Saturday, August 11, 2007

Quick thoughts on the homosexual issue at home

UPDATE (17/8/2007): I've distilled some of these thoughts into a slightly more refined version at The Agora.

Update #2: Tan Soo Inn's commentary 'A Time for Clarity and Wisdom' is excellent!



I’ve noticed that in recent days that my blog has had hits from people googling things along the lines of "Malaysia false teaching" and "Malaysian church controversy". My guess is that they’re looking for more information and insight on Rev. Ou Yang Wen Feng, the first Malaysian pastor to declare his homosexual orientation openly, and who is reportedly seeking to plant a gay-friendly church in Malaysia.

This is an issue close to my heart as I do have friends who are gay, or who struggle with it. Last year, when I was in a leadership position in the Christian Union, this was easily the toughest issue I ever had to wrestle with. One of my friends, whom I shall call H, from an atheistic background, had become a Christian and was plunging herself enthusiastically into Christian activities. At the same time, H saw no conflict between being a professing Christian and an active homosexual lifestyle. H was open, however, to being persuaded otherwise. H and I had several conversations as I sought to persuade H of the biblical case. In all honesty, I was completely out of my depth and we never even got anywhere close to a ‘resolution’. Still, it did teach me a good deal, about pastoral care, about the extremely difficult balance inherent in tough, disciplining love and tender, gracious love, and the necessity of good exegesis. (Not to mention being afraid that if the student media had gotten wind of this, I might be crucified!) And I still remember vividly the tears of a mutual friend as she cried over H and her wish that H would see that this was not how God intended it to be. Would I have the same compassion!

I don’t really know much about this situation beyond what’s reported in the Star, and I think I’ve already shown I’m no expert. But assuming that the church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality is correct, here are a couple of things to reflect on:

  1. We can agree with Rev. Ou Yang that we want a church “where everybody felt safe and welcomed”, and a church that reaches out to everybody, including heterosexuals, homosexuals and transsexuals.

  2. In the words of David Field, “those who accept the Bible’s veto on homosexual behaviour must go out of their way to express genuine love for homosexual people.” Christians can be countercultural not only in their stance towards homosexual people, but in their radical love for them, especially since in Malaysia, there is still less tolerance amongst the general populance towards homosexual people. We should repent where we’ve failed on this count.

  3. Christians should protest against any true injustice and discrimination against the homosexual.

  4. A popular Christian cliché is “love the sinner and hate the sin” (I have used it myself). It is a worthy attempt at a soundbite to try to encapsulate a dual fidelity to God’s prohibition of homosexuality and the command to love people. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to separate the sin from sinner, opens ourselves up to the charge of double standards (“why do Christians talk about this in relation to homosexuality and not other ‘sins’?”) and potentially could lead to sub-biblical assumptions as it oversimplifies God’s character as both holy and loving. I say ditch this saying.

  5. The church, however, must be clear on its teaching on homosexuality. Clear enough that ideally, no one needs to ask what we think about homosexuality if they know that we’re Christians. This is needed too to be of help to our brothers and sisters who are struggling/ambivalent but truly want to know what path they should embark on.

  6. This brings us to a directly related issue, and that is one of hermeneutics. In other words, we need to wrestle with how to read and apply the Bible. After all, “if we can enjoy seafood, what’s wrong with gay sex”? This is especially important as we seek to persuade our Christian homosexual friends that we have a proper confidence that the traditional interpretation is the right one.

  7. We need to be sensitive to those who struggle with homosexuality. It is never as simple as simply “snapping out of it”, and for some, it will be a lifelong battle. There are often many contributing factors to homosexuality, for which a homosexual person might not be responsible for.

  8. We should separate individual homosexual people from the wider “gay agenda”. I hesitate to use the phrase, since it can have quite emotive connotations, but in the West at least, there does appear to be somewhat of a concerted attempt to give a disproportionate voice to homosexuals and force through explicitly pro-gay policies. Nevertheless, while Christians should rightly contend in the public square against this, they should at the same time be careful not to dehumanise homosexual people.

  9. Christians ultimately should not feel anxious over this. We can rest assured in God’s good sovereignty and trust that the gospel changes lives.

  10. This is, quite simply, a very difficult issue. Honestly, I'm still out of my depth. We need God's help.
Further reading on the subject (* means I have read it):
*What's So Amazing about Grace?, Philip Yancey. The chapter Grace-Healed Eyes (if I remember the title correctly), is the first thing you should read. Yancey's story about his friendship with Mel White, who is now with MCC, the same denomination as Rev. Ou Yang, is moving and instructive.
*How to Read the Bible for all its worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, or any other book on interpreting the Bible.
*Straight and Narrow?: Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexual Debate, Thomas Schmidt. This books gives you the exegetical meat, clearly laying out the debate between traditionalists and revisionists, without ever losing sight of the person.
The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Robert Gagnon. This is an exhaustive scholarly work that leaves no stone unturned.
*What some of you were, ed. Chris Keane. A collection of stories of Christians (and their families) who struggle everyday with homosexuality.
Loving Homosexuals as Jesus would, Chad Thompson. A well-regarded book.
Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, Jeffrey Satinover.
Holiness & Sexuality, ed. David Peterson.

Homosexual Relationships and the Bible, David Field. This will help in looking at some of the Bible passages on homosexuality.
Responding to Pro-Gay Theology, Joe Dallas. This is a very comprehensive article dealing with a variety of questions from an ex-gay.
Homosexuality: A Personal Reflection, Jamie Arpin-Ricci. An important personal story.


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Blogger BK said...

I should also add that John Richardson's booklet "What God has made clean" is useful if everything else appears daunting. And I should also point out the work of Real Love Ministry.

5:57 pm  
Blogger The Hedonese said...

Very thot provoking piece, here BK which I am sure would be beneficial to many msians confused or struggling over this issue.

Would you mind posting a link and short intro at the Agora blog? :)

3:22 am  
Anonymous alwyn said...

good post, BK :)

what do u think of Brian McLaren's suggestion of having a moratorium on pronouncements regarding this issue?

4:41 pm  
Blogger BK said...

Hi alwyn, thanks.

I can see where McLaren is coming from, especially from a pastoral viewpoint. We hesitate (rightly) to come across as intolerant or judgmental or holier-than-thou. And I suppose, in some contexts, we want to avoid being too closely identified with a political agenda. And I agree that we always seek to ask the "question behind the question".

But ultimately, I'm not completely sure about a moratorium. It depends what he means by that. Truth be told, if he simply means listening attentively and responding graciously, that's what is already happening, even if it doesn't always get reported. (I'm thinking of people like Robert Gagnon, Richard Hays and Andrew Goddard, and I'm sure there are others).

I guess it depends on whether you think the traditional teaching on homosexuality is pretty clear, despite revisionist attempts. So it's possible it comes down to one's view of the Word (hermeneutics, epistemology etc. etc.; which would also again I think, help us make more sense of McLaren's position.) Although I'm no expert, I'm led to understand that the traditional teaching has been robustly defended (the Gagnon book I referenced is apparently an especially powerful case). Certainly, from my layperson's view, I would believe so.

If so, then there is a place, I think, to make clear publicly what the Christian position is and to contend for it in the public square. There is a place for refutation of error (eg. 2 Peter), since this would be what a revisionist teaching on homosexuality would be regarded as. There are many, I believe, Christians who struggle with homosexuality but at the same time believe that the traditional teaching is right, and I would imagine that it would be pastorally insensitive if we were to say to them, "oh actually, we're as confused as you are as to what the Bible says".

So I appreciate where McLaren is coming from, but does he concede too much? I think yes.

10:46 pm  
Anonymous alwyn said...

Hi BK, thanks 4 the well-worded response.

I suspect McLaren's proposal came about *precisely* because traditional approaches (which have certainly not ignored being compassionate to gays) have largely been ineffective in stemming the number of suicide and/or depression cases among homosexuals (at least in the USA). *Maybe* it's because people being people, our lives are 'determined' to some extent by doctrine and if the doctrine says, "Gayism is sin" it becomes very difficult (though not impossible) to prevent this 'belief' from manifesting itself again and again in our interactions with homosexuals.

Things are complicated by the fact that gay ppl are *extraordinarily* sensitive and hence are more affected (than normal) by rejection.

The priority here, to reiterate, is the emotional and mental well-being (and even survival) of the gay person, which McLaren has elevated (to the chagrin of many traditionalists).

Perhaps the issue is NOT whether the traditionalist or revisionist position is 'true' but whether or not Christians ultimately care about gays more than they do about doctrine? (I know I'm being a little provocative here, but it's still a good question, no? I mean, if we knew we could save a few hundred suicides via the moratorium, would we at least try it?)

Note: My own position has remained to say that I don't condone gayism even as I try as hard as I can to deprioritise the doctrinal issue. I've always thought the kingdom of God was bigger than our views (right or wrong) about gays; problem is if we're not careful the gay man will think his gayism is a No Entry stamp into the people of God.

5:53 am  
Blogger BK said...

Thanks for your remarks. I should say at this point that I neither have the time or energy (nor I suspect, ability) to continue in a protracted discussion so please don't feel offended if I don't respond after this! :)

I'm not quite sure I follow what you're saying. I don't deny the complexity of the debate, of which the high suicide rate you document is one aspect. If I can try to restate your position as I understand it - you think

we should deprioritise the doctrinal issue,

as this causes much anguish for homosexual people who struggle,

because sexuality is so deeply intertwined with our identity,

and a belief that homosexuality is sinful has has negative effects: eg. a higher rate of suicides/depression.

I'm a little puzzled though, by the demarcation you draw between doctrine (whether or not the traditional position is "true") and a genuine desire to care for homosexual people. Although I think I can see how that might be the case: struggling homosexual Christians might feel especially condemned when they constantly hear teaching how homosexuality is sinful, seeing the battles fought in the public square, and find that even the compassion of other fellow Christians is inadequate (since they might not be able to completely understand the struggle etc.) Thus, their well-being suffers, and they might feel as if they're undeserving of entry into the kingdom of God. Therefore, it seems as if doctrine takes precedence over their spiritual well-being.

I'm more than willing to agree with you that this could be the case. There is a sense in which McLaren is right in that we should be better known at being salt and light instead of merely being anti-gay crusaders. Not issue-oriented, but people-oriented.

However, may I gently suggest then, that this still doesn't quite warrant the either/or posited here, and that McLaren's proposed solution still lacks something? I don't want to say this glibly, but surely the point is we should then not stop at "Homosexuality is sin", but we continue on to "but Jesus' blood purifies me from all sin". We go back to the heart of the Christian faith: the gospel.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 has been something of a battlefield with the debates over the meaning of arsenokoitai, but if we can take a step back from those debates, we can see the what Paul is really trying to say. If we only read v.9-10, it comes across as condemnatory. But Paul's pastoral heart comes across here, as he pleads: remember what the cross has done for you! "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (v.11)

Paul doesn't mean here that we won't suddenly feel all heterosexual or not be supscetible to homosexual behaviour anymore. Surely, it's an objective reality he's affirming, the fact that we are now one of God's people. In my final paragraph in my Agora post, I write: 'Christians will not be free from sin in this world. Instances of homosexual behaviour, therefore doesn't mean we're excluded from the kingdom of God anymore than if we lie.' Instead, the struggle is to keep on holding to the precious truth that Jesus' blood has granted me the privilege of being a child of God, and to live like one. It is the struggle not to give in to bitterness and despair and hopelessness but to embrace the expanse of God's love and mercy.

I'm sure the struggle is even harder for homosexual people, possibly to an extent that I can't comprehend. And I agree that I (or any other Christian walking alongside them), therefore can only go so far. Instead, all I can do is to keep pointing them to Jesus, the only one who truly knows what they're going through, and to be like John in 1 John: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know you have eternal life. [or the kingdom of God to put it another way]" (1 John 5:13).

Again, I want to emphasise that this is not meant glibly, in a "let's look to Jesus and he will solve all your problems instantly" kind of way! I'm sure there are other complicating physiological and pyschological factors as well.

Quite simply, and I want to end on a positive note, I heartily affirm with you that the kingdom of God is bigger than our views about homosexuality. And so we should never stop proclaiming the gospel to ourselves and to each other.

P/S I suspect (and hope) that actually we share plenty of common ground but that it just hasn't come through that well via this medium!

5:38 pm  
Blogger Tim said...

been following this blog entry (and the discussion it's generated) with much interest over the last month - you write with much insight!

just thought i'd add my two cents worth.

having had the experience of counselling a number of Christian friends in the past 3 years who have been struggling with this issue, too, I've seen both sides of the coin - both a) where the local church has failed dismally to handle such matters, and b) where other local churches have handled (in particular) young adults and homosexuality quite superbly.

it seems to me that perhaps the problem is not so much doctrinal or theological, as it is a lack of practical wisdom? i'd say that 90% of christians struggling with this issue know that homosexual behaviour is wrong (or "sin"); yet what the church seems to do is merely reinforce that point, rather than providing suitable alternatives to getting out of sinful behaviour.

it's almost as though the churches ive seen fail at this seem to think that throwing bible verses at the sinner will suddenly and miraculously transform the sinner.

yes, i know that empowering homosexuals to break free of such behaviour is complex and often problematic; perhaps, then, there are too many christians devoted to defending the traditional teachings, and not enough attempting to provide practical, holistic (but at the same time realistic) alternatives to releasing the homosexual.

it's one thing to have compassion and be non-judgemental with your homosexual friends; but what's the point when the Church can't really offer a workable alternative in the first place?

i actually think this issue will be one that defines the wider Church in the 21st century; with homosexuality both within and outside the Church growing phenomenally in the last quarter of the century, how the Church responds to this will make or break the global institution (we're already seeing divisions appear with the Third World churches starting to separate themselves from the Western church over this issue). It's a big deal; that's why it's such a pity that most evangelical/conservative churches are so reluctant to discuss sex in any shape or form.

8:09 pm  
Anonymous alwyn said...

Hi BK,

No worries, I'm not a fan of prolonged discussions either(!).

I think the questions you raised highlight the complexity of what we're talking about.

Which is *probably* why McLaren is calling for a moratorium (and not an all-out revision of doctrine) - it LOOKS LIKE we can neither do things the 'old' way (w/out sacrificing the people-orientedness) or some new 'de-doctrinized' way (w/out *seemingly* sacrificing 'truth', 'Scriptural fidelity', etc.).

Note that if the traditional was was 'working', McLaren wouldn't raise the issue at all. So my general/short answer to your post would be: You're right(!), doctrine SHOULD be helpful, but something isn't working somewhere. Something *must* change...

BK, I appreciate the ending on a positive note and yes I think we do share a lot of common groud.


Blessings,
Alwyn

11:42 pm  
Anonymous Dave said...

That's why I appreciate Alwyn's attempt to 'clarify' McLaren's motives and intentions... and why clarity is ultimately a charitable approach to discourse. (though admittedly, there seems to be some second guessing here)

Even so, instead of giving the impression that the moral issues involved here are 'ambiguous' so we need to be silent for five years, why dun we say yes, scriptural standards are clear in this case but... how are we gonna help the emotionally depressed and suicidal people here? Now, isnt' that a clearer way of putting it :)

Why not come alongside 'traditional' folks who are effectively working amongst these people and join in the work? They can't be all ineffective and uncaring rite? Grenz' Welcoming but not affirming approach is definitely a better and irenic approach than allowing gayism as an irrelevant issue for incorporation the people of god. That depends on what we mean by gayism though, doesnit it? :D

2:08 am  
Anonymous alwyn said...

Hi Dave,

As mentioned, the "Scripture is clear" approach, whilst helpful to some, has raised questions in others (like McLaren).

And McLaren would, I (second)guess (grin), be the last one to object about any specific community which has been adopting your approach yet doing its very best to communicate far-out compassion to the gays, and having the letters/celebrations (by gays, etc.) to show for it.

Of course then the question would remain: what do u do about high-doctrine churches who DON'T seem to be helping gays and have in fact encouraged more suicides?

Can we suggest a low-doctrine for approach these communities and a high-doc one for those you've come across as good examples? (I'm of course assuming we needn't have a one-size-fits-all take on this, right?)

10:50 am  

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