Friday, April 13, 2007

What Is a Christian?

Originally posted at Ex-Gay Watch.

Can a person be both gay and Christian? It's an important question that has only begun receiving serious attention over the last couple of decades. Many evangelical Christians would respond with a flat "no" and refuse to engage the question further. Exodus International's answer is a bit more nuanced, but the strong implication one nonetheless gets from most ex-gay publications is that individuals who accept a "gay identity" (even the celibate, sometimes) are just kidding themselves if they think they'll one day join the chosen few in paradise.

So what, then, is a Christian? Many evangelicals would respond that it involves having a "personal relationship" with Christ, beginning with the act of asking him into one's heart. In theory it's as simple as that, though in practice one is then supposed to begin changing one's behavior to better conform to Christ's example. In theory (again), that transformation is supposed to be an outgrowth of one's relationship with Christ, but in practice outward appearances are usually all that matters; one merely needs to agree with a checklist of do's and don'ts, accompanied by a properly liberal use of Christianese terms and Bible verses in one's speech, to be regarded in your average church as a "good Christian."

Even setting aside the gap between theory and practice that exists in many churches, we quickly run into a dilemma when we realize that different Christian sects have different ideas about what makes a person a Christian. Is it enough to say the sinner's prayer and join a church? Which beliefs does a person have to agree with? How many (and which) good deeds, if any, does a person need to perform? What role does the sacrament of communion play? How important is baptism? Is confession before a priest/minister necessary, or can one confess directly to God? Does denomination matter? Can Christians lose their salvation, and if so, how? Disagreements over these and many other questions have fueled a thousand schisms.

On the positive side, many evangelical groups are beginning to move toward a more ecumenical definition of their faith, centered around the Nicene and Apostles' creeds and allowing for disagreement on matters of doctrine not found in those creeds. In theory, agreement is only necessary on the "essentials" spelled out in the creeds for a person to be considered a Christian.

In practice, most evangelical groups still have "hot button" issues that they treat as being comparable in importance to core tenets like the divinity of Christ, including (but not limited to) Biblical inerrancy, the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, and, of course, homosexuality. "Liberal" Christians who challenge the party line on these issues aren't necessarily unsaved, but license is granted to question the authenticity of their faith.

But is it fair, or even biblical, to use such issues as litmus tests for determining who is and isn't a Christian? John 3:16, after all, merely states that "whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." It's supposedly as simple as that - no doctrinal litmus tests, no laundry lists of rules - yet the church is constantly trying to complicate it with an endless list of disclaimers, qualifications and additions.

In the case of homosexuality, 1 Cor. 6:9 is cited as proof that "practicing homosexuals" are all going to hell. The other "clobber passages" come into play as well, but this is the verse that can be interpreted to directly suggest that individuals in gay relationships may be in danger of losing their salvation.

Setting aside the very serious contextual and linguistic questions that surround the meanings of the two words (malakoi and arsenokoitai) that some modern translators have rendered as "homosexual offenders" (or the like), it's worth noting that homosexuality is often the only alleged sin given attention when this passage is cited. If Christians who commit any of these sins are truly in danger of losing their salvation, why wouldn't the church be more concerned about the entire list? Two groups in particular stand out:

The greedy. Sometimes translated as 'the covetous,' this sin appears far more often on Paul's "vice lists" than the arsenokoitai do, and yet the sin of greed gets a far softer touch in most evangelical churches. Granted, 'greed' is a somewhat abstract concept, but it was obviously an important subject for the biblical authors, given how frequently economic injustice is condemned in both the Old and New Testaments.

And how many middle-class evangelicals are mortgaged to the hilt for the sake of having a fancy home, a pair of SUV's and the latest electronic toys, while giving little or nothing to charitable causes? It's not necessarily a sin to own nice things, but what does it say about a person when those purchases take priority over meeting the needs of the less fortunate?

Adulterers. According to Christ's own words, anyone who divorces and remarries is an adulterer (Matt. 5:32, 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18). This is not a single act of adultery, but an ongoing state, since God does not recognize the dissolution of the original marriage bond (1 Cor. 7:39). Matthew does allow for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness (the other gospel writers don't), but the only allowance made for remarriage in the New Testament is the death of the first spouse.

Many modern theologians have "discovered" that remarriage following divorce really is okay, at least under certain circumstances, but their reasoning is considerably weaker than that used by pro-gay theologians (whom they would accuse of twisting scripture to "justify an immoral lifestyle"), given that they have to overcome the explicitly worded statements of Christ himself.

Despite that, we have yet to see any promotion of "ex-adulterer" groups to support those who choose to submit to God's perfect plan by leaving their sinful second marriages and living celibately until such time as they can reconcile with their original spouse. But surely this should be a priority for evangelicals, given the gravity of such a sin and how commonly it's practiced within the church.

Or maybe we're missing the point entirely by assuming that Christ freed us from one legalistic system so that he could impose another on us. Evangelicals prefer to speak in terms such as "God's design" and "God's best," of course, but the demand for conformity is just as strong as it is within any explicitly legalistic group.

If we are going to decide who is and isn't a Christian based on performance, however, we could do no better than to use the words of Christ himself:

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matt. 25:34-46, NIV)


Mark said...

Good and challenging thinking -- as per usual.

Steve F. said...

Exposing the lie that "gay and Christian are incompatible" is one of the reasons I finally crawled out of the closet, after hiding for 35 years (15 of them sober and active in the Lutheran church).

One commenter on my "coming out" blog tried telling me that a Christian is one who follows the demands and commands of Scripture. So by definition, I couldn't be a Christian, because you can't sleep with a man and follow Scripture.

I replied, "Yes, I agree that a component of Christianity is obedience to those commands. And those of us in the GLBT community would simply appreciate it if Christians would stop being so damn selective about which commands they enforce, and which ones they blatantly ignore. Then we could see the truly pure folks, as opposed to the everyday Christian sinners."

The Acts 10 passage has become an integral part of my personal credo. It's not about who I sleep with - or who I lie to, or with whom I commit any one of a hundred sins. The question is, am I exhibiting the signs of Christian faith?

For now, I'll claim to be (to steal a line) "A New Kind of Gentile," and trust that God can sort this out better than His kids do.

CrackerLilo said...

Terrific. I'm going to bookmark this for the next time that comes up in online debate. After I came out, and had to leave the Assemblies of God church, I became first a church-shopper, then an "apatheist" who was happy to sleep in and watch the entire race on Sunday, then a Pagan. So I can't speak to this debate, but I'm glad others can. Sometimes I feel like LGBT Christians are braver than I am--y'all stuck it out.

Anonymous said...

Challenging post--thank you. Conservative evangelical Norman Geisler has written a new book called 'Love Your Neighbor: Thinking Wisely About Right and Wrong.' An overview of ethics, he surprisingly writes a balanced view on homosexuality and even heterosexual sin has its own chapter. That's a unique change. Also, chapters on Economic Injustice, ecology and civil disobedience are covered--not too common subject matter. A good and challenging read.