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7 Burning Issues: Gay Rights

Last month, the California Supreme Court voted 4-3 to overrule a ban on gay marriage, allowing same-sex couples to tie the knot. In light of the attention surrounding the controversial matter, and the expected voter resolution to try and overturn the decision, we thought it more pertinent than ever to look at the cover story of RELEVANT’s current issue where we asked leading Christian voices to chime in on seven burning issues facing our generation.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Click this link to post your thoughts in a thread on the RELEVANTmagazine.com message boards. To view the rest of the article, including the six other pressing issues, check out the

May/June 2008 issue of RELEVANT magazine.

Our Panelists:

Steve Brown

Professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla., author and host of the nationally syndicated radio show Steve Brown Etc.

Shane Claiborne

Founder of the Simple Way Community, a New Monastic community in Philadelphia, Pa., and author of The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President (Zondervan).

Chuck Colson

Founder of Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint, renowned speaker and author of 25 books.

Cindy Jacobs

Co-founder of the prayer ministry Generals International, respected author and speaker.

Brian McLaren

Founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., author and a prominent voice in the Emerging Church movement.

Nancy Ortberg

Writer and speaker; served for eight years as a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.

Jim Wallis

Writer, political activist and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Sojourners, a group dedicated to political awareness.

N.T. Wright

Bishop of Durham, England, and one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars. His most recent book is Surprised by Hope (Harper).

How should a Christian in American society address the issue of homosexuality?

Nancy Ortberg: Oh, baby. You guys aren’t messing around. When I was growing up, what I heard in churches in regard to homosexuality [was] that these people are involved in deviant behavior in order to shake their fists at God and willfully sin. And I have not met a single person who struggles with gender-identity issues who falls into that category. There may be people like that. The people I have met are the kinds of people who, from the time they were 7, 8 or 9 years old—really, before they were even sexual human beings, or aware of their sexuality—knew that something was different. So I think the response in the center of it needs to be one in which we respond to people within their struggles. They’re the same as the struggles you and I might [have], but ours are a little bit more socially acceptable. The hard thing about issues around your sexuality is it just permeates everything about who you are; it’s not as simple as “Well, I gossip when I’m at work,” or something like that. It’s much more, “My sexuality really involves my whole life.” And so it’s very difficult.

There is a book out right now that traces the trajectory in Scripture of slavery and women and the homosexual issue. And one of the compelling things is that it’s pretty clear, from Genesis to Revelation, that there is a movement throughout Scripture to help us understand that people should not have slaves, and that women should have equal partnership in the ministry. There’s not that same trajectory in homosexuality. And I think the tension there is that Scripture has just a few places—but it does have a few—where it puts homosexuality clearly in the category of what the Bible calls sin. The struggle of the Church, and for us as individuals, is how do we align what we know about homosexual issues now with our understanding of Scripture? And for those of us who take seriously sound Scriptures that you can do that, you can’t be free of that struggle. I’ve said often, if I go to heaven, I would really like a Q&A room before I go in, and that would be my first question I would ask God, because I think so many people genuinely struggle with it—not of their own choice. but as a wiring issue. I think it’s left to the Church to say, “How do we bring them into our community, how do we love them, how do we make them part of the community without necessarily saying that practicing that kind of behavior is OK?”

I think churches need to stop being primarily known for this issue, though. There are so many other things in the world that we need to be proactively bringing the Gospel and the Kingdom to bear on, that how we got stuck on a couple of these issues is just curious to me. I don’t understand it. There are so many things we need to be responding to in terms of poverty, education—what does it mean for the Church to be a force in our community? That we get stuck on defining Christianity as our response to this issue—I just think it’s discouraging.

Chuck Colson: For the last 25 years, even before we knew the source of AIDS, I ministered to people in prisons dying with AIDS. I think Christians should be the most compassionate advocates of help for stopping the AIDS epidemic, which is why I joined with Franklin Graham in urging President Bush to undertake the AIDS-prevention initiative he has taken. We also should not be homophobic.

The best way to understand homosexuality is Romans 1. God created a physical order. He then condemns those who ignore what should be obvious to them, who exchange the truth for a lie. And then He immediately singles out homosexuality. As I wrote in The Faith, that is not because homosexual sex is any worse a sin than many others that we commit. It is just that it is the one that most obviously violates the natural, created order.

I would welcome homosexuals into my church, but I would expect them to be chaste in their sexual behavior, as I would any other unmarried person—or married person, for that matter.

Shane Claiborne: Well, Billy Graham said really well once that it’s God’s job to judge, the Spirit’s job to convict and my job to love. And if we get those right, this issue looks very different to us. If we don’t simply talk about the gay issue but we are living in relationship to people who are working out their sexuality and struggling with it, the question changes. I had all these ideas about homosexuality and civil union and gay when I was in high school, and then I met a kid who was attracted to other men and he told me that he felt God had made a mistake when He made him and that he wanted to kill himself. If that brother can’t find a home in the Church, then I wonder who have we become. So for me, that’s a starting point—we need to attract the people Jesus attracted, and Jesus attracted the broken, the confused, the hurting, the abused, the people who walked away angry at Jesus, the people Jesus called a brood of vipers, the people Jesus ticked off—they were the self-righteous, the arrogant, the pretentious, the teachers of the law. I’m OK with that. Most of my nasty letters come from pastors. But that doesn’t mean that we talk around the issue. A kid in my neighborhood came up and said, “My brother is gay; he’s kissing boys. That’s gross, isn’t it?” So we sat down and talked, and I told him how I look at sexuality. But we also need to be able to disagree well, and maybe one of our biggest witnesses to the larger society is that we as a Church can disagree well. Even if we don’t agree on every issue, if we can disagree well, then I think that is something beautiful—and we haven’t always done that. I just talked to the national gathering of the United Methodists, and they’re thinking of splitting over this issue—and to me, that is heart-wrenching.

The other thing that I would say is that if we are able to have a healthier understanding of sexuality and to celebrate singleness as well as marriage and family, then we can transcend some of this. One of my mentors is a celibate monk, and he says we can live without sex but we can’t live without love. And there are a lot of people who have a lot of sex and never experience love, and people who never have sex [but] have deep experiences of intimacy and love. So how can we as a Church create a place that’s safe for people to experience intimacy and love and that doesn’t say that the only path God could have for you is to have a husband and wife and two-and-a-half kids? There are plenty of ways to experience community and God’s call. It’s so distorted that we have lost an appreciation of singleness within evangelicalism. I had a pastor honestly pray in a children’s sermon that every kid would find the one that God had for them. It’s sick. And I mean that’s what single groups are, too, half the time. You go and hook up. But then you think, “Oh, Mother Theresa—man, too bad she didn’t find her husband.” So many of the heroes of our faith have been people who have followed Jesus in single-mindedness in love and romance, and we need that within the Church. There’s something that people who are sexual minorities can really fuel into that, a tremendous love and energy that we fall short if we’re just a Church full of people that are married.

Not to mention it’s so scandalous that there are these heterosexual, married people pointing fingers and saying gay folks are breaking up our families. There’s such a narrow understanding because the contradictions are glaring. Evangelicals are surpassing the divorce rate of secular society. And yet we’re accusing gay folks of breaking up the family while all of them want to get married. What’s happening here? What did Jesus talk about? He had a few things to say about divorce. Those are big things, but I also want to create communities where we can have a healthy conversation and not just point fingers and excommunicate people who disagree with us.

Cindy Jacobs: First of all, one needs a biblical worldview and know what the Bible says in passages such as Romans 1:26–27. Homosexuality is a very serious issue to God.

With that said, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. Therefore, we are to love homosexuals. I didn’t say homosexuality, but homosexuals. They need the Lord, and somehow they have become societies “untouchables” to some Christians.

On a governmental level, we must take a biblical stance and work on such legislation such as the Defense of Marriage wording to be put into our state’s constitutions.

Brian McLaren: First, before we say or do anything, we should pray for wisdom, keeping in mind the promise in the epistle of James, that God loves to give sincere and single-minded people wisdom. In sincerely and single-mindedly praying for wisdom, we are admitting that we don’t already have things figured out, that we have more to learn. That’s a good place to start, and anybody who is unwilling to admit he or she has more to learn on this issue is not in a good place to offer wise counsel, no matter how right they think their view may be.

There’s a big difference between being right and being wise. For example, you can be right on a particular issue, but be right in an arrogant or mean-spirited way—which means, according to James (in James 3:13 and following), that you aren’t wise in spite of being right. He says that God’s wisdom is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians: He says that knowledge puffs you up in conceit, while love motivates you to build others up. He says that all your wisdom and knowledge qualifies you as a bunch of noise pollution if you don’t have love.

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Now a concern for rightness is truly important, and too many people don’t care enough about either wisdom or rightness—they only care about power, wealth, pleasure, comfort, security, popularity. But among many religious people these days, we seem to have a surplus of concern for rightness and a deficit of concern for wisdom. We’re in a no-win situation if we’re debating a complex and multifaceted issue like human sexuality with people who are hyper-concerned about rightness and hypo-concerned for God’s wisdom and all James said that wisdom entails.

When the issue of homosexuality comes up, people quickly say, “What about Romans 1? What about Leviticus? What about 1 Corinthians 6?” I want to say, “Well, what about 1 Corinthians 13? What about James 3?” When we move forward with the wise attitude James describes, I think we can get to a better place on this issue.

I often say that you can’t find solutions to a lot of polarizing issues on the level of the polarization; you have to move up to a higher level, above the line that runs between extremes, seeking a higher vantage point or perspective, and there you can find creative solutions and redemptive ways forward. That’s what I believe we need to do regarding homosexuality.

I’ll add just three other things.

First, we can never forget that we’re dealing with more than a theory or issue: We’re dealing with people with breakable hearts—sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, and colleagues and pastors, too. According to my research—and my experience as a pastor confirms this—it appears that about 7 percent of the population are gay across cultures and denominations and generations. If that’s more or less true, when you add parents and siblings and friends of gay people, you’re very quickly up over 30 percent of the population who are affected directly and indirectly. So the gay person is my neighbor, whatever I think about homosexuality, and so are his or her parents and friends and siblings and children. And the person who sees all gayness as a sin is also my neighbor. In my view, to be a follower of Jesus means to live in that relational tension and not try to solve it by writing off some percentage of people as lepers or Samaritans or Pharisees or enemies.

Second, it’s pretty obvious we’re not going to all agree on homosexuality anytime soon, so for now, we need to simply acknowledge that good people, Christ-centered people who love God and follow the Bible, don’t all see things in exactly the same way. There are good people who hold a variety of opinions on this issue—just as they do about just war and pacifism or the role of women as pastors or bishops. There was united opinion among Christians about slavery for much of church history: Everyone approved of it. Then there was divided opinion for a period of time, and now there is united opinion again, but on the opposite side as before. I believe we’re in that middle time of divided opinion on a number of issues today, and we need to live in that conceptual tension lovingly and wisely and with conviction.

Third, we can’t become so preoccupied with reaching agreement on this one issue that we forget other truly important issues … issues like care for our over-stressed planet, action to help people suffering terrible poverty, the never-ending work of peace-making. I think we can make room to disagree agreeably on how far local churches and denominations should go to include gay people, and then we need to join hands with those who see things differently so we can deal with the critical global crises that threaten us all. That approach, I believe—living in the relational and conceptual tension, while working together on critical issues where we can agree—will be wise and pleasing to God, and good for us and our churches, too.

Steve Brown: With great compassion—a compassion that can come only from those who are aware of their own sin and their own need.

I have a friend who says that you see a lot of fat preachers yelling at gay folks, but very few gay folks yelling at fat preachers. He was making the point that nobody has the luxury of speaking as an outsider of the human race and that our subculture has certain “acceptable sins” and others that are just not the ones for which Christ died.

So grace is the operative word. I don’t think we can compromise any truth of Scripture, but self-righteousness is also a major compromise of that truth.

Jesus said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at Him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:19) Today Jesus would be accused of being a friend of gays and lesbians, too. That’s because He is.

If we have “fat” preacher friends, we should also have gay and lesbian friends. Jesus hung out with sinners and called us to do the same thing.

N.T. Wright: This demands a book rather than a short answer. There are many theories currently about why people have the sexual preferences and predilections they have, and actually even at the level of just describing the phenomenon, there are huge debates and it’s not adequate to say either “God made me this way” or “God hates people like me”—both of those are grossly distorting inadequate accounts of a very complex phenomenon. It’s also important to say that this question has to be located within the present state of the Western world, which many people don’t realize is much more fixated about its use of sex, identity, behavior, etc., than many previous generations have been. We sort of assume it’s always been like this, but actually it wasn’t. Many previous generations didn’t have the hang-ups and the huge angst that we do. So the questions loom much larger for us and at a distorted fashion than they have done in many previous generations.

I think the question then is twofold; one is a matter of public policy, and the other is a matter of Christian teaching. In my country [England], in public policy within my lifetime, 60 years ago there were people who were put in prison for homosexual behavior, and today that has [turned] totally around and now anyone who speaks out against homosexual behavior is likely to have a visit from the police for offensive behavior. We have undergone a huge change in public policy, and I think that kind of swing, whatever the issue, is dangerous and potentially unhealthy; it may seem liberating to some, but it creates enormous confusion in a society. And then there’s this sort of fear of raising issues and discussing them. I think at the level of public policy we need a better-informed debate without the sheer rhetoric that’s going on, without the sort of threat or “You must conform to our way of thinking or we will throw the law at you.” I think a cooling-off period of public policy wouldn’t be a bad thing, instead of this frantic race on the one hand to say, “We must have gay marriages,” and on the other hand to say, “We must ban any such thing.”

The second is a matter of the Christian teaching. Again, there is an awful lot of misunderstanding about it. The Bible is actually quite clear on the subject. And the texts which speak of homosexual behavior and which rule it out for Christians, are not, as people often say, confusing or ill-informed or whatever; in fact, St. Paul, for instance, in the first century knew just as much about the actual practices of homosexuality as we do; if you read the ancient literature you’ll find that there’s an enormous amount, in the ancient Greek and Roman world, about a wide variety of homosexual inclinations, practices, etc. Paul was widely traveled in the Greco-Roman world and would have known all about that. So the idea that he was only referring to a small scale of something different from anything than what we know now I think simply won’t stand up historically. But it is also a problem in the Church, because again we have got so much rhetoric flying to and fro and we lack a sustained, careful discussion, which we really need to have. That’s actually an underlying theme of so many issues today, that we have forgotten how to do reasoned, wise discourse. And I bet some people will write me messages after what I’ve just said, telling me that I’m wicked and ill-informed and stupid. But we have to create a space for that wise discourse to happen, both in the public world and in the Church.

Ch

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