Starve the Gay Controversy

"Feed what you want and starve the rest," said John Wimber, founder of Vineyard USA, my evangelical denomination. I think it's time to starve the gay controversy -- to refuse to play by its rules, regard it with a studied naïveté -- so that we can love gay, lesbian, and transgender people while honoring our commitment to Scripture. It can be done.

The path is simple. First, we have to do our homework and seek to understand what the texts prohibiting same-sex relations were referring to in their original historical context. Certain things are clear: the ancient world was rife with socially accepted violence in which men penetrated other men, or more frequently, pre-pubescent males. This took place in temple prostitution rites, in the sexual mistreatment of slaves by masters, and in pederasty -- a Greco-Roman institution characterized by older men mentoring young males in exchange for sexual services. Sexual abuse is with us still, of course, but in many places, it is not conducted with the brazen openness that characterized the ancient world. Men in the Greco-Roman period could have their way with virtually anyone but another man's wife (regarded as his property) and suffer little social penalty.

So the narrow question is: were the handful of prohibitive texts (all but one refer to male- on-male sex) aimed at anything like today's monogamous gay unions? Scholars debate this, but a plain and simple reading suggests that the language of these texts is best suited to violent, degrading, sex-as-domination practices. Whether it also refers to all same sex relationships is the matter in dispute.

Second, we have to apply Scripture and evaluate the tradition of the church in light of the gay, lesbian, and transgender people who embrace faith with sincere devotion, often swimming upstream against a powerful current of exclusion. Otherwise, we cannot apply the teaching of Jesus that says, "By their fruit you will know them." When "those people" were in hiding, it was much easier to believe the worst about them. But they are coming out of hiding, often at great personal cost, and many carry with them a hard fought faith not easily dismissed.

We've been here before. Fifty years ago, the churches swelled with men and women who remarried after divorce. A plain reading of Scripture, especially the words of Scripture's Lord --Jesus -- indicates that in the vast majority of cases, these second marriages could be regarded as adulterous. Yet, something about the stories of many of these couples cautioned us against applying these Scriptures in this way -- despite centuries of Christian tradition that did just that. Evangelical churches have suspended exclusionary practices aimed at remarried people in many situations that would have warranted exclusion not very long ago. (The marriage of C.S. Lewis to divorcee Joy Davidman, did not rise to the standards of the Church of England in 1957, when it took place.)

What do we do when faced with moral quandaries like this? We hit the pause button. We acknowledge that while the meaning of Scripture is as plain in many areas, there are situations in which the meaning of Scripture is not so clear. Virtually every big moral issue can get murky at the edges. Killing people is clearly murder and murder is clearly abhorrent to God. But is all killing in war murder? The early church seemed to think so, but the Christian response has become more nuanced with the advent of "just war theory" (though it's difficult to find a modern war that fulfills the criteria of a "just war.") Do we exclude people who believe killing in war is sometimes justified? No. We regard this as an issue over which we can agree to disagree, maintaining fellowship despite our passionate differences over this question.

I have proposed what I call a "Third Way" through this morass. Suspend all exclusionary practices (including categorical exclusion from leadership positions) when it comes to men and women who are gay, lesbian or transgender and are willing to commit themselves to same-sex relationships marked by steadfast love and faithfulness, something many straight couples struggle to live out. Regard this moral question as an issue over which we can agree to disagree. This is in keeping with principles advanced by St. Paul, in Romans 14, regarding certain moral controversies of his day. We don't know precisely what these controversies were but it is likely they included questions about first order moral issues (like the legitimacy of eating meat sacrificed to idols, or the obligation to abide by the fourth commandment.) Don't exclude one another over these "disputable matters," he said, rather, accept each other despite your differences. We can apply these principles to the question of whether or when monogamous same-sex unions are allowed.

This would require restraint on the part of those who are "progressive" and those who are "conservative" on this question. Progressive would have to accept people in the church who are convinced that all same-sex relations are wrong. They would need to support those who experience same-sex attraction, but for reasons of conscience, have committed themselves to celibacy or to faithfulness to a spouse of the opposite sex. (I know deeply devoted people in this situation, and believe the Spirit has led them to make the decisions they have.) Sexuality is a complex phenomenon and if we're going to leave judgment to God on this question, it has to cut both ways. Conservatives on this issue would have to suspend their right to insist on the implementation of any exclusionary practice aimed at same sex couples committed to monogamy. They would have to remember the parable in which the master commanded his eager-to-pull-up-the-tares servants not to do so, so as not to pull out some wheat along with the tares. When in doubt, weed less, knowing we don't always weed well.

What about "gay weddings"? Let pastors do what I have done for years when considering the request of divorced persons to remarry -- understand their situation, wrestle with Scripture, pray about it, and trust the Spirit of the risen Jesus to lead. Unless we demand an account from our pastors regarding their participation in the union of any two people, treat this issue with the same respect for pastoral discernment. If your pastor decides to honor any couple's request to place Jesus at the center of their commitment to each other, let it be on his or her head, not yours. And keep in mind that pastors don't, strictly speaking, marry anyone but their own partners. In traditions that view marriage as a sacrament, the couple performs the sacrament.

I call this non-exclusionary approach "accepting" rather than "affirming." I believe the gospel calls us to accept each other despite our differences, disagreements and moral failings (real or purported) for the sake of Christ, who accepts us in this remarkable way. Acceptance is a gospel word while affirmation is not. Since when is our relationship in Christ contingent on extending moral approval to each other? That is moralism -- the stuff of mere religion -- not the good news of Jesus Christ. Isn't the power of the gospel revealed more clearly when we simply accept each other for the sake of Christ and not because we judge each other worthy? Individuals, of course, are free -- indeed should be encouraged -- to honor the dictates of their own conscience on such matters. We take this "let God be the judge" approach to many other moral issues of greater consequence. Why should we make a special exception for this moral issue?

The answer of course is "because of it's the subject of intense controversy." Somehow the power of culture, politics, and religion have coalesced at this time, to shine the spotlight of intense controversy on people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender. Imagine that you divorced your spouse for reasons that don't fall neatly into the so-called two narrow "exceptions" recognized by the Protestant reformers (and not accepted universally in the church by any means.) It wasn't an easy decision but you did your best and are willing to answer to God for it. Having wrestled through this vexing question with your pastor, you discover that many in your church are threatening to leave if you are allowed to remarry. Your pastor has to consider job security as he or she decides what to do. Society has become obsessed with this issue. Your state is voting on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as "one man and one woman, one time." Whole denominations are splitting over this. How would you feel? Stigmatized. And you would be right to feel that way. Let us stop doing this same thing to people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender.

How could we do that? By refusing to play by the rules of this controversy. Which tell us that our stand on this one question plus the gospel is what defines our faithfulness to Christ. That, not to put too fine a point on it, is boo-honkey. No matter what our perspective on the morality of same-sex relationships may be, it is time to discern where all the energy fueling this controversy is coming from and whom it serves. Are we so sure that Jesus of Nazareth -- the one we know and love from the canonical gospels and by his living presence in our lives -- would step into the current cultural-political-ecclesiological preoccupation with this issue and simply accept how we have framed the question and take one side over and against another? Might he not rather speak to us in a way that sent partisans on both sides slinking away with our metaphorical tails between our legs?

I'm calling on all Christians -- evangelical Christians especially, and colleagues in my own tribe, the Vineyard, in particular -- to discern the roots and the fruits of this state of affairs. Is the intense pressure we are all under, not to mention the vulnerable people stigmatized by this controversy -- from God or some other source? Do we honor Jesus by honoring the controversy or by resisting it, acting as if it has no legitimate power over us? I have made my discernment: resist the controversy, regard it with a studied naïveté, pay it no mind, and then do your praying and reading of Scripture and pastoral care of gay, lesbian and transgender people as you are led by his Spirit.

Ken Wilson is the founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and author, most recently, of A Letter to My Congregation: and evangelical pastor's path to embrace people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender into the company of Jesus (ReadTheSpirit 2014).