“The Faith of the Cross
and The Virtue of Dialogue“
A Review of
A Conversation on Homosexuality.
by Ted Grimsrud and Mark Nation.
By Chris Smith.
“[T]he kingdom of God is… in the faith of the cross
and in the virtue of dialogue.”
– St. Cyprian (c. 200-258)
Here at Englewood Christian Church, one of the Christian practices that has been most formational for our life together is dialogue. For the last thirteen years or so, since we nixed our Sunday evening service and began to circle up chairs and to talk together about the nature of our faith, conversation has become increasingly important in our relationships with one another and in our relationships with others outside our church. Sometimes we reach the point of intense disagreements in our conversations, but in these times we are reminded that the uniting work of the Spirit is stronger than the forces of our disagreements. I was therefore very excited when I heard about Herald Press’s release of Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality, and its promise of dialogue on one of the most emotional and divisive issues in the Church today. My experience has been that calm, thoughtful and respectful dialogue on this issue is almost non-existent. Reasoning Together is an excellent book that captures the conversations between two Mennonite scholars: Ted Grimsrud, a professor of theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University and Mark Thiessen Nation, a professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Over the course of the book, Nation argues for the “restrictive” position, which extends a loving welcome to all regardless of sexual orientation, but restricts “the church participation of gay and lesbian Christians who are in intimate relationships” (21). On the other hand, Grimsrud defends the “inclusive” position, which makes no restrictions based solely on a person’s homosexuality; however, Grimsrud does believe that in order to maintain full participation in the church community, a practicing homosexual needs to be in a committed marriage-type relationship. The authors therefore agree that within the Church, the only place for sexual intercourse is within such a covenanted relationship. As a result of this shared boundary, readers will find that many contentious questions about sexual identity, practice and politics are outside the scope of this conversation.
The conversation unfolds over the course of the book in the following format: an introductory essay by each scholar, a lengthy essay from both authors defending their position with response and counter-response, followed by two rounds of questions from each author with responses by the other author, and the conversation concludes with a chapter describes the “common ground” that the authors share. I will not recount for you here all the twists and turns that this dialogue takes, but perhaps it will be beneficial to summarize the authors’ points of agreement, as named in the final chapter, because these points provide a framework for the shape of this conversation:
1) The centrality of the Bible
2) The importance of care and respect for vulnerable people
3) Affirmation of marriage as the only morally-valid context for sexual intercourse
4) Social constructivism
5) Opposition of a double standard in the churches with regard to the sexual sins of heterosexuals and gays
6) Welcoming gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gendered people into our lives and into our churches (247-250)
Given that both authors are firm in their recognition of the Bible’s centrality to Christian ethics, it is not surprising that much of this dialogue explores how the biblical texts related to homosexuality should be interpreted. Grimsrud argues that, when read in context, none of the scriptural prohibitions related to homosexuality condemn all forms of homosexual practice, but rather only certain homosexual practices: e.g., between men and boys, etc. Nation, although granting that there are few such “direct texts” that squarely address homosexuality, does adhere to a more traditional interpretation that categorically prohibits homosexual practice of any form among the people of God, a position which he notes that the Church had universally affirmed until about 30 years ago. The back-and-forth of the authors on these issues of interpretation raises many important hermeneutic questions: e.g., to what extent should we rely upon the tradition of the Church in biblical interpretation, or to what extent can we fully understand and rely upon the context in which any particular passage is set? The conversation recorded in this volume, highlights the importance of such theological questions, which might otherwise seem esoteric; the ways in which we interpret scripture drive our ethics and the form our relationships will take within the Church – in this case, particularly with homosexuals.
Another striking facet of this conversation was the authors’ exploration of Christian hospitality. While both authors emphasize the importance of hospitality in the Church, Nation charges that Grimsrud has made “hospitality into an overarching or programmatic theme within Scripture” instead of recognizing it as “one moral claim among many” (170). Nation states that our call to hospitality must be held in tension with our call to be a holy people. Grimsrud denies Nation’s claim, noting that his calls for hospitality/inclusion are bounded by the clear scriptural rejection of certain sexual practices (e.g., promiscuity, adultery, abuse). Once again it seems that the disagreement between these scholars is centered on whether Scripture prohibits all homosexual practice or only certain practices.
This book is also an excellent resource on the theological literature related to homosexuality. Not only do the authors discuss throughout their conversations the merits and flaws of specific books, like Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice, they also each include an appendix in which they offer an annotated bibliography of resources that have been useful in the formation of their respective positions. The discussion of these resources is a valuable asset to anyone who seeks to immerse themselves in further exploration of questions about homosexuality and Christian ethics.
Reasoning Together is therefore an excellent book that should be read widely in churches. Not only is it refreshing to hear calm, rational conversation on this topic by noted scholars, this book also opens the doors for us to enter into our own conversations related to sexual identity and practice. May the Spirit guide us in this way, and may our conversations be as irenic and respectful as the one offered to us in this book!