John Wesley is credited with the articulation of the quadrilateral for theological reflection made up of Scripture, experience, tradition and reason. It has been likened to a three legged stool in that Scripture is always seen as the foundation with the other three factors providing support. In this section of this disputable matter series, I want to look at the variety of ways we apply these supports to our theological reflections about covenanted same-sex relationships.
Wesley prioritized, after Scripture, the role of experience in theological reflection. The reason for this was that he saw that after Scripture, the lived reality of a theological concept was most effective in determining the truthfulness of the interpretation. When we consider the role of experience in the questions around covenanted same-sex unions there are a few categories to consider.
First of all, there is the experience of same-sex attracted Christians. Among these stories is significant diversity in experience. Some have, through a combination of Christian commitment, personal growth, therapy, ongoing accountability and support, sought to diminish and / or manage their experience of same-sex attraction. For those who have gone down this path, there may be a variety of outcomes. For some, there is an experience of mastery and stewardship in the area of attraction such that they find it manageable to refrain from same-sex sexual behavior. For some this occurs within the context of being committed in marriage to an opposite gender spouse. For some this occurs as they navigate life as a single person.
For others who have attempted this path, the outcome was very different. Their experience was not positive in terms of their experience of sexuality, their spiritual journey, their sense of self, and their ability to meet their legitimate needs for love and intimacy. Despite spiritual discipline, commitment to work through various personal issues, and submission to others for support and accountability, their same-sex attractions persisted or increased in intensity. They may have experienced a sense of losing connection with all sense of desire, a shutting down of their sense of self, their creativity, their longings and their hopes. And this may have come to a point of clearly being unsustainable for them. This may result in the process of disclosure and honesty about the reality of same-sex attraction – out of which some individuals will identify as gay and others will choose not to. This experience may be in the context of heterosexual marriage or singleness.
Other same-sex attracted Christians have journeyed along the path towards self-acceptance and authentic living as those with a predominant gay orientation. Some will have explored the path previously described before moving towards acceptance. Others will have avoided this path (perhaps because of hearing of others’ painful and negative experiences) and directly moved towards acceptance. For those who acknowledge the reality of their orientation, there are those who identify as gay, those who choose not to, those who disclose widely, and those who disclose minimally. Each choice will carry with it a different experience. Not only that, some will experience this degree of acceptance and authenticity as a single person, as a married person in a mixed-orientation marriage (ie. Married to an opposite gender spouse), or in partnership/marriage with someone of the same-sex. Each of these contexts will result in very different experience.
Not only that, gay Christians who embrace self-acceptance and honesty in regards to their same-sex attraction will also have different experiences depending on where they land theologically. Someone who experiences a same-sex partnership who is uncertain about where they land theologically will have a different experience than the person who has come to a confident place of expectation of God’s blessing on their relationship. Someone who is committed to celibate singleness due to theological convictions will have a different experience than the person who is single but still wrestling and uncertain about where they will land theologically and whether they will or will not experience a same-sex relationship in the future. There are also those who may feel clear about their theological position as calling them to abstain from same-sex sexual behavior, but are still exploring other possibilities for intimate relationships and experiences of family through options like living in community or a covenanted friendship.
In these three short paragraphs, we have described a great deal of complexity in the variety of experiences a same-sex attracted follower of Jesus may have. This may be further impacted by the question of whether an individual has grown up in a faith community or has come to faith later in life (potentially after having come out and / or establishing a long-term same-sex partnership).
Within the context of these different experiences, there will be a variety of ways that faith in Christ is expressed with different levels of growth and maturity and this will have been further influenced by personality, life experience, models, mentors, teaching, training, and motivation just to name a few.
Then in addition to the experiences of same-sex attracted followers of Jesus, there are the experiences of those within the heterosexual mainstream as they encounter the subject of homosexuality as influenced by teaching, ideology, social and family systems, and as they encounter the stories of same-sex attracted people (including all the variety of stories the experiences above entail in addition to stories of non-Christian gay people), and as they actually experience personal relationship with lgbtq people (who may fit any of the diverse experiences described).
Some straight people will have experienced negative teaching (in the church or otherwise) about gay people (not just theological reflections on the question of the appropriateness of same-sex sexual behavior). Others may have encountered positive teaching about gay people outside of the church, but negative teaching in the church. Still others (likely a minority) may have heard positive teaching about same-sex attracted people both inside the church and in other situations. Some will have come from social and family systems that viewed gay people negatively. Some will have come from social and family systems that viewed gay people positively. Some will have had their primary ideas about gay people formed by their faith community. Others will have had their ideas about gay people formed in their social context (particularly those who did not grow up in the church).
Some straight Christians will have heard only stories of same-sex attracted people who testify to experiencing change in their sexuality who are now heterosexually married. Others will have heard a variety of stories of different experiences. Some will have heard stories from their social and unchurched context but may not have really heard stories of the faith of gay Christians. Some will have an understanding that one story cannot be universally projected on all others. Others will expect that the stories they have heard will apply to anyone who is same-sex attracted.
Some straight Christians will have their own stories to recount on the basis of their personal relationships with sexual minorities. These stories will be influenced by the experience of the gay people they know. Some will have broad and diverse relationships. Others will have minimal or no personal relationships.
In many of the debates around homosexuality in the Christian community, there is minimal attention given to the tremendous diversity in experience that people bring to the table. Such experience affects the ability to be truly objective in exploring a topic that tends to be so emotionally charged. Rather than attempting to push experience to the background, it seems to me to be much more honest to be able to acknowledge the variety of experiences and to have conversation about the ways such experience influences our ability to reflect and discern God’s best way forward for same-sex oriented people.
For example, if one Christian has gay Christian friends who are partnered who demonstrate strong faith in Christ, commitment to worship, prayer, service, mission and justice, they will have a very different sense of experience than the Christian who does not personally know any gay people, let alone a gay Christian. After one film screening I hosted that profiles the lives of over 20 young gay Christians, one elderly man in the audience admitted that prior to seeing the film, he did not realize that there were young people who were solid in their faith and commitment to Jesus who also lived with the reality of a same-sex orientation. This may sound ludicrous to some, but the limitations of this man’s experience made him susceptible to caricatures and stereotypes about gay people.
It is not uncommon to hear lament in the church about the overemphasis on the role of experience in our current theological reflections. While this may be a legitimate concern, it is clear that if we are committed to listening to one another in the exploration of how to experience unity in our diversity, then we must take the time to humbly consider what experience influences the ways we reflect on these theological questions.
I hope that these paragraphs, while failing to be comprehensive, at least paint a picture of the tremendous diversity in experience that comes into the conversations about whether a disputable matter application might be appropriate for the question of covenanted same-sex relationships.
After the lens of experience, Wesley points to the role of tradition. It is a common statement to hear that one can’t argue with 2,000 years of church tradition that has consistently contraindicated same-sex sexual behavior. A high profile evangelical leader with whom I recently had lunch has often pointed to church tradition. As we were eating, he said to me that as he has actually looked at the writings throughout church history, there isn’t nearly as much said about homosexuality as he would have thought. While many point to the weight of church tradition, it is actually very few who have done the research in source material to determine the application of such historical tradition to our current context. One has to wonder if many point to church tradition as a simple means of reinforcing what they already believe to be true as a means of bolstering their position and preventing an open and generous conversation about the ways people are legitimately wrestling with God’s character revealed throughout the story of scripture.
It is interesting to note, however, that Wesley does not merely point to theologians, doctrine and dogma from the past when considering tradition. Rather, for Wesley tradition encompassed current theological influences as well as the beliefs and values of one’s family and church community. In our day and age, tradition therefore could be hugely diverse depending on what podcasts you listen to, blogs you read, radio and TV speakers you follow, books you gravitate to etc. The role of tradition may simply reinforce what one already thinks, broaden and challenge the sense of tradition one has held, or be so diverse as to foster tension, confusion and profound questions.
Finally, Wesley, ever the pragmatist, considered that our own ability to reason played an important role in our reflections on Scripture. To Wesley, our ability to reason offers a way of evaluating and perhaps challenging the assumptions of the tradition we encounter. While reason should never be elevated above Scripture, reason does help us to consider how to apply Scriptural interpretation in our current context. But here again, people reason in different ways depending on their wiring and bent, affinity for black and white or grey, talents, modes of processing etc. Not only that, but the reality is that it is very hard for most of us to think outside of the paradigm that we believe to be the right one.
Therefore, the ways we think are often limited by the boundaries of what we already believe to be true. My friend David Hayward, who blogs at nakedpastor.com said it this way, “The very lens we use to understand the truth are prescribed to perceive the truth we already believe. What is required is a radical revolutionary thinking outside the box. The lens itself, somehow, must be removed. Of course at first it will be rejected because it doesn’t fit the paradigm. But eventually, as the evidence mounts, the new paradigm will have to crash in upon us.” What this reminds us of is the inevitable reality that there will be tension between those who have an affinity to think outside their own paradigm and those who naturally resist such exploration. The ways we apply our thinking skills to the struggle to discern God’s will regarding the appropriateness of committed same-sex unions will be different for different people.
While there are other models that describe how we ought to tackle the task of theological reflection, Wesley’s quadrilateral gives a basic starting point from which we can begin to describe the layers of complex diversity that impact how people engage a question like the contours of faithful discipleship for same-sex attracted people. There are certainly those who simply don’t engage the question, assuming that they know the truth. However, in this determination, they have inevitably, though perhaps unconsciously, also been influenced by their view of homosexuality, their approach to Scripture, their experiences, their interaction with tradition, and their unique method of thinking.
In taking all this time to lay out the many ways that diversity is introduced into this conversation, I hope that this, in and of itself, will communicate legitimate need for us to consider if the current disagreements about gay marriage ought not to be considered as a disputable matter. To refuse to even consider this question would seem to discount the authentic theological reflections of those who may be coming from very different places. We are reminded in I Corinthians 12 that for the body of Christ to function faithfully and well, we need to embrace the different parts of the body. We are not all the same. We don’t all play the same role. We don’t all offer the same contribution. Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”
Are we really prepared to say that those who have different views on homosexuality, different approaches to Scripture, different types of experience, tradition and reason are not part of the Body of Christ because we differ in how we view covenanted same-sex relationships? If these brothers and sisters confess Jesus as Lord, how can we cast them out? Consider these words, “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10: 9) If brothers and sisters share in the essentials of our faith, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, who are we to say they are not part of the Body?
To this point, we have spent much time describing the reality of diversity in the Body of Christ. This clearly has a huge implication for the consideration of whether covenanted same-sex relationships might be viewed as a disputable matter. However, in part 5 we will turn to the much harder task of seeking to determine whether this is, indeed, as disputable matter and why.