Like many preachers I know, I often have stomach cramps on Sunday morning while going through a final sermon review before taking the pulpit. The calling to declare the Word of the Lord to a community is overwhelming, and it puts me trembling on my knees.
Discerning the biblical word concerning homosexuality puts me in that place too.
“That’s silly,” you may say. “The Bible is crystal clear!”
I suspect that the elders who excommunicated Angelina Grimke from the Third Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1829 because she pursued the abolition of slavery considered the Bible to be crystal clear too. I suspect this because she belonged to a congregation in the Reformed tradition, and our tradition (thankfully) takes Scripture very seriously.
I am not writing here to advocate for a particular position concerning homosexuality; I am writing to advocate for a particular posture: holy uncertainty.
1. Waiting in uncertainty is an important spiritual discipline that renders a community more available to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is the great teacher, but much of his teaching confused his listeners, including the twelve, the Pharisees, and the crowds. Why would our great teacher intentionally create uncertainty?
I see Jesus’ Resurrection Day walk to Emmaus (Luke 24) as paradigmatic here. He could have clarified the two walkers’ despairing confusion about his crucifixion in less than a minute: “Don’t be discouraged! Look—it’s me; the women were right; I have risen!” Instead he preaches a seven-mile-long sermon that still did not take away their confusion. Finally, hours later at the supper table, their eyes were opened.
Why would Jesus spend the majority of the most celebrative day of the Christian faith “unnecessarily” allowing two broken-hearted followers to wallow in uncertainty?
I believe he did it because uncertainty is an important spiritual discipline that both deepens us and makes us available for transformation. And I believe the entirety of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation reveals just how often the Lord gave his children no option but to go to places of such uncertainty.
I wonder if we in the CRC are called to be somewhere along that seven-mile stretch of uncertainty concerning homosexuality; I believe that I am. And I wonder if we need some time to recognize how our risen Lord is present with us on that road.
Uncertainty honors the reality that none of us ever has perfect and complete understandings. Uncertainty puts us on our knees, waiting upon the Spirit’s leading. If we are unwilling to go there, I fear we will treat dear brothers and sisters in Christ as Angelina Grimke was treated.
2. Every Christian I know uses two different moral compasses, both rooted in Scripture: the “right/wrong” moral compass and the “better/worse” moral compass.
(If you are an exception to this statement, let me know! I want to hear your story.)
Most moral decisions are guided by biblical teachings on right and wrong. But a number of times in Scripture we see a “better/worse” moral compass superseding the right/wrong one. It’s wrong to be a prostitute, but it was better for Tamar to become a prostitute than to allow her father-in-law Judah’s unjust behavior to continue (Gen. 38). Slavery is wrong, but it was so systemically entrenched in the Roman Empire that any community that tried to abolish it would be massacred. Thus, it was better strategically for Paul’s mission work that he not seek its abolition but instead encourage born-again masters and slaves to act as godly as they could within an evil societal institution while he focused on other social justice issues (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-4:1).
I could give many more examples from Scripture where the “better/worse” compass supersedes the “right/wrong” one. Might the 1829 elders of Third Presbyterian Charleston have confused a better/worse biblical teaching with a right/wrong one?
A woman told me that her lesbian daughter made a commitment to celibacy and spent her 20s in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Finally, wearied by it all, she gave up, fell in love with another woman, entered into a civil union, and has flourished ever since. This mother believes that her daughter has both done the wrong thing and the better thing.
I have no comment on this mother’s conclusion, except that her story helps me to wait quietly in a season of holy uncertainty. I am a total depravity Calvinist; I know that my own heart prefers to use the better/worse compass for complex situations that I face and it prefers to use the right/wrong compass for complex situations that others face. Oh, my duplicitous heart!
Steven Garber suggests that we Christians engage the world through a continuous cycle of four steps: we weep, we pray, we study, we act. We CRC types excel at studying and acting, and we are gradually maturing as a praying community.
What about weeping?
My prayer is that a season of holy uncertainty will help us to mature as a people who weep with those who weep.