A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part three)

Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2013

This final part will focus on the main reason many Christians offer for rejecting gay marriage—the belief that the Bible commands against it (that is, that the Bible commands against “homosexual practice” [sexual intercourse], which certainly means marriage is out of the question). The argument I develop in this series of posts proposes that the biblical call to hospitality (part one on hospitality is here) and the positive value we place on marriage (part two on marriage is here) should make us start with the benefit of the doubt in favor of embracing gay marriage—unless we have some overriding evidence that requires us to overcome that benefit of the doubt.

In much of the literature and in most discussions of which I have been part, the basis for arguing against gay marriage is the belief that the Bible does provide clear teaching against “homosexual practice.” This teaching requires Christians to overcome this benefit of the doubt in favor of welcome. Maybe we should be welcoming in general, they may say, but we also must stand against sin (“welcome the sinner but require that the sin be left behind”). And the Bible teaches that “homosexual practice” is sinful. So, I will here examine the biblical teaching to discern whether this belief about the Bible being against “homosexual practice” is well founded.

First, let me suggest that it is not merely semantic nitpicking to note that the Bible does not contain the word “homosexual” (in spite of misleading English translations over the generations). The word is not in the Bible, in part, because the word and what the word conveys (“homosexuality” as an identity, as a way of being, where one’s fundamental affectional attraction is toward people of one’s own sex) are modern notions. In fact, this word is not used in English until 1892. Ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek simply did not have words that mean the same as “homosexual.”

The few places in the Bible that allude to problematic sexual behavior between people of the same sex focus on the behavior, not on the sexual identity of the people involved. Even though many on the restrictive side in relation to gay marriage try to reflect the Bible’s focus on behavior by use of the term “homosexual practice” instead of “homosexuality” or “homosexual identity,” the use of “practice” in the singular still imposes a modern notion of sexuality on the Bible.

“Homosexual practice” implies that there is only one issue at stake, there is only one “practice” common to all “homosexual” people. What matters, then, is that the people involved are “homosexual,” not what the specific “practice” might be. As a consequence, in this view, we do not actually need to pay much attention to the specific issues that are being spoken to in each of the biblical texts that are cited to support the claim that “homosexual practice” is sinful. The point is not to try to understand the particular context of each text in order to understand what kind of practice is being addressed. All we need to know is that the text refers to “homosexual practice”—that’s enough to support the proscription of all possible same-sex intimate relationships.

If we are going to be accurate in reading the Bible, though, we need to try to play close attention to its own way of presenting themes and be careful about imposing modern concepts on the biblical materials. Specifically, in relation to gay marriage and the question whether we have clear evidence from the Bible that proves that the same-sexness itself of same-sex marriage is wrong, we should not start with the modern category of “homosexuality” as if it applies to each and every text with the sense that the Bible only speaks of “homosexual practice” rather than speaks of different types of behavior. Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part three)”

A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 19, 2013

In the first of these posts on gay marriage, I suggested that our starting point—whether (1) we assume acceptance unless persuaded to withhold it by the evidence or (2) assume withholding acceptance unless we are persuaded by the evidence to give it—is crucial in considering the issue of how Christians might respond to gay marriage. I suggested that the benefit of the doubt should be in favor of churches embracing such relationships and the people in them. One main reason for an accepting starting point, that I discussed in the first post, is the importance of hospitality in the biblical story.

The second main reason for an accepting starting point, that I will discuss in this post, has to do with the goodness of marriage. My third post will focus on the biblical bases usually used by those who would withhold acceptance, testing whether that evidence is strong enough to persuade us to withhold acceptance after all.

Most of the theological literature in relation to homosexuality until quite recently did not focus particularly closely on marriage. Major books from a “restrictive” perspective that urged Christians not to “normalize” homosexuality could comfortably repeat stereotypes about sexual promiscuity and short-term relationships being the norm especially among gay men (and probably among lesbians as well).

It was easy to equate “homosexuality” with obvious “sexual immorality” since gays and lesbians were, it seemed, not involved in committed, long-term relationships—and probably did not really desire to. So in the literature, we encountered widespread use of terms such as “the gay lifestyle” and “homosexual practice” (note the singular) as if there was only one “lifestyle” or “practice” and it involved a lot of casual sex with multiple partners.

Of course, all along in the debate over the past 40 or so years, many gay people and allies argued against these stereotypes. In just the past few years, though, as the movement toward legalizing and affirming gay marriage has gained remarkable traction, increasing numbers of people are learning of the existence of countless same-sex marriages that have existed for decades and reflect similar patterns as opposite-sex marriages—for better and for worse.

So, is it possible to construct a theology of marriage that does not discriminate against same-sex couples and that accounts for the actual experience of healthy marriages of many such couples?  Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part two)”

A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part one)

Ted Grimsrud—April 28, 2013

It appears that at this moment in the United States, our society may be nearing an acceptance of gay marriage. At least this is what the pundits are saying. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s impending decisions on the two cases related to gay marriage that they are considering, many people are saying that change is happening, accelerating, and will continue to do so. This seems to be an accurate perception; at least I hope it is.

However, at the same time, everyone also seems to agree that Christians are being left behind in this time of change. That is, it is perceived, Christians remain resolutely anti-gay marriage. At least evangelical Christians and Catholics—who seem any more to be the only Christians in mind when the term “Christian” is used in public conversations.

Still, there surely is a lot of ferment in Christian circles as well. It could be that a kind of anti-gay circling the wagons effort by many visible leaders and institutions is masking a potential sea change within even evangelical Christianity. Surveys do seem to indicate quite a bit more acceptance of gay marriage among younger evangelicals.

I take it that one response to these interesting events for a Christian theologian who supports gay marriage and also takes many cues from the Bible is to continue to work at articulating a biblically-oriented theology of welcome. One hope with such work is that as the discussion spreads to more of the evangelical world, such a theology might be found useful. I also believe that such a theology might give pause to those on the pro-gay side who tend to believe that such a disposition requires a distancing of oneself from Christianity.

I was recently given the opportunity to present a lecture that allowed me to pull together some of my thoughts on this topic. First Mennonite Church in Canton, Ohio, invited me to present on a Sunday afternoon as part of a series of sessions they have been having. I followed another theology professor for a local Christian college who a few weeks earlier spoke for the restrictive side.

Over the next few weeks, I will post a reconstruction of the lecture in three parts that correspond to the three sections of the talk. Part one focuses on introductory reflections and the theme of hospitality. Part two focuses on marriage. And part three focuses on interpreting the biblical passages that typically are used to lead to negative conclusions regarding gay marriage. It was a good experience for me and I think for the congregation. Though I am sure my talk seemed to go on and on for the listeners, I was only able to sketch the barest outline of a perspective. I’ll post that sketch here and hope to continue as time permits to expand it and maybe end up with a book. Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part one)”

Anabaptist Evangelicalism?

Ted Grimsrud—July 8, 2012

What do you do if you are a young theologian or historian who is located in an evangelical tradition long removed from its Anabaptist heritage and you discover that heritage and find it attractive? If you are Jared Burkholder, a professor at Grace College, and David Cramer, doctoral student at Baylor University and former instructor at Bethel College (Indiana), you tap the shoulders of other like-minded young scholars and sympathetic senior scholars and produce a lively and thought-provoking collection of essays that, in sum, makes the case that evangelicals would benefit greatly from more appropriation of Anabaptist emphases—and that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism.

This is the book: Jared Burkholder and David C. Cramer, eds. The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012.

I am quite a bit more sympathetic with the first of these two cases (that evangelicals would benefit from more Anabaptism) than with the second (that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism). Without question, though, this is an excellent group of essays. Each one is readable and interesting.

What is “evangelicalism”?

The first section of the book, “Intersecting Stories: Historical Reflection on the Nexus of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism,” draws on three of the senior scholars, including two Mennonites (Steve Nolt and John Roth) who warmly welcome the interest of evangelicals in Anabaptism and emphasize the compatibility between the two streams of Christianity. Roth, especially, seeks to counter the much more hostile response to evangelicalism characteristic from Anabaptist scholars in a much earlier collection (C. Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism [Herald Press, 1979]) that is cited as the main previous book to take up these issues in depth.

The discussion by Nolt and Roth points to one of the most complicated issues that lurks throughout this book and, actually, in all such conversations. What precisely to we mean by “evangelicalism”? The editors state that they intentionally did not ask their writers to follow a given, stable definition but gave each the freedom to use the term as they saw fit. Continue reading “Anabaptist Evangelicalism?”

Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?

Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2012

I recently read a fascinating and well executed collection of essays, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, edited by Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer (Pickwick Publications, 2012). I interact more explicitly with the book in this review, but here I want to reflect a bit on some thoughts that reading it triggered for me.

One of the basic issues The Activist Impulse takes up is the relationship between “Anabaptism” and “evangelicalism”—especially how closely those in each movement should be linked. As many of the writers in the book acknowledge, each of these terms is difficult to define. Both refer to movements and mindsets, not to clearly delineated organizations.

What one means by “Anabaptism” is probably easier to settle on, at least in a general sense, than what one means by “evangelicalism.” Most of us would agree in linking the term with a particular (though surprisingly diverse and amorphous) movement that arose amidst the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and ultimately found institutional shape in the Mennonite churches, their siblings (such as the Amish and Hutterites), and various cousins (especially the movement that evolved in diverse forms to produce the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Grace Brethren, and German Baptist Brethren).

However, since the term was rehabilitated following Harold Bender’s widely circulated and praised summary statement, “The Anabaptist Vision,” increasingly many non-Mennonites and Brethren have used the terms in a positive sense that speaks more to certain theological and ethical sensibilities—most notably pacifism, a strong emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, simple living, and intentional community. Continue reading “Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?”