In the next few weeks I plan to post some reflections on the gospel and homosexuality. This first post exists to lay some groundwork.
Homosexuality will be the cultural issue facing the church for the foreseeable future. The church’s responses to it have run in two polarizing directions: blanket derision or wholehearted acceptance. Some churches shun homosexuals. Others ordain them. Thoughtful, prayerful, biblical consideration of how the gospel addresses homosexuality has been woefully absent from the conversation.
Any gospel approach to homosexuality must acknowledge, first of all, the clarity of God’s prohibitions on homosexual behavior, and secondly, the complexity of sin and brokenness. To put it another way: the Bible condemns homosexual activity, not homosexual orientation. Because we live in a fallen world, some people feel same-sex desires. Those desires are not ideal. They are a result of the Fall. But they are not in and of themselves sinful (unless cultivated, cherished, acted upon). Heterosexual men will at times feel attracted to women they are not married to. That attraction is called temptation, and it must be fought rather than indulged. Likewise, those who struggle with same-sex attraction may feel tempted by homosexual desires. Those desires are to be fought rather than indulged. But those who feel them are not “more sinful” or “less Christian” than others. They are simply broken in a different way. (If Christians would acknowledge what I’ve written in this paragraph, it would go a long way toward healing some of the wounds we’ve caused).
A gospel approach to homosexuality must also address the issues of righteousness and identity. These are the foundational questions of the human condition: Who am I? And how do I know that I’m OK? The gospel answers these questions: my identity is found in Christ, and my righteousness comes from him. The homosexual subculture also answers these questions: my identity is found in my homosexuality, and damn you if you don’t agree that I’m OK, righteous, good. Homosexuals often assert: “I have a right to live this way! This is who I am!” Christians must see that these assertions betray deep longings for righteousness and identity that are ultimately satisfied only by Jesus. Rather than arguing, we should identify with these longings. Apart from Jesus, where did you find your identity? In your job performance, your status, your education, your relationships? Do you remember the power that identity had over you? How did Jesus free you? Now you have some common ground to start from.
This righteousness/identity dynamic explains why some homosexuals (those not yet transformed by the gospel) seem to feel a need to cling to their orientation and define themselves by it, while other homosexuals (those who have been changed by the gospel) don’t. Their identity in Jesus becomes the main thing; they are free to struggle against sin and temptation just like the rest of us. Homosexuals who claim to be Christians but are still actively engaged in the homosexual lifestyle define themselves primarily by their sexual orientation: “I’m a gay Christian.” Homosexuals who have been changed by the gospel may still feel same-sex desires just as strongly, but their primary identity is rooted in Christ: “I’m a Christian who struggles with same-sex desires.” There is a world of difference between the two.
Lest any reader surmise that I’m writing these posts from ignorant isolation, a bit of narrative may help. One of my college roommates – a faithful Christian brother – was the first to confide in me about his struggles with same-sex attraction. Walking with him over the course of years gave me a keen insight into the particular struggles and challenges of Christians who face this temptation. Our first case of church discipline at Coram Deo was a young man who, after helping us plant the church, departed the faith into a lifestyle of active homosexuality. Since then, Coram Deo has ministered to dozens of homosexuals – most of them looking to me personally for discipleship and counseling. As I write this post, I’m aware that numerous personal friends of mine will read it: some would consider themselves “previously homosexual;” others would currently identify as homosexual but are living in chastity and walking with Jesus; still others would claim to be Christians and yet are actively practicing homosexuality (and think I am wrong for calling such behavior “sin” like the Bible does).
One of the reasons I’m compelled to write on this subject is because my friends who have been the deepest into the homosexual lifestyle are the ones most frustrated with the state of the conversation. They are upset at the church’s failure to winsomely, humbly, and charitably engage homosexuals. But they are even more upset at the lies and half-truths propagated by the gay community. Some of them are former homosexuals whose sexual orientation has changed by God’s grace (contrary to gay culture’s insistence that this is impossible). Others are living faithfully in chastity and celibacy, “choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). All of them agree that the cultural mantra that “homosexual behavior is just as natural/normal/honorable as heterosexual behavior” is a pernicious and damaging lie.
In the posts to come, I’ll be using the words homosexual and homosexuality in varied ways. The statement below, from Bethlehem Baptist Church, summarizes well the biblical and theological nuances in this matter and will be helpful to readers who are new to this discussion.
1. We believe that heterosexuality is God’s revealed will for humankind and that, since God is loving, a chaste and faithful expression of this orientation (whether in singleness or in marriage) is the ideal to which God calls all people.
2. We believe that a homosexual orientation is a result of the fall of humanity into a sinful condition that pervades every person. Whatever biological or familial roots of homosexuality may be discovered, we do not believe that these would sanction or excuse homosexual behavior, though they would deepen our compassion and patience for those who are struggling to be free from sexual temptations. [Notice the behavior/orientation distinction here]
3. We believe there is hope for the person with a homosexual orientation and that Jesus Christ offers a healing alternative in which the power of sin is broken and the person is freed to know and experience his or her true identity in Christ and in the fellowship of his Church. [Notice the primacy of ‘true identity in Christ’ as the foundational component of healing]
4. We believe that this freedom is attained through a process which includes recognizing homosexual behavior as sin, renouncing the practice of homosexual behavior, rediscovering healthy, non-erotic friendships with people of the same sex, embracing a moral sexual lifestyle, and in the age to come, rising from the dead with a new body free from every sinful impulse. This process parallels the similar process of sanctification needed in dealing with heterosexual temptations as well. We believe that this freedom comes through faith in Jesus Christ, by the power of his Spirit.
5. We believe that all persons have been created in the image of God and should be accorded human dignity. We believe therefore that hateful, fearful, unconcerned harassment of persons with a homosexual orientation should be repudiated. We believe that respect for persons with a homosexual orientation involves honest, reasoned, nonviolent sharing of facts concerning the immorality and liability of homosexual behavior. On the other hand, endorsing behavior which the Bible disapproves endangers persons and dishonors God.
From Desiring God
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“If Christians would acknowledge what I’ve written in this paragraph, it would go a long way toward healing some of the wounds we’ve caused.”
I’m in. Thanks for this.
Could you explain further the “half-truths” in the gay community?
Looking forward to your posts. This has become a forefront issue in my military chaplain role with the impending repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
I wrote here (http://jonwymer.com/?p=422) a very basic pastoral response. There is a distinct pressure to be in one of the two camps you mentioned: “Some churches shun homosexuals. Others ordain them.”
I’m quite interested in what you have to say, as it’s been an issue I’ve been pondering over the last couple of months. I am concerned about your opening statement, however. You write, “Homosexuality will be the cultural issue facing the church for the foreseeable future.” While I’m sure this will be the most discussed issue in the American church for quite some time, I’m not sure that it should be. N.T. Wright put it much better than I ever could, though in this particular context he’s talking about abortion. From an interview he conducted in 2004 after the ordination of Gene Robinson (http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/word/wright.htm):
Interviewer – I suspect one response would be that abortion is the defining moral issue of our times. If we can’t protect unborn life, this argument runs, we can’t protect anyone or anything.
Wright – This is where I really would get quite angry with that point of view. Though I happen to agree with the stance on abortion, it seems blindingly obvious that it is not the big moral issue of our time. Global debt and the economic systems that were set up in 1944 with the Breton Woods Agreement, to slope the table so the money slides into the pockets of the Western banking system, at the cost of keeping most of the world in unpayable debt, seems to me as big a moral issue as slavery was 200 years ago. I and others intend to bang on about it until we achieve something. I just don’t think we can say, “abortion is the issue.” Apart from anything else, there are millions of children being born all the time in Africa, in Latin America, on the Indian subcontinent, whose economic circumstances are such that it would almost be better if they hadn’t been born. The reason they’re in those economic situations are precisely because of decisions taken in the World Bank and the IMF, and they are structural decisions, not just particular decisions. This has been so intensively and extensively studied, people have shown it so often, that I just wonder what kind of blindness it is that prevents people from seeing it. Of course part of the answer is, our churches have endowments. We’ve got investments in these things, and you can’t tell us to go back on that. That’s a serious problem, but it’s a problem that’s got to be addressed. Yes, abortion matters, but all this matters much, much more. Just in terms of sheer quantity, there are millions more people whose lives are totally blighted by it. That’s where I would go for starters. To play around with your Democratic presidential candidate, for example, seems to me to play with one particular pawn without noticing what’s happening on the chessboard as a whole. When you see the whole, I think you have to say, let’s try to address the big issues. If you haven’t got the courage to do that, addressing the little issues of one particular person and his views on this or that looks like a displacement activity. It looks like something you do rather frantically in order to avoid having to talk about the elephant in the living room.
While questions around both abortion and homosexual practices are important, I worry that our focus on them distracts us from other, possibly more important things.
I do look forward to the things you have to say. I have been confronted alot lately with homosexuals that continue to come in my life. And to be honest, I become paralyzed as if theres a road block of impossiblility in order to minister to them. (which is just the enemy I’m convinced) I’m very “dumb” on the subject and feel inadequate. I of course know what the bible says about it. But why are they going to care about that when they don’t even believe its the word of God. I just recently shared the gospel with a lesbian women and she was really sweet in listening to what I had to say. But told me she was going to pursue mother earth and over all being a good person. I wrote up another email to send her, but never ended up sending it. It wasn’t a vindictive or argumentative email by any means. Merely just informational for her snd meant to be more thought provoking. I was more so troubled at what point do you stop beating a dead horse?
JT – notice I said cultural issue, not moral issue. There are certainly multiple moral issues which confront the church. But I think the top-shelf CULTURAL challenge for the foreseeable future will be the issue of homosexuality.
Thanks, Bob. Needed this”razor’s edge” very much to discern how to help people like this with the Gospel. Looking forward to part 2.
One thing I’ve struggled with is the term ‘sexual orientation’ as a born (biological)tendency and temptation rather than an environmental influence that squeezes and influences into its mold through outside circumstances (lack of a father, etc.) In other words, is the sin we are born with a desire to be our own gods and worship other things than God, and therefore sexual orientation is a sinful display of that, or are people born with a sinful tendency to same-sex attraction?
I can have in myself the potential for all sins, but certain factors can bring them out. All of us can steal, but if I’m brought up in an environment that constantly puts examples before me that steal, won’t the way I display my desire to be god be primarily stealing? In an age with fewer involved fathers, won’t we see more homosexuals?
So, my question is, is it less of a biological factor and more of an environmental one? Is it a biological factor at all? I’m searching for this answer. Am I off base here in your experience and study?
Good questions, peeps… I will have some more posts soon that tackle some of the concerns/questions you’re raising.
bob, what is your take on
it is a local story related to this and also what is your take on Eric Elnes also openly denyting John 14:6 to be literal.
I appreciate your thoughtful words on this matter. I agree that the “homosexual question” will likely be the primary question that the church faces this century.
I’m afraid, however, that one of your primary assumptions is based on faulty logic and scholarship.
In your post, you say “any gospel approach to homosexuality must acknowledge, first of all, the clarity of God’s prohibitions on homosexual behavior, and secondly, the complexity of sin and brokenness.”
Actually, this assumption is incorrect. We are not obligated to accept without study the idea that same sex sexual behavior (homosexuality as a “lifestyle” would have been completely foreign to the Biblical writers) is prohibited by scripture.
My fear about pastors speaking about the sinfulness of homosexuality is that, even though they may be trained Biblical scholars, these faithful men/women may not have done the exegetical work necessary to really speak to what the Bible says about homosexuality.
As you know, the Bible cannot say to us what it doesn’t say to it’s original recipients – people separated from us by both language and culture. Before you condemn homosexuality as being categorically prohibited, it would be helpful to conduct a few word studies about the language Paul uses in 1 Cor and his letters to Timothy, the culture Paul was speaking to in Rome when he wrote is letter to the Romans, what Jesus had to say about Sodom and Gomorrah (and why), the meaning of abomination, and why the Levitical laws regarding same-sex pairings are placed where they are in the law.
Our scripture is not simple and cannot be read simply. If we are going to label behavior as sinful, then it’s pretty important that we form an informed opinion of what is and isn’t sinful. Walking humbly with our God sometimes means walking contrary to culture… sometimes even church culture. I question whether many of our churches are more faithful to scripture or more faithful to tradition and the trappings of modern church culture.
Bryan, I see your response as a power play: you say ‘we are not obligated’ to accept without study the idea that same sex sexual behavior is prohibited, but you do not say what we ARE obligated to accept. You raise questions but don’t answer them. You suggest that pastors ‘may have not done the exegetical work necessary to really speak to what the Bible says’ – which implies that you HAVE done such work and can REALLY speak to what the Bible says. Or else you’re just playing the skeptic? But “he who sees through everything, eventually sees nothing” – CS Lewis.
A power play? That’s certainly not how it was intended. I’m simply trying to move the ball forward in an important discussion.
1. I apologize for not being more clear in my post. You are correct when you say that I don’t mention what we are obligated to accept. I was simply pointing out that to say “*any* gospel approach to homosexuality *must* acknowledge, first of all, the *clarity* of God’s prohibitions on homosexual behavior” assumes that a) everyone must agree on this point because b) it is clear that scripture prohibits homosexual behavior. My implied assumption is that the prohibition of homosexuality in scripture is far from clear. In conversations like this, however, I don’t feel we are obligated to begin the conversation with “homosexuality is sin” just as I don’t feel we are obligated to begin with “homosexuality is not sin.” These are important points that must be fleshed out before they are stated categorically.
2. Yes, in fact, I have done the study required to speak to what the Bible may actually say about homosexuality. Like any responsible Biblical scholar, I can’t claim that everything I believe is correct. None of us follow a flawless theology. I have, however, spent several hundred exegetical hours studying these scriptures – translating passages, performing word studies, reading both conservative and liberal scholars, studying culture and the effect of tradition on our beliefs. My opinions may not be flawless, but they are informed. If you would like recommendations on a few books on the subject, I would be happy to pass them along.
“Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” -Epicurus
Thanks for your generosity.
You misplaced the emphasis… I was saying that any *gospel* approach to homosexuality must acknowledge the clarity of God’s prohibitions on homosexual behavior. Certainly there are plenty of people who like to use the Bible while avoiding the gospel.
‘There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.’ – Blaise Pascal