Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)

Ted Grimsrud

[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

(6) Promiscuity

(7) Adultery

(8) Coerced sex

(9) Prostitution

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.

10 thoughts on “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)

  1. Ted, I like all your theological moves on the topic of EMU and discrimination. However, I wonder if a more modest first step might more easily open the doors for non-discrimination in hiring? EMU (as well as EMS) is a school not a congregation. As such, one would expect to see all the plurality, ambiguity and exploration of an educational community which might be more absent in a covenantal community such as a church or congregation.

    At the joint seminaries where I teach we have a non-discrimination policy in faculty and staff hiring and student admission primarily because we are a school, not a church. When traditionalists or progressives ask, “What do you teach about…?”, we respond that as an educational institution we create hospitable space for thoughtful dialogue and debate on many topics under investigation. This educational philosophy welcomes a pluralism in the faculty, staff and student body and further contends that change in church and society occurs most often through an encounter with the other and his or her mode of being in the world rather than through carefully crafted theological arguments, which might happily follow the relational encounters and engagements.

    1. Thanks, Scott. I think the “first step” you suggest is actually quite close to what EMU will likely do. This seems to be the thinking of several administrators (and others, I’m sure): we’re not a “congregation” and hence are more affirming of “the plurality, ambiguity, and exploration of an educational community” (note that I did leave out your “all”—and I did notice the allusion to David Tracy). If this is the best we can do (and I am sure it is) I will be happy. But I do long for a more overt and vigorous theological articulation that finds a way to embrace plurality, et al.

      1. Ted, I do think this is the best we can do and this isn’t bad. On this one, like the issue of civil rights in the 1960s as we now celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we who have been advocates for LGBTQ justice and equality have won a cultural victory even as we have witnessed an ecclesial defeat.

        For this insight on the cultural victory but organizational churchly defeat I’m looking to Berkeley’s David Hollinger and his “After Cloven Tongues of Fire.” He makes the case that while the churches of the 1960s contributed much to the vision and voice of civil rights, as the movement became public, pluralistic and political, the mainline churches retreated back into ecclesial identity politics and organizational intramural debates. Thus, there was a cultural victory but in the end an institutional defeat as we now witness the decline and death of the old mainline.

        Even if and when the Mennonite Church USA and the Church of the Brethren move to denominational positions of equality and inclusion they will be terribly late to the party even as they continue to proclaim they have much to offer the watching and waiting world. I think not. We now see God dwells in many communities of just peace and hospitable inclusion not made with theological hands. Theologians now must write about how worldly holiness trumped ecclesial fidelity and how we might learn something amazing from God in public.

  2. Ted, I affirm you for keeping the Bible central rather than peripheral. Helps make you a good Mennonite Bible teacher!

    And I applaud your wisdom in drilling down to the theological/biblical foundation on which a position on same-sex partnerships rests. EMU’s listening process is choosing to not enter into theological debate; but, as you point out, theology cannot be ignored: the only possible reason for discrimination on hiring faculty and staff who are in covenanted same-sex relationships “is theological (that is, that God declares such relationships to be sinful). So, this is inherently theological terrain that cannot be navigated without, we could say, a theological compass.”

    It’s also good, when you look at the theological/biblical foundations, that you not only look at welcome/inclusion but also at what the Bible says specifically on same-sex eroticism. Our welcome/inclusion is always subject to (and can be shaped by) other theological/biblical understandings. For instance, your congregation’s reception of a flag-waving man constantly spouting violence against Muslims would be shaped by welcome/inclusion, yes — you would receive him as a person — but other theological/biblical understandings would place limits on what behaviors you would bless and shape what behaviors you would nudge him away from. So you rightly take time to examine what the Bible says.

    You summarize your interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6 by stating that it is “most likely a reference to male prostitution.” Are you sure that is “most likely”? A specific word you’re referring to on Paul’s list of behaviors outside the kingdom of God is, literally, “male-bedders” (v9), a word formed of two words found in Paul’s Greek version of Leviticus 20:13. It’s possible that this word doesn’t mean “males who bed males”–it’s generally weak to use etymology to figure out the meaning of a word (think of “butterfly” or “understand”). However, the weakness of etymology is not present here. This word is so rare that Paul may have coined it. Due to its rarity it could not, through use, have shifted away from its morphological meaning of males choosing sex with males. Can you really say it “most likely” only refers to male prostitution?

    I know that you only gave a summary of your interpretation and that you have an involved argument about the context here in 1 Corinthians 6. But it would take a mighty strong context to shape this word some other way than male-to-male sex in general — so perhaps the Bible does come against “homosexual practices” that include the covenanted same-sex relationships about which EMU is talking/listening.

    Your summary of Romans 1 is that it refers to “out-of-control, orgiastic sexual intercourse of men with men…, behavior that is sinful for all people.” But is that really what we read there? Paul’s words, “consumed with passion for one another” (NRSV), imply male relations of mutual desire. It sounds like consensual behavior. Those words fit more with committed same-sex partnerships than they do with exploitative or abusive sex. Can Paul have intended the word translated “consumed” to mean “out-of-control” and not just the kind of “burning” lust that most couples feel? Sure, there’s a chance. To determine if it’s likely or unlikely we look at the immediate context, and we see Paul apparently talking about lesbian relationships, which again gives us an indication that the behavior referred to in this passage fits more with committed same-sex partnerships than with over-the-top, orgiastic conduct.

    I haven’t proven anything; ancient texts are notoriously difficult to pin down. But thankfully we generally are able to arrive at an interpretation of a text that has sufficient weight for us to use that text. Perhaps I have raised such an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6 and Romans 1, one that is entirely possible and plain. If so, then perhaps it is something that the church is warranted in using to shape their response to LGBT folk — that God does view even practices like covenanted same-sex relationships as sinful.

    I will value any response. I’m sure there is much I don’t know yet, much I have to learn. Indeed there is much everyone has to learn from your “thinking pacifism.”


    1. Thanks for the engagement, Harold. To try to keep this manageable, let me jump right in.

      There are three levels to my response. The first two are more important than the third, even though the third is where I will directly interact with what you wrote.

      (1) My main point is the general one about the overall focus of the Bible’s message—which is, as I say, an emphasis on inclusion, the ever-widening circle of God’s healing strategy. At the heart of this emphasis, theologically as well as practically, is what I call “God’s preferential option for the vulnerable.”

      One outworking of this preferential option in light of the life and teaching of Jesus is the breaking down of boundaries that would exclude, for example, people seen as “unclean” or “sinful.” Hence the inclusion of poor people, menstruating women, lepers, et al. In the spirit of this emphasis, Christians have often been open to people who eat shell fish, people who charge others interest on their loans, and—more recently—divorced and remarried people.

      Given the lack of biblical warrant to think of gay Christians as a group to single out as unique exceptions to this trajectory of inclusion, we already have sufficient reason to end the policy of discrimination at EMU. You don’t address my argument on this level.

      (2) Specifically in relation to the explicit texts (and I’ll just focus on the two you discuss), one of my main points is that these two texts simply are not concerned with giving commands to Christians about their “practice of same sex eroticism.” Both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 are merely describing behavior seen to be characteristic of non-Christians. And both texts describe such behavior in order to make points totally unrelated to “same sex eroticism.” Romans is making the point that Paul’s readers (presumably Christians of some sort) are themselves sinful and fall short of the glory of God (he’s only using the allusion to sex as part of what you once called a “sting operation”). 1 Corinthians 6 is making the point that Paul’s readers should quit taking their disputes to secular (and unjust) courts.

      So it is a misuse of these texts to zero in on them as if they are actually making direct commands to Christians about sexual behavior. Given the Bible’s trajectory toward inclusion and God’s preferential option for the vulnerable, we have strong reasons to demand fairly clear commands that would call upon us to make an exception and discriminate against this one class of vulnerable people. The fact that these two texts do not make such commands (and are just about the only New Testament texts that even come close to addressing this topic) means they cannot be seen as bases to take a restrictive stance. You don’t address my argument on this level either.

      (3) This level of looking more closely at those two NT texts is, as I said, less important than #1 and #2. In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether the texts say what you say they say, because they aren’t making commands for Christian sexual behavior and hence they cannot be the strong, clear bases needed for overriding the inclusion trajectory of the Bible’s story.

      But I can’t help but also be interested in discerning the best possible understanding of those two (not so important) texts. And I disagree with you on this, too. I think you draw too many conclusions from silence in your interpretation of the meaning of “male-bedders.” And you seem to think the word has some intrinsic meaning outside of the context of its use by Paul. Your sense that this single word has to have within it the meaning of “male-to-male sex in general” in unwarranted—especially since we know nothing else about the word other than Paul’s use here. And the context for Paul’s use is the best we can do in figuring out what the word might mean.

      One key to understanding the immediate context is to realize that Paul is here illustrating why the courts are unjust (he is not talking about sexual behavior in 6:1-11, though sexual behavior is discussed in other parts of 1 Corinthians). So, what Paul lists (in his vice list that illustrates the injustices of the secular judges) are things that are hurtful and unjust. His problem, from this list, with “male-bedders” would have to be, it seems to me, a problem with injustice, exploitation, and the like. Hence, the notion that he may have in mind male prostitutes who were being exploited and exploiting others. A weak argument, to be sure, but the best we have. Certainly, in this context, Paul could not have had in mind a condemnation of “male-to-male sex in general.”

      We just have to disagree with regard to the Romans text. I would say that the context here clearly refers to behavior that is way beyond the normal, one-on-one intimacy of a committed and monogamous marriage. Starting with Romans 1:18, Paul presents an escalating dynamic of people trusting in idols and as a result losing control of their behavior and becoming more and more unjust, culminating at the end with murder, et al. The sexual dynamics are part of this spiral. It’s unthinkable that Paul would have had in mind covenanted married couples acting in healthy and mutually respectful ways. Paul certainly isn’t talking about “lesbian relationships” (ala Ilse and Jennifer in my scenario). He’s either talking about women “likewise” engaging in promiscuous sex with men (the “likewise” referring to the promiscuity) or “likewise” engaging in promiscuous sex with other women (the “likewise” referring to the same-sexness of the promiscuous sex).

      It’s possible, I would say likely, that in the back of Paul’s mind here were the orgies sponsored by the emperor and his minions during this time. Paul would have known that these were especially offensive to his readers (and rightfully so). Remember, Paul’s agenda here is to get his readers to nod in agreement with the sense of condemnation in order that he would spring his trap and assert that in their self-righteousness they are just as bad.

      I really don’t see how “consumed with passion” could possibly be seen to fit more with “committed same-sex partnerships.” I’m not necessarily saying that what Paul has in mind isn’t consensual (it’s not necessarily exploitative or abusive). It’s more akin to wild sex joined in by choice—like apparently Nero, Caligula, et al, practiced. I can’t imagine Paul using “consumed with passion” as his main characterization of a healthy, monogamous heterosexual marriage. I’d say in such a marriage passion has an important place—along with all the other factors that make up a good intimate relationship. But I’d never say we should be “consumed with passion” no matter how deeply in love we are with our spouse. So there is no reason to assume that he would have had a healthy, monogamous same-sex marriage in mind either.

      So, Harold, my problem with your interpretation is that is, in the end, not “entirely possible and plain”—even if it’s widely held. It’s a misinterpretation based on trying to get these texts to do things they are not trying to do.

      1. Hi Ted,

        It’s my mistake for giving the impression I didn’t address your first point (about the Bible’s emphasis on inclusion). I was trying to be succinct, but overdid it and was unclear. Here’s where I thought I was addressing it: when I wrote, “Our welcome/inclusion is always subject to (and can be shaped by) other theological/biblical understandings. For instance, your congregation’s reception of a flag-waving man constantly spouting violence against Muslims would be shaped by welcome/inclusion, yes — you would receive him as a person — but other theological/biblical understandings would place limits on what behaviors you would bless and shape what behaviors you would nudge him away from. So you rightly take time to examine what the Bible says.” In other words, if Scripture would imply (I know you say that it doesn’t) that God views all homosexual practices as sinful, then that would shape your inclusion of LGBT folks.

        Help me understand your second section. Here’s how you seem to summarize it as you begin your third section: both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 “aren’t making commands for Christian sexual behavior and hence they cannot be the strong, clear bases needed for overriding the inclusion trajectory of the Bible’s story.” But can’t we know God’s assessment on a behavior if Scripture (in Romans 1) includes it in a list of actions describing fallen, rebellious humanity? (I know you say that Scripture doesn’t.) Or if Scripture (in 1 Corinthians 6) includes that behavior in a list of actions excluded from the kingdom of God? (I know you say that it doesn’t.) Are you really saying that the fact that Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 don’t make a direct command against same sex eroticism makes them “totally unrelated” to the issue?

        I appreciate you “looking more closely at those two NT texts” — even though you don’t think it is very important.

        About 1 Corinthians 6 you say that looking at the context for Paul’s use of “male-bedders” is the best way for “figuring out what the word might mean.” Really? If a word is composed of nonsensical syllables, then, yes, the context would be the best way. (Even the only way.) But this word is not nonsensical; it’s formed of two words that suggest a definite idea in the hearer’s mind. When a word has a range of possible meaning in the dictionary, then context is used to determine which part of that range was intended. But when a word doesn’t have much range of meaning (due to morphology and no opportunity to shift with use), is context as significant?

        About Romans 1, you say it looks like “we just have to disagree.” Yet we are both persons who love Scripture and are rational, so it’s at least worth talking about why we have the interpretation we do. I’m glad we’re doing that. Let me put into words what I hear you saying. You again in this passage use context as the main basis of your interpretation. You say that the list at the end of the chapter is an “escalating dynamic” of behaviors “culminating at the end with murder” and that the calm passions of committed same-sex partnerships could not fit in with such a list of “out-of-control” stuff. You even say it’s “unthinkable” that they would fit that context. But is that context present as strongly as you say? I ask, because gossip and slander somehow fit into the middle of that list. (Murder is in the middle, too.)

        I’m also trying to figure out why you say Paul “certainly” isn’t talking about lesbian relationships when even many pro-inclusion scholars take it that way. Is it again because of the context that you perceive?

        Perhaps I missed some of the nuances of your understanding of the context in Romans 1. Perhaps I even missed the broad outlines! But I’m trying to understand, and will value any response you give; I know I have much to learn.

        Since I get to H’burg multiple times a week, we really ought to talk face to face sometime. And I probably shouldn’t respond anymore to this thread. This is your blog — you should have the last word!

        wanting to be a brother,

  3. Hi Ted,

    It seems to me that you and many others put great weight in recommending an accepting attitude to homosexuality because homosexuality:
    1. is a relatively permanent condition and
    2. is an orientation that individuals do not clearly consciously choose,
    3. may involve consenting adults and have little obvious or immediate consequences for other non-consenting parties for good or for ill,
    4. involves extremely strong desires.

    However, other conditions have a variety of these features and yet are not amenable to acceptance whilst holding a Christian worldview.
    e.g. greed, sloth, gluttony, addiction, sexual attraction to children, psychopathy – all have three or more of the above features. Yet God allows these ills to dominate swathes humanity whilst declaring the associated motivations base and the associated actions sin. “Such” says Paul “were some of you”. 1 Cor 6:11.

    God’s deliverance of us from these things depends on the possibility of renewal in the Spirit, whereby the slave-to-sin is made free. In my view, few Christians know this power abundantly in their own lives. Why? I think because this transformation only comes, I think (following George MacDonald), through obeying Christ and having the Trinity live within (John 14:12, 21).

    Our false doctrine of imputed righteousness has impaired our understandings. Obedience, and thereby transformation, does take a STRIVING of a special sort (Heb 4:11; 2 Cor 15:10) – just not the kind of striving that gives rise to pride or self-righteousness. Did Jesus not strive with sinners? Did He not strive in the wilderness or in Gethsemane?

    Utter obedience can only arise where there is a very deep faith in the absolute goodness and trustworthiness of God. Such faith, including in Abraham, results in outward transformations. But the righteousness in God’s eyes starts the moment we decide to trust Him. Hence our righteousness is by faith. But if the faith doesn’t translate into works it is dead faith – there was no sufficient resolve to obey God on the basis of our trust in His goodness. Hence the righteousness needs to be real in our lives, a real transformation of our characters – and not merely “imputed” fiction.

    Unfortunately, our very Gospel itself is tainted with the heresies of eternal misery and substitutionary atonement, both of which undermine faith in God’s magnificent grace, resulting in little transformation of world, church or individual sinners. I believe real transformation of all our disordered desires is possible – not for homosexuals only but for the rest of us also, including the paedophile, the psychopath, the materialist, etc.

    Ref: http://www.jub.id.au/pacifism-and-the-cross

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