January 30, 2006
Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question 4: McLaren's Response
I read with interest - and some pain - the first few days' worth of responses to my article. I thought that some readers would be interested in a few of my responses to their responses.
Before beginning though, I should say that I just learned today that Leadership Journal/CTI has an informal editorial policy on homosexuality. I was unaware of this policy when I wrote the article. If I had known, I wouldn't have submitted the article because it assumes a variety of opinion on the issue that is beyond the journal's policy. If I were a guest in your home, I wouldn't knowingly bring up subjects that are against family policy, out of common courtesy as guest to host ? and I feel that I have been rude, albeit unintentionally, in causing discomfort to the hosts and readers of this column. Please do not hold the hosts responsible for your disapproval of my guest column. In my defense, I was told that the subject of this issue was sexuality, and I was simply trying to offer something of value to pastoral leaders on this subject. But I should have inquired as to a policy on this subject before writing my column. Speaking of rudeness, I would also like to express my dismay that the editors allowed my friend Doug Pagitt to be treated despicably in one response. I'm glad they removed the most offensive sentence, but I find it stunning that people would applaud that kind of thing. I would much rather stand with Doug as ones being insulted than stand with those casting or celebrating the insults.
Now, on to some responses.
First, readers should know that titles are often created by editors, not the writers themselves. In this case, I wouldn't choose the title "More Important Than Being Right" that was used in the Journal. I said that being right wasn't enough, and that we also must also be wise, loving, patient, and pastoral. None of these things are necessarily more important than being right, but they are all important along with being right in "finding a pastoral response" (which was a more helpful title, included in the blog). Similarly, in the text, I never said that being right was unimportant ? only that we must also be pastoral.
Second, a number of responders suggested I lack concern for being Biblical or caring about truth. These readers must have missed this sentence, "To put it biblically, we want to be sure our answers are ?seasoned with salt' and appropriate ?to the need of the moment' (Col. 4, Eph. 4)," where I refer to Scripture to support the main point of the article (which was not the legitimacy of homosexual behavior, but rather the need for pastoral sensitivity). Many readers seem to assume that by quoting verses from Leviticus, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, they have solved the problem. It looks like an open-and-shut case to them, and the only reason they can surmise for the fact that some of us find the issue more complex is that we must be ignorant, lazy, rebellious, incompetent, cowardly, compromised, or postmodern.
Please be assured that as a pastor and as someone who loves and seeks to follow the Bible, I am aware of Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and related texts. Believe me, I have read them and prayerfully pondered them, and have read extensively on all the many sides of the issue. I understand that for many people, these verses end all dialogue and people like me must seem horribly stupid not to see what's there so clearly to them. I wish they could understand that some of us encounter additional levels of complexity when we try honestly and faithfully to face these texts. We have become aware of as-yet unanswered scholarly questions, such as questions about the precise meaning of malakoi and arsenokoitai in Paul's writings, and we wonder why these words were used in place of paiderasste, the meaning of which would be much clearer if Paul's intent were to address behavior more like what we would call homosexuality. (If responses are posted to this submission, please ? there is no need to reply that you know the actual meaning of these disputed Greek words. There are dozens of websites that already address these important issues in great detail, but they are peripheral matters to what I was trying to say in the original article and here as well.)
On a deeper level, some of us feel we are being dishonest and unfaithful to Scripture unless we face questions about how we should interpret and apply these texts today, and what hermeneutical methods and assumptions underlie our interpretations and applications. These questions are all the more challenging for some of us when we realize that the Leviticus texts themselves, if taken literally, call for the death penalty. Nobody (I don't think?) takes that literally, nor do we take many of the other 611 Mosaic proscriptions literally. Why take these selected verses literally, and only partially so? And it gets even more complex for some of us when we realize that people in later Biblical times didn't enforce some of these proscriptions literally either. For example, David committed adultery but wasn't killed as Leviticus 20:10 would require; why didn't Nathan require the death penalty for David and Bathsheba when he brought the word of the Lord? Add to that the Book of Job, where Job's "comforters" who quote to him the simple black-and-white assessments consistent with Leviticus or Deuteronomy are reprimanded by God; what is generally true (that good people reap good consequences and bad people, bad) is not true in Job's case, and they are in error not to acknowledge that possibility. We also find that the wisdom literature of the Bible again and again tells us that wisdom is not always simple and obvious, but often requires a search beneath the surface, as if we were excavating for gold and silver.
I say all this not expecting to change anybody's mind, but simply hoping that a few readers will know that there are people who take Scripture seriously, who love Jesus and want to be faithful pastors, who are not "relativistic postmodernists" at all, and yet who don't find the issue as simple as some people do. We acknowledge the sincerity and good faith of our brothers and sisters who find that this all resolves very simply in black and white and without any shadow of doubt; we only wish they could extend the same grace and not assume or assert things about us that aren't true.
Third, I would wish that people would take more care in reading what I actually said. I did not argue or call for a moratorium on discussion or making decisions (as some responders asserted). I simply suggested that a moratorium on making pronouncements might be a good idea. What I meant by pronouncements I did not make clear in the article, but many of the responses provide examples of exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about. Of course, I did not and do not seriously expect such a moratorium to happen. Who would have the authority to call for it, and what could anyone do to enforce it? The purpose of the hypothetical proposal was to point up the desirability of not engaging in hurtful and divisive rhetoric, but rather of providing space where we could practice "prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably." Some may agree, in light of the tone of some of the responses, that we Christians need some work in this area.
That brings me to a fourth response. Mockery, scorn, insult, invective, name-calling and the like do appear in the Bible. It is hard to try to square them with other Scriptures like Ephesians 4:29-32 or 2 Timothy 2:23-26 ? that is another one of the kinds of complexities we face when we try to take the whole of Scripture seriously without just quoting one verse to the exclusion of others. I suppose some who accuse me of a failure to apply Leviticus 18:22 literally may be able to justify not taking Galatians 6:1 literally themselves. Still, I would hope that we could seek for a greater degree of civility, one might even hope for charity and humility and gentleness (in light of Galatians 5:15), in our future conversations about these or any other matters.
Fifth, I am sorry that I singled out "conservative Christians" and "religious broadcasters" early in the piece. That no doubt reflected my personal response to people of that persuasion (frankly, like one or two responders in this exchange) who have been rather bombastic and unkind. While I have seldom experienced the same kind of vitriol from the religious left (or even the secular left), I know some people have, which may explain some of their reactions too. However we've been wounded by others, we (I include myself here) need to be aware that we may respond unfairly and almost unconsciously to others because of our past woundedness. Here we need to return again and again to our Lord's teachings on forgiveness and reconciliation so that we don't act out old well-worn scripts of vengeance and bitterness. (Each of us, no doubt, sees the splinter in the other's eye better than the plank in our own.)
Fortunately, I was more even-handed politically later in the piece when I spoke of "political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency" and winds "blowing furiously from the left and right." My point was that we need to be aware that our pastoral conversations aren't taking place in a vacuum, and that there are political parties seeking to profit from these issues ? on both sides. (Pardon my cynicism, but I've lived around the Beltway for a long time.)
Finally, I think many responders missed one of the main things I was trying to do in the piece. This failure owes more to a lack of skill on my part as a writer; I should have made this more obvious. For anyone who wants to re-read the piece, I would point out that near its midpoint I said, "Most of the emerging leaders I know share my agony over this question. We fear ? We see ? We're trying to care?." The first-person plural was significant and intentional.
I was trying to describe a "we" that comprises most (not all) of the "emerging leaders" ? not all who exist, but simply those few whom "I know." I was trying to make clear that this "we" includes people who have a variety of views on the issue of homosexuality. I said that "many of us" ? note, this is not "all of us" ? "don't know what we should think?." Then I specified two groups, both of whom I called "we." "Even if we are convinced that homosexual behavior is always sinful?" and "If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships?" Few readers seemed to notice that my "we" included both groups.
My goal (if you give me a fair reading, I think you'll agree) was not to create a "we" who think one thing and a "they" who think another. My "we" included people who have a variety of opinions, but who share "agony" because even if we have a firm position, there are still (as at least one responder perceptively noted) many other unanswered questions that we face as pastors, such as how to treat people whom we think are wrong with "dignity, gentleness, and respect," and "how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn."
For example, if you are certain without a shadow of doubt that homosexual behavior is always wrong, where do you draw the line: Do you let a homosexual person be a member of your church, or an attender? Does your exclusion apply only to "practicing" gays, or to celibate people of gay orientation? How many weeks can they attend without being given an ultimatum? How do you find out if a supposedly nonpracticing person is hiding their secret behaviors? How many failures do you allow before excommunication? And do you allow heterosexual people who attend your services to have gay friends? Must they confront those friends in order to be faithful Christians? What if they don't? What if your leading elder comes to you to say his daughter has come out as a lesbian? What if your daughter comes out? Or conversely, if you are an "open and affirming" congregation, do you require fidelity or do you allow promiscuity? How do you enforce that? Do you accept people who think homosexuality is wrong? What if they repeatedly share their opinions publicly and in so doing scare away gay people whom you seek to receive? Are you then open and affirming of homosexuals, but not of people who consider homosexuality a sin? If you don't find at least some of these questions agonizing, I'm not sure what to say.
My "we" includes people who answer these questions in a variety of ways, but who at least share some degree of "agony" about the complexities of responding to people faithfully and pastorally. Sadly, though, some of the responses were very quick to turn my "we" into an adversarial us/them. To those of you who were adversarial, may I say that it is not a pleasant thing to be in your "them"? It helps me understand how gay people feel in your presence, and intensifies my sense of agony that I spoke of in the article.
I am no doubt wrong on many things. I am very likely wrong in my personal opinions on homosexuality (which, by the way, were never expressed in the piece, contrary to the assumptions of many responders). But I don't think I'm wrong when I say that "we" need to be more careful to preserve "we" and not let it deteriorate into us/them. I have seen what Paul said in Galatians 5:15 come true many times: people begin a feeding frenzy, biting and devouring "them," and eventually, after "they" have been dispensed with, the remaining "we" turns on itself. People learn the practice of attack, mockery, judgment, and exclusion on "them," but then their practice becomes a habit, perhaps an addiction. No matter how wrong you think I am, that is a danger you might want to keep in mind.
I hope readers, having now read my response - which is three times as long as the original piece - will not simply be content to pass judgment on me. Further, I hope this response will be disseminated as broadly as some of the original comments on it have been. I hope that we all will be able to engage in some prayerful self-examination (note the prefix self-) not only about our rightness, but also about our ability to be "wise. And loving. And patient." However flawed my original article was, and however flawed some responses may be, might we agree on the value of that?