Monday, May 14, 2012

Homosexuality: When will the church really have a conversation?


On Friday I had the opportunity to take a road trip with some of my students. We travelled from Ashland to Cincinnati to view the Pompeii exhibit at a Cincinnati museum. The trip was 3 hours down and, because of traffic, about 4 hours back. So there was plenty of time for conversation.

While a variety of topics were discussed, the topic of homosexuality dominated most of the time. The students sitting behind me in the van were discussing their scriptural understanding, the president’s recent announcement, and how they do or would interact with homosexual Christians. There were a number of anecdotal stories along the way.

I drove and listened. I didn’t engage since the voice of a professor tends to be a student led conversation killer. And I must say that I was very pleased and proud to listen the way they talked. There was no hint of hate or homophobia. No indication that they were looking to ostracize gay Christians. There wasn’t even a suggestion that being gay made it impossible to be a Christian. Rather, they were attempting to have a serious, theologically informed conversation on the topic. And while I don’t think they reached any definitive conclusions and they certainly didn’t all agree, I was pleased to hear them engaging the topic.

As I reflect on the trip l am both heartened and disappointed. I am heartened because a group of students preparing for the ministry (ages 20s to 50s) were seriously engaging the topic of homosexuality and were seeking answers in a way that rejects much of the way the topic was handled in the past and even today.  But I am also disheartened because, at least from my own experience, many in the church and in seminaries are not talking about homosexuality and if they are it is quite often talk that is rooted in fear and misunderstanding. It is still very much an “us versus them.”

I wish that churches and seminaries would engage in a serious conversation about sexuality. I am not suggesting that everyone would end up on the same page. But I wish that an honest conversation was being had rather than dividing us into those who are for and those who are against. I wish that Christians would look harder at what the Bible does and doesn’t say about sexuality and ask to what degree some of those ideas are cultural and time bound and others more lasting. I wish pastors were doing a better job of educating their people and engaging them in intelligent conversation that encourages them to love everyone, even those they don’t agree with our understand. I wish the church would not react out of homophobia.

I am reminded of what it was like growing up in the church when divorce was still taboo. Preachers often railed against it in sermons. We were taught that it was wrong, period, nothing more. But we never were asked to look at all that the Bible has to say nor did we ask how we should understand it in our modern culture. Those who did get divorced often found themselves shunned with little support and it was not unusual for a divorced person to leave a church for another or none at all. We never really talked about it. All we did was say it was wrong and whispered about it when it happened. And the result? According to most polls divorce rates are just as high in the church if not higher than those outside the church. Couples are getting divorced regularly and while the church may provide support groups and are more accepting of the divorced person, the divorce is always the theological elephant in the room because most Christian people are not prepared to think about it theologically. They can react emotionally, even politically, but they don’t know how to process it theologically.

I suspect that we are heading in the same direction with homosexuality. Many are using it as political wedge and are not even considering that gay Christians are human beings loved by God. Some even think God hates gays. I so wish that our churches and seminaries would have an honest conversation on the topic. Again I don’t presume that everyone will agree. But I would like to see us be able to talk in a way that fosters love all around instead of hatred and fear. I wish we would learn to talk.

In the mean time I am proud of my students for honestly wrestling with this topic and not being afraid to ask the hard questions. I don’t know where they will land on the spectrum, but I am glad to see that they are talking and thinking together. May they inspire a new generation of leaders.

*Note: The reflections above are mine and based on my experiences. I realize that not every ones will be the same. Also, please note that I am not taking sides in this post. I am merely asking for a conversation. I realize that some churches and seminaries are having the conversation, but many are not. They are only reacting.

33 comments:

  1. John, a breath of fresh air buddy.. thx. We need more like you. :-)

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  2. You're spot on. As I've listened to folks recently, the usual polemics are offered. One person said that nothing that the world does surprises him.
    It's interesting that the first time I was involved in any discussion was at ATS with Dr. Myers. It was, let's say, enlightening.

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  3. For whatever it's worth, you might find these videos interesting: http://www.craigladams.com/blog/files/transforming-the-christian-conversation-on-homosexuality.html

    (Sorry. I've forgotten how to post links in comments on Blogger.)

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  4. "Many are using it as political wedge and are not even considering that gay Christians are human beings loved by God." This is a great insight and much needed in the everyday lives of the church. My frustration (as you know) lies in the American church putting all "their eggs in the political basket", instead of the humble, authentic, and honest theological/hermeneutical discussion "basket."

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    1. Chris, what a novel idea... are you suggesting that God really loves homosexuals?:-) This truly is a message that many churches really need to hear. Thanks!

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    2. Are we missing the point here that Christ loves sinners enough to call them to repentance? He doesn't tell them to remain in their sin. That would be a true and lasting sign of hatred, now wouldn't it?

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  5. Thanks for this. It is, indeed, refreshing to hear intelligent, non-polemic conversations on the topic of sexuality. Personally-- I suspect, at least in some cases, that as with the divorce conversations, the wrestling begins (began) when a seminary student comes to realize that someone they care about-- maybe even a fellow student-- has a personal stake in the conversation. Suddenly black-and-white becomes awash in grey.

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  6. Good words, John. Thanks for saying them out loud.

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  7. Rachel Held Evans is stirring up some conversation on this topic at her blog pretty regularly - her response to the NC amendment provoked a lot of thoughts and as she explores church and young people, she's offering a platform for a variety of experiences and responses. (And she does a piece on NT Wright nearly every Monday. You'll love her).

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  8. Oh,and BTW, we had opportunity to talk about the issue openly and without hostility in NT2 last Thursday. I then linked it with the exclusivity found in the Johannine letters (and Gospel).

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  9. John, nice thoughts. If the scriptures are our point of reference from which we discern the authority of God, we must take them seriously. Even though God permitted divorce, it was never a good thing. It represents failure and sin. It points toward the fall. Yes, we have given in to it and we have stopped warring against it. Consequently, more and more people are falling into its trap and are using it as a convenient way to exit from marriages because they want to please themselves above all else. The rising divorce rate is a sad testimony to the failure of the church to be prophetic and to make disciples of those it seeks to convert. Having said this, the bible does not contain one positive reference to homosexual behavior or consider "gay" marriage to be an option. People are people created in God's image. Left to their own devices, they fall into sin and into ways of life that separate them from God and God's purposes for them. A homosexual lifestyle is one way in which people give evidence to the fall. The church of Jesus Christ cannot bless what God has not blessed. However, we can love people and help them align themselves with God's saving act in Jesus Christ.

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    1. Bill,

      Thanks for you words. Actually this post is not about gay marriage or whether or not being gay is a sin or not. I purposely did not mention those topics nor did I give my own thoughts on them. The point is that we have not talked. We have come to the table with what we think and believe and discussion of the topic has been an attempt to argue or convince. But rarely is it to talk and explore. That is all I am wishing for.

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    2. Excellent point, Bill, on the selfish ways of man being the root of all evil. Seeking to please yourself instead of pleasing the Lord is what makes all things go wrong. It is always behind the destruction of a marriage. Godly marriages in which both partners put Christ first would certainly eliminate the need for divorce. Of course, it requires that BOTH people actually obey Christ, which often is not the case.

      John, avoiding the truth by ignoring what the Lord had to say on the subject is not going to help anything.

      If everyone really took Deut. 6:5 seriously, we wouldn't be having discussions on ways to avoid calling sin a sin.

      Deut. 6:5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

      We'd all be ashamed of our sins and repent of them, instead of finding ways to excuse them.

      As Bill points out, we must take the scriptures seriously. If we do, we have to admit that homosexual practices separate people from God and God's purposes for them.

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  10. Thanks for the post. The church (at least more conservative ones) have failed to have a civil conversation about the issue of homosexuality. If there was ever a time for us to talk about this issue with openness, it is now. In my opinion, most of the conversations that are happening really aren't conversations in their truest sense. People often enter dialogue with their own set of presuppositions on this issue; they are usually not all that open to their changing on the issue. I think that we must realize that conversation requires relationship, and relationship entails vulnerability/risk. In short, in order to have a conversation we must be willing to risk it all. We must be willing to enter a dialogue with the desire to want to change ourselves. Until we do this we will always have an agenda. And, as many of us know, agendas do nothing more that cheapen conversation and dehumanize all the people involved. I hope the church can begin to have a true conversation on the issue of homosexuality. I also hope that we would have the courage to have the willingness to change if necessary.

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    1. "The church (at least more conservative ones) have failed to have a civil conversation about the issue of homosexuality"
      That statement is a little loaded I think. "The Church" is pretty broad and all encompassing on such an issue. At the same time, in most of the conversations I've had about the topic, it was not those within the "Church" that have been uncivil, quite the opposite. If this discussion comes up, I find myself being yelled at and cursed because simply of my stance on the topic. When I am simply having a discussion with people, not trying to "convert" or "convince" them otherwise. The people speaking the loudest doesn't always represent the majority of thoughts/ideas, both Christian and not. "And, as many of us know, agendas do nothing more that cheapen conversation and dehumanize all the people involved" True - on both sides.

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    2. Thanks for point this out. I totally agree with you. After I had posted this comment I told myself that this isn't just a conservative problem. As you have pointed out, almost everyone that is engaged in this debate fails to engage the conversation with civility, whether they are conservative or liberal. I knew someone was bound to point out this problem with my argument.:-) I guess you were the lucky one. Thanks for pushing me to clarify

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    3. It really seems to me that you can't have a "civil" conversation if people don't want to listen to the fact that the Lord has forbidden homosexual behavior. He has absolutely forbidden it and called it abomination. Now, I'm sure people love to think of themselves as smarter than their Creator, but the fact is, he knows better than we do what makes us happy. And that's righteousness, not wickedness. Obeying the Lord brings the peace that surpasses understanding. All the conversations in the world can't change that, no matter how "civil" you deem the excuses for disobedience.

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    4. @lilyv- While I appreciate your enthusiasm for wanting to label things an "abomination" I think you haven't gone far enough. You would do well to adhere to all the passages that speak about abominable actions. Take Ezekiel for example. He speaks about oppressing the poor and needy, committing robbery, lending money with interest, and taking profits from people; all of which are acts of abomination. (Ez 18:11-13). So when you buy your shirt from Walmart you are acting in an abominable way. When you scalp your sporting event tickets for mor than face-value you are acting in an abominable way. When you download all those songs from the internet for free you are acting in an abominable way. The point is the word abomination is so broadly applied in the Scriptures that it is difficult to contextualize them for our particular culture. Some of the aforementioned abominations produce little or no moral dilemmas for us today. This translates into our picking and choosing of which abominations we should apply. So to condemn homosexuals based on the Levitical Code alone is highly problematic. On a side note, I too think that our creator knows what is best for us. This is exactly why I am trying to figure out what stance he would have us take on the issue. Let's try and figure it out together.

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  11. As a male who was sexually used by an Uncle at a very young age, I realize that my opinion might be a bit slanted. Let me just say that I have suffered for years and years over the fact that this happened. I am married and have been for 41 years, but I can easily see, looking back that God was moving to serve his purpose in my life. I am a bit put off by the whole "gay" lifestyle as I see it as different than what God intended, ergo, I tend to believe that anything different from Gods intent, on any given subject is a falling short of what God wants. A man an woman were created to have fellowship with God, and to procreate for his domain to move forward. It's the normal progression for life to continue. Two men or two women living as God intended a man and woman to live is "ab" normal. As for the discussion of these kinds of things? I agree with that. The only thing I would warn about is this: Our enemy still wants to be God. He will use these kinds of things to divide and conquer us.

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  12. The concept of loving the sinner but hating the sin is clear. At the very least, there is a strong statement regarding homosexual sex in Leviticus. Regardless of all the rhetoric, that statement still remains.

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    1. Good statement. God's word is the source of his law, not people's rhetoric.

      Rhetoric is not going to change the Lord's opinion on disobedience. He still requires repentance, which means you have to give your whole heart and whole life to him, walking in his ways, not your own. Justifying sin in myriad ways is not going to convince him to throw out righteousness and replace it with wickedness.

      Good luck having a worthwhile conversation that eliminates the Lord's statements on homosexuality. Here's one that many people want to ignore:

      Lev. 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.

      That's pretty clear. So if you're going to actually care about what the Lord thinks instead of excusing sin, you don't have much rhetoric, do you.

      Bottom line: Do things the Lord's way or you will forever regret it, no matter how much rhetoric there was to make you feel good about your disobedience.

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  13. The more I read from Scripture the more I try understand the concept of "Christ-like love" as so many people say God loves all people (which is clearly true). However, this concept of love seems to be pretty unique compared to the way we flippantly use it today. Out of love for his people, Jesus flips the money tables, rebukes Peter, questions the Pharisees, and ticks off tons of people that want to stone him. With that in mind, I am struggling with this conversation because division and shut down happens so quickly when disagreement arises between Christians (usually while questions tolerance or human freedom).

    How can we have conversations in which we speak truth to one another? As a pastor, how can we have these conversations and still maintain relationships when we disagree?

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    1. Josh,

      I think that is what is both important and difficult. We must recognize that we are not enemies if we disagree. There will be times when we will disagree and go no further. But too often a conversation is not had with the sense of mutual exploration. It is often, as I said above, to prove a point.

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    2. Josh, you're right about Christ's love for us. He loves us enough to correct us and call us to repentance. It's the enemy who wants us to stay in sin and explore ways to excuse it.

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  14. It seems to me the one conversation worth having is with the Lord to find out what he thinks. But most people want to avoid that, because they don't want to hear the "R" word: REPENT.

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  15. lilyv, I appreciate that you want us to follow "God's law" as you put it, even in regard to Lev 18:22. I assume you know your Bible, so why didn't you include Lev 20:13: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them"? Lev 20:13 is also "pretty clear" as you put it on the very same topic as 18:22. So, according to "what the Lord thinks," as you put it, men who lie with men, should be put to death, correct? If not, could you explain to me why we should ignore Lev 20:13 but not Lev 18:22? I assume that you don't think we can pick and choose the parts of the Bible that we want to follow and ignore the parts we don't like. If this assumption is wrong and you think its okay to ignore Lev 20:13, then why not just ignore Lev 18:22 also?

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  16. John,
    Bless you, bless you, for your courage to encourage conversation. Sadly, however, that means that we would have to actually put down our own agendas and "listen" to one another, and for some, as is obvious above, that is not going to happen. But keep trying, brother! Your blog has warmed my heart. Thank you!

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  17. As sad as it is, I feel like much of the church may be too little too late if they haven't even started a conversation on homosexuality (much like some of our brothers and sisters in denominations that still don't ordain or recognize women in leadership). The problem is that while people sit in the nebulous state of conversation and rest in this "tension" of not knowing, there are individuals who are being forced to live in this tension. There are gay Christians out there in our churches (or more likely out of our churches), in our seminaries, and in our communities who have felt ostracized by the church and even are skeptical of those churches who would be affirming to their whole self.

    Don't get me wrong, I think a conversation needs to be had. And not just a conversation, but a civil one. But it needs to start happening now or the church is going to continue to be the last one on the bus as it was and still is with women's rights, as it was with slavery, as it was with the a spherical earth, as it was with a heliocentric solar system, etc. etc. (all of which used the Bible to justify the church's stance on all these issues). I just get concerned as I have personally seen the hurt that this causes people.

    I guess my encouragement is GET TO TALKING! You don't have to agree, but if you're not already talking, you need to start now or you're going to get left behind.

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  18. My name is Carol, I am from Newton, NC. I do believe people need to talk about the homosexuality issue and not be afraid to confront it. It's like it is tabu to talk about it and we go around with our heads in the sand and further say if it doesn't affect me then why should I care. I am not one of those persons who believe God created a person to be a homosexual, I believe man chooses that life style of his own free will. I do believe God loves us all and is willing to give eternal life to any and all who will come to him believing he is the son of God who died on the cross for our sins debt and arose 3 days later. We then profess we accept him as our Savior, confess our sins he says he will be true and just to for give and save us. I hear so many people say today's world is so different than back then. Maybe so, but God's law is the same today as it was in the beginning. I don't think God accidently destroyed Sodom and Gomarrah or without reason. Again, I do believe God loves us all, sent his son, Jesus to die on the cross for each and everyone of us, but we have to make a choice to accept him as our Lord and Savior and do our best with the help of the Holy Spirit to try daily to live a Godly life. WE continuously confess any new sin and strive to be more like Christ each day we live. We should reach out to those in need with a Christ like love and heart. God does loves us all, but he cannot look upon our sin, the bible plainly tells us this. He turned from Christ when he was drying on the cross, because he was paying the sin debt for all of humanity. Jesus even asked, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" No God does not hate homosexuals, murders, liers, thieves, adolators, drunkards, etc., but he does expect the person to confess their sin, accept him as their Savior, turn from that type of lifestle and live their life for Him. The bible plainly tells us we have a choice - we can live a life for God or for Satan. I am not a hater or a bigot. I think people have the right to live the life they choose, but I am against the idea of telling people "Oh don't worry how you live, God loves you and created you to be homosexual, He understands even though the bigot hateful Christain's don't. I think Christain's who believe the bible as the true inspired Word Of GOD get a bad wrap. Yes, I do believe a lot of Christains are going about disagreeing with the homosexuality in an ungodly way. God wants His children to be loving people and to lead others to Him. He doesn't want us to be haters or bigots, but those are words the world has given us. The bible warns there will be false doctrines and false prophets and the evil will be accepted as good and the good will be looked upon as evil. Times in the world are changing more and more in that direction. People are falling more and more away from the teaching of the Holy Bible and living a life where they feel they are free to live life as they please and believe there is no heaven or hell and life after this one does not exist or they believe when everyone dies, we all go to heaven because God loves us all. Sorry, but that is not what the Holy Bible teaches. People can live a life anyway they please and refuse to commit their hearts and lives to God, but the Bible plainly says this is the way to spending eternity in hell. We have too many people out there preaching and teaching what the people want to hear and not what God said in the Holy Word. Churches are too worried about upseting the parishiners or congregation to preach the truth. They don't want to upset anyone. I prefer to go to church, learn the bible principles, and learn how to apply them to my life so I can live more Godly and let Him shine in my life so that others my come to know him through the way I live.

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  19. There already is a conversation going on about homosexuality. It takes place 24/7 throughout our media-saturated culture through movies, books, television shows, and so on. It is impossible to escape this conversation, yet almost equally impossible to contribute it in any way that affects its direction or tone. It is a monotone juggernaut. The conversation goes like this: "In times past homosexuals were stigmatized. This is backwards; it is those who don't approve of homosexuality who should be stigmatized. This is the march and verdict of history, and if you're not on board right now you should take your place with the bigots of this world who deserve nothing but shame."

    I find this conversation tedious and suffocating. If you're suggesting more of it, please count me out.

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  20. I agree that we are immersed in conversation about homosexuality. The ones most wanting a dialog are those most desiring a change of status and so the conversation must go on until we get the result we want.

    The Bible, as a teaching document, goes to lengths to describe "sin" and how to deal with it. In this vein homosexuality, and all variants of out-of-wedlock sex is deemed sinful. However many people we have engaged in "sinful" behavior does not change the sinfulness of that behavior. Sin is sin.

    If you are not a Christian then the sinfulness of what you do is irrelevant as long as you are a "nice person" in current worldly context. Non-Christians cannot tutor Christians on the matter of sin and if a Christian wishes to de-sin something he is in the realm of writing his own religion. I thought we had this out with the Gnostics & Montanists so why the need for more debate?

    I agree that Jesus would have healed the boy/servant just as he had saved the adulteress from certain stoning...even as he accepted her guilt, telling her to "go forth and sin no more." Or, as he dealt with the Samarian woman.

    Before Jesus the law saved the individual, after Jesus you were saved by accepting grace. Jesus did not exhort people to stop sinning and be saved He said the way to salvation was by accepting Him. We are all sinners and there is no distinction between a murderer, a thief or a practicing homosexual. All are sinners, as we all are sinners; some sinners, saved by grace. As new creatures in Christ we are to take up our crosses and follow Christ, not our own desires. We are expected to be different. There is an old minstrel that goes something like: "I am sorry Lord for the man I am today; thank you Lord that I am not the man I was yesterday; help me, Lord, to be a better man tomorrow. The exhortation of change is not sans sexuality.

    As Christians we are not called to judge (except those we allow into our congregations), so I am not to condemn those that are in sin, as I am also in sin. As a Christian I am to proclaim the message of Jesus and to pray for the unsaved. If an unsaved individual turns his life to God then he will (in the words of James) do works that proclaim his new life. The first would be to excise sin from his own life (as well as he is able). If one is a Christian he will hate what the Bible calls sin and work against that sin. If one wishes to argue with the Bible as to what is sinful then he is probably not a Christian and if he wishes to cast his own version of the golden calf so be it. But I have no responsibility to follow this new religion.

    As a Christian I do not cast stones at sinners be they homosexuals or tax cheats or drunks. But there is a difference between tolerance of sinful behavior and acceptance of it. If a homosexual wishes to attend our church (the one I attend) he would be welcome but he would not be allowed to join except by recanting his sin, which would include practicing homosexuality or practicing thievery or practicing addiction.

    If we need a conversation to toss out the sinfulness of homosexuality why not a conversation to throw out all sinfulness? If we, as Christians, decide to edit the Bible, where do we stop and on whose authority do we cut & paste?

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