The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the real reason we’re having this debate

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So, we’re suspended.

Or not.

Plenty of commentary has already been written about what the primates did, what impact it could have, and what’s in store for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. (This is probably one of the more helpful summaries I’ve read, BTW.)

Some have questioned the primates’ selective application of punitive measures—penalizing Episcopalians for their decision to bless same-sex marriages, while neglecting to penalize Anglican church leaders who have promoted state-sanctioned persecution of gays in countries like Uganda—contravening Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. (I’m pretty sure he DIDN’T say, “Unless they’re gay, ’cause gross.”)

But let’s not retread those paths. That ground has been well covered already. Let’s talk about the real reason we’re having this debate. Sometimes it gets obscured in all the bluster, finger-pointing, and Twitter wars.

In his address to fellow primates—moments before the vote was cast—Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry cut to the heart of things:

Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.

That’s why we’re having this debate. Whatever side you may be on, that’s why this conversation is so important. That’s why some of us feel called to open our arms—and our church doors—to those of other orientations and gender identities.

The question we’re all wrestling with is this: What does it mean to be Jesus to the LGBTQ community? 

It’s not about trying to appease culture.

It’s not about craving public approval.

It’s not about being afraid to take a stand that might be divisive or unpopular. (Have you seen what’s happened to attendance figures since the Episcopal Church began moving in this direction?)

Whenever a church or denomination takes an affirming stance, the response is always the same.

Their motives are questioned.

Someone accuses them of “cultural capitulation.”

They’re labeled “cowards.”

No, really.

The possibility they might have other motives for rethinking long-held convictions isn’t even considered.

And to be fair, at times proponents of the affirming view have opened themselves to this line of criticism—for example, when they frame the debate as a matter of being “on the right side of history.”

History be damned. This is about being on the right side of people.

For Christians, this is about being on the side of Jesus—or rather, being on the same side of people that he is on.

Presiding Bishop Curry’s statement calls us back to the real reason for having this debate. He understands what some on both sides have missed.

Curry went on to say: 

While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

We may disagree with one another on sexuality. Some will celebrate same-sex marriage, while others see it as an unacceptable compromise. But let’s never forget why we’re having this debate.

It’s not about accommodating cultural whims. It’s not about being afraid to take a stand. It’s not about pleasing the crowd or making the church seem more relevant or palatable. (Again, see the Episcopal Church’s attendance figures.)

This is not about cultural capitulation. It’s about asking, “What does it really mean to love my neighbor?”

The real question for us to wrestle with is whether this might be the 21st-century church’s “Gentile moment,” a moment when God does something new and extraordinary and unexpected in our midst—like he did two thousand years ago when, to everyone’s surprise, he declared “unclean” Gentiles to be “clean,” without requiring them to renounce their Gentile identity first. (It was this last bit that came as a particular shock to first-century Jewish believers.)

The question to ask is not, “Where is the culture moving?”

The question to ask is, “Where is God moving”?

We may not all agree on the answer. Indeed, it can be dangerous to even ask this question. People I know have been lost friends for asking it. They’ve lost jobs. They’ve been estranged from their families. None more so than members of the LGBTQ community.

But whether or not you draw the same conclusions that many in the Episcopal Church (and other Christian traditions) have, please don’t misunderstand what has prompted this line of inquiry.

To say that it’s capitulation or cowardice is to presume authority to judge someone else’s motives—to judge others in precisely the way Jesus forbade.

Worst of all, to write it off as cultural capitulation is to miss the bigger question:

Where is God moving in this?

Image: Lift Every Voice: Freedom Ride 2015

Why you may want to check your beliefs

"For centuries, gay people were thrown out of their families, thrown out of their churches. We were jailed. We had hormones inflicted on us. We went through unbelievable trauma in the 80s and 90s, in which 300,000 young people died. Where was the church?" –Andrew Sullivan

Evangelicals are starting to acknowledge the harm they’ve done to the LGBT community.

For example, at this year’s Q conference in Boston, Gabe Lyons told those gathered that the church ought to repent for how it’s treated gays and lesbians. Then he went a step further, offering a public apology to Andrew Sullivan (in response to the above quote).

Megachurch pastor David Whiting began a recent sermon on homosexuality apologizing for the “hatred, anger, dislike, and disdain” churches have shown to gay people. With visible remorse, he acknowledged that “Christians have gotten a reputation for being homophobic because many Christians are homophobic.”

Reflecting on the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli called on evangelicals to repent of homophobia, fear, and prejudice.

Atlanta pastor Dewey Smith took heat for a recent sermon in which he compared the dehumanization of gays to the experience of blacks at the height of the slave trade. “We have done what the slave master did to us,” he told his parishioners.

—//—

What we’re seeing is more than just a “few bad apples” in the church. People are starting to realize this is more than just the sin of those who wave homophobic signs at funerals. The church’s woeful track record belongs to otherwise respectable evangelicals, not just the fundamentalist fringe.

Each person mentioned above maintains a traditional view of marriage. Each believes Scripture unequivocally prohibits same-sex intimacy.

With each apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing, they went on to reaffirm their traditional beliefs, almost as if to say, “Please don’t judge our theology by our actions.”

Which should lead us to ask…

At what point does a widely acknowledged pattern of unloving behavior indicate something more than just the faulty application of your beliefs?

At what point is it no longer possible to separate a particular set of beliefs from its fruit?

What if our catastrophically misguided treatment of gays points to a deeper issue?

If your theology leads to behavior that is unloving or unkind, chances are there’s a problem with your theology.

Belief informs behavior. Your actions are shaped in part by your theology.

In which case, the ultimate test of any rule or doctrine is not, “Does it cohere intellectually?” but, “Does it encourage me to be more loving to others?”

If “love is the fulfillment of the law,” then any law which does not lead us to be more loving is not worth fulfilling.

For ages, Christians argued slavery was OK. They had Scripture on their side. They had history on their side. The inhumane treatment of blacks was proof enough they were wrong.

For ages, Christians argued women were inferior. They had Scripture on their side. They had history on their side. The degrading, humiliating treatment of women was proof enough they were wrong.

In both cases, a lack of love exposed a faulty belief system.

In the present debate over sexual ethics, it might matter less which side can line up the most proof texts or which side can make the best appeal to history. It might matter more which side proves itself to be the most loving, the most compassionate, and the most hospitable.

As Peter Enns wrote recently:

The best apologetic isn’t having a better intellectual system. The best apologetic is… how Christians live positively toward others. What difference this “belief system” makes in our global community.

We are the apologetic.

If you affirm the traditional view but lament the church’s treatment of gays and lesbians, you can resolve to be more loving. That in itself would be a good and holy thing.

But maybe we should go one step further and ask if there’s a connection between our convictions and the way we treat others—and then resolve to bring both into alignment with the Great Commandment.

Photo by Sancho McCann on Flickr (text added to original image) / CC BY 2.0

Better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian (Joey’s story)

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Today I’m featuring a guest post from my friend Jessy Briton Hamilton, about his friend Joey and his experience being shunned by the church for his sexual orientation. 

Shortly after reading Joey’s story, I saw Julie Rodgers’ post describing her experience of rejection. It astounds me that some traditionalists were not more supportive of Julie, if what they say about holding their convictions with love is really true. As a celibate gay Christian, she’s played by their rules. She’s done everything they ask. Yet her experience at the hands the church has forced her to ask some difficult questions:

The fire I’ve come under (publicly and privately) as I’ve sought to live into the traditional ethic causes me to question whether this is about genuinely held beliefs or straight up homophobia. I say this with nothing but sadness: the kind of discrimination my friends and I have experienced as celibate gays makes me lean toward the latter.

Neither Julie nor Joey deserve to be treated this way by the church. Their stories should be a wake-up call, prompting all of us—affirming or otherwise—to pause and reflect.

So to my non-affirming friends: Are you sure you’re not at all guilty of the “straight-up homophobia” that Joey, Julie, and others have experienced? In other words, are you as loving as you think you are?

And to my affirming friends: Is it good enough to declare our churches “open and affirming”? Or to feature a rainbow-themed avatar on our Facebook pages? What are we doing to actively serve LGBTQ members of our churches and communities?

With that, here is Joey’s story, as told by Jessy…

—//—

Chillicothe is a small piece of 1955 trapped in Ohio’s forgotten Appalachian hills, at the place along the Scioto River where the rapids of poverty swell and begin to rage toward the Kentucky border. Typical of small Midwestern towns from Youngstown to Nowhere, Kansas, it’s the kind of place most people are proud to be from… but wouldn’t want to live.

Joey is an exception, embracing the raw experience of rural life, while most of his peers have already punched their tickets to Chicago, Columbus, or some other city that looks like every other city to a small-town boy. The 19-year-old college freshman studying agricultural science at the local branch campus of Ohio University has lived in these parts all the days of his life. He winces at the thought of severing his bond with the soil from which he came, but knows at the back of his pretty little head that economic factors may someday take him far from this sleepy Rust Belt ghost town.

Joey talks to me with dizzying excitement about any topic that comes to mind: cherry vanilla ice cream, his dream of someday buying back the family farm from the corporate agribusiness that pulled the deed out from under his grandfather, and his hope for a family of his own—a husband and 2.5 little Joeys, all working on the farm, of course. We talk about the president, fruity drinks with miniature umbrellas his friends want him to try, and his fear of being caught if he does. Joey talks and I mostly listen. Ultimately, I don’t care what we talk about—I’m just happy Joey is alive to wrestle with which pop star to rock out to on the way to class, or which teenage indiscretion he should or shouldn’t experience tonight.

Joey and I first met on a smartphone chat application that uses GPS technology to tell gay and bisexual men where other gay and bisexual men using the app are located. It was two weeks after his failed attempt to overdose on a cocktail of pink and yellow pills that his short profile statement caught my attention: “No longer Christian. HMU.”

One of the ministries I engage in involves the utilization of smartphone apps to find the Joeys of the world—younger LGBTs from Christian backgrounds at risk for suicide. My message to them is simple: God loves you, there is nothing wrong with you, so let’s chat. There are a sea of them, but only one of me.

My experience with Joey, and countless others has taught me that many LGBTs go through a series of stages in the evolution or disintegration of their faith. The church through spiritual violence has traditionally played the role of hastening the destruction of faith among LGBTs, as those who ultimately arrive at a crisis of faith are confronted with the reality that a fixed-facet of their being—their sexual orientation or gender identity—is said to be at odds with nature and contrary to God’s will. This crisis of faith is resolved by one of three methods:

1. LGBTs with the emotional ability, and a deep well of spiritual resources will initiate a life-long journey to unlearn the internalized homophobia inherited during their early spiritual formation.

Having undertaken the hard work of untangling God’s love from the cruel words and deeds of God’s people, they will arrive at mature spiritual conclusions, acknowledging their status as a child of God, made in his image. A personal theology that allows them to live both a life of faith and a life of integrity evolves over time. In my experience, this rarely happens the first go-round. Ideally though, this is the direction faith communities steer LGBTs. At best, however, many spiritual and lay leaders simply ignore the crisis of faith. Others unwittingly lead LGBTs to resolve the crisis via options 2 and 3.

2. LGBTs who cannot find it in their experience to separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but know that sexuality is a fixed facet, unchangeable and good—will reach the conclusion that the existence of a loving God and their own existence are mutually exclusive.  

God simply does not exist—or if he does, he is unworthy of worship. In my experience, most LGBTs initially resolve the crisis of faith this way.

3. Those who cannot separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but have bought the lie that their sexuality is sinful and changeable—will make several attempts at becoming that which they cannot.  

After several failures to conform to heteronormative expectations, they will either return to pursue options 1 or 2, remain in a state of perpetual spiritual torment, or having exhausted all known options, attempt to end their lives.

After a series of twisted events that began with reading an article on his denomination’s latest public rejection of LGBT’s, followed by a conversation with his fundamentalist pastor, Joey decided suicide was the only option that remained.  This was the latest episode in a never-ending nightmare of spiritual violence aimed at Joey from the people who claimed to love him.  He couldn’t see any other way—it was preferable to be dead than to be gay.

Fortunately, Joey’s attempt to take his life failed. His mother found him lying a pool of his own vomit (it’s common for the body of those who overdose to reject the attempt), and he was taken to the hospital, where he eventually became conscious.

Today, in an effort to save his very life, Joey has resolved his crisis of faith with option 2: “No longer Christian. HMU.” He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there may be other ways of approaching God that include living a life of integrity as an openly gay man. He asked this week what I thought of his choice to give up on Christianity as he understands it. While I hope that someday Joey will reconcile his sexuality with his faith, until he has the resources and support to do that, it’s better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian.

There are too many Joeys. And only one me.

What is your faith community doing to identify the Joeys in your midst, to help them to navigate their crises of faith and arrive at a place where they truly know the love of their Creator?

Jessy Briton Hamilton lives in Denver, Colorado, and does consulting work with faith communities through his firm, Solutions by J. Briton. He attends St. John’s Cathedral, Denver.

Photo: Chillicothe by Ohio Redevelopment Projects on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The only question worth asking

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—//—

Here is the full quote from Yale New Testament professor Dale Martin:

I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love.

To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion—as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love.

But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modernist historicism.

We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?”

—//—

The context for this quote is a lengthy but illuminating piece on the meaning of two Greek words, arsenokoites and malakos, both of which occur in 1 Corinthians 6, a passage many read as condemning all same-sex intimacy.

Martin demonstrates convincingly (for me, anyway) that modern scholars read too much—or perhaps too little, depending on your perspective—into the meaning of these words. But at least in the case of malakos (unfortunately rendered “sodomites” in the NRSV), the correct meaning is no less troubling. It introduces just as many interpretive problems as it solves.

(Spoiler alert: Martin argues the correct translation of malakos is “effeminate,” adding weight to accusations of misogyny laid at the apostle Paul’s feet.)

In the end, Martin concludes that we can’t resolve every interpretive difficulty in Scripture—nor should we try. No matter what our view, conservative or progressive, and no matter what our approach to Scripture, fundamentalist or historicist, we all run into difficulties when reading and applying the Bible. It doesn’t always work to just “do what the Bible says.” It’s not that simple. Which is just as well, because sometimes the Bible says to “annihilate” people.

Nor do interpretation and application suddenly become easy once we cross from the Old Testament into the New. We are still 2,000 years removed from its context. We are still listening in on one side of conversations that took place in a much different world.

—//—

The good news is, the apostle Paul (yes, the same Paul who rather unfortunately suggested that “effeminate” people will not inherit the kingdom of God) gave us the key to answering the age-old question, “How should we live?” And the answer is not, “Line up as many Bible verses as you can find on a given topic and try to make them all say the same thing.” Because sometimes that doesn’t work.

The answer, according to Paul, is to obey the one command that fulfills all the other, sometimes conflicting commands:

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  

He also says, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other,” proving that sometimes, the application of ancient Scripture to our context IS rather straightforward.)

Another way to put it is, as Dale Martin did, is to always ask one question, no matter the issue: What is the loving thing to do?

Original photo by Abhi on Flickr (overlay and text added to original image) / CC BY 2.0

40 answers for Kevin DeYoung

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Dear Kevin,

I read your “40 questions for Christians now waving rainbow flags” with interest.

You described these questions as “sincere, if pointed.” I took this to mean you were open to response. So respond I have.

As much as possible, I’ve tried to follow your lead—offering what I hope are sincere, if occasionally pointed, replies.

A few of your questions seemed redundant (e.g. #2 and #3, #29 and #30). For the sake of not making an already long post even longer, I did not bother to repeat my answers in such cases. I can see how, for you, each question may have had its own nuance, but I felt the same answers applied, at least broadly speaking.

One last point before diving in… I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that what we’re cheering for is most certainly not “the sexual revolution,” if by that you mean an “anything goes” approach to sexual expression, which is what people usually mean by the term. I believe our sexual ethic should be shaped by Scripture, even if you and I have a different understanding of what that looks like in practice.

All right. Onto the questions…

1. How long have you believed that gay marriage is something to be celebrated?

I’ve been wrestling with the relevant questions and issues for the last 4-6 years.

2. What Bible verses led you to change your mind?

Well, given that “verses” are an artificial construct imposed on the Bible in the 16th century… none.

For me, it started with a friend who came out on Facebook. Then I reconnected with a relative who’s gay. I happen to think they were the best possible reasons to reassess my views. They drove me back to the text—not to see how many proof texts I could amass on one side or the other, but to see whether I could discern a broader ethic or principle, showing how God wants us to relate to his LGBTQ image bearers.

(For what it’s worth, I did revisit some of the popular proof texts, as well.)

3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?

“It is not good that the man should be alone” may not only be true if you’re straight.

“Better to marry than to burn” may not only true if you’re straight.

But mostly, I would say this:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

(Here’s more on how I see “love your neighbor” as the Bible’s sexual ethic.)

4. What verses would you use to show that a marriage between two persons of the same sex can adequately depict Christ and the church?

The same verses you would use to show that marriage between two opposite-gendered persons can adequately depict Christ and the church. (I’m pretty sure gender is not the main point of Paul’s analogy, since the church is not literally, anatomically female.)

5. Do you think Jesus would have been okay with homosexual behavior between consenting adults in a committed relationship?

I don’t think most first-century Jewish rabbis ever had the opportunity to imagine such a thing, much less decide how they felt about it. That’s not a category into which homosexual behavior typically fell back in the first century. But if Jesus had been incarnated into our world today, I think he may well have been okay with it…or at least, almost definitely not as bothered by it as some of his followers are.

6. If so, why did he reassert the Genesis definition of marriage as being one man and one woman?

Why do you use a passage in which Jesus is clearly talking about divorce to make a point about homosexuality? Context.

7. When Jesus spoke against porneia what sins do you think he was forbidding?

In light of his audience and the examples he specifically mentioned—namely, a man and a woman divorcing on grounds of porneia, women serving as pornai (prostitutes)—I think he was most likely addressing illicit forms of heterosexual sex.

8. If some homosexual behavior is acceptable, how do you understand the sinful “exchange” Paul highlights in Romans 1?

As part of a rhetorical device Paul used to convince his fellow Jews they were just as guilty as Gentiles before God.

9. Do you believe that passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Revelation 21:8 teach that sexual immorality can keep you out of heaven?

Yup! As long as we understand “sexual immorality” (porneia) correctly. (See #7 above.) And as long as by “heaven” you mean the renewed creation.

10. What sexual sins do you think they were referring to?

In the case of Revelation 21:8, the key word is pornois (a variant of porneia). Refer to #7 above.

As you know, 1 Corinthians 6:9 uses a relatively obscure term, arsenokoitai (literally “man bedders”), the precise meaning of which has been lost to history. But given where it shows up in other “vice lists” from the early church era, it probably referred to some form of “economic exploitation by means of sex.”

William Stacy Johnson suggests it’s a reference “the hedonistic homoerotic practices that were widespread in the Roman Empire” and “were almost always performed by social superiors on social inferiors.” In which case, I’m not sure 1 Corinthians 6 is applicable to two people of the same gender in a covenantal relationship characterized by mutual affection and equality.

On the other hand, the fifth-century saint John the Faster thought arsenokoitai referred to heterosexual anal sex. So there’s always that option.

Are we really going to hinge such an important question on the meaning of one obscure, notoriously hard-to-translate word?

11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?

Augustine failed to grasp that sex is basically a good thing, that it’s a gift from God to his creation.

Luther failed to grasp that Jews and peasants are people too, and ought to be treated with respect.

Pretty much all of them failed to grasp that slavery is bad. So what exactly is your point? Just because a belief—one which, we should note, is not contained in any ecumenical creed or confession—has long been held by the church doesn’t mean it gets a free pass.

No, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss something Christians have thought to be true for centuries, especially when it comes to core tenets of orthodoxy—one of which this is decidedly not. But neither should we act as if our predecessors were infallible. It’s the task of each generation to discern how best to embody God’s intended reality in our world, knowing we will always do so imperfectly.

12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?

You seem to be suggesting that it’s imperialistic for us to commend the affirming view to our sisters and brothers in the majority world. Question: did this aversion to imperialism stop your fellow evangelicals from promoting anti-gay legislation in places like Uganda—legislation that exposes lesbian and gay Africans to harassment, imprisonment, and in some cases death?

Have you considered how imperialism tainted early missionary efforts in the majority world, the introduction of the Bible there, and how people were taught (primarily by white Westerners like you and me) to interpret it in the first place?

13. Do you think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were motivated by personal animus and bigotry when they, for almost all of their lives, defined marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman?

No. But I don’t think most people who hold the traditional view are motivated by “personal animus and bigotry” either. Just because someone opposes same-sex marriage does not mean they’re a bigot.

At the same time, just because you’re not a bigot doesn’t mean you don’t have room to become more loving. We all need to grow in our compassion and understanding.

14. Do you think children do best with a mother and a father?

What if one of them is abusive? Are you suggesting that’s better than two gay dads who provide a loving, safe environment and don’t abuse kids?

15. If not, what research would you point to in support of that conclusion?

“There is no evidence that the development of children with lesbian and gay parents is compromised in any significant respect relative to that among children of heterosexual parents in otherwise comparable circumstances.”
–Patterson, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents,” Child Development, 1992

“Children raised by lesbian women do not experience adverse outcomes compared with other children.”
–Anderson, Amlie & Ytterøy; “Outcomes for Children With Lesbian or Gay Parents: A Review of Studies From 1978 to 2000,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 2002

“Extensive data available from more than 30 years of research reveal that children raised by gay and lesbian parents have demonstrated resilience with regard to social, psychological, and sexual health despite economic and legal disparities and social stigma.”
–Perrin & Siegel, “Promoting the Well-Being of Children Whose Parents are Gay or Lesbian,” American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013.

16. If yes, does the church or the state have any role to play in promoting or privileging the arrangement that puts children with a mom and a dad?

In my opinion, the state does have an interest in prioritizing the placement of children in households with two parents—though there are also loads of single parents who are wonderfully qualified to adopt. As I’ve indicated in my responses to #14 and #15, I’m not nearly as convinced as you are that gender is the critical factor here.

Churches, on the other hand, have every right to advocate for whatever arrangement they find most compatible with their understanding of Scripture. If we’re talking about faith-based adoption agencies that receive federal funding, then the answer is a bit more complicated. (And I won’t pretend to know what it is.)

17. Does the end and purpose of marriage point to something more than an adult’s emotional and sexual fulfillment?

Sure. Marriage is a stabilizing force in families and communities.

Marriage can also be a powerful tool for regulating sexual activity—providing an appropriate context for healthy sexual expression and discouraging harmful sexual activity—e.g. limiting (one hopes!) the number of sexual partners someone has and thereby reducing the transmission of disease.

Some of us just don’t see how these ends and purposes have anything to do with the gender of the participants.

18. How would you define marriage?

Depends if we’re talking civil or sacramental marriage.

Civil: a state-sanctioned union of two people in which they share a common household (finances, property, etc.).

Sacramental: a divinely sanctioned union of two people in which they covenant to love each other exclusively, serve one another, nurture one another (socially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically); and form a family with one another (which may or may not include children).

19. Do you think close family members should be allowed to get married?

No, gross. The negative effects of inbreeding are well documented.

20. Should marriage be limited to only two people?

Yup. As Jon Stewart said, nobody is born a polygamist.

Besides, if anything opens the door to polygamy, it’s patriarchy, not homosexuality.

21. On what basis, if any, would you prevent consenting adults of any relation and of any number from getting married?

On the basis of responsible legislation which excludes inbreeding and polygamy (as well as marrying your pet goat) from the legal definition of marriage.

22. Should there be an age requirement in this country for obtaining a marriage license?

Of course. Marriage still requires consent from both parties. Kids cannot consent to being married—or be held to just about any legal contract, for that matter.

23. Does equality entail that anyone wanting to be married should be able to have any meaningful relationship defined as marriage?

Well, my 4-year-old might think so, given how many times she’s asked to “marry” me. But most reasonably intelligent adults understand this is not the case.

24. If not, why not?

Because same-sex marriage is about one previously excluded class of people being given access to the institution; it does not fundamentally alter the nature of that institution. Marriage is still at its core two people uniting in an intimate relationship and forming a common household. The idea that gays getting married somehow renders the institution meaningless is silly.

25. Should your brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with homosexual practice be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs without fear of punishment, retribution, or coercion?

Yes, absolutely. The Supreme Court was weighing in on the fourteenth amendment, not the first.

Caveat: please don’t mistake public disagreement for persecution. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage have the right to not be persecuted for their beliefs. None of us have the right to not be criticized.

26. Will you speak up for your fellow Christians when their jobs, their accreditation, their reputation, and their freedoms are threatened because of this issue?

Yes, if there is genuine persecution or discrimination taking place.

For example, if Coca-Cola fires someone because they signed a petition supporting traditional marriage, I would strongly object. If they fired someone for relentlessly badgering their LGBTQ coworkers, not so much.

On accreditation… I don’t wish to see Christian schools punished for maintaining a traditional evangelical view on homosexuality. But please bear in mind that accrediting agencies are private organizations. They have the right to set their own criteria. If they choose to rescind a school’s accreditation over its policies on homosexuality, it’s not necessarily valid to play the “government persecution” card.

Related question: if a wedding photographer has the right to refuse to serve a gay couple, shouldn’t a private accreditation agency have the right to refuse to serve a college it considers anti-gay?

27. Will you speak out against shaming and bullying of all kinds, whether against gays and lesbians or against Evangelicals and Catholics?

Bullying is bad, period.

But are you really going to equate the bullying of evangelicals and Catholics with the bullying of gays and lesbians? Especially when 40% of the homeless youth population is LGBT? Especially when LGBT youth are 4-6 times more likely to attempt suicide?

Who’s the bigger bully here?

28. Since the evangelical church has often failed to take unbiblical divorces and other sexual sins seriously, what steps will you take to ensure that gay marriages are healthy and accord with Scriptural principles?

I hope churches that marry same-sex couples will offer premarital counseling beforehand, mentorship opportunities with older married couples, counseling for those in struggling marriages, etc. In other words, pretty much the same kind of support they offer to heterosexual couples.

To your point, perhaps this is an opportunity for all of us to commit ourselves to strengthening marriage.

29. Should gay couples in open relationships be subject to church discipline?

LGBTQ members of the church should be held to the same standard of sexual ethics (fidelity within marriage) as heterosexual members.

30. Is it a sin for LGBT persons to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage?

See #29.

31. What will open and affirming churches do to speak prophetically against divorce, fornication, pornography, and adultery wherever they are found?

Preach and teach God’s Word as they always have. (They’re not all Bible-burning liberal apostates.)

32. If “love wins,” how would you define love?

I would define love as an active, robust commitment to the flourishing of others—a reflection of God’s commitment to our own flourishing.

Also, as all that’s necessary for the fulfillment of the law (see Paul in Romans 13)

33. What verses would you use to establish that definition?

Probably the same ones that you would… 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 13, etc.

34. How should obedience to God’s commands shape our understanding of love?

Love is obedience to God’s command, according to both Jesus and Paul. If you love God and love (i.e. seek the good of) your neighbor, you are obeying God.

35. Do you believe it is possible to love someone and disagree with important decisions they make?

Yes. We do it all the time. (Albeit badly.)

36. If supporting gay marriage is a change for you, has anything else changed in your understanding of faith?

Sure. Once I changed from being an Arminian to a Calvinist, but it didn’t stick.

As much as you might want to uncover signs of a slippery slope, the truth is, everyone’s understanding of faith changes over time—or at least it should.

Or are we so bold to assume we have everything figured out already?

37. As an evangelical, how has your support for gay marriage helped you become more passionate about traditional evangelical distinctives like a focus on being born again, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the total trustworthiness of the Bible, and the urgent need to evangelize the lost?

It hasn’t.

My passion for the historic orthodox faith—as expressed in the Nicene Creed, which I say every week without crossing my fingers—is unchanged by my perspective on gay marriage.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. I hope I’m even more motivated to proclaim the good news of a God who loves everyone and wants everyone to know him.

38. What open and affirming churches would you point to where people are being converted to orthodox Christianity, sinners are being warned of judgment and called to repentance, and missionaries are being sent out to plant churches among unreached peoples?

There are plenty within my own tribe, the Episcopal Church, who are deeply committed to orthodoxy and evangelism. (Though we have room to grow, especially with respect to evangelism.)

At the same time, many of us would argue that making our churches more welcoming is an essential part of evangelism. Most gays and lesbians would never come and hear the gospel in your church, because they wouldn’t see it as a safe or welcoming space for them.

Removing barriers between people—barriers that shouldn’t be there in the first place—is an important step toward gospel proclamation. Not the only step, to be sure. In my context, our challenge is to make sure we take the next step after that. Your challenge is to take the first step.

39. Do you hope to be more committed to the church, more committed to Christ, and more committed to the Scriptures in the years ahead?

Yes, yes, and yes.

40. When Paul at the end of Romans 1 rebukes “those who practice such things” and those who “give approval to those who practice them,” what sins do you think he has in mind?

I think Paul had in mind the general sinful condition of all humanity, as demonstrated by his rhetorical turn in chapter 2.  Paul’s point in Romans 1-2 was that we are all guilty of idolatry (worshiping the creature instead of the Creator). Morgan Guyton observes that the vice list in chapter 1 was “intended to elicit disgust” from Paul’s Jewish audience, just before he dropped the rhetorical boom (“You, therefore, have no excuse…”).

Paul also said the people he’s referring to were “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.” So, as Morgan notes, when you encounter gay Christians who clearly don’t rise to this level of depravity, you have to ask whether “same-sex marriage is evil” is really the point Paul is trying to make here.

—//—

Food for thought, I hope. I don’t expect anything I’ve written will change your mind. But I hope you’ll reconsider your assumption that those of us who see things differently than you are “swallowing everything the world and Facebook put on our plate.” Many of us have wrestled with, thought about, and, yes, prayed over these issues for a long time—especially those among us who are LGBTQ, for whom this is so much more than an “issue.” I hope, out of respect for them, these questions will become a conversation-starter instead of a discussion-killer.

—//—

Finally, some other responses that are well worth reading:

Image: Kevin Wong on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Four things you can do if you were disappointed by the SCOTUS ruling

If you aren’t one of the 26 million people who added a rainbow flag to your Facebook profile picture last week, this post might be for you. If you disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, this post is definitely for you.

I won’t try to change your mind. I’m not going to tell you why I think you’re wrong. Instead, I want to offer four things you can do in the wake of Obergfell v. Hodges.

This list is for those feeling torn between their convictions about human sexuality and their desire to love people well.

1. Focus on marriage—starting with yours.

Do not be swayed by the Chicken Little prophets of doom. For most of us, nothing changed last week. Our society’s definition of marriage expanded (which is not in itself a bad or unprecedented thing—see Loving v. Virginia). Our definition of marriage did not narrowwhich means if you were already married, good news! Your marriage is just as it was before.

Your marriage is not weakened by someone else gaining access to the institution. Your marriage is what you put into it, period.

So if really want to “defend” the institution of marriage, the best way you can do that is by loving your spouse well, not by worrying about who else is now able to wed.

2. Listen to the LGBTQ community.

Just about all of us know someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. But it’s another thing to really seek to connect, engage, listen. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s amazing what happens when we stop talking about people and start dialoguing with them.

So reach out… and just try listening.

You don’t have to debate. You certainly don’t have to try and “convert” anyone. You don’t have to get into an argument. Just listen. Ask them to share their story, if they’re comfortable doing so. Or, better yet, just talk about… whatever. Your heterosexuality is not all that defines you; their orientation or gender identity is not the sum total of who they are, either.

Try to go the whole conversation without issuing a “just so we’re clear” disclaimer. You don’t need to say it. They don’t need to hear it. Chances are, they already know what you believe. Trust me, whatever you might say to try and prove them wrong… they’ve heard it before.

3. Reexamine your convictions.

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Many of our convictions are inherited rather than intentionally cultivated. We arrive at them by default, more or less.

How much time have you spent considering the arguments for and against same-sex marriage? I don’t mean, How much time have you spent defending your particular point of view? or How much time have you spent reading those you already agree with to validate what you already believe?

That’s confirmation bias, not discernment.

What I mean is, How much time have you spent studying, reflecting, discerning, questioning—perhaps even praying about your convictions? How much time have you spent testing your assumptions? How open are you to the possibility you might be wrong?

Remember, as Cindy Brandt has written, certainty can be a form of idolatry.

Here’s a good reading list, if you want to familiarize yourself with the pro-affirming argument:

Don’t assume you already know what they’re going to say. Don’t assume their arguments are “nothing new.” Hear them out. You might be surprised.

And yes, you should spend time familiarizing yourself with the argument for a non-affirming view as well. A good place to start (especially for a rancor-free presentation) is Preston Sprinkle’s blog.

4. Find the places you can come together.

Even if you haven’t changed your mind about same-sex marriage, you may be asking how you can “love without being disrespectful,” as Ben Moberg put it.

Ben has some great ideas for how affirming and non-affirming Christians can work together for the common good…

Like tackling LGBTQ homelessness, for instance. As Ben writes, “Nearly 40 percent of the youth homeless population is LGBTQ.” The church has to own that. We’ve driven more than our share of kids into the cold because we did not understand—because did not WANT to understand—because we valued dogma over people. You don’t necessarily have to agree with last week’s ruling to realize we need to repent of this and do better for our kids.

Or how about we get serious about the bullying of LGBTQ students? Or what about employment discrimination? Is it really OK that a person can be fired for being gay in 29 states? (In case you think gays have all the civil rights they could ever want or need after last week’s ruling.)

We still have a long way to go before members of the LGBTQ community are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. You don’t have to shed your beliefs about marriage to care about that.

Or as Ben put it:

For those morally conflicted about same-sex marriage, there is literally zero moral risk in advocating for justice in these issues. There is an enormous moral risk in doing nothing.

—//—

This matters because, like it or not, we are part of the same church. We have the same calling to love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we need reminding who counts as a neighbor, well, there’s a parable for that.

As Ben Moberg writes, “Good and godly people can disagree about the Bible.” And we will. Lots. Our disagreements may lead us to worship in different churches—some of us in affirming churches where same-sex unions are celebrated with joy, and some in non-affirming churches where marriage is reserved for heterosexual couples. Both sides can’t be right, but both sides can be more loving.

I’m not trying to suggest there’s some magical “third way” solution where we can all come together and pretend we don’t disagree. But disagreement doesn’t have to be the end of our story.

Again, as Ben writes, “There is so much work that needs to be done. The kingdom of God is at stake. And we can do this, together.”

Images by Ted Eytan on Flickr / CC BY 2.0 ; A Guy Taking Pictures on Flickr  (text added to original) / CC BY 2.0

An open letter to the gay community after SCOTUS

Dear LGBT people:

I’m starting to worry that some of you didn’t get the memo. Or maybe you’re not as good at destroying civilization as we were told. Either way, we were promised an apocalypse and, well, I’m sorry to say… you’re just not living up to expectations.

I mean, it’s been two whole days since the SCOTUS ruling, and you STILL haven’t turned up at my door to make my kids gay or replace my lady wife with a dude.

How many churches have you shuttered for not doing gay weddings? How many pastors have you rounded up? What are you even doing with all your free time now that you’ve won? As far as I can tell, the signers of the Manhattan Declaration are still freely moving about, enjoying their lives as much as before. (Well, maybe a little less now that you’ve apparently ruined their traditional marriages.) They’re even issuing new statements in case, in all the flutter, we forgot where they stand.

Maybe your paddy wagon is in the shop (getting some fabulous new detailing, no doubt). But you really must get on with it soon.

Otherwise, people will start to think that your only agenda is to love and be loved.

Sincerely,

A disgruntled alarmist

#ERLC2014 and the pursuit of truth

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Last week’s Southern Baptist conference on homosexuality did not include any pro-gay speakers.

There were some who identified as “ex-gay” or “celibate”—though it should be noted not all of them prefer this terminology. As for “Side A” Christians, Justin Lee was there. Matthew Vines was there. But neither were given stage time.

In some respects, this is not a big deal. The lack of gay-friendly at a Baptist conference on sexuality is about as surprising as a Baptist conference on sexuality. It’s their right to invite the speakers they want. But it reveals something interesting about conversations like these—on both sides:

They’re not always about finding the truth as much as they are an exercise in confirmation bias.

When it’s truth we’re after, we’re called to seek out voices that don’t necessarily align with ours. We shouldn’t just listen to those who regurgitate what we already believe. Conservatives shouldn’t just watch Fox News, and liberals shouldn’t just watch MSNBC. We should gather information from a variety of sources and perspectives. We should listen to all sides. We should guard against an attitude that says, “We already have the truth.” We should remember that all of us get it wrong at least some of the time.

And if we want to understand an issue that affects one group in particular? We should listen to that group.

If you want to know what it’s like to be black in America, listen to black voices.

If you want to know about gender disparity in the workplace, listen to your female colleagues.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a gay person of faith (celibate or otherwise)—if you want to understand what gay Christians experience when they set foot in a church—listen to their voices. Listening does not necessitate agreement, but it does require a posture of humility, a desire to understand.

Of course, this runs both ways. Earlier this year, Patheos hosted an online chat discussing Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian. They didn’t include anyone representing the traditional perspective. Why not invite someone like Preston Sprinkle, who has shown a willingness to engage in debate without delegitimizing the faith of those he disagrees with? (To be fair, it’s possible some were invited but declined.)

Patheos and the ERLC have every right to invite who they want to their conversations on sexuality. Not every event has to give equal time to contrarian viewpoints.

But we all know this is part of a larger trend in how we consume information that ends up shaping our worldviews.

Most of us listen predominantly (or exclusively) to voices that tell us what we already want to hear—voices that soothe our nagging doubts, voices that whisper away any notion that we might be wrong or might not have all the facts, voices that reassure us we don’t have to go in search of the truth because we already have the truth. We’re so afraid that if we listen to other voices, someone will ask a question we can’t answer. 

Much of the current debate boils down to who we think is on the “right side of history.” My question is, how will  we even know if we’re on the side of history—or the right side of truth—if we never even listen to someone with a different view of it?

Photo credit: Eric Teetsel on Twitter

Polarization and the church: is a third way possible?

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Last week, the Pew Research Center shared their findings from a 20-year study of polarization in American politics. The short version: it’s getting worse. But polarization is not just a political phenomenon. It’s a religious one too.

Polarization is more than just disagreement with someone. It’s the tendency to view that person as your enemy, as a threat to everything you hold dear. In a Christian context, polarization manifests itself in rejecting the validity of someone else’s faith, or by saying things like, “If you accept X, then you’ve undermined the gospel, the Bible, Christianity, etc.”

We don’t have to look far to find those who’ve been impacted by this kind of polarization, whose humanity has been reduced to an abstract “other” so we can more easily marginalize and dismiss them.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. The question is, can we have our differences and still find a way to live together?

Al Mohler has said quite forcefully there can be no “third way”—at least not when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. And as he pointed out, Tony Jones has said pretty much the same thing from the left. In response, Zach Hoag has written a couple of posts (here and here) defending the idea of a third way.

Some have said the third way is at best a temporary stopping point on the way to something else. The idea of a third way—making room for people on both sides in your church—sounds good in theory. But what do you do, for example, when a same-sex couple asks you to officiate their wedding? What do you do when you finally have to choose one side over the other?

Is a third way about allowing for time for discernment and reflection together—with the assumption that the clock is ticking and we’ll have to come to some kind of resolution eventually? Or is it a commitment to live in community even if we never come to agreement? Is that even possible?

I don’t have good answers to these questions. I’m still wrestling. I have some doubts about the viability of a third way, partly because I like things to be black and white.

The truth is, I always have…

—//—

I’ve never been good at negotiating a third way, regardless of which side of the ideological spectrum I sat on. In my college days, I was one of the more conservative kids on a conservative evangelical campus. I would argue loud and long with my comparatively more “liberal” friends. Politics, women’s ordination, homosexuality. You name it, we argued it.

What I didn’t realize until years later was they were modeling a third way in how they responded. They never rejected me as a person. They never questioned the validity of my faith, even though I’m quite sure they found some of my views (and how I expressed them) repugnant.

Even when my arguments crossed the line from debate to personal attack, even when I demonstrated precisely zero interest in what they had to say (which was often), even when they got so frustrated with me they had to get up from the table—we always came back together the next day. They always welcomed me back to the table. We didn’t soft-pedal our disagreements. But we found a way to live together in the midst of them—which was almost entirely to their credit and not mine.

Since then, some of my views have shifted—in part due to the example of those who refused to write me off. I don’t care for the term “liberal” because it carries a certain stereotype of someone who says the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed (if they say it at all). That’s not me. Nevertheless, not all my views are as cut-and-dry as they once were.

But I’ve held onto my old polarizing tendencies. I’m still a fundamentalist at heart. (Yes, progressives can be fundamentalists.) Whichever side I take, I still have an ugly habit of viewing those I disagree with as enemies. As “other.” And this kind of polarization is an inherently dehumanizing force.

—//—

Whatever the merits and limitations of a third way, if it’s just about being superficially nice, then it’s not worth the effort. Benjamin Moberg argues that civility and respect are important, but eradicating injustice matters more. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a threat to the church, not by a long shot. But some may pose a genuine threat—to the church and to those who seek shelter within its walls. There are some whose very notion of the way of Jesus seems diametrically opposed to the man himself…

Those who insist on shutting certain people out.

Those who make exclusion a badge of orthodoxy.

Those who harbor abusers and blame their victims.

Those who cannot see the dignity and worth—or faith—of those who are different from them.

The third way, as I understand it, isn’t about trying to please everybody. If you don’t want to sit in the same pew as people who are different from you, then the third way is not for you.

If the thought of receiving communion from a priest who is gay makes you cringe, the third way may not be your thing. If you cannot share the peace of Christ with those who don’t share your views on same-sex marriage, then you may have to find another way. “Fundamentalism won’t fly,” as Zach Hoag writes. “Movement will be required on both sides.” That is, movement toward each other as fellow image bearers and, yes, as fellow Christians.

That’s because the third way is about affirming the genuine faith of [insert your favorite scapegoat here]. When you can do this, what you’re really affirming is that you and they are part of the same family. You are bound to them, and they are bound to you.

That may be as far as the third way can take us. But even that might be enough to blunt the worst effects of polarization on the church.

—//—

The third way that Zach and others have proposed is not a solution to all our problems. But I don’t think it’s meant to be. Like I wrote near the beginning of this post, the limitations of a third way become evident the moment a church is asked to bless a same-sex marriage or hire a female priest or take any other action that forces it to favor one side over the other.

Choices have to be made. What makes the third way compelling is not the avoidance of choice but the refusal to be enemies in the midst of making that choice. Others may choose to see us as their enemy, and we can’t help that. But we don’t have to return the favor. We can offer a hand to anyone who’s willing to walk with us, even as we wrestle with our differences, as we try to discern together where the Spirit is taking us.

The third way is the stubborn refusal to put ideology ahead of people or theology ahead of love.

Polarization wants to convince that ideas matter more than people. The third way doesn’t mean ideas don’t matter. It’s means we don’t forget that people always come first.

Related Post: People of the third way

Photo by 55Lancey69 on Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

God and the Gay Christian: 6 highlights from the @Patheos live chat

Yesterday Patheos hosted a live chat for Matthew Vine’s new book God and the Gay Christian, featuring Matthew, Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones, and, occasionally, Jay Bakker. (No live chat is complete without a few technical hiccups.) I haven’t read the book yet; it’s in my to-read pile. But I listened in on their lunchtime conversation, which is available on the Patheos website.

Here are 6 things that stood out…

1. Dispensing with less helpful arguments

Matthew has no interest in some of the more speculative arguments which are sometimes put forward — for example, the notion that David and Jonathan were gay lovers. Or Ruth and Naomi. Or Jesus and John.

These arguments seem to assume that any affection between two men (or two women) depicted in the Bible must be implicitly sexual, as if there were no such thing as nonsexual affection between two closely connected people of the same gender. If you’re pro-same-sex marriage and you’re making this argument, it’s not helping your case. I’m also worried that it plays into the idea that being gay is all about sex. If the church needs to stop reducing gay people to a particular sex act, then Matthew is right to shift the debate to other issues (regardless of whether you agree with him on those issues or not).

2. Matthew vs. Tony

Not one to disappoint, Tony Jones brought a slightly contrarian voice to the discussion. He and Matthew went back and forth over how to deal with Paul, though think it’s futile to read Paul’s comments on homosexual acts as a commentary on the kind of same-sex relationships that are possible today.

Matthew is writing as an evangelical. That’s the whole point of his book, to make a theologically conservative case for the affirming view. So it’s not surprising he wants to maintain a high view of Paul. “We don’t have to disagree with or demote Paul to affirm gay Christians in the church,” he argues.

Tony countered that Paul couldn’t know what we know today about sexual orientation; therefore, he wasn’t in a position to speak directly to the kind of issues we’re wrestling with today. For Tony, this is no more a problem than the fact that Paul didn’t know anything about cars, yet we’re OK with driving them.

Tony’s point is worth hearing. Part of reading and interpreting the Bible is understanding its original context (and limitations) before we try to bring it into our context. You can’t just dump the Bible into our setting and expect everything to translate. This, among other things, is why no one thinks the earth is stationary, despite clear evidence that’s what the biblical writers believed.

But there’s also a real danger of becoming arrogant, of thinking that we’re more enlightened than the biblical writers were. (Poor old chaps.) Matthew’s caution against this tendency is worth also hearing—especially in this debate.

3. Celibacy as a gift, not a command

All the panelists felt that Matthew’s chapter on celibacy is one of the most compelling parts of his book. Again, I haven’t read it (yet), but Matthew’s argument, summarized by Tony at one point, seems to be that celibacy was never mandated in the biblical text. According to Jesus and Paul, some people had the gift of celibacy. But no one was ever ordered to be celibate. Most of us certainly aren’t wired to for celibacy, in any case.

So the question Matthew raises is what do you do if someone who isn’t wired for celibacy IS wired to be attracted to people of the same gender? The conservative view has traditionally said that gay people have one of two options: conversion therapy or celibacy. Now that even many conservatives have disavowed conversion therapy, celibacy is all that’s left. But if celibacy is a gift, not a command, then doesn’t that mean we have to assume God has given the gift of celibacy to every LGBT person? I don’t think many of us, regardless of what side we take, would be comfortable pressing that assumption too far, in light of reality.

If neither celibacy nor a change of orientation are realistic for the vast majority of gay people, then we’re left to wrestle with the question posed by Rachel Held Evans: is it right to deny gay Christians the opportunity to sanctify their sexual desires through a covenant?

4. What does Al Mohler really think about orientation?

God and the Gay Christian hadn’t been on bookshelves for a day when Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler issued an ebook rebuttal, coauthored with James Hamilton, Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, and Heath Lambert. (Note: They were given prepublication copies of Matthew’s book, so they were able to interact with his content.)

During the live chat, Matthew shared what disappointed him about their response: namely, Mohler’s claim that if you accept sexual orientation as an innate part of someone’s identity, then you’ve undermined the whole Bible.

It seems like the “if you believe X, then you’ve undermined the Bible/gospel/Christianity” card gets played a lot these days. But this one made me skeptical. Could Mohler really have written that? After all, just three years ago he made ripples in his own denomination when he acknowledged that sexual orientation is “not something that people can just turn on and turn off.” At the time he confessed:

We’ve lied about the nature of homosexuality and have practiced what can only be described as a form of homophobia. We’ve used the ‘choice’ language when it is clear that sexual orientation is a deep inner struggle and not merely a matter of choice.

I haven’t read Al Mohler’s ebook yet (I plan to after reading Matthew’s book), so I was curious to see if Matthew depicted his argument correctly.

He did. Here’s what Mohler wrote:

If the modern concept of sexual orientation is to be taken as a brute fact, then the Bible simply cannot be trusted.

That seems like a far cry from his previous affirmation that sexual orientation is not “a matter of choice.” So which is it for Al Mohler?

5. A conservative sexual ethic

One of the key points to remember is that Matthew is not arguing for a more liberal or permissive sexuality. He wants to call gay Christians to the same standard of conduct to which the church has traditionally held heterosexual couples: no sex outside marriage, monogamy within marriage, no adultery, etc.

From a Christian perspective, sex is sacred. Commitment is a nonnegotiable part of sexual ethics.
—Matthew Vines

True, this won’t satisfy those for whom ceding any ground on same-sex marriage is unacceptable — or those on the other side who’ve gone further in questioning the sexual ethic taken for granted by most evangelicals as biblical. But it does seem like it could bolster Matthew’s argument against the “slippery slope” accusation.

6. A broader conversation

Near the end of the live chat, Matthew and the other panelists acknowledged that change won’t come easy.

Rachel Held Evans believes that many people, especially pastors, are afraid of losing everything if they are open with their desire to be more affirming. She called on people to be brave and start some uncomfortable conversations anyway, trusting that there are more people than we think who are ready for a new conversation.

Tony Jones voiced pessimism about the church’s ability to find a third way, accommodating both the traditional and affirming camps. But he felt that more and more individuals will continue to “make the shift” as they come into contact with people like Matthew and books like God and the Gay Christian.

Matthew similarly acknowledged the incremental nature of change and said that the first step is bringing LGBT Christians into the room and making sure they’re part of the conversation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, as demonstrated by the Southern Baptists’ recent ERLC conference devoted to the topic of human sexuality. “Having a whole conference about this and not including any gay Christian voices is not OK,” Matthew said.

I suppose someone could make the same point about the live chat. There was no voice there to represent the traditional view. While I don’t think a 60-minute online chat should be held to the same standard as a three-day conference, I hope future conversations will bring more voices to the table. If we are going to find a third way (despite Tony’s probably well-placed pessimism), it won’t happen unless we start listening to each other.

That being said, it takes two to tango. The question is whether Al Mohler is in the mood to dance.