One of the deepest questions which Friends are arguing about is, “If something is identified in the Bible as sinful, is it still a sin today?”
For many sincere and devout Friends, the answer is simple: yes. If God said at some point that it’s a sin, then it’s always a sin. Other Friends are equally sincere and love Jesus just as much, but they can’t take such a literal position. They feel that at least some acts which were seen in the past as deeply sinful, may not be sins for everyone today.
This is a problem which Christians have been wrestling with since the earliest days of the church. For example, when the Romans conquered Palestine, they set up their own temples and brought along their own flags and military symbols wherever they went. Deeply religious Jews (and some early Christians) saw this as idolatry, and rose up repeatedly in armed rebellion. They believed that God explicitly forbade them to have anything to do with idolatry, and they died in battle rather than go along with it.
Later Christians were equally opposed to idolatry, but they came to see that the rule of law which the Romans brought as a positive blessing. Paul – brought up as a strict Jew – wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. . .” (Romans 13:1).
A generation or two later, the same disagreement was still going on. One group of Christians saw Rome as the beast attacking Christians (Revelation 13). Another group said, “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17)
In the present conflict among Friends over the question of accepting gay and lesbian people as members of our meetings, some Friends feel strongly that if it’s a sin in the Bible, it’s always a sin. It’s easy to dismiss these Friends as fundamentalist and prejudiced, when in fact they are trying to be faithful.
It’s also easy to argue that these Friends are like the famous King Canute, who sat in his throne on the seashore and ordered the sea not to wet his feet. The tide came in anyway, of course, and people have mocked Canute ever since. “You can’t turn back the tide” is the basic feeling of many people today in our society – gays and lesbians are out of the closet, and they’re not going away. The tide of public opinion is changing. We had better accept them now.
On the other hand, Friends who want to be more inclusive are mocked and feared by Friends who take a more literal position. “You just read the parts of the Bible you like,” they say, “and you change the Bible to suit yourselves. You don’t respect the authority of the Bible. You aren’t really Christians. You aren’t even Quakers. You should leave!”
I’ve listened to those accusations and counter-accusations for many years, and I think they’re hateful. The behavior of Friends on both sides isn’t something we should be proud of.
- Some things are always sinful, and we easily agree about it. No one condones murder. No supports hate crimes. No one encourages drug abuse, or promiscuity, or a long list of other behaviors. We can agree on these – always remembering that all of us are sinners, and that Jesus calls all of us to repent.
- Some things are not sinful – at least not to most Christians. Most Christians agree, for example, that it’s all right to drink in moderation. (For the record, I’m a lifelong teetotaler, mostly because I dislike the taste of alcohol, but also because my example as a Christian leader might affect someone struggling with a drinking problem.)
- Some things are debatable – thoughtful Christians can and do disagree. In these cases, we should look to ourselves and our own behavior first – and not judge each other! As Jesus said, “First take the log out of your own eye, before you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5)
It may take a generation or more before Friends and the Christian church come to a common understanding on this issue. Some meetings and individuals will continue to hold strong feelings and opinions against gay and lesbian people, on the basis of their sincere interpretation of the Bible. Other Friends will continue to see them as their brothers and sisters in Christ, who should be welcomed in Jesus’ name.
My own feeling, which I haven’t hidden from Friends for more than 30 years, is that if homosexuality is a sin, it’s not the worst of sins, and we gladly accept lots of people with many other behaviors which I, personally, consider sinful. It’s not my job to judge.
Homosexual behavior, for me, would be deeply sinful – it would mean breaking promises I’ve lived by faithfully for many years, it would mean going against my own sexual orientation, and it would mean scandalizing people who put their trust in me.
But what is sinful for me may not be sinful for everyone else. I have met many gay and lesbian people who have tried prayer, counseling, self-discipline, everything they can think of, who are still drawn to people of the same sex. I may never understand, at a gut level, what it’s like for them. But when they come here to worship, when we pray together in the name of Jesus, when they show that they want to live faithfully and joyfully as Christians, then I feel that it’s my job to welcome and accept them, and leave my questions up to God to be answered in due time.
And when I disagree with my fellow Christians, I feel it’s my job to try to find common ground, to wait together in prayer, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to focus on doing good things together, and to argue and listen in a reasonable manner, with respect for the other person’s faith and convictions.
On this and many other issues, being right isn’t what gets us into heaven. It matters much more to Jesus that we live together in love, than that we win.