In the midst of all the multi-faceted layers of diversity we have explored, I find it curious that the benefits of applying Paul’s guidelines in Romans 14 are not applied more widely to the question of covenanted same-sex unions. The reality is that there is diversity in perspective on this matter in our families, our friendships, our congregations, our Christian organizations, and our denominations. This diversity is apparent in the midst of our commitments to Christ and to Scripture. This diversity is experienced among those who demonstrate the good fruit of faith, spiritual growth and service. It seems to me that risking to humble ourselves to relate to one another across our differences opens much more opportunity to live in the way of Jesus together than perpetuating enmity, judgment and accusation ever could.
We in the body of Christ have learned how to extend humility and grace to one another in our disagreements about many issues. This learning has often come through seasons of great enmity, pain, and profound tarnishing of the witness of a unified church. After so many seasons of church history recording the stench of our enmity, surely we could learn to offer one another the kind of spaciousness Paul admonishes us to nurture in Romans 14. We are learning to do this well in our interactions around the sacraments or women in ministry. But we’re also being stretched in matters like our use of financial resources, alcohol consumption, divorce and remarriage, reproductive technology, care for the environment, creation and science, gluttony, and strictness on prohibitions related to abortion. In some of these matters, there is disagreement among Christians regarding what is or isn’t sinful. Some of these matters are difficult and complex and only impact a minority of people. Some impact a larger majority and are essentially ignored or rarely discussed. Some impact many of us but we avoid conflict over it. We have much to learn yet in this arena of difference and disagreement.
Some have asked the question whether everything is a disputable matter. Personally, I do not hold this view, though I know some do. I do think that we need to be ready to consider particular exceptions to certain prohibitions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler is an example of an exception to the command to not murder. I don’t, however, see the good fruit of faith in Christ, regard for the Scriptures, and growth in discipleship among those who are open to and active in murdering others. For me, it is this reality of good fruit demonstrated in the lives of believers who come to different conclusions as a matter of conscience on a particular question that weighs whether something might be viewed as a disputable matter.
Others have wondered about how a matter ought to be taught in the context of a community where the issue is viewed as a disputable matter. I’ve heard the example given of one Sunday a preacher promotes a particular view of a subject, then the next Sunday a different speaker contradicts the first speaker. The question is then raised how a community can possibly navigate such confusing and contradictory messages. There is the sense that “both can’t be right” and therefore, “one has to be right making the other wrong”. The whole point Paul makes, however, is that people need to live consistently with their conscience – and that their consciences will engage the matter differently.
So, when teaching on such a matter, my suggestion is that the primary focus be to equip people to discern, to understand the principles of biblical interpretation, walk in step with the Holy Spirit, weigh their own experience, think deeply and participate in the discernment of others in community. Teaching should prepare people to wrestle with the challenges and questions of the matter in Scriptural reflection, allowing Scripture to form and shape them, through prayerful contemplation, inviting silence and solitude and disciplines like fasting to deepen their prayer life, and an overall commitment to grow to maturity in faithfulness, obedience, worship, and service to others. Teaching should empower people to move from the house of fear to the house of love. As these foundations are laid, then any disputable matter can be explored through the various perspectives held by Christian community. People then need to own what their conscience, their beliefs and values are directing them to in terms of their own convictions. Teaching then encourages people to live in alignment and faithful commitment to their convictions while interacting with those who differ from them with the postures of humility, generosity, and graciousness as an essential part of their spiritual formation.
I am well aware that such a style of teaching differs from the model in which the leader presents the truth and the followers absorb it. This mode of teaching invites interaction, it invites individuals to wrestle with the tension between their individual autonomy and needing to own what they believe and the call into mutual submission in community. In an age where cynicism is high and people are leaving institutionalized religion behind, I believe this model of teaching holds out hope of reengaging people in the quest for faith. Many do not want to be told the answer, they want to be invited into the conversation of seeking what is life-giving, truthful and consistent with the person and ministry of Jesus. By embracing the reality of disputable matters, not only on the question of covenanted same-sex relationships, but on many of the other complex dilemmas facing this generation in our context, and by inviting people to search out their conscience and convictions, we are inviting them into the story of God’s revelation. In the process, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is more than able to guide people rightly, to correct them when needed, to know the perfect timing of growth in their journeys. This kind of teaching connects to the desire for a journey that is real, that is travelled in spacious places marked by unconditional love rather than fear, threats or coercion. It does, however, require that the teachers and preachers among us let go of a lot of the control that we may be accustomed to holding in our western churches. If this control is relinquished as an expression of trust and dependence on the Holy Spirit, we can be confident that God will build his church through the lives of the individual disciples he loves.
It is not only the question of teaching that comes up in this conversation. There is also the question of leadership. How, in a context where this is viewed as disputable, are matters of leadership addressed? When you return to the text in Romans 14, Paul indicates that those whose consciences allow them less freedom in the matter are the weaker brothers and sisters and need to be treated in a manner that honours and protects their faith. Verses 14 & 15, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.”
It would seem this carries particular weight regarding the question of leadership. In contexts where this is viewed as disputable, where there are brothers and sisters who, on the basis of conscience and conviction, cannot accept covenanted same-sex relationships as blessed by God, they ought to be honoured in the question of leadership. To extend leadership to someone who your conscience and convictions tell you is not living consistently with God’s direction is a clear example of a stumbling block. For those who do believe such relationships are blessed by God, their act of love is to prefer their weaker brother or sister. This boundary is not about rejection or judgment, it is about submitting oneself to a community with a commitment to sacrificial love. Those who do not approve of same-sex relationships have the opportunity to extend sacrificial love as they humble themselves to listen for the ways God is at work in their partnered brothers and sisters as they worship and serve together. Those who affirm such relationships extend sacrificial love as they willingly choose to defer to those who do not on the question of offices of leadership like pastor or elder. This is the pain of love, in the midst of our diversity, at work. It is not a mere compromise. It is a choice to cultivate sacrificial love.
In my conversations with many gay Christians, I encounter a great capacity for graciousness and generosity. There is a willingness to honour those who disagree with their conviction that God will bless them in commitment to a life partner. They want to be a part of a worshipping community that has the spaciousness for open dialogue, respectful listening, an ability to disagree and still love one another. And they want to use their spiritual gifts, talents and abilities in service – even though this may not be in traditional leadership offices. For those who do feel particularly called to leadership office, there are opportunities within affirming church where their service isn’t a battleground – but simply an expression of their love for God and his people. Leadership in the church is about service and willingly laying our life down for the church.
These are challenging and in some ways very unsatisfactory responses. As a woman in ministry, there are places I am not welcome to share my gifts and calling. On one level, I can feel a sense of injustice about that. Sometimes, I feel grief about that. But I am called, in my vocation, to love the church. To love her where she is at, with all of her weaknesses. I am called to love her sacrificially. And that means I don’t barge in, I don’t demand, I don’t fight. It means I ask the Lord to enlarge patience and grace and generosity and humility in me. It means I serve where God opens a door – rather than banging my head against a door that is locked from the inside. It means I allow these inequities to spiritually form me in the likeness of Christ, who stripped himself of all privilege, who became a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, despised and rejected. This is difficult. It is painful. But it is rich. It is the way of Christ.
I believe the difficult questions of leadership can be navigated where there is a corporate commitment to self-giving love, to humility, to honouring one another, to embracing the spiritual formation of suffering. This is not to say it will be easy. There will be clashes and conflict. We resist being incarnational people. We resist stripping ourselves of our rights and privileges. Our flesh rises up and demands recognition and affirmation. Forgiving again and again, humbling ourselves again and again is exhausting. Communities who take on these immense challenges can experience deep seasons of weariness. But in the midst of this weariness, God is at work shaping us and molding us into the likeness of his Son Jesus. For all of the challenge of navigating a disputable matter, it is a profoundly spiritually formational journey.
I am so grateful for the examples of experimental communities that are trying to live out the generosity, grace, and hospitality of diversity through wrestling through what it means to view covenanted same-sex relationships as a disputable matter. And while these experimental communities are understandably imperfect, they also demonstrate environments of love, humility, unity, bearing and forbearing with one another. I am hopeful that the church-at-large will be open to hearing and really engaging their stories – not as a cookie-cutter template, but as a glimpse of the kind of seeds that could be sown in their own context.
I also increasingly see families in which there is disagreement around this subject learning to go deeper than just “agreeing to disagree” and pressing in to the spiritual formation of learning to view this as a disputable matter. When we simply agree to disagree, we aren’t particularly held accountable for our internal judgments and assumptions of one another. However, when we seek to apply the principles Paul lays out in Romans 14, we are suddenly confronted with a profound call to maturity, to allowing God to convict us on the attitudes of our heart, and if we are willing to be made willing we will find ourselves enlarging in the postures of the Spirit.
Despite the possibility of benefit from learning to embrace the humility required to apply Romans 14 to such a complex and difficult question, it seems that more often than not there is a resistance to consider its application to the matter of covenanted same-sex relationships. Why is that?
Certainly, there is the fear of being a stench in the nostrils of a holy God. There is the fear of diminishing a high view of the authority of Scripture. There is the fear of opening the door to a moral relativism that will undermine determined and disciplined pursuit of holiness. There is the sense that the Bible cannot offer more than one potentially appropriate way to navigate discipleship in this area. There is the fear of creating a climate of confusion and chaos that will impact the vulnerable and weak. And there is the fear of further instability in the model of the nuclear family.
While we are called to fear God in Scripture, we do well to remember that such fear is that of reverence not fright. And when we look at many of the reasons we resist living in community with the understanding that among same-sex attracted people the question of covenanted same-sex relationships is a disputable matter, we realize that there is a lot of fright behind our resistance. But in our resistance we are withholding generosity for spaciousness to wrestle with God and we are, most often, conveniently doing so from a place of detached theoretical thinking.
What risking to live in the tensions of accepting such a question as a disputable matter offers is the space to live consistently with your conscience – something Scripture deems to be very significant. What risking to live in the tension of a disputable matter offers is the intrinsic spiritually formational nature of such a posture. We become enlarged in these places in our ability to set aside our own pride (which is often fueled by our own fears and insecurities) and embrace a new depth of humility. We become enlarged in our capacity to respond with graciousness to those with whom we disagree. We grow in learning to extend hospitality to the stranger. And we learn to extend a spirit of mutuality and honour to one another in the midst of our diversity.
What do you think smells more like Jesus: arrogant certainty or humble hospitality? A refusal to listen to the testimony of one who differs from you or an eagerness to see where God is at work and speaking through the one whose journey has taken them to a different place? A tightly held control to the literal letter of interpretation or a trust that the Spirit is alive and well and more than able to lead us, in our distinct contexts, into truth and righteousness in our personal lives and in our shared discipleship?
The reality is, if we demand uniformity on this question – a question that doesn’t even personally impact the majority – I believe we will miss the blessing God wants to extend to those who are willing to risk being humbled and enlarged in generosity and grace. In the midst of this, we are each called to search the Scriptures, to listen deeply to the Holy Spirit through prayer, fasting and times of silence and solitude, and to consider the good fruit in the lives of those disciples who are actually living in the reality of these questions. We must know WHY we believe what we believe and really own it. But we also need to take the time to hear why others believe what they believe. Because mysteriously and infuriatingly in the Body of Christ there are faithful disciples who are landing in different places with different convictions. And while this may threaten or anger us¸ we perhaps do well to remember that there are many, many differences in the Body of Christ in how we understand the journey of sanctification. Individual Christians already live out their sanctification very differently from one another. We already have unanswered questions. We already throw ourselves on the grace and mercy of Christ. And in the midst of our differences, we lay down our striving for the reality that it is only through grace that we have been saved through Jesus Christ our Lord.
But friends, let us not miss the opportunity to be shaped and formed into the likeness of Christ in the midst of our diversity. Let us not let fear be the prominent motivator in our wrestling as individuals, as families, as congregations, communities and denominations. Let us honour the mystery of the Spirit speaking to our individual consciences, to the larger community of faith, through Scripture primarily, experience, tradition and reason secondarily. And let us be committed to focus on nurturing safe and spacious places where people can explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ. Because truly, everything else is secondary.