My Approach to Sexual Ethics in Church

division-in-church_620If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know about my (re)conversion to an orthodox Christian faith beginning in February of 2013. While my last holdout was an affirmation of same-sex marriage as a legitimate Christian option, I was (by December 2014) finally able to say that I affirmed everything that the Church has historically taught about human sexuality. So, while I have a lengthy blog post where I deal with the sexuality (specifically transexuality) debate, what I want to do here is outline how I approach orthodox Christians of good faith who disagree with me on the sexuality issue. First, however, I think I need to define how I understand some terms that will come up in this post:

Small “o” orthodox Christian: Minimally, what I mean by this word is adhering to the central claims of historic Christianity, namely being able to, without qualification, affirm the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed and the Chalcedonian definition. I think this usually comes with a high view (though not necessarily an inerrancy) of Scripture.

Conservative Christian: What I mean here is the Christian who not only affirms the early creeds and has a high view of Scripture, but whose orientation toward theology and practice gives tradition (and what is traditional) deference in hermeneutics and in approaching issues relevant in a given culture.

Liberal Christian: What I mean here is the person who seeks maximal accommodation of faith to the insights of modernism. Some liberal Christians have remained orthodox, but most (I suspect), or at least the theologians I’ve read, are willing to jettison elements of the creeds that contradict modernism. Their orientation toward theology and practice gives reason (and what seems reasonable) deference in hermeneutics and in approaching issues relevant in a given culture.

Progressive Christian: What I mean here is the Christian who, while affirming the early creeds and possessing a high (if complicated) view of Scripture, is oriented toward theology and practice in a way that gives experience deference in hermeneutics and in approaching issues relevant in a given culture.

While at times the words “progressive” and “liberal” have been used interchangeably by conservatives, I think that is a pretty severe category mistake. Progressive Christians are just as critical of modernism as conservative Christians are, just from the “post” side rather than the “ante” side. And, maybe more pointedly, progressive Christians seem more committed to behaving like Jesus than any of the other tribes. While I am definitely a conservative Christian, I think there is a lot of truth to the notion that conservative Christians care more about believing the right things than they do about living the right way.

A case study: an example of someone I would describe as a “progressive” Christian who takes an affirming stance on homosexuality is Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network. Lee is fundamentally orthodox in his theology and he roots his affirmation of homosexuality in good exegesis of the Bible and in the strength of his own experiences. When I read his long essay on the topic (for example) I walk away disagreeing with him, but trusting that he loves Jesus and the Church and wants to follow God’s commands in the best way he knows how. However, an example of someone I would describe as a “liberal” Christian is the former bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong agrees that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but he just disagrees with the Bible. In contrast, Lee argues that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality.

In any case, if we are looking at the Wesleyan quadrilateral, then we could say that bibleanditsinterpretation2conservatives lean on tradition, liberals on reason, and progressives on experience. Personally, I have little affection for liberal Christianity. In my mind, it is an arrogant endeavor ordered toward making Christianity palatable to a world that is not interested. It rejects the intrinsic offense of the Gospel by denying that it ought to be offensive at all. Conservatives and progressives, however, share an affirmation of the life-changing demands of the Gospel. Both seek to follow Jesus’s commands. Both desire to see the Gospel do its work in the world even if, at the end of the day, they disagree with what that work is or ought to be.

I hope those definitions help explain my perspective even though I am sure there are people out there who use those words differently than I do.

But why is all of this a big deal? Why can’t we just agree to disagree? Well, I think the reason that this is a big deal (not the most important deal, mind you, but a big one) is because what the Church teaches on human sexuality reflects what the Church believes a human being to be. That is, in its account of what humans are, the Church must begin with two principles 1) Humans are made imago Dei and 2) Humans were made male & female from the beginning. If same sex attraction was not a bug but part of the design, then human beings could not be said to rightly bear God’s image. Humans, like God, are designed to live in community. God is three persons in one substance, and the three persons complement each other perfectly. Similarly, when God said that it was not “good for man to be alone” and thus made him a “suitable helpmate,” he made a woman. As I have argued at length elsewhere, this joining of male & female best pictures the Godhead. Furthermore, and perhaps even more theologically relevant, is Paul’s argument to the Ephesians in which he says that the mystical purpose of marriage is to showcase the union of Christ with his Church. The union of two men or two women does not picture that mystery as Paul describes it. Thus humans do not rightly fulfill their telos by sexual union with a person of the same sex. Rather, their union with a member of the same sex displays a disordered union due to misplaced attractions. And these misplaced attractions, while no fault of the person who experiences same sex attraction, nevertheless spring from the Fall like all other disorders.

Now, all that being said, I do not believe that homosexuality is an issue at the inner core (it does not have the same weight, say, as The Trinity, the Resurrection, or Christ’s death in our place), but neither do I think it can be relegated to the outer rim (these things matter, but they are obviously not core to the Gospel) of things like church governance, number and kind of the sacraments or ordinances, eschatology, or harmony/disharmony between evolution and the Bible. Rather, I would place homosexuality at the second rung with doctrines like soteriology (how exactly Christ saves us), the relationship between faith and works, the doctrine of the Bible (what exactly is the Bible), etc. These issues are very important–they divide denominations from each other–but a particular position on each one is not essential in order to be a Christian. The reason I place homosexuality in this category is because it is not an issue in the Creed (so it can’t be at the center of our faith), but it also isn’t simply a minor issue. What one concludes about homosexuality (like with other second rung doctrines) significantly shapes one’s understanding of who God is.

Speaking as a theological conservative (here are my theological commitments, by the way), it seems to me that most progressives end up affirming homosexuality out of an ethic of hospitality. That is, radical inclusiveness is a mark of the Church. They argue that Jesus regularly spent time with sinners of all kinds and did not, to our knowledge, explicitly condemn sins. Rather, he both forgave sins and used his fire and brimstone sermons to castigate the religious elite of his day for being hypocrites. Some conservatives take this point and run with it, affirming that we should just hate the sin but love the sinner. Progressives have rightly pointed out that doing that isn’t really hospitality. It does not accept people unconditionally. But what I think progressives can miss is the fact that Jesus never affirmed those sins either. He didn’t ask Zaccheus to give his money back to those from whom he had exploited it, but Zacheus got there all by himself after encountering Christ. As Matt Chandler has said before, our goal should never be to try to clean someone up and then bring them to church. Rather, folks should be invited into the Church in all of their messiness and, like with Paul, Zaccheus, the woman caught in adultery, the men on the road to Emmaus, and many others, they will be changed (slowly) by their encounter with Christ. And in fact, I think progressives can do a disservice to people by trying to affirm things (like same sex attraction) from which people will one day be set free in God’s eternal kingdom.

But, nevertheless, the question remains: what should churches do when members disagree with each other about homosexuality? Well, my thoughts are the following: First, I believe that churches should be clear on their beliefs on this subject. I don’t think it helps anyone for churches to be vague. If a church affirms homosexuality, then they should clarify that. This clarification would help pastoral staff and members understand the best approach when encountering people who experiences same sex attraction. And it will leave more traditional members clear on their church’s stance. Similarly, a church that maintains the traditional view of human sexuality should be clear on that. While clearly this helps clarify the pastoral approach the church will take, it also gives clarity to members who made hold a different view. Churches holding the traditional view also need to decide whether a member engaging in sexual behavior with a person of the same sex should result in church discipline or not. Second, churches will have to decide whether they require members to hold the beliefs taught by the church (on this or any other topic) or whether they simply intend the statement of beliefs to be affirmed by a smaller group (say pastors and elders, for example). Third, I can certainly imagine a church not wishing to make a statement either way, preferring to make homosexuality one of those “agree to disagree” issues. While that can work, I think churches will need to be proactive in affirming areas of common agreement (like monogamy, self-giving love, etc) between different parties. Fourth, and finally, churches need to stop caring about their image. According to the pharisees, Jesus was guilty of sin by association (by spending time with tax collectors, prostitutes, and criminals). But Jesus did not sin. He simply loved sinners. And this love of sinners is not predicated on them realizing they are sinners. It just is. It lacks conditions. So churches need to be willing to look like they affirm homosexuality or transexuality (even though they don’t) if doing so is required by hospitality.