Living in the already / not yet of God’s kingdom

First, let me say that it is an honor to participate in this conversation. I very much appreciated both Tim’s and Weldon’s posts, and, in what follows, I hope not only to embrace them as my brothers in Christ, but also to engage their posts with understanding and respect.

I found myself agreeing with Tim and Weldon on many things. I resonated deeply with Tim’s observation that LGBT Christians are not “sexualities to be affirmed or disciplined”, but rather “people” with whom to walk, as well as Weldon’s exhortation to “engage with” rather than “talking and deciding about” our LGBT brothers and sisters. 

I’m also in agreement with my brothers that the church, both individual Christians and corporate church bodies, has caused deep pain to LGBT people, both inside and outside of the church, which has caused, to use Weldon’s words, “the Church great harm and loss of the gifts of members and the wholeness of the body of Christ.” Tim’s witness of growing up “loathing” himself because well-meaning Christians hadn’t listened, studied, and prayed enough to distinguish between orientation and behavior is Exhibit A in why this discussion is so important.

I also appreciated Tim’s observations on the importance of recognizing the culturally conditioned nature of our emotions, whether disgust or joy, and that, biblically, “our feelings can deceive us.” Weldon similarly affirms the importance of experience in apply the truth of scripture to a given context, noting that “’experience’ alone does not constitute the Church’s faithful profession or practice,” but that “’experience’ is essential to being church.”

I found Tim’s explanation and analysis of “FIRE” incredibly helpful in understanding why an issue like LGBT inclusion becomes so, well, “hot”, and also why the costly realities of Christian discipleship seem so counter-cultural today. In contemporary America, it is likely that, when Christians “play with FIRE”, so to speak, we get “in trouble”, as Weldon rightly observes is so often the consequence of following Jesus faithfully.  

 It is in the context of our common commitment to Jesus and His church, then, that we disagree about several things.

Primarily, we disagree about how scripture applies to this current discussion. I believe that Tim’s observation, “The debate over same-sex relationships and the Bible is not one about Scripture’s authority, but of Scripture’s interpretation” is, in the context of our discussion, true. However, not all all interpretations of scripture are equally valid. I agree with Tim that scripture is, primarily, “storied”, rather than legal. However, the “mystery novel” analogy only works up to a point. For example, a first-time reader of scripture might be shocked by Jesus’ teaching about the Sabbath and the Spirit’s work incorporating Gentiles into God’s people “apart from the Law.” However, as modern readers, we know how the canonical story ends, and, as a result, also catch a glimpse of how the cosmic story ends. 

NT Wright has a great image of Christian ethics as “improvising” a lost fourth act of a Shakespeare play, knowing Acts I-III, and also Act V, the final act. So, our living within the story with integrity requires knowing the beginning, initial development, and climactic moment, in addition to the ultimate end. In this light, the question becomes, “Does affirming a sexual relationship between two individuals of the same gender ‘work’ within the narrative?” Wright also makes the “ethics as improvisation” analogy to jazz music. In order to improvise well, we must know the piece, and respect the boundaries of the piece, especially the key and timing, if our improvisation is going to resonate. 

As I said in my first post, the creation narrative, Jesus’ affirmation of the creation narrative, Paul’s echoes of the creation narrative in Romans 1, and, finally, the hope of the ultimate renewal of creation (or, to use another NT Wright-ism, “putting the world to rights”), convinces me that God’s intention for sexual intimacy is within a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman. Weldon rightly points out that marriage in scripture is problematic due to, as he writes, “polygamy, patriarchy, and property”. However, this is a far cry from the radical equality envisioned in Genesis 1-2, and, post-Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost, a far cry from Paul commanding husbands to love their wives, “as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25). In other words, God’s creative intention is clear in Genesis 1-2, but the Fall puts everything out of whack, and then Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension begins to put things back together. The redemptive arc on marriage is clear—a 1st century Roman or Jewish husband called to love his wife as Christ loved the church simply cannot revert to the “polygamy, patriarchy, and property” paradigm, but is rather thrust forward to the new creation, which finds it roots in Eden.

Moving toward the new creation, however, puts us in what biblical theologians often call the “already / not yet” phase of God’s kingdom coming “on earth as in heaven”. In other words, the damaging effects of the Fall are still very much with us. In the Fall, humankind as a whole, but also each individual human, was broken, but each one of is broken uniquely. Richard Mouw, the former President of Fuller Seminary, once used the image of a server at a restaurant walking with a platter of empty glasses. If the server trips, all the glasses will break, but each glass will be broken uniquely. So it is with our sexuality—each of us, because of original sin, our own sinful choices, or so often the sins of others, are broken. And, because (as Weldon rightly observes) our sexuality is not simply peripheral to our identities as human beings, experiencing salvation will no doubt include the redemption of our sexuality. However, in the “already / not yet” of Act IV, how this looks will be different for each of us. Some will, inevitably, experience a good measure of God’s intention for sexual intimacy, while others—gay and straight alike—will be, to use Paul’s words (adopted by Richard Hays in a now-classic essay on this subject), “awaiting the redemption of our bodies”. This is, no doubt, a “difficult curriculum” (in Tim’s poignant words), which the church, collectively, must acknowledge and support pastorally. Tears, grief, and stumbling are simply part of the road toward the new creation. To pretend otherwise is to be disconnected from the reality of the biblical story. 

There were a couple of key questions that, in my mind, Tim and Weldon may have avoided or not addressed adequately. First, I find Tim’s paradigm of a “Third Way” church intriguing. However, it seems to me that, at the very least, the pastor of such a church would need be able to support same-sex relationships, as pastors are involved in marriage preparation, marriage counseling, and other pastoral initiatives to strengthen and support marriages. If the pastor felt uncomfortable with a gay couple getting married, it would be nearly impossible for him or her to minister effectively. 

Using the Romans 14-15 analogy, it was necessary for Paul to affirm individual choices around whether or not they observed certain Jewish customs regarding Sabbath observance and dietary restrictions. Paul’s main concern was that all Christians understood that “righteousness” comes through Jesus to Jew and Gentile alike. So, while honoring Jewish heritage, or even the devotional possibility of Jewish identity markers, can be helpful, it must never obscure the radical nature of the gospel. Can this be directly applied to “disputes” over the place of sexual relationships between two people of the same gender?

In some ways, Anglicans are attempting a Third Way approach to the issue of women’s ordination. Some Anglicans are opposed, others are supportive. Among those opposed, some believe that female clergy undermine the authority of scripture, while others, having looked at the biblical arguments, have concluded that a pro-women’s ordination interpretation is possible, but simply not embraced it. On the other hand, some who support women’s ordination believe it is an issue of justice, and that to oppose women’s ordination is to oppose God’s redemptive activity. Others, however, having looked at the biblical arguments, concede that those opposed to women’s ordination have valid biblical arguments, but find the arguments in favor of women’s ordination to be quite compelling. What we’ve found is that a Third Way approach is very difficult. The pastoral challenges are immense, and I often wonder if the Third Way is sustainable on this issue. However, because I do believe that valid arguments both for and against women’s ordination exist, and that, within the New Testament, there is tension between permission and prohibition of women in leadership, I feel compelled to try. The difference, however, between women’s ordination and permitting same-sex relationships, is that the biblical argument in favor of the latter is, I believe, exceedingly thin and largely unembraced.

 Tim also observes that “the criteria for Christian division ought to be very high,” then goes on to look at whether or not “heresy” should apply to this discussion. I totally agree that anyone who affirms Nicene orthodoxy ought not be labelled a heretic, and, to the extent that an affirming Christian can honestly affirm the creed in its plain sense, he or she is not, technically, a heretic. However, Paul chided the Corinthians for allowing a man to have a sexual relationship with his step-mother (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), going so far as demanding that he be expelled from the community. In this case, it wasn’t a doctrinal issue, but a specific sexual relationship that, according to Paul, was not only destroying the integrity of the community, but also its witness to the world. So, while it may not be proper for a non-affirming Christian to declare affirming Christians as heretics, it is instructive that, for Paul, the proper ordering of sexual relationships within the church was important enough to expel a brother from fellowship. 

Finally, Weldon asserts that, “The Way of Jesus is not found in seven texts that presumably speak to and settle the ‘homosexuality’ division in the Church.” I think that I agree with him, but I’d love to hear his thoughts on how, exactly, the texts in question speak to Christian discipleship, and, also, how Jesus’ radical call of self-denial, along with his call to rest, might be lived out by individuals and communities struggling with how best to engage with LGBT individuals. I’d also be interested in hearing more about the powerful passage he references from Acts 10 in which Peter saw the sheet: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). God was making Gentiles clean, yes, and the leaders in Jerusalem were led by the Spirit to relieve them from the demands of the Law. However, they were still to abstain from sexual immorality. Is it possible to announce that God accepts LGBT people, and that heterosexual Christians might relieve them of the need to become heterosexuals, all the while asking them, just as we ask heterosexuals, to abstain from sexual relationships outside of marriage defined as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman?

Having stated the disagreements above, I must say that I have a great deal of respect for both Tim and Weldon, and, in their stories, I see each of them longing to be faithful to Jesus. Tim not only advocates for a Third Way, he embodies a Third Way. Tim’s story allows him to understand how both conservative Christians and LGBT people feel (his comments on “disgust” and “joy” were unusually insightful because of this, I believe), and his nurture in the Anabaptist peacemaking tradition has equipped him to interpret one world to the other with a deep desire for reconciliation. 

Weldon, also operating within the Anabaptist tradition, understands that following Jesus often leads to trouble with religious leaders. The pacifist convictions of Mennonites seem to shape his commitment to “be present with people in pain without adding to their pain,” which does seem to capture Jesus’ words that he is “gentle, and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29). The church is desperate for more gentle, humble pastors.  

Finally, in writing, reading, and reflecting, I was surprised by the importance of ecclesiology to this discussion. For me, I noticed two features of Anglicanism recurring in my mind: first, our legacy as an established church in England, and, second, the importance of the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike the Anabaptist tradition from which both Tim and Weldon write, the Church of England has been, and continues to be, rooted in an understanding of Christendom in which church and state are very much intertwined. So, legal marriage and Christian marriage have been thought to be virtually identical. When the definition of legal marriage changes, there are consequences for the understanding of Christian marriage as well. While Anabaptists trace their history to, as Weldon notes, “a heretical violation of Church rules and tradition,” The Church of England participated in making “the rules”. In the US, Anglicans, while certainly not officially established, have played an outsized influence in the development of the status quo (over 25% of American Presidents have been Episcopalians). Rightly or wrongly, then, my tradition has been enmeshed in the societal status quo, which causes a different kind of discussion on marriage. It has taken us much longer to arrive at the position of making a stark differentiation between “civil marriage” and, as mentioned in my first post, the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. This has certainly impacted how we’ve reasoned theologically, and practiced pastorally, on the cluster of issues surrounding engaging LGBT individuals.

Concerning the Book of Common Prayer, liturgy and worship has always been the means by which Anglican theology has been expressed. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), first in 1549, then 1552, 1557, and, finally, after the Restoration of the English Monarchy, in 1662, has articulated the theology of Anglican churches. Thus, changing liturgy often reflects changes in theology. For example, in the 1979 revision of the American BCP, the “he” throughout the ordination liturgy for presbyters and bishops was italicized, communicating that “she” was now an option. The theology of ordination changed, and, ultimately, that change was reflected liturgically. The marriage service is no different. In the 1662 BCP, the woman promised to “obey and serve” her husband, while the husband promised to “love and honor” his wife. In the 1979 BCP, husband and wife make identical promises to “love, comfort, honor and keep” one another. The theology of marriage had—consistent with the redemptive arc of scripture—developed into a more egalitarian relationship, and, like ordination, that change was reflected liturgically. 

That is why the formal approval of changing the marriage liturgy to be, essentially, “gender-neutral”, has caused such an upset. Our theology, as Anglicans, is carried through our liturgy, and removing the assumption that, for a marriage to take place, a male and a female are required, constitutes a radical departure from our understanding, again, of what it means to be made “male and female” in the image of God. 

Also, in the above mentioned ordination liturgy, the Presiding Bishop exhorts the new bishop that he or she be “a wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.” In affirming a partnered gay man as a bishop, the church, in effect, saying that his life was just such an example. That is why the ordination of Gene Robinson was a crisis point for Anglicans. Again, our theology is carried in and through our liturgy.

In conclusion, and in that vein, I’ll observe that today is Ash Wednesday. I’ll be leading my congregation into the season of Lent, which, according to the BCP, is a season of “self-examination and repentance,” of “fasting, prayer, and self-denial.” In the Litany of Penitence, we entreat the Lord, saying, “Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:
for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,” and “For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.” 

As I pray, I include my own blindness and indifference to LGBT people, the uncharitable thoughts, prejudice, and even contempt for LGBT people and their allies that I, and my brothers and sisters in Christ, have shown. My deepest hope is that, as we stumble toward the new creation, all the while awaiting the redemption of our bodies, we might, together, hear the voice of Jesus, which says both, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), and, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). 

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