Bonds of relationship, though tested and at times painfully frayed, proved strong enough in the end to endure. Would that be so in the church as it deals with the tensions of same-sex relationships…
A Divisive Issue
In our present time, no issue has become more divisive than same-sex relationships and the role of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church.
The Reformed Churches in the canton tried to address the challenge of same-sex relationships, which had arisen in some more urban congregations as a pastoral issue. After much study and reflection, they decided that covenanted relationships of a same-sex couple (not a marriage) could receive a blessing if the couple, the pastor, and the congregation were willing and desiring to do so. If, on the other hand, a pastor and their congregation were opposed to such a practice, they could abide by those convictions. Nothing was imposed—only an option was provided.
Congregations today no longer look primarily to denominational offices for information, direction, and ministry resources.
Because of growing congregational autonomy, there’s increased resentment and even resistance to funds that are required or expected to flow from local churches to “headquarters.”
In a word, the trend today is that congregations, rather than denominations, know best.
Suddenly, denominational ties, which seem to be of such questionable merit, are made so paramount that an act of blessing by one jeopardizes the loyalty of another a hundred or a thousand miles away.
During one presentation, the famous German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, now ninety-one, gave a moving presentation on the General Council’s theme, “Living God, Renew and Transform Us.” Three younger women theologians from the Global South were then invited to make responses. And while Moltmann didn’t directly address the question of same-sex relationships, Nadia Marais from South Africa did. A brilliant young theologian now teaching theology at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, Marais is also ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church. Describing “a church in the spirit of Mary Magdalene,” she spoke passionately about how our Reformed understanding of God’s saving and liberating grace compels us to accept the gift of those whose sexual orientation differs from the majority:
It is . . . unthinkable for a church in the spirit of Mary Magdalene to withhold grace from our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, our bisexual friends and transsexual family, our intersex sons and transgender daughters—those who belong with us to the body of Christ . . . not only because it is an injustice, but also because it is a betrayal of the very grace that calls the church together. – This is from the text of Nadia Marais’s unpublished remarks at the WCRC General Council in Leipzig, Germany, on June 30, 2017.
Later she told me that many in the church keep wanting to say that faith depends on grace plus something else, like a specific understanding of marriage. Or in the acceptance of apartheid, it was grace plus a specific understanding of race. But it’s only grace.
Moreover, when this lifestyle is “exported” to the Global South, it is often described by church leaders as another form of Western colonialism trying to impose a foreign way of life on their cultures. Thus, the controversy over same-sex relationships gets subsumed in the ongoing narrative of the legacy of colonialism, in which the West attempts to impose social and cultural values that are foreign to the traditions of their societies.
Conquering the Divide
Defeating these divisive wars in the life of the church is imperative for world Christianity’s future vitality.
What is it that makes this difference so threatening? And why should this question determine the boundaries of Christian fellowship?
Answering those questions requires (1) honesty about faith and culture, (2) honesty about the role of politics in the church’s discernment of moral issues, and (3) honesty about the diversity of faithful biblical interpretation.
It’s not coincidental that several African church leaders who affirm same-sex relationships, such as Desmond Tutu, are found in South Africa, which has constitutional protections for gay and lesbian persons and is the only country in the African continent that has legalized same-sex marriage. Again, this doesn’t diminish the courage and integrity of voices like Bishop Tutu’s, since the church in South Africa remains divided on this question, but it does point to the importance of one’s cultural and political context.
Evolving cultural attitudes and political movements continually raise questions requiring fresh biblical and ethical discernment on social issues.
The plea here is for honesty from all voices in the church about how culture inevitably shapes and influences the convictions that are brought to the controversy over same-sex relationships.
Overcoming the divisive, alienating conflict spawned by this difference requires reflective honesty about the constant dance between culture and faith in which we all are participants.
Defusing divisive culture wars in the church over same-sex relationships will likely require shedding the secular political models of debate that all bring to this controversy. Any church body taking up the discussion of same-sex relationships must seriously consider how to alter its internal organizational culture and methods of decision-making. Fortunately, models for doing so exist, with a history of exploration and practice.
A growing body of literature and experience has been developing over the past twenty years exploring models for transforming the decision-making style and culture of church bodies.
Further, it takes such changes in the culture of decision-making and discernment to create safe spaces for the voices of gay and lesbian persons within those communities to speak and to be heard with open hearts rather than judgmental attitudes.
Defeating divisive culture wars in the church over same-sex relationships requires honestly recognizing a diversity of faithful biblical interpretations on these questions. Presently this controversy is often framed as between conservatives who take the Bible seriously and liberals who just ignore the parts of the Bible they don’t like, emphasizing instead human experience, science, or other factors. Such a framework is wrong, dishonest, and injurious on many counts.
- What are some of the subjects that have been divisive, both in culture and in the church? What examples does the author give?
- In what ways are the global church and some faith communities in the Global North and West not in agreement on certain cultural perspectives? How does that affect the way we interact in the church?
- The author suggests that defeating divisive wars in the life of the church is imperative if world Christianity will have a vital future. Do you agree or disagree with this? Why?
- In what ways does the author suggest we must be “honest” as we work on breaking down barriers to Christian fellowship?
- How and where do we find common ground, even as we hold differing views? What is the most important thing or belief that holds us all together as Christians?
- What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?
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