A Conference on Faith & Sexuality

John ArmstrongCulture, Current Affairs, Homosexuality

Yesterday I attended a local conference on faith & sexuality hosted by Dr. Tracy S. Malone, senior pastor of Gary United Methodist Church in Wheaton. Dr. Malone, and her congregation, invited four panelists to share in a civil, respectful and grace-filled conversation. Though the purpose of the event was to discuss sexuality more broadly the primary thrust, as you might guess, turned out to be a discussion on homosexuality. I am profoundly interested in the topic and believe all church leaders should be. I just told a doctoral class I taught last week in Ft. Lauderdale (Knox Theological Seminary) that this is the “greatest struggle” in the church in America in the first half of the twenty-first century. For most mainline churches this struggle is being resolved by embracing marriage between homosexuals, both in the church and the clergy. For most conservative churches the struggle is being resolved by embracing the language and responses of another era identified more directly with the power and language of American Christendom. The divide is growing and this debate has become a war in many cases. Friendships are being destroyed and people on both sides find it increasingly hard to listen and learn.

c078e8a559e57f323e8b2bfd15e2b239 Gary Methodist urged people to come together and engage in an open and warm conversation. The goal was to listen; thereby reduce hostility in the midst “of this ongoing spiritual crisis.” To this end four panelists spoke at this event. Dr. Lynn Cohick, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, did a solid job of explaining the New Testament texts on homosexuality. Christopher Yuan, an instructor at Moody Bible Institute, gave one of the two most passionate addresses of the day. Chris, with his mom (who was also present), has written a new book that will be released in May. The title: Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, a Broken Mother’s Search for Hope, is engaging in itself. I had the privilege to speak with Chris and will write on this site about his book near its release in early May.

Christopher Chris grew up in a well-educated, but atheistic home. He came out of the closet while in dental school in Louisville, Kentucky. He then made his way to Atlanta and became a major drug distributor in the gay subculture before he was arrested and spent serious time in prison. While in prison, with his converted mother seeking God’s grace for her son through prayer and fasting, Chris found a Gideon New Testament and began to read. He was eventually converted and then began to consider whether he could continue to practice his homosexuality. (He also had discovered that he was HIV-positive while in prison. He is featured on a documentary, “HOPE Positive: Surviving the Sentence of AIDS.”) Chris’s story moved me to the depths of my being. I intend to pursue a relationship with Chris as a brother after I met him yesterday.

The other two speakers were Dr. Douglas Sharp, who serves as Dean of the Academy at a Chicago-based organization called Protestants for the Common Good. Dr. Sharp is an American Baptist pastor and committed to integrating the social sciences with the disciplines of theology.

pamlightley_221The most radical speaker on the panel was clearly Dr. Pamela Lightsey, the Vice President for Students Affairs and Dean of Students at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary (Methodist) in Evanston, IL. Dr. Lightsey was passionate in her commitments as well. She referenced herself as “a queer Womanist scholar.” (I admit I had not encountered such theology before this event!) She is an ordained elder in the Methodist Church and serves as co-chair of the Womanist Religious Studies Group for the American Academy of Religion (AAR). She openly spoke against the Methodist Church for not approving the ordination of homosexual ministers. The question for me is why the bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church should not proceed with discipline against Dr. Lightsey for this stance but almost no such action is ever done by bishops in mainline churches. A major exception happened in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) several years ago when the trustees of one of the  seminaries removed the president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary for performing the marriage ceremony of his daughter to a woman. The denomination then stripped him of his ordination in an action by the general synod. The issue has not gone away but the church is on record for holding a clear and faithful stance regarding its own polity.

Queer theology (I am not making this up I assure you) challenges binary sexual ideologies which assert the impossibility of anything beyond male and female identity. Further, it openly refuses fixed categories in every area of life. She asked, “Is Old Testament knowledge really factual?” Her answer was delivered with passion and was very clear: “Queer theology says all knowledge is subjective so we should not read the OT as factual.” By implication I would argue the same must hold true for the New Testament and everything else the church has taught about Jesus and the gospel if she is consistent at all. Why? She said “all privileging of epistemology” should be rejected. Dr. Lightsey asserted up front that she would not argue about the Bible, either about specific texts or their meaning, factual or otherwise. At one point I thought her honesty told the whole story: “I’m not a biblical scholar, I’m a theologian!” I suppose the listener should take her seriously but without the Bible in any of her frame of reference then she is most definitely not a Christian theologian in any meaningful sense of the word. Toward the end of her major presentation she asked if any expression of sexuality should be called sin? She said pedophilia and necrophilia were sinful because here others were abused through the use of power. If your theology is radically self-referential then I do not understand how she can argue for any concept of sin at all. She plainly has no biblical definition of sin, or at least one any historical creed would recognize.

Christopher Yuan sought to frame the entire question by reference to God’s love and how that love transformed his own life. Quoting the American Psychological Association he said: “Some people believe that sexual orientation is innate and fixed, however, sexual orientation develops across a person’s lifetime.” Chris believes this to be true and thus does not argue about how one comes to such an orientation; i. e. are you born this way or are you socialized into this orientation? He says the answer is not relevant to Christian practice. I have agreed with this conclusion for many years.

Chris further stressed that he did not like any modifiers placed in front of his identity in Christ. He said, “I am a Christian, not a Chinese Christian, a gay Christian, a married Christian, a single Christian (Chris is single), a (fill in the blank) Christian.” Again, this is an important insight for missional church thinking and practice. We need to drop the labels and talk about being Christians. Chris concluded: “We don’t love God better by loving people. We love people better by loving God first.” Amen.