Fruit & Roots

I’ll get right to the point: we’ve got to talk about LGBTQ inclusion in the church. I know there is a lot of emotion swirling around this conversation. People and churches are afraid to “have the talk” for many reasons – fear of conflict, change, loss, the unknown. Churches and denominations split over this. It is not an easy task. Some churches prefer to ignore the conversation altogether for as long as they possibly can. If we don’t talk about it, we don’t have to deal with it. Some churches proclaim their position (affirming or non-affirming) without any conversation. This isn’t up for debate – homosexuality is sinful. Or, This isn’t up for debate – God loves everyone and everyone is welcome here. Some churches draw the conversation out over years, trying to find a way forward that pleases everyone. If we keep talking about it, we’ll eventually reach a consensus. Some churches look for a third way. Isn’t there some way to compromise to keep both sides happy?

There’s no doubt about it – this is a difficult issue. We cannot, however, allow difficulty to prevent us from pressing into this conversation, because lives are at risk. For those of you who have theological skin in the game, please recognize that those of us who also have physical and emotional skin in the game bear the weight of this issue in ways you do not. Whatever you feel and however uncomfortable or scary it may be for you, it is exponentially more for us. This “issue” is our lives, our futures, our relationships, our wellbeing.

“I know that many pastors are afraid of losing members, money or their very jobs by having this conversation. It happens. These are very real concerns. But do they outweigh the need for all people to have a place to worship? You need to buckle up, count the cost, and do the right thing… You will save more lives than you will lose church members.” – Pastor Mark Wingfield, 2019 Reconcile & Reform Conference

If you can agree that we need to engage in conversation about LGBTQ inclusion, I hope you can also agree that how we shape this conversation is equally as important. Matthew Vines, in his book God and the Gay Christian, offers a lens through which we might evaluate our teachings regarding sexuality and same-sex relationships. Drawing from Jesus’ fruit metaphor in Matthew 7, Vines points to the bad fruit of non-affirming biblical interpretations: “Sadly, negative attitudes toward gay relationships have led to crippling depression, torment, suicide, and alienation from God and the church… If for no other reason, those destructive consequences should compel Christians to take a closer look at the relevant Scripture passages.”

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Vines’ “test the fruit hermeneutic” has been criticized as a “gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ words,” that “removes the authority from the word of God and gives the reader the authority to scrutinize the Bible’s truthfulness based on whether or not it hurts people’s feelings” (see Denny Burk’s blog post, “Beware a ‘Test the Fruit’ Hermeneutic”). Setting aside the gross erasure of LGBTQ people’s suffering by rephrasing it as “hurt feelings,” let’s address what seems to be the heart of the matter: biblical authority. Many who hold to non-affirming readings of scripture fear that questioning and/or reinterpreting passages that seem to clearly condemn homosexuality would require rejecting the Bible as “God-breathed” (NIV) or “inspired by God” (NASB). For example, if Paul says that “homosexuals” won’t “inherit the kingdom of God” (NKJV/NASB, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), how would it be possible to affirm same-sex relationships and not spurn God’s word? A post dedicated to ideas of biblical authority and the way we read certain passages is necessary to unpack some of the dynamics in play here. For now, let me ask this: Would you be willing to”take a closer look” at scripture, asking questions and considering different interpretations of passages that seem clear right now if you could do so while affirming that “[e]very part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way” (MSG, 2 Timothy 3:16)?

In the workshop I presented earlier this month at The Reformation Project’s Reconcile & Reform Conference, I root Vines’ “test the fruit” approach in scripture by “reframing the gospel” according to “Jesus’ kingdom vision.” I have never been satisfied by affirming interpretations that seem to minimize the Bible’s ability to guide my sexual identity and expression in faithfulness to God. For years I forced myself to keep holding on to an ex-gay or side-b (mandated celibacy) position because I was unconvinced when reading “revisionist interpretations” (see James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality). I am a person of the text. I am most energized and passionate when studying scripture and discerning how to shape my life according to its revelation of God’s vision for humanity. This is why I consider deeply rooting LGBTQ inclusion in the Bible, and specifically in light of Jesus’ life and teaching, as essential.

Later this week I will dig into what I mean by “Jesus’ kingdom vision” and how that “reframes the gospel.” As we enter the season of Advent, reflecting on the longing for salvation that is promised in God’s delivering presence, let us open our hearts in longing for a faithful way forward that produces the fruit of healing, reconciliation, freedom from oppression, and love.

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