The Mutual Burdens of Discernment

I'm currently reading Eugene Rogers's book Sexuality and the Christian Body. In reading I came across this quote from NT scholar Luke Timothy Johnson regarding the burdens facing liberals and conservatives in thinking about same-sex marriages, particularly as they relate to the church:

The harder question, of course, is whether the church can recognize the possibility of homosexual committed and covenantal love, in the way that it recognizes such sexual/personal love in the sacrament of marriage. This is a harder question because it pertains not simply to moral attitudes or pastoral care, but to the social symbolization of the community. The issue here is analogous to the one facing earliest Christianity after Gentiles started being converted...

Such witness is what the church now needs from homosexual Christians. Are homosexuality and holiness of life compatible? Is homosexual covenantal love according to "the mind of Christ," an authentic realization of that Christian identity authored by the Holy Spirit, and therefore "authored" as well by the Scripture despite the "authorities" speaking against it? The church can discern this only on the basis of faithful witness. The burden of proof required to overturn scriptural precedents is heavy, but it is a burden that has been borne before. The church cannot, should not, define itself in response to political pressure or popularity polls. But it is called to discern the work of God in human lives and adapt its self-understanding in response to the work of God. Inclusivity must follow from evidence of holiness...
To me, this assessment seems to find a good balance, placing burdens of discernment upon both the Christian gay community and upon Christian conservatives. But I'm wondering what you think about it. Specifically, the burden upon the gay community is to demonstrate holiness in the form of committed covenantal love. The burden upon the conservative community is to make room, in peace and fellowship, as gay marriages attempt to become "grafted into," by the work of the Holy Spirit, the sacrament of marriage. How else are we to discern what God is up to in the world? Such a model of discernment seems to follow the thrust of Scripture, particularly the model of discernment found in Acts 15.

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31 thoughts on “The Mutual Burdens of Discernment”

  1. A lot of the big problems the early church had were solved by common sense one liners to the discerning. There was an assumption made by the speaker.

    'Don't you have homes to eat in'
    'Even pagans don't do that.'
    'You really want to crucify Christ all over again?'

    For every argument I've heard for approving of homosexual behavior there is a simple example direct from my distinctly heterosexual life that argues, not against the behavior, but that the behavior is not best for the everyone.

    Though I could probably spew verses as good as anyone, I don't see how that is helpful unless I'm fairly certain the discerning were discerning mostly like I was discerning.

  2. Would this parallel Gamaliel's argument in Acts 5 about letting things run their course with observation? He proposed that if the Christ movement were not of God that it would simply burn out and come to nothingness. As the battle lines have been drawn in both the gay community and in the Church, are we close enough to each other that we can discern? Are we close enough to share burdens? That, I propose, may be the greatest challenge to reconciling burdening differences.

  3. We cannot discern in the absence of some internally recognized standard. "What God is doing" is informed by what we perceive God's purposes to be; that is, he does not act in ways that contradict his purposes. To be on solid ground concerning divine initiatives, we need *evidence* that is generally available. On a variety of matters one might think fairly seminal, Peter received it, as did Paul, and that evidence (according to the NT record, anyway) was empirically verifiable to those present...the Gentiles spoke in tongues, the light flashed from heaven, etc.

    How would you propose that we distinguish between actual discernment and mere politically-correct/wishful thinking?

    qb

  4. I also had Gamaliel in mind when I read Johnson's quote. But your question about how practical this all is is well taken.

  5. Nigel, I would disagree with the parallel to Gamaliel. First, he was not speaking from a Christian point of view. I do not think non-Christians should drive our thoughts and reasoning.

    Second, America is moving away from God in large part because Christians let things run their course. Allowing evil to continue with out speaking against it will only result in more evil. I am not making a statement about homosexuality here. I am just commenting on the idea of letting it run its course. The Bereans did not 'let it run its course', rather they 'examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.' Acts 17:11 Discernment is not standing by while 'it runs its course.'

  6. I think that's a fair concern. As I've been thinking about this the things I'd like to see from such a "discernment experiment" are more behavioral than moral. That is, if you bracket holiness, which you have to do as that is the issue to be discerned, then we can ask a couple of different questions that both liberals and conservative would be interested in knowing about: 1) Do gay marriages (of both kinds) display the same levels of fidelity, love, and longevity as traditional marriages? How do the children raised in or around gay marriages fare? And does living alongside gay marriages in the faith community affect or harm the traditional marriages?

    Morality aside, these seem to be empirical questions worth asking. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is known by its fruits. That was the issue in Acts 15. Could Gentiles, separate from Torah observance, really be holy? Shouldn't they have to submit to Torah to be holy? Or could they be holy as they were? These seem to be the same discernment issues in this case.

  7. I think Johnson has it right. I would also argue that the gay community has been witnessing in just this way for some time now, and that many have refused to listen.

  8. That's a fair point. I guess what I'm thinking of looks more like a local partnership, where one church lives alongside another local church. This way discernment is a lived experience within the local church, amongst flesh and blood people and friends, rather than us trying to discern an abstraction from "the gay community."

    So I'd guess I'd say in all this: Think local.

  9. A good response - Gamaliel was not a disciple of Jesus and it is likely that the Church has let too many things run their own course.

    To counter however, our western worldview is greatly influenced by greek philosophers (among others) and drives much of our thought and rational. Much thought that is 'non-christian' is actually very good thought- proclaiming Kingdom truths though it has no claim to the Kingdom of God.
    I would also propose that, rather than letting things run course with observation, we've developed an issue of turning our heads entirely. Turned heads result in terrible conversation...

  10. At the risk of sounding like the token fundamentalist...

    I don't think the burden on either side of the issue is to prove or accept "the possibility of homosexual committed and covenantal love." Proving that homosexuals can remain in a committed, loving relationship does not necessarily lend evidence to answering the moral question of homosexuality. It may be an example of genuine love and commitment, but that does not answer the question of its moral merits.

    Again, I don't want to sound like the token fundy...
    But a comparable parallel situation might be that of adultery. If a husband enters a committed, loving relationship with a woman not his wife his love and commitment is not evidence of the morality of the relationship in general.

    All that being said, though...
    When the church actively opposes gay marriage we (inadvertently, for the most part) communicate that we find the commitment and love immoral rather than saying what we really should be saying: that while commitment and love are commendable, we believe homosexuality is not.

  11. David, I'm curious that your argument against the Christian community "approving of homosexual behavior " is "that the behavior is not best for the everyone". I can think of dozens of examples of behaviors that may not be "best for the everyone", but can be reconciled with a Christian morality. To choose a prominent example having to do with sexual ethics: celibacy.

    In any case, whether or not same-sex intimacy is "best" for everyone, it remains a fact that everyone will not be participating in it (just like celibacy). As a straight man, whether or not the Church ever comes to acceptance of same-sex covenantal relationships will not ever directly affect me.

  12. "Proving that homosexuals can remain in a committed, loving relationship does not necessarily lend evidence to answering the moral question of homosexuality."

    - Well said.

  13. I agree that these are worthwhile questions Richard. Some people have already asked and there are studies available such as this one on children raised by homosexual parents. There are problems though with the credibility of such studies which are rarely long term since public acceptance of homosexual relationships is still a work in progress. As such there can't be any truly fair comparison of homosexual relationships to heterosexual ones. I receive ample support in my marriage from parents, grandparents, friends and relatives. I am reminded constantly in the movies and on TV and in every store I go into about the norms that shape my relationship. No homosexual relationship is shaped in a comparable environment.

    Furthermore, we can't base our moral judgment solely on broad trends. 50% of first marriages end in divorce. 25% of marriages admit to infidelity (who knows how many keep it a secret). 1 in 4 women experiences domestic violence overwhelmingly at the hands of her husband/boyfriend. Statistics can't tell us if a relationship is good or bad. What we are after is not determining if homosexual relationships as a whole across society are solid, but whether it is possible for individual homosexual relationships to evidence holiness. It is abundantly clear that the latter is true to me. I personally know homosexual couples with marriages at least as stable and loving as my own.

  14. Adultery is not at all analogous to homosexuality.

    Love is not a sentiment it is a pattern of behavior. A homosexual relationship may be observed to be loving not because of how the individuals feel about each other, but because of how they behave toward each other. Whereas an adulterous relationship unavoidably involves the breaking of a promise and lying, a homosexual relationship does not necessitate any of those things. An adulterous relationship cannot in fact be said to be "committed" or "loving" because it inherently breaks a previous commitment and betrays a prior love.

  15. I believe he was referring to "everyone" in relation to how it affects the community as a whole, not that everyone should participate in the activity. While the choices of an individual are different for everyone they must be made considering the good of the body as well.

  16. I agree that these are worthwhile questions Richard. Some people have already asked and there are studies available such as this one on children raised by homosexual parents. There are problems though with the credibility of such studies which are rarely long term since public acceptance of homosexual relationships is still a work in progress. As such there can't be any truly fair comparison of homosexual relationships to heterosexual ones. I receive ample support in my marriage from parents, grandparents, friends and relatives. I am reminded constantly in the movies and on TV and in every store I go into about the norms that shape my relationship. No homosexual relationship is shaped in a comparable environment.

    Furthermore, we can't base our moral judgment solely on broad trends. 50% of first marriages end in divorce. 25% of marriages admit to infidelity (who knows how many keep it a secret). 1 in 4 women experiences domestic violence overwhelmingly at the hands of her husband/boyfriend. Statistics can't tell us if a relationship is good or bad. What we are after is not determining if homosexual relationships as a whole across society are solid, but whether it is possible for individual homosexual relationships to evidence holiness. It is abundantly clear that the latter is true to me. I personally know homosexual couples with marriages at least as stable and loving as my own.

  17. Another curiosity coming to my mind include concerns over who/what becomes the moral/ethical/theological (etc.) standard, as well as who/what establishes said standard. I'm sure worldview plays a role as well, especially when considering whether how different perspectives each focus on the individual or community.

    ESH

  18. > Love is not a sentiment it is a pattern of behavior.

    Although I think it's unrealistic to entirely exclude "sentiment" from your definition of love ... because when people say "love", sentiment is part of what they mean ... this is an excellent, excellent point. Like like like.

  19. Richard,

    When I was a kid, the word "gay" was adjectival and meant happy, celebratory, joyous. It has been appropriated--some would say highjacked--by a largely socio-political movement originating in the fragmentation of the 1960s North America. The movement aimed at organizing and recognizing a socially underground and marginalized population, and developing an ideology of victimization--"consciousness raising" was the buzz word then. Fifty years later, words like "queer," "fag," "pansy" are underground. The largely male movement has mutated, affected by feminism and transgender issues. The tables are turning. Social accommodation, at least professed grudgingly, is a now a reality. If the Republican Party can partially accommodate, can conservative churches be far behind?

    What have been hinted at but explicitly left out of this discussion, it seems to me, are questions of purity, the central role of the erotic component as expression of intimacy and morality, and the "sacremental" view of marriage. The issues are complex. With some considerable friction, an accommodative trajectory--a contemporary buzzword--is likely. Hang on for the ride. It will continue to be bumpy.

    Keep up the stimulating posts, Richard.

    Blessings!

  20. "The Pharisees were absolutely correct scripturally when they said that circumcision was required of the Gentiles"

    I can't imagine what Scriptures might lead you to make this statement. Can you tell me where you get this idea?

  21. The silence about the procreative dimension of sexuality here is deafening. Why? Do we think it's not relevant to the question of "what God is up to in the world" (as in "subduing and caring for the earth" by "be[ing] fruitful")? Has the statute of limitations on that divine purpose expired so that the biological question need not be raised despite its seemingly unassailable relevance and the close relationship between design and purpose?

    genuinely curious qb

  22. The issue in Acts 15 involved the covenant with Abraham sealed with circumscision. And, as it says in Genesis 17, "My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant."

    In short, the covenant of circumcision, granting access to the promises of God through Abraham, was to be "an everlasting covenant." So, it seemed clear to many in the Jerusalem church that the Gentiles had to be circumcised. If they wanted access (to become "grafted in") to the promises God made to Abraham they had to get circumcised. An eternal covenant is, after all, an eternal covenant. Scripture is clear on that point.

    But in Acts 15 there were all these Gentiles wanting access to the People of God without the mark of circumcision. Tim's point above is that, in this debate, the bible was on the side of those demanding circumcision: All they had to do was point to was the phrase "eternal covenant." But, interestingly, the church overrode the literal reading of Genesis 17 in favor of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Gentile converts.

  23. Do people have to be procreative to be pleasing to God? What about married couples who find themselves unable to procreate? Should good celibate Christian couples have themselves examined before marriage to make sure they will be physically capable of fulfilling "God's purpose"?

    And beyond physical capability, what of those who choose not to procreate? What about those who follow Jesus' (Matthew 19) and Paul's (1 Cor. 7) advice to not marry, if they can help it? Just some curiosities of my own, but it seems to me a problematic position to take that God's plan for all is biological parenthood.

  24. I think the primary function of marriage in Western cultures has, over the last few hundred years, gradually but very clearly shifted from procreation to romantic love. Now, whether this is a good thing is certainly up for debate, but it is our current reality.

  25. One does not have to impose parenthood on everyone to admit that there is clearly a procreative dimension to sexuality and to give proponents of that set of arguments a place at the table. But until qb brought it up, we seemed to be ignoring it despite the tremendous prominence of procreation in the Genesis account of God's "purposes" in setting Adam and Eve over his creation. So please don't understand qb to be casting aspersions on those who do not, or cannot, procreate. The question Dr. Beck raised pertained to God's universal purposes, not God's micromanagement of individual cases. Does that make sense, roarshack11? castlerook?

    Whatever may be marriage's "function in Western cultures" has little to say about God's purposes, especially the ones revealed with relative clarity in our faith's seminal Genesis account.

    qb

  26. "One does not have to impose parenthood on everyone to admit that there is clearly a procreative dimension to sexuality and to give proponents of that set of arguments a place at the table."

    Agreed. It's not yet clear to me what you think logically follows from the procreative dimension to sexuality, and I don't want to put words in your mouth. So make the argument and we can discuss!

    "Whatever may be marriage's "function in Western cultures" has little to say about God's purposes, especially the ones revealed with relative clarity in our faith's seminal Genesis account."

    I do think the current cultural function of marriage is quite relevant for the discernment of God's purposes in the here and now.

  27. I’m sure that we can agree that the words, eternal covenant, taken out of context can be interpreted in many ways. Some of these ways, as in Acts 15, were simply wrong. The apostles interpretation, which didn’t override any Scripture, was of course correct. Salvation in no way required circumcision. It is by faith alone, no?

    The eternal covenant with Abraham had as its sign circumcision for certain of the physical descendants of Abraham. God reaffirmed this covenant with Isaac and Jacob; but, not by the way, with Esau. The sign of the covenant was not for all Gentiles. Those who took on this sign, Jew or Gentile, became members of Abraham’s physical household, primarily Israelites, who were to be the recipients of physical blessings. Salvation was not one of these blessings.

  28. I'd be very surprised if you had enough information to make such a guess. But, before jumping to Romans to figure out circumcision ('literal' in Genesis and 'figurative' in Romans) shouldn't we reach agreement on the original point regarding the meaning of circumcision as part of the Abrahamic Covenant?

  29. Aric,
    I know, I know....comparing adultery to homosexuality has its short-comings. But your response is exactly my point.

    You said: "An adulterous relationship cannot in fact be said to be "committed" or "loving" because it inherently breaks a previous commitment and betrays a prior love."

    I disagree with the exact words here, but I agree with what you are trying to say. You say that adultery is not a good example of a committed, loving relationship because it is the violation of a previous commitment. What you are saying is that it is intrinsically immoral (because it violates a prior commitment/love).

    I agree completely that "love is not a sentiment it is a pattern of behavior." But, I would argue that a man could be just as lovingly committed (as evidenced by a pattern of behavior) to an adulterous relationship as he is to his marriage. That, of course, doesn't make it right...but that's my point.

    And, all the time people are justifying adultery with words like "I really love him." Adulterous relationships are justified (attempted justification) by the commitment and "love" in the relationship, even by a "pattern of behavior" toward a partner in adultery ("I have known him such and such number of years;" "We were together in high school;" "I would do anything for her," etc.). But my point is exactly your point: that such relationships are not, therefore, moral. The commitment in the relationship lends no weight to the moral question.

    That is simply my point regarding homosexuality, as well. The commitment and love of one male toward another does not provide evidence of that relationship's morality. It may be true, sincere love and commitment, but that doesn't mean it is therefore moral...just like true, sincere commitment in an adulterous relationship doesn't make the relationship moral.

    So they are analogous in this sense: that some of us view homosexuality as intrinsically immoral just as we view adultery as intrinsically immoral. And also in this sense: that the love and commitment of the relationship provides no evidence for the intrinsic morality of the relationship. Their respective morality says nothing of the commitment or love in the relationships, nor does the commitment or love say anything of their morality. Morality must be measured by a different scale.

  30. Perhaps a better parallel would be polygamy or child brides instead of adultery in your point above, Clint. Certainly there are cults who claim those "marriages" to be "biblical" in foundation, as well as "committed" and "loving." And there are centuries and an array across the cultures of the world and history as examples of it being lived out. But the Church at large buying into and endorsing that would not make it a good thing.

    That, of course, doesn't give Christians excuse to treat homosexuals hurtfully, which I think is really at issue. But not agreeing with someone doesn't mean you must be malicious or unfriendly or toward them.

    I don't think there will anymore be a discerned Christian concensus on this issue than on a host of others that divide Christian peoples. Can people love those who don't agree with them? I think that's the real challenge, not "can we all find a way to agree."

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