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!
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.
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.