At the risk of being labeled a homophobe, it’s time to consider the use of language regarding the homosexual debate, especially as the debate rages in mainline Christian churches. It has become clear to me that as the debate over principle has become impossible, we must move to the debate over semantics. It’s really all that is left. I wish to use only one example of the way the debate has been framed to suggest that the church is hostile to homosexuals, as opposed to merely maintaining the historical norm. But first, a word of introduction for those unfamiliar to the situation, a situation possibly on the brink of outright Controversy. (And by Controversy, I mean a major historical controversy that takes decades to resolve, if it ever is.)
Mainline Protestant churches are struggling primarily with two issues concerning homosexuality. One is whether or not practicing homosexuals should be ordained clergy. Most churches, including my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, support gay clergy, but only under the auspices of chastity. Some say celibacy is required, but chastity is more precise as it describes a charisma or a gift, whereas celibacy tends to only denote abstaining from sex. Married heterosexuals, for example, may be chaste, but not celibate. At a recent churchwide convention, ordaining practicing gay clergy was not supported by the church, and gay clergy are still required to live lives of chastity.
The second issue is of course the blessing of same sex unions, which the ELCA recently voted by a slim margin essentially to look the other way should a pastor okay the practice. In other words, we didn’t vote that the practice should be vehemently defended, only that those who felt it was justified at the local level would be asked no questions from headquarters.
But even with that good news for the gay community, this headline that jumped out at me in the Chicago Free Press: “Lutheran church rejects gay clergy.” The headline easily could have been, “Lutheran church maintains 2,000 year norm concerning gays.” But it didn’t. It painted a picture of hostility, of alienation and judgment towards homosexuality. Here is where we get to the fact that the way the debate is framed is now the most important facet of the debate, even more important than the principles at stake. In other words, the vehement suggestion that gay clergy were rejected puts those who simply see current practice as the historical norm of the church on the defensive, and unable to find time or space to defend the principles.
And as I have already pointed out, the headline is an outright lie. Chaste gay clergy are welcome, but practicing gay clergy are not considered to have a strong enough biblical witness to be supported. At least, not yet. There likely will be a time, as there already has been in the American Episcopal church, where vague messages of grace, acceptance and tolerance were enough to elect a practicing gay bishop.
Of course the deeper issue here is that the debate only continues to rage on because semantics have for years allowed biblical scholarship to confuse those in the pews. While the overwhelming image of marriage and sexual normalcy in scripture is heterosexual with several clear rebuttals of the homosexual lifestyle, this is been overlooked in favor of diversity, tolerance and inclusion. It is possible to look at some of the harsh words about homosexuality in the bible through a particular context that makes them more “gay-friendly.” But these semantics in biblical scholarship, just as in newspaper headlines, only cloud what is really happening.
What is happening is that nothing in scripture has changed concerning this issue. Only culture has. If one only steps back to ask why this debate is only coming up now, it should be very clear that culture is framing the debate more than anything else. Culture, which has adopted bait-and-switch techniques to disguise the enormous historical change the pro-gay folks seek to make, that has lost all sense of history, and is allowed to get away with saying that the Church has rejected someone, when in fact, the Church has tried to (bravely, I think) defend the authority of scripture over culture. Why scripture has lost authority compared to culture is a whole other topic…