A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
By the Rev. William Coats firstname.lastname@example.org
I view with great sympathy what seems to me an underlying worry of those conservative or evangelical persons who oppose granting to homosexuals equal access to the rites of the church.
If those who favor gay and lesbian access are right then that would mean the Bible is wrong. Indeed it might mean God is wrong. This adherence to Scripture should not be dismissed out of hand as it is by church Liberals.If the Bible is wrong here, then by some slippery slope analogy where is it right? And, more worryingly, if God has spoken these words to chosen intermediaries (the biblical writers) how can God be wrong?
All too often liberals who favor equal access for gays and lesbians advert to Scripture in the most general terms: God has created gays and lesbians; the created order is good; sexuality is a gift and good; God is love. If these are the main criteria for evaluating moral issues, then the counter argument would be: on what basis can anything humans want to do be denied? Liberals might want to make some distinctions here around the guestion of acts which are harmful or no, but still the conservative position has some merit which cannot be dismissed. There is, for example, sin to be considered not to mention the incredible capacity humans have for self-delusion and self-rationalizing, traits the Bible is keenly aware of and seeks to remedy.
The question here has to do with change throughout time and history. Does this change in knowledge and custom have anything to say in the way we view moral affairs? This might on one hand be a philosophical or theological puzzle, but in reality it is first a Biblcal puzzle. The Leviticus 1- 7, for example, itemizes laws of sacrifice.. They are clear and clearly mandated. They come from God. But what then are we to make of our friend the prophet Hosea who proclaimed " I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offering (6:6) or the psalmist who wrote "Sacrifice and offering you do not desire...burnt offering and sin offering you have not required." 40: 6 (see also Isaiah 1: 11). These, of course, are exactly what have been required by the law! Yet a later generation, seeing how these practices had been corrupted, proceed with a different reading and in fact a different ethic. Was God wrong in the beginning. Did God change his/her mind? These are important questions not to be brushed aside by simply saying the Bible should be taken spiritually or symbolically as many liberals do. It also makes saying that the Bible should be taken in a literal, fixed fashion difficult
Similarly when the prophets announce that God will permit the exile of the people Israel what are we to make of the earlier claim found in Psalm 131 that Zion will be God's resting place forever and that God will clothe Israel's enemies with shame. In the Book of Jonah, the young messenger/prophet is told to proclaim doom to the people of Nineveh. Yet God upon seeing the city repent changes his/her mind and ceases to punish the city. Even in Scripture circumstances make a mark on how God deals with people. How then can we say no change in human circumstance can effect how God works in our time?
What, also, are we to make of the person and work of Jesus and the claim that in him is to be found a new Covenant, that is, a new way God has chosen to work with and save human beings. Could we not say that there was some change in the historical circumstance of men and women which brought about this new way, this change in God's approach?
Similarly we have Jesus' words that he was sent to preach only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Yet in Mark, the earliest gospel, he is preaching among gentiles. And of course Paul at a later date is surprised by and indeed serves the cause of the church's mission to the gentiles.
None of these clear alterations are of small account. They amount to significant changes within Scripture leading to important questions about the stability of Scripture, what is right and what is wrong and most importantly to whether God him/her self changes.
The proposition that God never changes, that his/her iron will remains for ever fixed, along with the corollary that the church either ina strict adherence to scripture or through its guaradianship of the "deposit of faith" must adhere to original mandates has clarity to it and a deep faith behind it. It presupposes God must be understood as a consistent presence and speaker, one who stands by unalterable judgments. The unchanging nature of God stands guarantor for unchanging biblical mandates.. God cannot change over time and God's words can't be adjusted to every societal whim.
But why can't God change? Are we not dealing here with a propositon - namely the unchangability of God - which itself is simply assumed rather than established. And if Scripture testifies to God's changing strategies through time and history then it might be said on the witness of Scripture itself, one cannot maintain the unchangeableness of God.. And if God is constantly in relationship with men and women over time why would not God change? Can God do any less than what human parents do with their children, i.e. adapt to new circumstances. Such changeability need not make God less than God unless we are forcing on Scripture a notion of God drawn from secular sources: i.e., that absolute power demands absolute fixity of law.
None of this means that Biblical injunctions are to be jettisoned at whim. It does force the question of the nature of injunctions in different times and places. The conservative fear - and not always unjustifiably - that by radically changing or ignoring powerful biblical interdicts one has opened the way for a kind of cherry picking ethic. What needs to be shown is that the alteration of seemingly fixed statutes can be accomplished without being subjective or, worse, self-serving. And that such alteration can be seen to be true to Scripture
I would argue that the purpose of a biblical command is not simply to regulate behavior in accordance with "God's plan" but to realize salvation. Thus ethical behavior, if it is not simply ordinary human behavior necessary for daily congress, is action which participates in God's power of salvation. In that sense it is sacramental and not simply "ethical" much less incidental
On this reading ethical behavior exhibits freedom from the power of death.
When Paul argues against homosexual behavior in Romans 2 it is apparent he has in mind the creation male/female outline in Genesis. He must also believe that marriage is part of God's early intention for the man and woman he created. That intention receives its clearest meaning when and as men and women are clearly understood as different. Indeed, until recent times man and woman were perceived as quite distinct not only in physical endowment but in personality and social role (the male everywhere being the dominant figure: "(The man) is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man" 1 Corinthians 11: 7) These differences were accepted as virtually unchangeable, part of a natural order (hence the Roman Catholic view of natural law). The assumption in this part of Scripture is, therefore, that human sexuality and human nature is fixed (as indeed are social relations).To bring a man and woman into matrimony was to bring those of great difference into union. Add to this that the Bible is quite aware that men and women are often opposed to each other not only in character, role and sentiment but even in power. Marriage therefore is not simply a nice thing that everybody does; it is the act by which in creation there is a sign and sacrament of God's redemptive intent, for man and woman; for salvation in the Scripture involves not so much one's state after death, but the character and stance of one's life in time.
What happens, however, if over the course of time our understanding of what constitutes a man and a woman change? What if there is no fixed human nature, much less a fixed notion of sexuality? Can we today, for example, say that there are rigidly set and consistently discernible personality differences between men and women? What of social roles? Are they too set as they have been in the past? It is hardly possible any longer to speak of women as passive much less obedient. True, the physiological differences remain (it was the centrality of these differences that led many to see as marriage's primary if not sole purpose the procreation of children) but is that all that can be said about the difference between men and women? If so then the rich meaning of the coming together of those truly and essentially different begins to collapse.
The writer of Ephesians used Christ's love for the church as a metaphor for the love of man and woman What does that entail? This was not so much about gender as it was about a form of human love based on God's covenant in Christ to love his people. Given that we are sinners, then Christ's' love is extraordinary and provides a model for the love of man and woman. But this love does not require the complementariness that is employed in the understanding of the joining of male and female (Markus Barth in his great commentary on Ephesians showed that the writer, contrary to all custom in the ancient world, established the equality of the genders in marriage).
For it at this point that the possibility of the recognition of gay and lesbian partnership comes into play. If it becomes difficult to employ the older notions of male and female and the symbolism of the joining of opposites in a new redemptive partnership, it is still possible to see in marriage a sacrament of self-giving love. Only now it is that which gay and lesbians are asked to participate in in their unions.
For if we hold marriage in high regard, and if we see in it at least as Paul did the antidote to loneliness or believe it to be a sign of Christ's love then to bar homosexuals from this possibility becomes then contrary to Scripture's intent. It is to deny grace and salvation to certain people because of a sexuality they did not choose. To assert that grace or salvation can be denied on the basis of some condition (albeit one not chosen) is clearly unbiblical.
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