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A Plea For Better Questions series, ministry, politics

A Plea for Better Questions Part 2: To the Conservatives

I really enjoy bringing well-known texts and doctrines into larger historical contexts when I teach Sunday school, largely because in my own experience knowing about the texts and other realities that surround the Bible and later controversies that involve the Bible, rather than settling the question, opens up the complexity of the situation and allows some room for people to understand that the folks who ended up on the side of things where I didn’t (think Ba’al cultists, Pharisees, Pelagians, Tridentine Reformers, or nineteenth-century theological modernists) weren’t mustache-twirling villains but complex human beings with the same hopes, anxieties, and aspirations that constitute you and constitute me. That doesn’t make the content of their ideas and practices right, much less a matter of indifference; on the contrary, it alerts me (and hopefully those I teach) to the tragic truth of human existence as creatures of God living in a fallen world, namely that moments of historical crisis don’t become moments of historical crisis because the decisions are easy and clear. If the path were well-lit, or if the path didn’t go along a hundred-foot cliff, human existence would be far more boring but much safer as well.

Unfortunately, the historian is often the least welcome person in the room when the chips are down, when people have to decide on questions of community policy. To acknowledge complexity and to forestall the laying down of rules are the stuff of the academic inquirer, but policy must be such that people can abide by it, and that means a couple things: first that, even if provisionally, a community must take some sort of stand. Second that a stand taken after the phenomenon becomes history is not a policy stand at all. Such stands, if history is any predictor, will likely alienate somebody, but such is the responsibility that comes with legislating for any community. (This is why Article Five is my favorite part of the U.S. Constitution.)

I note all of this to say that I understand the impetus to resist “Open and Affirming” policies for congregations and denominations and colleges: although in their less honest moments proponents of said policies will say that “accepting” (more on that word in my next post) LGBTQIAW* people with no strings attached implies a sort of neutrality in the theological debate in favor of “loving people,” anyone who thinks about such things for more than a couple consecutive seconds will realize that putting such a policy in place is not by any means neutral, a place where deliberation can take place for the sake of truthful answers, but implies certain answers to the questions at the outset. Perhaps most importantly it assumes at the outset that “to love” means “not to transform.” But more on that next post.

I would not by any means suggest that such resistance is a bad idea at the outset but that it might betray the fact that most of the battle for Biblical standards might already be lost. Although some more secular-leaning conservatives have staked out a position on historical or even biological grounds resisting more thoroughgoing LGBTQIAW* marriage, ordination, and other official participation in various communities, most Christians who resist such things do so for reasons of Biblical faithfulness. And the problem, historically, with such a stand is that the same folks who stand so strongly against LGBTQIAW* participation often know of and affirm openly people whose sex lives are just as blatantly anti-Biblical but whose circumstances have not barred significant participation at all levels of the twenty-first century Church.

Mainly, of course, divorced and remarried people come to mind. Few Christians (especially conservative Christians) will trumpet and applaud the frequency of divorce in the Church, but in the face of Jesus’s teaching that one who divorces and remarries commits adultery (he qualifies this in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark), most conservative Christians whom I know do not acknowledge begrudgingly that people in second marriages might be vaguely tolerable but evaluate them basically in the same terms that they evaluate first marriages (the only ones Jesus acknowledges): in other words, if it’s a good marriage, it’s a good marriage, and if it’s a bad marriage, it’s a bad marriage. And although the sequence of things certainly influences our judgments, most of us (and I’m included here) will celebrate a really good and faithful second marriage just as quickly as we’ll mourn the deterioration of the love and faithfulness to a first marriage.

Certainly there are evangelical congregations out there who deny leadership, ordination, and perhaps even membership to remarried people, and to those folks I will tip a hat on consistency. But I’ve never been a part of any of those, and I imagine that such communities become rarer every year. (If I’m wrong, readers, do comment.) The fact of the matter is that, for the congregations where I’ve been a member, divorce has been talked about as a tragic reality, to be certain, and something against which folks will counsel if the moment does not seem strongly to warrant such a separation, but never in those congregations has one’s “coming out” as a divorced person barred full membership.

I point this out not to say that divorce or any other question of sexuality should be off the table for Christians; I do note that, in one category of sexual-relationships-opposed-in-the-New-Testament, even the conservative evangelical congregations of which I’ve been a part have managed to grant the tragedy and even the sinfulness of the situation but to welcome the human beings to be members and sometimes even leaders, without demanding that they sever their ties to the people they brought to the congregation (or even people whom they met there) if they are to participate fully in the life of the congregation. That’s a historian rather than a legislator talking, but again, the historian’s role is to bring forth the human in one moment for the sake of seeing the human in another, by analogy.

Ultimately, the way that congregations and denominations and colleges deal with questions of sexuality always have been and likely always will be contests of analogy: will this particular way of existence be analogous to being a Gentile or analogous to being a false teacher? Will the Church’s response be one in which shunning, letting a believer know that her or his way of life has become a blasphemy to God, is the paradigm, or will the Church’s response be one in which table-fellowship, letting believers know that the old distinction does not any longer bind those in Christ, rule the day? And to bring the matter into the present day, will “coming out” as a LGBTQIAW person be analogous to “coming out” as a consumer of pornography, the sort of person to whom the Church shows love by steering them away from that particular form of sexual desire and towards other, faithful ones; or will the Church’s response be analogous to how we welcome divorced persons, where we lament the circumstances that brought the person there as tragic ones but welcome the person, sexuality and all, into the congregation? As I said in the outset of this series, I’m not at this turn going to offer answers to those questions, but those contests of analogy, I think, are going to be the interesting ones to ask going forward. If better questions are going to arise, I do think that discussing divorce and LGBTQIAW* questions side by side should yield some good questions about both. My hope is that at least acknowledging that the contest of analogies is going on might allow folks who disagree to continue disagreeing longer without giving up and consigning the other party to the bin of “irredeemable” sinners. Perhaps it’s a silly hope, but it’s mine.

In the meantime, although I do not wish to offer answers, I do want to address a few conservative talking points that I think of as especially worthless in these exchanges:

  • To compare sexual desire to an impulse to steal or murder does not do much to help people think through these questions. The thief or the killer steals or kills as a means to achieve an end; the desires that power our sex lives are themselves the ends. (If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what a spouse should be “getting out of it” when she or he makes love to her or his spouse. If you can answer that with the same sorts of answers that you give to the question “What do you get out of it when you go to work on Monday morning,” you really need to reconsider what your marriage means.)
  • To say that everyone whose desires are not heterosexual “chooses” to be lesbian or gay simply does not adequately describe the stories that most human beings tell about ourselves. I did not “choose” one day to desire women; that constellation of desires happened to me. Such a concession is not to say that my desires or anyone else’s are simplistically genetic or reducible to formulaic psychological explanations; it is to say that making them a matter of volition absent the circumstances that constitute just about every human story ignores the character of the actual phenomenon at hand.
  • Sexual desires do not constitute a “lifestyle” the way that being a skater, a baseball fan, or a collector of books (I’m two of the three) constitutes a “lifestyle.” Whatever else one ends up saying about sexual desire, it’s part of the core of existence, a place where spiritual reality happens and where ecstasy, grace, perdition, and redemption are not far away. Again, if your devotion to the Atlanta Braves is roughly equal to your sexual passions… no, I won’t even finish that comparison. The point is that proclaiming that sins have been forgiven and that vices might be transformed so that virtue might arise is as central to the Christian life as anything I can imagine. Such are the moments of grace that Christ bestows through the Church. But to pretend that sexual desire is not as central to a person’s soul as sexual desire is does not do anyone any favors; if anything, it proves that Christians do not take sin very seriously at all. In other words, to “stand against” without offering real, concrete means to “walk forward” is only to confirm that the Church does not offer any sort of salvation that means anything to the living.

I’ve already offended some people, I’m sure, by making this a matter for inquiry rather than pronouncing dogmatically one way or the other. Although some questions I’ve resisted answering, this one I cannot leave unanswered: I inquire here because Christians disagree strongly enough to declare those who disagree part of another tribe entirely, and such cannot stand in the Body of Christ. The pursuit of better questions here is the pursuit of truth, and although I do not pretend that I’m asking the best ones available even to our historical moment, I do want to give it enough of a try that I can say, with good conscience, that I’ve attempted to start making peace.

For the sake of disclosure, this post originally appeared on the Christian Humanist Blog.

* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Interested, Allies, and Whatever letters they’ve added since I started typing this list.

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “A Plea for Better Questions Part 2: To the Conservatives

  1. One other quick hit …

    I think perhaps one phenomenon that leads to the perception that homosexual behavior is in a category of its own where sin concerned is the amount of attention the topic gets in evangelical circles.

    In other words it’s not that adultery or gossip are acceptable and homosexual activity is not, but hear a lot more about the sinfulness of the latter. But, why is that?

    Is it not partly due to a society which is at least as vociferously saying homosexual behavior is perfectly acceptable? I think it is. I think the church would say more about other sins as well if the culture was campaigning that bestiality or pedophilia or adultery or gossip were perfectly acceptable. Time will tell, however, as I think we aren’t far away from other deviations from sexuality within the context of marriage seeking asylum in the good graces of public opinion.

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | June 23, 2011, 2:10 pm
  2. Nathan,

    Thanks for responding. I still think there is a marked difference between these two cases (innocent spouse who has been abandoned vs. someone struggling, or giving into homosexual urges). I’m not seeking to diminish the legitimacy of homosexual sin being real, being hurtful, or being a no kidding struggle. But all of us have dealt with sexual sin, to one extent or another. In the context of marriage, the sex drive plays a part to be sure… but isn’t it more like a loving expression and connection with someone (that is often selfless in nature) versus an irresistible urge that is just undeniable?

    Part of the problem here is that I’m not convinced that your line on “no possibility of remarriage being legitimate” is correct. The passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are in the context of mosaic law… and from a New Testament perspective are in the context of godly principles of relationships in general. I think the passages are extremely complex and they have to be taken in context with insight gained from the other two gospels, along with the rest of Scripture. I think it is possible that a second marriage can absolutely be legitimate and pleasing to God.

    To really step through this, is a much longer discussion, where I think you have to start with Deuteronomy 24, understand the law regarding divorce and remarriage (which is allowed) and understand why Jesus is talking about the heart in marriage, in the way that he is, as a means of getting beyond legality and to the heart of what ought to be. It is important that Jesus doesn’t say, “no divorce is allowed, ever, for any reason.” It is important that the “except for the cause of sexual immorality” is “porneia” and not the word for adultery, which is used in the next verse. The passage is a wild, passive voice construction that is extremely carefully crafted, and almost byzantine by design… and I think the reasons for that are to give us pause and really take seriously the implications of these kinds of things before taking action, or responding.

    When you take I Corinthians 7 into account, my opinion is that Jesus (and Paul) are recognizing that sometimes when people are married, one of them leaves the relationship… and in most cases leaves for someone else. The sad reality is, that they will do this whether it’s “allowed” by the church or mosaic law, or not. The person who is left, would still hold the legal, moral and spiritual obligations of marriage without relief, unless an exception were provided for. This is why Jesus doesn’t simply say, “no divorce for any reason.” It’s also why Moses allowed for divorce because of the “hardness of [people’s] hearts”, not to enable out of bounds behavior, but to provide relief for the victim of abandonment or unrepentant adultery. Divorce in this case, becomes a way to release the injured party, if reconciliation is not an option.

    So then, a possible reading of this passage is, “if someone leaves a marriage illegitimately, if you marry that person, you’re committing adultery”, so that the “divorced woman” isn’t the person left, but is the second of two separate examples, first male, then female, but both as the person leaving the marriage in a wrong way. The injunction is against leaving marriage… and in participating in that sinful behavior with someone who has left a marriage in a wrong way.

    This squares with Paul in I Corinthians 7, where he says, if the unbeliever leaves, the remaining party isn’t bound. Bound to what? To the requirements of the marriage, when one party isn’t willing to stay or reconcile.

    It also squares with the Mark passage, which seems to focus on the person leaving as the one guilty of adultery, in language that is more direct.

    I’m very much in agreement (still) with the larger point that homosexuality should not garner more focus or animus than other sins, which are also very destructive… and that some church cultures really do seem to single this out, while completely ignoring other behavior, which is glaringly unbiblical.

    And in this scenario, the comparison between homosexual urges and the urge to sleep with someone who isn’t your spouse, might be really similar. I think the occurrence of a single mom who was abandoned and divorced, who eventually remarries is really in a completely different category of ethical / moral consideration.

    Posted by Mark | June 23, 2011, 1:34 pm
  3. Gunny, I meant to respond to this comment earlier, but I’ve been on the road visiting family. I think that the discussion about the transformation of desires is precisely what ain’t happening in many congregations and other theological venues, and I’m glad that you brought it up here. If I were to vote for promising questions to get people having genuinely hopeful conversation, the question of desire would be right up there.

    Posted by Nathan Gilmour | June 22, 2011, 9:15 pm
  4. Mark, the point you’re making here is part of why I wrote this essay: many Christians who are gays and lesbians feel “basically abandoned” by their own bodies: they know what the Church expects of sexuality, yet they find themselves with desires that have no legitimate chance of fulfillment in the Church. My point here is that, for the folks you’re describing, the ones whose circumstances have left them unable to marry within the bounds of the New Testament without the soul of a celibate, many congregations have opted (by deliberation or through laziness–I don’t pretend to know all of the processes) to honor their second marriages as legitimate marriages even though Jesus calls such things adultery in three of the four gospels. What we say about those second-marriage folks and what we say about lesbians and gay men should always inform one another, even if that process of informing means articulating good moral reasons for difference rather than treating them as belonging to the same generic category.

    Posted by Nathan Gilmour | June 16, 2011, 12:27 pm
  5. I think your overall point about us taking a different approach related to some sexual sin, versus others is a good one, or at least a good question to thoughtfully consider. We really do have blinders and our pet sins that get more attention and focus.

    I would only add, that there is a lot of complexity (or at least potential complexity) to issues of divorce and re-marriage versus a decision for LGBT lifestyle.

    As an example, I would guess all of us know someone who was basically abandoned in marriage, and while they probably contributed to the marriage having problems… they would never have filed for divorce. The person leaving takes off, files for divorce, ultimately gets the divorce, re-marries, has children, etc…

    Are you really saying that the person that was left, should not be allowed to eventually remarry from a biblical perspective? Or if they do, should not be allowed to be a member of a church? Or that their marriage should be dissolved? Really?

    Related to the back and forth, I’m not unsympathetic to the views I’m reading, but I always get nervous when I hear people talking about church membership in a way that seems more restrictive than salvation.

    Posted by Mark | June 15, 2011, 8:59 am
  6. Predictably, this segment of the essay is getting more play here than it did over at CHB. We’ll have to see if the inverse is true of the third segment. 🙂

    Posted by Nathan Gilmour | June 15, 2011, 5:53 am
  7. My point is, though, that what Deuteronomy calls marriage Christ calls adultery. I realize that reconciliation might not be possible (given consent laws and all), but it does seem like a cessation of adultery (in New Testament terms) would mean dissolving the union that the State calls marriage but Christ calls adultery. Perhaps my own imagination has been co-opted by the easy-divorce culture, but I can’t even imagine asking, much less demanding that of the Christian friends I’ve got in mind as I type this. And perhaps it’s that co-optation of imagination that I’d like to see addressed when I write that divorce-and-remarriage ought to be on the table next to other questions of sexual relationships.

    Posted by Nathan Gilmour | June 15, 2011, 5:52 am
  8. To be clear, in the case of the second marriage, reconciliation isn’t possible. Per Deuteronomy 24 they can’t return to each other once another marriage has occurred.

    But, up to that point, they should seek reconciliation.

    Posted by Gunny Hartman | June 15, 2011, 5:21 am
  9. That really does fascinate me, Gunny, and once again it’s testimony to the narrow range of my own experience. I simply cannot imagine any of the congregations where I’ve served asking someone to dissolve a legally-recognized second marriage as a condition for membership. As you and Jeff both noted, that sort of thing would be the kind of counter-cultural statement that really does make the New Testament a real ethical force, but I’ve just never seen it.

    Posted by Nathan Gilmour | June 15, 2011, 4:45 am
  10. Nate wrote: “With regards to the divorced person, I ask this not as a trap but because I’m curious: are you familiar with congregations who practice the sort of discipline that you outlined in your second comment? I’m not, but my own experiences with congregations have been relatively limited.”

    Ours would, or at least it should, Lord willing. I guess we’d essentially see this as being under discipline from their former church, since in theory they should be.

    Assuming that church was lovingly trying to win them back to the fold, we wouldn’t want to short-circuit that, but rather be used by God to help them be restored to Him and them.

    Practically, it can be hard to know all there is to know, but it sounds like for the sake of argument we’re assuming the church does know.

    From our recent past we actually had a situation where someone was wanting to join and at the 11th hour we were alerted of ongoing discipline issues with the former church. We tabled the membership vote and after much investigation they were not recommended by the elders to the congregation for membership due to perceived unrepentance.

    I will say this, however, the other church was little to no help in our efforts to better understand the situation, which was very discouraging.

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | June 15, 2011, 2:56 am
  11. Hmm. That’s interesting. Sorry, Nathan, but we don’t allow skaters in our church. I guess we all have to draw the line somewhere.

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | June 15, 2011, 2:21 am
  12. “Discussing divorce and LGBTQIAW* questions side by side should yield some good questions about both.”

    Agreed. Consistency and fairness ought to be striven for even if it were to mean that a congregation decided to be less appeasing toward the sinfully divorced and remarried, to continue with your example, rather than more affirming toward LGBTs. And it would force churches to become even more counter-cultural in that it is easy to affirm the sinfully divorced and remarried since it is a non-issue in our society while LGBT issues are still highly controversial.

    And, for the record, Nate’s 2 out of 3 are “skater” and “baseball fan.”

    Posted by Jeff Wright | June 14, 2011, 9:54 pm
  13. I certainly agree that the origin of the desire and the ethical act are two very different questions, Gunny. That bullet point mainly goes to address those folks who continue to make really bad speculations about the origins of desires. Certainly the Church should welcome deliberations beyond that question (in other words, it’s one early part of the discussion, not the end of the discussion), but I wanted to note one particularly stupid, common, and oft-repeated claim about origins.

    With regards to the divorced person, I ask this not as a trap but because I’m curious: are you familiar with congregations who practice the sort of discipline that you outlined in your second comment? I’m not, but my own experiences with congregations have been relatively limited.

    Posted by Nathan Gilmour | June 14, 2011, 7:39 pm
  14. “To say that everyone whose desires are not heterosexual “chooses” to be lesbian or gay simply does not adequately describe the stories that most human beings tell about ourselves.”

    To me the question of whether “being” a homosexual is a choice or genetic is moot. Whether or not we want to do something (e.g., transgress God’s law) doesn’t validate so doing.

    Your aforementioned desire for women (i.e., heterosexuality) would in no way pacify your wife’s potential wrath were you to deviate sexually from your marriage vows.

    In addition, any sexual interaction outside of marriage (as God intended it) is verboten, including 2 heterosexual folks who happened to be wired in such a way as to desire each other … in that way.

    To be fair, I do realize I’m open to questions of how a person is supposed to legitimately satisfy certain desires, if he or she is not married and will never be married. However, my (hopefully not uncaring sounding) response would be that perhaps they never can.

    But, then again, part of my understanding of sanctification is the altering of our desires by the Spirit of God into conformity with the law of God. (cf. Philippians 2:13; Ezek 36:26-27)

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | June 14, 2011, 5:11 pm
  15. “… but never in those congregations has one’s “coming out” as a divorced person barred full membership.”

    I think if a divorced person wanted to join a congregation and was unwilling to reconcile with a spouse, particularly one who didn’t want the divorce, the church would have to see that as unrepentant sin. Consequently, I would hope all churches would be at a minimum hesitant to induct a member harboring ANY unrepentant sin (e.g., gossip, fornication (even heterosexual), theft, sloth, etc.).

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | June 14, 2011, 5:01 pm

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