God Doesn’t Care (about rules, God cares about human beings)

Caravaggio Ecce Homo – cc via Wikimedia- edited

I confessed to my pastor, when I was in my early 20’s and had just moved to San Francisco, that I had recently had anonymous sex with another man.  As a committed, evangelical Christian I felt intense guilt and shame. My pastor, Jack Bernard, did not minimize the sinfulness of what I had done. But he did tell me, “Tim, you need to know that God is not a moralist.”

“Moralist,” was not a familiar word to me and it took me awhile to puzzle out his meaning. As I thought about it, I realized it meant something like this: God wasn’t upset that I broke some rules. If God was upset, it was because God loved me and I was hurting myself. Just as Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), so too, the rules were made to guide me into life, health, and goodness. The rules were meant to keep me from hurting myself and others.

try to receive all the love God has to give and that love will make us good

I still struggle to live into the truth that God is all love and not a moralist. If God is ever angry, it is because in the words of Karl Barth, “God’s anger is the heat of his love.” God is fully for us. God is love. Trying to be good out of a fear that God will eternally torture us if we are bad will make us small, self-obsessed souls. Rather, a better project is to try to receive all the love God has to give and that love will make us good.

If God is a moralist then the stakes are high for each one of us. We need to “get it right” to merit God’s love. In the debate over LGBT sexuality, this can take the form of thinking that we must fight “for justice” or “defend the authority of Scripture.”

But if we believe that God is fundamentally for us, we can relax and actually be good by loving others. This certainly includes LGBT Christians (and our perspective on how to do that), but it also includes loving those Christians who “get it wrong” by “devaluing Scripture,” or “ignoring justice.” Loving other Christians will mean many things, but first of all it means not abandoning them by separating from them.

My own opinion is that having curiosity about what God is doing in the life of a gay Christian may mean encouraging someone towards either a “liberal” or a “conservative” perspective. For instance, I can imagine Christians coming alongside “Kent” and observing that “Like many oppressed minorities you’ve fetishized and idolized the goods of the majority culture. As much as you obsess over getting married, your driven relationship with “Sam” seems destructive for you both. You may want to give yourself to celibacy, and to welcoming the healing love of God.” Or, for “Emily” it might mean reflecting, “Growing up in a fundamentalist home, it seems like you’ve internalized a self-loathing toward your body in general and your gay sexuality in particular. As ‘Amy’ loves you bodily, it seems like a source of grace and healing for you. We’d like to support you in marrying her.”

In this model, “Scripture” or “justice” do not become rigid dictates which reduce the Christian life to an exercise in painting by numbers. Rather, the life of faith requires faith that the Holy Spirit is available and will show us (yes through Scripture, and the demands of justice, and tradition, and the gifts of pastoral discernment, and other things as well) what faithfulness looks like in a given situation. 

Seeing God as “not a moralist,” is a crucial context for this conversation. Chris and Weldon, I feel like both of you have entered this conversation in a non-anxious way that helps us toward truth rather than further alienation. Thank you for the generous spirit (Spirit?) you’ve both exhibited in this; it has been an honor to participate in this dialogue with you. I’ll try to respond to some of the issues the two of you raised.

Responses to Weldon

Weldon, you ask an incisive series of questions that get to the heart of how difficult it is to maintain unity in the face of disagreement. I reproduce them here:

How do you as a pastor hold together the views of those who feel strongly about “exclusion” and “inclusion” of LGBT members? Do you see these as parallel opposing views? In other words how do you encourage members to agree to disagree and still be church together? . . . Are there limits to how far and on what concerns our disagreements can be embraced and still maintain the unity of the body? . . . It really matters who is being harmed and what violence is being down to whom and with what manner of privilege and power are marshalled to harm another member of the body. Chris and Tim, has that been acknowledged or addressed in your churches? If so how do you navigate and negotiate those differences? . . . As a pastor what is your response and responsibility when an LGBT member comes to you to explore marriage or ministry? What is the church’s role and response when that happens?

First off I need to confess that the church I’m part of has been a “Third Way” church in that we’ve allowed for both views but have asked LGBT people to bear the burden of being Third Way by remaining celibate. I’d like us to continue as a Third Way church, but would like for a change in policy so that non-affirming Christians bear the burden of the disagreement since they are the people of privilege in this situation (we hope to begin such a conversation in the Fall). Practically this would mean allowing LGBT Christians to marry and serve in leadership.

I recently interviewed Ken Wilson, a pastor of a Third Way church in which this is being practiced. I asked him questions similar to the one’s you’ve addressed to me. He answered, in part:

It’s been my experience, that people from conservative backgrounds really have to get it. They have to buy into Romans 14 [A passage in which Paul exhorts Christians to ‘welcome one another in the face of ‘disputable matters.’]. They have to let go of their privilege in order to follow this path. And some can do it and some can’t. But that’s true of many things in Christianity. How many conservative Christians are obeying the Gospel commands of radical discipleship in the realms of materialism, and greed, and other areas of life? So the fact that it’s not easy for people to do, doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.

I agree. I also think it is crucial for a congregation to see that having important differences of opinion, and yet continuing to live in love and unity is an important witness of what it means to be a people of peace, a people who call Jesus Lord. It is no great accomplishment (although given our sin it is still an accomplishment!) to get a group of similar people to live in unity. But if we can live in love and peace across differences, then we have something worth sharing with others.

Weldon, you also make the following observation:

Finally, I find it surprising that none of us directly addressed the traditional creation question, where God’s creation of male and female somehow means “homosexuality” is not of creation and is “disordered.” My sense is that arguments over “birth” versus “choice” claims for “LGBT” orientation have diminished as awareness, experience, and scientific evidence grows that indicates considerable biological factors and nuanced diversity in sexual orientation. However, I have spent my pastoral years in congregations where that wasn’t disputed. So I am wondering if or how that is still a matter of contention across our churches?

I addressed this in my last post, so I’ll just briefly comment on this here. I contend that God’s ideal pattern (as revealed in the Genesis account) is that of male and female joining together in marriage. Based on this, the Christian tradition has labeled same-sex coupling as a “disorder,” a non-conformity with God’s will, and therefore a sin. But just because something deviates from the ideal, it isn’t necessarily a sin.

In a “God is not a moralist” context, we believe that God isn’t making up artificial stumbling blocks to holiness. We’ll usually be able to see how sin harms human beings, or subverts community (think of archetypal sins like murder, adultery, stealing). In the ancient world, with its emphasis on the production of progeny for the sake of social, cultural, and economic goods, most homosexual relations happened on the “down-low” (or at least outside of marriage). People did harm to their own integrity and community. By engaging in homosexual acts, people wronged themselves and others.

 I think gay relationships can build up people and communities

But as the behavioral sciences reveal a homosexual orientation to be a non-pathological variant on human sexuality, there is reason to see homosexuality as a “disability” rather than a “disorder.” (I realize that many of my gay friends will resist this label. But, if you don’t think of disabled individuals as “inferior,” I don’t see what the problem is.) If it is a disability, then we might say, “love as you can.” To borrow an idea from ethicist David Gushee: “Participate in the beautiful, historic Christian sexual ethic of covenantal monogamy. It is a difficult road but a sanctifying one.” Practiced this way, I think gay relationships can build up people and communities rather than damage them.

As we see the Spirit in gay couples animating hospitality, service to the local church, and generally blessing others, I think there is good reason to re-assess our view of a same-sex acts as necessarily sinful.

Responses to Chris

I was fascinated that you love the image of the Christian life as improvisation and that you see that as a rationale for the non-affirming perspective. I love that image as well, but see it as a potent argument for the affirming side. As I noted earlier, I think literalist approaches to Scripture make Christianity into a “paint by numbers” exercise rather than an adventure in faith. It is as if most Christians think that in Scripture we have the script for Act IV!

While I agree that the new creation has its roots in Eden, a tree can look a lot different than its roots. One of the few things we know about the new creation is that “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30). In the New Testament we already see a considerable de-emphasis on the traditional family. Jesus and Paul both seem to be single. Paul recommends that single people remain single unless they are “not practicing self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:9). Marriage, in this view, doesn’t seem freighted with all the theological weight we tend to ascribe to it, but is a rather plain solution to God’s compassionate observation, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18).  

Since that is the most plainly stated Biblical purpose of marriage (rather than the speculative, and sometimes beautiful theories about how its real purpose is to mirror the unity-in-diversity of the Trinity) I see an opening for gay marriage.

The Christian life as improvisation also provides warrant for taking Gentile inclusion as a possible analogy for LGBT inclusion. If we were to ask evangelical Christians the question, “Who do you think is the most ‘far off’ from God group of people you know? The people most plagued by idolatry and sexual immorality?” I think many would answer “the gay community.” That is, of course, exactly how the Jews thought of Gentiles. And our full inclusion is more of a miracle than most of us Gentiles will ever admit.

Gentile inclusion meant that parts of the law were set aside. While I know that Jews would have seen gay sex as sexual immorality (something the Gentiles were asked to put aside), as I’ve noted above, there are good reasons to revisit gay sex as sin if it is in the context of a marriage.

Chris, I also agree that some of our disagreements are over the way we envision church. Anabaptist churches in general are small, and I in particular am attracted to ideas like the one in Joseph Hellerman’s book When the Church was a Family. Basically, it is the idea that the most common word for Christians in the New Testament was “brother” (and presumably “sister”), and that we are meant to act as family to each other.

In regard to your question about how a Third Way would work out if the pastor opposed gay marriage, in my context we’d work it out as if we were a family (which isn’t always great!). It might be something like: Malcolm would talk with Pastor Sally about his desire to marry his boyfriend and Sally would explain why she doesn’t bless gay marriages but also (having had this conversation twice already) that she knows a nearby pastor who will do it, and that in spite of not doing the wedding she still loves Malcolm to pieces (which he already knows, because she visited him faithfully when he was in the hospital).

Of course there is always the possibility that Malcolm will stomp off in a rage declaring that Sally doesn’t really love him. Or Sally might capitulate and seethe with resentment while she conducts the ceremony.  But hey, that’s how we Anabaptists do business. Or hopefully, family.

But I don’t know how it would work in a different setting. Putting up the hood on the Book of Common Prayer to mess with its engine sounds daunting. And the fact that you all think of marriage as a sacrament between a man and woman . . . do sacraments even have a latch for the hood?

For Further Thought

I am troubled by my inability to completely articulate a way of interpreting Scripture that avoids the dangers of literalism, while retaining something to which we must submit. Reading Scripture (I’m in 1 Samuel in my read-through-the-Bible plan) I find it to be a different book than the one described by most evangelicals. So I resonate with critiques like Peter Enn’s For the Bible Tells me So and Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. But both of those books falter in terms of a positive proposal for how we should interpret Scripture. I don’t feel completely adrift in this regard, but it troubles me. I want to keep thinking and talking with others about how to understand the Bible as an authoritative narrative.

Due to this conversation, I’ve started (only started) Ephraim Radner’s book A Brutal Unity. I understand that he suggests a self-sacrifice of conscience for the sake of unity. Early on he writes, “To be ‘one Church’ is to be joined to the unity of the Son to the Father, who, in the Spirit, gives himself away (Heb 9:14), not in some general flourish of self-denial, but to and for the sake of his enemies, the ‘godless,’ for their life.” Grounding this move in the example of Christ seems promising.

Whether Radner’s proposal has merit or not, we desperately need a way beyond the endless splintering of Protestantism. We need to model a way of unity in difference if the world is ever going to believe that the Messiah has come. I hope that all sides can devote more passion and energy toward finding a way of unity for the church.

On that note, I hope this dialogue has made its own tiny contribution toward that. Weldon and Chris, I’ve been surprised at the charity and generosity you’ve both had toward me and I experience it as a grace. Thank you to both of you and to readers who have made their way through these articles. May little sparks like this become a forest fire of forgiveness, reconciliation, and solidarity.


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