THE CHURCH IS locked in a polarized debate around same-sex relationships that is creating painful divisions, subverting the church's missional intent, and damaging the credibility of its witness. We've all heard the sound-bite arguments. For some, condoning or blessing same-sex relationships betrays the clear teaching of the Bible, and represents a capitulation to the self-gratifying, permissive sexual ethic of a secularized culture. For others, affirming same-sex relationships flows from the command to love our neighbor, embodies the love of Jesus, and honors the spiritual integrity and experience of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
The way the debate presently is framed makes productive dialogue difficult. People talk past one another. Biblical texts collide with the testimony of human experience. The stakes of the debate become elevated from a difference around ethical discernment to the preservation of the gospel's integrity—for both sides. Lines get drawn in the ecclesiastical sand. Some decide that to be "pure" they must separate themselves spiritually from others and break the fellowship of Christ's body. Then the debate devolves into public wrangling over judicial proceedings, constitutional interpretations, and property ownership. Meanwhile, the "nones," those who are walking away from any active relig-ious faith, find further confirmation for their growing estrangement.
Mirroring the dynamics of contemporary secular politics, the debate is driven by small but vocal minorities with uncompromising positions at one end or another of the spectrum. For the majority in the middle, who may be unclear about their own understandings, exploring their questions is made difficult because of the polarized toxicity of the debate. Further, those in positions of leadership in congregations or denominations come to regard the controversy over same-sex relationships as the "third rail" of church politics. They don't want to touch it. I know this because I've been there myself.
Thus, the controversy over same-sex relationships in the church seems like it's at a theological and political cul-de-sac. Within the present framework, finding a way forward without significant injury, damage, and division appears difficult if not nearly impossible. We need to push the "reset" button, and figure out how to reframe this debate.
WHEN CHRISTIANS CONFRONT difficult ethical issues, we bring to our discernment the tradition of what the church has said, our understanding of the Bible, and the testimony of our experience, all illumined by the Holy Spirit. Even when we are not consciously aware of these three dimensions, they each still play some part. The challenge is to keep them in balance, and in dialogue with each other. Problems come when we try to isolate just one of these as the only source of truth, and fail to recognize how they depend on one another. The church's debate over same-sex relationships has often reflected the weaknesses of a one-dimensional approach to discerning truth.
We also can fail to recognize how our trust in the Spirit, working through tradition, the Bible, our intellect, and our own experience, continuously guides us into all truth, including the deepest truths within scripture itself (John 16:13). Especially from the Reformed tradition, we understand that this is an ongoing process, continually being enlivened by the Spirit's work as experience and scripture interact in the ongoing life of the Christian community.
Recently I listened to a sermon by Rev. Adam Hamilton, lead pastor at the Church of the Resurrection near Kansas City. With more than 16,000 members, this is the largest congregation of the United Methodist Church in the United States, and Hamilton is known for his evangelical convictions as well as the social outreach of this congregation. Rev. Hamilton was preaching a series titled "Wrestling with the Bible," helping the congregation understand difficult or puzzling passages and get to the deeper truths of scripture.
In the sermon I heard, Rev. Hamilton dealt with scriptural passages dealing with the role of women, slavery, and homosexuality. I was particularly intrigued by what he said about slavery. The Bible contains no less than 326 references to slavery. All but two of them, Hamilton explained, either condone slavery or assume that it was a given part of the social structure. Yet today, no one needs to be convinced that slavery is utterly opposed to God's intention, and that opposition to slavery was and is a compelling biblical mandate.
But in the middle of the 19th century, Christians could argue that the tradition of the church, the clear witness of scripture, and even their human experience (if they were not slaves) all convinced them that slavery was ordained by God. Many made exactly those arguments from the pulpit. It took the persistent work of the Holy Spirit, and a deeper engagement with scripture that went beyond the assumed meaning of many texts, along with careful attentiveness to the human experience of those who suffered, to lead some Christians to courageously support the cause of abolition.
Of course many will argue that the issues of slavery and of same-sex relationships should not be comparable. But the church's struggle with slavery does illustrate forcefully how assumed understandings of scripture, based on simple readings of the text, have been overturned through a deeper engagement with the truth of God's Word, enlivened by the witness of human experience.
Today, the church must find a new way forward from its present crippling and incriminating battle over same-sex relationships. Doing so will involve a fresh and sincere commitment by all to engage the deep truths of God's Word, and to listen intently to the witness of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, all within the trusting fellowship of the church, where we expect the Spirit to lead us into the fullness of God's truth and life, all while keeping faithfully and fearlessly engaged in asking what the words of the Bible actually mean for their context and for ours.
James Brownson's new book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality (see "A Deeper Engagement" ), persuasively argues that such engagement opens a door, through rigorous biblical interpretation, that can welcome those in same-sex relationships into the full life, ministry, and witness of the church. We are simply asked to look honestly, prayerfully, and openly at how we understand the full meaning of the Bible as it applies to same-sex relationships. The church needs this book as we seek to reframe this debate.
The commitment to take the Bible with all the seriousness and fidelity that our faith requires may still leave some questions yet to be answered, and some honest differences still requiring further discernment. But we can know that such differences are ones that need not divide Christ's body, poison our life, and impair our mission. That is the first essential step if we truly believe that God's Spirit is leading us into all truth.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, is vice-chair of Sojourners' board. This article and sidebar are adapted with permission from the foreword to Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, by James V. Brownson (©2013, Wm. B. Eerdmans, all rights reserved).