Dialog on Homosexuality
Given rapidly changing social and legal contexts in the USA relating to homosexuality*, informal discussion of the topic is occurring more and more frequently within church settings. If social trends are any indication, such discussion, as well as confrontational agendas both pro and con, will emerge ever more frequently in both denominational and local church settings. The issue of homosexuality is already a familiar topic to many pastors and ministers as they grapple with how to care for people amidst the realities of modern culture. Increasingly, social and cultural developments are forcing the issue into the foreground and making it a more obvious issue in the Church.
How particular church traditions respond to the issue of homosexuality is related to a host of social, religious, and theological factors. Dialog on this topic has been underway in some church traditions for a half century or more, while other church traditions have yet to begin dialog in any meaningful way.
My interest is dialog within a specific church tradition, the Church of the Nazarene. While there have been initial attempts to engage the topic on both academic and pastoral levels, a widespread dialog between those on both sides of the issue has not yet developed. Some contend that it will be another decade before such a dialog can honestly take place without degenerating into more heat than light. Others, however, see an opportunity to address the issue now as societal attitudes, as well as legal requirements, are changing and becoming a part of our social consciousness.
It is unclear, given the wide range of opinions about theology, biblical interpretation, and ethics in general within the Church of the Nazarene whether this is an opportune time for dialog. In many cases, genuine dialog is notably absent as the topic creates immediate polarity and often animosity regardless of where a person stands on the issue. That polarization is precisely what prevents any sincere dialog.
Yet, the topic will not go away. Ignoring it simply allows it to fester among many on both sides of the issue. The danger is that postponing dealing with the issue risks a far more acrimonious confrontation in the future. So, it seems more prudent to enter into an ongoing dialog on this topic now. Hopefully, such dialog will help avoid this becoming a greater wedge issue in the Church than it already is. Also, dialog may help provide guidance for Christians, as well as the Church of the Nazarene in general, to navigate the shifting social landscape while remaining faithful to a commitment to “love one another” and to live out “holiness of heart and life.”
The Church cannot allow the secular world to determine its direction or to mold its mission. Yet, we must address significant issues that arise from the context in which the Church exists and ministers. Otherwise the Church risks losing its voice as it becomes distanced and even alienated from the very people to whom it is called to be light and hope. Christians must also find responses to such issues that are both redemptive and loving, without the Church becoming secularized or politicized.
It should be made clear at the outset that dialog on the topic of homosexuality is not an agenda, either to promote acceptance of homosexuals in the Church or to advocate the exclusion of homosexuals from the Church. As stated below, dialog in this context is primarily for the purpose of mutual understanding. To be meaningful, it must be sincere and candid, with a broad goal of encountering squarely and coming to understand fully and objectively differing perspectives on this issue within the Church.
Yet, if dialog is to have significant content, it cannot just be people shouting opinions at each other. There must be accepted parameters within which perspectives are expressed, evidence is offered, ideas are engaged, and responses are made. The parameters presented here are offered as guidelines within which such a dialog can take place. There will be other factors and other issues emerge in the course of the dialog. But the suggestions below are presented as basic parameters within which participants can agree to begin a dialog.
There is a final and important aspect to such a dialog within the context of the Church that is, in reality, the most important aspect. No matter when the topic is engaged, no matter how the dialog goes, no matter who participates, and no matter what agreement, if any, is reached, the process must be submitted to God. If we are talking about how to live in the world as People of God, we need to acknowledge that this is not a purely human endeavor.
That is not to suggest that there will be some resolution thundered from on high, or that some figure will emerge with the absolute will of God. It does mean that all who participate, no matter their opinions, must be committed to the leadership of God in the process. That commitment can be expressed in the simple prayer sincerely offered, “Lord, help me understand.” It is a confession that finally, after we have done all we can do to understand from a human perspective, it is finally God who guides our understanding, who enables us to live as his people in the world, and who empowers us to be witnesses to all people of the transformative grace and love of God in the lives of people.
Parameters for a Dialog on Homosexuality
Context of the Dialog
1) Dialog, not agenda
Dialog is a conversation between two or more people and is about the interchange of ideas and opinions. That cannot be accomplished if those from any perspective attempt to promote or force a particular agenda as an end result. The goal is sincere and candid dialog for the purpose of mutual understanding and coming to terms with differing perspectives in the Church (“come to terms”: to confront squarely and come to understand fully and objectively).
2) Mutual respect
Meaningful dialog can only occur when all parties value other persons and their opinions. That does not mean agreeing with those opinions. But it does mean accepting other persons as worthy of recognition, their perspectives as warranting a hearing, and their opinions as deserving consideration.
3) Christian love as guiding value
The repeated New Testament call to “love one another” combined with “mutual respect” provides a solid basis from which to engage even hotly contested issues in the Church. Jesus himself even applied this principle to those who are experienced as adversaries (Matt 5:44, Lk 6:27).
4) Commitment to listen
Genuine dialog, as the word implies, is a two way conversation. That means at the very least spending as much time listening as talking. There must be a commitment to listen with an ear for understanding and not pretending to listen as a means to fill time before one’s own turn to talk.
5) Commitment to respond honestly and directly
There must be a commitment to respond in conversation to other perspectives directly without dismissing them out of hand, without resorting to personal disparagements, and without redirecting the response to one’s own perspectives. Often, that may mean responding with a question rather than an assertion.
6) Within Faith Community
If such a dialog is to have significance within the Church, it must be done from within the Faith community of the Church. People outside the Faith community may have opinions on the issue, but may not be part of this dialog.
Process of the Dialog
7) Admit and define assumptions
We all work with basic assumptions (something that a person has accepted as true without proof), some more obvious than others. Assumptions cannot be forced on others but their identification can facilitate more honest dialog, especially if contested positions rest on assumptions rather than evidence.
8) Identify cultural influences
In theological discussion it is important to distinguish between culturally accepted truths (whether social and cultural mores or traditional wisdom and beliefs) and theologically derived positions. Identification of such influences does not automatically negate them, but it helps understand contextually derived opinions.
9) Distinguish between civil rights and theology
The language of rights, and the corresponding language of discrimination, have to do with the principles of civil law and cannot properly be applied to ethical and theological issues. Unlike the language of rights, the language of theology is that of responsibility or accountability within a Faith community.
10) Acknowledge Church positions
Any dialog on this issue within the context of the Church must take seriously both the present and historical position of the Church and specific church traditions. Simply claiming that such a position is wrong or mistaken is not adequate. On the other hand, appealing solely to tradition without any other factors considered is equally misguided.
11) Acknowledge genuinely held beliefs
In a similar vein, personal beliefs must be acknowledged as sincere, fairly derived, and genuinely held. While it is easy to dismiss opposing beliefs with claims of bigotry or legalism from one direction, or accusations of being anti-Christian and sinful from the other, such approaches will not be conducive to sincere dialog. Part of respect for other people (see "Mutual respect" above) is to acknowledge genuine differences of opinion.
12) Deal honestly with the biblical text
In most any discussion within the Church, Scripture will play a large role. While there are various approaches to biblical exegesis, using exegetical or hermeneutical methods in order to discount what Scripture says on the topic, or to expand what Scripture says into other areas, is not acceptable. The dialog may range wider than Scripture, but Scripture must be a starting point.
13) Delineate hermeneutical principles
Scripture is always interpreted and the methods by which Scripture is interpreted need to be identified and explained. This allows the method of interpretation to be part of the dialog rather than just quoting verses without acknowledging an interpretive process.
Restraints in the Dialog
14) Avoid generational bias
Characterizing the issue in terms of a polarity between older persons (traditional, etc.) and younger persons (progressive, post-modern, etc.) prejudices the discussion from the beginning. This can take subtle forms, as in assuming that change will occur as older people are replaced by younger ones (see Identify cultural influences), or that some specific change is inevitable with time.
15) Avoid prejudicial labels
Using subtly or even obviously pejorative labels for other persons is a way to attempt to argue for or against an idea by appealing to emotions, fear, opinions, or experiences rather than actually addressing an issue. It is also a way to dismiss another person’s perspective indirectly, which in effect ends dialog. Even loaded labels like “homosexual agenda” or “homophobe” serve to interrupt dialog.
16) Avoid stereotypes and characterization
This often involves misconstrued assumptions, as in assuming that all homosexual men are pedophiles, or arguing that all homosexuals are promiscuous, or assuming that everyone who opposes homosexual marriage is a legalist, or assuming that most Christians’ opposition to homosexuality is because they are uninformed or prejudiced. Overgeneralization ignores the complexity of the issues and raises obstacles to dialog.
17) Avoid hostile or inflammatory language
This seems like a given, but it is easy to allow emotions to influence how we respond to threatening or uncomfortable ideas. Too often, inflammatory language in turn evokes hostile responses, which effectively ends dialog.
18) Avoid logical fallacies
The list of logical fallacies is long, but the most common are ad hominum arguments (discounting an idea by discounting the person), non sequitur arguments (a conclusion that does not follow from the premise), and false analogies (assuming a similarity between two things when in fact the two things being compared are not similar in the manner used).
19) Avoid extraneous or peripheral topics
Those in dialog must stay on topic and resist the temptation to pursue marginally related ideas and issues, no matter how relevant they might appear on the surface. This issue is complex enough without trying to link it to a range of other issues.
20) Avoid undocumented data or appeals to authority
Any reference to studies, data, quotations, authorities, evidence, or traditions needs to have specific documentation, so that any person can find the material and evaluate its validity. If such documentation is not or cannot be provided it should not be part of the dialog.
Outcomes of an Ongoing Dialog
21) Understanding not convincing
22) Sound Kingdom ethics
23) Being authentic People of God
24) Coming to terms with differing perspectives
*while this is conceived here as referring specifically to gay and lesbian, it could also be taken generally to include bisexual and transgender, without evoking technical definitions of those terms.