How can conservative Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin support and show respect to their gay family members, coworkers, and friends in ways that will not compromise their personal faith? The adage, “love the sinner, hate the sin,” is blatantly offensive to those who do not believe that homosexuality is sinful. Is there a more nuanced way to look at this issue?
This is one of the most complex questions I’ve been asked. It deals with the nature of relationship and in many ways speaks to the often hostile world we inhabit today
What do we do with genuine and unbridgeable differences of opinion over religious, social and political matters?
First, the phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin,” should be permanently retired.
The statement immediately raises the defenses of the listener, i.e., the one defined as the “sinner.” The designated “hater of the sin” takes the power position, essentially saying “I’m better than you.”
The phrase shuts down the hope of conversation and mutual understanding. It denies the option of staying in relationship without the compromise of one’s faith and one’s dignity as a human being.
In truth, there are many fine people on both sides of any question and particularly this one.
Some affirm that homosexuality cannot be reconciled with biblical statements. Several biblical passages appear to speak strongly against same-sex relationships: Main ones: the story of the destruction of Sodom, found in Genesis 19; the Leviticus 18 section of the holiness code that particularly relates to who may have sex with whom, and the Romans 1 description of the wrath of God upon human wickedness.
Others, including multiple Bible scholars, read the texts differently. The Genesis passage concerning the destruction of Sodom may be about the lack of hospitality and lack of care for the poor and needy (see Ezekiel 16). The Levitical condemnations may be linked to pagan worship practices promoting idolatry, the temptation to worship anything but God (money, prestige, accomplishments, sex, food, etc). The Romans passage could be speaking of sex with children, not consensual and mutually loving adult partners.
Frankly, isolated Bible passages support slavery and ethnic cleansing, but few today suggest those practices are God’s will. There is just a lot of context we don’t know.
No matter what, we have two irreconcilable positions. The divide is huge.
How then to bridge those divisions?
Many have tried arguing other people’s positions away or dismissing them as “ignorant” or “bigoted” or “ungodly” or “stupid.” Let’s face it: these words lead to deeper divisions.
The statement, “agreeing to disagree” does not work either.
Those who find homosexuality morally repellent see the “agreeing to disagree” position as an untenable compromise with truth.
Many on the other side of the divide see “agreeing to disagree” as equally untenable because the core of their existence and being is invalidated. This often produces emotional devastation, especially for young people coming to grips with their sexuality.
I think we have to start here: assume truth in the other as the starting point, no matter how much it troubles you.
Learn to treat others as capable and responsible human beings who are trying to sort out their lives just as we are trying to sort out our lives. Again, we start with assuming truth on the part of the other.
That’s the very nature of respect.
For me, I have finally realized that I am not God. I do not see all, and I most certainly do not know all. Believe me, it took quite a while for me to figure this out. I have a feeling I am not alone here.
I have had similar disagreements and anguishes over the lives and decisions of others.
Nonetheless, others don’t inhabit my body or mind, nor I theirs. Furthermore, when I take the time to genuinely listen respectfully, assuming truth, to someone who holds a position antithetical to mine, I’m amazed by how much I can learn even when I do not change my own mind.
On the other hand, none of us needs to put up with being verbally (or physically or emotionally or spiritually) abused, nor do we have the right to abuse others in any manner. There may indeed come a time when it becomes necessary to limit relationship with someone. If we cannot speak to another with respect, then it is time to walk away, no matter what side of the divide we inhabit. If our truth is habitually called “lie” or “stupid” by another, it is best to limit or eliminate contact.
If someone has a better suggestion here, I’m more than open to hearing it.
As I was answering this question, I became aware that I was addressing the core of what The United Methodist Church faces and must address at General Conference, coming up in May, 2016 in Portland OR.
I also suspect that the rhetoric there will be heated, full of distrust and even disgust. Although there is probably a significant centrist position (the agree to disagree spot), I don’t see how it can hold for the reasons I discussed above. It requires too much compromise for those on the more entrenched edges.
Over this one issue, the future of what has been a powerful and impactful movement of the grace of God sits at stake. Certainly, there are other major concerns, but they have been swallowed and diminished by this overarching one concerning what is and what is not appropriate and God-sanctioned sexuality.
As many have noted, it’s not just the sexual acts in question, it is the whole nature of biblical interpretation. Now, after wrestling my way through this question, I say it is over something even greater than that: It is over the nature of our connection itself.
Does the connectional system of The United Methodist Church give us an adequate platform to assume truth in one another in cases of a divide this deep?
It may not. Part of the glue that keeps religious groups together is a shared theology and an expectation that we are speaking the same language about God and our understandings of God. If we no longer share that language or our basic assumptions about the nature of God and our connection, then we still must find a way to honor and respect each other in separation.
Personally, I think we do a greater job of glorifying God in an intentional decision to stay together, to honor these deep and unbridgeable differences in self-giving and humble love. We shall see if the delegates to General Conference and the money and power behind those delegates also see this the same way.
May God have mercy upon us all as we work our way through yet more uncharted territory in an ever changing and inextricably interconnected world.
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[Note: a version of this column will appear in the Friday, January 8, 2106 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle.]