“People don’t fear change. People fear the loss that inevitably comes with change.” I don’t know who originally said these words, but Dr. Jaco Hamman offered the quote in a conversation with me and a group of fellow pastors.
I can think of no more succinct way to describe the animating energy of the final few hours of our 2019 Annual Conference than this quote. One particular speech stuck with me. A resolution was submitted to remove the restrictive language in the book of discipline regarding homosexuality. Speaking against that resolution, a delegate said, “I have to take the Bible as it is written. I have based my whole faith upon it. I have come to Christ through it and follow it. And the Bible is very clear when it spells out marriage as a covenant relationship to show how Christ loves His bride, the church. And it’s very clear that God created men and women to be in this exclusive relationship. It is what guides everything and if I go against this, how do I define where in scripture I have to [live], how I have to be with my husband, how he has to be with me. I just want to make it very clear that I have to follow what the Bible says…”
I have heard time and again the same kind of argument spoken from those who wish to maintain the language in the discipline. Last year I heard against a similar resolution, “This resolution would create a separation from almost 2000 years in the universal view held by the ecumenical and the global church on the issue of marriage.” The WCA phrases it as follows in their moral principles regarding marriage – “In keeping with Christian teaching through the ages and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union.”
In each argument and in many others, the common assumption is deeply present that the primary way to be faithful to the Bible and to follow church tradition is, necessarily, to continue to do things the way the bible says to do them and, therefore, the way we’ve always done them. What stuck with me about the annual conference speech and what I appreciate was the vulnerability with which the plea was made. There was no pretense of absolute scholarly certainty or a facade that faithfulness is easy, safe, or simple. The speech was a powerful reminder that the more significant and foundational faith becomes in our lives, the more we risk losing if some part of that faith is challenged or changed. If one thing about the way we have read, interpreted, or implemented the Bible is challenged, there is no way to know ahead of time how much else may come into question in the process of developing a new understanding or course of action.
I deeply empathize with the fear of loss that leads to the kind of statements made in this speech and in the variety of other speeches and arguments I have heard over the years. There is a famous family story about me that recounts the time I spent about 2 months doing nothing but crying because I was forced to move away from the place and people that I loved. The loss that comes with change is no small thing and may just be one of the most significant challenges that we all face in the course of a lifetime.
I do not in any way wish to downplay or belittle the real and profound loss that would accompany a decision to remove incompatibility language. Any change to something as significant as how to live a faithful life is bound to feel like the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Any attempt to pretend like change does not necessarily lead to the loss of something significant denies the reality of human life and ignores the experience of countless men and women throughout the pages of scripture and church history. At the heart of our faith is a God who did not pretend like life will be easy or pain free, but offered to be by our side no matter what tomorrow brings; a God who is faithful until all will be set right even though we don’t yet experience the fullness of the victory that is already sure. Change includes loss. Loss is painful. People fear the loss that would inevitably come through a change in our biblical, historical views on marriage. Those fears are not unfounded.
However, my problem with even incorporating this reality into determining how we are to view marriage today is that I cannot read the Bible without seeing that the single most consistent strand throughout scripture is change. Page after page we are confronted with a God who overturns our understanding of the way things have always been and reshapes our expectations of the way they ought to be going forward. No theme is more consistent than God’s constant desire to break out of the boxes that we assume contain a faithful life. God is with us, absolutely. God is faithful and constant to the very end. But the flipside of that coin is that ‘God revealing a different or more full expression of who God is and how to most faithfully follow God’ is often one of the primary forces leading to the painful changes with which biblical men and women had to learn how to cope. I just don’t know how to read the bible and come away with the expectation that the way things have been done for the last 2000+ years is the way we should always expect them to be done.
It starts with the very shape and purpose of covenant relationship. Adam and Eve were given a single command. Abraham was simply called to get up and go wherever God led. He was then challenged with the covenant of circumcision. Moses brought the extensive and detailed law that gave shape to life. Joshua followed the command to purify the promised land of people. God relented to give the people a series of kings when they insisted one was needed. The temple became the locus of God’s presence and the center of life and worship in Jerusalem after years of bringing the tabernacle along for the journey. An intricate system of sacrifices was put in place to ensure obedience to God. In exile, the focus of worship and sacrifice became less centered on location and more on ritual and memory. In Jesus, we are offered relationship no matter the time or place, the sacrificial system is completely gone, and he claims to be the fulfillment of the law.
In between all these massive changes in the shape and implications of covenant, God overturned expectations left and right. First, that birth order was destiny. Women like Rebekah used deceit to help along the process of passing down the blessing to the “wrong” child. Membership in God’s people shifted from descendents only, to adding a few outsiders like Rahab along the way, to grafting in gentiles through Christ. Women like Deborah, Ruth, and Esther led in ways that only men were allowed to lead. Jonah was swallowed by a fish for thinking God should only be for the Jews. Judah became the center of political power even though it was the smallest tribe. David was a small kid chosen to be King in a time when physical stature was highly prized. Women preached the first resurrection sermon after finding the empty tomb.
Outsiders were offensively lifted up as examples or recipients of God’s faithfulness. Jesus brings up the widow at Zarephath and Naaman to explicitly challenge the boundaries of God’s people. He ate with Zaccheus, let the children come to him, spoke with a Samaritan woman, made a Samaritan the hero of a parable, healed on the Sabbath, directly challenged countless religious authorities, conversed with prostitutes, gleaned on the Sabbath, and challenged the way things had always been enough to make multiple mobs angry enough to kill him. Peter’s understanding of dietary law was upended in his encounter with Cornelius. The Ethiopian eunuch would have been unwelcome in the temple but Philip saw that he could not withhold the water of baptism.
The founding of the church itself was a radical shift in the lives of God’s followers. The church was born at Pentecost when the focus shifted from Jerusalem to the ends of the Earth. At Pentecost, the people were amazed that they could speak in native tongues they did not know. Paul makes very clear that circumcision is no longer essential for church life in Galatians. In Corinthians, he explicitly says that God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Paul himself underwent a radical transformation upon conversion to following Christ.
The Bible contains deep rejections of many habits and patterns of action we take for granted today. Luke’s gospel contains a radical emphasis on eschewing material wealth. Acts speaks of the absolute importance of close, covenant community and sharing resources with stories like that of Ananias and Sapphira. Jesus says the first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the Earth, and blessed are the poor. Philippians states clearly that it is the humility of Christ that expresses his power.
Jesus in Matthew includes a series of very direct challenges to prior interpretations of the rules by saying, “you’ve heard it said, but I say unto you.” He stopped a stoning by saying the one without sin should cast the first stone. He rewrote the meaning of Passover to refer to himself and, in John, named himself as the lamb for the sacrifice.
On top of these actual changes, transitions, and challenges, there are a variety of unresolved tensions within the Bible for how to live and think. Proverbs offers a very transactional and clear method to a faithful life whereas Ecclesiastes repeats the phrase, “all is vanity” to imply that nothing we do matters in the end. Kings tells the story of the monarchy as a cautionary tale in how corruption destroyed the kingdom whereas Chronicles offers a much more positive and hopeful reading of history. Paul is convinced that grace through faith is the essential ingredient for salvation whereas James says faith without works is dead. A great deal of scripture seems to long for the end of war even as parts of it speak to God being on the front line of the battle. Paul and Barnabas had to part ways because of their unresolved arguments about the faith. Revelation leaves an inherent tension between images of Jesus as both lion and lamb.
Sometimes when a complete change does not occur, there are simply counter narratives offered to the official party line. Amos pushed God’s people to see it was not the sacrificial system God longed for but mercy, justice, and kindness. A mob in Acts sees more clearly than the disciples how revolutionary Jesus is by claiming his followers “have been turning the world upside down.” Palm Sunday already anticipates that Jesus will not be a military conqueror even though that is what his followers expected. There are four distinct gospels laying out the details of Jesus’s life that each have their own slightly different order, assumptions, details, and intent.
This list is nowhere near complete and a variety of complex changes covering a multitude of biblical books and themes have been condensed into single phrases for the sake of brevity. This list also represents a variety of different types of challenges to the status quo that variously affect personal, relational, or societal habits, choices, or expectations. My point is not that each change is the same or even directly comparable to a change in our language regarding sexuality – quite the opposite in fact.
My point is that changes in how we live and relate to God are, at every level, more like the air we breathe than a rare occurrence in the Bible. Every single box that seemed to contain God or a Godly life is shattered at some point in scripture. This reality does not mean that anything goes. This theme does not imply that any particular action must be accepted or that it is capable of expressing a faithful life. But it absolutely baffles me that anyone can read the Bible and conclude that the way things have always been is the way they must always be. I cannot imagine why anyone would assume the God who is at work throughout the Bible could not do a new thing some 2000 years after the church was born. If anything, reading the Bible should make us shocked that God has not more radically turned our world upside down in every practical application of what it means to be faithful.
I don’t believe it does any good to deny the real sense of loss that comes with a change in how we understand faithful living. But the most biblical thing I can think to do is stop presuming that 2000 years of church history means that we no longer have to question how we are called to most faithfully live. Rather than simply asking what the Bible says and assuming the same rules apply in the same way, here are the kind of questions I would rather us ask regarding sexuality – What is the shape of God’s love that we discern through the Bible? How does sexuality in general relate to and derive from that kind of love? What specific forms or practices of sexuality are capable of embodying that kind of love? To what extent do our current practices of marriage and understandings of sexuality fall short of that image of God’s love? To begin with these sorts of questions is to create the space in which we might begin to discern how and where our definitions of faithfulness may need to be challenged or changed in light of the God who, throughout scripture and history, has constantly forced us to adapt and grow.