Too much space in compassionate account

books-spaciousnessGenerous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church

Wendy VanderWal-Gritter
Brazos Press

The October 2013 MB study conference on human sexuality highlighted our church’s need for serious engagement on the topic of homosexuality. Theologians Robert Gagnon (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) and John Stackhouse (Regent College, Vancouver) presented a thorough, biblical understanding of the issues; still, many attendees noted that they hoped to receive further tools for practical pastoral application to confront complex concerns facing our churches today.

Wendy Vanderwal-Gritter, executive director of New Direction Ministries of Canada, offers a comprehensive yet challenging argument in Generous Spaciousness, Responding to Gay Christians in the Church. While her conclusions will undoubtedly raise concerns among evangelicals, Gritter’s in-depth treatment of homosexuality and the church provides an informative practical look at the current questions.

As director of a formerly “ex-gay” ministry for more than a dozen years, Gritter has faithfully and humbly listened, learned and engaged with gay people inside and outside the church. Ultimately, this book details her own wrestling from “black and white certainty” to “a more spacious place” as a Christian leader.

Reaching understanding

Gritter’s essential concept is “generous spaciousness” – largely a relational posture, a deliberately constructed environment of Christ-like humility and hospitality where all are welcome.

With a keen awareness of Christian and gay communities, Gritter helpfully outlines varying opinions and misunderstandings Christians often hold about homosexuality, while also revealing the tremendous obstacles those with same-gender attraction encounter within the church. For example, from her experience, Gritter observes that the church’s fixation with the causes of homosexuality and inability to “fix” or “heal” a person’s sexual orientation can place shame on those in our congregations who experience same-sex attraction.

Additionally, Gritter provides valuable insights for leaders and parents alike navigating rapidly changing cultural norms with students. In the chapter “Coming Out and the Church,” Gritter advises providing a safe and supportive environment, free of assumptions, where students can differentiate between feelings of same-sex attraction, and the choices they can make regarding behaviour. Her work engages current research and presents many first-hand stories that illustrate the complexity of this topic.

Strength of experience

The strength of Gritter’s book is undoubtedly the experience she brings to the Christian community from her years with New Direction Ministries. There is much to glean from her insights and compassionate example. The issue of homosexuality in the church has led to polarized opinions, heated confrontations and broken relationships; Gritter has the ability to put the reader in the shoes of a gay person, who may have secretly struggled for years with same-sex attraction only to face rejection and confrontation from their faith community when they finally gain the courage to come out.

Her aim is to “help people get beyond their assumptions and certainties” regarding same sex-attraction. But just how far “beyond” does Gritter encourage the church to go?

Self-proclaimed as a practitioner, not a theologian, Gritter is not focused on providing “the right answer or solution for the church on the topic of homosexuality.” However, throughout her book and particularly in six central chapters dealing with discipleship, sexuality, the image of God, Scripture and interpretation, Gritter interprets Scripture and presents broad theological conclusions.

Ultimately, her handling of Scripture is what many evangelical readers will find most troubling. Gritter consistently defines an accommodating and broad-minded posture toward Scripture as inquisitive, Spirit-led, loving and personal; while the traditional biblical position is characterized as judgmental, polarizing, prideful and arrogantly certain. At times, Christians have indeed been guilty of such attitudes; unfortunately, Gritter’s reluctance to allow Scripture to speak with a prescriptive voice in the matter of homosexuality essentially leads her to the affirmation of loving, monogamous same-sex relationships between Christians.

Abdication of understanding

Gritter’s theology of God sets the stage for her gay-affirming posture. Regrettably, Gritter has encountered far too many same-sex-attracted people who have been marginalized, demonized and destroyed by the church. Her heart (as should those of all Christ followers) desires for gay people to know and understand the unconditional love of God. However, because she believes anything other than a loving and accepting God cannot be consistent with the experience of a gay-identifying believer, Gritter affirms that Christians can find God’s blessing for same-sex union based upon his core character of love.

Gritter questions the church’s ability to discern objective truth about God through Scripture: if we presume to know, she suggests, we are carving “an idol of our own creation.” She believes “our best ideas about God are incomplete and flawed.” Yes, our understanding of God is indeed incomplete, but does the fact we don’t know everything mean we can’t know anything of God revealed through Scripture? Because Gritter “sees love as the energy motivating all that God does and says,” her theology leaves little room for sexual holiness that limits marriage to the standards articulated in Scripture.

Equally concerning is Gritter’s assertion that Christians should hold gay marriage as an expression of Christian faithfulness but consider it a “disputable matter” over which we can disagree and maintain unity (see Romans 14:1) for those who are opposed. Regrettably, Gritter repeatedly misapplies New Testament passages such as this one to the issue of homosexuality and the church.

Do same-sex-attracted Christians love God and seriously wrestle with Scripture? Yes. But for a careful hermeneutical contribution to this discussion, readers seeking to gain a complete understanding of the current biblical scholarship on homosexuality should begin elsewhere.

Gritter’s serious wrestling with this issue, combined with her personal journey alongside gay people, illuminates the need for honest, courageous and loving engagement with same-sex-attracted people who are seeking to find God and understand their place in the church. As essential as that challenge is, though, Gritter’s deliberate avoidance of clearly-defined boundaries in her desire for generous spaciousness is a problem.

The practical question remains: “In the face of society’s ever-broadening sexual options, how wide of a ‘space’ can the church provide without compromising faithful interpretation and application of Scripture?”

—Janet Thiessen is pastor at North Langley (B.C.) Community Church overseeing local mission and women. She is a graduate of MBBS ACTS. Janet and her husband Rob live in Langley, B.C.

See also features and columns from the September issue on Human sexuality: Honouring God with the body

“Will you officiate our wedding?”

An orientation for single sexuality: The “do’s”of purity

You don’t know them!

Moving beyond “The Talk”

It’s a new day: Discerning a way forward together

Sex: It’s not all about me

Religion in Canada: De-Christianization continues apace

14 Comments on “Too much space in compassionate account

  1. “Gay Christians”??

    That oxymoron makes about as much sense as these ones:

    • “Idolatrous Christians”
    • “Adulterous Christians”
    • “Thieving Christians” [etc.]

    The apostle Paul wrote, “And that is what some of you were [not “are”]. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified [i.e., from such sins] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (2 Corinthians 6:11)

    Whenever the Bible refers to homosexual sexual activity, it consistently uses pejorative descriptors — such as:

    • detestable
    • defiling
    • sinful
    • impure
    • degrading
    • shameful
    • unnatural
    • indecent
    • perversion
    • wicked
    • excluded from the kingdom of God
    • lawbreaking
    • rebellious
    • ungodly
    • unholy
    • irreligious
    • contrary to sound doctrine
    • immorality
    (Leviticus 18:22,24-30; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:9-11; Jude 7)

    The Word of God challenges all of us: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.” (Romans 6:13)

    • Interesting that you do not include

      “Rich Christians”
      “Judgemental Christians”
      “Proud Christians”

      on your list of things that you like the least. We’ll pretend Scripture doesn’t talk about those things WAY MORE! Too many people to marginalize in that list and very few perfect Christians would be left to push them to those margins… And who would pay for our church budgets?

      The reality is that we all treat Scripture non-prescriptively. We all choose where to put the emphasis. Yours is just in a different place than mine.

    • You have aptly demonstrated Gritter’s very point with this comment. I hope you will read her book and consider that, even without changing your position on this topic, your posture needs to change. The book is an essential resource for the church

    • Richard, you’ve missed the most common descriptor of homosexual activity in the Bible – ‘idolatrous.’ That’s not a metaphor but literal pagan idol-worship. Gagnon says that homosexual cult prostitution was “the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel” (cf. Deut.23:17; 1Kings 14:24; 1Kings 15:11-14; 22:41-46; 2Kings 23:4-25). That’s also Paul’s point in Romans: When Jews condemn pagans for their idol-worship practices, they also condemn themselves, for they did the same things. Every mention of homosexual acts in the Bible is in the immediate context of idolatry. That should give Bible interpreters some pause before they apply the Bible’s prohibition to wholly different circumstances.

  2. 1 Corinthians 10:11 Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come.

    You will find nothing in the “red letters” about what Jesus said on the subject.

    Scripture is not only prescriptive, but it is also descriptive as the above passage indicates.
    We must be very wary that if we take a prescriptive from Scripture that it really addresses in the original historical context that which we seek to apply it today. There is increasing evidence that the texts that appear to condemn same-gender sexual activity were actually done in a context of idolatrous practice and not as a sexual orientation as we understand today. As a pastoral concern we must be cautious not to abuse those texts by applying them to Christian LGBT people. Also, there is a temptation to focus on “sins” of which we ourselves are not guilty so that we are distracted from our own.

    If we read Scripture carefully, we see that God has through many years has continually adapted to the practices of His children even when they are not His ideal. David and Solomon were not reprimanded for their many wives, and even David’s violence received mention but no punishment.

    Nowhere in Scripture do we read condemnation of the practice of slavery—not even in the New Testament. Yet, we do not tolerate it today. Society moved on from the practice, but it was not from following the example of Scripture. We understood that we needed to move ahead of Scripture on this one. Nobody appeals to the practices or prescriptives when it comes to slavery.

  3. Richard, your comment (the first on the blog) is EXACTLY why we need a book like Wendy’s. Richard, you jumped past all of Janet’s review, and all of Wendy’s comments, in order to quickly and aggressively lay out how you are right and any other voice must be wrong, and must be quickly silenced.

    There is no generous space for conversation in your description of same-sex attracted (see: gay) Christians.

    And while there may be no such thing as “Idolatrous Christians” or “Greedy Christians”, I believe even that phrase needs to be open to investigation.

    For example: I am a Christian and I own a house. A house that is larger than what I technically need to survive. I own a car as well. I also own a TV, a computer (a Mac… very $$$), a smartphone, and way more books (many theological) than I actually need. I spend my money on things that are probably not crucial, and I don’t give to the poor as much as Jesus calls me too.

    And yet 1 Corinthians 6 says:

    Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men* nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.


    Here’s the tension for me: the greedy will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

    How do I discern if my actions as a Westerner (and one of incredible means compared to the world) are greedy or not? I mean, we could take it at face value and say that if I have anything beyond what I need, and there are others in the world who are in need, than I am being greedy. The story of the Rich Young Ruler would be just one example of the hundreds in Scripture.

    However I have discerned, with community, scripture, and seeking the Spirit, that it is not a sin for me to own a house, or a car, or a smartphone, or a computer. I need to be open to the Spirit and the text and the community convicting me, but I am at peace with my decision to own these products, and spend my money on them, and I hope I can use them to serve the Kingdom.

    It’s a little grey, and perhaps it’s not even God’s “ideal” (it’s hard to say!), but in a broken world, surrounded by greed and idolatry of money, I have to make a decision on how to live. I hope that God will honor my wrestling, and that the Spirit is truly saying that for me to live in this way is not “greedy” or making an idol of money.

    I think it must be similar for our gay Christian brothers and sisters.

    As they decide (with community, scripture, and Spirit) whether to pursue a partnership (and not all of them do), we have to help them discern if their actions fall under the judgement of arsenokoites (the word used in 1 Cor 6) or if it does not.

    Just as I have to do with greed, they must do with arsenokoites. Perhaps this does mean any and all expression of fidelity or sexuality is sin. Perhaps it means that some expressions (lust, non-monogamous, lack of fidelity) are sin. Paul (and God) is judging something, but much like his judgements on greed require translation to take root in our world, so too does his judgement on arsenokoites.

    Does that make sense? I don’t want to write a lot and assume my thoughts are sober or clear, but I think this is consistent in it’s treatment of the text, and it gets at the plank in my own eye, which has to be part of this conversation.

  4. The overwhelming experience of those giving pastoral care to gay people in the church is that ministry informed by our traditional theology on this issue is not working. As convinced as Gagnon, Stackhouse, and other conservative academics might be in their interpretation of the Bible, those who minister in the pews know we cannot turn gays straight, and despite our good intentions, the pastoral practice prescribed by traditional interpretations is very likely to corrode the faith, and often the psychological well-being, of those in our care. Traditional theology and praxis does not lead to more abundant life; it creates only bad and bitter fruit. These hard facts-on-the-ground should drive all of us to a posture of more “gracious spaciousness,” and back to the Bible for another look.

    • I have read that book. It is a game-changer. There is no book written so far with that level of exegesis and demonstrates just how different the forms of “homosexuality” are in the OT and NT from today.

  5. From the review: ‘Because Gritter “sees love as the energy motivating all that God does and says,” her theology leaves little room for sexual holiness that limits marriage to the standards articulated in Scripture.’ I don’t believe that this is true, unless you mean that her theology leaves little room for people who believe in a ‘traditional’ viewpoint of marriage (as outlined by their own interpretation of scripture), and that anyone who believes otherwise is wrong, wrong, wrong. I believe generous spaciousness leaves PLENTY of room for people who have a ‘traditional’ biblical view of marriage. I have people like this in my own life, in spite of the fact that I have been in a gay relationship for almost thirty years. They respect my views as well as my life, as I respect theirs. I also have dear friends who are gay and are living a celibate life in line with their interpretation of scripture. Their generous spaciousness allows them to embrace my partner and me without ever feeling threatened by our differences in scriptural interpretation. Love really does matter, as opposed to being right, and making sure that everyone else knows that you have all the answers when it comes to scripture. I hope this is helpful.

  6. While this review tries to be kind, the underlying tone, especially throughout the latter half, typifies the lack of generosity that Gritter is trying to address. There is a presumption that the reviewer is the one who understands and interprets the biblical material accurately and that the boundaries resulting from her interpretation remain fitting for our present cultural context. The fact that Gritter’s experience (with great familiarity with the application of that “traditional biblical position” to countless people’s experience) has shown that those boundaries lead to experiences of rejection and brokenness even among those most wanting to be faithful is ignored. The fact is that a lack of “generous spaciousness” has led to hundreds, probably thousands, of suicides among adolescent teens in evangelical churches. We desperately need to pay attention to what Wendy Gritter is saying, and I hope the MB churches are listening.

  7. Despite all the argumentative comments in response to mine, it is indisputable that the Bible has nothing positive to say about homosexual sexual activity. It is always a sin that the perpetrator needs to be washed, sanctified, and justified from. We do not help people by enabling them, or by encouraging them to remain in their sins. Nor do we honour God.

    In response to Andrew Dykstra’s observation that Jesus said nothing on this subject:
    It’s true that Jesus did not specifically condemn homosexual sin. (And we should note that he never stated any support for it either.)

    However, Jesus is clearly on record as opposing “sexual immorality” in general, considering it an “evil” that makes a man “unclean” (Matthew 15:18-20). So although Jesus made no explicit mention of homosexual sex, as a Torah-believing Jew he would have firmly opposed it. There is no clear evidence to the contrary.

    Consider that Jesus made no specific mention of sex with close relatives or sex with animals either — but those sorts of sexual immorality are prohibited along with homosexual sex in Leviticus chapter 18, and they are all collectively described there as “defiling” and “detestable.”

    Jesus certainly did show compassion to a variety of sinners — including those involved in sexual sins — but he never offered encouragement to anyone inclined to continue in their sins rather than forsake them.

  8. Further to the above discussion, I was interested to note the more recent pastoral letter from the Board of Faith and Life, which reaffirmed the traditional definition of marriage and stated, “Like our Saviour and Master, we are to love without distinction — welcoming all people without affirming the sin in any of us.” [emphasis added]
    The letter recognized 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 as containing a (partial) “list of sinful behaviours.”

    Another worthwhile resource for this discussion is the freely downloadable book response by Albert Mohler et al. to Matthew Vines:

  9. Good books for discussion:

    COMPASSION without COMPROMISE – How the Gospel Frees Us to Love Our Gay Friends Without Losing the Truth written by Adam T. Barr and Ron Citlau

    What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? written by Kevin Deyoung

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