The Gay Debate: The Gospel IS at Stake

Jason Micheli —  August 2, 2018 — 5 Comments

 

Starting in a new congregation in a denomination that stands at the precipice of schism, I sense a lot of anxiety from the laity I meet. EVERYONE wants to know what their new pastor thinks about homosexuality, the Church’s ‘position’ on gay Christians, and what I view as the “Way Forward” through this ecclessial impasse.

In all our arguing about the way forward, I can’t help but wonder if what the Church needs most is to go backward. St. Paul writes to Timothy about the urgent need for interpreters of scripture to be able to divide rightly the Word of God, and the Protestant movement began 500 years ago largely as a preaching movement that had at its core the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Echoing the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther said there is no other higher art than making that distinction between the two words with which God has spoken and still speaks to us.

When it comes to the debate about sexuality in the Church, not only do I not hear alot of nuance I don’t hear much distinction being drawn between God’s two words. Instead, what I hear from both conservative and progressive sides is a lot of Gospel-flavored Law laying the net result of which is a muddled message, Glawspel, rather than the grace-centric proclamation that is our reason d’etre as Protestant Christians. Anything goes in this debate, the stakes are so high, because, as advocates on both sides often insist “the Gospel is at stake.” For conversatives, the Gospel is at stake in the sense that the authority of scripture is up for grabs. For progressives, the Gospel is at stake in that the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians is a justice issue.

The Gospel is at stake, I think.

Just not in the way either side imagines.

Look-

I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church. Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ. In the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.

I’m just aware that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

On the other side of the debate, frankly it makes no sense to me to baptize babies if the Church is not prepared for them to exercise their Christian vocation once they’re grown, and ordained ministry and marriage are but two forms that Christian vocation takes. If we’re not prepared for gay Christians to live into their baptism as adutls we shouldn’t be baptizing them as babies, which means we shouldn’t be baptizing any babies.

Nonetheless, I think progressive Christians who insist that their fellow Christians see this as exclusively as a justice issue make the same mistake their conservative counterparts make.

Namely, they tie our righteousness as Christians to being ‘right’ on this issue.

It’s in this sense that I believe the Gospel is at stake in this debate because, thus far, the debate has obscured our core message that our righteousness comes entirely from outside of us by grace alone through faith alone. Put another way:

You would never come to the conclusion from how both sides engage this debate that grace gives us the right to be wrong. 

To the extent that is obscured, the Gospel is at stake in this debate.

The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

In all our arguing about getting it right on this issue-

I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:

everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel frees us from the Law.

The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies us before God not at all.

The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex.

Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification. Almost by definition then, it’s a stupid issue with which to obsess. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.

As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder, Bill Clinton and Donald Trumpshouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.

In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.

I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law. The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law. The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.

I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in his perfect righteousness.

I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.

Every last one of us.

More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of their lives. God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys the same message the sale of indulgences did on the eve of the Reformation: that God’s grace isn’t costly. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing. Maybe the way forward is the backward.

 

 

Jason Micheli

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5 responses to The Gay Debate: The Gospel IS at Stake

  1. As far as I’m concerned, your focus on the dangers of the great sexual “proof text wars” is deeply accurate. It’s been a real sticking point in our spiritual journey together as Methodists for along time.

    Another such mired discussion point with no movement is the role of family and personal need of intimacy in our society. A bigger and more critical forest has been lost because of an obsession on a few trees.

    The growing isolation of individuals and the dysfunction of the family has been well documented. What has been over looked is how sexual activity has been offered as a solution for this great isolation.
    Our sexualized society has defined love as physical pleasure seeking. And so our debate has mirrorAs far as I’m concerned, your focus on the dangers of the great sexual “proof text wars” is deeply accurate. It’s been a real sticking point in our spiritual journey for along time.

    Another such mired discussion point with no movement is the role of family and personal need of intimacy in our society. A bigger and more critical forrest has been lost because of an obsession on a few trees.

    The growing isolation of individuals and the dysfunction of the family has been well documented. What has not been looked at is how sexual activity has been offered as a solution.
    Or sexualized society defines love as physical pleasure seeking. And so our debate has mirrored that confusion about just what love means without any real way to define love more deeply than basic Eros (Physical love)

    When we begin to talk about Storge (family), Phileao (deep friendship), and Agapé (Godly – unconditional), we can enter into a new level if discussion beyond physical expressions. That is what “love” has become. It’s an understanding without any effort to define love more deeply than basic Eros (Physical love). In other words the society equates sexual activity as love with little beyond that. (And so it’s “all about me”, but that’s another whole discussion)

    When we begin to talk about biblical definitions of love and how the Christian tradition applied a more nuanced understanding: Storge (family), Phileao (deep friendship), and Agapé (Godly – unconditional); we can enter into a new level if discussion beyond physical expressions.

    The church has recognized same sex families for centuries. We’ve called them convents and monasteries. These families were faithfully focussed on agapé love with clear boundaries on the Eros acts of love.

    Perhaps the recognition that the real social and spiritual problem of our day is the increasing isolation and loneliness that’s devastating our families, and that sexual passion is not the answer. God’s unconditional love, lived in the kin-dom of Christ’s body, the church, is.

  2. But…supposing I can’t buy into the Reformatory good cop/bad cop reading of law and gospel in Paul, and have doubts about you’re-off-the-hook-and-that’s-that mentality that results from what seems to me a narrowly juridical notion of the operation of grace…can I still be a good Methodist?

  3. Cameron English August 3, 2018 at 3:08 PM

    I have not read many of your posts on this topic, but those that I have read always leave me feeling the same way. It seems that in an effort to emphasize that many are turning the Gospel into the “glawspel,” you are pulling punches elsewhere.

    The use of the word “traditional” when talking of marriage and sexuality seems convenient. While it is traditional, I believe it is because of a clear truth. It seems we agree that access to the Gospel/Christ is not denied based on lifestyle choices, but I am unclear of your position within the church. It seems that you always speak ambiguously on this point.

    Forgive me for I haven’t looked for any posts that would clarify this before writing this post. I would appreciate someone directing me to it.

    Do you believe that within the Church access to marriage and leadership roles should be denied based on the lifestyle choices that someone maintains? More specifically, how can any denomination allow participants in the homosexual lifestyle to marry and become ordained ministers? (I am assuming that it is ubiquitous that heterosexuality is God’s best way to be human)

    I hope my words are taken in a respectful manner. I don’t usually post on blogs because of how easy it is to misconstrue how something is being said.

    It is because I value your opinion that I ask the question. Thanks.

  4. Hi Cameron,

    Thanks for the kind and thoughtful questions. If you follow the tag ‘A Better Conversation’ you’ll find other posts I’ve written that are perhaps more clear. On the blog I’ve tried to model how I think this conversation should happen in the Church rather than advocate my own personal beliefs. Unfortunately the effect of my approach perhaps is that I sound like I’m pulling punches. I’ve written about Karl Barth, Infant Baptism, and the question of ministry and homosexuality. I think ministers are to be heralds- as soon as we insist that clergy be holy I think we’re fracking up the message.

    I’ve also written about my teacher’s work, Eugene Robinson, on marriage as a means of grace and how the denial of marriage to gay Christians may be denying them grace, at our peril.

  5. I care about them (them being all who are not in Christ) “knowing” about Christ’s Grace also, that said, the gospel doesn’t ask of them to simply know about the gospel. The gospel demands being born again of God. The gospel love message demands being “in Christ” not simply knowing of him. Being in Christ is an imperative. It’s imperative that you are not just knowing but being known. Jesus himself will look upon many who call his name and state to them that he did not know them.

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