Many of you have asked me to jot down a few thoughts on sexuality and the Church. For the purposes of this post, I am not presenting an argument or taking a position. My aims here are as follows:
- To provide an outline and summary of some of the important issues in this discussion. My hope is that individuals, church leaders, and others will find the summary helpful in their discernment.
- To obliterate all simplistic and absolutist interpretations, and to demonstrate the incredible complexity of this issue..
- To challenge folks from all sides of the discussion to think more carefully and to be more gracious towards others who do not share their position.
I am fully aware that it is nearly impossible to engage with this sort of issue without being critiqued by folks from every angle. I simply ask that you be gracious, constructive, and instructive. I am always happy to be corrected where necessary, but please know that I will delete uncharitable comments without hesitation.
Brief background: I minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination which, after a number of recent changes to church government and our constitution, makes it possible for churches to ordain men and women who participate in sexually active, same-gender relationships (one might summarize this description as “gay,” but I’m unconvinced that “gay” assumes sexual activity). Churches are required to make this determination under the guidance of scripture and the confessions. As such, varying interpretations have resulted in varied practice. My current ministerial call has blessed me with ministry to several people who identify themselves as both gay and Christian. As such, this is not merely an academic issue for me; it is a personal one. I do not pretend to have any or all of the answers, but I have indeed spent a lot of time studying the issue as honestly and as carefully as possible.
Terminology. “Homosexuality” is a modern term, originating in the late 1860s. It does not appear that “homosexuality” was understood in the ancient or biblical world as it is today. In fact, many homosexual people prefer the term “gay” since it is a less scientific, and for some, a less dehumanizing designation.
Identity and Ontology. By way of postmodernity, popular culture now largely assumes that sexuality is a fundamental ontological category. That is, at our core, we are not defined by heritage, ancestry, tradition, geography, location, personality, or even as being made in the image of God (this final category is, of course, where the Church has to get its act together). Instead, we are sexual, and we are a certain type of sexual. “Coming out” has thus become an enormously burdensome matter because one feels the pressure of proclaiming and displaying the very core of their identity. Rejection thus means rejection of their existence as a human being. I should add to this point that this ontology of sexuality makes the separation of “orientation” from “act” rather tenuous.
Historical and Cultural Context. “O Philip Melanchthon!… A hundred times when worn out with labors and oppressed with so many troubles, didst thou repose thy head familiarly on my breast and say: ‘Would that I could die in this bosom!’ Since then I have a thousand times wished that it had been granted to us to live together” (Reformation Theologian John Calvin,1561, a year after the death of his friend Philip Melancthon). Had Calvin written this today, would our society label him “gay?” (He wasn’t). We need to recognize how history and culture shapes what is “acceptable” in same-sex relationships. If American pastors today, following the apostle Paul, instructed the men of their congregation to kiss each other on the cheek (which is still practiced in many cultures), how would most modern, western Christians respond? Interestingly, many cultures to this day widely accept same-gender affection. In China and many parts of Africa, it is common for men walking down the street to hold hands. In the Korean Army, during their communal showers, it is common one soldier to scrub another’s back. (Thanks to Doug Dobbins for these insights).
Friendship. Is it possible today for two single men in their thirties to go out to dinner together to a nice restaurant without bearing the suspicion of homosexuality? What if they shop together? What if they live together? This is not merely a matter of dangerous stereotypes, it is a matter of shifts in cultural psychology and our definition of friendship.
Gender Stereotypes. Our culture seems to have perpetuated stereotypes that widen the gap between “acceptable” heterosexual identity and what we label “homosexual.” It would seem that straight men, in order act “straight,” need to enjoy sports, work with their hands, eat greasy food, dress a certain way, etc. Many single men, even straight men, who do not engage in these stereotypical activities, or who display characteristics that are often perceived less “masculine,” will tell you that they have been suspected of being gay.
Polarization and Confusion. Along the same lines as gender stereotype, society has polarized sexual identity and contributed to the sexual confusion of our culture, including the confusion experienced by some gay people. A young adolescent woman in a church youth group where I was ministering wondered whether or not she was gay, admittedly not because of any internal desires she felt, but due to her frustrating relationships with boys and the particular group of people with whom she identified. Eventually it became clear to her that she was not “gay,” but the confusion she experienced was rather telling of the sociological factors we as a society have precipitated and perpetuated.
As already suggested, one of the difficulties in addressing the gay question lies in the fact that there is so much confusion and inconsistency within heterosexuality. One often overlooked issue is familyolatry, the tendency for westerners to baptize the ideal of the nuclear family, even though Jesus clearly condemns this sort of idolatry. To be clear, I do not think that God is against two parents and and 2.5 kids, but I do think that God is displeased with how this formula has excluded the possibility of a broader, communal family identity insisted upon by Jesus and enacted in many other cultures. The “ideal” American family has become so ingrained within the Christian community that it has unintentionally brought devastation to gay men and women who fear that attaining that “dream” is impossible. As I learned through a gay friend, the prospect of not realizing this “dream”, more so than any concern for sexual fulfillment, is often the substance of a gay person’s pain and fear.
The Gay Experience
Spectrum. There is a vast spectrum of gay people. Gay people understand this; Straight people do not. Using broad brush strokes to define the gay population is not only offensive, but also very inaccurate. Many evangelical Christians will read the account of a gay-turned-straight person and assume that all gay people can simply go through the same transformation if they pray hard enough or do all the right things. This is not true. Some gay people fall in the middle of the spectrum where such a change of attraction may be possible if they desire it. Others, however, will find such a change virtually impossible.
Nature/Nurture. Some gay people will tell you that their childhood or home life clearly precipitated and informed their orientation and/or desires. It is true that many gay people come from terribly broken families and situations. However, others do not, and they simply have no explanation other than, “this is who I am.” Period. (See Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting). For some, the “choice” to be gay is no more a choice than an American’s choice to grow up speaking English. English is not a biological disposition, but when was the last time you tried to un-learn it? (Yes, the analogy is imperfect, but I stand by my point). The church needs to drop the nature/nurture angle because it is theologically suspect. After all, we believe that the world is a fallen place, and that we are born into sin and brokeness. Thus, nature and nurture are far more fluid and interwoven. Do we not employ all sorts of habits, disciplines, liturgies, and practices that we hope will make us more Christian? Surely we would assume and even hope that such “nurture” would inform our “nature.”
Gay Christians and Scripture. Many openly gay Christians believe and accept the passages that the church has traditionally used to argue against homosexuality. However, instead of seeing such biblical texts as a moral argument against homosexuality, they see them as opposing particular expressions of promiscuity, relational abuse, sexual exploitation, idolatry, and godlessness. In the mind of some gay Christians, one can be faithful, monogamous, and Godhonoring in their love for their spouse or partner. As Rowan Williams puts it ,“There are plenty of Christians of homosexual inclination who would say something like this: ‘I want to live in obedience to God; I truly, prayerfully and conscientiously do not recognize Romans 1 as describing what I am or what I want. I am not rejecting something I know in the depth of my being. I struggle against the many inducements to live in promiscuous rapacity — not without cost. I do not believe my identity as a desiring being is a complicated and embarrassing extra in my humanity as created by God. And it is hard to hear good news from the Church if it insists that my condition is in itself spiritually compromised.’” (From: The Way Forward?)
Hopes of Gay Christians. One of the more heartbreaking aspects of the church’s dilemma is that there are many gay people who simply want a spouse, a family, things which most take for granted. The church often overlooks this part of the gay experience. It is often assumed that the primary desire of gay people is no more than same-sex intercourse. But how does the church respond to the gay Christian who wants to live a holy, sinless life that includes marriage and family?
Fear. Perhaps more serious than the problem of homophobia is the fear that that it instills within many gay people. Many hide in fear of being “detected.” It has prompted self loathing, deep insecurity, and a high rate of suicide among gay people.
The Ancient World
Ancient Near East. As noted above under “terminology,” for many cultures of the Ancient Near East, sexuality was not regarded as either homo- or hetero-, but rather as a vast spectrum of preference and social statuses/roles. ” The central distinction in sexual morality was the distinction between active and passive roles. The gender of the object… is not in itself morally problematic. Boys and women are very often treated interchangeably as objects of [male] desire. What is socially important is to penetrate rather than to be penetrated. Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of some thing to someone…” (Nussbaum, Philosophical Interventions, 73)
Israel. Israel was unique in its de-sexualization of God. The God of the Hebrew Bible, unlike most other God’s of the Ancient Near East, was not a “sexual” God. In Egyptian religion, the god Osiris had sexual relations with his sister; In Canaan, El, the chief god, had sex with Asherah. In Hindu belief, the god Krishna was sexually active; In Greek beliefs, Zeus married Hera, chased women, abducted the beautiful young male, Ganymede, and masturbated at other times; Poseidon married Amphitrite, pursued Demeter, and raped Tantalus. In Rome, the gods sexually pursued both men and women (See Prager, “Judaism’s Sexual Revolution”).
Temple cult. Israel was unique in her early rejection of temple/cult male prostitution. The Bible records that the Judean king Asa “put away the qdeshim [temple male prostitutes] out of the land”; that his successor, Jehosaphat put away out of the land …the remnant of the qdeshim that remained in the days of his father Asa”; and that later, King Josiah, in his religious reforms, “broke down the houses of the qdeshim.” (See Prager, Ibid)
First Century Context. Classical Greek literature, before and after the New Testament, demonstrates a wide range of homosexual relationships. Many of these relationships were based on social status, prostitution, pederasty, or other such practices. Still, others were likely of the same social order and were consensual.
The Bible says “No,” but… Many who want to affirm same-sex intercourse as an acceptable christian practice nevertheless acknowledge that when the Bible does talk about same-sex intercourse, it condemns it. The question, however, is what kind of same-sex intercourse is being condemned? Prostitution? Pederasty? Exploitation? Any form of same-gender sexual intercourse? Did the authors of scripture ever encounter loving, monogamous, sexually-active, gay relationships? If not, is using scripture to address the circumstances of such relationships today appropriate? Ganted, the biblical authors were likely exposed to a wide variety of sexual expression. Ancient literature, including Greco-Roman literature, demonstrates wide range of homosexual practice; it is difficult to for me to assume that biblical authors – not least, Paul – had never encountered loving, monogamous homosexual relationships. Nevertheless, it is speculation.
Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m unconvinced that same-sex intercourse is the primary concern of these passages. According to Ezekiel, condemnation of same gender sexual intimacy is not the point of the story. Rather, Ezekiel compares the sins of Jerusalem with those of Sodom, which he says had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Sodom and Gomorrah, which were basically wealthy, gated communities, had disobeyed the law of hospitality.
Word Studies. Many have narrowed the debate to two word studies, specifically the Greek words “arsenokoitai” and “malakoi.” These words have proven to be nutoriously difficult to translate and understand. “Arsenokotai,” found in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1, and translated in all sorts of ways (sodomites, homosexual offenders, etc), is relatively rare. Its appearance in ancient Greek literature is (1) limited to Paul and later usage which appears to be dependent on Paul and (2) in some instances appears to be an economic term, e.g. exploitation. “Malakoi” is widely used throughout ancient literature but also difficult to translate (often “male prostitutes”). It is used in other places, not least by Jesus, as meaning “soft” (e.g. “soft” robes in Matthew 11, Luke 7), but in the context of sexuality probably means effeminate, or weak, perhaps referring to the passive sexual partner, especially young boys.
Leviticus and “arsenokoitai”. The prohibitions against same-gender sexual intercourse in Leviticus 18 and 20 present Christians with a very complicated issue of interpretation. Due to the complex nature of interpreting and applying Leviticus, the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26, which says “a man lying with another man as if with a woman” is an “abomination” (Lev 20:13) cannot definitively provide us with answers on its own terms. If it is a self-contained moral injunction, then one must also concede that we ought not to be eating shellfish or wearing clothers that are made of mixed fibers. Christian interpretation requires that Leviticus be read Christologically (i.e. in light of the gospel), and where clearly intended, through the lens of the New Testament. Some traditionals methods of interpretation have long made a distinction betwen the civil, ceremonial, and moral law in the Old Testament, because the NT appears to retain much of moral law while discarding elements of the civil and ceremonial law. As such, one must continue to love their neighbor (Lev 19,) but do not have to be circumcised. However, these distinctions are not always clear, especially since the good follks of anitiquity didn’t compartmentalize “moral” and “ceremonial” as much as we moderns (this is why Paul’s instructions for Jew-Gentile relations in the NT are so scandalous and difficult for us to understand). So, what about the passage in question? The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) of Leviticus 20:13 reads, “Whoever lies with a man as with a woman [meta arsenos koiten gynaikos], they have both done an abomination.” Paul, in 1 Cor 6, appears to have coined a compound word from this passage, “arsenokoitai,” in which case the prohibition against male-male sex would be retained as moral law in the NT. I do not think this is a “slam dunk” for traditional interpretations, but it is a more exegetically responsible approach to Leviticus, a book which, for Christians, makes little sense without the NT. Early Christians knew this, Westboro Baptists et co apparently do not.
NT Context. One of the difficultes encountered in interpreting the above passages lies in understanding their context. We know that in both Corinth and Ephesus (the context of 1 Tim), religious prostitution, incest, and other forms of cultic sexual practice was a factor. Thus, one must more carefully consider whether Paul has a broader definition of same-sex intercourse in mind, or only that which is practiced in the contexts of those receiving his letters.
Romans. The most significant passage in the scriptural debate is Romans 1. Here, one is not dependent on translating “arsenokoitai,” “malakoi,” or any other particular word for that matter. Rather, several questions arise about the broader context of Romans 1 in the biblical narrative and the mind of Paul. Far from a temple cult context, “unnatural desire” is whats at stake. But unnatural to whom? Some have suggested that Paul is speaking of those who are betraying their natural desires and acting in an unnatural way. Others who oppose this view have suggested that Paul has in mind something akin to “natural law.” This passage has proven to be a significant obstacle for those who wish to affirm same-gender intercourse on a biblical basis. Instead of an ad hoc usage, it appears that Paul is situating his argument against the backdrop of creation and the fall of mankind (Genesis 1-3).
Positive NT Statements. Folks often point out that Jesus never addresses homosexuality, and it therefore must be acceptable. Obviously, this argument from silence is not really an argument at all. All we can really say with respect to Jesus, based on the extant evidence of the New Testament, is that he appears to assume and support monogamous heterosexual marriage as a normative social convention. We can only speculate as to how Jesus might have addressed a gay person (but I do think on this point the burden of proof lies with the more progressive interpretation). Paul in Ephesians describes the union of husband and wife as analogous to the mysterious union of Christ and the Church. The important point is that while much of the debate is over whether or not scripture prohibits same-sex intercourse, scripture never positively affirms same-sex intercourse.
Additional Theological Issues
Creation. Because the debate clearly cannot rest on word studies or even individual passages of scripture, many have rightly taken a step back and considered the issue from a broader theological perspective. “Creation” plays a major role at this level of the debate, not least due to its apparent function in Romans 1. But is the male-female union of flesh essential to God’s creation? How does this argument hold up if we look at creation through Christological lens? If creation is for, by, and through Christ, what does this say about “gender” and “sexuality” with respect to creation?
Be fruitful and multiply? If heterosexuality is the design of God, what is its purpose? Is there a “final cause” as Aristotle might put it? Is there a teleological argument? If it is to be fruitful and multiply, then most Christians have a lot of answering to do. Is the primary purpose of sex intimacy and pleasure or is it making babies? If the former, its difficult for those opposed to the acceptance of gay sex to base their argument on the creation mandate. If the latter, why contraception? Why birth control? Why planning convenient times to have children based on our goals, plans, and perceived financial security? (My Roman Catholic friends might offer an “I told you so” on this point, but the truth is that contraception and birth control rates among Catholics are surprisingly high.)
Sin. Obviously one of the central issues whether or not same-sex intercourse is sin. But what is sin? In my own denomination, sin is defined as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 14). This definition of sin is not used by all communions. For instance, the Orthodox church understands sin in terms of our verious passions. Such a definition could prove helpful since it challenges all to deal with various desires and temptations, not just “outward” expression.
History of Bible Interpretation. While the slavery/women/gays grouping is not always helpful (my view is that scripture addresses these groups in different ways for different reasons), it is instructive for us to consider how we understand the history of biblical interpretation. We must ask ourselves, “Given the way I read scripture, If I were a slaveowner in 1840 in the southern U.S., what would I have thought about slave rights and/or emancipation?” While this question only provides counter-factual conjecture, our honesty on this point may have us reconsider how we interpret the bible in light of historical circumstances. What historical/cultural factors are influencing our reading of scripture, in either direction for that matter? No one is off the hook.
God’s work in History. Following the same line of thought, is it possible for God to bring about new interpretations, insights, and methods for theological interpretation? In some ways, this was the case when Peter was being told in Acts 10 to “kill and eat” even though this was clearly against the biblical laws that he had followed his whole life. What parameters are we given for answering such questions responsibly and Christianly? The history of biblical interpretation suggest that there are such parameters, but there needs to be a consistent way of establishing, respecting, and employing them.
Hypocrisy. Even if a Christian has concluded that any instance of same-gender sexual intercourse is outside of God’s will, where is the outrage over the overwhelming “heterosexual” sinfulness that pervades every corner of society? Where is the prophetic indictment against infidelity, premarital sex, sex outside of marriage, divorce, all forms of promiscuity, joking about sex, and other seemingly accepted norms that most say are outside of Christian orthodoxy?
Discipline. The breakdown of church discipline (which is not inherently punitive but is concerned with order, purity, and unity) in mainline communions has contributed to the impotence of churches when dealing with this issue. We lack the structures and avenues for appropriately addressing a vast majority of theological, ecclesiological, and moral concerns. Its difficult to play baseball when there are no foul lines or when the umpires are only there to get paid.
Catholicity. The vast majority of world Christendom condemns homosexual sex of any type. One cannot ignore this fact. If the unity of Christ’s body in the eschaton matters – and it does – then the Church must listen to, well, the Church. Additionally, the acceptance of homosexual practice in some communions is creating a gap between wealthy, white, western churches and the poorer churches of global south and east. This does not settle the debate, however. We can look back through history and see that “catholicity” does not preclude the need for “voices in the wilderness,” and therefore does not provide a slam-dunk argument for traditionalists, but it is an aspect of the debate that is often ignored.
Interpretation. Given the ongoing ecclesial fragmentation of the western world, individuals often presume to have unilateral access to the scriptures. But to what degree should interpretation be a corporate enterprise that takes historical continuity seriously? Are we being rash in our conclusions? Protestants are not off the hook here – the Church matters. How does biblical interpretation effect the life of the church and vice versa? Are our interpretations prompting division or unity? Discord or peace? Immorality or Purity?
Women. For the sake of argument, lets say Paul believes that homosexual sex is a violation of what was intended “since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). The problem is, Paul’s insistence in 1 Tim 2 that women should not have authority over men seems to be far more clearly and explicitly rooted in the order of creation, much more so than any argument concerning homosexauals in Romans 1. Those who wish to affirm women in ministry but reject homosexuality specifically on the basis of the order of creation have a bit of a problem on their hands.
Divorce. Does the church take Jesus at his word concerning divorce? I understand this is a sensitive and complicated issue, but thats precisely the point. Is it not hypocritical for various ecclesiastical communions to ordain divorced (or even divorced and remarried) people while condemning a healthy, monogamous partnership between two people of the same sex? A traditionalist might reply “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but in any case, it seems that the scriptures are far clearer regarding divorce, which God “hates” (Mal 2).
Engage. I remain very frustrated with Christians, not least many of my colleagues in ministry, who will not take the time to exegetically, theologically, pastorally, and ethically engage with what may well be the most pressing issue of our time. Make no mistake – The issue of homosexuality in the church is a crisis, and turning a blind eye is unfaithful and irresponsible. Such dismissal will render impotent our prophetic vocation as the church, and our witness to the world. The scriptures must be read, studied, interpreted, and proclaimed. We must seek the spirit’s guidance in this process.
Love. The failure or absolute unwillingness to love gay Christians and bear the burden of their deep struggle is all too common and is of course sinful. The vast majority of us know a gay person. Whatever your view on the morality of homosexuality, you have a moral obligation to love homosexual people. Do not judge them. It is not your job to sift through wheat and tares.
Listen.Listen to the experience of a gay person who truly wants to honor Christ. Listen to your community of faith as they reason together and seek God’s guidance. Listen to the communions of world Christendom. Listen to God as he speaks to you through his word, not matter how hard it may be to hear.
Deal with Sin. Wrestling with how to address the issue of homosexuality has brought upon me deep conviction about my hypocrisy and willful ignorance in many areas of my life, as a husband, friend, and minister. I find it hard to believe that any Christian could honestly struggle with this issue and not feel conviction over sin.
Burden Bearing. Do not belittle the experience of a gay Christian by ignoring their painful struggle. Should you chose to affirm same-sex intercourse as acceptable Christian practice, do not neglect the fact that gay people have experienced a lot of brokenness, crises of identity, societal prejudice, and oftentimes, dissonance as a human being.
Dangerous Assumptions. Many Christians assume that gay Christians must not care much for the scriptures or Church doctrine. This assumption is dangerous, as many gay Christians do intend and desire to take the scriptures seriously and are in fact quite “evangelical.” Some may take a vow of celibacy, so do not assume that they would not. To be sure, some gay Christians are turned off by “accepting” or “inclusive” churches that do not care for boundaries of orthodoxy. Thus these assumptions are relevant to both “traditionalist” and “progressive” camps – no one is off the hook.
Diversity. I am concerned that some think that the ordination of sexually active homosexuals is a great step in diversifying the church. This is naive. Even if mainline communions accept and affirm homosexual sex, it must not be celebrated as a token of “diversity.” Most mainline communions remain incredibly white, rich, and western. This is a sinful problem, and it is not going away anytime soon.
Charity. We must be charitable. According to the scriptures, truth is not truth unless it is spoken in love.