Tuesday, July 29, 2014
How I Changed My Mind About Homosexuality
The issue of homosexuality is certainly a big deal in culture as well as (if not especially) in the church. Whole denominations are in shambles over it. Families are in crisis over it. America is divided over it. I think there are folks on both sides of the issue who think that the future of the church in America depends on our praxis concerning LGBTQ people. So the stakes seem pretty high.
Now I am definitely of the opinion that LGBTQ people should be fully included in the life and ministry of the church and society. That means 'yes' to marriage, ordination, etc. Theologically, I do not believe that sexual orientation is a determination in discerning the body of Christ. Although Paul had no concept of sexual orientation, I think his words from Galatians are pretty categorical: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Human persons are of equal dignity, not according to their social status, gender, sexual orientation, or economic position, but only according to the grace of God which precedes, invites, and anticipates a faithful human response. Therefore, it should not only be encouraged but expected that LGBTQ people be found in positions of leadership in the ministry of the Church. I think the whole moral arc of the biblical narrative points in this direction.
My presupposition here is that heterosexuality is no more legitimate than LGBTQ sexuality. Straight relationships, though more common, are not privileged over gay and lesbian relationships. Implicit in this presupposition is the presupposition that being LGBTQ is neither an act of the will (at least no more so than being heterosexual) nor is it inherently sinful (again, at least no more so than being heterosexual). I am convinced, though I am always open to challenges, that being gay is not a sin and neither is it sinful for someone to live out their sexuality just as any heterosexual person should. In fact, from a psychotherapeutic standpoint, I'd say it would be unhealthy for someone NOT to live out their sexuality. That doesn't imply that promiscuity is permissible. I still think, as an ethical norm, people should wait until they're married (fully and sacramentally committed to one another) before they have sex (are fully intimate with one another... intimacy and commitment should be in proportion, that is my basic sexual ethic...which is partly why it's important that gay marriages be permitted). But I do not apply any ethical standards to homosexuals that I wouldn't also apply to heterosexuals.
The deeper question that the church faces in this juncture of the conversation is the question of the authority and the interpretation of scripture. I do believe in the authority and the inspiration of Scripture. Indeed, I think it's appropriate to refer to it as Holy Scripture. I believe that the Scriptures are the written Word of God, to be interpreted through the Holy Spirit and through Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. But I also believe that Scripture is contextual (just like Jesus, it comes from a specific time and place). It is an ancient human text, even if it is sanctified by God. So in order to know what it means in any given passage, we have to do the work of exegesis. We have to consider the author's original meaning in its original context as best we can before we can understand what it truly means to tell us about God and ourselves. When we are exegetically diligent in interpreting those passages which have (in recent years) been applied to the issue of homosexual relationships, I think we discover that there is at least enough ambiguity there that we should not be too confident in imposing ethical judgement on LGBTQ people. I could detail arguments for each one of the eight (at most!) passages which have been employed by opponents of LGBTQ inclusion. But just to shed some light on a few, the story of Sodom is about gang rape (heterosexuals who want to abuse some angels... hardly a fair or comprehensive representation of LGBTQ sexuality), Romans 1 is about idolatry and excessive promiscuity, the Corinthians and Timothy passages are both probably about pederasty. Even if one were to consider homosexuality, in any one of these passages, as an interpretive option, it would have to be the least compelling when compared to the contextual alternatives.
The most important passages to consider are the Pauline passages and, to be brief, I think Walter Wink is right that "...the relationships Paul describes [when he describes "homosexuality"] are heavy with lust; they are not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple." So we cannot conclude that Paul must have meant what we mean today when he used the word "homosexual" (which is contestable anyway) or when he talked about same-sex relationships, given our context in which many gay couples are monogamous and committed Christians, .
Given the full narrative of scripture, and particularly the ministry of Jesus in which the marginalized were affirmed and the outcast were included, I think we have much stronger biblical footing in the acceptance of LGBTQ people than we do in condemning them.
But how did I go from being a hardcore defender of heteronormativity to a firm supporter of LBTQ equality? It didn't happen overnight. Again, it wasn't too terribly long ago that I was sitting in a college dorm room, anxiously anticipating the election of the last great hope for "traditional marriage."I want you to know that it was no easy path. I want you to know that it wasn't on an emotional whim or through some chance change of heart that I changed my mind. It was a long and frustrating path. You see, I'd placed a lot of stock in my position against gay marriage. I'd said a lot of... well... what I'd now think of as hateful things. I'd been clear about my position and, in a way, I'd married myself to it. I knew no other way of being a Christian. It's difficult to admit you're wrong, so either consciously or subconsciously, you build walls around your position to protect yourself from the alternative. Tearing down those barriers is no simple thing, nor is it comfortable. It means conflict. It sometimes means taking on labels you once attributed to your enemies. It means learning new ways of being you and being Christian.
The path from one idea to another is always a little uncomfortable, but when it's something you're passionate about, it can be very uncomfortable. I'm not sure where my path started, but it was always paved with the pages of scripture. I did not come to my conclusions by ignoring the Bible. Perhaps some have. But for me, this has always been an exercise in listening for the Word of the Lord. That's not to say I've always been perfectly faithful. At times I certainly had more trouble with scripture than others. I certainly had moments of great doubt, moments in which it seemed easier to ignore the Bible than to be shaped by it. But at every turn, it was scripture that I was wrestling with, not just some simple notion of preference or cultural assimilation. Someone can accuse me of reading the Bible poorly, but let no one accuse me of ignoring it.
I believe my change of heart probably started with Tony Campolo. Well, it actually started with something called the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI)--a conference for high school students funded through the Lily Endowment under the leadership of Robin Dugall at Azusa Pacific University. Even before I knew it, while I was still staunchly conservative, Dugall and others in his leadership (including Mike DeVries) cracked open a door. They introduced me to authors like Rob Bell (this was long before he came out in support of gay marriage), N.T. Wright, Brian McLaren, and Tony Campolo. It was at a YLI conference that I first started thinking about the "Kingdom of God" (which was the concept which set my whole theology, not just on this specific issue but on just about everything, off in the trajectory it still follows today). I read Campolo's chapter on the subject from his book (co-authored with McLaren), Adventures in Missing the Point. That's what was assigned to me at YLI. But it wasn't long after--probably just shortly after the 2004 election, in fact--that I read on and found Campolo's chapter on homosexuality. While he still took a conservative stance for reasons appealing to tradition, mostly, Campolo alluded to the possibility that the Bible was not as straight-forward on this issue as many conservatives seemed to think. While Campolo wanted to remain conservative himself, his chapter indicated that this was not a simple argument of "the Bible tells me so." In fact, I heard his own wife, Peggy, was on the speaking circuit as an advocate, on Biblical grounds, for the equality of gay and lesbian people. This was not my first exposure to a responsible exegetical/contextual reading of scripture, but it was the first time I had been challenged to apply those exegetical principles to the issue of homosexuality. I didn't change my mind, but the door had been opened. The simple answer I'd so vehemently defended until that point was no longer defensible. Eventually honesty broke through the layers of protection I'd built around the issue and I was faced with the ambiguity of the text surrounding homosexuality. The Bible was beginning to change me. Even if I wanted to believe that Paul was condemning homosexuality, I could not do so honestly without accepting the fact that there is at least enough ambiguity in the text for me to hear-out the opposition and especially to hear-out those whose lives were more directly affected by the issue--those who identified as LGBTQ.
Campolo (and the exegetical approach implied in his rationale) didn't change my mind, but he gave me a reason to listen to the stories of faithful Christians who also happened to be gay, faithful Christians who were lesbians, and eventually faithful Christians who were also transgender. Indeed, I discovered that part of the beauty of scripture is that is calls us to read it as real persons with real stories, not just as Cartesian machines of static rationality. Because the Word became flesh (John 1:1), we are challenged to read scripture in conversation with real flesh-and-blood experiences. It's not just timeless truths passed down from heaven in a bottle, the Bible is a beautiful story of real people with real encounters with God and we are to read it as real people (I learned this from N.T. Wright). Therefore, not only are we allowed to let the experiences of our neighbors speak into our reading and interpretation of the text, we are encouraged to to so by the Bible itself.
While I was in college, I began to meet people who were gay. Also, some people I had already known began to come out to me as LGBTQ. People who were Christians! Some people who were even preparing for ministry. If my heart had not already been softened a little through reading and studying God's Word I may not have been humble enough to ask them about their story, to ask them what they thought of the Bible, and to discover them as persons, not just as "gays." Words cannot express how thankful I am that these people had the courage to come out and be honest with someone so closed-minded as me. These people further challenged my reading of scripture. I discovered that they were not perverted, idolatrous, fornicators. They were people who loved Jesus. They were people who loved and were loved by other people. I could no longer convince myself that they exhibited what Paul was describing when he said "God gave them over to shameful lusts..." (Romans 1:26). I could no longer convince myself that Paul was talking about these people, their love for their partners, when he listed "homosexuality" among so many other obvious moral deficiencies. This was the first time that the Holy Spirit softened my heart enough to ask, could Paul have meant something else?
I had little empirical or Biblical justification left to support my position, but for some reason I still held on to it. By the time I graduated from college, I had only reached a point of "neutrality." I put that in quotes because I am not certain that neutrality actually exists in this debate. Desmond Tutu (another important influence in my spiritual development) said, "if an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." But nevertheless, I got to a point where I was satisfied in saying, "I just don't know what I think."
In 2008, right after college a church in the conservative town of Ramona, California, (my hometown) took a chance on me and hired me to be their Youth Ministry Director. The church was a UCC church, in arguably the most liberal Christian denomination in the United States--which is something I lean on sometimes with my liberal friends, "I'm one of you, I served at a UCC church!"--but this church in particular was by no means liberal. However, I wouldn't exactly call them conservative either. The congregation, in terms of the ideals of its members, sported perhaps the widest theological and political spectrum of any church I've known. There were hardcore dispensationalist Zionists, flag-waving Republicans, borderline Unitarians, closet Democrats, gays and lesbians, and even a few would-be Pentecostals in the mix. I can only think of a couple of people who would really have identified themselves with the UCC as it stands. And here I was--a freshly decorated, enthusiastic Bachelor of theology with a huge man-crush on Rob Bell and a passion for ministering to teenagers and studying Scripture--there to be their Youth Pastor. Of course, it helped that my parents raised me in this particular church, but that's another story.
With such a wide spectrum represented in the membership, taking a hard stance on any controversial political or social issue was risky--homosexuality perhaps the riskiest of them all. Even if the leadership was unanimous in its position (which it probably wasn't... we never really talked about it), we knew that any position would divide the church. So I made the pastoral decision not to talk about the issue with my students at all. At the time I was sticking with the position of neutrality anyway, so this suited me. But there were times when neutrality was difficult. Being in a very conservative town, engaging in networking with other church leaders and youth workers, I was often shocked into liberalism by the ignorance and arrogance of some conservatives. But then, being part of the UCC, there were sometimes occasions in which I would sound like the token conservative in the room just because of my hesitation with the issue and because I wanted to affirm the authority of Scripture and the divinity of Jesus Christ. I realized then that I'm neither a conservative nor am I as liberal as it gets. I think I was (and still am) fairly balanced in my approach.
But because of my commitment to some notion of neutrality, because I had decided it was easier not to make a decision on the issue, I missed more than one opportunity for ministry. The worst part was, I knew I was missing these opportunities... I knew what an opportunity for ministry felt like and I knew what it felt like to miss one. When one of my students came out of the closet to me because it was the only church in town in which they felt safe to do so, and when I responded to them ambiguously--"well, we love you no matter what" or something like that--I knew I was missing an opportunity. This intuitive sense that I would have been a better minister if I had been able to simply say, "it's ok to be gay, God does not condemn you for it," was another huge step toward changing my mind. I wasn't participating in God's ministry of reconciliation and I could feel it, even if my neutrality didn't allow me to act on it.
The truth is, this was a tipping point for me. While theology, study of Scripture, and openness to the experiences of others played their important roles, it was ministry itself that was the most significantly persuasive factor. I ministered to more than one LGBTQ kid while I was a Youth Director, and with each one it became more clear, as I participated in God's ministry to them, that participation meant accepting them, learning from them, and giving them the good news that they did not have to be ashamed of themselves. I didn't shy away from being honest when I saw problems. Kids knew I didn't condone promiscuity or immorality. By the very end of my four years in Ramona, I had come full circle. I no longer believed that homosexuality was a sin. I had come to this conclusion, my heart softened by the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, community, experience, and intuition. But, because of all the risks involved and because of the pastoral decision I'd made (which I sometimes regret now), I tried to make sure that the only kids who knew my position were the LGBTQ kids in town. I didn't feel totally liberated to "come out" and offer my perspective until I began Seminary.
My first experience of Seminary education was not at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I am now, but at San Francisco Theological Seminary. It may not come as a surprise that SFTS is a somewhat more liberal seminary than, say, Fuller which was across the street. I only took a couple of classes there at their Southern California campus before it closed down and I transferred to Princeton. But the most important class I took there, and perhaps one of the most important classes I've ever taken anywhere, was not important in virtue of its content, per se, but in virtue of its students. Among the students of Dr. Charlene Jin Lee's class, "Ministry and Context," I was the only white-male-heterosexual. All the others were from distinctly different contexts and the only other white man in the class was gay. The LGBTQ students in the class, all of whom were older and wiser than I, inspired me. Because of the set-up at SFTS's Sothern California program, most of its students were already active in ministry. The LGBTQ students in that class were some of the most faithful and dedicated pastors I've ever known. Hearing their stories, listening to their struggles, hammered the point home. These were not perverted fornicators like the subjects of Paul's incitements. These were Christians, pastors, and people. These were people who I could not only accept but these people could easily be my pastors. These were people whose stories I could share and to whom I would bring questions, not only about sexuality, but about faith in Jesus Christ. This was my first proof that gay people could not only be Christians but pastors.
I am grateful now to be in an environment such as Princeton Seminary where I not only rub shoulders with wonderfully inspiring LGBTQ Christians, but I am empowered to share my perspective as their friend and colleague. I am in a place where I am reminded every day that one can be gay and a Christian and that the two are not mutually exclusive.
I changed my mind. And in so doing, I took on the same labels I so viciously lobbed at others--"liberal!" "heathen!" "compromised!" "one who ignores the Word of God." These labels are painful not in themselves but in that they serve as reminders of what I used to be, what I used to think, how I used to act toward the LGBTQ community. These labels hurt because they are salt in the wounds of exchanging one passionately held perspective for another. And, perhaps most of all, these labels hurt because they are accusations of infidelity to the very book that has brought me to where I am. If people know nothing else, I want them to know that it's not despite Scripture that I have come to believe in the equality and full inclusion of LGBTQ people, but because of Scripture. I want people to know that supporting gay people does not mean abandoning the Word of God, but it might mean actually listening to it.
Hopefully I have not repeated my mistakes of the past and simply closed my mind to opposition. I endeavor to always listen, even if people disagree with me, and to learn what I can even from those by whom I am threatened. It would be a shame to be just as closed-minded as I was before. But I have changed my mind. It is clear that I am no longer that college kid with a Bush pin, and the change did not come easily. Indeed, if ever my mind changes again, I pray it changes by nothing other than the leading of the Holy Spirit, no matter how painful the change may be.
A few books I'd recommend to those who are interested: The Moral Teaching of Paul by Victor Paul Furnish; Jesus, The Bible, And Homosexuality by Jack Rogers; and Homosexuality and Christian Faith by Walter Wink.