God and [Homo] Sexuality: A 4th Way
One of the biggest, if not the biggest, society-wide discussion revolving around the Christian church in the last decade or two has been the issue of culture and sexuality, and it shows no signs of going away. Anyone who has a pulse and a TV antenna knows this. Over the years, a debate that was mainly split into two camps has lately become, from my point of view, three main ways we engage and think of the intersection of sexuality and faith, particularly when it comes to homosexuality and transgenderism. I applaud and value these discussions. 20–30 years ago, it would have been almost unheard of to even talk about sex at all in church. I’m grateful that now we’re able to talk about topics like sexuality, marriage, and divorce much more openly in church, though we still have a long way to go.
One of the most troublesome subjects is still the topic of homosexuality, and to a lesser but growing degree, transgenderism. The problem is not so much that we don’t know how to talk about it, but rather that the subject is so politically charged that it’s impossible to have any kind of a rational discussion about it without severe backlash, from folks on either side of the debate.
In my last post, I discussed the hope for the people of God that we would not land on a “spectrum” of conservative or liberal, but that we would strive always to think like Jesus, to be “gospel-centric” in our approach to everything. The goal should never be simply to identify the truth as a balanced “middle” between two extremes (this is a classical logical fallacy), but rather to think biblically (no matter the political cost), and, more to the point, to treat people how Jesus treated people.
He is, after all, our supreme example, and the ultimate lens through which we must view all of Scripture. And when we read the gospels, we see that Jesus offended everyone, from the liberals to the conservatives and even the pagans and religious outsiders of the day.
I find it hard to believe that it would be any different for his followers.
To truly find the Jesus response to a given question, it almost certainly won’t be a “happy medium” that makes everyone happy; the gospel perspective on most any topic is likely to make everyone mad. It’s not the easy way; but it is the Jesus way. So here we go… let’s try to find the Jesus way.
The “camps” on the sexuality issue, as far as I can tell, loosely fall into one of the following three categories:
1) Open and affirming: the Bible has either been misinterpreted for centuries with its prohibitions against homosexuality, or else the biblical writers were misguided, children of their own age, ignorant to modern arguments and understandings that we post-Enlightenment, post-Freud, postmoderns are privy to, and therefore more enlightened and discerning than they.
2) Judgemental and condemning: I don’t say this tongue-in-cheek. There are still a whole lot of “Christian” congregations that are so anti-gay that any claim to “love the sinner, hate the sin” is entirely laughable. Homosexuals would barely be welcome in the door, much less allowed or encouraged to participate in any meaningful way in worship. These are the stereotypical “turn or burn,” “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” sort of places.
3) Traditional and welcoming: this is as good a description as any, I think. These churches tend to (try to) be very gracious and welcoming toward the LGBTQ+ community though they often struggle), but still take the traditional view that all alternate sexual lifestyles outside of monagampus matrimony are sinful, and self-identified LGBTQ+ folks usually still feel very much on the outside, because whenever the subject comes up (which is usually quite often), they feel very exposed and marginalized.
I have a ton of respect for churches in group #3. They are unwilling to throw Scripture under the bus in an effort to be politically correct, but they also understand that the cultural anathema of homosexuality up until recently has been very misplaced and harmful. At churches like these, you’ll hear things like, “homosexuality is no different than any other sin.” Though LGBTQ+ folks bristle when they hear this kind of rhetoric, remember that is a huge step forward from almost all Christian churches until just a couple decades ago, when almost all churches rode with the tide of the times, which was no less than a complete cultural condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural, disgusting, and damnable, with little to no room for any grace or understanding whatsoever.
I’d like to propose a fourth way — again, because I just like to make everyone mad. (Ha!) I think there is a way to hold fast to the authority of Scripture, while still creating church cultures in which all kinds of people feel welcome and invited into the praxis of worship. How? Let’s start by looking at Jesus.
In John chapter 4, the great apostle relates the story of Jesus stopping at a Samaritan well, where he starts a conversation with a, shall we say… very interesting woman who turns out to be a skeptical, bitter, heretical, armchair-theologian of a sex addict. It’s quite an amusing conversation that they have, as you can imagine. You should read it sometime. Long story short, Jesus totally reads her mail, and she finds herself drawn into what we would probably call her conversion experience. Here’s the funny thing about her “conversion,” though (and we never hear about her again in Scripture):
First, she’s never baptized, and never makes a even a halfway decent confession of faith.
Second, she never “repents of her sins” in any traditional sense of repenting.
We don’t know what she did after she met Jesus, what lifestyle changes she may or may not have made. She probably did. But we don’t know.
John doesn’t tell us. Purposely?
Stay with me, Baptists. I know you’re freaking out a little right now. All we really know is that she is completely fascinated by Jesus, and that fascination results in her running off and telling her friends about him, the results of which were that “many Samaritans from the village believed in Jesus.” And that’s where John leaves the story.
Simple question: what does that make this woman?
Answer: an evangelist, at the very least! Some would even argue that she was one of the very first “apostles” (the Greek word for “sent ones”)!
This woman wasn’t even a Jew — which means the very basics of her theology was dramatically lacking. Her tribe descended from the children of the former citizens of the exiled northern Kingdom of Israel that set up their own hybrid religion that mashed Judaism together with a bunch of other weird stuff. This would be the modern-day equivalent of Jesus showing up in a little town on the northern Arizona border and meeting a 5th-generation fundamentalist Primitive Mormon chick (the weird ones that have lots of wives) whose church and family have excommunicated her because she’s been divorced multiple times due to multiple affairs, and still seems to have no concept of sexual ethics, which is the reason she doesn’t have any friends (she’s slept with most of their husbands), and avoids dirty looks by visiting the grocery store at obscure hours when all the other sister wives are busy with their own drama. This woman is not only a heretic, she’s a bad heretic! She’s an outcast amongst her own people, and yet still has this peculiar lingering spiritual hunger that keeps her studying enough theology in her off hours to throw down with a visiting rabbi.
Can you see where this is going? Jesus invites this woman into what he’s doing. He doesn’t wait for her to fix herself, and she has a lot to fix. And she’s amazing at it! He lets her start this incredible journey of faith before most of us would even let her ask about getting baptized!
We, too, have more than one option when it comes to engaging people in church that think or believe differently than we do. We don’t have to sideline them, keeping them at arm’s length until they “repent” or reach our standard of being “ready.” I’m not making light of the idea of repentance… all of us need to repent (change our minds) and submit to the lordship of Jesus in every sphere of our lives. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that John tells this story of the unnamed heretic woman immediately after he tells the story of Nicodemus, a well-educated religious man who comes for a private counseling session with Jesus under cover of night because he’s afraid to be publicly associated with Jesus. Nicodemus’ story ends very open-ended, but we definitely don’t see him running back to his Pharisee friends inviting them to come and meet the Messiah.
In contrast to how Jesus interacts with these two very different characters, think about how we tend to treat people in most churches when they show up at our front doors. The religious fellow, the one who’s been around church his whole life, might be able to skate into church membership, even serve as a deacon, and not have any kind of genuine conversion experience in his life, or evidence of growth in faith. If he asked, we would baptize him quickly, upon a simple confession of faith, probably without quizzing him a whole lot on his theology and/or lifestyle. You probably know folks just like this at your church. We might even know that the guy has an alcohol problem, or that he’s got a temper, and we would likely take the tack (rightly so, I might add) that as he grows in faith, God will work on these issues in his life and through the power of the Holy Spirit make him more like Jesus.
Conversely, that girl or guy that comes in that has a more clearly… unorthodox… lifestyle, shall we say, and wants to be baptized… hey, you do the math. I don’t know how your church handles the particulars, but I’d be willing to bet we’d handle that person differently than Mr. Nicodemus. Now, maybe your church doesn’t do that. Maybe you’re one of those super legit churches that puts everyone through the same rigorous catechism before baptizing them. Fine. My argument is actually that the process with Mr. Nicodemus I described above is actually the better, more biblical, way to do things, and honors the presence of the Holy Spirit in us more than the other option.
I know a whole lot of my readers are getting off of the wagon right about now, and what I’m saying sounds like heresy, but stay with me for a minute. I don’t know about you, but my main issue with the “open and affirming” churches is not that they welcome gays and lesbians into their churches, or that they are trying to model the gracious and loving heart that Jesus showed to everyone he came in contact with. I applaud that! What I take issue with is the shameless undermining of Scripture. To say that the apostle Paul was at best ignorant and at worst a chauvinistic bigot because of his assessment of homosexuality… that profoundly undermines the doctrine of Scripture… over what? A handful of verses that seem to run countercultural to the reigning ethic of gender and sexuality in our society? Is that really the road we want to go down? On the other hand, my main issue with more traditional churches is not that they want to preserve the authority and inspiration of Scripture, (I also applaud that!) but rather that they don’t in fact treat the LGBTQ+ community the way Jesus treated people.
So… in the spirit of making enemies out of all the camps, and never being invited to speak at any conferences, here’s what I submit:
What if we let people be on their own faith journeys?
What if we really, genuinely, believed in the unparalleled power of the Holy Spirit to be our guide as we seek to navigate the waters of each individual’s journey through faith, skepticism, hurt, brokenness, and even sexuality? What if we let our sermons hit home in practical places where it really matters, instead of bringing up homosexuality every other weekend and making LGBTQ+ members and visitors of our community super uncomfortable? What if we trusted the Holy Spirit to make people more like Jesus in his time, whether or not that fits our timeline? What if we invited anyone, regardless of religion (or lack thereof), creed, or sexuality, to be unconditionally welcomed into our faith communities, to work out their own faith in a safe space with no stopwatch on them? What if we said you don’t have to be straight — or even a professing Christian — to wear a lanyard around here and be a part of the team? If you are fascinated by Jesus and think he’s worth coming back for week after week to get to know better… holy cow, that’s what I get fired up by! Why would we ever make it more difficult for someone to see and be captured by Jesus than it has to be?
We also don’t have to make people feel excluded, sidelined, or unwelcome to hold the words of the Apostle Paul in high regard. We can love people- all people- boldly, as Jesus did, and watch the mighty (and highly capable) Spirit of God work his magic and make us all more like Jesus in the process. Because that’s what Jesus did. Let’s be like Jesus.