We have all seen angry queer or anti-queer protests, and we have probably all heard angry queer or anti-queer sermons. But that is fundamentally not how Ephesians calls us to truth-telling. Rather than being opponents, we must remember that we are members of one another, children of one God, redeemed and called to restoration in one Christ. We are called to be imitators of God, building one another up, not in hostility but in love.
The Rules of Queer Engagement
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.
The vocation to “speak the truth” (v.25) is one which many queer people have wholeheartedly embraced, and the Church and world has become a much more godly place because of it. Yet Ephesians places truth-telling in a very particular context.
Firstly, it is in a context of complete honesty: truth-telling must be done along with “putting away all falsehood” (v.25), for it is only then that truth-telling can happen with full integrity. I wonder how often our secular queer brethren begin with this notion of fulk integrity? Or how often the political strategising of interest groups can put the telling of the full and fair truth rather on the back-burner?
And secondly, we as queer Christians are not speaking primarily to a hostile majority, or to our oppressors, or people who are fundamentally ‘other’ to us. As Ephesians has made clear with its theology of unity in Christ, when we speak to those in the Church, we speak to those who are intimately a part of us, whatever they believe, “for we are members of one another” (v.25). And again, this makes the rules of engagement for queer Christians radically different from their secular counterparts. The church, and those who comprise it, are never our enemy, or those who need to be recruited as allies. That thinking might serve some purpose at particular times, but actually, and fundamentally, that is not how Ephesians calls Christians to think of dialogue.
And the reason for this is clear. If we allow ourselves to think in fundamentally aggressive or oppositional terms, our righteous anger and zeal for justice can tip over into something rather different. “Be angry but do not sin” (v.26). For when we allow our anger to run away with us, then we are prone to let resentment fester and to let our worst instincts run riot: “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (vv.26-27).
We have all seen angry queer or anti-queer protests, and we have probably all heard angry queer or anti-queer sermons. The temptation to respond in kind is almost overwhelming. But that is fundamentally not how Ephesians calls us to truth-telling. Rather than being opponents, we must remember that “we are members of one another” (v.25), children of one God, redeemed and called to restoration in one Christ.
Guidelines for Queer Participation in the Church
28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,* as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.* 51Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us* and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
What follows is a list entitled in the NRSV, “Rules for the New Life”, but which I am calling ‘Guidelines for Queer Participation in the Church’.
V.28 has two purposes. Firstly, all of us have things in life that we should probably lay aside, habits, practices, ways of thinking, if we are to live the Christian life with full integrity. For thieves, it is that they “give up stealing” (v.28), though all of us have habits which might become a burden or drain to the church, spiritually or otherwise, and Ephesians calls us to consider them seriously. And in contrast, we are called to “labour and work honestly” (v.28), each contributing something to the life of the Church, not holding back our gifts and skills, “so as to have something to share with the needy” (v.28). Each of us has something to share, but also some serious soul searching to do as well.
The next injunction is a powerful one for all progressives in the Church. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up” (v.29). I don’t know how many gatherings of queer Christians I have attended that have descended into bitching and trashing of our theological ‘opponents’, and I couldn’t count the number of times I have personally contributed to that negative spiral in conversation. But it detracts from the very serious work to which we are called of “building up, as there is need” (v.29), and as queer Christians we are probably aware of the very great need for the Church to be built up, more than most!
But what about healthy venting of steam? So often a good bitch or a laugh at the expense of a particular theological standpoint can be therapeutic, a necessary release that helps to put things in perspective. Well, the key is discerning when it is appropriate to let our hair down, and when it is more appropriate to be discrete, “so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (v.29). One of the hardest things about ministry training for me has been learning to speak appropriately in different contexts. But this is a skill and practice to which Ephesians calls each and every one of us.
And then Ephesians gives us this bizarre admonition: not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (v.30). I have two things to say about this. Firstly, it is the Holy Spirit with which we are all “marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (v.30). The Spirit is the sign and seal of the unity of our common identity and common hope in Christ. And so a call not to grieve the Holy Spirit is a call to greater unity. And secondly, this must have an effect on our consideration of prayer. When we pray, we pray ‘in the power of the Spirit’, and prayer is something easily misused. Many queer people elect to abuse it by simply not praying at all, and surely this must grieve the Holy Spirit. But also, we have all heard prayers which are not so much focussed on God as much as their audience. These are the prayers which do not so much pray, ‘Your kingdom come’, as ‘Lord, may my will be done, and not theirs.’ This sort of prayer is utterly abusive, and progressives must guard against it as much as should conservatives. Our prayer must always invite God into situations of division in order to work his purpose as God sees it, and must not become simply another platform for our perspective and our identity. Prayer must always be an instrument of love and grace, and never a weapon or a megaphone.
Love and unity are the watchwords of Ephesians, and Christians are called to embrace these as living principles, whilst keeping an eye on those tendencies which might arrest their full expression. We are all called, but particularly queer people who have so many reasons to feel these emotions, to put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (v.31). How powerful the Christian witness would be if we could all do this! A Church of diversity and generosity, characterised by love is summed up in this wonderful suggestion: “and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another” (v.32).
For our love for one another does not actually stem from our qualities or the qualities of those we are called to love. Our forgiving love as queer Christians stems from the fact that “God in Christ has forgiven you” (v.32). We a not called to be empathetic superbeings, or utterly forbearing martyrs, but rather are called to “be imitators of God” (v.1), imitating God’s love and grace in all our dealings with one another. This helps us to put our disagreements in perspective, reminding us that we are not warring factions but “beloved children” called to “live in love” by the Father of us all.
And as a seal of this passage, Ephesians reminds us of how that love was typified in Christ, who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (v.2). And if that was the sort of love which characterised all our dealings with one another in the Church, all of us might be a little closer to the hope of our calling.