The question of same-sex relationships is surrounded by tension. I have often felt that the only way to not come across as judgmental, or to not be judged by others as being on the wrong side of a line (by one side or the other), is to remain silent. Examples of bounded group approaches to the issue of same-sex relationships abound. Passions and convictions are so strong on both the “traditional” and the “affirming” sides I have had trouble imagining a third way-- a centered approach.
In recent months hearing Bruxy Cavey and Kurt Willems describe their churches’ approach helped me start to imagine the possibilities of centered approaches, third ways, to approach this contentious issue. (Although I think many from both sides would critique aspects of Cavey’s and Willems’s presentations, it is noteworthy that both churches have people who hold the traditional view, and have people involved in same-sex relations that feel welcome.)
A book by Tim Otto has contributed in significant ways to the possibilities I started imagining when listening to Bruxy and Kurt. Otto writes Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships as a celibate gay man. Although his story and experiences are a powerful and important part of the book, he does not use them to advocate celibacy as the “right” position. (His story is more complex than the phrase “celibate gay man” might imply.) In fact he states in the introduction that the book will not present a position on the morality question. He writes that he is not “secretly trying to smuggle” in a “God condemns” or “God affirms” message (xviii). That is hard to pull off, but I think he did it and it is part of why I think the book has such potential in helping to find a third way.
A central argument of the book is that “figuring out the right thing is not as easy as either right or left admit” (47). Otto has worked hard to honor and affirm both sides and also critique and challenge both sides in an even-handed way. I will focus this review on chapters 11-14 where he does that most directly.
He observes that many on the progressive side are overly influenced by societal ideals of freedom, individualism, rights and equality (FIRE). To accept the logic of FIRE inevitably will lead to affirmation of same-sex relationships. After reflecting on the tension between the Bible and the contemporary understandings of those FIRE values, Otto writes: “Realizing that the presuppositions of FIRE don’t necessarily trump other arguments ought to make liberal Christians more humble about speaking the truth for God” (74).
But the very next lines in book are: “Conservatives also need to adopt a humble stance in approaching truth, for they often get so caught up in the particulars of Scripture that they miss the overall story: Jesus and his kingdom” (75). After critiquing a biblicism that views the Bible as a bundle of factoids, he works through the seven explicit references to same-sex acts. He graciously writes that given the way the verses are commonly translated “it is understandable that conservative Christians would take these verses as clear cut prohibitions of homosexuality” (83). He demonstrates, however, that their meaning is not as clear as many assume. He challenges common interpretations, not in order to say, “therefore you are wrong,” but to call for humility and to exhort the traditional camp to stop accusing those on the other side of not taking the Bible seriously.
In the next two chapters he writes with a mix of graciousness and loving confrontation. First, to the traditional side he acknowledges that good arguments can be made that “God’s vision of human flourishing excludes same-sex relations” (86). He points out that on the basis of these arguments the traditional position could have a strong witness against consumer culture and how it has infiltrated thinking about marriage—gay and straight. But in general, traditional churches have failed to do so. They also have done poorly at loving gay people. Otto gives examples of how they could improve in this area, including: affirm LGBT people as body members; distinguish between orientation and behavior; and even if taking a stance that homosexual behavior is a sin, acknowledge “it is not in a special category of ‘badness’ all its own” (89). He ends the chapter suggesting that a good way to start is by saying, “I’m sorry Christians judge you” and “I’m sorry for the way churches have treated you” (96).
In a similar way he begins the next chapter with a section titled “How the Affirming Church is Reading Scripture with Integrity” and stating that “affirming churches might be right in blessing same-sex relationships” (99-100). Then he pivots, as he did with the traditional church in the previous chapter.
Yet…. Yet, the affirming church also tends to not confront consumer capitalism and often it does not challenge a permissive sexual ethic that accompanies the affirming position in society (103). He exhorts the affirming church to “recover and celebrate a love ethic that emphasizes faithfulness and commitment in the context of a robust church community” (106). He challenges the affirming church to do much better at mentoring and supporting same-sex couples. “Many heterosexual relationships are floundering, yet gay relationships have even less social support” (107).
Otto does not just present a fuzzy approach as an alternative to a bounded one. His approach impresses me as truly centered not just because he works so hard to avoid line-drawing judgmentalism, but because he also raises challenges for each side that flow from his focus on Jesus.
What excites and disturbs you as you read about Otto’s ideas? What do you find helpful? How could you imagine Otto’s perspectives helping you to love LGBTQ people in your life? If you are LGBTQ, how does his “third way” approach affect you? What are things you have done to seek a centered approach, a third way in this contentious issue? Please share them with us.
***NOTE*** This post was written prior to the terrible shooting at a gay bar in Orlando. Particularly in light of that tragedy, we find the need for a Christ-shaped posture toward the LGBTQ community crucial. Please join us in prayer for physical and emotional healing, in prayers for an end to this traumatic cycle of violence, and in the prayerful pursuit of compassionate relationships with those who need the love of Jesus as God might enable it to be expressed through us. Grace and peace, Nathan Hunt (web manager)