Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2015
This past Sunday, January 18, I had another chance to talk about same-sex marriage in a Mennonite congregation. I was invited to speak at Oak Grove Mennonite Church, near Smithville, Ohio. My assignment was to give a talk to a large Sunday School class, preach the morning sermon, and respond to questions in an early afternoon session. It was a good experience for me and, I hope, for the congregation.
One interesting aspect of the visit was how this congregation is really in the middle of the road (or maybe, several roads). Within the congregation, it appears that the more common view would be inclined to what I call the “restrictive” side of things—believing that full acceptance of, say, same-sex marriage, is not appropriate. There seem to be many, though, who likely would tend more to the “inclusive” side and be open to accepting same-sex marriage. However, the point of the visit was not for them to reveal their views to me, but for me to share mine with them.
I put my presentations together so that the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” would speak in more general terms about the centrality of hospitality in the Bible, concluding with a focus on Jesus’s teaching. The sermon does not address same-sex marriage directly, but sets the stage for the lecture by establishing a benefit of the doubt in the Bible toward a welcoming stance in general, especially toward vulnerable people. Then, the lecture (“The Bible and same-sex marriage”) would focus more directly on marriage and make an argument for why Christians should embrace same-sex marriage and apply to it the same kind of moral framework as they do to opposite-sex marriage.
I have posted the two presentation on my Peace Theology website (here are links to the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” and to the lecture, “The Bible and same-sex marriage”). To follow the argument I tried to make, one should read the sermon first and then the lecture.
Reflections on the experience
The discussion that followed, the presentations and personal conversations helped me to see how I could have perhaps reshaped what I did and made the argument more clear. I also continue to wonder about the overall utility of such discussions—as well on the character of the argument I try to make and the appropriateness of me doing such presentations.
One of the people in the congregation, quite sympathetic with what I had to say, suggested that especially for Mennonite audiences, it would be better if I argued explicitly for a Jesus-centered theology in favor of same-sex marriage. My first reaction was to say that Jesus didn’t say anything directly about it. But he went on to say that what he had in mind was starting with Jesus’s general message of welcome, especially for vulnerable people and then explicitly connecting that with marriage.
I realized that I was implicitly trying to do that in how I planned to start with the sermon and its message that what matters to Jesus most is hospitality and then turn to the general message about marriage that I detail in the lecture. But two things weakened the execution of the argument:
(1) I had misunderstood the morning schedule—the lecture came first and then the sermon. So the more general sermon did not precede the more direct lecture which is how I had planned it. By the time I learned of my mistake, I felt it was too late to make any significant changes. So I launched right into the discussion of marriage before I talked about the broader theme of hospitality. This made it less clear that I was thinking about Jesus in the marriage discussion.
(2) I did not make a direct statement linking the hospitality theme centered in Jesus’s teaching with same-sex marriage. Partly, I had the sense that the congregation did not want same-sex marriage overtly to be part of the sermon. And partly, I haven’t done the thinking yet about making that connection. But I do think it would be a good idea. [I have posted the two presentations exactly as delivered—I hope some time before long to revise them in line with this suggestion and make them into a single essay.]
Another person raised as a question a theme that I only indirectly addressed. She asked about the physical “fit” between males and females—and wondered if that “fit” implies something about God’s “intention for how we live” that would exclude the moral legitimacy of same-sex marriage.
What I did talk about was the idea that there is a sense Christians have of what makes up a “normal” marriage—including that it be one man and one woman, as well as include children and be permanent. I suggested that we allow for exceptions to this “norm” and still embrace childless marriages and second marriages for divorced people. Why not allow exceptions for same-sex couples? To me, the answer boils down to the sense that there is something inherently sinful about same-sex marriage that would not be the case with childless marriages or marriages after divorce. That is, the key issue is still the “sin” issue—and that is what I do address in my lecture. However, it would be good to be more direct in bringing in this person’s concern (which is more emphasized in recent writings by restrictive thinkers; see my review of a book that focuses on this theme).
As I say, I enjoyed the experience. I really have little idea of whether I helped the congregation much. The feedback was fairly positive, though it was clear that some were uncomfortable and even a few angry with what I said. I do think that my presentation that was in many ways pretty conventional, theologically conservative, and biblically-focused might be the only kind of presentation that would get a hearing in such a congregation. So it’s probably a good thing to do.
On the one hand, I still have not encountered a pro-gay marriage argument based on the Bible that develops in quite the same way mine does, which is one reason I want to keep talking. For example, I am not aware of any one else who makes as big a point as I do of the fact that neither Romans 1:18-32 or 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 are texts that have as their point presenting an argument for Christian sexual ethics. It seems to me that writers from both sides of the argument write too much as if these texts are about sexual ethics.
At the same time, I think I need to know a lot more about a lot more things. It could be that I either need to get better educated about a broader range of issues or retire from the fray. I am right now reading a bunch of recent books. So maybe I will come to the point of reformulating my basic argument and making it deeper and more sophisticated.
In the meantime, I am glad for the chance to review what I have put together up to now—and hope that even with its limitations, my argument may be helpful in pushing churches at least a little bit more toward inclusion.