The following is a guest post by Bob Thompson. It was originally written in June of this year while the Obergefell case was before the Supreme Court and just on the cusp of the United Church of Christ’s General Synod at which Bob was scheduled to speak. I’ve reposted it here.
It’s hard for all of us not to think about homosexuality and same sex marriage this week.
On Monday, Tony Campolo wrote a blog calling for “the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church.” Robert Gagnon posted a strong and critical response on his Facebook page. Both Campolo and Gagnon have spoken at Corinth in years past, and I have respect for both. Christianity Today also posted a response to Campolo’s statement this week.
On Tuesday, the Charlotte Observer reported that Franklin Graham’s Facebook page had called for boycotts of companies like Wells Fargo and Tiffany’s that advocate for LGBT concerns. I also have deep appreciation for the Billy Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse, both led by Franklin Graham.
Yesterday we received a newsletter from a church where Linda and I served many years ago. The church is proposing an extensive addition to their constitution and bylaws defining marriage as between a man and a woman, listing all sorts of unacceptable sexual sins, and urging compassion on people no matter who or where they are.
This morning, the Hickory Daily Record ran an Associated Press article that predicts “legal chaos” if the Supreme Court, which will issue some sort of ruling later this month, allows states to decide whether to recognize gay marriage. Also today, the Charlotte Observer printed an LA Times piece about Miley Cyrus, who has said she is open to any sexual relationship between consenting humans.
Also this morning, I had a voice mail from a church member who said his Sunday School class at our church spent the entire class this past Sunday discussing homosexuality.
For me, the topic is even more unavoidable. Tonight I will speak at Concordia Lutheran Church in Conover on “Humility and Homosexuality,” a speaking engagement set up months ago. Next week, I will attend the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, a perennially strong voice for gay and lesbian concerns. (I chose Romans 1 as my text for the preaching festival!) The final week of June, Linda and I will represent Faithful and Welcoming Churches at the General Synod of the UCC. I expect that the Supreme Court will announce its decision while we are mingling with some of the most passionate religious advocates of LGBT causes.
Maybe in a rapidly changing culture you can avoid rethinking what you believe about homosexuality and how you speak about it, but I can’t. Not this month. Not even today. As a Reformed (motto: “Always Reforming”) pastor, I am always rethinking everything, but always under the authority of Scripture, alone. So in my mind I’m reviewing the themes and texts that have become so central to me in conversations across the years about homosexuality.
Creation (Genesis 1). The reason I can’t join Tony Campolo and the large shift in American culture toward affirming same sex marriage and homosexual practice has little to do with the half-dozen oft-discussed biblical texts that explicitly refer to homosexuality. It has more to do with a cohesive and pervasive biblical ethic that begins in Genesis 1 when God created humans male and female. I search from one end of the Bible to the other and although I see a variety of sexual behaviors, I find the only consistent affirmation of sexual expression is between a man and woman in marriage.
Self-denial (Mark 8). Christian proponents of same sex relationships need to find a basis other than explicit biblical texts, and generally join the broader culture in finding that basis in exploring and affirming “who you are.” In other words, look within yourself, to your desires and impulses in order to find your identity, sexually or otherwise. The “right to be me” and the “freedom to do as I choose” are thoroughly American values. This approach to identity and ethics is so pervasive that it also lives among Christians of all ideologies and types on a broad range of topics – not just sex. “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right” has become a mantra in culture and church. We forget that Jesus’ message was quite the opposite. We only find true life through self-denial. When I look within, the natural impulses are to be mistrusted and resisted. To follow the desires of self is to invite destruction.
Calling (1 Corinthians 7). What Paul says in the middle part of the chapter directly resists our impulse to seek fulfillment by changing our circumstances. Certainly there are times to seek change, but the default choice in calling is to assume that God has placed you where you are. That includes your relationships, your job, your church, everything. Trust God enough to believe that he knew what he was doing when he made you like you are and put you where you are. This is about another pervasive biblical value: contentment. The beautiful irony is that God will often change our circumstances, but only after we have by grace accepted our current situation. A restless and mobile society is constantly on the run for something elusive that feels like it’s just around the corner. Paul says my current situation is where God wants to work in me and through me.
Sins (Romans 1). You might think you know where I’m going when I bring up Romans 1, but I doubt it. Read carefully verses 18-32 about the wrath of God and the sin list that follows. Note especially the pronouns. Romans 1 is about “the sins of them” – sins that cause us to condescend toward others because we aren’t guilty of those acts. Paul wants you reading Romans 1 thinking about how bad “they” are – no matter who your “they” is. Then he lowers the boom in Romans 2:1. As soon as you judge “them,” you judge yourself. When you clobber someone with Romans 1, you get clobbered by Romans 2. Thinking your sins are less sinful than theirs makes you just as deserving of God’s wrath. You are often most disturbed when “they” don’t even acknowledge how sinful “they” are. I will guarantee you “they” think the same about you. One reason I can’t join Franklin Graham in a call for a boycott over affirmation of homosexuality is that every Christian (including me), church, and era tends to have its list of sins it overlooks and its list it condemns. If I target one area of sin, I contribute to the self-righteousness of those who don’t see themselves guilty of that sin – while excusing so many others.
Compassion (Psalm 103). All through both testaments are beautiful texts that speak of God’s compassion for us and exhort us to compassion for others. In Psalm 103, David the psalmist is keenly aware of his sins, but they are forgiven. He knows what he deserves, but God will not treat him that way. He’s aware of his human brevity and frailty, but God is aware too. (If you want to point out that in Psalm 103 God’s love is “with those who fear him…and obey his precepts,” re-read the above paragraph on “Sins”.) I would be terrified if I believed God forgives only the sins I name, the sins I acknowledge, or the sins I never return to. God’s compassionate forgiveness in Christ treats me as I never sinned and never will again. In gratitude for that love I seek to live a life of holiness, including a life of compassion extended to others. Whether their behavior I find unacceptable is due to willful sin, ignorance, a wounded past, or heredity – or whether it’s my own blindness that makes their action offensive – I’m willing to leave judgment to God and offer the same compassion I hope they will offer to me. I keep reminding myself that I should be especially compassionate when someone else’s sin is not my sin and more so when their sin is not even my temptation. Kindness, listening, caring, loving, learning – these are all biblical values I need to apply to every person I meet.
Unity (John 17). One greatly overlooked biblical text is Jesus’ number one strategy for evangelism: the visible unity of the church. As more Christians target each other privately and publicly, the world will continue to see our fractures and public flogging of one another as their number reason not to believe. We’re going to see more churches taking their “stand,” meaning that the message will be that no LGBT person (or their advocates) need show up. If polls are true that the majority of Americans now affirm same sex relationships, and we make it a critical part of our identity that we don’t, then essentially we’re saying to half or more of the world around us, “If you want to find a relationship with God and Jesus, don’t come here.” Other churches proclaim their full affirmation of same sex couples, and their message to the world is, “If you don’t identify as LGBT (or side with those who do), don’t come here.” What will be lost in both cases is Jesus’ prayer for unity and our ability to convince the world that we have any credibility. The way we often do business is no different than the rest of the culture, where people make up their minds, slam their opponents, and separate into ever-narrowing cliques of the like-minded.
Humility (Philippians 2). I find it intriguing that Paul may never have written (or quoted, some think) the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 about Jesus’ humility and exaltation if he had not been trying to make the point about humility in our relationships with one another. For Paul in Philippians 2, humility is first and mostly about how you think, not so much what you do or say. We often (mis)judge humility – our own and others’ – by what we can see from the outside. Paul says where we need the change is with our “attitude.” I must own my own sins and brokenness, I must admit there’s so much I don’t know, I must confess that I might be wrong because, after all, so many Christians down through the years are now almost universally acknowledged to have read the Bible wrong on a plethora of topics. Gamaliel was right in Acts 5 – sometimes you have to let God sort it out over time. Whatever word I have to say will not be the final word on this or any other subject. I have to learn to think that way. This is not to say that there is no absolute truth. There is a remarkable and consistent consensus around the essentials of the Christian faith that stretches from the early church until the present day, all around the world. That consensus has been often challenged, but given a generation or so, it returns intact even in the midst of swirling blind spots. Ultimately humility results in patience.
Prayer (1 Timothy 2). On the heels of his own humility as the “chief of sinners” in chapter 1, Paul reminds Timothy to urge everyone to pray for governments and their officers. But he doesn’t urge us to pray that they would see things our way or order society on Christian principles. He wants us to pray that government will get out of the way so that we can live “peaceful and quiet lives in all gentleness and holiness” so that we can proclaim the truth of Jesus, the “one mediator between God and mankind.” I’m not all that worried about whether the state or federal government allows gay marriage, although I oppose that shift. I’m more concerned that we continue to live in freedom to proclaim and live the gospel. God has left humanity with a remarkable level of freedom – as individuals and as societies. He rarely interferes directly, for reasons I do not fully understand. Maturity in the faith sees our primary role as one of prayer – because prayer acknowledges that God’s in control and not me.
I’m glad God didn’t leave me in charge. I couldn’t handle it. Not this week anyway.