Why did the Church start celebrating the Sabbath on a Sunday...
Erik Strandness responds to a recent debate between ‘Side A and B’ gay Christians
The issue of God, Gay Christians, and the church has fueled more consternation than conversation. It is an issue that has fractured relationships between friends, families, and fellowships. It is a complex theological and biological issue that demands dialogue conducted with gentleness and respect. The February 22nd episode of Unbelievable? did just that by bringing together two gay Christians with diametrically opposed views of homosexuality and its relationship to scripture. It was an expertly moderated, fascinating discussion.
I think one of the problems with this controversial issue is that it is often adjudicated from the top down by immediately appealing to Biblical arguments rather than starting from the bottom up and finding common ground from which to begin the discussion. This is were Unbelievable? is uniquely situated - bringing important voices on both sides into a gracious dialogue.
Representing the ‘Side A’ view in the church and sexuality debate, Brandan Robertson is a young San Diego pastor and LGBT activist who believes there are no barriers to Christians being in loving gay relationships. On ‘Side B’ was David Bennett, whose own journey from being a gay atheist activist to a Jesus-following celibate has been told in his book ‘A war of Loves’.
I think that both religious and irreligious people alike would agree that the arrival and survival of human life on this planet was only possible through procreative acts between males and females. A sperm and an egg had to first come together in order for new life to arise. Heterosexuality, therefore, is foundational for higher life forms. Homosexuality only appears after heterosexuality has already taken the reproductive stage. The primacy of heterosexuality is borne out by the fact that homosexuality only makes up only a small fraction of the population.
Brandan boldly declared that his goal was to prevent the naturalization of heterosexuality and the unnaturalization of homosexuality. Such a profound biological and theological agenda however requires substantial evidence. As Brandan pointed out, the gay community makes up only about 2% of the population therefore his case must be strong. In medicine, whenever a physical finding, laboratory value, or radiological measurement falls outside the 95 percentile it demands the attention of the practitioner because it may signal the need for additional testing, therapy, or observation. We pay attention to people outside established parameters not because we dislike them but because we care for their well-being. The question of whether homosexuality is a normal variant, or a statistical outlier therefore requires thoughtful biological and theological reflection.
Interestingly, the importance of the male and female coming together and procreating is foundational for both secular evolutionary theory and the Biblical creation story. Evolution requires reproductive fitness in order for natural selection to work its magic and Genesis requires the reproductive potential of the two becoming one in order to fill the earth. Heterosexuality therefore appears to have both a biological and theological mandate. As the debate focused primarily on the Biblical understanding of same-sex relationships, I will focus the rest of this discussion on exploring the scriptural points that were raised.
The Genesis of a worldview
The opening chapters of Genesis describe a God who created a world which operated by a perfect set of physical and relational parameters. Sadly, humans, like proud males, refused to read the operating manual and instead made the world conform to their fallen specifications. Sin entered the world and muddled our relationship with God, the planet, and our fellow humans. It is at this point that hackles get raised because the word “sin” has taken on some unfortunate baggage. It is often viewed as the transgression of a set of arbitrary rules established by a cruel God that gets the violator thrown into a fiery eternal prison with no hope of parole. Sin is considered rule breaking which then calls into question the value of the rules and the motivation of the rule maker.
However, If one carefully considers the origin of sin at the Fall, then it can be more accurately defined as humans living inconsistently with the order that God had perfectly established from the beginning. Therefore, the question before us is whether or not homosexuality is consistent with the order God initially established.
Brandan tried to avoid this dilemma by calling into question the validity of the opening chapters of Genesis. He made the case that they were purely mythological or metaphorical in nature. However, even if you don’t believe that Adam and Eve were true historical figures you still have a text that presents the scientifically verifiable truth that a male and female were designed to come together and fill the earth. I would even argue that without these early chapters of the Bible the rest of the Judeo-Christian story doesn’t make any sense. If you ignore a perfect creation and a Fall, then you eliminate the need for a redeemer.
The opening chapters of Genesis are fascinating because they describe a God who created beings designed to reflect His image. It is hard for humans to comprehend a transcendent God, so by dividing His image into two equal parts He gave us the opportunity to obtain a fuller understanding of His nature.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Genesis 2 expands on this by describing the woman being taken out of the man.
But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:22)
Adam and Eve were unique individually but incomplete as image-bearers until they came together as one.
God has afforded us the opportunity to explore His nature by displaying His male and female qualities both individually and as the two mysteriously becoming one. It may well be that redefining what it means to be male and female both individually and in relationship may be a primal affront to the very nature of God. God isn’t obsessed with sex but rather with His Image and anything that would disrupt the perfect representation of his Image in His image-bearers such as adultery, divorce, and same sex relationships would cloud our ability to see Him clearly.
The other Ancient Near Eastern religions had no problem creating wood and metal images of their gods, but the God of the Bible took a tremendous risk by placing His image in creatures capable of distorting it. It is both a complement and an awesome responsibility to be an image-bearer, so we need to be very careful when we try to redefine it.
The heir that they breathed.
While recognizing male and female characteristics is important for understanding God's character, the two becoming one also helps us understand God's creative power. Sexuality, therefore, when properly practiced, doesn’t bring shame but rather proudly displays the trinitarian image of God by establishing a family unit of father, mother and child. Sexuality, however, when practiced outside image-bearing parameters devalues the male, the female, and the family unit leaving us naked and afraid. In addition, all of the Biblical promises made by God to Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, and David, all required successful procreation in order to fulfill His plan of salvation in Jesus.
Stripping down to our theological underwear
I agree with Brandan that doctrinal formulations can become idols that create a righteousness found in rule-following and not the blood of Christ. We must never be such great guardians of the deposit of faith that we prevent others from taking out a Jesus withdrawal. However, Brandan took this idea too far by calling for the church to strip itself of its doctrinal excesses and then build a new and improved Christianity with personal spiritual revelations. The problem is that Brandan didn’t define what Christianity looks like when it is stripped down to its theological underwear. It seems that he is happier to accessorize an emperor with no clothes than to properly dress one already wearing Biblical briefs. The problem for Brandan is that there is no getting around the first chapters of Genesis if one wants to identify a Christian core. David appropriately interjected that new spiritual revelations without a scriptural foundation can quickly devolve into whatever itching ears want to hear.
Brandan has unfortunately embraced a postmodern hermeneutic for reading scripture. He posits a smoke-filled room full of male theologians scheming to oppress the masses, orchestrating a patriarchal power play to consolidate power over women and gays. I think that this argument just falls flat because the Old Testament is very honest about its major figures by unhesitatingly describing them warts and all. In fact, the people who get the harshest treatment are actually the Chosen People. It would seem an odd strategy to build a hierarchy by writing a book that gives the reader an in depth look under the hood when their goal was to sell the populace a patriarchal clunker.
While I wouldn’t deny that patriarchal overreach has been a problem in all cultures, it doesn’t seem to be evident in the opening chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1 uses a rather generic name for God that seems devoid of male dominant language. It instead reveals a God who is in touch with both his male and female side. While the text later describes Eve being tempted, it was Adam’s responsibility to have told her about God’s plan. It’s possible that it was her superior intelligence that made her intellectually vulnerable to the temptation to acquire even greater wisdom. Rather than being inferior she may have been the one who wore the intellectual pants in the family. Regardless, when God calls them out for violating His one and only rule of conduct, He curses the male, the female, and Satan. God doesn’t play favorites when it comes to living in a way contrary to His plan.
The four loves
Those who have issues with homosexuality are often accused of denying gay people the ability to express their love for one another. I think this is a very interesting point but one which cannot be discussed properly until we have defined the meaning of love. Sadly, the English usage of the word can mean anything from ‘loving pizza’ to ‘loving your pets’ to ‘loving your significant other’.
I think the discussion would become more fruitful if we took a Greek knife to it and dissected it into its component parts. Conveniently, the Greek language has the advantage of specifically identifying four different types of love: storge is love for a family member, philia is love for a friend, agape is self-giving sacrificial love, and eros is passionate love. None of us would have any problem with a man or woman showing storge, philia, or agape love to someone of the same sex but when it comes to eros the love-fest starts to break down.
Eros is passionate love. C.S. Lewis describes it as the intense feeling of “being in love.” Human Eros is an overwhelming desire for the “beloved” which often finds its culmination in a physical act of intimacy. Chris Kaczor puts it quite nicely:
“God’s eros differs from human eros in that for us erotic desire arises from our incompleteness and imperfection. We are akin to an empty jar that wishes to be filled by the other. God’s eros arises from his perfection and completeness. He is akin to an overflowing fountain, enjoying such super-abundance that it spills over to benefit others.”
Sadly, we have stolen the true meaning of eros from the heavens and redefined it as earthly pleasure. We have taken the focus off of the other and turned it upon ourselves. We have made the measure of eros selfish sensation rather than self-less devotion, pleasure rather than piety. Eros is the only love that populates the planet, and it was God’s eros that prompted Him to create humans. Interestingly, of all the loves, eros is the only one that is cross-culturally associated with a contract or covenant. It appears that humans throughout time have understood the power of eros and recognized the need to place boundaries around it.
We should be grateful that eros is a God-given source of unparalleled intimacy, but we must also respect the fact that when left untamed it can lead to all sorts of problems including infidelity, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, pornography, and the abuse of women and children. The #metoo movement has helped unmask the power of unbridled eros. I would suggest that eros is just as much a fire, horse, rudder, and poison as the tongue. Marriage, however, provides boundaries by tending to the flame, bridling the beast, navigating the ship, and providing an antidote to the poison. Traditional marriage has been the force that has directed the creative power of eros to not just fill the earth but to do so in a trinitarian manner by establishing organized family units consisting of husband, wife and child.
It is therefore only natural that we would take any changes to the institution of marriage very seriously. I think most people don’t question the possibility of monogamy and faithfulness in a same-sex marriage but are rather more concerned about the anatomic awkwardness of the two becoming one and the inability for that union to procreate. It is this imperfect reflection of eros that runs contrary to both the reproductive fitness of evolution and the Biblical concept of the two becoming one and makes it difficult to equate same-sex unions with traditional marriages.
Interestingly, Jesus tells us that marriage will not occur in heaven, therefore, it seems that its purpose is confined to the earth. Marriage is the means by which mortals can understand the character of the Immortal. We learn about God when the male and female qualities are brought together in perfect harmony, but once we are in the new heaven and earth, we will know God fully and marriage will be irrelevant. Those who choose to be celibate in this life may actually have an advantage because what they lack in a partner is more than made up for a desire to more fully establish a relationship with God.
Get me to the chapel on time
Marriage, like love, has become a vague term that blends both state and religious benefits and which can just as easily be officiated by a court magistrate as a religious leader. We, therefore, need to clarify our concerns. Marriage inside the church and outside the church are two different beasts - Are we concerned about same-sex marriages accruing similar legal benefits or placing a divine imprimatur on the union? Once again, I think most people aren’t troubled with same-sex unions that confer equal benefits but have serious issues when marriage is used as a divine seal of approval. I think it is a fair question for the adherents of any particular faith group to weigh in on whether or not they believe that a marriage conducted under their religious umbrella is truly sanctioned by their God or gods.
Stumbling out of the church
Even if you think that same-sex unions are scripturally sanctioned there are many well-meaning Christians in the church who disagree. Paul warns us that if we practice things that are considered offensive by others, even if they are not forbidden, we may then adversely affect their relationship with God.
But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak… And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Corinthians 8:9,11-12)
Both sides of this question acknowledge the saving work of Jesus. But it is not the Jesus solution that creates the conflict, but rather the sin question. Is engaging in a same-sex relationship akin to living in a way contrary to the way the world was created to operate? It is a question that needs careful consideration and I am thankful that Unbelievable? provided a welcoming platform for this issue to be discussed in a thoughtful and respectful way.
Dr. Erik Strandness is a neonatal physician and Christian apologist living in the Pacific Northwest. He has authored three apologetic books and blogs on a regular basis at www.godsscreenplay.com
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.