Okay – so I had another frustrating go on Moody Radio and their “Up for Debate” program. The first time I was on with Mario Bergner and it was super frustrating. This was mainly due to the host favoring Mario so that I felt I had very little opportunity to respond to things he would say. This time around was slightly less frustrating. The other guest was Anne Paulk who has been hired as the Coordinator for Restored Hope Ministries. RHM is the break-away group that left Exodus last year and maintain fundamentalist views about orientation change and the demands of obedience for people who experience same-sex attraction. This time I didn’t get interrupted mid-sentence – but I was asked to speak first every time – which meant that Anne always got to respond to what I’d said – but I was not afforded the same opportunity. This inevitably skews the conversation.
So, since I did not have the opportunity to say everything I wanted to say – and because I now feel that after this first-hand experience I can say some things in response to RHM – I figured this was the time to put some of my thoughts out there.
The focus of the program, apparently, was on the efficacy of orientation change. I think this is really a distraction and a secondary matter in the whole question of how the Christian community ought to engage with sexual minority individuals. (Note: Anne thought my use of this descriptor was “modern” language – and that she didn’t believe there was such a thing as sexual minority individuals. From my perspective, there are people who have a different experience of sexuality than the majority of people who find themselves heterosexually attracted – and so it simply makes sense as a value neutral term to describe them as those who have a sexual minority experience.)
So I tried to open with a nuanced allowance that understands that sexuality is fluid for some people, perhaps especially women. The idea that some people may experience some shifts in their experience of sexual attraction isn’t such a controversial idea in my mind. There are many people in the human population who have the capacity for bisexual functioning – and to think that they might make some choices to particularly focus on one gender or the other isn’t such a stretch. But I wouldn’t call this orientation change.
I also think that human beings have the capacity to live chaste lives with determination and God’s grace. It might be difficult. And imposed singleness and celibacy can certainly cause distress, pain, and other negative effects on a person’s sense of self. But sexual chastity is certainly something that can be achieved. But again, I wouldn’t call this orientation change.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about mixed orientation marriages. I have gone on record as saying that I do not recommend that people take this route. On the other hand, I offer support to the best of my ability to those who are living in the reality of a mixed orientation marriage and desire to maintain a faithful, healthy and loving relationship. And again, I believe that God can extend grace in these situations.
However, I also know the pain of a marriage that comes to the breaking point. And one of the reasons that marriages come to a breaking point is when the disconnection between spouses is so deep that one can feel like they are emotionally and spiritually dying. Part of the genesis of such disconnection is when one spouse feels that they have to hide or suppress a significant aspect of their personhood. Having walked with many people through this valley of the shadow of death, I also believe God’s grace meets us when we come to the limit of what we can endure. Separation and divorce are always painful – but they are not outside of the reach of God’s mercy and grace.
All of these things may be important for the Christian community to process in consideration of how to journey with sexual minority persons. But they are not the primary matter. The primary thrust of the entire story of Scripture is the revelation of a God who so loves what he created that a way has been made for all of creation to be fully reconciled back to God.
This is entirely God’s gift to a creation groaning under the burden of limitation and brokenness. This reconciliation has been God’s plan from before the creation. This reconciliation is God’s magnus opus in Jesus Christ. And the reality of this reconciliation cannot be thwarted by any decisions or behaviors of human beings. All things in the creation are offered one choice:
to receive or reject the reality of this reconciliation. The repentance that is asked is the changing of our mind from viewing ourselves as our own god to the embrace of God and his gift of reconciliation. Everything else is secondary. The heresy, and yes I will choose to use such a strong word, of the Restored Hope Network is that they take this mystery of reconciliation out of God’s hands and put it in the hands of human beings. They state that:
Sexual purity is a life-and-death matter. Sexual holiness for Christians matters to such an extent that living an unrepentant sexually immoral life can get even self-professed Christians excluded from the kingdom of God. For some this may mean that such persons were never true Christians to begin with; for others it may mean that such persons have fallen away from a once genuine faith. Either way, both can agree that a life committed to unrepentant, sexual immorality is evidence of a life not lived by saving faith.
The reason a conversation about sexual orientation change is so frustrating with someone from the Restored Hope Network is because we read the bible and construct our theology in such vastly different ways.
The starting points for engaging scripture that Anne articulated were the creation of male / female and her conviction that she looked at the absolute truth of the bible. It also was apparent that her focus was on the need of human beings to repent and walk in obedience.
As I have previously posted, I believe that the foundation for our engagement with scripture must be on God. That causes me to construct (because yes, all of our theology is constructed) my theology on the foundation of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Understanding our sexuality doesn’t begin with the description of male / female in the creation account – it begins with who God is and what it means to be created in God’s image.
The idea that some people follow the “absolute truth” of the bible while others follow “revisionist” interpretations is a convenient way to dismiss someone else’s perspectives. But it is false. No one engages scripture without interpretation. And no one is a perfect interpreter of scripture. Period. That means that all Christians need to have some humility in presenting their scriptural convictions. The idea that we can quote this text or that text and make absolute claims that supposedly someone with different convictions couldn’t possibly argue is immature at best.
I do believe that scripture is inspired by God. I believe that we have been given God’s story so that God can reveal who he is to us and show us that the way of reconciliation has already been accomplished for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But each particular text comes to us with the reality of original context, translation, and the need for discernment to name just a few simple factors. And the reality is that committed followers of Christ wrestle with the implications of context in different ways, understand the dilemmas of translation in different ways, and exercise discernment in different ways. We see this reality within the pages of scripture itself. The early church wrestled mightily with how to discern the integration of the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings of Jesus and the implications for those who were Jewish and those who were Gentile. And people disagreed. And none of these disagreements nullified in any way the accomplished work of reconciliation through Jesus Christ.
While I believe that ongoing repentance and obedience are important markers of the Christian life, I do not frame things the same way that Anne does. The life of a follower of Christ begins with the earth-shattering realization that the God of the universe knows my name, counts the hairs on my head, and loves me beyond my imagination. The rest of my life in Christ flows out of perpetual gratitude for this reality. That means that when I change my mind about something, it is because the love of Christ compels me. That means when I make a difficult choice to obey God instead of going my own way, it is because I trust the love of Christ to be life-giving. We repent and obey in response to God’s love – not to keep or earn God’s love. The idea that a failure to repent of something or a failure to obey means that God will withdraw his love and withdraw the reconciliation that Christ accomplished makes a mockery of the cross. Is our sin more powerful than the cross of Christ? Surely not. Christ has already swallowed up sin and death. It has already been defeated. When our hearts are turned towards Christ to rejoice in and receive the good news that we are reconciled to God through Christ then absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. Certainly, where committed Christians wrestle to interpret and discern, and come to differing conclusions about what is being asked of us in our grateful response to God’s love there is an abundance of mercy and grace. It is God’s heart that all things would be receptive to the amazing reality that Christ has accomplished reconciliation for the whole of creation.
Restored Hope Network advocates orientation change because they believe that it is the only way for a sexual minority person to be enfolded into reconciliation with God. While they might acknowledge that some people will continue to experience same-sex attraction, their focus is on the fight, the struggle, the need to strive against what they deem to be sin. I think this is a heretical priority.
The reality is that the bible doesn’t speak to matters of sexual orientation, sexual attraction, or sexual identity. The bible speaks to particular sexual behaviours in specific contexts. The challenge for sexual minority persons and the Christian community is to discern what that means for those we today understand to be predominantly oriented to their own gender. Homosexual rape – negative prohibition. Sexual behaviour in the context of idol worship – negative prohibition. Coercive sexual behaviour with minors – probable prohibition if that is what the translations are referring to. Consensual, committed partnerships – not mentioned. Thus the complexity in the discernment process. Thus the reality of diversity in perspectives.
What I do know is that our humanity matters to God. Our personhood matters to God. Our sexuality is part of our personhood. It doesn’t define us. It doesn’t constitute our entire identity. But it is a part of our humanity that we can honestly accept as we seek to discern how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. And our drive to relationship and family is part of imaging God and it is something that God acknowledges as a legitimate need – even before sin entered the creation.
To pit feelings against obedience is a reductionistic view of sexuality and our humanity. Every human being has temptations to face. The deeper we are immersed in the confidence of God’s love, the more we are able to gratefully choose God’s life-giving reality over the empty escapes we are so often drawn to. And yet our human lives are marked by the ways we succumb to lure of empty pleasure. The western church is, by and large, a fat, lazy, consumeristic, and apathetic bunch to name just a few of the obvious fruits of our giving in to temptation. Despite all this, we are the people of God. Beloved. Fully dependent on grace. Fully dependent on the accomplished work of Christ.
Where our gratitude for this gift of grace shines is when we pour out self-giving love, when we live faithfully, when we not only forgive our enemies but learn to love them, when we care for those who are marginalized and in need, when we live humbly and work for justice, when we participate in nurturing shalom in our communities.
I wish I could say that I hear this in the work of the Restored Hope Network. What I hear is an inordinate attention on determining who is right, who is in, and criticizing those who aren’t. I don’t hear much of a passion for the world that God has made. I don’t hear much of a passion for those on the margins cowering in fear. I don’t hear a whole lot about God’s love or mercy or grace. I hear words of repentance and obedience…. And I am reminded of Jesus’ words reiterating the words of the prophet Hosea:
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)