From the Lectionary: God Out-of-Bounds

I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's reading comes from Matthew 21:23-32: 

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

You can always pick out John the Baptist from a lineup of saints.

Among the dour, robed patriarchs, he’s the one with wild eyes and tangled hair, ribs protruding through sun-browned skin, hands cradling a staff or a scroll that reads, "‘Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!” Or sometimes he is depicted munching serenely on locusts and honey, wearing a shaggy vest of camel’s hair. Sometimes it’s just his disembodied head on a platter. 

I’m not sure I’d have believed the guy either. 

The miracle child of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John was probably expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a Temple priest. There, he might have assisted faithful Jews as they washed in ceremonial baths to cleanse themselves of impurities. 

But John didn’t stay at the Temple among the baths. John went out to the rivers. 

Calling people to a single, dramatic baptism to symbolize a totally reoriented heart, John declared that “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” 

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he told the people, “make his paths straight.” 

In other words:  God’s on the move. Get out of the way.  For no mountain or hill—no ideology or ritual or requirement or law—can obstruct Him any longer. Temples cannot contain a God who flattens mountains, ceremonial baths a God who flows through rivers. Repentance means leaving the old ways of obstruction behind and joining in the great paving-of-the-path, the making-of-the-way, the demolishing of every man-made impediment between God and God’s people so the whole earth can celebrate God’ uninhibited presence within it and welcome the arrival of the Messiah. 

Not everyone liked this sermon. 

Needless to say, John the Baptist was what you might call a polarizing figure, popular among those who had traditionally been excluded from the faith community and not so popular among those whose reputations and careers depended upon protective walls. 

So when the religious leaders question Jesus’ authority, Jesus made a political statement by reminding them that it was John who had first recognized his authority. Jesus was building a coalition—of tax collectors and prostitutes, of women and Samaritans, of wilderness preachers and leprosy patients, of the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the left-out—and nearly everyone could see that it was prophetic;  it "wasn’t of human origin." 

….Except for those whose power depended on maintaining the status quo. 

…Except for those who expected God to color within the lines. 

This Jesus movement just didn’t sit right with them. 

It’s easy to judge those guys in hindsight. I’d love to believe that, had I lived in first century Palestine, I’d have dropped my fishing nets or water jars and followed Jesus the moment he reached out his hand to me. But on those days when I fold my arms and turn up my nose and declare with total confidence that “this cannot be God here,” and “this cannot be God there”…well, I’m not so sure. We tend to look for God where we expect to find Him, even while God is tapping us on the shoulder and shouting, “Hey! I’m right here! Pay attention!”  I don’t like the idea of God using people and methods I don’t approve of and yet that seems to be God’s favorite way of working in the world—outside my expectations, right where I’m prejudiced, against all my rules.

You would think that after all this time I’d have given up on expecting this river-wild God to fit safely in my categories. 

You know how Jesus said to Thomas, “blessed are those who haven’t seen and still believe”? There are days when I wonder if it’s actually easier to believe from this distance, without seeing, than it would have been to believe up-close, among all those questionable people and amidst all those radical teachings. We’ve sanitized the gospel so well in this culture, we’ve made it more accessible to the powerful than the powerless, more appealing to the cautious than to the troublemakers. 

I am too cautious. I have seen God work beyond my expectations and, like the religious leaders, refused to change my mind. 

God, forgive me. Open my eyes. Tear down the mountains I’ve built of my theology and flatten the walls I’ve constructed of my prejudices. 

Make a straight path right through my stubborn, hardened heart. 

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/lectionary-john-baptist

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

Why I invite guests with whom I disagree to the blog

Look for a lectionary post later today. In the meantime, over on Facebook, I'm responding to challenges I've received for inviting Julie Rodgers, a gay Christian who has chosen to pursue celibacy, to be part of our “Ask a…” interview series. Seems like an important conversation, so if you're interested in that, join us. 

(If you have been liberated from the tyranny of Facebook, check out the first comment below for my response.) :-) 

 

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/disagree

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…

Since our conversation yesterday looked at Matthew Vines’ argument that lifelong celibacy is not biblically mandated for gay and lesbian Christians, I wanted to make space here for another perspective. Thankfully, my new friend Julie Rodgers was quick to graciously agree to join us for another installment of our “Ask a….” series: “Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…” 

Julie writes about the angst of growing up gay in the church and the hope she finds in Christ's story of restoration. She blogs about all things sexuality, celibacy, community, and (mostly) flourishing on her personal blog and with friends on the Spiritual Friendship blog. Julie earned a Masters in English for the sheer pleasure of stories (nerd alert), served urban youth the past four years through a ministry in West Dallas, and recently joined the chaplain's office at Wheaton College as the Ministry Associate for Spiritual Care. She's known to laugh loud and hard at all the wrong times. Julie loves Jesus. She says she “loves that He entered into the human experience and alleviated suffering in those around Him, and that He absorbed the pain of the world with His life, death, and resurrection.” 

You know the drill. If you have a question for Julie, leave it in the comment section. (Note: We’re only considering questions from the comment section here on the blog, not from Facebook or Twitter.) At the end of the day, I’ll choose 6-7 of the most popular or interesting questions to send to Julie for response. Be sure to take advantage of the “like” feature so we can get a sense of which questions are of most interest to readers. Look for Julie’s responses next week. 

You might also be interested in "Ask a gay Christian..." with Justin Lee, or with this important (and somewhat contrary to all of this) perspective from Matthew David Morris: "What's It Like to Be a Gay Christian?" And you can check out the rest of our "Ask a..." series here. 

Alight, ask away!

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-a-celibate-gay-christian-response

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

'God and the Gay Christian' Discussion, Week 2

Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (Read Part 1.) 

I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. And he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 

Today we look at what is perhaps the most controversial and intriguing chapter in the book—Chapter 3, in which Matthew argues that Scripture does not support mandatory celibacy for gay and lesbian Christians. (Note: As a complement to today’s discussion, look for “Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…” next week. I want to make sure our brothers and sisters coming from that perspective get a fair hearing as well.)

***

Definition of Terms 

Before we get into today’s discussion, I want to backtrack just a bit to the section in Chapter 2 where Matthew defines his terms, as this is particularly important to today’s discussion. Acknowledging that labels like conservative and liberal, evangelical and progressive, pro-gay and anti-gay all fall short in these conversations, he suggests that identifying Christians as either affirming (supportive of same-sex relationships) or non-affirming (not supportive of same-sex relationships) can be helpful.  So, both Matthew and I are affirming, in the sense that we do no consider monogamous same-sex relationships to be inherently sinful (though, as you will see, we have slightly different reasons for arriving at that belief!). However, someone like Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian, or Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics &Religious Liberty Commission believe any same-sex relationship is inherently sinful and are therefore considered non-affirming.  Obviously, no labeling system is perfect, but for the purposes of this particular discussion, these may be (at least momentarily) helpful. Make sense? 

Celibacy 

There seems to be an increasing consensus, even among non-affirming Christians, that some people simply experience fixed attraction to members of the same sex. And thankfully, efforts to “correct” this orientation through “reparative therapy” are falling out of vogue, as they have been shown to ineffective and damaging. 

The predominant view among non-affirming Christians regarding gay and lesbian Christians is that if they wish to remain faithful to Scripture, they must pursue celibacy.  “According to non-affirming Christians,” writes Matthew, “gay people’s sexuality is completely broken, so mandatory, lifelong celibacy is their only real option.”  (You see this position reflected in a recent Gospel Coalition post, where those with fixed, same-gender attraction are described as “having SSA”—same-sex attraction—and encouraged to pursue celibacy.) 

 “Celibacy has a long, honored history in the church,” writes Matthew. “We associated it with Jesus and Paul, with Mother Teresa, and with thousands of dedicated brothers and sisters serving Christ in far-flung corners of the world. But there’s a problem. Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon anyone. Yes, permanently forgoing marriage is a worthy choice for Christians who are gifted with celibacy. But it must be a choice. Jesus and Paul both taught this view, and the church has maintained it for nearly two thousand years.” 

Then Matthew unpacks this argument…

Creation

Non-affirming Christians generally argue that the creation of Adam and Eve reveals the limits of God’s blessing for sexual relationships: one man and one woman. As an opposite sex couple, Adam and Eve were best suited to fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” 

But Matthew argues that 1) the account of Eve’s creation does not emphasize Adam’s need to procreate; it emphasizes his need for relationship (“it is not good for the man to be alone”), 2) the concern for procreation with this particular couple is obvious, as they are the first couple and need to populate the planet! and 3)  the Genesis 2 text does not emphasize the gender differences between Adam and Eve but rather their similarity as human beings.

 (There will be more on the creation narrative in subsequent chapters.)

Jesus on Celibacy

In Matthew 19:11-12, when Jesus spoke about celibacy he said, “Not everyone can accept [the decision not to marry], but only those to whom it has been given. For there are  eunuchs who were born that way, and there were eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept this.” 

Writes Matthew: “Notice that none of the three categories Jesus mentions describes what we would call gay men. Instead he describes three types of men who do not marry: men who are sexually impotent, those who are castrated, and those who pursue a call to celibacy. In light of the stringent restrictions Jesus places on divorce, his disciples suggest they would prefer to be celibate. But Jesus says celibacy can only be accepted by ‘those to whom it has been given.’” 

Celibacy is a gift, Matthew argues, and those who do not have the gift should feel free to marry. 

Now, some will certainly notice that this teaching by Jesus is immediately followed by a reference to creation: “Haven’t you read,” Jesus said, “That at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?” 

But according to Matthew, this reference does not address, specifically, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians. “When we study biblical writings about marriage and celibacy the question is not whether Jesus, Paul, or anyone else endorses same-sex marriage,” he writes, “or whether they instead enjoin gay people to lifelong celibacy. They don’t directly do either one…Our understanding of same-sex orientation is uniquely modern, so the question we face is how to apply the basic principles of the Bible’s teaching to this new situation. And what we do see in Jesus’ teaching is a basic principle: celibacy is a gift that not all have.” 

Paul on Celibacy 

The apostle Paul was a big, big fan of celibacy. He even said he wished all men could be like him—celibate and happy about it (I Corinthians 7:6-7). BUT, he says, “each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” 

“It is better,” Paul writes, “to marry than to burn with passion.” 

(Boy was that verse a favorite one on my Christian college campus!) 

In his letter to Timothy, Paul (or whoever is writing as Paul…I know, I know) warns against false teachers who, among other things, mandate celibacy. “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods,” said Paul, “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth” (I Timothy 4:1-5). 

Once again, a New Testament writer speaks of celibacy in terms of a gift for those called to it, not a mandate. Even for a big fan of celibacy like Paul, celibacy does not appear to be mandated for any group. 

Church History

Matthew works in some solid research here, which suggests the tradition teaching on celibacy, for most of Christian history, is that it was a calling, not a mandate. 

Augustine wrote that “no one can be continent unless God give it,” Ambrose that “virginity cannot be commanded” but “is the gift of few only.” Calvin went so far as to say that Matthew 19 “plainly shows that [celibacy] was not given to all, so if anyone “has not the power of subduing his passion, let him understand that the Lord made it obligatory on him to marry.” Even Pope John Paul II in his landmark Theology of the Body argues that celibacy cannot legitimately be forced on anyone. In his view, even clerical celibacy is not forced, because Catholics who feel called to marriage are not obliged to pursue the priesthood. And Karl Barth, in the 20th century, wrote that “a suspicion of or discrimination against sexual life” is not a valid reason to avoid marriage. 

Sexuality is Good 

Here, drawing from the creation account, the incarnation and resurrection, and even church history and the rejection of Gnosticism, Matthew makes the case that— though broken and imperfect—“creation is good. The body is good. Sexuality, as a core part of the body, is also good.” Therefore, any doctrine that teaches Christians to detest their sexual desires is unorthodox, contrary to the most central teachings of the Church.*

(*Matthew has offered further clarification on this in the comment section.) 

The Meaning of Celibacy

Matthew concludes that “the purpose of celibacy is to affirm the basic goodness of sex and marriage by pointing to the relationship they prefigure: the union of Christ and the church. Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians does not fulfill that purpose. It undermines it, because it sends the message to gay Christians that their sexual selves are inherently shameful. It is not a fulfillment of sexuality for gay Christians, but a rejection of it.” 

Matthew will go on to address, in subsequent chapters,  the question of whether same-sex marriage can fulfill the meaning and purpose of Christian marriage, but his point in this chapter is rather straightforward: Throughout the New Testament and church history, celibacy is set apart as a special calling and never mandated for a specific group of people. 

Of course, let’s face it. There are also no examples in Scripture (or, to my knowledge church history) explicitly supporting same-sex relationships.  So it seems these are the two uncomfortable realities we hold simultaneously…at least for now. 

***

Note: Matthew sent me a message this morning pointing me to an article he recently wrote responding to a review that was critical of this particular chapter.   Writes Matthew:  “In short, the main misreading of my argument is that I'm saying that celibacy, for LGBT or straight people, necessarily involves a rejection and hatred of one's sexuality. As I explain in my blog post, I only think that celibacy requires a devaluing of one's sexuality when at least one of the reasons someone is celibate is because they believe all of their sexual attractions are temptations to sin. That's what non-affirming readings of Scripture require gay Christians to believe about their sexual orientation, but that's quite different from orthodox understandings of celibacy, and quite different from how celibate gay Christians can view their sexual orientation if they affirm at least some same-sex relationships.”  Read the whole post here. 

***

Also, if you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.

***

Questions for Discussion: 

- I'd be interested to hear from those readers who, for whatever reason, have chosen a vocation that involves lifelong celibacy. How did you know that this was your calling? Why did you choose it? 

- I'd also welcome the stories of those gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians who have chosen to pursue relationships. Did you struggle at all to feel free to follow that path? 

- Finally, what do you think of Matthew's argument here. Do biblical and historical prohibitions against mandated celibacy apply to those gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians trying to decide what their sexuality means for their faith? 

I will be monitoring the comment section closely over the next 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. Thanks for your participation! 

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/god-gay-christian-celibacy

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.