This essay is a personal reflection on the decision made by the Vision Board on May 13 to permit same-sex marriages to be held at Grace and the new reality that we live in as a congregation in the wake of that decision. I must confess, up front, that I am still in process, and will continue to be for a long time. I must also confess that the tension of this decision places me at the vortex of very powerful opposing viewpoints and emotional responses that can, at times, feel crushing to my spirit.

The question hovering on the edge of our collective consciousness over the past nine months has been, “should we perform same-sex marriages,” knowing that the congregation disagrees on the topic. The Vision Board has sought to listen to the congregation, consult scripture, and listen to the Holy Spirit. They prayerfully considered all the options and made a decision. Now, our new question is, “How do we live together when we disagree over the decision?”

Now that there is a decision, there will be a tendency for some people to feel like victors, while others feel defeated. I write these words as a pastor and a theologian who has a deep love for God’s people at Grace, on all sides of the conversation and the decision. I am not taking sides, nor am I seeking to vindicate or validate either side. I am simply seeking a deeper understanding of the current situation.

The victors will, undoubtedly, look at the defeated and wonder, “What’s the problem? Why can’t we just be centered on Jesus and get on with being the church?”

The purpose of this essay is to, perhaps, help the victors understand more deeply why the defeated have such deep feelings. Part of my job, as a teacher of the church, is to help people continually ask questions, dig deeper, and truly understand what they are saying, believing, and doing.

The language of “Centered-Set” has become a core concept in the Holy Conversations.1 The idea behind the centered-set is that a group can agree on the thing that is core to their identity—in our case this is Jesus—while disagreeing on peripheral things like sexual orientation and same-sex marriage. I whole-heartedly agree that we should be a centered-set community, and that we should be centered on Jesus. However, I think we need to drill down a little further and look at the idea of “the center” more closely.

What does it actually mean to be centered on Jesus? Think about this next question very carefully. How do we know Jesus?

The only way that we know Jesus is through scripture. It is possible to have ideas about God apart from scripture, of course. Every culture has god-ideas. We can also have direct contact with the Holy Spirit right now, in our daily lives, apart from scripture.2 However, without the scripture we would not know Jesus.

This is true because Jesus was a human being who lived within the limits of space, time, and culture.3 The written records—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are the only access we have to the human being named Jesus. Everything we know about what Jesus said and what he did we know through these texts.4

I want to make a simple point. How we view scripture has everything to do with how we view Jesus, and ultimately what Jesus meant when he instructed his disciples to love God and love your neighbor.

The problem is that not every Christian shares the same view of scripture. In order to understand the difficulties in our current situation, it may be helpful to quickly discuss the history of how Christians have developed different understandings of scripture and how to view it.

Western Christianity has been divided over the topic of how to interpret scripture for at least two hundred years.5 The division is a product of the Modern World6 and the church’s response to it. The public realm of politics and the academy have categorically rejected the scripture and Christianity as a carry-over from a Dark Age of superstition.7 The modern church has been faced with the task of responding to this cultural shift. One stream of Christianity has been prone to adapt to and adopt the modern mode of thinking. This stream is prone to devalue—and sometimes completely deconstruct—the authoritative voice of scripture in favor of human reason and contemporary culture as the primary, authoritative voice of God. Another stream of Christianity has been prone to elevate the scripture and/or church tradition above human reason and in stark contrast to contemporary culture.8 These camps are typically labeled Liberal for the former and Conservative for the latter.9

Christians who have been raised within the Liberal tradition are more prone to see no problem with same-sex marriage. They have been raised to believe that Jesus=Love. The scripture itself, to the Liberal, is not the authoritative voice of God because it was written in a different time, in a different culture, and does not speak to us today. When they look at Conservatives who claim that the scripture speaks against homosexuality (or any other social issue), they see narrow-minded, fear-based, legalists, who pick and choose the parts of scripture they want to follow in order to protect their own power and prejudices. This distortion of scripture, the Liberal would say, is the opposite message of the Gospel.

When the Liberal says, “Let’s be centered on Jesus,” they mean, “let’s be centered on love.”

Christians who have been raised within the Conservative tradition believe that God has revealed himself through scripture,10 and that without scripture we have no basis of knowing who God is or what God’s will is for the world. Human reason, they would argue, is corrupted by sinfulness and will always choose selfishness and destructive ways over God’s ways. The only way to protect humanity is to know God through the scripture. When Conservative Christians look at Liberals who discredit the authority of scripture, and deconstruct scripture, they believe that, by pushing scripture to the side, we will lose Jesus, too. If you don’t trust scripture, they would argue, then how can you even know who Jesus is—and thus, what love actually means—in order to put him (or love) at the center? The love that the Liberals propose to place at the center might not actually be the love of God, in the end.

When the Conservative says, “Let’s be centered on Jesus,” they mean, “let’s be centered on how we interpret the scripture and how Jesus is revealed in the scripture.” And, they would add, “let’s submit to the authority of scripture, even if we don’t like it, because God knows best.” It is important to understand that Jesus and scripture are interwoven for the Conservative and cannot be separated.

These are two different ideas of the “centered-set.”

I gave a message a few weeks ago where I talked about being caught between a rock and a hard place. I claimed that there is a third way, and that way is the way of love. You can imagine, based upon the description above, that my words were heard very differently by people on each side of this conversation. The next week I clarified what I mean by love. The love of God, as demonstrated by Jesus, is a very different love than the love of popular culture. God’s love is a self-sacrificing love. It is the love that is willing to lay down ones’ life for another.

We wouldn’t know what that love is if we didn’t know the story of Jesus. We wouldn’t know the story of Jesus if we didn’t have the Bible. We wouldn’t trust the Bible if we didn’t believe that, in some way, the Bible is God’s Word, breathed through the Holy Spirit.

The sticking point for those who feel defeated in the decision comes down to one single question: Does the Bible teach that homosexuality is a sin? The people who believe that homosexuality is a sin are not haters, at least not the ones that I know at Grace. They simply have a Conservative view of scripture. Everyone agrees that we should show the love of God to all people, because that is what the Bible teaches. Scripture also seems very clear in regard to sexual immorality, which seems to include homosexual behavior. The Conservative believes that homosexuality is a sin, just like greed, envy, gluttony, lust, etc. We are all sinners in need of a savior. We are all welcome in the church. We are all sinners and saints. But, the goal of the church is transformation in each of our lives. We are set free from the bondage of sin and death to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ. The classic Conservative motto is, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

The homosexual Christian hears these words and is pierced to the heart. They feel condemned and judged, and anything but loved and accepted. Why? Because they believe, in their heart, that they are not choosing to be homosexual, but have been created by God in this way. They would answer the Conservative by saying, “I agree that we are to be saved from sin and transformed, but there is no sin in my same-sex orientation, from which to be saved. God made me this way, and God loves me, and wants me to live a full, healthy life in community, just like you.”

The real disagreement here is whether there is a line of sin that has been crossed in the decision to grant same-sex marriage. The only source of authority on this question, for the Christian, is scripture.

We, Pastor Mark and I, presented an alternative way to interpret scripture during the second round of Holy Conversations that might allow room for an alternate reading—a third way—of the selected texts that name homosexuality. This alternate interpretation might, possibly, allow us to acknowledge that same-sex orientation, as our culture defines it, is a different category than what the Apostle Paul was discussing in his letters. Thus, the people that our culture defines as homosexual might not be in sin. This third way of interpreting scripture maintains the authoritative voice of scripture, but gives us tools to read scripture and our own circumstances through the lens of cultural bias and the contemporary movement of the Holy Spirit.

Whenever a teacher talks like this, and “messes” with the scripture, the alarm bells go off in the conservative mind. When you seem to dismantle the scripture, and appear to deconstruct and reconstruct scripture to accommodate to contemporary culture, it smells like the age-old liberal/conservative debate and becomes a “slippery slope” toward losing Jesus. Remember, if you lose scripture as a source of authoritative truth, then you ultimately lose Jesus, and if you lose Jesus, then you lose love.

This is a complicated situation. Let’s be honest.

We all want to be a centered-set that is centered on the love of Jesus. Let us, now in our new reality of the post-decision Grace, move forward with that love and realize that the decision to love the other is not as easy as some may think. Bullying, labeling, and hating is a two-way street. Let us not draw new lines between the victors and the defeated.11

The task before us is to figure out how people who truly believe that Grace has committed a sin can continue to fellowship and worship here in whole-hearted passion. Everyone knows that everyone who comes to worship at Grace is bringing sin into that place. That is why we come. We want to be cleansed. We all know that, apart from God’s grace, we would be dust. However, we also seek to repent and be cleansed from the sin, and seek to have our hidden sins exposed, so that we might know deeper cleansing and freedom. Those who believe that Grace’s decision to grant same-sex marriage is a sin see it as unrepentant sin that needs to be dealt with, not embraced. Those who don’t believe this is a sin have no problem and cannot understand the dilemma.

This is our present reality, and it will take time to sort it out. Again, all I have intended to do with this essay is to help both the victors and the defeated have a deeper understanding of the disagreement, so that we can be gracious in our next phase of holy conversations.

Perhaps a next step in our journey together is to take time to look at how to interpret scripture. It may be helpful to hold a class at Sunday Evenings @ Grace to equip people with Bible interpretation skills. We might call it “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth,” or something along those lines. These are important questions with which we are wrestling. The wrestling will only make us stronger, and hopefully, wiser.

  1. I like that language, because I am the one who introduced the concept to Grace. []
  2. We might not name it as the “Holy Spirit,” since that term comes from scripture, but a connection with God is possible, nonetheless. []
  3. Scripture teaches us that Jesus was also the Son of God, and the church has debated over the centuries as to how the divine and human natures combined within the historical Jesus, but that is a different conversation. My point here is that Jesus of Nazareth was fixed in a particular part of world history. []
  4. There were many other Gospels written during the first three hundred years of church history. They were not included in the canon of the New Testament that was determined at the Council of Nicea in 325. This brings up another huge topic of how we view scripture, but that is, again, a topic for another discussion. []
  5. There were many other Gospels written during the first three hundred years of church history. They were not included in the canon of the New Testament that was determined at the Council of Nicea in 325. This brings up another huge topic of how we view scripture, but that is, again, a topic for another discussion. []
  6. Here I define Modern World as the development of the Enlightenment in Europe since the 16th century. This is also known as the Age of Reason. It is dominated by the idea that the use of math, science, and empirical observation is the only source of truth. All religious language, according to Modern dogma, is superstition. Faith, subsequently, is not helpful in the public discourse of real life. []
  7. This is, of course, a gross generalization and a caricature of the modern world, but is generally true. []
  8. Ironically, this stream has used modern reason and scientific method as the means to defend the authority of scripture. []
  9. I do not think these labels are helpful for envisioning the future of the church, because they are products of Western Modernity, but they are helpful labels that most people are familiar with in the context of this discussion. I am using these terms strictly within the context of how one views scripture. []
  10. I am intentionally using the masculine reference to God since most conservatives also hold a certain level of resistance to altering the gender language of scripture. []
  11. Even though I already created that line in order to build this argument. Labels and lines are necessary for communicating ideas. They are also damaging when trying to create safe spaces for community to emerge. It’s messy, remember? []
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