Sunday, June 29, 2014

Don't Run: A Letter to a Fellow Conservative Pastor in the MCUSA about Same Sex Marriage

My friend, I want to apologize to you for not responding to your paper right away.  It is true I have been busy and my rational mind somewhat distracted from big issues to everyday issues.  But I have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and have considered it seriously since you sent me the letter on Feb 6.  Now that MCUSA is seriously debating the issue, I guess it’s time for me to give my firm opinion, even if still in the formation stage.  So I will do my best.  I wish I was as straightforward and brief as you, but as you know, my thoughts tend to wander and get a bit large at times.

1.       First, I need to say that I am in agreement with your exegesis of the text.  Paul, in interpreting Jesus, firmly stated that the act of same sex intercourse is a sin, and characterizing one’s life this way keeps one from the kingdom of God.  As Paul is bringing in his idea of porneia from Leviticus 18, this includes same sex marriage.  As such, the church should not be involved in same sex marriages, either creating them or participating in them.

2.       However, this is not the point of view of everyone.  What I stated above is what can be understood from standard exegetical practices. But there is another way of looking at the texts.  If the idea of fornication (porneia) is not based on Leviticus 18, but is based rather on contemporary cultural standards, then we might see the texts on homosexuality differently.  Because Romans 1 has a unique place in its book (which I will discuss in a bit), I’d like to look at the other Pauline passage on homosexuality—I Corinthians 6:9-10.  Paul is listing the characters (habitual, unrepented actions) that cause one to not enter God’s kingdom.  In that list, Paul gives two terms: malakoi and arsenosoitai, a pair of terms that are used to speak of those who participate in same sex intercourse.  Malakoi is a curious term, literally “the soft”, which is not used for homosexuals anywhere else in the NT or the LXX, but possibly connected to wealth in Matt 11:8/Lk 7:25 and perhaps Prov 25:15.  The second term is used also only in I Timothy 1:10 in another, shorter, vice list.  Both terms are understood as referring to homosexual acts.  If so, it could be that the pair of terms refers to the common practice of sexual immorality in patronage, in which a homosexual bond occurs between an older patron and a younger ward.  Paul would be implying that both the aggressor (patron) and the one who agrees to such a sexual arrangement (ward) would be denied entrance into God’s kingdom.   Another passage that has to be looked at is Jude 1:7, which condemns Sodom for their “fornication” and “going after strange flesh.”  This is understood to be about pursuing homosexual intercourse.  It might also, however, be understood to mean sexual acts outside of a committed relationship.  These passages are interpreted in such a way by some NT scholars, and so not speaking of a committed relationship within marriage.  In other words, they would say that the NT does not declare same sex marriage a sin.

3.       Because of this, I think that the argument in MCUSA is not between those who study the NT and those who don’t but between two different interpretations of the NT.  While the purpose of seeking an alternative understanding of these NT passages could be suspect (seeking an excuse to accept those currently outcast due to sinful practice), the result points out a weakness in NT scholarship about homosexuality.  Not that there is anything wrong with what was previously stated, but that it could be interpreted differently.  I am sure that after all your study and hard work you don’t see these two points of view as being equal at all.  And I certainly agree that the connection between Leviticus 18 and these passages is stronger than the cultural arguments.  However, this becomes an argument about scholarship, not about the question of who is in and who is out of the church, which is what the discussion should be about.

Ultimately, looking at both sides, I see this whole argument to be a question of epistemology. How do we know one interpretation of scripture is true and another is not?  I don’t mean how do we study or interpret, but how do we realistically accept one point of view and reject another.  I know that you, W-, study hard and accept truth through hard-won principles and hours of study.  Most people, however, do not.  They leave the hours of study and analysis to people like you who do the work.  And the “scientists” of the church sometimes disagree.  When they do, the majority of people accept the point of view that makes sense best to them.  Not because they don’t care about the truth, but because they do.  Most people don’t have the skills to do in-depth exegesis.  And they certainly don’t have the wherewithal to make a fully informed choice between two different schools of interpretation. They “go with their gut” based on instinct and relationship and what limited information they have.  Will God condemn a person because he or she disagrees with Him on a point of view that he doesn’t have enough information?  Does not God look at the heart and judge based on their mercy?

5.       Same sex marriages are a hot button issue both in and out of the church and emotions are deeply involved.  It is easy to characterize the side we disagree with as the enemy, as people who are opposed to morality and God’s true will in this broader cultural context.  In a counselling situation, when emotions are high and black-and-white thinking is likely, a counsellor would suggest to put the decision on hold until after a “cooling down” period.  Because rational, informed decisions cannot be made in such a context.  There was a less than informed decision made about divorce and remarriage in the 50s and the 60s, but conservative churches weren’t leaving, no one was making an uproar.  I think the question should be revisited, but the question is… should we really be making a demand of our churches and our society to stand firm on one side or another in this age of partisanship and wild accusations?

6.       What is MCUSA really doing?  Are they being cowardly?  Or are they waiting?  What should a church do when there are differing points of view, both of which is based on an interpretation of Scripture? In a situation like this, the Orthodox church has a saying, “Let’s wait a couple centuries and see how it pans out.”  You say that thirty years is enough to make a decision on such a hot-button issue, but as a historian, you should know that this isn’t true.  Neither Athanasius nor Arius saw their hot button issue of the trinity resolved by the end of their lives, let alone by the end of their century.  The issue of spiritual gifts seem to be winding down after a century of debate, but there are still naysayers.  In all probability the issue of same sex marriages will still be debated in fifty years’ time.

7.       The probability is strong that MCUSA will this week allow individual conferences to make their own choices about same sex marriages, and many conferences will pass that decision down to congregations.  And many churches will find this decision unacceptable and leave the Church, like what you are talking about. However, I suggest that you not do that. 

8.       In the NT, there are clear defining principles as to what is true teaching and false teaching.  But it isn’t so clear what to do with the false teachers.  There are many passages that tell the disciple not to listen to the false teacher, and a church is not to “welcome” such a false teacher, and in Revelation it says that Jezebel would be judged for her encouragement of immorality in the church.  But we are never told to leave a church, nor even to kick the false prophets out.  Rather, even in Revelation, we are told that Jesus would judge himself.  We are to hold to the truth, teach the truth and speak out for the truth, but why separate ourselves from others?

You say that I Corinthians 5 says to separate from the sexually immoral, but the debate is not whether to forgive or to accept the sexually immoral, but what is the definition of sexual immorality.  This is not a discussion to run from just because it is being held.  Romans 1 has a discussion about who is judged by God.  The argument is made that Gentiles are sinners and deserve condemnation.  But Paul is not making that argument in Romans 1:18 to the end of the chapter for himself.  Rather that is the standard anti-Gentile argument about why Gentiles should not be allowed in the Church.  Paul immediately responds to that argument, which includes a clear condemnation of homosexuality, "You have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgement, for in that which you judge another you condemn yourself. For you who judge practice the same things." We allow sexual immorality in our churches in other ways, but not homosexuality?  We allow people to hate and to gripe and to gossip and to argue, but we do not allow a point of clarification from people who want to love and accept?  Is there something wrong with this?

9.       I am in disagreement with the 16th Anabaptists in an area: I do not believe that it is possible to have a pure, undefiled church.  We can aim for it, work for it and imagine it, but in the end the earthly Church is a number of weak, semiscient, human organizations.  If all those who have the truth leave the Church to form another, then they are leaving one human organization for another.  They are no longer discussing, no longer convincing, no longer evangelizing, no longer encouraging. They are leaving that institution to be bound for hell, which seems like one of the worst kinds of judging.

11.   Even so, recognizing how much this Church (both as MCUSA and as MC and GC) has given you, is it time to leave because they are allowing congregations make decisions on a debatable point of view?  Even if you do not see it as debatable, can you not remain and make your points?  Personally, I think that the prejudices of the church against the poor are more important issues than the issue of homosexuality, but you have already put in the work, on the salary of congregations of MCUSA.  Why leave the church when they have paid you to come to the conclusions you have come to?  Is it not your responsibility to remain in the Church and to share what the Church has granted you—your time, your studies, the opportunity to share?  Now is not the time to run, but to stand and to speak.  The Church will not stop your speech, but rather encourage it.  Perhaps you will not get a book in Menno Media, but there are many other venues.  Take them.  Don’t fail the Church by leaving it, but change the Church from within.

EDIT: I've received some notice that perhaps my point isn't clear. I am not telling conservatives to change their viewpoint, nor am I telling liberals to change theirs.  I am saying that the Church is about peace and love under Jesus, and that we haven't really listened to each other past the shouting.  I am saying that none of us should leave the church, but keep paying attention to each other until we reach consensus on this point of view.  Yes, people's lives and souls are at stake.  So much so that we shouldn't walk away from them.


  1. I largely agree with Rob Gagnon here.

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  3. BTW, Tom's post has a link to a video which can be seen if you click the word "here" above.

    Gagnon is a prime scholar in this discussion, who is not read as often as he is referred to. But a scholar's opinion does not discount the opinion of another scholar in the eyes of the masses. The question is less, what is true and more, how do we deal with severe disagreement, even between scholars?

  4. Gagnon has the most thorough exegetical view of those who hold that modern homosexuality is discussed as sin in Scripture.

    Here is a brief video that summarizes a viewpoint that Scripture does not discuss modern homosexuality.
    I do not hold this view, but I think it is important to hear and recognize that it is important to pay attention and to seriously consider this viewpoint. The important question to ask is: do we have the right to condemn people to hell because they disagree with us on interpretation? Who is really their judge, us or God? And do we really know what God will say about this?