Saturday, February 26, 2011

It was pretty much the weirdest thing I have ever been to.

There is a great post on Peggy Senger Parsons' blog 'A Silly Poor Gospel'. It is a paper written by a college student descibing her impressions after attending a Quaker meeting at Freedom Friends, where Peggy is pastor. You can read it here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Homosexual Christians--A response

I recently posted here a video entitled 'A Straight Apology'. As a result, I received a lengthy and thoughtful comment from a fellow Christian voicing the usual objections to the idea of homosexuals being Christians. You can read the entire exchange here, but I decided to re-post my response as a blog entry--because I'm lazy and figure if I spend time writing something I ought to get as much mileage out of it as I can:

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I will apologize in advance that my schedule requires me to be more economical than I would like in my reply.

I think you hit the nail on the head in your first paragraph regarding any dialog that we might have. You and I probably approach the Bible in very different ways. I do not view the scriptures as inerrant or infallible. The scriptures themselves don't claim to be such. The closest we get, as I'm sure you well know, is Paul's statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all scripture (one ought to pause right there and consider what scripture Paul would have been referring to) is inspired and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (one also ought to consider at this point what Paul might have meant by 'righteousness'--dikaiosune. I understand the word--and its Hebrew equivalent 'tzedakah'--to have had more to do with restorative justice--what some might call "social justice"--than with moral correctness). I believe that the Bible is inspired and very, very useful. However my final authority in matters of faith and life is not the Bible. It is the real presence of the Living God.

I don't know if you have had a chance (or the inclination) to read My Story, but a key facet of it is that God established and engaged in relationship with me while I was very much an unrepentant sinner. It was His kindness, actually, that led me into relationship with Him (and still does!). Because these direct experiences were at the foundation of my walk with Christ, a core belief was built upon them: that no one is separated from God. We Quakers like to say that "there is that of God in everyone", which means that we view God as valuing every person and as being actively engaged in every person's life--drawing them to Himself. I have studied the Bible extensively and devoutly over the 27 years that I have been a Christian. I love scripture, but I recognize--as John Wimber used to say--that it is the menu, not the meal (the menu describes the meal). I think it was the Quaker Robert Barclay who likened the Bible to a stream that flows from a fountain. The fountain, which is the Spirit, is the source of the stream. I love to drink from the stream, but we also have access to the fountain.

I am belaboring this point because our fundamental difference in approach will yield fundamentally different results. I am intensely interested in what was written in scripture (and why), but am even more interested in what the Spirit is saying here and now.

I was taught, like most Evangelical Christians, to read the Bible in a manner sometimes referred to as "constitutional" or "statutory." In other words, as a collection of statutes which can be applied universally without regard to historical and cultural context.

This way of using the Bible is closely akin to the way a prosecuting attorney uses the Criminal Code or the way a banker uses the Federal Reserve Banking Regulations or the way an IRS auditor uses the Tax Code. One looks for the specific statute that addresses a given situation.

Here in Seattle, I can access the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) and find every enforceable law and regulation enacted by state legislatures past and present. It will tell me if I can keep chickens (and how many) in my suburban backyard, what the default speed limit is on a two lane road, whether or not I can carry a concealed firearm in a state park, etc. There are hundreds--perhaps thousands--of rules, regulations, laws and statutes. It's all there in black and white. I may even find contradictions, such as a newer law that conflicts with an older law. If I become well-versed in the WAC, I could be a recognized expert--teaching and debating with others on what is contained therein.

I no longer read the Bible in this way, which may prevent us from coming to agreement on various theological topics, such as God's view of homosexuals or (perhaps) the role of women in the church. My starting point on matters such as this is that we have a living guide in the Holy Spirit. I recognize the scriptures as inspired, useful, authoritative even, but not all-inclusive or uncoupled from their original context. The most valuable lesson I ever learned about studying scripture (thanks to Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart) is to ask 'What did this mean to the original hearers?' As Wycliffe put it (in Olde English): 'It shall greatly help ye to understande scripture if thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten, but of whom, and to whom, and what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before, and what followeth.'

As to the 'statutory' approach to the Bible, here's an example of what I'm getting at: The New Testament doesn't specifically address the evil of slavery beyond admonishments for owners to treat their slaves well and slaves to be loyal and hard-working. Prior to the American Civil War, slave owning Christians used the same methodology you are using regarding homosexuality. They quoted Eph. 6:5-8, Titus 2:9-10 and Col. 3:22-24. They claimed to see no statement in the Bible--not even the New Testament--advocating the abolition of slavery. They were right--there was no specific statement. But of course the entire spirit of the New Testament pointed towards equality and treating others as you would be treated. Still, a statute wasn't to be found in a prooftext.

When confronted with an issue, we both ask, 'What does the Word say?' If by 'the Word' we mean simply the written scriptures, then we are consigned to the 'constitutional' approach and are really asking 'Where is it written?' If by 'the Word', however, we mean the Living Word; Jesus Christ our risen Lord and Savior, then there is a much bigger world of possibilities and ramifications which He can lead us into. This is a much more liberating but also scarier place to be because the answers aren't always in simple prooftexts and may not be "one size fits all." The overriding answer is always the same though: Love.

In Paul's day, it would have been hard to imagine a world without slavery. The best advice he could give was how to cope within the existing system. In Paul's day it would have been hard to imagine women with equal roles, opportunities and education to men. In Paul's day there was no concept of sexual-orientation or of committed same-sex relationships. Homosexual acts were associated either with pagan temple prostitution or with exploitative pederasty. It would have been completely off of the cultural, theological and historical grid for Paul or Jesus to even make reference to sexual orientation or committed, loving same-sex relationships. They might just as well have spoken about molecular biology or internal combustion engines.

If I understand correctly, your view is that homosexual behavior is sinful. This was once my view also, but my view slowly and incrementally changed, in part due to in-depth study of scripture. Certainly, there are many homosexual (and heterosexual) behaviors that are sinful, but I no longer view non-exploitative homosexual relationships as sinful or as even addressed in scripture. I will grant you that, as you said '...the predominant understanding of Jews and Christians of all stripes throughout history, up of course until the last few decades...' has been that homosexual behavior is sinful and against scripture. I would not, however, share your conviction that we should therefore '...not assume that we somehow have uncovered a heretofore unseen amazing truth that has never been perceived in 2000 years.' A great many heretofore unseen amazing truths have been perceived over the course of the last 2,000 years: the heliocentric nature of our solar system; the existence of germs and virii and their role (in place of demons) as the cause of various maladies; the structure of atoms; the complexities of genetics, physiology, human psychology; etc., etc. In fact, it is pretty difficult to find a topic about which we have *not* discovered amazing truths over the course of the last 2,000 years!

You mentioned the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping one's sexuality (and, I would add, a great many other traits) and the inconclusiveness of whether or not a 'gay gene' exists (which is a red herring: the role of genetics in human development is incredibly complex and often cannot be reduced down to the identification of specific genes, as if they were Lego blocks).

The bottom line is that we really don't know what causes sexual orientation, or a great many other human traits. The best working hypotheses at present seems to be that it is the result of a complex interaction of biological, genetic, hormonal and environmental factors. What does seem to be clear is that being homosexual is not a conscious choice.

But let's cut to the chase. The heart of the issue is scripture. Points about early childhood experience or the lack of a clearly identifiable "gay gene" are merely attempts to shore up the central conviction, which is that scripture says homosexuality is wrong.

I won't take the time here to tediously rehash and rebut the handful of scriptures used to condemn homosexuality. I will instead refer you (or the interested reader) to others who have done a much more thorough job than I could:

* I think Mel White covers the key points well. If you have read books by Billy Graham, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, you may have read the words of Mel White. He was once an in-demand ghost-writer for the Evangelical elite, until he revealed his sexual orientation. As a result of his unique background, he has many really good insights on homosexuality and Evangelical Christianity. His book 'A Stranger at the Gate' played a role in changing my opinions about homosexual Christians. Here is an essay by Mel White entitled 'What the Bible Says - And Doesn't Say - About Homosexuality':

* Here is a very quick synopsis of the "major" scriptures used to condemn homosexuality and how they are interpreted by religious conservatives (such as yourself) and religious progressives (such as myself):

* Walter Wink (who's book 'The Powers That Be' ought to be on every Christian's bookshelf) wrote an excellent essay on Biblical sexual morays, including homosexuality:

* Lastly, New Testament scholar Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat, who is a colleague of N.T. Wright, wrote a thoughtful and thorough exegesis in 2004 which touches on why people who are LGBT ought to be fully included in the church. You can read it, in PDF format, here:

If one approaches the 'homosexual verses' without prejudice and researches them objectively, it is pretty easy to discover that they don't refer to homosexuality in and of itself, but to behaviors that are violent, exploitative or idolatrous.

I'll take a little time to dwell on what is generally considered to be the most relevant and clear Biblical condemnation of homosexuality: Romans 1:26-27.

As you know, Christianity was originally a Jewish sect. The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jews. They saw Jesus as the fulfillment and the future of Judaism. They attended synagogue and, in Jerusalem, participated in temple rituals. There was a great deal of turmoil and contention between the minority of "Christian" Jews and the rest of the Jews. The small "Christian" sect was persecuted by the larger body of Jewish authority. This became worse as Gentiles began to enter the fold without being required to undergo circumcision or participate in Jewish dietary laws, rituals or festivals. There was strife and violence against the Christian Jews (including the Gentile converts). Gradually, the Christians began meeting separately, apart from the larger Jewish population. They began to meet together in houses, instead of at the Jewish synagogues. During the time that Paul's epistles were written, this transition was taking place.

In Rome at this time, as throughout the Roman empire, Christian gatherings (ecclesia) were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. In approximately 49 A.D., the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because of riots and turmoil--most likely caused by the growing presence of Christians. One happy result of this edict was that Paul, while in Corinth, '...met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them.' (Acts 18:2-3). The sudden absence of Jews from Rome caused the Christian churches, which had been mixed, to become wholly Gentile. Later, when the ban was lifted and the Jews allowed to return to Rome, they found that the churches had got along just fine without them, thank you very much. Imagine if, in present times, you took the African-American Pentecostal church at one end of town and the white Presbyterian church at the other end of town and combined them together into one church! There would be tensions, offenses, misunderstandings--on racial, social, cultural and almost every other level. This is the setting into which Paul writes his epistle to the Romans. The Jewish Christians are looking down on the Gentile Christians and the Gentile Christians are saying to the Jewish Christians 'We don't need you.'

The primary goal of Paul's letter to the Romans to is deal with divisions within the church between these two factions: Jew vs. Gentile. Throughout the letter, Paul speaks first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles, then back to the Jews, then again to the Gentiles, trying to cajole them into seeing that they are one body. By the way, if you find this historical background interesting, I would highly recommend a series of audio teachings by Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright entitled 'Romans in a Week.'

In Romans 1:14 Paul clues us in that he is not taking sides. But then in verse 18 he begins a litany of criticism that seems to mirror the Jewish party line. He is echoing the Jewish view of Gentiles: They are idolatrous pagans who do despicable things. As Paul continues his list, you can imagine the Jewish listeners thinking 'Yeah, right on!' Paul is setting the bait and drawing them in. Suddenly, beginning at 2:1, he springs the trap: 'You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself...Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself...' (I'm abbreviating for the sake of brevity, but I recommend reading the entire thing).

Paul is excoriating the Jewish Christians for their judgmental attitude towards the Gentile Christians and telling them, in effect, 'You're every bit as sinful as they are, so quit judging!' Something about a speck in my brother's eye comes to mind. This clever device which Paul uses at the beginning of Romans acts as the launching pad for the argument that he weaves through the entire rest of the letter as he bounces back and forth, first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. His message could be distilled down to this: 'Quit judging each other! Love one another and leave the judging up to God!'

If we understand Paul's letter to the Romans, including Romans 1:26-27, in this light, it puts us in an interesting position. We can believe that homosexuality is sin, but still must love, accept and not judge people who are homosexual. This is why Tony Campolo, who believes that homosexual behavior is sin, was able to give the keynote speech at the Gay Christian Alliance convention and receive a standing ovation: Because he understands that what is greater than his theological belief about homosexuality is the mandate to love, accept and not judge our brothers and sisters. Campolo's wife, by the way, holds the opposite view and does not believe homosexuality is sin. You can listen to an interesting presentation given by Tony and Peggy Campolo on this subject.

Another, and complimentary, way we can look at Paul's reference to homosexuality within his argument to the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome, is that he is speaking about a very specific form of homosexual expression, which has to do with Gentile pagan cultic practices, such as temple prostitution (whereby devotees would engage in sex with male and female priests/priestesses as a way of communing with the deities). It is worth noting that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans while in Corinth, the location of the temple of Aphrodite--a place which employed over 1,000 temple prostitutes--male and female. Again, Paul is listing the things that Jews found repugnant about Gentiles in order to set them up to have their own hearts exposed. The overarching goal of Paul is not to condemn however, it is to build community based on love, grace, tolerance and forbearance.

That should still be our goal.

Sadly, the more popular approach among Evangelical Christians is to lift Romans 1:26-27 out of its context and read it as if it were a statute in a code of law. In doing so, we not only miss what Paul was trying to say, we contradict it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Amazing Grace

A demonstration of the power of song...

Yesterday in History

On February 18th, 1688, Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania conducted the first formal protest against slavery.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


From the book "If Grace is True" by Gulley & Mulholland:

"Holiness is God's ability to confront evil without being defiled. God's holiness does not require him to keep evil at arm's length. God's holiness enables Him to take the wicked in His arms and transform them. God is never in danger of being defiled. No evil can alter His love, for His gracious character is beyond corruption. This is what it means to say God is holy--God's love is uncorruptible.

Holiness and love are not competing commitments. God is love. His love endures forever. This enduring love is what makes God holy. No manner of evil done to us or by us can seperate us from this love. God transforms His morally imperfect children through the power of His perfect love. It is our experience of this love that inspires us to such perfection.

Jesus said, 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matt. 5:48). If this verse was a command for moral perfection, our cause is hopeless. Fortunately, this admonition follows a command to 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Matt. 5:44). Perfection is demonstrated not by moral purity, but by extravagant love. We are like God not when we are pure, but when we are loving and gracious."

Friday, February 11, 2011


"Egyptians have inspired us, and and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained by violence." - President Barack Obama

Monday, February 07, 2011

Blog updates

I've recently made some additions to my blog:

First, I have greatly expanded "My Story"--picking up where I had previously left off and bringing it up to the present.

Second, I have added a new page entitled "What Quakers Believe" which explains the beliefs and values that make Quakers distinctive.

Links to both "My Story" and "What Quakers Believe" are in the upper right corner of this page.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Doing business the Quaker way

An interesting article that appeared a couple of years ago in Forbes magazine:

Friday, February 04, 2011


Last month, Egyptian Muslims showed up in large numbers at Coptic Christian church services to show solidarity and act as "human shields" after militant Islamists had attacked a church.

Today, these pictures have come out of Egypt showing Christians joining hands and forming a circle to protect Muslims at prayer during the demonstrations in Cairo.