From my “Journeys Home” blog…. In July 2010, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted “Amendment 10-A” which would change ordination standards to include openly gay persons. But the measure had to be approved by over 50% of the PCUSA’s presbyteries (regional bodies). This past Tuesday (May 10, 2011) the Presbytery of the Twin Cities voted 205-56 to support 10-A, providing the necessary majority (87 of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries). The change in ordination standards go into effect next July 10, giving presbyteries the ability (if they choose) to ordain gay persons. (See the article at http://www.religionlink.com/tip_110509.php, which reports the process and also provides numerous responses and articles on the subject. This would be a helpful source for anyone studying different sides of this contemporary issue.)
The PCUSA action has been exciting news to those of us who hope to see progress on this issue among our denominations. The religionlink article notes that “The PCUSA now joins the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ as major denominations that allow the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships, and the development reflects a growing acceptance of homosexuals among the wider public.”
My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, still excludes gays from ordination. Any change has to be accomplished by the denomination’s law making body, the quadrennial General Conference. So far GC delegates have kept the restriction in place, but earlier this year, 33 retired UM bishops issued a statement urging a lift of the ban, as reported at the UMC site (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5723451&ct=9103189¬oc=1, as well as http://www.actup.org/forum/content/retired-united-methodist-bishops-urge-end-gay-clergy-ban-3173/ and other sites). The bishop’s statement, although lacking legal force, has been applauded and in some quarters regretted; similar reactions greeted the first openly gay candidate to seek election to the United Methodist episcopacy three years ago (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=5690357).
Needless to say, homosexuality is a hotly-debated topic in many denominations, not only ordination but also marriage. And needless to say, biblical prohibitions (especially the texts Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Rom. 1:27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10) lie at the heart of the debate. For many people, the church should be faithful to these texts and not ordain gay persons—and the church is being untrue to God’s word when it circumvents these texts and argues differently from them. However, I’ve appreciated this article by Walter Wink that puts these verses in a larger context: http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink
The sad irony is: while church leaders and church members continue to debate these texts, God is already and richly blessing LGBT persons in callings to ministry and thus in gifts of preaching, counseling, teaching, administration, and other areas of service! Of course, the church has been ordaining gay persons for many years but only recently have gay persons felt a greater freedom to accept and open up about their orientation and identity. Many of us straight people have formed theological positions on this issue without having spent time with LGBT persons. But among the retired bishops I mentioned above, Sharon Z. Rader and Donald A. Ott “both stressed that the statement is based on their experience as church leaders. For more than five years after her retirement, Rader was the bishop in residence at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. In that capacity, she said, she met with many seminary students who had the gifts and calling for ministry but were gay or lesbian.” (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5723451&ct=9103189¬oc=1)
If you open your heart and mind to the fact that God is already calling and blessing gay persons (and has been for many years), and if you need additional guidance from the scriptures, I find Acts 15:12-18 relevant:
The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.
In this passage, God is doing amazing things among Gentiles, but the question has been raised, Should they be circumcised (or, to say it another way, should they be excluded as Christian witnesses because they are not Jews)? You can see a parallel in this situation. Circumcision was a nonnegotiable according to God’s word. But the fact that God was working among these people–the uncircumcised—causes the Jerusalem council members to seek the scriptures for assurance that God can indeed do amazing works in unexpected ways. As one of my seminary professors put it, scripture conforms to experience! If you argue that the biblical prohibitions forbid ordination of gay person, perhaps this can help you see a different but also scriptural way of looking at the issue—God provides gifts and graces to gay and straight people alike, just as God called and blessed both Jews and Gentiles alike in biblical times.
Here is another helpful text of an analogous situation. Galatians 3:2 reads: “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” The predominantly Gentile church of Galatia had received God’s Spirit apart from fulfilling any traditional religious requirements. In our own time, have gay persons received calls and gifts to ministry by ceasing to be gay, in compliance with those above-cited biblical strictures, or by believing in the Lord?
Because many of us straight people think about this issue around the biblical texts, I’ve tried to show a few ways we can argue positively for ordination of gay persons. I’m conscious of the fact that this whole subject is hurtful and frustrating to gay persons, who wish that we straight people would catch up to what they already know, and who wish we’d meet them before we make judgments that affect them.
The Bible is God’s Word, but we should not interpret it (or assert that we should never interpret it, only obey it) as if there have been no new understandings of human nature, no historical developments, and no science since biblical times.
For instance, questions of biblical authority are often raised in the context of conflicts concerning the theories and discoveries of modern science. We can recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers, so that when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we need not think that we’re selling-out the Bible to science when we recognize the former’s cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible any less God’s word if modern scientific theories and discoveries do not comfort to biblical details.
Similarly, we can affirm contemporary understandings of homosexuality as an identity, a possibility of a commitment relationship with another person, and as a gift from God—while acknowledging that the Bible defines homosexuality differently (e.g., as a male behavioral sin or an exploitive relationship), both within the Levitical holiness code (which otherwise does not, generally speaking, apply to modern Christian practice) and Paul’s lists of sins (and some of us may be guilty of a few of the others on those lists).
Still another issue related to biblical interpretation is Christian anti-Semitism. Although written primarily by Jews who still considered themselves Jews, the New Testament is filled with negative references to Jews (e.g., Matt. 27:25, 1 Thess. 2:3-16, Rev. 2:9, and the Gospel of John’s consistent use of “the Jews” in a pejorative sense). Does this give us permission to dislike Jews?
Of course not, but the anti-Jewish “atmosphere” of the New Testament has caused untold sorrow for Jews. I’ve known Christians who, while discussing the scriptures, refer disparagingly to “the Jews” in a clear echo of New Testament texts—the same Christians who would never make a generalizing, disparaging comment about an ethnic group in other contexts. I’ve also sensed that certain Christians assume that, because the New Testament portrays Judaism in a certain way, then contemporary Judaism must be the same; they’ve never taken the time to know a Jew or learn about modern Judaism. Important work has been done in recent years to show how the anti-Jewish material in the New Testament has contributed over the centuries to Christian disdain for Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Semitism that led historically to the Holocaust. Greater sensitivity to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism require us to read the Bible in a different way than the literal sense.
Again, here is an example of a historically-conditioned quality to the Bible and the necessity to interpret it in light of new insights. In this case, we must acknowledge that the New Testament expresses an apparently hostile and generalizing attitude toward Jews, but history has shown that we (Gentiles) must not derive prejudice and racism from a thoughtless, literal reading of the New Testament text.
This example of Christian anti-Semitism is also pertinent to the discussion of homosexuality and LGBT person’s service to the church, because active persecution of homosexuals is of course quite real and some of it does make use of biblical texts. Rev. Mel White’s article, “What the Bible Says – And Doesn’t Say – About Homosexuality” by Rev. Mel White, provides several examples of gay bullying and killings. (http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-gay-christian). We straight Christians must be aware that we might be upholding Bible passages that are, by other people, used to excuse and justify hatred and murder.
I do not know if Bible texts are used against gays in Uganda, but to cite an example of persecution against gays, this week the parliament in Uganda was “set to pass a number of laws against gays and lesbians so draconian that the entire population of that country will feel the effects,” according to a news source. “The so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, proposed by legislator David Bahati,” includes death sentences to persons “who are ‘repeat offenders’ of having sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex” and “anyone with HIV who engages in sexual activity with a member of the same sex. Those who harbor or assist gays and lesbians will be subject to imprisonment. Even those who know someone to be gay or lesbian who don’t report them to the authorities will face a prison sentence.” (Here is the source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bishop-gene-robinson/ugandas-kill-the-gays-bil_b_861150.html) Fortunately, in news which broke as I was writing a draft of this post, the Ugandan parliament tabled the measure in the wake of international outcries.
I’ve obviously moved from the subject of ordination of American gays to the ministry! But knowing about situations like this are necessary as we straight people learn the joys and sorrows of LGBT persons. With greater understanding, we can learn to appreciate one another’s struggles, to enjoy God’s peace together amid our differences, and to affirm our respective callings, gifts, and graces.