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Three thoughts on Gay Churches

So I said that I was going to be meeting last week with a local Anglican clergymen who supported gay ordination and see what I could learn from him, and said that I was going to include the results in my review of O'Donovan chapter 7. It turned out that wasn't practical, so I'll lay out some of my resulting thoughts here. The three issues I'll explore are 1) the attempt to reconcile homosexual practice with Scripture, 2) the ramifications that the celibacy (permanent or temporary) of a gay clergyman may have on how we regard his ministry, 3) the teaching of the Church on the proper response to severely compromised churches and ministers.


First, here was his approach to the question of how homosexuality can be reconciled with Scripture. First, the Church has always been revising and expanding its interpretation of Scripture to address new situations; the tradition is not static, but always growing and developing. Now, of course this is indisputable, and though some of these revised interpretations prove later to have been foolish and hasty indeed, they have often proved valuable (e.g. the Reformation and justification). Of course, where the rubber meets the road is whether these new insights are in fact "reinterpretations" of Scripture, or just revisions. It's legitimate to interpret the text in a new way, or at least to try out a new interpretation (though it would be rash to try to implement it immediately in the Church), when it is really a matter of reading what's there in a new way that is consistent with what's on the page. But revising the text, "interpreting" it in a way that flatly contradicts it, is a different matter. Is there a way to defend homosexuality in a way that does not flatly contradict the text? Well, there's at least an attempt in certain circles--the argument runs that what is being condemned in these passages are culturally-specific forms of homosexuality that are reprehensible; e.g., promiscuous homosexuality, or the Greek pedophilic homosexuality. This would be similar to arguments (pretty standard among conservatives) that, e.g., the teachings regarding head-coverings were addressing a culturally-specific problem (not the best example, I know...supply your own). Stable conjugal homosexuality, on the other hand, is not what these condemnations have in mind.
Now, I find this argument highly doubtful, but I do at least appreciate the attempt to base the position on an interpretation of Scripture, instead of just tossing Scripture out the window and saying it's wrong and should be ignored. It seems to me that we should be able to treat Christians who mount such a defense differently than the latter, and, however much we disagree, still be in fellowship with them. As for Christians who think the Bible can just be chucked...well, two cannot walk together unless they are agreed on a point of such importance.

Second, what difference, if any, does it make if a gay minister is not actively homosexual? Well, there are three forms of this, of course. Type one would be a committed permanent celibate. In this case, the fact that he is "gay" is not particularly important; it is certainly not sinful as such. It may, perhaps, depending on how serious is the individual's struggle, be a reason why he should steer clear of the ministry, but it need not be. The homosexual inclination in itself is not any disqualification for a solid and holy ministry. Type two is that of someone who is merely between partners. They are not actively homosexual at the moment because they are not currently in a relationship, but they have no qualms about being so. In this case, the fact that they are "not actively homosexual" is of no moral relevance. But type 3 is more complex. It is that of a committed temporary celibate, that is, someone who does not see a problem with being in a conjugal, "marriage-like" homosexual relationship, but who is determined to remain celibate until such time as they are in such a relationship, just as a heterosexual should stay celibate until he or she is married.

Now, what is the nature of our objection to this person? We're not objecting to their homosexual inclination; that in itself is not culpable. We're not blaming them for their homosexual activity, because they are not, and have not been, active. We're blaming them for their views about the issue, their views which approve the possibility of their being active as something that is legitimate for them to do as a Christian, their views which clearly misunderstand the moral requirements of Christianity and especially of their office. Now, this is certainly a serious problem, but is it any different than the error of a heterosexual minister who held the same views--namely, that it was fine for a homosexual minister to pursue a conjugal partnership? We would have serious objections to a minister who taught such things, but it would an objection to wrong teaching and thinking, not sinful practice, still morally culpable perhaps, but not in the same degree. So, is the committed temporary celibate homosexual in a compromised sinful condition, over and above the intellectual error of his false understanding of the moral requirements for homosexuals? It would seem that there is still an additional objection we could raise, which is that in his case, unlike the case of the heterosexual sharing the same views, there is a sin of will, an openness to giving in to a temptation to sin. His is certainly a seriously compromised position.

However, this discussion raises the important question of whether the church whose minister is "Type 3" celibate homosexual is really more in the wrong, more compromised, than a church whose minister merely approves of such practice in principle. In what way do we relate to churches of these descriptions, and how do we fellowship with them? These are still questions I am struggling to answer, but the principles and distinctions discussed here provide, I think, some helpful direction.

Finally, then, an important part of this answer is provided by the twenty-sixth article from the Thirty-Nine Articles, which the priest read aloud and I found rather convicting:

"Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men."

I think we conservatives tend to forget this crucial and ancient doctrine of the Church. I posted before about how we need to be more concerned with admitting the corporate guilt that we share simply by being fellow-members in Christ with those who have perverted the Church, instead of being afraid of being tainted with guilt by associating too closely, or worshipping with such. But this pushes it even further. We do not incur new guilt simply by sitting under the ministry of an evildoer. Before, I had thought to myself, "Well, as long as you don't know he's an evildoer. Once you know he is, you must flee." But that's not what the 26th article says, nor what the teaching of the Church has historically said. "Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise." Wow. That means that even if you have an actively homosexual priest in the pulpit and at the altar, you do not sin by worshipping in the service he officiates, nor does he prevent you from truly worshipping God and receiving His grace, as long as you participate in faith.

Now, there may well still be strong prudential reasons for staying away, especially if your faith is not so strong as not to be distracted by your knowledge of the sins of the leader. But this article removes forever a strictly moral consideration from the question of "with whom or under whom may we legitimate worship" (as long as it is a Christian Church following genuinely Christian worship." I don't think we conservatives usually think that way. Instead, we tend to think that there are a whole list of abuses and sins, doctrinal and moral, on the part of clergy and churches, that are serious enough to basically bar these churches from consideration as places where you may lawfully worship. Where do we get that from? Article 26 tells us that the sins and errors of the ministers, while they should not be taken lightly, should be treated simply as one among a number of factors in determining the prudence of worshipping with a certain congregation. I think this principle is extremely important to keep in mind, both for individuals seeking to discern how to interact with and participate in severely compromised churches, and for whole denominations or groups of churches that are tempted to fall prey to a "this is the last straw; we gotta get outta here" attitude.

Of course, none of this is said to deny the latter part of article 26, which says, "Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed." Yes, church discipline needs to happen, but church discipline is not the same thing as--indeed, it is the opposite of--an uprising by individuals or particular churches to take matters into their own hands and decide who is and who isn't the Church.

5 comments:

"Now, I find this argument highly doubtful, but I do at least appreciate the attempt to base the position on an interpretation of Scripture, instead of just tossing Scripture out the window and saying it's wrong and should be ignored. It seems to me that we should be able to treat Christians who mount such a defense differently than the latter, and, however much we disagree, still be in fellowship with them. As for Christians who think the Bible can just be chucked...well, two cannot walk together unless they are agreed on a point of such importance. "

I don't think you're giving enough thought to the sin behind this. We naturally rationalize our sin, find ways to escape the guilt. One way is to toss out the Bible; the other is to "keep" the Bible, but blunt the force of God's commands. This is self-deception, and a lot more complicated. But they're both, at root, sin, especially for someone in leadership who may deceive the flock. I think the second only has the illusion of being safer, which actually can make it quite a bit more dangerous.

And, of course, I realize some people can be deceived into this sort of thing, and that's another matter, but not so much for church leaders.

November 5, 2009 at 4:26 AM  

Brad,

Have you read Hays' Moral Vision of the NT?

November 5, 2009 at 3:42 PM  

Hey Donny, I think you may well have a point there...I was a bit skeptical of myself on this score when I was writing this, and considerably more so today. This post was more of a thought experiment than my usual posts, which are usually at least somewhat experimental.

However, I would return briefly to the point I made quite a number of posts ago, the one which mentioned usury. We conservatives are knee-deep in our own problems of "keeping the Bible, but blunting the force of God's commands" when it comes to economic issues, which are, as Doug Jones has pointed out, more important in Scripture than are sexual issues.

This is not, of course, to say that the homosexual interpretation problem is not a problem, only to constantly insist that we have a healthy sense of perspective about the various errors in the various churches and that we remember to remove the log from our own eye first.

Davey,
No, I'm intrigued. Tell me more.

November 6, 2009 at 12:12 AM  

Addendum: Wow, I just looked at that on Amazon. Looks fantastic. Does he talk about homosexuality?

November 6, 2009 at 12:14 AM  

"However, I would return briefly to the point I made quite a number of posts ago, the one which mentioned usury. We conservatives are knee-deep in our own problems of "keeping the Bible, but blunting the force of God's commands" when it comes to economic issues, which are, as Doug Jones has pointed out, more important in Scripture than are sexual issues."

Definitely. The money issue is a good example, and only point I want to be clear on is that, in both cases, it is very often by sin that is driving the misinterpretation.

November 6, 2009 at 3:35 PM  

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