Friday, December 30, 2005


An impressive amount of research has been done by Faris Malik and others into the term eunuch and the various ways it was used in ancient cultures. Malik makes a compelling case for the argument that eunuch (and particularly born eunuch) was commonly used as a euphemism for homosexual in biblical times.

This understanding sheds new light on Matthew 19:21, in which Jesus identifies three types of eunuch (including those "who have been so from birth") who are exempted from the institution of marriage. Some in turn use this to argue that Jesus was endorsing gay relationships, when in fact Jesus' statements don't go nearly that far; the most that can be reasonably drawn from this passage is the conclusion that gay men (and women) should not enter into heterosexual marriages.

And real world experience tends to support this conclusion. Can a marriage work when one partner is exclusively same-sex attracted? Sure, at least in some cases. The most common products of such unions, however, seem to be heartache and divorce. The homosexual spouse's inability to truly desire his or her partner creates difficulties even when both are determined to make the relationship work.

At the same time, however, the Bible presents us with another truth that doesn't quite mesh with this one. As God Himself says in Genesis 2:18, it's not good for a man to be alone. Paul further reinforces this point with his curious statement in 1 Corinthians 7:9: "it is better to marry than to burn." And it is rather curious, given the New Testament's emphasis on self-control and reining in one's passions. Surely, if "all things are possible" with God, then Paul could simply counsel those who lack self-control to ask God to provide them with enough for them to live celibately. But he doesn't. And so we see that, when two truths collide, they resolve in different ways for different individuals.

So where, then, does that leave the homosexual who has been counseled not to marry heterosexually but cannot bear the thought of remaining alone? If celibacy is too great a burden for some heterosexuals to bear, then it's incredibly presumptuous to assume that all homosexuals should endure it without question. And it's no less presumptuous to proclaim that any homosexual who isn't cut out for celibacy should marry an opposite-sex partner.

Most conservatives would argue that there is no third alternative, since the Bible "clearly" indicates that all homosexual relationships are unconditionally evil. That conclusion, however, is based primarily on a handful of verses that speak of acts of idolatry, rape, prostitution and selfish exploitation. Ultimately one can only justify universalizing those statements by placing them in the broader context of the Bible's endorsement of heterosexual marriage, and even then it requires making the assumption that the parameters of God's original template carry the force of law in all situations (which in turn leads to other problems that I've examined in previous posts).

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the church's traditional position (all same-sex relationships are wrong) is correct, that leaves us with three truths that conflict with each other: homosexuals are forbidden from entering same-sex relationships, and it's not good for them to enter opposite-sex relationships, yet it's not good for them to remain alone. Within the two-dimensional plane that Christian ethics are usually consigned to, there's no way to reconcile these three truths without reducing one to a subordinate position. And that's precisely what has happened:

For those who believe that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable, there is no conflict. Everyone is free to search for and marry a partner that they're sexually attracted to, regardless of gender.

The Catholic position (which is also held by some in other denominations) states that all homosexuals are called to celibacy, without exception. Individuals in this group would advocate that it is in fact better to burn than to marry where homosexuals are concerned.

The Exodus position takes a different stance by acknowledging that celibacy is not an equally healthy state for everyone. Exodus' conclusion, however, is that heterosexual marriage is feasible for anyone who is unhappy being single. To accommodate this view, proponents define homosexuality as an illusion that can be dispelled through a program of inner healing and gender-normal activities, and rip verses like 1 Corinthians 6:11 out of context to prove that God will transform the orientation of anyone who repents of their same-sex attractions. If an individual's 'natural heterosexuality' fails to manifest itself, then he (or she) obviously did something wrong and is completely to blame for failing to achieve orientation change.

In truth, orientation change is extremely rare except among those who had some degree of bisexual tendencies to begin with. Those that rate as a 6 (exclusively same-sex attracted) on the Kinsey scale may manage to change their behavior to the point of ceasing all sexual activity, but they almost never develop even the slightest degree of heterosexual attraction. Most ex-gay leaders acknowledge this fact nowadays (at least in private), and so they counsel individuals in their programs either to live celibately or to enter heterosexual marriage anyway.

But can we really say that one of those two options will always be healthy for every same-sex-attracted individual? Many celibate individuals fail to find the joy and contentment that ought to follow committing one's life to God, and many married homosexuals find themselves stuck in miserable marriages (or enduring the pain of divorce). Are we really in a position to say that their unhappiness is their own fault, and if they'd just tried a little harder or prayed a little more everything would work out well for them? Undoubtedly that's true in some cases, but are we sufficiently godlike in our knowledge to be able to state what God's will is for every person's life? What if neither celibacy nor heterosexual marriage are healthy states for some individuals?

Just what do we do when two (or more) biblically-supported truths come into apparent conflict? Do we relativize God's truth by inventing a hierarchy that reconciles the conflict by declaring that some truths are more important than others? Or do we allow God, in His superior wisdom, to reconcile those truths within each individual according to the innumerable factors that make each of us unique?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Living in Technicolor

I like Chuck. I like him a lot. Chuck, in this case, is Chuck Smith Jr., the pastor of Capo Beach Calvary in Southern California.

Chuck recently wrote a book (along with Matt Whitlock) entitled Frequently Avoided Questions. What initially drew me in was one of the questions on the back cover: Can a person be both Gay and Christian? I quickly (and discreetly) opened the book to the chapter that addresses that question and read it.

What really stood out to me (and what will undoubtedly horrify some) is that the authors never directly answer the question. Rather than give an absolute yes or no followed by some densely written apologetic to beat opponents over the head with, they thoughtfully frame the issue, summarize the different conclusions Christians have reached, and then spend the rest of the chapter instructing readers how to engage in productive dialogue with those who disagree with them.

Something tells me these guys won't be getting the James Dobson Seal of Approval.

Here's how Chuck Jr. sums it up:

Though these points of view are diverse, there is something they all have in common. Advocates, who believe they have found the one right answer, have formulated them. Therefore much of the debate has been between people with differing beliefs on the subject who are trying to get others to recognize that their answer is the only correct one. This then is the old-school thinking and position: there must be and could only be one right answer to the question, Are there gay Christians? The liberals had their right answer and the conservatives had theirs, but each considered the other’s response to homosexuality to be wrong. Some people are still thinking there can only be one right answer to an issue that is as complex and diverse as the myriad personalities that find themselves confronted by this challenge.

Lest that sound like a wishy-washy, all-is-relative non-position, here's a quote from the introduction (from Matt) that encapsulates the approach they take throughout the book:

My early Christian experience was formed in a context that encouraged me to categorize every thought, action, object, and person in terms of right and wrong, black and white. I have learned since that time, however, that life is much more complex than I was led to believe. Some Christian leaders I have followed assume that the alternative to black-and-white thinking is a compromised shade of gray, but I have been learning the importance of seeing the world in color.

The world of the Bible is certainly colorful. Take grace and mercy, for example. God forgives the guilty, embraces the rebellious child, and gives his unfaithful people a second chance. Even holiness and righteousness – two very important biblical themes – are colorful, and if interpreted as black and white, they degenerate necessarily into rigid forms of legalism. When I was a new believer, I appreciated the security of living in a black-and-white world under the authority of my pastor. But more recently my growth in faith and various encounters around the world have taught me that asking questions is sometimes as important as having the answers, sometimes more important, because answers tend to signal the end of our journey, whereas questions signal its beginning.

Makes sense to me. While it may be more comfortable to live life in black and white, I have to say that the world looks a lot better in color.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Enter Stage Four

So, having reached a place in life where things no longer fit neatly into nice, simple black-and-white categories, where does that leave a person? Being pushed out of the comfortable insularity of Stage Three faith can be so disquieting that some people choose to take a step backward and forgo further growth in favor of holding onto the security of clearly-defined boundaries and allowing those in authority to provide the answers to life's difficult questions.

But is that really a life worth living? Moving on into Stage Four may be optional for most, but the consequence of rejecting growth is a life of wasted potential. God will work with us wherever we're at; if we cannot function without being told exactly what to do with no room for ambiguity, he'll oblige us, just as a parent will give a five-year-old a different set of instructions than she'd give to a twelve-year-old. But the twelve-year-old will get opportunities to experience life and interact with the world that the five-year-old could never conceive of.

Not that an individual in Stage Four really has any basis for feeling superior to those still in Stage Three. We're all still children in our own way, and just as prone to error; we simply have a different set of pitfalls to work our way around. Stage Four can be a wilderness of uncertainty and doubt. God can seem very distant and unattainable at times, and the promises that once comforted us can seem cold and empty.

The process of establishing one's identity separate from the groups that used to define it can lead to further estrangement as others still in those groups react with fear and hostility. Stage Four brings with it a desire for authenticity and independent decision-making, and a drive to integrate the different faces that one used to put forward in different settings. Such a push for autonomy and nonconformity tends to go over poorly in most groups, and so Stage Four individuals often find themselves largely (if not completely) on their own.

I feel very fortunate to have friends that I can express my questions and doubts to as I've begun the process of coming out of the closet and questioning the church's stance on homosexuality (among other things). Even so, there's coming a point where I will probably have to let go of certain relationships, including some that have been a part of my life for a very long time. I have no idea what my life will look like when I emerge from this season of redefinition, and that quite frankly scares me.

All the same, I can no more go back to what I was (has it really only been a year and a half?) than a butterfly can crawl back into its cocoon. All I can do is continue putting one foot in front of the other until I find out what lies further down the road.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Play Acting

The comics section is the one part of the newspaper I read on a daily basis; everything else is just bonus material. Yesterday's One Big Happy made me chuckle, and got me thinking too. (I'd link to the strip, but A) it's not available online yet, and B) it would get relegated to a subscription-only archive after a couple of weeks anyway.)

To summarize, the kids are playing "courtroom." Ruthie and her brother, playing the judge and prosecutor, are speaking (or at least pretending to speak) in legalese ("I up-check, yonner!" "Up-checktion over-rude!" "May I reproach the bench, yonner?" "Up-stained! I will make an ocean to search and seashore your whatever."). Finally their cousin (who's playing the defendant) admits, "I ain't gettin' none of this." To which he's told, "You just don't understand court talk, James."

What struck me about this is how a group of six-year-olds attempting to reenact a legal proceeding is quite a bit like our efforts to describe and understand God. We've gleaned a certain rudimentary understanding of who God is by studying the Bible, observing the universe and comparing notes over the course of millennia, but for all of that we still only barely know what we're talking about.

God, being far, far larger than anything we could ever begin to imagine, has to speak to us in much the same way that an adult would speak to a small child. The child simply doesn't have the knowledge or points of reference to fully understand the nuances of adult conversation. This is acknowledged at least to some extent by most Christians, who recognize that a being capable of speaking the entire universe into being is necessarily larger than we are.

So why, then, do we become so arrogant about what we do know? From the few things God has told us, we presume that we can know His will for everyone and understand all of His plans and intentions. In this we are just like the kindergartner who decides he should be boss of the playground because he's smarter than the rest of his classmates (he was the first to learn his ABC's, don't you know).

And no, I'm not advocating that all paths to God are equally valid; that seems as presumptuous as claiming that we couldn't be wrong about anything important. And I'm not suggesting that truth is completely unknowable - just that it's more than a short list of simplistic yes-or-no propositions. No matter how right we think we are, the best way to approach any disagreement is with an attitude of humility, acknowledging that the other person, whether or not they're ultimately right, may know something that we don't.

There is so much to be learned from those who disagree with us, yet so many times we as Christians proceed with the assumption that all non-Christians are wrong about everything and that anything we disagree with must be stamped out and eradicated from the face of the earth (by force, if necessary). Some Christians even hold this attitude toward members of other denominations that they only disagree with over minor points of doctrine.

And yet the same Bible that we use to pummel our opponents tells us just how limited our knowledge is. "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." (I Cor. 13:12)

Just as a parent tells a small child what she needs to know to learn and grow, so God shows us what we need to know, through the Bible, through the people around us, and through those moments when he speaks directly to us. What he doesn't tell us is how to run everyone else's lives; we may be able to speak into their lives at particular points in time, but ultimately we can never know them intimately enough to understand God's will for their lives.

And how do we speak into another person's life? In a variety of ways, but rarely if ever through ultimatums and one-size-fits-all ten-step solutions. And seldom when we expect.

In the end, actions speak far louder and more authoritatively than words ever could. It's time to drop the superiority complex and prove that we've got something special. Do you really care about the gay couple you're "speaking the truth in love" to? Then put a lid on the rhetoric and show them your love. Whatever God may want to do in their lives, it's a lot less likely to happen if you're standing in His place and dictating to them what you think He wants.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Exit Stage Three

Earlier this year a friend of mine introduced me to James Fowler's theory about the different stages of faith. Fowler views faith as a dynamic process that takes on different forms as we enter different life stages. My friend's summary of Fowler's work can be downloaded in Word format here. It's been very helpful to me as I've sought to understand why I no longer fit in with the majority of Christians (in general, not just in terms of my personal life issues).

In a nutshell, Fowler lays out six developmental stages that people (regardless of their specific belief system) move through over the course of their life. Few ever reach Stage Six, and many never progress beyond Stage Three.

Stages One and Two are reached early in life as a child learns how to interact with the world around him (or her). Although a few individuals go through life stuck in Stage Two, the vast majority eventually move on into Stage Three.

In Stage Three, individuals develop their own worldviews, but those beliefs are still heavily dependent on the values and expectations of those around them, and tend to go largely unexamined. These beliefs are nonetheless very strongly adhered to, and people in Stage Three tend to be very loyal to the organizations they affiliate with.

Some additional features of Stage Three faith:
-The world is viewed largely in black-and-white, either/or terms.
-Individuals are primarily concerned with living up to the expectations of God and other authority figures, and with conforming to the norms of the groups they are associated with.
-One's identity is derived from one's affiliations and can't be fully conceptualized apart from those ties.
-Conflict and disagreement are seen as threatening and dangerous.

Having moved into Stage Four in my own life (more on that in another post), I find it very frustrating to try to communicate with Stage Three individuals. It's very helpful to realize that this is simply where they are in life, and that it's neither bad nor good - it just is. Unfortunately that understanding is almost never reciprocated, since few people in Stage Three can conceive of the need for a Stage Four, much less view it as valid or as anything less than a direct attack on everything that's good and proper. The best I can do is maintain relationships where I can and pray that they eventually move on to Stage Four in their own lives (and that they don't go off the deep end when they do).

For the same reason, I can barely stand to set foot in most churches anymore, since all but a few cater to the Stage Three majority and have very little tolerance for questions that can't be satisfied by the simple, pat answers they provide to their congregations. I've been fortunate to be situated in contexts where I can question and challenge without being branded a heretic, but far too few people in Stage Four have that luxury. Most leave the church altogether, and I really can't say that I blame them.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Lately I've been reading a number of books by emergent (i.e. "postmodern") Christian authors, which may not come as a surprise to anyone who's been following my blog. These books resonate with me in a way that few Christian authors and speakers ever have. They provide little in the way of concrete answers and sometimes raise more questions than they answer, yet there's an authenticity that most conservative evangelical theology seems to lack.

One idea I've gleaned from emergent theology that intrigues me is the assertion that truth is ultimately apprehended through community. You can spend your entire life listening to sermons and reading books, but if you never engage in authentic community it's worth next to nothing. No wonder so many liberal churches are stagnant, and so many conservative churches are nasty and judgmental. No wonder so many people are leaving the church, most never to return.

And no wonder the issue of homosexuality is tearing apart entire denominations. We've placed ideas ahead of people and isolated ourselves from anyone who disagrees with us. Our faith has become so heavily defined by what we believe God is against that we've lost sight of the things God is for.

We can dissect Greek verbs and cross-reference ancient texts until the Second Coming, but we can never truly know what is right until we've lived out our doctrines in the context of Christian community. We can condemn same-sex relationships until our dying breath, but what good have we really accomplished if all we succeed in doing is driving away every gay individual who refuses to conform to the exacting demands (and elusive rewards) of ex-gay ideology?

So what does that mean in practical terms? Is it possible for us to live in community with individuals we disagree with over major (or even minor) doctrinal issues? I certainly hope so, because I may never find the answers I seek any other way.

It should probably be noted that when I speak of Christian community, I'm not just talking about meeting for church and Bible study and maybe the occasional potluck. I'm talking about being actively involved in the lives of a group of people and staying committed to that group through hardship and conflict.

Having said that, the question becomes whether I'm willing to help make such a community work. Am I willing to live and work side by side with those who don't always agree with me? For that matter, am I willing to make the investment of my time, resources, energy and emotions that's necessary to build that kind of community? I'd like to say that I am, but in reality I don't know.

Of course, even if I resolve to bite the bullet and move beyond armchair Christianity, there's still the question of finding such a community. Nearly all conservative churches are out, since it's an unpardonable sin in such settings to even think about whether it might possibly be valid to consider questioning church tradition where homosexuality is concerned - and yet that's the environment I'm most familiar with. I also lean against joining an all-gay congregation, for the simple reason that I don't want to run the risk of isolating myself within any one particular subculture.

I know there are other possibilities out there; it's just a matter of finding them.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Sitting On the Fence

Doubt is a difficult feeling to live with. By nature we want definite answers to our questions, and would rather settle for questionable certainties than accept the existence of gray areas. Hence the popularity of fundamentalistic religions with their confident, unyielding answers to all of life's questions. However much it may require closing one's eyes to the countless nuances of real life that contradict those "straight answers," it's simply easier to maintain faith in a deity that tells you exactly what to think and do in any given situation. If those one-size-fits-all "biblical solutions" don't work, it's obviously the individual's fault - perhaps they didn't have enough faith, or didn't really want to be healed, or just plain did something wrong.

Or maybe life really is more complicated than we're comfortable admitting. Maybe God deals with each of us as individuals and not with a cookie cutter approach. Maybe one of the reasons the church seems to have so little power nowadays is because we're trying to prescribe simple, pat answers to complex issues. Maybe, as Brian McLaren might suggest, we're so busy fighting the battle of A vs. B that we've failed to notice that God is up above the battlefield entirely and not particularly interested in taking sides in our squabble.

And maybe all of those above statements apply to the debate over homosexuality. What if there's not a single, all-encompassing answer to the question of whether it's right or wrong? What if God says yes to some and no to others, based on His intimate knowledge of each of us and the millions of factors that make every person a unique individual? Are we willing to live in a place of less-than-absolute certainty? Can we accept a God who doesn't cater to our demands for absolutes that are small enough for us to fully grasp?

Does doubt really represent a lack of faith, or is a willingness to live with doubt the true act of faith? It's not so easy to trust a God whose answers sometimes raise more questions than they resolve.

I suppose this is one issue I'll eventually have to take a side on, at least in terms of how I choose to live the rest of my life. For now, though, I'll settle for uncertainty. What else can I do when I see God so clearly present on both sides of the fence? Both sides make statements that ring true to me, but both have their blind spots as well. From where I sit, to choose one and reject the other would be to cut myself off from an area where God is actively at work.

Perhaps it's time to tear down the fence altogether.