Friday, May 31, 2013
The Priority of Ministry in the Debate about Homosexuality
There are some interesting, unexpected twists in the Bible. For example:
Jesus defies theological tradition and heals people on the Sabbath, claiming that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.
Peter and the council in Jerusalem accept the idea that uncircumcised Gentiles are as favored by God as the Jews, after Peter shares his story of witnessing the Holy Spirit fall on his new, non-Jewish, God-fearing friends. (Acts 10-11)
Paul pushes against multiple religious sensibilities when he tells both Jewish and Gentile Christians to let their convictions guide them regarding eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols.
These are examples of how theology is impacted when preceded by ministry.
Jesus preferred people over theological tradition and scandalized his opponents. Peter engaged with the Gentiles in Antioch long before Paul developed a theological framework for what had happened there. Paul’s concern for how Jews and Gentiles were going to live as one people as followers of Jesus formed his thinking about religious dietary regulations.
I’ve been talking to some people (again) about the various controversies regarding same-sex marriage and the place (or even the possibility) of gay people in the life of the church. The polarizations that have resulted from the larger discussions out there have done little except to fragment churches, denominations, and people.
We in the west tend to sort things out by starting with the abstract (theories and theologies) and then moving toward some sort of ministry practice or standard of behavior. But what might happen if we began by engaging with real, live people instead? That isn’t to say that having theological convictions isn’t important; it’s that theological convictions should arise out of our engagement with Scripture and with what we believe that God is doing in the world.
Denominations have crafted two polarized responses to same-sex marriage, with any number of variations in between them. One pole is grounded in particular texts of Scripture and denies gay people membership in the church. The other operates out of a conviction of God’s love for all people and fully embraces gay people and affirms gay marriage. They both begin with a theological standard and follow with a standard of behavior.
I am curious about what would happen if some of the leaders in these various groups sat down with some gay people who claimed to be followers of Jesus, and asked them to talk about how they saw the spirit of Jesus at work in their lives? If there were couples at the table, they could be asked how they were experiencing and demonstrating the presence of Jesus in their relationships. Then others in the room could offer their own testimonies. I wonder if the people would be challenged in the way that Peter was challenged when he saw the Holy Spirit at work among the Gentiles? Or would the room just be silent?
I’ve had such an experience. I have spent quite a bit of time with some devout Christian friends who were also gay. I have heard their testimonies and stories, of encounter and faithfulness, of deep struggle and pain, of joy found in salvation and in the presence of Jesus. We have prayed together and prayed for others together.
At the same time, I was raised with some very traditional and negative views about homosexuality. A long time ago I had to start living between the tension of my received convictions and what I was seeing in the lives of my friends. This has not been abstract for me—the process began in earnest when I became a pastor and there were gay people who came to my church. These were not people with some kind of political agenda. They were, like me, people who wanted to orient their lives around Jesus.
I’m hoping that some folks will rise up—people like the apostle Paul—who will help us with a responsible, theological way forward. We need someone who is willing to revisit our Scriptures without simply editing out the parts that offend. We need someone who is willing to take on the risky task of exploring what God might be doing in some unexpected places (there’s a lot of that in the New Testament, as I recall) without simply declaring that all is okay, everyone is okay, and let’s all just get along (I’m pretty sure that none of us is okay. That’s why we trust in a lot of things about God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the need for reconciliation).
There are precedents for this kind of thing throughout church history. It’s never been easy and it won’t be easy now. That is, if anyone is willing to do it.