Can’t We Just Agree to Disagree? Talking About Sexuality in the Church

If in my posts on sexuality it seems that I derive joy from writing what seems like a hard line, or from being the bearer of what, for some, seems like a difficult message, please let me assure you that this is not the case. I am not a fan of controversy for its own sake. I make no claims of special authority in theological matters. I simply bear witness to what I am compelled to believe is true.

In fact, I’m sympathetic to the “agree to disagree” line of thinking with respect to contentious issues such as sexuality. I have grown up in church circles where angry people wielded the “truth” like a club, battering all of those who dared to disagree with them. I have seen the damage they inflicted. Worse, I have seen how they were blind to their own errors, so that what came through most clearly was not the truth, but rather their own hypocrisy. I don’t relish confrontation generally, because I am only too aware of my own limitations — more and more as I get older.

But I have problems with the “agree to disagree” philosophy, and they sit along two main issues. First, allowing for diversity (not only of belief, but of practice) tends to erode the substance of what we believe together. Left unchecked, it becomes difficult to identify what we hold in common, other than an ethereal commitment that we say is to Jesus. I agree that it is important to confess that what holds us together is the unity of the Spirit in our common commitment to Jesus the Christ. The early Christians realized this. And there is legitimate room for diversity in some matters. But our common commitment needs to be represented in a substantive and visible discipleship that unites our covenant community. I believe that our theology of sexuality is a matter that requires substantive agreement. Without this, talk of unity rings hollow.

The other issue is that affirming same-sex practice requires deconstruction of the human marital and sexual relationship in a way that conflicts with the embodied-ness of God’s call to faithfulness. God does not ask us to live faithfully according to our standards, or give us liberty to reconstruct God’s standards according to our inclinations. God calls us to live faithfully according to the bodily lives he has created for us. This cuts across not only same-sex practice, but also a number of other things that we take for granted — but shouldn’t (e.g., birth control, which people use largely for convenience and out of a sense of control that I believe challenges God’s control of our sexual lives). This embodied-ness encompasses not only our beliefs but also our physical existence as sexual beings created by God. It may be possible for us to alter biological processes related to sexual activity and procreation in creative ways, but we ought always to be careful not to let our trust in technology supplant our trust in God. And neither technological prowess nor cultural and self-awareness that is more sophisticated than that of past generations permits us to deconstruct processes and relationships that have location in the consistent theological reflection of the church and in natural biological processes.

I don’t propose retaining a traditional stance on sexuality. I propose extending the conversation on faithful sexual practice to include other issues that are too often overlooked. I proposed that we do so not to re-institute legalism but rather out of a desire to be truly faithful and submissive to the call to discipleship. I believe that same-sex practice, not sexual orientation, is the main issue in relation to LGBTQ+ matters; it doesn’t trouble me that people feel same-sex attraction or non-binary orientation. If Romans 14 helps us live with people who identify as non-binary, gay, or queer, then great. If it is a tool by which to argue that same-sex practice is a legitimate mode of Christian discipleship, then I don’t think it is a faithful appeal to Paul’s teaching, especially because Paul was very well aware of the reality of same-sex practice. He could have made room for it, but he didn’t, the way he made room for other highly contested practices.

I envision a church community where there is both grace and room for us to help each other through the messy work of figuring out what being followers of Jesus means. It doesn’t reject anyone as ineligible if that person is willing to commit to Jesus without reservation. But I do not believe it is faithful to relinquish a commitment to embodied truth, We learn truth in an embodied way, and the truth that unites us must be similarly embodied. Without it, we have no reliable measure by which to evaluate our process, and we will inevitably tend to recreate Jesus in our image. What is more, we will allow ourselves to be tossed to and fro from one hot-button issue to the next. That is not our calling. But that does not mean we relinquish grace and mercy, either. What does living this out look like? I think the formal principle is clear, but we have yet to do the difficult work of putting it into practice. That is the part that needs to come next.

3 thoughts on “Can’t We Just Agree to Disagree? Talking About Sexuality in the Church

  1. Thank you Brian
    A much-needed which you delivered with gentle gracious fidelity. The Lord be praised!

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