There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

“Homosexuality is a burden
that homosexual people are
called to bear, and bear as
morally as possible, even though they
never chose to bear it” (229). So wrote
Lewis Smedes in his 1994 revised edition
of Sex for Christians.

Last year was the tenth anniversary of Smedes’ powerful Perspectives essay,
“Like the Wideness of the Sea” (May
1999), which lamented his (Christian
Reformed) church’s one-time marginalization
of divorced people, and similarly
of gays and lesbians.

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Paul had in mind in Romans 1:18-27,
Smedes noted, “We can be certain…
they were not… Christian homosexual
persons who are living their need for
abiding love in monogamous and covenanted
partnerships of love.” Moreover,
he added, “My church’s exclusion of homosexuals
who confess Christ and live
together in committed love makes me
very sad.”

In 2002, Smedes sent me an email
detailing the further evolution of his
thinking: “I wish the sentence about
the church making me sad were a bit
stronger.” And “I wish that
the sentence following the
‘burden to bear’ clause could
be something like this: ‘It
is a burden most obediently
and creatively born in a committed
love-partnership with
another.'”

As Lewis Smedes’ understandings
and attitudes were
changing, so also, simultaneously,
were those of his
kindred-spirit and one-time
faculty colleague at Fuller
Theological Seminary, Jack
Rogers. Like Smedes, Rogers
had taken a Ph.D. under
Dutch Calvinist influence in the
Netherlands, was evangelical and Reformed,
was widely published, and
was highly esteemed in his (Presbyterian) denomination, which elected
him Moderator. Mindful that Smedes’
life was cut short by his accidental
death seven months after our exchange,
I had a thought while reading Rogers’
Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: if
Lew Smedes were still with us, this is a
book he might have written.

Rogers’ “change of mind and heart”
occurred as a result of his “going back
to the Bible and taking seriously its
central message for our lives…. I now know many people across all theological
and ideological lines who are convinced
that the Spirit of Christ is leading us,
based on our best understanding of the
Bible, to be consistent in allowing all
of our baptized members eligibility for
positions of leadership” (15-16 ).

After explaining his personal history and that of his denomination, Rogers
takes readers on a historical tour of
how Christians have misused the Bible
to justify slaver y, segregation, the subordination
of women, and those seeking
mixed-race marriages. Time and
again, the church “got it wrong” (29)
by making the Bible say what the culture
assumed. And so also today on
same-sex relationships, says Rogers,
in ways that are strikingly parallel to
the past misuses of scripture. Rogers
then explains how in these prior instances the church, guided by theology, arrived at a new biblical
understanding of race, of women, and of divorce
and remarriage, and how it can
similarly reform its understanding of
sexual orientation.

Central to the book are two chapters
on biblical interpretation. Chapter
4 provides seven guidelines for “interpreting
the Bible in times of controversy.”
For example, “Let all interpretations
be in accord with the rule of love,
the two-fold commandment to love God
and to love our neighbor.” And “seek to
interpret a particular passage of the
Bible in light of all the Bible” (65) as
well as in its historical context. Later,
Rogers notes:

The best methods of interpretation,
from the Reformation
on down through today, call
upon us to interpret the Scripture
through the lens of Jesus
Christ’s life and ministry. Using
this method, we see clearly that
Jesus and the Bible, properly
understood, do not condemn
people who are homosexual. In
fact… the Bible contains an
extravagant welcome for sexual
minorities. (127)

The ensuing chapter offers Rogers’
exegesis of the seven “clobber passages”
(as some gay Christians have called
them). I know, I know (Perspectives
readers needn’t remind me), critics such
as Robert Gagnon find some of these
passages condemning of all same-sex
behaviors, even those unmentioned in
Scripture, such as those between two
covenant partners who re naturally
disposed to same-sex attraction.
As a lay person viewing the biblical
culture war–between biblical scholars
who think like Rogers used to think
and those who think as he does now–I’ve wondered: given the Bible’s relative
silence (a mere seven non-Gospel
verses among 31,103 biblical verses in
the Protestant canon), why do so many
Christians have their passions more
aroused by the contested seven passages
than by the hundreds of biblical verses dealing with poverty and
injustice?

Recent social psychological research
on moral intuition suggests an
explanation. The rationalist idea that
we reason our way to moral judgments
often has it backwards. Instead, we
make instant gut-level moral judgments
and then seek rationalizations for our
feelings. First come the feelings, then
the rationalization.

Much prejudice therefore arises
less from cool rationality than from automatic,
gut-level reactions which seek
justification. Reason becomes the slave
of passion. Moral reasoning aims to
convince others of what we intuitively
feel. No wonder that in times past people
have so readily found biblical support
for their racist and sexist feelings. And
no wonder nearly all anti-gay tracts are
written by men (who, more than women,
feel disgust over same-sex relationships).
The reason-follows-feelings phenomenon
also helps us understand why
those with gay family or friends come to
have more accepting feelings, and then
also to have more supportive opinions
about gay rights and gay marriage. As
empathy replaces disgust, one’s rationalizations
change.

Rogers next introduces us to some
“Real [Gay] People and Real [Gay] Marriage”
(chapter 6), people whose experiences illustrate what psychological science
confirms:

  • Sexual orientation is a natural
    disposition.
    This conclusion is
    buttressed by a growing list of
    you-never-would-have-guessed
    revelations of gay-straight differences
    in things ranging
    from brain centers to fingerprint
    patterns to skill at mentally
    rotating geometric figures
    to the number of men’s older
    brothers.
  • Sexual orientation, especially
    for males, is an enduring disposition.

    Anecdotes aside (both
    of those claiming reorientation
    and of ex-ex-gay leaders
    who now disown such claims),
    sexual orientation is rarely reversed
    by willpower, reparative
    therapy, or ex-gay ministry.

That being the reality, what should
Rogers’ Presbyterian church and its
sister Reformed denominations do? For
starters, he says, the church should acknowledge
the suffering it has caused,
confess its repudiation of “Jesus’ message
of love,” and “reach out to our gay,
lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sisters
and brothers and show that we understand
that we have truly caused them
pain” (106-07). Mindful of the example of
the Good Samaritan, we should appreciate
how “Jesus’ teachings illuminate God’s
extravagant welcome” (128). “There’s a
wideness in God’s mercy” (104), writes
Rogers, consciously echoing Smedes.

The Smedes-Rogers message is being
heard. People are becoming more accepting
of gay rights and relationships. Moreover,
a large generation gap is emerging,
with most older adults opposing gay marriage
and most younger adults supporting
it. Given that the forces driving the
attitude changes are likely to continue,
and given the inevitability of generational
succession, the culture war over
gay marriage and gay ordination will be
resolved within the next decade or two,
much as were previous culture wars
over minority and women’s rights.

Those wishing for a meatier analysis of the pertinent biblical, theological,
and legal sides of this issue may
prefer A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender
Relationships in Religion, Law, and
Politics
, by Princeton Theological Seminary theologian William Stacey Johnson
(Eerdmans, 2006). But for adult
education classes, book groups, and
ministerial dialogue, Jesus, the Bible,
and Homosexuality
and its built-in
study/discussion guide is just right. It
is comfortably brief, warmly pastoral,
and admirably humane. Lewis Smedes
would have been pleased.

David G. Myers is professor of psychology at Hope College
in Holland, Michigan, and is co-author with Letha
Dawson Scanzoni of What God Has Joined Together:
The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne,
2006).