Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Take on Homosexual Behavior and the Church

My denomination, the PC(USA), has recently given its presbyteries the option to begin the ordination of practicing homosexuals. I lamented this decision in my last blog post, but since I’ve thought and read a great deal about this topic over the last few years, I actually had more to say. So I figured that it’s finally time that I summarize (most of) my thoughts on this issue in one place.

The Texts

Oddly enough, this will be the shortest part of my post, for the simple reason that I think the evidence is beyond any serious debate. The starting point for any Christian has to be the acknowledgement that every time the Bible mentions homosexual activity, in the New Testament or in the Old, it condemns that practice unequivocally. In the Old Testament, homosexuality was a capital crime (like murder, though also admittedly like breaking the sabbath, or disobeying your parents). In the New Testament, Paul reaffirms that it's a sin (primarily in Rom. 1:26-27, but also in 1 Cor. 6:9-11 and 1 Tim. 1:9-10), and sees both male and female homosexual behavior as unnatural, dishonorable and shameful.

I should note that Paul's attitude is especially interesting,  because homosexuality in the ancient pagan world was viewed largely like homosexuality in today's culture.  Aristotle, to be sure, thought that for a man to be sexually attracted to other men was “bestial” and “unnatural”, like eating cinders, but in Plato’s dialogues it was something that you could joke or titter about: it certainly wasn’t a big deal to most Athenians. Paul takes a very strong stance against that attitude, and virtually identifies same-sex activity with rebellion against God. And Paul’s opinion would have been entirely uncontroversial in Jewish or Christian circles of the first century.

There have been some attempts to quibble with the particular kind of homosexuality Paul was referring to in Romans and 1 Corinthians, but frankly, they're quite strained, so strained that I can’t even muster up the energy to engage with them. It’s just not an interesting argument. There's never a hint that any Biblical writer saw homosexuality as acceptable. True, the topic isn’t brought up that often, but when it is, there’s no doubt of the writer’s opinion.  Indeed, the relative paucity of texts is likely because opposition to homosexuality was such an unquestioned assumption that the writers didn’t feel they needed to talk about it. In addressing a Jewish audience, Jesus didn’t express an opposition to homosexual behavior, any more than he expressed an opposition to murder or incest, because it was one of many assumptions He shared even with his opponents.

The Story of Liberation

That said, the Presbyterians (and Lutherans and Methodists and Episcopalians) who have argued for ordaining practicing homosexuals don't typically just say that we should ignore the Bible.  Rather, they start from a position that I actually agree with, that it's simply not feasible to take every injunction in Scripture as an absolute command for every time and place.  If you’ve ever read The Year of Living Biblically, you’ll know what I mean, but to take just a couple New Testament examples, 1 Cor. 14:34 says that women should be silent in the church, though 1 Cor. 11:4 presumes the opposite. 1 Cor. 11 also says that men should only have short hair, and women should keep their heads covered in church, neither of which is exactly enforced these days by any mainstream Christian church. And so forth: I could go on. Whatever view we take of Scriptural authority is going to have to be somewhat more subtle than, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

With that in mind, the best argument I've heard for the ordination of practicing homosexuals is to start by pointing out that both the Bible and the history of Christianity tell a story of liberation.  And this is very true.  To take the best known example, we’ve pretty much all concluded that Christianity is incompatible with slavery, despite the various passages in the Bible that allow for its practice: because the general thrust of the Bible points towards strongly away from slavery and towards liberation. The Israelites got their start as the people of God when God freed them from their slavery. The prophets were quite strong in their condemnation of economic oppression, and equally bold in their vision of a society marked by peace, justice and freedom. Paul told slaves to obey their masters, and even sent a runaway slave back to his owner. But Paul also told slave owners to be “right and fair”, and when he told Philemon about Onesimus’ return, he repeatedly pointed out that this slave was now “better than a slave, a dear brother”, “a brother in the Lord”, and “my very heart”. Philemon could hardly miss the hint that a Christian should not own someone whom Christ had purchased with His own blood.

Similarly, most Christians have concluded that the Gospel is incompatible with the unequal treatment of women, and for the same reason. Various passages tell us that, for instance, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12), or that “women should be silent in the churches, for it is not permitted that they speak” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Against this, Paul apparently did allow women to speak in the church (1 Cor. 11:5), and even acknowledges some as apostles (Rom. 16:7). But most tellingly, in an amazing text of liberation, Paul proclaims to the Galatians that “there is no longer slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

So far, I buy this argument. But then these folks go on to say that we should re-interpret the various passages that condemn homosexual behavior from this same perspective. In other words, since it would be unfaithful to Christ to slavishly follow every command the Bible lays out for us, and since the story that the Bible tells, and which God has been telling through the Church, is a story of liberation from oppression, the moral force of this overarching narrative of liberation outweighs any specific scriptural commands that are themselves oppressive. It’s incumbent on us as Christians, they say, to love homosexuals, and to work for their liberation; and we can’t do that if we deny them access to the same opportunities as heterosexuals.

The Witness of the Church

It’s precisely here that, to my mind, the argument falls down. There’s no doubt that the Bible tells a story of liberation from oppression; the question is whether this story can bear the interpretive weight that its proponents allege. I don’t think that it can, for two distinct reasons.

The first reason is that in contrast to the examples of slavery or women in ministry, the Bible, the historical Church, and nearly all contemporary Christians speak with one voice on the topic of homosexual behavior. Like the advocates of homosexual ordination, I take the Bible to be the authoritative but not an inerrant witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ. What God did in Jesus is critical and fundamental; the Bible's witness to that is authoritative, but so far as I can tell, not necessarily coherent in every detail. If the Bible points in a variety of different directions on a particular topic (as it does with the role of women in the Church), if there's an obvious cultural or incidental explanation for a particular injunction, if there doesn't seem to be any larger theological basis for it, and if the Church as a whole has not seen the wisdom in a particular practice, it's presumably not incumbent on Christians to follow a given command. However, if every verse that mentions a particular topic points in exactly the same direction, if there's a larger theological basis for those statements, and if the Church as a whole has concluded that a particular perspective or practice is wise and appropriate (or unwise and inappropriate), then Christians are in a very different position.

And this is precisely the situation with homosexuality. Every time the Bible mentions homosexual behavior, it condemns it. Every time the great theologians of the Church mention homosexual behavior, they condemn it. And apart from a few declining, liberal denominations in the West, Christians today remain united in their view that homosexual behavior is harmful. I don’t have precise numbers, but I would guess that if you were to poll everyone in the world who was sitting in a pew on some Sunday morning, probably 90-95% of them would agree that homosexual behavior is sinful.

So my point is not precisely that verse 'x' or verse 'y' can be used as a proof-text (though they certainly can). It's much broader and deeper than that. Not just the Bible, but Christian thought for the last two millennia, and contemporary Christian practice anywhere outside certain liberal Western circles, is all strongly against homosexuality: though of course there are some expressions of it which I have to imagine Paul (or Augustine or Aquinas or Luther or Calvin) would say are much less objectionable than others. But none of them match up to the creational norm which Jesus raised as a standard: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh.”

The Story of Faithfulness

The second reason is that so far as I can tell, and for all its importance, the story of liberation remains a secondary story in the Bible. A much more prominent theme is the requirement of faithfulness to God’s revelation under the constant temptations of the surrounding culture. It’s quite true that the Bible tells how God liberated various people, ranging from the Israelites under Egypt, the exiled population of Judah in Babylon, and the scorned and despised in first century Galilee. But for every verse that talks about economic or social liberation, I suspect there are ten which talk about the faithfulness that God requires of His people in the midst of a culture which scorns such exclusive fidelity.

It would be tedious and exhausting to list all the evidence for this claim, but I’ll at least try to touch on a few out of the thousands of relevant texts. The very first commandment God issues is “You shall have no other Gods before me.” The worst punishments against the Israelites on their desert travels came not from their failure to enact social justice (as important as that is), but because they mixed pure worship with the practices of the nations around them. Pick up any random spot in the prophets, and you’ll find the same theme emerging. “The eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose to do my will and hold fast to my covenant, shall receive from me something better than sons and daughters” (Isaiah 56:4-5). “People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this great city?’ 9 And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD their God and have worshiped and served other gods’” (Jeremiah 22:8-9). “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (Hosea 2:19). The deuteronomistic history tells same story; indeed, it’s arguable whether it tells any other. Judgment is solemnly issued on each king, with a single, unwavering standard: “Yet Jehu was not careful to keep the law of the LORD, the God of Israel, with all his heart. He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam, which he had caused Israel to commit” (2 Kings 10:31).

Paul brings it all together in powerful and demanding call to holiness in the midst of a corrupt and corrupting society (2 Cor. 6:14-18):

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

   “I will live with them
   and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
   and they will be my people.”

17 Therefore,

   “Come out from them
   and be separate,
            says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
   and I will receive you.”

18 And,

   “I will be a Father to you,
   and you will be my sons and daughters,
            says the Lord Almighty.”

You could read the Bible through many times (as I did) and miss the story of liberation. It’s there, but it’s subtle enough that, quite honestly, I didn’t notice it until I got to college and my professors pointed it out. But you can’t even dip into the Bible without being repeatedly beaten over the head with God’s requirement for faithfulness to His law and covenant, intimately paired with warnings against being influenced by the surrounding culture.

It’s also worth noting that this faithfulness to God is frequently presented in terms of sexual purity. Paul clearly links the two when he upbraids the Corinthians for their immoral behavior. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” he storms. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?”  The prophets repeatedly make the same connection. “I will put a stop to the lewdness and prostitution you began in Egypt,” God says in Ezekiel, and the unfaithfulness to which He’s referring appears to be both literal and spiritual. At least one of the reasons why the Bible puts such an emphasis on sexual morality is because it is a sign, a seal, and a sacrament of God’s covenant with us. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

In other words, I think that the argument between the liberals and the conservatives in the Presbyterian church (and elsewhere) can largely be reduced to an argument between the dueling narratives of liberation vs. faithfulness. Unfortunately, it’s quite clear to me which of these two narratives is closer to the heart of the Bible. God is unwavering in His requirement for social justice; but this is always within the larger context of fidelity to His covenant. Liberals argue that we should ordain practicing homosexuals, because we must adhere to the requirements of social justice. Conservatives argue that we should not, because we must adhere to the requirements of covenant faithfulness. Both themes are present in the Bible: but there’s simply no question as to which is the more prominent and fundamental.

The Influence of Culture

Nevertheless, many Christians would disagree, and one of the reasons they give for this disagreement is that the Church has often sinned by being on the side of the powerful against the powerless. And it is quite true that Christians have sinned horribly, and that the Church has made grievous mistakes. When the Pope parceled out the New World between Spain and Portugal; when Southern Baptists broke away to form a new denomination in favor of slavery; the Inquisitions, the Crusades, the pogroms. But it needs to be pointed that that, with a very few exceptions, the majority of these sins and failures came from too close a connection to the surrounding culture, rather than too much distance from it.

A good example of this is the Papal bull “Sublimus Dei”, issued by Paul III in 1537, forbidding the enslavement of Native Americans, and threatening excommunication for anyone who mistreated them. It's a well-written document and a fine piece of theology, and it took a strong and principled stand against the genocide that was happening in the New World. It was also rescinded the following year, when the Spanish King Charles V threatened to march on Rome if the Pope didn't take it back. Its withdrawal was a sin: but the sin came from too close a connection to the culture. The culture tempted the Church to unfaithfulness, and the Church very regrettably succumbed to that temptation.

As a result, if the surrounding culture is headed strongly in a particular direction that seems to be at odds with the historic traditions of Christianity, I think the Church is right to be suspicious. It's made that mistake too many times. There are times when the surrounding culture may be correct (I think that women's rights is one of these, though even there, it was often Christians fighting for them). But more often than not, from the perspective of hundreds of years later, the surrounding culture will be judged to have been horribly wrong, and the Church itself will be condemned to the extent that it went along with it. Consequently, although it's quite clear that homosexuality is growing in acceptance, it's not the Church's job to move with the times. As Chesterton said, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

Born Homosexual?

An issue that often comes up when discussing homosexuality is the question as to whether it’s innate or not.  Folks often argue that (a) homosexuality is no more a choice than the color of your hair, and therefore (b) God must have intended for them to be that way. (As someone said recently, “How many more gay people must God create before we accept that He wants them around?”)

On this question, I don't agree with many Christians who argue (against the available scientific evidence) that it's purely a choice. At least, I could no more imagine myself being tempted towards homosexuality than I could imagine myself being tempted, say, to eat a slug. Someone who is tempted to engage in homosexual activity must be made of different stuff than I am. That said, I do think there's quite likely more of a volitional or cultural component to it than gay advocates will sometimes admit. It’s hard to keep a straight face and argue that gender is a social construction but homosexuality is purely biological. From what I understand, many people (though not all) who identify themselves as homosexual in some fashion actually acknowledge a "spectrum of desire", and say that they feel (to some degree) attracted to both sexes. In a culture where homosexuality was not a live option, or where they felt strong moral scruples against it, those "bisexual" folks would presumably settle into a reasonably comfortable heterosexual lifestyle.

But that's really neither here nor there, because I fully acknowledge that some people are more-or-less born homosexual. From my perspective, that's roughly equivalent to being born with a tendency towards any kind of behavior that doesn't match what God wants for us. I know lots of folks who appear to have been born with addictive personalities, i.e., if they drink at all, they're quite likely to become alcoholics. I understand that scientists have even discovered a genetic basis for this predisposition. This is tragic, and they have my love, my sympathy and my support: but I don't see that it excuses them from the duty of living as sober and disciplined a lifestyle as they can. Or another example: it's widely acknowledged that, as a male, I have a biological tendency to want to cheat on my wife. But I doubt that excuse would very much mollify Galena were I to proffer it. Heredity is orthogonal to morality.

Now, clearly, homosexuality doesn't make you fall down in the street the way alcoholism does. In our culture, at least, it has roughly the same negative social repercussions as extramarital heterosexual activity: that is to say, virtually none at all. The question is whether homosexual behavior has other ramifications, especially of the sort that don’t show up in a psychological survey.

Christian Morality

From a Christian perspective, there are three aspects to morality: (1) right relations between people; (2) a right inward disposition; and (3) a right goal for the human life. C. S. Lewis used the example of a fleet of ships sailing in a convoy. Morality is concerned with making sure the ships don't sail into each other (the first one), that each ship is in good working order (the second), and that they're all sailing to the right destination (the third). Christians and non-Christians can generally agree on the various rules that govern the first (with a few exceptions, like abortion), but Christians have a somewhat different perspective on the second, and a completely different approach to the third.

With this framework in mind, Christians believe that homosexuality interferes with the second and third aspects of morality. In other words, at least in our culture, and apart from the risk of AIDS, homosexual behavior is not really a matter of justice, of right relations between people. (In many other societies it is: if you sleep with another man, you're exposing that man to ridicule and humiliation, or worse: like what happened to Oscar Wilde.) Rather, Christians say, it interferes with your ability to keep your ship in order, and it tends to make your ship head off in the wrong direction. Indeed, this is exactly what Christianity says about sleeping with anyone you're not married to.

And of course, these impacts aren't always obvious from the outside, so if you're not a Christian, if you don't share the overall Christian framework for looking at life, you presumably won't come to the same conclusions. The spiritual effects of homosexuality would be no more visible to a psychologist studying the subject than, say, the spiritual effects of lust, pride, greed or intemperance. So long as you keep your lust under some modicum of control, so long as your pride and anger doesn’t get you fired from your job, so long as your greed keeps earning you more money and you stay out of jail, no psychological test will ever declare you “abnormal”. But from a Christian perspective, homosexuality is exactly like those sins: it’s one among many behaviors and attitudes that are widely accepted in our culture, but which nevertheless exercise a slow, inevitably corrupting influence on those who practice them.

So What Should Christians Do?

C. S. Lewis once said,

“Many people cannot be brought to realise that when B is better than C, A may be even better than B. They like thinking in terms of good and bad, not of good, better and best, or bad, worse and worst. They want to know whether you think patriotism a good thing: if you reply that it is, of course, far better than individual selfishness, but that it is inferior to universal charity and should always give way to universal charity when the two conflict, they think you are being evasive. If you reply that it is far better to forgive a man than to fight a duel with him, but that even a duel might be better than a lifelong enmity which expresses itself in secret efforts to do the man down, they go away complaining that you would not give them a straight answer.”

With this in mind, the best option for a homosexual Christian is chastity. This is hard, no doubt about it, and I’m grateful that God has not laid this call on me. But I also believe that God has a special grace to offer those who find themselves in this difficult situation.

Nevertheless, not all homosexual relationships are the same, any more than heterosexual relationships. I suspect that some kinds of homosexual behavior are much more damaging to your soul than others. If you're a Christian with strong homosexual tendencies, and you find that you simply can't make chastity work, then shacking up with someone permanently, with all the hard work and self-mortification that any long-term relationship entails, is certainly better than frequenting San Francisco bath houses.

Similarly, if a homosexual couple came to my church, I would treat them exactly like I would treat a heterosexual couple living together without being married. I would love and welcome them in the name of Christ. I would encourage them to get involved, to attend Bible studies and home groups, to sing in the choir and sit on committees and help with VBS. But I would also encourage them to reflect critically on their relationship with God and each other. And it would not be appropriate for them to serve as elders or deacons, as teachers, or as pastors.

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