In the midst of the cultural milieu of his day and the complexities of human life and relationships, Jesus proclaimed the Good News of God’s kingdom. Most of us in the church today agree that Jesus’ message of healing and hope was heard most keenly and received most eagerly by people who were rejected and despised by religious authorities. In fact, we know that Jesus’ acceptance of these so-called unclean people greatly disturbed and offended the religious leaders of his day. Still, we forget that what Jesus did and said often flew in the face of his elders’ deeply held convictions.
Jesus was a young man with new ideas about how to interpret Scriptures, about who God is, and about who God loves. For people who were marginalized, he brought Good News. When the religious traditionalists of his day were confronted with Jesus’ fresh perspectives and iconoclastic actions, they were unwilling and afraid to part ways with their beliefs. They thought that to do so would bring God’s judgment on themselves and on their nation. They wanted to maintain order and control over how faith was expressed and lived out. They were not open to new ideas about who could be in God’s kingdom. These devout people were being true to their beliefs, not intentionally rebellious or hard-hearted. Unfortunately, their fears of what the future might hold for their nation and their desire to be faithful and righteous before God eventually led to the murder of an innocent man.
A few of the early Christians continued in the way of Jesus by departing further from established religious understandings. They took the gospel to the Gentiles and accepted the uncircumcised as people of God. Jesus first, and then the early church, were accused of leading people away from what God had ordained and approved of regarding religious expression and right behavior. The traditionalists tried to keep evil ways from destroying their nation morally, spiritually and physically. They felt that their duty was to defend God’s laws. The stakes for them were high.
Did Jesus reject the teachings and attitudes of his elders simply out of a desire to be progressive? Was he misguided by the subtle infiltration of Jewish culture from outside, pagan influences? Was that why he spoke to and included women, ate with tax collectors, touched people with leprosy, lauded the faith of Gentiles, and blessed children? Or, was he driven by God’s Spirit to depart from prevailing views about God, about how to obey the Law, and about receiving people who were thought of as unclean?
This tension between preserving what is good from our past and remaining open to the fresh wind of the Spirit is the crux of the issue today for us who consider whether to accept same-sex couples in committed unions as church members. Do we uphold long-held teachings and “protect” the church from cultural influences? Or, do we risk sharing ourselves, the gospel, and the Spirit of Christ with those whose behaviors we have been conditioned by culture and religion to consider unclean?
The devout Jews of Jesus’ day are not much different from us in the church today. We look back on that time and think of ourselves as being like Jesus’ disciples. The truth is, though, that we who are fully accepted members of the church, whose status and integrity are not being questioned, share more in common with the leaders and devout religious folk of Jesus’ day. Accepted church members often have less empathy for tax collectors, prostitutes, poor working class people, the sick and the otherwise disenfranchised who became Jesus’ followers. For respected Jews like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Paul (that is, for those who had “membership”), acting on their faith in Jesus involved huge personal risk. Jesus called people with institutional power and status to take risks that made them uncomfortable socially and that relieved them of institutional power and credibility. Answering that call could not have been easy or desirable, for to do so required drastic changes in commonly held perceptions of who was and was not acceptable to God. It resulted in loss of status within dearly held religious institutions.
I believe that some of us within the Mennonite church are being asked to answer the same call, to stand with those who are called sinners and risk the judgment of the broader church. If we have doubts about the radical nature of our actions, we can contemplate the risks that the early Jewish Christians took when they “disobeyed God” by eating unclean foods with uncircumcised Gentiles. Even Peter may have had second thoughts and reservations later about his vision from God and his visit with Cornelius (see Acts 10 and Galatians 2: 11-14). Still, Peter’s initial willingness to depart from all that he had been taught helped open the way for Gentiles to become part of the church.
I believe that the church needs gay and lesbian members, both those in committed relationships and those who are celibate, to show us who they are as believers in God and followers of Jesus. We need to understand better the people we now understand very little. We need to move from a position of fear and judgment to one of trust in God’s ability to preserve the church. Though our fears are real, we dare not allow them to dictate our actions, especially our actions toward fellow human beings, lest we be guilty of condemning that which God has redeemed.
Likewise, I believe that gay and lesbian Christians need the church: members who can accept same-sex unions, members who would call homosexual people to celibacy as the better way to lead a life devoted to God, and members who believe God’s call and desires are unique for each individual. Surely all of us, gay or straight, need to be challenged to consider what impact our lifestyles and relationship decisions have on our life with God, with other Christians, and on the world around us. All of us need to hear the call to deny ourselves for the sake of the common good and for the well-being of our own souls, even though the shape of that call and our responses to it vary. Believe it or not, like it or not, in accepting, listening to, and challenging each other as people of God, the church and its members, both gay and straight, thrive and move toward wholeness.
To dwell on sin in other people’s lives, their guilt or “need” to confess, and evil in our culture can be misguided. For those who have power (i.e., membership and leadership in the church) to single out other people for scrutiny and judgment is not, in my opinion, the way of Jesus. Jesus continually confronted the religious establishment by rejecting its elitism, its assumptions and its deeply held convictions. The religious people of Jesus’ day believed with great and sincere conviction that the influence of Gentiles and other so-called sinners must be guarded against to avoid uncleanness in God’s sight. Women, children, slaves, the sick, those of mixed parentage, the poor, even Gentiles who converted to Judaism-all were excluded from full participation in the worship and service of God. Because of this imposed status, they were cut off, emotionally and psychologically, from experiencing the love and grace of God through the community of God’s people. In the same way, homosexual Christians who do not accept celibacy for themselves but desire to live in loving, committed relationships are being excluded from full acceptance in the churches of their choice.
I do not believe that the mission of the church is to keep itself pure. Who of us then would be welcome? The task of the church, I do believe, is to welcome all who receive with gladness the gospel of Jesus. Only as fully accepted members of the church can we admonish, exhort, challenge, question, and pray for one another. As members of the church, we live out our discipleship and experience accountability. God alone is the judge of who has a part in the kingdom. We can and should leave that safely in God’s hands.
Coming to a place in my thoughts about God, the Bible, Jesus, sin, grace and redemption that allows me to make room in my heart and in my church for gay and lesbian people and their relationships has not been easy. I have experienced keenly the kind of struggle that I imagine Peter and other devout Jews had when they accepted the uncircumcised as people of God. I also have witnessed the Spirit of God at work in gay and lesbian Christians. I know that Jesus’ life influences my thoughts and that Christ’s Spirit is with me, and so my prayer is that what I offer here has value for us all.
The need for community is so basic and important to all persons that [sexual minorities] moved to meet their need for community by having their own restaurants, bars, clubs, …organizations and even churches. Religious institutions could be at the center of the “community” where all people would be free to live out our shared history together, if it were not for the traditions and teachings that hold us back. -Maurine C. Waun, More Than Welcome, p. 102