This post kicks off a series wherein I will tackle the question of whether covenanted same-sex unions ought to be considered a disputable matter.
I grew up in a denomination that did not ordain women into ministry offices until 1995. The hottest years of the debate happened during my teens and early twenties. I remember poignantly how painful it felt to hear the back and forth, the characterizations of one side by the other, the agonized fear that this would split / destroy the church, the weariness, the anger, the hurt. I remember the waiting. And I remember feeling like I was somehow partly responsible for this pain I saw my church wrestling through – because I was one of those women who felt called into ministry.
After some stops and starts, the final decision came down and it was rather consternating. The governing body of our denomination chose to recognize that two different conclusions on this question could be biblically faithful. With this controversial decision, they sought to honour and respect the consciences of people across the diversity of position. The decision made the allowance for geographical groups of churches to either open the way for women to be ordained or not. Additionally, they put a delay on revisiting the decision for a number of years and precluded women from the highest levels of leadership within denominational governance. In 2009, for the first time, women were seated as delegates at our bi-national synod. And last year, I sat as not only a delegate, but an officer of synod. As a popular commercial used to say, “we’ve come a long way baby”…. But it certainly hasn’t been without pain. Indeed, when these decisions were made, churches did leave our denomination. I personally know of families who were torn apart because of their differences in perspective on the appropriateness of women in the offices of pastor, elder and deacon. Even now, 15 years later, overtures come to our synod relating to these questions. It has not been a smooth or easy ride for our tribe to live in the tension of viewing this as a disputable matter.
As a relatively young person at the time of the decision, I remember wrestling with the question, “how can two different positions both be biblically faithful?” it struck a note of uncertainty and anxiety within me about the whole notion of truth and how we apprehend it. It seemed to me, at the time, to be throwing all kinds of things up in the air. Even though I felt called into ministry, I was very uncomfortable with the sense of a lack of resolution. I wanted the church to proclaim the truth once and for all. I didn’t want to have to endure the uncertainty of hearing one person extol the role of women and then the next person exhort us to repent and get back to the bible. Having grown up questioning if I was actually hearing from God, I just wanted to be sure. I didn’t want to have to deal with any more insecurity about my calling.
Over the years, however, I have experienced and witnessed the ways that this decision in our church has caused us to grow. We’ve had to learn to live with one another, respect one another despite differences, experience one another’s faith and spiritual gifts. We’ve had to learn to listen well. We’ve been humbled, I believe, by choosing to live in this tension. And we’ve grown, I trust, in extending hospitality to those who differ from us. And after 15+ years, I believe God has blessed our denomination as we have experienced freedom from endless debate on the question and have focused energies on questions of mission and justice.
I share this background, because I recognize that it is an important contextual factor in my wrestling with the questions around application of disputable matter principles to the question of covenanted same-sex partnerships. It has been several years that I have been pondering and thinking about this question. Is this a disputable matter? How do we know if it is? How do we deal with the reality that it is disputed whether or not this is disputable?
The concept of disputable matter arises primarily from texts, attributed to the apostle Paul and applied to issues around which Christians in the early church were disagreeing with one another over. Romans 14 describes such a dilemma. (The second passage runs through I Corinthians 8 – 10)
Paul begins in verse one by saying, “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.”
After describing two scenarios pertaining to eating meat sacrificed to idols and Sabbath regulations, Paul says, “There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.” He then goes on in verses 8-23 to lay out encouraging guidelines for how to navigate being in community together in the midst of disagreement:
None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other. So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I’d say it leaves you looking pretty silly—or worse. Eventually, we’re all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren’t going to improve your position there one bit. Read it for yourself in Scripture: “As I live and breathe,” God says, “every knee will bow before me; Every tongue will tell the honest truth that I and only I am God.” So tend to your knitting. You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God. Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. I’m convinced—Jesus convinced me!—that everything as it is in itself is holy. We, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it. If you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don’t eat, you’re no longer a companion with them in love, are you? These, remember, are persons for whom Christ died. Would you risk sending them to hell over an item in their diet? Don’t you dare let a piece of God-blessed food become an occasion of soul-poisoning! God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of what you put in your stomach, for goodness’ sake. It’s what God does with your life as he sets it right, puts it together, and completes it with joy. Your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ. Do that and you’ll kill two birds with one stone: pleasing the God above you and proving your worth to the people around you. So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. You’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God’s work among you, are you? I said it before and I’ll say it again: All food is good, but it can turn bad if you use it badly, if you use it to trip others up and send them sprawling. When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face but to share the life of Jesus. So be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don’t eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love. Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others. You’re fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you’re not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe—some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them—then you know that you’re out of line. If the way you live isn’t consistent with what you believe, then it’s wrong.
It would seem that reading a passage like this would at least posture someone in a good place to have a conversation about whether a matter on which there is disagreement might be viewed as a disputable matter. But simply raising the question of whether it is or isn’t, is enough to get some people’s blood boiling. I well remember the seminar when I first raised this question. A pastor, who happened to be from my denomination, got up into my face and declared that it most certainly was not a disputable matter. Wiping the spittle off my cheeks from the intensity of his reply sent me the clear message that it was not a safe place to raise the question – and that I needed to do more prayerful reflecting. But now, a few years later, with still a fair bit of residual tentativeness, I think I’m ready to write more extensively on this question.
When you do research you find that there isn’t actually that much written on this particular question. Perhaps that is because most of the emphasis in this conversation has been to promote and defend a particular theological perspective. Basically, the articles you do find fall into two predictable categories. One perspective declares that homosexuality cannot be a disputable matter because it is clearly contraindicated by scripture. This of course, is, itself, disputed by those who challenge the notion that the bible is perfectly clear on this question.
The other perspective would see covenanted same-sex unions as a disputable matter. This perspective is supported by the understanding that scripture doesn’t address the reality of experiencing same-sex attraction – it only addresses sexual behaviour. The texts that address sexual behavior arise in a variety of contexts including rape, idolatry and vice lists. They express no reference to the reality that the experience of same-sex sexuality is not just about a sexual urge or a sexual behavior. Rather, same-sex sexuality has spiritual, emotional, and relational aspects not addressed in the passages about behavior. Additionally, others might add that scripture doesn’t comment specifically on committed relationships between consenting adults who are constitutionally same-sex oriented. Given the apparent impasse these two positions present, one might wonder if there is any way to have a redemptive conversation about this disputable matter question. It seems to me that it is vital to consider why such a conversation might be important.
Consideration of the application of disputable matter to this subject ought to be primarily motivated by the desire for there to be love and unity in the body of Christ. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love.” After many years navigating the tremendous differences in the Christian community in relation to this question of intimate relationships for same-sex oriented persons, I am more convinced than ever that it is inherently spiritually formational to willingly enter the tensions of diversity. Rather than fleeing the discomfort of disagreement, I believe we are called to submit ourselves to the Spirit’s work of enlarging us in humility, graciousness, and generosity. To sequester ourselves into a community of uniformity stunts our growth in learning to love those with whom we disagree. Jesus put it this way, “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. 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…… 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.” (Matthew 5: 43-45,48)
Ultimately, I have to wonder if our preoccupation with either preventing or celebrating two same-sex oriented adults in a covenanted relationship touching one another’s physical bodies as an expression of intimate love has missed the priority of God’s heart for unity in the church. I well know that it is not so simple. I know that larger questions around biblical authority, God’s holiness, and the tensions around truth and relativism make the matter a complex challenge. But in the great debates about slippery slopes and rigid legalism I can’t help but think we miss the forest for the trees. By making homosexuality the litmus test in these larger questions, the needed spaciousness for authentic searching is suffocated for same-sex attracted individuals. The reality is that this particular litmus test is convenient for the majority for whom it is merely a theoretical and theological issue – not a real life, heart-crushing question of love and family.
But this is not just an internal problem. A lack of internal love and unity has drastic external ramifications. In John 17 Jesus prays, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” It is manifestly clear that our infighting and refusal to consider the consciences and beliefs of one another within the church on questions around covenanted same-sex unions has tarnished our witness to those who increasingly find themselves in a post-Christian context. Without an assumed knowledge of or connection to the Biblical story, the battles over gay marriage in the church seem completely incompatible with the sense that Christianity is about serving a God of love. For those with gay friends, the sense of using the bible to exclude or deprive a group of people of love and family is a stench rather than the winsome fragrance of Christ. One has to consider that when 91% of 16-29 year olds negatively perceive Christians to be anti-gay, our ability to reach this generation with the good news of the gospel is significantly hindered.
At the same time, I’m aware that the stench that emerges in the global south comes from the perception that the affirming church approves and celebrates something their cultural mores could never accept. Discernment must also be exercised when considering the impact of disputable matter conversation on the global church and its ability to be a witness in its context. When I was speaking with the Archbishop of Uganda, I came away from the meeting feeling like too much emphasis was being given to protecting local culture on this question. I have felt a similar dis-ease after speaking with Christian leaders from the Caribbean.
It is crucial that we find our centre in the gospel of Jesus Christ in approaching the question of the application of disputable matter. While consideration of our cultural context is an important factor, this must be secondary to deeply redemptive and imaginative reflection on God’s self-revelation throughout the trajectory of scripture.
In part 2 I’ll explore some of the barriers that prevent us from having the disputable matter conversation by looking at the variety of ways Christians view homosexuality.