Lust in the Heart by Linn Marie Tonstad


Linn Marie TonstadLove the sinner, hate the sin. We are all familiar with the bludgeon this statement represents in Christian circles. It functions as a way to maintain one’s goodness and Christlikeness (supposedly!), while simultaneously condemning and persecuting those who find themselves drawn to live lives outside the constraints of heteronormativity in all its variations. The statement hardly needs to be deconstructed – it proves its own emptiness in relation to the way sexuality is understood as identity in the contemporary context. (There are Foucaultian reasons to be unhappy with this understanding of sexuality – one of the disciplinary functions of power on his account is the desire to find a name that will express one’s true identity – but we’ll save that for another day.)

Instead, I think we should consider a much more fundamental contradiction in the way Christian churches today speak and think about sexuality. In many mainline congregations in the US-European context, the debate has been framed around celibacy versus “practice” for persons identifying as gay and lesbian. Excluding the fringe ex-gay movement and its horrors, there are three typical positions that churches take up. One, celibate gays and lesbians may participate fully in church life. Two, married and monogamous gays and lesbians may participate fully in church life. Three, neither marriage nor monogamy are required for gays and lesbians (or anyone else) – the latter is perhaps not a frequent position for churches to take, at least officially, other than in the MCC. For most mainline denominations, the fault line lies between those who assert the ‘vocation’ of celibacy for gay and lesbian persons, and those who permit marriage.

A few examples: in this statement from 2003, the fundamental and crucial distinction is that Gene Robinson is “actively engaged in a homosexual relationship.” Since the statement conjoins extramarital and homosexual activity as forbidden, while praising heterosexual marriage as a sign of the “pristine union between God and His spotless Bride, the church.” (Again, we’ll leave a discussion of the theological significance of the nuptial metaphor for another day.) In 2010, while still Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams backed the ordination of gay bishops (at least in theory), but insisted on celibacy. In a statement from 2009, NT Wright made strong distinctions between active and inactive homosexuals by emphasizing “the distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other,” since (by implication) one can resist the ‘enactment’ of one’s inclinations. While these three examples come from Anglican contexts, similar statements can be found in many other Christian denominational contexts. These statements are usually accompanied by proof texts as well as an appeal to tradition emphasizing the unacceptability of same-sex genital contact.

Yet, as is well known, Jesus’ own statements on sexuality were few and far between. There’s that comment on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12), but there’s a different comment that he makes that utterly invalidates the distinction made in the kinds of statements above. This one is found in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NIV) So Jesus, at any rate, does not distinguish between inclination and desire and activity. Where, then, is the theological justification for the kinds of distinctions being drawn above between ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ gay and lesbian persons? More significantly yet, if we take the statement as writ, I suspect that very many heterosexually married male ordained persons ought to be defrocked immediately (since ‘sexual immorality’ is considered a disqualifying factor for ordination by the commentators above).

I point this out not in order to suggest that ordaining even celibate gays and lesbians ought to be a problem for Christians, but to point out that, at least based on Jesus’ own words, it may be that only those who identify as asexual who may be ‘qualified’ for ordination under these conditions, since they have not committed adultery. (Of course, one might also suggest that gay men and lesbians are not excluded either, since it’s only men looking at women who are specified in the language of the text.) Now, these moves are sarcastically intended, but I do think it might be worth calling those who oppose the full participation of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church to be consistent in their theologies of sexuality. Not committing ‘genital’ adultery is not enough, or even irrelevant for Jesus. (Note that the very next verse insists that “if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away,” a juxtaposition that might lead to some discomfort among people of many different sexual orientations if taken seriously.) So perhaps those of us who do not consider sexual orientation a relevant factor for church participation* ought to ask those who disagree with us to take the literal word of the Bible, indeed the words of Christ himself, a little more seriously than they now do.

* I do not use the terminology of inclusion. Inclusion always raises the question of who gets to include whom, and when deployed in this context, the implication is that an already-constituted Christian church consisting, presumably, of heterosexuals, gets to congratulate itself on its generosity in including gay and lesbian persons. This perpetuates rather than undoes the second-class status of gay and lesbian persons in Christian churches.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally titled: God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology

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Categories: Bible, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Gender and Sexuality, Jesus, LGBTQ, Scripture, Sexual Ethics, Theology

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4 replies

  1. What is a Foucaultian reason for anything?

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  2. FYI, the Alliance of Baptists holds the third position as well. It’s congregational polity and doctrine, so there is variation, but as a body we rejected amendments to our statement on sexuality that would narrow our position.

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  3. “I do not use the terminology of inclusion. Inclusion always raises the question of who gets to include whom, and when deployed in this context, the implication is that an already-constituted Christian church consisting, presumably, of heterosexuals, gets to congratulate itself on its generosity in including gay and lesbian persons. This perpetuates rather than undoes the second-class status of gay and lesbian persons in Christian churches.”

    Linn, this last part of your article was brilliant. I always wondered why I got this sick and disgusted feeling in my stomach when one of my liberal straight feminist friends balleyhooed their church’s adoption of the “open and affirming” policy. Apparently, it was a big deal with their congregation.
    She wanted me to come and speak about my experiences as a lesbian along with a few others. One thing led to another, and I realized my rage at liberal straight people had reached such an epic … epic rage… that I didn’t want to speak to them at all. They couldn’t handle the truth to paraphrase A FEW GOOD MEN. Your statement above helped me to realize why I was angry, why I found straight people so doofissly arrogant and aggrandizing. I’d never go to an “open and affirming” church for this very reason. It’s why Meteropolitican Community Church, which was created by and for gays and lesbians is still important. Straight people can be open and affirming with each other, they can talk to each other about the need for justice for lesbian and gay people. I delight now in overhearing groups of straight people discuss “gay marriage” or “Prop 8” or the Supreme Court DOMA and Prop 8 cases. I get to listen in on their conversations in restaurants and cafes to see what they really think.

    No I don’t trust straight liberals for one New York minute, so thank you for exposing this so artfully in your article.

    “What is a Foucaultian reason for anything?”– good question. Foucault is just another gay male word for degregation and anti-feminist post modern hogwash. So he is basically a nihilist who died in the cause of excess. We make fun of him when we quote perhaps one sentence that he wrote about lesbians… all the world is the white gay male, all the sex male, and all the anti-feminism real.

    I just don’t take churches seriously on the issue of sexuality or women anymore. I want a country of my own.

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  4. There is ridiculous and there is beyond ridiculous. Last night I learnt that the Queen’s speeches must be written with special ink on vellum. That is beyond ridiculous.

    And so are the church’s instructions on “the unacceptability of same-sex genital contact.” As John Watson said in our Sherlock: “I might be wrong, but I think this is none of your business”. Mycroft says: “It could be”, and John replies: “It really couldn’t”.

    It really couldn’t.

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