I really enjoy bringing well-known texts and doctrines into larger historical contexts when I teach Sunday school, largely because in my own experience knowing about the texts and other realities that surround the Bible and later controversies that involve the Bible, rather than settling the question, opens up the complexity of the situation and allows some room for people to understand that the folks who ended up on the side of things where I didn’t (think Ba’al cultists, Pharisees, Pelagians, Tridentine Reformers, or nineteenth-century theological modernists) weren’t mustache-twirling villains but complex human beings with the same hopes, anxieties, and aspirations that constitute you and constitute me. That doesn’t make the content of their ideas and practices right, much less a matter of indifference; on the contrary, it alerts me (and hopefully those I teach) to the tragic truth of human existence as creatures of God living in a fallen world, namely that moments of historical crisis don’t become moments of historical crisis because the decisions are easy and clear. If the path were well-lit, or if the path didn’t go along a hundred-foot cliff, human existence would be far more boring but much safer as well.
Unfortunately, the historian is often the least welcome person in the room when the chips are down, when people have to decide on questions of community policy. To acknowledge complexity and to forestall the laying down of rules are the stuff of the academic inquirer, but policy must be such that people can abide by it, and that means a couple things: first that, even if provisionally, a community must take some sort of stand. Second that a stand taken after the phenomenon becomes history is not a policy stand at all. Such stands, if history is any predictor, will likely alienate somebody, but such is the responsibility that comes with legislating for any community. (This is why Article Five is my favorite part of the U.S. Constitution.)
I note all of this to say that I understand the impetus to resist “Open and Affirming” policies for congregations and denominations and colleges: although in their less honest moments proponents of said policies will say that “accepting” (more on that word in my next post) LGBTQIAW* people with no strings attached implies a sort of neutrality in the theological debate in favor of “loving people,” anyone who thinks about such things for more than a couple consecutive seconds will realize that putting such a policy in place is not by any means neutral, a place where deliberation can take place for the sake of truthful answers, but implies certain answers to the questions at the outset. Perhaps most importantly it assumes at the outset that “to love” means “not to transform.” But more on that next post.
I would not by any means suggest that such resistance is a bad idea at the outset but that it might betray the fact that most of the battle for Biblical standards might already be lost. Although some more secular-leaning conservatives have staked out a position on historical or even biological grounds resisting more thoroughgoing LGBTQIAW* marriage, ordination, and other official participation in various communities, most Christians who resist such things do so for reasons of Biblical faithfulness. And the problem, historically, with such a stand is that the same folks who stand so strongly against LGBTQIAW* participation often know of and affirm openly people whose sex lives are just as blatantly anti-Biblical but whose circumstances have not barred significant participation at all levels of the twenty-first century Church.
Mainly, of course, divorced and remarried people come to mind. Few Christians (especially conservative Christians) will trumpet and applaud the frequency of divorce in the Church, but in the face of Jesus’s teaching that one who divorces and remarries commits adultery (he qualifies this in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark), most conservative Christians whom I know do not acknowledge begrudgingly that people in second marriages might be vaguely tolerable but evaluate them basically in the same terms that they evaluate first marriages (the only ones Jesus acknowledges): in other words, if it’s a good marriage, it’s a good marriage, and if it’s a bad marriage, it’s a bad marriage. And although the sequence of things certainly influences our judgments, most of us (and I’m included here) will celebrate a really good and faithful second marriage just as quickly as we’ll mourn the deterioration of the love and faithfulness to a first marriage.
Certainly there are evangelical congregations out there who deny leadership, ordination, and perhaps even membership to remarried people, and to those folks I will tip a hat on consistency. But I’ve never been a part of any of those, and I imagine that such communities become rarer every year. (If I’m wrong, readers, do comment.) The fact of the matter is that, for the congregations where I’ve been a member, divorce has been talked about as a tragic reality, to be certain, and something against which folks will counsel if the moment does not seem strongly to warrant such a separation, but never in those congregations has one’s “coming out” as a divorced person barred full membership.
I point this out not to say that divorce or any other question of sexuality should be off the table for Christians; I do note that, in one category of sexual-relationships-opposed-in-the-New-Testament, even the conservative evangelical congregations of which I’ve been a part have managed to grant the tragedy and even the sinfulness of the situation but to welcome the human beings to be members and sometimes even leaders, without demanding that they sever their ties to the people they brought to the congregation (or even people whom they met there) if they are to participate fully in the life of the congregation. That’s a historian rather than a legislator talking, but again, the historian’s role is to bring forth the human in one moment for the sake of seeing the human in another, by analogy.
Ultimately, the way that congregations and denominations and colleges deal with questions of sexuality always have been and likely always will be contests of analogy: will this particular way of existence be analogous to being a Gentile or analogous to being a false teacher? Will the Church’s response be one in which shunning, letting a believer know that her or his way of life has become a blasphemy to God, is the paradigm, or will the Church’s response be one in which table-fellowship, letting believers know that the old distinction does not any longer bind those in Christ, rule the day? And to bring the matter into the present day, will “coming out” as a LGBTQIAW person be analogous to “coming out” as a consumer of pornography, the sort of person to whom the Church shows love by steering them away from that particular form of sexual desire and towards other, faithful ones; or will the Church’s response be analogous to how we welcome divorced persons, where we lament the circumstances that brought the person there as tragic ones but welcome the person, sexuality and all, into the congregation? As I said in the outset of this series, I’m not at this turn going to offer answers to those questions, but those contests of analogy, I think, are going to be the interesting ones to ask going forward. If better questions are going to arise, I do think that discussing divorce and LGBTQIAW* questions side by side should yield some good questions about both. My hope is that at least acknowledging that the contest of analogies is going on might allow folks who disagree to continue disagreeing longer without giving up and consigning the other party to the bin of “irredeemable” sinners. Perhaps it’s a silly hope, but it’s mine.
In the meantime, although I do not wish to offer answers, I do want to address a few conservative talking points that I think of as especially worthless in these exchanges:
- To compare sexual desire to an impulse to steal or murder does not do much to help people think through these questions. The thief or the killer steals or kills as a means to achieve an end; the desires that power our sex lives are themselves the ends. (If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what a spouse should be “getting out of it” when she or he makes love to her or his spouse. If you can answer that with the same sorts of answers that you give to the question “What do you get out of it when you go to work on Monday morning,” to quote Michial Farmer, “you’re not doing it right.”)
- To say that everyone whose desires are not heterosexual “chooses” to be lesbian or gay simply does not adequately describe the stories that most human beings tell about ourselves. I did not “choose” one day to desire women; that constellation of desires happened to me. Such a concession is not to say that my desires or anyone else’s are simplistically genetic or reducible to formulaic psychological explanations; it is to say that making them a matter of volition absent the circumstances that constitute just about every human story ignores the character of the actual phenomenon at hand.
- Sexual desires do not constitute a “lifestyle” the way that being a skater, a baseball fan, or a collector of books (I’m two of the three) constitutes a “lifestyle.” Whatever else one ends up saying about sexual desire, it’s part of the core of existence, a place where spiritual reality happens and where ecstasy, grace, perdition, and redemption are not far away. Again, if your devotion to the Atlanta Braves is roughly equal to your sexual passions… no, I won’t even quote Farmer here. The point is that proclaiming that sins have been forgiven and that vices might be transformed so that virtue might arise is as central to the Christian life as anything I can imagine. Such are the moments of grace that Christ bestows through the Church. But to pretend that sexual desire is not as central to a person’s soul as sexual desire is does not do anyone any favors; if anything, it proves that Christians do not take sin very seriously at all. In other words, to “stand against” without offering real, concrete means to “walk forward” is only to confirm that the Church does not offer any sort of salvation that means anything to the living.
I’ve already offended some people, I’m sure, by making this a matter for inquiry rather than pronouncing dogmatically one way or the other. Although some questions I’ve resisted answering, this one I cannot leave unanswered: I inquire here because Christians disagree strongly enough to declare those who disagree part of another tribe entirely, and such cannot stand in the Body of Christ. The pursuit of better questions here is the pursuit of truth, and although I do not pretend that I’m asking the best ones available even to our historical moment, I do want to give it enough of a try that I can say, with good conscience, that I’ve attempted to start making peace.
* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Interested, Allies, and Whatever letters they’ve added since I started typing this list.