Homosexuality, Marriage and the Church: A Conversation

By Heim, David; Stackhouse, Max et al. | The Christian Century, July 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Homosexuality, Marriage and the Church: A Conversation


Heim, David, Stackhouse, Max, Johnson, Luke, Matzko, David, The Christian Century


Few topics are as divisive in churches these days as homosexuality. The debate touches upon a variety of issues that are contested throughout the culture--sexual ethics, the meaning of marriage and the shape of the family. Within the church, the discussion of homosexuality has involved reflection on scriptural interpretation, ecclesial authority, and theological understandings of creation and sexuality.

While churches have not lacked for debates on this topic--indeed, most of the arguments of the opposing sides are quite familiar by this point--instances of genuine conversation are rare. With that in mind, we recently asked three theological thinkers to converse about the state of the debate and their own responses to it. The participants were Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of New Testament at Emory University in Atlanta; David McCarthy Matzko, who teaches theology at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York; and Max L. Stackhouse, professor of Christian ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. The discussion was convened by David Helm, managing editor.

DAVID HEIM: American Christians have been debating the issue of homosexuality for two decades now and no end to the debate is in sight. The churches remain polarized over such questions as whether homosexuals can be ordained and whether the church can approve or perhaps even bless gay sexual relationships. Has any advance in understanding been made? Has anything been clarified by all the debate?

MAX STACKHOUSE: I think a rough consensus has been reached among mainline churches: They agree on the need to defend the human rights of homosexuals and on the need for a policy of tolerance toward people in homosexual relationships. At the same time, most churches agree that homosexual relationships are not the ideal. They are not something the church should praise or celebrate. Despite disagreements on issues of, say, ordination, there are these two overarching points of agreement.

LUKE JOHNSON: One thing that has been clarified for me is the importance of where one starts the discussion. If one begins, as I do, with a strong sense of God's continuing self-revelation--with the sense that God is still capable of surprises and that the church's task is to respond in obedience to how God discloses God's self--then the reading of scripture, while extremely important, is not definitive. The question of homosexuality then becomes not an exegetical one--not "What does the tradition say?"--but a hermeneutical one--"How do we balance what different authorities say?"

If one begins, on the other hand, with the texts of scripture and the precedents in the church and the sense that the church is primarily the custodian of a body of revelation, then the conversation moves in a very different direction.

DAVID MATZKO: One thing that has been learned is that theology matters. When gay issues first surfaced in church discussions in the 1970s they came from the outside--from the world of gay politics. As a result, the conversation at first was nontheological. It was based on the language of rights, for example. A more substantive theological discussion is just now starting to emerge. This is a discussion about sanctification, grace and holiness. The theological question is not whether you have the "right" to pursue a certain lifestyle but whether one can pursue a nonheterosexual way of life--which is an anomaly within a heterosexual tradition--in a way that leads to sanctification.

STACKHOUSE: Well, suppose one does believe that God may do something new. You still have to have some way of knowing that it's God, not a post-theological or antitheological ideology, that's doing something new.

JOHNSON: We need to keep in mind the way God has dealt in the past with God's precedents. The appearance of Jesus, the crucified Messiah, is a classic case of God operating outside God's own precedents. The inclusion of the gentiles in the first generation of the church is another example. …

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