Conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in the church, if they are had at all, often devolve into “lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades” meant to “end discussions” rather than find a way forward (listen to Pete Enns tackle this in Episode 70 of The Bible for Normal People). Many times “agreeing to disagree” is a euphemism for dismissing the person we disagree with, checking out and retreating to our respective sides. The problem with that retreat, however, is that we are saying to members of the body of Christ, “I have no need of you,” severing our connection. LGBTQ lives are at stake here. As long as our identity and relationships are up for debate, the very communities meant to be a source of life in Christ are instead bringing suffering and death. The church has to find a way forward.
Hundreds of people recently gathered at The Reformation Project’s Reconcile and Reform Conference in Seattle, WA to explore that way forward. I was honored to present the workshop, Reframing the Gospel: How LGBTQ Inclusion is Central to Jesus’ Kingdom Vision. My aim was to contribute to what James Brownson in his book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, calls “a new chapter in the church’s debate over same-sex relationships.” He critiques both the “abstract and ill-defined conceptions such as gender complementarity” of traditionalist interpretations and the “overly general notions such as justice and love” of revisionist interpretations and identifies the need for “a more specific and nuanced cross-cultural biblical vision for gender and sexuality, with particular attention to the implications of that vision for gay and lesbian people in the church.” I’ve spent most of my life studying the Bible seeking such a vision, and a few months ago I read a book that inspired the idea for my workshop.
Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh inspired a connection that became clear to me between Brownson’s call and the “test the fruit hermeneutic” that Matthew Vines offers in his book, God and the Gay Christian. Drawing from Jesus’ teaching about false prophets in Matthew 7:15-18, Vines concludes, “Jesus’ test is simple: If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.” Noting that “negative attitudes toward gay relationships have led to crippling depression, torment, suicide, and alienation from God and the church,” he urges “Christians to take a closer look at the relevant Scripture passages.” Some non-affirming Christians such as Denny Burk, however, argue that Vines’ approach “twists Jesus’ teaching… into a tool for suppressing biblical texts that clearly condemn homosexuality.” Burk is concerned about the lack of objectivity and subsequent “ethical anarchy” he sees in Vine’s hermeneutic. Burk insists that the “good or bad quality of the fruit [of non-affirming teaching] is determined solely by its conformity to God’s revelation in Christ,” not “any particular sinner’s subjective impression of it.” Specifically, the “personal distress” or “hurt feelings” of gay people should not cause Christians to conclude that non-affirming biblical interpretations are problematic or need revision. Burk echoes the traditionalist concern that the Bible remain authoritative, its meaning anchored in God rather than easily manipulated by the human potential for self-deception. If this discussion is going to move forward, affirming biblical interpretations have to convincingly address this important concern. This is what Brownson is getting at when he insists on a “cross-cultural biblical vision.” While reading Romans Disarmed, a light came on for me that illuminated a possibility for reframing the conversation: “the good news of the kingdom” proclaimed and embodied by Jesus that Paul, in Romans 1, sets up as a radical counter to the Roman Empire’s gospel of Pax Romana, is the root from which the tree of LGBTQ inclusion is nourished and allowed to bear the good fruit of life in Christ.
The workshop I presented at the conference was my first attempt at communicating how I connect the dots between a test the fruit hermeneutic, a need for affirming teaching to be deeply rooted in scripture as an authority for faith and life, and the biblical narrative arc of God working to establish his reign among humanity, especially as it is revealed in “the good news of Jesus Christ.” From now through Advent, I’ll share a series of posts unpacking the workshop presentation with additions as I continue to develop and clarify my idea. Then I plan to release a series exploring real-life stories and experiences of the good fruit of affirming biblical interpretation. As we in the LGBTQ community long for the church to offer “good news of great joy” for us, we wait expectantly for Jesus’ liberating presence to be manifested in our midst in new and deeper ways.
Note: For those interested in the list of resources I cited during my workshop, click here.