[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]
The goodness of marriage
Before we consider what the main bases for discrimination may be, we need to spend a bit of time on marriage—in part of strengthen our sense that a rationale to deny marriage to a gay couple or to force a gay person to choose between marriage and employment at a place such as EMU needs to be strong and clear.
Christians consider marriage to be a good thing. While the Bible does not give a detailed blueprint for what constitutes a Christian marriage (in fact, it may be a bit surprising when one looks for such a blueprint to realize how little direct help the Bible gives—and a bit surprising also to realize what happens should we scrutinize the Bible looking for a model husband given that virtually all the major male characters in the Bible are either married to more than one woman or to none at all!), contemporary Christians see in the Bible general themes that contribute to our sense of Christian marriage.
Contemporary Christians would tend to see many of the following as part of their understanding of marriage: (1) it is based on the couple’s shared Christian values and commitments; (2) it is centered on promises of fidelity, commitment, monogamy; (3) it is accountable to a faith community for support and encouragement; (4) it is considered to be permanent, “until death do us part;” (5) it is characterized by companionship and intimacy (a key part of my recent thinking about marriage is the significance of the original image in Genesis 2 where Adam is joined by Eve, in part, because he was “lonely”); and (6) it is the context for the birthing and nurturing of children.
Let’s imagine a couple, two Christian women named “Ilse” and “Jennifer” (my description here is based on actual people that I know). They are legally married, life-long Christians who followed the typical path of joining their lives together: courtship, pre-marital counseling, discernment before committing themselves to one another, marriage, a shared life of fidelity and mutual respect, children, ministry.
We see in their lives the fruits of a healthy, life-giving marriage. What would be bases for EMU denying one of them employment, assuming she has the training and abilities to be seen as a strong candidate, one who would likely succeed and offer much to the EMU community and mission?
No biblical reason to oppose inclusion
The most common reason given for employment discrimination based on sexual orientation (that is to apply a standard of behavior to people in same-sex marriages that is not applied to people in opposite-sex marriages) is simply: the Bible condemns “homosexual practice” (note the singular). To say “homosexual practice” implies that there is only one issue at stake, only one “practice” in common for all sexually active “homosexual” people. What matters, in the end, is that the people involved are “homosexual,” not the particular activity they are engaged in.
But let’s think about heterosexual sexual intimacy. We would not use a singular “practice” to lump together every kind of possible heterosexual sexual activity. We would instead refer to various “heterosexual practices,” with the assumption that some “practices” are morally appropriate and some are not.
These would be a few examples of “heterosexual practices”:
(1) Sex within marriage
(2) Affection in dating and courtship
(3) Affection in friendship
(4) Intercourse before marriage
(5) Casual intercourse
(8) Coerced sex
In the traditional Christian view that is reflected in common Mennonite understandings that inform ethical expectations of church members and of employees at EMU, the line of moral acceptability for “heterosexual practices” would be drawn between #3 and #4. “Practices” above that line would be seen as morally appropriate, those below that line would be seen as morally inappropriate.
Let’s agree that “practices” below that line (#s 4–9) would also be morally inappropriate “homosexual practices.” But what about #1 and #2 (I think we can assume that #3 would be seen as morally appropriate for same-sex friends)?
Going back to Ilse and Jennifer, I suggest that we can say that their relationship is fruitful and life-giving. In recent years, this entire discussion has entered a new phase due to the rapidly widening cultural and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage in the United States. As a consequence, we now have a large population of gay and lesbian married couples whose lives together show evidence of the characteristics that I mentioned above as being the core of our understanding of Christian marriage.
This new data seems to raise the bar even higher for strong and clear evidence that would lead an institution such as EMU to determine that nonetheless, people in such relationships should be disqualified for employment there. Does the Bible clearly give us a basis for declaring all same-sex sexual intimacy as sinful in a way it does not for opposite-sex intimacy (portraying some kinds of opposite sex as okay and some as not).
What happens when we look as the few texts in the Bible that seem to speak about sex between people of the same sex? [What I offer here is only a brief summary—for more detail see my chapter, “A Theology of Welcome,” from the book Reasoning Together that I co-wrote with Mark Thiessen Nation.]
Genesis 19/Judges 19—These two stories have close parallels. In both cases, visitors to a city are accosted by a mob of men who, we are told in each case, are intent to gang-rape the visitor. Hence, the “practice” that is seen as sinful is coerced sex, #8 in my list above. This is a “practice” that is sinful for all people.
Leviticus 18, 20—These texts, in the midst of the Mosaic law, are significant in the Bible because they are the only place in the entire Bible where a direct command is reported that tells men in the faith community not to engage in sex with other men (it is notable that women are not mentioned here, a clue that this is a context-specific prohibition not a general statement about “homosexuality”). Our problem in interpreting these verses is that we are not given an explanation for why this command is given. Probably the most persuasive explanation links the problem here with adultery (presumably the men here were married and this was extra-marital sex and hence a “wasting of seed” needed for procreation) and casual sex, and perhaps also connected with Canaanite temple prostitution. Hence, the “practices” that are sinful here correspond with #s 5, 7, and 9 on the above list—”practices” sinful for all people.
Romans 1—Paul here talks about the spiral of the consequences of idolatry for “Gentiles” (i.e., in this context, Romans), a spiral that culminates in profound injustice and violence. He gives as an example out-of-control, orgiastic sexual intercourse of men with men and (perhaps) women with women. This would fit most closely with #6 on the list, behavior that is sinful for all people. As well, it is important to note Paul’s reason for mentioning this behavior. He is making a larger argument that his readers must not be judgmental and self-righteous because their own behavior is just as sinful as the outrageous sins of the Romans.
1 Corinthians 6—In this passage, Paul does something similar to what he does in Romans 1 in using the example of problematic sexual behavior by non-believers in order to make a point to his readers that is about something other than sex. Here, the problem is Corinthian Christians taking their fellow church members to secular courts to settle their disputes instead doing the conflict resolution work within their fellowship—something Paul sees as a huge problem. To help drive home his point, he emphasizes how unjust the secular courts are by giving a list of their unjust behaviors. This list includes what is most likely a reference to male prostitution (#9 on our list, a sin for everyone).
These are the only direct texts in the entire Bible. All of the “homosexual practices” mentioned are “practices” that are also sinful for heterosexuals. That is, this point invalidates the idea that because the Bible condemns “homosexual practice,” therefore any present-day expression of such “practice”—including a marriage such as Ilse and Jennifer’s—is by definition sinful. The Bible does not support that idea.
So, we simply do not have biblical grounds to deny employment to people such as Ilse and Jennifer. The theological trajectory in the Bible toward inclusion and the goodness of Christian marriage (for reasons that apply both to same-sex and opposite-sex couples) provide bases for inclusion that are not overturned by what Bible says (and doesn’t say) about “homosexual practice.” We recognize that life-giving “heterosexual practices” are good, as in the cases of #1 and#2 above. We not have a basis to say otherwise for similar “homosexual practices.”
The EMU listening process
Of course, even if I am totally correct in my theological analysis here (hardly likely!), articulating such will scarcely resolve EMU’s dilemma. My sense is that leadership did not quite anticipate the intensity of the responses this process would elicit nor the seeming intractability of the differences that are being revealed (or reiterated). It’s hard to see a way through the process that won’t result in quite a few negative repercussions.
I do sense that leadership as a whole believes that the right thing to do is to institute a policy of not discriminating against those who are in, or open to being in, same-sex marriages. To go this direction, though, will almost certainly lead to charges that this listening process was a set-up, that it was not truly an open process. And who knows whether significant financial repercussions would follow due to donor alienation and also whether the school would lose significant numbers of faculty, staff, and even students. On the other hand, after having raised expectations that change quite likely would happen, were the decision to continue to discriminate be made, surely quite a bit of alienation would result as well.
Perhaps, if I could imagine just one point that I make here having influence on the process, it would be the reminder that the God of the Bible operates throughout the story with a preferential option for the vulnerable. It would be nice to see a Christian institution embrace that notion, even if doing so might be costly.