Damaging the Christian faith? Questions about some anti-gay sentiments

Ted Grimsrud—April 27, 2014

I wrote in an earlier post that I have been disappointed that most conversations that I am aware of about how churches and church-related institutions should respond to LGBTQ folks in their midsts don’t seem to be very theological. Those on the “restrictive” side assert over and over again that the basic issue is the Bible and authentic Christian faith on the one side (theirs) and humanism, relativism, and liberalism on the other. And, it seems, many on the “inclusive” side don’t mind this framing of things.

As I express in that earlier post, I am not happy with that framing, and I try to show there that, for example, my workplace, Eastern Mennonite University, should adopt inclusive hiring practices because of our theological convictions and because we affirm the importance of the Bible. Of course, my sentiment is not gaining widespread affirmation.

Concern for the health of Christian faith

Certainly, the main reason for my convictions and the main motivation for trying to articulate them is my concern for the pain that discrimination causes for people who are hurt by it. It is because of the Bible’s call for love, for compassion, for respect, for hospitality, that churches and church related institutions should take an inclusive approach. We should be welcoming because of the damage a non-welcoming approach does to vulnerable people.

Just lately, though, I have been wondering that perhaps it should also be for the sake helping churches and church-related institutions themselves not to be damaged by problems that arise with following the restrictive path. And, in particular, I’ve been thinking a bit about whether assertions for the necessity for taking a restrictive approach actually might undermine Christian faith itself. Part of what has triggered these reflections just now are several short statements of opposition to movements within churches and church-related institutions that have formerly been restrictive toward becoming more inclusive.

A young evangelical Christian gay man, Matthew Vines, became a You Tube sensation a while ago with a videod talk on how the Bible actually supports inclusion. He has written out his ideas and his book God and the Gay Christian has just been released. It is published by a self-identified evangelical Christian publisher (Convergent Books). And some people are not happy that such a publisher would publish such a book. One strong statement of that distress came from a guy named Michael Brown, who himself has a new book on this topic also coming out soon.

Here at EMU, two senior professors have taken to the editorial page of our student-run newspaper, The Weather Vane, with strongly-worded letters asserting that to move in a more inclusive direction would be deeply problematic. [here and here]

Problematic dynamics

Stimulated by these statements, but not intending directly to engage them, I have thought of several questions about possible ways that the kind of thinking that they reflect could be seen as hurtful to, not supportive of, Christian faith.

1. Does it foster what we could call a pin-prick theology that may actually make faith more brittle and insecure? It appears that a basic idea may be that if we were to change our views on our perspective on same-sex relationships we would have to give up our faith altogether. It reminds of a college friend who said once that he were forced to admit that there were any errors in the Bible he would have to quit being a Christian. Or of the famous (now) atheist biologist Edward O. Wilson who grew up as a fundamentalist Baptist being taught you could not be a Christian and believe in evolution—so when he became convinced about evolution he gave up his Christian faith.

2. Could it be, at least some of the time, that the “traditional” view focuses more on “biblical authority” than on a careful engagement with the texts themselves? I commonly encounter people who say, in effect, “Of course the Bible is against homosexuality. It speaks often about this. So if you are inclusive you are rejecting the Bible.” But then when I ask where the Bible actually says that, some become fairly inarticulate. Sometimes they can’t even say where the Bible says this. Other times, they may refer to a particular text. But when I ask what’s going on with the text in its context, they can’t say much. What they seem to base their view on is an English translation of a particular sentence—not a careful study of the passage in its biblical context. When I actually looked at the (quite few in number, and quite cryptic in content) passages usually cited, I was immediately impressed with how weak a foundation these few passages provide for such a strongly held and consequential viewpoint. It can’t be healthy to have such a large gap between the power of an interpretation and its actual basis in the text.

3. Are those opposed to inclusion actually committed to avoid conversations where their views might be challenged? In the examples I link to above, one of the elements of the statements in all three cases is that strong certainty expressed by their authors. They do not present their positions as a perspective meant as part of a conversation with a sense of openness to other perspectives and also a sense that we are relatively early in a process of discernment where nobody has the complete truth at this point. To the contrary, these statements do not in any way feel like invitations for conversation. Rather, they are flat statements of non-negotiable truth. They reflect a feeling of certainty that simply cannot be warranted no matter the issue, the sense of likely consensus on the best view, or the clarity of the data—and of course on the present issue, there is nothing close to a consensus and the data (biblical and experiential) is hardly clear.

4. Is the unwavering certainty expressed by many who oppose inclusion is based on a strong sense of fearfulness? Often fears are stated—we’re on a slippery slope toward apostasy and ultimately atheism, we’re heading toward anything-goes moral relativism, we’re losing our connection with the Bible, et al. However, is there under those concerns a deeper, unstated general fearfulness? This fearfulness, ironically, may lead to a doubling down on fear when things are being challenged. If one starts with a fearful attitude, having one’s certainties challenged tends to make one more afraid, leading to voicing of fears upon fears that make resilience and creativity much more difficult in response to what we would all agree is a challenging environment for faith in world today.

5. Is the general mentality that seems reflected in these anti-inclusion views a kind of either/or thinking, a resistance to accepting the necessity of finding ways to live with diverse views? I developed an argument years ago (see my 1994 essay on “neo-Mennonites”) that the broader Mennonite community in North America often seems to try to deny the diversity within the circle of Mennonite denominations, conferences, and congregations. Instead of working at discernment in a way that embraces the diversity and asks how can we live creatively together, there has been a tendency to try to draw boundary lines that see the diversity as a problem to overcome or avoid.

Toward a creative and resilient faith

These are only a sampling of possible problems I could mention. I am sure there are many mixed motives for people across the theological spectrum who are engaging in one way or another in these issues around inclusion. However, I believe that many on the more inclusive side are advocating for welcome and acceptance out of sincere convictions about enhancing Christian witness in our world. On the other side, while certainly many are acting equally sincerely out of their desire to enhance Christian witness, I fear that many dynamics such as those I have identified here actually damage our witness.

Sentiments such as those reflected in the links I have given seem almost to paint Christian faith into a corner where it loses much of its needed flexibility and creativity. Authentic Christian faith is inherently vulnerable and non-fearful. When Christians try to make their faith into something that is more inflexible, invulnerable, and fear-enhancing, they actually make it less secure, less resilient, less attractive—and less able to make a contribution to the on-going challenges of humane living in an all-too-often inhumane world.

I want to say at the end, though, and I am totally serious about this, that I want to learn more about how my arguments and those of others on the inclusive side also might damage our Christian witness. It is much easier to see problems with those one disagrees with. I hope to write in the near future on elements in my pro-inclusion statements and in those from others that also might fall short in relation to (or even contradict) the goal of “enhancing Christian witness in our world.” I’m sure I can use help in identifying possible examples.


10 thoughts on “Damaging the Christian faith? Questions about some anti-gay sentiments

  1. Marlene, after our conversation last week about Marginal Mennonite Dociety, Pink Menno, etc., here’s another site you might be interested in.


    “Hell is empty and all the devils are here!”

    From Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2


  2. I appreciate your continued engagement with the Mennonite Church on this issue, Ted. As you know, I have shaken the dust off my feet and have little interest in being in communion with a denomination that does not welcome my gay and lesbian friends, some of whom are more devout and dedicated to following Jesus than any of the people with whom I used to argue these points. It is my conviction that Jesus would welcome people in same sex relationships into his circle and I am confident in this because it is what I read in the Bible. But having engaged this discussion for almost 30 years I am done. I am happy communing with the Christians of other denominations who do not exclude people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

  3. Ted, as I listen to the “anti-inclusion” arguments I hear more fear and anxiety than textual loyalty, biblical understanding, or strong faith. My response needs to be, “Relax, God loves you, and them, even, and especially, if one of you is, or both of you are, wrong.”

  4. Thanks, Ted, for your psychological depth, political insight and theological thoughtfulness on these questions and concerns.

    Many in the American Peace Churches are now finding themselves on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of God as they defend exclusion and shun embrace.

    Religion has become a source of both terror and transformation. Many of us who have worked internationally in conflict transformation are now closely following the news of the 230 kidnapped girls in northeastern Nigeria. Many of these girls are members of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, known in Africa as the EYN Church.

    Those of us who have worked in the region have observed that the emergence of fiercely exclusive God-talk so often invites not only violence against the “religious other” but also a violent backlash against any otherness outside of the dominate religion’s cultural-linguistic power base, especially women and sexual minorities. The renewed gender violence and anti-gay persecution in Nigeria follow a clear theo-logic of exclusion.

    Ah, but what does Nigeria have to do with America? What does Abuja have to do with Harrisonburg? It is easy for American pastors and theologians to quickly dismiss the Boko Haram and its exclusive claims to divine truth and public morality. But if we dare to deconstruct the anti-inclusion arguments present even in our own Historic Peace Churches, will we not discover a theo-logic that puts us at risk of becoming only a kinder, gentler Taliban?

  5. I preached a sermon to my local youth group recently on the opposition between desire or ‘burning with passion’ and devotion to Christ or fruit of the Spirit, basically taking Hauerwas’ tack against the influence of capitalism on how we look at romantic relationships. Much of my exegetical understanding of 1 Corinthians 7, which is the text I used, came from Dale B. Martin’s ‘Sex and the Single Saviour,’ on how Paul is unqualifiedly opposed to desire (epithymia) of ANY kind in all his epistles. I did not go into how this would break down the dichotomy between heterosexual and homosexual desire as legitimate and illegitimate desire, but I was wondering what you all: Ted, Scott, and others think about Paul’s opposition of desire and the fruit of the Spirit as a good framework in which to understand sexual ethics? I am not an ethicist or theologian, so I would love to hear your thoughts. It seems so useful to take on what the advertising and entertainment industry is doing to the way we and our youth think about sex or dating. But I took such a hard-line according to this framework (I really preached an Aristotelian-Augustinian style sermon), I hope I haven’t gone too far.

    1. To tell you the truth, Robert, I don’t have much of an answer. I was asked this in class the other day and I said (intending to be making a joke) that I thought Paul was an idiot in his opposition to desire. I’m actually disposed to like Paul a lot, so I want to believe that there is a different way to read him on this than what you are suggesting Dale Martin’s take is (his is definitely a book I need to read; I have found a couple of his articles quite helpful).

      I tend to think an “opposition to all desire” cannot help but backfire—and reflect as well a pretty low (and problematic) view of creation. I see what is going on with “the advertisement and entertainment industry” as a exploitation and perversion of a good and inherent part of our nature (desire). The solution is to redeem desire not deny it (I say off the top of my head).

      1. I agree with this brief response, Ted and Robert. I too am generous and contextual in my reading of Paul, but this text on desire I fear will only invite ‘the return of the repressed.’ That is, a muscular repression of desire so often invites an unconscious and aggressive return of these denied passionate energies in destructive expressions.

        Genesis is, after all, not the beginning of religion of morality; Genesis is the beginning of desire. Thus, following the Poet-Prophet Jeremiah, it is better to redeem the pleasures of Babel than to imagine the Spirit dwells only on Mount Zion.

  6. Alright, thank you. It does seem like that is a danger. I remember C.S. Lewis describing a hamburger strip-tease or something, saying that if we found people doing that sort of thing, either they were starving or they were abnormally obsessed with food. I guess the

    Some other passages that Martin uses are 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, where he understands ‘vessel’ as wife, Romans 1:24 (epithymia is translated ‘sinful desires’ in the NIV), Galatians 5:16 (epithymian sarkos I think). The radical part of his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:9 is that he takes ‘burning’ to be unqualifiedly bad, rather than the normal interpretation of it being only bad outside marriage. In this Paul is with the doctors and Stoics and opposed to Aristotle apparently, who accepted a ‘mean’ amount of desire.

    But Paul does think sex is a good thing, as he tells couples to fulfill their ‘marital duties’ to one another just a few verses before. And see 1 Thessalonians 4. And this would presumably include some form of what we would call desire. Is it possible that Paul does not mean the sexual impulse (I think Martin said some writers used ‘horme’ for this), but more selfishness? This would retain a high view of creation and life that is seen in the Old Testament. But where does this leave us with singleness? Paul and the early Christians valued it a lot, saying that it was only for those with adequate self-control. Isn’t it pretty important to be able to think of singleness as an ethical sexual path?

    This is more how I took it. I ended up discussing envy and power problems more than lust. In my experience, it does seem like uncritically following your desires leads to the list of things the sinful nature desires in Galatians 5. I really drew on the fruit of the Spirit passage, and encouraged the youth to use the language of love, joy, peace, etc to express their hopes and thoughts about dating, rather than simply the language of ‘want.’ I was basically trying to help them understand dating in a Christian framework rather than a consumer framework. Thanks for the help thinking this through with me.

    1. Sorry, at the end of the first paragraph I meant to say: I guess they are both excesses.

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