Rules of Engagement: How to Have the Same Sex Marriage Debate in the Church

This week, my blog has been focused on the ongoing debate among Christians about same sex marriage, in particular, and LGBT issues, in general. This latest round of discussions had its genesis in the Rob Bell radio interview that went viral this week in which he called “bullshit” on the way the debate was going. I blogged my agreement with him and then responded to open letter to me that was written by a pastor who disagreed. This discussion has also been going on other places, including the Emergent Village Facebook page and on a variety of Facebook feeds where people liked and shared my Rob Bell blog post.¬†

vDE7GN6All of this has gotten me thinking that I would like to weigh in one more time on the subject. I don’t want to talk about the particular arguments for or against same sex marriage. In this particular blog post, I don’t want to have a conversation about how Romans 1 and 2 are to be interpreted. I don’t want to discuss our hermeneutical method. All of these things are important, but they are not the only things that are important.

I make the point in my book Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism But Didn’t Lose My Faith that it is not just important what we believe. How we believe is equally important. I think something very similarly here. The content of the same sex marriage debate is important. But of equal importance to the vitality and witness of the church is how we engage in this debate.

Humbly, and in the spirit of the hortatory subjunctives used throughout Hebrews, let me suggest the following guardrails to keep us moving forward in the journey we have embarked upon:

Let Us Take the Partisanship Out of the Debate

Personally, I am of the opinion that the church in America has sold its soul for political power and influence. I see this tendency on both the Right and the Left. We have let the rules of partisan discourse rather than the example of Jesus guide us. We have valued partisan victories over the advancement of God’s kingdom. And I think we have done this to our detriment.¬†Certainly, the gospel is political, but it is also, just as certainly, not partisan. Is it possible to have these discussions about same sex marriage and the needs of the LGBT community without addressing their political implications? Probably not. However, can we have them without our motivation being to score partisan points? I hope so.

Let Us Stay Rooted in the Reality of Relationships

Relationships are the stuff of life. We need to remember that we are not merely talking about abstract ideas. We are talking about people. The lives of real people, with real perspectives, real emotions, real hurts, real experiences in and out of the church. We can’t lump people into a group and make assumptions about their desires or “agenda” based on stereotypes. If the example of Jesus teaches us anything it is the importance of conversations with individuals, of touching persons, of being with people. This debate must not simply be among straight, white men in positions of privilege in the church. It needs to include the voices of the people most affected by it – lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians (and non-Christians, for that matter). Are we willing to develop friendships with new people? Are we willing to listen as much as we talk?

Let Us Assume and Affirm the Best in One Another

Few things shut down meaningful discussion like name-calling and assigning bad and false motives to people. For this debate to go forward in a productive way, I think we need to retire pejorative terms like “bigot,” “liberal,” “apostate,” “hick,” and the like. The reality is that most Christians engaging in this debate are motivated by impulses of the gospel. Concerns for holiness, justice, mercy, acceptance, and faithfulness are all good and need to be affirmed. It might temporarily make us feel better to demonize people with whom we disagree, but it is neither the way of Jesus nor a productive means of having a discussion.

Let Us Affirm the Complexities

Whenever we use words like “clearly” and “easily” and “simply,” we sugarcoat reality and sidetrack our ability to come to understanding. I experienced this when I used the word “easily” in my blog post about Rob Bell. The debate became about the word “easily” rather than something of more substance. The reality is that this debate is not easy or simple or clear. We are doing ourselves a disservice when we suggest otherwise. We ought not be scared of hard conversations. The church has waded through choppy waters in the past. We can do it now.

Let Us Embrace the Suck

Let’s just be honest. This debate isn’t much fun. It involves some of the most personal and private aspects of our lives. It picks at scabs of hurt and heartache. It forces us to face our deepest insecurities and biases. It can cause strains in friendships and family relationships. At times, we will not debate well. We will get angry. We will say cruel things. We will do more harm then help in our attempt to score points and win the debate. It will suck. But that is no reason to shy away. It will suck, and we may want to quit, but we must keep going, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of people.

Let Us Follow Jesus

The thing I find most compelling about Jesus is John’s description that Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” Trying to follow this example is the calling of my life. In this discussion, I will do all I can to remain true, honest, and real. And I will do all I can to remain gracious, kind, and optimistic. I hope you’ll join me.

 

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