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Opening the Door

By February 15, 2007 No Comments

Norman Kolenbrander

I’ve decided it’s time to “come out of the closet.” No, I am not about to leave my loving wife of forty-four years for a same-sex partner. I’m coming out to stand in solidarity with gays and lesbians who have all too often been pitched out of the church either by default or design.

As a pastor in the Reformed Church in America, I seek to be guided by the word of God as expressed in scripture and revealed in Jesus Christ. In fact, listening to that word and heeding that word has been at the heart of my ministry. I think if you asked members of the churches I have ser ved, they would acknowledge that whatever else they have thought of my preaching and teaching, whether scintillating or sleep-inducing, they knew that their pastor, before he climbed into the pulpit, had lived with the text, prayed over the text, struggled with the text, and then sought to expound the text and not his own ideas.

The longer I served as a pastor however, the more I realized that listening to the text alone was not sufficient. I also had to listen to those who listened to me. I had to know them and love them in order to bring that word to them in meaningful ways.

It is precisely that dual encounter with scripture and with those whom I have been called to ser ve, that has led me to “change my mind” about the place of gays and lesbians in the church.

Surprisingly perhaps, the book of Job has been instrumental in my growing awareness. Admittedly, I cannot find any hints in the book of Job about what God or Job or Job’s three friends thought about the issue of homosexuality or homosexual practice. What I have discovered, though, is that this book has a lot to teach about how we read scripture and listen for the guidance of God.

For example, Job, who staunchly insists he has done nothing to deser ve the terrible sufferings that have aff licted him, receives this advice from his “friend” Eliphaz: “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed” (Job 4:8-9). Eliphaz knows his Bible; he is practically quoting from Proverbs 3:33, ” The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous.” Or take the perfectly good advice of Zophar: “Do you not know this from of old, ever since mortals were placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless is but for a moment” (Job 20:4-5)? Zophar obviously knew Psalm 1 by heart, “for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Ps. 1:6 ). Good work Zophar.

With Bible students like these advising Job, does it not come as something of a shock when, near the end of the book of Job, God weighs in on their well-meaning contribution? ” The Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has'” (Job 42:7).

What has gone wrong? Why is God angry with the wise scripture-quoting friends of Job? I think it is because, while they quoted scripture correctly, they had not “read” it correctly, nor had they “read” Job correctly. In principle, what they said was true, but in fact, it did not apply appropriately to Job. They had failed both in their hermeneutic and in their pastoral care.

In the past, when I considered the issue of homosexuality and homosexual practice in the abstract, it seemed quite clear that homosexual practice was forbidden by scripture. When homosexuals and parents of homosexuals began to share their agonies and struggles with me as a pastor, I came to another conclusion. Does that mean I am wishy-washy, easily swayed, and do not know how to stand up for biblical truth? Or might it be that listening to and caring for, that is, “reading” these folks, taught me something about reading the text?

Sometimes listening to the text of scripture in a new context helps us discern things previously overlooked. One familiar example might be the church’s stance towards slavery. For much of its history, the church did not renounce slavery. Certain passages in both Old and New Testaments seemed to uphold it. Yet in the fullness of time Christians realized that whatever the “permissive” stance certain passages seemed to offer in favor of slavery, the weight of Jesus’ command to love one another and the “freedom” in Christ that the Apostle Paul sets forth in passages such as Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” meant that slavery in all its forms must be renounced and abandoned.

Though for many years it seemed to many that scripture permitted the practice of human slavery, the seeds for the destruction of slavery had been planted in the heart of scripture.

I have also learned that scripture itself brings “new” interpretations of itself or if you will, new understandings appropriate to new situations.

New experiences and new interpretations under the guidance of the Spirit led to new understandings that now seem so obvious we wonder how previous generations could have missed them. A nother example of the way many faithful Christians today understand scripture in a way different from previous generations is the matter of women ser ving in the “offices” of the church. This practice is now understood by most members of the Reformed Church in America to be in accordance with the major thrust of Christ’s teaching and action. We have come to recognize that the contributions of women in ordained leadership are a great and timely gift to our church, without which we would be not only unfaithful to the gospel, but much the poorer.

I have also learned that scripture itself brings “new” interpretations of itself or, if you will, new understandings appropriate to new situations. For example, after the people of Israel returned from the Babylonian exile, as they pondered how to be more faithful, there was a great desire to avoid some of the sins and errors that had led God to send them into captivity. There was awareness that Israelite marriage to “foreign women,” who worshipped other gods, was one of the inf luences that had drawn the people of Israel away from faithfulness to YHWH. Likely this practice had even accelerated during the years of captivity. Thus, upon their return home, as Jerusalem was being rebuilt, the scribe Ezra, after prayer and fasting, instituted what to us seem cruel and draconian measures that must have caused unimaginable suffering and heartache.

In Ezra chapter ten, after offering a long list of the families of priests, Levites, and others who had married foreign women, the book of Ezra concludes, “A ll these had married foreign women, and they sent them away [emphasis added] with their children” (Ezra 10:44). Similarly, in Nehemiah 13:1-2 we read: “On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God…”

A different approach to “foreign women” is found in the book of Ruth. This book, though set in the time of the “Judges,” may have been written in response to the approach found in Ezra-Nehemiah. Here we are reminded that Ruth, the Moabite “outsider,” after her Jewish husband dies, returns to Israel with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth embraces Israel’s God, YHWH, she marries Boaz, and becomes the great-grandmother of K ing David! In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, Ruth the Moabite shows up, one of many surprises in the story of Jesus’ ancestry.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul offers still another understanding and approach to the issue of the “foreign” marriage partner in sharp contrast to the approach found in Ezra- Nehemiah. In I Corinthians 7, Paul offers some advice which he frankly admits is not directly from the Lord, but is his own considered judgment on a knotty matter affecting the f ledgling church. ” To the rest I say–I and not the Lord–that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. A nd if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband” (I Cor. 7:12-14).

Apparently there are some situations that call for human discernment–discernment for which one cannot claim direct authority from God, yet a discernment that may be exercised after carefully interpreting the scriptures and employing the best available human understandings in ways that address the lives of believers in the spirit of the love of Christ.

Apparently there are some situations that call for human discernment–discernment for which one can not claim direct authority from God, yet a discernment that may be exercised after carefully interpreting the scriptures.

Much has been written about how one is to interpret the Biblical texts that prohibit homosexual practice. The texts in Leviticus, for example, may best be understood in the context of the necessity of avoiding the pagan sexual practices of the Canaanites which linked homosexual practice with the worship of idols.

Similarly, in Romans chapter one, the Apostle Paul insists that the f lagrant hedonistic same-sex relationships that were so much a part of the Greek pagan culture are to be abhorred, and that the Christian life is to be defined and defended over against such living.

But whatever else these biblical texts seem to say to us, they do not address the issues posed by the dedicated Christians who have sought my counsel–persons whose orientation is homosexual or lesbian and who do not want a hedonistic “gay” lifestyle, but want to live in a life-long, loving, and committed relationship with a partner, a privilege most of us take for granted.

In listening to their lives, I learned that they had longed and hoped and prayed for hours, even years, desiring to experience an attraction to the opposite sex, an experience that to me, as a growing boy, had come unbidden, much to my astonishment, as a fearful and wonderful force.

There is still no complete scientific consensus as to why some folks do not have that experience. There are long debates about the relative role that nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) play in our sexual orientation.

But does our interpretation of scripture and our understanding of our Christian faith lead inexorably to the conclusion that those who experience same-sex attraction must forever be denied a life-long, committed relationship with a partner?

I am increasingly convinced that careful reading and interpretation of the biblical text, wise appropriation of the best that current research and understanding can offer, and prayerful listening to the lives of our homosexual and lesbian children, brothers, and sisters, will lead us to an affirmation of the committed relationships they desire and provide for them the same grace-full welcome in the church that God continues to grant to us all.

Norman Kolenbrander is a “retired” pastor in the Reformed Church in America, living in Pella, Iowa.
Norman Kolenbrander

Norman Kolenbrander

Norman Kolenbrander is a retired Reformed Church in America pastor living in Pella, Iowa.