Paradigm Shift

This morning at my church something said during the post-sermon discussion[1] recontextualized in my mind the debate on homosexuality currently happening in the Western Church. I found myself mentally framing the problem in this way: Proponents of gay rights and those who assert that Christians should fully accept gay people tend to think of the issue as one of justice; opponents of same-sex marriage and those who believe actively gay people[2] can’t fully participate in Christianity tend to think of it as a morality issue.

Clearly I’m engaging in fairly abstract thinking here, so let me just say up front that anyone debating this issue needs to remember one thing perhaps more than any other: to actual gay people and those who love or care about them, it is primarily neither a justice nor a moral issue but a personal issue. When arguing about whether we can accept gay people in the church, we are actually, from their perspective, arguing about whether God made them to be the way they believe they inherently are. This seems a little arrogant by its very nature. So, even if your personal answer to that question is “no”, always keep in mind that they will see your denial as a denial of their fundamental humanity. Conversely, if your answer is “yes”, don’t think that gives you the right to speak authoritatively on their behalf. No one wants to feel like a political football.

To return to my initial thought, though, this difference in perspective explains why this particular debate has grown so bitter and divisive, with people on either side continually giving in to the temptation to portray their opponents as monsters. LGBTQ advocates see conservative Christians as something akin to people who still believe in racial segregation, or worse: slavery. Traditionalists consider gay Christians and their allies essentially willful heretics: people who deliberately ignore what the Bible says so they can keep sinning, or accept people who are sinning, respectively. Both groups, of course, comprise mostly good-hearted people trying their best to do what they think is right.[3] But it is in the nature of people to engage in black-and-white, good-versus-evil thinking and consider anyone not in complete agreement with oneself to be the enemy. Moreover, with such strong motivating factors as the desire for justice and the desire for moral purity, one’s opponents will appear to actually hate justice itself or morality itself, not to simply disagree about the nature of justice or morality, and neither side will likely change its mind easily or within a short span of time. Thus the Church appears doomed, in the near-to-medium future, to war within itself, causing severe and lasting casualties in the form of damaged relationships, decreased church attendance or involvement, and—since the world is supposed to know we follow Jesus because of our love for each other—uncounted potential converts repulsed by our in-fighting.

Since the Kingdom of God in our present age must transcend such enmity and make peace between people who would not otherwise have peace, we cannot accept this state of affairs. Thus, I propose a re-framing of the issue of how the Church will accept and respond to LGBTQ people: instead of thinking of the issue as either a justice issue or a moral issue, let us consider it for the time being a potential paradigm shift. Fortunately, we already have a very explicit model for dealing with paradigm shifts: say nothing.

This is, in essence, what I interpret to be Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 8, 1 Corinthians 10 and Romans 14: when confronted with someone who has decided they can’t accept a practice you accept, don’t throw your acceptance their face. On the other hand, when confronted with someone who accepts something you don’t feel you can accept, leave that between them and their conscience, which is to say, between them and God.

Yes, this means that conservative Christians may need to allow their churches to be thronged with gay people who suddenly feel much more accepted by Christendom than they did before. It also means that LGBTQ allies may need to spend less time talking loudly in public about how the truly Christlike thing is to fully accept people of any sexual orientation. Maybe, we just… let it go, for now. If this whole culture shift blows over in a decade or so, and we all swing back around to believing homosexuality is unnatural and not to be accepted by society, traditionalists won’t have to feel guilty for how abusively they behaved toward LGBTQ advocates. And if, as I expect, twenty years from now we take for granted that a man can love Jesus and still totally have sex with another man, those who have been saying this all along will have already spent lots of time learning to be gracious toward those who couldn’t see quite so far ahead.

In the mean time, imagine the following scenario: a gay couple arrives for the first time at a conservative church. Liz introduces herself to the man next to her by saying, “Hi, I’m Liz, and this is my wife, Kari”, and the man responds, “It’s nice to meet you; how did you find your way to our church?” At the end of the service, the woman sitting behind Kari asks the couple out to lunch, and makes sure they know by the end of the meal that she fully accepts their marriage and their place in the church. Liz and Kari come back a second and third time to the church, and even though they eventually realize that most of the people there don’t agree with their host from the first Sunday, they never feel de-humanized or condemned. They become members and raise their adorable adopted children there. They give money to the church. Liz works in the nursery; Kari organizes the yearly food drive at Thanksgiving. Occasionally they engage the pastor of the church in a spirited debate on the issue of homosexuality, and at the end he says, “Well, I don’t agree, but I’m really grateful for your perspective”, and he means it.

Does that sound so bad?

  1. One of the perks of being a small church. Don’t try to pretend you’re not jealous.  ↩

  2. By this I mean: people who identify as gay and are not celibate but pursue romantic and sexual relationships with other people to whom they are sexually attracted.  ↩

  3. Mostly.  ↩