Friday, August 04, 2006


I recently came across a statement by a pastor who, although he decries the abominable way that the religious right treats gay people ("abominable" is my paraphrase, but not out of line with his sentiments), nonetheless believes that homosexuality doesn't represent "God's best." I have no problem with his holding to that conviction, given his seemingly authentic regard for us as human beings of equal value in God's eyes (a sentiment that most evangelicals would vocalize agreement with, but that far too few seem to genuinely believe when it comes time to put their faith into action).

But I do have to question the use of the phrase "God's best." I'm a bit reluctant to do so, since many of those who use it are doing so in an effort to steer away from the "us vs. them" mentality that has tainted so much of the church's interactions with the gay community, but it is nonetheless a questionable assertion. This isn't the first time I've challenged the use of this phrase, but I think it's worth revisiting.

The first question we have to ask is whether any of us truly experience God's best in this imperfect world. We can certainly strive for such an ideal, but is it really supposed to be an "all or nothing" proposition, as conservatives strongly imply (consciously or otherwise) when they inject those words into this debate? Why, then, do we not hold people to the standard of "God's best" in other ways?

Can divorce ever be said to represent God's best for anyone's life? Yet the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) allows for divorce in certain situations, most notably infidelity. But if anything less than God's best is sin, then why would God suddenly condone one person's sin as a response to another person's sin? Isn't the lesser of two evils still evil?

Even if one dodges the question by stating that anything the Bible explicitly condones cannot be sin, that doesn't resolve the dilemma. Few rational people would tell a woman whose husband is physically abusive that she should stay with him, yet the Bible doesn't explicitly condone divorce in that situation. That divorce may not represent God's best for either the woman or her husband, but is she truly sinning by separating herself from such an unhealthy situation?

And then there's the issue of slavery. Extremely few Christians alive today or within the last century would have anything positive to say about that institution, yet for many generations Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify their ownership of other human beings. Modern scholars would argue that Paul and the other biblical authors were meeting people where they were at while pointing toward something better, and that their toleration of a deeply ingrained institution did not represent an endorsement of it.

(They'd also argue that the institution of slavery present in ancient Rome differed greatly from the form it took in the American South, but even though some slaves in Paul's time were only temporarily so, others were born to that station or sold into it at an early age and consigned to live their lives as the property of others.)

So can involuntary slavery ever be argued to represent God's best for any individual? If anything less than God's best is sin, why would Paul have shown any leniency toward slaveholders, however culturally acceptable their practices may have been? When else are the New Testament authors soft on the topic of sin?

For that matter, why wasn't the New Testament more forceful in its declarations that men and women are equal in ability and worth? Sure, Jesus and his apostles were light years ahead of their contemporaries in their treatment of women, but surely a society that treats women as little better than property is far enough removed from "God's best" to warrant a more direct attempt at correction.

Or maybe our error lies in our theology, whether it's in our use of the phrase "God's best" or in our understanding of sin, or both. I don't know. I wish I knew, but I'm far from convinced that those who claim to know actually do.

Maybe the perfection that we demand from others isn't in line with what God requires from them. Perhaps, if we were to focus more of our energy on fulfilling our mandate to self-sacrificially serve others without reservation or condition, a lot of the 'sin' issues that preoccupy so much of our time and energy would resolve themselves in ways we never would have imagined.

Of course, now I'm the one speaking in idealistic terms.

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