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How might we negotiate the issue of homosexuality while holding to a traditional Christian sexual ethic amidst ecclesiological chaos and fragmentation? How can we advocate for this perspective in the church and public square? The answers to these questions are intensely practical, and one article cannot do them complete justice, but I want to open one possibility by proposing an ecclesial ethics of otherness.
Perhaps the only place in our affluent American lives where avoiding the other seems improper, even damnable, is in church. Even this judgment might seem generous, given the spread of church growth sensibilities that seek new ways to legitimate homogeneity. That incurably modern impulse is successful, however, only as it betrays the core mission and identity of the church. The church’s very essence is, after all, a communion of others who are no longer truly other. We are family. Our common baptism is a common kinship bond, uniting us in all our diversity to Christ and to one another. On this basis we have been called by Christ to love one another as he has first loved us (John 13:34). In our baptismal vows we pledge ourselves to this love and to maintaining the conditions of peace, purity, and unity that love creates. The end of this, of course, is that all the other “others” will know that we are Christians because of this mutual, self-donating, filial love (v. 35).
Yet the goals of our common baptism remain elusive. We are prevented by our own propensity for schism from speaking with a common ecclesial voice to the dire theological and ethical questions being asked of the church. In recent years, in particular, the effects have been disastrous, as modern and postmodern interlocutors have arisen, one after another, to challenge the historic Christian confession.
The place to begin our negotiation of homosexuality is with sober reflection on our nature as baptized human beings. The integrity of genuinely universal Christian witness has suffered serious and scandalous loss. Not that things are as bad off as they could be. The little fidelities of countless communions and individual saints have been used mightily by God to build and sustain the testimony of the church. But things are much worse than they could have been– than they should have been–had we a better eye for the peace, purity, and unity of love to which our baptism calls us.
For Jesus, these conditions of catholicity are intended for the life of the world–“that the world might believe” (John 17:21). The embodied visibility of Christian unity is an essential component in our fulfillment of the Great Commission and represents a historical, not an eschatological, aspiration and goal.
I am persuaded, then, that the place to begin our negotiation of homosexuality in the current cultural landscape is with sober reflection on our nature as baptized human beings and with an admission that the problem of otherness is our common problem. Alienation and estrangement are the result of our common faithlessness and mutual failure to love. An episode from the stories of Abram/Abraham in Genesis helps to illustrate the dynamic at work with regard to otherness and the church. I will begin with the general principle and conclude by applying it to the particular issue of Christian homosexual otherness.
Abram, Sarai, Hagar, and Ishmael
God promised Abram a child. In Genesis 12:2, God pledged to make Abram a great nation, and in Genesis 15:5, God said to him, “Your very own son shall be your heir.” “Look toward heaven and number the stars if you are able to number them,” God said, adding, “So shall your offspring be.” The record then indicates Abram’s self-implicating belief in this promise and God’s reception of that faith as righteousness. In the passing of years, however, it seemed to take a long time for God to make good on these promises. Both Abram and Sarai were getting on in years–well past years in which Sarai could conceive a child.
In Genesis 16, Sarai decides to help God out by suggesting a practice common in that time and culture. Sarai’s Egyptian slave Hagar was still young enough to conceive, so Sarai offered her to Abram as a surrogate. According to the custom of the day, Hagar remained property and had no rights as a wife. The child that she would bear would belong solely to Sarai. Her words make this common cultural understanding clear: “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (v. 2).
For Sarai, it is God’s delay that frustrates the covenant and its attendant promises. The solution lies in the objectification of the “other”–in this case, the slave Hagar. We note with great irony that Hagar is no ordinary slave, but an Egyptian slave. Read in light of the full Pentateuch with its central story of the Exodus, the juxtaposition is positively scandalous. The godly patriarch and the godless Egyptian stand in a preemptive, ironic reversal of roles–a theme very much in keeping with the “wife as sister” scenes featured elsewhere in the stories of Abram and his son Isaac (cf. Gen. 12; 17; 26).
God will not be anticipated or manipulated, however, and as so often happens in the Scriptures, the stage is set for divine intervention in a situation of manifest injustice. Note how the narrative subverts Sarai’s scheming and with it the common pagan evaluation of Hagar’s status as an objectified other: “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife” (v. 3, italics mine). The author of Genesis certainly had a number of suitable words at his disposal if he intended to denote Hagar as anything other than “wife.” The subjugation of Hagar could have been maintained through a continued usage of “slave-girl” or the introduction of “concubine.” Either would have been suitable had the author wished to describe her as a member of Abram’s harem with a status subordinate to that of wife. In this case, however, the author deliberately uses the word “wife”–the very same word used in verses 1 and 3 to denote the status of Sarai.
Beyond this, the author of Genesis simply will not support Sarai’s identification of the coming child as her own. Verses 15 and 16 seem to insist through a three-fold, compounded repetition that Ishmael is the son of Abram and Hagar.
The resemblance of this episode to the Genesis 3 narration of the Fall is too striking to be accidental. In both stories, faithless disobedience results in the disintegration of divine-human and human-human relations. Note how Sarai’s original self-justifying complaint and her low regard for Hagar mirrors the original complaint of Adam after he was confronted with his sin by God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Abram’s acquiescence in the face of the original scheming of Sarai closely mirrors Adam’s acquiescence to Eve and Eve’s acquiescence to the serpent.
The plot having been hatched and conceived, Sarai and Abram react to Hagar’s somewhat understandable self-assertion with mutual contempt and suspicion. Sarai blames Abram for Hagar’s contemptuous look and Abram responds by reminding Sarai of Hagar’s original status. In Genesis 3, Eve is no longer “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone” (Gen. 2:23) but “the woman you gave me.” In the present narrative, Hagar is no longer “wife” but “slavegirl.” In other words, the present difficulty is ultimately God’s fault, and it can only be rectified through the disavowal and objectification of “the other.” Abram takes Hagar to his lap, hands her over to Sarai, and the relational fissures begin. The enslaved “other” falls victim to Sarai’s faithless scheme and Abram’s loveless acquiescence. But the “other” is not another’s problem here. The problem of otherness is Sarai’s problem. It is Hagar’s problem. It is preeminently Abram’s problem. Far from being the father of faith and blessing, Abram has become the faithless, loveless father of strife, sin, and discord.
Homosexuality and Our Common Problem
The presence of the homosexual Christian is a presence of otherness that bears strong analogies with the story of Genesis 16. If the analogy holds, the implications are clear: the homosexual other cannot be another’s problem, easily disavowed and driven into the wilderness. The baptized, professing homosexual Christian must be regarded as kin. The problems raised by homosexual orientation and homosexual activity become our common problems as a universal communion of churches, and it becomes our common calling in the power of the Spirit to serve the redemption and reconciliation envisioned in the Gospel.1 Why do I think that the analogy works? Because Romans 1:18-32, the New Testament Ur-text for reflections on homosexuality, places homosexual actions in subordinate relation to the broader and radical (radix) condition of sin–a condition that is common to all humanity.
Regardless of the discrete moves we make regarding the exegesis of Romans 1-3, some points seem uncontroversial. To begin with the conclusion, Romans 3:21-26 affirms the common sinfulness of all humanity and the common need of humanity for the justifying grace of God in Christ: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23).
The problem of otherness is Sarai’s problem. It is Hagar’s problem. It is preeminently Abram’s problem. Far from being the father of faith and blessing, Abram has become the faithless father of discord. Attending to the beginning from this conclusion, thus, we may then take up Romans 1:1-18 with its condemnation of homosexual activity as but one manifestation of social and relational de construction brought about by divine judgment of our common radical unrighteousness and our common ethical suppression of divine self-revelation.
While it is true that St. Paul regards homosexual activity as perhaps the singular manifestation of divine judgment among pagan Gentiles, to applaud this condemnation of the other would seem premature. For immediately after plumbing the dregs of Gentile immorality, he immediately turns to condemn a supposedly “righteous” constituency on precisely the same grounds.
Whether we conclude that Paul’s hypothetical interlocutor in chapter 2 is a pagan moralist or an observant Jew, the resultant point should be understood as applicable to the entire Jewish-Christian/Gentile-Christian ecclesial amalgam in Rome ca. 57. In Romans 1-3, then, we arrive at precisely the same place as in Genesis 16. At the very point where we turn to disavow and condemn the other to the wilderness, St. Paul reminds us that we disavow and condemn ourselves (2:1). Taken together, the witness of Genesis and Romans bears sobering testimony to the reality that all of us stand together under condemnation and apart from the righteousness of Christ revealed in the gospel. While all of us do not literally engage in homosexual activities, the deeper social and relational deconstruction from which homoerotic action springs is part of the lived experience of each one of us. The common relational wellsprings are those of brokenness and sin, and each of us has a share in every one of its social-relational manifestations.
St. Paul’s sentiments are captured admirably in the well-known aphorism we learned as children: “Every time we point a finger of blame at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at us.” As he seems to indicate by moving directly from the vice list of chapter 1 to the indictment of chapter 2, Paul shows us how the presence of sin’s debasement in others can illuminate our own, analogous sins with their corresponding debasements. We name the ugliness of ourselves even as we name the ugliness of sin in the other.
Naming Sin While Repenting
Framing the discussion this way in no way forbids us from identifying homosexual desire as disordered and homosexual activity as sinful. Returning to our analogy: however pale compared to the sin of Abram and Sarai, Hagar’s insolent attitude can still be named as an act of culpable sin. The very fact that St. Paul names homosexual activity as sin in Romans 1 necessitates that we echo his verdict undiminished. Our common sin problem is not simply solved by the redefinition of evil or by a cowardly refusal to name the powers. Discernment is one of the manifold gifts that God has given in the Spirit of Christ, and it would be an incomparable desolation if we were to withhold from human beings the normative grace of the church’s teaching and regulative authority.
Nor does this framework imply that we cannot call the baptized homosexual to a life of chastity and obedience. Hagar can be called to return to her mistress and husband with integrity, and great blessing, as God has promised, will surely be the result. The difference, however, is that she does not return to a household that continues to disavow and objectify her. Abram can no longer fail to love her and Sarai can no longer abuse her. Indeed, she does not return as a slave at all, but as a wife. Redemption of the situation, then, requires the repentance of Abram and Sarai even as it requires the repentance and return of Hagar.
Like Abram and Sarai, we have much to repent of. One of the nefarious failings that the present debate has revealed in the Protestant communions is our common and conspicuous lack of attention to the classic spiritual blessings of asceticism, celibacy, and obedience. The integrity of our witness is undermined when we call a gay or lesbian Christian to chastity and obedience while daily coddling American gluttony, its divorce culture, its instrumental materialism and obsessive consumerism.
We name the ugliness of ourselves even as we name the ugliness of sin in the other. In the past year in particular, Christian orthodoxy has seemed to suddenly dawn on mainline Protestant communions with regard to this one issue. Never mind that these same denominations have for years withheld normative discipline in cases of manifestly heterodox and theologically incompetent clergy, sexually licentious and adulterous parishioners, and multiply divorced and remarried Christians of all vocations. Speaking of the discipline of sin in the church, St. Paul writes that when one has been caught in transgression, those that are spiritual should restore with a spirit of gentleness and keep watch lest they themselves succumb to temptation (Gal. 6:1). While playing ophthalmologist to gays and lesbians, we might do well to remember these California redwoods in heterosexual eyes and allow their memory to temper our enthusiasm at championing an only one-sided, and probably homophobic, orthodoxy (cf. Matt. 7:23).
Corollary to the naming of sin is the necessity to name heretics as they appear. A catholic conception of ecclesiology suggests that in some sense “what touches all should be approved by all.” While this is an agonizingly difficult aspiration to realize in our present, separated context, heretics can be named according to a process of consensus building across divided communions. For someone to be legitimately called a heretic, it would not be enough for him or her simply to be wrong or incorrect with regard to a matter of faith and practice. Heresy means “to choose for oneself” and denotes one whose deviation from the faith is essential, innovative, and obstinate according to the judgment of the church. In the case of the heretic, it is not simply the deviation but the unilateral decision to “go it alone” that separates one from the church. Heresy, then, is not simply a failure of confession; it is a failure of charity. The one who innovates with regard to matters of faith and morality bears the heavy burden of ecclesial fidelity and must work to gain consent of the universal faithful before acting.
Finally, we must be engaged in the hard work of repenting all the way. The first of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses reads, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
We must be engaged in the hard work of repenting all the way. There is no room for an entrenched, self-congratulatory posturing with matters of ecclesial import. After all we have learned from the story of Abram and from St. Paul, our naming of sin and our naming of heresy can only be done with integrity as we proceed from a prior disposition of brokenness and penitence. When we name sin and when we name heresy, we name our own sin and our own heresy. In calling others to a greater fidelity to Christ, we are simultaneously implicating ourselves to labor at the same enterprise. The contemporary question of homosexuality and the presence of the baptized homosexual other cannot be resolved in a reductionistic, unilateral, and triumphal demand that homosexuals and revisionists recant. Rather, it demands us to be the church–an embodied communion of love. A full ecclesiological ethics of the other demands our mutual attention to the voice of one another as other, our mutual self-donation, the mutual recognition of our contingency, and fundamentally, our mutual conversion to Christ.
Separatist or Catholic?
In the end, we are faced with two postures toward the homosexual other: the separatist ethic and the catholic ethic. The ethic of the separatist is exemplified in Robert Browne’s tract, Reformation Without Tarrying for Anie (1582). Browne was dismayed by English Puritans who resolved to remain in communion with the Church of England, hoping to reform her from within. Browne eschewed the idea that the civil magistrate should be entrusted with the ultimate hope of realizing Puritan goals, and this has made him a hero for those who advocate a sharp separation between church and state. The shadow side of this achievement is more rarely noticed. Deciding that the English Church was irreformable, Browne ultimately lumped together the magistrate, the bishops, and any puritan clergyman who dissented from his reforming program. Believing his way to be the only way compatible with Christ’s “crown and covenant,” Browne decided to go it alone and advocated a sharp separatist agenda. In the end, Browne had succeeded in disavowing the other and had conveniently exempted himself from any duty to charity, obedience, and catholicity. Ironically, Browne became by definition a heretic.
The catholic ethic is both harder and less efficient to realize. It requires an arduous road of corporate discernment, prayer, and repentance. To engage in a final analogy, I believe our situation with regard to the homosexual other to be very much like that of the ante-Nicene church from A.D. 264 to 324. Although Arius is usually associated with the full-blown heresy bearing his name, Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch, was perhaps the first to raise the specter of trinitarian heterodoxy. Rooted in the contemporary questions of Greco-Roman philosophy, Paul denied the personality of the Holy Spirit and of the Logos and regarded them as mere powers of the one God.
Interestingly, it was not merely his error but the manner in which he held his error that was so problematic for the early church. As Philip Schaff tells it: “The bishops under him in Syria accused him not only of heresy but also of extreme vanity, arrogance, pompousness, avarice, and undue concern with secular business.” 2 Although he was condemned and deposed in the synodical actions of the bishops of his day, the Antiochene synods of 264 and 268-9 were not yet willing to accept the homoousias formula later canonized by Nicea in 325. It is important to note that bishops had all the traditional guidance of the Scriptures and of its liturgy to settle on the status of Paul, but catholic language and catholic assent to a positively formulated dogma would continue to be worked out for several decades. Similarly, our present ecclesial situation faces new questions raised by the contemporary voices of modern psychology, sociology, and epistemology. While traditional readings of the Scriptures, our historic liturgies, and sacramental practices assist us in grappling with these new questions, it must be admitted that these represent fundamentally novel questions. In both cases we are working toward the discernment of catholic language and assent rather than from it.
In commenting on the text from Psalm 69:10–“And I wept, my soul fasted”–John Calvin penned words that ought to guide us to a new repentance and to a renewal of our service to the peace, purity, and unity of the church:
David here proves, by the signs or effects, that his efforts to promote the Divine glory proceeded from a pure and well-regulated zeal, inasmuch as he was not impelled or inflamed by the impetuosity of the flesh, but rather humbly abased himself before God, choosing him to be the witness of his sorrow. By this he shows the more evidently the incorrigible perversity of his enemies. It frequently happens, that those who set themselves boldly for the vindication of the glory of God, provoke and exasperate the wicked to a higher pitch by opposing them contentiously and without moderation. But David’s zeal was so tempered that it ought to have softened even the hardness of steel.3
May our zeal for the purity of the church continue to be tempered by an equal love for its peace and its unity.