Friday 18 July 2008

Homosexuality and the church: a meditation on the tragic (Part Three)

A guest-series by Ray S. Anderson

A Pastor and a Homosexual Christian: A Dialogue

“You spoke earlier of two gay men who acknowledged that same-sex relations were part of the tragic aspect of human sexuality and not what God intended. They accepted the biblical teaching on this point but nonetheless desired fellowship as Christians with other Christians. On this basis they were accepted into the church. But I do not feel that a same-sex relation such as I experience with my partner is contrary to biblical teaching. Our relationship is not promiscuous and we are as faithful and fully committed to each other as any heterosexual married couple. I do not see our situation as tragic. Does this disqualify me from being a member of your church?”

“I understand. If I had only experienced my sexuality as oriented toward the same sex, and if I had felt the same rejection and even hostility directed toward you by society and even the church I would feel the same way. But the two men we are talking about were welcomed into the body of Christ not because their view of the teaching of Scripture conformed to ours, but simply as persons who confessed Christ as Lord and savior. The Kingdom of God places no conditions upon humans in the invitation to enter. Children enter the Kingdom without knowledge of the tragic according to Jesus (Matt 18:2-3). Let me turn your question around. It is not whether or not your sexual orientation and practice disqualifies you from belonging to the body of Christ – but are you willing to enter the Kingdom of God based solely upon the grace of Christ who has already reconciled you to God? (2 Cor 5:19).”

“Suppose I am willing, and become a member of your church on that basis. How do you think I will feel when I am confronted with the biblical teaching that my sexual partner and I are ‘living in sin,’ to go back to the quotation you used from the newspaper?”

“I understand that. Each one of us is confronted by the fact that when the Bible calls us to love our enemies, give to whomever asks of us, set aside filial responsibility for the sake of the Kingdom of God, take up our cross and follow Christ, we enter the realm of the tragic. The demands of the Kingdom of God are not hostile to our humanity, but call us to what it is to be truly human. We seek a truth beyond our own. We are searching for the teaching that calls us out of our sin and places our lives under the promise of redemption.”

“So then, you do say that homosexuality is a sin?”

“Each of us must discover for ourselves what it means to be a sinner. And we cannot discover that nor find redemption from sin apart from a relationship with God. That is the irony of the Kingdom of God. The same grace that welcomes us into the Kingdom, as though we were children, places us under the rule of grace, that is, it exposes what is lacking in our humanity and brings us more and more into conformity with the humanity of Christ. That is the ministry of the body of Christ to one another.”

“Will your church recognize and affirm my ministry to the body? Suppose that I feel a calling to be ordained to pastoral ministry. Will my sexual orientation and practice disqualify me?”

“It is not our responsibility to decide who receives the gift of ministry within the Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote that ‘a spiritual gift is given to each of us so that we can help each other.’ He then added, ‘It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have’ (1 Cor 12:7, 11). There is no one qualified by their own life to receive the gift of the Spirit for ministry, and there is no one disqualified.”

“But I asked about ordination. If that is true, does this mean that if I become a member of your church I could be a candidate for ordination?”

“Ordination, as we commonly speak of it today, was not known by the early Church, even though they later began to set apart Bishops and Elders for the sake of doctrinal continuity and pastoral oversight. Actually, each person baptized into Christ is baptized into his ministry and this can be understood as the basis for what we call ordination. We assume that those set apart by the church for full-time ministry through ordination have the gift of the Spirit. In one sense ordination can simply be understood as the way each church (denomination) sets apart some within the body of Christ, ordinarily a full-time vocation, to teach, lead and minister to the body in accordance with the authority of Scripture. While only members are qualified to be set apart through ordination, being a member does not in itself qualify one for this office. There are other requirements.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. If every member who is baptized into Christ is called into the ministry of Christ, and if every member has the gift of the Spirit for ministry, what are these other requirements?”

“It is kind of like the saying, ‘If it’s everyone’s responsibility to do the work, it often ends up with no one doing it.’ Because the church is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God through a human institution, it suffers from the limitations and weakness of all human organizations. The church in its teaching and ministry based on the authority of Scripture brings Kingdom truths to bear through an institution that is fallible, provisional and often failing to live by the very truths it proclaims. Thus the relation between the church and the Kingdom is also tragic. In recognition of this, the church established a polity and structure by which certain members could be set apart as those most responsible to hold the body of Christ accountable to the Kingdom truths as revealed in Scripture. Those who are ordained to this office are really servants of the Body of Christ, not superior to it.”

“You still have not told me what some of these ‘other requirements’ are.”

“Let me try. For example, because we hold that Scripture teaches that sexual cohabitation outside of marriage is not what God intended, a member of the body who is living with someone not their husband or wife would not be qualified to be ordained. In the same way, a member of the body who is known to be abusive to other family members, including children, would not be qualified. Those who are set apart for the office of teaching and leading others in the body are expected not only to uphold by conviction the truths of Scripture that are taught, but to demonstrate maturity and responsibility in their own lives and relationships with others. ‘They must be committed to the mystery of the faith now revealed and must live with a clear conscience,’ the Apostle Paul wrote (1 Tim 3:9). ‘Do not ordain anyone hastily,’ cautioned Paul (1 Tim 5:22). While the church must embrace the tragic in its ministry of the Kingdom of God, excluding no one who has experienced the grace of salvation in Christ, those set apart for ordination must be able, by knowledge and conviction, to uphold and teach Kingdom truth and to hold the body of Christ in conformity to it. Apart from commitment to celibacy, our church holds that a member of the body whose lifestyle is homosexual would not be qualified.”

“That is very interesting. In a recent newspaper article there was a report of the General Assembly of your denomination voting to remove the restriction upon the ordination of homosexuals. Do I assume that your church will follow this ruling?”

“Didn’t I say that the relation between the church and the Kingdom of God is tragic? Well, this may be one instance of that. We feel that our position regarding ordination is biblical and in accordance with Kingdom truth under biblical authority. The denomination cannot force us to change our belief and practice. At the same time, we bear the ‘name brand’ of the national church body, and will be in the awkward position of not being able to support a denominational policy while at the same time holding fast to our view of what the Bible teaches. While there are a variety of views regarding biblical authority and what the Bible teaches within the denomination regarding many issues relating to social, personal and sexual ethics, there is a steadfast commitment to the Apostolic faith as represented in the ancient Creeds. We hold denominational leaders accountable to the confession of faith rooted in these creeds. If they fail at this point, then it becomes a matter of Kingdom truth rather than merely unbiblical practice. Is this not part of our own Protestant tradition? The denomination is our spiritual home, it connects us to each other, though often with pain, and to those who went before us in the faith. It is our family, and to leave would make us orphans.”

“I didn’t realize that belonging to a church is so complicated! I am tempted to find one that conforms more to my own belief and lifestyle. But I have read enough of the Bible to know that Jesus was always on the side of Kingdom truth. That seemed to be what attracted people to him. And I must confess, I’m not sure I want a church that looks just like me. One more question, I have a friend who does belong to your denomination and is considering being ordained. She was quite dismayed at the recent ruling by the General Assembly as she feels that the ordination of homosexuals is not based on biblical truth and questions whether or not she should go ahead with ordination. What would you say to her?”

“Ordination is part of the church culture; it gives access to ministry that might not otherwise be possible. When Timothy, who had a Greek father but a Jewish mother, wanted to accompany Paul on his mission, ‘in deference to the Jews of the area, he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised before they left’ (Acts 16:3). Paul had earlier refused to circumcise Titus arguing that this would appear to make circumcision a requirement of the gospel. Ordination is something like that. In a sense, it is like an admission ticket to the institutional church’s culture of ministry. It is part of the tragic connection between the church and the Kingdom of God. Jesus embraces the tragic for the sake of bringing redemption and hope. If ordination enables you to follow Jesus, and if you understand the tragic, you can make this concession with clear conscience and a peaceful heart.”


Sam said...

Ray, how does the idea of Matthew 18:15-17 fit into your thinking?

Anonymous said...


Ray, "how does the idea of Matthew 18:15-17 fit into your thinking?"

In the dialogue I wrote: "The same grace that welcomes us into the Kingdom, as though we were children, places us under the rule of grace, that is, it exposes what is lacking in our humanity and brings us more and more into conformity with the humanity of Christ. That is the ministry of the body of Christ to one another.”

The Matthew 18:15-17 fits exactly into that statement. The Body of Christ both extends grace but also expects grace. The 'believer' who acts in a way that attacks the very grace by which he or she lives in fellowship with the Body is brought under discipline. If that results in expulsion from the community that is also the discipline of grace, as Paul himself warned in 1 Cor 5:1-5. Though here too, the discipline has in view redemption.

JKnott said...


I see in the above comment that, contrary to what seemed to be the case in your third post, you do not necessarily distinguish too sharply between ordination and membership with regard to discipline of the Church concerning behavior.

However, I wonder about your statement that "to leave would make us orphans." Does this mean that leaving any particular denomination is always a wrong choice? To focus a bit (perhaps too literally) on the metaphor, some orphans may be such because they foolishly leave good or at least adequate parents, of course. But it is also possible, and in reality often more the case, that orphans have been abandoned by their parents or driven away by abuse. In such a case, finding new parents is not a bad thing. So what if the church's leadership makes decisions that fundamentally undermine the Church's (and/or denomination's) witness? Of course there will be the further question of what constitutes such departures. But I'm just interested in determining the principle here. If members leave and "become orphans," is the responsibility always on them or can it also be attributed to the "parents?"

Anonymous said...


You ask, "If members leave and "become orphans," is the responsibility always on them or can it also be attributed to the "parents?"

My first response would be to come back to what I wrote: "We hold denominational leaders accountable to the confession of faith rooted in these creeds. If they fail at this point, then it becomes a matter of Kingdom truth rather than merely unbiblical practice." Thus the parent can indeed fail, and in abandoning the historic apostolic faith can also be charged with abandoning the children. I did not mean that in becoming orphans, one remains always in that condition. When Bonhoeffer left the German State Church because he felt that the church had abandoned the true gospel, he did not become an orphan, but along with Barth formed a new 'confessing' church. Perhaps I used the wrong word! I was only trying to say that leaving a denomination is to charge that it no longer is a faithful parent with regard to holding fast to the faith as confessed in the historical Creeds. I personally doubt that the issue of the ordination of homosexuals rises to that level.But rather could be seen as part of the tragic relation of a local congregation to its denominational leadership. Some may say that the issue of ordination is a "Kingdom truth" as I put it, and I respect that, even though I do not agree.

JKnott said...

Thanks for the clarification.

Anonymous said...

I greatly appreciate all of the comments made on the three parts of this series. I have learned much from all of you. One thing I learned is that I probably failed at the outset to make clear the basic theological and biblical assumptions on which this paper was based. The reader has a right (and responsibility) to determine what the underlying assumption of the author is. With regard to theological anthropology, I assume that in the Genesis account of creation, God intended that humans bear and reflect the image of God not only as persons, but as male and female, male or female. Karl Barth argued strongly in support of this exegetical reading of Gen 1:26-27. “Could anything be more obvious than to conclude from this clear indication that the image and likeness of the being created by God signifies existence in confrontation, i.e., in this confrontation, in the juxtaposition and conjunction of man and man which is that of male and female, and then go on to ask against this background in what the original and prototype of the divine existence of the Creator consists”? (Church Dogmatics. III/1. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958, 195). Human sexuality for Barth is ontologically grounded in human personhood as created in the image of God.

E. Brunner argued vigorously against Barth’s interpretation holding that male and female sexuality is not included ontologically in human personhood. For Brunner the erotic sexual impulse is an "unbridled biological instinct" which can only be consecrated through marriage, or the ethical demand of abstinence. (Love and Marriage. London: Collins. Fontana Books, 1970. 183, 195). One might surmise that for Brunner, if he were to comment on a contemporary issue, a same-sex relationship of cohabitation ought then be brought under the ethical mandate of marriage. Where as for Barth, that would represent concealment of the image and lead to confusion rather than consecration.

My basic assumption clearly follows that of Barth rather than Brunner, so that what follows with regard to human sexuality and homosexuality in particular, flows out of this assumption into a practical theology of pastoral care and practice. Sexual ethics is then fundamentally grounded in sexual ontology, that is, “We ought to live and act in conformity to who we are.” The fact that this is not always possible reveals the tragic structure of human kind. This is the thrust of my argument. I realize that others will hold a different set of assumptions and come to different conclusions. But we cannot understand each other until we discover the basic assumptions on which our theology of human sexuality rest.

I had hoped that someone would have written: “This is what Anderson means by the word ‘tragic.’ I understand what he means but do not agree with it for the following reasons.” I think that this would have avoided the speculation that by ‘tragic’ I meant a Greek or pagan sense of humanity caught in a fatalistic and deterministic existence without hope. In retrospect, I should have made this disclaimer at the outset! I guess that I thought that it was a matter of common knowledge that we exist in time and space with the self-awareness that in being in one place rather than another and having time to do one thing and not the other constitutes some level of loss. When this loss rises to the level of sorrow or pain or confusion, then we experience the tragic which has been there all the time.

Someone once said that there are no heterosexuals in heaven. If this be true, it ought to temper our discussion of human sexuality in the present and allow the church to carry out its ministry with hope and compassion.

Denise Hess said...

Thank you for this post.

I continue to be amazed at how many discussions about sexuality take place without (or with only cursory--see Kim F.'s 10 propositions) mention of Gen 1.26-27.

It seems that in the 50 years that have passed since the Barth-Brunner stand off over this (and other issues!) we are still wrestling with the exact same question--what does it mean to be an image-bearer?

In my opinion, Rom 1, et al, are interesting and key, but in the end, supplementary to Gen 1.

As a wise teacher once told me, "choose your rut carefully, because you'll be in it for a long time." In choosing Barth or Brunner we choose a rut that we must ride out to its logical conclusion.

As a woman, looking toward ordination, who bases male-female equality primarily on Gen 1 and not Gal 3.28, etc., I have chosen the Barth "rut".

There are consequences to removing male and female/male or female from the intrinsic nature of human personhood.

Ray, thank you for your unique, and all-too-rare, combination of intellectual rigor and pastoral sensitivity.

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