Portland Mennonite Church—February 6, 2010
For this session, I have several topics to discuss. I will not go into any of them in much depth, but hopefully say enough to stimulate discussion. I guess the unifying theme here is how one inclusive thinker responds to many of the questions that come up concerning homosexuality.
Genes, Choices, Moral Analogies
Many people on the inclusive side emphasize the idea that gays and lesbians are “born that way,” hence the churches should affirm their sexual identity. Now, I also believe that for many people with clear same-sex affectional attraction, there was no choice involved in this attraction. And that’s an important point always to keep in mind. I do think that for many (I’d say by far most) of us the directions our basic affectional orientations are pointed are not chosen.
However, I am troubled by the inclination toward genetic determinism. I don’t think our behavior is determined by our genes. I don’t have to act on my inclinations. I agree with some on the restrictive side who argue that orientation and action are not the same—we could be oriented toward a particular kind of attraction, but it is our choice to act on that attraction.
So, I really want to focus on the question of whether there is something inherently wrong and sinful about the same-sexness of the intimate relationship? Is there something simply about the nature of their relationship being between two women that makes my friends Jennifer and Ilse’s relationship wrong—even if their attraction toward women rather than men is innate?
The best way I can think of to illustrate this point is to talk a bit about moral analogies.
One analogy is with person who is born with an inclination toward alcoholism. I’m no expert on alcoholism, and I know there are debates about how innate such an inclination is. But it is commonly thought that some people are genetically disposed toward alcoholism. The idea would be that the disposition toward alcoholism, to the extent it is something we are born with, is not in itself morally wrong. We are not to blame for being born this way. But the next point would be that we still have a choice about whether to pick up a drink or not.
So, the analogy with the innate disposition toward alcoholism would suggest that people indeed may be born affectionally oriented toward people of their same sex. They can’t help it, and being “gay” or “lesbian” or “bi-sexual” in the sense of the innate affectional orientation is not morally wrong. However, because same-sex intimate relationships are nonetheless wrong, it is thus morally wrong to act on that affectional orientation by entering into a same-sex intimate relationship. With this analogy, then, we’d say that being born gay or lesbian in terms of orientation is not wrong; we’d grant the reality of such an orientation. But this orientation does not make it morally acceptable to act on it.
A second analogy would be someone who is born left-handed. Here the analogy would work to see same-sex attraction as normal and healthy, even though in the past it has often been seen as problematic. Though we don’t really understand why it happens, we do now see it having a strong genetic component. One can resist one’s innate disposition toward lefthandedness and force oneself to do things with one’s right hand. But we would now say that is foolish—there’s simply nothing wrong with being lefthanded. And it can be emotionally damaging not to accept that. Being left-handed and being attracted to the same sex have no moral element at all, nor is either a defect. They are simply one way of being human.
Consider ways that left-handedness is analogous with same-sex affectional orientation. In both cases, the origins of the condition remain mysterious. Probably 5 to 10% of the population is strictly left-handed, some are “both-handed,” and the large majority is right-handed—similar to some estimations of the breakdown of people’s primary affection attractions.
Despite intense attempts to change handedness, it has proved to be unchangeable in many cases. In the past, before social mores changed, many left-handed people were able to “pass” as right-handed even though they remained strictly left-handed in their basic orientation.
In many cultures left-handedness has been seen as shameful. It has often been associated with inherent impurity, even with the powers of evil. Even in the Bible, the left side is associated with being condemned by God and the right side with being blessed by God (for example, the judgment scene in Matthew 25).
In recent years, though, cultural mores have changed and, more and more, left-handed people are welcomed as left-handers with no stigma attached. Such acceptance has not resulted in any negative effects on the wider culture. In North America, nonetheless, there are people still alive who have felt traumatized by the opposition they have faced for their left-handedness and their failed attempts to change.
A clear cultural consensus has emerged in North America by now that it is “normal” for our society to have a small percentage of people who are “abnormal” in their handedness, and that this abnormality does not threaten the right-handedness of the vast majority. In our culture, now, the basic goal with regard to left-handedness seems to be to accept left-handers as they are and to adapt to their needs. In fact, it is accepted now by at least some people in our culture that it is appropriate to celebrate some of the unique attributes that left-handed people have.
So, with this comparison of left-handedness and same-sex affectional orientation, I would suggest that the genetic argument is not of central importance for an inclusive position. The key issue is the conclusion that, as with left-handedness, there clearly is nothing inherently wrong with same-sex affectional orientation—and that acting on this orientation is also not inherently morally wrong (and I’ll have more to say on this lack of inherent wrongness shortly).
Are Same-Sex Intimate Partnerships Inherently Harmful?
Numerous restrictive writers cite as evidence that same-sex sexual intimacy is morally wrong the idea that it links directly with damaging health consequences. Certainly great human harm does result from the sexual behavior of some gay men—both physical problems and emotional problems related in large part to the consequences of promiscuity. However, I find it difficult to see how any of these problems are related to the “same-sexness” of the partnership per se. Promiscuous heterosexuals have the same kinds of problems—and non-promiscuous same-sexers do not. The problems are related to promiscuity, not same-sexness. And certainly women in same-sex relationships do not take the same kind of physical risks men do.
There do exist same-sex partnerships for both men and women that are healthy and life giving. These include several of my own friends—including a couple still going strong after 40 years. These examples challenge the notion that same-sex partnerships are inherently harmful.
Some sexual behaviors among heterosexual people are harmful – coercive sex, sexually-transmitted diseases, promiscuity, unfaithfulness. Heterosexuals struggle to remain committed in covenanted relationships; divorce rates soar. However, we do not, in light of these problems, generalize about “heterosexual practice” being wrong. Harmfulness within heterosexual intimate relationships challenges us to seek ways to foster more healthy relationships; such harmfulness does not lead us to deny the validity of heterosexual intimate relationships. We know that most human beings flourish best when they are in healthy marriages.
I see no logical reason why we cannot approach same-sex partnerships in the same way—the reality of harm in same-sex relationships should not be grounds to condemn all such relationships; rather, as with harm in heterosexual relationships, this should be a call to work as encouraging healthy ways of relating.
If we suspect that there is something about same-sexness that is intrinsically harmful, we should examine the best and most healthy same-sex relationships. So we would need to find something that is harmful, say, the relationship I have been talking about with Ilse and Jennifer.
Are Same-Sex Marriages a Threat to Heterosexual Marriage?
Many “restrictive” writers assert that Genesis one and two establish the importance of marriage as built into creation itself. God populates the earth (“be fruitful and multiply”) through heterosexual marriage and heterosexual marriage provides for human companionship. Departure from this norm, they suggest, threatens the very fabric of human community.
And, they add, Jesus directly quotes from Genesis in asserting the centrality of heterosexual marriage to God’s will for human life. Jesus did not need to say more than simply that God requires sexuality to be expressed in the context of male/female marriage relationships to make clear his rejection of all possible same-sex intimate relationships.
However, using the creation account and other allusions to male/female marriage as a basis for condemning all same-sex sexual expression makes a point that the texts themselves do not make. No biblical allusions to marriage or male/female sexuality say that therefore same-sex sexuality is wrong. And none of the texts that allegedly reject same-sex sexual intimacy directly refer to the creation account.
We may agree that the Bible presents procreative sex between males and females as normative in the context of male/female marriage. However, logically, we are not forced to conclude from this that all other expressions of sexuality are wrong or are threats to this norm. Our faith communities now accept as morally legitimate some forms of non-procreative sexual expression (sex between infertile married partners, sex when the partners use birth control, masturbation) without understanding them to threaten the biblical norm. So there would seem to be no reason why faith communities would have to assume that another form of non-procreative sex (between two people of the same sex) inherently threatens the norm.
Restrictive writers, in drawing upon what they see as a normative biblical view of marriage, ignore the fact that the Bible portrays marriage in quite varied ways. An obvious example is the biblical portrayal of polygamy. The Bible portrays polygamy as a normal form marriage throughout the Old Testament—and never overtly rejects that relationship pattern in the New Testament. The Bible also notoriously seems to assume a strongly patriarchal notion of marriage, in which wives are essentially thought of as their husband’s property.
Our present-day understanding of marriage as one man, one woman, equal partners for life is not the only picture in the Bible. So, to question whether same-gender committed relationships are inherently wrong because they supposedly violate “the one biblical view of marriage” as only between one male and one female doesn’t seem unreasonable.
The restrictive position seems to assume a static, timeless notion of normativity in relation to marriage – as if one ancient book sets the once-and-for all standard. But the Bible does not actually have just one view of marriage. Human understandings of marriage are thoroughly culturally embedded and not based on a clear “order of creation.” We have no clear, absolute, once-for-all standard for marriage that provides an essential criterion for judging same-gender committed relations as inherently contrary to God’s will.
Our understandings of marriage in the churches (assumed by the restrictive position and read back into the Bible as the one biblical view) surely accurately draw upon some biblical themes. However, as we consider such values as companionship, fidelity, mutuality, friendship, buildings block for community, childrearing, and procreation, we see that these attributes may also characterize same-gender committed relationships along with heterosexual marriages.
The idea that same-sex marriage would in some way undercut our commitment to the importance of heterosexual marriage seems illogical to me. Look at the failure of our churches and wider culture to sustain permanent heterosexual marriages. To think that now gay marriage is a threat to heterosexual marriage seems misguided—obviously other things have created the crisis. Blessing people who want to make a commitment of fidelity to one person for life would, I think, only strengthen the broader institution of marriage (and perhaps provide heterosexual people with some positive role models!).
It is true that the Bible only speaks of marriage between men and women. Such biblical allusions encourage us to value marriage a great deal and should lead the churches to work hard at supporting the child-rearing task many marriages have. However, I simply don’t see a connection between valuing heterosexual marriage and childrearing as our norm on the one hand (which I strongly do) and finding same-sex marriage to be bad on the other hand (which I don’t).
To be an exception to the norm need not make something a threat to that norm. We affirm other exceptions to the norm of male + female for life + children without seeing them as a threat—for example, marriages without children and second marriages for divorced folks. Why can’t we see same-sex marriage as complementary to heterosexual marriage—a way to affirm another kind of life partnership that operates with fidelity and commitment in satisfying the human need for emotional and physical intimacy?
Compare “Heterosexualities” with “Homosexualities”
It seems that people on the restrictive side argue against what they call “homosexual practice” as if they are talking about a single phenomenon—one blanket practice for all gay and lesbian ways of relating, one blanket lifestyle for all sexually active gays and lesbians.
This tendency toward such generalizations does not happen with regard to heterosexuals. We don’t talk about “heterosexual practice” or “the heterosexual lifestyle” because we know such terms can have little meaning. We have many different kinds of “heterosexual practices,” many kinds of “heterosexual lifestyles.” Well, there is no reason not to recognize that we also have many different kinds of “homosexual practices” and “homosexual lifestyles.”
Let’s think about “heterosexual practices.” We could make a list, starting at the top with the most clearly acceptable and working down to what we would see as the most morally problematic. We could start with “platonic” friendship move down to dating, to increasing levels of physical intimacy, to sexual intercourse in the context of marriage—then we could go on to adultery, promiscuity, and coercive sex. We’d likely draw the line of moral acceptability between sex in marriage and adultery.
I’d suggest we could make the same exact list with “homosexual practices.” There are just as many, with just the same kind of moral distinctions between what is to be affirmed and what is not to be affirmed. If we were to draw such parallel lists and reflect on them morally, I think we would notice several things.
For one, we’d see that heterosexuals have a lot of moral problems with their sexual practices. This fact indicates that whatever questions we might have about the morality of “homosexual practices,” we need to recognize that “heterosexual practices” are also highly problematic. I would suggest that we heterosexuals really are much better off forgetting about condemning the “homosexual practices” that would be above our line of morally appropriate sexual practices and focus our energies as getting out own house in order.
We will notice that advocates of same-sex marriage (stable, covenanted, monogamous, life-commitment relationships) do not do so because of an anything goes kind of spirit. In fact, they affirm the same kind of moral convictions that lead heterosexuals to make distinctions between morally appropriate and morally inappropriate forms of sexual behavior. The spectrum ranging from appropriate to inappropriate sexual behavior is the same for both “lifestyles.”
This means that those who affirm the value of marriage should be making common cause—both in favor of supporting and encouraging people in their marriage partnerships and in challenging those who affirm (or at least practice) sexual intimacy outside of such partnerships.
Take Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship. If we were to draw a constellation of all contexts for sexual intimacy, wouldn’t they have much more in common with, say, my marriage than with the gay bath houses in San Francisco in the hedonist hay day? Wouldn’t heterosexual “hooking up” be way more problematic than the kind of committed relationship Ilse and Jennifer have? Wouldn’t the kind of commitment seen in their relationship be something we should encourage?
And another question: don’t we run a danger of pushing gays and lesbians more into problematic behavior if we don’t make the same kind of distinction between healthy and unhealthy ways of relating that we do for heterosexual people?
I don’t see any inconsistency between affirming the moral legitimacy of same-sex marriage and believing in the intrinsic sinfulness of sex outside of marriage. It clearly seems to be possible to hold to all of these views following from the same basic theological-ethical methodology. For me, support for gay marriage follows from an affirmation of marriage as the only legitimate context for full sexual intimacy. Such support is part of a high view of marriage.
The “Sanctity” of Marriage
I affirm the sanctity of marriage while suggesting that we have the freedom to expand our definition of marriage to include same-sex couples (but not to minimize in any way that fidelity, mutuality, lifetime commitment, and accountability before God in the faith community are part of the definition of marriage). I do not mean to relativize our commitment to marriage. I fail to see how affirming the commitments of those same-sex couples who want to pledge their lifetime troth to one another before God and the church “relativizes” marriage – especially in light of the horrendous failure rate of married heterosexual couples to remain faithful to their commitments.
The allusions to “male and female” in Genesis and Jesus do clearly describe the typical intimate relationship. However, they are not overtly presented as an exclusive prescription. The central points being made in these two texts have to do with issues other than denying the potential validity of same sex marriage. I don’t see marriage as exclusively male and female as a positive, overt “biblical teaching.” It is at most an inference.
What specifically is “unholy” about Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship? In every observable sense they are holy in how they live (their relationship is characterized by grace, beauty, and mutual up-building; they have worship of God and commitment to Jesus as central in their lives; they do many works of service and compassion). So, why is simply the fact that they are both women enough to condemn their relationship? Marriage is a crucial, God-established means of facilitating human flourishing. I see in a number of same-sex couples I know, genuine flourishing (including in a few cases the nurturing of children).
Today, we would agree that heterosexual couples that remain childless still may flourish. Many Christians would also agree that people who are divorced and remarried may still flourish even if they were not in their first marriages able to sustain the life-long promise. So, we do have precedents for a bit more flexibility in how we think of marriage in the context of human flourishing.
What broader purposes are served by marriage? Why is it so important? The central purposes may include, among others, providing a context for the deepest expressions of love, joy, and intimacy with another human being; the nurture of children; providing stability and the basic building blocks for human community; and discipline for fidelity and resistance to the terrible problems caused by adultery and promiscuity.
Are any of these broader purposes not possible to be met in same-sex marriages? I don’t see why not.
“Justice” and “Sin”
I believe that when the churches do recognize particular types of behavior as sinful, they should in some sense (depending on the situations—this is an important element of pastoral discernment) restrict the participation in the churches of those guilty of such sinful behavior. I am most decidedly not advocating “cheap grace” nor wanting to establish in the churches a practice of inclusion without moral accountability.
I am not arguing that the importance of hospitality and inclusion proves that the churches should uncritically welcome all gays and lesbians into full participation regardless of whether they are violating the churches’ standards concerning covenant fidelity as the context for sexual intimacy. I am simply saying that the churches are enjoined by the importance of the call to hospitality to be very careful and solid in our discernment before we conclude that those Christians sharing in same-sex, monogamous covenanted intimate relationships are per se living in sin and should have their participation in our communities restricted.
I believe supporters of same-sex marriage in the churches do not have to base their position on a lessening of the rigor of Christian ethical standards. In fact, it is because of my desire to be ethically rigorous, faithful to God’s revealed will through Torah, Jesus’ message, and the rest of the Bible, that I believe in inclusiveness. What makes same-sex marriage morally acceptable is that the Bible establishes a benefit of the doubt in favor of hospitality toward vulnerable people (such as present-day gays and lesbians), affirms the value of monogamous life-long marriage partnerships, and provides no clear reasons to disqualify same-sex couples from the blessings and responsibilities of the marriage covenant.
So, the “sin” issue in relation to the argument I develop is not whether or not we should be strict in opposing sin. Taking an inclusive stance concerning gay marriage while still holding to high ethical standards concerning sex outside of marriage seems totally consistent to me. The “sin” issue in my argument is whether or not we define gay marriage as intrinsically sinful.
My argument is fully compatible with the strictest opposition to sexual promiscuity, adultery, impurity, sin, and lustful sensuality. My argument is fully compatible with the highest commitment to permanence in marriage, fidelity, and sexual exclusivity in that context. The issue of difference is simply about whether same-sex covenanted partnerships can legitimately be seen within the framework of these high standards for sexual expression.
I think about themes of “justice/righteousness, faith/trust/faithfulness, holiness, sanctification (as these relate to salvation, redemption, repentance, the Christian community)” relationally. The God of the Bible, as I read it, in regard to human beings is above all interested in whole relationships.
In the biblical story, God’s response to human rejection was grief and a resolve to restore these broken relationships through persevering love. Justice has to do with restoring to wholeness that which has been broken. Holiness is the involvement of God in cleansing rebellious human beings of our corruption (if we will let God do this). I understand the Greek word pistis as having a rich meaning that includes trust and faithfulness. To have “faith” in the biblical sense is to trust in God as the object of worship, to turn from idolatry and sin, and to live faithfully in response to the commands of God that are given as part of God merciful healing initiative. A faithful, holy, and just person believes in God, repents of one’s sin, turns from idols, accepts God’s forgiveness with gratitude, and responds to God’s generosity and justice by living with generosity and justice in relationship to other people.
In my book, God’s Healing Strategy, I present God’s “strategy” of blessing all the families of the earth through the witness of Abraham’s descendants as a central rubric in the Bible. “Healing,” of course, implies that something is wrong that needs transformation. That is, I read the Bible as containing a message of sharp critique of the human condition, a call to repentance/turning to God, and a call to transformative/restorative justice that manifests God’s holiness as a disposition to heal that which has been damaged – in the human heart and in human societies.
Gay people are no different than non-gay people – we all need to trust, to respond with faithfulness, to imitate Jesus’ way of the cross. “Living under the power of sin” is a tragedy for everyone who does so – and we all need to be cleansed of our sin and freed from idolatry by our trust in God’s mercy expressed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – gays, as gays, no more or less than anyone else.
I believe the issue to be this: for gays, would their marrying a person of the same sex itself be a cause for alienation with God? I would say no, not because I don’t think genuine sin (wickedness, idolatry, injustice) leads to alienation with God. All people who live in sin will alienate themselves from God and make themselves subject to God’s wrath. A gay person who worships the nation-state, who oppresses other people, who is greedy, who lives in bondage to sexual promiscuity, will be alienated from God – in the same way a straight person will be. However, this alienation will have nothing to do with that person being gay or being married to a person of the same sex.
The importance of hospitality in this constellation of biblical themes is that it goes hand-in-glove with justice/holiness/faithfulness. We see a clear expression of this in Leviticus 19, where at the heart of the Holiness Code holiness itself is presented in terms of offering caring attention to vulnerable people in the community (widows, orphans, resident aliens).
I understand gay and lesbian people in our society to be a present-day example of vulnerable people – all too often treated disrespectfully, even violently. The call to hospitality is a call to reach out with care to these vulnerable ones. Such care does not imply a lessening of our core moral imperatives concerning values such as sexual purity. However, I am suggesting, we should take care to make sure we have clear and strong bases for, amidst our care, drawing a line that would restrict the involvement of these vulnerable people in our faith communities.
As an expression of our commitment to living in harmony with our justice-seeking, holy God, we seek to imitate Jesus’ style of welcome. Jesus differentiated between “sinners” such as, on the one hand, the woman caught in adultery who was both forgiven and challenged by Jesus to change her ways and, on the other hand, poor or ill people who were declared unclean due to the cultural biases of the religious institutions and offered unconditional welcome by Jesus. These latter cases of welcome by Jesus did not signal a weakening in his commitment to holiness; in fact, they were expressions of such a commitment.
If it turns out that we do not have clear, strong biblical and theological bases for taking a restrictive stance toward same-sex couples (which is what I have tried to show is the case), we are upholding the biblical call to holiness and righteousness when we offer welcome to these couples – and hold all accountable to our shared calling to ethical rigor and faithfulness.
What About MC USA?
My basic argument concerning homosexuality and, especially the legitimacy of Christians affirming same-sex marriage, centers on trying to show that the Bible does indeed incline us to an inclusive stance with its emphasis on hospitality—and that none of the main arguments given by those advocating the restrictive side overturn this inclination. Now, whether you find my arguments persuasive or not, I think it would be worth closing with a few thoughts about where I would see this argument leading the Mennonite churches.
I recognize that regardless of the validity of my argument in this chapter, the Mennonite Church USA as a whole (my denomination) is far from accepting it. My main hope would be simply that the perspective I have presented here could play a role in the MC USA’s on-going discernment processes.
At this point, I envision the need for two short-term outcomes. The first is that we could reach a consensus that we need on-going, open, and safe discernment processes where we recognize the diversity of perspectives that currently exists within our denomination. The diversity runs too deep and too wide for us to find unanimity on the inclusive/restrictive debate in the near future. Hence, our biggest immediate challenge is to find a way to step back from fearfulness and threats to break fellowship and listen to each other.
I admit that I have reduced my emotional investment in denominational concerns over the last several years, so I am not fully current with the status of these issues right now. There are signs, though, it would appear, that the church as a whole may be moving toward more openness to discernment processes that include various perspectives. Maybe the publication of the book Mark and I wrote by Herald Press is one small indication.
The second short-term outcome seems less clearly to be happening, but seems to me to be necessary for the denomination to move forward. This would be acceptance of a more congregational polity, similar to that practiced by the former General Conference Mennonite Church, that respects that especially membership issues should be decided on the congregational level. Right now, I have the impression that some churches, at least, are inhibited in open discernment processes out of fear of getting in trouble with their various conferences.
Nonetheless, on the “homosexuality issue” especially, given the complexity of the arguments and diversity of conclusions throughout the denomination, the most legitimate context for discernment is on the face-to-face, directly accountable level of the local congregation. As was the case with the General Conference, once a congregation is welcomed as part of the denomination, the discernment within each congregation would be respected and not put under threat of being challenged by the broader conference and denomination.
Neither of these outcomes, (1) fostering safe and open discernment processes respecting the existing diversity within our denomination and (2) accepting that membership issues are a matter of congregational discernment, will resolve all the issues. However, they seem to me to be prerequisites for the Mennonite Church to move beyond the chaos that surrounds us now.
Additionally, I hope that most of us might agree on the importance of the church’s role in supporting its members in their intimate relationships. Today’s American Christian churches encounter major challenges in the face of failed heterosexual marriages, in the face of sexual misbehavior of all kinds. I believe that all of us who believe in fidelity and monogamy and sexual intimacy only in the context of covenanted relationships should make common cause – welcoming committed same-sex partnerships and calling all in the churches to faithfulness and high ethical standards within covenanted relationships.