“A DEVOUT UNCERTAINTY”:
WHAT IS THE WILL OF GOD THROUGH JESUS CHRIST TODAY?
I would not present this section of my discussion of homosexuality to a workshop at the Annual Gathering of CBF, because a panel discussion would occur with different Baptist voices representing all four of these broad viewpoints. However, I am not in a workshop with a panel discussion. Though some might think it unnecessary, I am deeply indebted to students in my classes at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for more than twenty years and particularly to the students of the Divinity School of Wake Forest University for the last ten years. About half the students in Christian theology are Baptists, but nonBapist students generally reflect the same concerns and difficulty of their Baptist friends. One fundamental difference: I lecture on “Homosexuality and the Church” with gay and lesbian Christian students who are commitment to Christ and Christian ministry sitting alongside predominantly straight students in the classroom. Thus “homosexuality” becomes more than an issue because “homosexual” inheres in the identity of some students and constitutes a major concern for heterosexual students. Though most pastors and church leaders never engage the issue of “Christian faith and homosexuality,” gay and lesbian Christians worship in moderate Baptist churches every Sunday morning alongside their straight brothers and sisters. Their friends know who they are, and their mutual experience of worship generates conversation about issues of faith occur from time to time. This section on “Devout Uncertainty” generally reflects the experience and attitude of most students in my classes, Baptists and nonBaptists alike. On “a blog” of their creation and attention, their voices can be heard.
Nevertheless, I say far more here than I would say in an open discussion. Why voice it here? Older persons in practically all denominational entities exercise organizational leadership…just as they do in their own local churches. The voices of younger persons committed to Christian ministry are often not heard or simply dismissed. Although this section has been written on short notice and requires revision, it does provide an opportunity for voices on both sides of the generational divide to be heard. Though the question of the attitude of the church toward homosexual persons is essentially not “a conservative or liberal issue” but a generational divide, we can nonetheless engage in serious study and conversation together for the benefit of all. Yet everyone changes in one way or the other in dialogue, regardless of attitude and viewpoint. Many homosexual Christians and often their families wait in hope for change, for the dawning of new creation. However, waiting on an unarrived future significantly damages, even devastates the integrity of the church in its witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Like alleged thinking Baptists, these unwanted and unwelcome children of the church, wait in silence. These homosexual Baptist Christians know that they are thought to be untouchable and unclean. They are lepers excluded from the public life of the church. In the meantime church congregations wait in silence, knowing already that custom and culture will change. They wait in silence, because silence remains the most comfortable attitude. However, many homosexuals, their families, and their friends…inside and outside Baptist church life…will turn away or simply leave a onetime nurturing community of faith that does not practice the hospitality evidenced throughout the ministry of Jesus. There is absolutely nothing “missional” in this strategy.
Various Christians in practically every congregation remain unsure about revising church teaching in relation to homosexuality and same-sex unions. They stand inside the tradition of the church in prayer, bible study, worship, and service. If you were to insist that these devoted Christians make a decision on the issue of homosexuality in the church today, most (I think) would stand in church tradition with the compassion they sense in “welcome but not affirming,” edgy nonetheless in the midst of change. They do not want to pass judgment on this issue, because any public posture is less than certain in the moral ambiguity of this issue. However, for many other Christians, quite aware of the uncertainty amid moral ambivalence, the question of the integrity of gay discipleship is more than an issue. “Homosexual” refers to specific names and faces of those whom they know through the congregational life of the church. They have been in Sunday School classes and Youth Choirs. They are accepted with the friendship of most of their peers with whom they have grown up within the community of faith. These “homosexual” persons are children of the church whom we love. Indeed, some of those who identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian” are our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Often they have been dedicated to God in a service of blessing at their birth. Many have grown up and into the life of the church, and we have witnesses their confession of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord (somewhere between 9 to 12 years of age). They are baptized Christian believers. What does it mean to love a homosexual person in the community of faith?
Then adolescence breaks through occasions new realities in their lives. A few, among the best of them, have no adolescent interest in the opposite sex. On the contrary, they realize slowly or surprisingly discover or shockingly recognize, “I am different.” They know their sense of difference inheres in their depths of sexuality. Eventually some say, “I am gay,” leaving the church as a “place” that does not welcome or love them any longer. Others stay inside the church, but they continue to be welcomed as Christians of integrity through the same friends with whom they have participated in countless church activities. Yet their sexual identity evokes little verbal discussion, because their friends in their (onetime) Youth Group do not exclude them but continue to accept them. To be sure, there is a clear division in the community of faith: Older persons who have invested in the life of the church during their adult years, who are the Bible teachers and Baptist interpreters of church, generally stand in church tradition: The question of homosexuality is a clear-cut issue that Christian churches have resoundingly rejected for centuries…from the earliest traditions in the beginning of New Testament churches. Younger persons reflect a very different perspective. “Homosexuals” are persons they know in the mutuality of friendship, and they accept them inside and outside the church as authentic persons worthy of respect.
Most of the older leadership of the church finds the open attitude of the younger generations to toward homosexuality to be causal and uninformed. They have not listened to the teaching of the Bible in areas of sexuality fidelity, and they have absorbed the contemporary cultural attitude that they have experienced at school and elsewhere. A word of caution at this point: The younger generations in church life are not naïve, for they know what their elders think and why they think it. The older generation has lived through the civil rights movement and seen the partial dismantlement of Jim Crow segregation; they observed the woman’s sexual revolution and their experience of freedom in the life of the church; they often experienced the public “embarrassment” of divorce, especially in the church. The younger generations think and say to one another: “Our church was wrong on every issue…racial segregation in schools and public facilities; the pain of divorce but worth of the divorced person; women’s rights extended beyond voting to education and opportunity; unanimity in support of war, any war. These younger believers often do not know the Bible in any fashion comparable to their elders. They have concluded: “All of them found in the Bible what they already believed. Nothing else.”
These young people have not engaged in any serious Bible study about the subject of homosexuality, of same-sex relationships. Bible study did not help their parents, teachers and preachers on the crucial issues they faced. However, they love their gay friends, and the circles of friendship continue to grow beyond public school to university life to their participation in young adult classes in other churches. They look at their parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, beloved Bible teachers and Baptist advocates: They have asked them many questions over the years about the attitude of “white people” toward “black people” during the Jim Crow years of segregation and the murder of civil rights activists. Since one of their parents has been divorced, a Christian parent, they do not understand the contradiction of the words of Jesus and Paul with the relatively recent acceptance of divorce in church life and leadership. In the last decade or so they have seen their churches elect women as deacons and elders, though some remain quite opposed to women preachers and pastors. The churches, its teachers and preachers, those who guided them in their younger years…they sometimes admit that they were “partly wrong” in the turbulent years of significant social change, but they explain it was “a different time,” not much more. Why do the same people who opposed school desegregation, open public facilities, the leadership of divorced persons in church life, the continuing role of women in church worship…why are they so sure now that they are right now about the exclusion of “gay persons” from the friendship of Jesus?
Though some of their elders want to distinguish between liberal and conservative viewpoints on the issue of the acceptance of homosexual persons, many, perhaps most of the younger adults and youth in the congregation know it is not a liberal/conservative issue but an older/younger issue, a generational divide. They are bothered when their heterosexual and homosexual friends drop out of church, but many of their heterosexual friends (and couples) often find their way back. Of course, church people are talkers, and they talk about everything in small groups of like-mindedness. They don’t argue with each other very much. The “middle-aged” Baptists can speak eloquently about the importance of the separation of church and state. (Is it really a problem?) Everybody gets excited about next mission trip of the church to South America or Eastern Europe, because they really do provide help to struggling Christians thousands of miles away.
However, they do not talk much about what our church should do in relation to persons who are not straight but gay. They exclude them with dead silence. The apparent difference between these generations has less to do with what they have learned to really believe than the persons they accept in genuine conversation. They do not know any gay and lesbian persons (or that a person they know is gay or lesbian). They have never engaged them in conversation about the significance of their “Christian faith” in the way they live life and often live in monogamous relationships. “The issue has gotten all mixed up with politics and the homosexual ‘agenda’…too divisive and too emotional.” So Baptists today by and large what they did throughout the second half of the twentieth century. These “thinking Baptists” (called moderates) demonstrate in their silence their unwillingness to engage in Bible study or church conversation about the most “divisive” question in American life today: Are gay and lesbian persons created in the image of God? Can homosexual persons be recreated in the image of Christ…but remain homosexual? Must the church wait until the “humanism” of our culture changes attitudes outside and inside the community of faith? Are the people in my church able to disagree with each other and talk about controversial issues as “Christians” and “moderate Baptists” with continuing respect and love for one another? Of course, these kind of conversations require years of back and forth, not weeks, and variations of differences will remain.
The truth is that most congregations have not studied the issue of homosexuality in the Bible from various Christian viewpoints, and they have not engaged in serious conversation with each other in recognition of the moral ambiguity in any option chosen. Yet they do recognize that homosexuality is not a question that simply hinges on a majority vote (as though 51 per cent eliminates the difficulty and moral ambiguity in defining the best viewpoint). Most active Baptists I know experience at this point in time some measure of what I call “a devout uncertainty,” a faithful hesitancy in the encounter with the moral ambiguity about God’s attitude toward persons born homosexual. They are committed to the integrity of the Church in faithfulness to Christ, and simultaneously they generally refuse to exercise violence on anyone…those with whom they agree and disagree. Is it an act of violence to exclude homosexual Christians from the life of the church? Of course, it would be an act of violence to superimpose a majority viewpoint on a congregation, whatever the majority might be. Furthermore, if the church must be concerned about accepting and understanding homosexual persons, as the proponents for “affirmation and celebration” insist, the Christian community must maintain the same concern for other members of the congregation who remain “welcoming but rethinking not affirming”…what I have (awkwardly) called “devout uncertainty.” Since gay as well as straight persons are children of the church, children of our extended families, children in our own household, and already children of God, we could welcome heterosexual and homosexual persons alike. Perhaps in an eventual larger conversation, a congregation talking to the gay and lesbian Christians within its congregational life, a genuine consensus with “ifs” and “buts” will emerge. However, Baptists can be contentious, disorderly, and unloving in articulating a specific point of view on almost any issue. If we attempt to follow the attitude that characterized Jesus, if we read the letters of Paul from both sides of every argument, e. g. the role of women in the church, without claiming Paul’s “apostolic authority” over those with whom we differ, perhaps…perhaps…thoughtful Baptists can come to a friendly consensus without the devastation of verbal, attitudal, and doctrinal violence.