Response to David Fitch on LGBT and the Mission-Shaped Church


Life on the Vine pastor and Northern Seminary professor David Fitch has been blogging his explorations of the intersection of mission-shaped church and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. His most recent post is “On Being Missional” with the Gay/Lesbian Peoples Among Us, and it includes links to his previous posts in this series. Dr. Fitch has distinguished himself as a forthright, gracious, and humble disciple, and I highly recommend reading his series for its valuable questions, insights, and responses from both Dr. Fitch and his commenters. [UPDATE: Dr. Fitch archived his prior blog post at the Missio Alliance website, so the above link has been changed to keep the link live.]

The church’s relationship with sexual and gender minorities is an extremely complex issue, and I see it as crucial for understanding current and future streams of ministry in the post-Christendom church in the West. Since the mid-1970s, I’ve watched the impact on the church of LGBT liberation/affirmation movements. My awareness of the social issues involved started when neighbors who were local leaders in their mainline denominational church were faced with pressure to conform to a stance of “welcoming and affirming” practicing homosexuals. I understand the desire on the part of marginalized people to find acceptance in the Church. I also understand how excruciating it is for church leaders to discern how to piece together the many relevant declarations and mandates of Scripture in ways that keep the dynamic tension between grace and truth, compassion and conviction.

Inerrancy and authority of Scripture were main issues that caused a rift between theological liberals and conservatives in the last two centuries. It could well be that one’s praxological stance on “welcoming and [choose one: affirming / not affirming / mutually transforming]” toward all people, and particular toward those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered may be the issue that causes a sifting out among the main movements in today’s post-evangelical world: reformissional, Emergent Village, emerging, and missional.

Dr. Fitch will be completing his series with posts on how these various stances on relating with people from LGBT communities connect with our views of sanctification, the ways our communities work, and the ways we interpret Scripture. But before he launches into that, he asked a series of important questions:

Can One Be Missional and Not Be Affirming of GLBT defining peoples? Can you be an Emerging Christian in N America and NOT Be Affirming of GLBT Relationships? Is there something inherent to the Emerging and/or Missional movement which requires affirmation of GLBT as the basis for life among these communities? that requires making no defining statements at all on these issues? Have I disqualified myself from being Missional and/or being “Emerging” by posting on this issue in this way?” (“On Being Missional” with the Gay/Lesbian Peoples Among Us)

I give my response to these questions below. Tentatively, I will post on my take of historical issues after he finishes his series on how this relates with sanctification, communities, and interpretation. I also plan to write at least one post that uses the system of five epistemologies to detail strengths and potentially destructive challenges inherent in various contemporary church movements.

Response to David Fitch on LGBT

and the Mission-Shaped Church

Dr. Fitch, you asked whether someone could be emerging, Emergent, and/or missional – and not affirm lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender sexuality as normative, yet be inclusive of LGBT people in our community. My response is, “Yes.”

Are there inherent issues in the emerging, Emergent, and/or missional movements that drive us to affirm LGBT as a basis for community life, or to remove ourselves from making any statements on the issues? Yes.

Have you disqualified yourself from being emerging, Emergent, and/or missional by posting this way? No … in fact, somewhere lost in time I had predicted that the issue of homosexuality might well be the dividing point in the various emerging movements, and by raising the issue in the way you have to challenge the broader post-Christendom/post-evangelical movements, I believe you are demonstrating that there is a new and living way that both critiques and transcends all existing approaches. If there are things driving our movements – whether we identify with reformissional (the Neo-Reformed version of missional), Emergent, emerging, or missional – then aren’t we obligated to show wisdom in understanding what is driving us and whether it is anti-biblical, partially biblical, or fully biblical?

Well, that was easy enough. However, the reasons why I say all that are not so easy. But I hope I can at least make a clear case for my answers to your questions.

I have layers of response, including technical, historical, and personal. First, it’s only fair to give these disclosures:

  1. Technical. I am an experientially-trained paradigm analyst, cultural interpreter, and “church toxicologist.” I am developing a “systems theology approach” that is based on an integrative epistemology and holistic set of hermeneutics.
  2. Historical. I have worked for over 25 years with individuals, ministries, and churches who hold a “welcoming and mutually transforming” viewpoint, and have researched and taught on many related topics. I have been watching the impact of these issues on denominations for even longer than that.
  3. Personal. I deal with gender identity confusion and sexual orientation issues myself. I have worked long-term on re-identification with my God-given masculinity and have chosen to live a lifestyle of sexual abstinence in light of unwanted same-sex attraction.

So, I have vested interests in these issues. I am either a stakeholder (or, as some would judge, a mistakeholder) in the resolutions to your questions!

Okay – here goes with the technical … and perhaps after your final three posts, I can respond with personal experiences and historical case studies related to welcoming and not affirming (a softer form of the harsh approach that I had called “rejecting and condemning”), welcoming and affirming, and welcoming and mutually transforming [thanks to “T” for adding the “mutually” to that phrase!]

I believe one of the most difficult problems in responding to your questions is that each of these four movements – reformissional, Emergent Village, emerging, and missional – has drawn in a group of people with different epistemologies, and the movements are still in the process of these people sifting themselves and shifting to other movements as they discover their own deepest ways of processing information don’t resonate with the dominant way the movement they’re currently attached to does.

I can hear some saying, “Whaaaa? Epistemology is the underlying problem with our theology of sexualities? What’s that got to do with whether we are we rejecting, affirming, or transforming? Nothing!”

Actually, I’d suggest it has everything to do with it. E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G! We are too used to thinking on the surface of things, instead of on the ursprung, the deepest sources from which that surface originate and is directly shaped. In this way, a church movement is like a physical body:

  • Church culture is its skin – surface behaviors that are the most noticeable to those who are watching.
  • Our organizational strategies and structures are its skeleton – holding other parts in place.
  • Our epistemology is its nervous system, our values are its circulatory system and muscles – stimulating and carrying out all actions. If the “nervous system” doesn’t work right, everything else can quickly fail.

But the overall shape of everything is controlled by the genes, not the skin. And if any gene is broken, missing, or doubled, the body is in deep trouble! Whether in the human body or the church body, severely compromised DNA usually means extreme illness, sterility, or death.

The same applies to the body of a Christian movement: Epistemology IS core genetic material in movements, and it governs whether any deficiencies or excesses will ultimately undo the movement. And, since these church subculture movements are a type of revolution, and address issues of access and power, the warning of Princess Irulan applies:

“Every revolution carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.” (Dune, Frank Herbert, 1965)

I believe the only way to avoid our own destruction as a post-Christendom movement is to have as comprehensive and healthy of “biblical DNA” in our epistemology and values as possible. So, in searching for my own understanding of information processing modes/epistemology, I’ve boiled them down to a system of five “pure types” from which all other epistemologies can be described, and their respective inherent hermeneutics and theologies with them. Each of these five epistemologies plays a role in developing a comprehensive “systems theology.” I’d suggest we need all five … but the problem occurs when we ONLY use one kind of thinking and we overextend its internal logic by applying it to ALL areas of theological theory and personal/community praxis. Also, each movement – reformissional, emerging, Emergent, and missional – is a combination of multiple types of epistemology. But still, I find it helpful to have a theoretical model from which to analyze and interpret reality. So – here it is:

1. “Either/Or” – Analysis

“Either/or logic” is all about dividing this from that, discerning right from wrong, differentiating moral from immoral. If we only use this kind of black-and-white thinking that focuses on the mind, then we emphasize that any “alternative” sexuality is immorality.

It makes sense from this form of logic that we would REJECT the people who live immoral lifestyles in order to ISOLATE ourselves from the decadence of their influence, and SEPARATE our community from them and REMOVE them from among us in order to protect the PURITY of our beliefs and our community.

I would suggest this “epistemology of certainty and clarity” is the dominant logic found in the self-described “reformissional” or Neo-Reformed movement, even if a particular reformed-missional church is welcoming rather than rejecting.

2. “Or” – Synthesis

“Or-oriented logic” is all about generating as many ideas and options and alternatives as possible. It gravitates toward the inherent beauty of possibilities and imagining the rainbow of choices. If we only use this kind of crank-out-options thinking that focuses on the imagination, then we emphasize variations of sexuality as an inherent part of divine and human creativity.

It makes sense from this form of logic that we WELCOME people from these naturally (or supernaturally) occurring varieties of sexuality, AFFIRM their particular ALTERNATIVE form just as we would any form, and CELEBRATE their participation in our community of DIVERSITY.

I would suggest this “epistemology of creativity and experimentation” has been the dominant logic in the movement that eventually morphed into Emergent Village.

3. “And” – Symbiosis

“And-oriented logic” is all about fusing people into connections that foster interdependent relationships.

If we only use this kind of bond-people-together thinking that focuses on the emotions, then we emphasize the justice of respecting people’s personhood, advocacy for their freedom and right to choices, and the love involved in bringing any and all people into open-armed and warm-hearted relationships.

It makes sense from this form of logic that we EMBRACE all people, period; DEFEND them against intolerance or attacks; and INCLUDE them in all our activities, regardless.

I would suggest this “epistemology of mutuality and advocacy” is the dominant logic in the emerging movement.

4. “Both/And” – Analogy

“Both/and logic” is about paradox – holding in dynamic tension two or more apparently contradictory ideas, options, emotions, choices, things, etc., when our natural tendency is to split them apart and go with only one. It focuses on intuition and refraining from dividing what needs to remain connected in order to maintain its spiritual potency. [For the purposes here, I’m defining intuition as those gut-level impressions or hunches we get by “reading between the lines” that concepts and/or concrete things are somehow connected, even if we don’t exactly understand yet quite how that works. Because intuition often connects something concrete with an underlying pattern or concept, it gets expressed as a some kind of analogy: simile metaphor, irony, paradox. Also, because the connections can be vague – and in fact, perhaps not even subject to precise description – these both/and intuitions often fit in the realm of “mystery.” Both sides of the equation are true, but often the most we can do is simply state them We get into trouble when we seek to fill in far more precision and detail than the Scriptures do …]

While the internal consistency of going in only one direction may make sense, it actually is not consistent with Scripture. God may show Himself as single-minded in His plans, but not with just a singular logic in his personhood. He implants paradoxes all over Scripture. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a paradox: He is both fully human and fully God yet without sin. Other paradoxes: Christians are sinner-saints; grace, justice, and love can be compatible; we are pre-ordained and yet our choices are real, not illusory.

How do these apparent conundrums work themselves out? It’s a mystery … and yet, sometimes all we can do is proclaim the co-existence of all these seemingly contradictory elements; explain our view by using similes, analogies, and metaphors; and live within the tension. Plus, live with the opposition. After all, this view does go against the underlying assumption of only-one-logic required by the first three views. And those only-one-logic approaches are, I would suggest, a mild form of theological uniformitarianism. Hence, they constitute a form of idolatry – setting up our intellect, our imagination, or our emotions over God and His specific revelation in Scripture. So, by being paradoxical, we need to expect that a lot of people just won’t get it about us. It’s an uncomfortable reality. But this opposition or misunderstanding makes sense, given that a synonym for paradox is antinomy – literally “against law.”

If we only use this kind of keep-the-contradictions-in-check thinking, then we emphasize reflecting on or reconciling such seemly “opposing” pairs as: “Both heterosexual behaviors outside of marriage and any kinds of sexual aberrancies are sin and equally odious to God.” “God loves all people equally and Jesus died for all, yet God has deemed homosexual behavior to be sin.” “We can establish a Christian community that both welcomes all people because we all need grace and mercy, and helps all people engage in mutually transforming relationships.” “People can end up with same-sex attractions, and yet theologically it is not God’s fault, His design, or His gift.”

Or, we can get into significant trouble with Scripture by getting overly mystical and claiming special or direct revelation from God that people can be both actively homosexual and a good/growing Christian. Or we can get hyper-spiritual and blame homosexual feelings and temptations on Satan and demons, and expect that “deliverance” will fix the problem once and for all. Or we can suggest that each of the opposing views have merit and so we recuse ourselves from having to make a decision on whether certain behaviors are moral or immoral … a misuse of paradox to justify a sort of “paralysis of non-analysis.”

Because of its emphasis on incarnational ministry, I would suggest this “epistemology of tension and reflection” will prove to be the dominant logic in the missional movement as it continues to “shake out.”

5. “Integrative” – Domain-Specific Compositing

It just seems to be the human condition that we go with what we know. Each of us is predisposed toward a particular logic form by our providential learning styles and personality, and our cultural and spiritual formation. It takes intentionality to stand aside from our own mind, imagination, emotions, and intuitions; to integrate ourselves holistically; and to integrate “opposing” approaches into a “composite system” with its own internally consistent logic. In other words:

  • Discern a deeper, more complex epistemology that more accurately reflects the complexity in God’s revelation.
  • Create a holistic set of hermeneutics that interprets Scripture better within its own genres or domains.
  • Willingly live in the “messy middle” of sorting that out.

This integrative approach challenges us to “fit the pieces together,” not “pit the pieces against one another.” When we choose this route, we will need to find system ways to composite the other four epistemologies and their main domains in the realm of theology:

  • Moral imperatives that use “either/or” logic.
  • Wisdom decisions (where we have multiple options that range from best to worst, but none are sinful) that use “or” logic.
  • Social ethics that use “and” logic for how best to bring people together.
  • The mystical and providential and sinner-saint elements that use “both/and” logic.

Facilitators for the Integration Process

However, in the integrational logic, we cannot just glue these pieces together in any old way, and call it good. That may be the best anyone could do if they have a single-logic background themselves, or even if a logic-diverse team tried this task. But if we use all the “right” pieces but simply stitch them back together, we’ll end up with what I’ve termed The Frankenstein Syndrome – it’s alive and it functions, but it never was or will be whole.

Or, better yet, we could call it “The Talosian Syndrome.” Here I’m referring to the original Star Trek TV series about the planet Talos IV. In the episode, “The Cage,” Talosian inhabitants attempted to reassemble Vina, a human woman with no prototype or plan, after she survived a crash-landing on their planet. They pieced Vina’s parts back together the best they could, but their efforts left her with crippling results., through their powers of illusion, the Talosians make Vina appear virtually beautiful and healthy instead of her reality: disfigured and crippled.

In “The Menagerie,” a related episode about the Talosians, a particularly power line by the Talosian “Keeper” explains the wisdom behind the Space Federation’s ban of any future contact between its members and the inhabitants of Talos:

“Your race would eventually discover our power of illusion and destroy itself, too.”

The Talosians didn’t know how to put the right parts in the right place, so they made up for their deficiency by covering their gaps with illusion. When it comes to our own task of creating an integrative epistemology and the resulting theology and praxology, who is best suited for leading? Who can take the system beyond illusion of wholeness to the substance thereof? Or will we leave it in the hands of those with no understanding or plan? And would that abandon the integration process to illusion, and serve as the very seeds for the destruction of this paradigm revolution?

I’d suggest that those who already hold a holistic paradigm are perhaps the best equipped to lead in the efforts to create an integrated epistemology and theology. I’ve termed this kind of person an “interpolator” – someone who represents the in-between point between two or more other opposing points. Because they already live in the in-between zone, they can relate with all the others and thus, perhaps, find it easier to facilitate teamwork efforts that draw in a diverse membership and do not let any single one dominate the direction or the work. It’s more indigenous to the interpolator’s complex, multi-logical information processing modes to do this, and these other four logical elements are all meant to work together as an organic system. (Sidenote: I believe the task is crucial, and that the conventional ways of teamwork won’t work. So, if anyone else out there has other suggestions on who could best facilitate such a compositing process, and why, I’m open to hearing them!)

A Composited Approach to Relating with People of LGBT Communities

If we accept the authority of God’s Word to guide all domains of our life, and truly wrestle with what that means for our faith and practice, I believe we can composite a systems approach where the specifics that God reveals to us about various issues get interpreted in light of the whole of what He reveals. Here are some ideas of what we can draw together from different theo-logical domains on parameters for missional connections with members of LGBT communities.

EITHER/OR Logic. LGBT orientation is a manifestation of human brokenness – as are all types of falling short of God’s original design and intent, including broken forms of heterosexuality. LGBT behavior is immoral/sinful … at best, it represents a right(eous), God-implanted desire for intimacy and life-long connection, but with the wrong object of desire.

OR Logic. I/we can celebrate people who are LGBT as God’s creations, just as we can celebrate any and all people, yet without that meaning we endorse every aspect of their being or behavior. (And the fact that I/we experience guilt, shame, and fear about myself/ourselves at times, shows that we know how to live without always endorsing our own brokenness and sin. So, we can and should extend that to others as well.)

AND Logic. I/we can advocate prevention of harm to anyone and work for positive justice for all people, including those who identify as LGBT, whether they are Christians or not. Also, I/we can be open to establishing relationships of mutual transparency and transformation with them, despite our differences, based on the fact that grace is not a commodity that Christians have and we dispense it to others – rather, we all need grace and mercy because of our brokenness and we can seek grace, mercy, and hope from God together with all His people and with all people.

BOTH/AND Logic. I/we can hold in dynamic tension without guilt, shame, or fear apparently contradictory principles, and find holistic ways to resolve the apparent conflicts without negating any of the truths involved. For instance we can interpret homosexual behavior as immoral, AND interpret Scripture as mandating that communities of Christian discipleship should welcome any/all, AND understand that sometimes we are called on to remove for the purpose of restoration those who are unrepentant in pursuing their own idolatries and sins, etc.

Summary Points

Regarding approaches to church communities and missional relationships with people from LGBT identities, the conflict among the three sets of views (condemning/rejecting or welcoming/not affirming, welcoming/affirming, welcoming/mutually transforming) resides not merely in our surface theologies but in our deepest “spiritual DNA” levels of epistemology (how we process information) and hermeneutics (how we interpret Scripture).

Each of the reformissional, Emergent Village, emerging, and missional movements has a core epistemology that profoundly shapes its overall view on how to approach LGBT issues. Each of these epistemologies and movements makes a potential positive and constructive contribution to a composited, integrated perspective, and each on its own creates a flawed and destructive theology and praxis. These flaws can weaken the Kingdom internally and spark negative responses externally.

We need to find an in-between zone that integrates all the parameters God gives us about morality, wisdom, social ethics, paradoxes, and choices, and builds them into what can become an organic systems theology.

Interpolators have the best possibilities of navigating this in-between zone due to their complex thinking skills, and thus to help the compositing process by facilitating in ways that don’t let other epistemology/paradigm agendas dominate.

And finally, finding and living in the biblical in-between zone requires demonstrated commitment on all our parts to develop personal discernment and communal discernment … but hasn’t that always been a core spiritual discipline in seeking to live a balanced biblical lifestyle?!

Final Notes

I’m glad you’ve raised these issues and critiques of various movements, Dr. Fitch, and look forward to your final posts in the series!

P.S. I realize this is very dense and intense material, and that this may be a first exposure to concepts of epistemology and paradigms for some readers. I’ve tried to be as clear as I can here on the basics, in order to show their implications for the subject at hand. On other places on my futuristguy blog, I’ve done what I can to develop the background concepts in more detail, and add visuals wherever possible. In case anyone is interested, here are some pages to consider:

For more about epistemology – see Tutorial 11 on Learning Styles.

For more about interpolators – see the page on Interpolators Tribe.

For more about In-between Zone Teams – see Tutorial 12 on Transformational Teamwork.


2 thoughts on “Response to David Fitch on LGBT and the Mission-Shaped Church

    • Thanks for dropping by, Len, and for your comment.

      I’m encouraged to see these current attempts to listen, understand, critique, and balance out perspectives on these vital issues, while dialing down from what has often turned into inflammatory debate.

      Hope my contributions continue to offer something constructive in terms of a more paradoxical and holistic view on the whole system of considerations …

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