Looking back, moving forward

I so much appreciated both Tim’s and Weldon’s second posts. They modeled the kind of respectful conversation that I suspect is the hope for this respectful conversation.

Our final posts are supposed to identify issues that the three of us need to give more thought to as a basis for ongoing conversation. Before I do that, however, I’d like, briefly, to answer a couple of the questions that Tim and Weldon posed to me in their second posts. 

First, Tim asked about the early Christians’ decision to put aside the Sabbath for Gentile converts, suggesting that, since the Sabbath, which is so central to the creation narrative, was set aside in the New Covenant, the male-female sexual union might also be set aside. My response is that Jesus, The Acts of the Apostles, Paul, and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews each speak about the Sabbath, namely how the coming of Jesus changes how God’s people understand and experience the Sabbath. Jesus violated the Sabbath prohibitions of gleaning and healing, demonstrating that in God’s kingdom pursuing shalom is always acceptable. In Acts 15, the apostles set aside Sabbath regulations, which had become ethno-cultural identity markers, for Gentile converts. In Romans 14, Paul specifically mentions those who “esteem one day better than another” as worthy of welcome and honor, all the while insisting that the one for whom “all days are alike” are worthy of equal welcome (Romans 14:5-6). The Letter to the Hebrews recasts the Sabbath in eschatological terms, writing that, “a Sabbath rest remains for the people of God” (Hebrew 4:9). Again, while the Sabbath and food laws were set aside for Gentile converts (and Jewish believers who felt so led), sexual morality was, if anything, made more challenging for both Jew and Gentile in the New Covenant. Thus I see no ground in setting aside the historic Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality, as it is rooted in the creation narrative, was strengthened by Jesus himself, and then affirmed by Paul.

Second, to Tim’s question about my relationship to Christians in Global South, I should be clear that I’ve been quite open about my strong opposition to the “anti-gay” laws that have been in the news recently in many countries in Africa. I’ve also spent time with some of these brothers and sisters, seeking to understand their perspective, all the while sharing my concerns. It’s interesting that Tim raised the issue of polygamy. Among our brothers and sisters in Africa, there seems to be a consensus that, when a man in multiple marriages comes to faith in Christ, it would be a greater wrong to insist that he simply choose one wife, thus exposing the others to deep shame and vulnerability, than to remain in an arrangement that is less than God’s intention but does honor and protects his wives. So, the man is allowed to maintain the marriages, yet, he is prohibited from serving in church leadership. I wonder if, ironically, this pastoral solution might be roughly applicable to a man or woman in a same-sex marriage who may come to faith in Christ, especially a couple who are raising children. 

Weldon asked about scholars who have influenced me, to whom I turn when wrestling through a challenging exegetical issue. I referenced both NT Wright and Richard Hays in my last post. They are two scholars that I often turn to on interpretive issues. Also, I appreciated Mennonite biblical scholar Willard Swartley’s book on this topic. After doing the exegesis of the texts directly related to same-sex intimacy, he demonstrates that the church’s “evolution” on pacifism, slavery, and woman in leadership are consistent with the New Testament, especially taking into consideration the “redemptive arc” of God’s kingdom, while that same arc simply wouldn’t work for same-sex relationships.

Weldon also asked about how our church teaches about issues of sexuality. Again, being a hierarchical church, our national denomination is clear that we uphold the historic Christian understanding of marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. So, I’m not permitted to perform same-sex marriages. Importantly, if a couple comes to me for marriage preparation, and one (or both) partner has been divorced, my bishop must grant permission, taking into account the circumstances of the prior marriage(s). Permission is not always forthcoming. 

In my preaching I roughly follow the Revised Common Lectionary, so, when assigned texts deal with issues of marriage and sexuality, I’ll preach on it. For example, last October the assigned gospel reading was Mark 10:2-12. It’s true that there are a lot more texts on compassion, mercy, forgiveness, grace, and justice, so my people generally hear more about these topics than on topics specifically relating to sexuality. I’ll often mention LGBT people as groups who tend to be marginalized and beaten down, thus especially close to God’s heart.

Also, in our new members’ class, we walk through the Book of Common Prayer, which, of course, includes the liturgy for Holy Matrimony that I mentioned last week. As I teach about marriage, I also try to articulate my “welcoming but not affirming” posture toward LGBT people. When someone joins our church, they know that our intention is to uphold the historic Christian teaching and practice on marriage, all the while welcoming any who might come. Finally, our youth minister occasionally teaches on issues related to sexuality, and he’s been clear with both the youth and their parents that our congregation is a safe place to wrestle through issues of sexual identity.

I realize that the above responses are no doubt inadequate, yet I hope that they offer some insight into my thinking and pastoral practice.

In thinking about issues to which each of us need to give more thought in this continuing conversation, I believe that the primary issue is, as Weldon expressed in his second post, our hermeneutical paradigms. How do we read, interpret, and then apply scripture to our given pastoral contexts? From this crucial question flows several others. For example, what is the role of the historic and global church, versus the local congregation, in discerning the Spirit’s leading in and through scripture? Another question that comes to mind is the criteria for breaking fellowship. How do we balance Jesus’ prayer for unity and Paul’s consistent admonitions to “be of one mind” (see, for example, Romans 15:5, 2 Corinthians 13:11, and Philippians 2:2) with both Paul’s and John’s pastoral practice of expelling brothers and sisters who transgress doctrinal and / or ethical boundaries?

I still believe that the burden of proof is on those who argue for an affirming position, so I think that my affirming brothers and sisters need to do work on a theology of marriage that would include same-sex couples. Since gender complementarity has been so central to understanding the nature of marriage, is same-sex marriage, technically, even possible? If anything, I believe that the Obergefell decision has made this kind of reflection more difficult, as now gender is no longer a factor in legal marriage.

For Tim’s “Third Way” position, it seems that there are many practical issues to work out. As I mentioned in my second post, I don’t think that a non-affirming pastor could be effective at a Third Way congregation, nor a non-affirming youth pastor. I also wonder how many non-affirming parents would feel comfortable if their children began to struggle with sexual identity issues at a Third Way church.

For me, well, to Weldon’s question, I need to stay open to the Spirit’s leading, always open to read, pray, and listen, to whatever, to paraphrase Weldon, God might put in before me. I also need to make sure that my congregation, and, to extent that I have influence, my denomination, never becomes a safe-haven for homophobia.

I hope that the above is a helpful “last word”, which, ideally, is not the last word at all, but rather the last word in a specific conversation, which is a part of a much larger and ongoing conversation to which we are called, continually, to participate.

Tim, I value your voice and example, and I’m grateful that we’ve been able to spend time together in the past. I hope that there might be more time together in the future. Weldon, I resonated with your comment about “relational distance” between us. Thank you for trusting me with your story, and I hope that you’ve found my contributions helpful. I’d love to meet you someday to further our conversation, and, more importantly, deepen our bond in Christ. 

It’s been an honor and a privilege to participate in this conversation. I only hope that it has been helpful to the two of you, and to anyone who may have read the posts. It may become increasingly difficult to be a congregation that welcomes LGBT people yet maintains the historic Christian teaching on marriage, but as I wrestle with scripture and tradition in our unique local context, it is the only place my (hopefully Spirit-formed) conscience will allow me to be. So, today, here I humbly stand.

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