By Lee Karl Palo
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo
Finally, a resolution to the long ordeal of Rev. Frank Schaefer has come down. Rev Schaefer, who performed a same-sex wedding ceremony for his son, can now continue with his appointed ministry in the denomination he is a member of. This is, of course, a resolution that could never please all parties within the denomination. In the grand scheme of things, it just happens to be the most recent high-profile case involving questions of sexuality and the church that has been a source of division in Mainline Protestant denominations over the last decade-and-a-half. What lessons can we draw from events like this with regard to the future of the church?
The issue of whether a denomination should be open and affirming toward LGBTQ persons of faith or should condemn homosexual practice is a very divisive one. If nothing else, it helps to create negative perceptions about church in general regardless of denominational identity. What do the unchurched think when they hear of all this conflict within various Christian groups? One may wonder if such negative perceptions are unavoidable given that there is seen to be a lot at stake by those who take a stand on the issue.
Certainly a complicating factor for this problem is the frequently vitriolic nature of discourse and debate on the internet. People often feel free to comment with anonymity or impunity, and the more people feel their opinions are ignored or marginalized, the more they can become inappropriately aggressive in their responses. Anger and fear physiologically drive us toward conclusions upon which we can immediately act, and are generally not helpful for thoughtful dialogue.
How then can we get beyond these problems and actually have constructive and helpful debate on the issue? An often trite answer is to just listen to what other people are saying. This is a good principle, but not everyone is trained in how to listen closely and effectively. The debate over homosexuality and the church is one area where people often talk at others rather than to others they disagree with. It also seems like those with whom we disagree really aren’t listening to us either. How is this?
What is going on?
The problem with this issue is that there is no agreed upon definition of terms for the debate. People are actually listening at times, but they only hear words in ways they themselves have defined them, not how those who are speaking define their words. So, you may ask, what is the difference in definitions? I initially described the debate about homosexuality as being about whether the church should be open and affirming of LGBTQ persons of faith or whether homosexual practice should be condemned. This is not accidental. One side views the debate as whether or not LGBTQ people are to be welcomed into the church, while the other side views the debate as whether or not the practice of homosexuality is to be condemned. In an attempt to avoid pejorative terminology, the former position is commonly called the “progressive” position, while the latter position is called “traditional.”
Progressives believe that the debate about homosexuality is ultimately about the very personhood of LGBTQ folks. Seen from this viewpoint, no factor of someone’s innate makeup should bar them from participation in the church. Traditionalists, by contrast believe that the debate about homosexuality is ultimately about ethical behavior, specifically that homosexual practice is seen to be unethical in all circumstances. Thus sin should be called sin, from this perspective.
Both progressives and traditionalists use their respective definitions and don’t at all embrace the other side’s definitions. How could a person possibly not be who they were born as? If you are Caucasian, you can’t not be Caucasian, for example. Thus if you are LGBTQ, you can’t not be LGBTQ, so say the progressives. To the traditionalists, people always have a choice about whether they will sin or not. Not everyone suffers from the same temptations, so why should there be an exemption for certain acts clearly understood to be sin?
The debate between these two sides not using definitions in common for the same terms can, and often does, degenerate very quickly. Lets look at how this plays out for each side of the debate…
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A traditionalist perceives progressives as advocating for the acceptance of certain types of sin and wonders what the next sin will be that progressives will no longer call sin. Progressives are seen by traditionalists to be promoters of immoral behavior. This makes sense if homosexuality is only defined in terms of certain proscribed sex acts. Traditionalists very often advocate loving sinners and hating the sin. But what happens if, as the progressives see it, this issue isn’t about sin at all?
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A progressive perceives the issue as being about the rejection of a certain class of people for no other reason than who they are intrinsically. For traditionalists to say “love the sin but hate the sinner” can only mean to LGBTQ persons that they can never be allowed to be or express part of their deepest identity under any and all circumstances. It is a rejection of the highest order. For progressives, the only parallel in recent memory is that of racism. Thus traditionalists are seen by progressives as bigoted and racist.
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To traditionalists, since they only perceive the issue as being about immoral behavior, it doesn’t make sense to them to be called “racist.” How can one possibly be a racist for saying that an immoral act is immoral? An analogy would be to not condemn robbery as an immoral act—there are plenty of acts we rightly condemn as immoral, so it doesn’t make sense to be called a racist for making certain ethical judgments. It thus appears to traditionalists that progressives are using the ad hominem fallacy (calling them pejorative names) when progressives call traditionalists “racist.” But to progressives how could traditionalists not be seen as anything but racist when they reject people for no reason other than the way they were born?
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When progressives hear that traditionalists are calling progressives immoral, it also appears to be an ad hominem. How could it be, the progressive wonders, that they are advocating for immoral behavior when they advocate for same-sex marriage? Is not marriage the most universally agreed upon best-context for sexual relations? It should be the most moral thing to do to not only talk about sexual ethics but to also promote a healthier alternative to promiscuous behavior—that of marriage (be it “traditional” or same-sex marriage).
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Perhaps by now you can see all the more why the debate on homosexuality and the church often gets heated and vitriolic. Each side frequently hears the other side calling them names, like “racist” or “immoral,” that don’t make sense to them. But of course the names make appropriate labels of the other side by those doing the labeling. …all because of a difference in the definitions of the basic terms used in the debate. If you take the time and listen very carefully, you can discern these differences in definition. Notice how examples are given by traditionalists of other sexual sins beyond homosexuality. They are treating the discussion as one of sexual ethics, not something like genetics or discrimination. Traditionalists wonder if those other sexual sins are going to be the next things to become acceptable by progressives in the church. To them sin is sin no matter what the sin happens to be, so if one sin is not to be any longer considered sin, where’s the criteria to say other things are or are not sin anymore? Notice also how progressives don’t talk about the issue being one of sin, but as being about God’s love for all people—being about justice and human rights for all people. How can someone be condemned for something akin to the color of their skin? Shouldn’t people be able to be ethically and responsibly who they are, and not be forced to be something they are not?
So what does all this mean for the future of the Church?
It isn’t easy for many people to listen this closely, because when feelings get riled then carefully reasoned debate often gets lost. People in general are sensitive to being called names. How can the church get past the vitriol, when it is intrinsic to the debate? What does the nature of this debate say to those outside of the church? American society as a whole has embraced the progressive definition of homosexuality as being fundamentally about a person’s intrinsic identity. This means that for a very vocal percentage of the Christian population who identify with the traditionalist position, they are being perceived as racist, bigoted, and irrational, not only by progressives within the church, but by those outside of the church as well. And thus traditionalist arguments against homosexual practice are doomed to make little or no headway to those outside of the church. But when the debate within the church gets heated, as it is prone to do, how will the unchurched perceive progressive “attacks” on traditionalists?
No matter which side of the debate you are on, will they (those outside of the church) know that we are Christians by our love? This issue is not merely a matter of whether you are a progressive or a traditionalist, but how you conduct yourself in the debate. If you don’t understand how you are being perceived by those on the other side of the debate, how can you hope to make any headway with them? How can you hope to reach those outside of the church with a welcoming message of God’s grace, particularly when you are perceived to be anything but kind or welcoming to some of your fellow Christians?
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Does Jesus’ admonishment to love your enemy have relevance here? How are you going to talk about, or talk to, those with whom you disagree?
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo