First Things – What Is Marriage to Evangelical Millennials?

Wedding RingsIn a recent post at First Things, Abigail Rine, an assistant professor of English at George Fox University, writes about her experience trying to teach “What is Marriage” [pdf]. Her Evangelical students not only didn’t like the conclusion, but had difficulty even understanding the authors’ argument. Yet Rine does not place the blame primarily on them, but on their pastors and parents:

While I listened to my students lambast the article, it struck me that, on one level, they were right: marriage isn’t in danger of being redefined; the redefinition began decades ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution. Once the link between sexuality and procreation was severed in our cultural imagination, marriage morphed into an exclusive romantic bond that has only an arbitrary relationship to reproduction. It is this redefinition, arguably, that has given rise to the same-sex marriage movement, rather than the other way around, and as the broader culture has shifted on this issue, so have many young evangelicals.

From time to time, my friend Justin Lee—founder of the Gay Christian Network—and I give joint presentations about how Christians can disagree charitably and civilly about homosexuality. Justin and I both grew up Southern Baptist, and we have a lot in common. We also disagree, and have disagreed for nearly two decades now, about whether same-sex sexual activity is ever compatible with God’s will.

Sometimes, someone who has seen our presentation will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. This is a fairly natural question, and since Justin and I have been friends for so long, I would be as likely to have insight into that as anyone.

However, I think the question actually rests on a substantial misunderstanding. I did not hold onto the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage. When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.

Justin has to explain away a few verses that deal with homosexuality. But his efforts to explain away do not surprise me. I grew up among pastors who didn’t even bother to explain away the New Testament teaching on divorce as they cheerfully blessed second, third, and even fourth marriages (and yes, I had the misfortune of attending Rev. Ken Hutcherson’s church for a time). However, the connection between marriage and procreation—which is the most important basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages—was rejected if not mocked by Evangelicals who regarded the Catholic teaching on contraception entirely backward.

In the most obvious sense, Justin is more faithful to his Evangelical upbringing than I am. I hold a traditional view on same-sex marriage because I rejected the theology of marriage I grew up with, and came to embrace the theology of marriage that used to be defended by Protestants and is still (at least officially) defended by the Catholic Church. That theology has, however, largely disappeared from the daily practice of American Christians, Catholic or Protestant.

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A Pentecost Meditation

This coming Sunday is the Day of Pentecost (for those of us in Western traditions), and it has struck me powerfully in recent years that we don’t really have a name for the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost.

The collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter from the Book of Common Prayer bridges the gap between those saving events by connecting Jesus’ ascension with the Spirit’s outpouring: “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to that place where our Saviour Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.” Still, even in that prayer itself (whose precursor, incidentally, the Venerable Bede is said to have prayed on his deathbed), you can hear how the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost is one of those liminal periods in the church’s year, like Holy Saturday, when we’re reminded of the fact that a basic task of God’s people is simply to wait. Jesus is bodily absent from his followers at this point, having ascended into heaven, and yet the Spirit has not yet been given. “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father…” (Acts 1:4).

Wait.

And the Spirit himself, after he has been poured out on the day of Pentecost, becomes a sign of a different kind of waiting but one that is still, nonetheless, waiting. His presence doesn’t so much “make up” for the absence of Jesus as insure that Jesus and his followers will one day be reunited. The Spirit acts as a kind of engagement ring, a pledge and foretaste of the still-future consummation of the Lamb’s wedding feast. The Spirit, St. Paul says, “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14). So the Spirit, in a sense, enables us to continue living in the liminal space in between Jesus’ first and second comings, an in-between time that was felt acutely after Jesus left and before the Spirit descended in tongues of fire in that upper room in Jerusalem.

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Day of Silence

Spiritual Friendship does not have a lot in common with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). On most questions related to sexuality, we hold positions very different from theirs. It is unlikely that they would endorse our approach, and we do not endorse theirs. But we do share a concern with the way sexual minority youth are treated. Two years ago, Jeremy Erickson wrote a post about the Day of Silence, which also linked to this 2010 Day of Silence post from Disputed Mutability, who is a friend of this blog. Jeremy also recommended Bill Henson’s Lead Them Home and Shawn Harrison’s six:11 Ministries  as organizations that address anti-gay bullying in a way that is faithful to a traditional Christian sexual ethic.

Some Christians have raised the concern that anti-bullying efforts like the Day of Silence can be used to silence Christians. I believe that the most effective way to address that problem is to make it clear that traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics are no barrier to acknowledging and trying to fix the bullying that LGBT youth experience. I think that all bullying is important and needs to be addressed. But in order to do that effectively, it’s not enough to just say “bullying is bad.” We need to understand different types of bullying and make sure that our anti-bullying policies are adequate to address all of the problems that need to be addressed. And that means understanding and specifically addressing the concerns of sexual minority youth.

I am not involved with either primary or secondary education. I am not, therefore, in the best position to make policy recommendations, or even to understand fully what the actual situation on the ground is today. I imagine it is quite different from what it was when I was in high school, but I believe that, in at least some parts of the country, the environment is still quite hostile for LGBT youth.

Dante0097And in one respect, at least, I know that the problem is much worse now than it was in the early 1990s. When I was in high school, I remember homosexuality being mentioned only a half dozen times or so at church. Today, the discussion is inescapable. And as difficult as some of the things I experienced in my teens were, I never had to read a Crisis Magazine comment thread. Internet comments sometimes bring out the very worst in human nature, and if I had read some of those comment threads as a teen, I think it is quite possible I would have been permanently alienated from Christian faith. Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6). Many of the comments about homosexuality at Crisis and other Christian publications are a very public expression of the deadly sin of wrath. This calls for a serious examination of conscience and a repentance that is as public as the original sin. Only public humility and repentance can begin to undo the damage to Christian witness done by this kind of public self-righteousness. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that Jesus was not crucified by a conspiracy of sexual sinners: it was the self-righteous religious pundits of His day who plotted to have Him murdered. 

In this post, I want to talk a bit about my own experience, in order to highlight some of the ways that it is difficult to be sexually different in adolescence—especially in a culture like ours, which makes sexuality so central to identity, and is divided by such sharp conflicts over sexual ethics.

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Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Martyrdom

Seventy years ago today, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

There are two distinctly different accounts of his death. Hermann Fischer-Hüllstrung, a Nazi doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s death, wrote that “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Dr. Fischer-Hüllstrung may, however, have been whitewashing a much more brutal scene. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen argues, “Fischer-Hüllstrung had the job of reviving political prisoners after they had been hanged until they were almost dead, in order to prolong the agony of their dying.” Because Bonhoeffer was executed as a political prisoner, he may well have died a lingering, painful death.

Whether Bonhoeffer’s death was a model of peaceful resignation to God’s will, or was drawn out by the horrors of Nazi torture, throughout his life he chose the costly way, repeatedly risking suffering for the sake of fidelity to the Gospel.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.” On the other hand, “Costly grace,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake the man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ for which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.”

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John Piper on Being Single in Christ

An old (2007) sermon from John Piper: “Single in Christ: A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters.”

I will start and end with my main point and, in the middle, cover a wide terrain of Scripture to support it. My main point is that God promises those of you who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children, and he calls you to display, by the Christ-exalting devotion of your singleness, the truths about Christ and his kingdom that shine more clearly through singleness than through marriage and childrearing. The truths, namely,

  1. That the family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ;
  2. That relationships in Christ are more permanent, and more precious, than relationships in families (and, of course, it is wonderful when relationships in families are also relationships in Christ; but we know that is often not the case);
  3. That marriage is temporary, and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along: Christ and the church—the way a picture is no longer needed when you see face to face;
  4. That faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life; all other relationships get their final significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is.

To say the main point more briefly: God promises spectacular blessings to those of you who remain single in Christ, and he gives you an extraordinary calling for your life. To be single in Christ is, therefore, not a falling short of God’s best, but a path of Christ-exalting, covenant-keeping obedience that many are called to walk.

Watch the video above, or check out the whole sermon at Desiring God.

The Self-Defeating Sexualization of Gay and Same-Sex Attracted Christians

I’ve written before about how often gay or same-sex attracted people are treated as if the central spiritual and moral issues of our lives are all sexual. For some reason this story strikes me as the most poignant example. But we’re subjected to so many demands that we repeat, “I’m chaste! I’m celibate!” in order to earn an uncertain welcome in the church.

Some straight Christians seem to view everything we bring to our churches solely through the lens of our sexuality. I just heard a couple heartbreaking stories from friends who were told that the abuse they had suffered, or their struggles with addiction, were the result of their homosexuality. I’ve had friends whose pastors assessed friendships and other relationships solely on the basis of whether they helped the friend remain chaste—as if chastity were the only virtue, and friendship was a sort of chastity accountability partnership. Basically, gay people are sometimes treated as if all our experiences are unusually sexually-charged, and all our relationships are either a) focused solely on chastity, or b) near occasions of sin.

This sexualization harms us (and our churches) in a lot of ways.

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Wartburg Watch: Even Celibacy Is Not Enough for Some Christians

Washed and WaitingOver at a blog called The Wartburg Watch, there’s a nice discussion of Spiritual Friendship and some of the challenges we’ve received from conservative critics. The post (and the blog) may be of interest to some of our readers.

Years ago, when my little daughter was suffering from brain tumor, I felt overwhelmed with the difficulties of managing my other children while coping with my own feelings of overwhelming pain for my daughter and fear for her future. My husband had to maintain his job so that we had the insurance to help pay for the medical bills. I felt quite lonely even though I had wonderful friends who supported me, helping with my other children and making meals for us. How does one explain the pain and fears to others who are not experiencing it?

I was directed to a group that dealt with the difficulties of having a child with a serious brain tumor. I found great comfort in the group as we discussed our issues. Children’s Hospital in Dallas provided professionals to help us work through all sorts of things. It was so comforting to be with a group of people who got it even if I didn’t say a word.

I grew to understand the importance of the support such groups offer. We formed friendships and held each other up through the inevitable pain and sorrows that arose.

That is why I was excited when I learned about the development of Spiritual Friendship amongst celibate gays. Before I go any further, I would ask that we keep this discussion centered around those gay Christians who have decided that they believe they should remain celibate. This is important to this post because I want to show that even when individuals make decisions that should be acceptable to conservative Christian, they still get criticized.

Check out the whole post.

Patricia Snow: Dismantling the Cross

In this month’s print edition of First Things, there’s an insightful essay on celibacy by Patricia Snow, called “Dismantling the Cross: A call for renewed emphasis on the celibate vocation.”

[I]n our culture, and increasingly in the Church itself, marriage is not regarded as a means but an end. It is not considered a relative but an absolute good, and therefore a right. The usual solution or sequel to widowhood or divorce in our day isn’t a late religious vocation or a salubrious solitude, but more marriage, or more venery in Roger Angell’s phrase in a recent essay in the New Yorker: “More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are.” In a climate like this—a climate for which the Church bears a certain responsibility, given her abuse of the grace of celibacy and her disproportionate enthusiasm for marriage—what does the Church say to homosexual persons who wish to marry? What does she say, for that matter, to the invalidly remarried who want to receive the Eucharist and are dumbfounded by the suggestion that they forgo sexual relations in order to do so? Should we be surprised that in a culture that so privileges marriage over celibacy, many Catholics now assume that the Eucharist is ordered to marriage rather than the other way around—that the choice for marriage is primary, in other words, and the ­Eucharist simply a secondary enhancement?

Once marriage is understood to be an absolute good and a right, it becomes very difficult to explain why, in certain circumstances, the goods of marriage have to be set aside. When the Church herself doesn’t value celibacy at its true value, it is all but impossible to recommend celibacy to others. The less robust and exemplary the celibate example in the Church, the more the idea spreads that the choice for God costs nothing. The less celibacy is apprehended and lived as a grace, the more it begins to be thought of as a punishment.

Read the whole essay at First Things.

My Friendship with Ron Belgau

One of the things I’d like to do more often here at Spiritual Friendship is tell stories of friendship. Theological reflection, of the sort I usually do in my posts, can only go so far. What we need more of—what I need more of—are stories of real life friendships that describe how vital Christian friendship can be.

With that in mind, I’d like to pay tribute to my friend Ron Belgau in this post. Ron and I met initially via email, through a mutual friend. When he expressed appreciation for my first book, Washed and Waiting, I asked him to share further thoughts on it. Then, due to how thoughtful and rich his response was, I decided I couldn’t answer it until I had time to produce an equally thoughtful and rich reply—which meant that I stayed silent for about six months. Ron waited patiently, and then he wrote again, and from there our friendship took off. We wrote, we talked via Skype with him in the U.S. and me in England, and, eventually, we had the chance to meet in person at a speaking gig I had and enjoy a long walk along the Battery in Charleston, South Carolina.

Out of those conversations, we started a private online gathering for gay/lesbian/SSA Christians who wanted to try to live by traditional biblical sexual ethics. The conversations we helped nurture there were among the most significant I’ve been a part of. And, eventually, they became the basis for what Ron and I are trying to do here with SF, the sort of public face of our earlier private effort.

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Faith, Hope, Love…and Loneliness

In high school, I would cry quietly in my bed. I felt like an outsider in my faith community. I felt a measure of rejection from my family. I felt confusion, shame, and insecurity about my sexuality. All of these added up to one simple feeling: I was lonely. So I wept and prayed every night for Jesus to show up, physically, in my room. He never did.

Throughout my twenties, I’ve gone through periods of asking for that same thing. The reasons have changed, as have the pressures and responsibilities of life. But that silent, desperate plea has not. Please, Jesus. Now. You did it for Thomas. Can’t you do it for me? Just for long enough to know that you’re really here; that my life really matters to you; that this painful obedience and denial is worth something immeasurable to you. But still he resists.

Loneliness persists.

Solitary Tree

I’ve had a thousand reasons why I’ve felt lonely over the years. When I was young, my dad left, so I felt lonely when I looked up at the family pictures in my friends’ houses. I played classical music and enjoyed musical theater, so I felt lonely when my friends met up after school for garage band sessions. I knew my sexuality was different, so I felt lonely when I couldn’t talk about that boy in the back of that class with my friends because not only was it weird to them; it was a black mark of a sinful disposition. As kids, our loneliness can feel insurmountable.

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