July 23rd, 2015

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS for short) has settled the issue for all of the United States of America, whether or not anyone likes it. If we believe the polls, the 5-4 SCOTUS ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, represents roughly the same percentage of Americans who now agree the legal definition of marriage should be between two people, not necessarily a man and a woman.

I’m one of those who believes God created the gift of sex for marriage between a man and a woman. This seismic shift of cultural values can produce anxiety. I’d rather be in the moral majority than be classified as the immoral minority that is intolerant and judgmental. Many fear that the new majority hopes our views on homosexuality will soon be placed on the same moral plane with those who advocate apartheid or child labor or subservience of women to men in home and society.

In a previous blog post (written before the SCOTUS decision), I discussed several key passages of Scripture as the basis for my reflections. The more narrow question of this post is how to have conversations in your family, at work, or even at church with those who are gay or who affirm the Supreme Court’s decision – if you don’t. We want to speak what we believe is truth but we don’t want to say the kinds of things that create barriers and discredit the Gospel. I think it’s possible to hold and speak a conservative/traditional/biblical (pick your adjective) view of sex and marriage and maintain relationships and respect with those who differ.

How do I know it’s possible? For all 37 years of our married life, my wife Linda and I have been members of the United Church of Christ, which has led the mainline movement in full acceptance of LGBT ordination and in advocacy of “marriage equality.” Linda and I have never wavered publicly or privately on our position on marriage and other “conservative” values. In recent years we have become only more active and visible in the UCC in our position on marriage. Nevertheless, we continue to be welcomed, valued, and even honored by the denomination on the regional and national level. If we were perceived as hateful or judgmental, this would not be so. The organization we helped to found and still lead, Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the UCC, has sought to articulate and model the balance of truth and grace.

We have 30+ years of trial and error learning how to live in the situation that is uncomfortably new to other conservative Christians. What are some lessons we have learned along the way?

Love genuinely. Don’t try to put on a façade of caring for LGBT people if on the inside you’re seething and in private you tell inappropriate jokes and make demeaning remarks. It starts with your heart. Ask the Lord for help in renewing your mind so that you think God’s thoughts. Is there anyone he doesn’t love? Is there anyone Jesus didn’t die for? This is where that non-discriminatory list works best for me. God doesn’t differentiate in his love no matter a person’s race, sex, age, religion, disability, past, sexual preference, or gender identity. He longs for every person to know and be known by him, to share eternity with him, to discover the joy of wholeness regardless of past experiences or choices. If I don’t at least want to love unconditionally like God does, I’m not ready for this or any conversation.

Think profoundly. If your only answer to why you don’t affirm gay marriage is, “Because the Bible says homosexuality is sin,” you probably need to think through that some more. What’s wrong with that answer? It perpetuates the idea that God’s primary passion is to scan the earth for violations of his moral code and looking with disgust on the sins that tick him off the most. That’s not the God of the Bible, revealed to us in Jesus. He created us in his image with the capacity for intimacy – with him and with one another. He longs to see us discover authentic and deep relationships. Substitutes that destroy what we were created for grieve him – cheap replacements (idolatry) for the one true God as well as for human intimacy. The latter includes destructive addictions to drugs or power or work or sex or violence, which offer short-term pleasure fixes but are short circuited and counterproductive attempts at self-fulfillment. If someone asks me why I don’t affirm gay marriage, I want to be ready to answer, “I’m not so much against homosexual acts or gay marriage as I am for recovering in the church a desire for a true and durable passion to seek God through his word by denying self and seeking Christ. I would love for us to diminish our obsession with sex as a personal right and marriage as a means to happiness. I put the blame for that obsession far more at the feet of heterosexuals than homosexuals.”

Listen compassionately. It’s odd and unfortunate that in a society which prides itself on freedom of religious belief and expression that it we find it harder than ever to have a respectful, engaging and enlightening conversation on politics, religion, or sex. It doesn’t feel safe to say what you really think. Honestly, I blame “conservatives” (and I am one) for this more than “liberals.” It’s true that right now it doesn’t feel safe to express a conservative view of marriage. I don’t mean physically safe – like someone’s going to beat you – but emotionally safe. I think we’re pretty much getting what we’ve dished out for generations. So here’s what I suggest. If you want it to be safe to express your view, make it safe for someone else to express theirs. (That’s a good tip for marriage, parenting teens, dealing with coworkers and getting along at church as well!) How do you make it safe for others on the issue of gay marriage? Spend time with them. Relate as people, not as gays and straights. Listen to their stories. Ask them about their views. Follow up not with arguments but with clarification questions. Try hard not to react. You’re not there to win an argument. I’ve learned a lot interacting with LGBT persons and their advocates over the years. I’m a much more grace-filled person than I once was. The truth is that almost every LGBT story has pain connected to it. You may think the pain comes from guilt or a bad family situation. They may think the pain comes from rejection of who they are. Let go of where the pain comes from and just listen to the pain. Care for people. Release your stereotypes and just love people.

Speak carefully. There’s a lot of trial and error involved in any new relationship and any new subject that was formerly difficult to discuss. A couple dozen of us white folks from Corinth met a couple dozen black believers last year to have a face-to-face discussion of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. All of us had lived different versions of the race story in the 20th century. Having a decent conversation involves not only learning to listen (see above) but learning to use different words and tones when we speak. On homosexuality, we’ve hopefully moved past using words like “abomination,” “fag” and “queer,” but it’s more than that. Most of us fail to realize how our assumptions about others come tumbling out in our words, creating barriers. How do we find out? Ask! Say to someone who seems offended by what you just said, “Can you help me on this one? I obviously said the wrong thing. Let’s start with the assumption that we’re probably not going to change each other’s mind. So if I believe what I believe about sex and marriage, help me with saying what I just said better.”

Wait patiently. It seems we’ve forgotten that patience is a biblical value for believers as we imitate our Father in heaven. For reasons I don’t fully understand or appreciate sometimes, God allows individuals, the church, and nations the freedom to experiment a long time with their blind spots and their consequences. I really wish he were more in a hurry to straighten things out. Even if you believe as I do about sex and marriage, I can tell you we are living in an era that is far from the worst historically in terms of sexual sin and brokenness. Sarah Ruden, a research fellow at Yale Divinity School who specializes in ancient Greek and Roman literature, demonstrates in Paul Among the People that the typical Graeco-Roman male’s attitude toward his wife, his mistresses, and his young male sexual playthings in Paul’s first century culture make ours look rather Puritan. In other words, things could be a lot worse. That’s not to minimize what we’re dealing with. I’m just surprised that Paul (or Jesus for that matter) didn’t say a whole lot more if his purpose was to send Christians on a mission to straighten out the culture at large. The same is true of individuals. God is patient, and he waits for strategic moments when we most keenly feel our need of him. Why is it that with homosexuals we think (or even say), “We can only be friends if you know in advance what I think about your sin”? We don’t do that with other sins, do we? “We can only be friends if you know in advance that the car you drive is a poor display of Christian stewardship.” Just hang out with people like Jesus did – where they live and how they are. Don’t break the bond with your gay child or friend or coworker until they “repent” and don’t feel like you must confront urgently or repeatedly. Give God and time a chance. They might actually be overlooking some of your sins too.

Sin humbly. Every time the Bible treats homosexuality directly, it does so in the context of other sins. Don’t ever isolate this sin or make it the big one. The passage that has grabbed me recently is Romans 1, which almost everyone agrees is the most direct biblical teaching on homosexuality, the hardest one for Christian advocates of same sex relationships to address. (Speaking of the Bible, if you think you can have a good conversation with a gay friend or advocate by pulling out Leviticus 18 or Romans 1 and saying, “There you go, it’s right there in black and white,” you probably need to go a little deeper on that too. It’s likely that person knows those texts better than you do. If you don’t understand different ways of reading what are often called the ‘clobber texts,’ let me know and I’ll help you out.) What grabs me about Romans 1 is how many sins Paul groups together with same sex relations in that chapter. And it’s all apparently a set up, because Romans 1 about the sins of “them” (go ahead, check the pronouns). As soon as he’s done with that long list, in Romans 2:1 he says, “But you, if you judge them, you are doing the same things.” Spiritual condescension is a serious sin we don’t give much attention to. When I say “sin humbly,” I mean to imply that you sin too. Your sin grieves God just as much as anyone else’s. It’s not that we should stop talking about trying to overcome sin, it’s just that we should be equal opportunity sin enemies. Go ahead and make the list. Which sins do you think disqualify a person from coming to your church or joining it? Which sins disqualify a person from coming in your home or being your friend? Which sins create such a problem that God is no longer interested in a relationship?

Read discerningly. Much is being written about the SCOTUS decision and how Christians should respond. I would suggest you read and listen widely. If you’re reading only one message – a message of fear or acceptance or passivity or aggression, and even if you’re only reading my message – stretch your horizons a bit. I could be wrong. You could be wrong. The people you’re reading and listening to might well rethink what they’re saying in a year or ten. I personally think this widespread acceptance of sexual freedom and validation of personal choice is not going to seem as wise in 10-20 years as it does now. When I read I try to read both “sides” but primarily look for perspectives that balance grace and truth. On my short list: a book called Homosexuality and the Christian by Mark Yarhouse, and pretty much anything written in or posted by Christianity Today on the subject.

The short version of everything I’ve said is this: as you discuss homosexuality and gay marriage in today’s world, if you don’t want to be seen as an arrogant jerk, don’t act like one.

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