Debatable Matters? What Does Christian Freedom Imply About LGBTQ+ Practice?

I have already blogged about the implications of Paul’s exhortations to the Roman Christians in Romans 14, but I think there is more to say. The question of what constitutes a faithful response to questions posed by LGBTQ+ believers and their advocates is a vexing one, and I freely acknowledge that Christians have responded very badly in the past, and need to repent for some of the words and actions that were sinful because they were destructive — unredemptive, unloving, and hurtful.

I also acknowledge that for the most part, Christians on both sides of the issue want the same thing — to lovingly, supportively, and missionally follow the example of Jesus the Christ. It is not a matter of whether to follow Jesus or whether to follow something else. It is a matter of what following Jesus entails. And we need to trust one another in our mutual assurances about this.

In the face of contentious questions, it has become common, even fashionable, to label them “debatable matters.” In doing this, Christians consign them to the realm not simply of matters that are unlikely to be resolved, but to the realm of matters that Christian need not attempt to resolve. As such, they can be permitted without fear of wrongdoing. Where forbidding seems heavy-handed, condoning seems libertine, and debating is divisive, appealing to Paul’s words in Romans 14:1 seems to offer the hope of a peaceable resolution, which is to take Paul’s imperative in Romans 14:1 at face value. Paul tells the Romans to accept or welcome the one whose faith is weak, and in v. 5, Paul reminds his readers that while one person leans one way in discernment, another leans a different way (in this case, in relation to ritual — possibly Sabbath — observance). In the end, each ” should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:5)

Is it that simple? Can we sidestep acrimony simply by deciding that issues are debatable, and on that basis decide that we can permit troubling behaviours, agreeing simply to disagree about whether or not they may be permissible? Even more, is the onus on those who would forbid to relent and affirm so that they honour those who have taken offence at the prohibition? I would submit that it is not quite that simple.

The fact that a matter is debatable does not mean that it is simply a matter of personal opinion, or theologically irrelevant. What Paul is talking about are matters that can be — and are — debated, not matters where opinions do not matter. Even in matters where there is no clear right and wrong, as in the case of food offered to idols (as described in not only Romans 14, but also 1 Corinthians 8 and 10), the outcome of discernment is of vital importance. Notwithstanding his counsel in Romans 14:5, Paul does not hesitate to be directive in relation to this matter. What Christians decide does matter. Christians who make decisions based on their perception that they can effectively do what they want decide on the basis of a faulty premise. Choosing something (even something that is not immoral) because it is what I want, when it negatively affects others, is unfaithful.

There appear to me to be a couple of reasons for this. First, Christian liberty is not intended to validate prioritizing personal preferences over the needs of others. The sum total of Paul’s teaching on the topic indicates that the object in mind in reference to eating meat is not to decree personal liberty, but rather to prevent causing strife and harm to others. (Incidentally, this is why I believe that theological reflection on the implications of biblical texts needs to be attentive to the larger witness, not simply individual texts. I have blogged about this in the past, here.)

Personal liberty comes in the context of the question of whether or not one might eat meat in a setting that is not observed by someone whose faith is weak, or in the context of someone who does not have concerns about the propriety of such matters (e.g., the unbeliever in 1 Corinthians 10:27 who offers meat without explanation). But Paul is clear. If there is an issue of conscience, and especially of doing harm to the faith of another, it is better to refrain, to avoid causing a person to sin. Freedom is never something to be wielded without considering the faith of others.

The second consideration is that Paul’s rhetoric implies that his readers ought to identify with the “strong” Christians who are called to be attentive to others, not the “weak” believers who have yet to work out that in Christ, all foods are clean. The call is not to claim weakness and so insist on accommodation, but rather to look out for those who are still in process. And it should not be assumed that “strong” is morally superior while “weak” is inferior. They are simply differentiated as being at different stages of the theological journey.

Perhaps the most important consideration is that the issue at hand — that of food possibly offered to idols — is one in which one’s choice cannot be identified either wrong or right in and of itself. What makes the difference is whether or not one acts in congruence with one’s conscience — i,e, by faith. If I eat meat despite having concerns about doing the legitimacy of doing so, I am not acting in faith, and have sinned by violating my own conscience. In absolute terms, it does not matter whether or not I eat. Paul makes it clear that a believer can eat in faith and without fear, because no food is forbidden. This accords with what Jesus says in Mark 7 about foods and with the implications of Peter’s vision in Acts 10. But we should not read the passages about this topic as providing a precedent to declare anything that is morally forbidden to now be legitimate, ans particularly not based on the reality that a prohibition has been questioned and is newly controversial. That is not what is in view in these passages.

What does this mean for consideration of same-sex practice? While I can appreciate the desire of LGBTQ+ Christians to honour the call of Jesus in a manner they find fitting, I cannot accept that there is biblical warrant either to permit same-sex practice or to declare it a debatable matter that can create space for unity despite diversity of conviction. Biblical texts are clear enough about the legitimate parameters for faithful sexual expression that failure to accommodate this diversity does not do injustice to LGBTQ+ people.

Now what? Let’s talk about what it means to be an affirming community. Stay tuned.

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