Friday, May 23, 2008

An Evangelical Scholar Speaks Out on Homosexuality

David Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, is a self-described Evangelical centrist. He is also a brave man, who has written two columns for the Associated Baptist Press about homosexuality. The first column, published in late March focused on how the church treats GLBT persons:

I’m one of the few leaders in Baptist life with the freedom to talk openly and honestly about the complex theological, moral, pastoral, and public policy issues raised by homosexuality without destroying myself professionally.

Because I hold a tenured professorship in Christian ethics at Mercer University, I am one of those rare souls who can talk candidly about this hot-button issue. And these days I’m finding it hard to avoid the nagging and unsought conviction that this freedom now demands responsible exercise.

Methodology is everything. Starting points are everything. Glen Stassen and I wrote a widely read book in which we argued that truly Christian ethics focuses relentlessly on Jesus Christ. It starts there, it dwells there, it ends there. All statements about Christian morality -- all statements about anything -- must fit with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. Jesus is where God meets the world, and thus where any who bear his name must meet the world as well.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He defined neighbors to include everyone. Absolutely everyone. He sharpened that definition by calling us to attend to those regarded as the last, the least and the lost. The most rejected, the most hated, the most abandoned, the most feared, the most loathed, the most despised, the most mocked -- these are the people to whom Jesus most directs us to offer our love.

. . .

In light of the hatred, mockery, loathing, fear and rejection directed at homosexuals in our society -- and in our churches -- I hope to God that I am not and never have been a perpetrator. But I fear I have indeed been a bystander. I am trying to figure out what it might mean to be a rescuer.

There are always very, very compelling reasons to be a bystander. Mainly these revolve around self-interest. You live longer when you are a bystander. People like you more. And even if you entertain nagging questions of conscience about your inaction, in the end it is easier to stay out of it. And so the hated group keeps getting thrown under the bus.

There are dozens of such particular flashpoints related to the issue of homosexuality. Christians, their churches, their denominations and their institutions are arguing about everything from homosexuality’s causes to whether active gays can be church members or leaders to even whether gay couples can appear alongside other families in church pictorial directories.

I want to begin a dialogue in this column by simply calling for the rudiments of Christian love of neighbor to extend to the homosexual. And the place to begin is in the church -- that community of faith in which we have (reportedly) affirmed that Jesus Christ is Lord. I call for the following Christian commitments:

-- The complete rejection of still-common forms of speech in which anti-homosexual slurs (“queer,” “fag”) are employed either in jest or in all seriousness

-- The complete rejection of a heart attitude of hatred, loathing, and fear toward homosexuals

-- The complete rejection of any form of bullying directed against homosexuals or those thought to be homosexuals

-- The complete rejection of political demagoguery in which homosexuals are scapegoated for our nation’s social ills and used as tools for partisan politics

-- The complete rejection of casual, imprecise and erroneous factual claims about homosexuality in preaching, teaching or private speech, such as, “All homosexuals choose to be that way.”

-- The complete recognition of the full dignity and humanity of the homosexual as a person made in God’s image and sacred in God’s sight

-- The complete recognition that in any faith community of any size one will find persons wrestling with homosexuality, either in their own lives or the lives of people that they love

-- The complete recognition that when Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, that includes especially our homosexual neighbors, because the more a group is hated, the more they need Christ’s love through us

There is more to be said. But this is at least a place to start.

Read it all here.

The second column, published in early May, seems to move beyond a simple "tolerance" theme:

I want to suggest in this column that two fundamental stories compete at the poles of the Christianity-and-homosexuality debate. They are alternative ways of interpreting what is really going on amidst the heated contemporary debate over homosexuality and the church. (I will confine my comments in this column to the church, not the state, and will analyze the issue, not reveal everything I think.)

The conservative narrative frames the homosexuality debate as a fight for biblical conviction in a relativistic and sexually confused culture. In this view, homosexual behavior is clearly sinful, like all other sexual behavior outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage.

Some conservative pastors, scholars, and activists treat the homosexuality issue as a pivotal matter in church life (and culture). They believe that we must hold the line right here, right now, or Christian sexual ethics (and Christian biblical commitments) will be compromised irreparably. Others try to treat it as one issue among many, but still hold the moral rejection of homosexual behavior with certainty. The “moral of this story” is that homosexuality is a sin that must be resisted even against powerful cultural currents demanding its acceptance.

At the other pole of the homosexuality debate within the Christian community is a justice-and-liberation understanding of the issue. This view holds that homosexuals are a population victimized by a bigotry rooted in irrational prejudices and a misreading of Scripture. The injustices homosexuals experience are, in this view, a cruel violation of the Christian values of love and justice. These values, in turn, are viewed as either overriding biblical prohibitions on homosexual conduct or as leading to a re-interpretation of those Scripture passages.

Those who hold this view of the debate believe that Christians should side with homosexuals and act on behalf of their liberation from such oppression and victimization. The moral of this story is that homosexuality is one of the biggest human-rights issues of our time -- and that the church must join the fight on the side of the victims.

In moments of grave moral conflict there are always such competing narratives about what’s really going on. The question becomes how we discern God’s will, how we read the signs of the times, how we figure out whose narrative is the right one.

Consider: 1850, United States: Slavery is either a biblically mandated practice or an abomination before God. 1938, Germany: The church is either called to accommodate itself patriotically to Nazi rule or to resist it even to the point of imprisonment and death. 1963, United States: The Civil Rights Movement is either a great Spirit-led force for liberating oppressed black people or a bunch of misguided rabble-rousers destroying public order. 1980, South Africa: Apartheid is either God’s plan for keeping the races separate or a grave violation of God’s will for justice. 1990, Southern Baptist Convention: Full equality of women in church leadership is either direct disobedience to Scripture or a long-delayed fulfillment of God’s will.

Those caught in the midst of such profound moral conflicts have three options: they can clearly side with one narrative, they can clearly side with the other narrative, or they can seek a kind of in-between position in an effort to take some of the rough edges off of the debate -- and, in doing so, perhaps prevent irreparable divisions in churches and denominations.

But in the end, as the examples above indicate, on the most significant issues, the middle-of-the-road position almost always fails.

In the homosexuality debate, these in-between positions have created at least tentative common ground within many churches and denominations. One might say that they have bought a bit of peace and some time for further reflection on this issue. Most of these have involved at least the tacit acceptance of the idea that homosexual behavior does contravene God’s will. We can call this the “sinful, but” position.

In this view, homosexual behavior is sinful, but homosexual orientation/inclination (as opposed to behavior) should be viewed as temptation rather than sin. Therefore, those struggling with homosexual inclination but not acting on it should be included in the fellowship of the church along with all other struggling sinners.

And, according to this view, homosexual behavior is sinful, but so are many, many other things that people -- including churchgoing Christians -- do. Leading church sins include anger, factionalism, lovelessness, greed, luxury, selfishness, gluttony, gossip, and pride. Therefore, a church can either practice a consistent church discipline in which every sin is met with resistance and accountability by the congregation -- leading, when necessary, to exclusion of the offending party (a rare position in today’s churches). Or a congregation hewing to the middle-road position can opt for a form of church life in which believing sinners congregate for forgiveness, instruction, and community. If it chooses this latter stance, homosexuals can be quietly accepted in the community as believing sinners like everyone else.

Also, in this intermediate view, homosexual behavior is sinful, but Christians need to be compassionate. Therefore, we need to offer hospitable welcome to gays, but not affirmation of homosexual practice.

Finally, in this view, homosexual behavior is sinful, but Christian anti-homosexual activism has damaged our evangelistic witness. Therefore, we need to quiet down on this issue while not changing our basic stance.

The “sinful, but” stance definitely can take the edge off of the homosexuality debate. It can offer a welcome reduction of attention to this particular sin among all sins. And it is a pretty safe position in many Christian circles, so self-interest drives many church leaders to this stance.

But the ultimate question does not lie here, so the middle-of-the-road positions leave the fundamental issue unresolved.

The deeper question is posed by the competing narratives presented above. Either homosexual behavior is by definition sinful, or it is not. If it is sinful by definition, then presumably it must be resisted like any other sin. If it is not sinful by definition, then the homosexuality issue is a liberation/justice struggle for a victimized group.

Probably the right answer to this question will be very clear to everyone (that is, to 99% of all reasonable Christian human beings) in 100 years, as the proper positions on slavery and Nazism and civil rights and Apartheid are to modern-day Christians. But in real time, right now, it is tearing churches and denominations apart here and around the world.

Read it all here. I think this is a very big deal.

Gunshee writes a weekly column. You can find them here.


Steve said...

Chuck, You're right--this is a huge deal. I saw the second of Gushee's columns posted on another blog and had a nice email exchange with him about it. He frames the issues very well and definitely seems to be moving in the direction of tolerance and affirmation.

Michael said...

Thanks Chuck for posting this. At last, a very well thought out description of what is going on now from someone, who even with tenure has something to lose.

Kudos to this brave soul.

A.Z. said...

If mankind is still here in 100 years, 99 percent of all reasonable Christians will still consider homosexuality to be sinful, just as they do today.