The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:22-23)
The apostle Paul was a man acquainted with sin. He certainly had committed many sins in his life. Before his Damascus road experience he had personally persecuted many Christians, deriding them for their faith. He knew how seriously sin must be taken if one is to truly claim their place in God’s realm.
He understood that we must take our status as sinners seriously. That meant purging ourselves from temptations and actions that brought harm to anyone, putting aside such things as “debauchery and licentiousness,” and “quarreling and jealousy” (Romans 13:13).
Knowing the severity of true sin in the lives of Christ’s early followers, Paul was understandably testy when he had to settle quarrels among the house churches over such silly outward signs of piety as circumcision and food laws. In Romans 14, we find Paul addressing a food controversy. Jewish Christians and their newer Gentile converts were accustomed to eating different foods. Jewish Christians were still observing the strict dietary laws of Orthodox Judaism. As new believers, the Gentiles were expected by some Jewish Christians to conform to these outward rules that they had grafted onto their new religion. Many Gentiles, however, balked at these rules, choosing instead to eat as they always did.
Paul saw a great potential for these outward arguments to prevent a “stumbling block” to new believers. If they had to make some outward change to please the church, then they’d lose faith and turn from Christianity. Instead, Paul admonishes the Jewish Christians in Rome that “nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (Romans 14:14-15).
In other words, fights over what to eat and what not to eat or whether one person sinned by eating something or not eating something, was not really the point. The point was, were the members of the church acting in love toward one another? Each side had their convictions about what was allowed by God to be eaten or what God required one to avoid. Paul did not say that either side was right. He said it didn’t matter which side was right. Both sides are right because “nothing is unclean in itself.” It’s only unclean if you believe it to be unclean. If you believe it is unclean — don’t eat it. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t mean the other person is sinning by eating something some other person disapproves. What matters is that the members of the church act toward each other out of love and concern, no matter what their dietary practices. God is not concerned with what we eat. God is concerned with how we treat one another. This is the basis of all morality.
Squabbles in the church over these sorts of details have apparently been going on since the first group of new Christians gathered. Wherever there are Christians, there are apparently fights over who is sinning and who is not. I can just imagine the arguments and board meetings and name-calling and condemnations that took place in the Roman church simply because a third of the congregation wanted to eat pork or shellfish. I imagine the pious Jewish Christians called their Gentile brethren things like “vile,” “pervert,” or “child of Satan,” and they probably railed against the Gentiles’ “filthy lifestyle.” It’s apparent from Paul’s letter that the Jewish Christians were demanding that the Gentiles obey scriptural provisions about what to eat. Why wouldn’t they? It’s right there in scripture, clear as day. God has spelled out, in His holy word, what should be eaten and what shouldn’t be. The Jewish Christians clearly had the word of God on their side.
But, Paul cuts through the clutter. He ends the argument once and for all, by clearly refuting scripture. One does not sin by eating the “wrong” things. One sins whenever they “make others fall.” If you make another stumble because you’re trying to dictate to them things that they must do to be acceptable to God, then you sin. Our concern is not over diet, or other outward signs of piety. Our concern is edification of other believes. Instead of judging others, Paul says we must “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).
A religion that edifies
Despite the fundamentalists’ love affair with the first chapter, Romans is my favorite book of the Bible. This is where Paul most clearly spells out his vision of Christianity — a religion that upbuilds and edifies everyone who comes to believe. A religion that bestows grace abundantly, and gives assurance that God will never abandon us, even though the world most surely will. If the fundamentalists could ever make it to Romans 2, maybe they too would realize that squabbles over the sexual orientation of believers is just as useless and divisive as quarrels over dietary laws.
Witness the uproar over the selection recently of a gay priest to become the Anglican bishop of New Hampshire. Upon the approval of Gene Robinson, some conservative bishops put ashes on their heads as a sign of mourning for the church. They took to the floor to publicly denounce Robinson and the church for affirming his selection. Frankly, it made me hungry for some shellfish.
Certainly both sides had the strength of their convictions behind them. Those who supported Robinson favored a more open and inclusive church, one that saw through such human distinctions as gay or straight. The opposition too had strong convictions based upon their belief that the Bible condemns all homosexual relationships, no matter what form they take. Two sides, assured in their convictions, both acting according to their faith — who commits sin?
It’s a tough question. Paul says that any act that does not proceed from faith (or conviction) is sin. Both sides here acted on strong conviction. Both sides feel that they did the right thing. Both sides feel there is no sin of which to repent.
But, Paul’s words speak to both sides of the aisle. Whatever causes another to stumble is sin. Many are stumbling after this decision, on both sides. The issue should not be about Robinson’s sexual orientation, because “nothing is unclean in itself.” The issue should be, how can the church continue to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding?” Those who opposed Robinson are making plans to leave the denomination. Instead of finding ways to bring peace and mutual upbuilding to the church, they are planning the church’s division.
Should Robinson have stepped aside and not placed this stumbling block before those on the other side? I don’t believe so. The church must always be moving toward inclusivity. The church must ever be widening its circle of who is “in.” The Anglican Church took a big step toward that with Robinson’s approval. But, Robinson’s supporters must not be celebrating in the end zone. Instead, they need to be reaching out in a spirit of peace and mutual upbuilding to those who have been hurt by the decision. They need to seek to mend the coming divisions and not “destroy the work of God” for the sake of welcoming gays and lesbians into their midst.
Sin is situational
Sin is not something easily defined. According to Paul, sin is situational. Whenever we are in a situation where we do not act in a way that brings peace and mutuality, we are sinning.
James 4:17 states it succinctly:
Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
Sometimes the right thing is hard to discern. Sometimes it’s a hard action to take. Sometimes we want to do everything but the right thing because the right thing is painful. The right thing for the church to do is overcome its aversion to GLBT believers and fling open their doors to their open presence.
Robinson’s approval shows that doing the right thing is painful, and often feels like the wrong thing. But widening the church’s reach is never the wrong thing to do. Including more people, instead of shutting people out, is always the right thing for the church to do.
Sin is not just homophobia, it is actively seeking the destruction of gays and lesbians and actively shutting the door of the church in their face until they “change” according to the church’s idea of acceptability before God. As Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie says, sin “is having contempt for any human being (Matthew 5:21-24) …Sin as disobedience means that we as well as they must confess, ‘I am by nature prone to hate God and my neighbor.’ Whoever cannot say that honestly has not yet learned what disobedience to the law of God is.”
Paul underscores this as well, telling the Roman Christians that “each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor” (Romans 15:2). The gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual Christian is a neighbor of the conservative Christian. The conservative Christian is the neighbor of the gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual Christian. We must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building them up. Tearing each other apart over the issue of sexual orientation is sinful — on both sides.
Love trumps law
Our conservative brothers and sisters argue, however, that they have the scripture on their side. They make the point, over and over again, that God’s word is clear — all homosexual activity is sin. I’m sure the Jewish Christians were quick to point out that dietary laws were just that — laws, straight from God to humankind. They were not about to budge from what they believed were scriptural edicts.
But, Paul was quick to contradict the scripture. It was not the law that was to be obeyed, but Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13: 9b-10).
Those who uphold the law — believing that it prohibits homosexual activity across the board do not love their neighbor as they love themselves. They are putting stumbling blocks before their GLBT brothers and sisters in much the same way the Jewish Christians caused their Gentile brothers and sisters to stumble. Instead of upholding the letter of the law, Paul pleads with them to love one another, thus fulfilling the law.
If love ruled the day at the Episcopal General Convention, Robinson’s sexual orientation would not have mattered to anyone. What would have been important was whether or not he was a man who could be trusted to direct the spiritual lives of an entire diocese. Instead of squabbling over who he slept with his opponents would have been closely scrutinizing how he handled his parishioners. This matter did come up at the last minute and close scrutiny of Robinson’s career showed him to be a caring, compassionate man of God who was truly suited for the job. If love ruled the day, this would have been enough for all sides — knowing a trustworthy man of God was being charged with tending the New Hampshire flock.
Love must now rule the day, not just in the Episcopal Church, but in every denomination. God calls all Christians to put aside the idea of who is sinning and who is not and hear Paul’s words, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” (Romans 14:4). It is not up to the people of the church to condemn people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, because “God has welcomed them” (Romans 14:3). It is up to the church to stop their sin of exclusion, and recognize God’s welcome extends to all people.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.