from On the Road (June 2011)
Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality
By Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation (Herald Press, 2009)
Reasoning Together brings two Mennonite theologians, Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation, into dialogue on an issue they disagree over – homosexuality. For Nation, the Bible’s witness on the issue is clear: homosexual acts are sinful; sex should only occur in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. For Grimsrud, to follow Jesus means to be on the side of the liberation of the oppressed – including homosexuals. This means the burden of proof is placed on the other side to prove that homosexual sex within the context of a same-sex marriage is wrong. For a number of reasons, he believe this burden is not discharged – particularly, the few passages which talk of homosexuality do not envisage homosexuality as an orientation nor do they refer to same-sex marriage.
The conversation moves around a lot, returning to several key points which are never fully resolved as the two writers respond to each others’ cases. I found myself unable to pick a ‘winner’, forced as I was to read counter-claims to every claim and not allowed to escape with a caricatured picture of either side.
How are we to conceptualise homosexuality? The contrast between the metaphors Nation and Grimsrud use is central to the debate. Aware of the offence it will cause – and pained by it – Nation conceptualises homosexuality as a disability, like blindness. For him, it is something that means a person is not functioning as fully as they should be. In response, Grimsrud believes a better metaphor is left-handedness, which was once thought to be a disability, but is now seen as a neutral trait, present in a significant minority of the population. For Grimsrud, homosexual acts are not inherently sinful – they are only sinful if practised outside a same sex marriage. A number of times he states that he does not believe Nation has made a case for the inherent sinfulness of homosexual sex.
The two interpret Jesus’ silence on homosexuality in opposite ways. Does it mean that Jesus endorsed the Jewish status quo, regarding homosexual acts as sinful? In this view, it was a presumption that didn’t even need mentioning. Or does his silence mean that we shouldn’t prohibit what he did not prohibit?
The opening chapter of the book is an excellent and evenhanded survey by Grismrud of the ‘restrictive’ and ‘inclusive’ cases within Christian ethics. Both writers also supply an annotated bibliography listing what they see as the key resources.
While always respectful, each of them seem frustrated with the other at different points. Perhaps this means they are being honest. On a number of points, they are just not even able to arrive at a common definition from which they can depart. Nation thinks Grimsrud overstates the importance of hospitality in the biblical narrative – it is not the only emphasis. Grimsrud thinks Nation fails to prove the inherent sinfulness of all homosexual acts. Nation thinks the meaning of the scriptures is essentially settled and inclusivists like Grimsrud are trying to avoid the obvious. The book sums up the present debate well from an Anabaptist perspective, and shows what a divisive and difficult issue it is, while also offering an example of respectful if robust conversation.
Where will the homosexuality debate take us? Will the churches remained locked in an impasse for good? Probably not. My perception is that within evangelical and Anabaptist contexts, more and more people are being won over to an inclusivist position. If this continues, the debate may subside, with the exclusivist position remaining as an ongoing minority. Will it require some kind of division between churches? For free churches, quite possibly, at least in the sense of congregations adopting an exclusivist or inclusivist position and living by it. The important question will be how they relate to congregations on the other side of the fence. For denominations like the Uniting Church and the Anglican Church without congregational government, the issue is harder fought and coming to a settlement more difficult. For a network like the AAANZ, it will remain possible to live with diversity.