The Value in Understanding "the Other Side"

Photo by: baejaar
Last week, I blogged about how World Vision shifted the center on the gay marriage debate, and naturally lots of people commented.  One particular train of comments merits a new post.

LL: As someone who is on the other side of this debate I would ask why homosexual marriage is supported but polygamy is usually not? Is everyone here pro-polygamy too?

Me: First of all, I'm not on a side in this debate. I'm just saying we need to have the debate openly and without burning people at the stake. Secondly, polygamy is not a debated issue in the church. Gay marriage is. Again, I'm just saying we need to be honest that this issue is in dispute among large portions of the Church and have an open and honest debate about all facets of this issue.

LL: I'm just not sure WHY it's a discussion in the church since Scripture speaks so plainly to the issue. "Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, will inherit the kingdom of God."
So, if their sin is going to keep them from the kingdom of heaven, then why would we not be pleading with them to leave their sin behind? Why would we encourage and support the sin that will eventually keep them from the kingdom of heaven?

Me: Short answer: if you don't understand why there is a debate about this, then you need to do more research. Read some (or a lot) of the material "from the other side." You don't need to agree, but you do need to understand how people can be sane, reasonable, intelligent, maybe even godly and bible-believing and still be traditional, undecided, or affirming. People can genuinely love Jesus and totally disagree on this.
Long answer takes way too much time for this forum (originally on Facebook).

LL: I really don't understand why there is a debate about this. If the Bible says that something is sinful and those who practice it will be left out of heaven, then what is there to talk about?  What more research is there to do?  Will more research show that God was wrong?

And here's my response: 

(1) The value in researching "the other side" is far more than trying to decide if their opinions are correct.  The value is in understanding how and why they believe what they do.  As I began researching the gay-affirming side on this issue, I changed from "they must be crazy or not-Christian or completely rejecting the Bible" to "Oh, I don't agree with everything they are saying, but at least I understand how they can believe that and think that and still be a faithful Christian."  Researching the other side is extremely important for compassion and Christian unity.

     Even if you want to debate them to prove them wrong, simple logic says you should at least understand what they believe and why.  If you don't want to debate and just want to show love, simple compassion says you should try to understand them as best you can.  
     As a pastor in our current cultural context, gay marriage is one of the biggest issues of our time.  Furthermore, millennials consistently rank the Christian response to homosexuality as one of the key reasons that millennials are leaving the Church.  Every pastor should understand why they feel like this and also try to understand the gay marriage debate from every possible angle.  

(2) It is extremely simplistic and somewhat deceptive to say: "The Bible says homosexuality is wrong."  

     First of all, homosexuality is an orientation not an action.  Only actions can be actually wrong.  I desire to eat whole pizzas and dozens of donuts, but I haven't actually sinned unless I do that (or maybe intentionally fantasize about it).  In the same way, desiring sex (whether straight or gay) is not in itself moral or immoral.  Our actions (or fantasies and intentions) are where the morality lies.  No matter your stance on gay marriage, a celibate gay man can be just as holy as a celibate straight man.  Be careful with your language or else you will say something you don't actually mean.
     Second, parts of the Bible also lend support to slavery, unequal relationships between men and women, prostitution, and a host of obscure Old Testemant rules about things that seem completely random today.  Christians have the responsibility to interpret these passages in light of their original cultural context and in light of the whole Bible.  
     As we have done this together for thousands of years, we have mostly decided that it doesn't matter if you plant two types of crops in the same field or if men have long hair or if women wear a head covering when they pray.  We decided those were culture-specific instructions that do not apply in our cultural context.  Along the same lines, we decided that the Bible's instructions about slavery must be reinterpreted when we align them with the Bible's teaching about the overall dignity of every human who is made in the image of God.  
     The current debate about gay marriage is a debate along these same lines.  The question is whether the Bible's teachings about homosexual practice (which are overwhelmingly negative) are culturally limited or applicable at all times in all cultures.  More specifically, the current question is whether the Biblical teachings about marriage can include homosexual marriage as well as heterosexual marriage.  This is debate fits into a 3,000 year tradition of debating the best interpretation of ancient commands in a new cultural context.  Yes, the Jews were having the same category of debates long before Jesus, and even Jesus' Sermon on the Mount ("You have heard it said, but I say ...")  and several other teachings (specifically about divorce) are part of this tradition.
    
    As we think and talk about gay marriage over the next few years and decades, let me offer a few bits of advice.  

1. Whether you are traditional, affirming, or confused, intentionally befriend a real breathing person "on the other side" or on the extremes of both sides.  Try to understand that person and why they think and feel as they do on this issue.  This simple act will set the whole debate and your own conversation into the personalized realm of friendship.  That will change the way you speak and think to be more like Jesus.

2. Do your homework.  If you actually want to talk about this, be informed.  Please, do not speak out of ignorance or hearsay.  Understand the relevant Bible passages backward and forward, and understand how both "sides" deal with each passage.  Also, try to understand the science related to this issue - no matter how you interpret it.

3. Be humble.  If you are confused, humility may come more easily.  If you have a strong opinion one way or another, remember that we are in the midst of a global theological and ethical debate about this issue.  When this kind of massive debate happens, sometimes the opinion of the Church Universal changes, and sometimes it doesn't.  Rigidity and blanket statements are out of place in this context.  That doesn't mean you need to be a wet noodle, but it does mean that we all need to be careful about our language and attitudes - lest we unintentionally offend, misspeak, or hold a hidden arrogance.  We need honest debate, but we need to do it with the  awareness that each of us is only one voice in a great Christian choir that is trying to understand this issue.