I Beg to Differ: With the Right and the Left

Yesterday brought out some strong opinions about whether or not the church can forge a third way.  This idea of third way is a way of acknowledging that Christians differ in their conclusions about particular matters and seeks to move forward together despite the tensions that arise from such disagreement. Ken Wilson, a Vineyard pastor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, speaks about a third way in his recent book, “A Letter to My Congregation: an evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender in the company of Jesus.”  In our neck of the woods, The Meeting House speaks of embracing a third way on the matter of same-sex relationships.

What third way and generous spaciousness have in common is the recognition of our diversity and the desire to prioritize living together in unity rather than demanding uniformity.  Generous spaciousness actually suggests that it is spiritually formational to welcome some of these tensions and learn to respond with maturity, grace, humility, mutuality, patience, and a willingness to deal with conflict, to forgive, and to persevere in loving each other.

A pastor I met at the GCN conference in January who attended my workshop on generous spaciousness has made some serious waves.  Danny Cortez is a pastor of a Southern Baptist congregation in California.  He shares how his views on homosexuality changed, how his son came out, and how he navigated sharing this with his congregation.  On May 18 his congregation voted to keep him on as pastor.  Some folks left the church.  On May 29, John Shore posted a video of Danny sharing with his congregation and a video of Danny’s son, Drew.

On June 2, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Bapstist Theological Seminary, wrote a post entitled, “There is No “Third Way” – Southern Baptists Face A Moment of Decision (and so will you)”.  In his post, Mohler says, “There is no third way on this [the gay] issue … the issue is binary. A church will recognize same-sex relationships, or it will not. A congregation will teach a biblical position on the sinfulness of same-sex acts, or it will affirm same-sex behaviors as morally acceptable. Ministers will perform same-sex ceremonies, or they will not.”

John Shore then posted a rebuttal entitled, “Al Mohler and the Southern Baptists’ big gay lie.”  In this post, Shore agrees with Mohler on “the unviability of a “third way” when it comes to relationships between the church and LGBT people.”

Clearly, Mohler and Shore vehemently disagree with one another about WHY a third way is not an option.  Mohler says that Cortez’s church “has rejected the clear teachings of Scripture, the affirmations of its confession of faith, and two millennia of Christian moral wisdom and teaching.”  In a post from 2012, Shore says, “The Christian/LGBT issue is a moral issue. And moral issues are by definition about right and wrong.  The Christians on one side of this debate are claiming that, in the eyes of God, those on the other side are less than human.”

Tony Jones, a long-time leader in the emerging church conversation, has said, “What I’m saying is that a church or an organization can study the issue in theory, and they can even do so for years. But this isn’t really a ‘third way’ or a ‘middle ground.’ Instead, it is a process. And at some point, that process has to end and practices have to be implemented. At that point, there’s no third way. You either affirm marriage equality in your practices, or you do not.”

Ultimately, on the right and the left, there is agreement that this is a binary issue.

Wilson and Cortez, both pastors, are seeking to nurture generous spaciousness where people can agree to disagree, extend grace to one another and withhold judgment.  Mohler would say that because people have left Cortez’s church that proves that a posture of generous spaciousness is ineffective.  Shore would say generous spaciousness is ineffective because it offers shelter to those who view sexual minority persons as less than human in God’s eyes.

As a moral issue, it is true that while one can live in the tension of uncertainty for a long, long time, most people will feel compelled to come to some sort of clear resolution.  And this works in the theoretical.  But in real life, it seems that things are much more complex and messy than that.  First of all, the majority of folks in any given congregation are making a decision about a matter that does not affect their own personal life in the sense of needing to make a personal decision about whether to be or not be in a same-sex relationship.  They may have dear loved ones for whom this is a personal decision, and so the matter is personal to them, but it is not one they need to decide for their own life.  To my best understanding, Mohler, Shore, and Jones are all married men with wives.  They do not need to discern whether or not they will enter a same-sex relationship.  But what about those who DO need to decide whether a same-sex relationship is a faithful option?

Well – here’s the rub.  Gay Christians are making a variety of decisions, discerning a number of options, and choosing to live out their discipleship in different ways.  Would Shore really argue that a gay Christian committed to celibacy views themselves as less than human in God’s eyes?  It would seem that gay Christians, as they interpret, discern, and decide differently, need the generous spaciousness that allows them to live consistently with their conscience.  It might seem that it isn’t so clear cut, so black and white as the far right and the far left might want to make it out to be.

People who have read my writing know that I have spent a lot of time reflecting and considering Romans 14 as a model of disputable matters.  Those on the right would say, this cannot be a disputable matter because the bible is clear and anything that does not fully condemn same-sex relations is in rebellion to the authority of Scripture.  Those on the left would say, this cannot be a disputable matter because it is a matter of justice and anyone who does not fully accept same-sex relations as celebrated and blessed by God fails to affirm the value, dignity, and humanity of LGBT people.  You would find gay Christians in both of those groups.  And that is what is so consternating and humbling for me.  And that is why I chafe at the talk of binary – because somehow the binary doesn’t fit for the very people for whom the most is at stake.

Scripture makes concessions to our humanity by creating space for our conscience.  I first memorized I Corinthians 10: 23 as, “Everything is permissible, not everything is beneficial”.  The Message says it this way, “Looking at it one way, you could say, “Anything goes. Because of God’s immense generosity and grace, we don’t have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster.” But the point is not to just get by. We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well.”  Romans 14: 5 says, “Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.”  And the text goes on, “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.”

What if these questions of faithful discipleship for sexual minority persons are less about authority and more about interpretation?  I know people with various perspectives who all hold the Scriptures to be authoritative for their lives.  What ends up being significantly different is their starting points, their emphasis in interpretation, and their willingness to consider historical and cultural context in their discernment process.

And what if we didn’t allow these questions to force us into a win-lose proposition when we consider what is just?  Are celibate gay Christians being unjust to themselves?  Even if you think so, how audacious and condescending to make that kind of declaration.

Generous spaciousness isn’t a moral statement.  It is a way of being together.  It acknowledges that for a lot of reasons, including both legitimate and questionable ones, followers of Jesus land in different places on these questions.  This reality isn’t likely to go away any time soon.  So generous spaciousness makes room for people to wrestle, to discern, to change their mind, to clarify their beliefs and values, to sustain living in alignment with their convictions, and to follow their conscience.  The only way this can thrive is if people have confidence in entrusting one another to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  This frees all of us from argument, persuasion, and anxiety.  Instead of trying to change or control each other, we can be focused on our shared love for Christ and putting our energy into loving each other.  Not just the Hallmark kind of love.  But the costly, blood, sweat, and tears kind of love.  The kind of love that grieves with each other, celebrates with each other, moves heavy furniture on hot, humid days, cooks vegan for the potluck, listens deeply, bites one’s tongue, extends the benefit of the doubt, chooses to trust, cultivates patience, extends kindness, corrects with gentleness, and intentionally finds concrete characteristics to affirm and encourage.  Generous spaciousness keeps on making room for the other.

A pastor asked me recently how far generous spaciousness could go.  Following Jesus’ model, I turned the question back to the pastor asking what they thought might be the way to discern this.  The pastor said that it likely had to be about morality.  That morality would determine the limits of generous spaciousness.  I found that so interesting.  For all of our talk about Jesus, about story, about relationship, about justice, when we feel the anxiety of “how far will this go?” or “we’re sliding down the slippery slope” we return to the rulebook of “do’s” and “don’t’s”.  I suppose that is where we feel safe.  When we have clarity.  When we acknowledge a binary and make our decision.  “This is where we’re putting the stake in the ground.”

My response to this pastor was that generous spaciousness is extended to anyone who has a demonstrable desire to draw near to Jesus Christ in the company of fellow pilgrims, who is willing to listen deeply and respectfully to others, and who is committed to do their absolute best to do no harm in the community.  And even here, we have those who are post-Christian who are not wanting to draw near to Christ particularly – but who do want to engage in community recognizing that the majority of people are committed to Jesus Christ.  And for those who want to listen deeply and respectfully and are committed to do no harm, they are welcome.

Risky – yes.  Challenging – yes.  Life-giving – yes.  Smells like Jesus – yes.

So while I understand the reality that a time of decision is coming where denominations, congregations, and individual Christians may need to articulate where they land, I beg to differ that generous spaciousness cannot be an option.

In some communities it will seem that the weight is on the right, that the official view is that marriage is between one man and one woman.  In these communities generous spaciousness challenges others to acknowledge and make room for those who believe that God blesses same-sex relationships.  For the straight people in this situation, that might seem manageable. A commitment to agree to disagree, extending grace and withholding judgment.  For a gay couple, this will be much more challenging.  So, who would do it?  Again, here’s the rub.  Gay Christians are doing precisely this.  They are attending welcoming but not affirming (some attempt at third way) churches.  Why?  Because they want to be in a community with vibrant worship, good teaching, focus on missions, committed to poor etc. and that is more important to them than the specific position on same-sex marriage. Being in such a place likely means that their leadership opportunities are at some point limited.  Perhaps a partnered gay person cannot be in an ordained position.  And perhaps this is something that the gay couple feels they can navigate – perhaps for a season.  What I hear from gay Christians is that the most important things are that they feel at home, that they belong, that they are loved, that there is room for dialogue, that their convictions are respected, that they will have some opportunity to use their gifts, and that they have God’s peace about being there.  Sounds like some good fruit to me.

In some communities it will seem that the weight is on the left, that the official view is that God blesses committed relationships regardless of gender.  In these communities generous spaciousness challenges others to acknowledge and make room for those who believe that gender complementarity is a faithful interpretation of Scripture in regard to committed relationships.  For the straight people in this situation, that might seem manageable.  A commitment to agree to disagree, extending grace and withholding judgment.  For a gay Christian committed to celibacy, this will be much more challenging.  So, who would do it?  I know celibate gay Christians who are in community where the majority of people hold affirming views.  This might feel like the safest place for them to simply be honest about who they are.  Maybe it is the place where they feel most at home in terms of worship, mission, teaching etc.  As the gay Christian community continues to grow and mature, celibate gay Christians can often feel like a minority within a minority.  This isn’t an easy place to be.  The truth is, people need to live in alignment with their convictions because that is what they have discerned God asking of them.  They need to live consistently with their conscience.  I have encountered celibate gay Christians who navigate loving and supportive relationships with other gay Christians who are partnered.  To me, this is a beautiful expression of Christian unity.  It doesn’t come easily but is sustained by love for Christ and love for one another.  The church could learn a LOT from this.  I should also add that celibate gay Christians are also living their lives in a variety of ways that may challenge preconceived notions.  You might want to check out, “A Queer Calling” a blog by a celibate couple.

I believe room can be given for some understanding of disputable matters and the role of conscience in the life of a follower of Jesus within a given fellowship.  In a congregation, yes, there will be some degree of binary in terms of the dominant belief concerning same-sex relationships.  But the actual life of a community isn’t that black and white.  Because community isn’t theoretical.  Community is real people.  People with different levels of theological education, different experiences, different personalities and ways of processing information, different generations, different cultural backgrounds, and different influences.  Diversity is a given.  And I think the church will experience diversity in responding to the question of same-sex marriage for some time to come.  So in the meantime, generous spaciousness offers a way to journey together.

Efforts to live a third way, to nurture generous spaciousness, are most often envisioned by pastors, not theologians or ethicists.  Pastors on the ground, dealing with the motley crew that is their congregation – who they love warts and all.  Nurturing generous spaciousness that acknowledges diverse perspectives on the question of same-sex marriage will likely result in some people leaving – folks who can only process this matter in a black and white manner.  This is painful.  At the same time, those folks aren’t leaving the faith.  They’re going to go find another church that is more black and white on the issue.  That’s okay.  There is no perfect church.  No one has the whole truth or the perfect interpretation.  We are all parts of the body of Christ.  And we are all completely dependent on the finished work of Jesus Christ to redeem the mess that we inevitably make despite our best efforts to live in grace and truth.  The miracle is that God’s strategy was to build his kingdom through the church – and through the working of the Spirit – some good is actually done in the world.  Can we not rejoice when someone we disagree with on same-sex marriage works to feed the poor?  Can we not sing the hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with the one we disagree with?  Can we not celebrate a family coming to faith through the witness of someone we disagree with?  If we can, we are living generous spaciousness.

In challenging binary walls of hostility, in welcoming the other with whom we disagree, in committing to the hard work of being family together, I believe we are responding to Jesus’ high priestly prayer:

“The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind— Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, So they might be one heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. The same glory you gave me, I gave them, So they’ll be as unified and together as we are— I in them and you in me. Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, And give the godless world evidence That you’ve sent me and loved them In the same way you’ve loved me.”

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