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Welcoming, but Not Affirming: A Pickle of a Paradox

January 17th, 2009 by Jason · 19 Comments

One of the recent and prevalent positions on homosexuality in churches, including mine, is that they are “welcoming, but not affirming.”  What that actually means, however, no one really seems to know.  We all would acknowledge that statement to be paradoxical, but I also find it to be more problematic than helpful, theologically as well as practically.  Only recently, while reading an essay in Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (on of my favorite books of ‘08) by James Alison, was I able to put my finger on just why it is so problematic theologically.  To understand why the statement “welcoming, but not affirming” creates such a pickle of a problem, Alison has us go first to the doctrine of original sin, which may seem like a strange place to start, but the doctrine does have to do with beginning of things.

The doctrine of original sin is important for Christians, not only because it fleshes out the consequences of the Fall, but also because it explains why we need grace and healing.  Unlike some popular depictions of it, original sin doesn’t mean humans are junk or that our human nature is destroyed.  Rather, it teaches that we are cracked icons, sin-sick, broken but still in the Image of God.  That distinction is important, points out Alison, because it means no part of human desire is intrinsically evil, meaning it is incapable of being healed or ordered rightly.  It does mean that all our desire is damaged, but that “we can trust that even what is most base in a person’s life is capable of being transformed into something which will be a reflection of the divine splendour” (146).  That is why many churches, including mine, would say you can come to Jesus even if you are a homosexual (or divorced, etc.), because there is nothing so intrinsically evil that it cannot be healed by God’s grace.  What isn’t always said is what should happen next.

Now, until fairly recently there was no problem saying what should happen next, because the church’s teaching on sexual acts, including homosexual ones, were simply about that, acts.  It was assumed that sexual acts between people of the same gender came from a disordered heterosexual desire.  Thus, it was common (and still is in many sectors) to say to someone who confessed to such an act: “hurry up and get married, that will solve the problem of your disordered libido.”  However, over the last few decades there has been an increasing recognition, in society and the church, that there “seems to exist some people, a minority which occurs more or less regularly in all societies and cultures, as well as in the grouping of other animals, that just are ‘like that’” (147).  Now we have a problem, because as there is more and more recognition that homosexuality is about being and not just acts because it makes it problematic to hold together “Don’t do that!” and “Flourish, sister,” because if someone is just ‘like that’ then at least some aspects of flourishing will include living into this aspect of her being.

It is this recognition of homosexuality as an aspect of one’s being, that comes into conflict with the doctrine of original sin.  On the one hand the church can’t say that the desire is intrinsically evil (i.e. unable to be healed, only suppressed) because then we are saying that some humans are more than just cracked icons, they are fundamentally broken.   On the other, the church also cannot say “being ‘that way’ is something neutral or positive, and we just prohibit acts which flow from it” because it simply doesn’t make sense that acts which are always and intrinsically evil could flow from a positive or neutral desire.  One final option offered is to say that “the homosexual inclination, though not itself a sin, constitutes a tendency towards behavior that is intrinsically evil, and must therefore be considered objectively disordered” (the official Vatican position).  However, this third option is also problematic because it’s not at all clear that the “homosexual inclination” does in fact lead to an “objectively disordered” life.

Another way of saying that the “homosexual inclination” is a matter of being objectively disordered is to say that people with those desires are defective and misguided heterosexuals.   Therefore, what heterosexuals need is a cure and thus there are the myriad ex-gay ministries.  As a Prop 8 sidenote, it also makes sense that if someone agrees with the Vatican’s statement then they would also vigorously oppose same-sex marriages.  If there are no such people as gays and lesbians, only deluded heterosexuals, then any legislation which compounded the delusion would represent a serious social threat.  But more on that in a later post (maybe!).

Problematic, in the Vatican statement, is the insistence that the desire is “objectively disordered.”  What this word “objectively” means is that if humans are all intrinsically heterosexual and some of them continue to live as though they were gay or lesbian, we should be able to observe them and see “a growing corruption of their human nature which would affect all the areas of their lives” (153).  In other words, if there is no such thing as actually being a gay or lesbian, then we should be able to see the effects of holding on to that delusion. This is what we see in the disordered desires behind anorexia or alcoholism which are also considered objectively disordered inclinations.  For example, we can affirm the person who wants to shed a few pounds while seeking help for the anorexic, or we can enjoy a drink with friends while recognizing the line when someone needs to give alcohol up completely.  How do we recognize the difference? By objectively observing the results of their behavior.  We see that the behaviors that go with alcoholism and anorexia are not only in the minority, but that if they are not controlled the health and flourishing of that person is in danger.

In the same way it should be possible to detect if self-acceptance as gay tends to put in jeopardy a person’s health and flourishing, or if, in the case of people who have these desires but do not accept them as part of their being, it is rather this non-acceptance which puts their health and flourishing in danger….[we need to ask] does a person of homosexual inclination who accepts himself as such tend, because of this, to be more capable of personal responsibility, of developing interpersonal relationships in a serene manner, of truthfulness, of compassion… or less? (156)

Alison boils it down to this: either there are homosexual people or there are only deluded heterosexuals. Frankly, I just don’t buy the latter based on the “objective order” of the lives of many homosexuals and on modern science.   “Welcoming, but not affirming” is problematic because what it must mean is that the church welcomes a homosexual through the door but affirms neither their acts nor their being.  The church may want to say “no, no we do affirm that there really are homosexuals out there, but they shouldn’t act like it.”  However, the doctrine of original sin, with its insistence that our desires are twisted but not intrinsically evil, can’t be reconciled with that statement.  God does make people with good desires which have been twisted by the Fall, such as the desire to be healthy, which may at times get warped into the sad situation of anorexia.   But what God does not do is make people who have a desire which cannot be healed or rightly ordered.  Since I do think God has created people who are actually homosexual it follows that they can live that out in ways that are either ordered or disordered and that denying who they are will lead to more harm than good.

Tags: homosexuality · theology

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Simeon // Jan 17, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    I’m not sure what you are practically suggesting… Is the suggestion that some gays should be welcomed but not affirmed (based on the observed consequences in their lives) but some should be welcomed and affirmed since their desires don’t lead to an objectively disordered life?

    And it all seems to flow from an implication of the doctrine of original sin:

    But what God does not do is make people who have a desire which cannot be healed or rightly ordered.

    This doesn’t strike me as either historically orthodox nor particularly personally plausible. To stick to your examples: some alcoholics may be able to refrain from destructive behaviour with support and monitoring but never experience an absence of desire nor the ability to drink in moderation. And in the realm of sexuality particularly it seems to me that nearly everybody deals with desires that can neither be healed nor rightly ordered.

    Do christians condone adultery if the lives of the participants are not objectively disordered – hey, if he desires variety, she doesn’t mind occasional affairs as long as they remain purely physical, can we objectively ascertain that their lives are not disordered and so bless their (open) marriage?

    The doctrine of original sin has historically been much more far reaching in its effects than than you have described and I do not think it does injustice to my status as an icon of God to acknowledge that there are facets of my personality, desires that I possess that may never be healed by God and will never be virtuously expressed.

    It was my privilege to grow up around (before his eventual death of AIDS-related medical complications) a gay man who had become a Christian, realised that his orientation was inextricably homosexual but that he was called by God to give up acting upon his inclinations. It was my family’s and my Church’s great blessing to support him in that struggle and never did that make him in our eyes somehow less – instead like all the rest of us he was a sinner in constant need of repentance and grace as he struggled not to indulge the desires to sin that made up a part of his personality. No one could be more welcomed or affirmed than he was and there was no contradiction between loving him and believing that his sexuality was broken.

    I’d argue actually that the problem is that we (American christendom at large) no longer believe in sin – and so for many is seems discriminatory to pick on homosexuals . And so it is when every other sin is ignored and tolerated or even praised, when Christians are no longer called to repentance, to self examination, or to pursue Holiness…

  • 2 Jason // Jan 17, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Simeon, thanks for pushing back and for the story of your friend. I really think the actual stories are as important as the theology. I’m also glad for your example of adultery as it helped me to clarify (in my head, at least) what I am getting at. Which is this: homosexuality appears to be something different from adultery for a couple reasons.

    First, it’s not at all clear that the lives of people who accept themselves as homosexual are living disordered lives. In other words, most of the gay and lesbian Christians I know are no less charitable, relationally adept, compassionate, etc. than their heterosexual counterparts (especially when you adjust for all the shame and secrecy many have lived with). Meanwhile, I think we could agree that people who cheat on their spouse, and especially those who make a habit of adultery, would consistently be forming habits of vice. Specifically: faithlessness, un-longsuffering (what’s the opposite of longsuffering?), impatience, etc.

    Second, what we are hearing from homosexuals is that their desire to be with someone of the same gender is of a different kind than that of, say, an alcoholic. If someone is predisposed genetically to be an alcoholic, it doesn’t mean they will be one. Because if they never encounter alcohol they’ll never know they were missing anything and even if they do have alcohol it’s still only an inclination—something of which they must be wary. What I hear from gays and lesbians is something different: that they find themselves discovering this desire that’s been there since as long as they can remember and which is there even when they’ve never had any sort of sexual encounter with either gender. That’s what I was trying to get at in discussing why this question of being is so important, because I think it needs to be at the beginning of any conversation about the issue, but that it’s often ignored.

    As to whether Christians in America no longer believe in sin—that would probably be a good question for ol’ George Barna to ask.

  • 3 journalnous // Jan 18, 2009 at 1:17 am

    This is slightly off-topic, but you brought it up here:

    Probably one of the most irritating things about the intersection between homosexuality and religion is that some religious commentators feel qualified to speak with authority on the subject from a scientific point of view – despite most of them having had no real science education. To give one prominent example, Exodus International’s website contains a truckload of information with nothing at all to back it up except for Biblical quotes – sure, some of it is referenced, but an awful lot isn’t.

    What you’re describing here goes a long way towards fixing that problem – I think organizations like the Vatican need to realize that being a theist doesn’t automatically grant someone special insight into homosexuality.

  • 4 Simeon // Jan 18, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    Thanks for your response Jason. I’d encourage you also to read the story Richard Hays relates in his “Moral Vision of the New Testament” (posted in slightly expanded form here at beliefnet.)

    I’m not sure the distinction between being and acting is that significant – I tend to see it as a construct of our age that would be incomprehensible if explained, say, to a Greek of Jesus’ day. That’s why I’ve never been particularly interested in nature/nurture debates about homosexuality.

    I’ve had conversations with Christians whose take on the possibility of biological causes for homosexuality (the “gay gene”) is that if it is biologically determined than it cannot be wrong – what could be sinful about simply fulfilling your (God-given) desires?

    It seems to me you’re expanding on that argument slightly by noting that homosexual Christians that you know do not seem to pushed into depravity by their (allegedly) sinful lifestyles and do demonstrate good works in their life (charity and so forth).

    Not only then is their homosexuality a part of who they are, but there isn’t demonstrable evidence that it is a harmful part of who they are. How can we then refuse to affirm them?

    To me that argument doesn’t do justice to the historic position of Christianity on sexuality or the scripture, and it fails to adequately allow for the complexity of our human natures and the way they have been marked by sin; the now-and-not-yet quality to our redemption.

    To deal with that last point I’d like to return to my previous example for a moment – I don’t think you’re being as sympathetic to my imaginary adulterous husband with a permissive wife as you are to your homosexual friends. You note the habits of vice cultivated: the “faithlessness, un-longsuffering (what’s the opposite of longsuffering?), impatience, etc.” And yet the perceptions of vice depend upon the witholding of affirmation – if we extend permission and understanding to the adulterous man than where is the faithlessness in seeking occasional physical release with his wife’s blessing? And who are we to call someone to “longsuffering” in denial of legitimate needs (it seems evident that sex drive varies between individuals; obviously some might have more needs than their spouse can fulfill) when we ourselves do not experience this particular self denial?

    I can rationalise most sins by assuming particularly sympathetic point of view, my own not least. And it is evident by the lessons of history that humans are perfectly capable of indulging in sin and vice in some areas and yet demonstrating fruit in other areas. This is not to deny the deadly nature of sin; it is to note the power of our flesh, the sinful natures we wrestle with even when we are saved! Creation has been redeemed by Jesus (and our natures with it) and yet we still groan and still suffer under the curse and still look for the realisation of that redemption…

    To take a rather more definitive case: we would like to imagine that horrible sinners such as the priests who have abused minors would be self evident monsters- filled with evidence of their corruption so that the naked eye could discern them. And yet I have no doubt that their parishioners in many cases (until they knew the truth) saw in them many evidences of virtue…

    It is for just this reason – that our perceptions (and our stories) are inadequate to inform us of sin – that Christians have Scripture. The Church at Corinth was proud of its tolerance of incest – and Paul spoke authoritatively to correct their understanding of what God would have them do. So to we must hear scripture where it speaks to us – and on the topic of sexuality the Bible (and the NT in particular -Richard Hays aforementioned “Moral Vision of the New Testament” really is very good) has a fairly unified message that the Church across all her divisions has heard in more or less the same way for 2000 years.

    There are other concerns for me that are peripheral to my position on homosexuality (other stories I know, and the various arguments around politics, sociology and culture). If we’re going to be Christians, however, we have to first and foremost challenge each other to conform our ethical opinions to the Bible. Our stories are important as they help us situate what we believe, but our experiences don’t override scripture and should not run roughshod over the magisterium of the Church (in the very low church sense of the word)...

  • 5 isaac // Jan 19, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Jason, interesting post. I’m glad you enjoyed Alison’s books. It’s one of my favorites from this past year as well.

    Simeon, if you’ve read Hay’s book, you should also read Dale Martin’s important essay, “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32.” It is now included in his recent book, Sex and the Single Savior (2006). He and Prof. Hays were colleagues at Duke, and his essay is a result of that relationship. Martin takes Hays’ argument very seriously, but offers a different conclusion. Here’s his argument in brief: “my purpose is to insist that modern scholars cannot blame their heterosexism on Paul precisely because the form their heterosexism takes—its assumptions, logics, ways of framing the question—is completely different from the form of Paul’s heterosexism.”

    You’re right, we need to “challenge each other to conform our ethical opinions to the Bible.” That’s why Martin is helpful.

  • 6 Dharmashaiva // Jan 19, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    It seems to me that before the issue of homosexuality can really be addressed, the issue of the traditional Christian demands surrounding marriage and divorce of heterosexuals (and how those demands have been ignored by many in contemporary America) has to be addressed first.

  • 7 Lee // Jan 20, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Jason, great post. I’ve really been enriched from reading Alison’s work too. (If you haven’t read them, I’d also highly recommend Raising Abel, The Joy of Being Wrong, and On Being Liked too.)

    I think one of Alison’s great virtues is making clear how natural law ethics begins to function as an ideology (in the bad sense) when it’s detached from an examination of the lives people actually lead. Then homosexual desire becomes disordered by definition and no evidence produced to the contrary could possibly overturn this judgment.

  • 8 Simeon // Jan 20, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Well, this a little tentative since I haven’t read “Heterosexism” yet – only what I’ve been able to find online that refers to it (some sympathetic, like Margret Farley’s “Just Love”, and some decidedly hostile like Robert Gagnon’s defense).

    I’ve got enough of a flavor Dale’s thought though (“To Each Its Own Meaning” has extensive previews on Google books) to suspect that I’m not going to find his critique that convincing – though I am still looking for online cheaper than the $25 at ingentaconnect.com.

    I’m not a poststructuralist – and I think that venturing down the path of the “no inherent meaning in the text, texts are constructed by the reader” approach leads to a complete unmooring of our faith from God’s word and from the community of faith through time and history. I guess Martin would call me a foundationalist – I think that we should read with a hermeneutic of faith that attempts to hear all that the Biblical witness has to communicate to us. I’m postmodern enough to appreciate the difficulty of this task but post-postmodern enough to think that giving up the task of listening is not an option.

    I guess that’s why I appreciate Hays – I feel like he does as good a job at bringing to bear critical scholarship as anybody while still maintaining that the Scripture is the primary actor (or go with Telford Work for an even more activist look at Scripture).

    That position constrains me. Hays (or Thomas Schmidt for that matter) make pretty persuasive cases based on the entirety of the Biblical witness. Not prooftexting, not ignoring critical opinions on given texts, but constrained by the authorial intent of the texts – and if you accept that constraint there doesn’t seem to me to be a very wide range of likely ethical positions…

    Completely off the topic here – but I found an fascinating essay (googling for Dale Martin) that I may have to blog about myself: All Sexed Up: Is There a Way Out of Chastity, Marriage, and the Christian Sex Cult...

  • 9 The Fear of the Lord, Truth, and Courage // Jan 22, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    [...] its ability to push us towards truth, however.  Alison, in writing his essay on homosexuality that I discussed in the last post, invokes this sort of fear as the impetus for seeking truth in community.  If we are motivated [...]

  • 10 Glen // May 2, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Try reading and then believing God’s Word on these matters.

    “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22; see also Leviticus 20:13).

    “For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another…” (Romans 1:26-27).

    The Greek word arsenokoitai used in 1 Timothy 1:10 literally means “men who sleep with men.” It is the same Greek word used for “homosexual offender” in 1 Corinthians 6:9, variously translated as “abusers of themselves with mankind” (KJV), homosexuals (NASB) or homosexual offender (NIV).

    “Liberal” churches espouse tolerance of homosexual behavior in the name of “love.” They plug for the acceptance of homosexual conduct as normal, “because they can’t help it.” They are not only wrong about the latter, but they are actually not being at all loving towards homosexuals, because, contrary to the Bible, they reduce the homosexual person to the level of an animal, driven by instinct. In removing moral responsibility from the person, they dehumanize them, whereas the Bible says we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), with the power of moral choice.

    Praise to God for giving us clarity on this matter in is Word.

  • 11 Gregory Watson // May 25, 2009 at 7:56 am

    Jesus did not say anything about homosexuality. The old testament condemns homosexuality… but it also allows for the stoning of women under certain circumstances… Jesus did not. This is the time of Grace not Law. All of you should be more tolerant and kind.

  • 12 karla // Jun 10, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Yes, i love how Christians pick out those 3 verses in the Bible every time homosexuality is brought up. Most (not all, but most) of these people are the ones that seem to ignore all the verses that mention loving their enemies and tend to lean towards capitol punishment/war/guns. Somehow one of the 10 commandments is less important than homosexuality….
    I suggest people to watch For the Bible Tells Me So.

  • 13 Gregory Watson // Jun 11, 2009 at 4:22 am

    I suggest that everyone read “Why I am not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell
    A real eye opener… for those that aren’t walking through life with blinders on.

  • 14 Gregory Watson // Jun 11, 2009 at 4:25 am

    correction: .............for those who aren’t walking through life with blinders on.

  • 15 Sean // Feb 24, 2010 at 2:14 am

    I came across this by accident.

    It’s nice to find informed balanced discussion on this issue.

  • 16 plus // Mar 3, 2010 at 9:12 am

    I too came on this by accident, and I just watched the video ‘for the bible tells me so, any discussion on that?

  • 17 Roger Wilson // Mar 21, 2012 at 5:15 am

    While Jesus Himself never specifically addressed homosexuality it is addressed in the New Testament by the apostle Paul. It amazes me how people choose to selectively follow the teachings of scripture. The Bible has been provided to us as the definitive word of God and if one chooses to only believe parts of it then none of it really has any meaning.

    While homosexuality is the topic here the real issue is one of repentance. Paul addressed a range of issues in Corinthians 1 6:9-10 (AMP)

    “Do you not know that the unrighteous and the wrongdoers will not inherit or have any share in the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived (misled): neither the impure and immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who participate in homosexuality”

    God’s grace is sufficient for anyone who with true repentance comes to Him through Jesus Christ, but Jesus Himself told us to repent. Whether it is homosexuality or extramarital sex or stealing from your neighbor we must repent.

  • 18 Randy // Nov 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    I notice this website tends to lead people away from God and his Word, sad. It is plain that no practicing homosexual can be called Christian, for that way of life is against the clear instructions from God, his son Jesus, and Jesus Apostles. Can they become Christians, yes if they repent and turn around from their wrong doing. repent.

    2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

    1 Timothy 2:5 Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

    If you willingly go against God they bring punishment upon themselves, God desires for them to repent.

  • 19 Randy // Nov 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    No Pickle of a Paradox if the plain unvarnished truth is agreed with.