I may have been out of the fray for a while, but I can still recognize a contentious issue when I see one. Brian McLaren has raised the pastoral issue of handling homosexuality in our churches in a rather provocative manner. As one might expect with McLaren, his intent is primarily pastoral, and for that I applaud him. Too often, because it is such a hot-button issue, Christians react callously instead of lovingly to homosexuality, and McLaren is right to provide a corrective voice in that manner.
The approach McLaren takes in the example in his essay is, I think, fundamentally right. Instead of reacting to the question, “what is your church’s stance on homosexuality?” with an immediate (and seemingly dogmatic) answer, it is wise to first ask questions and discover where the person is coming from.
But, as my regular readers might be able to anticipate, I am not comfortable with all of his positions. First, his fundamental conclusion:
Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality. We've heard all sides, but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.
Perhaps we need a five-year moratorium on making pronouncements. In the meantime, we'll practice prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably. When decisions need to be made, they'll be admittedly provisional. We'll keep our ears attuned to scholars in biblical studies, theology, ethics, psychology, genetics, sociology, and related fields. Then in five years, if we have clarity, we'll speak; if not, we'll set another five years for ongoing reflection. After all, many important issues in church history took centuries to figure out. Maybe this moratorium would help us resist the "winds of doctrine" blowing furiously from the left and right, so we can patiently wait for the wind of the Spirit to set our course.
Maybe five years is an arbitrary figure, but I don’t think any length of time is going to convince McLaren or his sort of emergent minister of any actual position. It is inherent in the postmodern psyche to never actually decide on any proposition. That is why he doesn’t do so now, and it is why he probably won’t have any more answers in 5 or 10 years. And if 2000 years of theology-ranging over every possible position, political régime, and social setting-can’t help them decide today, 5 more years ain’t gonna help.
McLaren is also worried that the political baggage surrounding homosexuality is too manipulative for him to cut through.
Most of the emerging leaders I know share my agony over this question. We fear that the whole issue has been manipulated far more than we realize by political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency. We see whatever we say get sucked into a vortex of politicized culture-wars rhetoric—and we're pastors, evangelists, church-planters, and disciple-makers, not political culture warriors.
That, honestly, is no excuse for not being able to come to theological clarity about an issue. I have found that those who think politically first and theologically second are the same people who are too frustrated by political concerns to be of any real theological value. And in my reading of McLaren in the past, I tend to think he is political first and theological second.
The fact that an issue appears in political circles has absolutely no bearing on its theological standing. The theological value of a belief is not changed one way or another if one political party adopts it or another abhors it, or if there is a great deal of “confusion” about it in the circles of Manhattan elite. The truth value of the statement “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” is not changed no matter how much political wrangling may occur over it. Or take the issue of pedophilia, which on one level is already a political issue. If it becomes a hot-potato, should we avoid calling it sin?
Because of their adherence to a postmodern view of the world, McLaren and others are unable to accurately apply the injunction to “speak the truth in love.” If you are fuzzy on the concept of “truth” or are incredulous toward it, you will want to jettison it in favor of other concepts. According to so much they say and write, “truth” is oppressive and unnecessarily harsh, and “love” is what we need instead of truth. As I have said before on this blog, the most loving thing we can do as Christians is speak the truth into people’s lives in a way that brings them closer to Christ. And besides, throwing objective truth overboard in favor of love is a crystal clear example of a false dichotomy-one that Christ even rejected.
At one point McLaren declares the biblical passages concerning homosexuality as complex and difficult to interpret (putting aside the fact that plenty of great NT scholars completely disagree). If they are difficult, they are difficult for the same reasons passages on fornication and adultery would be hard (How accepted were homosexual relationships in that culture? Would a married man and a boy be deemed adultery? Fornication? How much sexual “power” did women have, and would their sexual relationships be OK?). So then using the same criteria McLaren uses, when adultery becomes a political third rail and people want the church to be accepting of adultery, we should propose a gag-order on ministers declaring it a sin against God and family.
To be so easily manipulated politically and culturally is a bad position to be in-Scripture and God himself become the play grounds of polls and political breezes.