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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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Respectfully Yours: The Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage Debate

August 10, 2012

"You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."[1] Recounted in Mark's gospel, these are the prophet Isaiah's words that Jesus repeated to the Pharisees as they challenged him about ceremonial law. Christianity has always been a faith of freedom and restraint although it hasn't always been lived out rightly by Jesus' followers. That is, life in Jesus frees us from the bondages of sin, but is accompanied by a yoke to righteousness, to the ways of the Lord[2], which are inherently wider and deeper than any civilization's passing fancies.[3] Indeed, "small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."[4] Today we continue to struggle in adhering to the uniqueness of God's calling, as we bicker over what is false and what is true.

It is disheartening that Christians disagree about such important topics as homosexuality and same-sex marriage; however, I am beset even more by how we disagree. Make no mistake about it, this -- the how -- is a conscious decision on our part. These days it seems that any disagreement with whatever extreme views are popular at the time is met with chastisement and disdain, especially on the aforementioned hot-button topics. We have, for example, all witnessed or participated in the recent brouhaha over Chick-fil-A owner, Dan Cathy's affirmation of traditional marriage[5] (that between one man and one woman) in light of President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage.[6] All of this is not only unfortunate, but embarrassing. To say as a nation that we value freedom of speech, which is protected in the Bill of Rights' First Amendment, yet while we vilify whoever disagrees with us on any given issue is juvenile.

The caricatures are widely known, but they are hardly appropriate for adult debate. Somehow in the melee one's disagreement with pro-homosexual ideology has become analogous with homophobia. They say that to believe homosexuality or same-sex marriage sinful or otherwise not beneficial for society in itself is a profane violation, a manipulative attempt to subjugate their immutable rights. For them, the opposition's very presence strikes cords of discrimination. And, to be fair, similarly there are those who curse, demean, and berate homosexuals or same-sex marriage proponents with their incessant, aggressive picketing and foul language, to say the least; which, by the way, for Christians who behave as such fails every biblical litmus test. Partly, of course, each side increasingly responds with its brand of misguided fervor because of yesteryear's tensions and misgivings (i.e., between conservatives and liberals, Christians and non-Christians), but two wrongs never make a right.

Even so, I understand the arguments well.

Authored by one Protestant and two Catholic scholars, in the newly published The Bible on the Question of Homosexuality it is argued that, "The texts of the Old Testament already formulate, explicitly or implicitly, a negative moral judgment on homosexual acts."[7] (Genesis 19:1-29, Judges 19) Many people -- of whom I am one -- earnestly believe that God created us male and female, not androgynous or asexual, and marriage was designed by God exclusively for male and female. Therefore, to affirm what to us is a sexual identity and lifestyle fundamentally contradictory to God's design is unthinkable.[8] We desire God's best for ourselves and others, an aim that inherently carries with it explicit and implicit ethics that we are to govern ourselves by. Neither homosexuality nor same-sex marriage are capable of being fruitful, in form or function, as God intends. In fact, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Edith Humphrey argues:

Husband and wife, representing Christ and the church, can only be parodied in same-sex "marriage." Homoerotic relations reject the gift of sexual otherness and cannot echo the nature of the Trinity. Furthermore, marriage is not an end in itself but overflows, most obviously to the procreation of children. The original couple is exhorted to "be fruitful and multiply" and thus to take care of creation. By its nature, gay sex cannot bear fruit or fulfill this ecstatic ("going out") role.[9]

Be that as it may, clearly there are diverse interpretations on these matters. I have colleagues, friends, and family members who feel quite differently than me for a multitude of reasons and are just as passionate about their perspectives as I am mine. The first African American to arrive at Southern Methodist University with an appointment to an endowed chair professorship (he has just begun teaching homiletics at their Perkins School of Theology), Brad Braxton[10] is an ally of the "welcoming and affirming" LGBT movement, advocating fully for same-sex marriage equality and homosexual inclusion. A first-rate pastor and scholar, he wrote in an op-ed Washington Post article, "Imagine how much more care-full Christian congregations would be if they caressed people with Paul's gracious words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 instead of battering them with his ungenerous words about gays and lesbians in Romans 1."[11] Per this view, leading with Jesus' principal ethic of merciful love necessitates equal religious and civic footing for everyone.[12]

The co-pastor of Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, DC, Dennis Wiley writes: "With so many broken heterosexual marriages, I am convinced that they key to a strong family is not the sexual orientation of the parents, but rather the love, commitment and faithfulness they manifest toward each other and, where applicable, toward their children."[13] Indeed, supporters of homosexuality and same-sex marriage often submit that through culturally conditioned biases the opposition manipulates Scripture, pushing it beyond its stated purview. This leads to emphasizing what the original writers -- led by God's prompting -- simply didn't, mishandling certain texts, forcing them to say what they categorically don't.

I wish that we would begin to frame these arguments in a helpful way, as "holy" disagreements. This is only possible, however, if we commit to more than merely being right. We all must embrace being right in right ways. A theological gem whose works continue to impact the world long after his death, theologian Karl Barth wrote in The Humanity of God:

A free theologian works in communication with other theologians...He waits for them and asks them to wait for him. Our sadly lacking yet indispensable theological co-operation depends directly or indirectly on whether or not we are willing to wait for one another, perhaps lamenting, yet smiling with tears in our eyes.[14]

Unfortunately, rarely are those on either side of the quarrel sensible, and when you do encounter such people -- for some reason -- media outlets rarely publish or promote their balanced points-of-view. Academic and religious institutions aren't much better either, often offering their respective communities only one side of the debate. In part, what I hope to communicate here is an understanding that the sheer existence of a perspective different than our own is hardly evidence to label someone a narrow-minded dogmatist; again, regardless on which side of the fence one sits. Homophobia is just as unacceptable as heterosexual ridicule. The bully tactics must end.

There are no doubt those who will read this and surmise that this treatise has little if no bearing on those who don't follow Jesus, as it relates to the homosexuality and same-sex marriage debate. So let me elaborate.

I believe that marriage is not merely a religious issue, a perspective that Ron Sider has articulated clearly:

The law is a moral teacher. Most people assume that if something is legal, it is moral--or at least not immoral. What is legal soon will become normal...Every civilization has known what contemporary sociologists now demonstrate: Children grow best into wholesome adults when they live with their biological mother and father. Marriage law is a crucial way in which the state promotes the sound nurturing of the next generation of citizens. Legalizing gay marriage would weaken the connection between marriage and procreation.[15]

Renowned for his scholarship as president of Evangelicals for Social Action and distinguished professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary at Eastern University, Sider is a leader in the confluence of social and political implications of religious convictions.

Some people would like for you and I to believe that a rejection of same-sex marriage, in the aforementioned ways, is a step towards the illegitimate hope for an entirely heteronormative, Christian theocracy in America.[16] As a decree to protect both entities, the separation of church and state is wonderful. But it doesn't demand the wholesale exclusion of religious convictions from influencing one's public policy as a citizen or public servant. It is simply inaccurate to suggest that our nation's democratic ideals don't allow us to regulate sexuality, for we do it all of the time. For the greater good, we have legislated that certain behaviors, orientations, and unions are unacceptable because of their detrimental nature to society. Pedophilia, bestiality, incest, and polygamy are examples, as is the age of sexual consent, which varies by state. These regulations have theological and religious foundations despite how they might be politicized.

Although heterosexual marriage has had its struggles -- and will always be in need of thoughtful reform -- the intended lifelong union between one man and one woman is still the best mechanism that society will ever have at producing greatness in future generations. It fulfills the procreative desires that we are born with as opposites attract. Traditional marriages are imperfect because we are imperfect, but the old adage resounds: don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Or in this case, don't add another baby altogether to the already murky water.

With a missional[17] interpretation of faith, I don't look for every societal element to reflect my values. That isn't the point of my relationship with Jesus. Nonetheless, I do have opinions about the kinds of laws and moral codes that I think will best serve us all. You should vote, pray, lobby, discuss -- whatever makes reasonable (also, in my case biblical) sense -- to effectively articulate and advocate for your beliefs, but it is even more important to do so in a way that expresses value for those who think differently. Demonizing anyone is simply uncalled for.

In this journey I just want God to enable me to passionately represent a responsible application of biblical truth and I can only hope that others might do likewise, even as we agree to disagree on some of life's key issues.

Respectfully yours.


[1] Mark 7:8.
[2] Proverbs 10:29.
[3] Romans 6:18.
[4] Matthew 7:13-14.
[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-leadership/post/chick-fil-a-president-dan-cathy-bites-into-gay-marriage-debate/2012/07/19/gJQACrvzvW_blog.html
[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/us/politics/obama-says-same-sex-marriage-should-be-legal.html?pagewanted=all
[7] Innocent Himbaza, Jean-Baptiste Edart, Benedict Guevin, The Bible on the Question of Homosexuality (Washington, DC: The Catholic University Press of America), 131.
[8] See Michael Horton's article, "Let's Not Cut Christ to Pieces" in the online version of Christianity Today.
[9] Edith M. Humphrey, "What God Hath Not Joined: Why Marriage Was Designed for Male and Female," Christianity Today 48 (September 2004): 36-41.
[10] www.bradbraxton.com
[11] http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/same-sex-marriage-support-a-sign-of-love-acceptance-and-devotion-to-god/2012/05/16/gIQAlkFkTU_story.html
[12] Mark 12:28-31.
[13] Dennis W. Wiley, "The Sin Is Hypocrisy," Ebony (October, 2011): 106-107. Also, see Jack Rogers, "Same-Sex Marriage: Schloming Memorial Lectureship," More Light Update 21 (November-December 2000): 7-8.
[14] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 95.
[15] Ronald Sider, "Bearing Better Witness," First Things (December 2010): 47-50.
[16] http://video.msnbc.msn.com/politicsnation/47379818#47379818
[17] See Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2004).


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