My Game-Changers Regarding Same-Sex Marriage

In the pietistic Lutheran Church in which I was nurtured as a young Christian, we never talked about homosexuality or same-sex marriage. The traditional view that marriage God intends for marriage to be reserved for a man and woman was just assumed. It was like the air we breathed.

I now embrace a non-traditional view of same-sex marriage; believing that God will bless a same-sex marriage wherein each marriage partner has made a covenant commitment to love the other person for a lifetime. What precipitated this change in belief? I attribute it to two “game-changers.”

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My Dream for a New Respectful Conversation Beginning at my Church

After eight years of splendid ministry at the church I attend, American Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, our co-pastors, Mike and Elizabeth Hardeman, resigned to accept a call at another RCA church in Pella, Iowa. Verlyn Boone was then appointed as a transitional pastor, charged with the task of shepherding our congregation toward the appointment of a new pastor or pastoral team. To inform that search, Verlyn asked members of our congregation to envision “new beginnings” at our church. What follows is my dream for a new beginning, which I shared with the congregation on October 1, 2023

Pastor Verlyn has encouraged members of our church to envision possible “new beginnings” for our congregation. I have a really big dream for one such new beginning; a dream that some would say is impossible to realize.

My dream is that all of us at our church learn how to disagree lovingly and respectfully about our strong disagreements about some contentious issues, such as political affiliation and same-sex marriage; two issues about which I know we have some strong disagreements.

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Telling Both Sides of the Story

The following text will be published as a “My Turn” column in the October 4, 2023 issue of the Capital-Democrat, a local newspaper serving Sioux County in Iowa.

In our increasingly tribalistic us-versus-them culture, in which so many Americans believe that “me and my people” (e.g., my Church, my religious denomination, my political party, my circle of friends) have captured the complete truth about any controversial issue and “those other folks” have captured none of that truth, it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince anyone that there may be a contrary belief that differs from the story my people tell.

A glaring example of this problem is a claim made by Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina, a Republican presidential hopeful for 2024.  Scott asserts, based on his own experience, that everyone in America, independent of race/ethnicity and gender, has an equal opportunity to realize the American dream of forging a successful life in America.

But there is another side to that story.

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Possible Limits on Free Speech

The Supreme Court recently made three momentous decisions on Affirmative Action, the forgiveness of student debts for college education and religious freedom. The media and internet have been flooded with differing positions as to the validity of these decisions. I will now add to that abundance by presenting my position on the religious freedom case.[1]

To set the stage for the context for the Supreme court decision on religious freedom, I first remind the reader of the wording of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (highlighting certain words here and later that will be relevant to my reflections).

Congress shall make no law restricting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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These “Truths” I Now Embrace About What It Means to Follow Jesus

What does it mean to follow Jesus? Highly regarded representatives from twelve Christian traditions told us how those within their traditions answer that all-important question in the twelve-month conversation that I recently hosted on this website (which you can access at the bottom of this Home Page).

But what did I learn from this conversation? I now present a compendium of “truths” that I now embrace as a result of this ecumenical conversation; “truths” that I believe should guide me in my day-to-day decisions as I aspire to be a faithful follower of Jesus

#1: I should avail myself of the resources for spiritual growth (i.e., rituals for worship and practice of the sacraments) provided in the Christian tradition in which I worship at the same time that I take concrete actions in response to the commandments of Jesus, especially his commandment, recorded in Matthew 25, that I minister to the needs of the poor, persecuted, and marginalized in our society. It is both/and, not either/or.
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Grad and Faculty Roundtables that Explore the Intersection of Faith, Science, and Philosophy

I recently added an icon to the top bar of my website, titled “Other Models,” which identifies excellent initiatives that seek to foster loving and respectful conversations among persons having strong disagreements that nicely complement the approach that is modeled on this website. One of these complementary initiatives is the “Grad & Faculty Roundtable” program, led by David Thom, the president of The Leadership Connection. I asked David to write a “Guest Musing” for my website, focusing on five topics that I posed for his consideration, as follows:

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Other Models of Respectful Conversation

There are other excellent initiatives that seek to foster loving and respectful conversations among persons who have strong disagreements that complement the approach that is modeled on this website.

To read a brief description of some of these initiatives, go to a new icon on the top of my Home page, titled “Other Models.

David Thom, who is providing leadership for the “Grad & Faculty Roundtables” model will be posting a “guest Musing” on April 12 in which he will describe in greater detail the contours of his model.

A Dynamic View of Following Jesus

As teenagers at Fifty-Ninth Street church in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn who had made a commitment to following Jesus, we used to flock to Saturday night church rallies, particularly attracted to announced sermon topics like “How to Find the Will of God for Your Life.” An underlying assumption behind such sermons seemed to be that there was a static blueprint for each of our lives, and we needed all the help we could get to discern what that blueprint was as soon as possible, before we make irrevocable blunders.

I now believe that the idea of there being a blueprint for working out my aspiration to follow Jesus does not bear up under biblical scrutiny. For example, Isaiah 58:10-11 reads, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then … the Lord will guide you continually.” This passage suggests that it is in the very process of helping others that you gain greater discernment as to how to continue helping others.

This suggests a dynamism in my attempts to follow Jesus. At any given time, I decide on a course of action that reflects my present understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. The results that emerge from this course of action help me to refine my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. This refined understanding, in turn, informs my decision as to a subsequent course of action. This cycle then continues for the rest of my life.

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Some Concrete, Practical Suggestions for Churches Wishing to Discuss Contentious Issues

The following Musing presents an adaptation of the highlights of chapter 8 on my “Let’s Talk” book, titled “Followers of Jesus Creating Inclusive Conversations Within Churches.”

What follows is informed by both my successes and colossal failures in my attempts for more than a decade to orchestrate loving and respectful conversations among persons who have strong disagreements about some contentious issues.

I will focus on possible conversations in Christian churches. My recommendations can be adapted to other organizations, Christian or otherwise.

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Weak and Strong Views of Acceptance and Peace

The following Musing is drawn from the beginning of chapter 8 of my “Let’s Talk” book titled “Followers of Jesus Creating Inclusive Conversations Within Churches.”

As I gather with friends for coffee and cookies after the Sunday morning worship service at my home church we often talk about the Cubs or the Twins (with me trying to slip in a few good words about my Cardinals) or the upcoming snowstorm or the latest happenings in our small town.

But we judiciously avoid talking about some hot-button issues about which we know there is significant disagreement within our diverse congregation—issues like same-sex marriage or political affiliation/engagement.

Of course, such lighthearted banter among friends is good. But it is problematic if at our church we never talk about our strong disagreements concerning difficult issues because we have embraced weak views of the Christian values of acceptance and peace instead of stronger views that have the potential to lead to deeper acceptance and more meaningful peace.

I applaud those church congregations who have made a commitment to the core Christian value of acceptance. One such church that I know well has been criticized as the church where “anyone can go.” That should be taken as a compliment. But I present two challenges for such churches.

First, it is too easy for the word acceptance to be interpreted in a very weak sense as mere tolerance. To illustrate this caution more concretely: A church may accept both gay and straight members and yet harbor sentiments among some of its members such as, “It is OK if those gay Christians worship with us, but once they are given positions of church leadership, I’m leaving for another church.” (This is an actual quote from a member of a church that has admirably committed itself to the core value of acceptance).

Secondly, it is too easy for a church that is committed to a core value of acceptance to interpret a related admirable commitment to the value of peace in the weak sense of absence of conflict, with the effect that those who worship at that church keep the peace by not talking to each other about their disagreements.

So, while I applaud Christian churches that claim commitment to the Christian values of acceptance and peace, I want to challenge these gatherings of Christ-followers to aspire to stronger manifestations of acceptance and peace, as follows:

First, I believe that the word acceptance is too weak since it is too easily interpreted as only coexistence, sometimes in the extremely anemic sense of just putting up with someone. I prefer to think in terms of belonging.

As a Christian, I should help every other follower of Jesus in our group of believers to experience a strong sense of belonging. By this I mean that the other is received as one who is beloved. We should love everyone because everyone is loved by God. Therefore, the idea of just putting up with the married lesbian couple who attend our church is pernicious. Rather, out of love, we should get to know them, which starts by empathetically listening to their stories of the ways in which they have attempted to be followers of Jesus and the enormous obstacles they have faced during that quest.

Secondly, in a related way, all Christian churches need to move beyond a weak negative view of peace as absence of conflict to a strong view of peace as shalom: a state of affairs where everyone in the church community is flourishing in the midst of their diversity. Such flourishing precludes silencing anyone. Rather, it understands that we will flourish together only if we listen respectfully to each other’s stories of the ways in which we aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus and the differing challenges that we have faced. In other words, we do not flourish when we suppress our disagreements. Rather, we flourish when we get our disagreements out on the table and talk respectfully about them, thereby opening up the possibility of learning from one another.

As you should expect by now from my previous Musings, there is a foundational premise that underlies my challenge to Christian churches to move from weak to strong views of acceptance and peace. All Christians agree that Jesus calls those who claim to be his followers to love others (Mark 12:31). But too many Christians ignore or violate a particular deep expression of such neighbor-love. As already stated, my foundational premise is that to create a safe and welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express that disagreement and to then talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love.

But how can Christian churches put into practice a commitment to strong views of acceptance and peace? My proposal for your consideration will be presented in my next and final Musing in this series.