I believe Christians are getting better at talking about sexuality, and I want to help us continue purposely framing our discussions to be as productive and meaningful as possible. For that reason, I’ve written New Year’s resolutions for conservative Christians—since those are the circles in which I mostly run—related to the questions we ask about sexuality. For Part II, I want to suggest questions we ought to begin engaging, if we haven’t already. An underlying assumption here is that your church is talking about sexual minority issues and seeking to move forward in relationships with LGBT people, which may not actually be the case in your context. The common thread between these questions is that they try to steer away from contentious political and social arguments in order to address the most critical issues facing LGBT individuals in conservative communities of faith. I want us to address some of the assumptions dictating church practices in order to discern whether those are reasonable assumptions we’re applying consistently. I think discussing these questions together may help conservative Christians feel more free to love and support others in ways that both honor their convictions and honor the experiences of others.
So, if the church in 2013 wants to discuss sexuality in ways that will benefit us and allow us to love more effectively and discern God’s will more clearly, I think it’s time to engage the following questions:
1. Is an openly LGBT person who chooses to pursue celibacy necessarily spiritually unhealthy?
If you speak with someone who’s been out to a conservative community of faith for any length of time, I guarantee they can tell you about a time when someone made them feel as if they’re spiritually unhealthy, regardless of whether they’re practicing that community’s sexual ethics. This happens in at least two ways. First, those who are openly LGBT face subtle acts of emotional violence in the form of others condescending or patronizing them, often in ways that sound like (and are probably intended as) genuine concern or accountability related to sexuality. They receive much more attention in this area than their straight peers do, indirectly implying they need more attention in this area. I’m not talking about gentle check-ins with LGBT youth about their overall health, which may be wise in light of the disproportionate statistics surrounding LGBT youth and depression/suicide. I’m talking about sending subtle messages that lack empathy, messages that narrowly define LGBT people by their sexuality and draw attention to that difference as a spiritual crisis: “I’m praying for you and that particular struggle,” or, “How are you doing with, you know, that part of your life?” Second, they often face overt discrimination in the form of restrictions that limit their full participation in the community of faith, restrictions unrelated to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Openly bisexual men find themselves prohibited from teaching children’s classes; celibate lesbian women face meetings with special discernment committees before filling leadership roles.
These inconsistencies betray an underlying bias against LGBT individuals: that nontraditional sexuality or gender identity necessarily reflects spiritual illness or weakness. The problem is that I don’t think our bias reflects any theological reasoning. It’s a result of our slavery to cultural taboos and ignorance instead of critical convictions based on scripture, tradition, reason, or experience. If we had legitimate evidence to believe LGBT people were farther from God, unable to demonstrate the Spirit’s gifts, or even less spiritually mature—or if particular individuals were refusing to submit to a church’s sexual ethics (but see question #2a)—we might have reason to treat them with special attention; but as it stands, I think fear and discomfort motivate our actions more than anything else, and neither fear nor discomfort are Spirit-given gifts. The unstated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy that exists when churches allow known sexual minorities who are mostly closeted to participate more fully than their out siblings suggests the crisis is not a person’s sexuality or gender identity but rather the church’s consternation about how to respond to minorities that leads to our inconsistent behavior.
So, let’s turn our attention to the central question: Is an openly LGBT person who chooses to pursue celibacy necessarily spiritually unhealthy? If we believe they are, why are they? Is it an effect of their orientation or the cause of it? And if we believe they’re not, is there anything other than our own resistance to change and controversy that’s motivating us to treat them differently? (I’ll admit I’ve rather lost my patience with those who offer “the way things are” as reasoning for why our practices can’t always keep pace our beliefs.)
2. Should same-sex relationships be a marginal or central issue for Christians?
In other words, “Is it okay for Christians to disagree about same-sex relationships?” I’ll revisit an old post from Richard Beck, who offers a simple case study: “Why is Killing Okay but not Sexuality?" Beck responds to a certain speaker who implied "the traditional Christian sexual ethic was a boundary marker that couldn’t be crossed if one wanted to be a Christian" by asking whether there’s any reason Christians tend to be okay with ambiguity on certain ethical teachings but not okay with ambiguity on others: Why do Christians seem okay sharing pews with people whose views on killing vary dramatically (a pacifist and a veteran, for example) but not with people whose views on same-sex marriage vary?
People in theological circles will talk about “central” and “marginal” issues. Imagine a target: At the center are “central” issues, issues on which people really, really need to agree in order to identify as Christian and to be part of the “in group” in a faith community. Towards the edge are “marginal issues,” areas that deserve theological reflection but are not deal-breakers; disagreement on these issues is okay and even encouraged as people develop spiritually. Most issues fall somewhere in between, and conflict arises when people place certain issues at different places on the target. So, for example, Christians generally agree that naming Jesus as Lord is a central issue for people of faith—it’s one that’s very directly related to what it means to be a “Christian,” as people have historically defined that word; and most Christians will also agree a person’s choice of Bible translation is a marginal issue—a decision that someone’s faith can inform, but not one that’s going to affect one’s status as a “Christian” in the eyes of other Christians. But there are other issues we tend to disagree about, and sometimes messily so. Same-sex marriage is one of those issues. For some people, same-sex marriage is a marginal issue: It’s an important question, and it’s one that someone’s faith should absolutely inform, but someone’s position on same-sex marriage does not affect their status as a Christian. For many conservative Christians, though, same-sex marriage is closer to a central issue: If someone supports same-sex marriage (or even suggests homosexuality is a marginal issue), that belief disqualifies them from identifying as Christian and from participating in a given church. (Although this post is meant for conservative Christians, I’ll also point out that many progressive Christians also make same-sex marriage a central issue in the opposite direction: If you don’t affirm same-sex marriage, that disqualifies you from identifying as Christian.)
I think Christians need to discern whether same-sex relationships are a marginal or central issue and why we ought to classify them thus. In the process, I think conservative Christians should pay special attention to the reality of our particular cultural setting: Is our culture’s move towards full affirmation leading some to give unreasonable weight to the issue from a defensive position, or does our culture’s move mean Christians need to over-emphasize traditional sexual ethics as a means of separating themselves from the culture? I also think we need to address the question of marginal vs. central on two levels:
a. Each particular church should be aware of whether this is a marginal or central issue as far as participation in that church is concerned, particularly those churches that don’t answer to higher governing bodies. There are many times when people leave churches amicably because they realize their personal convictions no longer line up with the teachings of that church, and that makes practical sense to me. There are other times when people are surprised to find themselves suddenly unwelcome or excluded because their convictions don’t line up with the church’s unwritten laws, and that causes reasonable confusion/distress/anger. Whenever a church places any certain doctrinal issue towards the center as far as church participation is concerned, it needs to be able to explain why and apply that emphasis consistently. (See Beck’s post about boundaries.)
b. Individuals should give thought to whether this is a marginal or central issue as far as one’s relationship with God is concerned. Early in 2012, Alan Chambers—who’s the head of Exodus, the world’s largest ministry that seeks to help Christians abstain from homosexual activity—made waves when he made a comment about how he believed people involved in ongoing same-sex relationships could still receive God’s grace and forgiveness, later clarifying he believed the gift of salvation was a permanent gift: “If someone ever knew Christ, they still do.” The waves he made were fascinating: Some conservative Christians seemed genuinely shocked that Chambers would suggest people involved in same-sex relationships could ever be on good terms with God, especially as far as eternal salvation is concerned. Other conservative Christians, though, seemed genuinely shocked that the first group was shocked, wondering why group #1 believed these relationships (which they, too, perceived as sinful) were somehow any more sinful than any of the other ways in which people sin, knowingly or inadvertently, or should prevent people from receiving God’s grace. It was one of those bizarre moments where lots of people looked around in confusion, saying, “Wait, I thought we were on the same page here!” It drew into sharp relief the variety of ways Christians perceive the spiritual implications of behaviors they consider sinful, and it drew the particular behavioral question of same-sex relationships into a broader discussion about grace and how and when people are saved. How important is it that any particular Christian get the issue of same-sex relationships right, and why is it so important or unimportant? If someone earnestly, sincerely gets the question of same-sex relationships wrong, what does that mean for the person’s relationship with God? Is this something a legitimately dedicated Christian could conceivably get wrong? Is this even a “right vs. wrong” discussion?
Let me reiterate that my goal with raising these questions is to focus Christians’ discussions on issues that actually affect the lives of LGBT individuals within their faith communities. Many Christians are treating LGBT individuals as if they’re spiritually ill, and many churches do contain members with wildly diverse views on sexuality. Let’s avoid using the comment thread on this post to discuss the questions I’ve raised here—they’re a much bigger discussion, as far as I’m concerned, and that discussion belongs in another setting. Here’s what I do want to hear from you in the comments: What other questions do you think conservative Christians need to address, or how would you clarify the questions I raised above?
Part I, where I outline questions the church shouldn’t be asking, is here.
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