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. Continue reading “Damaging the Christian faith? Questions about some anti-gay sentiments”

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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? Continue reading “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)”

Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part one)

Ted Grimsrud

The place where I have been working since 1996, Eastern Mennonite University, is currently engaged in a “listening process.” This process is meant to provide input for the school’s leadership as it considers making an overt policy of non-discrimination in relation to hiring faculty and staff who are in “covenanted same-sex relationships.” In the public statements concerning this process, the main rationale that has been given for changing hiring practices has been, it seems, that people in the EMU community disagree about these issues, that increasing numbers of new hires at EMU express disagreement with the assumed position of Mennonite Church USA (owner of EMU) that covenanted same-sex relationships are sinful, and a sense that younger people (i.e., including prospective EMU students) are less likely to share the restrictive views of the older generation.

This process is explicitly not about considering these issues from a theological framework. This is from one of the FAQs on the EMU website: “It is not our desire in this listening process to enter into theological debate when some of the most respected theologians and church leaders do not agree on interpretation. Rather, it is our desire to focus on relationships and prayer in a way that reflects the life and love of Christ in the midst of deeply held beliefs and values.”

However, since I am a Mennonite theologian (teaching in the Bible and Religion Department at EMU and an ordained Mennonite pastor), I can’t help but think about these issues theologically. So I want to articulate a theological rationale for EMU to quit discriminating. One reason that I think such a rationale is important for EMU’s consideration is my sense that the only possible reason for discrimination 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.
Continue reading “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part one)”

Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 2)

[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]

Merger and the “Membership Guidelines”

In February of 2000, an open letter was published in the Mennonite Weekly Review signed by close to 1,000 Mennonite church members, including numerous pastors and other church leaders, calling for a more inclusive approach. The letter asked for more conversation among those in Mennonite churches and sought to demonstrate that those who favored inclusion made up a sizable minority of church members.

I signed the MWR letter and afterwards learned that I was the only ordained person in Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) to sign it. About a year after the MWR letter, VMC issued a statement requiring ordained people in the conference to agree not to advocate against the statement’s points about “homosexual practice”—including this one: “We believe that the practice of homosexuality is rebuked by Scripture as sin.” This requirement was never actually strictly enforced, but I did face an extended process of having my credentials reviewed. In the end, the conference pressured me to resign my ordination but was not quite willing to remove it when I resisted the pressure.

The MWR letter was released in the midst of negotiations between the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church to merge. Numerous people took the impending merger as an opportunity to exert pressure to keep Mennonite churches from allowing for the presence of the inclusive perspective affirmed in the MWR letter.

At the joint general assembly of MCs and GCs in 1999, the GCs voted to affirm the merger. And, Canadian members of both denominations decided to join together apart from the US churches and form Mennonite Church Canada as a separate entity from the US churches. However, the MC delegates did not achieve the pro-merger vote that was required, so the process continued. One of the main stated issues was that numerous MC delegates threatened to reject the merger unless the anti-inclusive stance of the denomination were strengthened.

So, what became the 2001 Membership Guidelines were formulated. Enough of those who opposed inclusion found the strict anti-inclusion provisions acceptable (and enough of those who supported inclusion were willing to give up on a more inclusive denominational stance for the sake of achieving the merger) that the delegate approved the merger and Mennonite Church USA was created.

It was notable, that in face of the threats by some not to agree to the merger, these Guidelines, a relatively short document (4 pages) that spoke to the key issues that would shape the proposed new denomination devoted about 25% of its length and one of its three main sections to “Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership,” in effect giving the “homosexuality” issue status as the most important issue facing this new denomination (I have written a critique of the Guidelines here). Continue reading “Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 2)”

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)”

A helpful resource on homosexuality

[A review of C. Norman Kraus, On Being Human: Sexual Orientation and the Image of God (Cascade Books, 2011)]

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud

Norman Kraus provides something that has, by and large, been missing from Christian theological discussions about homosexuality—careful theological analysis of some of the foundational issues about how we understand human beings in the image of God.

This short book contains an essay from Kraus that is thoughtful, carefully laid out, and fairly dense, accompanied by several short responses to Kraus’s statement by people representing four somewhat diverse perspectives, though all laudatory of Kraus’s effort. While Kraus and his companions in this book are Mennonites and the book certainly speaks to Mennonite debates and efforts at discernment, it is written in a more general tone that makes the book relevant and useful for a variety of church-related contexts.

As I read it, this book most centrally argues for an understanding of human life where we recognize our creation in God’s image and, from that recognition, appreciate our created need for intimacy with other human beings and, for the vast majority of us, a need for one particularly intimate relationship that involves commitment, mutuality, and sexual expression.

Kraus does affirm, in this context, the moral validity of same-sex intimacy that follows the same moral expectations Christians affirm for heterosexual relationships—fidelity, a livelong commitment, shared life in the context of involvement in a congregation. He does this while giving little attention to the debate about the several short biblical passages that are usually affirmed or debunked as providing churches’ most authoritative guidance. Continue reading “A helpful resource on homosexuality”

A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part three)

Ted Grimsrud—May 22, 2012

In Part One of these three posts, I suggested that Christians should be disposed to affirm gay marriage—and then noted three arguments that tend to be used to override that positive initial disposition. Then, in Part Two, I focused on two of those three arguments that tend to be used as bases for withholding affirmation of gay marriage in Christian churches: that by the nature of it being between people of the same sex, gay marriage is harmful to the people involved and that gay marriage undermines the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. In this final post, I will look at the third argument: the teaching of the Bible.

The discussion of the Bible’s teaching is probably the most contentious of all three of our “debates.” Here are just a few thoughts.

The Bible, on the one hand, contains a great deal of teaching and many stories that indirectly speak to our general theme of affirming gay marriage (or not). Not least are the teachings and stories that speak about hospitality and God’s special concern for vulnerable people. As well, teachings and stories about human relationality (going clear back to the very beginning when God says of Adam that it is not good for this first human being to be alone). We also have teaching and stories about the importance of fidelity in relationships and the problems of socially harmful actions (such as violence, injustice, adultery, abuse in various forms).

On the other hand, the Bible does not say much directly about homosexuality (which is not surprising given that the term “homosexuality” itself is a modern term that seems to reflect a modern awareness of affectional orientation and sexual identity). What do we make, though, of the several texts that have typically been seen as providing a basis for generalizing about a biblical mandate to forbid same-sex intimate relationships (and, certainly, same-sex marriage)?

We should notice three things about these texts (the main ones that interpreters usually focus on are the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18–19, the teaching in Leviticus 18 and 20 against “men laying with men as with women,” and Paul’s references in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 to problems with same-sex sexual behaviors [we could also include 1 Timothy 1:10 which clearly is derivative from I Corinthians 6 and adds no new information to the issues raised in these texts]): (1) the Bible speaks only of male “homosexuality,” (2) the Bible is concerned with various behaviors, not just one “homosexual practice,” and (3) the New Testament contains no direct commands to Christians concerning homosexuality. Continue reading “A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part three)”

A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 21, 2012

In the first part of this post, I suggested that Christian churches should be disposed toward affirming gay marriage. Two key factors that support this disposition are (1) the sense we have that marriage is a good thing that should be encouraged and supported in the churches and (2) the emphasis the Bible places on hospitality, especially toward vulnerable people, as a central calling of faith communities.

Both of these points speak to a general disposition, that we should be inclined toward affirmation unless there are clear reasons to override this disposition. It would be possible to draw negative conclusions about gay marriage even if one affirms the disposition toward affirmation. We could do so if we were convinced that there is something inherently immoral about the same-sexness of the partnership.

The argument in favor of affirming gay marriage, though, is at its heart an argument in favor of rigorous moral expectations concerning intimate relationships. It is an argument that same-sex couples should be expected to adhere to the moral standards that govern heterosexual marriage. It is not an argument for relaxing those standards or applying different standards to same-sex couples than apply to heterosexual couples.

The challenge for those who would not affirm gay marriage, then, is to show that there is something inherently wrong simply in the partners being of the same sex. I identified three reasons that are often given by those who do withhold affirmation. The relationships are seen to be immoral: (1) if the relationship is harmful to the people involved; or (2) if the relationship undermines the sanctity of marriage; or (3) if the Bible tells us that, even so, this relationship violates God’s will for human beings.

I use the case of the relationship between “Ilse” and “Jennifer” (based on actual people I know) to present the most positive scenario possible on behalf of affirming gay marriage. To withhold such affirmation, one would need to show why this relationship is immoral (and overcome the benefit of the doubt in favor of affirmation based on the positive value we see in marriage and the biblical call for hospitality toward vulnerable people). Continue reading “A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part two)”