Responding to Resistance to Generous Space

At its core, generous space acknowledges that on the question of covenanted same-sex relationships faithful Christians disagree about what is appropriate for a disciple of Jesus. We promote the idea that the church ought to make room for people to be honest about their convictions and/or their uncertainty on this matter without pressure to conform to a uniform interpretive conclusion.

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In the course of developing and articulating the nuances of this posture, I encounter push-back, assumptions, and, at times, accusations. As a posture, there is freedom for generous space to continue to develop and mature, be contextualized, and tested. One of the joys of my work is that I am able to learn from distinct communities as they seek to embody generous space in the particular relationships and experiences that are shared by that unique group. In addition to the 13 generous space groups that New Direction supports, there are many church communities that are seeking to incorporate various aspects of the posture of generous space. Not only that, I have found a wonderful sense of collegiality with Ken Wilson and Emily Swan and their work with the concept of Third Way, the Colossian Forum and their new curriculum, the Marin Foundation and their Living in the Tension conversations, Evangelicals for Social Action and their Oriented to Love dialogues, and Tim Otto and his work on Oriented to Faith, and all the communities that they have engaged. There is no question that this is a season of momentum in opening new dialogue and re-evaluating priorities regarding our engagement on matters of gender and sexuality. And while I and many others celebrate this movement, others view it as dangerous and something to expose and oppose.

I understand that. I used to be a zealot for a clear and certain theology of marriage that demanded defending and preventing the encroachment of anything that even smelled like generous space.

Then God humbled me. And while that was a painful process in some ways, I couldn’t be more grateful.

The process exposed my own fear. And being released from fear brings life. The scriptures say it this way, “Perfect love drives out fear …. because fear has to do with punishment. There is no fear in love.” (I John 4)

I’ve also discovered, however, that surmising that fear may play a role in one’s resistance to generous space on the matter of covenanted same-sex relationships is a very efficient way to elicit defensiveness. And defensiveness doesn’t do much to open dialogue.

Some of the fear I encounter, in fact probably most of the fear I encounter, arises from the deep desire to be faithful and obedient to the scriptures and to God. Such desires are commendable. What is not so commendable is the refusal to see the ways that power and control creep in to colour our discernment.

Generous space compels all people in the community, regardless of their convictions or levels of certainty, to relinquish the drive to dominate, to hold the majority influence, to rally supporters and defenders, or to define expectations for others. Frankly, that’s why some people disqualify themselves from generous space. To relinquish such control is unimaginable – for surely the result is chaos, loosey-goosey theology, people doing whatever they happen to think is right. But what we actually see in community is people doing the hard work of listening more carefully to each other, clarifying to ensure understanding, asking for and offering forgiveness, extending patience, being attuned to where the Spirit is at work, taking ownership of what one brings into the community, giving up the desire to be defensive or the right to be offended. I suppose you can try to do all of this in your own strength, but I for one am so very grateful for the Spirit of the living God within to do what I cannot do.

Engaging in some denominational conversations of late, I offer the following insights to overcome resistance and encourage the cultivation generous space:

1. The Sufficiency of the Cross:

For those who believe that covenanted same-sex relationships are sinful, the typical reason I hear for resistance to generous space is the understanding that such sin has eternal consequences. When I hear this, I see it as an opportunity to share the good news of the gospel. Particular sinful behaviours do not determine our eternal destiny. Our eternal reconciliation with God has ALREADY been secured through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the cross, all sin – past, present, and future in our understanding of time – has been accounted for and forgiven. God does not need our confession to forgive us. We need confession to reconnect us to the reality of God’s forgiveness. The tragedy of sin is that it prevents us from living in the reality that is already true – we are joined with Christ, adopted heirs, made right with the Father, and called to participate in God’s kingdom right now as we join the work of setting things right. The tragedy of sin is that it can so blind us that we never acknowledge our need of a Saviour.

LGBTQ+ Christians who know and love Jesus Christ, who eagerly receive the free gift of atonement through the cross and resurrection, cannot be separated from the love of God that is theirs in Christ Jesus. If after prayerfully agonizing over the scriptures, being still and submitted before the Spirit of God, they discern that the interpretive perspective that would make room for God’s grace in their covenant of marriage with their same-sex partner is true and they go ahead with their marriage, they can live their lives at rest in the victory accomplished at the cross. If, they are actually in error because marrying their same-sex partner and consummating their relationship sexually is sinful, that sin has been dealt with at the cross. The power of sin, evil, and death has been broken. Their prayerful decision was not willful rebellion, it was not merely twisting Scripture to make it say what they wanted it to say. It was the reality of two same-sex orientated Christians seeking to work out their salvation with fear and trembling as they trusted that God would work within them to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12-13) I even know of one same-sex couple who literally prayed the night before their wedding for God to kill them in their sleep if they had discerned wrongly – so committed were they to following God’s will and not wanting to sin against God. They determined that if they woke the next morning, they would make their covenant before God.

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Rom. 6:1) By no means! answers Paul. When we receive the outrageous news of grace, we die to sin. When we truly believe and live like people of the resurrection, those joined with Christ, those confident in being reconciled to God and knowing that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God – we don’t run to sin – we rest in Christ. Jesus said, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13) and again, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matt. 12:17)

The LGBTQ+ Christians that I know who have entered the covenant of marriage with their same-sex partner have thrown themselves on the mercy of God as an act of faith in a good God. I believe, that even if they are in error, their lives are hid with Christ in God. This may not match your theology, and I won’t focus on trying to convince you otherwise. I will simply ask you to humble yourself enough to acknowledge that married LGBTQ+ Christians who put their faith in Christ are the same as any other Christian who makes discerning decisions on their best understanding of the truest interpretation and at the end of the day trust in Christ’s righteousness to be sufficient for them. To refuse such acknowledgement is to refuse the sufficiency of the grace given to us through the risen Christ.

2. This is an interpretive matter.

Those who resist generous space often declare authoritative biblical certainty that all same-sex sexual activity is sinful. The insinuation is that anyone who questions this conclusion has disregarded the authority of scripture. The reality is, however, that every single reading of Scripture is interpretive. Every single reader of Scripture sees through a glass dimly to some extent, no matter how many PhD’s might be behind their name. And in these matters, there are people who are deeply committed to Christ and to the Scriptures with multiple PhD’s in Biblical Studies behind their names who come to opposite conclusions on whether or not covenanted same-sex relationships are sinful. It would seem that some of those good folks, despite their best intentions to be faithful and obedient to the Scriptures are in error – and because of those errors there will be people who either discern that something that is sinful is NOT sinful – or that something that is not sinful IS sinful.

Thanks be to God, all of this has already been addressed at the cross. When God looks at those who put their faith in Jesus Christ as the one who has made the way for them to be made right with God, God sees Christ. God doesn’t see our theological failings, our interpretive errors, our numb conscience, our selfish hearts…. What God sees is the righteousness of Christ – praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ! Does this seem too good to be true? Does it seem too easy? I would suggest that is the biggest lie – and the pride of our own hearts – preventing us from receiving this as the truth – despite it being spelled out for us in Scripture! (1 Cor. 1:30 as just one powerful example)

3. Scripture reminds us to not bind the conscience of our fellow siblings in Christ.

Binding the conscience occurs when one is viewed and treated as rebellious and defiant in sin rather than a sibling in Christ who has in good faith come to a different interpretive conclusion. One can be treated in a manner that binds the conscience, restricts one’s freedom in Christ, and exerts pressure to conform in a variety of overt or less obvious ways. Given the history of LGBTQ+ people in the church attempting or committing suicide and/or walking away from church and sometimes their faith, such restriction and prevention of space to live in accordance with conscience has borne tragic fruit.

If our conscience tells us something is sin – and we do it anyway, we have sinned. But if our conscience is clear, then we should act in accordance with our conscience. Paul says, “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.” (Rom. 14: 14) (Note: There may be times that binding of conscience is a necessary part of discipleship in light of self-delusion as we often see in cases of adultery. It is notable, however, that we don’t see Christians mobilizing to articulate their good faith efforts to interpret the scriptures rightly to affirm adultery.)

Generous space encourages people to live in alignment with their convictions and does not seek to bind the conscience of those who hold deep convictions that marriage is to be reserved for one man and one woman. The question generous space asks is, can the same grace be extended to the one who has wrestled deeply with the scriptures and sees God’s grace for same-sex oriented persons in their covenants of marriage with same-sex spouses?

4. The influence of privilege and its impact on interpretive reflection must be addressed.

After years of study and conversations with Christians who embrace different perspectives on same-sex relationships, I have observed how privilege affects the interpretive conclusions one finds to be convincing. When those who are heterosexual, or cisgender, or married, or men indicate they are unconvinced of the interpretive perspective that liberates those in the minority from traditionally held restrictions, it is appropriate to ask if they have paid attention to their own privilege. This isn’t the only factor to consider in interpretation, of course, but it is an often overlooked one. Since our engagement with scripture is interpretive, and since such interpretation inevitably runs through the filter of our experience, when one has no experience of same-sex orientation or what it is like to lack privilege it has an effect. Those who may be non-heterosexual, or transgender, or unmarried, or female bring a different experiential filter to their consideration of the text. It carries great weight for me that Jesus consistently affirmed the faith of those who lacked privilege.

I also believe the incarnation models for us the radical relinquishment of privilege undertaken by Jesus. In Philippians 2, we are called to follow Christ’s example. This ought to compel us to consider matters of privilege in our interpretive questions. As someone who has intentionally embraced the assignment to seek to relinquish straight-privilege and cisgender-privilege for more than a decade (which while a worthwhile assignment is always limited in its efficacy), I have begun to recognize the unconscious ways such privilege creates barriers to what we consider convincing. This can be as obvious as the visceral distaste for the notion of the same-sex sex act or as subtle as minimizing the historical and cultural implications of gender for ancient near-east peoples.

5. Questions of faithful LGBTQ+ discipleship must consider more than just sexual activity.

Generous space views the journey of discipleship as an integrative endeavour. For those who insist there is only one biblical response of celibacy, there is a common reductionism in theological and exegetical focus on sexual activity divorced from the covenantal, kinship, and relational contexts in which such sexual intimacy is embodied. In the lives of LGBTQ+ Christians committed to living in the way of Jesus, sexual activity cannot be disconnected from the covenantal vows and commitment to self-emptying and faithful love that shape their relational lives and sexual ethics.

This is not to say that LGBTQ+ Christians have no choices or decisions to make about how to express or manage their sexual behaviour. Nor is it to say that abstaining from sexual activity is inherently oppressive. Rather, this insight recalls the first thing God identifies as not being good in a sinless creation was that the human being was alone. To imply that the biblical witness for same-sex oriented people is primarily or only about desire for genitalized sexual fulfillment suggests an unwillingness to listen to the relational longing for intimate companionship and family. Christians rightly preach a subversive message to a sex-saturated culture that sexual intimacy is rightly embodied in the context of covenant faithfulness and mutual self-emptying love. These are the very things that LGBTQ+ Christians seek to express.

6. Generous spaciousness does not require a single determinative ethical or ecclesial destination.

Slippery slope arguments are nothing new in the wider discourse on ethics and morality. So it is no surprise that this arises from those who resist generous space. The assumption that making room for Christians to live in alignment with their conscience regarding their convictions about covenanted same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to an “anything goes” mentality regarding sexual ethics, rampant promiscuity, open relationships, polygamous marriages etc. is fallacious. Those who advocate for covenanted same-sex marriages challenge the prescription of gender complementarity and the potential for procreation as essential markers for how human beings may express their God-given desire for intimate companionship and family. They are not prioritizing sexual fulfillment over faithfulness and mutual self-emptying love. I understand that there are Christians who hold deep convictions that gender complementarity and procreative potential are necessary for marriage, and generous space honours their conscience on those matters. However, the extension of marriage to those who are unable to procreate (ie. cases of infertility, seniors, gay couples) or do not fulfill an expectation of gender complementarity (ie. gay couples, transgender spouses, intersex individuals) does not change the understanding of marriage regarding covenant, fidelity, and mutuality. In fact, LGBTQ+ Christians who marry and live out their Christians values in their covenant are a subversive witness to the broader LGBTQ+ population where sexual ethics may have developed through the excesses of the sexual revolution and devoid of faith-shaped influence.

Assumptions are also made about inevitable ecclesial developments that will come with generous spaciousness. Typically, these center around ordination and in some cases membership or officiating and blessing same-sex marriages. As a posture, generous space indicates a way of being together in our differences where each one’s conscience is honoured. This would be consistent with the encouragement Paul gave to the Jewish and Gentile believers who experienced impasse and misunderstanding of one another about appropriate behaviour and avoidance of sin.

I don’t know what ecclesial policy decisions people in diverse contexts in the church might make should there be more generous space to not bind the conscience of people on the question of covenanted same-sex relationships. I have to entrust all those who engage the posture of generous space to God’s more-than-trustworthy care. In our creeds, confessions, and statements of belief we express faith that the Holy Spirit will lead the church. The Spirit can be trusted. Those God gifts for leadership will need to be trusted to seek the Spirit. While there are no perfect pastors and leaders in the church, I believe that God will continue to lead, guide, and grow the church that seeks to discern and walk in step with the Spirit.

Might that mean some individuals, councils, congregations – or even denominations that embrace generous space come to discern that full inclusion for LGBTQ people in covenanted relationships best reflects the gospel? I would imagine so. But can we not trust that if people in such contexts come to these convictions that the Spirit is more than able to lead, correct, clarify, and guide? I honestly don’t understand why some would seek to exert such control over others’ capacity to discern, interpret the scriptures, and follow the Spirit.

7. Generous space exposes issues of power and control.

When churches are faced with shifts energized by a call to relinquish privilege and embody equitable justice for those who have been marginalized, there are inevitable power dynamics that come into play. Think slavery, think women in ministry, think inter-racial marriage, think divorce and remarriage. In these examples of significant shifts, one of the dynamics of change is that the perspective that used to hold the majority power is now a minority (on non-existent) perspective – and this can be perceived as a loss of power. One has to wonder if this is not a fear in the current conversations about covenanted same-sex relationships. It is not so much that people’s convictions won’t be respected, but the fear that the majority position will shift to be the minority position. Ironically it is the power of powerlessness that is God’s incarnational strategy for redemption.

I encounter people whose convictions match the current official position (which does not allow for generous space) of their church, which continues to be held by the majority of people, who act as if they have already lost power, as if their convictions are no longer respected, as if they will be silenced, as if assumptions and judgments are being made about them, as if they no longer have influence. It is very interesting to observe these dynamics and the defensiveness that can arise despite their perspectives being the official and majority position. I often wonder if the significance of this matter has as much to do with power dynamics as it does with concern to discern God’s will rightly for LGBTQ+ people. As I have articulated above, when one considers these questions in the context of the victorious sufficiency of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have to wonder where the tremendous fear that I encounter comes from. Is it that we are so afraid that the covenant of same-sex marriage will send LGBTQ+ believers in Jesus to hell? Is it that we are so afraid that accepting generous space on this matter will permanently damage our priorities and capacity to interpret truthfully? Or are we so afraid that our deep convictions will no longer have the dominant influence?

Generous space requires mature faith. It requires robust trust that the Spirit will continue to lead the church. It requires the kind of humble confidence that recognizes that despite inevitable error and sin within the church, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has secured our reconciliation with God. It requires some capacity to own our limitations. It requires love to transcend control and fear.

When I look at the disillusionment and sense of irrelevance of the institutional church, I truly believe that generous space, not merely on the question of covenanted same-sex marriage but as a discipleship framework in pluralistic and complex contexts, brings hope for a way of being together in our diversity that embodies the good news and freedom we have in Jesus Christ.

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