Between Presumption and Despair

Yesterday, after speaking at Asbury University the day before, I crossed the street and preached the following sermon in a chapel service at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky:

At Trinity where I’m a faculty member, I recently taught a course on the Gospel of Mark, so I’ve been thinking again about some of Mark’s final scenes. In particular, I’ve been powerfully struck all over again by the so-called “cry of dereliction”—Jesus’ last words from the cross in Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

For so many modern Christians, of course, these words are at the heart of any post-Holocaust theology worth its salt. If we don’t have a God who shares in our agony and misery, then we don’t have a God we can believe in. This is the verse that Jürgen Moltmann put at the heart of his classic book The Crucified God, and it’s probably what prompted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to say, “Only the suffering God can help.” As I told my students, many modern Christians, myself included, are drawn to the way Mark doesn’t prettify or whitewash the horror of the crucifixion. He lets us see the full depths of human suffering, and he shows us Jesus right in the middle of that suffering.

But not all the Gospels follow Mark on this score. Luke chooses not to make the cry of dereliction the final words of Jesus from the cross. Instead, here’s what Luke says: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems to die in trust and confidence that God has not forsaken him. He entrusts his spirit to God, and he calls God his “Father.”

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“The Birth Pangs of This Present Age”

Yesterday I spoke in chapel at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Here’s what I said:

In a few more weeks, at the end of November, those of us who worship in more high church or liturgical traditions will be starting our new church year. While the rest of the world celebrates the start of the New Year on January 1st, we’ll celebrate the start of the new Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent, the season that will lead us up to the first great feast of the Christian year, Christmas.

The word advent is a word that means arrival or appearing or coming. It’s the time of the year when we wait, once again, for the arrival of Jesus, for him to be born of Mary and laid in the manger and worshiped by angels and shepherds and kings. It’s a time of year when the church remembers that we have to be a patient and expectant and hopeful, pilgrim people. We have to look and long for the coming of the Messiah. And so we wait on tiptoe for several weeks, with hunger and yearning, for the shining feast of Christmas.

Advent may be my favorite time of the Christian calendar. Almost every year, I feel like I stagger into it with relief. After a long summer filled with all sorts of activities and travels, and usually, for me, a more chaotic schedule, I stumble into Advent and breathe a little more deeply and rest a little more easily. Advent reminds me of who I am, of Whom I’m waiting for, and what story I’m a part of.

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The Transformation of the Gentiles

In my last post on eunuchs in the New Testament, I promised a follow-up:

One of the most prominent arguments for the so-called “full inclusion” of LGBTQ people in the church is the analogy of the early church’s inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles. In the book of Acts and in the Epistles in the New Testament, Gentile people—despite their ongoing violation of the clear biblical command for those in the covenant family of Abraham to be circumcised—were welcomed and affirmed in the church precisely in their uncircumcised state. In Christ, as St. Paul says, Abraham became “the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (Romans 4:11). Likewise—so the argument goes—LGBTQ people today, despite their ongoing violation of supposedly clear biblical precedent, are also included precisely as sexual minorities. They don’t need to “become straight” (always a losing battle) or give up having sex with a partner of the same sex in order to be full-fledged members in good standing in Christ’s church.

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Eunuchs and “Full Inclusion”

One of the points proponents of same-sex marriage in the church often make is that the Bible’s trajectory is toward greater, not lesser, inclusiveness. Gentiles, women, eunuchs, “sinners” of various stripes, etc.—all these are, by the time we arrive at the end of the New Testament, clearly at the heart of the kingdom of God, pulled into the sphere of Christ’s church from the margins they occupied under the old covenant (Ephesians 2:11-12).

I hope to say more about this theme later in the week here on the blog, but for now I wanted to focus briefly the claim that the case of the “full inclusion” of eunuchs in the early church is analogous to the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church today. As the argument goes, eunuchs were “others,” outsiders, and not fully included in the people of God under the old covenant (see Deuteronomy 23:1). But now, in Christ, they are (see Acts 8:26-39). Likewise—so goes the progressive case—gay and lesbian people too, formerly not fully included (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), ought to be included now, in Christ, welcomed and wholly affirmed in their faithful, monogamous loves.

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Voluntary Or Not, Celibacy Is A Gift

Sunrise view taken by the STS-109 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. NASA Identifier: sts109-345-032

Wes Hill has just written a wonderful (favorite I’ve ever read?) reflection on “the long defeat” of the Christian life, and how that intersects with the call to celibacy outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Please read it!

As I was taking it in, another thought struck me, one that I and others have written about before, but came into sharper focus as I read Wes’ words. It has to do with the charisma, or gift, of celibacy. I have heard this gift used as an argument against the traditional sexual ethic. The case, as fairly as I can put it, goes something like this: throughout church history celibacy has been a voluntary state chosen in conjunction with a call from God. But to “mandate” celibacy for all gay Christians removes it from the realm of voluntary and places it in the realm of requirement. And requiring celibacy for those who have not discerned the gift of celibacy for themselves is cruel and outside the heart of God.

This would be an appropriate place to discuss the calling to a mixed-orientation marriage (MOM), but that is for a different post. As I was reading Wes’ piece, it struck me that neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul speak of the gift of celibacy as strictly voluntary. Rather, both affirm the notion that if you are in a state of celibacy, regardless of the circumstances that led you there, it is to be viewed as a beautiful gift from God.

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Positive and Negative Precepts

Several years ago, Eve Tushnet wrote, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” This need to focus on the positive side of Christian discipleship has often been echoed by other Spiritual Friendship writers. Most recently, Melinda Selmys said, “If we are going to say ‘no’ to gay marriage, we have to provide gay people with human relationships where we offer love, fidelity and mutual support.”

stations-of-the-cross-460271_1280-1024x511This focus on the positive vocation to love is not an original formula we came up with. It is a basic element of Christian and Catholic teaching, applied to the particularities of ministry to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons.

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Is Adultery Natural?

From time to time, I see conservative Christians argue that homosexual acts are significantly worse than other forms of sexual sin—like fornication or adultery—because at least those other sins are “natural.” Often the same argument is applied even at the level of temptation: temptation toward homosexual sin is worse than temptation toward heterosexual sin. (For example, Matt Moore recently made such an argument, despite arguing that it not sinful simply to experience temptation.) This argument seems to be based on an exaggerated conclusion from Paul’s use of the phrase “contrary to nature” in Romans 1:26-27.

William Dyce, "Francesca da Rimini." Based on the story of Paulo and Francesca in Canto V of Dante's Inferno.

William Dyce, “Francesca da Rimini.” Based on the story of Paulo and Francesca in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno.

In order to evaluate this argument, it’s important to understand what makes something “natural” and what makes it “contrary to nature.” From a Christian perspective, this must come down to God’s intent when He created the world. Something is “natural” if it is in line with God’s created order, and “contrary to nature” if it rejects some part of that order.

Some people’s contention seems to be that the description of homosexual practice as “contrary to nature” is intended to set homosexual practice apart from other sins. However, I don’t think that Paul would describe as “natural” the more general “lust” and “impurity” in Romans 1:24, the idolatry in Romans 1:25, the various vices in Romans 1:29-30, or the judgment discussed at the start of Romans 2. And in the other passages where Paul addresses homosexuality, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, he includes it on a list with several other sins, including generic “sexual immorality.” Romans 1 is the only case where Paul singles out homosexuality as “contrary to nature,” but he does not say that it is unique in that category even there.

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Genesis 2:18, Celibacy, and Context

In my previous post on Protestants and celibacy, I focused primarily on the Scripture passages that address celibacy directly. Another important part of Scripture to consider, and one frequently brought up, is the account in Genesis. God’s claim that “it is not good that the man should be alone” in Genesis 2:18 (ESV) is a common proof text for a negative view of celibacy. As I have written previously, I do not believe that equating “alone” and “unmarried” is a responsible way to read this passage.

Adam Names the Animals

I would like to focus on understanding what Scripture is really teaching us in the Genesis account. I will do so by focusing on one of the most important principles of interpreting Scripture, namely paying attention to context. In examining various areas of context, I’ve come to the conclusion that procreation is a significant component of God’s solution to “being alone.” Adam’s difficulty lay not in being unmarried: the difficulty was rather that he was the only human being.  Humans, after all, are designed to need connections with each other. Marriage is but one form of this connection made possible by a world where people follow the command to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Celibacy, in turn, has its own inherent difficulties. Most people desire the kind of shared life usually found in marriage and have the biological desire to have sex. These desires, particularly the sexual ones, are unlikely to go away just because one has other forms of community. But we also need to learn to view celibacy the way Scripture does, which  includes reading Genesis 2:18 in the light of what the passage is actually saying. We must not read something into it other than what is actually there. Without further ado, let’s look at one of the major areas of context. Continue reading

Protestant Opposition to Celibacy

Outside discussions about gay and lesbian people, I’ve found that most Protestants tend to have a very low view of celibacy. This manifests itself in a number of ways. For example, single seminary graduates often find that it can be difficult to become a pastor in an evangelical church without being married. Lack of marriage can be viewed with suspicion, as an indication that people are likely to fall to sexual sin. Some even argue that failure to marry is a sinful shirking of adult responsibility.

Solitary Tree

Underlying much of this attitude is the belief that for the vast majority of people, celibacy is either impossible or cannot be fulfilling. For example, many Protestants blame the Catholic sex abuse scandal on the requirement that priests remain unmarried, and this is taken as a cautionary tale against an expectation of celibacy. Many Protestants see celibate living as a needless source of loneliness, and as the sort of thing that can be viewed as a form of punishment. On the other hand, they see marriage as the universal solution to the problems of loneliness and sexual temptation.

This relates to the increasing movement of Protestant communities in the direction of viewing marriage as a legitimate vocation for same-sex couples. It is becoming increasingly well-known that there are people with a stable, enduring pattern of attraction to people of the same sex, without corresponding attractions to people of the opposite sex. There are a number of such people who blog here on Spiritual Friendship (although I’m not actually one of them). For such people, marriage to someone of the opposite sex can bring significant issues and is not always advisable.

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The Gift of Singleness

Caravaggio - The Calling of St. Matthew

Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew

I recently preached a sermon on “The Gift of Singleness,” based on Matthew 19:10-12. The main point of that text—and therefore the sermon—was that for those called to it, singleness should be received as a gift from God. I organized the sermon into three points to help unpack and support that thesis:

  1. “The Gift is Given (vv. 10-11)”
  2. “Circumstances are Seen (vs. 12)”
  3. “Singleness is Savored (vs. 12)”

So that is where we are going.

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