I have been asked to answer the question ‘How should the church minister to people with same-sex attraction?’
It is possible to answer the question in short bursts which are right and true but which are not greatly helpful in and of themselves. We might give answers such as, ‘With the love of Jesus,’ or ‘With grace and truth,’ or ‘With the good news of the gospel,’ and these would all be right and true. But it can be seen immediately that more is needed. It is not merely a question of the practical outworking of these things, though that is part of what remains needful; it is also that there is need for more examination and clarity of the concepts surrounding the discussion.
My Appraisal of a Recent Collaborative Book
I have recently finished reading a book exploring this issue. It is called Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church. It includes contributions from four authors. Two represent what the book calls the “affirming” view, that is, the view that the church should affirm homosexual lifestyles and couples as legitimately Christian possibilities; and two represent what the book calls the “traditional” view (they wanted to stay away from the negative connotations of a term like ‘non-affirming’). The aim, then, was to have one author from each viewpoint approach the subject biblically and one approach it theologically. I am not sure they succeeded in separating it as neatly as that, but that is not a real problem with the book.
Following each author’s chapter, there were responses given by the other three, which were then followed by brief rejoinders from the author of the chapter. At the beginning and end, there are introduction and conclusion provided by the editor, Preston Sprinkle.
I am sad to say that none of the five writers, in the end, gave a satisfactorily accurate view. (Of all the people who are actually involved in this conversation and writing and speaking authoritatively on the subject, I would take Rosaria Butterfield to be the most right on. I will point to her more a bit further on.) Loader does pretty good exegesis of the various texts (Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, I Corinthians 6). He concludes, against an increasing number of liberal interpretations these days, that the Scriptures and Paul in particular, are univocal in condemning not only homosexual practice, but even homosexual feelings and desires as sinful. Despite this, he says that the church today finds it necessary to “supplement” (which really means set aside) the teachings of Scripture in light of things we now know to be true. According to Loader, Paul knew nothing of the loving and stable same-sex relationships that we know in our day, and so we must flex our understanding of Christian sexuality to fit what we find in our world now. Along with Holmes, I will say we must never, NEVER set aside the teachings of Scripture. Loader’s ideas are out of the question.
DeFranza says she came from a conservative evangelical background and always believed that homosexuality was wrong. But somewhere in the course of her post-graduate studies, she began to do research on the biological phenomenon of intersex people, hermaphrodites, etc. and found that there were sexual anomalies already built into nature for which a purely biblical view of human sexuality does not account. Pointing to the existence of amphibians (which she says do not neatly fit into the categories of either land or water animals) as evidence for “space” opening up between the categories and norms of creation, she suggests that there is room for non-majority sex-types in the unfolding story of creation such that human sexuality may legitimately include more than just male-female complementarity. I simply cannot take the time right now to engage this point. I only include it here, because it seems to be a major building block for DeFranza. Suffice it to say that she fails to prove much of anything by this line of thought, a fact which is sufficiently shown in the responses of the other authors.
A more major issue brought out in DeFranza’s chapter is the claim that the biblical image of God and His people or Christ and the church as a matrimonial relationship is based on what she disparagingly refers to as “patriarchal” marriage, not the egalitarian kind of marriage which we all now (supposedly) understand to be better and more Christian. “Patriarchal” marriage is “the union of an inferior person to one who is superior and to whom one owes obedience” (p. 89). It is the “imbalance of power between humanity and divinity that led ancient writers to see a parallel in the imbalance of power between wives and husbands which was assumed by them to be natural.”
There are two errors here. First, it simply is not true that this is the essence of the biblical imagery of marriage between YHWH and Israel or Christ and the church. The fact that all human marriages in the Bible and in the history of the world fall short of the reality—indeed, that most have been pretty far from the mark—is not the fault of the reality. DeFranza has the reality-image relationship backward, confusing the object for its shadow. Second—and this is a common problem running throughout the book and much modern work on the Bible in general—there is the assumption that the meaning of the eternal word of God is located in ancient history. It simply is not. But I do not have time to develop this idea right now and must move on. Suffice it to say that as one who is committed to a literary-canonical hermeneutic (as opposed to a literal-grammatical-historical one), I generally don’t run into problems of trying to figure out how to relate ancient and modern concerns and modes of thought.
Wesley Hill’s chapter is probably the best in the book, but it too has a major flaw. He identifies himself as a gay Christian and explains that following Christ and obeying Scripture means he is called to a life of celibacy. With Holmes, who makes the point most emphatically, he reminds the reader of the importance of recognizing that we live in a culture which has over-emphasized sex and romantic love to the point of making everyone believe that they are not living authentic lives unless they are experiencing romantic and sexual fulfillment. We live in an age where, as one of the authors put it (Hill, I think, but I do not remember which for sure), the existence of a “forty-year old virgin” is self-evidently laughable. Hill rightly sees through this lie. His contribution is full very well-seen and well-written insights. Pointing to Aelred of Rievaulx and others, he calls for a recovery of the ancient practice of Christian friendship.
The trouble with Hill’s view is that it legitimizes being “gay” as a type of Christian. This idea, it seems, includes for Hill an ongoing, settled identity of being gay which even includes same-sex relationships which are not physically played out in sexual activity, which is forbidden by Scripture. Reading Hill’s description, I find myself oscillating between celebration of his call to enhanced and deepened Christian friendships and dismay at his assumptions that ‘gayness’ can be a good feature of these relationships.
Here is where Butterfield is helpful. She was a practicing homosexual for many years and then came to faith in Christ. She is now the wife of a Reformed pastor and mother of several children. While she has respect for Hill and others, she is clear about the fact that it is both tragic and dangerous to remain in a state of identifying as “gay.” This normalizes something that God has called sin and is unnecessary for anyone who is standing in the robe of righteousness that is provided by Christ.
Holmes’ chapter is the last of the four in the book. Thus, I first encountered him in his responses to the other three authors. Based on those brief thoughts, I was looking forward to his chapter. It turned out to be a great disappointment. Almost his entire argument was based on an Augustinian model of marriage and a consequent assertion that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation. This, then, requires a massive pile of explanations and qualifications for how it is that it okay for heterosexual couples to marry and engage in sexual activity despite infertility, being of post-menopausal age, etc. (to say nothing of the holiness of sexual activities in the marriage bed which do not include the physical possibility of conception!). It ended up being a soft, underhand pitch right over the plate, which Loader and DeFranza obligingly knocked out of the park.
The essence of marriage is NOT procreation, though that is important. The essence of marriage is, rather, the complementarity of unity in difference with the specific halves of male and female. By definition, there is no such thing as same-sex marriage. Regardless of what the state or the culture or liberal churches may say, it does not exist. And Christians should not speak of it as if it did. That is why I and others are always careful to use phrasing such as “so-called same-sex marriage.” This should have been the argument presented by Holmes. But it was not.
That is not to say that Holmes offered nothing of value. On the contrary, he brought some very helpful points to bear on the discussion. In fact, it is worth quoting him at length to get the force of the best thread of his contribution:
[E]very desire of every person is wrongly directed; the church is a company of sinners. The acceptance offered to lesbian and gay people is exactly the same as the acceptance offered to straight people: we are all invited through the mercy of God and the sacrifice of Christ to come as we are, desiring wrongly in multiple ways, and to find ourselves gradually transformed to desire rightly through the work of the Spirit. (p.64)
Responding to Loader’s assertion that it is “very unfair and inconsistent to tell people that it’s OK to be gay, but not OK to give natural expression to their sexuality,” Holmes writes,
But that is exactly what we say to all people: it is not OK to give natural expression to our sexuality—or indeed to any other natural desire we have. Instead, the gospel calls every one of us to repentance and transformation in every area of our lives. Christian marriage is not permission to indulge our sexual desires, but an ascetic discipline through which our wayward desires are transformed (just as celibacy is). (pp.64-5)
What Homosexuals and Other Sinners Need
Along with Butterfield, I will say that what all of us need, throughout our lives, is the healing power of our God to conquer and reconcile and restore to Himself all the little parts of us which remain sick and broken and rebellious. Christians who experience same-sex attraction do not need to settle into a life of “being gay.” They need healing. We all do. The role of the church is to walk the path of healing with all of her members. This is not to deny the likely reality that there is something in the psychological and perhaps even bio-chemical hardwiring of some folks which gives them a “natural” (read: “fallen”) propensity toward same-sex attraction. Nor is it to give approval to any of the sinister schemes of “reprogramming” which think of same-sex attracted people as “patients” in need of a “cure” and treat them as objects to be dealt with. (Butterfield refers to “reparative therapy” as a heresy of the prosperity gospel that says, ‘commit your life to Jesus, and all will be well.’)
Biblical healing in the church means friendship—deep, close friendships between equals in Christ, where the Spirit of God is growing people into the likeness of the Son. This brother is seeing growth in his years-long struggles with anger, that brother in his critical and prideful spirit, this brother in his lust toward women, that brother in his same-sex attractedness—all of them walking together, building one another up, praying with and for one another. For any of these people, the struggle may continue throughout their lives. The same-sex attracted Christian may go to his grave ‘feeling gay,’ just as the Christian power-monger may struggle to his dying day with his idol of controlism. Nevertheless, the trail will be marked by victories (even if it also includes some failures), and Christ will have been learned and known in the process. This is sanctification. Meanwhile, it will not do for any of them to settle into an identity which frames their lives according to their brokenness.
Church and World on the Issue of Homosexuality
One thing that is of great importance is that the church maintain her own clarity of thought. In many cases in 21st century America, this will mean she must first recover it and then maintain it. Without a doubt, there are several claims constantly broadcast by the surrounding culture which find their way into the church. I finish this post by listing several ingredients, in no particular order, that add to the over all confusion we suffer here in this time and place. Some of these have broader significance than just their bearing on the issue of homosexuality. After each, I will offer a thought to try to clear the air a bit.
- Cultural fog: Everyone–at least all normal and decent people–are affirming of homosexuality as a good thing.
- Clearing the air: The ad populum fallacy is an informal fallacy which claims that something is either true or false because practically everyone thinks so. As I have written before here on TLW, ‘Most people believe the things they believe, because they believe most people believe them.’ This is a tremendously powerful weapon in the propaganda arsenal of culture. It wins a free pass on so many things from evolutionary theory to Whoopi Goldberg’s “god of love and acceptance.” It certainly holds enormous sway in the public perception of many questions involved in the discussion of homosexuality.
- Cultural fog: We have now arrived and know all truth—or at least sufficiently vast amounts of it to make our judgments about practically everything superior to all who have gone before us.
- Clearing the air: The Chronological Snobbery fallacy is also alive and well in today’s culture. This is the fallacy that assumes that, simply because an idea is old, it must be wrong. (It can go the opposite way too,saying that something is wrong or bad because it is new.) The culture of the day operates with the assumption that we have now arrived and know all truth. With regard to the discussion of homosexuality, we can now arrogate to our time and place the seat of authoritative truth with disregard and disdain for many other times and places in the history of the world. The irony is that, far from being a new height of clarity and enlightenment, it is actually a new depth of blindness and ignorance.
- Cultural fog: True love is what we have been taught to believe it is by our televisions (et al), and it is the most important thing in the universe.
- Clearing the air: Romantic/sexual love, especially as a “private” affair “between two people who love each other,” has been elevated to religious status in our culture, and the church has largely bought into it. Romantic and sexual involvement is now seen as necessary for personal fulfillment. This has resulted in the privatization and secularization (or we might say, the dis-ecclesialization) of ordinary marriages. It is this unbiblical and sub-Christian understanding of marriage that is in view when the culture says all people deserve the right to be married. Indeed, it is difficult to defend against such a claim when we have already agreed to this wrong definition.
- Cultural fog: Being ‘nice’ is the most important thing in our interactions with each other.
- Clearing the air: This is particularly expected of anyone who makes any claim to have faith in God. Anyone is welcome to speak from a “religious” perspective provided that they only say nice things. In the church, we tend to fall for a more insidious form of this in connection with the homosexual issue and others. We have been pressured into believing that it is incumbent upon us to take the nicest position on homosexuality that we possibly can without utterly violating clear biblical teaching. And when we do express biblical teaching, we hem and haw and apologize.
As I have written elsewhere, “niceness” is not a Christian virtue. Kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness–these are the fruit of the Spirit. But they are not the same thing as niceness. Niceness is a thin veneer over relationships that usually involves being fake. Biblical love never involves being fake. It is real and is the partner of the truth. Without such a distinction between cultural niceness and actual Christian virtue, the writings of the New Testament apostles are unintelligible.
- Cultural fog: “Being gay” is just the way some people are; the discussion of whether homosexuality is innate or elective is settled and closed.
- Clearing the air: Similar to the way that evolutionary theory eventually reached the status of unquestionable acceptance throughout the culture, it is now assumed by most people that “being gay” is just the way some people are. (All five of the Christian authors of the book I discussed above seem to take this as a given.) To speak of it as a choice that some people make is to reveal oneself as desperately behind the times. This has been a huge accomplishment for the ‘LGBT’ agenda in attaching itself to the legitimate plights of people of color, who, in fact, do NOT get to choose their ethnicity.
- Cultural fog: The culture, not the Bible or the church, gets to define the terms and set the parameters for discussion.
- Clearing the air: Among other things, this means that everyone is expected to accept and use the words “gay” and “lesbian,” the very use of which lends a constant legitimacy to the ideas that these are not only real ontological categories (which itself should be questioned) but ones deserving of acceptance and support. Moreover, we are expected to use new definitions of terms like “marriage” and “spouse” and to use phrases like “his husband” and “her wife.” In the case of so-called ‘transgender’ people, we are expected to use the gender pronouns that fit the sex which they claim to have become. While I will not say that Christians must not acquiesce to these things, I would at least say we better be clear with ourselves and one another as to just what we are doing.
- Cultural fog: Being put together means being right and good.
- Clearing the air: This idea comes in the form of pointing out that, contrary to other times and places in history (e.g. ancient Greece and Rome), homosexuality is no longer to be associated with abusiveness or sickness. Gays and lesbians, we are assured, are among the most put together, well-adjusted people in society. They are responsible professionals who make good parents, etc. It is important to remember that the measure of the moral quality of a person, thing or phenomenon is not how orderly or robust it appears to be. In the proclamation of the gospel, the church has always sounded clear warnings to the healthy, happy and well-heeled that their apparent stability was not to be trusted. Thus, the increasing amount of social polish among homosexual people should not be mistaken for God’s approval of their homosexuality.
- Cultural fog: The popular cultural narrative correctly teaches us that gay and gay-affirming people are heroic and “religious” and non-affirming people are goofy, if not downright villainous.
- Clearing the air: While it is certainly true that there have been times in the past when homosexual people were cruelly mistreated by society and were terribly hurt by people in the church, those days are pretty well gone now. And in fact, the tables are quickly turning. It is no longer brave to be gay or gay-affirming. It is brave to be otherwise. Ask any Christian student at a state college or university.
Before signing off here, I do want to try, at least, to avoid having people unnecessarily think of me as a jerk who hates homosexual people. As I mentioned above, I cannot just say nice, politically correct things at the expense of the truth. But that doesn’t mean that I have either a license or a desire to be a brash, uncaring jerk. Never mind anything like a Christian duty to love, I honestly cannot remember ever meeting a homosexual person (unless maybe I didn’t know they were) whom I didn’t find it easy to like.
The aim of this post has not been to get into a public argument with homosexual people. My aim has been to lay things out in what I believe to be a clear and accurately biblical way for the sake of other Christians. In fact, I do not know whether any homosexual people will even see this. In one sense, I hope not. The things I have written of here have nothing to do with loving and serving actual homosexual people. It has been, and I trust it will continue to be, my great pleasure to know and interact with homosexual folks. They are sinners just like I am. In actual relationship with actual people, I would not stand there laying out these arguments. I would sit and listen and love. As Rosaria Butterfield puts it, ‘Strong words belong the context of strong relationship.’
May the Lord Jesus Christ magnify His holy name among us all!