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Churches as a Safe-House in the Debate about Homosexual Marriage

Most thoughtful Christians reside uncomfortably between the extremes on the issue of homosexuality, between the demonization and sanctification of homosexual practice.

One extreme demonizes homosexuals at every turn, making homosexuality the unforgivable sin.

Baptist preacher Fred Phelps’ “godhatesfags” approach represents the raw edge of this position. Other fundamentalist Christians may try to dress up Phelps’ theology and methodology. But beneath their rhetoric of “God-hates-the-sin-but-loves-the-sinner” lies a visceral hatred of homosexuality and private conviction that AIDS is God’s punishment for this abomination.

The other extreme sanctifies homosexuals, arguing that homosexuality is no different morally than heterosexuality.

Episcopal leader Gene Robinson, an openly gay minister recently ordained bishop with his partner in attendance, reflects the radical wing of this position. He and others may contend that homosexuality is compatible with Scripture. But beneath their speechifying that “homosexuality is not a sin” is a self-justifying agenda that revises Christian tradition and sacrifices the unity of one communion for selfish reasons.

Both extremes are fixated on this issue. Christian fundamentalists are so obsessed with the issue that one wonders what they are hiding in their closets. Christian liberals are equally consumed, albeit open and aggressive, about their cause.

While most Christians would rather talk about any other issue, we need to talk about it. Culture and the courts have pressed this issue into an overdue public conversation in the church.

So, how do we talk about homosexuality in the church? How do we walk safely together through this intensifying cultural war?

Here are some parameters:

First, let us begin with a theological assertion. Homosexuals are human beings of sacred worth. God loves them, as God loves heterosexuals.

Second, let us neither overstate nor understate the biblical witness. Some claim the nuclear family is based on the traditional family, which was rooted in the biblical family. The problem here is that the biblical witness suggests several family models—Abram and Sarai, David and his many wives and concubines, to mention two examples. We find these models morally unacceptable today. We need to avoid declarative, simplistic statements about the Bible that misrepresent the biblical witness. Truthful complexity is more important than sound-bite theology designed to win an argument.

Some folk focus so intently on the passages that condemn homosexual practice that they ignore other sins—deceit, gossip, haughtiness, boastfulness, to mention a few. We need to listen to the Bible speak to our own sinfulness, instead of always pointing a finger at others.

At the same time, we need to listen to the Bible when it speaks about homosexual practice. And the Bible does speak directly about the sin of homosexuality.

Third, let us guard against political manipulation. Some seeks to make civil unions and gay marriage into a political wedge issue for the 2004 congressional and presidential campaign. They want to raise money and turn out votes. The religious right wants to demonize the Democratic Party as pro-gay; the religious left wants to demonize the Republican Party as anti-tolerance.

Ironically, both parties have openly gay congressmen. Moreover, both Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential candidate Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) have openly lesbian daughters.

Fourth, let us watch our language. We need to avoid hysterical language about homosexuality and marriage. The national sky did not fall when the first court struck down in 1948 the ban on interracial marriage, despite the storm warnings of the segregationists. Similarly, marriage will not be redefined to “the point of extinction” if the U.S. Constitution isn’t amended, contrary to the declaration of some.

We also need to speak with calm civility.

Writing in Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Richard Mouw calls for “convicted civility.” Christians should retain their strong convictions and speak with kindness to those who differ.

Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, offers five guidelines for talking with civility about human sexuality: (1) be sexually self-critical; (2) avoid oversimplification; (3) remember our own collective sexual sins; (4) curtail irrational fears; and (5) cultivate sexual empathy.

The <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision promises to energize the extremes and polarize middle America.

In this vortex, thoughtful churches can serve as a safe-house to talk honestly and faithfully about homosexuality.

Robert Parham is the executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.