Root Questions of Same-Sex Marriage Debates
Same-sex marriage is often categorized as THE ISSUE for our generation of the Church (for more “liberal” churches, that was last generation). As much as we can spend hours answering 40 Questions lobbed at the other side mostly as attacks rather than real dialogue, I’m pretty convinced that this question is often the manifestation of a pile of other big theological questions. These kinds of questions are central for understanding the kind of shifts taking place in the North American Church, much more than simply asking “what do you think of same-sex relationships?” can demonstrate.
What Is God Like?
It’s amazing how many questions boil down to asking what God is like. Particularly in the Western tradition, we really like a legalistic God. We like a God who follows the rules and enforces the rules, up to and including torturing people who break the most important of those rules (which in North America is almost always sex while things like genocide and slavery are less of an issue).
On the other extreme, some view God as a jolly old grandpa who just gives you cookies and says good job even while you’re killing each other. He’s always there to make you feel better, but doesn’t necessarily do anything to make life actually better.
If you subscribe to that legalistic God, you’re way more likely to be legalistic yourself. You act out of what you worship.
I believe that God looks like Jesus and Jesus doesn’t fit either of these extremes. Yes, Jesus cares about what we do, but it’s because he loves us rather than because we’ve broken the arbitrary rules.
See Brad Jersak’s book “A More Christlike God” for more on this, because it is the huge and central question of not only theology but pretty much our entire lives.
Where is the Holy Spirit?
One of my seminary professors said a few times how historically the Catholic Church tended to replace the Holy Spirit in their functional Trinity with the institutional Church. Protestants came along and replaced the Church with (their interpretations of) the Bible. In both cases, the Holy Spirit is thrown in a box only able to operate in those ways.
But what if the Holy Spirit is bigger than the Church and bigger than our interpretations of the Bible? There are many fascinating stories in Acts, but two good examples are Peter’s abandoning of dietary restrictions at the leading of the Spirit to help Cornelius and Phillip’s baptizing of the Ethiopian eunuch. In both cases, according to the letter of the Law and the tradition available to them, these people are not welcome in the Kingdom. Yet both of them were led by the Spirit to throw out the rules in the name of love. Some believe that the Spirit is still working to spread love in the world, while others think the lines were finalized for all time.
What Is the Church?
The Church has always faced a question of who belongs in the Church. For some, extreme discipline is necessary to keep the Church holy. For others, anybody who wants to be seen as part of the Church should be seen as part of the Church. For example, in the early Church after widespread persecution, some leaders claimed to abandon the faith to save their lives. When the persecution ended, this created two groups of Christians: those who refused to recant and those who gave in. What do you do with those who recanted? Can they still be in the Church with such weak faith? Can they still lead in the Church? What if they had baptized somebody else – does that make the baptism invalid?
To me, this needs to be navigated on a community-by-community and person-by-person basis. With respect to the same-sex marriage debates, Bruxy has talked about this approach. The church (The Meeting House) does not perform same-sex marriages and the denomination (Brethren in Christ) do not support them. The Meeting House is not rushing to kick out same-sex couples who understand the issue differently. It would be different if it’s a couple that blatantly doesn’t care about Jesus, but rarely is that the case; normally if you don’t want anything to do with Jesus, you don’t go to a church. And so they are welcomed into that tension, something not all can do but many can.
To me, that’s the Church: the group of people who are doing life together trying to follow Jesus the best we can.
What Is the Bible?
This is the one that usually is brought out in the conversation sooner or later, but I actually think it’s the least important of the ones I’ve posed here. There’s a clash between those who want to see (their interpretation of) the Bible as a literal rulebook for all times and those who see the Bible as a beautiful story inviting us to join in. If God is primarily a legalist and (your interpretation of) the Bible is primarily the Law, you’re more likely to go with “The Bible says it. I believe it. That’s good enough for me.” Again, you won’t do this for everything but you’ll at least do it for a few hot-button issues that don’t apply to you personally.
For those who see the Bible as the story of God and his people, culminating in Jesus, with the purpose of inviting us in as we continue that story, that will change your posture (not necessarily your position). You will read the Bible out of love of Jesus, wanting to know more about Jesus and what it looks like to follow him. You’ll be so excited about Jesus that you will want to invite others in as you’ve been invited in – without exceptions based on sexual orientation or anything else – rather than feeling like evangelism is part of your job to appease the angry God. That’s a huge difference in posture.