Outlook Forum: Can we live with paradox?

The question coming to this summer’s General Assembly is whether pastors may perform same-gender weddings and congregations host them. In preparation, we Presbyterians hear many faithful voices that echo all of our past conversations about homosexual persons:

»   “I have no problem with homosexuals. Love the sinner but hate the sin. I just don’t think homosexual behavior is right.”

»   “It’s a civil rights issue. Denying gays and lesbians the opportunity to share their gifts and be welcomed in the church is the same thing as the church denying these rights to women or minorities.”

»   “I’m tired of talking about it.”

General Assembly’s approach once again invites otherwise gentle, loving, Presbyterians to choose sides for conflict. Yet the assumption that the overtures demand an up or down vote, rather than a meeting of minds, signals a misunderstanding of the overtures.

We Presbyterians affirm paradox, although sometimes uncomfortably so. The eternal God became flesh. The Word speaks through the human words of Scripture. Divine wrath clings to love. The Bible blesses slavery and the exclusion of the divorced from ordained office, yet trumpets the triumph of justice, mercy and faith. It is the neglect of paradox that causes Presbyterians to go “off the rails” into intolerant liberal or conservative fundamentalism.

It is paradox, holding two thoughts in tension simultaneously, which holds the key to understanding the overtures regarding same-gender marriage. Rather than choosing for or against homosexuality, the primary question might be, “Can we live with paradox?” To explain, let us consider some other voices that speak to us from our distant past.

Beginning with the Bible, we know well both the proof-texts that appear to condemn homosexual behavior and the dissenting interpretations of them: Genesis 19, Judges 29, Leviticus 18 and 20, 1st Corinthians 6:9, 1st Timothy 1:10, Jude 5-7, and Romans 1. These divergent interpretations suggest paradox.

We can contribute additional biblical texts. Genesis chapters 1 and 2 speak to the essentially relational nature of humanity, made in God’s image, without projecting human sexuality onto God. In a similar vein Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, based on his nuanced interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures, insists on the priority of covenantal justice over cultural favoritism toward males (Mark 10:1-12). Jesus’ also claims that marriage is for this life only and does not extend beyond mortality (Matthew 22:23-33). He praises eunuchs who, by nature or choice, experience ostracism related to their sexual ambiguity (Matthew 19:10-12). The apostle Paul views marriage as a restraint to promiscuity, if restraint is needed (1st Corinthians 7:9). It is also Paul who casts a vision of the Realm of God in which there are no gender issues (Galatians 3:28). These texts do not demand that we choose sides: Honesty toward the whole Bible means holding these texts and their interpretations in paradoxical tension with one another.

Who knew his Bible better than theologian Karl Barth? Note his observation below:

The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets “a question mark” against all truths. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel — that is, Christian Apologetics — is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome … It does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility … The Gospel of the Resurrection is the action … by which God, the unknown God … makes himself known … (Karl Barth, “The Epistle to the Romans,” p. 35)

We might note that Barth personally disapproved of same-gender relationships. Yet Barth’s recognition of his own sinfulness allowed him to see the Gospel as the truth that questions all other human pretense to truth, including his own. His example invites us to heed His instruction: humility tells us that we should surrender our anxious defense of truths that are not given to us to guard (Christ’s, the Bible’s, the tradition’s, science’s, sexuality … ) because by guarding we idolatrously confuse truth with our own narrow opinions. Recall that Jesus is the way, truth, and life (John 14:6): we are not. He doesn’t need us. We need him.

John Calvin was no slouch biblically either. Yet he was a master of paradox. In the Institutes, when Calvin came to a question that had multiple answers, he would develop all arguments and then — as the apostle Paul did concerning the salvation of the Jews in Romans 9-11 — Calvin would conclude, not with a solution, but with doxology. He brought a similar instinct to the question of Christian freedom:

If you do anything with unseemly levity …out of its proper order or place, so as to cause the ignorant and the simple to stumble, such will be called an offense given by you, since by your fault, it came about that this sort of offense arose …Thus we shall so temper the use of our freedom as to allow for the ignorance of our weak brothers, but for the rigor of the Pharisees, not at all! ( John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Book III, 8, 11).

Christian ethics are based on love, not law. For Calvin even the Ten Commandments gave tangible expression to the outlying behaviors inconsistent with love. So Calvin assumed that those with strict moral codes held fearfully were weak in faith, and those with strict moral codes held with condemnation of others were Pharisaical, and both positions were less than God’s gospel freedom grants us. Yet freedom used wisely is always tempered with love: more paradox.

What might Jesus say about same-gender marriage? Perhaps this: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).

Jesus may encourage the exercise of the freedom to loose, and give a blessing to, dissimilarities. Clearly, as different parts of Christ’s body, we are gifted with different convictions on this one issue. Can we love one another enough to allow pastors and congregations to use pastoral discretion with same-gender couples? To be truly evangelical is to acknowledge that our congregations have different callings when gay and lesbian persons ask to bear witness to their love for Jesus Christ by marrying in a Christian church. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if out of this General Assembly the secular press noted “See how these Presbyterians love one another!”

In light of paradox that denies sinners possession of God’s ultimate truth, how do Christians make decisions that neither harm the weak in faith nor appease the Pharisees who eviscerate joyful Christian freedom? Three years ago the session and congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Iowa City answered this question by seeking the answer to a second question: How does Jesus Christ’s church extend his love to same-gender couples who wish to share their Christian faith and commitment in public worship through a marriage ceremony?

Session charged a task force to help the congregation discern how God is speaking to it regarding these issues here and now. Prayer, Bible study, research of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution and church legal decisions, and consultation with diverse theological sources informed congregational small-group dialogue. Hard words were spoken gently, tears were shed and hugs were given. Member insight was collected and reviewed by session prayerfully as it sought God’s direction, and the results were shared with the congregation.

Session concluded that in general the congregation supported same-gender couples. Therefore session affirmed that all couples licensed by the state to marry should be treated equally by the congregation to the extent permitted by Presbyterian polity. Session also heard clearly that covenantal trust precluded congregational disobedience to our denomination’s judicially interpreted constitutional standards.

Two steps were taken. First, overtures were submitted to presbytery and General Assembly requesting permission for pastors to perform, and congregations to host, same-gender weddings in those states where they are legal. Second, session created a policy recognizing that while state law defines marriage, marriage remains a vocation blessed by God. Inspired by a European model embracing paradox, session resolved that until the church is allowed to celebrate legal marriage without gender discrimination, no legal marriages will be hosted by the church or performed by the pastor. Instead the church offers blessing ceremonies, with full pomp and ceremony, which occur after the state handles legal obligations.

We offer no church growth formula. Yet the outcomes do suggest what might happen if our denomination liberates churches from polarizing debate over same-gender marriage and instead embraces paradox.

LARA MARSH, STEVE SCHOMBERG and JUDY WHITFORD are ruling elders and SAM MASSEY is teaching elder of First Church, Iowa City, Iowa.

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