Homosexuality and the Church
Over the course of the last few decades an issue has become increasingly pressing, an issue which in many ways is causing great discord and division within the life of the church as people take opposing sides, and seek to find truth and justice in different conclusions. Now this is not a new issue in itself, rather the newness comes in the change which has happened in surrounding society, and which has caused the church to re-examine its teaching on this issue, and seek to find how the Spirit is moving in our day and age. This issue is that of homosexuality, the sexual attraction and activity between members of the same sex. Throughout the course of the ages, this has been, for the most part, a universally condemned practice by Christian, and many other, societies. However, we are finding a new acceptance rising up in our culture, a new ethic which does not simply condemn, or at its best wink and look the other way, but instead accepts this practice, orientation, and lifestyle as valid and equal to that of heterosexuality. This topic is one of great complexity and broadness, and one which we will have to wrestle with for a very long time.
It is the goal of this paper to examine the issue of homosexuality more closely. But because of the great complexity of this issue, this paper is going to be extremely limited in the scope of what it will cover, and will make some assumptions which cannot be dealt with in more detail. I will not be addressing homosexuality in the wider cultural context, nor the various issues, such as domestic partnerships, which go along with such a discussion. My goal in this paper is to look at the place and role, if any, homosexuals have in Evangelical churches. However, because of the scope of even this limited question, I will not seek to give an exhaustive study of the various issues, nor necessarily provide clear-cut answers to the difficulties which are inherent in this discussion. Rather I will begin by laying out the basic assumptions which are foundational to an Evangelical context, then discuss the question itself in more detail, asking why should we want to come to some conclusions about ministering to homosexuals in our churches. Having done this, I will then evaluate some of the ways in which this question has been dealt with by various authors, and seek to determine whether their thoughts provide us with any real answers.
To begin to understand how we as Evangelicals should react to the issue of homosexuality within our church we must first look at what establishes the ethical foundations of who we are and what we believe. Brad Kallenberg lays out three guidelines in the description of two Evangelical scholars which are pertinent to our discussion. First, Evangelicals are “committed to the Biblical text as functioning authoritatively for the shaping of Christian identity.” The Bible is the basis for who we are as a people and defines what our ethics entail. While the issue of hermeneutics is still open, what is clear is that to alter, adjust, or re-evaluate a specific ethical question in the Evangelical world one must first wrestle with the pertinent Biblical texts to discover what light may be shed on a particular issue. The authoritative nature of the Bible is assumed within the Evangelical community and will be so in any response which is given. That this is not true in the wider world, and even in other Christian communities is certain. We, however, must look to the Bible first in order to even begin to debate the issue of homosexuality, and how as Christians we should respond to its presence within our community.
The second characteristic which Kallenberg identifies is that of the concern for character in our discussions. This includes the character of the individual as well as the character of the church body as a whole. We, as a community, are not isolated but understand that God is at work and we must take seriously how he is working in the lives of those around us. We must not wrestle with simply the theoretical, but must engage those around us, and work through the issues which are thrust upon us.
Finally, Kallenberg stresses the Evangelical concern for God’s moral law and reasoning which is part of God’s intent and purpose for who we are. We believe there is a moral pattern which God intended humanity to follow. As creatures created by the Creator, we are not simply left to do whatever we please, but rather have been placed in a world of specific rule and order, both physical and moral. Because of our fallen state, however, we understand this incompletely, and must therefore wrestle with various issues seeking to find God’s plan for who we are, and to seek to follow this plan as well as we possibly can. With these characteristics in mind, however, our goal is not to simply lay out a difficult ethic, but rather to glorify God in all that we do. With Evangelicals “the goal of theological work is not so much to know theology as to know God… theology must be done within a community of love and out of love for others, and in the awareness that the return of Jesus Christ and the day of accounting is near.”
This is why we must continue to look at the question of homosexuality. As the homosexual movement gains prestige and power, our daily contact with not only its message but also with those who are now able to admit to their own differing sexual orientation has drastically increased. While it may be easy to condemn those living a clearly hedonistic lifestyle, the true reality of the situation is immensely complex. How do we react to those who reflect a spiritual nature, who seek after salvation and Christ, and who genuinely seek truth, yet are sexually attracted to members of their same gender through no fault of their own? In the last twenty years the reaction has been, seemingly, to ignore the issue, to condemn the practice, but not allow any discussion concerning the reality of what people are dealing with, and where they feel their identity lies. Because of this the Church has alienated a group of people who we feel are, effectively, beyond the pale of Christ, who because of their particular sin have no place in our community of sinners. The Evangelical Church then becomes not the helper of widows and orphans, the friend to the outcast and prisoner, but rather the isolated, bigoted, community that carries signs like “God hates fags” and shows itself to be an unloving edifice in every possible way. This reaction is to go against the second characteristic of understanding the character of the individual and of the church which should be foundational to who we are.
Yet the other response to this question is to look at our homosexual relatives and friends, and to see their goodness and qualities, and to then adjust our views of homosexual behavior as a whole. Because the Spirit is moving in the lives of those who are homosexual, there are those who say that this must be a sign of acceptance and that maybe this is a lifestyle which we need to embrace and allow to exist within the framework of our churches. Yet, this seems to go against both the first of our foundational characteristics and the third. We must hold true to the Bible, and be consistently aware of the end and purposes for which God made us. It is clear then this is truly a complex issue that strikes at the very hearts of a great number of people, and an issue which is not simply going to go away. Indeed, it will likely become more pressing as the society around us becomes increasingly accepting, if not welcoming, of the homosexual identity. We must understand and formulate a response to this issue so that we can remain consistent to ourselves as a people and to Christ who calls us. We must be consistent to who we are in all aspects, reflecting in a profound mysterious way both the ideal and the broken, being both the voice of God’s moral dictates as well as a community which welcomes, invites, all with open arms, no matter where they fall on the scale of morality. Christ seemed able to walk this fine line in his brief ministry on earth but only at rare times can we see this successfully being played out in the life of the church. It is our calling, however, and we must pursue it. What then is the proper Evangelical response to this question of homosexuality and the church?
The beginning point for this answer is to first re-examine the Biblical texts to discover what this foundational source has to tell us about the issue of homosexuality, and any possible insights on how to relate to those who are dealing with a homosexual orientation. In the past several decades studies have arisen which have argued that the modern understanding of the homosexual lifestyle is simply not being addressed in the Biblical writings. That Paul, and others, condemn prostitution, pederasty, profligate living is certain, but the argument is raised whether he would, or did, condemn loving monogamous homosexual unions. This discussion in itself highly complex and charged, yet an interesting result has been arrived at by various scholars.
This past century in general has seen an explosion of interest in the study, and re-examination, of the Biblical texts on many issues, and has resulted in a Church which is different in fundamental ways from even a century ago. Yet, scholars are increasingly coming to the conclusion that while the Bible is not thorough on the topic of homosexuality, it is in fact unwavering in its rejection of any sort of homosexual activity, for whatever reason or situation. Richard B. Hays announces after his study that “though only a few biblical texts speak of homoerotic activity, all of them express unqualified disapproval.” And R.T. France summarizes his study by saying that “the total condemnation of homosexual behavior seems inescapable”. Wolfhart Pannenberg states that “The Bible’s assessments of homosexual practice are unambiguous in their pointed rejection, and all its statements on this subject agree without exception.” While various passages may not be as clear cut as some may desire, a reading of the biblical record points to a rejection of this lifestyle as acceptable for believers.
There can be several different types of reactions to this understanding. The first is to simply reject the Biblical perspective as being irrelevant for whatever reason, and to express that we are living in a new age which allows for a change in our ethic. This view, however, is convincing only for those who do not hold to a very high view of the Bible to begin with. It bypasses the Biblical argument completely, and thus does not fully deal with the first standard of Evangelical theology of holding to the Bible as a guide and measure for who we are. Another response is to be responsive to the spirituality of particular homosexuals, and to attempt to find an understanding of the texts which allows us as a community to accept those who are homosexuals.
Various arguments have been put forth expressing that while the Biblical texts are clear on their condemnation of homosexuality, there are ways in which other issues we have dealt with as a church allows and points toward a changing hermeneutic on this issue. Luke Timothy Johnson suggests that one such way of understanding a modern acceptance of homosexuality is to correlate it with the issue of accepting Gentiles in the New Testament. He defines hermeneutics as “involving the complex task of negotiating normative texts and continuing human experiences” and cautions us “against trying to suppress biblical texts that condemn homosexual behavior (Lev. 18:22; Wisd. 14:26; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9) or to make them say something other than what they say.” Yet, the Bible does allow us to interpret passages according to the activity of the Spirit in our day and age, and that in the same way that Jews had to accept Gentiles because of the activity of the Holy Spirit in their lives, so we too must look at the activity of the Spirit in the lives of homosexuals. While he does not give a definite answer, he does raise a question which must be dealt with. This then becomes not a question of what the Bible says, but rather how we are allowed to read and understand the texts which we are given.
R.T. France raises a similar argument in his article. He, however, does not focus on the idea of Gentiles, but rather on the ordination and ministry of women within the church. This, to me, seems a stronger argument. For while in the Bible we are given ample argument and justification not only from church debates, but also thorough examination of the Old Testament, about the acceptance of Gentiles there is no similar argument or ability to create a similar appeal for the acceptance of homosexuality. We read throughout the prophets of both God’s condemnation and eventual acceptance of all the nations, but do not ever find a similar acceptance for those of differing sexual orientation. Israel itself was called to be a light to the nations, and the New Testament contains not a change of activity, but a reminder of what the call has always been.
In looking at the ministry of women, however, there are several important texts which seem to clearly prohibit the leadership of women within the church setting, and yet in our day and age we feel able to ignore these statements in all but a few churches. Yet, as France points out, this argument (and the one put forth by Johnson) falls into the fallacy of trying to make issues which have some similarities into exact parallels. By showing that these two issues are in fact different in understanding, context, and interpretation, France reminds us that we must be continually discerning in how we read. In looking at the issue of women in ministry he tells us that we are “confronted with a tension between two strands of biblical material which appear to lead us in different directions” yet in looking at homosexuality we find that it is simply not “in accordance with God’s design for human creation.” While societal pressures have required the church to re-examine its understanding of key issues within the Bible, the results of this re-examination are not the same. With women, and gentiles early on, deeper study revealed the acceptance which is in fact inherent in the text, while with homosexuals the traditional Christian view has been firmly upheld. Hermeneutics, in this case, does not give us leeway to change our ethic.
Lewis Smedes takes a slightly different approach on this topic. Rather than arguing the Biblical record, he looks at another issue which the church has seemingly changed its ethic, not because of found Biblical justification, but simply because of seeming community requirements. He expresses that when he was young those who were divorced and remarried were prevented from full communion with the church because church teaching declared this to be adultery. However, as we all know, divorce is now if not encouraged, at least accepted as being part of living in a sinful world which we all must grieve over but not subject those who are divorced to community judgment. In the same way, Smedes argues, a changing ethic is needed for the Evangelical community. While not necessarily an original part of God’s plan, homosexuals are now prevalent in our society, and in many cases genuinely seeking after God. And since the realities of this world are such that homosexuals cannot change who they are, except in very rare circumstances if at all, we must learn to find room for such as these around our tables. Of course, the ethic of responsible monogamy, equivalent to marriage, is certainly a standard, the gender of who one is attracted to is not. Thus, just as a divorced, and remarried person can now have communion with the church, so too, according to Smedes, can a monogamous, loving homosexual have communion with the church, believing that “God blesses us when we improvise on nature’s lapses”.
The argument raised here again deals with the hermeneutical justification between making similar issues equivalent. While certain verses do prohibit remarriage, the entire tone of the Bible does not condemn it. With this issue we return to the idea different strands leading us in different directions as mentioned by France. Yet, while I may disagree with the interpretation of Smedes, he certainly raises some interesting questions about who we are as a community. Though quite adamant about ever preventing homosexuals being a part of our churches, the Evangelical church has become somewhat inconsistent in its moral proclamations. We do not speak with the same forcefulness about divorce, as Smedes points out, nor in fact any other issue of sexual ethics. Indeed, some “sins” are encouraged in the church. Can we say that the Evangelical church has been Biblical in its proclamations about greed? It seems more likely that our churches in fact are seen as extremely greedy institutions. We often choose board members of churches and Christian organizations, not because of their spiritual or Biblical knowledge, but rather due to their business acumen. Yet, in the ethical area of homosexuality we are without grace or flexibility, able to forgive and embrace one who divorces or is greedy, but not one who is gay. Smedes argues that the response to this discrepancy should be to allow homosexuals into our community of sinners, just as we do others who are fallen and deal with various results of this fallenness.
This does indeed raise a complicated question, and one I feel must be addressed by the church at large. To engage in hurtful polemic against the gay community, to “circle the wagons” against homosexual infiltration, and to withhold compassion from those who are full of hurt and dealing with issues such as AIDS is to essentially resign from many requirements which comes with being the church. It can be argued that if Jesus were to walk the earth today, he would meet with and embrace those in the homosexual community. Yet, would he allow full communion with his church, if they do not admit to the sinfulness of their activity? As individuals homosexuals are creations of God, and worthy of the love the church has to offer. Yet, by forgetting or ignoring the clear Biblical mandate prohibiting homosexual activity, we are likewise not being faithful to the call which we have been given to this world. Rather than simply giving into societal influence, or on the other side to injustice or hate, we must find the role and place which God has intended for us. This is not easy, nor are there clear answers. And in dealing with this issue we may have to address our laxity in other areas of moral discourse, looking not only at our words, but also our actions.
With divorce rates and extra-marital sexual activity at rates equal to society around us, we as a church have lost much of our moral voice. Our lack of love, our selfish greed, and our “us versus them” mentality have caused many to stop listening to what we have to say. In being so focused on the character of the homosexual we have lost sight of our character as the church. In dealing with homosexuality and the church we must face the fact that we are indeed required to be consistent in our ethical standards, and that some sins are not more unacceptable than others, but with this also understanding that any sin which is not addressed or dealt with as such will ruin our effectiveness in this world. One issue which has not been raised, but is a useful comparison, is that of how the Church has dealt with abortion in the last few years. We have grown in our consciousness about the evil of this practice, proclaiming more and more the sin which is entailed in it, yet at the same exact time increasing our compassion, reaching out to those within our church, and reaching out to those who are struggling with this difficult decision. By being both compassionate and bold, we are seeing changes within society as a whole.
In dealing with homosexuality we must follow the same route. As a Church we are bound to the Bible and tradition which clearly prohibits homosexual activity, yet we must remember that we, if anyone, are to be bearers of love and compassion. H. Richard Niebuhr lays out three mandates for the church which we must follow if we are to truly be the church. As Apostles we are to be bold in proclaiming the Biblical message, both the condemnation of sin and the good news of reconciliation with God. By watering down this message we risk losing our own soul, and by succumbing to societal influence we lose our voice in addressing the issues as truly needed. If we do not proclaim truth, we are no good for anyone.
As Pioneers we must be willing to expand both our message and our activities, reaching out especially to those in the church who are dealing with homosexual inclinations or are caught up in such activities. Because of our compassionless voice, many of those struggling with this issue have sought refuge in the very loving and accepting gay community, whose ethical standards and beliefs are sharply contrary to the Christian. This creates more confusion for the entire church. We must show compassion and love, yet maintain our standard, and lead the way in reaching out to those in the homosexual community who are indeed hurt, confused, and sick. In addition, we must recover our understanding of ourselves as a community. In the Western church, individualism has reigned, so that for someone to find intimacy, one must often go outside of both the Christian ethic and church.
As Pastors we must broaden this pioneering in recovering our voice to the world. We must show compassion and love for those who live in stark contrast to what we teach, and bring them over to the side of truth, not by hurtful polemic, but by showing ourselves to be true messengers of love. Our ethics are not our message, Christ is the good news that we offer, so we must be bearers of this good news to all people. We must reach out to those who are homosexual, and show compassion for their struggles, and encourage other institutions (such as AIDS research, hospices, and counseling for those confused about their sexual identity) to meet the needs of those struggling with these issues.
The Bible is foundational to the ethical standards of the Evangelical church. Both its teachings, and the virtually universal agreement by Church history and tradition, condemn homosexual practice, leading Wolfhart Pannenberg to declare that a church which “ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm… would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture” and “would thereby have ceased to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Yet, as Smedes reminds us, to ignore a segment of society as being outside the pale of Christ, and to withhold compassion for their situation, and to deny their need for salvation is to likewise cease being the Church. While it does not help to attempt to re-evaluate our understanding of the clear mandate against homosexuality, it would be quite useful for every single church, and the Church as a whole, to re-evaluate how we have presented this message, and how we have failed to reach out to one segment of needy humanity.
This brings to mind a quote from Umberto Eco's book The Name of the Rose worth pondering:
"The outcast lepers would like to drag everything down in their ruin. And theybecome all the more evil, the more you cast them out; and the more you depict them as a court of lemurs who want your ruin, the more they will be outcast. Saint Francis realized this, and his first decision was to go and live among the lepers. The people of God cannot be changed until the outcasts are restored to the body.
The flock is like a series of concentric circles, from the broadest range of the flock to its immediate surroundings. The lepers are a sign of exclusion in general. Saint Francis understood that. He didn’t want only to help the lepers; if he had, his act would have been reduced to quite a poor and impotent act of charity. He wanted to signify something else. When Francis spoke to the people of the city and its magistrates and saw they didn’t understand him, he went out to the cemetery and began preaching to ravens and magpies, to hawks, to raptors feeding on corpses.
Francis wanted to call the outcast, ready to revolt, to be part of the people of God. If the flock was to be gathered again, the outcasts had to be found again.
The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics, whatever their doctrine. Everyone is heretical, everyone is orthodox. The faith a movement proclaims doesn’t count: what counts is the hope it offers. All heresies are the banner of a reality, an exclusion. Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only this: to keep the leper as he is."
There are no clear or easy responses to this complex issue of homosexuality in the church, nor do I have any specific suggestions for how the church is to walk the fine line of accepting everybody, but being clear on its ethical standards. Yet, it would be good to end with a reminder that although the Bible is clear that homosexuality is wrong, it is also clear that all of humanity is made in God’s image, that we are all in need of love and compassion, and that the mission of the church is not to condemn but to offer salvation. If we are able to understand this not only in our minds, but also in our hearts and reflect this understanding in our actions, we will see authentic transformation within the Church and in the world.
©2000 by Patrick D. Oden