My Journey Toward Being Affirming

I have been fully affirming of LGBTQ+ folx and supportive of equal marriage for a few years now. This was the culmination of many years of research and reflection and, most importantly, relationship with LGBTQ+ people. Although my story of becoming affirming is not the most important story to be heard in this, my story might be helpful to others. Here it is.

Note that my views do not necessarily reflect those of my current or previous employers.

The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships

This was the subtitle of a study conference our denomination had 3.5 years ago, hosted at our church: “The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships.” I was one of the plenary speakers at the conference. Although I would word a few things differently now—I’ve learned much since then, and my own perspective has settled—I feel two of my presentations have some enduring value and so I thought I’d share the videos here.

The first is about how we approach the Bible generally: how we read it as Christians, as Anabaptist Christians in particular, and especially when talking about complicated and controversial topics. While there’s much more that could be said about biblical interpretation than I say here, it’s still a good summary of my thinking on this.

The second is a set of concluding reflections on points of agreement between what we called the “traditional” and the “affirming” views. If there is a practically workable “middle way” or even “third way” for churches on this—even simply a basis for fellowship among individuals or churches who disagree—it will be built around the kinds of things I highlight here. (Note: I’m well aware of the delicious irony of me speaking about Jesus being “clear” on the call to love, in light of my reflections on “the Bible is clear on X” in the previous video!)

Blessed Are the Outliers

Our lives in the modern west are greatly affected by statistics. Everything from medical research to political polling relies on statistical analysis. (I’m sure there’s a statistic out there somewhere to prove it.)

One of the realities of statistical analysis is something known as an “outlier.” An outlier is a data point, a recorded observation, that sits outside the mainstream of data. It’s an oddity, an anomaly.

This has nothing to do with coffee.

Say, for example, you’re conducting a poll to see what time of day people in your neighbourhood drink their coffee. Your survey gets 100 responses from coffee drinkers: 52 in the early morning, 28 in the mid-afternoon, 19 in evening after dinner—and 1 in the middle of the night, at 3 a.m. That one data point, that 3 a.m. coffee, is an outlier—it’s outside the mainstream.

What do you do with this outlier?

You might decide that the person probably made a mistake, incorrectly indicating “a.m.” instead of “p.m.” in their response. In that case, you determine the outlier doesn’t reflect reality, and you set it aside (though you might, in your head, include it among the mid-afternoon coffee drinkers).

Or, you might decide that there really is a person who likes a cup of coffee at 3 a.m., but that datum is still statistically irrelevant—it doesn’t reflect the norm. That’s especially helpful if you’re using this poll to start a coffee delivery business—there’s no way you’re getting up at 3 a.m. to bring a coffee to this one person (that is, if they even exist).

But let’s say you expand this research beyond your neighbourhood. The larger your data set, the more varied the responses—and the more outliers you’ll find. While the largest numbers might still clump together around early morning, mid-afternoon, and after dinner, you’d probably discover that there are people drinking coffee at all hours of the day. You might even discover that there is a coterie of 3 a.m. coffee drinkers you’d never considered—night shift workers needing that jolt of caffeine to keep going, perhaps.

This is another reality of statistical analysis: in order for data to be useful, it often needs to be aggregated, lumped together into larger, identifiable groups. It’s not all that useful in politics or marketing, for example, to focus on the individual or the outlier. Whether you’re selling legislation or LEGO, it’s the mainstream, the norm, the aggregate groups, that really matter.

Unfortunately, however, many Christians have bought into this notion, that “it’s the mainstream, the norm, the aggregate groups, that really matter.” I say “unfortunately” because that’s not the way of Jesus.

Jesus taught that God was the kind of shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to go searching for the one, wounded, lost sheep. He taught that in God’s economy the last one was just as important as the first. He held up the very least among us—the forgotten poor, the irrelevant outsider—as the one in whom we could see his reflection. Time after time he engaged the individual where they were at—a Samaritan woman, a Roman centurion, a Jewish leper, a man blind from birth, a high-ranking Pharisee, a rich young ruler, a “sinful woman”—their proximity to the aggregate norm irrelevant.

In other words, Jesus saw not just those who fit the norm. He saw the oddities, the anomalies, the statistically irrelevant.

Jesus saw the outliers—and loved them.

This isn’t the way many people think. It’s not the way many Christians think. We often determine the “norm”—both what’s “typical” and what’s “right”—based on aggregate data, and then we either ignore or dismiss all deviations from the norm, all those oddities or anomalies, all those outliers.

Take current debates over sexuality, for example.

We rightly determine that most people are born either biologically male or biologically female—but then we decide this means there are only biologically male or biologically female people. We either remain ignorant (willfully?) of the very existence of intersex persons or we dismiss them as anomalies, the result of sin affecting human genes.

Read this book.

But nothing can change the simple fact that somewhere around 15 out of every 1000 people are born neither fully or exclusively “male” nor fully or exclusively “female,” whether that’s hidden in their DNA or internal sex organs, or that’s obvious from external genitalia. And nothing can change the fact that each one of these persons is created in God’s image, and that they, too, are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.

Or, we correctly ascertain that most people are other-sex oriented, that most biologically male humans are sexually attracted to biologically female humans and vice versa—but then we decide this means other sexual orientations are unnatural and willful, even if the person never acts on that attraction. We either pretend gay Christians don’t exist or we dismiss them as anomalies, the result of sin affecting human desires.

But nothing can change the simple fact that through history and across cultures there has always been a small percentage of people, roughly 5% of any given human population, who are same- or bi-sex attracted. Nothing can change the fact that none of us, gay or straight, chooses our sexual orientation. And nothing can change the fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians do indeed exist—experiencing same-sex attraction, some choosing celibacy and others not, but all also experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit in their lives, shaping them toward Christlikeness.

This is just one example of the way Christians buy into the dominant cultural narrative of “natural normativity.” In this narrative there are observable norms in nature or society (what’s “typical”) that reflect God’s norms (what’s “right”). These norms can be determined by simple observation, even by statistical analysis, by aggregating the observed data into identifiable groups, even at times clear binaries. These norms of nature or society are then to be defended or even demanded as God’s clear will. All kinds of social distinctions, based on ethnicity, wealth, gender, class, and more, have been justified through human history by this narrative of “natural normativity.” (Did you know Aristotle believed some people were “slaves by nature”?)

As Christians we should be wary of this. Too often these norms don’t reflect real biblical values, let alone actual Christian values based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Too often they merely reflect some idealized utopia a generation or two back, when everything was good and everyone was godly—even though that utopia never really existed. Too often these norms only reflect the power structures of a particular society—they’re good for the many, but not for the few, or they’re good for the powerful few, but not for the powerless many.

In so many ways in his own day, Jesus broke through the norms of nature and society, including those that were attributed to God. “Righteous” and “sinners,” men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor—in each of these categories and more Jesus looked past the aggregate groups and engaged with individuals. Provocatively, even scandalously, Jesus went looking for the oddities, the anomalies, the outliers, and brought them into God’s flourishing life of holy love.

How about us as followers of this Jesus? Are we willing to look past the aggregate statistics to the individual person? Are we willing to engage each person regardless of how they fit with the “norm,” and see in them the image of God and the person of Jesus, and share the feast of God’s life and love together with them?

Blessed are the outliers, you might even say, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

The Bible is clear: God endorses slavery.

There are at least seven passages in the Bible where God is depicted as directly permitting or endorsing slavery. Two of these are in the Law of Moses: God permitted the Israelites to take slaves from conquered peoples permanently, and the Israelites could sell themselves into slavery temporarily to pay off debts (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). The other five passages are in the New Testament, where slavery as a social institution is endorsed and slaves are called to obey their masters “in everything” (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:18-20).

But slavery is viewed positively in Scripture well beyond these commands. Owning slaves was seen as a sign of God’s blessing (Gen 12:16; 24:35; Isa 14:1-2), and there are literally dozens of passages in the Bible that speak of slavery in passing, without comment. Slavery was simply part of life, and most people saw it as just the way things always were, even the divinely ordained order of things.

slaveAnd yes, in case there is any doubt, this was real slavery: “the slave is the owner’s property” (Exod 21:21). Both Old and New Testaments called for better treatment of slaves than many of the peoples around them, and the Law of Moses in particular called for better treatment of fellow Israelites as slaves. But slaves could be beaten (Exod 21:20-21; 1 Pet 2:18-20), and slaves could be taken as concubines (Gen 16:3-4; Exod 21:8-11) or even raped without serious consequence (Lev 19:20-22).

These passages are all pretty straightforward. One could even say that the Bible is clear on this: the institution of slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing. This has in fact been the Christian view through history: it’s only in the last 150-200 years that the tide of Christian opinion has shifted on slavery.

So why do Christians today believe slavery is wrong? Why don’t we believe “slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing,” even though the Bible is pretty clear on this?

Well, there are two main reasons, it seems to me.

The first reason is simply that our society has shifted on this. The reasons for this are complex, but in basic terms this shift has happened because 1) a vocal minority first called for the abolition of slavery, which 2) eventually prompted governments to enact legislation abolishing slavery, and 3) the simple passage of time has normalized this disapproval of slavery among us as a western society.*

It is instructive to read arguments back and forth between Christians on African slavery during the 19th century. Christians in support of slavery—mostly powerful white landowners—pointed to all the biblical texts I’ve outlined above, along with things they saw in the Bible that supported the inferiority of Africans in particular.

But a segment of Christians—former slaves and white activists—joined others in opposing slavery. These Christians emphasized biblical teachings like “love of neighbour” and the Golden Rule and all people created in God’s image and “there is no longer slave or free in Christ.” It took decades of arguing their case, often being shamed and vilified by opposing Christians—the dispute even touched off a bloody civil war—but eventually their view won out.

The passage of laws legalized their view, and the passage of time has normalized their view. We no longer worry about the social instability that abolishing slavery might cause, nor are we concerned that somehow we’re being unfaithful to God by not following the biblical teachings on slavery.

This points to the second main reason Christians today believe slavery is wrong in spite of the clear biblical passages that permit or endorse slavery: we have developed a different hermeneutic, a different way of reading the biblical texts on slavery.

The early Christian abolitionists paved the way. Rather than emphasizing the specific Bible passages that directly approve of slavery, they looked at other biblical texts and themes that they saw as more big-picture, more transcultural and timeless: the creation of humanity in the “image of God,” the “liberation” and “redemption” themes of the Exodus, the love teachings of Jesus, and the salvation vision of Paul. That is, they set the stage for a way of reading the Bible that was not grounded in specific texts of Scripture, but in a trajectory of “Exodus to New Exodus centred on Christ,” or “Creation to New Creation centred on Christ”—a larger biblical narrative with Jesus at its heart.

And so when Christians today read the slavery passages in the Bible, this is what we do. “Sure,” we’ll say, “the Bible says this here—but we know from Genesis 1 that all people are created in God’s image, and we know from Galatians 3 that there is no longer slave or free in Christ, and don’t forget about God redeeming Israel from slavery and Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour as ourselves.”

In other words, we no longer take the slavery-approval passages as direct and straightforward teaching for all times and places. Rather we take these as instances of the way things were done in the past but not the way God really wants things to be. They are descriptive of what once was; they are not prescriptive of what is to be.

So the next time we hear someone talk about the “clear teaching of Scripture” on women’s roles, or saying that “the Bible is clear” on homosexuality, or whatever the topic might be, think about this: the Bible is at least as clear on slavery, yet thank God we no longer believe that slavery is God’s will. We’ve read the Bible, and we’re following Jesus.

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* I’m well aware that slavery still exists in the world, but I don’t know of any Christians who approve of it. Maybe that’s just because I don’t hang out with those Christians. I’m also well aware that the abolition of slavery has not brought about full freedom and equality and justice for people of African descent in the western world. My focus here is on the institution of slavery itself, but that’s just one side of the coin: racism, both personal and institutional, is the other, and is still ongoing. See also my comments below, in particular on whether recent western slavery was radically different in kind than ancient Greco-Roman slavery.

The Straight Lifestyle

“This is one of the things that bothers me most about straight people: the heterosexual lifestyle. They live a life of unrepentant debauchery: casual sex, multiple partners, widespread adultery, easy divorce.”

“It’s all about sex for them: they always dress so provocatively, and their talk is filled with cheap sexual innuendo—‘locker room talk.’”

“For the straight community, sex is just a marketing ploy and people are nothing more than sexual objects.”

“They get fuelled up on pornography, then they harass and abuse and rape at will. Rape culture is straight culture.”

Imagine someone saying these things about heterosexual people. If you are straight, as I am, how would you respond? How would you feel?

My first thought would be: “But wait, I’m as straight as they come, and I don’t do those things. That’s not my ‘straight culture.’ That’s not my ‘heterosexual lifestyle.’”

That’s true—and that’s exactly how gay people feel when they hear straight folks talk about the “gay lifestyle.” Gay Christians even more so, since all the gay Christians I know desire just as much as straight Christians to live out a biblically-grounded, Jesus-centred morality. LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers among us reject sexual promiscuity, infidelity, exploitation, degradation, and abuse just as much as straight Christians do.

adichie-storyThere is no one-size-fits-all “gay lifestyle,” just as there is no monolithic “straight lifestyle.” This is “the danger of a single story,” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in a must-see TED Talk. When complex human beings and human situations are boiled down to one simplistic narrative, when “all Muslims” or “all natives” or “all gays” are painted with the same brush, we strip away their humanity and embolden our bigotry against them.

My brothers and sisters, this is not the way of Jesus.

My second thought, however, after some hard, honest reflection on this description of the “straight lifestyle,” would be: “But there is some truth to this.”

Rape culture is a reality in many settings—and it’s largely perpetuated by straight white males.

“Sex as marketing ploy” and “people as sex objects”? Heterosexuals perfected that.

And there’s no need to say much about adultery and divorce: that’s been the playground of straight men and women as long as there’s been marriage.

Of course this goes both ways. There’s no doubt that there are LGBTQ+ folks who are sexually promiscuous, who commit adultery, who exploit and abuse others sexually.

But that’s the thing: sexual promiscuity, infidelity, exploitation, degradation, and abuse—these are not homosexual problems, nor are they heterosexual problems, they are human problems.

Please, for the love of God and neighbour, let’s drop the “gay lifestyle” tag. It’s unfair and untrue—or at least as unfair and untrue as a “straight lifestyle” label would be.

And then, also for the love of God and neighbour, let’s focus on addressing the sexual sins that are truly destructive in our lives, our relationships, and our world.