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.
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.