Friday, February 6, 2009

Homosexuality - It's really about which kingdom you're in!

So far, most of my posts have addressed areas that cause me concern within that part of Christianity that would tend to self-identify as "conservative." In fact the casual reader could be forgiven for pretty quickly lumping me in with a "liberal" stream of thought. I'm about to change that. A responsible reading of the Christian scriptures according to the "Word of God" hermaneutic that I advocate, will come up with plenty to challenge on the self-styled "left" side of the spectrum as well.

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:
  1. "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.
  2. "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.
  3. 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.
Number 3 has no chance of happening, and I'll dismiss it at that. But I submit that numbers 1 and 2 both have elements of truth and elements where they've missed the boat entirely.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
OK, so now that I've criticized the "progressive" point of view, what about the conservatives who, by now, should be cheering me on? Well, conservative Christians seem to have missed an even more fundamental point: Everything I'm talking about here is based on what I believe Jesus' standard is for his followers. Until one accepts the authority of Jesus, the standard doesn't apply--not because the act in question is not ultimately wrong, but because we can't expect those who aren't subject to the King, to live by the King's rules. "The world" (for want of a better term) is living according to the rules of its prince, and the Christ-centered solution to this problem is not to get the powers to change their rules, it is to get the citizens to shift their allegiance. We cannot, and we must not, attempt to accomplish by earthly fiat, what we have failed to accomplish by evangelism. The works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21) are what we can and should expect from those who do not have the Spirit of Christ, and the fruits of the Spirit (v. 22-25) come once a person has been subject to the Spirit, not before.

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.


Mason said...

Dan, thanks for the thoughts here. The assosiation of homosexuality with adultry since they both violate God's plan for marriage and sex is an interesting insight.
By and large I would agree with with you here. I think homosexuality is out of bounds for a follower of Christ, but wish we would stop making it the be all and end all of sexual ethics. It needs to be discussed in the church, but on the same level as marital unfaithfulness and divorce which are no better biblically.

Anonymous said...

I guess I am one of those who would like to hold onto your category 3 but as you say that might not be possible. I just wish the intensity of this topic would just go away.
I appreciate you insight about how we are all in various stages of truly accepting Jesus' Lordship. Is the Christian who grudgingly holds on to all his money instead of helping others less fortunate any more or less a Christian than the homosexual who does not yet admit that is sexual feeling are against God's will. I don't know but that is certainly something to ponder. Thanks for arousing me from my mental melaise today.

David Rudel said...

I agree with much of what you say here (as you know, I wrote up something similar on my own site). However, I would disagree with the reasoning you give and Jesus' tie-in.

Your definition of "adultery outside the bounds of marriage" is not an accurate one. It is the sort of thing that modern conservatives declare, but it forces 21st century values on ancient societies.

Adultery was wrong not because it defiled "the marriage bed." It was wrong because it was essentially the sexual equivalent of "thou shall not steal." We might not like that, being 21st century enlightened types, but that's what the word meant for Israelites in 1600 BC, and it is what the word would mean for Jews in 1st century AD.

There is a reason that one of the commandments lump together the "coveting of your neighbor's wife" with the "coveting of your neighbor's belongings."

Having sex with an [unmarried] virgin bore absolutely no punishment [Exodus 22:16] Compare that with breaking any of the 10 commandments or having sex with someone's wife.

I did a close study of the Torah on the notion of sexual purity and came up with the following:
i) When you have sex with someone you become married to them in God's eyes.
ii) Hence there is no such thing as pre-marital sex.

If you take the above two points it will quickly become clear why prostitution and remarriage were adultery (especially if one considers that in one Gospel Jesus says "except for in the case of sexual infidelity").

One final point, when discussing NT ink on this topic [which I think is totally unnecessary], it is worthwhile to bring up the Jerusalem Council, where we are told the Holy Spirit guided the Jews of the 1st century AD to impose the Mosaic sexual morality laws upon Gentiles (that is a pretty big deal at the time because the Mosaic sexual purity laws are quite strict compared to 1st century Gentile standards.

Michael Collins said...

"Missed it by that much!" -Maxwell Smart.

You had me up to the point of not imposing our will on the unbelievers:
"We cannot, and we must not, attempt to accomplish by earthly fiat, what we have failed to accomplish by evangelism"
Why shouldn't we? What scripture prevents us from this?
First off, they are attacking us and our standards daily, and we have recessed. Why shouldn't we advance with our godly agenda? If God said it was the right way, and we cannot proclaim it as such for everyone, then do we really believe it? I dare say we do not.
Secondly, if we believe it is a better way, and do NOT fight for it to be society's way, then we have effectively opted for what is second best for society. Not loving, imho.
Third, we live in a country where our participation and leadership is legal and even desired. Why shouldn't we have a seat at the table? Those who are attacking God's standards won't be any less offended then they already are.
Consider our failures: They wanted easy divorces, government aid for single mothers, increased pornography, removal of social "shame" or stigmas on sins like teen-age (unmarried) pregnancy or homosexuality, and the church acquiesced.
As we retreated, we saw the divorce rate skyrocket, marriage become stigmatized, and we became flooded with illegitimate children, single parent homes, skyrocketing crime sex drug use and drop out rates from these children, and government programs designed to "help" incentivizing fathers not to return home or to take responsibility for their kids.

So too, with gay marriage, we can show that this would just be another unnecessary encroachment into the private lives and freedoms of individuals; and we can conclusively show that children perform better with a mother and father in the home.
We have secular reasons to enact laws or to prevent them which will help society live better lives. What in the world is wrong with that?
Romans says to obey the governing authorities, Jesus said to render unto Caesar; so in this country that means voting, free speech and the right to assemble to enact political renewal. It would seem to counter these verses to not take a seat at the table as representative and ambassadors of God! And no one will ever convince me that we are to come to that table to battle for things which God directly opposes (such as gay marriage).

If you have hung with me this far, let me now say HOOZAH! For this article. Too many Christians pick sins which they find personally disgusting, like homosexuality, and pick on that one thing over an above the others. That is not at all correct, and by calling our attention to the fact that it is on par with adultery and divorce (rampant in evangelicalism), you call the faithful to repentance and you offer some love to the gay community! Good job.

Dan Martin said...

Michael, I appreciate your dropping in, and I appreciate the spirit in which you offer your comments. My response would be this:

If we believe that only by the regeneration of the Spirit can humans truly accomplish God's will, and if we further acknowledge the painful reality that we who claim regeneration consistently miss the mark regarding God's standards, then how can we expect the unregenerate world to be any more successful at implementing God's standard than we have been?

Of course I take further issue with the notion that American Christians (not necessarily including you, I don't know) who are advocating a "return to God" are actually identifying the key issues God cares about. . .for example I see a lot more in the Biblical texts about how we treat the poor and downtrodden, than about who has sex with whom. . .

But my point in the statement about fiat-vs-evangelism is that only through the regeneration of the Spirit and the faithful community of the Body of Christ, can holy living ever be achieved. . .and that therefore, attempting to do so through the secular authority is both futile and counterproductive.