we give outsiders our money for their food? Our medicine for their healing? Our marriage for their comfort and security? Or are these things only for those who first drop all that they have and then enter into the kingdom of abundance?

Note: I am on vacation and will be mostly away from the internet. Please feel free to have constructive conversation amongst yourselves, but I am not likely to participate!

Gentiles and Homosexuals (Pt. 1)

In Saturday’s post about homosexual marriage I made the suggestion that Christians need to develop the habit of asking two separate questions, without predetermining what the relationship between them might be. The first is, “What does God require of us as God’s people?” and the second is, “What does this mean for our life in civil society populated by people who do not, and will not, agree with us?”

I want to pick this back up today, once again focusing on those of us who are Christians and who believe that homosexual sex is sinful. I realize that there are Christians who disagree with this position, and that is its own debate. I want to keep pushing here the “so what?” question for those of us who uphold heterosexual normativity as part of our constellation of Christian belief and practice.

There is a strand of NT teaching that pushes me to keep the two questions I’m asking distinct, if not entirely separate. Why should we ask both what does God demand of us in our posture toward God and then, separately, what does God demand of us as an act of love toward neighbor?

That strand of teaching is the posture of the Jewish insiders with respect to Gentile outsiders in the NT.

In the history of interpretation, the church has made a number of mistakes in assessing the exclusivist posture of the first century Jewish community to the Gentile outsiders.

Perhaps most often the problem of early Judaism has been seen as legalism. Yes, the law was good, but early Jewish people were keeping it legalistically; or, they were keeping it because they thought that if they did they would merit God’s eternal favor and eschatological salvation.Gustav Dore, Jesus Teaching in a Synagogue

But the admonitions of Paul and the actions of Jesus point in a different direction: a surprising superabundance of grace that overflows the people of God even as that people is rightly adhering to the law that God has given them.

In Jesus’ famous sermon in Luke 4, he proclaims a jubilee year: freedom to the captives, good news proclaimed to the poor, light to those who are in darkness.

And the Jewish people marveled at the gracious words falling from his lips.

They knew themselves to be captives in need of deliverance. They knew themselves to be blind in need of light. They knew themselves to be poor in need of good news.

They were ready to sing “Amazing Grace.”

But then Jesus explodes their understanding of who the grace of God is for. There were many widows in the time of Elijah, and many lepers in the time of Elisha–but they were sent beyond Israel, beyond the people marked out as pure and holy and faithful, to feed the widow and cleanse the leper (without first demanding adherence to the Law of Israel’s God)–of non-Jewish, non-YHWH-worshiping outsider Gentiles.

And then the people were filled with rage and attempted to murder Jesus.

How are we to read this? On the one hand, we can recognize that most of us are gentiles and therefore happily included in this great surprise of God–that grace comes to us without our becoming Jewish.

And this is true.

But as those who now occupy the place of the “insiders,” the embraced and, by God’s grace, faithful people of God, we must also reappropriate this text from the point of view of its insiders. We must place ourselves not merely on the periphery as those to whom the word would come despite all apparent obstacles. We must place ourselves in the role of the insiders and be willing to hear that God’s grace will not be contained by us, and God’s blessings cannot be cordoned off to the faithful.

Of course, this is not an argument for gay marriage, but it is an argument about how we need to posture ourselves toward those we deem “other” if we are going to be faithful children of our Father in Heaven. Come back Saturday for part 2.

Gay Marriage in New York

New York’s state legislature has approved a gay marriage bill, and governor Andrew Cuomo has signed it into law.

Photo: Pat Arnow, Wiki Commons

As the states take up this issue one-by-one, I’ll keep working out my thoughts on the issue. I think that this is a complex issue for Christians. Here’s what it comes down to for me:

As long as the state is in the marriage business, Christians should support gay marriage as an embodiment of our calling to love our neighbor as ourselves.

First, I understand that there is a strong religious argument for the “definition” of marriage being the joining of one man and one woman. However, the state is not in the business of adhering to or adjudicating religious principles.

Second, to my mind, the best possible scenario is this: (1) the state does not marry anyone or recognize anyone’s marriage; (2) the state performs civil unions for any two persons who wish to join their lives for mutual support; (3) these civil unions are performed by civil servants, not ministers of the churches; and (4) churches can marry before God whomever they deem fit to marry in accordance with their religious convictions.

However, since this is not the case, and since the state has chosen to assign certain rights and privileges to married couples, people with religious convictions have to figure out not one problem, but two.

First, what do we think about homosexuality within the context of our religious community of faith?

But then the second, related but separable question is, What do we think about homosexual marriage within the state in which we find ourselves?

Here’s where, historically, Christians have done poorly: we have failed to realize that our answer to Question 1 does not determine that we attempt to enforce that answer as we take up Question 2.

I want to suggest that even those of us who do not support gay marriage within our faith communities have an obligation to support it in civil law as an expression of our calling to love our neighbor as ourselves.

It’s difficult for Christians to imagine a world where we are truly in the minority and subject to the power of people with alternative religious convictions. Perhaps a couple of examples will help.

What if there were a law that schools could only teach evolution and had to teach evolution in Biology class? I don’t mean that public schools had to do this, but all schools and educational programs had to adhere to this. What if we didn’t have the freedom to enact our wrongheaded desire to deny evolution and embrace creationism as an alternative?

If we want the freedom to make our own religious decisions about education and our view of the world and how to best educate our children, we are required to secure for those who disagree with us about every religious decision the freedom to enact their irreligious or non-religious or differing religious understanding of what a fruitful life here on earth looks like.

Similarly, what if our law-makers increasingly enacted provisions of sharia law? Do we want people determining what we can and can’t eat based on religious convictions with which we don’t agree? We’ve grown to anticipate that our representatives in various state legislature will enact laws for justice that do not infringe on our own free practice.

As Christians, we need to learn how to hold our own religious views while seeking liberty and justice for all–not just those who happen to believe as we do. In part, this will mean that we free people to do what we would believe is wrong.

As Long as We’re Talking About Homosexuality…

As I’m sure many of you already know, a group of LGBTQ Wheaton College students and alum have launched a page called One Wheaton.

In response, Wheaton President Phil Ryken issued this message.

For the past couple of decades, those of us in evangelical settings have been able to watch the homosexuality conversation from afar, as though “out there” in the world of the “faltering mainline churches” were the only place that Christians had to talk about these things. Recent conversations in several different settings, as well as this move by Wheaton alum, are underscoring that it is no longer possible for more evangelical types to avoid the conversation.

And hopefully we’ll realize that this inability to avoid the matter is a good thing. Most of us have waited far too long to engage and to thoughtfully process what we say, how we say it, and what it means to look like Jesus while holding to positions that others in our community find not merely offensive, but often deeply hurtful and even damaging.

Can we do it? Can we have a productive conversation that will move us more toward Christ-like love?

We’ll see…

Homosexuality in the News

Yesterday my Twitter and Facebook feeds were keeping me abreast of two rather different developments in the world-wide attempt to figure out where homosexual practice fits into life and law, culture and church.

On the one hand, there was the passage of 10A in the PCUSA, a change to the ordination standards that was crafted in order to allow persons in same-gender relationships to pursue ordination. Of course, they still have to be found ordainable on other grounds as well.

From the other side of the world, and pushing in much the opposite direction, it seemed as though the Ugandan Parliament was set to resume debate on its anti-homosexuality bill.

Click here to download the PDF file.

No doubt, the framers of the legislation in Uganda would see the juxtaposition as an affirmation of their contention that forces in favor of homosexuality are largely external, and forces of “activists” that would undermine “the people of Uganda.”

I find myself in a strange place in responding to these two events.

Although I am opposed to homosexual practice on religious grounds, it is precisely because I oppose it on religious grounds that I think the PCUSA is right to wrestle with the issue and take a stand one way or the other and that the people of Uganda are wrong to criminalize homosexual behavior.

One thing that traditionalists too often forget is that in the place where Paul seems to come down hardest on sexual immorality he confines his sphere of judgment to the church (1 Cor 5). It is the place of the Christian community to establish and enforce a godly morality among its own.

“But what have I to do with judging outsiders? Those who are outside God judges.”

This does not mean, of course, that we have no responsibilities for outsiders. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves; we are called to do to our neighbors as we would have done unto us.

And that is why in cases where religious or cultural convictions are leading to the punishment of behavior I disagree with on religious grounds, I feel convicted to oppose that law on precisely religious grounds.

What would I want done unto me? Would I want Muslim law and cultural requirements for dress, marriage, and schooling imposed on me and my family? If I would not want this done unto me as the “other,” then I am forbidden, by the gospel itself, of imposing Christian law on another.

The intent of the law in Uganda is, among other things, “to prohibit and penalize homosexual behavior and related practices” (3.b).

Several months ago, I petitioned all my good-natured readers for a reprieve from the word “homophobia.” Reading through the Uganda legislation, I know of no better word for what it embodies.

The legislation is striving to protect people from any number of important things. It protects victims who are forced to have sex by people who are in authority over them, who are minors, who have disabilities, who are drugged in order to become a sex object.

But protecting people from those who are using sex as power is not the same as protecting the country from homosexuality. The Bill embodies baseless stereotypes and rank fear that a gay person will force someone to have gay sex against his or her will (and perhaps transmit HIV thereby).

Sexual crimes are heinous. And this bill confuses the idea of sexual assault with homosexuality. While strong legislation against sexual assault should be applauded, at the bottom of the list of the sexual assaults (such as the ones mentioned above), the bill includes “repeat offenders.”

To be repeatedly convicted of same-sex intimacy is tantamount to raping a child or invalid according to this legislation.

And this is why I oppose such bans on homosexuality. It confuses sex between consenting adults whom one thinks ought not to consent with sex between someone who is wielding coercive power and a true victim. The former may be immoral or a bad idea, but this is categorically different from sexual assault.

Word on the street is that Uganda has taken the bill off the agenda. I’m glad of that. For one more day I can feel like my gay Ugandan neighbor has been loved like my straight American self.

Romans 1: It’s in the way that you use it

In my Romans exegesis course on Thursday we made it through a chapter. That’s fairly significant. Only 3 hours, and we got all the way through ch. 1!

But getting through ch. 1 can be a problem.

It’s a problem to only get through ch. 1 if we don’t go on to ch. 2.

The point of ch. 1 is to lay out how bad the gentiles are, using a typical Jewish polemic. Echoing the Wisdom of Solomon, Paul depicts an anti-creation narrative: not acknowledging God leads to idolatry; idolatry, of course, leads to sexual immorality; sexual immorality, of course, leads to every other evil from usury to disobeying your parents.

In Wisdom of Solomon, this bleak picture stands in contrast to the Jews: because God has made himself known to the Jewish people, they do not go after the false gods of idolatry–and therefore don’t have sex with their moms, dads, friends, neighbors, neighbors’ wives, etc.

But the point for Paul is to get to ch. 2 and say, not, Therefore we Jews are better; but, And, we Jews are equally in the dock.

The quintessential sins of the gentiles, the things that made them “other,” are not laid out to show how much better the assumed “insiders” are, but to show that the insiders are equally guilty. That is the surprise of Romans 2.

So why is it a problem if we only read Romans 1?

Because there we, too are apt to find indications of what makes the other most explicitly “the other.” In modern Christianity, those of us in evangelical circles have been differentiating ourselves from “the other” as those around us accepting and practicing homosexuality. We read Rom 1 and discover proof positive that such practice makes these the outsiders from the community of salvation and grace.

And in so reading Romans 1 we align ourselves well with Paul’s intended auditor: the people who would listen, saying, “Yes, yes! Give it to ‘em!”–only to have Paul turn on them and say, “By giving it to ‘them,’ I give it to all who would accuse ‘them.’”

The point of Rom 2 is to insist that all who see sin clearly depicted in Rom 1:18-32 recognize that they are guilty of those sins themselves, not to insist that “the other” is actually the outside other just like we’ve been saying all along.

And so, I’d say it’s dangerous to read Rom 1 and agree with Paul. Yes, we are supposed to. Yes, those things really are depicted as sins and as anti-creation. But they are so depicted not so that we can develop a taxonomy of sin in the world in the abstract, and not so that we can preach condemnation on those who practice such things, but so that we can see that our own lives are replete with the same shortcomings.

Loving without Affirming?

I have a question for you all. Here’s the set-up:

  • A friend Tweets connects with an old friend, who saw Christian indications on my friend’s FB profile and asked right off the bat, “What do you think about gay people?” The old friend is gay.
  • A church that does not participate in the Christian right is disturbed at the villainizing of LBGT folks coming from Christian quarters. It does not support Prop 8. It wants to be welcoming, but theologically is not affirming.
  • An academic institution that holds to a traditional sexual ethic of sex only within male-female marriage nevertheless wants to live up to its ideals of academic integrity by fostering open conversation about issues pertaining to homosexuality.

So here’s the question: to what extent can the desires of an individual, church, or other Christian institution be met to create a welcoming, loving, and challenging environment for members of the LBGT community without affirming the expression of such sexualities out of hand?

I suppose that’s a two part question: Is it even possible? If so, what does it look like? Is it easier on an individual level than on an institutional level? For those of you who identify as LBGT, will these kinds of attempts to create welcoming space without being affirming simply ring hollow, or is there something in the efforts or results that you would be or are appreciative of?

Thus far on my blog I have been very proud of the way that we have been able to have difficult conversations with a relative level of respect. Let’s keep that up. I know that these are difficult topics–for folks who are affirming and see this as a justice issue in which others are perpetuating injustice and discrimination, for folks who are holding to an understanding of male/female only sex within marriage and see this as an issue of biblical authority and submission to God.

Thanks for being willing to enter into these highly charged waters without attempting to electrocute those who disagree with you!

Now to the question: is it possible to be welcoming without being entirely affirming? If so, what does that look like?