Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sacred Cows, Slippery Slopes and Corneliuses

Somewhere deep in the bowels of Boston on an inbound Green Line train over two decades ago l slaughtered a sacred cow. At the time I was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological seminary but I was returning from a class at Boston College taught by the noted feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. Obviously, I was exploring beyond the prescribed boundaries of Evangelicalism. I had already been questioning the connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Now I was staring down the sacred cow of inerrancy. I knew that the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, free from error was a foundational tenet of Evangelicalism. My doubts had been sending the sacred cow out to pasture but now was the time to cut the ties. I understood that my Evangelical beliefs had painted me into a corner. Believing that the Bible accurately recorded God's instructions to kill innocent women and children during the conquest of the Promised Land pushed me to an irreconcilable moral dilemma, forcing me to choose between a divine book and divine love. Accepting the idea that the Bible is a book of human rather than divine origin allowed me to continue in relationship with a loving God while accepting that the victors write the history, soetimes using the excuse "God made me do it."

For many Evangelicals today, the trigger issue that threatens to undo their view of scripture is homosexuality. There are wonderful resources providing scholarly interpretation of the handful of verses that touch on the topic, so I won’t cover that ground here. Rather, I want to reach out to Evangelicals worried that a change in their stance on homosexuality will necessarily mean a wholesale change in their understanding of scripture. For those who fear that the only option is the  slippery slope slide away from rock solid doctrine that I took  I have two things to say. One, it is definitely possible to hold the belief that homosexuality is not a sin while simultaneously believing that the Bible is inerrant. Two, the journey down the slippery slope is filled not only with fear but also with freedom. I’ll take the issues in reverse order. 

I understand that to question one part is to question the whole. While I found liberation in embracing the path of questioning, I get it that every answer provides only temporary comfort since it also leads to new questions. Thus freedom from constrictive answers is also a loss of assurance. Those of us swimming in the deep end of free exploration find it easy to call out, "come on in, the water's fine," but what those standing on the shore really want to hear from us is that we are trained in lifesaving. Or more likely, they want their own personal lifesaver. For isn't that one of the best gifts from that branch of Christianity-"blessed assurance, Jesus is mine"? But what I want you on the shore to hear is that one gift from the deep end is the blessed assurance that we can never swim beyond the reach of the lifesaver because the power resides inside us. And when we feel weak thank God the power resides also in the other swimmers. 

Those others are a big part of why I believe that it is possible to remain Evangelical while accepting and affirming the LGBT community. The recent revelation by Tony Campolo that he now believes that homosexuality is not a sin is living proof of this possibility. And I think I can tap into my own Evangelical roots well enough to make the case that the story of the vision that Peter has in Acts 10 supports that position. Peter is struggling with the idea of sharing the gospel with an “unclean” Gentile when he has the vision of being offered unclean animals to eat. He is naturally offended at the very thought of it but eventually understands that God’s word to him is that no animal made by God is unclean. Peter then draws the obvious conclusion that neither is any human unclean. Christians of all stripes have no problem understanding this story as part of a justification for no longer keeping kosher laws, so why should we not also understand that it means that homosexuality should no longer be considered an abomination? Granted, Peter meeting Cornelius pushed him out of his comfort zone. He had to abandon the assurance of old laws that Christ had fulfilled and/or abolished. It is normal to want to be surrounded by people who think (and even look) like you. Homogeneous culture does not have to lead to rejection of those who are different, but sadly it does regularly entail just that for the sake of maintaining the status quo. So if you are going to start walking the talk that the good news of salvation is meant for every person, you may need to take some initiative in finding your Cornelius. My advice to my Evangelical sisters and brothers is to take the risk of building accepting relationships with LGBT folks. You don’t need to be affirming from the start, though trust that God can show you the way there. Many people are already at this halfway point, stuck in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” dilemma. Keep listening, both to the quiet voice of God in you and the way that God speaks through this other beloved child. It will be uncomfortable to be sure. But if we are going to learn how to live as the one grand united yet amazingly diverse Body of Christ, we are going to have to spend a lot of time getting to know the Corneliuses who may be nothing like anyone we have ever met before. And thank God for that.


Bill Worley said...

My brother in Christ,
We go way back my friend. I give you most of the human credit for my salvation. While we have been out of each other's lives for years, connecting with you through social media was a great joy for me. And I say all this to make it clear the fondness I have for you in my heart, and the high regard I have for you as a friend, a man, and a Christ-follower.

I'm sure you know by now that we do not agree on some things regarding the faith. They do not change my heart for you in any way. Plus, there are many things that I think we have much common ground on. So please, please, take this as a fellow wanderer expressing a description of the land he finds himself dwelling in now, and his desire to talk about how it compares to yours.

I'm tired of the ugliness of the sexuality battles. I'm tired of Christians giving Jesus Christ black eyes and such a horrible reputation among the lost that some may possibly never be willing to consider the truth in him because of it. I wish the church, especially the traditional and evangelical church cared more about love and justice than a list of dirty sins they are uncomfortable with. And I wish that same church cared nearly as much about living lives of love as they did about being right.

And yet...I cannot find a way to believe that God is pleased and perfectly ok with homosexuality. The very image that scripture uses to help us make sense of the relationship between God and his church is a marriage between a man and a woman. When God decided to create something that was in His image, He created man, and, seeing that it was not good for man to be alone, he created a complementary companion for him in woman. He needn't have created one of each, but He did. And I believe that God then instituted the sacrament of marriage when he said that a man and a woman would become one flesh.

There are many places in scripture where the intimate relationship between a man and woman is spoken of positively, or used as a positive analogy. There is nowhere in scripture where same sex intimacy is spoken of positively. In fact, every biblical mention of same sex intimacy is a negative one, most of them spoken of in terms of sinfulness, even abomination.

I've read some of the arguments against some of the scripture that mentions same sex intimacy directly. I find the arguments or explanations incredibly thin, often even specious. To refute the general tone of these scriptures through these methods seems like a clear case of looking to get off on a technicality.

Ultimately I find that I can only justify same sex intimacy if I am willing to suggest either that some of the scripture is in error, or that the scripture was not divinely inspired, but written solely by fallible (and apparently homophobic) men. In short, the only way same sex intimacy can be justified as acceptable behavior for the Christian is to do what you assert in your writing need not be done.

I love all my brothers and sisters, and would welcome any of them into fellowship. The glutton is welcome, but he must desire to be a glutton no more. The abuser is welcome, but he must desire to abuse no more. And the same sex attracted is welcome, but he or she must desire to no longer engage in same sex intimacy.

What do we do my friend?


Culture Dove said...

We have a reasonable dialog like this one. I care for you as a dear friend and respect your opinion. I know that the sort of change in relating to scripture is a great challenge, which is why I wrote this piece. I'm glad that we can be on this journey together.