A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. – Jesus (Matthew 7:18-20)
In the last post in this series, I mentioned that what has most prompted me to reconsider the traditional biblical interpretation and Church teaching on sexuality has been the testimony of fellow believers in the Church. And I gave examples of what I called the ‘negative’ testimony of the anguish of those who have tried to live into the traditional teaching. It is not just that they have found it hard, which we have every reason to expect being disciples of Jesus to be, but that they have found it to be a sacrifice that leads to death rather than life.
Now, I want to look at the ‘positive' testimony of my brothers and sisters.
In the early 1990’s I volunteered in the ‘Hand-to-Hand’ program of the San Jaoquin County AIDS Foundation in Stockton, CA. I was paired with a man, Barney, who had AIDS. Barney was straight and had requested a straight volunteer. But part of volunteering was going through some training and meeting monthly with other volunteers, many, if not most, of whom were gay.
This was my first extensive engagement with gay men (the volunteers were mostly men). I remember being moved by one volunteer whose long-time partner had died of the disease. He expressed his deep grief the way any husband would express grief at the loss of his wife to cancer. Both the duration of their relationship and this man’s genuine grief did not fit the then common stereotype of gay men as selfish and promiscuous.
More challenging was the presence of gay men whose open faith in and reliance upon Jesus was undeniable. And these were not what one would consider ‘liberal’ Christians. Their piety was of a very Evangelical, if not Pentecostal, sort. More so than mine in some ways. Although I did not always find their explanations of how they reconciled affirming their sexuality with the Bible convincing, I could not deny the sincerity of their desire to follow Jesus.
The congregation I served before becoming bishop of Fond du Lac nearly closed in the early 1970's about ten years after it was started. This was because the man who succeeded the first vicar was more than a little lacking in pastoral care, preaching, and other gifts that one hopes for in a priest. But more problematic was his inability to control himself sexually. He had more than one sexual encounter with women of the congregation. This was understandably devastating to the life of the parish. Many left and the handful that remained were demoralized. There was talk of closing the church. The bishop replaced this priest with Fr. George. Though in the early to mid 70’s being ‘out’ was not an option, Fr. George was gay. Undeniably faithful and pious, Fr. George turned things around and put his stamp on the character of St. Barnabas shaping it into a sort of high church Evangelical congregation. He reached out to Wheaton College and accompanied many a young Evangelical on the ‘Canterbury Trail’ (a book, Evangelicals on the CanterburyTrail, was written by Robert Webber who joined St. Barnabas when Fr. George was vicar). He is now retired with his partner in another state. I was honored and grateful to be one of the successors of this faithful pastor and priest.
Over my years as a pastor, several members of my congregation and others ‘came out’ to me, or, as I put it in a prior post, ‘let me in’ on the story of their life. I had extensive conversations with them. As a group, their piety and seriousness about their commitment to Jesus Christ is no different from that of other Christians I know. Or mine.
I also got to know gay and lesbian clergy colleagues in the Diocese of Chicago and beyond. It might be a surprise to some to know that several of the gay clergy I know are creedally orthodox and critical of liberal theology.
Finally, there are some gay theologians and spiritual writers whose theology I respect generally who have written in favor of the bless-ability of Same-sex blessings (SSU). I mentioned Martin Smith in the previous post, as one whose faithfulness is evident. James Alison is an openly gay Roman Catholic monk and thus celibate. Nonetheless, he has encouraged his church to rethink its teaching on the subject using arguments based on official Roman Catholic theology. I have benefited from his writing on theology generally as well as on this topic. I have also appreciated Eugene Rogers, a lay Episcopalian theologian. Not only do these men exhibit a commitment to orthodox Christianity, they demonstrate in their writing a godly spirit of humility and generosity.
Of course I have also known gays and lesbians whose theology I consider suspect and whose character does not bear the marks of spiritual maturity. But that is no less true of straight people.
I know gays and lesbians who are desirous of living into the fullness of God’s will. I know gays and lesbians who robustly affirm the creeds and traditional Christian discipline in other areas and expect SSU to conform to the expectations and disciplines that have traditionally been the marks of Christian marriage. I know gays and lesbians who have lived into those expectations and disciplines faithfully for many years, often with little or no societal or ecclesial support.
What to make of this testimony?
We could dismiss this testimony. In spite of Jesus’ words quoted at the beginning of this post, we know that, often enough, people who are in many ways good do indeed do bad things and are unable to shake bad habits. And we should acknowledge that human beings are expert and creative rationalizers of their behavior. Maybe that is what is going on here. Our brothers and sisters might be blind to their sin in this area while remaining brothers and sisters to whom we still owe love and understanding even if we cannot condone behavior we are persuaded is sin.
But, I wonder. It does certainly seem to be the case that sometimes good trees bear bad fruit and bad trees sometimes appear to bear good fruit. And it is also true that we are masters of rationalization. But, there is more to it than that. It is not simply the case that the more mature in Christ we become – the more good the tree – the more good fruit we will bear and the less bad. It is that ‘good trees’ become increasingly self-aware through the discipline of self-scrutiny and less inclined to rationalize and thus better able to recognize their bad fruit and repent. One need not be an especially good tree to begin to see this. Most of the time we have some inkling that we are indulging in rationalization. Or, if in the moment, denial has the upper hand, we see it looking back.
Similarly, most of us know what lust feels like and how it plays in the imagination of our hearts. Those of us who are married know the difference between that and the desire we feel for our spouse. And that difference is about much more than the fact that we have a marriage certificate on file. One could say much the same about greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, malice, selfishness and other sins. The more mature we become, the better able to make those distinctions and to see the ways we indulge our appetites for each.
So, when Christians who give every indication of being mature, good fruit-bearing trees of faith say that they know what good fruit (virtue) ‘feels’ like and they know what bad fruit (sin) ‘feels’ like, and that their same-sex attraction and intercourse is more like the former than the latter, I suggest the rest of us should at least listen.
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny. – St. Paul (1 Corinthians 2:14-15)
Given the testimony of spiritually mature brothers and sisters, might we wonder if we are in a situation similar to Peter’s when the Spirit fell upon gentiles who he would not otherwise have expected to be candidates for that gift?
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 44-47)
Next: Part 4. Some Thoughts on Interpreting Scripture
Previous: Part 2. Negative Testimony