A Letter to Louise, Part 3

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Nine. Full acceptance by society, including the blessings and legality of marriage should be extended to gays and lesbians in the same way it is extended to others.

Louise, if it is moral as well as psychologically needful — a God-created need — for homosexuals to live as couples in committed relationships, as many theologians and psychologists have said it is, then homosexuals who are in loving, long-term, committed relationships should have the societal rights and privileges that marriage can give them. Following are some statements in this regard.

A graduate school history professor writes,

“Family” need not mean the traditional heterosexual family to the exclusion of all others….Gays and lesbians want the right to marry for the same reasons other Americans do: to gain the moral, legal, social and spiritual benefits conferred on the marrying couple and especially on their family unit. The material benefits of marriage are considerable, but it is the moral benefit that is especially attractive to many couples, including gay and lesbian ones. Marriage is, or can be, a moral commitment that two people make to one another. The marriage vow enshrines love, honor, respect, and mutual support and gives people access to resources and community acknowledgment that serve to strengthen their bond.9-1

And Nava and Dawidoff say:

Marriage is not conditioned on the intention or the capacity to have children. Nothing in marriage, except custom, mandates partners of different genders. For example, [Yale historian] John Boswell notes that in ancient Rome `marriages between males and between females were legal and familiar among the upper classes.’ The institution of marriage in our society appears to be one that encourages monogamy as the basis for stable personal lives and as one aspect of the family. If we think about what marriage is for, it becomes clear that it is for people to find ways to live ordered, shared lives; it is intended to be the stablest possible unit of family life and a stable structure of intimacy.9-2

Noting Paul’s advice that it was better to marry than to burn, Theology professor Daniel C. Maguire points out as long as homosexual couples are denied marriage, “there is no alternative to burning.”9-3

Was it not God who said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Gen. 2:18)? James Nelson, Professor of Christian Ethics, believes that “same-sex relationships are fully capable of expressing God’s humanizing intentions,” and views the “homosexual problem” as “more truly a heterosexual problem” (of homophobia), just as the “woman problem” is a problem of “male sexism.”9-4

As I have discussed above, the Bible cannot be used to argue against this for the Bible has nothing to say about homosexual people. Here is a religious editor’s word in this connection:

Nor can the Bible be confidently cited in this debate. Certainly, the concept of same-sex marriage is not found in the Bible. But the concept of government by democracy is also not found in the Bible, only that of monarchy. On strictly biblical grounds, the doctrine of the divine right of kings has a firmer base than government by the people. Human experience, however, has led us to believe that democracy is not an illegitimate, unbiblical form of government. Since the biblical models of marriage range from polygamy at one end to celibacy on the other, we shall have to find our own way and not claim that the Bible permits only one model of marriage.9-5

Lesbians and gays have some interesting thoughts about same-gender relationships:

The fact that we are in a same-sex relationship means that the predetermination of roles by gender, sometimes so destructive a force in heterosexual relationships, is not relevant to our lives. Each member of a same-sex couple is free to act from individual interests, predilections, and skills, rather than having to choose between conforming to or rebelling against the cultural norm. We are able to see the mainstream culture from a greater distance and a healthier perspective. This means that we know that many of the oppressive messages of the culture are inapplicable to us, and that others are simply false or distorted. Thus, we are able to circumvent much of what is jokingly referred to as `The Battle of the Sexes’ – really, no joking matter at all. Ironically, it is the same-sex couple that can most clearly see itself as being composed of two human beings, whereas the heterosexual couple is constantly having to deal with the coercive personae of Man and Woman.9-6

Another lesbian says:

In many ways, we [lesbians] have an easier time of creating a truly egalitarian, mutual and mature relationship. In fact, some researchers are now beginning to look at the same-sex couple as a model for helping heterosexuals to create more human relationships. In contrast with heterosexuals, who often feel alienated from their mates, we need only look inside ourselves to know much about our lovers. We are able to relax with each other in a much more trusting way than can most straight couples. The inequities in our relationships are individually made ones, for the most part, and not a function of historically sanctioned power imbalances that have created the fear and hatred in which many women and men coexist today. In a lesbian couple, both women can freely develop strength and competence. In addition, having been socialized as women, we have been trained to be interpersonally sensitive, nurturant, gentle and compassionate. In a heterosexual relationship, these qualities are used primarily to serve the man and to oppress the woman, who often must bear full responsibility for the emotional quality of the relationship…. These same attributes, however, can create a miraculously high-quality relationship when shared by two women who are matched in their capacities to share and to love.9-7

A gay philosophy professor at MIT observes:

Once we understand what marriage is, we can see what marriage would mean for us, and why it is worth fighting for. Same-sex marriage would not force anyone to honor or approve of gay or lesbian relationships against their will. But it would enable those of us who are involved in gay or lesbian relationships to get the rest of society to understand that we take these relationships just as seriously as heterosexual married couples take theirs. And without marriage, we remain second-class citizens – excluded, for no good reason, from participating in one of the basic institutions of society.9-8

There is an interesting note from church history.

[Noted church historian] John Boswell… has discovered that, whereas the church did not declare heterosexual marriage to be a sacrament until 1215 C.E., one of the Vatican Library’s earliest Greek liturgical documents is a marriage ceremony for two persons of the same sex. The document dates to the fourth century, if not earlier. In other words, nine centuries before heterosexual marriage was declared a sacrament, the church liturgically celebrated same-sex covenants.9-9

Louise, this goes against everything I had ever thought about homosexuality — which I confess now was very little. But I pray for an open mind that puts truth first in my thinking. I see truth in all of the above. Regardless of what I have thought in the past, this is what I have to believe now. Josh Billings, thank you for your encouragement.

Ten. As in society, gays and lesbians should be accepted and affirmed in our churches and given any opportunity for service, including ordination, that others have. You know that for the past decade or so most Protestant denominations have been debating whether to affirm, and especially whether to ordain, homosexuals. Many committees/commissions have been appointed to study the matter and make recommendations to their general denominational bodies or their churches. I have read of much of this activity and the reports. In every case that I can recall now the commissions have recommended just about what I have said in this discussion. Then when the commissions have brought their recommendations to the general assemblies/conventions or to their churches, their reports have been voted down.

I am impressed that those who have made a serious study of this matter — the members of the commissions — are in favor of affirming gays and lesbians, and that those who vote it down are the ones who have not studied it. If they vote it down because they have not studied it, then they are voting on the basis of pre-judging, that is, prejudice. Prejudging, prejudice, is evil. We need to put aside our prejudices and presuppositions, then seriously and open-mindedly study this matter.

Since there is no explicit instruction in the Bible about homosexual ordination, we must derive our belief from our understanding of the principles of the Bible. Dr. Tex S. Sample has this concept:

The question of their union – and celibacy and marriage as well, for that matter – is whether it serves the kingdom of God…. [There are three questions about ordination:] the first is whether one’s union basically frustrates one’s commitment to the kingdom of God…. The second issue for ordination is whether one’s union, like marriage or celibacy, frees one for obedience to God and propels one to fulfill God’s aims…. Finally, and perhaps most important, does the union itself bear witness to the covenantal reality of the kingdom of God?… When homosexual unions are faithful to God’s rule, manifest its power, serve its aims and bespeak its hopes and joys, the basic question of readiness for ordained ministry has been met.10-1

In 1973 the United Church of Christ’s Executive Council urged the full acceptance of homosexual persons symbolized by ordination: “In the instance of considering a stated homosexual’s candidacy for ordination the issue should not be his/her homosexuality as such, but rather the candidate’s total view of human sexuality and his/her understanding of the morality of its use.”10-2 The UCC’s national body has recently adopted this, the only mainline denomination to have such a policy at this time. In June 2001 the Presbyterian General Assembly voted to permit ordination of openly non-celibate gay clergy. This must be ratified by the 173 presbyteries.

Conservative theologian Stanley Grenz observes that homosexuality in itself should not be considered in selecting a candidate for ordination, because, “The texts that set down guidelines for the selection of officers focus on three basic prerequisites – giftedness for leadership, spirituality and character, and public reputation (e.g., I Tim. 3:1-13)…. These criteria give central emphasis to the importance of one’s present life of faith.”10-3

And Richard Hays, although believing homosexuality to be sinful, notes that other sins are in the same list with homosexuality, and concludes, “It is arbitrary to single out homosexuality as a special sin that precludes ordination. (Certainly the New Testament does not do this.) The church has no analogous special rules to exclude from ordination the greedy or the self-righteous. Such matters are left to the discernment of the bodies charged with examining candidates for ordination; these bodies must determine whether the individual candidate has the gifts and graces requisite for ministry.”10-4

Louise, surely any gay or lesbian who comes to our churches professing that Jesus Christ is Lord should be accepted and affirmed in every way just as you and I have been.

I have to believe deeply that these ten statements are true. The convictions have come from seriously studying this subject, and, thankfully, I now can feel enlightened about it. How I wish all our church members, especially all our pastors, would make such a study.

Now I know that gays and lesbians do not choose their orientation, for they are created by God, in his image with an unchangeable orientation which is good and with a God-given purpose. I know the love between gays and between lesbians is no less than that of others. I am convinced the Bible supports their loving, committed relationships, that there is no moral evil in such and that society and our churches should affirm them fully.

And homosexuals have those characteristics that give them some extraordinary potential in very desirable areas! If we would only accept them, respect them, affirm them and bring them out of their closets, they could give beauty and strength to society and our churches. It is not only sad, isn’t it somewhat irresponsible that for a matter so important to so many people, to churches and to denominations, our churches and their members have never seriously studied what the Bible says and doesn’t say about this matter? I am writing out below what I am thoroughly convinced is the correct understanding of scripture that may have relevance to this subject.

APPENDIX A ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE

We Baptists believe that each person must interpret the Bible for himself or herself; we are not to let anyone else control our thinking about scripture. Surely there are some helpful guides for interpreting scripture, some principles that we should follow. I have selected a few of these to discuss briefly that I think are very important to our rightly understanding our Bible and perhaps especially the subject of homosexuality.

(1) Understanding the Bible is understanding what the writer wanted his readers to understand. This seems so obvious, but millions of Bible readers and thousands of preachers violate this principle constantly because when they look at a passage, they do not give a thought either to the author or to those to whom he wrote but immediately begin to decide what the words, by themselves, mean. Practically everyone is guilty of this. This leads to almost as many different ideas as there are readers. But the only truth in a passage is the truth the writer was trying to convey to readers who were his contemporaries. The New Testament scholar H. E. Dana, in his Searching the Scriptures, says, “The ultimate object which we seek in interpretation is the thought in the mind of the New Testament writer which sought expression in the written text…. We should seek to discover the one meaning which the writer had in mind, and then apply that meaning to our moral and religious experience.”A-1 This is a basic fact about the whole Bible, and it involves several things:

(a) The writer’s meaning comes out of his background. While the Bible is an inspired revelation of God, giving us “truth without any mixture of error” about God as the Baptist Faith and Message Statement says, God did not dictate; he let the authors of the books write out of their own consciousness and experience, using their own words (for example, the Greek of some NT writers was atrocious. Isn’t it wonderful how unimportant that was for God’s using them!). The Biblical author can write only out of his own culture, understandings and presuppositions. (Two presuppositions every writer in the Bible had were that everyone was heterosexual and that women were inferior.) People who have gone to church and Sunday school regularly usually know something about the writer’s circumstances. The problem often is not ignorance of the writer’s background but careless inattention to it.

(b) The writer’s meaning is determined by the background and situation of those to whom he wrote. Paul’s letter to Philemon is an obvious illustration of this. The scriptures were written to people who lived thousands of years ago. Everything the author wrote to them had in mind their culture, circumstances and needs. Do we read and with great earnestness ask, “What is Paul saying to me?” The answer: Nothing. He wasn’t writing to me. God is trying to say something to me through something he inspired Paul to write almost 2000 years ago to his (Paul’s) contemporaries to meet their first century needs. Paul was applying eternal, Christian principles to their needs. It is my task to see and understand these principles so that I can apply them to my 21st century life.

(c) Our understanding of the writer’s meaning is colored by our own culture, experiences, understandings, presuppositions, etc. It is easier for us to impose our culture on the first century writer and readers than it is to understand theirs, so I am sure our interpretations would often be unrecognizable by the writer. If you and I read the same thing, not just the Bible, our interpretations will often be different just because of our different backgrounds and experiences. Which of us will be right? So many times I have stood in the vestibule after a service to speak to people as they left the church and had someone comment on something I had said in the sermon, only to think to myself, Where in the world did they get that? I didn’t say anything like that! Many church members have such a cultural revulsion to the thought of same-gender sex that anything in the Bible about it is interpreted as its being the worst of revolting evils. So their thought is, “No homosexual could ever be welcomed to our church, he or she is just too vile.” Actually, same-gender sex is in lists along with greed, envy, lying and gossip and is apparently neither better nor worse than those sins. Our culture’s influence is what makes them different, not the Bible. (Now, does the list mean that lust is not very bad or that greed, envy, lying and gossip are just as vile in God’s sight as lust? That is a serious question: How does God judge sin? The way we do? Appendix C below attempts to say a little about this.) We must try to keep our own background and culture out of our interpretations.

(d) Isn’t it obvious and unquestionable that the Bible writers had a purpose for writing what they did? Our understanding of that purpose may be the most important thing about our understanding the meaning. As we read and watch the author fulfill his purpose, our understanding opens up. Whatever the author’s purpose, it was for his contemporaries; he didn’t have us in mind. Understanding why the writer was writing and what he wanted to accomplish will lead to our finding the principles and eternal truths in the writing.

(e) The meaning of the author is not in his words (!); words are merely imperfect vehicles for use in transferring thought. I can still hear the great W. T. Connor raise his voice in my theology class: “The Bible does not mean what it says, it means what it means.” And I also hear thoughtless, defensive cries, “My Bible means what it says!” No, nothing ever written or spoken means what it says, it always means what it means. Words are the best things we have for trying to transfer the thinking of one mind to the understanding of another mind. If we are face to face, gestures and tone of voice help, and we can ask, “What do you mean?” But if it is something written, we probably never get exactly what was in the writer’s mind. Nevertheless, we must try, and remembering principles of interpretation helps.

Every principle of interpretation outlined here is violated when we lift words out of the Bible, out of their context, out of their culture, away from the writer’s purpose, hold them up and declare, “This is what the Bible says!” An example of this evil is in pointing to Leviticus 18 or Romans 1 and declaring, “The Bible says homosexuals are going to hell.” The words of the Bible, wonderful as they are, are still limited in transferring thought, but they are all the writer had for getting his thoughts to his readers. If we can possibly go behind the words to the mind of the writer, we can have a glorious revelation of God. If we stop with the words, we shall find and worship and proclaim only false gods. The right question never is, “What does this passage say?” It always is, “What does this passage mean?”

If all these things are not considered seriously, we shall have either no understanding of what we have read or a wrong understanding. (2) As the points above indicate, what we must do is find the central truth or God’s eternal principle in any passage we are studying. The words used to form the context are the media for giving us that truth. Unsupportable doctrines and practices are often formed from the setting in which the truth is couched or in peripherals of the truth, or first century practices are turned into rules for practice today. Women keeping silent in some churches and being obedient to their husbands, as Paul instructed, were not central truths of scripture, but practices that would keep the church and Christianity from being unnecessarily “discredited” in the first century’s culture (Titus 2:5). So the central, eternal truth is: Do not (in any century) unnecessarily engage in practices that would alienate unbelievers. Compare slavery. It is evil, but in the first century Paul wanted slaves to obey their masters “so that in every way they [slaves] will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10).

Part 4

References and Bibliography

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© Bruce W. Lowe, 2001