When we look at the issues that Paul raises as disputable matters in both the book of Romans and his first letter to the Corinthian church, it can be easy to consider the matter of eating meat previously sacrificed to idols or the appropriate day for worship to be fairly benign issues. When we then raise the question of applying the kind of principles Paul lays out in these texts to a question like covenanted same-sex relationships – it can seem like we are shifting to a much more significant matter. This, in and of itself, can cause people to offer a knee-jerk reaction like, “of course homosexual behavior cannot be a disputable matter.” But perhaps we do well to reflect on the reality that for Paul’s readers, particularly those who were of Jewish background, the food you put in your mouth was directly tied to your commitment to your faith. These individuals had grown up keeping kosher – butchering in just the right way, observing dietary restrictions associated with feasts and festivals like Passover, regular fasting etc. And they had grown up hearing the stories of the Old Testament Scriptures that make no small matter about avoiding idolatry.
There are no positive references in Scripture to association with idolatry. The Jewish people had endured extreme punishment through exile and the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem because of their embrace of the idolatry of the Caananite nations. The idea of eating meat that was not kosher and likely associated with idol worship…. I think we cannot truly imagine the degree to which this would have been an anathema to his Jewish readers. On the flip side, the Gentile believers likely had limited ability to understand what the big deal was for their Jewish comrades. Jesus had set them free from the law, Peter had the vision, the church council in Jerusalem had told them to simply stay away from sexual immorality and eating meat with blood in it – and this meat was well roasted with no blood to be seen. There was a very distinct difference in background, expectation and experience between the believers. But on these matters, notice that Paul’s concern is not with the question, “What is the right interpretation? What is the clear answer?” Rather, Paul’s focus is acknowledging the diversity and asking the question, “How now shall we live together?” Paul doesn’t even attempt to pull them together into a uniform position on the matter. He wants them to prayerfully consider how they will relate to one another, how they will nurture an environment in which each person could make decisions according to their conscience. His biggest concern is to help the believers find a way to experience unity in their diversity.
In many contemporary experiences in dealing with a disputable matter, there are two common realities. First, there can be the sense that there are both positive and prohibitive texts addressing aspects of the issue. Secondly, the issue personally impacts the majority of people in the community. We see this with the role of women in ministry, the use of our financial resources, the consumption of alcohol or Sunday observance. The challenge in this particular question of covenanted same-sex relationships is that firstly, there don’t seem to be positive textual references to such relationships. And secondly, this issue does not personally impact the majority of people. Rather, the majority of people have very strong feelings and opinions about a question that actually only personally impacts a small minority of us. On the first point, in many disputable matter conversations it would seem that Scripture itself suggests that there is more than one way of looking at things. But in addressing covenanted same-sex relationships, one may quickly hear the observation that every specific applicable text is negative in its tone. There is no positive example of same-sex sexual behavior in the Scriptures. Others, however, would take issue with this. They would look to close and intimate same-sex relationships in the narratives of Scripture, such as David and Jonathon, and Naomi and Ruth, as a positive reflection of the love that can be shared in a same-sex context. This can inevitably raise the ire of those who feel offended that a sexual innuendo is inferred on stories that they see as reflecting friendship and nothing more. However, we do well to remember that the reality of our same-sex attracted brothers and sisters is a greater question than a reductionistic sense of genitalized sexual behavior. Deep intimate love ought not be reduced to a physical climax of sensual pleasure. None-the-less, in raising narratives like David and Jonathon, the tensions of assumption and innuendo can become a point of polarity and mistrust. What may be more helpful than arguing the unanswerable question of whether there was any physical intimacy shared in these relationships that could be understood to be sexual, is the consideration that these stories do illustrate that deep and intimate love between people of the same sex is not only not inherently abhorrent to God, but seems to be pleasing to God.
The weight of this comes when we consider that for those who are same-sex oriented, their longing for a covenanted relationship is much more multi-faceted than a reductionistic view of erotic behavior. Same-sex oriented persons feel that they would be completed and complemented by someone of their own gender. They look to both give to and receive from a partner spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical (practical) support and care. Genital sexual activity is not likely to be the sole or highest priority in the relationship, any more than it is in a heterosexual relationship. (And where this is the sole or highest priority, the relationship carries a superficial shallowness that will not be sustainable in the long run – and fails to bear the depth of covenant that God calls his people to.) When people are asked to really explain WHY they believe what they believe about what the Scripture says about covenanted same-sex relationships, many stammer and struggle to really know what to articulate. A good number will simply say, “the bible is clear”, “this is what I’ve always been taught”, “I just know it’s wrong” or inversely “I just know it’s right”. It is not uncommon to encounter people with very strong views who really haven’t done their homework to wrestle with Scripture and the variety of thought arising in the Christian community. Sometimes there can be a tone that suggests that any deviation from heteronormative tradition is automatically suspect, and if it is reviewed, it is done so with a mind to refute and defeat. For example, Albert Mohler, in referring to Joel Osteen’s interview with Piers Morgan, wrote in his blog last month,“To his credit, Osteen did answer his question, and by staking his position on the Bible’s teaching that homosexual acts are sinful, he took the only road available to anyone with any substantial commitment to the truthfulness of the Bible.” The assumption Mohler makes is that anyone who disagrees with his position lacks a “substantial commitment to the truthfulness of the Bible.” Not only is this an audacious statement to make coming dangerously close to assuming a knowledge that only God is privy to, it also completely discounts the testimonies of faith of anyone holding a different position.
There can be a very real tone of accusation that accompanies risking to search and wrestle outside the shared understanding of one’s family, congregation or denomination on this question. It can be very hard to address one’s own internal emotions in the knowledge that if you do you may be labeled one who has compromised, watered down the truth ….. that you will lead people astray, be responsible for people going to hell, and used as a tool of Satan. One of the commenters on a blog that quoted from Mohler’s article had this to say, “The wages of ALL sin is death. This doesn’t mean we go execute them. We biblically principled Christians call them to repentance and love them regardless. We don’t, however, tell them that their sin is no sin at all. The delusional apostates are doing their best to make God into their own image.” What this commenter seems to fail to take into account is that those he calls “delusional apostates” are people created in God’s image, deeply and profoundly loved by him, who may indeed be growing and experiencing intimate and deep relationship with God having gratefully received reconciliation through the gift of grace given by Jesus Christ. In this kind of climate, it can feel very threatening to approach this question from a more generous posture, one that could explore whether there may be more than one faithful way for same-sex oriented believers to move forward in their journey of trust and obedience.
Therefore, if there is going to be any fruitful conversation about whether the application of a disputable matter is appropriate, there needs to be a safe environment. Such a safe environment will be built on the premise that no one in the conversation is going to be written off as one who doesn’t care about the truthfulness of Scripture before the conversation even begins. Nor will the conversation be marked by an agenda-driven attempt to proselytize others by promoting their particular position. The question to be explored is not which position is correct – but rather, whether or not Paul’s admonishments concerning disputable matters might be applied to the question of the faithfulness of covenanted same-sex relationships. Where those from a variety of different perspectives can all extend the humility that says, “I could be wrong”, then the playing field is leveled and we can really focus on actually listening to one another. But what should we be listening for? Should we listen for whether the application of exegesis, hermeneutics, tradition, reason, or experience has been navigated with integrity? Correctly? In a way that we approve? I know both straight and same-sex attracted believers who have gone on to do graduate and post-graduate education to try to learn enough to develop an airtight case. The thing is, even at the highest levels of scholarship there is disagreement. Among even the most learned the outcome is disputed. So for those of us with significantly less education and research under our belts, perhaps looking for the airtight scholarly case won’t be the most effective route. Should we be listening for evidence that the person is being led by the Spirit? Absolutely. How do we do that? We are incredibly prone to self-deception. And while we seek to walk in step with the Holy Spirit, how do we rightly judge if someone else is being led by the Spirit, particularly when they are espousing thoughts and ideas with which we disagree. Let us not overestimate our ability to discern the Spirit when we are feeling particularly threatened. So, yes, we should and do listen for the Spirit’s presence in those who share differing perspectives – but we also must admit that our ability to discern rightly, given our own personal filters, may be less than optimal.
Perhaps we listen for the evidence of good fruit. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:16-18)
What fruit is proceeding from the lives of those who hold a different perspective on this question than we do? Do you see the fruits of the Spirit at work in them: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control? Do you see the fruit of service: do they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and those in prison, clothe the naked? Do they look after widows and orphans? Do they touch the untouchables? What spiritual gifts do they demonstrate? Do they love their neighbor as themselves? Jesus said this was the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. If there is good fruit in their lives what shall we conclude? Jesus says that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Now that is not to say that everyone who bears good fruit is correct about everything. But it may be something to reflect on as you consider whether your brother or sister who holds their convictions in good conscience ought to be treated in the manner Paul describes in Romans 14 rather than as someone who “at worst is deceived by the enemy – at best is deeply mistaken”. To recap, Paul says that when we encounter a genuine believer who disagrees with us we need to accept them, without quarreling, without viewing them with contempt, and without a judgmental attitude. He says not to put a stumbling block in a brother or sister’s way and to work towards peace and mutual edification. He challenges us to keep our convictions about disputable matters to ourselves and to live consistently with our consciences. Imagine if that actually became our posture towards one another in this contentious conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality. Imagine if we didn’t back one another into a corner demanding to know where we stand on this question of covenanted same-sex relationships as the ultimate orthodoxy text – because we allowed people to keep their convictions between them and God as an expression of seeking to live in peace and with mutual edification. Imagine if we did not judge the heart’s motivation of those who land in a different place than we do. Imagine if we ceased showing contempt to those who disagree with us. Imagine if we stopped our quarreling. Imagine if we no longer put stumbling blocks in the way of those who were deeply wrestling with these questions and desperately needing some safe space to search out God’s heart and will for them.
The reality is that this is a matter of conscience for those for whom this is actually a real life question. For the rest of us, the majority of us, this is an orthodoxy test, it is a measure of who is “in” and who is “out” of our comfortable group of people we agree with. Granted, for some it is a pastoral care concern about which they feel the need to teach and direct people in their care. But most who are taught what to think about this question will never face it as a personal question of discipleship. And for those who do need to struggle with this question personally, is being taught what to think really the most effective way to disciple and impart wisdom for the stewardship of desires and drives? And in particular, being taught by those who have never had to wrestle with a personal application of this question? I suggest that we reframe this question of disputable matter just a bit. The real question of whether it is disputable or not ought to be determined by those who are actually needing to make choices about the issue in question. If you consider Romans 14, Paul is not speaking to those who have some theoretical ideas about eating meat sacrificed to idols or eating only vegetables or who need to decide which day they ought to consider holy. Every single person reading Paul’s letter needed to eat and therefore needed to make decisions about what they would eat and what they would refrain from eating. And everyone reading the letter, who was committed to setting aside a day as holy, needed to make that decision. Paul’s admonishments weren’t for those who stood on the sidelines offering opinions and directives. It is very easy for a straight pastor to write a blog about covenanted same-sex relationships not being a disputable matter because of his belief that the Scripture is unequivocably clear on this matter. But ultimately, he is, from his theoretical perch, completely discounting the lives of same-sex attracted believers who are in the trenches wrestling out these questions with God, in the context of commitment to Christ, concern and care for the Scriptures, and a desire to live faithfully. We are called to a living, embodied faith. We are called to wrestle with the spirit of the law as we walk in intimate relationship with a personal God revealed to us through Jesus Christ. But when our wrestling comes from a theoretical place it is imperceptibly simple to begin to speak out of the letter of the law – because that is what we are prone to do. I am reminded of Jesus stark words to the privileged group of religious leaders, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4) In part 6 we will look at how this question of disputable matter actually plays out among followers of Jesus who actually experience same-sex attraction.