This article appeared as an opinion piece in The Mennonite, March 2017, p31. Also as an opinion piece in the Mennonite World Review, Mar 27, 2017, p6, with the title of “Scripture overrules experience” and a long comment stream.

A reason for full inclusion—or not

Harold N. Miller

Many in our church are sure that we should fully include those in same-sex marriages, blessing their covenants and credentialing their pastoral gifts. I would like to join them. Life is simpler when moving with society around us.

Of all the lines of reasoning in support of full inclusion I observe one that is foundational. Proponents draw the most certainty from the argument from experience. We discern what is right and good through what we see and hear in our relationships. For instance, a retired EMU professor reviewed “one of the very best books” affirming same-sex marriage. The book’s author, a self-described evangelical pastor, unabashedly builds his argument on what he calls “good sense.” He begins with this chapter: “The Harvest of Despair: Why Traditional Condemnations of Gay Relationships Can’t Be Right.”

Most Anabaptist supporters of full inclusion hasten to add that Scripture is also foundational. But what happens when we realize that Gen. 1-2 presents male-female unions as central to God’s creative purposes, as divinely designed? And when we read texts like Rom. 1:18-32 where the strongest and most natural reading is that Paul includes consensual (“for one another”) same-sex intimacy on his list of sins? When faced with the prospect that biblical interpretation leans toward the church's historic stance, again and again I hear persons cite the godly, healthy same-sex marriages they know or point to the trauma and pain that sexual minorities encounter in churches with a traditional view on sexuality.

Is an argument from experience able to bear the weight of over-turning a long-standing teaching of the church? Are we comfortable with the idea that support of same-sex marriage finally rests, not on Scripture, but on our sense of what seems to work best?

Consider these cautions:
• None of our confessions of faith describe experience as our foremost authority for faith and life. Experience helps us as we interpret Scripture—it can give us eyes to see what a biblical author might be intending to say. But it is not reliable when over Scripture. As Greg Boyd recently said to Anabaptists, “the minute a movement cuts the tether with biblical authority it becomes something that just Christianizes the latest fad.”

• When we “observe” something, our pre-existing ideas and assumptions affect what we observe. We can see what we expect to see. Also, there’s a huge amount of data which needs to be observed over decades.

Our culture can skewer our perception. For instance, media in Western culture constantly implies that sexual expression is essential to human flourishing, even though the lives of Jesus and many of his followers through the centuries bear witness that “lives of freedom, joy, and service are possible without sexual relations” (Richard Hays).

There is yet one more difficulty when our discernment on same-sex marriage rests on experience. Progressives indeed observe churches causing grievous harm to those with same-sex attraction, stigmatizing and isolating them. But maybe the harm does not lie in the traditional view but in the way that view is implemented. What if those churches would act like Christ when interacting with those whom they see going against the wisdom of God? What if they began conversations without reprimand or judgment, and even let the other change the subject (John 4:7-26)? What if they, like Christ, made clear that they are a safe presence before speaking any words about a need to change one’s behavior (John 8:2-11)?

Further, what if those churches would show pastoral accommodation to, for instance, two lesbians who have children and have begun to follow Christ? Accommodation is godly—we see God displaying it through the whole Bible. God blessed David in many ways, though he was a man of violence. God allowed divorce, which falls short of creation’s intent and design, in order to limit the damages of the sin flowing from hardened hearts (Matt. 19:3-9). We see examples of accommodation in the church today. For instance, the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia has chosen to receive converts who live in polygamy as members, though not as leaders.

As we see the trauma and pain that sexual minorities have experienced at the hands of traditional churches, some of us diagnose it as the bad fruit of a bad belief. But perhaps the bad fruit does not stem from the belief that opposite-sex relations are God’s wisdom but from our too-frequent failure to embody God’s patient love as we apply that wisdom.

My prayer is that our stance on same-sex marriage will not finally rest on arguments from experience. Instead may we be the people our confession of faith describes: ones who let “culture, experience, reason” and other sources of discernment “be tested and corrected by the light of Holy Scripture.”