Why This Christian Pastor Is Pro-Choice: It’s Personal

abortion-debate

Introduction

As a married, father-of-two, Christian pastor who was raised in the rural South as an evangelical Southern Baptist, many are quick to make many assumptions about me.

The most prevalent assumption is that I am on the Pro-Life side of the abortion debate, as many assume that one simply cannot be both a Christian and Pro-Choice. Many believe it is a black and white issue, a simple decision between good and evil, life and murder.

As a married, father-of-two, Christian pastor, I strongly support the 1973 decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Roe v. Wade. And, of course, I do not believe I am making a decision to choose evil. My convictions about abortion are strong, because my convictions are personal.

My Personal Story

It was the summer 1993. My wife Lori and I had been married five years and were expecting our first child. I had graduated from seminary the previous year and was serving with my first church as a Southern Baptist pastor in rural, Northeast Georgia. At our first OB/GYN appointment in Athens, we were told that our baby was due to be born on November 25.

During the last week of July, we drove to Athens for a highly anticipated appointment with our OB/GYN. We were scheduled to have an ultrasound that would hopefully determine the sex of our child. I remember being more excited than anxious about this appointment. The baby was already moving and kicking quite a bit. Lori would often call to me from another room in the house asking me to rush over to her. She would grab my hand and place it on the exact spot the baby was kicking so I could share her excitement. Lori was clearly showing at this time as strangers were beginning to approach us in public to offer their congratulations and to inquire when our baby was due.

As the doctor moved the ultrasound wand around on Lori’s abdomen and the black, white, and gray images of our baby appeared on a computer screen, I remember feeling like a wide-eyed child at Christmas getting a glimpse of the best present I could ever receive. We immediately heard a very strong and fast heartbeat. We then saw the outline of a head and a face. We saw arms, hands, legs, feet, even toes. After a minute or so, I impatiently asked: “Can you tell if it is a boy or a girl?”

Following my question, my anticipation heightened as there was a brief period of silence in the room, with the exception of the loud echo of a rapid heartbeat. Finally, the silence was broken as the doctor said, “It is really difficult to tell sometimes with our outdated equipment.” He moved the wand around for another minute and said, “The equipment that they have in Atlanta is far more advanced than mine. We probably need to make an appointment for you.” But before I could express any disappointment, he added: “There’s also something else going on that needs a better look.” He then handed the wand to the nurse and asked for us to come to his office where he would make an appointment for us to go to Atlanta. It was at that moment that my excitement was completely replaced by anxiety. Suddenly I no longer cared if it was a boy or a girl.

In his office, our doctor tried to break the news to us as compassionately as he could break it. It was obvious that he was struggling to communicate. At first, he seemed to blame the bulk of his concern on what he called his “antiquated ultrasound equipment.” I remember being irritated as I had no sympathy for the envy he possessed towards the doctors in Atlanta. As he seemed to be avoiding telling us anything specific, frustrated, I remember asking him directly, “But you suspect that there could be something wrong with our baby. Don’t you?”

He responded, “Yes.” A wave of anxiety came over me intensifying my stress. But then he added, “Again, you need another ultrasound before we can really determine how bad it is.”

It was a long and difficult two weeks before we could see the doctor in Atlanta.  Every time our baby moved or kicked, it produced a wide-range of emotions in both of us. We did not know whether to cry, giving into grief; or smile, opening ourselves to the prospects of hope. Of course, hope is what we wanted. It is much easier to hope than it is to accept anything that brings grief. We asked one another: “How can there be something wrong with a baby whose heart is strong?” We conjectured: “Perhaps the more advanced ultrasound equipment in Atlanta will tell us that everything is ok.” The second week in August, we nervously drove to Atlanta holding on to hope, even if was just a sliver.

I will never forget the way we were greeted by the medical team we met in Atlanta. They could not have been more hospitable and caring. After they greeted us like family, we proceeded to an examination room for the ultrasound. Again, as soon as the gel on the wand touched Lori’s abdomen, we heard the heartbeat, a beat that was so strong that it could not help but to grow that little sliver of hope. As he moved the wand, we could see the same beautiful images, perhaps a little clearer, that we saw in Athens. We easily recognized a beautiful head, but this time, we saw more pronounced facial features, a nose, lips, even eyes. Again, limbs, hands, feet, fingers and toes came into focus. Nevertheless, I still did not possess enough hope to allow one thought to cross my mind about trying to determine the sex of our unborn child.

The doctor, who had been attentive yet quiet during the entire exam, spoke for the first time by pointing out a curvature in the spine. He called it a “neural tube defect.” This was the first time I had ever heard of a “neural tube.” However, upon hearing the term, one does not need to be familiar with the importance of the neural tube to be alarmed, as the word “defect” that was attached to it is more than enough to cause one’s heart to sink, especially when it is said to describe your unborn child’s spine.

Immediately following the ultrasound, we met with the team of doctors, nurses and a genetic counselor in a large consultation room. In a compassionate, yet straightforward way, we were told that our baby’s spine “twisted,” probably during the early weeks of the pregnancy, and prevented the formation of an abdominal cavity. We were told that although our baby seemed to have healthy organs, there was nothing to contain those organs. Surgery was not an option. Our baby will certainly die during the birthing process. A counselor put her hand on Lori’s shoulders and handed her a tissue to wipe tears from her face.

The team graciously addressed all of our questions. They told us that many severe neural tube defects end in miscarriage in the first trimester, but in some unfortunate cases such as ours, they do not. They assured us that we could soon try again to have a child, as they believed the defect was more of an anomaly than it was genetic. They then presented us with our options.

One option was to do nothing but wait until the pregnancy reaches full term and the baby is able to be born naturally or by C-section. However, because of the severity of the defect, we would be unable to hold our dead child, and may not want to see him or her. Our baby’s remains would be immediately prepared for a funeral service.

abortoin-is-murderThe second option was to terminate the pregnancy immediately. However, if we chose this option, it would be considered an abortion, and due to the political climate of the day, there was only one hospital in the state of Georgia which would perform an abortion this late in the pregnancy. He said that we could go to several clinics, but we may have to endure picket signs and possibly hecklers from religious groups opposed to abortion. The thought of my wife, who was still wiping tears from her eyes, being called a “murderer” or a “baby killer” by people claiming to follow Jesus, people who had no idea who we were, or what we were going through, made me furious. We were also told that although our child had a strong heartbeat, because of politics, for the record they would state that our child had “no viable heartbeat.”

Although the second option sounded dishonest, even illegal, it was obvious to us that it was the best, most compassionate option. I could not imagine Lori waiting three more months, feeling the baby move and kick, feeling another life inside of her, all the while knowing that this life will never have a chance. We scheduled an appointment for a procedure to end the pregnancy two days later.

That night, we checked into an Atlanta hotel to await our next appointment. The grief we experienced was immense. All of our dreams for the future were suddenly taken away from us. Furthermore, although the doctors and genetic counselors assured us we could one day have a child, we knew that in life there were never any guarantees.

That evening, we decided to go see a movie to try to get our mind off our grief. Although I never second guessed our decision to terminate the pregnancy, our decision was affirmed by a stranger as we stood in line to purchase our movie tickets. A woman who was also obviously expecting to have a baby approached us. She smiled and said, “Aww. When is your baby due?”

My chest tightened as I looked at Lori and saw tears begin to well up in her eyes once more. I was amazed when Lori smiled at the stranger and said, “November 25.” She then somehow found the courage to graciously reciprocate the question. Politely, she asked the woman who was glowing with anticipation, “When is your baby due?” So much for us trying to escape our grief.

During the movie, Lori put her hands on her abdomen and told me that the baby was moving. I thought to myself that these next two days were going to be a living hell. I could not imagine asking Lori to wait three more months, not only feeling the baby’s movement, but to endure more oohing and awing and questions from well-meaning strangers, for me, was as unconscionable as it was inhumane. As I watched the movie that I really never watched, I remember thanking God for the gift of medical science and compassionate physicians that could help bring healing and wholeness to our broken lives.

As planned, two days later, the pregnancy was terminated in the hospital without complications. However, as the next several weeks and even months proved, terminating the pregnancy did nothing to immediately heal our enormous grief. When we came home from the hospital, Lori went to bed and stayed there for nearly a week. She did not feel like talking to anyone. During that mournful week Lori would not even talk to her mother, who called several times a day, every day.

Now, over twenty years later, our grief has long subsided as Lori and I are the proud parents of a 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. However, because of our experience, I continue to possess a very personal interest in the abortion debate which continues in our country.

Conclusion

The abortion debate centers around the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973. If many evangelical Christians had their way, and the Roe v. Wade decision was overturned in 1993, Lori would have been forced by the government to endure three more months of her pregnancy. Although her physical health was not in danger, as mentioned above, I cannot imagine the psychological trauma that continuing the doomed pregnancy would incur upon Lori. Today, we continue to be grateful to God for the healing gift of medical science, a compassionate team of doctors and nurses, and for the opportunity and freedom to make a safe and humane choice, a choice that we and our doctors believed would bring us the most wholeness and healing.

The issue of abortion is a complicated one. Like every person I have ever talked to about the subject, I do not believe abortion should be used as birth control. As a follower of Jesus who gave his life standing up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized (he also stood up for the rights of women who were treated unjustly by a patriarchal system), I believe very strongly in the sanctity of life. This is the reason I do not support capital punishment. However, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a personal and oftentimes complicated matter. Thus, I believe the only ones who should be a part of that decision are the parents of the unborn child, especially the mother, the doctors and God. The government should not be involved.

I fully understand the strong, moral desire of Christians to limit abortions in America. However, I do not think a government can legislate morality. This is why I believe the church should always be strong proponents of sex education and of the use of contraceptives. Unfortunately, the church has been either silent when it comes to sex education and contraceptives or has flat-out discouraged both. It is strange to me that many Christians who are against the Roe v. Wade decision are supportive of the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision to deny women healthcare coverage for contraceptives. It is also interesting to me that many Christians who claim to support a limited government are also the same ones who believe the government should be involved in matters as personal as pregnancies.

Life is not easy. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made. Sometimes the solutions are not black and white. Sometimes those decisions are not between a clear good and a clear evil. Sometimes we are forced to choose the lesser of two evils. I want to live in a country where I am free to prayerfully make such difficult choices, especially choices that are so personal in nature, without any interference from the government.

2007 Disicples of Christ Resolution Regarding Abortion

Issues of Homosexuality and the Church

INTRODUCTION

I am a heterosexual male born in 1966 to Southern Baptist parents who raised me in a conservative farming community in northeastern North Carolina. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Wingate College, a North Carolina Baptist school, in 1988. I then attended The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky where I earned a Master of Divinity Degree in 1992. After serving as a pastor for over ten years, I received my Doctor of Ministry degree from Gardner-Webb University in 2005. I was married to my wife of 26 years in 1988 and have two children. My son is 19 and my daughter is 17. I am currently ordained as a Disciples of Christ minister and am the senior pastor of First Christian Church in Farmville, North Carolina.

The only thing that sounds strange to me in the introductory paragraph above is the word “heterosexual.” This may be the first time I have introduced myself as a heterosexual. When I meet another person for the first time, I never mention my sexual orientation. The word “sex” or any word containing this powerful, three-letter word is never used during any introduction.

Thus, before I begin this article on the topic of homosexuality, I wish to state how uncomfortable I feel when identifying other people with terms such as “homosexual.” First and foremost people are people. They are human beings. They are our family, our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors; and for those of us who belong to a church, they are our sisters and brothers in Christ. Their sexuality helps to define who they are; however, it is not the only thing that defines them. Furthermore, I am also uncomfortable using the term “issues” to discuss homosexuality, because in most situations, I do not believe there should be any “issue.”

I am writing this formal statement in response to a recent request from an old college friend. Earlier this week, I received the following message on facebook: “Jarrett, I pray all is well with you and yours. Over the past few months I have read many of your posts with interest regarding the issues of homosexuality as it relates to church and a life of faith. As I continue to dig and examine my own stance on these and other issues, I was wondering if you would mind spelling out your stance and the basis for it. I would appreciate it. Thanks in advance.”

I replied: “Although I have many thoughts on this subject that may appear in some of my sermons and writings, I have never written a concise statement dedicated solely to this issue. So thank you for encouraging me to do so.”

As a pastor since 1992, the fact that this is my first attempt to “spell out my stance” on the issues of homosexuality as it relates to church and the Christian faith reveals not only the complexity of these issues, but also my fear of the powerful emotions that these issues invoke in others, especially in people of faith. As a pastor who lives paycheck to paycheck and seeks to avoid unnecessary conflict within the church that could stop a paycheck, there is a part of me that is fearful of the possible consequences of “spelling out my stance.” Yet, there is another part of me that believes that making such a statement is a necessary risk. Then, there is another part of me that realizes that the risk that I am taking by honestly and openly sharing my beliefs is insignificant when compared to the enormous risk my LGBTQ friends and family have taken through their honesty.

Thus, it pains me when I consider that my stance on these issues has changed very little since my seminary days in the early 1990’s, yet this is the first time I have “spelled them out.” During seminary, I was very aware that I would need to develop a stance if I was going to be a pastor the 21st century. Therefore, as a student I studied the scriptures and read all that I could read on the subject to develop a stance. However, for over twenty-five years, for purely selfish reasons, I have kept my stance rather private. There have been times when I have touched on it in informal conversations, alluded to it in sermons, led a brief Bible study or two on it, and posted or tweeted a snippet here and there; however, I have never “spelled it out” in black and white in a manner that is fully visible to the public. So, to all of my LGBTQ friends, and to family members and friends of LGBTQ persons, I sincerely apologize.

PREFACE

The first title of my blog Stumbling, Fumbling and Bumbling Behind Jesus aptly prefaces any “stance” that I take on any issue as it relates to faith. When it is about faith and theology, I do not have all the answers. I have not “arrived” as a Christian or Christ-follower. I like to think that I am on my way. Yet, along the way, I have the propensity to make many wrong turns and even break down on the side of the road. I have come a long way, but I still have a long way to go. For me, life is as mysterious as it is miraculous. The existence of God and the revelation of God through Jesus Christ is even more miraculously mysterious. God, the creator of all that is, is so large that I will never be able to wrap my mind around God. But I am comfortable with this. As Harry Emerson Fosdick has shared, I am at peace living “in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than living in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”

My mind is not only small, but I believe it is also flawed. Whether one calls it “original sin” or “the Fall of Humankind” or just a “messed-up planet,” I believe that all of creation is fragmented. Consequently, as a creature on this earth, I will always understand God and God’s will for the world as “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13).

Yet, to give my life meaning, purpose and fulfillment, I choose not to believe that God is completely unknowable. I believe life is in an inexplicable gift of grace, and I am compelled to express gratitude for this gift through a life of faith in the Giver. I have chosen a meaningful life of faith in God opposed to a meaningless life of agnosticism, and I have specifically chosen a life of Christian faith in God. I often wonder if I would have chosen this faith if I was born to parents in a part of two-thirds of the world’s population that are not Christian. Nonetheless, I am glad that I have had the opportunity to make this choice, and I am grateful for the way that this choice informs my beliefs and enriches my life.

Consequently, my limited understanding of who God is, how God acts and what God desires is derived from the words and actions of Jesus as revealed in scripture. This understanding continues to grow, change and mature, even through my doubts, as I “stumble, fumble and bumble” behind this Jesus with others who are on the same journey.

Therefore, any “stance” that I take on any issue as it relates to the church and the Christian faith is flawed and incomplete. Yet, I believe that it is always beneficial to articulate current beliefs with the purpose of sharing them with the wider community of faith so those beliefs can be tested, challenged and grow.

ISSUE OF CHOICE

I begin with what I believe is the obvious presupposition that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice. I believe most homosexual persons would rather live heterosexual lives if there was a choice involved. In fact, I have never met a homosexual person who did not tell me that at some point they wished they were attracted to the opposite sex to avoid the severe pain of rejection and condemnation from their friends, families and communities. I believe avoidance of this pain is the reason many homosexual people date and even marry someone of the opposite sex. I also do not believe in any psychological therapy or religious ritual that can change a person’s sexual orientation.

One day I had lunch with a self-professed, former homosexual man who had been through a Christian program to become “reoriented.” During lunch, he proudly announced that he had been “reprogrammed” by God to be attracted to women, and he was currently “happily married” to a woman. However, during the conversation he also shared, “Now, don’t get me wrong. I am still tempted almost daily by men I find sexually attractive.” As a heterosexual man who cannot fathom being sexually attracted to men, I did not deem his reprogramming very successful.

ISSUE OF SHAME

I believe any discussion on homosexuality and the Christian faith must acknowledge the shame that is associated with sexuality within many Christian faith communities. Outside of the church’s traditional definition of marriage, all sexual acts, including masturbation, are often characterized as vulgar, nasty, and just plain wrong. Even sexual desire and arousal are regarded as something indecent or lewd.

Many churches denounce sex education to children in public school curriculums, yet they have been too prudish to have any open and honest conversation regarding human sexuality in the church. The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, which is filled with descriptive sexual encounters, is seldom, if ever, read in the church as many find such content embarrassing, to say the least. As a preacher, I have upset people in the church by using the word “pregnant” to describe the mother of Jesus instead of simply saying “with child.”

At home, many Christian parents avoid the “birds-and-the-bees” conversation with their children until it is much too late; that is, if they do not avoid it all together. Even living in a world saturated with mass media inundated with sexual images, Viagra and Cialis commercials running 24/7, many Christians are more comfortable living in some puritanical state of suppression or denial than acknowledging that our sexuality is an innate part of who we are as human creatures. Consequently, sexual sins are widely regarded by people in the church as more heinous and more perverted than other sins, and the thought of same-gender sexual contact stirs up strong emotions of detest and disgust.

The church must recognize the disproportionate weight that it assigns to perceived sexual sins and honestly accept that humans are sexual beings created to experience ourselves and love others sexually. However, for this to happen, the church must learn to become willing to have an open discussion about our sexuality without shame and a misguided charge of emotions. Furthermore, many in the church should honestly admit that it is the perceived vulgarity of the images in their minds of same-sex genital contact that fuels part of the disgust they feel for homosexual persons.

ISSUE OF CELIBACY

Many people in the church teach that homosexuality is not a sin; however, homosexual acts are regarded as sins and should be avoided. Thus, they accept a homosexual person’s orientation, but they disagree with their lifestyle. Consequently, they encourage homosexual persons to abstain from same-gender sexual contact and to commit to living a celibate lifestyle. Although I believe there is a small fraction of a percentage of the human population that can, and probably should, commit to such a lifestyle, I believe it is wrong for any Christian, especially one who enjoys the intimacy and pleasures of sexual love, to encourage celibacy based solely on one’s sexual orientation. I believe it is blatantly arrogant to say, “You’re gay, so you can’t do that.”  It is also a preposterous suggestion. I believe that the studies of the struggle with celibacy among Roman Catholic priests and nuns teach us something very valuable about the importance of sexual love to a person’s mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.

ISSUE OF SIN

I often hear people say, “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” This implies that the sinner is somehow separated from the sin. Sin is reduced to a specific action that can be avoided. However, I do not believe sin is something that human beings living in a fragmented creation can avoid. Members of the church have asked me: “Pastor, if I go to Vegas and play the slot machines, will I be sinning?” My response is: “Even if you manage to somehow miraculously avoid walking through a casino while you are in Vegas and read the Gideon Bible in your hotel room every night; you will not be any less of a sinner than you already were.” Sin and brokenness are so much a part of this world and our lives, that there is no escaping it. The Jews once believed that sin could be avoided if 613 laws were obeyed. Not only is that a formidable task for any human, I believe Jesus would say even if one obeyed all 613 laws, they would not be any less of a sinner than the one who broke every one.

I have heard many people in the church use the euphemism “sexually-challenged” to describe homosexual persons. Every time I read or hear that, I want to respond: “Aren’t we all?”

I believe the church must understand that sin is a part of all of us, and there is no way we can escape that truth by avoiding certain acts or suppressing certain desires. I believe this is why Jesus said that those who have lust in their heart are just as sinful as those who commit adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). This is also why the Bible-believing religious people dropped their stones before the poor woman “caught in the act of adultery” when Jesus said, “Let those without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

ISSUE OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

Scripture is very important to me as I seek to follow the Christ that I believe is revealed in scripture. This faith in Christ begins with my reading and understanding of the written words. However my faith is not in the written words themselves, but in THE WORD that the written words reveal—the same WORD that was with God and was God and became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1).

I do not believe the Bible was ever meant to be read and followed by picking certain verses out of their context. I am fully aware of the seven passages in the Bible that some Christians pick out of context to condemn same-sex love, as I have studied them extensively. I am also aware of many more passages in the Bible that have been picked out of context to support slavery, Jim Crow laws, apartheid, the suppression of women, and even genocide. Reading and interpreting the Bible can be a dangerous exercise. It should be done carefully while prayerfully keeping in mind the overall message that is being revealed.

Historical and Cultural Context

There are several ways that I interpret scripture. One way is in the light of the historical and cultural context in which the words were written. Although the Bible states that God made the sun stand still (Joshua 10:12), I realize that was written in a time when the sun was thought to circle the earth, so I interpret the passage accordingly. Although the Bible speaks of the earth having four corners (Isaiah 11:12), I realize that it was written at a time when the earth was believed to be flat. Although the Bible describes epileptic seizures as demonic possession (Mark 5), I realize that was written at a time before the advent of psychology in the 19th century.

As a Christian I do not denounce science, but believe science to reveal truth about our world. Since I believe God to be the source of the world, I believe God to be the source of truth. Therefore, in the 21st century, I do not argue that the world is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth. I also do not practice demon exorcisms, and I do not believe for one minute that my college friend who suffers with severe epilepsy is possessed by a demon.

There was no knowledge of homosexuality as an orientation during the time period the Bible was written. Therefore, the word “homosexuality” does not occur anywhere in the Bible. Only words describing homosexual acts occur. In an age that was centuries behind any psychological or scientific understanding of sexual orientation, I believe some of the passages against same-gender sex were written with the understanding that all people are born with a heterosexual orientation. Therefore, the homosexual actions that are being condemned are actions of heterosexual persons. Thus, all homosexual acts were considered “unnatural” (Romans 1). Furthermore, such sexual acts were often committed to humiliate or dehumanize others. Thus, I believe some of the passages which are used to condemn homosexuality are actually condemning violent acts of degradation; not acts of self-giving love by two people of the same gender who are committed to loving one another.

I believe this is the sin most evident in the story of Sodom that we read in Genesis 19. The story reads:

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ 3But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house;5and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’

In the story, Lot extends gracious hospitality to two visitors (angels). These are considered to be unwelcomed outsiders or strangers by the people of the town. Verse four reads that “the men of the city” came and asked to “know” these men. “Know” is a biblical euphemism for sexual relations. Lot then “begs them not to act so wickedly.” Therefore, many have said that the wickedness of Sodom was homosexual behavior.

However, when one considers “both young and old, all the people, to the last man,” then it becomes obvious that this is a story of heterosexual persons desiring to have homosexual sexual relations for evil purposes. They desire to gang-rape these two outsiders as an act of humiliation to punish them for coming into their city. The wickedness of Sodom was violent acts of degrading inhospitality. Ironically, it is the same wickedness of many in the church who desire to mistreat and dehumanize homosexual people.

In the cultural context of scripture, I also understand that many of the laws of Moses (Leviticus 18, 20) were written to build a nation and to ensure that the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied. Therefore, since homosexual actions did not produce offspring, it was obviously condemned in the law. Semen, which was considered to be the source of future generations was understood as something very precious and was not to be wasted. This is why we read in Genesis 38 the story of God killing Onan for letting his ejaculate fall to the ground. Do I believe God really wants men to die if their semen is not always used for procreation? Of course not.

Jesus as a “Filter” in Interpreting Scripture

The main way I interpret scripture is as a follower of Jesus Christ. I confess Jesus as my Lord. This means that Jesus guides my interpretation of life itself. Jesus, then, becomes my criteria or my “filter” for interpreting all scripture. For me, Jesus is the fulfillment of all scripture (Matthew 5:17). Therefore, if a scripture passage is not in accord with the words and the works of Jesus, then I understand it as unfulfilled revelation.

There are countless examples of what I call “unfulfilled revelation” throughout the Bible. Because I seek to follow the way of Jesus, if my teenagers disrespect me, or I smell beer on their breath after they break curfew, I will never follow the scriptures’ command by having them stoned to death in the town square. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 reads:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

When I conduct pre-marital counseling sessions, I never advise the groom to stone his wife to death if it is discovered that she is not a virgin on their wedding night. Deuteronomy 22:20-21 reads:

If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

I also do not believe adulterers should be stoned (Leviticus 20:10), nor someone who marries his mother-in-law (Leviticus 20:14), nor someone who belongs to another religion (Leviticus 27:29), nor anyone for that matter as I cannot envision Jesus stoning anyone. Therefore, when I read that homosexual acts are an abomination and those who commit such acts should be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:13), I simply say, “Thank God Jesus has taught us a better way.”

Although the New Testament admonishes women to remain silent in the church (1 Cor 14:34), I dare not ask the women in my church to keep quiet. Not because I do not want to be fired, but because I do not believe Jesus wants them to remain silent. The Jesus revealed in scripture continually liberated women, making them disciples, allowing them to even sit at his feet (a place reserved for only male disciples of a Jewish Rabbi) as he interpreted the scriptures. Furthermore, although the New Testament admonishes slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, 1 Peter 2:18) my faith in Christ who loved and valued all people does not permit me to argue for the institution of slavery.

Throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus continually lifted up the lowly, stood on the side of the marginalized and outcasts, ate and drank at the table with presumed sinners, and offered unconditional love, extravagant grace and unearned forgiveness to all. Therefore, when I read scriptures that command the hate and stoning of homosexual people or the marginalization or oppression of any group of people, I understand it as being unfulfilled as it is in disagreement with the words and works of Jesus my Lord.

ISSUE OF NATURAL THEOLOGY

Natural Theology is widely used by Christians as an argument against homosexuality. Natural theology argues: “If it is natural, it is good. If it is unnatural, it is sinful.” This is why some Roman Catholics do not believe in contraception and discourage masturbation. Sex is for natural procreation; not unnatural recreation. However, I know of no one who believes that the only purpose of human sexual relations is for procreation. Most all understand that “making love” is important for intimacy and bonding in the relationships of persons committed to one another. There is no denying that my wife and I are closer and are more connected because of our sexual relationship. There is a good reason we call it “making love” as sexual intimacy makes the bond of love stronger. This is one reason we do not want our young teens to have sex. It is not only the risk of pregnancy that we fear, but also the risk of them becoming emotionally connected to another before they are ready for such intimacy and love.

The Natural Theology argument that heterosexuality is good because there exists a natural opportunity for procreation also falls short when one considers the violent act of rape. This argument follows to the logical conclusion that if the rape is heterosexual, and there are no contraceptives in place, then it is natural, and thus good.

The reality is that not all heterosexual acts are good. Some heterosexual acts are pure evil, such as rape and the exploitation of trafficked persons. Other heterosexual behavior, albeit non-violent, can be degrading and selfish. The church and society has been guilty of overlooking this reality. It is a tragedy that when I married my wife in 1988, it was still legal in the state of North Carolina for a man to rape his wife.

CONCLUSION: ISSUES OF GRACE AND LOVE

It is not the flaws in Natural Theology or even using Christ as the criterion for scriptural interpretation that truly informs my stance on this issue in the light of faith. For me, it comes down to my faith in the extravagant and oftentimes offensive grace of Jesus.

In Ephesians 1 we read these words: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”

I believe the entire Biblical witness testifies to this grace. It is a grace that lavishes. It is a grace that is extravagant, offensive and even appears overdone. The following are words I gleaned from a sermon by William Willimon:

Cain killed his brother Able in the very first chapters of our Bible. And what does God do? God lavished Cain. Cain is exiled from the community because of his actions, but God promises to go with him to protect him (Genesis 4).

Moses killed an Egyptian, breaking one of the big Ten Commandments. But God chose that murderer to reveal those commandments to the world and to lead the Israelites out of bondage into the Promised Land (Exodus 2).

David not only committed adultery, but killed the husband of his mistress (2 Samuel 11). Yet, Matthew proudly announces David in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1).

When it comes to forgiveness, when it comes to grace, when it comes to love, God lavishes. God always seems to overdo it. The riches of God’s grace are extravagant and even offensive.

The story of Jesus’ first miracle is a great example. When the wine gave out at a wedding party, what does Jesus do? He turns water into more wine. Not just some water into a little bit of wine. He makes, according to John’s estimate, about 180 gallons of the best-tasting wine they ever had. That sounds very gracious and extravagant to me. It also sounds like he may have overdone it a bit.

Then, there are all those stories that Jesus told. A farmer sows way too much seed. Most of it was “wasted,” falling on the wrong type of soil. But I suppose when sowing good seed in bad soil, you have to overdo it. You have to lavish the dirt with seed. And the seed that did manage to take root produced a harvest that is described as abundant.

The father of the prodigal son didn’t just welcome his returning son (who had committed untold sexual sins). That in itself is extravagant. But the father lavished the son. The father said to his servants, “Quickly bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on my son; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate!

It wasn’t that the Good Samaritan stopped and helped the wounded man in the ditch. It was the way he stopped and helped. It was the way he lavished the man pouring expensive oil on his wounds. Then he put the wounded man in his car. He took the man to the hospital and told the doctors, “Forget about filing insurance! Here’s all my credit cards, my checkbook, everything. I’ll be back in a week, and if that’s not enough money to treat the man’s wounds, I’ll give you even more!”

The reason that so many of us attend church at Easter is because God lavished us. When God offered us the very best gift that God had to offer, the gift of God’s self through Jesus of Nazareth, we reciprocated that gift with the very worst that we had to offer, the cross. But three days later, God not only raised Jesus back to life, but God gave him right back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.

There’s something built right into the nature of God, it would seem, that tends toward extravagance and abundance and excessiveness.

As people who have been called to inherit this nature, as the Body of Christ in this world, how do we live?  Are we stingy with our love?  Are we miserly with our forgiveness?  Do we scrimp on grace? Are we tight-fisted with the good news? Do we truly believe that the greatest commandment is to love God and our neighbor as ourselves? Do we truly believe that the greatest gift of all is love?

For me personally, the issue of homosexuality as it relates to the church and faith all comes down to the following:

I am an imperfect man living in an imperfect world. I have chosen to give meaning to my life and to others by deciding to follow Jesus as a disciple. My discipleship is not perfect.  I stumble, fumble and bumble behind Jesus. I do not have all of the answers, and while I am attempting to follow Jesus, I am bound to make many errors in judgment. However, if I am going to make an error when it comes to loving, accepting, and embracing another, especially one who has been marginalized and demonized by society and the church, I have chosen to err on the side of grace, even if I overdo it.

There are two things I do every Sunday morning that informs my theology. One is praying the Lord’s Prayer. The second is sharing the Lord’s Supper. I pray “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I drink from a cup and remember Jesus’ words: “This cup is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” I pray for forgiveness and I drink forgiveness and am reminded and challenged that as I am forgiven, I am called to forgive others.

Even if other Christians believe that I am wrong, and they firmly believe that in God’s eyes homosexuality is “an abomination,” I believe the overall message of the Bible persuades them to choose not to condemn, but to forgive. Choose not to hate, but to love. Choose not to restrain, but to lavish. Choose grace. Always choose to err on the side of graciously overdoing it.

Furthermore, for the very life of me, I can think of no harm that can come to the world or to the cause of Christ by overdoing it on the side of grace. I know of no lives that have ever been destroyed by overdoing it on the side of love. However, I am very aware of the irreparable harm and the deep wounds that come from withholding grace and restraining love as countless lives have been destroyed and lost to murder, war and suicide. The church has been embarrassingly and tragically guilty of doing tremendous damage to the world, as well as to the mission of Christ, by failing to follow Jesus’ simple command to love one another.

Of any human institution on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of grace, love and forgiveness. Without fear of being judged, condemned and ridiculed, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness. And receive grace. Receive love. Receive salvation. And then share it with others.

ISSUE OF CHURCH LEADERSHIP

Sadly, the majority of churches exclude homosexuals from church leadership. Current leaders of countless churches have judged their lifestyles as sinful, and thus unfit for leading others to love others. However, because I believe all Christians are sinners, yet God calls all people to do ministry, then I do not believe there is any issue whether or not a homosexual person can be a leader in the church.

There is no doubt in my mind that homosexual people who have been mistreated and condemned by society and especially by the church, have a very powerful message of love and grace to offer the world. I believe they have something very valuable to teach all of us about the love and grace of Christ, as well as what it means to be fully human.

ISSUE OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE       

“Biblical marriage” is convoluted to say the least. As far as we know, Jesus was not married. The Apostle Paul did not recommend marriage (1 Corinthians 7:8). Polygamy is endorsed by the Old Testament as a valid lifestyle for men (not women). The Old Testament is also full of archaic laws treating the woman as property in marriage. One law states that the wife is to be awarded to the husband’s brother in the event of the husband’s death (Deuteronomy 25:5). The Ten Commandments even treat the wife of a husband as property (Exodus 20:17).

Jesus spoke of marriage (Mark 10), but whenever he did, he did so to forbid divorce in order to protect the rights of the woman. Jesus valued women not as property but as children of God. Thus, when Jesus spoke of marriage, he was more concerned about the injustices that had been perpetrated against women within marriage than he was setting forth a prescription for marriage. Jesus spoke more about the importance of loving and upholding the rights of our vulnerable partners in marriage more than he spoke about males and females loving one another in marriage.

Many argue against same-sex unions stating that the purpose of marriage is for procreation. However, I cannot count the number of weddings I have officiated for couples who have surpassed the child-bearing age or are otherwise unable to have children. I have never said in any marriage ceremony that the purpose of the union is to bear children. What I do say is that “God has ordained the institution of marriage to guard, hallow and perfect the gift of love.”

If two adults love one another and desire to make a commitment to God to remain faithful to one another, to selflessly love and to cherish one another in a monogamous relationship until death parts them, to guard, hallow and perfect love, I cannot envision the Jesus that is revealed to me through scripture condemning such a desire nor preventing such a commitment. I have yet to officiate a same-sex marriage ceremony. However, in this fragmented world filled with such hate and loneliness, I will never stand as an obstacle to love.

ISSUE OF CIVIL RIGHTS

People in the church are using the Bible today in the 21st century to support the discrimination of homosexuals with the same type of biblical interpretation that people in the church used to support slavery in the 19th century and the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century. As a follower of the Jesus who continually stood up for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, I believe the church should do everything in its power to stand up for the rights of all minorities, including homosexuals.

ISSUE OF TRANSGENDERED, BISEXUAL, ASEXUAL, QUESTIONING PEOPLE

This issue probably deserves another 6,000 words. However, because the original question that I am addressing is regarding homosexuality, I am going to sum my stance in only a couple of short paragraphs.

We live in a fragmented world. I believe each person in this world, including me, is fundamentally flawed. This is why we need grace. This is why we need love. This is why Jesus said he came into the world to save it, not condemn it (John 3:17).

The Southern Baptist Convention recently voted to condemn transgendered people, as they have homosexuals and bisexuals (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2014/06/the-southern-baptist-convention-throws-transgender-people-under-the-bus/). Southern Baptists do not think they have made an error. They have no doubt about it. As I previously stated in the beginning of this document, I am hardly ever that sure of myself. However, I am sure of one thing. I believe in love. I believe God is love. I believe Christ exemplified and commanded love, especially toward those considered to be different, those that society marginalizes. I believe we were created for such love.

Again, if anyone thinks I am in error in dealing with this issue, I am perfectly okay with that; because if I am going to make errors in this world, I am always going to err on the side of love. I am going to err on the side of grace. And I am going to overdo it. I am going to do my best to love God and all of my neighbors. And all means all.