January 22, 2016

Sex, Marriage and Following Jesus (Together)

Last week, the Anglican Communion found its way into the news. The top leadership of the various branches across the globe met and some of those leaders called for limitations on the influence and voice of the Episcopal Church–a branch of the Anglican Communion. This call was made because the Episcopal Church has affirmed same-sex marriages as equal with couples of opposite gender. A majority of the Anglican Communion does not agree with the Episcopal Church on this subject. To understand the mechanics of this meeting and what these decisions mean for the Episcopal Church and its participation in the Anglican Communion, I encourage you to read my friend Mike Angell's post on the subject. Better than anything else I've read, Mike unpacks this situation in plain English. Polity aside, there's this issue of same-sex marriage and the Church that I'm compelled to talk about.

When I moved to DC the debate over marriage equality seemed over in this context. DC has a large gay community. The city has recognized same-sex marriages for years and the Episcopal Church, for whom I work, elected its first openly gay and partnered bishop years ago as well. Here, the debate appeared over. Last week made clear that the discussion of this issue is not over. No matter how much a given community may seem to agree with your position on this–whether that be to affirm or not–the church here in North America–to say nothing of the global church, is still wrestling with this.

Here's the thing: I'm not looking for a fight. I have friends that deeply disagree with me on this. On the other hand, I have friends for whom this is not an issue. It's them. Because of that I wade into this well aware of what this stirs up for people, both deeply held convictions and basic human dignity and worth. Both of these I am convinced must be respected and held tenderly, humanely–given the dignity they deserve.

I can't tell you how many times over the last year I've drafted posts on equality issues related to race or sexual orientation and simply deleted them. It would be a mistake to say that I deleted them due to fear. No, it's because of a conviction of mine that these issues ought to be dealt with first and foremost in our daily lives. With our neighbors, friends and enemies. Flesh meeting flesh. Facial expressions seen and understood. What changed my mind this time was reading a statement by Bishop Todd Hunter of the Anglican Church of North America.

Before Bishop Hunter was an Anglican and before I was an Episcopalian, he was a mentor of mine. So, his letter caught my attention. The letter was much like other conservative, evangelical voices we heard from this last week. Whenever this issue comes to the forefront of debate within the Church, evangelical leaders tend to speak of a biblical model of marriage, or the centrality of this issue to orthodoxy and doctrine. It is this kind of language from my fellow evangelical leaders that I take issue with. I'm taking issue with it because I too–just as the leadership of the Anglican Communion affirmed last week–want to walk in unity with my sisters and brothers in Christ even as we disagree, debate, discuss and discern our way towards "a more excellent way."

We Love Jesus Too ... And He Loves Us
For starters, for us to find a way forward there must cease to be the allusion to a diminished faith of those who affirm same-sex marriage. It's religious bullying to imply that LGBTQ affirming Christians somehow love Jesus less than our evangelical sisters and brothers. I still consider myself an evangelical. I consider myself an evangelical in part due to my continued, deep affection for and devotion to Jesus of Nazareth as my Lord and Savior. I didn't grow up belonging to one denomination, rather I grew up with a sense of being a part of a broader evangelical tradition. This commitment has long been a hallmark of evangelical culture and affect. But evangelicals alone do not hold this commitment. As the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry put it:
Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ." (emphasis mine)
For us to find a way forward together we have to trust that those we disagree with love Jesus as much as we do.

There Is Not A Biblical Model of Marriage
There's lots of sex in the Bible. Lots of it. But very little of it would be acceptable in contemporary western culture. Misogyny. Polygamy. To find a way forward we have to stop implying that one group has the corner market on Scripture. To say that there is a particular design for marriage that is dictated by the Bible is true. There is a call to devoted, covenant relationship. But throughout Scripture the meaning of marriage and sex changes. Culture evolves, their understanding of sex evolves and so does the definition of marriage and sex throughout the various eras in which Scripture was written. The language of a biblical design tends to imply that one group does not faithfully attempt to read, study and abide by the model for living mapped out in Scripture. This can get dicey fast and it's just not true.

Sex Isn't a Core Doctrinal Issue
The documents that have longest held the Church's commitment and crystallized the definition of Christian faith are the Nicene Creed and Apostles' Creed. Neither of these say anything about marriage or sex. To argue that the issue of sex is a central issue of faith is a distraction and an attempt at division–to ostracize one group from another. It's an old tactic that can be attributed to most petty divisions throughout church history which have ended up driving massive wedges within the Body of Christ. Does what we believe about sex matter? It most certainly does. But as my grandma used to say, "Y'all are making a mountain out of a mole hill." It's just not a core issue of orthodoxy and alluding to this only drives sisters and brothers further from each other.

I hold Bishop Hunter in high regard as a church planter, evangelist and theologian. Taking issue with his letter says nothing about the man's character. He is one of the most authentic followers of Jesus I've ever met. While his letter sparked this post, it isn't directed solely at him. Rather, this is directed broadly at my fellow evangelical leaders who use this language. If we intend to find a way forward, we have to begin by refusing to question the devotion of the other and debate honestly about what Scripture and doctrine state about sex and marriage.

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