In a fit of tidying this week, I came across a Rubik's cube, or at least the components of one. You remember those little plastic cube gizmos with nine mixed-up coloured squares on each face. The task was to sort them out by spinning and twisting until each face was one single colour (red, white green, yellow orange and blue). I never managed to get it out without the help of the cheat sheet, but my kids had a different approach; they just took the whole thing apart and put it back together the right way round.
Eddie Askew wrote a devotional in Disguises of Love about the Rubik's cube, applying it to alternative answers to a challenging problem. He noted that when facing a conundrum, its easy to assume that one answer is right and the others are wrong. But, he says, many problems can't be solved, they just have to be lived. There is either no solution at all, or the solution is one over which we have no influence. "The colours in the cube", he says, "may never match up". Faith and prayer may help, but maybe not to solve a problem but rather to "help us endure its non-solution in the fabric of our daily life."
That statement came to mind this week as I was pondering the New Zealand Baptist family of churches' endeavours to make some sense of the current debate about same-sex marriage. Unlike other Kiwi denominations that have split or factionalised in face of decades of heated debate over the inclusion of gay or lesbian people in their church leadership, the Baptists have hardly begun to grapple with the issue. That is probably why the event sponsored by Auckland's Carey Baptist College last week under the title "Carey Conversations: Same Sex Marriage" hardly got into the issue of marriage itself, but dwelled on the vexed questions of how we relate Biblically, missionally and pastorally to the presence of gay or lesbian people in our families, communities and churches.
I'm not going to nail my colours to the mast here, but those who know me will be aware that I am of evangelical persuasion and therefore have been wrestling with the Biblical and pastoral implications of this matter over fifteen-plus years of debate in the PCANZ. Being currently located in a Baptist faith community brings a sense of deja vu, as I watch and listen to people expressing sincerely-held convictions that aren't very helpful in face of the huge social change we have experienced over that time. Frankly, the debate is no longer academic, and perhaps it never was. We already have genuinely-Christian gay and lesbian people in our churches, and possibly our pulpits, and I cringe when preachers and teachers assume that everyone in the congregation is happily married or soon will be. That's why I found the presentation by Carey staffer Dr George Wieland, on the missional aspects of the gay marriage debate, extremely helpful. His slides are on the Carey website, (the second set, under the title "What is the Question") but I will mention here his exegesis of Matthew 19 which for me brought a fresh perspective to the debate.
I read or refer to Jesus' words in Matthew 19 in nearly every wedding service, and unashamedly see them as describing God's ideal for the stable committed relationship between a man and a woman that is Christian marriage. The core ingredients of Leaving, Cleaving and Becoming one Flesh are first presented in Genesis 2, though historians like Stephanie Coontz tell us that it is only in recent centuries that this transaction been based on romantic love, rather than a strategic union of individual and family wealth and power. Like me, George Wieland sees Jesus' words as describing God's ideal for men and women coming together in family life, but he was keen for us to notice that the provisions for divorce were given to Moses because frail humanity cannot always comply with that ideal. Then he invited us to go further into the passage and take note of the somewhat obscure references to eunuchs. No, of course he wasn't saying that gay people are eunuchs, but he did see a parallel in that eunuchs then, and those in same sex relationships today, are both examples of people who don't fit that traditional pattern. People that, this passage seems to tells us, Jesus was careful to respect and include and perhaps even validate. George explained to us the various ways a first century man could become a eunuch - from birth, through violence, or by choice. Yet whatever the pathway, Jesus affirms a place for them in the faith community. I think George was inviting us to find ways to include and validate those who today do not fit the Genesis pattern, although like the others on the panel he stopped short of including same-sex relationships in what the church sees as marriage. I am sure the Baptist church will be spending more time on these perplexing matters; it is my observation that the NZ Baptist movement is about fifteen years behind the traditional Protestant churches in addressing the theological and ethical dimensions of same-sex attraction.
I hope that as we grapple with these issues, we treat each other with respect and offer careful reasoning for firmly-held Christian values. Dr Laurie Guy, whose doctoral research documents the quite vicious proclamations of Christians in the Homosexual Law Reform debates in the eighties, said in his presentation last week that he hoped that in our own era we aim to "win hearts and minds" by using a more reasonable and gracious approach. Then George Wieland asked "What actually constitutes Christian witness in the context of the current debate?" and suggested the helpful perspective of Jesus-followers as "resident aliens,” seeking the welfare of the land where God has placed us. As I read around the subject in the days before the Carey event, I was sometimes embarrassed by what I learned about Baptist attitudes to Homosexuality. A Baptist minister wrote about Baptists at a Conference on homosexuality who apparently decided to forbid any homosexual (practising or non-practising) from exercising not just leadership, but any ministry or service of any kind; even celibate gays were to be told they are not welcome to be on the cleaning roster or to take up the offering. The same article refers to a questionnaire circulated to some Australian churches, which asked, among other things, whether they would welcome a homosexual at their church. 34.4% said ‘No’ while a further third declined to answer. Whatever my stand on gays in leadership might be, as I rework through this issue in a new era, the idea of any faith community saying that homosexuals, a priori, are not welcome to attend church, is abhorrent to me.
One of the dimensions that is challenging me in the debates this time around is new information (new to me anyway) about the proportion of youth suicides prompted by issues of sexual identity. A survey published in 2009 revealed that gay students in New Zealand are three times more likely to be bullied at school, that half of gay/bi students have self-harmed and that gay teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. An earlier Sydney University study showed youth suicide as the leading cause of death by injury in Australia, more than car crashes, and said gay youths were 600% more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. (An Australian academic acknowledged in 2010 that these figures are often absent from public discourse, because of GLBT political concern to present the gay person as "stable, sane, law-abiding and successful.") Youth '07 researcher Mathijs Lucassen said these challenging facts should be used to inspire social change and help make our schools and communities safer. Alongside our careful exegesis and interpretation of passages like Romans 1, evangelicals must take account of Christ's real compassion for those who are hurting and marginalised, and refrain from public declarations that increase that pain.
The ethics around same sex attraction are for me a bit like a Rubik cube. Much as I would like a shortcut or cheat sheet to solving the issue, I am finding it is actually more a case of careful, sensitive searching that only slowly approaches a pattern. NT Wright writing on Scripture observes that the Bible is not a manual of propositions about every ethical choice that, for some reason, has been passed down to us in a muddled-up order, with our job being to rearrange it into neat little devotional chunks, or a carefully ordered systematic theology. In other words, the Bible is not a cheat sheet. Wright says that is too low a view of scripture, a view that implies "that God has given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book" by engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics, translation moves or whatever. His take is that the Bible is narrative, drama, a story that still has chapters to be written, a la John 20:21. We do not read scripture then, "in order to avoid thought and action, or to be crushed, or squeezed, or confined into a de-humanizing shape, but in order to die and rise again," to wrestle with the bits that don’t make sense, and find perhaps something we haven’t thought of before. As we do so,
God breathes into our nostrils his own breath—the breath of life. And we become living beings—a church recreated in his image, more fully human, thinking, alive beings.
May that be our experience as the NZ Baptist family of churches wrestles with Christian witness in face of the call for gay marriage, and maybe find not how to solve the problem, but "how to endure its non-solution in the fabric of our daily life".
To Chew Over: Have you had to grapple theologically or pastorally with the issue of homosexuality? What gospel stories have helped you?
Will you offer me compassion?
Will you walk the road with me?
Brother, sister, will you feed me
ripe fruit from the Mercy Tree.
Will you utter words of comfort?
Will you bless me with your peace?
Mercy is the gift I long for:
mercy from the Mercy Tree.
I do not deserve your loving,
brother, sister, yet I plead –
I am human, I have need of
mercy from the Mercy Tree.
If you offer me your friendship
if you make your peace with me,
mercy will most surely touch you:
mercy from the Mercy Tree.
Words: John Weir.