Monday, March 21, 2011

Recognizing God's work in LGBT Christians

"And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." (Acts 11:15-18)
Here St Peter is recounting his mission to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. In a vision prior to his mission God revealed to Peter that "what God has made clean, you must not call profane", which Peter came to understand meant that the Gentiles would be included in God's redeemed community. Some of the circumcised believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter for eating with and ministering to uncircumcised Gentiles. But when they heard that the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household "just as it had upon us at the beginning", they realized that God was indeed acting in a new way and their response must be to recognize that action and embrace it.

I am hardly the first to draw upon this story when making the case for the full inclusion of LGBT people in God's Church - but it is, for me, a powerful and fitting analogy. Peter (and subsequently the church in Jerusalem) had plenty of reasons for believing the "unclean" Gentiles had no place in the redeemed community. They had Scripture and tradition backing them up. Nevertheless, God surprised them.

The LGBT situation is shockingly similar. We have in our midst numerous baptized Christians (that is to say, recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit) whose lives indicate the fruit of the Spirit. At the same time they understand themselves to have a fundamental sexual orientation that is different from the majority. They understand themselves to be (and in many cases to have always been) attracted to the same or both sexes, or to have a different understanding of their gender altogether. Yet these are people who by all evidence are graced by the Spirit.

This, in turn, drives us to reconsider what we believe to be clean and unclean in the eyes of God, to re-examine our interpretation of Scripture and tradition - just as we have in the case of Gentiles, women, slaves, etc. We must not call profane what God has called clean.

The obvious objection is that we do not accept the self-understanding of those who, perhaps through self-deception, consider themselves to be at the same time Christians and adulterers, pedophiles, drunkards, or habitual liars. The difference, it seems to me, is that those latter cases are all cases of clearly identifiable moral or psychological defects. The person who is fundamentally unable to remain faithful to marital vows or refrain from raping children or resist alcohol or tell the truth is a person whom everyone knows to have something objectively wrong with them. In all of these cases there is very likely an underlying psychological cause. (Remember we are talking about people who are not merely tempted to do these things, but understand themselves to be fundamentally oriented in this way. This is a crucial distinction.) Psychologists, however, have long ceased considering LGBT people, as such, as mentally unsound in any way.

This story also illustrates why talk about "inclusion" of LGBT Christians is a misnomer. When we fully include LGBT Christians in the life of the Church we are not granting them a favor - we are submitting to and recognizing the prior work of God in them.

7 comments:

  1. Although I feel enormous sympathy and grief for LGBT people (as you call them), I don't see how the argument in your penultimate paragraph exonerates them at all. For surely there are adulterers, pedophiles, drunkards, and habitual liars who "understand themselves to be fundamentally oriented this way" as well.

    You seem to rest most of your case on drawing the line of acceptance where current psychology draws the line. What place then does the word of God have in the matter?

    And, lastly, what of people who consciences do not align with yours? You see a clear-cut case of unjustified discrimination while others see a clear-cut case of sexual promiscuity (i.e. sex outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman). Is it the majority of consciences that shall prevail?

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  2. Not to put words in Jeremy's mouth, but the key sentences seem to be:

    "We have in our midst numerous baptized Christians (that is to say, recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit) whose lives indicate the fruit of the Spirit."

    and

    "Yet these are people who by all evidence are graced by the Spirit."

    I have yet to see anyone argue that adulterers, drunkards, or pedophiles qua adulterers, drunkards, or pedophiles are manifesting the fruits of the Spirit. (However admirable some of these people might sometimes be in other respects.)

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  3. Mike:
    The fact that some of them understand themselves to be oriented in that way was my point. They very likely have an underlying psychological issue. LGBT people, on the other hand, do not, according to psychologists.

    Scripture does have to be addressed, and in this post I point toward a few resources that do address it.

    I don't think it is a matter of polling people, if that is what you mean. I believe over time the Church will discern God's will here. Eventually, as with women and slaves and Gentiles, I believe the Church will agree on inclusion.

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  4. I have a hard time seeing how LGBT are similar to the Gentiles in Acts and the rest of the NT. In fact, it seems to prove the opposite. If homosexual behavior is morally acceptable under the New Covenant, why isn't there a discussion of this in the NT as there was with Jewish dietary, ceremonial and cleanliness standards? It is pretty clear from the NT that Christians are under no obligation to say avoid pork, become circumcised or celebrate Jewish religious festivals. And the apostles had no problem breaking with Judaism on a number of issues, which as Paul's comments in his epistles on circumcision, did cause conflict in the early church. Yet the only times homosexual behavior is mentioned in the NT (Romans, Jude, etc.), it is done so in a decidedly negative way. With that in mind, I fail to see how the analogy between LGBT and Gentiles in the early church works at all.

    Otherwise, I still don't see how the whole idea about that evidence of fruit of the spirit in LGBT people's lives and orientation proves much of anything either. Ones level of devoutness has no bearing on whether or not an action is sinful or not. If it did, then race-based slavery and segregation in this country must have been fine as many devout Christians engaged in that behavior. Second, the same holds true for sexual orientation. Justifying a sexual behavior on the basis of orientation towards said behavior is highly problematic. First and foremost it is worth pointing out that as we are all under the curse of original sin, our primary sexual orientation is towards sin.

    But if the sexual orientation (i.e. desire) of homosexuals in and of itself means that homosexual behavior is moral, then logically it also means that so too is adultery and promiscuity. After all, many married people see physically attractive people that are not their spouses on a daily basis. If we are to be honest about things, the "orientation" of most heterosexual men in particular, is to sleep with every attractive women they can. Of course, many if not most of these men suppress or attempt to suppress these desires as such behavior is Biblically and culturally seen as immoral. How is this any different from homosexuality? And if this new interpretation of the Bible and this idea about sexual orientation and sin is to carry the day on homosexual behavior, how could one still turn around and say that adultery and promiscuity are still sinful? I don't see how it logically could be done. Anyway, just some food for thought.

    Bronson

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  5. Bronson:
    I'm not saying that the NT writers approved of homosexuality. Part of the argument, in fact, is that they had no conception of homosexuality as a sexual orientation anyway. The idea of sexual orientation is a new concept and one (like evolution) that demands we re-examine our interpretation of the texts.

    I'm not talking so much about devotedness. At least, not as I understand devotedness. I believe that someone could be a devout (that is to say, a practicing) Christian and be wrong about any number of things, such as slavery. But when we have someone who demonstrates evidence of the working of the Spirit in their lives - e.g., faith in Christ, full of good works, love for God and others - then we have no justifiable cause to condemn them or cast doubt on their salvation. I have no doubt that slave-holding Christians were, in fact, genuine Christians, despite being wrong about slavery. Likewise, I have no reason to doubt the genuineness of the faith of LGBT Christians. Their faith, plus our discoveries of ideas like sexual orientation, are sufficient grounds for us to re-examine the traditional teaching on this issue.

    As for the difference between being inclined toward sin and sexual orientation, I have some ill-formed thoughts that require more work. I'll get back with you.

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  6. Jeremy,

    Of course, as I've argued before, sexual orientation should have no bearing on whether a sexual action in and of itself is considered sinful/immoral or not. Hence, new, modern understandings of sexual orientation simply aren't relevant to the discussion in the first place.

    To use an extreme example, what if after conducting numerous studies science concluded that pedophilia was a sexual orientation that is somehow innate and cannot be changed? Would we then need to re-examine our interpretation of the texts or our understanding that pedophilia is immoral? Of course not. The point here isn't to equate homosexuality with pedophilia. The point is that it is a very bad principal to say that a new understanding of any particular sexual orientation should somehow cause us to re-examine the morality of the behavior that said orientation drives people towards.

    Otherwise, I'm not sure how the faith of LGBT should cause us to re-examine the issue either. Isn't it possible that they simply have a big blind spot in their faith to a sin they are involved in, much as did slave-owning Christians who denied that owning slaves was sinful, although today we would say that it is very sinful?

    Bronson

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.