My Slow-Walk, Surprising Journey

November 20, 2017

My church family, local and regional, has been fighting over human sexuality. And it’s been ugly. We all agree that there is such a thing as human sexuality, but the conversations go downhill from there. In the meantime, as I’ve been sneaking up on or crashing into geezerhood, I’ve been on a private journey to understand these issues better for myself. It’s a journey that has brought me to change my mind. This essay is about that journey. It’s not an argument, but a story of where I’ve come. I’m telling the story mostly for friends or for folks who have known me as a public person. I need to speak and act differently on these issues than I have in the past, and I want you to understand why. (If you want to read arguments, I’m a retired teacher who knows how to construct reading lists and such, but this is just my story.)

The most recent part of my journey began when I overheard two friends loudly declaring to one another how they agreed on the hot topic of Christian responses to homosexuality. “If we just did what the Bible says,” complained one, “we wouldn’t even be talking about this.” “Yes,” his friend agreed, “what the Bible teaches is clear and simple.”

Well, I knew that wasn’t true. I had studied this issue some years before and had already discovered the tangled web of disagreement that interpreters weave around this issue. I let the loud friends walk on, but I decided on the spot to study again what the Bible says, and this time from scratch. I told myself, “I’m a Bible guy. I have the training and the tools, I have the time, and others have published a lot of good research since I last worked on this. Just for my own understanding, I want to read the best stuff I can find, from all sides, and see what I can learn.”

So I set out to do just that. I didn’t buy every book ever written about it, but I identified the most highly regarded works, leaving my book budget (?) wounded and my bookshelves groaning (they’re used to that).

Some folks insist they can open their favorite English translation, just read it, and take it at face value. I learn more by studying about the original Hebrew and Greek words and about the cultures where they were used. Among other things, such study gives clues about which English translation is more accurate and about what we know and don’t know. Sound interpreters of the Bible insist on exploring all kinds of context – historical, cultural, linguistic, biblical, and more. So I studied.

Starting from scratch means trying to leave preconceptions aside and trying not to reach conclusions too soon. I did that for several years. I have finally concluded that the Bible does not well support the “traditional” view that my friends declared as “clear and simple.” The case for “clear and simple” usually relies on six or seven biblical texts nicknamed by some as the “clobber passages.” They basically include the story of Sodom, a law repeated twice in Leviticus, and a few passages from Paul’s letters. Some will argue more broadly from passages in Genesis about creation, though interpreters disagree on the application of these texts. In my judgment, arguments from these texts often neglect biblical context and cling to fragile filaments of evidence, sometimes supported by questionable translation. In the process, I did think often about how to learn from Leviticus about God’s character and purpose and yet, like early Christians, still live in a new way guided by the Spirit and by Jesus’ teachings about loving God and neighbor. (Offering more detail here would move from story to argument.) Further, the Bible doesn’t directly answer some important questions we have today as we try to think about and act responsibly in issues of human sexuality. Many readers find, however, that the Bible still offers helpful guidance.

The Bible calls us steadily to love and respect other people, all made in the image of God. It repeatedly urges us to act justly, to show compassion, and to watch out and care for those who are vulnerable and needy. While the Bible includes plenty of stories about sexual misbehavior, I don’t see them offered as examples for us to copy. (Following David into adultery and murder is a bad idea.) What the Bible teaches about sexual behaviors rejects anything that is demeaning, abusive, manipulative, predatory, or promiscuous. We should not trick, force, or use other people for our own pleasure or selfish ends. The Bible suggests instead that fully intimate sexual behaviors should be reserved for long-term committed relationships characterized by dignity and love. Even when we confront puzzling questions, the Bible gives us plenty to ponder.

A second major insight on my journey was to recognize that many churches routinely misunderstand and misrepresent people who have to struggle with questions of same-sex attraction or gender identity. Often these churches have insisted that people choose to be gay, seeing this as a sinful act in itself, and that they can repent and reverse that choice, often with prayer and help from reparative programs. To put it briefly and bluntly, I have learned that neither of these teachings is true. For the most part, people do not choose to be homosexual, and programs to reverse same-sex attraction don’t work.

I’ve learned about choice from medical researchers and psychologists, as well as from the witness of homosexual folk who would gladly choose otherwise if they could. I had doubted the effectiveness of reparative programs, but became convinced of their inadequacy when the well-established organization Exodus International shut down in 2013. The head of the organization, Alan Chambers, apologized to those people they had hurt, said that their reparative programs don’t work, and closed their operation.

I knew through my experience that many churches’ teaching and attitudes harmed individuals and families (and the churches themselves). But it sobered me to learn how widespread and deeply hurtful these effects are. Many churches, even when they claim to be “welcoming,” marginalize and even show contempt for people who identify with the LGBTQ+ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). And many Christians, both gay and straight, have left churches over it. Also, in response to teaching in churches, many families have rejected LGBTQ children, often leaving them homeless and highly susceptible to thinking of and attempting suicide. The list of harm could go on and on. But David Gushee sums up the situation well: “It says something really terrible when the least safe place to deal with sexual orientation and identity issues is the Christian family and church.” (Changing Our Mind, 35) I’ve come to believe that this must change.

I also learned a lot in my journey by getting to know people. Sometimes I knew them through reading, particularly in autobiography. Some I came to know through story, both direct and indirect. Some were widely respected leaders who wrote I’ve-changed-my-mind books, knowing that they would be trashed for saying so.

I have also learned through people I know and cherish personally. Some are people I’ve long trusted who changed their understandings and have quietly become advocates and helpers for folks in the LGBTQ community. Others have helped churches think together about these issues, overcoming the objection “let’s just not talk about it.” Still others have suffered for their advocacy, but have persisted in witness in spite of angry opposition.

Probably the most important people I have learned from are friends who are both homosexual and devout followers of Christ. Frankly, I’ve been slow to learn, I’ve been hurtful, and I’m having to apologize for that in trying to renew stalled friendships. I’m sure I have more to do. Even then, as my friends have extended grace, I give thanks that we share life in the family of God.

That’s my journey so far. I’m not a pioneer, as many others share this path. But it’s awkward, since plenty of folks I love and respect haven’t shared it. I know well that I still have lots to learn and lots of people to meet. Yet above all, I am glad to have learned more of the wide embrace of the love of God.


Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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