Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Loving rainbows in the Body of Christ

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 
Most importantly, his essay raises the key distinction that exists among Christians today: Is every prohibition in the Bible (or even in the New Testament) true for all times and all places? Or, were some written for a culturally specific time and in culturally limited ways?

It is clear that the Rev. Smith is comfortable disregarding the dietary restrictions in the Levitical and Deuteronomic code, given Jesus statements in Mark 7. However, my guess would be that this is not the only part of the law he sets aside — unless he also trims the sides of his beard (Lev. 19:27) and believes that wearing a shirt that is a blend of fabrics is wrong (Lev 19:19).

He might say these are ritual, not sexual, questions; but then I would wonder if he also believes the portion of the law in Leviticus 19:20–22 where there is a lesser punishment for a man who has sex with a slave than with a free woman, also should still be applicable today. Surely this represents a cultural view of sexuality we would reject today as incompatible with the Gospel. Surely slave and free are equally valued by Christians.

If Christianity is going to prohibit something, if it is going to tell an entire class of people that their relationships are not welcome in the church, it must rest on stronger evidence than what has been provided thus far. Unjustly maintaining portions of the Old Testament ritual law while neglecting others is disingenuous.

All that remains is Romans 1 and I Corinthians 6, both cited by the Rev. Smith. The entire campaign of anti-gay prejudice in the church hangs on just these two passages. The key question is what we will do with them. Do Paul’s prohibitions in these texts apply to all times, places, and circumstances? Is he addressing all possible forms of same-sex activity or only specific forms that were known to him?

Paul had no conception — as we do today — that sexual orientation is not a choice people make. Paul knew of the activity, but always understood it as chosen. The prohibitions of Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 come from a specific cultural and scientific understanding that cannot be maintained in light of modern science and the Spirit’s work to undo the prejudices that perpetually seem to bind God’s people.

“Ah, but the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and who are we to disagree with what God has said?” some might argue. But to affirm the inspiration of Scripture does not mean that all points are true for all times and all places. Otherwise, faithful Christians would also have to maintain that women may not speak in church (1 Timothy 2:12); modern-day slaves in Haiti, Pakistan, India and other countries are called by God to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5 and Col 3:22); and if a woman is abused by her husband, she is not permitted to remarry after a divorce (Matthew 19).

No, simply to quote Scripture is not sufficient; particularly when there are questions of science, human knowledge and cultural prejudice that have changed since the times these texts were written. We value women and slaves differently than ancient times — that is at the heart of the Gospel message even if it was not reflected in some individual passages that addressed ancient situations. Careful exegesis, consideration of the culture the text came from and was written to, all placed within prayerful conversation among Christians who seek to discern God’s will — all of this is essential if we are to determine more clearly God’s Biblical call for us today.

The real and true question that remains unanswered in the Rev. Smith’s column is this: What is the call of the church to LGBTQ Christians? Does he agree with Paul that sexuality is chosen, that they should therefore change and be straight? Or does he believe LGBTQ Christians should live a life of celibacy — one to which few people are gifted and one that, when forced, often results in repression and unhealthy expressions of sexual behavior?

I don’t believe the Rev. Smith is being dishonest or twisting Scripture — two charges he has leveled very clearly against me. Rather, I believe we both disagree regarding what portions of Scripture are true for all times and places and which are culturally limited. Context is indeed essential.

Furthermore, churches like mine are not just telling people to do what feels good. Rather, we are maintaining that marriage is indeed the proper avenue for sexual expression — we simply disagree with him that this discipline (which is rarely easy!) should be limited only to opposite-sex couples. Same-sex marriage is disciplined choice.

Until the broader Christian church starts considering more carefully the context of these passages and, just as importantly, the pain of LGBTQ Christians who have suffered from being told their orientation is in need of transformation (a message that is behind countless tragic suicides in our country and ongoing murders in others), then the church will remain out of step with a God who seeks to undo our prejudices against each other and call all people into one united body, rainbows and all.

“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” (Eph. 2:14–16)

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

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