Ted Grimsrud—April 28, 2013
It appears that at this moment in the United States, our society may be nearing an acceptance of gay marriage. At least this is what the pundits are saying. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s impending decisions on the two cases related to gay marriage that they are considering, many people are saying that change is happening, accelerating, and will continue to do so. This seems to be an accurate perception; at least I hope it is.
However, at the same time, everyone also seems to agree that Christians are being left behind in this time of change. That is, it is perceived, Christians remain resolutely anti-gay marriage. At least evangelical Christians and Catholics—who seem any more to be the only Christians in mind when the term “Christian” is used in public conversations.
Still, there surely is a lot of ferment in Christian circles as well. It could be that a kind of anti-gay circling the wagons effort by many visible leaders and institutions is masking a potential sea change within even evangelical Christianity. Surveys do seem to indicate quite a bit more acceptance of gay marriage among younger evangelicals.
I take it that one response to these interesting events for a Christian theologian who supports gay marriage and also takes many cues from the Bible is to continue to work at articulating a biblically-oriented theology of welcome. One hope with such work is that as the discussion spreads to more of the evangelical world, such a theology might be found useful. I also believe that such a theology might give pause to those on the pro-gay side who tend to believe that such a disposition requires a distancing of oneself from Christianity.
I was recently given the opportunity to present a lecture that allowed me to pull together some of my thoughts on this topic. First Mennonite Church in Canton, Ohio, invited me to present on a Sunday afternoon as part of a series of sessions they have been having. I followed another theology professor for a local Christian college who a few weeks earlier spoke for the restrictive side.
Over the next few weeks, I will post a reconstruction of the lecture in three parts that correspond to the three sections of the talk. Part one focuses on introductory reflections and the theme of hospitality. Part two focuses on marriage. And part three focuses on interpreting the biblical passages that typically are used to lead to negative conclusions regarding gay marriage. It was a good experience for me and I think for the congregation. Though I am sure my talk seemed to go on and on for the listeners, I was only able to sketch the barest outline of a perspective. I’ll post that sketch here and hope to continue as time permits to expand it and maybe end up with a book.
As I understand it, I have been invited to be with you today in order to speak from a biblically grounded perspective. I was asked make a case that supports Christian churches taking what I call an “inclusive” rather than “restrictive” approach to Christians who are in—or are open to being in—committed intimate relationships with partners of the same sex (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “gay”).
In a nutshell, one way I would characterize my views is to say that I support non-discrimination—gay Christians and straight Christians should seek to adhere to the same set of expectations concerning intimate relationships. I see having a deep-seated affectional attraction toward a person of one’s same sex is morally analogous to being left-handed (that is, it is morally neutral, simply a non-chosen aspect of who one is that places one in a fairly small minority in relation to what is “normal” for the large majority of people).
We may think of several different “moral analogies” that we could use in relation to how we think of gay marriage that reflect an ascending level of affirmation.
(1) The least accepting view would be that gay marriage is simply a choice to sin taken by people who could easily choose otherwise. The analogy could be that gay marriage and even the sexual attraction toward someone of one’s same sex is like adultery or bestiality. It’s simply wrong and the person sinning is fully culpable even for wanting to sin. It is completely reasonable to expect a person who might think about sinning in this way to choose instead to be in an intimate relationship with someone of the opposite sex.
(2) A more moderate view would be that gay marriage is a wrong choice even as it may well reflect an understandable desire to be involved in an intimate relationship that would not be realistically possible with a person of the opposite sex because one’s deep-seated affectional orientation (which is not necessarily a choice) toward people of one’s same sex. The analogy could be that same-sex affectional orientation and gay marriage are like alcoholism. We tend to see the proclivity toward alcoholism to be something that is innate for some people and as such not morally wrong. But the choice to act on that proclivity is sinful. Just as one with a proclivity toward alcoholism should not act on that proclivity and drink, so one who is attracted to people of the same sex should not act on that and become sexually involved.
(3) A more accepting view would be that the same-sex attraction is problematic, not the ideal, but not inherently morally wrong. Given that it is deep-seated and, for some, unchangeable, church and society should accept the validity of gay marriage because marriage is a good thing that should not be withheld from people who are not suited for “normal” opposite-sex partnerships. The analogy could be that same-sex affectional orientation and gay marriage are like birth defects. Sometimes they can not be fixed and so the task is to work at living as full a life as possible in face of the defects. So, if not an ideal state, being “afflicted” with same-sex affectional orientation need not disqualify one from finding a marriage partner and living a pretty normal life.
(4) The most accepting view would see same-sex attraction as completely morally neutral, just as opposite-sex attraction is and as is something in between. The analogy could be that same-affectional orientation and gay marriage are like being left-handed. Most people are strictly right-handed, a few are strictly left-handed, and some others are a mixture. Handedness is simply part of who we are. We don’t understand it very well, but we have learned that it is unchangeable for people at the farthest ends of the “handedness” spectrum.
In my view, left-handedness is the best analogy. If we think of affectional orientation as completely morally neutral, we will then approach sexual ethics as being the same for heterosexual people, homosexual people, and bi-sexual people. The issues will be how to encourage intimate relationships that are life-giving and to challenge behavior that is not life-giving—with the same expectations for mutuality, fidelity, and respect for all people in intimate relationships.
I believe that gay Christians are just as capable of faithful membership in congregations, of the exercise of fruitful leadership in Christian communities, and of the embodiment of life-enhancing marriage/covenant partnership that are life-long as are straight Christians.
In setting out my thoughts, I plan to focus on three themes: (1) the general biblical call for God’s people to practice hospitality both toward those outside the community and for those within the community who are vulnerable and easily pushed to the margins; (2) the Christian tradition’s view of marriage; and (3) biblical teaching on sexual ethics in relation to same-sex sexual intimacy. I will devote separate posts to each theme.
In terms of their mission, Christian churches should take as their starting point a general stance of welcome or invitation or hospitality. The church exists for the sake of making a home for people from all nations who are seeking God.
This assumption of welcome is a core theme throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament is it mentioned at key points in the story (e.g., the calling of Abraham and Sarah and the promise their descendants will bless all the families of the earth [Genesis 12:1-3]; the calling of the newly formed Hebrew people after the exodus to be a “priestly kingdom” [Exodus 19:6]; and the vision that Israel would form a community that would attract people from all nations to learn the ways of peace and beat their swords into plowshares[Isaiah 2:2-4]) the people are called to be a welcoming community as central to their reason for existing as a people.
Central to the vision for the community of God’s people that is articulated in the law codes (“Torah”) was a sense that the call to hospitality extended to people within the community who were vulnerable and in need of special care (widows and orphans) along with hospitality toward people from the outside who wanted to be part of the community (so-called “strangers” or “aliens”)—see, for example, Leviticus 19.
Jesus re-emphasized this call to welcome, to bless all the families of the earth and to pay special attention to care for vulnerable people in the community, including people labeled as “sinners.” Jesus’ welcome to sinners included welcoming both people who had violated Torah (for example, the woman caught in adultery and the woman “of the city” who washed his feet) and people who were inappropriately labeled “unclean” (such as poor people, lepers, or menstruating women).
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he makes a famous statement that re-emphasized the emphasis on hospitality—he asserted that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, or free person or slave (Galatians 3:28). His point was to insist on the full humanity of each person, including the vulnerable or excluded Gentile, female, or slave. The only category that ultimately matters to Paul (and he is saying, to Jesus and God) is human.
In the 20th century, one of the most striking expressions of this affirmation of the full humanity of each person came in the terrible caldron of World War II in Western Europe. The French village of LeChambon became what many people consider to be about the safest place be a Jew in all the areas dominated by the Nazis and their allies. Over 5,000 Jewish refugees were hidden or smuggled to safety in Switzerland by the people of LeChambon. The village’s Reformed pastor, André Trocmé, gave voice to the spirit that animated this risky work of hospitality. He was asked by government officials numerous times if the village were sheltering Jews. “We don’t know Jews,” Trocmé defiantly asserted, “we know only human beings.”
The biblical text that may have inspired Trocmé and his colleagues more than any other was the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan, the man who offered costly hospitality to help the vulnerable person who was in need. With this story of radical hospitality, Jesus showed the inextricable link between such hospitality and salvation itself, between such hospitality and what it means to love God. He thereby established the expected stance of his people—to expect to care for any one who is vulnerable and in need, to shape the practices of the faith community around such care.
Yet, at the same time, the Bible does place a high priority on the need for the faith community to sustain a clear identity as God’s people—so we should resist forces within the community that compromise that identity. Not everything goes, but we limit hospitality only in order to serve the vocation to welcome. We are not called to an identity that places the highest virtue on purity or difference for their own sake. We are called to an identity that recognizes that purity and difference are to serve welcome and hospitality.
For example, churches should be places where people feel safe, where harm does not happen—no violence, no harsh criticism, no sexual predation, no economic exploitation. Churches’ identity should center on peaceful conflict resolution, respectful listening, attentiveness to sexual boundaries, and material generosity—all attitudes and behaviors that reflect the love God has shown those of us in the faith community and that God wants us to show to others.
In relation to same-sex intimacy, same-sex marriage, and homosexuality in general, the fundamental call to hospitality does not fully resolve the issues. However, that to see the call to hospitality as the starting point requires of congregations clear evidence of threats to their very identity as a basis to be restrictive and withhold welcome. It seems possible in principle that such a threat could be present in relation to these sexuality issues—but our challenge as people shaped by the Bible’s messages should be to make sure that a quite strong inclination toward welcome be overcome only should we have strong and clear evidence that such restrictiveness serves our core mission of hospitality.
To help us think more concretely about the possibilities of limiting welcome, let’s consider two actual people, “Ilse” and “Jennifer,” who are married to each other. They are life-long Anabaptist Christians who followed the same path the churches expect for heterosexual couples—courtship, counseling, discernment, marriage, commitment to fidelity, open to the possibility of children, continued involvement in a local congregation, offering their gifts to the churches’ ministries, et al.
The churches’ call is toward welcome—in order to limit that welcome, we need to have strong and clear reasons to do so.