By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
What is the posture that forgiven sinners in the church should have toward other forgiven sinners?
Pope Francis rocked the Christian world with his response in a 2013 interview when he was asked about celibate gay priests in the Catholic Church. His actual quote was this: “If someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”
It was quickly made clear by the Vatican that the pope was not signaling a change in Catholic moral theology. But he was signaling a change in papal moral tone. This pope would lead with an emphasis on humility, service and love, not judgment and condemnation. Joining the current attitude of many I am calling “traditionalists” here, the pope accepted that there are gay Christians and that they belong in the church family — even if there can be no reconsideration of Christian sexual ethics.
So let’s say a congregation dips its toes in the water here by welcoming celibate gay Christians to membership and unhindered involvement in the congregation. Then, however, the word gets out that this congregation is a safe and friendly place for gay Christians. Soon a covenanted or even married gay couple present themselves for membership. Then maybe one or two more couples come along. This is probably inevitable, because many gay Christians are looking for a safe place to (re)enter Christian community, and when they find one, they invite their friends. And most lesbian and gay Christians are not committed to celibacy, just as most straight Christians are not celibates. Celibacy has always been an exceptional and rare calling in the Christian church.
And so it is just about this point that the rest of us pastor/church leader/church people types will not be able to avoid figuring out what we should do and say in response.
Here are six options:
1) The “Ask No Questions” option. Some churches default to welcoming covenanted gay couples without dealing with the relevant ethical issues at all, either from the pulpit or anywhere else. If a church’s overall policy on membership does not involve moral examination or church accountability, it would hardly make sense to begin doing it just with this population and on this issue. (Though, of course, this is often what happens, leaving the congregation wide open to the charge of selective moralism.)
2) The “Who Are We to Judge” option. Some churches implicitly or explicitly take the position that the church is a “field hospital” (another image Pope Francis has used) for wounded sinners, of which each of us is the chief, rather than a community of the perfect. Therefore our default posture is “Who are we to judge?” when someone comes into the Christian community — even if they are involved in a relationship which some of us might think is sinful. This is a posture of each of us withholding judgment on anybody except for ourselves. “Who are you to judge the servant of another?” (Rom. 14:4). We are doing our own log removal work all the time (Matt. 7), making us too busy to point out the speck in the other’s eye.
3) The “Dialogue & Discernment” option. Some churches now say that the moral status before God of covenanted gay relationships is uncertain, or that opinion within the Christian community/our congregation is unsure or divided. They declare a period of dialogue for discernment, a time of listening together, sometimes inviting or welcoming interested LGBT Christians, including couples, into the dialogue. Or, going a bit further, like evangelicals Ken Wilson and Wendy VanderWal Gritter some declare this a “disputable matter” in Romans 14 terms and decide to live together in forbearing and loving community despite long-term differences of conviction.
4) The “Pastoral Accommodation” option. Some churches implicitly or explicitly take the position that while God’s (original/pre-fall/best/intended) plan for sexuality is heterosexual monogamous lifetime marriage, the contemporary church is full of people at all times who are falling short of that plan — as we fall short in every area of life, such as, for example, anger, or greed, or vengeance, or gluttony. So the church and its pastors are constantly making “pastoral accommodations” to the realities of life in a fallen world.
It is certainly true, for example, that Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Mt. 19:1-12/Mk. 10:1-12) hardly makes room for the mass divorce on grounds of incompatibility that we find in our culture. Yet the church — including most traditionalist churches, who have been backpedaling for years on this one — accommodates many individuals and couples who are on their second or third divorce and/or (re)marriage. And this is not even to speak about the gaps in adherence to the sex-within-marriage-only ethic on the part of heterosexual singles.
The pastoral decision to seek to minister healing and direction to such couples where they are, even if it is not “God’s best” as designed, could be extended to gay and lesbian couples. All of us being up to our eyeballs in the struggle to do the best we can amidst the muck and mire of our own and others’ sin and brokenness, we offer pastoral accommodation to all as far as possible.
Notice that Options 1-4 require no direct reconsideration of Christian moral tradition or sexual ethics. They raise ecclesiological questions more than anything else, especially the question of whether churches are capable of or even interested in practicing any form of accountable membership or church discipline. But that issue is a perennial one in church life.
Here is another fork in the road.
These four options represent at least a temporary terminus point on the LGBT issue for those churches or Christians that take those paths. We don’t ask questions; we don’t judge others; we are dialoguing about this, or consider this a disputable matter; we are doing pastoral accommodation to a church full of broken people. Meanwhile, y’all come, and we’ll figure it out together with God’s help. If churches could be explicit about which path they are taking it would remove a lot of uncertainty for everyone.
Churches could do far worse than this. For example, to avoid the issue altogether they could do what some churches still do:
5) The “Exclusionist” option. Some churches simply refuse admission to church membership for any gay person (even if celibate), or more often, draw the line at welcoming gay couples. But then when someone’s child turns out to be gay, there is no way to avoid the issue other than to exile them from the church. And these churches often turn out to have closeted gay members in them, because that 3 percent to 5 percent of the population is found in these congregations too.
Options 1-4 seem like a good solution for many churches. But experience tends to show that these approaches leave unexamined issues to move up the chain, where they surface later, on church practice and leadership issues like whether gay Christians can serve as deacons or as ministers, or whether congregations can bless gay unions or marriages.
Option 5 strikes me — and many others, including many traditionalists — as incompatible with the way of Jesus, with the loving heartbeat of our congregations at their best, or with the evangelistic and discipling mission of the church. It feels more like how Jesus’ adversaries acted than like how he acted.
This leaves a sixth option.
6) The “Normative Reconsideration” option. Some churches have studied the biblical texts and Christian tradition and contemporary realities and arrived at the conclusion that the heterosexual-only ethic needs to be revised.
That, of course, is the ultimate fork in the road.