A major battle in the American culture wars today is the issue of homosexuality. (I must stress at this juncture that I don't think the various gay-rights issues should be as high on the radar screen of the church as they are. It ought not to be the priority it has become. Nevertheless, since the church left and right has taken its cues from the surrounding culture and MADE it an issue, the debate rages on, and it is for this reason I'm addressing it at all).
Like most such issues, the battle seems to have invaded the church along largely partisan lines, with each "wing" assuming the position of its secular compatriots, and then hitting up the Biblical text for support to the position already decided. Though this is a vast oversimplification, the conventional territory for Christians seems to have broken down to three main perspectives:
- "Conservatives" say homosexuality is an abomination before God. They cite various texts, notably Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27, as clearly calling homosexuality outside the pale. They then proceed to try to force secular society to hew to their religiously-defined sense of right and wrong through laws, censure and the rest.
- "Progressives" or "Liberals" say that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, and that what's more, he taught a love of all people that clearly extended to "sinners," not just those who already follow his decrees. They argue that people who have sexual desire for the same gender are created that way by God, and that the only way we can behave in a loving, Jesus-like manner, is to welcome those with same-sex attraction into fellowship, blessing their union as equivalent to a heterosexual marriage.
- A third group wishes the issue would just go away and they wouldn't have to think about it or deal with it. One might surmise they'd appreciate a spiritual equivalent to "don't ask, don't tell" in the church.
Starting (as we always ought) with Jesus, we find he wasn't quite as silent on the issue as the progressives say, or as the conservatives imply by their lack of appeal to his words. While it is true that we have no record of Jesus addressing same-sex relationships directly, he made some very clear statements about marriage and adultery that we must consider. First of all, adultery: Although the word occurs (according to my quick search) 15 times in the four gospels, it is never fully defined. It's clear by Jesus' usage that he's using a working definition that was already extant in the minds of his hearers. The Old Testament, whether law or prophets, gives only a partial definition itself, frequently also just mentioning the word without definition (e.g. Exodus 20:14). However, O.T. passages make it clear that, at the very least, adultery is sexually violating a marriage (Lev. 20:10, Jer. 29:23), and using the services of a prostitute (Jer. 5:7, Ezekiel 23:43-45). Jesus then expands the definition to divorce and remarriage (Matt 5:32, Matt. 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18) and even to lustful thought (Matt. 5:27). But here we're looking at the edges of the definition. If we are remotely honest with each other, we have to confront the reality that the Biblical authors saw no need to fully define the term "adultery," nor its cousin "fornication," for their hearers already knew these words meant "sexual relations outside the confines of marriage." Therefore, what we find in the Scripture is not a comprehensive definition, but rather a clarification and extension of the boundaries.
So we come to the Biblical concept of marriage. Here, Jesus simply quotes and then explains Genesis 2:25 in Matt. 19:4-6 and Mark 10:8-9:
He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
Here Jesus clarified what his hearers already would have known, that marriage is God's way of joining a man and a woman. There is no other form of marriage in the church, and God doesn't make two men or two women "one" in a marital way.
So the problem with homosexuality and bisexuality is the same as the problem of cheating on one's wife. They're all adultery. One is not "worse" than the other according to Jesus' words, and when the church gets itself into a lather over homosexuality but ignores divorce in its own ranks, it's playing a selectivity that is not Scripturally countenanced. Straight or gay, adultery is not an acceptable practice for the follower of Jesus.
One more point before I turn to the conservatives. . .the progressive will often protest that some people are simply, naturally attracted to the same sex, that this is a biological fact, and therefore same-sex attraction must be lovingly accepted as acceptable (even holy) practice. There are several fallacies to this argument, but I'll highlight just three:
- The argument of a biological basis for same-sex attraction is really a red herring. The entire history of God's call to faithfulness among his people includes myriad examples where God expects us to act contrary to our fallen, earthly-powers-dominated nature. Some people's nature urges them to have multiple straight partners. Others find the urge to couple with the same sex. Still others are attracted by their nature to addiction, to domineering over others, to greed or theft, to deception. We have an old-fashioned term for this. . .the church fathers called it "original sin." Without getting into the theology of the fall, it's clear that Jesus calls us to act contrary to our fallen nature in a wide range of behaviors. To carve out an exception to this pattern in the case of sexual attraction is wholly unjustified.
- Since when did loving someone mean unquestioningly blessing whatever actions make them feel fulfilled or satisfied? I can personally testify that some of the most withering criticism I've ever received was justified confrontation of my selfishness or bad behavior by people who loved me absolutely. In the same vein, I love my children totally. But it is precisely because I love them that I cannot simply let them do what I know or believe to be a deeply wrong action. Simply granting them license to do whatever they were inclined to do would be the most unloving thing I could do as a father.
- It's not unique to our society, but we have the notions of love and sex hopelessly confused. In entertainment, in people's description of their relationships, in the various messes that people get themselves into over and over, it becomes abundantly clear that too many have bought the lie that if you love somebody, it's inevitably got to be sexual. This is not how God intended sexuality to function, nor love either, for that matter. Love alone is neither a reason nor a pass for sexual activity.
What this means to me is that believers have got to face the reality of the two kingdoms. We should make no bones about the different life that is expected of citizens of the Kingdom of God, but we have got to get off our high horse about trying to convert the kingdom of this world to good behavior without its citizens first shifting their allegiance to Jesus.
Now, does this mean that someone who's gay "can't be saved" as I know someone will ask me? To this I respond "You are asking the wrong question." Jesus extends his saving invitation to all humanity, and that includes gay humanity. He does, however, demand a different standard of behavior for those who have accepted his lordship. I don't claim to know how this might work out from a timeline point of view. God knows, a lot of us who have joined Jesus' kingdom still have areas where we have failed to fully surrender to his lordship. It is (thankfully) not for us to determine who's "saved" and who's not; however as 1 Corinthians 5 makes clear, it IS the responsibility of the assembled body to confront unrepentant sin among its members. This is something I think the individual body probably has to work out prayerfully, together. It very well may look different in different assemblies, even if all are doing their level best to remain faithful. But I think it is clear that we cannot go to the other extreme and bless these behaviors as appropriate for the faithful.