Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2012
Over the past fifteen years or so, I have given numerous talks and papers in various settings explaining why I believe that Christian churches should take a welcoming or inclusive stance in relation to homosexuality. These talks have evolved over time. The most recent presentation came when I was a guest speaker in a seminary sexual ethics class.
Because it does not seem that this discussion is going to end any time soon (witness the recent juxtaposition of North Carolina’s vote against gay marriage and President Obama’s statement of support for gay marriage), I find it necessary to keep thinking about how to articulate my views. Here, I will offer an expansion of the remarks I made in my seminary class presentation.
Point one: Marriage is a good thing
My first starting point is the belief that marriage is a good thing. Christians should work in their communities to offer support for married people—to help couples in their struggles, to celebrate the beauty of these relationships, to encourage people entering into healthy and life-enhancing covenant relationships. In our contemporary American society, marriage is a difficult undertaking; the odds are tragically high that couples will face major crises and have a strong likelihood of moving into divorce territory. Couples need the resources offered by supportive faith communities.
Now, I recognize that this is all quite complicated. Some marriages are not life-enhancing. People who do go through divorces also need the support of faith communities. And, absolutely, people who are single need support as well. Singleness should not be seen as an inferior state, and churches often have a lot of work to do to become redemptive places for single people. Nonetheless, we do recognize the potential for beauty and life in the context of marriage and believe that the churches should bless and encourage people who choose marriage.
The issue then becomes whether the churches have moral bases for withholding such blessing and support for people in same-sex covenanted partnerships (and now, in many places around the world, actual marriage).
Point two: The call to hospitality
The second point has to do with the general disposition of communities of faith. Churches have many different ideals and responsibilities. At the heart of their vocation, if they are to be true to the biblical model (both the model in the Old Testament based on Torah and the model in the New Testament based on the life and teaching of Jesus), is a call to be hospitable. The basic vocation of biblically-based communities of faith found expression at the very beginning when Abraham and Sarah were told that they would parent a “great nation” that would “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3 and elsewhere).
Two stories that have ironically been misused to justify inhospitality toward homosexual people underscore the importance of hospitality. In Genesis 18–19 we read of Abraham modeling hospitality both in his welcome of two emissaries from God and in his pleading on behalf of the wayward cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In contrast, men in those two cities model some of the worst cases of inhospitality as they seek to gang rape these same two emissaries, thereby bringing terrible judgment upon themselves. The main lesson of this account is to underscore the centrality of hospitality in the biblical mindset, and to lift Abraham up as our model.
Echoing many of the elements of the Genesis 18–19 story, in Judges 19 we read again of terrible inhospitality characterized by an attempt to gang rape a vulnerable visitor. In this case, the visitor pushes his wife out the door and she is raped and killed. The terrible element of this story in its biblical context is that this happens in Israel, the cold-hearted visitor is a Levite priest, and the outcome of these awful events is a devastating civil war. This all illustrates the corruption at the heart of the community of faith—finding its most notable expression in a blatant violation of the laws of hospitality.
The call to hospitality in Torah has at its heart a special concern for vulnerable people in the community. Jesus captured something of the spirit of Torah hospitality when he challenged his listeners—everyone tends to be generous to people who can be generous back, but those who fulfill the heart of the Law will be generous to those who can’t be generous back. In Leviticus 19, the heart of what is often called “the Holiness Code” that outlines a distinctively Torah-based way of life that contrasts with surrounding cultures, the call to holy living finds its core expression in care for widows, orphans, and immigrants—that is, vulnerable people, people all too often exploited and marginalized in “the world.”
The failure to practice such generosity in Israel provides the focus of a great deal of prophetic critique throughout the story that follows. This concern is then made central in the message of Jesus. He made welcome to vulnerable people a central element of his attempt to recover the heart of Torah.
The importance of hospitality toward vulnerable people pushes present day Christian communities to be disposed toward welcoming gay people. When this is combined with placing positive value on marriage, we are pretty far along toward an affirmation of gay marriage in Christian churches.
However, many Christians would still argue against such an affirmation. These arguments seem to center on three main points: (1) There is something inherently harmful about same-sex marriage for those in such relationships. (2) To affirm same-sex marriage undermines the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. (3) The Bible gives us clear teaching about the sinfulness of all types of homosexual sexual intimacy.
A test case
To test these points, let’s imagine an actual relationship. This relationship is based on people I actually know. Some of the specific details are fictional, but are surely possible, even probable, in specific cases.
Two young women, “Ilse” and “Jennifer,” become friends as students in a Christian college. In time, each realizes that they have strongly romantic feelings toward the other. They work together and decide that they want to commit themselves to live as a couple. They seek out a pastor for pre-marriage counseling and, in time, formalize their commitment in a union ceremony and begin life as a married couple. Throughout this period they are active in a faith community that affirms their relationship and blesses their union.
After several years of married life, Ilse and Jennifer decide that they would like to expand their family. Through artificial insemination, one of them becomes pregnant. They welcome their baby into their family, and after awhile add a second child. They continue in their church involvement and are widely recognized as mature and spiritually fruitful Christians.
So, in every obvious way, this family parallels Christianity’s ideal for a heterosexual married couple and nuclear family. There are no differences in the details of their courtship and marriage except for the sex of the partners.
How, then, does Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship measure up in relation to the concerns typically raised by Christians who would argue that their relationship should not be blessed by their church—and, in fact, may even argue that they should not be allowed to be full participants in the church as long as they are in their relationship and, presumably, sexually active?