I believe that every decision a person makes is informed by one or more value commitments. If you dig beneath the surface of any decision, you will uncover underlying commitment to something judged to be “important.”
Therefore, as the third round of my nine-round electronic conversation on Human Sexuality draws to a close, the reader may find it helpful if I lay bare my value commitments that underlie this eCircle; the value commitments that constitute my most fundamental reasons for embarking on this challenging and controversial project.
The Christian values that informed my decision to undertake this project are Truth, love, and Christian unity, the bare contours of which I will now briefly outline.
As recorded in John 18:37, Jesus said “… for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to Timothy says: “God … desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2: 3-4).
Whatever the issue at hand, I have an unquenchable desire to get at the “truth of the matter,” which God fully knows (Truth with a capital T) and which may differ from my present understanding as a finite, fallible human being who “sees through a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Because my beliefs about a given issue may be wrong, it is important for me to listen to those who disagree with me; starting with an attempt to understand the reasons for our disagreement. As a Christian working out of a given Christian tradition and worshipping in a particular faith community, this means I must treat with utmost respect and seriousness the beliefs of those in my community and tradition, starting with what may be termed “traditional” beliefs that have stood the test of time for centuries. But there is significant empirical evidence that sometimes a given Christian community or tradition “gets things wrong,” because all human beings and the communities they form are fallible.
The views expressed above can be misinterpreted as my rejecting the “authority of the Church.” For example, a Christian in the Catholic tradition may wonder what authority, if any, I give to the pronouncements of the Catholic Magisterium. The same question can be asked of the pronouncements of the leaders of any Church denomination or tradition. As I have already suggested, such pronouncements must be treated with the utmost respect and seriousness. But, dare I say it: even the Pope or any other church leader(s) can be wrong. My ultimate authority is the “authority of Truth.” It is my commitment to the ultimate “authority of Truth” that prompts me to engage in “respectful conversation” with those whose understanding of the “Truth” differs from mine, with the hope and prayer that we may, together, gain a better approximation of that “Truth.”
I find no disagreement among Christians regarding the clear biblical teaching that if you aspire to be a follower of Jesus, you are called to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 31). But disagreements abound as to appropriate expressions of such love for neighbors. I am not competent to sort out all those disagreements. But I will point to what I believe are two central aspects of such love for others; at least the first of which is too often neglected by Christians.
First, I believe that it is a deep expression of love for another person who disagrees with you about any issue when you provide that person with a “welcoming space” to express their disagreements and you then engage that person in “respectful conversation” about your agreements and disagreements, seeking first to find “common ground” and then seeking to illuminate remaining disagreements in a manner that will be the basis for ongoing conversation. This firm belief has driven many of my activities over the course of my Christian pilgrimage.
The call for followers of Jesus to love others also points to what I believe is a universal human need; the need for covenant relationships with other persons. Without attempting to parse the differences between love and friendship, a common element is the need for connectedness with other persons characterized by a commitment to foster the well-being of the other and expressions, however varied, of affection and intimacy.
The overarching message of the Bible points to the importance of such covenant relationships. My own personal experience reinforces its importance. Whatever the issue at hand, the centrality of covenant relationships needs to be fostered.
Jesus once uttered a prayer that has yet to be answered.
I ask not only on behalf of these [the original disciples of Jesus], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17: 20-21, emphasis mine)
The disunity among those who profess to be followers of Jesus is and always has been a scandal. All too often, when we disagree, about issues great and small, we gravitate toward those who agree with us, excluding from our fellowship, or even calling into question the genuineness of the Christian commitment of those whose partial glimpse of the Truth differs from ours.
The unity for which Jesus prayed is not “uniformity” of belief or ecclesiastical practice. Rather it involves covenanting to “stick together” around a common commitment to being followers of Jesus in the midst of our disagreements regarding many issues.
The most meddlesome aspect of the prayer of Jesus quoted above is the suggestion that the ultimate apologetic for the credibility of the Christian faith is unity among Christians. When those who do not follow Jesus witness the disunity among Christians, it is no wonder that they find our attempts to witness incredible. I believe that the greatest “witness” that we can give to those who do not share our Christian faith is to demonstrate unyielding commitment to Truth, love and Christian unity.
I have received many expressions of appreciation for creating an electronic venue that enables Christians who have strong disagreements about LGBT issues to talk through their differences in a gracious and respectful manner.
But some other Christians, in good faith, have questioned the wisdom of having public conversations about LGBT issues that divide many Christian communities. One concern appears to be possible unintended consequences of baring our disagreements to the larger public. I understand that concern. But if we focus on “what others will think of us” if we dare to talk about these contentious issues, what is missing is consideration of the long-term gain of choosing to be faithful, come what may, to the foundational Christian values of Truth, love and Christian unity. As I have suggested, this compromises our “witness” to the larger public. I welcome hearing from those who lament our having these conversations as to the value commitments that underlie their lament. That could be the springboard for another important conversation at the foundational level of Christian value commitments.
To make this call for further conversation more concrete, I will report on one expression of a fundamental reason why these conversations should not take place that is indeed based on strong commitment to a Christian value. The president of a Christian college recently withdrew its membership from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) because two other CCCU members (Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University) had made policy changes that allow for the hiring of gay and lesbian faculty. This college president has been quoted as saying that in making these changes in hiring policy, Goshen and EMU have “abandoned fidelity to God’s Word.”
I certainly embrace “fidelity to God’s Word” as a fundamental Christian value. But an appeal to that value without further conversation begs the question as to how to proceed when biblical scholars who are equally committed to that value disagree about what the Bible teaches about LGBT issues. They should talk! And that is what Mark Strauss and Jim Brownson have done in such an admirable manner in our second conversation. I believe that it is an underlying commitment to the Christian value of “Truth” that should motivate all Christians to talk to each other about their differing interpretations of Biblical passages to which they wish to maintain fidelity. And such “talking” will also have the benefit of fostering the Christian values of love and Christian unity. I will welcome hearing from those who disagree with me about that.
Some Further Reflections on the Conversation to Date
I close with a few more bare-bones reflections on the three month-long conversations that are near completion.
Eve Tushnet & Justin Lee, Mark Strauss & Jim Brownson, and Chris Grace & Dave Myers far exceeded my expectations with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of their postings on our first three sub-topics. Working through the rich details of their postings is not for the faint of heart. Readers looking for 30 second sound bytes will be disappointed. I am encouraged that each pair of “conversation partners” was able to identify areas of agreement (common ground) and identify areas on disagreement in a careful manner that will be a good springboard for ongoing conversations.
But what pleases me most is the superb manner in which each set of conversation partners presented their positions in a gracious and kind manner that demonstrated great respect for the other even in the midst of some strong disagreements. I only have space here to quote one example, the concluding words of Justin Lee regarding his exchanges with Eve Tushnet in the first conversation (Voices from the Gay Community).
So as I wrap up my part in this conversation, I find myself deeply moved. I am moved by Eve’s grace in disagreement and her friendship to me as we challenge one another. I am encouraged, too, by the depth of conversation we’ve been able to have in six simple articles. But I’m also reminded why these conversations are so important in the first place. Many hurting, lonely people’s lives hang in the balance.
My own position on this topic hasn’t changed, but my appreciation for Eve and understanding of her view has certainly increased, and I’d say that’s worth it. Respectful conversation of this sort is hugely undervalued in the church. It may not always change minds, but it is powerful and effective. Given the importance of this topic, we can’t afford not to listen to each other.
We are, after all, supposed to be known by our love.