The Spirit versus the Letter

Posted 4/14/21

The church I serve as pastor affirms and supports the full rights of the LGBTQIA community. If not all of these letters are familiar, “I” generally stands for intersex, and “A” can stand for …

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The Spirit versus the Letter

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The church I serve as pastor affirms and supports the full rights of the LGBTQIA community. If not all of these letters are familiar, “I” generally stands for intersex, and “A” can stand for asexual (a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction) or ally (a person who is not LGBT, but who actively supports those communities). Such inclusion was not the case in every church in my denomination when I was in seminary just 10 years ago. We have come a long way in a short time.

As with slavery, civil rights and women’s rights, the biblical arguments for and against such modern issues as same-sex marriage boil down to a difference between what the Apostle Paul termed “the spirit” versus “the letter” of the law: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). The Bible is a library of ancient writings that are often influenced by the patriarchal, tribalistic worldviews common to antiquity. Yet, certain passages transcend both their time and ours, envisioning a radical, holy equality. Paul offered one such vision: “There is no male and female, for you are all one” (Galatians 3:28).

As a pastor, I’ve learned to make the biblical arguments in favor of the spirit rather than the letter of the law. But in my 10 years as a minister, I have learned the most from people who originally disagreed with inclusion and affirmation — individuals who have come a long way in a short time.

There was an elderly woman in my previous congregation who had a trans-gendered grandson. Initially, she wanted nothing to do with him. But when she learned that the young man’s parents had forbidden him to visit for the Christmas holidays, this grandmother flew all the way across the country to spend time with him instead of the rest of her family.

Before she left for this trip, she told me, “I figure I can either be right or I can be in relationship.” After her return, she viewed the situation with a different nuance. “I’ve come to believe that the only ‘right’ way is to be in relationship.”

She came to understand the spirit, not the letter, of the law.

This grandmother has since died, but I know what she would think of a bill filed in our state legislature last week. SB 514 would require teachers, guidance counselors, faculty and administrators to report “symptoms of gender nonconformity” to a student’s parents.

This bill would waste the time of educators by requiring them to parse such a vague definition. Does “gender nonconformity” mean the length of a student’s hair or style of pants? How about hobbies or extracurriculars?

Most of all, such focus on the letter of the law would denigrate the fundamental spirit of trust teachers and staff have with students. Schools should support students, not interrogate them.

Referring explicitly to SB 514 in an editorial for The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote, “The cruelest effect of such legislation, were it to pass, would be to force teachers, guidance counselors and other adults, whom children ought to be able to trust, to out trans and gender-nonconforming young people to their parents.”

I hope that houses of worship would offer life-giving relationships to youth, just as schools should. Bullying and other examples of violence against members of the LGBTQIA community tragically demonstrate how legalism can kill.

It’s true that we have come a long way in a short time. But all who care for justice equity must be vigilant unless we as a society actually go backwards.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His forthcoming book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”


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