In the last few weeks, I had the opportunity to deliver the evening message at one of the downtown churches in Toronto. The group I was engaging was a delightful mix of university students, long-time church members, young professionals, empty-nesters and everyone in-between. I spent the first evening laying some basic groundwork – suggesting that any conversation about homosexuality within the church that is divorced from relational engagement with gay people is an adventure in missing the point; and that unless we see gay brothers and sisters in the faith as mutual pilgrims, our efforts at engagement will bear little fruit. The second evening, I attempted to navigate some of the reality of the diversity in perspectives on homosexuality that are present not only in the world, but increasingly obvious in the Christian community ~ with the opening reminder that we are again called to a posture of humility and self-examination as we navigate such complexity. Below is an edited for length copy of what I shared:
The prophet Hosea speaks about sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind …. This is an apt description for the fractured and broken place the Christian community finds itself in. We have sown hatred, we have sown fear, we have sown enmity against brothers and sisters in Christ, we have sown arrogance divorced from relationship – and we are reaping confusion, alienation, slander, cynicism, and a misrepresentation of Christ to the world by the enmity within the church ….. That’s the truth of it. On both sides of the divide, we have often behaved in ways that did not reflect the character of Christ.
I want to describe what I see as an emerging expression or generation (not designated by age – but rather perhaps by where they position themselves in this time of transition) within the Christian community.
This expression continues to take the bible seriously, and subscribe to the bible as inerrant – but also recognize that while the bible may be inerrant – there are no inerrant interpreters of the bible. All of us see through a glass dimly – none of us has a perfect pipeline to God. In my conversations with gay friends who hold a different perspective than I do, I have come to a place of saying, “I believe these things deeply, they are of significance to me, I have done my homework – have studied, have prayed, have reflected, have listened – but I recognize that I could be wrong – that I don’t have perfect access to absolute truth – and so I want to engage in conversation and relationship with a humility that is willing to really listen to how you have engaged Scripture, to hear your reflections and prayers – and I want to be open to hear how Christ has been leading you. Doesn’t mean my beliefs are up for grabs – but it demonstrates humility over arrogance. I interviewed Bruxy Cavey for our Bridging the Gap project and Bruxy said, “As a theologically conservative Christian myself, the challenge to me is to accept that it’s possible for someone to come to a different theological conclusion based on scripture, and still be a committed follower of Jesus. I’m used to feeling like, I know you’re a real Christ follower when you agree with me about everything, and part of the journey of a conservative Christian is realizing that there are genuine, heartfelt, passionate followers of Jesus, who arrived at different conclusions on some theological issues and some ethical issues rooted in their passion for, and study of scripture. Now there are also some sloppy, lazy, self-serving people who make up their ethics as they go along, to validate how they want to live, and then try to look through scripture to find the proof-text. And how do you know the difference between the two of those? First of all, as a Christian, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise, but also I get to know the difference when I get to know them, when we hang out together, when we do Bible study together.”
Jesus said that you will know a good tree by the fruit that it bears. And as I have built relationships with gay Christians – many who come to different conclusions theologically than I have – I have also come to experience good fruit, the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, I have experienced their love for Christ. I disagree with them, and it is a significant point of disagreement – but given the evidence I see in their lives of their love for Christ, I am not in a place where I am willing to call their faith counterfeit. That is a call that only God, who sees the heart, is able to judge. Doesn’t mean I won’t discern by walking in step with the Spirit when it is time to speak a word in season about how Christ calls us to live our lives – but it does mean I will wait on God’s timing and I will trust that God is big enough and powerful enough to convict them of the sin in their life – just as He is to convict me of the sin in my life.
So I see a generation that takes the bible seriously – but takes a humble posture in the face of the limitations of our interpretive grids. Doesn’t mean they don’t have clear beliefs themselves – but that they are less willing to impose their beliefs on others in whom they see evidence of love for Christ and the fruits of the Spirit.
Another thing I see in this emerging expression is a deep commitment to relationship. This generation is sensitive to not alienate people they feel Christ has invited them to love and be loyal to. They take Jesus’ words in Luke 17:2 very seriously, “Hard trials and temptations are bound to come, but too bad for whoever brings them on! Better to wear a millstone necklace and take a swim in the deep blue sea than give even one of these dear little ones a hard time!”
This emerging expression isn’t wishy-washy on sin – but they tend to shy away from a top ten hit list which singles out certain categories of sin. As God began to deconstruct some of the prideful and arrogant assumptions that I unwittingly held concerning my perspectives about homosexuality, one of the things that I began to see was the disproportionate attention given to homosexuality ….. my sense was, “How many times does Scripture address homosexual behaviour?” Six times – and it is fair to say that a number of those may well be referring to homosexual behaviour as it was practiced in the context of either idolatry or violence. How many times does Scripture refer to pride and arrogance? 900 times according to Biblegateway.com ….
And so this generation isn’t necessarily “soft on gays” as often accused …. But they are challenged and convicted by the pervasive sin of consumerism that perpetrates profound injustice that seems to often be conveniently overlooked by a rich and self-absorbed western church. They chafe at the sense of injustice that would keep gay and lesbian people at arms length while there seems to be a smug indifference to Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” This generation has grown weary of the seemingly endless splinter picking of gay and lesbian neighbours while obvious planks seem to go unaddressed.
This emerging expression counts a robust conversation that seeks to honour Christ, while honouring and respecting one another – even through disagreement – as valuable and are not quick to trade an unengaged certainty for the opportunity to explore questions of faith with someone holding a diverse perspective.
My friend Ron is a celibate gay Christian. He holds a very conservative view of sexuality. This is how he describes his engagement with those with whom he disagrees:
It can, at times, be very difficult to deal with Christians with whom I disagree. Especially if we’re having a conversation about the disagreement, and they’re explaining why they think they have interpreted the Bible correctly, and I just want to pull my hair out and say, “you can’t believe that”, but I also have to step back and ask myself, how am I showing Christ’s love in this situation, and am I being Christ, or am I being a pharasee. I wrestle a lot in reading the New Testament, Christ sometimes does speak very harshly to sin, but Christ is also known for his dinner parties with the sinners, and I wrestle deeply, “is this a time to speak strongly, is this a time to sit down and have dinner together”. And I do sometimes speak out to friends when I know that there’s a depth of trust there. That whether or not they agree with me, they can at least hear what I have to say, but I also know that I have to be careful not to fall into the self-righteousness of thinking that I have all the answers. Through my gay friends, there are things that I disagree greatly with, but there are also ways in which they challenge me, and I can see that they are giving their life to Christ more deeply in some area then I am. In entering into friendships, I open myself to the way they may need to challenge me, but also try to share my own experience, my own understanding of what the Bible says to gently challenge them and to let the spirit work in that situation, in the hope that we will draw closer together and that Christ will show us what is true, and how he wants us to live together in unity. In the meantime, we have all of these divisions, and it’s painful to God, it’s a deep scandal to our witness, it causes non-Christians to wonder, “How can a God of love be operating in the midst of all that disagreement?” And so I want is to do what I can to bind up those wounds. To be willing to be challenged by the people I disagree with. And in being willing to be challenged, also earn the right to challenge.
This emerging expression is less concerned with determining who is excluded and more focused on being part of the most generous invitation to all to come and discover the Love of the Father, Jesus the Son, made real through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Our text reflects on one of Jesus’ core teachings – that we are to love those we may have perceived to be against us, and that “When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. ….In a word, what I’m saying is, “Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matt. 5:44-48, the Message)
If we live out the words of this text, in the midst of our disagreements – which are many – and in the midst of some of our unanswered questions about how the church can best reach and disciple our gay brothers and sisters – then I believe we will have the tools to move forward in a wise way, able in humility to continue to practice the unity to which Christ called us to in John 17, “I pray…. that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”