“What is the sin of gay marriage?”

Several weeks ago I posted an open letter to Covenant pastor Dan Collison and the group MF4i. Days later I had the privilege of meeting Dan personally. I was thankful for his warm reception which clearly reached beyond the proverbial "Minnesota nice!" I respect him and understand from where he is coming. I also heard his heart for people and for justice. These conversations must be done in mutual respect and humility. Dan showed both. Thanks Dan!

In the chain of responses on Facebook a man named Denny Moon, who described himself as a former covenant pastor and now a member of the UCC, asked a very respectful, honest and penetrating question. 

This post is a brief attempt at answering his question. 

Joel, Denny Moon, former Covenant Pastor now practicing in the UCC who has retained a love for Pietism and the Covenant community. One question. What is the sin of gay marriage? I want an embodied answer, not an abstract theological rule that is broken or the implication, often floated, that it destroys heterosexual marriage. How does the lifetime commitment of sexual bodies of the same gender, in faithfulness and love, break relationship with God, themselves, or others? This is my working definition of sin, always glad to be taught something else.
— Denny Moon

Denny! I’m so sorry for taking so long to respond to your question. You have been very patient with me. Thank you.

So you asked “What is the sin of gay marriage?” And you specified that you wanted an “embodied answer.” “How does the lifetime commitment of sexual bodies of the same gender, in faithfulness and love, break relationship with God, themselves, and others?”

So here goes my answer.

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
— Matthew 7:1-2

First, and this is the most important thing I want you to have heard in this post, I take very seriously Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount to “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1-2).

In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Judging is a forbidden evaluation of others.”

He goes on to say judging others makes the disciple blind both to the evil in themselves – there evil is most dangerous to them, and it blinds them to the grace of Christ toward others.

I refuse to judge you or anyone else because my opinion, my evaluation of others, doesn’t ultimately matter. I have neither been given the right or responsibility to pronounce sentence on others nor do I stand in any position to have enough of a divine perspective to presume a place of condemnation over another. 

And, most importantly, I do not have enough self-awareness of my own evil and sin residing in me. I'm in a place now, just a week before my 47th birthday, where I realize just how little awareness I have had most of my adulthood. How I had thought that my Christian life was "progressing" to greater levels of sanctification only to come to realize that all the accomplishing for God and the obedience to God was in fact a strategy that I had adopted to remain self-unaware. 

My pastoral work with other men in the last five years, as I have begun to share my own story, has confirmed that this is a common fact of life for many. As humans we really are unaware of the trauma our life stories hold - the unawareness is an element of the trauma - and its consequent effects particularly those of self-delusionment and methodologies of survival. These both become, at best, enbodied deficiencies and impairments and, at worst, destructive behaviors and patterns of thought. It is not until we come to a place of such great fatigue from the years of running from ourselves that it is finally too much. We feel like we're on a roller coaster of our own making and can't figure out how to get off the damn thing to even take a breath. 

I’ve now met far too many pastors, ministry leaders and everyday followers of Jesus who have used, mostly unconsciously the ministry to escape from themselves and to reform or control their bodies through external pressures to preform piously for it to be a coincidence. 

I've now met far too many pastors, ministry leaders and everyday followers of Jesus who have used, mostly unconsciously the ministry to escape from themselves and to reform or control their bodies through external pressures to preform piously for it to be a coincidence. 

It did not delivered what we had hoped it would. 

Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 7: 3-5 that before you try to pull the speck of sawdust from your brother's or sister's eye, you need to pull the 4x16 out of your own.

To me it is of the highest order of spiritual  hubris that a person any less that 70 years old or older can think they have sufficiently and completely removed enough of the huge piece of timber from their own eye to start on the wood chip in other's eye.

Let's make one thing real clear. Jesus did not follow up such an absolute statement against judging in 7:1-2, to only immediately qualify it with a ridiculous and hilarious image. It is neither hard or controversial in the paragraph of Matthew 7:1-5 to read 7:3-5 as an assurance to a disciple - just as absolute as the first - that they will more than likely never come to a point in their discipleship where they will have removed fully the post size object lodged in themselves, to be in a position to extricate a speck stuck in another person.

Jesus really is saying don't ever think you have the privilege of judging. You'll spend your life working at your own embedded, embodied really, piece of wood. 

Bonhoeffer was right to say, "God is a person’s God in the way the person believes God to be.” Human judgment of another's evil or sin is the impetus for self justification. Such human condemnation actually pushes both parties away from Jesus' true judgment and grace. That’s true for me and everyone else. So, on topics of evil and sin, I cannot claim to be on God's side in the right; but neither am I required to concede rightness of the other. "God alone, and God’s grace and judgment is proclaimed to be right" (Bonhoeffer).

Not judging then doesn’t preclude me from having my own opinion and perspective on others and their sin. But because of the forgiveness and unconditional love that Jesus gives to all, I’m liberated from evaluating others. All of this is to say, I’m not going around proclaiming judgment and condemnation on others for their views or practices of gay marriage or any other so-called sin. The original open letter blog post was the first time I publicly made a statement on the Bible and the LBGTQ question.

God is a person’s God in the way the person believes God to be.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship

Whatever I might think about gay marriage whether or not it and what is in fact its "sin," it’s not something over which I will condemn others. And more, although I myself am personally not unfamiliar with feelings of same-sex attraction, I am a heterosexual and married. I cannot begin to understand - though I can try to empathize - what it is like to be gay and a Christian.

When I hear stories of so many of my LBGTQ brothers and sisters and the shame and harm they've carried their whole lives in the church, I am deeply moved. And when I hear of the joy a Christian gay couple found in their relationship I feel deeply moved. As a Christian, I follow "the man for others." I work to bring strength, peace, blessing and satisfaction to others as image bearers of God and those for whom Christ suffered. I live in the presence of others "rejoicing with those who rejoice" and "mourning with those who mourn" (Rom 12:15).

As a Christian, I follow “the man for others,” I work to bring strength, peace, blessing and satisfaction to others as image bearers of God and those for whom Christ suffered. I live in the presence of others “rejoicing with those who rejoice” and “mourning with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15).

So after all of that, I will share with you my answer to your question with Bonhoeffer's statement as the qualification: “My God is the God I believe God to be.” It is for each person and Christian community to decide what is biblically true, and what structure will shape their way of being in the world. I will leave up to God his definitions and his leading of his Spirit. I will however invite others to consider the wisdom of God. 

My answer to your question begins with the belief in divine revelation.

My friend Scot McKnight distinguishes wisdom from above and wisdom from below. They are both part of God’s revelation (Psa 19; Rom 1, Jewish wisdom literature, etc). As humans we can observe our world and simply by being a careful observer we can gain wisdom for a flourishing. The Jewish wisdom tradition expresses and advocates for this way of discovering wisdom. But there are limits to the wisdom from below. The entire message of Job I think is a critique of using only the wisdom from below to evaluate life (see Job 5:27). Job's friends got it wrong, really wrong, because they leaned only on their skills of observation of Job's plight to determine the proper interpretation of Job's suffering.  

So, in addition to the wisdom from below, there is wisdom from above. This is a wisdom that cannot be gained by observation alone. It’s a wisdom for flourishing that comes directly from the word of God. I take the view that sin has affected every aspect of our human life: physical, emotional and intellectual. As human bodies we are disabled. We are the image of God but we are cracked, marred, broken, bent – every last one of us. In addition to this we are held captive and blinded by "the god of this age" (2 Cor 4:4). The gospel teaches us that we are separated from God because of our willful disobedience and rebellion from him. Sin is both an ancestral inheritance (not by the way a biological one) and a willful act of autonomy from God. Genesis 3 is the foundation on which the Bible understands sin. Sin at its core is idolatry, trusting in something other than the creator God for life. Sin is distrust and autonomy from God plain and simple. I believe an autopsy on every sin will demonstrate it to be a form of idolatry. What Jesus frees us from when he forgives us of sin and puts his Spirit in us is idolatry. We “turn from idols to serve the living and true God and await the coming of his Son” (1 Thes. 1:8-10). As sinners we all need God’s divine intervention of revelation in our lives or we will not remember God and turn to him (Psa 22:27-28).

The truth of the Bible is that none of us knows what’s best for us. We are all self-deceived, and worst, we are unaware that we are. And by the way, this doesn’t drastically change after we become a Christian. Our bodies do not join in redemption until all things are made new (Rom 8).

In the last handful of years in my mid-life, I’ve become so clear headed on this. I will spend my lifetime getting to know myself. And particularly my darker sides that my body hides from me. The truth is: We’re all wandering “like sheep without a shepherd;” and, like sheep, “we’ve gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.” That exactly why “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:3). Thanks be to God!

Whether in this conversation it’s actually productive, or better kind, to use the word “sin” in regard to a sexual body that is a given and not a choice, is up for debate and is not my primary concern. In discernment about these issues, I might personally prefer the language of “wisdom and folly” over “sin and righteousness” or some such. Whether in this conversation it’s actually productive, or better kind, to use the word “sin” in regard to a sexual body that is a given and not a choice, is questionable and is not my primary concern. I might prefer the language of “wisdom and folly” over “sin and righteousness.” While it’s not exactly complementary to gay sex and marriage, it is more inclusive and moves the conversation away from the categories of condemnation and damnation and exclusion.

So, my view of gay marriage is within this framework of God’s wisdom in light of human sinfulness as a part of living in this "present evil age" before God makes "all things new." Whether in this conversation it’s actually productive, or better kind, to use the word “sin” in regard to a sexual body that is a given and not a choice, is questionable and is not my primary concern. In discernment about these issues, I might personally prefer the language of “wisdom and folly” over “sin and righteousness” or some such. While it still characterizes gay sex and gay marriage unsympathetically, it is surely more inclusive and moves the conversation away from the exclusionist categories of condemnation and damnation and the like. If we frame things by the latter, we will never be able to join others in genuine loving and grace-filled community secured by Jesus' own self-giving and righteousness. 

But if you press me to use the that language of sin, as your question does, I would call it “sin” because “the lifetime commitment of sexual bodies of the same gender, in faithfulness and love” is a path closed off by God’s revealed wisdom in Christian Scripture. And until I can see a path scripturally that does justice to the canon of Christian Scripture, I don’t have the liberty to depart from its wisdom. This is the stand point of those like Wesley Hill who are gay Christians but remain celibate as a call of discipleship. I respect him and many others like him across all Christian traditions for the willingness to take seriously Jesus’ call to the discipleship of self-denial. I want to support them, share life with them and honor them as models of Christian discipleship. 

I also share the grief. I have deep grief and compassion because I know that for many this pattern of life doesn't get any easier with years. I know they are fatigue and war-torn; they are deeply traumatized by their endless tours of duty on the frontlines. They are so tired of feeling alone and isolated; the coming of heaven seems to grow only far and far away. They are now not at all sure how much longer they can fight; They wonder what are their options? They become obsessed with the question: How can I extricate myself from this battle without also failing in my sacred call of duty? For these battle-weary soldiers, there are no good answers. 

I can understand, then, why others feel so strongly that such a so-called "call of discipleship" is asking far more of someone than God himself does. They conclude that this way of understanding the Christian life is dehumanizing and oppressive toward one particular kind of person in a way unlike for any others. What is more, for these LBGTQ Christians it is an utterly unimaginable conception of the nature of God’s love revealed in Scripture.

So, Denny, I don’t have a better answer for it than that. I have no issue myself, save Scripture alone, with gay marriage in theory or in practice; and I know personally a number of couples living a very satisfied life, from all appearances -- at least no less satisfied than heterosexual couples. 

But for now here I stand on God's revealed wisdom as I see it, I can do no other. 

Yet, my prayer is:

Lord, make us servants of our peace:
where there is hate, may we sow love,
where there is hurt, may we forgive, and ask forgiveness;
where there is strife, may we make one.
— Moravian Daily Texts, Feb 10, 2018

Over to you . . .

The Lived Sexual Body and a New Evangelism

Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed posted Evangelicalism's obituary a few weeks ago. In a brief text message exchange at the time I wrote to him: "So you are giving up on the term "evangelical?' I was surprised to read that today. I don't think I can do that yet, though I totally agree with your assessment." He replied, "It means GOP." I didn't, but, in agreeing, I could have also added "and nearsighted on human sexuality."

I then went on to argue in a few lines that we can't abandon this beautiful, rich, biblical, gospel of the kingdom term. There is no better term to capture God's work of love and care for the world.


I wrote, "You can't jump from the evangelical ship! You are The Godfather of evangelical awesome!" - that was great line if I do say so my self! The conversation moved on to Yankees and Cubs and that was it. 

I am now more willing, a few days later, to join in the pronouncement American evangelicalisms death. But "we are not like those who have no hope!" Just as I can say, Hallelujah, Christ is Risen!

So also, I can say, the Gospel of the King is good news again!

Evangelicalism is good news for our world! I have good news. And I want to tell others about the news, I desire others to follow Jesus, to cherish Scripture and live into its canonical story, to embrace the self-giving work of Christ, and to be enlisted into the work of "goodnews-ing" the world through deeds and words.

 Evangelical means a call to a vocation to be "Christ for others." 

Only those who’s ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action . . . founded in a God who promises forgiveness and consolation to the one who on account of such action becomes a sinner.
— "After Ten Years," Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In the recent book, Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality, I wrote an essay called "Bent Sexuality and the Pastor." It stood a bit apart from the others in its attempt to problematize so-called biblical and Christian sexuality in light of our brokenness and trauma. You might say it's grounded in a robust "already-not yet" theological anthropology. 

I am vocally critical  - even, God forbid, to the point of strong emotion [can't have that!] - of some traditionalists, particularly one segment of American Evangelicalism, now collected around the Nashville Statement, and some of whom have contributed to this volume. My embodied aversion to this approach is what I see as it's near complete myopia related to the complex nature of our sexual body. The sexual body, both our own and other’s, is bent irreparably until Jesus makes all things new. I oppose what I see as a selective application to the sexual body of an unbiblical over-realized eschatology, not possessing a theological anthropology rooted in a New Testament alteady-not yet. 

I’m ill at ease in both the “traditionalist” and the “affirming” positions, as they have galvanized into impenetrable fortified city-states within the region formerly known as evangelicalism; these now are labels of gospel orthodoxy for defining faithful identity. I’m an affirmational traditionalist or, if you prefer, a traditional affirmationalist. Whatever! Seriously?!

And even if I were to concede that theoretically or abstractly or idealisticly total repair in our human life before new creation was possible through the "merits and mediation of Jesus" - that wonderful Anglican phrase, we are so egregiously self-delusional and lacking self-awareness that we are incapable of both naming and repenting of degree of the angle of our individual and communal sexual bentness to survive God's judgment. 

But what a wonderful, even scandalous, reality the Gospel is! God's kindness, his patience with us, and attention to us is always and ever present until we reach eternity. Whatever the healing of our sexual body might encompass in this life, it will only every be partial. And it will only be realized because we have come to know God's limitless kindness and inexhaustible patience through the care, attention and contempt-free curiosity of the church. 

I am also critical of affirming advocates who redefine the gender of the sexual body such that its redefinition is detached from body. While qualification absolutely needs to be injected into the overly ordered gender binary of male and female, given the presence of real live humans who don't fit the structure and who are nevertheless made in God's image, I reject any attempt to abstract gender from the concrete sexual body. I might add however that I also think much of what is labeled as either male or female today has little to do with a biblical gender identity.

I pray that what will come of the battle over and against the sexual body within the church ultimately will be a new community of Jesus followers - perhaps a new evangelicalism (a people of good news), who outright reject the war. And instead they form a volunteer body of new evangelical medics who, while taking fire from both sides of the battle lines, courageously and heroically build and defend a field hospital situated in the middle of no man's land between the battle trenches where human sexual bodies lay as casualties of war.


In my heart and mind it is to this heroic and dangerous endeavor that Jesus calls true disciples today - those who are biblicists, crucicentrists, conversionists, and activists - "at the dawn of the twenty-first century;" I'm "persuaded that faithfulness in our generation means" venturing courageously into the no man's land between the two warring armies to care, attend, lament and love where the collateral damage from the weapons of warfare have left the vulnerable terribly wounded, pinned down, isolated and resourceless.