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It's Time to Stop Pitting 'Christian Neighborliness' Against Christian Truth

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Last Friday, Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the global Anglican Communion, remarked on a radio call-in show in the UK that part of the calculus involved in deciding whether the Church of England should allow its priests to marry same-gender partners has to be the effect that such a move might have on the Christians in other places. Accepting same-gender marriages among priests in the UK might, he claimed, put Christians in places like Nigeria at increased risk for violence at the hands of their non-Christian neighbors. He described how he had personally visited a mass grave in Nigeria containing the bodies of Christians attacked and killed, at least in part, because of gay-friendly actions taken by Christian churches in the United States.

In the hullaballoo that has followed, some commentators, particularly those who are less than inclined to accept the Christian validity of same-gender marriages in the first place, have argued that Archbishop Welby's comments were a welcome reflection of "neighbor love" for Christians in the Global South (see here and here, for example). Some might say that it rather reflects the lingering residue of a colonialist church that unduly continues to see itself as the defining center that determines what is theologically and morally required for the "other churches" around the world, which in turn are understood as being unable to handle their own affairs. In fact, some have already come close to seeing the Archbishop's response in this way (see here and here, for example). Setting aside for the moment the question of the latent paternalism of this view, it seems to me important to take up the idea of sacrificing the full human dignity of some to preserve the social status of others in the name of "neighbor love."

In the Anglican world, this sort of logic has been applied to the "gay debates" in an explicit, theological manner since at least the Anglican Communion's publication of its Windsor Report in 2004. This report was produced by a commission charged with responding theologically to a global upheaval in the Communion following the 2003 ordination of an openly gay bishop in the United States and a Canadian Anglican diocese's approval of church blessings for same-gender relationships that same year. A central argument made in this report employed Paul's treatment of the so-called "strong" and "weak" in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. These passages are Paul's response to questions regarding whether Christians should eat meat. In the Hellenistic world, meat was often available only through markets attached to pagan temples, thereby rendering it—to some—"idol meat," improper for consumption by Christians. In assessing whether Christians should eat this meat, Paul makes a distinction between "strong" and "weak" Christians. The "strong" are aware that there are no real gods other than God, that eating such meat is therefore not worship, and that its consumption is thus permissible. The "weak" Christians are shocked by Christians who eat meat, as this is idol worship and a betrayal of the one, true God. Paul argued that the "strong" Christians should avoid eating meat in the presence of the "weak" Christians out of concern for their tender consciences, so as not to cause them pain. Paul argues that exercising personal freedom and making judgments that place a "stumbling block" (Romans 14:13; 1 Corinthians 8:9) before the faith of the weak is not permissible on Christian terms, even though the "strong" are theologically correct.

The Windsor Report can be read as suggesting that progressive Christians of the Global North can be equated to the "strong" position and the more scrupulous Christians of the Global South to the "weak." The report argues that, if this analogy applies, then it may be advisable for Anglican churches that are progressive on same-gender relationships to slow down the rate of change in their locales out of consideration for their counterparts elsewhere. This is the same logic that has been re-asserted in the wake of the Archbishop's comments last week. If Christians in the Global North want to show "neighbor love" to their brothers and sisters in the Global South, same-gender marriages among clergy in the UK might have to be disallowed.

A latent colonialism rears its head here once again. If we follow out the logic of this, what such commentators are actually implying is that progressives—the "strong"—may be right theologically, but the conservatives elsewhere—the "weak"—simply cannot handle the truth right now. We, the more advanced and sophisticated, might be able to accommodate same-gender marriage, but they, the simple and unnuanced, cannot.

It also reflects a rather narrow idea of neighbor love. What, after all, would moving away from the full dignity of same-gender-loving people in the Global North say to our LGBT neighbors in the Global South itself? The Archbishop's statement ignores them entirely. He states that Christians there may face violence from non-Christians if the UK allows its Anglican clergy to marry partners of the same sex. In the meantime, however, LGBT people in Africa are facing violence for being who they are every day, sometimes at the hands of Christians themselves! Some commentators have pointed this out already (again, see here and here, for example).

But the idea that backing off from affirming the full equality and human dignity of LGBT people created in the image and likeness of God can be an expression of concern for the "weak" or of "neighbor love" is wrong from the start. It is one thing to refrain from something rather inconsequential, like eating meat, out of legitimate concern for the scruples of another. It is another thing entirely for some to ask others to sacrifice their created integrity, their God-given need to be in relationship, the social need to have those relationships recognized as legitimate, and the religious desire to have those relationships sanctified as a covenant before the God to whom they have committed their entire lives.

Furthermore, if Paul is correct, as he writes elsewhere, that we can discern the presence of the Holy Spirit wherever we find "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23), and if we find these qualities in same-gender partnerships as often as in opposite-gender ones, as we undoubtedly do, then sacrificing this for others—whether out of "neighbor love" or for any other reason—is simply not an option. Such a thing would be a rejection of the grace of God's presence in the lives of believers. It would be a denial of God's grace. It would be a denial of God's truth. This is not something that Christians have the freedom to do even if they wished to do so, as Paul would undoubtedly agree. Paul was clear, and we still affirm, that Christians are called to die standing up for God's truth, if need be, not to deny it if it seems it might make things easier for themselves or others.

It is time for those who see little or no theological validity in the blessing of same-gender partnerships to stop pitting the presence of God's grace in committed LGBT relationships against the "weak" consciences of Christians "over there" who supposedly cannot handle it. This is a theologically invalid move and an inherently dehumanizing one—for us, for them, and for those whose faith they are purporting to defend. Most importantly of all it asks us to reject God's truth in the presence of the Holy Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that marks our same-gender marriages. As Paul reminds us, "There is no law against such things" (Galatians 5:23). To claim that all of this can be sacrificed for any reason is an affront to ourselves, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God and incorporated into the very Body of Christ, to our neighbors, who are thereby denied our testimony to the truth, which is actually a better expression of our love for them than the excruciating pain of our continued silence and return to invisibility, and supremely to God, whose gift of grace our selves, our lives, and our loves actually are. To pretend that we can choose to deny the presence of God in our core relationships would be, quite simply, blasphemy.