Archive for July, 2015

Changes in Life’s Designs

Posted: July 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

Conversations, some polite and knowledgeable, some ignorant and caustic, are seeking to make sense of homosexuality, gay marriage, and gender identity. Perhaps the word conversation is too polite. People on all sides of the issue are talking more than listening because they are closed to any consideration of any other position on the issue. True conversation involves a desire to seek understanding, which necessitates knowing the issue from the perspective of the “other side.”

When we engage in conversation, which may involve listening more and talking less, the designs of our lives will inevitably change. Change was what the AWAB (Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists) dinner recently held in Overland Park, Kansas, was all about. I was privileged to attend and hear Dr. David Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, a Baptist university in Macon, Georgia, who was the featured speaker. Having read his book Changing Our Mind I was interested in hearing him. Prior to the dinner, I picked up another copy of Gushee’s book, which he signed for me. I have two more copies, both loaned out.

Over a two decade academic career, Dr. Gushee claimed a traditional view of sexuality. In an article in early 2011, he wrote, “As a matter of personal conviction, I am not ready to embrace gay marriage. I cannot imagine performing such nuptials as a minister. I cannot imagine my congregation doing so.”

Then, in a presentation at The Reformation Project Conference, a gathering of pro-LGBT Christians held on November 8 last year in Washington, D.C. Dr. Gushee said, “I do join your crusade tonight. I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be.”

Between early 2011 and the end of 2014, David embarked on a robust study through a rigorous examination of biblical texts and conversations with people both gay and straight. After two decades as a married, straight, evangelical Christian David arrived at his Christian ethical position of affirming LGBT people. He says that that he was entirely uninformed by a lack of personal contact with LGBT Christians themselves, that he was closed to consideration of evidence around him. David expressed sorrow that it took so long to come into solidarity with “Christianity’s most oppressed group.” His book, Changing Our Mind: My Journey as a Christian Ethicist toward Full LGBT Acceptance, is a look into his process of changing his mind about homosexuality. I attended the dinner because I wanted to hear him speak to the change process set forth in his book.

When I arrived at the breakout room where the dinner was scheduled, the round tables for about one hundred total attendees were already set and waiting. There was not a podium in the room making it impossible to tell where the speaker would stand. I chose a table where two young men had just sat down, the only other attendees in the room besides myself. These table mates were interesting to converse with: Daniel and Paul. Paul is a volunteer with Matthew Vines’ Reformation Project and has the responsibility for logistics related to a Reformation Project event in Kansas City in November.

Just before the meal was served a lectern was positioned directly in front of the table where we were sitting. The dinner itself was a tad above the average hotel event dinner: a tossed salad followed by a decent sized medallion of chicken, perfectly cooked crisp green beans, mashed potatoes with pieces of bacon in the mash, and a roll. A choice of lemon or chocolate cake and a cup of coffee concluded the meal.

I was impressed with David’s presentation and the Q&A conversation that followed. The attendees were appreciative of his remarks evidenced by occasional applause as he spoke. He talked about his journey beginning with the traditionalist position, which he held from 1993 to 2007. Then from 2007 to 2013 David met devout Christian LGB people in a new home church. They were singles, couples, and families. He developed deep personal friendships, encountered high-quality LGB seminarians, who were blocked from service and ordination. His sister Katey came out as lesbian at thirty-eight. He was called out by author Mitchell Gold (Crisis) who called him a bystander. These experiences of encountering and coming to love LGBT persons in their suffering and dignity became the tipping point for David. Out of a sense of responsibility, David felt obligated to tackle the issue of homosexuality in a serious way.

Dr. Gushee first wrote an unpublished version and then, in serialized fashion, his essays on the transition of his ethical position on gay issues were published in News Global during the summer and fall of 2014. These essays were then published in book format as a basic primer for traditionalists and conflicted Christians under the title Changing Our Mind in Late October 2014. It is an easy read resting solidly on scholarly underpinnings.

The book puts flesh on the following:

  • The current environment is one in which Christian understandings of sexuality are being reevaluated due to evidence offered in the lives of people who do not fit the historic heterosexual norm. In addition to the witness of these personal lives is the increasing body of research and practice of mental health that have both anecdotal and empirical data to bear on the issue. The Church needs to address the “LGBT issue” and the people affected who are hurting, which includes LGBTQ people, families, divided churches including the hurt, fear, and anger among Christians on all sides of the issue. Many people are conflicted: “heart” says one thing, “head” says another.
  • The human population reveals a gender and sexual orientation minority of at least 3.4-5%. Regardless of centuries of cultural and legal discrimination, stigma, and violence, LGBT people are scattered in the human population all over the world, often treated as a problem.
  • The ex-gay movement has failed by its own admission. Sexual-orientation change efforts are utterly rejected by mainstream mental health experts even though some Christians still cling to them or accounts of their “successes.”
  • Resistance to LGBTs causes substantial mental health, familial, and spiritual consequences.
  • An acknowledgement of interpretive pluralism throughout Christian history on a huge range of issues opens the door for consideration of an examination of hermeneutics. And David devotes much of the book to six passages of Scripture commonly referenced when considering LGBT issues.

David concluded his remarks by saying, “I have made a core moral decision simply to ‘stand with’ the LGBT Christian community and against their continued exclusion.” He expressed repentance for where he and the Church “got it wrong.”

His presentation didn’t add to my understanding of the debate raging in churches over sexual orientation, scripture, and gay marriage. However, it did feel good being in the context of the conversation. My visit with David at the author’s table prior to dinner confirmed my expectations of a very humble man who was quietly assured of where he stands on the equality of gay marriage and his sexual ethic as keeping sex in the confines of marriage—gay or straight.

Bottom line, I did not feel as though I was in a strange environment or, as I suspect some self-identified Christians would feel, in enemy territory. I was among friends and fellow human beings many of whom happen to be gay. I long for many of my friends to experience the depth of faith and love that I experienced not only at this gathering of Baptists who welcome and affirm LGBTQ people, but also at the January 2015 Gay Christian Network Conference when I joined 1,400 gay Christians and their allies in Portland, Organ.

Too often lives are designed on flawed fundamental truths. Take for example current cultural debates, marriage equality being the hotest at the moment, not only here in the United States but also around the world.

Fundamental truths essential to the Christian faith are at stake in these cultural debates, notonly in society at large but also within ecclesial bodies. These basic truths range from issues of theism to biblical authority, the nature of human beings, God’s purpose in creation, sin, salvation, and by extension, to the entire body of Christian doctrine. One’s posture on contemporary issues is determined by the presuppositions one holds in formulating their position on these foundational truths. Therefore, it is difficult to discuss cultural “values” because both parties walk roads that begin at different points, and do not run parallel; thus they arrive at different destinations.

The claims advanced by either side of a debate are proffered with a great deal of integrity, but founded on separate sets of presuppositions. Debates at the level of cultural application will lead to conclusions less than satisfactory to one side or the other. Debate must begin with understanding and acknowledging the separate foundational presuppositions whether or not both parties ascribe to them. If it begins anywhere past that beginning point, the debate will most certainly fail to arrive at any consensus, if it ever even gets past each side seeking to prove the other wrong.

The fundamentalist position would say, for example, that if the claims of revisionist interpreters of Scripture are valid, then the very basis of biblical inspiration is invalidated. Scripture would be wrong, misdirected and ambiguous and the entire evangelical paradigm, biblical authority and all, will not stand.

It’s the evangelical paradigm that has fallen, moderates would say, and not Scripture or biblical authority. Therefore, they would argue that the evangelical paradigm fell precisely because it was founded on a misguided presupposition on biblical authority and the nature of the Bible.

The challenge faced by Christianity today is not a cultural debate or political posturing or doctrinal belief. The challenge is a basic hermeneutical one—how to interpret and understand the Bible and its claims on all God’s children. Until the debate is waged on this level, the sparing about culture and its values will produce little more than heat. (Some people view values narrowly and interpret them basedon their presuppositions. However, to be fair, both sides of any debate have values, but they are not the same because of different presupposition sets.) 

At stake are human lives designed by attending to these flawed fundamental truths, flawed on all sides, while, at the same time, all sides desire to give witness to the grace-giving story of God reclaiming his creation. Let’s listen to each other, really listen, and try to get inside each other’s paradigms—for the human lives that long for civil discourse.