Reflections on Gay Marriage

Author’s Note by Harold Heie: In my various attempts to model on this website respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements about some contentious issues, I have attempted to be even-handed in allowing those on either side of each issue to present their differing beliefs, with minimal editorial comments from me as moderator. However, after having read my eCircle narratives, a few of my readers have asked me to present my beliefs about the issue at hand. I take that a good sign since it may testify to my  having been reasonably successful in my attempts to be fair in my eCircle reports, not “tipping the scales” in favor of one perspective on the issue.

But I believe I owe honest answers to the readers who have posed such honest questions. Therefore, from time to time, I have included in my blogs (what I have called my “Musings”) answers to those who wonder about positions that I take on selected issues. What follows is my response to the question a few of my readers have asked about my personal position on gay marriage.

A controversial question that is presently leading to significant rancor and schisms within Christian churches and denominations is:

Does God approve of a lifelong, monogamous, marriage commitment between a gay couple?

The marriage commitment I am speaking of involves a life-long covenantal commitment to a “loving unity” that includes sexual intimacy as the deepest expression of that unity.

For shorthand in what follows, I will label a negative answer to my question, which holds that God intends for marriage to be exclusively between one man and one woman, the “traditional” view” and a positive answer the “non-traditional” view

I call this a “disputable” question for Christians, by which I mean that there are equally committed Christians who give diametrically opposed answers to this question based on differing interpretations of certain biblical passages (among other reasons presented below).

Since what follows will become a bit complicated, let me provide a road map. I will first present my reasons for my non-traditional view that gives a positive response to the above question. I will then present my belief that while “God will approve of ” an enduring  marriage commitment between a gay couple, God will also bless a commitment to celibacy if that is chosen by a gay Christian. I then conclude with reflections on how a Christian church should navigate a respectful conversation between persons who hold to a traditional view on marriage and other Christians, like me, who hold to a non- traditional view.

MY REASONS FOR EMBRACING THE NON-TRADITIONAL FOR MARRIAGE.

I have four reasons for believing that God will bless an enduring marriage commitment between a gay couple, as follows.

ONE’S SEXUAL ORIENTATION IS NOT CHOSEN, IT IS A BIOLOGICAL GIVEN

Although not all Christians will agree with this assertion, I believe the preponderance of scientific evidence points to its truthfulness. This is a “game-changer” in that when Scriptures were written, the writers assumed that one’s sexual orientation is “chosen” and those who chose to be gay were making a sinful choice.

In sharp contrast, if sexual orientation is part of one’s biological make-up, the issue before us is how one can be a faithful follower of Jesus, given one’s inherited sexual orientation.

THE PASSAGES IN THE BIBLE THAT CLEARLY SUPPORT THE TRADITIONAL VIEW ARE NOT ADDRESSING THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION POSED ABOVE

It is generally agreed that there are seven Biblical passages (Genesis 19:1-38, Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Judges 19:22-23, Romans 1: 26-28, I Cor. 6: 9-11, and 1 Tim 1:10) that talk about homosexuality, all of which are proscriptions prohibiting sexual activity between a gay couple.

But these Biblical passages should not be read out of context. Tim Otto, a gay Christian pastor at the Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, in his book Oriented to Faith, presents a strong case for the position that when the context of these proscriptive passages is taken into account, none of them addresses the situation where a gay couple wishes to make a monogamous marriage commitment to love one another and contribute to each other’s well-being for a life-time.

Here, in summary, is Otto’s treatment of two of these proscriptive passages, one from each Testament of the Bible. First, in the well-known story of Sodom and Gomorrah told in Judges 19, Otto asserts that “The men of Sodom were not threatening the angels with the ‘sin’ of homosexuality but rather with gang rape. … The sin of these men was not homosexuality, but rather their brutal abuse of strangers. Their actions conveyed domination and power rather than the hospitality of Lot … This story condemns what may be a prison rape in our day, rather than mutual love between two people of the same sex” (77).

Relative to the account given in 1 Timothy, Otto proposes that “The author is condemning the unjust use of other bodies by the slave traders and ‘Johns’ who use vulnerable men. … this scripture is not a direct condemnation of the homosexual relations of love and mutuality that we know today, but rather of a degrading system of exploitation and abuse” (83).

Other biblical scholars have pointed out that the context for the various New Testament passages condemning homosexual behavior was that, at the time these passages were written, abusive, oppressive, power-driven and exploitative sexual relationships between gay couples were prominent. These destructive relationships included pederasty (a homosexual relationship between an adult male and a pubescent or adolescent boy), sexual intimacy between the rich and their male slaves and sexual intimacy between the poor and cheap male prostitutes.

If that is the case, then these passages fail to address the question I have posed, where no such abusive, oppressive, power-driven or exploitative relationship is intended; the intention rather being for a gay couple to make a monogamous marriage commitment to love one another and contribute to each other’s well-being for a life-time.

But that leaves open the question as to what biblical passages, if any, can be drawn on to conclude that God will approve of gay couples making such a lifelong covenantal commitment.

THE OVERARCHING BIBLICAL MESSAGE OF THE CENTRALITY OF LOVE

I am not aware of any biblical passages that present a case for the non-traditional view on marriage between gay couples that I embrace, as a counter-point to the proscriptive passages often quoted by those who embrace the traditional view. Therefore, the biblical support I present is more indirect.

It is my deep conviction that the centrality of “love” is the overarching biblical message, as pointed to by the two great love commandments of Jesus; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31).

As a corollary to this deep conviction, I believe that every human being needs to experience intimate relationships with other people characterized by enduring commitments to give and receive love that seek to foster the well-being of the other.

In light of this corollary, it is important to consider Tim Otto’s view that “sex is not just a recreational activity, but is meant to bring two different people together into a committed, loving unity” and his corollary that “where the ‘drive’ in our sex ought to take us” is “to fellowship and communion.”

These beliefs about the desired goal of sexual intimacy, along with my belief that sexual orientation is given, not chosen, and my belief that the biblical strictures on sexual intimacy in the Bible do not apply to gay couples who make a life-long commitment to love one another, lead me to the personal belief that gay couples wanting to make that kind of deep marriage commitment ought not be denied that gift.

But I am not a gay person. Do gay persons share this personal belief of mine? We need to ask them.

CAREFULLY LISTENING TO THE STORIES OF GAY MARRIED COUPLES WILL REVEAL THAT THEIR UNIONS CAN BE MARVELOUS EXEMPLIFICATIONS OF THE DEEP LOVING BOND THAT ALL HUMAN BEINGS NEED

As preparation for my explaining this fourth reason for my non-traditional view on marriage, I appeal to a lesson from Acts 15 that we all need to learn.

Christians having vehement disagreements about hot-button issues, like same-sex marriage, is not a new phenomenon. Vehement disagreements emerged in the first-century Christian church. A huge dispute arose over whether gentile Christians needed to be circumcised and needed to obey certain Jewish dietary laws.

The Apostle Paul and Barnabus had the wisdom to convene a Jerusalem Conference to talk about this contentious issue, the results of which are recorded in Acts 15. Verse 12 reports that “all the assembly kept silence” as “they listened to Barnabus and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done … among the Gentiles,” to which James replied that “my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,” albeit with the restrictions of   abstaining from “the pollution of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood” (versus 19 & 20).

The lesson to be learned by all subsequent generations of Christians is that if you disagree with other Christians, it is important to listen to the ways in which the others seek to be faithful followers of Jesus, preferably in their own words (talking “with” those other Christians rather than just talking “about” them in their absence; a temptation to which too many Christians succumb).

With that valuable lesson in mind, it is important for me to report on what I have learned from carefully listening to the stories of faithful followers of Jesus from the LGBTQ community.

It was rather late in my life that I first started talking “with” LGBTQ Christians. What I heard from such careful listening to their stories was the pain experienced by these brothers and sisters in Christ when their fellow believers scorned them, even consigning them to hell. I was then inspired by their moving stories of their attempts to faithfully follow Jesus while experiencing this pain.

And these stories from same-sex couples who have made a lifelong marriage commitment is that their sexual intimacy, at its best, does contribute significantly to bringing them together into a committed loving unity.

THE CELIBACY OPTION

The literature on gay marriage with which I am familiar seems to suggest a binary choice. EITHER I believe that “God will approve of” an enduring covenantal marriage commitment between gay couples, OR l believe that God will approve a commitment to celibacy on the part of a gay Christian.

My reading of Otto’s book Oriented to Faith is that he rejects this view as posing a false choice because there is a prior question, hinted at by his claim that “God is looking for partners and helpers in the ongoing work of blessing the world,” adding that “and crazily enough, God has invited this queer one to be his [partner]” (121). As “Citizens of God’s Kingdom” (48), all Christians should “seek to incarnate Jesus” (6).

In my own words, then, the prior question is “What are God’s redemptive purposes for all the world, and how can I, whether “straight” or gay, partner with God in fostering the realization of God’s redemptive purposes?”

This prior question needs to be asked by each Christian, whatever he or she is gay or straight. Therefore, I believe that while “God will approve of” an enduring covenantal marriage commitment between gay couples (for the reasons presented above), I also believe that God will bless a commitment to celibacy if that is chosen by a gay Christian, PROVIDED that, in both cases, that decision is primarily motivated by an aspiration to be a redemptive agent on behalf of God’s redemptive purposes.

To illustrate the factors that can influence that decision, Otto gives us a glimpse of why he decided to take a vow of celibacy:

After my church community (where Otto serves as a pastor) decided not to affirm same-sex relationships, I could have opted out. I was still in a good relationship with my boyfriend. While many factors went into my decision, I eventually decided to participate in the adventure that the Church of the Sojourners offered me. The community was and is a demanding project that requires all of our imagination, effort, and gifts in order to construct a familial, economic, and political reality that witnesses to the world that the kingdom of God is at hand. I chose to remain with this church community and eventually took a vow of celibacy (49).

It is extremely important to note what Otto is NOT saying here. He is not saying that to remain within a church one must choose to be celibate. Rather, in his case, he chose to be celibate because that choice fit best with his sense of calling to work redemptively within his church community. Great care must be taken to avoid saying that because celibacy can be one of two freely chosen options for a gay Christian, that choice must be made by every Christian. Great harm has been done to gay Christians when the choice of celibacy has been presented as their only option, thereby precluding the option of a monogamous, life-long covenantal commitment to the “loving unity” that is possible through gay marriage.

I am well aware of the fact that some who propose celibacy as the only option for gay Christians, such as gay Christian Wesley Hill (see his book Spiritual Friendship), focus on the importance of churches providing ways to “give and receive love” other than by means of sexual intimacy; ways such as deep friendships, service and celibate partnerships. But, in light of all that I have said above, while I affirm the importance of these alternative means for giving and receiving love, I see no compelling reason for precluding the gay marriage option as a deep expression of “loving unity” for a gay couple.

ENGAGING THOSE WHO DISAGREE WITH ME ABOUT GAY MARRIAGE

The necessary brevity of this Musing does not do justice to the complexities of the debate between traditionalists and non-traditionalists relative to marriage, and will be disappointing to those who are looking for solutions to complex issues that can fit on a bumper sticker. In light of all the above, how does a church congregation navigate having both gay and straight members and having some members who are traditionalists and some who are non-traditionalists relative to gay marriage?

To prepare you for my “3rd Way” response, I will summarize the more common first two ways in which churches have typically answered this question.

The two most common approaches taken by Christian churches relative to their stances regarding gay members are to be “welcoming, but not affirming” or to be “welcoming and affirming.” As I propose in my book Respectful LGBT Conversations, since I believe that LGBT issues are “disputable” matters, I believe it is unwise for any church to expect everyone in the church to  share a belief in one of these binary choices. Rather, I favor a “3rd way” approach that welcomes LGBTQ members without taking a community-wide position that affirms or doesn’t affirm a particular position on gay marriage.

The nature of this 3rd way is described in compelling detail in Ken Wilson’s book A Letter to my Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing People Who are Gay, Lesbian and Transgender into the Company of Jesus. Tim Otto also affirms this 3rd way when he asserts that “Instead of focusing on identity labels, churches ought to be asking a simple question of their members: ‘What does God seem to be doing in this person’s life’,” adding that “Rather than trying to use the ‘right’ label, churches might shift their focus to having faith that God is at work in everyone” (Otto, 92).

But, even if the rightful focus on a “3rd way” church is to help each member, whatever their sexual orientation or beliefs about gay marriage, to discern ways in which they can best be agents for God’s redemptive purposes, that focus does not preclude the importance of church members talking to each other about their differing views regarding the “disputable” issue of gay marriage, for the purpose of learning from one another.

As readers of this website know, a foundational premise that informs most of my work these days is that to create a safe and welcoming space for Christians who disagree with me about any contentions issue, like gay marriage, and to then talk respectfully about our disagreement is a deep expression of love. For readers of this Musing interested in reading about my good experiences and my disastrous experiences (the beautiful and the ugly) in my trying to orchestrate respectful conversations about “disputable” issues, such as same-sex marriage, I refer you to chapters 7 & 8 of my book Let’s Talk.

But, in the meantime, I close these reflections with a report on a marvelous way in which Tim Otto exemplified his commitment to respectful conversation among Christians who have strong disagreements about same-sex marriage.

The setting was a small-group conversation sponsored by The Colossian Forum, that brought together Christian scholars and practitioners who had strong disagreements about gay marriage. It was not long before exchanges between a nationally known traditionalist and an equally well-known non-traditionalist became nasty. The conveners of this meeting called a time-out and huddled with Tim, who was also in attendance (as was I). When the attendees re-convened, Tim took the floor and mediated a “truce” that put an end to the vitriol. The loving way in which Tim worked this minor miracle was the most beautiful display of “Christ-likeness” that I have ever witnessed.

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