Why Arguing Isn’t Enough

The ministry of New Direction has positioned itself in the midst of the unenviable reality of differing Scriptural interpretations on the question of what faithful discipleship ought to look like for LGBTQ+ followers of Jesus.  The truth is, of course, that no one can be neutral in these conversations at the intersection of faith and sexuality.  A particular individual will hold one of three positions:  holding the belief that Christian marriage may only be between one man and one woman; or holding the belief that the grace of Christ and the Christian church may affirm marriage between two consenting same-sex oriented individuals; or being uncertain of which of the first two is most faithful to the Scriptures.  Now I realize that a lot of different experiences could be described other than these three categories – but I have used them for simplicity’s sake.  A community, because it is made up of many members, might find itself at a fourth position:  The response to the question is a disputable matter.  In this case, the community recognizes that in light of our limitations in the interpretive task, there may be more than one faithful way to interpret Scripture on a given controversial question.  Entire denominations have recognized this option in relation to topics like women in ministry.

What this means for New Direction is that while individuals within our community hold either traditionally-believing views on marriage or are affirming of same-sex marriage or are unsure – the ministry itself holds the position that this is a disputable matter.  As a ministry, we recognize that people have made their best-faith attempts to discern God’s will (many in our community discern these matters in deeply personal ways that ultimately impact how they live their life, engage relationship, and form family) and that we all rely on God’s mercy to hold us, even if we are wrong.  This is the beauty of generous spaciousness.  We can give each other the room to wrestle with God and then seek to be faithful.  We don’t have to convince each other to try to all think the same or live with some expectation of conformity.  We can encourage one another to keep pursuing Jesus, to keep on discerning through prayer, study, and listening, and to pursue faithfulness with single-minded passion.

It isn’t that answering questions about appropriate ways to steward a minority sexuality aren’t important.  They are deeply significant and most especially when they impact one’s own life.  But such questions are secondary.  And our community seeks to live out this long tradition:  In essentials – unity; in non-essentials – liberty; in all things love.

But such a posture, that prioritizes space for individuals to be still and know God, even if our conclusions about secondary matters differ from one another, seems to be very difficult for some people to understand.  Because there is space in our community for those who affirm same-sex relationships, there are those who are convinced that New Direction is developing an apologetic for this position and working to convince others of it.  There are certainly ministries for whom this is a clear object.  The Reformation Project under Matthew Vine’s leadership seems to have such a mandate.  And there would be people in the New Direction community who would be absolutely on board with that.  But there would also be people in the New Direction community that would struggle with such a mandate.  And in our community that is ok – because the focus of our community is not to develop an apologetic but to pursue Christ through worship, dialogue, and mutual support.

I read a review of my book last week that illustrated this.  The five and a half page review consistently uses words like, “argues” “must” “insists” “claims” “asserts definitively” “contends” “urges” “criticizing” concluding that “the main arguments in the book (to move evangelicals to accept the validity of same-sex relationships) … are faulty, misleading, and erroneous – certainly not persuasive.”  When I scan my book these are the words that I most often see, “perhaps” “seems” “might it be” “I wonder” “consider” “tension” “engage” “I believe”….  These words, at least in my intention, were to be invitational, willing to embrace uncertainty, openness, and own the possibility of being wrong.  It isn’t that I don’t know how to argue or be convincing – after all I grew up with five siblings.  It is that I believe that our arguments about same-sex relationships for Christians have often failed to bear good fruit.  I have observed that such arguments bring division, exclusion, fracture, pride, anger, and even hatred.  I continue to be astonished at the dismissiveness of others in the Body of Christ who disagree in the context of these debates.  Who am I to question the heart of another who professes faith in Christ?  I may conclude that I disagree with his arguments or that her logic is weak or that their conclusions are shaky.  But that does not, in my mind, give me the right to dismiss them as a part of the Body of Christ.  I have to believe that the life of Christ which enfolds the entire Body of believers is more than sufficient to overcome our errors in interpretation and attempts to live faithful lives.  Only God sees the true motives and inclinations of the heart.  I do not.  In the meantime, different parts of the Body have different functions and I cannot say to another part of the Body that I have no need of you.   So not only does my unwillingness to dismiss another believer compel me – but my prioritizing of Jesus’ high priestly prayer for unity as crucial to our public witness also compels me to refrain from the black and white debate about same-sex relationships.  I believe it is fair to say that at this time in the Body of Christ there are significant numbers of believers on both sides, so-to-speak, of this question.  It isn’t just some crazy left-wing group who are affirming of same-sex relationships nor is it just some back-woods, fundamentalist, ignoring context right-wingers who uphold a traditional view of marriage.  We must stop caricaturing one another!  Gay Christians embrace the subversiveness of unity when they come to our regular gatherings and annual retreats.  Both those who are committed to celibacy and those who are open or in same-sex relationships (along with those who are as yet undecided) come together to worship, to dialogue, to pray, and to receive the sacrament of Communion together.  So my reluctance to try to develop an argument for a particular position arises from the conviction that such arguments consistently bear bad fruit, cause alienation among believers, and fail to invest in unity – the unity that I see gay Christians being willing to work at and experience despite their theological differences.

Consider the following:

  1. The Word of God is not static – it is animated by a living person, Jesus Christ.  This means we must be willing to be engaged in ongoing questioning and discerning of this gift of revelation for a particular people in a particular time.

  2. All readings of Scripture are interpretive.  There are no perfect interpreters of Scripture.  This compels any reader of Scripture to hold their interpretive conclusions with humility.  When the argument is that this is a matter of Scriptural authority, it is an attempt to disregard the possibility of alternative interpretations.  However, we never have perfect access to this notion of authority without some reliance on interpretation.

  3. We are challenged to try to recognize the ways that our social location and privilege influence our interpretive conclusions about Scriptural directives – particularly when such directives do not impact us personally.

  4. We can make room to listen to and consider different interpretations because God has given us the Spirit to help us discern.

  5. When we do not come to agreement on an interpretive matter, we are called to invest in our unity despite our diversity because our unity is linked to our public witness.

  6. When we encounter someone who comes to a different interpretive conclusion, we cannot assume that we care about Scripture while they just ignore it or twist what it says.  We need to listen to hear how they have engaged the interpretive process.

  7. The church has made many interpretive errors throughout its history.  None of these errors has ultimately thwarted God’s plans and purposes for the renewal of all things.

  8. Our best faith efforts to interpret rightly, even if they might contain error, are caught up in our life hidden with Christ.  We do not need to fear.  We most definitely don’t need to fear punishment – because perfect love casts out fear.

  9. When we disagree on interpretive matters, we have admonishment from within the Scriptures regarding how we are to treat one another: with respect, honouring each other’s conscience, being careful to not cause another to stumble.

  10. We can test the faithfulness of another’s life by observing what kind of fruit emerges.  Are the fruits of the Spirit growing in that person’s life?

I fairly regularly encounter the following response (to be candid, often coming from straight, older, white, heterosexually married, educated men), “I’ve read the pro-gay theology, and I wish it could be true, but I’m just not convinced.”  And honestly I just want to scream, “Who cares if you’re not convinced!”  Okay – so now that you know my internal world isn’t always peaches & cream and gracious, generous spaciousness …. What I mean is, why does the decision-making and discipleship choices of another rest on you being convinced?  Don’t misunderstand me, I want to resist the lone-ranger Christian syndrome too.  I believe we are called into the context of community and mutuality that challenges us to discern how to submit to collective discernment on controversial matters.  But I don’t believe that calling means that people can hold others hostage because they “aren’t convinced” – especially when such matters deeply impact the lives of the other and not the one who isn’t convinced. What about the mature, faithful, Christian scholars who have been convinced?  Okay, you don’t think their arguments hold water.  But they think they do – genuinely, having prayerfully reflected, considered, weighed, studied, listened, and discerned.  So does it just become a spitting match then between who has the most power for their convinced position to hold authority over others?  Is that really how we are called to discern together as a Body?  What about humility?  What about conscience?  What about honouring one another?  What about trusting the Spirit in each other?  What about finding our unity in the essentials of our faith: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that has made a way for all things to be reconciled to God?

In my book I say, “This has never been about trying to convince you of a particular position on the matter of committed same-sex relationships.”  The truth is, if I’d been trying to argue that everyone should become affirming of same-sex relationships, I would have written a different book – one with an attempt at a convincing argument.  None-the-less, the reviewer said, “This is disingenuous – the point of the book is to persuade evangelicals to accept same-sex relationships as an acceptable path of Christian discipleship.”  And when framed like that all of the priorities that I hold so dear get simply chucked out the window.  Priorities that I believe God has given, shaped, and refined over the last 12 years of ministry.  Priorities that I deeply believe are God’s heart for this time and this place in this conversation in the church.  Priorities that I am well aware of being unsatisfactory for those on the far right or the far left.  However, regardless of the characterizations made of me, my book, or the ministry of New Direction, I will continue to faithfully advance the vision of unity in diversity, focusing on cultivating environments where ALL people can pursue faith in Christ without constant scrutiny or pressure about secondary matters, so that the world will see the good news in action – God reconciling all things through Christ!

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