Christianity is a lifelong journey of learning new things, growing in wisdom, and interacting with a wide array of difficult topics. Boldly asking tough questions is essential to spiritual development.
Today, few questions are as important, impactful, meaningful, or divisive within Christianity as the following six:
1. Is homosexuality a sin?
While much of society continues to accept homosexuality as being a culturally and morally acceptable practice, many Christian institutions, organizations, and communities still consider it sinful.
Increasingly, Christians who publically denounce homosexuality are perceived as homophobic, bigoted, and on the completely wrong side of a major human rights movement. This results in the Christian faith being wholeheartedly rejected by a modern population that sees this type of fundamentalism as incompatible with modern ethics and conventional wisdom.
But other churches, denominations, and spiritual communities are changing — and some have fully embraced and supported gay rights.
Christianity currently finds itself facing four basic responses: 1) support homosexuality, 2) reject it as sinful, 3) accept it but still claim it’s sinful, and, 4) ignore the issue as much as possible.
Believers are deeply divided on the issue, and ultimately your stance on homosexuality defines much of what you think about God, theology, church, sin, and salvation.
This is one of the defining question facing today’s Christians, and many are still processing through what they believe and struggling to come up with an adequate answer.
A California Christian university has asked a professor who was once its chair of theology and philosophy to leave after he came out as transgender.
Heather Clements taught theology at Azusa Pacific University for 15 years, but this past year, he began referring to himself as H. Adam Ackley. “This year has been a transition from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, transgendered man,” he said.
Ackley, who is in his third year of a five-year contract at a school that does not use the tenure system, said university policies seem to be silent about transgender issues, except that “Humans were created as gendered beings.”
This past year, I’ve been working out of my house, something like a stay-at-home dad, what with the after-school hours and school holidays and such. All day, everyday – or at least whenever I get up from my desk to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water or collect the mail – I observe the messes my kids have made, the dirty dishes in the sink (or, more likely, scattered on coffee tables, the dining table or kitchen countertops), the dried mix of toothpaste and spit all over the vanity, the explosion of Legos and Polly Pockets and precious scraps of torn fabric they collect to role-play their fashion-design dreams – hundreds upon hundreds of swatches, all frayed edges and little threads perpetually freeing themselves and covering the carpet, much as dog hair would, except we don’t have a dog because I hate dog hair all over everything, and you can’t hate your daughters’ fashion-design dreams.
What I have discovered, in all this mess, is that I am a selfish, lazy bastard. When I get really fed up, or just need to do something physical, I might vacuum a couple of rooms or clean half a bathroom or straighten up the kitchen or do some little household project like patch a hole in the drywall from when the toilet-paper holder fell out of the wall six months ago. But that Benedictine slogan, ora et labora, “pray and work,” the idea that drudgery points you to God? Forget it. I’ve seen beautiful portrayals of it, like in the film Of Gods and Men, how the monks wash dishes or hoe rows or mend fences without complaint, because taking care of one another is part of their calling. “Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen,” states St. Benedict’s Rule. “We all bear an equal burden of servitude under one Lord.”
I don’t doubt that taking care of my family – not just earning money, but hands-dirty domestic sort of care – is part of my vocation. In fact, it’s probably the part of my calling that’s closest to monastic holiness, if I’m honest. It’s just that I find the other parts of my calling: the writing, the making music, the seminary studies – I find all of this a whole lot more interesting than scrubbing the toilet. That is to say, if I’m honest, I think my thoughts and my words and the combination of sounds I create are more important than keeping our home clean – at least, that’s the belief I act on, more often than not. Selfish, lazy bastard. I told you, didn’t I?
I consider myself a feminist, which means (to me at least) I support the elimination of barriers to access for all people, regardless of their gender. But in spite of that, the equality that follows such efforts comes with its own consequences for the culture, and sometimes even for the woman herself.
My wife, Amy, pastors a prominent church in downtown Portland. She has office hours, late-night meetings, and weekend commitments that keep her away from home quite a bit, sometimes more often than she’d prefer. I work most days from home as a writer, which means I have greater flexibility in my schedule to take the kids, pick them up, and sometimes make dinner or even put the little guys to bed. It’s not often that Amy gets home after both kids are asleep, but it happens. And when it does, I see the pain on her face.
Zoe, our four-year-old, had a dad’s night at her preschool this past week, at which they presented us with the requisite finger paintings and other artifacts of her classroom time. But my favorite thing was a letter that she dictated to her teacher for me. The very first sentence in the letter was as follows.
I was a nervous kid. Once, I got so freaked out by the prospect of a speaking part in my first-grade school play that my folks thought I had come down with appendicitis. But there were two times in particular that I remember descending into unmitigated panic. Both involved discussions with my dad about my career.
The first time, my dad was telling me about his year-by-year earning trends as an insurance salesman. He went from being one of several agents manning a booth in a Sears store to being the highest-earning employee in his major international company over about 15 years. He added zeroes to his income, and a passel of staffers, including my mom for a while (didn’t work out so well – they divorced thereafter).
At his height, he was earning upwards of half a million a year, and this was in the 80s. His company flew him all over the world, showered him with awards, and held him up as the high-water mark for all other agents to aspire to. I combined this remarkable achievement with the implicit cultural message that all generations exceeded their parents in earning power and went into an emotional tailspin.
How in the hell was I going to make that kind of money?
I’ll preface this piece my saying I know I am making some broad generalizations based on gender, and that there are always exceptions to every trend. But despite that, I do think there are some cultural trends that can offer us some useful insight.
Anyone who has been paying attention has noticed that, of those left within the walls of most churches, the majority still hanging in there are women. Some, like the advocates of so-called Masculine Christianity, see this as a crisis. The Christian faith and its symbols are becoming softened, feminized, compromised into being something other than what they were meant to be.
Granted, when you take a faith whose principal authors historically have been men and then place that same faith in the hands of women, some things will inevitably change. Personally, I welcome the exploration of other, feminine expressions of the divine and values such as embodied spirituality that many female Christian leaders value. But aside from these assets, I think that women bring something far more critical to institutional religion.
Without them, it may cease to exist.
Growing up, I looked to my dad as the quintessential definition of what a man was. He was pretty quiet but prone to anger. He worked crazy hours as the primary provider in the house, but still made time to build things nearly every weekend around the house. He had tons of tools, knew everything about everything and was never, ever wrong.
Some of what he was to me was passed along; most of it didn’t stick. And for that, I was pretty sure there was something wrong with me. Maybe I was gay. Could be that I just missed out on some critical “male gene” that made me want to work with tools and amass an encyclopedic knowledge about sports. I mean, I liked baking with my nana, and when I stayed over at their house for the weekend, sometimes I’d even paint my nails with her polish. I also went golfing and fishing with granddad, but I’d rather draw or play music than help my dad rebuild the retaining wall around the porch.
Must be something wrong with me.
A few examples of how clueless I am about male identity, and how mixed-up the gender roles are becoming, just in my own family:
I’ve never killed anything, at least on purpose. The only time I ever shot a gun was when my dad took me to the range and handed over his Ruger for a few rounds. I hated it. The noise was deafening, and the recoil scared the shit out of me.
I own a pathetic amount of tools for a man in his late thirties who has owned two homes. By my age, my dad and grandparents had staked their claim on the garage as exclusively male territory by covering every wall and bit of floor space with table saws, drills, vices and every wrench – standard and metric – anyone could ever need. I have more guitars than screwdrivers, and it was only a few years ago that I finally got straight in my head what the difference between channel locks and regular pliers is.
I like potpourri; my wife digs the nickel defense.
I changed more diapers in the first month of my son’s life than my dad ever did on me. I take care of the kids when Amy goes to meetings in the evenings, and I work from home every day.
I cry every time I watch Extreme Home Makeover. Amy records every episode of Real Sports on HBO. Oh, and I always cry when I watch that, too.
Damn you, Bryant Gumbel.
[Note from the author: Yesterday I wrote about part of the discussion that took place around our Wild Goose Festival panel on masculinity and male identity. A few folks asked about the story I told during the panel, so I thought I’d share it here. It’s a bit long, so I’ll offer it in two parts, with part two coming tomorrow.]
Every guy has that one car they either always wanted or got and for which they will always have an irrational love. Mine was a 1966 Mustang.
I first saw it sitting with the “for sale” sign in the parking lot of the apartment complex where I had a summer job, cleaning out trashed, vacant units. They wanted $3,200 for it, but they took $2,700, which was almost every penny I’d earned for a whole summer’s work. The guy who sold it to me, a bartender with a mullet and a fine collection of sleeveless T-shirts, assured me that I would love that car more than life itself.
He was right, but as I mentioned, it was a completely irrational love. I spent more time underneath that car than I did in it for more than a year, replacing seals, radiators, starters, alternators and a host of other barely-functioning parts I only learned existed as they broke. But when it worked, man, I was transported, both literally and figuratively.
The mustang gave me more confidence too. I asked a girl out I had wanted to hook up with for some months, and after checking out the ride, she readily agreed. I took her to a concert, and on the way home, her smile broadened as she ran her hand seductively across the burgundy interior.
“This is a really sweet car,” she cast a feline glance my way. Every manly fiber in my being puffed up, taking in the intoxicating elixir of car exhaust and her perfume. Life was good.
Five minutes later, while cruising down the highway, I threw a rod. We sat in the parking lot of a gas station for about forty-five minutes until my mom got there to take us both home.
I said the love was irrational.
Editor's note: This is a He Said, She Said on the issue. To read this author's husband's take, go HERE.
Who would have thought that five years into our marriage we would still be having this debate? Gender roles. Egalitarianism. Complementarianism.
If you've come here first, please read my husband's take on the issue before continuing on.
We tend to think fairly similarly, though he likes to think himself a complementarian, while I tend toward the egalitarian label. I love words, but that's all these are: words. I think it's all in how you define it for yourself. But since he brought it up …
Editor's note: This is a He Said, She Said on the issue. To read this author's wife's take, go HERE.
My wife and I have been embroiled in a deep debate lately. It involves gender roles, complementarianism, egalitarianism, and often threats of a kick landing somewhere on my body. It’s not that we haven’t worked this sort of thing out within our marriage — I take out the trash, she does the laundry — but somehow despite both being raised in Christian households we do not see theologically quite eye to eye on this issue.
I happen to fall on the side of complementarianism. For me this does not threaten the basic equality or God-given image and sense of worth that belongs to all humankind. But I do happen to think men and women were designed differently biologically and otherwise. Yesterday morning in yoga, I did my downward dog alongside 15 women and one other guy. I work in the same building as a special needs school with 22 female teachers and only one dude. I am happy to say that there are some areas women seem to be drawn toward, and in my opinion, excel in.
My wife on the other hand would like to argue (and does) that to pointing out any differences whatsoever leads necessarily to thinking in terms of an inequality. She believes that many of the Biblical mandates on gender roles have more to do with timing and culture than God-given norms.
Imani walked down the hall with a paper cup in her hands.
She stopped and held up the cup to me. Inside of its paper walls were soil, water, and seeds — all those humble and elemental things that build a third-grader's scientific knowledge.
Imani was growing cabbage.
She was my student last year. She loved science and writing. I remember the look of wonder in her eyes when we studied weather. We learned about tornadoes. In my classroom, I had two 2-liter bottles connected by a tornado tube, a plastic piece that allows you to make a tornado by swirling the water around and around in one of the bottles. Imani held the bottles in her hands and marveled as her water formed into a giant, powerful funnel cloud.
"Wow," she whispered.
I love the sound of learning.
For some Mormon feminists, there can be only one goal on the road to gender equality: ordination to the all-male priesthood.
After all, every worthy male in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — starting at age 12 — is ordained in this priesthood. It is seen as a holy power, described as the authority to act in God’s name, yet given exclusively to men.
At the same time, lots of Mormon women are perfectly comfortable with the roles they believe God assigned to them, including motherhood and nurturing. They would not want, they say, to “hold the priesthood.”
Now comes a third and, some suggest, growing group of Mormon women somewhere between these two poles.
They are not pushing for ordination, but they crave a more engaged and visible role for women in the Mormon church. It is a role, they believe, that their Mormon foremothers played — and one that could fit easily into the institutional structure without distorting or dismantling doctrine.
On the one hand, I’m encouraged when Christians can have more honest, open dialogue about sex and sexuality in the public forum.
On the other, I’m more than a little distressed when the matter at hand is about “Biblically-based” sexual submission.
For those unfamiliar, there are (at least) two camps in the Christian conversation about gender roles, one of which we can call “egalitarian,” and the other calls itself “complementarian.” The implication of the latter is that, though we are not the same, we males and females fit together in many ways like pieces of a puzzle, one complementing something the other lacks, and vice-versa.
And if the definition of complementarianism stopped there, I would be on board; but in truth it’s a thinly veiled case for women submitting to men. Sorry, but this isn’t complementary; it’s authoritarian.
In a recent post, Rachel Held Evans explained the troublesome issues with complementarianism well:
…For modern-day Christian patriarchalists (sometimes called complementarians), hierarchal gender relationships are God-ordained, so the essence of masculinity is authority, and essence of femininity is submission. Men always lead and women always follow. There is no sphere unaffected by this hierarchy—not even, it seems, sex.
There are many differences that exist between women and men. Just start with basic biology and it’s apparent. However, if we start at the beginning we discover something foundational that speaks to who we are at our deepest level of identity.
In the creation narrative the writer tell us that God created humankind “in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1.27). Men and women are first identified as image bearers. While we have differences we also have sameness, and both are rooted in God.
We must keep this in mind in any conversation about the differences between men and women. For whenever we speak about our differences we must do so with caution. As Ken Wilber rightly points out, “… as soon as any sort of differences between people are announced, the privileged will use those differences to further their advantage.”
In the history of our world men have typically occupied places of privilege. As a result, men have used the differences between themselves and women to gain advantage and establish dominance over women. This is still prevalent in our world today — even in the Church.
I really want to give people like John Piper the benefit of the doubt. Given that he’s a minister in the Baptist tradition, it doesn’t surprise me when he only refers to God as “he” or when he talks about the man’s role as spiritual head of the household. I grew up Baptist, so I’ve heard it all before.
But he goes too far with it. Way too far. And given the breadth of his influence, his message serves to normalize the marginalization of half (slightly more than, in fact) the world’s population. While I expect he believes he is fulfilling a divine call in sharing his message, I believe I’m serving a similar call in holding him to account.
Piper, recently keynoted a conference called “God, Manhood and Ministry: Building Men for the Body of Christ.” On first blush, this sound both exciting and very necessary. Men are leaving organized religion in droves, and in many cases, they are walking away from their families as well. I agree wholeheartedly that today’s man needs some clarity, support and guidance in how to exhibit Christ-like traits of strength, conviction, love and dedication both in the home and in communities of faith.
None of this, however, requires the relegation of women to a second-tier role, which is precisely what Piper seems to be doing.
HE SAID: David Vanderveen
Real marriages develop from two people who are committed to making them work. The specifics of how two real people make one real marriage work is largely irrelevant given the freedom we have in Christ. Marriage is supposed to be a symbol of our relationship with God on earth.
We don’t need more multiple choice tests and true-and-false quizzes with black-and-white answers to bring heaven to earth; we need to put the love of the other first — with God at the core — to make our marriages work.
SHE SAID: Sarah Vanderveen
Real Marriage is a poorly written, poorly researched book by a well-meaning pastor who I believe is struggling with his own sexuality and sense of self-worth. I don’t know how else to explain his weirdly inappropriate fixation on masculinity and specific sexual practices, and his failure to address the complexity of human sexuality and relationships.
It feels to me like he doesn’t really want to understand the whole person, rather he just wants to cut straight to the salacious tidbits. I realize that’s how you sell a lot of books, but still. I get the distinct impression that Driscoll is not a man at peace.
Everyone out there, let’s try giving our girls something positive this Christmas.
One gift at a time, we can foster their intellect.
One gift at a time, we can affirm their worth as contributors and not just bystanders.
We can give them value beyond their curls and big brown eyes, which are beautiful, yes, but what about giving them a book that doesn’t have a princess as the main character?
What about that science kit that you were looking at for your nephew? Would your niece like it too?