I’ve just returned from Calgary, Alberta where Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network (GCN), and I had a public dialogue on All Things Gay and Christian for the Anglican Church of Canada diocese there. It’s not the first time he and I have done something like this, but we both agreed that this one seemed to touch on all the major issues—debates over biblical interpretation, the church’s need for repentance for its treatment of LGBTQ persons, the need to celebrate singleness, to name just a few—in a way we felt was particularly effective. And it helps that Justin such a gracious and generous friend.
(Why do I agree to do these sorts of dialogues? The first reason is that Justin is “family.” We’re both baptized in the same Triune Name. We both confess the same creed. We both believe the weirdest thing is the deepest truth of the universe: that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. I think Justin’s Side A view is wrong and that it is wrong in a way that touches on first-order Christian claims about creation, Christology, and redemption; I also think that when family members hold views you think are that wrong, you keep on loving them and talking with them and seeking to bear witness to what you believe is true and life-giving. Second, for those who are worried, like I am at times, that this sort of dialogue may be a form of capitulation, a form of saying, “I’m convinced of the truth of my view but not so convinced,” let me just add that another reason I want to dialogue with people like Justin is that I want, in whatever minuscule way I can, to help see my own Anglican Communion, and the church more broadly, through its current crisis on sexual ethics. “Dialogue,” so easy to criticize as wishy-washy, need not entail compromise of one’s convictions; it may instead be a way of signaling hope that some future unity-in-truth may be realized in a way I can’t yet fathom. As the Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan has written, “The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process [of dialogue between ‘gay-affirming’ Christians and ‘traditionalist’ Christians] is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”)
There’s so much I could say about our conversation, and maybe I will say a bit more in the coming days and weeks, but I simply want to offer one thought for now.
I had a sort of “aha” moment as Justin was speaking. In the middle of the portion of the event when he and I were debating how the Bible speaks to these matters, Justin made a statement to the effect of, “I think the only reason we are having this debate is because of the so-called ‘clobber passages’ [Genesis 19:1-29; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10-11] each one of which is somewhat obscure and addresses specific cultural matters of its time. If those passages weren’t in the Bible, nothing else that’s in the Bible would make us think God was against same-sex marriage.” (Again: that’s the gist of what he said, and he can correct me if I got him wrong.)
But here’s the thing: I realized as soon as he said it that I basically think the exact opposite: I think there is a consistent Scriptural teaching on marriage—aptly summarized by Augustine’s three “goods” of fidelity/exclusivity, procreation, and sacrament, and traceable from Genesis to Revelation—and that the so-called “clobber passages” are merely ancillary confirmation that same-sex sexual intimacy is ruled out of bounds for Christian believers. Even without those passages, I’m convinced I’d still hold the views I hold about marriage: that is a covenantal bond between a man and a women, ordered to procreation, and bearing witness to Christ’s love for the church.
I agree entirely with my Baptist theologian friend Steve Holmes who wrote the following in a book he and I recently contributed to:
Let me note that my argument so far has made no reference at all to the famous handful of biblical texts that speak directly about same-sex relations. If we understand sexual ethics the way the church, almost universally, has done for the past fifteen hundred years, then these texts are just not very significant for the ethical debate. Their proper place is in a footnote, indicating that they offer a welcome, but small, degree of confirmation that a position reached for other, much weightier, exegetical and theological reasons is indeed correct. If these texts had never been in Scripture, the church would still face the same struggle with same-sex marriage, because our understanding of marriage is built on procreation and otherness [i.e., male-female difference]. To the reader who is familiar only with very recent writings on the subject, this will be surprising, but it remains true. Consider even Karl Barth, who wrote at very great length on marriage, and whose theology is famously saturated with Scripture. In noting that a Christian doctrine of marriage has no place for same-sex marriage (a point he describes as ‘almost too obvious to need stating’), he makes no mention at all of Leviticus 18, and only one passing reference to Romans 1:26-27. These texts are just not important for the argument, which turns rather on procreation and complementarity.
There is, as the Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has put it, a “nuptial figure”—a marital form by which God orders human life, a form that is discernible in the unfolding of the biblical canon, from the first union of man and woman in Eden to the final marriage supper of the Lamb and his Bride, the church. And it is that figure as it is attested throughout Scripture, not just a handful of tricky verses in six or seven places in the Old and New Testaments, that is the ultimate reason many of us cannot see our way clear to affirm same-sex unions as Christianly appropriate.