In the recent history of Christian discipleship, few issues have proven more controversial than consideration of how LGBTQ+ sexuality fits within the church, and how Christians who desire to live and reflect faithfully on the claims of Jesus the Christ should respond to people who profess a non-traditional sexuality or gender. It seems to me that more than is true in the case of other theological disagreements, this divide threatens to tear asunder the fabric of Christ’s church.
Past controversies have proven terribly destructive, but this one seems to be more so, and I think there is an important reason for this that is seldom acknowledged. But my hope is that by attempting to name the issues clearly without objectifying anyone in the process, perhaps the way can be cleared to at least have a more fruitful conversation.
I will clarify at the outset that my overarching commitment is to unity. I cannot agree with approaches to theological dialogue that allege to pursue truth over unity, since unity is a non-negotiable characteristic of Christ’s church. Nor do I believe that agreeing to disagree is a fruitful approach to this topic. In some areas of theology, agreeing to disagree is appropriate, even helpful. There are enough troubles in Christian discipleship; we need not create more. But this is not one of those topics, and here is why I believe this to be the case.
Non-essential theological issues (the historic term for them is adiaphora) are matters about which church members have never attempted to articulate a consensus, for reasons that are usually obvious. What colour hymn books should we use? Is it appropriate to wear socks and sandals? What time should church services start? These are questions that carry no theological weight, and so there is no measure of faithfulness in one’s answer to them.
But issues such as the contours of faithful sexual expression and the theological definition of marriage are questions about which the church has confessed answers with specificity enough that diversity cannot be entertained without doing violence to the substance of Christian faith. This does not get to the question of whether or not those answers are appropriate; that is another matter that we will address shortly.
In some contexts, the matter of legitimate sexual practice is seen as one of biblical authority versus a different authority as the guide for Christian discipleship. While this may be true in some places, I do not wish to participate in the discussion by setting up a straw person whom I will then objectify and pillory in print. My goal is to frame the discussion for believers who believe that biblical authority is crucial for understanding and discerning faithfully.
In many situations, the difficulty is compounded by the insistence of some believers that the goal of faithful bible reading is to do what Christians did in Scripture (especially the New Testament). In passages that talk about sexuality and marriage, the expectation in biblical passages is that marriage is between a woman and a man, and that other forms of sexual activity outside the context of the marriage of a woman and a man do not reflect faithfulness to Christian discipleship.
Of course, two common replies are first, that biblical texts require many things that Christians no longer practice because of the difference between biblical contexts and contemporary contexts. We would be fooling ourselves if we were to assume that we were practising church exactly as the believers did in the New Testament. If a first-century Christian were somehow transported into one of our churches, their response is as likely to be shock and horror as it is to be warm recognition. More has changed than we acknowledge, and if we insist we are simply reading our practices out of the bible — because, of course, the Scriptures are the handbook that is the basis of our belief and practice — then we must, at a minimum, admit that we are relying on some sort of interpretive filter to guide us in our selection of texts and priorities. Simply put, what import biblical texts have for us is not self-evidently clear.
ASIDE: I am not stating the issue of our underlying interpretive framework as a problem, however. I recognize that Christians do not read the bible anew. We stand on the shoulders of others, and read in light of the living tradition in which we live. It is not only helpful but also necessary. I have written about this in the past.
The second major reply to talk about how biblical texts inform contemporary sexual practice is that contemporary conversations, research, and awareness have raised issues that were never considered by biblical authors or ancient cultures. Although there have been compelling arguments offered on both sides of this question, I do not propose to treat it, for two reasons. First, it is not possible to arrive at a definitive conclusion that will provide closure on this issue. Second, I am convinced that this question is a distraction rather than a means to resolution of the issue. Questions of self-identity and sexual orientation may be important elements of individual stories, but at the end of the day, they carry very little theological weight in terms of determining what faithful discipleship looks like.
Jesus the Christ is the pattern for discipleship. This is noteworthy both in terms of what Jesus’ example reveals, and also in terms of what it doesn’t. There is very little indication of Jesus’ personal desires or inner monologue in the gospels. Why? Because, as Jesus tells his hearers, it’s not about him. Jesus is there to do the will of the Father. Does Jesus experience unfulfilled longings? Assuredly so. Does Jesus experience temptations, including temptations related to sexual attraction? Well, we read in Hebrews 4 a depiction of the Incarnation that suggests that Jesus experienced every kind of temptation that we do, but did not give in to any of it. This is the basis for Jesus’ unique role as exemplar and mediator. And Jesus’ example cannot be spiritualized or deconstructed in a way that allows obedience in spirit but not in practice. Jesus’ obedience was embodied, and so must ours be. It may be recontextualized, but it will be visibly recognizable nonetheless. And Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians in, 1 Corinthians 6, to honour God with their bodies, reminds us of the importance of embodied obedience. I do not think this is less important for us than it was for them.
What of Jesus’ inner longings? We read the clearest accounting of them in John 17, where Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane before his trial and execution. There, what we see is both an honest acknowledgement of his desire and a willing surrender of that desire to the will of the Father. What matters in Jesus’ life is that he willingly and knowingly does the will of the Father. How he feels about it is of far lesser significance. If that is the case for Jesus, what are the implications of this for us? And more, if our feelings about the implications of discipleship are secondary to our obedience, does it matter what the nature of our feelings are? Does it matter whether we are binary or not, straight, queer, trans, or something else? Every one of us has desires that we need to surrender. Because it’s not about us. And no one comes to this discernment point from a position of strength or virtue. We are all broken, because unlike Jesus, we do sin. That’s why we need grace. And because we know who we are inside, that is why we extend grace.
To be continued…
It has been remarked by a friend elsewhere that “somehow only hetero couples are allowed to experience love, attachment, sexual intimacy…almost like white privilege….” I recognize that human standards of fairness may seem to collide with Christian expectations regarding a number of areas of ethics, and especially sexuality. In response, I ask this: Does the fact that the call of discipleship seems less attractive to some people make it unequal in the demands it places on everyone? Hetero couples don’t get a free pass to do whatever they like, and none of them — including me, I will hasten to add — is blameless. No one has standing to judge another.
And so no one who is not hetero is going to receive judgment from me. That is for God, not for me, to dispense (I realize that there are a lot of Christians who need to learn this principle). However, that does not mean that I will not contest (not as a person who has all the answers, or special standing, but as an one voice in the conversation) the appropriation of Christian discipleship by those who want to renegotiate its terms, or worse, recreate Jesus according to their preferences.