Homosexuality: An Occasion for Unity

We are in a time of seismic movement in the Church. Many denominations are just now beginning to grapple seriously with a variety of questions surrounding homosexuality.

These are questions I have wrestled with over the last few years. And as of this point, I’m unable and unwilling to answer them definitively. I’ve done a lot of reading and writing on the topic, but I’m a bit stuck. I think, on the conservative side, there are very important issues at stake and hesitation is warranted. On the progressive side, I think there are some very interesting biblical and experiential arguments to be made on the topic that may shape the way we see things.

But this post is not about what I think about homosexuality. This is a post about how we should begin the discussion in a denominational/church setting.

For those reading this on my blog, there are a few things you may not know about that are instigating this post. The primary force behind this is a blog called Nazarene Ally. The author is a Nazarene pastor who is gay and is seeking to begin the journey of working toward the full acceptance of LGBT people in the Church of the Nazarene. I have been in dialogue with the author of this blog via social media. I find his voice intriguing and genuine, and have taken interest in his cause.

There are conversations about this blog taking place on Nazarene forums. I am not known to frequent such forums, but I was directed to this one by the author of Nazarene Ally. One pervasive theme throughout this forum was a particular idea that I want to fundamentally reject:

“If he wants to be gay, he should go to a denomination that accepts him instead of trying to change the Manual.”

My goal in this post is to argue against such an idea on the basis of Scripture. My thesis is that scripture gives us a very clear and applicable way of handling conversations exactly like this and come out united and together, even if we disagree.

Ultimately, I fear that as Christians and churches, we value being right more than being together. And I think that this is, at its very core, an unChristian value.

And I suspect that the reason we have churches that are ultra-conservative and churches that are ultra-liberal is because both groups have been selfish; one refusing to listen to voices of progress and the other refusing to listen to well-reasoned cries of restraint.

But more on that later.

————

First, let’s reject the idea that the Nazarene Manual itself is impervious to change. An underlying premise of the statement “they should just find a denomination that accepts them” is the idea that Nazarenes have always, and will always, believe the same things.

But this has never ever ever been true of the Church of the Nazarene! One of the greatest things about our tradition is a commitment to growth, evolution, correction and education. Why do you think the Church of the Nazarene has so many universities throughout the world?

Meeting every four years at General Assembly is itself a commitment to this practice. We don’t re-release the Manual every four years because we changes the logo! It’s because we constantly change the Manual!

if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Whether or not you believe that the Church of the Nazarene should change on this issue, we all need to move forward with the premise that it can, and that it is actually deeply a part of our wonderful tradition to dialogue and learn and grow.

————

So if change and growth is a given, the question becomes, “How do we go about such a thing Christianly?” The text for this is Romans 14.

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,

‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.’
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

What we have in this text is Paul’s beckoning call to unity within a major Church quarrel, one not unlike what we are seeing with homosexuality.

I want to be careful here: I’m not saying that I believe homosexuality to be akin to the eating of meat in this passage. I’m not saying those who reject homosexuality as sin are “weak”, or that God has made all forms of sexuality “clean”. In literary terms, I’m not using this scripture as an allegory.

I am using it as an archetype for how we are called to talk about divisive issues. However, each side of this argument, in their own perception, does fit into these roles. Those who advocate for the acceptance of homosexuality would say that those who don’t are weak in their faith and need to progress to a better understanding. And, people who stand against the acceptance of homosexuality believe this to be accepting of something that is “unclean” by God.

I’m not saying either one is right. Both sides think they’re right; and this scripture tells each side how to behave and come together IF they are right. The point is that this text teaches us how to handle the conversation, whoever is right, and to come out unified, and to experience progress in the midst of it.

The radical call of Paul, and of the Gospel, is that progress is made through mutual sacrifice and humility, not from separation. 

Because even though Paul puts unity before progress, in the long run they accomplish both. Can you name a single Christian Church that still abstains from foods based on Jewish dietary laws? There are none!

This passage is about an early church debate. The Jewish people, prior to Christ, believed that there were certain “marks” or “badges” of their identity as children of Yahweh; certain practices or behaviors that set them apart, made them who they are, and that to violate these was to put oneself outside of the community of faith. Among these issues were circumcision and dietary laws. While Paul was often addressing one or both of these issues, our text is about the latter.

Now, this is not the passage where Paul presents his argument for why it is okay to eat these foods because of Christ. To find those texts, simply peruse Paul’s letters. This text assumes that an extensive, meaningful dialogue has been had.

This is not a step we have yet gotten to, and should be careful not to skip.

One observation to make is what Paul does not do. Paul does not say, “Let’s go start a Church over here called ‘Uncircumcised Meat-Eaters First Church of Christ’ and let them do their thing and we can do ours.” He also doesn’t say, let’s change the doctrine of the Church whether they like it or not and let them catch up.

Regardless of where I, or you, or anyone stands on the issue of homosexuality, we all must get together and talk about it. We all need to sit down together and have a conversation and dialogue, one where we aren’t merely there to scream out our opinions, but one where we are open to change and, most importantly, to being wrong.

As Christians we ought to cultivate a willingness to believe and to formulate beliefs, and to simultaneously allow them to be molded, shaped, and changed for the better. If today you believe the same exact things you did five years ago, then I wonder what God you are worshiping! God is too big, too dynamic, and too wild and amazing to ever be fully understood; and if you are truly pursuing and longing after this God, you will find yourself being constantly changed and shaped and grown, even from things you once held dear.

Not to get too Nazareney on us, but isn’t this exactly what we mean when we talk about “Sanctification”? Sanctification is the idea that even after we accept Christ and enter into Salvation, God doesn’t stop doing creative work within us to conform us to God’s image! It’s the openness to realizing that God might actually be bigger than your current perception.

But, as I’ve already said, this is not the specific occasion of our text. In Romans 14, the conversation has been had and had again. Romans 14 is about where the conversation, at the present time, has run its course, and a consensus is still unreached.

This is an occasion we will undoubtedly find ourselves in before long. And this is what Romans 14 speaks to.

To those who think they are correct on the progressive side, the call is to be radically self-sacrificial, loving, forgiving and patient. At this point in the story, Paul has been unable to convince the majority of the Church that it is okay to eat meats. But even though he believes he is right, he would rather keep the integrity of a unified Church.

If you are right, this change will not happen overnight.

And let’s not underscore this “if”. You are also called to enter this conversation open to being wrong. But the call is stronger on you for patience. Paul asks those on the conservative end to be willing to let go of embedded ways of thinking. And for you, that means patience and sacrifice. But it should also be noted that the occasion of Romans 14 is not the end of the conversation, as we can infer from the fact that no Christian churches practice Jewish dietary laws or require circumcision. The conversation goes on, because all the voices stay together.

This is actually the biggest reason I appreciate Nazarene Ally. It would’ve been easy to leave the Church of the Nazarene. But it is a great and biblical ecclesiology to believe that it is better for us to stick together and work for dialogue than to leave. I think this would make Paul and Christ very proud, wherever they stood on the topic.

Because the path to progress is unity; not the other way around.

————

What happens if we don’t? I think today we are experiencing the fallout of two millennia of church separations. Today we have churches that are fueled by fear and hate more than love. On the other hand, we have churches that believe that all roads lead to God, and Christ is no better than anything else.

I believe these extremes exist because at various points throughout history, people refused to enter into dialogue, and split over issues rather than sticking together. They forgot that we need every voice for discernment, conservative, liberal, and everything in between.

confused yet? and this is only the last 500 years…

I truly believe that the reason we have churches characterized by hate is because they were abandoned by enlightened people who wanted to “start their own church” rather than seek out God’s vision for unity. Or perhaps it went the other way, and the hateful people separated themselves from people of love for the same reason. And the reason we have churches that are losing sight of the centrality of Christ is because groups of liberal Christians got frustrated with slower, more conservative Christians over other issues, and have forever lost the voice of Orthodoxy and tradition in their communities.

I will say it again: it is more important for us to stay together than to be right.

When we forget this, we actually negate the value of the Holy Spirit, who is always pushing us to a deeper understanding. The Holy Spirit presses us into dialogue over tough issues and is always pushing toward progress and a deeper understanding of God. To separate is to stifle that voice, because the Holy Spirit operates in community.

We should see it as relief and a reminder that it is not our job to push the church to progress. The Holy Spirit ensures that progress will be made toward a righter understanding of God, scripture, and Christian practice. Our job is to maintain unity within diversity by engaging in holy Christian disagreement, characterized by respectful dialogue and mutual submission. That means both having the patience to allow people who are “wrong” to be molded and shaped at their own pace by the Holy Spirit, and also being aware of the possibility that it might be ME that is wrong and needs to be changed.

Only then will we see reconciliation, and only then will the Church maintain its integrity. If we separate, we effectively turn our backs on brothers and sisters who now may never taste the fullness of God, and we close ourselves from discerning voices who may have something to teach us.

We are likely on the brink of dissension and divisiveness if this issue goes before the General Assembly in 2013.

Therefore, I urge us to all lay down our agendas and enter into dialogue about homosexuality. Most importantly, I urge us all to stay together and not divide over this issue, because we need each other more than we will ever know; and God has promised to be with us when we are together.

May we be people who, in Christ, find unity amidst our diversity. May we be people who sacrifice and lay down our need to be right or to “win”.

And may we be a Church marked by Truth, courageously sought after and faithfully explored by a unified Church, whose witness to the world is not a set of “correct doctrines” but a posture of love and oneness.

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11 thoughts on “Homosexuality: An Occasion for Unity

  1. As a gay man, and a former Nazarene, I had to make the hard decision whether to come out or not. Even when they said they were behind me, I still was discouraged from talking about my “struggle” in open prayer time in the sanctuary. That means taken aside by pastor and told not to talk about it. These people assumed I was not “cured” because I didn’t have enough faith, or was doubting, or taken in some sin, etc. I wish I could live on their planet – The last Christian God denied a healing to was the apostle Paul, and only because he wanted that passage in the Bible. I don’t deny that God will make some gay people straight. I never deny Him that power. He just doesn’t seem to do that that often.
    Can we honestly say “gay people are mentally ill” and think we sound loving? “Gay is like alcoholism – God doesn’t heal that very often either”. Not much better. Even if it were true, how can we say it without alienating them? I AM gay and I can’t think of a way.
    The Church I’m in right now is behind me 100% after I came out (5 days ago as of this writing). From pastor, who asked me to give my testimony in front of the Church and come out, to the leader of our music, my bible study leaders, several friends. I could only wish that every gay person could feel the love I have here.

  2. I read this post on http://nazareneally.com/, and left this comment there:

    I read this with great interest, as I am struggling with the decision to leave my church. I can’t stay where I believe harm is being done to gay people (no matter how silent or subtle the message seems to be, harm is being done). This part of this blog post concerns me:

    “We should see it as relief and a reminder that it is not our job to push the church to progress. The Holy Spirit ensures that progress will be made toward a righter understanding of God, scripture, and Christian practice.”

    While I know I can’t “push the church [or any person] to progress,” I also know that I can’t be comfortable remaining where I think harm is being done. Just as it was necessary to “push” churches to progress regarding women’s and racial minorities’ civil rights, I believe it is far past the time to push churches there for gays. To stay and wait, in my mind, makes me part of the ongoing condemnation of gays. I can’t be a part of that.

    1. Laura, thanks for your comment. I imagine “Neal” has a lot more meaningful things to say to you about your struggle, as I am rather new to the debate still. However I will defend what I said, in the midst of your struggle, because in the most genuine way possible, I think the church needs you. Without your voice crying out for change, the Church may never know what it is missing out on.

      I think the Church in some ways does need “pushing”. I think we’re using that term in different ways. When I say we can’t push the church into progress, I was meaning push as in “forcefully shoving”. I think you may be using “push” as gently nudging or moving toward. Perhaps as a person who sees this as an issue of progress, you might latch on to a metaphor of pulling. I am advocating for the kind of change that says we will draw toward the other, but if they resist, we will not drag them by the leash. Does this make sense?

      1. After all we are protestants, is it not in our nature to… protest? Some where change and progress got labeled as dirty words. So we replaced them with “tradition”. And we’ve replaced diversity with uniformity, and give those who are different or shake things up the boot. I don’t want to go, I don’t feel like I should have to go. My roots are buried here.

        There are some Nazarenes who are progressive, just very quiet about it. The opposition has the loudest voice, but that doesn’t mean they fall in line with the Gospel. If we continue to point towards the Gospel, and point towards Christ, this will get worked out because the Holy Spirit will begin to move amongst the leadership. Nazarene Ally was created so that allies have a place to show there support and so they know that they are not alone either, and because I couldn’t wait and be quiet any longer. I had to act.

        And only time will tell. I’m naive enough to believe it will happen by the end of this decade. But they won’t listen to me because I’m gay. We need Straight Allies within the Church of the Nazarene to speak for us. (Gay marriage wasn’t approved just because of the gays, we needed our allies…. So it was in Washington, so it is in the Church.)

  3. Great thoughts man. I think you capture the true intent of Romans 14 better than any explanation I have read before, especially alongside the LGBT issue.

    The call is not to believe nothing for the sake of unity, but rather to engage in an humble dialogue in which opposing views are more open to learning from the “other” than asserting their own “rightness.” I believe it is no coincidence that Jesus got most angry at were those who were convinced they were right.

    As the gray-ness of this issue is becoming increasingly clear, may we not be afraid to honestly hold our convictions. However, may we not cling to them so tightly that we are unopen to allowing God to transform us through the other.

    Keep blogging, bro!

  4. Hey Kurt,

    I definitely think you’re right. The ultimate question this is going to come down to for the Church is whether it is a sin issue or not? This is the point either side has to make, biblically and theologically.

    I would argue though that the food issue Paul is addressing was a bigger deal than an “amoral” conviction. Granted, today it is amoral, but for the Jews at the time, the issues of circumcision and food laws were absolutely moral issues. We might use terms like “salvation issues” or “Closed-hand issues” to describe how important it was to the Jewish people to not let this go.

    So part of what this conversation will entail, I’m sure, is people on one side saying it is moral, and the other that it is amoral, and that’s what we have to teaze out, and I think there are good points to be made on either side.

    P.S. It is my sole conviction to not enter and leave the state of Arizona without seeing you next time. It has been far too long. And I mean actually seeing you, not running into you in public, which we manage to do way more than can be coincidental.

  5. Hey Kev.
    Your writing is thought provoking as usual.

    I resonate with your plea to maintain unity and to approach difficult conversations with mutual respect and an openness to being wrong.

    Interesting timing on this; I’ve been noticing how firmly godly biblical figures hold to their convictions. Whether it be Moses, Job, David or Jesus, they refuse to waver on conviction when tempted to. The ones who do definitely are disciplined for it. And Paul is about as intolerant of sin as any of them.

    In Romans 14 his tone is one of tolerance: ” I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”

    But elsewhere the apostle says,
    “For know and recognize this: Every sexually immoral or impure or greedy person, who is an idolater, does not have an inheritance in the kingdom of the Messiah and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient because of these things. Therefore, do not become their partners.” (Ephesians 5:5-7)

    I believe we have to make a strong distinction between moral and amoral convictions in these conversations. According to Paul, we can’t judge each other’s stance on meat, but we have a responsibility to recognize when someone is off in the weeds regarding sexual immorality or greed.

    Paul tells the church not to cast judgement, but also encourages them to discern between sin and righteousness within the body.

    While he mandates tolerance between one set of convictions, he stands firmly in a place of intolerance regarding another set.

    Which one of those does the subject of homosexuality fall into? The answer to that question is obviously where the disagreement lies. If it is an issue God would tolerate then we need to do likewise. But if to God it is intolerable, then we must be unmovable on the subject.

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