Another take on ‘disputable matters’

Back in May I had the opportunity to speak at a conference called Presentensions. The two main speakers were David Fitch and Phyllis Tickle. I spoke abit about Tickle in my post on authority here. I noticed, however, that David Fitch raised some questions after that particular event in his blog post entitled: Questioning The Great Emergence – What Emergents Don’t Understand About Us Anabaptists

To set the stage, consider this excerpt:

Emergents push for conversation that is inclusive. We (Anabaptists) push for inclusive conversation that moves towards resolution on the ground under Christ’s Lordship in community. Like Phyllis, Emergents believe that somehow through talking we will all converge someday. They have faith that the established church will form anew (we Anabaptists smell Christendom here). We push for local incarnation, the working out of our faith and practice and mission in local communities who live under the Lordship of Christ and His incoming kingdom. Here we not only converse, we practice conflict resolution in mutual submission to His Lordship, we encounter His presence and receive and give out of the Eucharist, we minister to the poor by being present among them offering what we have, we participate in community, submitting to each others’ gifts. We do all these things in a way that theology is worked out on the ground. I am sure Emergent’s do all of this! Yet for us, this is the soil from which true theology shall be done. This is the soil for the renewal of the church. We therefore resist isolating issues from the church community’s life in the world. We believe you work out issues like same sex relations, pluralism, gospel etc., IN MISSION. We believe you work these issues out one community at a time and report what we have learned to the larger Body. We work these issues out to resolution because they will not go away and demand the attention of our communities who are dealing with these issues right now.

What Fitch is essentially saying is that clarity of answers is worked out in local contextualized communities as you have specific opportunity to work through particular issues. The local fellowship can then offer their earned knowledge and wisdom to the larger church body. In the case of same-sex relations, this would mean encountering same-sex attracted individuals in their community, being in relationship with them in community, working towards discernment in discipleship, and then based on the experience of the individuals who continue in the community, offer their response to the questions around integrating faith and sexuality. It would seem to me, however, that such discernment may be weighted by the perspectives and hermeneutics of a community’s leaders. One has to wonder if there is space within a local community to wrestle with diverse perspective when there seems to be such an urgency towards concrete resolution. Given the emphasis on Lordship, one might ask who’s definition of Lordship.

Fitch asks a similar sort of question when he raises the matter of disputable matters. In my presentation at the Presentensions event, I had identified some “old” questions in the conversation on faith and sexuality including causation, orientation change, and whether someone can be gay and a Christian. Among the “new” questions I suggested the church needed to consider, was the question of, “How do we wrestle through discerning what disputable matters are relevant for today? How will we learn to love and honour one another in the model of Romans 14?” Additional “new” questions I suggested were, “What does it mean to be hospitable?” “What does it mean to be a spacious community where diverse perspectives are acknowledged & seen as opportunity not problem, conduit for growth and spiritual formation?” “How can a diverse Body experience belonging, collaborative service, sharing of gifts and mutual pilgrimage?” “How can we live the way of Incarnation with those who differ from us?”

On the question of disputable matters, Fitch says,

“In Emergent conversation, “disputable matters” (Rom 14) are to be held open for discussion in perpetual conversation. The looming question for us Anabapatists is who gets the power to call something “a disputable matter”? Who gets the authority to say “this issue should be left open versus a belief/and or practice that must be dealt with for the sake of God’s justice/righteousness in the community and world? For the Anabaptist, this is the job of the community as the Holy Spirit works from the ground up. When an issue arises, we continue to work together via Matt 18:15-20 until it is resolved (this could take months or even years). It is the local community which determines whether this issue can be resolved between two people or must be resolved for the whole community in its context.”

If I look at the question of disputable matters that arises in Romans 14, there is no one with particular power deciding that the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols or the matter of holy days is a disputable matter. Rather, it is something that arises within the body. It is what it is. People who have committed themselves to be followers of the way, followers of Jesus, have different convictions about these matters largely along the lines of their Jewish or Gentile backgrounds. It would be fair to say, I suggest, they came at the question with very different hermeneutical assumptions. But Paul doesn’t lay out the correct and only way to approach these matters. Rather, he lays out principles for how to treat one another.

In the case of gay Christians disagreeing with one another about the appropriateness of committed same-sex unions, there may be similar enough experiences to be able to focus primarily on hermeneutical issues. But as with those of Jewish background and Gentile upbringing, those who do not experience same-sex attraction and those who do come from very different experiences through which to wrestle with convictions about this question on the basis of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. And when individuals who both do not experience same-sex attraction seek to resolve hermeneutical and theological differences, it is essentially a theoretical exercise.

The way Fitch poses the question would seem to suggest that anything that can be connected to God’s justice and righteousness cannot be a disputable matter. If this is what he is suggesting, then I think the question is, “Who gets the power to decide that something is a matter of God’s justice or righteousness?” It seems to me that on matters of same-sex relations, part of the disputable matter is that some followers of Jesus consider the question to be a matter of justice and lifting oppression from a group of minorities. Other followers of Jesus see this as a matter of righteousness and counting the cost of discipleship. Is there only one way to view the matter? Or might the Body as a whole actually benefit from hearing truth in both perspectives? Might we need to hear the call for justice and lifting unChristlike judgment and exclusion from a group of people? And might we also need to heed the call to righteousness as human sexual beings – all called to steward our desires toward intimacy in fidelity?

To apply the disciplinary process of Matthew 18: 15 – 20 seems to require some assumptions to be made. The text says: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” One of the assumptions is that someone has sinned – presumably by entering a same-sex relationship. But who has the power to judge what is sin? Those who would claim the plain reading of the text would insist that power is on their side because of their particular hermeneutical approach. But those who approach scripture differently would say that in light of cultural and historical context, the prohibitions in the 6-7 texts specifically dealing with same-sex sexual behavior do not correlate to the desire for life-long consummated companionship between two constitutionally same-sex oriented adults. So if two people hold differing views on what is sinful, applying Matthew 18 becomes a great deal more complex.

I know plenty of gay Christians who have been confronted in love according to this text and have heard of the disconnect for them, the alienation for them, and the pain for them. Matthew 18 has been misapplied to issues like sexual orientation, assumptions of sexual activity, and presumed promiscuity. Just this past Sunday in my own congregation, a woman shared a testimony in which she included a great deal of extraneous information unrelated to the actual testimony she been asked to share. One of the things she said was that drug addiction had drawn her sister into lesbianism (her term) but that just before she died she came back to the Lord and was delivered from homosexuality (again, her terms). Not only was this offensive to the gay and trans people in our congregation – but she also personally brought her version of Matthew 18 to two dear friends of mine. She told one of my gay celibate friends, who happens to also be an elder in our church, that she and her husband would pray for him to be delivered – as if he hadn’t tried everything known to man to be “delivered” from his same-sex attraction for over 15 years. Then she told a dear trans friend who is newly transitioned and still exploring faith, that if she didn’t repent from her transition and revert to living as a man she would go to hell. She apparently, in her conviction of her prophetic evangelist calling, assumed she had the power to determine what was sin and to apply her version of Matthew 18. Will an application of Matthew 18 to the sin of pride, judgment, and alienating those on the margins away from Christ lead to resolution of such radically different perspectives within our diverse Body?

When Fitch suggests that such a process may take months or years, it begs the question for me, “At what cost?” Given the tapestry of diversity that a hospitable congregation will attract, given varying levels of maturity, brokenness, potential mental health issues, differing learning styles, personality types, and ways of processing information, the expectation of finding a final clear answer on any matter judged to be connected to God’s justice and righteousness may exact a greater toll on community than acknowledging and accepting that there is a way to move forward, focused on Christ together, despite differing views. Indeed, the idea of disputable matter is more than simply interminably perpetuating conversation as some isolated intellectual and theoretical exercise. Living the reality of disputable matter, even as it relates to such a complex and important matter as sexual ethics for sexual minorities, is the stuff of community. It is the stuff of living out the kind of honouring, mutual submission and humility of which Paul speaks in Romans 14. Such commitment to one another, in the midst of the chaos of diversity, reaching to the margins and choosing to continue loving those we find difficult to love, making space for each to wrestle with God even as we together commit to worship, serve, and share the good news of Christ in our neighbourhood, surely honours God and his heart for all to be reconciled to him. Core values of fidelity, self-giving love, and honouring the image of God in one another as we all grow in the fruits of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control are what bind us together as we journey as a community committed to glorifying Christ.


#approachtoscripture #dealingwithdisagreement #disputablematter