A Radical Middle Option on Homosexuality

For the Sexuality Task Force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Dear Task Force,

As a scientist who dabbles in philosophy, theology, and psychology, I
wanted to offer a few thoughts about the church’s response to
homosexuality, in support of my father Dr. John Prabhakar’s work on
the Sexuality Task Force. I have earlier written on the political
aspects
of gay marriage, but wanted to share my
thoughts on the particular issues under consideration by the Lutheran
church.

I. Introduction

With only slight oversimplification, the debate over homosexuality can
be characterized as between conservatives who view it as sinful on
theological grounds, and liberals who see it as normal on
psychological grounds. The fact that these two groups base their
positions on totally different authorities (or at least different
hermeneutics for interpreting them) makes it seem that no
reconciliation between them is possible: either one group must win, or
there will be a muddled compromise which nobody is happy with.

I represent an alternate viewpoint, sometimes called the radical
middle. I believe that both camps are built around important truths,
yet they have also accreted incorrect assumptions and positions over
time. I believe that it is possible through dialogue — and the Holy
Spirit — to articulate a principled position that honors both groups
sense of truth, while correcting their respective errors.

II. Assumptions

To start with, I think it is important to acknowledge two central
facts which exist in tension:

  • Homosexuality is not, in general, chosen
  • Homosexuality is not, in general, ideal

Accepting these two foundational truths provides important constraints
on possible interpretations and policies. Typically, groups espouse a
stronger version of one of these truths and deny the other, resulting
in unbalanced approaches that distort the possible solution space.
However, I would assert that these positions — when appropriately
phrased — are consistent with the available scientific and biblical
standards of evidence. If the church can reach consensus on these two
points, that would provide a common frame of reference for exploring
and evaluating further activity.

However, I think there is a third area around which it is necessary to
reach consensus: the role and rationale of church policy (which,
surprisingly, did not seem to be directly addressed in Journeying
Together Faithfully). As fallen human beings, I don’t think it is
reasonable to expect us to come up with the one true ‘right’ answer
(much less agree upon it). However, we should aspire to come up with a
faithful answer, based on the responsibilities, authority, and
information God has provided for us.

Based on this, I would argue that the third core truth is that:

  • The purpose of church policy is to cultivate the experience ofGod’s grace.

This embodies – rather than denies – the tension between acceptance of
sinners and the call to refrain from sin. Perhaps more importantly, it
implies a fiduciary responsibility for the church to measure the
impact of policies in terms of their practical effect on people’s
experience of grace. Policy exists to restrain harmful behavior and
encourage constructive behavior – all the while pointing to the
historical work of Jesus on the cross, and the present work of the
Spirit in the worshipping community. While truth doesn’t change,
policy continually evolves as we learn more about God and humanity.

III. Recommendations

If one accepts these premises, then I believe they encourage — even
demand — a multifaceted approach to the issue of sexuality within the
Lutheran Church. In contrast to the usual dichotomy between ‘no
change’ and ‘full acceptance’, this nuanced approach is likely to be
uncomfortable for everyone. However, the goal is in fact for it to be
constructively uncomfortable, to force all of us to continue grappling
with the paradox of grace, and the universal mandate to love our
neighbor as ourselves.

I believe the church should adopt a strong, unified position on these
issues, while still leaving room for learning and development, perhaps
with an explicit call for these policies to be reevaluated in five
years, and granting exceptions for congregations or synods who would
like to explore alternate mechanisms for implementing these core
principles. More as an illustration than a recommendation, here is
one possible set of policies for holistically working out the three
core truths outlined above.

A. Affirm marriage

One of the problems I’ve always had with the conservative concerns
about homosexuality is the sense that we are straining gnats while
swallowing camels. I believe the biblical ideal of marriage as one
man, one woman for a lifetime of love and fidelity is a valid
one. However, the hard truth is that heterosexual couples often
experience sexuality in ways that fall far short of what God
intended. Divorce, infidelity, cohabitation, promiscuity – all these
are problems that exact a far greater toll on marriage than
homosexuality. Worse still are the issues of incest, pedophilia, and
child abuse that statistics imply lurk within even our most
straight-laced congregation.

In order to credibly address the issue of gay marriage, I believe the
church first needs to forthrightly tackle the problem of straight
marriage. For a variety of reasons, people appear to lack the
understanding, commitment, or simple psychological wholeness to live
out God’s ideal. The Lutheran Church, with its history of social
action and strong communities, could take the lead in wresting the
marriage debate away from reactionary conservatives to focus on
constructive alternatives. The church could focus attention,
resources, and public policy on social problems such as alcoholism,
drug abuse, pornography, and debt that often strangle couples and
families. It could research and institute procedures such as a
mandatory pre-marital counseling, to promote healthy marriage and
constructive dialogue.

I believe such as focus would lead to both a healthier and a more
credible church. And by grappling openly with the core issues of
heterosexuality, the church would be better equipped to tackle the
challenges of homosexuality.

B. Affirm homosexuals, if not homosexuality

Under the circumstances, it is probably impossible to reach consensus
on the question “is homosexuality intrinsically sinful?” However, that
should not prevent the church from articulating a welcoming attitude
towards homosexuals. Is not the church supposed to be the ultimate
refuge for sinners? Has abstinence from sin — even agreement about
what sin is — ever been a precondition for belonging to the community
of faith?

The sad truth is that the church in general — despite notable
exceptions — is usually viewed in terms of what it denies homosexuals
rather than what it provides them. While the Lutheran church has
perhaps done better than most, I believe it is possible — even
necessary — for the church to agree on a strong positive response to
homosexuals, in light of the larger mandate of the gospel, despite the
disagreements that remain.

I would envision something like a fourfold response:

  1. We welcome homosexuals to participate as full members of the
    Lutheran Church, to share in the sacraments of grace and fellowship.
  2. We believe that at least some homosexuals would benefit from
    reparative therapy, and are committed to researching and providing the
    best possible options. However, we also acknowledge that therapy is
    not always successful, and can even be harmful, and thus we affirm
    that it is up to each individual to decide whether to pursue this
    course.
  3. We believe that celibacy is God’s ideal for all unmarried persons.
    At the same time, we are mindful of placing on homosexuals a burden
    that “neither we nor our fathers were able to bear.”
  4. We affirm that faithful, affectionate monogamy is vastly preferable
    to promiscuity for spiritual, psychological and social reasons. We
    also acknowledge our own limitations in our understanding of sexuality
    and marriage, as well as our inability to help people reliably
    experience God’s best.

Therefore, I believe the church needs to encourage and recognize
monogamy for homosexuals who for whatever reason are unable to enjoy
celibacy or heterosexual marriage. While not taking a position on
either the political or spiritual definition of marriage, some form of
church-recognized monogamy is necessary to avoid driving homosexuals
away from the church, or implicitly condoning promiscuity.

C. Rethink the relation of laity and ministry

The final issue of gay ordination is a difficult one, especially since
there is strong biblical precedent for holding leaders to higher
standards than laity; after all, polygamy was implicitly forbidden
elders, even though it was in some cases mandated by Levitical law. It
is further complicated by what I see as two deeper issues. One is that
the current position implies a sort of official hypocrisy, by
pretending that gay ministers do not actually exist, or in effect
encouraging homosexuals seeking the priesthood to hide their
orientation (thus defeating the actual purpose of the ruling). The
second is that there seems to be a growing chasm between a relatively
conservative laity and a somewhat more progressive leadership, leading
to a fear (warranted or not) that unpopular decisions may be enforced
from above.

Whatever policy is chosen, I believe the most important factor is that
it lead to a greater level of honesty, trust, and consistency in the
relationship between ministers and laity. To that end, the optimal
approach might involve a short-term ‘amnesty’ (such as a
non-geographical synod allowing homosexual ordination) along with a
long-term investigation into the roots of the theological disconnect
between different communities. In particular, an open and involved
discussion of how theological education actually occurs in both
churches and seminaries, as well as within different sub-communities
of the ELCA, might prove not only useful but invigorating.

IV. Conclusions

In short, I believe that the most important question is not so much
how the church relates to homosexuality, but how we relate to each
other, Jesus Christ, and the world. Rather than focus on winners and
losers, I encourage the church to commit to a policy that provokes all
Christians – gay and straight, clergy and laity, inside and outside
the church – to reexamine what it means to love one another and be
faithful to the gospel calling. I believe that such a process,
regardless of whether people feel hurt or leave the church, will turn
a potentially divisive issue into one that ultimately strengthens the
ELCA and enables it to better glorify God here on earth.

Sincerely, Ernest Prabhakar, Ph.D.


Ernest Prabhakar holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Caltech, and is founder
of RadicalCentrism.org, an anti-partisan think tank located near
Sacramento California. Though confirmed in the Lutheran church, he considers
himself a ‘front-slidden’ Lutheran, and currently attends a Vineyard
Christian Fellowship
church plant. He is employed as a Product
Marketing Manager for Apple Computer.


One Comment on “A Radical Middle Option on Homosexuality”

  1. This is what happens when put Iron Age books before science and human happiness.

    If gay & bi people are leading happy, healthy lives just how they are, then no loving god would want to take that away from them.

    Your “radical middle” solution is in fact the same conservative claptrap you hear from the religious right, just with a friendlier face.


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