Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Homosexuality and Christianity: What does the Bible Say?

Homosexuality and Christianity: What does the Bible Say?


          Christianity is divided over the topic of homosexuality. The situation is only made worse by the fact that the issue is more than a spiritual or moral one, but a highly politicized one. In the last 24 hours the rhetoric has become even more intense as North Carolina voted to constitutionally define marriage as an exclusive union between one man and one woman and President Obama publically announced his support of gay marriage. Predictably, Christians are taking sides and each side is using the Bible against the other.
So, what does the Bible really say? Realistically, the answer to that question depends on who is doing the interpreting but in order to cut through the emotional and highly irrational rhetoric that is flying around, this is my attempt to offer a little perspective on how two very devout and faithful Christians can read the same Bible and come up with such vastly different interpretations.  
The questions are multiple.  Is homosexuality a sin? Should a homosexual person hold leadership in the church? Should a homosexual be allowed in the church or restricted from the table? Should the church hold “Blessed Union” services, effectively advocating and performing same-sex marriage? Should the church affirm and support same sex marriage? What exactly does it mean to be “gay” or “lesbian”?  Is sexual orientation a choice or a genetic predisposition? Do so-called “gay rights” extend to bisexuals or transgendered individuals (women and men who, through surgery or hormone therapy, change or alter their gender)? Is homosexuality a sin or perverse distortion of normal sexual orientation? If the church speaks of homosexuality as a sin, is that engaging in hateful speech and discriminatory language? What should the church’s stance be regarding these complex and emotional issues?
          Unfortunately, these questions do not have clear-cut and simple answers.  As faithful believers and Christians, the first place believers should turn regarding these complex questions is to the Bible. Neither the Old Testament Hebrew nor the New Testament Greek contain words equating to the English words “homosexual” or “lesbian.”  The Bible does not have an understanding of explicit “sexual orientation” as it is commonly understood in a modern context. Many Christian Traditions fervently believe that sexual orientation as it references anything other than normative heterosexual behaviors within the context of a one-man-one-woman marriage is sin and therefore unambiguously condemned by Scripture. While there are legitimate reasons for this conclusion, it necessarily truncates any faithful conversation on the complex matters of human sexual identity. Given the realty that not all Christian traditions adhere to the same theological and moral interpretations, the ambiguity of sexual orientation is left for prayerful discernment in this document.
This does not mean the Bible is silent on the subject, only that English translations are based on conjecture rather than literal translation.  That is, at least in part, why the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality are controversial.  Its references are not necessarily as clear-cut as many believe. This document will explore all the major Biblical references to homosexuality.
          It begins with a story from Genesis 19 that is familiar to many; the depravity and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude 7 offers a New Testament commentary on the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are the references in the Holiness Code and Old Testament Law that condemn the practice. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 contain two sin lists that typically include homosexuality.  Most critically, there will be a look at Romans 1:18-32 which is arguably the most significant argument regarding homosexuality in the Bible.
          The issues regarding homosexuality and Christianity are more complex than can be adequately addressed in one brief document such as this. The focus of this particular study is limited to the specifics of scripture. Many questions will be left unanswered awaiting further study. It is likely (and expected) that this document will leave open as many questions as it asks.
          Finally, this document assumes homosexuality is open for discussion, but does not presume it to be neither good nor bad.  As much as each is able, it is vital the reader make the same assumptions; withholding any initial judgment and prayerfully considering all options, theological assumptions, and interpretations. Then, prayerfully coming to a faithful understanding of how one can faithfully approach the matter of homosexuality in the Christian faith while understanding that others may rightfully disagree with one’s own conclusion. Ultimately God has the final answer.
          In this document all scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Genesis 19:1-29Sodom and Gomorrah

          In this Biblical story men from the town of Sodom are depicted as trying to gang rape the two male guests of Lot.  The explicit implication of homosexual contact in narrative not only grounds this text as a common reference in preaching on homosexuality, but the English rendering of Sodom as the root for the practice of sodomy has further crystallized Sodom and Gomorrah with homosexual sex and God’s judgment. Yet, a careful examination of the text reveals much more than homosexual issues. In fact, homosexuality and the act of sodomy in human sexuality may actually be insignificant when compared to the primary message.
Lot extended appropriate hospitality to two male strangers who where journeying through Sodom and Gomorrah. The two guests were in actuality male angels sent from God, but their identity is known only to the readers and not to the main actors in the narrative.  When faced with the travesty of his neighbors gang-raping his guests, Lot bargains with the villagers to prevent the crime. In the end of this story, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah for the depravity exhibited by the villagers.
This text itself neither condemns nor condones homosexual sex.  It is, however, interpreted elsewhere in scripture; Jude, Ezekiel, Matthew, and Luke. Understanding it in context of these other Biblical references is vital for a faithful interpreter of scripture. This is important when looking not only at the homosexual implications of the text, but also while exploring the other—and often overlooked—realities presented in the passage.
While bargaining with the angry mob, Lot tragically and unapologetically offers his own daughters as sexual alternatives to his male guests. This is a bewildering and abrasively offensive turn of events in the narrative. Yet, in its implications, the passage is also rooted in the archaic understanding of women as the property of the male head of the household and does not take into account a necessary mutuality of sexual health. This obscure, but unavoidable reality in the Sodom and Gomorrah story also further illustrates the great danger in making absolute appropriations of the story for moral judgment since there seems to be no condemnation toward Lot for essentially prostituting his own daughters.
          Jude 7 reads, “Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” Some ancient manuscripts translate “lust” to be “went after other flesh.” (A further discussion of Jude 7 follows below.)
          Ezekiel is more direct and to the point. God, speaking through the prophet says in 16:49, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
          Matthew and Luke recall Jesus’ words of condemnation toward unrepentant cities. Matthew 11:23-24 and Luke 10:12 specifically associate Sodom with cities that fail to recognize and accept God’s anointed messenger in their midst. Matthew 10:14-15 condemns cities that fail to show the disciples appropriate hospitality and welcome.
Repulsive as it may be for many in the modern world; ancient records indicate battle field rape was a practice in the Ancient Near East.  This was the way a victorious army would humiliate and degrade the loosing army. As with rape in general, the crime is not really sexual in nature, but one of violence, hatred, and power. One does not rape out of sexual desire for the victim but out of lust for power over, and the subsequent humiliation of the victim. 
The majority of Biblical evidence indicates the “sin” in question at Sodom had nothing—or at least very little—to do with sexuality. Rather, Sodom’s great sin was the inhumane treatment of others, violations of hospitality laws, and wealthy arrogance.  It is only in Jude’s letter that condemnation of homosexuality is explicitly mentioned. Yet even then the exact intent can be scrutinized.
Interpreting the Sodom and Gomorrah story into the context of modern Christianity with regards to homosexuality is tenuous at best. In spite of homosexuality’s common association with Sodom there is little specific cause to use the account of Sodom and Gomorrah as rationale for condemning homosexuality.  Jude’s interpretation, however, deserves further consideration.

Jude 7 – “After other flesh”

The argument against homosexual conduct in Jude must be seen in the broader context of three distinct sins being condemned. Jude uses historical events as examples of deprived and ungodly behavior.
          The first (v.5) recalls the Israelites in the wilderness and their unwillingness to trust God so they could enter the Promised Land. Jude’s point here highlights Israel’s failure to trust God and the subsequent dire and often deadly consequences.
          The second example (v.6) takes on a supernatural tone. Citing the ancient tradition recorded in Genesis 6:1-4, Jude calls attention to evil or fallen angels. Their crime in the eyes of God was sexual union with mortals on earth, thus giving cause for the great flood which, in turn, serves as the foundation for needing the flood and calling of Noah. Such union violates the created order and is therefore sinful and punishable by God. Jude is specifically writing to counter false teachers (people in positions of authority, control, and spiritual influence) who themselves engage in acts of illicit sex with those under them (often with those under their influence and subsequently without any legitimate power to refuse sexual advances). Jude’s point is that they will be judged in the same manner, as were the “fallen” angels of Genesis.
Finally, the third example (v. 7) recalls Sodom and Gomorrah specifically. Within the framework of this reference, there are actually three implied sins.
1.       Use of violence and inhospitable behavior
2.       The act of homosexual sexual contact and rape
3.       The act or desire of going after “different flesh” (humans toward the angels)
The witness of Jude can legitimately be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, the practice of homosexuality can be easily condemned by citing this passage. Jude’s reference to false teachers can also be used to speak out against homosexual persons having any leadership or teaching positions in the church. Similarly, the notion of violating the created order is a frequent condemnation of homosexual activity.  Providing that sexual contact is primarily or exclusively created for the purpose of procreation and therefore must take place in exclusively heterosexual contexts, any deviation from this practice would be considered a pursuit of “different flesh” and a violation of God’s created order. In this instance, homosexual contact of any kind is sin and must be condemned by the church.
On the other hand, there are some contextual issues that favor a different interpretation. Jude, writing in the Greco-Roman tradition, would have been keenly aware of the popular homosexual activity of his time. It was common in the culture of the day for men to have young sexual partners in relationships that constituted exploitation, male prostitution, and sexual slavery. Given this context, and the direct implication of homosexual rape in the Sodom story, Jude could be writing against the specific practices of rape and exploitation. Given this reading, Jude is not speaking at all about the practice having adult consensual sex with members of the same gender. In this instance, homosexuality as is commonly understood today, would not be sinful and therefore it must not come under judgment by the church. 

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 – “An Abomination unto the Lord”

          A cursory glance at the two verses in Leviticus that condemn homosexuality leave little doubt as to what was being said. 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” 20:13 reads, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
          These references belong to the Holiness Code of Leviticus and make up one of the 613 laws of the Old Testament. Many of these laws are not followed today; not even by Jews. This reality results from the fact that many laws require the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrificial system. There are also many laws interpreted as unnecessary in modern culture. Likewise, Christians disregard many of these laws (for example the dietary regulations, purification regulations, regulations regarding menstruation, and strict 8-day circumcision) on the belief that in Christ and his sacrifice on the cross, they are redundant.
          For the Christian, in dealing with the prohibitions in Leviticus, the question must be one of how much or what part of the Law is applicable.  Do the verses that condemn homosexuality apply in today’s world or not?  Due to the fact that some of these laws are still followed by the church and others are disregarded, any decision on the applicability of the Holiness Code is easily defendable or refutable. Consequently, as with much of scripture, one must prayerfully consider how God is leading on the matter and trust the Spirit for an answer. Understandably, not all Christians will “hear” the same answer from God on this so respect for diversity may be the most critical thing!

1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 – The Sin Lists

          Both Corinthians and Timothy include homosexuality in lists of other sins. These lists are of “people that will not inherit the Kingdom of God” and those guilty of “lawless behavior.”  The term translated “homosexual” in the Greek text has come under some scrutiny. Some imply that it cannot refer to people exchanging sex with members of their own gender. The Greek indicated in these passages comes closest to the modern understanding of the word “homosexual.” It literally translates “one who lies with a male.” Yet, there is some ambiguity to the precise meaning of this word, thus prompting some scholars to disregard an absolute specificity of homosexuality.
          It is most probable that Paul (author of both books) was thinking of the Holiness Code and the Leviticus passages mentioned above when writing. This being the case, a very solid argument could be made that Paul was reinforcing this part of the Levitical Holiness Code as law as essential for Christians to follow. Given this argument, homosexuality cannot be acceptable and must be condemned by the church.
          Note however, that the exact meaning is ambiguous. Although the Greek distinctly implies some sort of homosexual contact, the exact meaning of the text is unclear. As has been noted previously, forced and coerced sex between grown men and boys was common in the Greco-Roman world of the First Century (See Jude 7 above). The Greek wording is also found in non-Biblical references associated with inhumane sexual exploitation.  Given the cultural context of its day, it is possible that Paul is not condemning consensual sex, but rather the unholy and despicable practice of child sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, and rape.  If this is the likely translation, it is reasonable to argue in favor of accepting consensual sex between adults. In this instance the church should not condemn homosexuality providing it conforms to the same moral and healthy standards applied to heterosexual sex.

Romans 1:18-32 – The Theological Argument

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (Romans 1:18-32)

          Any Biblical conversation regarding homosexuality must take seriously this passage from Romans. Unlike the other passages, this one is much more direct and distinctively theological in its makeup.
          This entire passage is essentially setting up an argument that will not be resolved until the second chapter of Romans.  In this section Paul is categorizing the consequences of failure to properly glorify God and verse 21 is the pivotal verse in the passage.  It reads “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”
          By the time Paul gets to homosexuality, the direction of his argument has shifted from cause (not honoring God) to consequence. Rather than provoking God’s wrath through homosexuality, the sinful behavior categorized is the inevitable result of failing to glorify God.  It does not bring God’s wrath; it is God’s wrath—that is the inevitable consequence of a fallen and depraved human race.
          Paul, in part, understands sin to be a violation of the created order and a distortion of the way God intended things to be. From the day humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden, humanity has been in rebellion against God and God’s creation.  With this in mind, Paul cites homosexuality as a vivid example of this distortion.  Having been told in Genesis 2:24 that a man is to leave his father and mother to cling to his wife that they may become one flesh, and in Genesis 1:28 that humanity is to “be fruitful and multiply,” Paul uses homosexuality as example of how God’s plan for humanity has been distorted through sin.
          At this stage a question arises regarding the appropriate application of the word “natural.” Many advocates of gay rights contend that homosexuality is not a chosen lifestyle but a true representation of what is natural for a gay or lesbian person.  In other words, heterosexuality is the unnatural way of expressing sexuality for one who has been created as a homosexual. Medically and scientifically there is mixed evidence to support this claim and researchers and interpreters who claim research evidence are frequently biased by preconceived assumptions regarding the nature of homosexuality. Likewise, within Christianity, there is mixed information. Some churches become havens for “natural” homosexuals, advocating the created beauty of each person regardless of sexual orientation. Other churches boast of “curing” homosexuals through Jesus Christ and vehemently condemn the “unnatural” practice. (In the extreme is the practice of organizations such as the Westboro Baptist Church under the leadership of Fred Phelps. This organization has made the outright condemnation of homosexuality the central and most essential component of their entire theology and have, subsequently, garnered headlines and media attention in their efforts to rid the world of the practice completely. Arguably, many of the most Conservative churches who openly oppose gay rights also condemn the distinctively hatful practices and destructive theology of fringe groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church.)  Making up a vast middle ground in theological tradition, many churches are relatively ambivalent regarding matters of homosexuality. They may, or may not, accept the practice, but generally it is not a matter of primary concern or focused attention. (In many cases, they wish it would just go away and feel there are more important matters of faith to think about.)
          Theologically an argument in favor of homosexuality is a little more difficult to make in Romans. The understanding of “sexual orientation” as is commonly understood today was completely unknown in antiquity in spite of the fact that there were then, as now, people who felt drawn toward same sex relationships. For Paul, there was clearly an understanding that homosexual sex was a chosen perversion and distortion of God’s created order. This does not necessarily rule out the possibility of reading a modern understanding of sexual orientation into Paul’s intent, but it must be done with the knowledge that such readings go beyond Paul’s worldview. As with the discussions above, sexual abuse and distortion of sexual practice and human dignity may have also influenced Paul in his ideology. Some interpreters of Scripture are comfortable with making this theological leap, others are not. It is important, however, to remember all serious interpreters of Scripture (regardless of conclusion) are likely very passionate in both their love of the Bible and God.
          Looking at this text in the broader context of Romans, one must see it as a building crescendo toward the pivotal statement in 2:1 which reads, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”  It is here that Paul’s argument reaches its pinnacle. This statement, and not necessarily any previous statement, is what Paul intends to carry the most theological and spiritual weight.
          Holding pejorative judgments against homosexuality when contrasted with the claim in 2:1 radically neutralizes all sin as being simply sin, while simultaneously universalizing sin to all of humanity. In other words, there is no difference between the sin of homosexuality and any other sin and no person is without some sin.
          Clearly, it is easy and logical to make a strong argument against homosexuality using Romans 1.  Considering it a definitive distortion of the created order, it is logical to adopt Paul’s treatment of homosexuality as unquestionably sinful.  Such judgment, however, must be tempered with Paul’s equilateral treatment of sin.  It may be a sin, but it must not be elevated as particularly worse or more despicable than any other sin.  (To quote Jesus in John 8:7 “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  )
          On the other hand, one can make the interpretative application of “sexual orientation” and apply it to the argument; yet only with the understanding that no such concept existed when Paul was alive.  This is, however, substantially more tenuous than the opposing argument. The only way this argument may have any validity is with the assumption that homosexuals are genetically predisposed toward same-sex relationships and therefore heterosexuality is truly the unnatural course for them to follow. Many interpreters clearly understand the argument in the context of sexual orientation to be the most valid application and based on matters of rape, exploitation, and sexual slavery as the real sins indicated in Romans rather than the blessing of a loving, mutual, exclusive, and intimate relationship between two consenting and sexually healthy adults.

Biblical Perspective: A Broad Approach

          The Biblical argument for the acceptance of homosexuality is very complex; particularly when held against a long tradition that has been virtually universal in its condemnation of the practice.  Likewise, this is not the first time the church has faced the possibility of transforming reversals of traditional prejudice and practice. For example, teachings in scripture that imply discrimination against women have long been used to religiously mandate the doctrinal practice of a created inferiority for woman in society. The many discussion in this study indicating a cultural belief regarding women as property rather than as fully human is the most vivid example. Similarly, in terms of slavery, the long-held practice of human slavery was strongly validated through fervent scriptural interpretation. In the United States, a bloody war was fought, in large part, to resolve the bitter tensions arising from the diversity in genuine Christian interpretation and application of scripture in regards to slaves. For many, newly developing and culturally changing attitudes toward homosexuality indicate a similar shift in process. 
          One may also cite the seismic rifts created in the church as classic thinkers such as Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Keppler, Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei all challenged the long-held and Biblically supported belief that the Earth was flat and existed at the center of the universe. Similarly, after the writings of Charles Darwin and scientific theories of evolution have taken center stage, Christians have bitterly divided over matters of creation and the biological origins of human life. When it comes to great changes in the way Christians think based on changes in how the world views itself, this is nothing new—not the controversy it causes, not the painful division that results, and not the entrenched viewpoints of conflicting sides of the debate. Truly, we have been down this road before!
It is, however, more complicated than previous issues such as establishing the equality of women in church life, abolishing the practice of slavery, rethinking the physical makeup of the unversed, or rethinking the physical means by which humanity came to exist on earth. These issues have great tension within the canon of scripture with verses clearly advocating and prohibiting the concerns. All Biblical references to homosexuality, however insignificant or prominent, are all inherently negative. There is no Biblical passage explicitly expressing God’s acceptance of homosexuality and those who favor an understanding of homosexuality as sin are legitimate in pointing this fact out.
Some may point to the great love David had for Jonathan as a possible illusion to homosexuality.  In this passage, David is lamenting the death of his dear friend.  “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)  Although there is no way to absolutely refute this claim, greater evidence does not seem to support it. For purposes of discussing homosexuality and Christianity it is most likely irrelevant to the conversation.
Noteworthy in the Biblical witness is the fact that at no time does Jesus Christ even mentions the subject. For Christians, this absence of comment must be taken into serious consideration. There are, of course, two plausible explanations for the absence of comment. First, Jesus assumed everybody already knew the practice was an abomination and therefore had no reason to bring it up. With that rationale, the church would have to lean toward condemnation. Second, the practice is of such little consequence in the mind of Christ that it is not worth singling out. With that consideration, the church would lean toward acceptance.
Whether the church accepts homosexuality or condemns it, Christ’s explicit ministry must be taken into consideration.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus exhibited preferential compassion toward the sinner and outcast while rejecting legalistic religiosity. The church must balance any stance on homosexuality with the same compassion manifest by Christ himself. It may have to come down to proverbial practice of “loving the sinner while hating the sin” or simply—and perhaps more compassionately faithful—loving the human as created by God, regardless of differences in sexual orientation.
Regardless of how any individual may feel or how the church as a whole may choose to side, the issue is real and very volatile in the Christian Church. The issue of homosexual inclusively is one of the reasons driving decisions by many congregations divide, leave or join denominational traditions, appoint or remove leaders, and approach ministries. At the level of the larger church bodies such as General Assemblies, Conferences, Presbyteries, or similar gatherings the issue is destructively polarizing as individuals and congregations on both sides of the debate demand universality of their own opinion. On many occasions, the rancor has become anything but Christian in its tone and out of fear, anger, and hatred manifest from both sides of the debate, many Christians have become unfortunate victims of the fracas. Worst yet, the issue will also likely not go away any time soon.
The call and the challenge for churches at this time is neither to condemn nor embrace homosexuality in the church, but simply to understand the issue in its entirety. With prayer as our means, the Holy Spirit as our guide, and the Bible as our foundation, we are able to more fully explore and study this important and vital issue facing our church today.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Christian Transformation Through History

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that fidelity to the faith required holding to the strict Jewish laws. It made sense and was very practical. Christianity arose from Judaism and is so deeply rooted in ancient Jewish theology; the Jewish faith was a strongly defining characteristic of the emerging faith. That was until Christianity expanded beyond its Jewish roots and embraced non-Jewish cultures and religious converts with no connection to the ancient faith. Acts Chapter 15 describes the tumult felt as the Church wrestled with the challenging issues required for transformation. It was only a beginning.

The decisions made in these early years of Christianity—decisions to embrace diversity even at the compromise of deeply held theological values—allowed the fledgling faith to encompass the world. Then, fast-forward the time around fifteen hundred years.

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that fidelity to the faith required holding to the strict belief that the earth was flat and rested at the very center of the universe. It made sense and was very practical. The view from earth does imply a relatively flat expanse and the regular rising in the east and setting in the west of all celestial objects gives clearly appears to support the idea of earth’s centrality in the universe. Scripture, as well, can be easily read and interpreted to further ground this belief.

All this changed with great Enlightenment and Renascence thinkers like Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Keppler, Isaac Newton, and Galileo Galilei. Each, in their own way, contributed to the idea that the earth was not a flat object in the center of the universe, but rather a spherical planet, among other planets, all in orbit around the sun. The seismic shockwaves radiating from this reality shook the church immeasurably and challenged our sense of being in God’s creation. Unable to come to terms with a faith that did not maintain the physical centrality of humanity in God’s creation, Christians vehemently (and sometimes violently) resisted the change. In the nearly 500 years since these radical and heretical ideas were first proposed, the church today has embraced the physical realities of Earth’s less-than-central placement in the universe and we have learned that it never compromised God’s love for us in any way. Times, however, would still change things.

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that fidelity to the faith required holding to the strict belief that slavery was approved by God and necessary for the good order and structuring of society. It made sense and was very practical. Given the apparent support of Biblical blessing and the long-held practice throughout much of human history, slavery was easily understood and had many benefits to those in power—predominantly inexpensive labor and greater control.  Generally speaking, those enslaved were also physically different from the ruling culture allowing attributes such as skin color, language, and heritage to serve as defining characteristics of who was more, or less, human.

Early abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, and Christians such as the Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists, rocked the protestant world with their radical beliefs against slavery. It was not easy and change was unbelievably slow. Even as slavery ended as an institutional practice, the discriminatory practices against whole races continued well into the modern age. Even today, matters of ethnic diversity, cultural sensitivity, and racial prejudice still divide Christians. And there are so many more great shocks to Christian understanding and theology that still cause more division than we realize!

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that God created the earth in six days, crowing the creation by forming a man out of clay and breathing into his nostrils to make human life. It made sense and was very practical. Humanity is easily seen as exceptionally unique in Creation and the ancient stories of sacred scripture clearly call for our special relatedness in God’s image. Then a man named Charles Darwin challenged these sacred beliefs with the idea that life was a process of natural selection and evolution. Darwin’s theories gave rise to the so-called “Big Bang” theory and radically challenged much of what Christianity has long believed to be unquestionable. Even today, a great divide exists between Christians over the question of Creation versus Evolution—clearly the final chapter of this transformation in Christianity is not yet complete and it has been raging for around 150 years. Now, a new issue is rising.

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that God abhorred homosexuality and would punish any person engaged in a same-sex relationship with eternal hellfire. It made sense and was very practical. Clearly the mechanics of biological reproduction work against the notion of same-sex encounters and the dominant realm of natural heterosexual attraction causes many to be repulsed at the idea of homosexuality. Scripture was also a strong force as it could be easily read, and interpreted, to assume the most damning posture toward homosexuality.

Some Christians—although by no means all Christians—have come to see homosexuality as a healthy expression of one’s own sexuality that is both created and blessed by God. Like so many of the seismic shifts in the culture of Christianity over history, this one is not likely to play out quickly but the fact that tremendous progress has been made is exceptional. Our understanding of human sexuality is not what it was in years past and theology is struggling—sometimes quite viciously—to come to terms with the implications of new understandings. Yet, amid that struggle is the realization among many that there is a lot more to homosexuality than a mere sex act and that people are capable of highly blessed, fulfilling, and loving life-long partnerships that were once reserved only for heterosexual couples. This is not a bad thing! In fact, it may be one of the greatest movements to positively affect Christianity since the inclusion of Gentiles in the faith.

Like an early church shedding the restrictive shells of its Jewish heritage or embracing a cosmology without the earth at the center, we are witnessing the spiritual transformation of the church in our midst. Such transformation is scary. It challenges our base assumptions of who we are in God’s creation and how we are called by God to be present in the current age. It is not easy, but imagine the church if the Jewish traditionalists had insisted on maintaining the purity of the faith as they understood it or if the church required belief in an earth-centered cosmology.

Such transformation is part of the history and vitality of the church and, I believe, the working of the Holy Spirit moving through time. Although I’ve only highlighted a select few, there are countless stories throughout history where the Church reluctantly embraced new ideas and conformed to the age in order to remain a relevant and dynamic voice for God. It is, in large part, the strength of the Church. Even amid all the tumult, I must say, I am proud and honored to be a Christian and I can’t wait to see where the Holy Spirit is moving the church next!