A Church Home: Tim Otto’s “Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships”

A Church Home: Tim Otto’s “Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships” February 15, 2015

Tim Otto is a dude who believes gay marriages can be biblical and fully in line with what God wants for a couple, but he has taken a vow of celibacy as a way of living out obedience to his church and the intentional community in which he lives. He’s a great guy–I interviewed him for my book–and well-positioned to offer insights to churches on all sides of the various current controversies over homosexuality. Oriented to Faith is excellent and super-readable, broken up into short chapters which are mostly not too short; it’s designed to be read in small groups, with discussion questions and all that, and it will challenge everybody who reads it.

The book tells Tim’s own story glancingly, showing us moments in his life which illuminate the insights he wants to offer about community, church as family and as alternative economy, growing up gay, shame and hope, and similar themes. It’s clear that he’s one of the many gay Christians who have been wounded by the intra-Christian conflict around homosexuality. His book strives to help Christians discern God’s will on these questions without damaging the actual gay people in the pews.

The best things about the book from my perspective were the depictions of life in community. Tim is very serious about church as an alternative to global capitalism–church as a place of stability rather than restless motion, a place of peace created by, among other things, shared finances and shared futures. The solidarity he has found in community is what has made it possible for him to live a fruitful rather than self-hating or despairing celibacy. This solidarity supports married community members as well (I’d have liked more discussion of that, actually, the good and the bad sides of marriage-within-community, but I get that Tim didn’t necessarily feel that he could tell other people’s stories) and allows the community to serve those in need. It’s a portrayal of how Christian life can be which sounds much more like the Book of Acts than like the Sunday-morning, parking-lot church most of us do our best to fit in around the edges of our individualism.

The biggest problems I had with the book can all be summarized as: Protestantism. Sorry y’all. Everything from proof-texting (there are pages where Tim gestures toward a holistic reading of Scripture, but mostly when he grapples with the Bible it’s all what does the Greek refer to in its immediate historical context and not at all how has the Church understood these passages over time) to pop-Malthusianism.

There’s also a strangeness, to Catholic ears, in his portrayal of what it means to be church. On the one hand his church is inspiring, and his obedience to it is striking and challenging. On the other hand… it’s so isolated! Each church decides major ethical questions–pretty much everything not in the Creed–for itself, with no outside authority linking them to which they must respond. I came away thinking that this doesn’t actually sound like how the first Christians operated. Aren’t most of the epistles written precisely to link churches across geography, to make sure no church is an island? The apostles worked hard to prevent the kind of every-church-for-herself miniaturism Tim depicts as an ideal state of liberty and charity.

That’s obviously only one way of reading Scripture. But I ran up against this division in our understanding of what it means to be church in many parts of the book. For example, Tim sometimes opposes humility to certainty, as if humility is when you accept that you might be wrong about something.

It’s good to acknowledge our own limits, and that probably does help us actually be humble toward others, but humility isn’t really about being unsure, I think. (I’m not sure how sure I am about this! How sure is Tim?) Humility is more about putting God’s will and others’ needs ahead of our own will and needs; it’s something you can do even when you are sure. You can humbly oppose injustice, you know, even when you’re sure it’s injustice. Humility is about an outward-focused attitude of submission and delight in the other; I don’t see how that requires a meager epistemology. When our beliefs about Christian sexual ethics become something we defend because they’re ours, with an attitude of ownership, a lack of concern for others, or a focus on having the correct opinion rather than living with love, then our defense of that ethic is prideful. But simply, sincerely believing that the Church has the authority to teach on sexual ethics is not in itself prideful. It’s not (or it needn’t be) a form of self-justification.

But the more important thing to say about Tim’s book is that you should read it. It’s short! He’s quite winsome:

In high school, when I was honest with myself, the “good news” didn’t always seem so good. As I tried to evangelize my friends, the gospel seemed to boil down to, “Please have a relationship with my invisible friend Jesus.” When my friends would asked me what a relationship with Jesus meant, I would fumble, “Well, it means having daily devotional times. Then you’ve got to go to church on Sunday for worship. And you’ve got to give up drinking and sex.”

My career as an evangelist left a lot to be desired.

And Tim’s vision for the church is inspiring:

What if rather than believing the message of our consumer economy–that we are a bundle of unmet needs–we were to believe that we’re gifted by God? When we believe that God has given us enough, we can then generously love, thank, esteem, give, serve, and help others. Imagine the abundance of a people living that way! In such an economy, most of our real needs would be taken care of.

Oriented to Faith is the book of someone who has truly experienced–truly felt–what it means to be part of a church living in the generosity of God, and who, therefore, can pour out grace and generosity on others.

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