What Nicodemus teaches us about homosexuality

Editor's note: Agendas Aside, a Think Christian series on homosexuality and the church, also includes articles by Neil de Koning, Glenn Goodfellow, Jason E. Summers, Josh Larsen and Nathan Albert.

Allow me to show my cards from the outset: I am Christian, heterosexual and I won't be taking an explicit side on the issue of homosexuality in this post. What I do intend, however, is to assert that nobody should hold a strong opinion on homosexuality until she or he has personally interacted with someone who is gay. I call this the "Nicodemus Approach."

I grew up in a fairly conservative evangelical community where nobody talked about homosexuality except when sharply condemning it. More accurately, I grew up in a community where nobody knew anyone who was gay. The issue did not concern specific human beings in our community; rather, it was about "them," those hypothetical people "out there." Accordingly, I learned that it was OK to hold conclusive opinions about matters that I knew little about and/or had never encountered in my personal life. 

Over the past four years, however, I have learned a different approach. During my four years in Philadelphia I have worked closely with a homosexual youth pastor; was mentored by a brilliant, homosexual chaplain supervisor; and walked alongside a handful of gay peers in Christian ministry. Unlike the former method of judging what I do not know, I came face to face with people instead of ideas. Enter Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees and a member of the religious elite. He belonged to a community that saw Jesus as a sinner because Jesus did things that were contrary to what was written in Hebrew Scripture. But John's portrayal of Nicodemus is fascinating: instead of remaining in his comfortable, homogeneous community, Nicodemus goes to encounter the man who had stirred up controversy. Later in the Gospel of John we meet Nicodemus a second time, where he advocates for Jesus! Here we see the impact of Nicodemus’ face-to-face encounter with Jesus.

We meet Nicodemus a third and final time at the foot of the cross. When all but one of Jesus' disciples had abandoned him, who is there? Nicodemus. The Pharisee who risked his religious identity to meet Jesus in person is the man who is forever remembered for laying our Lord to rest. 

For me, this confirms the absolute necessity of personal encounter when forming opinions toward people. It is such a simple idea, yet very hard to practice. I think that both Nicodemus and, more obviously, Jesus demonstrate this method clearly. It is one way to live out God’s call that we challenge our own opinions.

I can imagine someone asking, "Should we also not take a stand against abortion or capital punishment if we've never personally experienced those issues?" No, take your stand, for we must be careful to distinguish between acts/events and people. I am advocating for an approach to homosexuality that takes seriously the fact that this is not simply an issue, but something that involves real people who are created in God’s image and worthy of His love.

What Do You Think?

  • Do you agree with this Nicodemus approach?
  • If you know someone who is gay, how has their story affected your understanding of homosexuality?
  • In what other instances might a Nicodemus approach be helpful?

 

Joshua Walters is a follower of the Crucified Messiah, a wannabe theologian and a mediocre guitarist. He lives with his parents and drives a Toyota Corolla with leather seats. You can keep up with him at his blog or on Twitter. / Illustration by Jerod Clark.

Comments (15)

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Good questions and insights, Joshua. Here's my two cents' worth.

Nicodemus set a great example of how to start a dialog instead of a diatribe. Dialog can lead to relationship, and it's relationship that God seeks to restore with sinners. I am glad God wanted to reconcile with me, so why should I reject the opportunity to build relationship with my gay friends?

Tim
Thanks for your two cents, Tim. I'm with ya.
"Nobody should hold a strong opinion on homosexuality until she or he has personally interacted with someone who is gay."

Why? That's like saying, "No one should hold a strong opinion on murder until they have met someone who is a murderer (or someone close to them has been murdered). I'm not trying to equate the two (though all sins are equal before God, right?), but I think making the litmus of conviction man instead of God is a foolish place to begin.

If I read Scripture and I am convicted that homosexuality is wrong and that conviction is dismissed out of hand because I don't have any gay friends, what then does that say about which is supposed to be more authoritative in a person's life--God's word or personal experience?

I'm not disagreeing with your overall point here or disagreeing so I can hold to some hateful position, but I think your criteria for conviction is untenable and elevates man's viewpoint above God's. This is not to say that we should hold to some strong opinion and it be devoid of human relationship. Any theology or conviction that does not touch heaven and kiss earth is of little value. But, I really think you've set up a false dichotomy with that particular statement...one that has been fed to us not from Scripture but from the prevailing culture...
I do not agree with this approach to moral philosophy. Up front, let me say that I am a heterosexual atheist who views gays no different than anyone else.

But here, I'm inclined to agree with C. E'Jon Moore for very different reasons--not the part about it putting man above god, but I agree with his analogy. Though it may come off as hyperbolic, C.E. states he or she is not making a moral equivalence but only applying the approach to its logical conclusion. I could take it even further. I've never met a slave or a slave master, though I doubt you'll suggest that I can't have a valid opinion about slavery until I do.

Though I think personally knowing people of a minority group is often the best way of debunking negative stereotypes, I see no reason why a rational person should require such personal interaction to learn the lesson that all men and women ought to be treated equally regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, class, etc. For instance, I've never met a Sioux Indian before, but I don't need to have met a Sioux Indian to know our differences are merely superficial and that they deserve to be treated with the same level of respect and fairness that I wish to be treated myself. Simply being a human being with a functioning pre-frontal cortex that generates feelings of empathy is all that is necessary.

I find that the kind of personal experience argument you're making is very similar to what I observe among political conservatives. Perhaps one of the only redeeming qualities of Dick Chaney was that he differed with his party on gay rights. Of course, the only reason he thought differently was that he happened to have a gay daughter. Then there's Meghan Kelley, who as Jon Stewart so wonderfully pointed out, was a staunch opponent of maternity leave...until she needed it herself. Then suddenly, she publicly condemned a colleague for saying negative things about maternity leave similar to what she previously said herself.

I don't think one should limit one's moral positions to what can be observed. I think a healthy sense of empathy aided with an education in history and moral philosophy make the best foundation for ethical decision-making. Where personal experience is most useful is in debunking negative stereotypes.
@ C.E'Jon Moore: Thanks for the dialogue. I respect your idea that God ought to be our litmus for morality - but to equate Scripture with God is dangerous in my opinion. I think that we might have a different approach to the Bible. I don't equate Scripture with God; I see it as a man-made, God-inspired collection of writings. I worry that your approach would have us all wearing pure polyester and not allowing women to preach, etc.

I think that a conviction solely from reading Scripture and not tested in the context of human community is silly. This is why I follow Wesley's quadrilateral, which attempts to form our beliefs through Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. I don't believe that the Bible contains ALL of morality for ALL times; I believe God is still speaking.

Lastly, I disagree that my point is untenable for THIS particular topic. Sure, it might be hard to find a murderer to hang out with, but a gay person? Also, even though you say you're not trying to equate murder and homosexuality, I feel that you actually are, and you built a point on it. We can't build a system of morality that doesn't take seriously the nuances and significant differences between things like murder and love.
@Michael Rosch: Thanks for your comment too. Again, I agree with you and C.E'Jon that we can and should hold convictions on things that we have never encountered (Didn't I say this in the end of the article!?!?).

The thing is, I'm writing to a specific audience here. I'm writing to Christians who use the Bible as a way to build an all-encompassing system of morality WITHOUT ever actually encountering PEOPLE. You say that a "rational person" does not need personal interaction to learn that people need to be treated equally, but there are many Christians who think that they are "rational" because "the Bible says..." And they end up doing the exact opposite of what you hope for (i.e. condemning LGBTQQ).

I agree with, Michael, that our morality should be guided by empathy, education, and other things. But you must understand that I come for a Christian culture where those things do not have the final word. For most Christians, the Bible is the "final word" on morality. And that is why I am urging Christians to withhold a strong opinion on THIS particular issue before they go out and meet LGBT.
I'm a heterosexual Christian male that embraces a Christian world view and I'm deeply committed to living that world view as consistently as I possibly can.

Living that means that treating human beings with the value that God created them to have(being created in the image of God). Because of them being created in the image of God, we ought to treat them with kindness, reverence and justice.

Homosexuality is not something that should be destroyed or stamped out by harming human beings, but at the same time it is also not morally benign and should be encouraged either.
These are two radically different views of the issue and the they are the sides that most take. Both of those view do not align themselves with a biblical, Christian world view.

Rather we need to understand that the bible teaches that homosexuality is immoral. The bible does not leave any room for confusion about this point. If you don't believe that, perhaps we could discuss this aspect of the issue further. Nevertheless, it teaches that human beings are valuable in themselves and therefore you don't mistreat them.

There is no reason that we can't make the claim that homosexuality is immoral and still treat homosexuals with respect and kindness.

Christians should be among the very first to condemn any kind of mistreatment to homosexuals and any other human beings for that matter.

We ought to condemn the treatment of homosexuals, but not the moral point of view. The moral point of view is sound. But the treatment doesn't follow from the moral point of view.

You could say that homosexuality is immoral just like we say a lot of other things are immoral. But something being immoral does not give the right to mistreat other human beings. I think it's very important that we understand that.

And if that was the point of your article, I would champion it. My fear is that is not the point.
"There is no reason that we can't make the claim that homosexuality is immoral and still treat homosexuals with respect and kindness.

Christians should be among the very first to condemn any kind of mistreatment to homosexuals and any other human beings for that matter."

Well said, Albert. This is what I'm getting at. For me this gets to the heart of the gospel. We can, in fact, say "X" is immoral, while also loving and embracing others. Such is the scandal of grace in my opinion.
Michael's earlier comment regarding political affiliation and modes of moral thinking related to experience started me thinking about Joshua's piece and the question of how knowing someone or a person who is an exemplar of a group affects our moral judgements.

It seems to me that there are some basic issues of social psychology at play here. The so-called "fundamental attribution error" suggests that we tend to view the faults of others as due more to internal factors than to circumstances. In other words, our moral intuition about others would assume they act out of disposition or volition, e.g. bad intent, rather than circumstance, e.g. out of need or compulsion. This mirrors the LGBT debate, in which pro LGBT advocates tend to say orientation is part of in-born nature and anti LGBT advocates tend to say it is a choice.

Actually knowing a person in multiple contexts tends to mitigate attribution error (as I've written before http://www.capitalcommentary.org/civil-discourse/come-now-let-us-reason-together—civil-discourse-and-cognitive-bias), so in this respect would incline people to view the actions of others as deriving from a more complex set of causes. That's certain to have a practical effect on our moral judgements, particularly how we make them intuitively.

And those intuitive judgements, in fact, may be what matters. Jonathan Haidt suggests that they basically define our moral views and our reasoned arguments are just post-hoc justifications.

That's not so encouraging for those of us that want moral judgements to be grounded in something deeper than intuition (though it does have the positive effect of helping us see one another as more fully human).

Curiously, Haidt suggests (contra Michael) that right-leaning moral opinions typically are grounded in a more comprehensive set of moral principles than left-leaning moral opinions (which typically arise solely out of notions of care/harm [i.e., utilitarianism] and freedom/autonomy [i.e., liberalism]).

So, in practice, most of of our views have little basis in a robust moral vision, despite our justifications. Perhaps the only cure is having many discussions about what our moral principles are, which is why this forum is welcome.

js
Those are profound insights, Jason. Thanks for sharing. One of the things that captured my attention was what you wrote about the role of intuition in forming our moral judgments. Perhaps it's because I'm more of a "feeler" (ENFJ on the Myers Briggs), but I believe that we need to take more seriously the role of feelings and intuition in our theology, ethics, etc. I tend to think that we're still suffering from post-Enlightenment obsession with reason and "objective" principles.

 

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