Christians and homosexuality – is there a peaceful way forward?

Difficult issues series

This has been perhaps the most difficult post I have written.

I’ve avoided writing about this issue because it is so divisive, and because I wasn’t sure I had anything worthwhile to say.

But while I don’t pretend to have a solution to the argument between the traditionalists and the progressives, I can’t help feeling that there should be some things christians of goodwill from both sides can agree on, and which might ease the tensions a little.

There is also the issue of how the secular world sees christians – surveys show that the perceived anti-gay emphasis of christians is a major barrier to non-believers ever seriously considering the claims of christianity.

Is it really this important?

Outsiders might sometimes wonder if being anti-gay is the core of christianity. But the subject is only raised in a handful of passages in the Bible, far less than, say, the dangers of wealth, materialism and greed. Yet how many churches, and how many christians, devote more attention to greed than they do to homosexuality?

Whatever shade of theology we hold, from conservative to liberal, sexual ethics is not the centre of our faith. In evangelical terms, it is “not a salvation issue”, nor is it at the core of the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught.

Allowing this to be seen as such a big issue means we are not saying what most needs to be said.

We have much to repent of

Christians and churches have an unfortunate (to say the least!) history of persecution of LGBTI people. We have not been alone in this – many cultures and many societies have behaved badly towards gays, but we haven’t shown the love that Jesus commanded us to show even to our enemies, let alone those we have no reason to regard as enemies.

People who are at least nominal christians, maybe even “born again” christians, have bashed gays, even murdered them, discriminated against them and hated them. There can be no justification for this, and it needs to be repented of and apologised for, if it hasn’t already. The discrimination and lack of love must stop.

I remember as long ago as the 1970s, a friend of mine who was a University chaplain for a conservative evangelical denomination, was arguing that it was homosexual actions that the Bible spoke against, not the orientation. We know now that many, perhaps most, of those who identify as LGBTI had no choice in this orientation, so it is sad and reprehensible that some christians are still saying LGBTI orientation is a sin.

Christians should welcome an end to all discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality, except where there may be clear social reasons – if there are actually any such cases. We should welcome LGBTI christians into our churches, our fellowship and our friendships, whether we approve of them or not, just as we welcome anyone else. We all need to experience the love of God.

Minding our own business

In 1 Corinthians 5:12, speaking of a different aspect of sexual ethics, Paul asks the rhetorical question: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” I think this principle is appropriate for the question of gay marriage.

Whatever christians think about gay marriage, what other people do with their lives isn’t our business. We don’t try to make laws against pride, promiscuity, jealousy or gluttony, so I cannot see that opposing gay marriage is something any of us should be doing.

I think secular gays can go too far here too. Ministers and churches shouldn’t be required to perform gay weddings if they feel it is against their conscience.

Live and let live seems to be a good motto for both sides.

Forcing the interpretation?

The passages commonly quoted to condemn homosexual activity should, it is argued by pro-gay christians, be interpreted differently. Paul was speaking against coercive and unloving gay relationships (which were common in the Roman Empire), it is said, and didn’t address loving and committed gay relationships.

I have difficulties with this. It is true that male citizens of the Empire commonly had homosexual partners among their slaves, a practice that we would all condemn because of the inequality and lack of choice in the relationship. But the scriptures were written out of very traditional and patriarchal societies, and I am doubtful that the writers REALLY meant, or would ever supported, what the pro-gay activists try to make them say. The alleged silence of the New Testament writers on loving gay relationships cannot reasonably be interpreted as approval.

It is understandable that gay christians would want to find scriptural support for what is deeply important for them, but an extremely doubtful re-interpretation of scripture doesn’t seem to be the best way forwards.

Consistent interpretation?

But the traditional interpretation has problems too. The passages may seem to be clear at first sight, but the “hard line” interpretation is inconsistent with “softer” interpretations of other passages.

  • Jesus taught strongly against divorce, yet today, while we still regard divorce as unfortunate and undesirable, most christians don’t oppose divorce or re-marriage. Rather they accept it as either the lesser of two evils, or as simply a fact not to be questioned. Most churches happily re-marry divorcees, contrary to clear teaching by Jesus.
  • Many churches interpret strictly and literally New Testament passages on male headship and the limited role of women in leadership in the church, but are less strict about teachings in the same passages about women covering their heads, long hair for men, and women wearing fine clothes, fancy hairstyles and jewellery – see It was kind of amusing and revealing at the same time.
  • Conservative churches rarely follow Paul’s encouragement for us all to speak in tongues and (even better) to prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:5), and I don’t know of any church that would allow a spontaneous utterance from the congregation to silence the prepared speaker (1 Corinthians 14:30)! Some conservative churches even change the meaning of the word prophecy to justify their departure from Paul’s teaching.

Some of these departures from a literal understanding are said to be justified by the idea that Paul’s thoughts on women’s clothing and hair styles were a cultural matter that don’t apply today. But how do we know that some of the things held dear by conservative christians (such as the role of women or our attitude to homosexuality) do not similarly have cultural or historical aspects?

Consistency in Biblical interpretation is difficult, but I believe there is a better way to address this issue.

Word vs Spirit

So we have reached an impasse. Gay christians refuse to accept no for an answer, but that is the only answer conservative christians are willing to give. Each side speaks confidently of God being on their side, but they both can’t be right. I suspect they are both at least partly wrong.

Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth (John 16:13). Instead of arguing vehemently from the Greek about what Paul may or may not have meant, and being implacably opposed to any other way of looking at things, we need to know from God what he wants for today. If everything in the scriptures doesn’t necessarily apply to us today, we need the Spirit’s guidance on whether and how much these teachings on homosexuality should be applied.

It will be said that this is playing with the Word of God, but as we have seen, both sides are already doing that, and coming to opposite conclusions. I would much rather trust the answer when the worldwide church is praying honestly for God’s wisdom on this, than trust people with preconceived opinions stretching to make the Bible say what they want.

I have seen one church go through a process like this. For about two months they met, prayed, read the scriptures and discussed, all in an atmosphere that was accepting and non-confrontational. Both sides of the debate were expressed. There was no argument, as far as I am aware, for I only attended once when visiting. In the end the church decided to affirm LGBTI people as made in the image of God. I think they were probably always going to come to that conclusion, but I think they modelled a good process that the rest of us could learn from.

What’s a poor boy to do?

I can’t honestly feel that I can endorse either the strong resistance of the conservatives or the affirming way of the progressives, at the moment at least.

But what are the alternatives?

Praying with those we disagree with and asking the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s guidance on this matter will not be a fast process, and realistically, most people and churches are probably not going to be willing to do it just yet – too many are too far down their particular track. And gay christians are impatient for change.

Like I said at the start, I don’t have any answers, just a wish to see a more peaceful approach. Any ideas I’ve had so far don’t seem to be satisfactory, and I outline them here with some trepidation. Some could be seen as insulting to LGBTI people, while others could be seen by some as not respecting scripture, but we need to explore ideas.

  1. Conservative christians could accept that the Bible speaks about homosexual behaviour, not orientation, publicly repent of past discriminatory actions, stop opposing secular gay marriage, and welcome LGBTI people into their churches. Churches unwilling to accept homosexual relations among christians could promote voluntary celibacy and singleness – a tough ask for gays, but no more than is required for many single straight christians. This is surely the least that should happen, and would at least remove some of the barriers many non-believers see at present.
  2. Few actions regarded as sins are regulated by conservative churches in the way that homosexuality is. Most churches look the other way when members are blatantly materialistic, greedy, prone to anger, proud, over indulging in alcohol or food, or (as has become apparent recently) even abusing their wives. Should gays be subject to divisive scrutiny when these others are not?
  3. Divorce is condemned in scripture just as homosexual behaviour is, but, as I’ve already suggested, most churches accept it without approving it. Could gay marriage be treated the same way?
  4. A useful principle is that, if in doubt, we should do the loving thing. It could be argued that it would be better for christians to err on the side of acceptance and love rather than on the side of non-acceptance.
  5. Delay is going to be hurtful to gay christians, but, sadly, I can’t presently see any way out of that. The reality is that gay christians will go to churches that support their own view. These days many, maybe most, churches accept celibate gay christians, so that part will be easy, but gay christians who are married will find it much harder to find fellowship. The rest of us need to support them even if we disagree with them – they are still brothers and sisters trying to live in a difficult broken world.

My conclusion

I can’t say I’m really happy with any of this. I feel like I’m setting myself up to be criticised by both sides in this debate. The church is divided on the issue, and diverging more than converging, it seems. We need to know what God thinks, not what our traditions or our wishes say.

So I am committed to being open-minded, praying and asking the Holy Spirit to convince not only me, but a growing number of christians. And I am committed to be loving as much as I can. I cannot at present feel happy to come to a conclusion myself, and especially not actively support either side until I feel confident that God is leading his people in a clear way.

I just have no idea how he might lead us, but I’m waiting to see evidence of his work in the worldwide church.

Photo Credit: Daniel Dudek Flickr via Compfight cc

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51 thoughts on “Christians and homosexuality – is there a peaceful way forward?

  1. rwwilson147 says:

    Eric,
    I think I’ve said this at least six times here: the traditional, historical, textual data is not really open to debate–I can be certain of that because I read history as realistically as possible. There is no good hermeneutically justified reason beyond something that amounts to “we know better now” for thinking inclusion of LGBTQ behaviors should be acceptable for Christians. The openness to debate about what Jesus and the apostles taught about human sexuality is not rooted in how we interpret the texts as much as it is in whether we consider them authoritative. The existence of individuals and groups that are altogether OPEN to moving beyond the authority of God (through scriptural revelation of His will) shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, and shouldn’t be used as a justification for continuing the debate. Whether an argument is posed with an implicit bias against the authority of God in scripture ought to be a first level criteria for whether it is taken seriously or not–unfortunately that isn’t always the case.

    The peaceful way forward on this debate is for those who submit to the authority of God in Christ as having revealed the Father’s will to us to acknowledge that those who accept their own thinking as equally valid evidence for truth will go from bad to worse, from faith in Christ and his gospel as taught by Jesus and the apostles to all manner of distorted and corrupt reflections of that. This also implies that for those fully committed to the new teaching on human sexuality they might need to acknowledge that they can’t and won’t have peaceful relations with those who hold fast to the teaching of the Christ of scripture. It seems evident to me that there is most likely a parting of the ways implicit in this issue that can’t be healed or argued around—there really is no “peaceful” way forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. matrimble says:

    Again, sorry for the delay (I’m not getting to my computer as often as usual lately).

    In short, I believe that what I posted provided ample evidence that all of the actual NT expectations of Christians are still held as applicable today by the Catholic Church. Those that are not considered applicable by Catholics today can be shown to not be applicable in the NT either. For while I accept that when an issue has multiple interpretations in the NT among the apostles themselves, it is understood that adherence to one position to the exclusion of the others is problematic. However, in the case of homosexuality, I am aware of no such ambiguity. Can you provide scripture evidence of homosexuality *ever* being characterized as anything other than sinful? If you can’t, then what basis is there for a reinterpretation? Reauthorship seems the only recourse and at that point you depart from Christianity and start becoming something else.

    That being said, I did want to make a couple of corrections to your summarized in your response:

    Regarding Women silent in church, women have head covering when praying, and
    men not having long hair, like I said I could find no reference to these items in the Catechism, but believe this is because the Church is leaving this up to local custom based on this in 1 Corinthians 11 13-16:

    13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?
    14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a disgrace to him,
    15 whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory, because long hair has been given [her] for a covering?
    16 But if anyone is inclined to be argumentative, we do not have such a custom, nor do the churches of God.

    Regarding speaking in tongues, as I mentioned I could also find no reference to this in the Catechism, but believe this is because of what is said in 1 Corinthians 12 4-11:

    4 There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
    5 there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
    6 there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.
    7 To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.
    8 To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit;
    9 to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit;
    10 to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues.
    11 But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.

    Regarding prophesying, the Catholic Church does recognize the prophetical role of the laity, as it states in section 873 of the Catechism:

    873 The very differences which the Lord has willed to put between the members of his body serve its unity and mission. For “in the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission. To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing in his name and by his power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly office of Christ; they have therefore, in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God.” Finally, “from both groups [hierarchy and laity] there exist Christian faithful who are consecrated to God in their own special manner and serve the salvific mission of the Church through the profession of the evangelical counsels.”

    Indeed, saints *are* the prophets of the NT and many, if not most, come from the ranks of the laity, so there is really no question about the Catholic Church’s recognition of this role.

    Regarding Hating our parents and other relatives, as I said I believe this relates best to the question of discipleship and is addressed in the Catechism directly here:
    http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1816.htm
    1816 The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it: “All however must be prepared to confess Christ before men and to follow him along the way of the Cross, amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks.” Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation: “So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

    Additionally, I came across another well written explanation of what is meant by “hating our parents…”:
    https://www.gotquestions.org/hate-father-mother.html

    Regarding Giving up everything we have, I believe the Catholic position on this couldn’t be more clear:

    The Catechism says first this concerning wealth:
    http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1938.htm
    1938 There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel:

    Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.

    Then this:
    http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/2053.htm
    2053 To this first reply Jesus adds a second: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This reply does not do away with the first: following Jesus Christ involves keeping the Commandments. The Law has not been abolished, but rather man is invited to rediscover it in the person of his Master who is its perfect fulfillment. In the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ call to the rich young man to follow him, in the obedience of a disciple and in the observance of the Commandments, is joined to the call to poverty and chastity. The evangelical counsels are inseparable from the Commandments.

    And then later in stronger and more detailed language in sections 2443-2449 titled “Love For The Poor”:
    http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a7.htm#2443
    2443 God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them: “Give to him who begs from you, do not refuse him who would borrow from you”; “you received without pay, give without pay.” It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones. When “the poor have the good news preached to them,” it is the sign of Christ’s presence.

    2444 “The Church’s love for the poor . . . is a part of her constant tradition.” This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor. Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to “be able to give to those in need.” It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty.

    2445 Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use

    Additionally, I came across a very well written explanation of the Christian relationship with and obligations concerning material wealth:
    https://questions.org/attq/does-jesus-expect-his-followers-to-give-up-all-of-their-possessions/

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  3. unkleE says:

    Hi RWW,

    “I think I’ve said this at least six times here”

    Yes, I don’t doubt you. And I agree more or less with what you say here, both main points. It’s just that you don’t address what I am saying, so I won’t respond further.

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  4. unkleE says:

    Hi MAT,

    I have been asking you what is your basis for allowing some scriptural teachings to not apply today, while requiring that others are still to be applied strictly. I think, reading through your answer here, I think I see several implied reasons:

    1. It is the teaching of the Catholic Church. That may be enough for you, but it doesn’t answer my question – why should I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church? What reasons does the church have for taking those views?

    2. It can be left up to local custom. But it isn’t clear to me why some things can be and some things cannot.

    3. “an issue has multiple interpretations in the NT among the apostles themselves” This is a clear principle and I can see the logic of it.

    So I can see why you oppose any change to christian ethics about homosexuality – it would be contrary to Catholic teaching, but that answer doesn’t satisfy me, nor would it satisfy non-Catholics generally.

    I haven’t seen a strong argument as to why we can be non-literal about hating parents, giving up possessions, etc, and somewhat less that literal about tongues and prophecy, yet can’t consider the same about homosexuality. Nor a strong argument that homosexuality couldn’t be something that applied then but not today, something like a local custom, but wider.

    Perhaps we should leave it at that? You have done a valiant job in marshalling information from a Catholic point of view, but I don’t feel it has given me any good reason not to continue to pray for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom on this. Thanks.

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  5. unkleE says:

    I had another thought. I think you and I are actually thinking on very similar lines, just with a different outcome.

    I think we should always be praying for the Holy Spirit to guide us into correct understanding and application of the Bible, and that we should be doing this in this case. I think the Catholic Church would also say it is doing the same thing. The difference, of course, is that the Catholic Church claims authority for its assessment of the Spirit’s guidance whereas I don’t accept that claim.

    If this is true, then you and I both accept some changes to literal Biblical teachings, we just happen to disagree about this one. And since I don’t have a final opinion about tis case, we are not so very far apart.

    What do you think about that?

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  6. matrimble says:

    Sounds good Eric. Yes, I guess I do accept the Catholic Church’s authority on this, as apparently Jesus gave this authority to Peter, and Peter, to his successors. Whatever you or others may think about it, in the final analysis it seems to me that Catholicism *is* “Christianity”. Other faiths are just that, other faiths. Islam and Mormons have a Jesus too, just not the Christian Jesus. I think it is healthy and best for people to be honest about what they believe (and don’t) and recognize when those beliefs necessarily require them to part company with Christianity.

    However, I also feel I did demonstrate that the Catholic Church does hold as. applicable all those items you mentioned; with those things that are not applicable today not ever being applicable everywhere, but allowed in the context of time and place. I also feel the point about the lack of ambiguity throughout the whole of the Bible on the subject of homosexuality provides no basis for reinterpretation, only amendment. And that’s a place that not even the saints go.

    You speak of reserving the right to keep your own counsel with the Holy Spirit, but please, with humility, remember that there are other spirits in the world, both cunning and malicious, that seek to corrupt the Word of God. How sure are you that you can discern the source of your inspiration? It would seem to me scripture is our best and maybe only reliable source. To take a position that departs from scripture (or worse, conflicts with it, as in the case of homosexuality) has disaster written all over it.

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  7. unkleE says:

    Hi, I think our approaches are closer than you think, you are just working from a different basis.

    “Catholicism *is* “Christianity””

    Well, yes it is. But so is Protestantism. And so is Eastern Orthodox. In fact, the Orthodox could reasonably claim to be more original than Catholicism. People can reasonably believe what they think is right here. So I don’t accept that your Catholic basis is any more correct than the others. So that is where we disagree (though I wouldn’t want to argue about it). But from here on our approach is similar, I think.

    “I did demonstrate that the Catholic Church does hold as. applicable all those items you mentioned; with those things that are not applicable today not ever being applicable everywhere, but allowed in the context of time and place.”

    It still comes down to this. There are passages that you and the Catholic Church hold as literally true and applicable today, there are other passages that the church interprets or applies in a less than literal way, and still other passages that the church holds were cultural and need not be applied today at all. That is, I think, a fair summary of what you have outlined.

    I have no problem with that in principle. I think it would be silly to take a totally literal approach to every one of those passages. My points are these:

    (1) Let’s recognise that we are all doing this to some degree or other.

    (2) Let’s be clear about the criteria being used to decide how we interpret and apply each passage. Your criterion is what the church teaches (if I have understood you correctly) whereas mine is what the Holy Spirit guides us into.

    But these criteria are very similar in principle. The church believes that it is the means by which the Holy Spirit guides God’s people, whereas I believe it is just one of the means. So there’s not much difference. It just turns out that on the question of homosexuality, the church has made its decision and it’s not about to change it, whereas I am asking us to be praying to see if that is still the option God wants for us.

    “You speak of reserving the right to keep your own counsel with the Holy Spirit”

    No, you have misunderstood me here. I have NOT said that. After discussing how I wanted to see the whole church more in unity on this, I said: “So I am committed to being open-minded, praying and asking the Holy Spirit to convince not only me, but a growing number of christians.” I see this as a collective thing. I am withholding judgment while I look to see if the Holy Spirit is bringing God’s people (the ones willing to pray and consider) to any particular view.

    You believe that your church has done that already, but I do not believe your church is the sole, or even a reliable, indicator of the Holy Spirit. That is the difference between us, I think.

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  8. unkleE says:

    Hi, yes it’s a good article, thanks. Of course it doesn’t answer many of the questions, but it addresses some. I think he is right that many christians, not just Catholics, are now very accepting and loving towards gay people, which didn’t use to be the case, so that is great progress.

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  9. Minako says:

    First of all, whenever I hear a Christian say “homosexual activity”, I find myself scratching my head. They never seem to define what that activity is…if you go back to Leviticus, the only thing it mentions, taken out of context, is anal sex between two males. There is no LAW against any other “gay” activity. You can’t force lesbians or two males kissing into there, when there is simply no law against it.

    Jesus himself, never made any new laws concerning this and the Paul is targeting very specific things in the new testament…which is always connected to idol worship. When it comes to studying the greek in Corin/Timothy/Romans…there were words specifically used for certain actions in Paul’s time(who was no idiot), and doesn’t use any words associated with what we might consider homosexuality of today.

    My problem with this part of the article: “The alleged silence of the New Testament writers on loving gay relationships cannot reasonably be interpreted as approval.”

    Here is the thing, Paul said that he would not know what sin was…if it wasn’t for the law(Mosaic law). Therefore, you can’t say that loving gay relationships are sinful, since God is the ultimate authority…and HE never made a law against it. It would be in the category of something that doesn’t:

    1) Violate worshipping God/Jesus
    2) Violate loving your neighbor

    Therefore, it’s up to the individual to decide if they want to participate in that or not.

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  10. unkleE says:

    Hi MInako,

    Thanks for sharing your views so eloquently. I presume you will know from reading my post that I have a lot of sympathy with what you say. You may well be right (I don’t claim to be an arbiter on this).

    My only real issue is with the idea that because there are no specific statements against loving and committed gay relationships that God therefore made no law against it and thus it is OK. There are many things that are not specifically mentioned in the Bible, especially if we get very specific into detail, but I don’t think that necessarily makes them right. So I think that argument only takes the discussion a little way. I think we still need some guidance from the Holy Spirit, which is discerned by the wider christian community.

    But of course that doesn’t make that view wrong either. I just think we need loving and caring discussion. You have contributed to that, which I appreciate. I wonder if you have more you would like to share?

    Thanks.

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