I’ve been running into a lot of comments from friends across the blogosphere lately, revolving around the issue of how the church should respond to homosexuality today. I write this response with trepidation, because I have a hunch it’ll upset many of my more “liberal” friends with about the same level of fervor many of my other writings upset my “conservative” brethren. However, I feel we have got to cut to the chase on a couple important points that I do not see showing up in these dialogs. The most important is this:
If we insist that the church should be affirming of gay unions, we better come clean and admit that we’ve decided that Biblical Christianity has nothing left to say regarding sexuality in any form.
Why do I say this? Well, first of all, because the arguments I hear in favor of “affirming” gay unions in the church are based, not on scripture, not on the teachings of Jesus, but on the generic concept of compassion. LGTBQ (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual, and Questioning or Queer–depends on who’s translating) individuals are often marginalized, subjected to discrimination, even victims of violence in our society–this is unarguably true. Jesus came to minister to the marginalized and love them (also true). Therefore, the argument goes, the church should stop teaching LGBTQ behavior is immoral, welcome these individuals into full fellowship, and even bless their lifestyles and unions in the church. Problem is, that “therefore” involves a quantum leap that is incompatible with New Testament discipleship.
First of all, let me be clear: violence against any person–including violence motivated or excused by that person’s sexuality, gender identity, or our perception of the same–is always, in all contexts, wrong, and we in the church should be first in line to oppose it. We see this truth throughout the life of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles. When Christians are even slightly on the side of defending anti-gay violence and persecution, we are to that extent guilty of active blasphemy. As with any other form of violence and oppression, we ought to be known for our active opposition to anti-LGBTQ violence.
Nevertheless, while scriptural guidance on sexuality may not be as clear or comprehensive as a Bible-lawyer might wish, the evidence we do have is pretty one-sided, and it weighs heavily in the direction that sexual activity outside the bounds of a one-woman, one-man marriage is proscribed for the Christian. I’ve gone into this in some detail before so I won’t repeat it all here. In short, however, marriage (or perhaps I should say “holy matrimony” to distinguish from the civil definition which is frankly none of our affair) is the union in which “a man leaves his father and mother and [is] joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” That sanctified union is not available to a man joining another man, nor a woman to a woman, and that union is the sole basis in which sexual relations can be a holy and God-blessed thing. Sexual relations in any other context–whether straight or gay is beside the point–are adultery or fornication, both forbidden to the believer. Wes Hill stated it well (I recommend you read his entire message here):
…although many people find themselves, through no fault of their own, to have sexual desires for members of their own sex, this is not something to be affirmed and celebrated but is, rather, a sign that we are broken, in need of redemption and re-creation. Gay people are not uniquely broken—that’s a position we share with every other human who has ever lived, or will live—but we are, nonetheless, broken. And following Jesus means turning our backs on a life of sexual sin, just as it does for every other Christian.
There are many who suggest that the New Testament writers never considered same-sex unions when they wrote about marital fidelity, because they were in a conservative culture that would not have even thought about it. Any reference to the sexuality of Greek and Roman culture seems to me more than sufficient to put this idea to rest. Jesus, Paul, and the rest were perfectly familiar with same-sex relationships in the broader culture. As I wrote in the post I linked above, I do not think many of the texts people often interpret to condemn homosexuality–e.g. 1 Cor. 6:9–are as clear as the fundamentalist might wish (for an interesting read on these passages, though I disagree with his ultimate conclusion, see this article by Dale B. Martin; his error is to fail to engage the broader questions of marriage and adultery in the N.T.). It is not that somehow “gay adultery” is somehow “worse” or “more perverted” than the straight kind. It’s just still adultery.
But adultery is not OK and should not be “affirmed” by the church.
So am I being “unloving” here, as the Dale Martin article above (and many of my Facebook friends) would suggest? Well, let’s think about that. The presumption seems to be that the “loving” thing to do, is to encourage everyone to fulfill their sexual desire with whomever they desire. After all, if (as seems to be the going theory) sexual orientation is an innate characteristic and not a lifestyle choice, everyone should have the right to follow their innate urge to seek pleasure in a mutually-fulfilling physical relationship.
Of course, implicit in the notion of “orientation” is that our human impulses are God-given and therefore right. I don’t see how anyone can take the New Testament seriously and still buy this contention. Scripture teaches us that human impulses tend toward depravity in essentially every area of life, from economics to violence to sex. Romans 1:18-32 is a pretty good compendium of these “orientations,” only a few of them sexual, but sexuality definitely figures among them. Paul seems to be suggesting that God essentially said “you want to screw up my creation, then here, feel what screwed up is really like!” Our “orientations,” both sexual and otherwise, are corrupted. They need to be redeemed, not fulfilled and honored.
The drive to “affirm” gay unions seems to me to be an attempt to lift out the one issue of same-sex attraction and somehow separate it from all the other ways in which fallen humanity expresses its sexuality. I can see neither a Biblical nor a logical rationale in which to affirm the gay union without also choosing to condone polygamy/polyandry, pedophilia, multiple divorces & remarriages (“serial monogamy,” it’s sometimes called), and on and on, just so long as both (all?) parties consent. In such a setting, matrimony as a construct becomes somewhat irrelevant outside of whatever secular benefits it may convey. We really come down to the same situation C.S. Lewis described so well in his essay “We have No ‘Right to Happiness’,” part of the collection God in the Dock (see the full text of the essay here). While Lewis was primarily arguing that people’s perceived happiness was no excuse for abandoning the marital commitment, he also stated that at the root was the notion that somehow
… sex [is] to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you’re a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is “four bare legs in a bed.”
Which brings me back to the claim I made at the beginning of this post. If we are going to continue teaching in our churches (and I hope we are), that God cares about about sexual purity, monogamy, the sanctity of the union of matrimony, and how husbands and wives ought to behave toward each other, upon what basis are we going to make those claims? If the New Testament standard is to be discarded or reinterpreted away with regard to same-sex unions, how then can anyone claim it speaks with any clarity or authority about any other aspect of sexuality? Either all of it matters, or else be honest and admit that none of it is relevant any longer. I see no logical or hermaneutical basis for any in-between.
What do I mean in practice? That’s where the title of this post comes in. The church’s doors and hearts should be open to anybody who’s interested in seeking or learning about Jesus. No one is required to accept his lordship in order to hear about him, or to experience the love of his people–and this is as true for people whose moral shortcomings are in the sexual area, as any other. As Wes Hill asked in another important post you should read, “Will the Church shelter and nourish and humanize those who are deeply lonely and struggling desperately to remain faithful?” I sincerely hope so.
But we must never confuse love with affirmation. The church has no business blessing gay unions, any more than it ought to be blessing divorces or multiple marriages. And it most certainly ought not to be placing into leadership anyone who is engaged in *any* form of adultery.
I do not claim that any of this is easy. Celibacy is a tough choice for the gay and the straight. I find the various claims of people having been “cured” of same-sex attraction to be as questionable as most gay-rights activists do. Frankly, this isn’t unique to sex. An awful lot of addicts I’ve known have struggled to some degree with their addictions for many years after going clean. While the call of Christ is to live a new life, the painful reality for many is that their old life keeps rearing its ugly head for a really long time…sometimes a lifetime. We remain in a fallen world, even as we seek to live in the Kingdom of Christ. Redemption is most assuredly a process that will not be completed for any of us this side of the grave. But never–not for one moment–dare we suggest that the old life was all right after all.