Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

A Personal Journey, 5: Love vs. Legalism

About six years ago, St. Stephen hosted two speakers, pro and con, on the issue of ordination of LGBT folk in the PCUSA. The issue had heated up again with the “Peace, Unity and Purity” Task Force Report to the 217th PCUSA General Assembly in 2006. The task force comprised 20 pastors and theologians on both sides of the issue of gay ordination. They advocated a “season of discernment” before any final decisions were made; but during that season there should be a “live and let live” attitude in which no one–pastor, officer, or governing body–was prosecuted for ordaining, or not ordaining, according to their conscience. It seemed a good time for a public presentation of the issues.

The first speaker was the Rev. Dr. X (forgive me for using pseudonyms–I would prefer to focus on issues, not people!). Dr. X had written a book about his own journey from evangelical condemnation of homosexuality to faithful acceptance. The next week we hosted Dr. Y, a strong critic of ordination of LGBT folk. Both nights were well attended, by people from both church and community. Many of our gay and lesbian members, and folks on both sides of the issue attended. Dr. X was well-received, but Dr. Y was not, and the reason was simple: he was a legalist.

Letter vs. Spirit–Or Slides vs. Lives

Dr. Y presented slide after slide detailing, in complex word-by-word scripture analyses, why only male-female sexuality was acceptable in the eyes of God. It was head-spinning. Add to that, sitting in the front row were several obviously  same-sex couples, of whom he seemed oblivious, and whom he would casually offend with detailed comments on LGBT narcissism and licentiousness.

Perhaps Dr. Y didn’t understand that St. Stephen church members present didn’t think he was talking about abstract lesbians and gays: they knew he was talking about the “narcissism” of  some of the most giving and thoughtful members of the church; and the “licentiousness” of several couples we knew were completely committed to one another.

I heard from many church members later that they’d been on the fence on the issue of ordination of LGBT folk, even after they’d heard Dr. X, but that, ironically, Dr. Y convinced them to support it!

That was, in many ways, a triumph of the spirit of the Law over the letter of the Law, a sign that at St. Stephen, God’s Law is engraved in people’s hearts, not codified into inhuman laws, and proof of the incarnational, rather than the legalistic, nature of the Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

Carefully Finding What Isn’t There

A conversation I had later with Dr. Y was revealing. He’d used the very passage I referred to earlier, Jesus on divorce, as a key Scripture to support his assertion that male-female sexuality was a foundational creation principle. For him, this passage demonstrated that Jesus was against homosexuality–a topic about which Jesus says nothing in any of the Gospels. I asked him what he thought about divorced and remarried couples. “Oh, that happens,” he said. “It’s sad but it happens. I suppose it’s a sin. But if people repent, I don’t see why we should hold it against them. And I know a lot of remarried folks who are pretty happy and very faithful Christians.”

“Well,” I said, “Jesus essentially is saying that if they have sex with their new husbands or wives, they’re committing adultery.”

“But,” he argued, “if they’ve repented of their divorce, they’re starting a new life in Christ. They’re forgiven.”

“But couldn’t you say the same thing about homosexual couples?” I asked. “That as Christians they’re forgiven, and that as long as they are happy and faithful, then that’s all that’s expected?” (This is not a position I hold, by the way. I was making a point.)

“No, homosexuality is different. If they’re continuing to have sex, they’re continuing in sin. They have to repent.”

“But Jesus is saying that remarried couples are committing adultery. Essentially every time they have sex they are adulterers. Isn’t that continuing in sin? By your own logic, they should repent and be celibate.” (Also, of course, not a position I hold!)

“No, it’s different.”

“Why?” I asked. “Because of the ‘foundational creation principle’ of ‘male-female sexuality’? But Jesus is using that very passage to argue against divorce! What you seem to be saying is, it’s okay not to take Jesus literally on divorce, and in fact we can even turn around His words so that they aren’t about divorce at all, but about something He never addresses, namely homosexuality. This strikes me as a very odd way to claim the authority of Scripture!”

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this entire conversation was the feeling I had that Dr. Y–obviously a brilliant man, in many ways a good man–simply could not see the point I was making.

The Foolishness of the The “Whys”

Dr. Y’s position illustrates an important stumbling block for the anti-LGBT position. For centuries, it was taken for granted that homosexuality was prima facie deviant and unacceptable behavior.  There was no need to explain that it was wrong. But now, attitudes are different. Now, opponents of LGBT love have to show not only that the Bible condemns it, they have to show why the Bible condemns it.  And that’s much, much harder.

They try all sorts of angles:

 It goes against the orders of creation. But as science increasingly discovers that there are “non-choice” reasons people are gay, that argument makes God look arbitrary and cruel, as if one is condemned for something one can’t help. Not to mention that the “orders of creation” argument is generally discredited  in Protestant circles (Barth and Bonhoeffer were highly critical of its misuse in the Nazi period) , except when it comes to this issue.

It is immoral and licentious. It’s all about multiple sex partners. But they want to get married, for gosh’ sake.

It is narcissistic. Really? That’s a pretty simplistic understanding of narcissism. And I’ve experienced something quite different. When I was trained as a couples’ counselor, I was taught, and have found it to be true, that the old rule “opposites attract” is surprisingly ironclad. (For those of us in ministry, an important source for this is Harvell Hendrix’s “Imago” counseling model.) Healthy couples I counsel, both gay and straight, have key areas in which they are opposite of one another. This is because they instinctively recognize that they are incomplete. Organized people might be attracted to messy ones, introverts to extraverts, active folks to passive folks, people from closed families to people from open families…. You get the idea.

This attraction is also the source of tension in the relationship, and couples in which one or the other partner is especially narcissistic—and even those that aren’t—often can’t survive the tension. What’s required, ultimately, is the humble desire to learn from one’s partner.

Hendrix’ imago thesis says that this is the way the Biblical standard “The two become one” plays out in real life–that a couple is two halves of a whole. This dynamic seems true regardless of whether it is a same-sex or opposite-sex couple. The fact that opposites continue to attract, regardless of gender issues, seems to me to completely undermine any notion that narcissism is at play.

LGBT folks are especially, and unhealthily, focused on sex. This was the argument of the Christian counselor I mentioned in the third installment of this blog. I’d like to point out, first, that as a male, according to scientific research, I apparently think about sex on an average of every six seconds. Given that, it’s hard to imagine what an unhealthy focus would look like!

But LGBT folk do not think about sex any more than straight people do. Just ask them! As one of my gay parishioners once said, “My sexuality is like, 5% of my identity. The rest of it is my family, my job, my hopes and my dreams, my church and my faith, the movies and books I like–me.”

If anything, it seems our society is especially, and unhealthily, focused on sex. I mentioned earlier the preponderance of Christian evangelicals focusing on the few verses of scripture that highlight homosexuality. That seems to be an attempt to distract themselves and their followers from their own problems. “I may be a sinner, but at least I’m not gay.” Remember former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi who said, defending himself against accusations of sex with an underage girl, that “It’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay”?

It is our society’s focus on sex, and on homosexuality, that forces LGBT persons to defend themselves and define themselves by their sexuality. Most of the gays and lesbians who attend St. Stephen will tell you they wanted to attend a church where they could be accepted for who they are so that they could concentrate on their spiritual development and living in a diverse faith community, not on their sexuality.

What Principles Should We Use to Interpret Scripture?

Dr. Y’s case illustrates a challenge to the position I’m presenting. After all, while he was arguably too legalistic, he was trying to build his argument on foundational Biblical principles, as I’m suggesting. So the question is, what foundational Biblical principles should we use?

Years ago, I read an article by a feminist theologian in Christian Century who read the Genesis story a different way from Dr. Y. She focused in Gen. 2:18, “It is not good for the human to be alone” as the basis for love relationships of any sort. (I don’t have that immediate reference, but I have linked a recent article by Patheos blogger James McGrath.) For me, that opened the door to a more accepting reading of Scripture.

Based on how important it is to Jesus, the main interpretive principle I believe we should use to read the Bible, is “Love.” As my friend Greg Garrett wrote recently in his Patheos blogpost on gay marriage, “And even if [I] turn out to be [wrong], I’d prefer to err on the side of love.”

It’s hard for me to imagine that the God who took human form, lived, died, and rose again for our sakes, who forgave His murderers and the thief on the cross, all out of love, would then freak out over who we have sex with; or that the prophet and teacher Jesus, who was the FIRST in recorded history to teach “love your enemies,” actually meant “love your enemies unless they’re gay, because that’s just weird.”

I believe that God has high standards for us, and we who claim to serve in His name need to live into those high standards; but I do not believe that God is a legalist and I cannot believe that God would condemn the many faithful Christian LGBT folks I know–either to hell in the next life or to second-class citizenship in this life–simply because of their sexuality. It is not any more good for them to be alone than it is for me, and for straight people to expect them to make sacrifices in the name of Christ that we would not make ourselves is the very height of hypocrisy.


NEXT: The Problem of Paul

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