Why Christian Opposition to Homosexuality Never Dies
I must be confusing people. I think it’s getting harder and harder for people to figure out which “side” I’m on in the Christian controversy over gay and lesbian issues.
Sometimes I sound “liberal” and sometimes I sound “conservative.” And, truth be told, I have some concerns and convictions that ally me a bit with both — depending on the issue.
But, let me begin this post by laying aside terms like “liberal” and “conservative.” Let me suggest, instead that the two major positions in the furor over same-gender sex can be characterized this way:
- SideA believes that the sex/gender of the partners in a relationship or sexual act does not affect the moral status of the relationship or act.
- SideB, in contrast includes those who believe that the sex/gender of the partners in a relationship or sexual act is morally relevant. In particular, they believe that same-sex relationships and sexual acts are immoral, and/or they fall short of God’s ideal. They generally believe that people should either have sexual relations within the context of a heterosexual marriage, or they should abstain from sexual relations completely. (See: The Sides of the Divide.)
So, for example, while its true that evangelicals tend to be on SideB of this issue — as time goes by this is becoming less & less universally true. I just think it is better to actually talk about the issue — rather than talking about the people who hold the various positions. And, I sense that some people are trying to find some sort of mediating position on this — though that’s pretty difficult to do.
So, the real title of this post should be: “Why SideB Never Dies Out.”
The rhetoric of the “homosexuality debate” is often incendiary. It is a bitter quarrel — and I can see why. Nevertheless, in spite of strongly-worded denunciations and long, reasoned discussions of the Biblical evidence, a deep division persists on this issue. The proponents of gay marriage continue to discover that there is strong Christian opposition. In spite of the rhetoric and in spite of long, lengthy essays on the topic, SideB never seems to die out.
The difference of opinion persists because: (a.) Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce has long been seen as pointing Christians toward a heterosexual, monogamous standard for sexual behavior, and (b.) there are several strongly worded condemnations of same-gender sex in the Bible — both in the Old and New Testaments.
Yes, Christians on SideA have worked hard to undermine the force of the Biblical condemnations against same-gender sex. Not all of us find these especially convincing. (Maybe I’m just exceptionally stupid.) But, even if they were, I’d still be looking for an alternate standard — and alternate story to the one I’ve always thought I saw in the Scriptures.
You see, as I said, Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce has long been seen as pointing Christians toward a heterosexual, monogamous standard for sexual behavior. And, this has been the guiding norm for the Christian view of sexual ethics. Both Jesus and Paul quickly quote Genesis 2:23 as defining the Biblical standard of marriage (See: Ephesians 5:31 & Matthew 19:5). Jesus says that in Biblical history, divorce was allowed because of "hardness of heart.” What God allowed in previous generations cannot be used to define God's intended will for marriage (see: Matthew 19:3-9). We know from 1 Corinthians 7:10 that the teaching of Jesus on marriage & divorce was circulating in the early Church prior to its being written down in the Gospels. It was considered authoritative.
So, Genesis 2:23 and the teaching of Jesus on marriage needs to be the place where Christian teaching on sexual ethics begins.
Here’s the thing: if you look at it that way then the debate about same-gender sex has larger implications than the issue of same-gender sex alone. I think that's why SideB Christians often respond so emotionally to this issue, too. It raises other issues.
- Is the Bible a source of moral guidance?
- Are we taking seriously what it says?
- Is there really a Christian sexual ethic?
In this sense, the debate about same-gender sex is simply the "presenting issue" in a larger and deeper debate about the meaning of the faith and it's guiding ethical norms.
Speaking for myself, I will always try to look to the Scriptures (and to a lesser degree, the Christian Tradition) for moral and spiritual guidance. And, I can only in good conscience recommend to others sources and norms for the faith that I would look to myself.
All the Bible is historical in nature. Nonetheless — with that very important fact in mind — we come to it with a prayerful desire to hear what God might say in our day through the Scripture.
I resist a hermeneutic which discards previous moral insights. Obviously, some things in Scripture appear to us as more "timeless" and some appear to us as being more "culturally conditioned." I think all of Scripture is culturally conditioned. And, I think we look to the whole of Scripture’s story for moral and spiritual insights of timeless value. Scripture points us beyond itself to the will and purpose of God. A historical hermeneutic is necessary for all of it and not just part of it.
That is different, I think, than a Cafeteria Theology which simply slides its tray through, taking only what it wants. We seek to listen to Scripture faithfully and fairly, for what its many voices have to say to us.
In Scripture, the condemnation of same-gender sex acts is a minor theme. But, the language is strong, the insight seems to be distinctive to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and some sense needs to be made of it.
Furthermore, since same-gender attraction only affects a relatively small proportion of the human population, it is remarkable that same-gender sex is mentioned in the Bible as frequently as it is. Pedophilia, for example, is never mentioned at all. I happen to believe that the traditional Christian teaching about heterosexual covenant fidelity is the standard by which we view the Christian sexual ethic. It is certainly difficult to live out. But, it is an important component of Jesus' call to discipleship and needs to be heard.
How the Jewish & Christian faiths interacted with their culture is a good indicator of their distinctive content. Christianity has had the effect of removing the harshness of slavery and elevating the position of women — however much both slavery and the cultural divisions between the sexes were part of ancient life. But, in the case of same-gender sex, Judaism and Christianity both rejected this even though it was more widely accepted by the surrounding cultures. Slavery and the subordination of women were culturally acceptable in biblical times. But, to some degree (outside Judaism) so was same-gender sex! Why the difference?
Other ancient cultures were not as negative about same-gender sex as the Jewish and Christian traditions. It is distinctively the Scriptures that protest against it. It is not Hammurabi's Code that speaks against it, it's the Old Testament Law. Plato and the other Greek writers do not refer to it with the same degree of condemnation. Suetonius tells us about the excesses of the Caesars, but I don't think he intends to protest same-gender sex as such. Suetonius does tell us that some of the Caesars had fairly stable same-gender partnerships along side of their hetero marriages. Here again, I don't think this is being spoken of with much or any condemnation. It is Paul, the rabbis and the Church Fathers that speak against it.
It seems to me that there is a warning here which is particular & indigenous to the faith — and it ought to be heeded.
I think Jesus is radical in his use of the OT Genesis material. I think Jesus' teaching on marriage was quite radical for its time and still is. Christian teaching in the area of sexual ethics has sought to be faithful to Jesus' teaching. Making and keeping commitments is an important aspect of our discipleship and spiritual formation.
The Christian tradition has taken a remarkably rigorous approach to sexual issues (in fact, often too rigorous). It has sought to be faithful to the moral instruction that is characteristic of its own sources. The traditional view has been what we might call the one-man-one-woman-forever-Creation view associated with the teaching of Jesus. If this is not the standard, then can we really say that there is a distinctively Christian sexual ethic? If this is not the standard, shouldn't the traditional arguments for monogamous marriage also be rejected? And: shouldn't a much wider range of sexual behaviors be reconsidered?
Helmut Thielicke remarked about Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce this way:
The words of Jesus concerning marriage appear in the context of a call to repentance which measures the realities of this aeon by the standard of the original order of creation.
— Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex transl. by John W. Doberstein Baker, Grand Rapids 1964 p. 118.
Like the rest of Jesus' teaching, it is a call to faith and discipleship.
I happen to believe that there is a sense in which Progressive Revelation continues in the ongoing Tradition of the Church. By this I mean the ongoing tradition of interpretation and application of Scripture. I do not necessarily mean the decisions of various Councils (however important) or the pronouncements of certain writers over others. We can learn from the Christian Tradition as it has sought to listen to and apply Scripture. But, Tradition itself recognizes Scripture as being its primary source and guide. Faithful Tradition is rooted in Scripture, though it certainly can take the application of Scripture into new realms.
I personally affirm a theological method which speaks of various sources and norms for Christian faith. But Scripture and Tradition are the primary sources for our distinctively Christian beliefs and values.
Thus, I would see a Christian SideB position as growing out of a hermeneutic that recognizes:
- the historically conditioned nature of Scripture,
- the concept of Progressive Revelation, and
- the role of faithful Tradition in informing faith.
The primary issues here (at least for me) are the nature of the Church and the nature & sources of its message.
I’m not alone in seeing things this way. Others have voiced similar concerns.
Says Wolfhart Pannenburg:
Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Says Geoffrey Wainwright, at the close of an essay:
In bringing this study thus to a provisional conclusion, I am hinting that the issues currently agitating The United Methodist Church are by no means parochial. They are part of a profound challenge and opportunity that is confronting worldwide Christianity at the entrance to the third millennium. They concern, as always, the nature of the gospel, the content of the faith, the identity and vocation of the church, the pursuit of its mission, and the exercise of its discipline. Same-sex genital relationships, abortion and euthanasia all raise profound questions of theological anthropology; to condone the practice of any of them would be to take the church down tracks it has hitherto closed off. To cease preaching, baptizing and praying in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit would be to change the character of the gospel story beyond recognition. To refrain from confessing the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior of the world would be to renege on what the church has considered its dominical commission to make disciples of all nations, where, geographically and culturally, the church holds fast to the Scripture, interpreted according the classic tradition, it appears that the Christian faith is spreading. Revisionism seems to thrive only amid decline.
— Geoffrey Wainwright, "Schisms, Heresies and the Gospel: Wesleyan Reflections on Evangelical Truth and Ecclesial Unity" Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century (Essays in Honor of Thomas C. Oden)
InterVarsity Press, 2002
This is why sometimes SideA efforts are less successful than their proponents expect them to be. There are larger issues that keep putting some Christians — including some gay and lesbian Christians, actually — on SideB. And, I don’t see any evidence that things are changing much.
Well, that’s enough for now. If I have some time later, I’ll address the topic: “What Would It Take to Convince Me I Am Wrong on the Gay & Lesbian Issue” — or something like that.
Because I know I often sound like I’m on SideA. There are plenty of reasons for that.
[The follow-up post to this is here: What Would It Take to Convince Me I Am Wrong on the Gay & Lesbian Issue.]
Powered by Disqus