When it started to become clear that my theological convictions were no longer compatible with those of my former church/employer, I was asked to articulate my views on three particularly contentious topics in writing.
Of the three doctrinal areas the paper discussed, the issue of LGBTQ affirmation was certainly the most pressing.
I assume the expectation was that I’d write a paragraph or two on each topic which could then be used for reference and clarity as we navigated my future with the church.
Instead, I wrote a thirty-three page research paper (complete with endnotes), at the end of which I suggested that it was time for me to step down.
The areas of disagreement covered in the paper weren’t the only reason I needed to move on. But they were the reasons I needed to move on when I did, with the question of LGBTQ inclusion feeling especially weighty.
While I have no intention of sharing the entirety of the paper here, I do want to make reference to the first two paragraphs of the paper’s section on LGBTQ affirmation. I’ve provided them below:
I do not have the space, at the present, to do justice to this issue. Book-length arguments both for and against a Christian affirmation of monogamous, covenanted same sex relationships exist which do a better job of defending their respective positions than anything I could possibly argue or suggest in the paragraphs to follow. To that point, I have in the past two years read excellent books on the non-affirming/traditional position written by Robert Gagnon, Wesley Hill, and Preston Sprinkle. Simultaneously, I have read compelling books for the affirming position written by James Brownson, Robert Song, and Justin Lee, among others. What’s more I have poured over countless articles and blog posts from names such as David Gushee, Kevin DeYoung, Megan DeFranza, Richard Hays, NT Wright, Scot McKnight, JR Daniel Kirk, Nigel Chapman, Jurgen Moltmann, Nic Stanton-Roark, Matthew Vines, Peter Leithart, Deborah Hirsch, and many more. I have even seen arguments hoping to chart a third way, without firmly landing on one side or the other, with cases being made by the likes of David Fitch and Tim Otto, just to name a few.
What’s my point in dropping all of these names? First, I hope to demonstrate that there are a lot of voices participating in this conversation right now. There is even diversity among those who generally see themselves on the same side of this discussion and the nuances are nearly endless. Second, naming these pastors and scholars gives the reader the opportunity to research and see that many – perhaps most – of these names are people who would not self- identify as liberal or progressive and that even those who do maintain a very high view of biblical authority. Finally, I hope to demonstrate that I have not approached this topic haphazardly, but have instead sought to leave no stone unturned. I have spent more time researching, studying, discussing, and praying about this issue than any other specific issue in perhaps my entire life. I believe the Church’s response is truly that important.
This is the first of what will be a few posts addressing the biblical and theological support (or presumed lack thereof) for affirming the LGBTQ community, an affirmation that includes but is not limited to support for covenanted same sex relationships within the life of the church.
And I share these two paragraphs to manage expectations about how the discussion may go.
If you’ve already done your homework and come to a conclusion on this topic, having perhaps read from many of the same authors, pastors, and scholars that I make reference to above, then there is little chance anything I say in these next few posts will sway you.
Conversations between two parties that disagree often boil down to pissing contests over who has read more of the relevant material. To wit…
Oh, you’ve read Justin Lee? Well this is what Kevin DeYoung says.
Well, I see your Kevin DeYoung and I raise you a Matthew Vines!
Vines? Pffft. This is what Preston Sprinkle says on the matter.
Sprinkle? Ha! Here’s David Gushee.
Gushee will then get one-upped by Robert Gagnon who will, in turn, be parried by James Brownson or Colby Martin, Robert Song, Daniel Kirk, or whoever else the affirming party feels offers the ideal counterpunch. And the debate will continue in perpetuity.
Indeed, one of the conclusions I drew in studying this debate is that biblically and theologically robust cases can be made in defense of both the progressive/affirming position as well as the conservative/traditional stance.
Very few people, if any, will ultimately come to their position based solely on the biblical text, whether they are conscious of that fact or not.
I think that’s a good thing.
As I discussed in yesterday’s post (and the one before that), it was what I perceive to be the present work of the Holy Spirit that ultimately tipped the scales for me and made fully affirming LGBTQ persons in the life of the Church a remarkably easy decision.
Nevertheless, dealing with the biblical and theological material is important.
But a list of scholars and theologians who have penned thousands of pages of research and argumentation on the topic is certainly intimidating for the uninitiated.
And so my purpose in these next few posts will be to offer an accessible entry point. As always, I will include links to books, articles, and blogs (from both sides even) so that those wish to study further may do so.
Richard Beck has a concise and accessible blog post where he outlines what he believes are the four main arguments for affirming the LGBTQ community from a Christian perspective. While he does not make a comprehensive case for the four arguments in the post, his remarks can serve as a helpful first look for those wondering how a Christian might come to an LGBTQ affirming position.
I’ll look at the first of those arguments below, saving the additional three (plus a fifth Beck adds in a later post) for tomorrow.
I need to note upfront that the actual language of Beck’s article suggests the arguments listed pertain to same-sex marriage in particular. That raises the question as to whether or not these arguments pertain to the broader transgender, intersex, and/or gender-queer and questioning community.
After all, sexuality (who you want to go to bed with), and gender (who you go to bed as) are not the same thing (thanks Paula Stone Williams for the helpful language there).
This is a complicated question to which I am going to respond with an all too simplistic answer of yes, these arguments do pertain to the LGBTQ community as a whole. Nuance is certainly required as the needs and challenges of one sexual/gender minority do not categorically match those of another.
Nor, I must add, should the identity of any of these individuals ever be reduced to sexuality and/or gender identity. These are invaluable even foundational components of their identities. But they are still pieces of a larger picture that includes their cultural and ethnic heritage, race, socio-economic status, and a host of other important and deeply personal considerations.
Nevertheless, I ultimately believe the same exegetical and hermeneutical (i.e. interpretive) moves that would call for the affirmation of same-sex relationships do much of the same work for the broader LGBTQ community in its entirety.
The first argument Beck presents towards affirming the LGBTQ community is what he dubs the Apples and Oranges argument.
The gist of this argument is not unlike the friction created centuries ago when Copernicus first demonstrated that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around. Though the “plain reading” of the Bible gave way to the findings of science, the Truth (big ‘T’) that grounded the writings of the biblical authors remains in tact.
And so, as Beck observes, “humanity has only just come to recognize sexual orientation as a durable and intrinsic feature of human sexuality. That is, sexual orientation is not a choice and it’s not amenable to change.”
Therefore, Beck is able to suggest that:
“An affirming position regarding same-sex marriage comes alongside the Bible in condemning licentiousness, same-sex and straight manifestations of it. But the affirming position recognizes that a same-sex couple who pledges life-long and monogamous fidelity to each other in the Christian sacrament of marriage don’t fit what the Bible is condemning. It’s apples and oranges. If anything, given that we recognize sexual orientation as natural (as even many conservative Christians now do), and that the marriage covenant is devoted to disciplining our sexuality–training eros to become agape–married same-sex Christians are the exact opposite of what the Bible is condemning.”
Closely related to this particular position is the acknowledgment that the specific biblical passages that seem to condemn same-sex relations, including those in the New Testament, are speaking of categorically different things than the sorts of monogamous, committed relationships LGBTQ Christians advocate for today. Consider this passage from the Oxford Classical Dictionary.
“No Greek or Latin word corresponds to the modern term homosexuality, and ancient Mediterranean societies did not in practice treat homosexuality as a socially operative category of personal or public life. Sexual relations between persons of the same sex certainly did occur (they are widely attested in ancient sources), but they were not systematically distinguished or conceptualized as such, much less were they thought to represent a single, homogeneous phenomenon in contradistinction to sexual relations between persons of different sexes. That is because the ancients did not classify kinds of sexual desire or behavior according to the sameness or difference of the sexes of the persons who engaged in a sexual act; rather, they evaluated sexual acts according to the degree to which such acts either violated or conformed to norms of conduct deemed appropriate to individual sexual actors by reason of their gender, age, and social status . . . The application of “homosexuality” (and “heterosexuality”) in a substantive and normative sense to sexual expression in classical antiquity is not advised.” (Oxford Classical Dictionary, pg. 720)
For example, in antiquity, sex was a sign of power and social station. So some, much even, of what the Bible condemns as unnatural is named so through this sort of lens, one that is vastly different from how we understand sex today.
And so, to synthesize this argument alongside Beck’s, at least two things are being suggested here:
First, the Biblical writers had no conceptual category for what we now know as the LGBTQ community and therefore their presumed condemnations of and prohibitions for this community cannot apply to our contemporary situation directly.
Second, the actual acts being condemned in the Bible are things we would still condemn today such as rape (particularly of slaves or children), cultic and idolatrous sex acts as part of ancient worship practices, and other licentious aberrations that were common to ancient cultures.
This is a largely exegetical argument insofar as it seeks to understand the original meaning and intent of the biblical authors in relation to their historical context.
Someone holding to this argument would maintain that either the biblical authors didn’t aim to condemn the LGBTQ community as we know it today because they had in view something categorically different, and/or if they did mean to condemn what we know of the contemporary LGBTQ community, they did so on the basis of a limited cultural and scientific understanding of the world and would not come to the same end today.
In my next post I will give an overview of four more arguments that Beck highlights.
Those arguments, while having exegetical components not unlike the case made above, are largely hermeneutical arguments. By that I mean they are grounded in the interpretive lens through which we come to apply the text.
If exegetical arguments tell us what the text says in its historical context. Hermeneutical arguments make sense of what the text means for us today.
I will add that these arguments are not mutually exclusive. I actually hold to all five of the positions that Beck lays out. They build upon and inform one another.
Nevertheless, they don’t stand or fall as a collective whole. The rejection of one does not categorically rule out the others.
To conclude, let me remind all reading that the vast majority of LGBTQ affirming Christians hold their positions precisely because they believe that God, as attested to in scripture – and not in spite of it – calls them to.
And so even if you do not find this or the subsequent arguments compelling, please to do not dismiss those who do as taking a low view of the Bible. I assure you we are doing nothing of the sort.
Grace and Peace.