“Great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions”Inclusivity
Steve Harper entered the 2014 Lenten season firm in his faith and outlook on life as a Methodist. He emerged a changed man.
As he prayed and fasted that spring, he read from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. And this prayer started working on him:
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior,
the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the
great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away
all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body
and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith,
one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all
of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth
and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and
one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
That line about “unhappy divisions” and “hatred and prejudice” stayed with him.
And he contemplated the tumult in the Methodist Church about marriage and ordination of LGBTQ people. Harper said he hadn’t questioned the longstanding ban
“I entered Lent 2014 with a non-affirming theology. Then I had an enough-is-enough experience, and I was on a different journey,” Harper said. “I wasn’t out to change the world, but I realized I had been doing harm to the LGBTQ community. I became an advocate and ally.”
That was a huge conversion experience for Harper, a retired seminary professor who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. He has written 22 books and co-written 19 others and frequently speaks at conferences.
His most recent book is “Holy Love: A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality,” that full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the church is compatible with biblical, Christian teaching.
After that experience, Harper said he read about the LGBTQ experience.
|Steve Harper preaching|
“I read across the spectrum, conservatives to progressive. It was a wonderful experience. It confirmed for me that it was time for me to leave behind my conservative theology and move toward a progressive theology.”
Abingdon Press asked Harper to write “Holy Love” as a primer for small groups or Sunday school classes. The book answers the question, “Is there more than one way to look at this.”
The answer is yes, Harper said.
“It’s no different than before,” Harper said. “I held the Bible when I was against them, and now I continue to hold the Bible as an advocate.”
Harper said the Bible hasn’t changed, but his understanding of it has, starting with Genesis. For instance, Harper now understands that things are created on a spectrum, whether it’s night and day or male and female.
“We know that night isn’t one thing and day another. It’s the same with male and female,” he said. “We are so accustomed to variety, we accept this in so many ways. It seems strange that Christians don’t have a conversation about sexual variety.”
Harper said sexual sin occurs across the spectrum, not around gender, but around the covenant two people enter into in marriage.
“We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, but not because we’re gay or straight,” Harper said.
The often-quoted passage about homosexuality being an abomination comes from Leviticus, which was a “holiness code” for how the Israelites were to avoid idolatry living among the pagan Canaanites.
The code also bans using two fabrics in the same coat and not planting two crops in the same field. Bans that no one pays attention to today, except for the one about homosexuality.
“It’s not talking about orientation but about participating with Canaanite male prostitutes in idol worship. It’s about idolatry, not sexuality and not lifelong committed love,” Harper said.
|Heather Harding, pastor at Tuskawilla UMC, and Steve and Jeannie Harper|
Harper said he does not intend to be a debater but a witness to what the Bible says.
“I’m trying to say to any Christian, are you willing to do your homework and not take someone else’s word for it.”
Though he knows some people will always disagree with him, his book and his outlook are getting a positive reception in many places.
The Rev. Heather Harding, pastor of Tuskawilla United Methodist Church in Casselberry, invited Harper to speak at Sunday school and a worship service.
“Steve is a friend and mentor. He’s one of the people who was instrumental in my call to ministry,” Harding said. “Steve is wise and gentle. I would like my congregation to hear other voices.”
Harper said his goal is to have a civil and beneficial discussion, not a shouting match or debate.
“We can’t even agree about how to baptize or whether to use grape juice or wine,” he said. “Shouldn’t we have the same conversation about sexuality that we have had already about many other things. It’s an open conversation, a civil conversation.”
--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer in Jacksonville.
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