Ted Grimsrud—April 21, 2012
In two of my classes during this just-ending semester (both classes mainly made up of first-year college students—Introduction to Theology and Ethics in the Way of Jesus), we had lengthy and helpful discussions about homosexuality. Preceding these discussions, in both classes we looked closely at Jesus as our source for theology and ethics. So, as would be expected, a good part of our discussion about homosexuality focused on how Jesus’ message might relate. What follows are some reflections, first put down on paper a number of years ago, in response to the “what about Jesus?” question.
Jesus as our model
Over the years, a popular Christian saying has been, “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)?” This question, seemingly, serves as a personal reminder to keep the Savior in mind as one goes through life. In the end, a cynic could suggest, the Jesus of this slogan bears a strong resemblance to the young George Washington, who said, “Father, I cannot tell a lie”; he is a person with a strong focus on personal ethics.
“WWJD” does not seem to have much direct relevance to social ethics. What would Jesus do in the face of current church and societal struggles regarding homosexuality? Are we simply left with our individual preferences that we speculatively project onto a symbolic icon?
On one level, we are pretty much in the dark. We cannot speak with authority about how Jesus would respond to our debates because he said nothing about them. However, as followers of Jesus, we cannot simply ignore these questions. As I reflect on the relevance of Jesus for our social morality, I want to rephrase our slogan. Rather than speculate on “what would Jesus do?” I want to focus on something more concrete: what did Jesus do? I am hoping not so much to find a definitive resolution for today’s issues, as to find more clarity about the social ramifications of Jesus’ way—ramifications that do provide guidance for communities of Jesus-followers today.
Even though Christian creedal theology gives short shrift to what Jesus did during his life (e.g., the ancient Apostles’ Creed skips from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “crucified under Pontius Pilate” in its christological confession), historian Jaroslav Pelikan is surely accurate when he writes in Jesus Through the Centuries, “As respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. . . . There is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, his person and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a ‘beauty ever ancient, ever new’ ” (pp. 232-3).
Human beings throughout the world and across religions sense that Jesus’ life holds something special—a model of human life as God intends for it to be lived. Jesus’ life and teaching manifest a profound awareness of truth, holiness, and what matters most. Tragically, Christianity, the religion that explicitly professes its allegiance to Jesus, has not always practiced faithful stewardship of the gifts of awareness that Jesus gave the world.
In his book The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder outlines several reasons for Christianity’s failure. He mentions, among others: (1) Many Christians believe that “the nature of Jesus’ message was ahistorical by definition. He dealt with spiritual and not social matters, with the existential and not the concrete. . . . Whatever he said and did of a social and ethical character must be understood not for its own sake but as the symbolic or mythical clothing of his spiritual message.” (2) That “Jesus came, after all, to give his life for the sins of humankind” is the conviction of many Christians. The crucial aspects of his time on earth were his sacrificial death and resurrection-his life before that is basically irrelevant (pp. 5-8). In what follows in his book, Yoder attempts to construct a careful, systematic refutation of these reasons for minimizing the relevance of Jesus’ life for social ethics. He persuasively argues that Jesus’ life is of “direct significance for social ethics” and is “normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic.”
I believe it is fully appropriate for us to turn to Jesus and his way of life for guidance on an issue such as the inclusion in or restriction from full fellowship in the churches of homosexuals. Of course, as is well-known, Jesus did not directly address such issues. This silence does not mean, however, that we should turn elsewhere for our ethical guidance. Jesus serves as our model, not our specific blueprint for contemporary issues.
In other words, Jesus’ relevance for any aspect of our ethics does not lie so much in the arena of explicit directive; rather, Jesus’ relevance most directly follows from his general way of life. How might Jesus’ way of life provide guidance for today’s church in the area of inclusion versus restriction of homosexuals?
Jesus loved particular people
Almost everyone affirms that Jesus taught and practiced love. Certainly, Jesus’ portrayal of love stands at the center of his relevance. However, in order to appropriate what he teaches us about love, we need to look at what Jesus actually did. We might discover that Jesus’ love is more distinctive than we have thought.
In his famous novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky gives a powerful portrayal of the distinctiveness of Jesus’ way of loving. In an extended parable of the “Grand Inquisitor” in the novel, Dostoyevsky tells of Jesus’ appearance in Spain in the late Middle Ages at the height of the Great Inquisition, when the church was cracking down on “heretical” Christians and Jews, putting hundreds of the unorthodox to death.
Jesus circulates among the poor, fearful, suffering masses, offering compassion, healing, unconditional mercy, and acceptance. He does not say much, but people recognize him, and soon crowds follow him and marvel at his kindness. The Cardinal, who is the Grand Inquisitor, observes Jesus and immediately has him arrested and taken away.
The Grand Inquisitor then challenges Jesus, accusing him of not having genuinely loved humankind. The Inquisitor bases his accusation on Jesus’ resisting the three temptations of the devil in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. According to the Inquisitor, if Jesus had genuinely loved humankind, he would have taken that opportunity to make the largest possible number of people happy. He would have turned the stones into bread to feed the hungry. He would have come down from the cross in order to captivate humankind’s conscience. He would have organized humankind into a single, harmonious ant colony in order to relieve our loneliness.
The Grand Inquisitor, of course, is not truly concerned with humankind’s well-being. In actuality, he harbors a secret contempt for human nature and human possibilities. He loves humankind in general because he hates his concrete neighbor—the actual individuals he has to deal with face-to-face.
In Dostoyevsky’s parable, Jesus does not defend himself against the Inquisitor’s accusations. The silence of Jesus indicates that he represents something quite different from love for humankind in general. Jesus does not argue with the Inquisitor over what is best for all humankind. He simply acts in love in concrete ways toward actual people. He displays love for the particular neighbor.
Much of The Brothers Karamazov is a meditation on this theme of love for particular people-and how difficult such love is. One of the main characters, Ivan Karamazov, confesses, “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one cannot love, though one might love those at a distance.” A good illustration of this fact, perhaps, is the way we can so generously give money, time, and energy to support relief and development and evangelism throughout the world and yet find it so difficult to respond lovingly to the actual gay and lesbian neighbors among us.
As Dostoyevsky’s parable illustrates, one of the more radical and profound characteristics of Jesus was his openness. Jesus consistently showed deep-seated and at times costly kindness and respect to particular men, women, and children. Jesus was not so much a “general humanitarian.” He did not have big plans for large-scale projects. He was not so concerned with winning the whole world. Mostly, Jesus cared for specific people. He cared for Matthew the tax-collector. He cared for the woman at the well. Jesus modeled for us the practice of simply accepting other specific people. He treated individuals with respect. He listened to others, was interested in them, shared food with them.
The “politics of compassion”
Jesus’ love for particular people, however, most certainly had social consequences. He loved particular people in all their real-life, social aspects as a political strategy. We could call Jesus’ approach to life and his social ethics a “politics of compassion” in contrast to a “politics of holiness.” “Politics,” used in this sense, may be defined as the structuring of social relationships.
The politics of holiness had emerged in Judaism in the generations following the destruction of the ancient Jewish state in the sixth-century BCE and the exile of many Jews in Babylon. Following their return to Palestine, Jewish religious leaders sought to lead the people in a much more rigorous adherence to the holiness code in hopes of sustaining their community in a hostile world.
At the core of holiness in this context lay the principle of separation. To be holy meant to be separate from everything that would defile holiness. Polarities emerged to mark holiness: clean and unclean, purity and defilement, sacred and profane, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner.
Over time, the politics of holiness engendered the development of a large group of “sinners” and “outcasts.” These were people who for various reasons were unwilling—or more often, unable—strictly to adhere to the holiness code. Included among the “unclean” were shepherds, tax collectors, impoverished landless people, menstruating women—and, of course, all Samaritans and Gentiles.
Jesus challenged this politics of holiness with his politics of compassion. Jesus and his followers formed a social organization that stood in sharp contrast to the relatively rigid social boundaries of their culture. They rejected boundaries between righteous and outcast, men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.Jesus’ politics of compassion was founded on a profound understanding of God’s mercy. God, as represented in Jesus’ teaching (e.g., the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32), does not discriminate but loves all people. Jesus’ God is our model-“be merciful, as God is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Jesus proposed a social life ordered around openness and inclusion rather than purity and exclusion.
(1) Jesus ate with outcasts. He practiced “table fellowship” with all kinds of different people—including those considered unclean (e.g., tax collectors, women, Gentiles, poor people). In so doing, Jesus showed that God’s kingdom is an inclusive community. Table fellowship carried tremendous symbolic weight in Jesus’ day, as it still does in ours. In contrast to the politics of holiness, which required eating only with those who are “clean,” Jesus welcomed “unclean outsiders” to his table.
(2) Jesus associated closely with women. Jesus encouraged women to be part of his movement (a powerful example is the story of the woman at the well in John 4). In doing so, he directly contradicted conventional wisdom’s relegation of women to a subordinate position.
(3) Jesus brought good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). He specifically stated that his message was intended to provide a blessing to “you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). He challenged rich people to change-the fruit of conversion to Jesus’ way included redistribution of unjustly-gained wealth (cf. the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19).
(4) Jesus spoke of peace—not as a vague, general ideal but as concrete love for neighbors (who included even long-entrenched adversaries such as Samaritans), even for enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).
(5) Jesus offered a message of hope to all kinds of people. Since true spirituality stems from the heart, anyone who wants to is capable of living a faithful, God-oriented life. That is, even those who had been labeled unclean and placed beyond the pale by official religious institutions could know God and practice authentic discipleship in following God’s will for their lives.
(6) Jesus proclaimed the presence of a new social and spiritual community, the “realm (or kingdom) of God.” Participation in this community was open to all who chose to be part of it; all they had to do was “repent” (turn toward God) and “believe the good news” (trust that God’s mercy is for them). This was Jesus’ fundamental message (Mark 1:15). In the ministry that embodied his proclamation, Jesus made unmistakably clear the openness of his community.
One clear expression of this openness may be found in Matthew’s gospel. A repeated verse in both 4:23 and 9:35 sets off a discrete section: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” This section of Matthew shows that the “good news of the kingdom” includes both Jesus’ teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, 5:1-7:29) and his healing.
A partial list of the recipients of healing shows the incredible openness of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed: demoniacs, epileptics, a leper, a centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two Gentile demoniacs, tax collectors, sinners, and the daughter of a synagogue leader. Most of these were outsiders-people considered “unclean” or “contaminants” by the established religion. Jesus offered them mercy just as they were. He was not simply a knee-jerk radical, however. He was willing to bring healing to anyone who turned to him, including even a leader of a synagogue. Jesus’ politics of compassion included all who responded.
The Christian church in the past two thousand years has continued to be plagued by the politics of holiness. For the sake of the “distinctiveness” and “security” of the church, sharp lines of exclusion have often been drawn. Our recent controversies over sexuality, in part at least, reflect those types of concern. Jesus’ model clearly challenges us to place compassion over holiness as the core ordering principle for our social lives.
The case of table fellowship
Of these aspects of Jesus’ politics of compassion, the practice of open table fellowship perhaps most powerfully speaks across times and cultures. The metaphor of table fellowship resonates deeply in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, as it does in the story of Jesus. Sharing table fellowship has always been a powerful, concrete expression of fellowship, inclusion, and communal connection. Because of its deep symbolic significance, Jesus’ practice of table fellowship reflects perhaps most profoundly his philosophy of life.
The important role that table fellowship served in all the cultures of Jesus’ world cannot be overestimated. Meals were not simply about people meeting their physical needs. The sharing of meals had become a ceremony symbolizing friendship and close social connections. Joining for meals expressed one’s acceptance of another as an integral part of one’s community.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time who focused the most on the politics of holiness, the Pharisees, especially considered table fellowship to be central. In their longing for Israel’s salvation, they sought a pure society unmarred by ritual uncleanness. This quest for purity began in the home. Their food was totally prepared according to the purity laws. They expected everyone who ate in their homes to be ritually pure.
Jesus’ approach stood in sharp contrast. He delighted in breaking bread with an enormous variety of people, regardless of their ritual cleanliness. He directly challenged the social and religious exclusiveness associated with table fellowship with his radical openness. In Luke 5:27-39, Jesus eats with a tax collector, Levi, and his friends. To the upholders of strict purity, tax collectors were considered intrinsically unclean, in large part due to their close collaboration with the hated Roman occupation forces. The Pharisees and their scribes strongly criticize Jesus for this breach of table fellowship purity. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked. That is, why do you defile yourself? Why do you share this deeply meaningful time of fellowship with low-lifers and scum bags?
Jesus speaks of his love for these outcasts—and of the current “at-handness” of God’s kingdom. He shows the presence of God’s kingdom by his openness, even to those whom his culture considered to be unclean.
Luke 7 contains another story of table fellowship that breaks taboos. A woman named Mary, labeled a sinner, imposes herself on Jesus while he is having dinner with a Pharisee. She comes to him crying and anoints his feet with ointment. Jesus is criticized for allowing this, but he responds by asserting that this woman had received mercy (and tellingly, though she is named a “sinner” by Luke, Jesus never tells her to “sin no more;” he simply forgives).
In a third example from the gospel of Luke, Jesus again faces criticism due to his openness and lack of concern with purity and separation: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Jesus replies to this attack by telling three parables of lost things being found. The third of these parables is the most well known-the story of the prodigal son who, significantly, is welcomed to his father’s love-feast without having confessed his sins (he had, among other things, worked with unclean animals), and without undergoing any ritual purification acts. The picture of God in this parable is one characterized by welcome, mercy, and radical openness.
Another example of Jesus’ radical openness and its connection with table fellowship is the familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand. This is one of the few stories that appears in all four of the Gospels. In this meal, there are no questions asked about purity or if any of the people are sinners or unclean. The meal is for everyone.
Thus, Jesus chose an extraordinarily evocative and concrete way to make clear the openness, inclusiveness, and unconditionality of God’s realm. He shared food with all sorts of outsiders and did so publicly-at great cost to his reputation and, ultimately, at the cost of his life.
Consequences of Jesus’ openness
Jesus’ practice of openness fostered conflict with the religious leaders most concerned with Israel’s purity, the Pharisees. A passage from Matthew’s gospel helps to illumine this conflict. Two stories in Matthew 12:1-14 show that Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, stressed human well-being over Sabbath observance. On the Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples are hungry and, we are told, they pluck heads of grain with which to feed themselves. Some Pharisees notice this and criticize Jesus for his followers’ violation of the Sabbath.
Jesus replies to his critics, giving two Old Testament examples. David and his companions ate the “bread of the Presence” (see 1 Sam. 21:1-6; Lev. 24:5-9 tells of this consecrated bread), even though it was the Sabbath. The second example is that priests “work” on the Sabbath (Num. 28:9-10). This implies that the sacrificial system (and hence, the temple) is greater than the Sabbath. Sabbath regulations are subordinate to the sacrificial system. Now, Jesus has stated, something greater even than the temple is here-that is, the kingdom of God, present in Jesus (Matt. 12:6). If Jesus is greater than the temple, then of course Jesus is greater than the Sabbath.
At this point, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 for support: mercy is more important than sacrifice and Sabbath regulations. In other words, as the central characteristic of the realm of God, mercy is the highest priority. Mark’s version of this story contains Jesus’ telling words: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
The scene then shifts in Matthew 12, and Jesus goes to a synagogue and heals a man with a withered hand, still on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are trying to set Jesus up. By using the example of rescuing a sheep on the Sabbath and inferring that humans are more valuable than sheep, Jesus asserts that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:12). That is, doing good, healing human beings, is within what the law allows. Jesus is not rejecting Sabbath law out of hand. Rather, he is setting Sabbath in the context of the wider meaning of the law: mercy comes first. For Jesus, the issue is not law versus no law; the issue is how the law is interpreted. The story concludes with the ominous words: “The Pharisees went out and conspired against Jesus, how to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14).
God meant the Sabbath to enhance human life, not to shackle it. Jesus insisted that one who takes an action on the Sabbath that helps other people is within the law. Mercy supersedes the sacrificial system and Sabbath regulations, and purity has to do with the heart. What comes from the inside defiles, not what comes from the outside. Defilement has to do most of all with hurting other people.
The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees’ hostility toward Jesus continued to escalate and that others also came to oppose Jesus’ message. The Sadducees, who were the leaders charged with running the temple in Jerusalem, recognized that Jesus’ inclusiveness and provision of direct access to God directly threatened their institutionalized religion. Ultimately, the Sadducees joined with the occupational Roman political leadership (i.e., Pontius Pilate) to put an end to Jesus’ life.
The conflict with the Pharisees, though, continued even after Jesus was killed, as the early Christians continued on Jesus’ inclusive path. The Apostle Paul, writing in the second and third decades following Jesus’ death, provides helpful analysis on why this conflict over the application of the law was so volatile.
As Paul portrays it, many people no longer understood the law as Moses had presented it-as practical guidance for how to live faithfully in light of God’s mercy and saving work for Israel (cf. Exodus 20). Rather, the law had become Israel’s badge of exclusiveness. This was how the Jews knew they were uniquely special-doing “works of the law,” rituals that marked them as different from non-Jews. Three key expressions of this boundary-marking function were: (1) food laws (kosher law, ritual cleansing); (2) Sabbath observance; and (3) circumcision of males. Religious leaders had come to insist that faithfulness to these practices was absolutely necessary to Israel’s identity. They were signs of God’s special connection with the faithful people. For Jesus to challenge reliance on these practices as the center of religious life posed a huge threat to the entire system.
Jesus did not reject the law itself. Rather, he radically challenged the Pharisees’ interpretation. Jesus tried to reorient the law to its original intent: guidelines for faithful living in light of God’s mercy. Most of the Pharisees were not open to this challenge. They saw Jesus as an enormous threat to their entire culture. He undercut the culture’s identity with his openness and emphasis on direct access to God apart from strict ritualism.
In the years immediately following Jesus’ death, Pharisees led the violent opposition to Jesus’ followers. Their opposition came to be spear-headed by the zealous anti-Christian attitude of a brilliant young Pharisee known as Saul of Tarsus. A central issue was that of the law-access to God and salvation, and openness to Gentiles. But this Saul met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus and had his life transformed. He was renamed Paul and became Jesus’ apostle.
The Apostle Paul came to see that by using “defense of the law” as the rationale for violence against the Christians, he had actually been an idolater. He had placed works of the law above God’s mercy. Jesus called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles and to welcome them into the community of his followers without requiring strict food and Sabbath laws. That is, Jesus called Paul to imitate Jesus’ own radical openness and rejection of boundary-marker-oriented religion.
Jesus’ insistence that external works of the law did not connect people with God led to his being killed. He showed that God’s mercy is for everyone. The structures people build to show others that they are “insiders” have nothing to do with God’s favor. God’s favor is, instead, for those who know God’s unconditional mercy and share that mercy with others.
Paul does not argue that Jesus abolished all human differences; rather, Paul makes the point that Jesus abolishes the need to make these differences signs of righteousness and unrighteousness. Jesus abolishes our need to protect our own security as people who are “okay” with God. We do not need to exclude others from God’s favor on the basis of external boundary markers because the law of the Spirit is not about boundary markers. External distinctives are not bases for elevating ourselves over others. What matters is simply trusting in God’s mercy, which we all need equally.
Paul writes that God set people free from this law of sin and death. God set people free from needing to judge others and to exclude outsiders. When the law or any other cultural system is used as a basis for identity before God, then it is the law of sin and death. Then it is keeping people from understanding God as unconditionally merciful.
Jesus’ relevance for the discussion of inclusion of homosexual people in the church does not lie in direct comments he made on this issue; he made none. This does not mean that Jesus’ life and teaching are unimportant, however. The several themes in Jesus’ life that we have examined provide the needed foundation for a faithful, inclusive response.
(1) Jesus practiced a radical openness that ran contrary to the purity-oriented exclusionary practices of religious people of his time (and ours). The symbol of open table fellowship with outsiders, “sinners,” excluded ones, reveals Jesus’ approach with stark clarity. Table fellowship for Jesus meant a welcome into the kingdom of God. The love feast that Jesus welcomed people to join had no prerequisites, no initiation rites, no insistence on purification as a prerequisite. All it took was open hands-the prodigal son’s return, the five thousand accepting the bread and fish, Mary’s tears.
The lesson of Jesus’ approach for today’s church can be summarized as simply one word-welcome. The church has difficulty being unconditional in its love and in embodying the way of abundance to replace scarcity. But Jesus asks nothing less of us. For the church to truly know God as merciful, the church must live God’s mercy.
(2) Once Jesus perceived that not all the religious leaders were going to join in his radical openness, he did not hesitate to offer critiques of a boundary-marker-oriented approach to faith. His modeling of such a critique remains potent today, as do his specific critiques and alternatives.
When the Pharisees restricted access to God’s mercy to those who were ritually pure, thereby excluding most people, Jesus spoke sharply in opposition. Jesus certainly offered a message of love and compassion, but this positive message carried with it a direct confrontation to those not willing to respond to it with love and compassion of their own.
Present-day followers of Jesus are challenged to find a similar kind of balance-fostering love and compassion in our lives but also standing against forces that resist Jesus’ mercy. When churches restrict access to God’s mercy, followers of Jesus are challenged by Jesus’ example to speak out in opposition to such exclusiveness.
(3) The direct consequence of Jesus’ speaking (and living) such a critique was that he suffered, ultimately to the point of death. Significantly, Jesus taught at length and with uncomfortable clarity that his followers will also follow him on the path of the cross.
To imitate Jesus, in New Testament terms, has most of all to do with imitating his faithfulness to God’s mercy and love even to the point of suffering for such faithfulness. Those who advocate a Jesus-style openness and inclusion can expect to find similar responses to what Jesus found to his openness-anger, hostility, even violence.
Jesus himself unequivocally opposed the use of violence by his followers—under all circumstances. Yet he was utterly realistic about the likelihood of violence in his followers’ lives. Jesus’ followers are never to resort to violence, even though their acts of love and inclusion in the face of the politics of holiness will invariably elicit hostility from the protectors of the status quo.
(4) The underlying priority of Jesus’ life and teaching was mercy. Whatever conflict Jesus took part in was conflict for the sake of communicating God’s mercy intended for all people. “Be merciful as God is merciful”: the unpopularity of this message in some contexts, the violence such a message may elicit, the difficulty in living such a message out-none of these minimize the centrality of mercy as the core value of Jesus and his followers.
The Book of Revelation is full of visions of the costly consequences for those who would make merciful living central in a world all too often dominated by the power politics, large-scale and small-scale, of the Beast. Interspersed with terrible visions of persecution and conflict, however, we find consistent words of exhortation (to be victors, Christians must “follow the Lamb wherever he goes”) and visions of worship and celebration. The worship is portrayed also as a present reality, amidst the tribulation.
This juxtaposition of visions of suffering and celebration is a promise for disciples today of moments of hope, joy, and communal solidarity. That is, as we seek to follow Jesus, we can have confidence that God will provide us with sustenance along the way-in large part, the sustenance that we offer one another as co-pilgrims on this path.
12 thoughts on “Jesus and homosexuality: What did he do?”
This felt unfinished as there was no final conclusion, but the post seemed to sort of wander away from the original topic. I conclude that Jesus would have welcomed gays and lesbians at the table. Loving the individuals seems the only way that is consistent with Jesus’ practice.
This is different from a policy sort of question on the merits of same-sex relationships. An answer on that is much more difficult to derive from Jesus’ recorded words and actions.
In my own church, there is clarity on inclusiveness of the people. There are diverse views on homosexuality, however.
“Yes…but” is often the structure of response I often hear to an appeal like this to appreciate the radical inclusiveness of Jesus, and to mirror it in our churches.
The “but” response basically points out that Jesus also–ALSO–made moral demands on those whom he radically welcomed.
–“Take up your cross and follow me (you ‘unclean’ disciples whom I have graciously called to embody God’s new order).”
–“I will repay my victims four-fold,” says Zacchaeus the tax collector, after dining with Jesus in violation of the politics of holiness
–“Have a process for restoring the sister/brother (Matt. 18–there is such a thing as sin, no turning a blind eye to it in the church, no sloppy agape).
–And then the “but” often cited in the homosexuality discussion–“go and sin no more” (John 4), to that woman at the well who has just received radical acceptance and commissioning.
My own sense is that many who raise the “yes…but” reply do so defensively, more identified with the “but” than with the “yes,” still pretty much rooted in the “politics of holiness,” being at best ambivalent toward the “politics of compassion” to which they might give lip service in their “yes.”
Still, while that “politics of holiness” is a perennial temptaion, and we regularly need to be reminded of Jesus’ “politics of compassion,” as you do here, Ted, it is also–ALSO–hard not to see him calling at least whom he radically includes in the horizon of God’s mercy to let go of some old habits and take on a new way of life.
And then, of course, there is Paul and other NT writers, who apply the teachings of Jesus more specifically in their contexts, and also enjoin living out the mercy and grace that has been shown to them. (And in the matter of homosexuality–admitting that it is not always clear what kind of behavior Paul had in mind–it is hard to find any later NT references to same-sex relationships that are positive.)
I’d like to hear more, Ted, on how you respond to the “yes…but” reply structure to an appeal to prioritize the radical inclusiveness of Jesus. Where do moral imperatives come in the “politics of compassion?” Do we first radically include everyone, then give moral instruction? (Somehow I doubt that you’d say we first preach the good news love God’s love and then–later–talk about peacemaking to new converts).
Your test case in this post is homosexuality. How about–to use a bit of a stereotype–another one: a young Marine who comes to your church dressed in his colors and wants to join? Any tension there between compassion and holiness? (This happened in my home church growing up. My neighbor-classmate appeared one Sunday morning at our Mennonite church in full Marine dress and sat in the front pew beside me. Next week the pastor–a man steeped in the peace teaching tradition–summoned him for a conversation, pointing out that “we don’t do military” in our church. As I recall, my neighbor didn’t come back.)
I think the problem many of us as pastors wrestle with is not so much the personal compassion, but the institutional incorporation. I have no doubt that homosexual persons would be welcomed in our church services, but would they be welcomed into membership? leadership? And if so, how do we deal with the Pauline passages correcting sexual problems in the early churches, Corinth especially? Hauerwas says we need to start with promiscuity versus fidelity, and seems to affirm that fidelity in relationship (some might call it covenant) is sufficient regardless of gender combinations. David Gushee seems to point in the same direction in the recent Baptist conference on sexuality sponsored by Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. I would be interested in how you come at institutional incorporation as I do believe this is an issue with which we must engage. Thanks.
“a policy sort of question on the merits of same-sex relationships”
as a lay person, what intrigues me about a question like this is who are we to understand the merits ..how would we know unless we were in a same-sex relationship?
I think this paragraph is very important, and brings together the topic with Rene Girard’s work on mimesis…
“Paul writes that God set people free from this law of sin and death. God set people free from needing to judge others and to exclude outsiders. When the law or any other cultural system is used as a basis for identity before God, then it is the law of sin and death. Then it is keeping people from understanding God as unconditionally merciful.”
What I understand from this statement is that, from God’s perspective, “sin and death” are human constructs, not divinely instituted realities. Gospel freedom comes when we put our trust in God’s mercy, turning away from the rivalry induced by the (human-made) holiness code.
Too much of men’s opinions, too little of God’s Word.
“in the beginning God made man and woman”
“I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”
“the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous.”
They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for any and all sin of His elect, and this “salvation” is out of sin, not man’s justification to continue it: Sodomite marriage.
Review Rom 1 and Matt. 4:17, this is how Jesus began His ministry that is how your to lovingly, graciously, but ever so clearly call the sinner to salvation, be they polygamists, homosexuals, adulterers, lairs, thefts, murderers, …of which we all are. (Mt. 5:17-30)
You have wandered from God to the jungle of man’s lies and are trying to make God out to be a lair.
Sorry, but that is liberal pro-gay claptrap that panders to the prevailing anything-goes zeitgeist. And to the vast constituency of gays and lesbians in the Church, many of whom are in some kind of leadership role/position of influence or power.
Jesus’ inclusiveness was a readiness to accept anyone into the kingdom. But acceptance was not unconditional. All were welcome in the kingdom provided that they accepted him as the way to the kingdom and REPENTED of their sin. And once in the kingdom they were required to follow him, not least by living holy lives, separated from sin, as he did. Furthermore, God decreed that we his creatures should BE HOLY since he is holy. And he decreed that he hated homosexual PRACTICE – which is therefore a sin that cannot go to bed with holiness.
Holiness is the core characteristic of God. And to set Inclusiveness above holiness, or even at the same level, is to make a Christianity that is unbiblical.
One of the problems with Ted’s conceptions of Jesus is that they are not rooted in historical plausibility or in the actual evidence. There is no evidence that Jesus found homosexual sexual practices morally legitimate. Of course there is no evidence he found them immoral either. However, it seems much more likely to me that Jesus, as a first century Jew, would have found homosexual practice immoral than that he would have been innovative on this particular issue. If he were innovative on this matter, why is it that this is not recorded in the Gospels, when the Gospels have no problem recording some of his other socially unacceptable behavior and innovative teachings? I think the truth is that what we have is a reading of Jesus as a social activist who is not concerned with sexual ethics. Now, does that sound like a first century Palestinian Jew or a twenty first century academic with a leftist social agenda? More to the point, I find that the Jesus of the gospels combines a very stringent moral code with a radical compassion for the sinner, and this is particularly the case when it comes to sexual ethics. He forbids divorce and remarriage, lust, masturbation (according to some commentators), adultery…but he is compassionate and loving and accepting of the woman caught in adultery and the prostitute Mary Magdalene. So, what we have in Jesus is not someone who believes that compassion demands radically altering all moral standards but one who holds to high moral standards and exercises compassion. Ted’s Jesus, on the other hand, is someone educated in contemporary notions of “inclusion” and “tolerance.” In other words, Ted’s Jesus is just an empty cipher for an already developed ethical platform, one that does not really derive from Jesus nor depend upon him for it’s cogency…much like Ted’s peace position, I might add.
Mr. Hyde is it now, Dan?
Sorry, Ted, but that’s how it all seems to me sometimes. // I should say, though, on a more constructive note, that part of the problem in the Mennonite church is that the question of the morality of homosexual marriage is conflated with membership guidelines. I tend to think that membership guidelines need to be rather minimal and permissive to a fault. In other words, a “high morality” need not entail a “strict membership guidelines” philosophy. But my experience is that Mennos tend to assume that the former entails the later. One way to embody my understanding of Jesus would be to hold onto a traditional morality on this particular issue, while including homosexuals and homosexual couples in the membership of the congregation. What do you think of that position? // Again, sorry about the Mr. Hyde-ishness. I’m far from perfect on that score.
Maybe I’m wrong on my traditional stance. Maybe there is nothing wrong with homosexual marriages and maybe the church should just make that decision and move on. Maybe I just need to concede that the prohibition on same sex sexual relations is based on ancient notions of patriarchy and that applying that prohibition to contemporary homosexual couples is anachronistic and inherently cruel? I must admit, that in my heart of hearts I often feel that way. (This must be Mr. Jekyl speaking, I guess.) At any rate, I’m much more conflicted than my arguments with you reveal.
I wish you could make this move, Dan. I don’t think you’d have to sacrifice anything in your core theology to do so.
It’s Dr. Jekyl 🙂 Listen to him!