The reality is if we refuse to consider the matter of covenanted same-sex relationships to be disputable, we inevitably put ourselves in a position of discounting those with who we disagree despite their profession of faith in Christ and regard for the Scriptures. This is no small matter. Today, one cannot simply write off as a small, rebellious, renegade group of liberal revisionists, those who view covenanted same-sex relationships as a faithful option for gay disciples of Jesus. Rather, one is likely to find people, though perhaps quietly, holding this position in most evangelical congregations. And certainly, one will find people who feel uncertainty and tension in trying to sort out what they believe on this question. These are people who love Jesus, people who believe the bible is authoritative for their lives because it is God’s revelation to us, people who care about mission and sharing the gospel, people who value worship and spiritual disciplines, people who deeply wrestle with how to live out their own faithful discipleship in a complex and challenging world. It seems incredibly audacious to me that anyone would consider sitting in the seat of judgment regarding the veracity of faith of those who demonstrate good fruit in their lives. But if we cannot entertain a conversation that explores the potential of disputable matter, that is what we are doing. We are casting stones at our brothers and sisters.
Let us remember that exploring the disputable matter option is not giving up the convictions we hold to be true about same-sex relationships. It is holding them in a manner that acknowledges the reality that others in the body of Christ come to a different set of convictions based on their best wrestling with scripture. In considering the disputable matter option, we are submitting ourselves to a manner of engagement with those with whom we disagree that follows the model that the apostle Paul lays out for us in Romans 14. We are not saying our convictions are incorrect or inconsequential. We are simply acknowledging the mystery and paradox that comes when different people, with different experiences, different emphasis in tradition, theme and priority, discern convictions about a challenging topic differently. In doing so, we intentionally choose a humble posture.
The challenge is knowing how to hold one’s convictions with true conviction and fervor while at the same time humbly acknowledging the limitations of your ability to interpret scripture perfectly. One pastor who was trying to process these questions phrased it this way when considering those who held a different perspective than he did – he said, “at worst they are deeply deceived by the enemy ….. at best they are deeply mistaken.” What I didn’t hear him say is that he might be deceived by the enemy or mistaken. To contribute to a conversation on disputable matters is to acknowledge that despite having done your best to discern correctly, and despite deeply holding your convictions, you too could be the one who is wrong, but that you will move forward in congruence with your conscience with the kind of humility and grace that Paul advocates.
Part of the reason people may have such differing views on covenanted same-sex unions, is related to the different ways people view homosexuality. Paul Egertson was a retired bishop in the Lutheran Church in the U.S and also the father of a gay son. In an article he wrote for other parents, he presented four common ways in which homosexuality is viewed within different parts of the Christian community.
Some will view the experience of same-sex attraction as a “conscious and defiant rebellion against the laws of God and nature.” With this understanding, the seemingly obvious Christian response is to call people to repentance. While a same-sex attracted person might wonder how they can repent from a feeling, those who hold this view may insist that this is a matter of repentance and that with repentance will come deliverance. When probed as to the nature of this deliverance, some with little experience may suggest an emergence of heterosexual desire. Others may suggest a diminishment of same-sex attraction. However, since it is viewed as against God’s nature, sanctification would work towards the eradication of same-sex attraction even when there is a recognition that this may not be a realistic outcome for some people. God’s redeeming work of regeneration is seen to be a return to the perfect created order even though this transformation may be incomplete this side of heaven.
The disconnect comes when a same-sex attracted person recounts their narrative of prayer, repentance, discipline, therapy etc. with little to no change in their experience of same-sex attraction. Within this view, the only logical response is to claim a lack of correct technique or knowledge, motivation or discipline. This kind of response, however, is deeply hurtful and discouraging to the one who has prayed, fasted, searched the Scriptures and desperately wanted to experience transformation.
Another common understanding that I come across is the comparison between homosexuality and conditions like alcoholism or eating disorders. In this view, it may then be assumed that such behavior inevitably leads to addiction that can only be dealt with through abstinence and sobriety. For the same-sex attracted person this translated to the injunction of celibacy.
The disconnect comes when people consider how Scripture addresses singleness. Clearly, there is high regard given by Jesus and the apostle Paul to the state of singleness. In fact it could be argued that this is the preferred state. However, there is also a sense of making a way for those for whom singleness is too heavy a burden. Following Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage, “The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Then in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Given the grace extended, some struggle with imposing celibate singleness on all persons who experience persistent and predominant same-sex attraction without regard for their legitimate needs for companionship and family. The limited number of texts that deal with same-sex sexual behavior do not describe long term loving family situations but rather focus specifically on sexual behavior. This raises a dilemma for many.
For those who personally know gay people these first two explanations may seem to fall short of the ways they have encountered their friends and loved ones. They know it isn’t as simple as repenting of a non-volitional feeling. They recognize that the experience of same-sex attraction is intrinsically different than the challenges that addictions raise. As they wrestle with Scripture, however, they do not see specific guidance related to the actual reality of experiencing same-sex attraction. While there are general admonitions related to temptation, it is a point of contention whether same-sex attraction itself should be considered a temptation or whether there are aspects of same-sex attraction (as with opposite¬-sex attraction) that can lead to temptation. Then as they reflect on the inconclusiveness of science regarding the causation question, the reality that research in the area of orientation change reports marginal positive result, and the seemingly healthy and normal longings for intimacy, belonging, companionship and family they encounter in their same-sex attracted friends, they seek to land on an understanding of homosexuality that seems to bring these realities together.
For some then, homosexuality would be seen as a result of the fall into sin, outside of God’s original design for humanity, but not outside of his grace. Sometimes the language of brokenness is utilized as a way of expressing that this experience of sexuality, though not volitional, and not placing culpability on the affected individual, is a reality in our fallen world. Those who adopt such a view are often quick to call for compassion and to see same-sex attraction as a ‘cross to bear’ along with other innocent victims who suffer the fallout of sin’s presence through less than desirable conditions. In wrestling through the possible options for faithful discipleship for the same-sex oriented person, one of the images that may be described is that of the variety of ways we experience and extend grace and improvisation to those experiencing other such conditions. For example, God gave us vocal chords, throat and mouth with which to verbally communicate. For those who are deaf, however, we readily make the accommodation of communicating with one’s hands. For those who are paralyzed, we built wheelchairs. For those who grieve infertility, we support fertility interventions or adoption. The idea, therefore, is to seek an extension of grace that will make life as full as possible given this particular ‘thorn in the flesh’ this side of heaven. Some will explore options like covenantal but non-sexual friendships, living in intentional community, fostering children, being a spiritual mentor or parent to others. Some will support committed same-sex unions as an extension of such grace.
The disconnect in this view is that it seems to carry an inherent sense of condescension in how gay persons are viewed. Thechallenge of equity raises the question of such a view perpetuating an ‘us and them’ mentality or the invisible line that places sexual and gender minorities in a second class category. Is a person less than anyone else due to a reality they did not choose? The trajectory of scripture breaks down this kind of favoritism and invites us to view one another as Image-bearers of God and equally valuable. “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” (James 2:1, 8, 9)
Perhaps particularly in light of this consideration of equity, some view homosexuality as “one of the varieties of nature, one of those delightful differences that regularly appear in counterpoint to the ordinary norm.” Here a parallel may be drawn to any number of minority conditions like left-handedness (which is my reality) or eyes of two different colours (which is my sister’s reality). Egerton reminds us that such minority conditions were often viewed in the past as deviant. My mom, who started out left-handed, had her hand tied behind her back as a child to train her to be right-handed. With her it worked – she has some of the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen. She made a few feeble attempts to repeat the training process with me – but to no avail. Today I’m as left-handed as can be …. Well unless I’m playing sports – and then I’m right-handed …. Goes to show that I truly am a walking contradiction.
Over time, minority conditions assumed to be deviant or even evil have often been gradually accepted as a simply natural variation – and indeed one that can be delightful, creative, useful – and should be embraced and celebrated. Some suggest this is the appropriate way to view the reality of homosexuality. For a minority of people this is their reality, they bring a unique perspective to the table as they view people and relationships from a different lens than most, and this is a valued and special contribution.
Even in describing these four different understandings of homosexuality, I am mindful that there will be individuals who protest that they do not fit into one of these particular descriptions. For myself, I find that I’m at a place where my view, at this point in time, is a bit of a hybrid. How we view homosexuality is impacted by so many different factors, it would be an impossible task to describe points on a continuum that neatly fit everyone.
Egertson, himself, concludes his article by saying, “Unfortunately, there are no experts right now who can answer our questions or tell us which of the above options will turn out to be true. All we can do is digest the best information available from scientific research and search the Scriptures for what they do and don’t say, praying that the Spirit will lead us into all truth. In the meantime, we all walk by faith and run with risk. Each of us will place our own bet and be responsible for it. As for me and my house, we’re putting our money on the *celebration* line. We would rather err on the side of helping hurting people than on the side of hurting helpless people. May God have mercy on us.”
Clearly, the discrepancy between the first understanding and its call to repentance and the final understanding and its call to celebration is immense. Not everyone is prepared to share Egertson’s conclusions on the inconclusiveness of the question. Rather, some will consider themselves to be the experts who know the only true manner in which to view this matter. Such persons would likely be loath to participate in the disputable matter conversation.
But it isn’t just the way we view homosexuality that makes it difficult to come together to discern the question of disputable matter. It is also the manner in which we view the Bible and its authority which makes it difficult to come together to discuss this question. And I will explore this in Part 3.