Original post at http://jmsmith.org/blog/same-sex-5/
We continue the discussion I’ve been having with my friend Sam regarding whether or not the Church should endorse same-sex sexual relationships as a valid expression of Godly sexuality among followers of Jesus.
If you’re just joining us, read Sam’s initial guest post can HERE.
I invited Sam to respond with another guest post where he takes up my points and challenges them. Again, I’m including it below and will respond to it in a series of posts next week.
Sam has been very gracious, charitable and honest in his approach and for that I am incredibly grateful. I’ve rarely encountered someone who takes the time to ask questions and understand the position they are debating against to the degree that Sam has shown. I want to thank him for this publicly. It’s easy for disagreements with a person’s position to transform into attacks on a person’s character or motives and Sam and I have been determined to avoid this if at all possible. I’ll leave it to readers to decide to what degree we’ve succeeded in that endeavor.
Here is Sam’s response to my previous 3-part post:
Once again I begin with thanks, JM, for your hospitality and patience to and with me. But let’s get right to it. I will try to proceed in something of a logical order in my response to your points, so it won’t match up heading-by-heading but will, hopefully, make more sense than another approach. Apologies in advance if my argument is muddled as a result.
Very quickly off the bat: it’s not clear to me that “current cultural ethics” is on the side of queer marriage and ordination. In the US context, 33 state plebiscites since 1998 have yielded 32 victories for opponents of same-sex/gender marriage. In the UMC context, the eleven General Conferences since and inclusive of 1972 have forbidden “homosexual practice,” including the one that happened a few weeks ago. We will probably do so several more times. But that’s a minor point. Moving right along:
You’re right to note that it’s crucial for us to get straight (no pun intended) what I’m saying. I am indeed proposing that the Holy Spirit, who inspired our Scriptures and quickens us today, is leading us to celebrate queer marriages and queer ordinations in our (Christ’s, the Spirit’s) church. Though I believe there’s a compelling reason to celebrate queer marriages and ordinations—namely, that doing so is a means of fostering holiness in the church—we’ve spent a lot more time talking about whether there are compelling reasons not to celebrate LGBTQ practice in the church.
In doing so, we’ve been dedicated to looking at the Scriptural question. I’d like to suggest that our conversation can no longer be about whether Scripture is unanimously against queerness. You will invariably say that it is and I will invariably say that it is not. We’ve both pointed to scholars who support our side; and though you’ve read more scholarship, it doesn’t mean the scholars from whom I derive reasonable doubt about the Bible’s condemnation of queer acts can be discounted from the basic premise of our conversation. (It’s also the case that, no, I haven’t read all those voices from the historic Christian faith who are writing in support of your argument. Two quick points on that: first, I don’t find myself bound to do so in order to further this consistently fruitful conversation, struggling as I do to find a means of determining the degree to which those people are “spirit-filled”; and second, after having watched the video you posted of Gagnon, I want to genuinely thank you for adopting a tone that is an order of magnitude kinder and more tolerable than that guy’s, JM.) I don’t mean to say that these arguments cease to function as constituent parts of our consciences. What I mean to say is that we’ll gain no ground asking one another to dwell on the texts or the secondary literature. This point is tied closely to a hermeneutic suggestion that I would like to make next.
I don’t think “God unequivocally and universally throughout both Testaments of Scripture has claimed” very much. Our holy writ isn’t self-interpreting, and is rarely if ever simple, straightforward, clear, nor unequivocal—especially when we’re talking about ethics. Witness how much complex research Gagnon has poured into convincing us just how clear and straightforward the Bible is on queer relationships. Put another way, I think it’s more accurate and more faithful to Christ to talk about “biblical interpretations” than to talk about “the claim[s] from Scripture”… a principle which itself is a natural check against the eisegesis to which you’ve elsewhere alluded.
That truth in itself does not mean that interpreting Scripture doesn’t lead us to forbid things. Indeed, I think Christians’ act of interpreting the Bible properly leads us to condemn lots of things, including things society has embraced in the latter day (usury comes to mind)—and this is why church resources like the Book of Resolutions are so important. Nor does what I’ve said mean that you can’t base your argument on Scripture. You have done and it’s reasonable to do so.
What is excluded is the dichotomy you present: either we have to “Reinterpret Scripture’s teaching on same-sex sexual relationships… [,] or [c]oncede that Scripture is simply wrong and outdated on this issue and we must look elsewhere for guidance.” The problem is that you’ve excluded the possibility of my Scriptural argument holding any water. Again, for the purposes of your argument, predicated as it is on your study and conscience, yes, Scripture is clear and so we’re forced into that two-way street. And if you were right, yes, I would have to admit the former possibility (thank you for presuming I want to be faithful to Scripture; I do, and I hope that I am, and so I reject the second option you present). I would have to admit that a re-interpretation of Scripture is necessary to accommodate a sexual ethic that comes from elsewhere, and doing so is problematic for Christians like us.
But for just a moment, if we flip it around and presume for the sake of argument that my Scriptural assertion is correct, then I’m really not forced into either of those choices, am I? I could (and do) say: the Holy Spirit has never forbidden lesbian or gay relationships and we have misinterpreted Scripture for a long while on the matter.
Again, you don’t have to hold this, JM, and you have a greater ability to deal with the biblical foundation of its force. But what I’m talking about really is something of a refereeing suggestion for where our conversation can go from here. As arrogant as my ethical stance that “we can know the harm that sin does” may have been (and to the extent that that was arrogant I apologize and will clarify more below)… quid pro quo JM, consistently telling me that your position is “orthodox” and representative of the “unanimity” of the Holy Spirit’s leading—suggestions which are not uncontested givens in this conversation, but which are the very items under consideration—is perhaps less than charitable to me. I suggest we move away from making those suggestions.
All the above discussion can be summed up thus: I disagree that we are any longer able to appeal to Biblical clarity (though we both are committed to Biblical authority) for the sake of our conversation. So to what can we appeal? Well, we’ve had an interesting back-and-forth on that topic which I’d like to discuss, drawing especially from your second response.
You have noted that there is a “discernable spiritual harm” in queer sexual relationships—namely, the harm that comes from disobeying God’s commands. But if I’m reading you correctly, JM, you’re saying that we don’t need to speak of sin as discernable harm in order to establish sinfulness. The necessary and sufficient basis for establishing sinfulness is lack of correlation to God’s commands—God says don’t do it, we do it, it’s sinful. (Besides, the harm that comes from disobeying God’s command isn’t something we can speak of separately from the ethical weight of the command in the first place, so such harm really is a secondary consideration.) Is that a fair summary of your position?
Indeed, as you go on to say, only a Scriptural interpretation “for that reason alone”—only because it is the authoritative command of God—has any traction for you on the moral question of queerness. (I have to say that you’re probably not too far away from how our ancestor in the faith John Wesley would weigh in here.) This is an important point to keep in the foreground of this response.
You dwell for a while on the Imago Dei issue, and I’m glad for it because it’s worth talking about. Again, acknowledging that I have nothing like the exegetical resources of you or Gagnon, I will point out in passing that both of you presume that the “image of God” metaphor in Genesis 1 is somehow more important or paradigmatic than the other places the “image of God” is brought up in Scripture… a presumption that I find problematic from the interpretive perspective of Jesus (never himself a part of any sexually complimentary union) as Christ. I take Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Colossians 1:15ff as pretty good indicators that “image/likeness” language in the Bible doesn’t necessarily reach its apex in Genesis 1; that is, saying that the Image of God necessarily or even primarily means anything about gender (much less gender complimentarity, see 1 Cor. 11:7) is tough to reconcile with a Christ-centered textual reading with respect to the Imago Dei. But as always, I look forward to your input here, JM.
Let me a take a minute to thank you for making yourself—on the level of humanity, not of argument—vulnerable at the end of your third post, JM. You write that you “actually wish same-sex sex [weren’t] innately sinful,” which I found touching. This personal note confirms that for you, it really is only about how you read the Bible here. It can’t be about some harm done in the lesbian or gay relationships among which you live (since you perceive none, wishing as you do that the Bible didn’t say what you read it as saying). I appreciate the level of honesty that represents, my friend.
And to extend this praise a little longer, it’s worth pointing out that I don’t think you’ve presented your case in a way that excludes reason or lived experience. I appreciate that a great deal, JM. You’re not a “Bible-only” conversationalist. But your commitment to your Scriptural interpretation trumps the desire you have to celebrate the queer relationships in your life, buoyed as they are only by reason or personal experience or whatever term you’d choose and not your biblical reading.
So with all that in mind, you’ve made clear your commitment to this Christian sexual ethics based only on (an interpretation of) the biblical command of God. As stated many times before I am uncomfortable with such a move.
It’s fairly straightforward work to describe the moral arbitrariness I perceive here: God gives us an ethical proscription (lesbian or gay relationships are forbidden) that we interpret from the Bible that does not track to the church’s experience or reason. Not only does violating it not do any perceivable, scientifically verifiable harm—which, I agree, is not the only means of harm assessment available to Christians—it doesn’t do harm to God or our relationship with God or others besides the logically circular harm caused by violating ethical commands.
Again, responsible biblical scholarship aside, I have to think this is in violation of responsible Christian ethics. I posit that a Christian ethics rooted in Scripture, as we have and ought to have as United Methodists, cannot confuse the roots with the trunk, bark and leaves. Our lives of discipleship are neither independent from nor coterminous with our Scriptural interpretation; Christian behavior and biblical reading are inseparable but so are Christian behavior and a reading of the world. And though I have to admit at the outset that this is not a knock-down drag-out argument (since you are more than welcome to simply reply that you don’t see it this way), I appeal to you and to our third-party readers that an ethical principle that has absolutely no grounding in anything except a biblical interpretation is neither a Christocentric nor a well-advised principle for Christians to hold.
I agree that “the heart of our debate centers on whether or not the act of sex with someone of the same gender is innately sinful” and that any basis for establishing such innateness is solely biblical (since we agree it cannot be established elsewhere). In that light I argue we’re forced into a choice between what I call moral arbitrariness (which you have called “because I said so”) and some level of acceptance of queer relationships on Christian terms. Again, one of the interpretive tools available to us in biblical hermeneutics is a reasoning tied to applicability to lives lived, alongside intertexuality and historical criticism and the concordances.
And yes, as you have pointed out once or twice, the official church has in the overwhelming majority of times and places subscribed to a biblical interpretation condemning queer marriage. One reason why I caution against using this as corroborating data for establishing the Holy Spirit’s will is that the official church has for almost as long thrown in lots of other terrible stuff about queer people—stuff like corporal punishment or recommendations for psychological therapy. Pastoral sensitivity (enacted by the activity of the Holy Spirit, no?) on the matter of queerness is roughly as “new” to our hierarchical church as support for lesbian and gay marriage and ordination, and so excluding the leading of the Holy Spirit on grounds of novelty is problematic.
Now, I attach the terms “official” and “hierarchical” to church in order to distinguish what (some of) the bishops and books say from the way (some of the) people live. Some Christians have been lesbian and gay as long as there’s been a church, so it’s a moral horror we can commonly acknowledge that the official church has subjected such Christians to unequivocal sexual condemnation in the overwhelming majority of times and places. Even so, we who constitute the Body of Christ live on, just as Jesus’ body does—wounded, yet holy; rejected, yet righteous.
Again JM, the rhetorical force of your statement, that “the Holy Spirit is only within the past 40 years beginning to set the record straight among His people,” is palpable at first blush. But it’s fortunate that this isn’t the centerpiece of your argument since we both acknowledge that the Holy Spirit only within the past century has set the record straight vis-à-vis women’s ordination. We clearly didn’t read Scripture right about women and ordination for some 1700 years; can we be so sure about our Scriptural clarity on queerness now? We shouldn’t be skeptical about the ways God can Isaiah 43:18-19 us, even in 40 years’ time, even today, even now.
And indeed, you’re not skeptical in that way—we return again to the fact that it’s only on the merit of your biblical interpretation, supported as it is by other extremely knowledgeable scholars, that your argument rests. So you could (and perhaps must?) concede that, since the church has in at least one other significant way massively misinterpreted Scripture vis-à-vis polity and sexual ethics, and since the official church has egregiously erred in its treatment of queer people even if we presume for the sake of argument that the loving thing to do is to bar them from marriage and ordination, it’s at a little tough to say that the Holy Spirit has in any meaningful way been leading us to live the way we’ve been living. Am I off base here?
OK, so, commonly acknowledging that God is leading Christians someplace new regarding how to do ministry as/for/with/among queer people, we turn to the substance of your third response. To begin with, you’re right and I was wrong: the distinction between sin and temptation is key here. Performing sin is sinful, being tempted to do so isn’t. Well said, JM, and I stand corrected; I misspoke about the desire to do something. What I should have said is the will to do something. If I desire to sleep around, it’s not a sin, but if I will to do so or actually do it, then I do sin. I think we’re on the same page now.
The point is this: being consistently oriented to will to commit sins may not be in and of itself sinful but it certainly is pathological. Addiction to alcohol isn’t sinful but it’s certainly something that we need to minister to because it does clear harm, harm we can speak about without recourse only to esoteric Scripture passages.
Ditto pornography. What clear harm does consuming pornography do? Presuming it harms no one socially/work-wise/kin-wise, why forbid it? Well, certainly not just because God said so. It’s because consuming pornography entails objectivizing another person (a subject of sacred worth), and also more than likely (though not necessarily) involves supporting an industry that has erected a system of person-objectification. That’s real, tangible, discussable harm—harm predicated on our faith that God has created us and called that creation very good.
Indeed, pornography consumption is something of an entrée into a fruitful discussion of the harm of idolatry. We agree that idolatry doesn’t harm human people and does harm God. But here’s a subtle truth that I need to take a little time to tease out. Idolatry doesn’t harm God because God said not to worship idols and doing so steps on the toes of God the rule-maker. God said not to worship idols because doing so is actually wrong, actually harmful. In a similar way that masturbating to an image of a person reduces the sacred worth of that person to a means for one’s own visceral pleasure, so too does worshiping an idol reduce The Divine Mystery into a means for one to curry supernatural favor without the cost of the Cross. One replaces real, equitable, mutual human relationship with a reduction of humanity via pornography; one replaces genuine worship of the one God with a reduction of divinity via idolatry.
Does that make sense? Mistaking a subject for an object—treating a sacred person or Person as a means to our ends, rather than an end in herself—is, I think, demonstrably, reasonably sinful. Treating someone as a mutual, equal, consenting partner for sharing intimacy and mutual support in and through the grace of God is not so easily spoken of as sin. And in any case, the question isn’t about what natural science or psychology say about harm; it’s what Christian theology, which above all else informs us how to love God and love each other, says. And on the basis of that love, harm can indeed be established by reason.
To bring this response to a close, JM, I need to say that I do appreciate your words on the seriousness of the matter in front of us: “people’s actual eternal souls are on the line and the Holiness of Jesus’ Bride is at stake.” I agree. Grounding all discussion of ethics and sexuality in the concrete, lived experience of persons is the only responsible option we have. Which is why we are under a serious obligation to reject Christian ethics based on forensic (as opposed to, as commenter Morgan Guyton cleverly puts it, “therapeutic”) salvation or a morally arbitrary God. We have to do what God has given us to do: to obey by thinking, not to think by obeying.
God transforms us into holy persons. This is why Christ died while we were yet sinners—so we could be transformed while we were yet alive, yet transformable. God doesn’t save us arbitrarily—let us be Methodists, my friend!—but because God loves us. Justification is an entryway into sanctification, the process by which we become conformed to the image of the living God (who, we recall, is Christ).
Stemming from this central truth, we must acknowledge that God does not place in our way barriers to this sanctification, but only aides. The Divine Mystery of God cannot be fully comprehended, and glory to God for it… but we do not worship a God who asks us to throw up our hands whenever we’re pressed for an account of why we do what we do. In the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15 we must be ready to give reasons why. Why do we forbid the things we do? Because they are harmful things, and we can talk about that harm. We worship a God who transforms us not only into prayer people and service people and justice people but also into reason people, and reason does not dwell only in the Bible—rather, the Bible dwells within the reason/ratio/Logos of God’s creation, God’s church, God’s people. Never handed down from a cloud, Scripture, like Holy Communion, is only efficacious in the community of people who receive it and interpret it where they are and where God is—here with us, right now.
There’s nothing Jesus can’t do. Yes, JM, we are all “bent” (keeping in mind your concern over careful avoidance of “queer,” I was surprised at your use of that term). But God is bending us into the bent people of Jesus Christ.
Thanks again, JM!
Stay tuned for my responses to Sam next week!
ps: In the meantime, here are a few articles I have written which touch on this issue in various facets which readers may be interested in (and Disciple Dojo actually earns income based on traffic for each of my Examiner pieces so feel free to click on all of them! )