This blog post in response to a series questions posted by Kevin DeYoung at the Gospel Coalition. The essay is 40 questions for Christians Waving Rainbow Flags and while some of the questions are loaded, they help sort out some relevant issues that appear to divide the church over LGBT issues, especially after the Supreme Court decision providing for marriage equality across the country.
1. How long have you believed that gay marriage is something to be celebrated? I first became aware of gay rights in the late 80s when I was in high school and it was intuitive that they, like anyone else, should enjoy legal equality. I don’t think I thought about the question of marriage until 1993 when the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution prohibited discrimination in marriage laws. In 1994 there was the book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? which provided religious language to sort out such issues. I came out to myself and then later to others a year or so later.
2. What Bible verses led you to change your mind? There wasn’t a Bible verse. There was the character of Jesus who crossed religious boundaries, my own sense of fair play, growing up in churches that expressed hospitality, and an engagement with the LGBT community in college. In 1991 I remember reading an issue of the Democratic Left, DSA’s magazine, that had a whole issue dedicated to LGBT concerns which did a lot to introduce me to several issues affecting the community.
3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated? I’d look to the fruits of the relationship, which suggests to me the foundation of that relationship. Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
4. What verses would you use to show that a marriage between two persons of the same sex can adequately depict Christ and the church? Matthew 19:12 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.” Recent scholarship suggests eunuchs from birth include anyone in that world who could not have children, which would include gay and lesbians.
5. Do you think Jesus would have been okay with homosexual behavior between consenting adults in a committed relationship? Given the character revealed in the Gospels and how he crossed religious boundaries to include others, yes. But I argue in another essay that the question is ahistorical. We can at best surmise, but the terms of the debate we face today were not available to folks in first century Palestine.
6. If so, why did he reassert the Genesis definition of marriage as being one man and one woman? He was not defining marriage, neither was Genesis. He was debating the question of divorce.
7. When Jesus spoke against porneia what sins do you think he was forbidding? It could be a broad general term for sexual immorality though some argue that the term specifically is tied to prostitution.
8. If some homosexual behavior is acceptable, how do you understand the sinful “exchange” Paul highlights in Romans 1? In the context that Paul provides, that is a discussion of idolatry. An issue which can affect LGBT folks and heterosexual folks. As Paul writes in Romans 2:1 “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
9. Do you believe that passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Revelation 21:8 teach that sexual immorality can keep you out of heaven? 10. What sexual sins do you think they were referring to? I don’t think the kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians can be seen as heaven. It is a reality here and now. When Paul lists behaviors that preclude one from the kingdom, he asserts that these actions prevent living a life that God would have for all people. The word homosexual in the translation given refers to two words, generally a young man who sells himself into prostitution and the one who receives the services of the prostitute. The fact that these words were combined says more about 20th century translators than the concerns of Paul.
The book of Revelation on the other hand appears to think not of the present in the way Paul does, but of the future, and in particular an end of history that involves a “lake of fire” and the restoration of a new earth (not heaven as we think of it). In that sexual morality appears to be a dividing line for that author. Should we believe so? I think sexual morality can be a powerful way of expression our relations to each other, in life giving or damaging ways. But I think Paul’s language, not the book of Revelation, gives us the most appropriate way to think of “life eternal”.
11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp? We’re engaging in ahistorical question. Sexual orientation as it is understood today has been around a little over a century and a public discussion in the church and wider society starts in the 1950s and 60s. So you’d have to consult how the church related to these issues starting from that time period onwards. And what you discover is a divergence that starts from the beginning of the debate depending on your tradition. The United Church of Christ, where I serve, had their first General Synod statement in 1969 and it clears the way towards inclusion. The Southern Baptist convention took a different route. The Roman Catholic Church, still a different route. Thus the discussion we’re having today.
12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned? That’s a rather broad statement as there are churches in all three continents which are supportive of LGBT folks. The case I’d make is that we all relate to scripture through a cultural lens. That the scriptures come out of a cultural context. And that there is no perspective that is outside of culture. I’d make the same argument regardless of continent.
13. Do you think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were motivated by personal animus and bigotry when they, for almost all of their lives, defined marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman? By the time they were seeking elected office, I think it was an issue of political viability and a lack of courage.
14. Do you think children do best with a mother and a father? No. I think they do best with stability and love. That may be a mother and father, it may be a single parent, it may be a same sex couple. The way children are related to matters more than the gender of the parents. This is a personal question, since I was in the foster care system and was adopted by a single father. It’s something I wouldn’t change for the world.
15. If not, what research would you point to in support of that conclusion? Here
16. If yes, does the church or the state have any role to play in promoting or privileging the arrangement that puts children with a mom and a dad? Absolutely not. Instead the state and churches should promote stability as well as economic, educational, and relational resources that support all families; single parent, gay families, multi generational families, adoptive and foster parents, and two parent homes.
17. Does the end and purpose of marriage point to something more than an adult’s emotional and sexual fulfillment? Those can’t be divorced from an account of marriage. Those ultimately connect up to a wider set of issues, from child rearing to personal growth and meaning to social relations and stability.
18. How would you define marriage? A shared journey in life. And as a side note, given the previous questions and other columns I’ve seen by those on the religious right, sexuality, gay or straight, is one piece but hardly the most significant piece concerning marriage. The support given between two people is far more significant.
19. Do you think close family members should be allowed to get married? 20. Should marriage be limited to only two people? 21. On what basis, if any, would you prevent consenting adults of any relation and of any number from getting married? 22. Should there be an age requirement in this country for obtaining a marriage license? 23. Does equality entail that anyone wanting to be married should be able to have any meaningful relationship defined as marriage? 24. If not, why not?
I’m collapsing a range of questions but I think Libbey Anne identifies the problems with these sets of questions. They assume this:
“Social conservatives tend to divide sexual acts into marital sex and non-marital sex. For social conservatives, child sexual molestation is in the same category as gay sex or consensual premarital sex. When divided in this way, sexual molestation doesn’t look all that different from consensual premarital sex—though both are considered sin. This is why the Duggars can talk about Josh’s “mistakes” the way they do—as though it were simply him going too far with a girlfriend, or viewing pornography. Because for them, they’re in the same category—sexual contact before marriage.
Progressives do not have ethical or moral problems with premarital sexual intercourse—but they very much have a problem with child molesting. To conservatives this can look like an inconsistency—even hypocrisy—but it’s not. Progressive sexual ethics center around consent. Sexual contact that is consensual is okay. Sexual contact that isn’t consensual is not okay. And because children below a certain age do not have the necessary understanding and lived experience to be able to consent, child molestation is de facto nonconsensual.”
So if you have child marriages, relatives marrying, professors and students marrying, (some which are legal or not depending on the context) they could still be a situation where a free and informed consent, not weighed down by disproportionate power relations, cannot be genuinely be had. And that is a problem.
25. Should your brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with homosexual practice be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs without fear of punishment, retribution, or coercion? 26. Will you speak up for your fellow Christians when their jobs, their accreditation, their reputation, and their freedoms are threatened because of this issue? 27. Will you speak out against shaming and bullying of all kinds, whether against gays and lesbians or against Evangelicals and Catholics?
These are all combined to fit into a “persecution”narrative and there are important issues to untangle. No one should be fired for holding certain beliefs. Churches should feel free to practice their religion according to their own conscience. But if your public role or position requires you to work with all people, setting up a scenario where by you can discriminate or deny service to someone based on sexual orientation is a problem. Your conscience can be protected but not when your actions infringe on other people’s rights. That’s a basic compromise we have in this country. Your freedom extends as far as until you begin denying that to someone else.
I’ve seen bullying behavior, including in rhetoric. And it can happen on both sides of the debate. And I oppose it. But mere disagreement is not bullying. The fact that others will find your views inexplicable is not persecution. Keeping that distinction in mind is key. We have an obligation to work for a society where all can share ideas but to do so means we are going to be in contexts where our ideas are not always accepted. The shift happened so quickly on marriage equality that many in the religious right don’t know how to understand that. But as someone who has been in the minority on many issues, trust me. It will be ok.
28. Since the evangelical church has often failed to take unbiblical divorces and other sexual sins seriously, what steps will you take to ensure that gay marriages are healthy and accord with Scriptural principles? 29. Should gay couples in open relationships be subject to church discipline? 30. Is it a sin for LGBT persons to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage? 31. What will open and affirming churches do to speak prophetically against divorce, fornication, pornography, and adultery wherever they are found? See the answer to 19-24
32. If “love wins,” how would you define love? The active and informed seeking of the good in life and the well being of others.
33. What verses would you use to establish that definition? 1 Thessalonians 1:15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.
34. How should obedience to God’s commands shape our understanding of love? I’d use the word call, God’s call for us and each other. Which is discerned, not given. And discerned given the best we know about ourselves, each other, and our world, given our respective religious traditions, the relevant disciplines and sciences, and human experience. The goal, the good in life, which is inextricably tied to an understanding of both God and love.
35. Do you believe it is possible to love someone and disagree with important decisions they make? Certainly. It happens quite a bit. Though if sexual orientation is understood not in terms of choices made, but is rather something fundamental to who they are then rejecting someone’s core is not readily done if you love them. But presuming that you can work that out, it must be the case that you cannot promote discrimination and other actions which actively harm other people and still call it love. If the evangelical community claims to love LGBT folks, we should see them on the front lines for non discrimination legislation for instance.
36. If supporting gay marriage is a change for you, has anything else changed in your understanding of faith? It really isn’t a change per se. But yes lots of changes have happened in my understanding of faith. I hope that process never ends. It’s how one develops a faith of one’s own.
37. As an evangelical, how has your support for gay marriage helped you become more passionate about traditional evangelical distinctives like a focus on being born again, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the total trustworthiness of the Bible, and the urgent need to evangelize the lost? I’m not an evangelical, I’m a liberal protestant. And no, I would hope not. I’m a religious pluralist, who believes in the idea of Christ as moral exemplar not as substitutionary atonement. I accept historical critical understandings of the Bible and believe that God’s saving work is a unfolding process.
38. What open and affirming churches would you point to where people are being converted to orthodox Christianity, sinners are being warned of judgment and called to repentance, and missionaries are being sent out to plant churches among unreached peoples? I don’t know what you mean by orthodox Christianity. I assume you mean evangelical protestantism. If that is the case, yes there are open and affirming churches that fit that bill. But no, I don’t serve such a church nor would I join one. But I am glad that the movement for LGBT inclusion can cut across these religious divides.
39. Do you hope to be more committed to the church, more committed to Christ, and more committed to the Scriptures in the years ahead? Certainly!
40. When Paul at the end of Romans 1 rebukes “those who practice such things” and those who “give approval to those who practice them,” what sins do you think he has in mind? Idolatry. And as a side note, idolatry does not have to be graven images. They can be theological doctrines, historical and cultural norms held so tightly that we are willing to define them as ultimate, as defining Christianity and who is in and who is out. They can lead us to sever our human relationships with each other, can split churches, can allow parents to throw their kids out into the streets. You can tell a lot about idolatry in the harm that follows.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma