What Is the What?

Brief note: Since the church where I pastor, Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, voted on Sunday, April 17 to honor all marriages (gay and straight) by refraining from signing marriage licenses, I have been asked to present a justification of my views on receiving LGBTQ folks as equals in all aspects of the life of the church.  Here is a brief glance at the nature of my thinking on this issue. On Facebook, as many of you know, I tend to be kind of a smart aleck.  More to the point, I tend to be a decidedly liberal smart aleck—a fact that annoys some people, while others seem more appreciative of my sarcasm.  At any rate, I received a message on Facebook the other day from someone about whom I care a great deal.  It read, in part:

“Many of the people in my generation are politically what they are because of their upbringing. It would do us well to hear the "other" side in a constructive manner. For instance, I have been thinking about the homosexual question, and all of my learning and understanding comes from my conservative teaching.”

The note went on to ask that I offer some clarification of my views on the “homosexual question.”  Notwithstanding the implication that my snarkiness is often less than “constructive,” I take the message to be a genuine attempt on the part of the writer to understand a different view—admittedly, something about which I could do better myself.  Since I believe the request to be a serious one, and since my early “learning and teaching” also came from “conservative teaching,” I feel a certain responsibility to try to offer a serious answer about how I have arrived at my current theological convictions.  And while the nature of the medium in which I provide my response necessarily narrows the scope of how thoroughly I can address each issue associated with this question, I will try to provide a general account of how my beliefs have changed.

At the heart of what my questioner refers to as conservative teaching, it seems to me, is the issue of authority—namely, who or what guides my theological beliefs, and how those beliefs get converted into action.  Growing up, I learned that it was the bible that provided a blueprint for what to think and how to act.  If the bible said it, I was taught to believe it.  On this reading of scripture one operates under the defining assumption that the bible was written with the intention of providing a clearly understandable set of universal guidelines by which to live, one that extends to all times and all places.  In other words, what the bible said 2,500 years ago is just as binding today as it was then.  When it said not to steal, that was a universally binding command.  When it said not to murder, that was meant for me as much as for the Israelites wandering in the desert.  When it said, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10), that was supposed to apply to . . . wait a minute.  It was there that I ran into problems with reading the bible as a timeless blueprint, since big portions of it were ignored as being only for certain times and places.

So when Paul said that a woman “ought to have a symbol of authority on her head [either a veil or long hair], because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:9, cf., also 11:6), and I noticed that the women I knew never wore veils and often cut their hair short, I was told that Paul was issuing only a situational command.  That is to say, Paul was only speaking to women of his time.  But when, some verses later, Paul said, “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (14: 33b-34), I was told that he was speaking to women of all times and places.  It wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to tell consistently between time-bound and timeless commands.  I just couldn’t figure out why the command for women to be silent in church should operate beyond the first century Roman Empire, but that the command that women ought to wear veils and refrain from cutting their hair shouldn’t.

I concluded that the church operates in a decidedly different context now—one the apostle Paul could not have foreseen.  That argument began to change my mind about women’s ordination (another “question”—that is, the “women’s ordination question”—I had learned from early on was a theological no-no).  In fact, it made enough sense to other Christians around me that there had already been a substantial shift in many parts of the church over the issue of ordaining women.  As important as that hermeneutical shift was, however, my ideas about women in ministry were cemented when I finally received the honor of working side by side with them as colleagues.  I saw how gifted they were at tasks that I had been taught were to be reserved to males.  I worked with women who could preach and teach and administrate much better than I could (not necessarily a heavy lift, that).  I saw this as a way that, over time, the Holy Spirit was able to reveal a new conception of what God intended.  It didn’t necessarily mean that God had changed, but that the world in which we lived had changed enough that God’s true vision of the way things ought to be could finally be received.

It occurred to me, though, that another gradual revelation of God’s true design had happened even before the shift on women in the church.  The bible, while not commanding slavery, certainly seemed to condone its practice.  In fact, many people who, at one time, defended the practice of slavery did so while standing firmly within the tradition of biblical interpretation, using the bible as the defensive tool of choice.  However, we’ve reached a point where, looking back, it seems outrageous that anyone ever used the bible to defend this kind of treatment of other human beings.  It struck me that perhaps the church’s stance toward gays and lesbians might follow this same trajectory.  In other words, I thought that maybe the Holy Spirit is in the process of revealing to us God’s true vision of the way things ought to be with respect to homosexuality.  If this is the case, then we need not necessarily say that God has changed (though my colleagues who are Process theologians probably wouldn’t object to this description), but that the world has changed sufficiently to be able to receive the fullness of God’s truth on this issue.

But beyond what I take to be the inadequacies of a static view of biblical interpretation that seeks to match the brown shoes of scripture with the often black tuxedos of context, the thing I found most persuasive in changing my theological views of homosexuality was my contact with my brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian.  In the church where I minister there reside some of the finest people with whom I’ve ever been fortunate enough to work—people who just happen to have been be born loving others of the same gender.  These people are my parishioners; but more importantly, they are my friends.  My gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have the same love for Jesus in their hearts as all the rest of the people with whom I work.  They want to be a part of a community seeking to live faithfully as followers of Jesus.  They want this.  Unfortunately, though, the church has not traditionally wanted them back.  We have caused grave damage to people whose only crime was to be created different.  I found I could no longer view people for whom Jesus died as defective or degenerate just because the object of their affections happened to share the same anatomy.

I don’t have the space to go into a separate exegetical defense of the seven “clobber” passages, those passages in the bible usually cited as arguments against homosexuality; those arguments are well rehearsed on both sides (stay tuned for future articles on the “clobber” passages, where I’ll rehearse the arguments again).  My point here centers on how we identify authority.  I want to be clear about the fact that I’m not suggesting that the bible isn’t authoritative; I believe it is.  Instead, I’ve come to the place where I can no longer accept as authoritative the view that scripture is a handy guidebook, indexed with rules for every occasion.  Scripture acts as authoritative when interpreted within a community that seeks seriously to understand the story of God’s loving interaction with humanity in the person of Jesus the Christ.  And the community in which I interpret scripture consists of people who are better disciples than I am, but whose gender identity or sexual orientation differs from my own.   And, as someone who claims to follow Jesus, my primary vocation is to learn to love others (all others) with the same radical abandon as the Jesus who radically abandoned good sense by answering “the Derek question” and loving me.

by Derek Penwell

 

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell frequently crochets Mexican serapes from the tattered remnants of repurposed 1970s tube socks.