Last night we had a small group of people gather to hear the story and journey of New Direction. I was asked a fantastic question, one that I have pondered a fair bit. The questioner inquired about the trajectory and future of New Direction. He talked about the race issue and the implications of generous spaciousness ….. musing that at some point you wouldn’t want generous spaciousness to include the position that would continue to relegate people of colour to the back of the bus. He wanted to know whether generous spaciousness was a temporary posture – and one that would give way to a fully and completely affirming perspective – challenging any other position.
This is a great question – it demonstrates a real wrestling with matters of justice and equity and what generous spaciousness really means – and what it creates space for. Clearly, generous spaciousness is not meant to be a shelter for injustice or the perpetuation of inequity of persons. There is a commitment to honouring our interdependence as persons with the understanding that “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.” In light of that, if someone truly holds convictions that differ from mine – held without fear, anger, prejudice or shame – then I want to ensure that they have the space to hold those convictions in alignment with their conscience.
The challenge with the topic of same-sex sexuality is that it is not a perfect parallel to the issues around race and racism. While there may be similar issues around status, privilege, equity and justice – they are also distinct and can’t be spoken about as if they are exactly the same. One of the ways I have viewed this reality is to think about it as somewhere between an issue like race and an issue like women in ministry. As I’ve written about before, as a woman in ministry I encounter people who believe that women should not be allowed to preach or teach. Some of these people may hold these beliefs because of internalizing a patriarchal system the views women as less than men. I believe the system of patriarchy must be addressed and dismantled – because I think it is in contradiction to what scripture tells me about who I am as a woman who is a child of God and created in God’s image. But there are people who do not hold these convictions because of patriarchy – but because of the way they approach and engage with scripture. They believe, sometimes with some degree of pain, that women ought not to teach and preach or lead because of the way they interpret particular passages of scripture. While I might disagree with them, I believe that scripture calls me to honour them and their convictions.
With the topic of same-sex sexuality I think there are some non-negotiables that need to be addressed. Sexual minority persons are not second class citizens in any way. They are children of God, created in God’s image. They deserve to be honoured with the same dignity and respect of any other human being. The ground is level at the foot of the cross where every human being needs God’s grace. Every human being has been given free will and a conscience and the gift of exercising these things. Therefore, coercion, violence, pressure, shame, rejection ought never be used to try to get people to believe what you believe. If it is God’s kindness that is to lead us to repentance, then we ought to entrust people to God and respond to them, despite differences, with kindness and love. If God refuses to turn us into robots to guarantee that we will believe the right things and follow his ways, then we ought not try to control someone’s behaviours or beliefs either.
But what about those who deeply believe that gay marriage cannot honour God or receive his blessing? Is this belief, based on someone’s best reading of scripture, inherently controlling, shame-based, fear-driven, or disrespectful to gay people? Some might say yes – that this belief is unjust and that we will reach a time in the (near) future when this is even clearer than it is today. For me, I am compelled by the lives of disciples that I know who are gay and deeply convicted and committed to living a celibate life. This isn’t just straight people reading the bible and conveniently demanding uniform celibacy for an entire group of people. These are gay Christians who have done thorough study, who accept the reality of their same-sex orientation, who find their security in being the Beloved of God – who also believe that scripture compels them to be committed to live a celibate life. Who am I to insinuate that they are in opposition to the path of justice? Rather, I find myself compelled to ensure that as they may find themselves more often in the minority among other gay Christians, that they experience a safe and spacious place where their consciences are honoured, where they are encouraged to live in alignment with their convictions, and where I am postured to listen and learn from their journey with Christ as a mutual pilgrim with them. (This could be similarly applied to those who experience same-sex attraction but who are deeply committed to their opposite gender spouse and family.)
Generous spaciousness is committed to a trajectory of justice and equity. The kind of space we want to nurture views all people as loved and valued by God. God, through Christ, has broken dividing walls. Generous spaciousness also recognizes that people committed to Jesus Christ and committed to the authority of the scriptures do come to different convictions on the matter of gay marriage. Generous spaciousness focuses on the question, “Given this diversity, how now shall we live together?”
There is a lot of pressure in this whole conversation however. For someone to believe that God will not bless or honour the commitment of a same-sex couple in a marriage relationship can seem to be unjust – especially if they are straight and perhaps married themselves. There are no simple easy answers. Anyone who is a Christian needs to wrestle with these challenging matters. I believe it is incumbent upon any Christian to do their homework and understand why they believe what they believe and to think very deeply about the way Christ would have them express what they believe. I think they also need to humbly and openly consider what others believe and why they believe it – and have the grace to see the ways that those they disagree with are also seeking God’s face through earnest and faithful engagement with the scriptures.
One of the things I am encountering more and more in response to this difficult matter is people who simply say, “I don’t have a position.” I can totally understand why people say this. The minute you express your convictions on this matter all kinds of assumptions can be made. And often, once you declare your position the conversation shuts down pretty quickly. Either the person who asked you agrees with you – so there isn’t much else to say – or they disagree with you – and unless the two of you want to get into one of those exhausting debates (which many of us are thoroughly sick and tired of) then there isn’t much more to talk about either. I find that the people who say, “I don’t have a position” are usually those who hope to actually be able to engage in some conversation about the matter. That, and they hope that this will be a way to prevent offending someone.
That isn’t what Wes and I encountered yesterday. We spoke at a Baptist church and Wes shared about being a gay Christian – though he did not reveal whether he was or wasn’t open to a same-sex relationship. I had made it clear in my message that we were not there to promote or defend a particular theological, moral position (that was the job of their local pastor and leadership team) but that we were there to encourage them to a deeper commitment to incarnational ministry with those who may be different from them or disagree with them. A lot of people were tracking with us, and many thanked us after the service, some with tears in their eyes. But there were a couple of men who became very insistent in demanding to know what our position was. They were pretty sure that based on what we said that we were affirming of same-sex “practicing” (as they called it). We explained that at New Direction we acknowledge that Christians disagree about this matter – and that we wanted to create space for people to wrestle with God and scripture and to own their convictions and live in alignment with their conscience – and that our focus was to encourage them in their walk with Christ with the confidence that the Holy Spirit could be trusted to lead them and us in all truth and righteousness. Their anxiety was palpable. They did not have the capacity for a conversation. They just wanted to know the black and white answer to what our personal position was. We attempted to open the conversation in a number of different ways but they simply became more frustrated and more insistent on knowing what our personal position was. In the end, they left with a pretty intense emotional weight hanging in the air.
I have sometimes encountered people who say “we have no position” whose contribution in conversation reveals that they do have a position – they just don’t want to say so. While I understand that they may say that to open the conversation – for anyone who has any experience in this conversation, they will sniff out their real position pretty quickly. In this case, the “we have no position” isn’t viewed very favorably – because it seems like a cheap attempt at an easy way out of owning the position that is held. It can feel like a bait and switch. "Let’s be friends, I have no position" ….. but as time goes by it is pretty clear that there is a position and that there isn’t room to belong on an equal footing and to differ from that position. This can be really frustrating because investing time and energy in relationship only to discover later that there isn’t really room to experience equity if there is disagreement can feel devaluing. It can feel like the person who said “I have no position” was really just banking on persuading you that their position was correct so that everything would be alright in the end. When this doesn’t happen people get hurt. This is especially true if a pastor says, "we have no position" but their real position is that gay people can experience transformation including the capacity to enter a heterosexual marriage. If the pastor is straight and married this can seem especially underhanded. And if the pastor has not familiarized himself with the reality of ex-gay survivor narratives and the research that indicates orientation change is extremely rare and attempts to change someone's orientation can be harmful, there can be an understandable response of cynicism, bitterness and resentment and a real sense of betrayal and mistrust of the church.
I think the only real way you can say, “We have no position” is to acknowledge that there are faithful Christians who take the bible seriously who come to different positions. For example, if a church invites me to preach and says, “We have no position on women in ministry”- I will need to know upfront if my preaching there is going to cause a problem or conflict for the congregation. I need to know if I accept this invitation am I going to get a call in a couple of weeks saying, “Sorry, we actually can’t have you come because our community can’t support women in the pulpit.” If a church invites me to come and says, “We acknowledge that Christians disagree about women in ministry – and our members who do not support women in ministry are given the space to choose whether to attend or not attend when you preach” that is a different story. It might not be as ideal as going to a place that is fully supportive of women in ministry – but at least I know that there has been honest discussion and that I can go and offer my gifts and service with the confidence that it will be a relatively safe space for me. But if a church says, “We have no position – but please come” and I go and discover that really they disagree with women in ministry and just invited me so that they could try to convince me that I’m wrong to get into the pulpit – that is NOT ok.
But, I think that is what some pastors and ministries are trying to do to gay people. They say, “we have no position” to try to seem invitational – but when the rubber hits the road the gay person realizes that the pastor or ministry is expecting them to submit to some kind of healing process or expectation of transformation or they will find that they are not able to serve or contribute unless they agree with the position that celibacy is the only option for gay Christians. This is NOT ok.
New Direction skirts a pretty fine line, I realize. We sort of fit into that “no position” description. Wes and I do not talk about our personal position on gay marriage for Christians. That isn’t the point of our ministry. And we know that as soon as we do reveal our personal positions conversation can shut down or people who disagree with our personal positions can simply write-off what we are saying about the church nurturing hospitable space and engaging in incarnational ministry. But, we don’t have a hidden agenda either. We aren’t trying to convince a church to adopt this or that theological position. We come into a church with the understanding that we will honour their position and work within the boundaries of that. And for gay people, because we acknowledge that faithful Christians disagree – we nurture safe spaces that don’t hold a hidden “gotcha” later. A gay Christian can connect with us in the confidence that our clear priority is that they have every opportunity to explore and grow in their faith in Jesus Christ. We aren’t going to break off relationship based on their convictions about gay marriage. We are going to keep on walking together, growing in our capacity to follow Jesus in alignment with our conscience and convictions.