Monday, February 27, 2006

Far out beyond our dreams

Dramatic tip o' the hat to Greg Kendall-Ball, who has linked us to a great article on the SoulForce site.

The article's author, Lewis B. Smedes, is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed tradition, and a former professor. In the article, Smedes asks an interesting question:

Was the church's embrace of people who were once divorced and are now living faithfully in second marriages a precedent for embracing homosexual people who live faithfully in covenanted partnerships?

In arguing that the two are similar, Smedes asks the following additional questions:

The first question is this: Is a partnership of two homosexual persons morally similar - in relevant ways - to the marriage of divorced and remarried heterosexual people?

The second question we must answer is this: Does the Bible's word about homosexuals lay down a rule for excluding partnered Christian homosexuals from the church's fellowship? Or does it witness to God's original intention for sexual orientation without laying down abiding rules for the church?

Smedes's arguments are interesting, and although I disagree with some of his conclusions, I think his approach to the text will speak clearly to some of my more conservative readers.

(Also, don't miss the opportunity to listen to Dr. Money's Chapel speech commenting on the upcoming Equality Ride visit ... the links are in the post below.)


D Love said...

Very interesting article Matt. Thanks for posting it. I included a response along with some ideas I already had written down in my blog today. I hope we can get some more discussion on this topic.

shane said...

First, a disclaimer: I am neither divorced and remarried nor homosexual. While I know and love both, I am not fundamentally committed to this argument in a way that others might. I do not wish to be hurtful or offense to anyone regarding their identity or situation in life. Your voice in this issue is perhaps of greater value than mine. If I offend, then allow me to apologize.

Second, a disclaimer: I do not feel all sin is equal in the eyes of God (I am quite certain that God feels this way too.) I also do not feel that the consequence of sin is equal either (some things effect your life more significantly than others.) It is not my place to sort out or rank the sins in degree or kind, that duty belongs to God. I am quite aware of my own sinfulness, and I don’t mean to communicate judgment or condemnation to anyone beyond the means by which I judge myself, that is, in desperate need of God’s grace and mercy to justify my very existence.

This is certainly a complicated issue. It seems the author is saying “we seem to disregard something clear in Scripture here, so why not be consistent and disregard another (apparently clear) section in Scripture for the issue that I care about?” I have never actually seen the slippery slope rhetoric played out in a practical manner but this may be the first case. I always thought this sort of argument was a conservative church urban legend or something.

I don’t know which view is Scriptural, or a better reflection of the nature of God, so allow me to engage the argument by disagreeing with it:

For one thing, the church became sensitive to the growing number of divorces and remarriages among their own sons and daughters.

It became difficult to say “those people can’t be Christians” when the church actually began to have relationships that mattered with “those people.” The one question you would have to ask is “Why are your sons and daughters divorcing anyway?” If the church/Scripture/Jesus teaches lifelong commitments, how is it possible for your sons and daughters to consider divorce if they are Christian? George Barna’s study seems to indicate that the levels of divorce and remarriage among Evangelicals aren’t significantly lower than that of the surrounding culture. Is the church really adapting a clearer interpretation of grace and mercy in light of God’s actions, or compromising in light of a gradual loss of unique identity? That is to say, is the problem with a bad interpretation of Scripture or a failure to apply the words of Jesus to our lives?

For another, the church began to see and feel the sacrament more as medicine for our spiritual illness than as a symptom of our spiritual health.

This movement along a spectrum of theological discussion regarding the nature and function of sacrament is a reflection of the movement throughout the two millennia of Christian thought and experience (this is even reflected in the Old Testament’s interpretation of Temple in light of Israel’s corporate salvation.) The dichotomy is superfluous, and to call it progress reveals the author’s agenda more than critical analysis of the history of theology. That is to say, we offer communion because in some mystical or spiritual way it changes us is not more biblically or theologically accurate than we don’t offer communion because it is a marker of Christian identity. The general consensus on the issue ebbs and flows, and it is not a valid marker of good or bad theology.

And, thirdly, [the church] became more aware that it could not tell how the [Scripture, specifically the words of Jesus] about marriage should be applied to real people unless they also had eyes for the real people it affected.

I am not sure how this point differs from the first, but let me engage it. The author seems to imply that one cannot interpret Scripture as it applies to someone else unless one at least knows and hopefully loves those whom they say Scripture is speaking. In the Western church, most of Biblical scholarship and Church leadership has been regrettably dominated by the Orthodox, European, male voice. The process of knowing God is an engagement of where and who a person is and the nature and character of God, which is why churches in Africa don’t look like churches in South America or churches in North America. As each culture has raised up its own indigenous theologians and church leaders the church itself took on a different flavor.

But the hang-up in a North American (perhaps still European, I don’t know) is that sexuality and sexual expression has become a culturally validated right. The primary challenge I have to this author is the assumption that human emotional and relational needs can only be filled or expressed in sexual relationships. I find this a narrow and shallow view of human relationships. In my own experience, friendships and roommates with whom I shared no sexual expression are some of my deepest relationships, and sufficient to meet my relational needs.

The author argues calling homosexual Christians to celibacy is to deny them the choice of remaining celibate, but if homosexual expressions are in fact sinful, then that choice of expression is a choice to sin. But what if the homoerotic expression is not a sinful action? What is the response of the church? Should homosexuals give up their sexual rights because of those weaker in the faith cannot read the nuanced argument they proposed in Scripture?

Matthew said...

D Love, you post a good post. I'll post my response both here and there.

In the article, Lewis Smedes states, "Finally, in the middle 1950's, the church did reverse its policy of exclusion and began embracing divorced and remarried couples into its family circle." I do believe that this was the right thing to do and I am glad that it was done. However, and this is just my observation, this seems to be about the same time that divorce rates began to dramatically increase in the United States.

Smedes recognizes the rise in divorce rates. However, he suggests that the increase in divorces caused churches to become more accepting, and not the other way around. Because people's families were getting divorced, they became more reluctant to exclude those people from the church on the basis of a single scripture, and they also came to recognize the catch-22 that ensnared a remarried divorcee.

How do we hold accountable the unwed mother who is having her second or third child? ... Or someone who spends all their money on luxuries and doesnt help the poor? ... We as Christians are supposed to help each other and encourage one another. The question I have is how do we go about that?

This is an hard question, and I think a good question to ask. How do we help each other to avoid sin and do the right thing?

One article I read recently suggested that sin is systemic and unchosen, more like a disease than a bad decision. If that's true, I guess "holding someone accountable" wouldn't really make any sense. Instead, we'd want to help with the symptoms of the sin and try to address its root causes. Then perhaps God could work to heal it. Of course, you can only do that if you let someone remain a part of your church.

Matthew said...

Shane, I appreciate the sensitivity implicit in your disclaimers. =)

It seems the author is saying “we seem to disregard something clear in Scripture here, so why not be consistent and disregard another (apparently clear) section in Scripture for the issue that I care about?”

I don't think Smedes wants us to disregard anything. I mean, he doesn't suggest that we disregard Jesus' teaching about divorce; he affirms that divorce is sinful. He also doesn't suggest that we disregard the few scriptures that mention homosexual sex. He is simply comparing the marriage of a remarried divorcee to a monogamous homosexual relationship.

Reformed churches used to take the following line:

1. Jesus implies that every time remarried divorcees have sex, they are wilfully committing adultery.
2. People who continuously and wilfully commit adultery must be excluded from the church.
3. Therefore we must exclude remarried divorcees from the church, unless they divorce their current spouse.

People weren't compelled to reexamine this argument until their own sons and daughters were the ones getting divorced and remarried. And once they started having to care about the argument, they began reexamining their logic. When they did, they noticed that this was one of those inherently tragic moral quandaries, where either way you lose. Either the remarried divorcee continues in his figurative adultery, or he does additional violence to his family by divorcing his second wife (and any kids) so that he can re-join the church.

Now anyone who's not convinced that the divorcee is in a double-bind needs to stop and spend some time thinking about the logical dilemma. There is no miraculous "way out" from this situation. Either the divorcee gets divorced again, or he continues to commit adultery. Either way, he sins.

After the Reformed church re-examined the text, it realized that basing an entire doctrine on a single ambigous scripture was questionable. After further argument, it decided that its old doctrine was wrong; that it didn't make sense to try to solve one sin by excluding a person from the church until they committed another sin.

Smedes compares the quandary of the remarried divorcee to the quandary of the committed homosexual. Put very simply, his question is: if people are forced to choose between Sin A and Sin B, should the church exclude them for choosing A and not B?

We can only apply this argument to homosexual people if we grant the argument that homosexual sex is sinful, so let's go ahead and do that for now.

In that case, for a monogamous Christian lesbian, Sin A is committed by continuing her homosexual relationship, which includes meeting the sexual needs of her spouse; Sin B is doing violence to that relationship by leaving her spouse. (I use the word spouse here because I think it is the right word, giving the correct emphasis to the level of commitment and intimacy in the relationship.)

Smedes is hoping that as more church members get to know homosexual people, they will notice the moral dilemma, and decline to pass judgment on them because they choose Sin A over Sin B.

(Also, it's important to notice that Smedes's analogy holds only if homoxexual sex is inherently sinful. Some of us aren't willing to grant that. But that's a different argument.)

the hang-up in a North American (perhaps still European, I don’t know) is that sexuality and sexual expression has become a culturally validated right.

I think you're mixing Smedes's argument with someone else's argument. Certainly one's right to have a particular sexual orientation has become culturally validated, and I think that insofar as that orientation is not chosen, it should be validated. Sexual expresson, on the other hand, is not a right, and I don't think Smedes would say so. He merely suggests that in the Bible, when it comes to sex, people are presented as having the options of being celibate and having sex within marriage. This means that denying the option of married (homosexual) sex to homosexual people is extraordinarily harsh, and may even be unbiblical.

connor said...

I haven't read the article but from Matt's response to it seems that the catch 22 for remarried divorced people would play out in a weird way. The church apparently still holds that its a sin for a divorcee to remarry but will accept these people based on the catch 22. So up until the time that the divorcee remarries the church would have to say "don't do it, it is a sin" but then once the deed is done (guess this would have to take place outside of the church) the church says "well its okay now because either option out is bad." I could see how one might hold this opinion but it doesn't seem to have practical application in reality.

So dealing with homosexuals the church would accept those that are already in a monogamous relationship but tell the rest of its homosexual population that they can't participate in that. Maybe I'm way off, but thats my impression.

Matthew said...

So dealing with homosexuals the church would accept those that are already in a monogamous relationship but tell the rest of its homosexual population that they can't participate in that.

Yeah, I agree. That's basically as far as Smedes's analogy is able to take us.

And the thing that really impressed me about the article is that he restricts himself to this one argument, and he doesn't push its boundaries too much. It's one of the best moderate articles I've seen about the inclusion of homosexuals in the church.

shane said...

Let us, for a moment, agree that homoerotic behavior is sinful, and let us agree that the divorce remarriage situation as stating in the article is a good exegetical (reading of what the text meant- which I don’t think it is) and hermeneutical (application of the text in a given culture) approach, leading to the double bind of remarried person’s choices. Those in a homoerotic relationship are also in a catch-22 because it would be a sin to continue the relationship, but it would also do damage to severe a (in Matt’s words) spousal pair. The fundamental way in which the author fails to complete his argument is then declaring that the situations are truly analogous.

But if homosexuality is a sin, is it possible that even love born from that relationship (something apparently good) is also a wrong action? I may experience camaraderie with peers as we interact, and even grow close and lasting bonds. This is a good thing with a theoretical blessing from God. But if my peer is my drug dealer, and our relationship is fundamentally based on wrong (or sinful) actions, and the relationship itself is a hindrance to me becoming sanctified, isn’t the dissolution of the relationship a positive step towards eliminating the sinful actions? Matthew also speaks of gouging eyes and severing hands to enter the kingdom. A relationship defined as “spousal” can be just as serious as a limb. Certainly that passage has clearer exegetical history within the tradition of the church, although an equal hermeneutical challenge.

Here is my primary critique of the author’s approach. Is analogy the best hermeneutical means to determine acceptable or unacceptable behavior, especially when there are other texts which directly comment on the issue?

Let me approach this situation a different way: My hypothetical relationship with my dealer may have the appearance of relationship; it is in reality dysfunctional. A woman cheating on her husband may feel loved, listened and comforted, the other man may feel strong, important and confident, but none of these by-products redeem the fundamental wrongness of their interaction, which is sex outside of the context of marriage.

While the issue of same-sex marriage has been hotly debated within the church for the last 75 years, for the most part the Orthodox position has consistently been a refusal to pronounce same-sex couples as married. I am certain that those living in a state similar to a committed marriage may have many of the characteristics of marriage evident in their lives. However, the appearance of marriage and the pronouncement of Christian union is not the same thing.

When the community bears witness to the couple’s vows and an ordinate of the church pronounces them “husband and wife” church tradition teaches that there is a mystical bond formed, beyond the mere visceral reality seen and heard. A mystery, to be certain, and difficult to comprehend, let alone describe . . . but nonetheless echoes of baptism and Eucharist as a similarly mystical experience. If homosexual behavior is a sinful action, then a marriage like relationship does not redeem said action.

Why is it unusually cruel to expect celibacy of unmarried Christians? Doesn't the Doesn’t the abnormally socially awkward have the same expectation?

Matthew said...

Shane said: Here is my primary critique of the author’s approach. Is analogy the best hermeneutical means to determine acceptable or unacceptable behavior, especially when there are other texts which directly comment on the issue?

Although arguing by analogy never provides strong proof, I'm reluctant to altogether discard it as a tool for moral reasoning. Analogy is good because it forces us to examine inconsistencies in our own behavior ... if we treat person A differently than person B, and person A is very similar to person B, we have to justify why we treat them differently.

As far as using analogy as a hermeneutical tool to extract moral lessons from a text, I think you're right - doing so could get us into a lot of trouble. However, the author of this article is fully justified in using analogies, because he's not trying to exegete personal morality. He's trying to suggest that the policy of the church is inconsistent.

In that light, it seems that your main critique is a critique of his analogy; to be specific, you're saying that the analogy fails to hold because homosexual people are not technically married. While the hypothetical divorcee may have to choose between Sin A and Sin B, the homosexual couple has an out: their relationship is not a marriage - and actually, it's inherently toxic - so it's not sinful to dissolve it.

My main problem with this argument is that it denigrates the relationship between the two people based on the gender of the people, and not on all the other factors that compose the relationship. Earlier, you complained that relationships are denigrated if they don't involve sexual intimacy ... I feel the same way about your denigration of relationships because they involve two people of the same sex. Nevermind that the people love each other deeply, that they struggle to understand one another, that they sacrifice for one another. The mere fact that their relationsihp is homosexual is apparently sufficient for us to assume that it's as toxic as an adulterous relationship, which seems wrong to me.

I also have a problem with the church saying that homsexual relationships can be dissolved because they're not marriages, while simultaneously withholding the marriage sacrament from homosexuals. In using the word spouse earlier, I suppsose I meant to indicate that these two people are as married as homosexual people can be, and that dissolving that relationship would be just as violent and sinful as dissolving a heterosexual marriage.

But as Connor suggested, even if we buy Smedes's argument as I've presented it, it only gets us to the point of accepting already committed homosexual people into the church without insisting that they dissolve their marriage. In future posts, I think I'd like to look at some other arguments that suggest that homoerotic behavior is not inherently immoral, and argue for greater inclusiveness.

Anonymous said...

How the church does or does not treat the divorced or remarried has absolutely ZERO impact on the fact that the Bible teaches clearly that homosexuality is wrong.

Our rightness or wrongness on one Biblical issue does not give us a free pass on another.

connor said...

How does Anonymous find the time to post so many great replies on so many blogs? He must be like Santa Clause.

shane said...


I don't know if anyone has argued for a 'free pass', (although I alluded to a similar idea in my first post.) I don't think that's what Matthew is saying. I think the author is stretching the use of analogy to make his point, and complete his agenda. Matthew thinks the same-gender relationship can be analogous to marriage. I believe those in a same-gender relationship would agree with him (experience,) but I don't know if there is authority from Scripture or the tradition to support his claim. Reason or ‘natural law’ (I consider those two different things, rather than synonyms)could go either way.

This discussion has certainly been nuanced and functioning apart, although not independent from, the Biblical text. I have clearly said, "I'm not sure what the text says" and "if homoerotic behavior is sinful" for the very purpose of drawing the lines of what my part of the discussion is about.

If we are going to engage any texts in this thread, we ought to first look at the text from the gospel of Matthew, and then Matthew (the gospel) as a whole before we begin to bring in other texts in Scripture. If the Reformed community has misread the text then what is another interpretation? Would a different reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew (the gospel) help or hurt Smedes’ argument?

I think talking about what the Bible says about homosexuality is very relevant to the larger discussion, but that was intentionally excluded from this conversation (at least on my end.) Perhaps that is for another post for another day. Matthew (the blogger) is looking to justify such actions are not sinful. Surely he must engage Scripture in some form or fashion.

Why don’t you put something together and let us know where you post it so we can continue this important work?

shane said...

Or, Matthew will find someone who "is looking to justify such actions are not sinful" for us to look at.

Anonymous said...

(from the same anonymous)

This is a bit of a rehash from kendallball's blog, but here's the short version.

Homosexuality is directly related to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is described in Romans 1 with words like “indecent” and “perversion”. It is mentioned in 1st Corinthians in a list along with “sexually immoral, adulterers, thieves, slanderers and swindlers” and followed by paragraphs about sexual immorality. In Leviticus, it is called “detestable”. If we were to read any of those sections without a previous opinion on the issue, it’s not likely we would come to the conclusion that the Bible is either indifferent or approving of homosexuality.

Beyond that, every mention of it in scripture is negative. There is no distinction between "committed" homosexuals and promiscuous ones. Our culture may make a distinction, but accoring to scripture God does not.

This is definitely not the only sin out there or the worst one, but it is the one our culture is trying to force. Too many Christians are following society's lead on this one instead of God's in the name of tolerance. We are not truly loving people if we don't care about what God says about this.

Matthew said...

shane said: I think talking about what the Bible says about homosexuality is very relevant to the larger discussion, but that was intentionally excluded from this conversation (at least on my end.)

Mine too. This was more of a discussion of the logical consistency of the Church's position ... anonymous should note that for the purposes of this argument, we all granted the sinfuless of homoerotic behavior.

anonymous said: We are not truly loving people if we don't care about what God says about this.

Yes, I agree. For now, I'll just say that I think your summary is more true to conservative culture than the actual text of the Bible. But I hope we can start talking about the text in a post sometime today. Thanks for visiting, and thanks for not being belligerent. =)

Anonymous said...

No problem. After reading a few other blogs in the last week or two, I'm beginning to realize that our culture is starting to influence Christianity on this issue. It's a bit frustruating, but I'll do my best not to be belligerent. :-)

I will say that although they are different, divorce and homosexuality are two of the most difficult situations for a church to deal with. We must always love people, but how do we best deal with their actions?

connor said...

I got a question and then a comment. Just out of curiosity what is the church of christ view on divorce and remarriage. Anyone out there have a legitimate answer that describes the majority view or do we just generally skirt around the issue.

So anonymous said "I'm beginning to realize that our culture is starting to influence Christianity on this issue." I would have to say that the culture isn't starting to influence Christianity but has been influencing christianity forever. When our culture said gays were despicable human being that should be treated like trash the church treated them that way. I'm pretty sure that this was not right no matter your view about whether or not homosexuality is a sin. The culture has been changing so the church is now having to think about the issue.

Anonymous said...

I think our treatment of homosexuals in the past was less about culture and more about our clumsiness and our difficulty separating the sinner from the sin.