I want to begin with the citation of three brief texts from the Bible.
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” That is from the law, specifically Lev. 18:22
“For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” That is found as you know in Rom. 1:26-27, part of the Apostle Paul’s general account of the human condition and predicament in sin.
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” That is the Apostle Paul in a reflective comment to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
To be sure, each one of these texts has become a flashpoint in the current argument over the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality and, in particular, the recent assertion of some in the church that the Bible does not condemn committed homosexual relationships, such as might lead to marriage, now that homosexuals have the freedom to marry in the United States. I cannot take the time to consider them and their various interpretations one by one. You will not be surprised to learn that after all the arguments made on one side or the other, the natural reading, the historic reading of the texts, continues to be far and away the most plausible and is supported by virtually all commentators of every persuasion, including those who are perfectly happy to affirm a homosexual lifestyle. They don’t agree with the Bible, but they agree that the approval of homosexual sex in any form cannot be found in the Bible. God made man and woman for each other. That is what Paul means by speaking of natural desires as opposed to unnatural ones. Sexual relationships between men and between women are forbidden as contrary to God’s intention for human life and as contrary to the nature of men and women. And, finally, those very sins had characterized the lives of some, if not a substantial number of men and women who had become Christians in the first century and had joined Christian churches in apostolic times; those very sins were the sins that were left behind. Such were some of you! In other words, when they became Christians they forsook the homosexual practices of their former lives.
It is not the exegesis of Holy Scripture that has changed the minds of a number of Christian pastors and churches about the acceptability of gay marriage, much as they will protest that it was. The culture has changed dramatically in recent years, has become far more sexually permissive than it was a generation ago, and sexual expression has come to represent a far more important ingredient in personal identity than ever it did before in the history of Western Civilization. And, as has always happened before and is happening today in other ways as well, parts of the church will accommodate themselves to the culture. They do so for many reasons, of course. In some cases it is the desire to find acceptance in and from the culture. In others it is the powerful influence of an intellectual milieu. In other cases the influences are highly personal: friends who are homosexuals, or a son or daughter who is, and so forth.
In any case, we should not imagine ourselves somehow immune from or unconnected to the debate now underway in the American evangelical church. There is, in fact, a number, a small number but a number of people who are looking for an argument that at one and the same time justifies loyalty to the Bible and the affirmation of homosexual identity and lifestyle and there are evangelical pastors and writers who are seeking to provide such arguments. Just the other day we heard that Tony Campolo, the well-known sociologist and evangelical speaker, announced that he had embraced the position that the church should support gay marriage. In a way typical of such announcements these days, he wrote:
“It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.”
Tony Campolo’s wife has for years been a public advocate of the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. The sub-text of such an announcement is, of course, that he wrestled long and hard with the church’s historic refusal to countenance the homosexual way of life based on what the Church took to be the explicit teaching of Holy Scripture, but finally decided that we know better today than the church has these past 2,000 years, or 4,000 years indeed. It would be surprising if he did not speak in that way. No one who wants to be taken to be a Christian or who thinks himself or herself a Christian is going to say, “I’ve decided the Bible can’t be trusted to teach us about sex.” Tony Campolo and others are adjusting to the modern environment and accommodating themselves to it, no doubt believing that they are doing the right thing.
A prominent example of the same movement and one closer to us is furnished by the odyssey of City Church of San Francisco, founded in the later 1990s as a PCA mission church. The church is not yet twenty years old and was funded with hundreds of thousands of dollars supplied by PCA churches. The intention was to replicate the model of a city-focused ministry such as is found at Redeemer PCA in New York City. City Church’s organizing pastor had been a successful RUF (PCA’s Reformed University Fellowship) minister. The mission church grew and was organized and after some years attendance had reached a thousand divided among several services conducted at several sites. In 2006, the church and its ministers left the PCA for the Reformed Church of North America (a Dutch Reformed body of mixed theology: both liberal and conservative) so as to be free to ordain women to the eldership and ministry. People at City Church asked at the time whether the church had taken a first step down a slippery slope and explicitly asked whether this change portended a change in the church’s position on homosexuality. They were assured it would not. But earlier this year the minister and the session of the church announced that they would no longer, and this is their wording, “discriminate based on sexual orientation,” by which they meant that sexually active gay and lesbian couples in same-sex marriages could become church members. It is not clear, actually, from some things said and done at the church, whether there remains any requirement that unmarried gay and lesbian church members must remain chaste.
Among the arguments made to the congregation to explain and justify the change of position was that the Christian Church’s previous policy against sexually active gays becoming members “has not led to human flourishing.” Again, their wording. The senior pastor also remarked, “More and more LGBT Christians who were sons and daughters of the church were emerging. …Lots of shame, lots of hurt.” No doubt that conclusion was in some significant measure the result of personal relationships with gay men. The senior pastor’s son, for example, is a homosexual.
In later April of this year – just a few months ago now – in a further effort to reconcile the congregation to the decision that had been made, the Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson preached at City Church’s Sunday morning services. Ken Wilson is the author of the book A Letter to My Congregation, one of the newest and most widely read arguments for the Christian Church’s acceptance of the gay lifestyle. He is the pastor of the Vineyard congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When Wilson came to this conclusion and began to urge his own congregation to adopt his view the congregation was nearly destroyed. The Vineyard denomination then published a positon paper that explicitly rejected Pastor Wilson’s interpretation of the Bible. Controversy has dogged City Church as well. Disagreement has come from within the congregation, with elders and members leaving in some numbers, and also from the RCA, the denomination of which City Church is a member congregation.
The arguments advanced in A Letter to My Congregation and the arguments often advanced by advocates of Christian acceptance of homosexuality as an equally valid lifestyle are these.
- If you come to know homosexuals, you will discover that they are good people, indeed, as good Christians as you are. They are themselves the evidence of the virtue of their lifestyle. If you come to know such people you will realize that your view of homosexuality was based on stereotype, even bigotry. Homophobia dies in the presence of actual homosexuals.
Now there is, no doubt, something to that argument. We should never abstract fidelity to the Word of God from the actual, flesh and blood lives of human beings. And we should certainly never talk about this issue or about homosexuals or our understanding of the Bible’s teaching about them, without speaking in a way we would be willing to speak were there homosexuals in our presence, including homosexuals who wanted to be Christians, who were struggling with the question and struggling with same sex attraction, even desperately longing to be delivered from it.
But, surely, we should all agree that there are a great many attractive, personal, and in some respects admirable people who struggle with sinful temptations and in various ways are living in defiance of God’s law. If we approve of everything nice folks do, there will be little left in human behavior that we can condemn and nothing left of the Bible’s moral law. It is a shallow understanding of sin that imagines that rebellion against God always has an ugly appearance and proves repulsive to men of goodwill. Even the Devil disguises himself as an angel of light and the Bible is full of teaching about the deceptiveness of sin. It teaches us that man’s tendency is to call good evil and evil good and even to celebrate evil as good.
We need a better reason to approve of homosexuality as a way of life and behavior than that there are nice people, even admirable people, among the homosexuals. Lots of nice people live in active disobedience to God’s law; even lots of professing Christians do so. The question is: what is the will of God? What does the Bible say? And, beyond these, even this: what difference does it make, after all, that men and women were obviously made for each other; that the sexual relationship in all of nature but supremely in Man is built on the complementarity of the sexes?
- Ken Wilson’s second argument is that the biblical statements that have been taken to categorize homosexual practice as a sin have been misunderstood.
This argument has been around for quite a long time now, and has been subjected to thorough examination. Suffice it to say that these arguments about certain biblical texts – especially the three I read to you as we began this evening – while they may convince those wanting to be convinced, have not convinced serious biblical scholarship of either the liberal or the conservative type. They reduce in every case at least to special pleading, more often than not to willful misrepresentation.
Ken Wilson assumes that what Paul was condemning was not homosexuality and its lifestyle per se but only gay prostitution or exploitation, especially of boys (what is called pederasty), arguments first canvassed back in the 1980s. But that is not what Paul said or what the rest of the Bible says. What is condemned is any sort of sexual relationship between men or any sort of sexual relationship between women.
The idea that typically accompanies Ken Wilson’s argument about biblical text is that the biblical authors, from Moses to Paul, knew nothing of what we today refer to as sexual orientation and had no experience of committed and loving homosexual relationships. But there is no evidence to support that and a good bit to disprove it. [Cf. A. Thiselton, NIGTIC First Corinthians, 447-452] Paul in Romans 1, for example, refers to men burning with passion for one another, which is not a way of speaking of exploitation, rape, or prostitution.
Interestingly, the acknowledged expert on ancient Roman and biblical views of homosexuality, a man by the name of William Loader, who has written more than any other on the subject and with great learning, and who does not himself have any moral scruple against homosexual relationships, nevertheless acknowledges that the Bible cannot be used to support them. [cf. T. Keller, “The Bible and Same Sex Relationships: A Review Article, 2-3]
- A third argument in Ken Wilson’s book is that there are a number of other issues about which evangelicals disagree. Consider evolution, or the age of the earth, or the grounds for divorce, or women in the ministry, as well as a host of theological ideas, from predestination to infant baptism. Well we should agree to disagree about this too. Homosexuality, therefore, should simply be regarded as one more of those issues about which real believers disagree and we should learn, as we have in the other cases, to accept our differences and get on with the work of ministry.
City Church has said a similar thing. The session or consistory of the church stated publicly that they plan “to welcome all people into full Christian community, regardless of sexual orientation, in the name of Jesus, while holding the tension of varying theological/scriptural interpretations.” The idea is that sincere Christians disagree and we must simply accept that unfortunate fact and move on.
But is this the same sort of issue as the others just mentioned? Should we accept that just as we Presbyterians acknowledge the spiritual and theological integrity of Christian people with whom we have sharp theological disagreements we should likewise acknowledge the integrity of those believers who integrate the acceptance of homosexuality into their understanding of Christian faithfulness. Should this, too, be part of our practice of Christian unity and Christian charity? After all, there are professing Christians nowadays who believe that it is alright for Christians to be practicing homosexuals.
There are several reasons to answer that question “No.” The first is that in all of those other cases, there is an exegetical argument to be made. There are statements in Holy Scripture that can be taken to support one position or the other. That is why the position exists in the first place. I have often admitted, perhaps you have as well, that were there only some verses in the Bible I would be an Arminian, and so would every other Christian. But there is no such text in the Bible that anyone can point to as expressing approval of the homosexual lifestyle. Not one! Their argument is entirely negative. The argument is that the texts that refer to homosexuality do not, in fact, condemn the particular form of homosexuality that we find commonplace in America today. It is not a case of pitting one statement of the Bible against another; it is rather a case of denying the implications of the texts that actually do address homosexuality. There are no texts in Holy Scripture that can be taken to approve of homosexual practice. That leads to a far weaker position and far less reason for Christians to take it seriously, all the more when, as I said before, the arguments that have been made to prove that the biblical texts do not condemn homosexual sex per se are so unconvincing.
Some further demonstration of that point and a further reason not to equate this disagreement with the others is that there has never been a tradition of the acceptance of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle in the history of the Christian church. Indeed, quite the contrary. Until our day – and even now apart from what remains the tiniest minority of professing Christians – the Christian church has uniformly condemned homosexual practice. Roman Catholics, Protestants, and the Orthodox disagree about many things, but they agree about this. No denomination that takes the Bible seriously has ever approved of gay marriage or gay sexual activity. No doctor of the Christian Church has expressed doubts about whether the church’s position condemning homosexual sex is really safely rooted in the teaching of the Bible. The church has never approved of adultery or promiscuity either, sins the Bible classes together with homosexual sex.
There are things Christians have disagreed about, to be sure, far too many alas. But there are things about which Christians loyal to the Bible do not disagree about, a great many of them in fact. They agree that Jesus is God incarnate, that he rose from the dead, that he is coming again. But they also agree that adultery is a sin, that promiscuity is a sin, and that homosexual sex is a sin.
- Finally, Ken Wilson, argues that, in effect, the Lord told him to accept practicing homosexuals as faithful Christians. Wilson is, of course, a pastor of a charismatic church known for its reliance on words of knowledge and other forms of divine revelation. He says that in times of prayer and in counseling gay people he has received thoughts and impressions from the Lord that have convinced him that such acceptance is the Lord’s will.
We, of course, do not put the same stock in such forms of so called revelation as would Pastor Wilson. But even the Vineyard does not accept that God would tell anyone to do what his Word forbids. That is, in effect, what the Vineyard said in response to Ken Wilson’s claim that homosexuals should be allowed to be members in good standing in the church while practicing a homosexual lifestyle.
The great problem posed by the effort to normalize homosexuality in the church is that it cannot succeed apart from the denial of biblical authority. Advocates claim the contrary, but they do not persuade. The Bible speaks so clearly to the question, it roots its opposition to homosexual acts in both creation and redemption (God did not make men for other men and Christ saves people out of a homosexual lifestyle), it calls homosexual sex a serious sin, it likens it to other serious sins, and uses it as an illustration of what happens when men rebel against God. I’ll be frank: if I can get the Bible to approve of homosexual sex, I can make the Bible say anything I want.
What makes homosexual relationships acceptable to people in the modern West is not the teaching of the Bible – which has had little to do with developments in Western culture in our time – but with modern secular and even pagan views of human life. Individualism, for example, has flowered in the modern west in a way it has never done in human history to this point. We are people who define reality by ourselves and for ourselves. It is essential that we be free to “be ourselves.” Americans are a deeply religious people but their religion is the religion of “me.” What is more we live in a time and place so sexually permissive it is hard to imagine that there has ever been a time more permissive than our own. As a consequence, and perhaps inevitably, we have come to think that being required to submit our sexual desires to higher obligations is simply wrong and must be psychologically damaging. Ours is not a culture accustomed to cutting its right hand or gouging out its right eye rather than being cast whole into hell.
But the orthodoxies of our cultural milieu, deeply rooted as they have become in the minds of American people, are regarded as strange and repulsive to most of the rest of the world. They are also beset with profound problems – both intellectual and spiritual – and can already be seen to be destructive of our life as a people. In any case, they have nothing to do with the teaching of the Bible or with the convictions that animate the Christian faith.
According to Ken Wilson and according to virtually everyone in the elite culture of America today – the people in government, the media, the University, and in Hollywood – the tide of history favors greater sexual freedom and unfettered equality for all individuals. That being so, refusing to accept same-sex relationships will ultimately prove futile. We are being urged as the church to avoid being, once again, on the wrong side of history.
But history shows us as many, if not more, civilizational declines and deaths as it does births and ascents. The notion that American culture is leading the world to ever greater measures of human flourishing looks more and more like a bad joke than a serious observation of modern life. Sexual permissiveness is hardly a recipe for human flourishing, but who can deny that the gay rights agenda is the ripe fruit of a sexually permissive culture. Most homosexuals do not. Only a comparatively few gay men are monogamous or care to be.
Certainly the gay rights agenda is overtaking our culture. But look at this culture! Has our unwillingness to control our desires or to subject them to higher considerations led to human flourishing? We’re a people who are borrowing $2 billion every day to pay for our lifestyle! Ask the Greeks how that turns out. We are a people who increasingly find the obligations of marriage too onerous to undertake. There has never been a culture in the history of mankind that has so many children born out of wedlock. Our birthrates are plummeting. Actuaries are telling us precisely when our populations will crater. Is this the tide of history that we are supposed to accept as inevitable?
Christianity, when healthy, is always a counter-cultural force. It resists changes that are bad for human beings, for their moral, spiritual, and physical welfare, because it knows that God’s will is always best and always most conducive to human happiness. Christians know from personal experience the destructive power of sin and they know that there is no relief to be found in surrendering to temptation. Freedom – true freedom, freedom with a capital F, the freedom that human beings are longing for – cannot be found in seeking a world set free from the law of God because no such world exists or ever can exist.
What Christians know is that God made the world and in making it, he made men and women to be complementary beings. The difference between men and women is not some limitation to be regretted. Rather it is one of God’s most wonderful gifts to us. Men and women are not the same; each has a unique calling in life; each sees the world and contributes to the life of human beings in a different way. This is part of the deep structure of human life as God made it. This diversity is God’s intention. It is emphatically clear in the Bible that God made men and women for marriage precisely by making them complements of one another. They are obviously and intentionally sexually complementary, but are so in many other wonderful ways as well. It is this divine intention, stamped on the life of mankind, that explains why the Bible forbids homosexual sexual relationships. They do not represent the divine intention of unity in diversity, of a complementarity to which each contributes his or her own part, in which both man and woman come to their own in the most intimate relationship of life. As with so much else in human life, man’s rebellion against God does not merely take the form of disobedience to his commandments, but more profoundly represents his refusal to accept his place in God’s created order. In the movement to normalize homosexuality we encounter the desire of human beings to be something other than God made them to be. It is in this sense that Paul refers to homosexuality as unnatural.
So, where does that leave us? What is our duty in such a day as ours?
- Well, first, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6, homosexual desire and practice is one of the multitude of sins from which Christ delivers those who trust in him: delivers from their guilt immediately and from their power over time. We must never think about this issue or speak about it except in terms that are faithful to our fundamental understanding of life. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And all are invited to the banquet of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Sexual sin is universal in human life and homosexuality is one more sexual sin, such sin as sent the Lord Christ to the cross. Heaven will be chock full of vast multitudes of sexual sinners saved by grace!
We who have struggled with the power of sinful desire all our lives, and not just sexual desire, but desires of all kinds, should be of all people, the most compassionate and sympathetic toward our homosexual neighbors and, all the more, our homosexual brothers and sisters. We are in the humility, confession of sin, and forgiveness business as Christians and the very last thing you or I could ever do is to find ourselves, even in our thoughts, looking down on another sinner. We can’t do that without betraying God’s grace to us.
I know that the insensitivity of the church to homosexuals, their sense of unwelcome in Christian churches is vastly overstated for the purposes of propaganda. Most serious Christians in America today, I suspect, would be very kind to homosexuals and very welcoming of them into their churches. I am sure we will continue to be so here at Faith and for all the right reasons. But there have been some, no doubt, who have not been so welcoming and we need to make sure among ourselves and teach our children that the Christian church is a haven for all who are seeking forgiveness of their sins through faith in Jesus Christ. It’s the glory of the gospel to cover peoples faults, ours first among them.
The Christian who cannot embrace, welcome, and love a gay man or a lesbian woman is a Christian with grave a spiritual problem!
- Second, no one should be more sympathetic with the intense, personal, and agonizing struggle that homosexuality produces in individual men and women.
It is no fun being a homosexual. No matter the efforts being made to normalize the condition, and no matter the outpouring of propaganda to the contrary, homosexuals themselves find it punishingly difficult to face the facts of their own life experience. It is not normal. Anyone can see that and everyone knows that. What is it, between 1% and 3% of Americans are homosexual and there are very few homosexuals that are glad to be so.
The causes of homosexuality are not and perhaps will never be understood. We know that there is no gay gene. No one is born a homosexual in that sense. We know that in very high percentages gay men have been sexually abused, but sexual abuse does not always produce same-sex desire. We know that lesbian women almost universally have had deeply troubled relationships with their fathers especially, but such dysfunctional family relationships do not always produce lesbianism.
We do know that facile explanations are almost certainly wrong. Our own Jay Adams, in his once very popular book, Competent to Counsel, argued in effect that people chose to be homosexuals. If that is ever true it would true for only the tiniest minority of homosexuals. Very often, if not ordinarily, homosexuality is at least in some significant part the result of sins committed against a young boy or girl. Those sins sunk deep roots of sexual confusion in those young hearts. That is nothing short of high tragedy. And surely we of all people should have unending sympathy and understanding for those who are suffering and struggling because when they were young they were abused or in other ways betrayed by those most responsible to love them and care for them.
- Third, it is imperative that heterosexual Christians, all Christians heterosexual and homosexual, live out our ethic before the watching world.
We are saying to the world that there are more important things than sexual pleasure and sexual expression and sexual fulfillment. We are saying to the world that a human being’s identity is in no fundamental respect determined by his sexual desires. We are saying to the world that for both time and eternity chastity is more important than the satisfaction of sexual desire and, indeed, that the pleasures of chastity will long outlast the temporary and ephemeral pleasures of sexual acts.
But no one will take us seriously when we say that if, in fact, we Christians have so absorbed the culture’s sexual orthodoxy that our young men and young women are having sex outside of marriage as if they too can’t believe that God would ever ask one of his children to renounce sexual relationships because he or she is not yet married.
Our argument against homosexual relationships includes principles that similarly disallow heterosexual sexual relationships outside of marriage. The answer to those who say that human beings simply cannot be expected to live virginal or chaste lives ought to be: “Well that cannot be true since millions of Christians in our culture are doing just that and are the better for doing so!”
- Fourth and finally we need to teach Christians and especially our children who will grow up in a world that has normalized and mainstreamed a fundamentally anti-Christian view of sex that more is at stake here than these particular issues of sexual behavior.
Christians who sag toward the culture in these respects almost invariably do so because they haven’t thought seriously about what any of this actually means. By all means we need intelligently, compassionately, and persuasively to teach the Bible’s doctrine of the sexual nature of human beings as well as its blessings and benefits. Our children need to know very well where the path to true happiness and human flourishing lies, as well as how eternally important it is to seek the favor of God.
But they also need to understand that the ethics of the sexual revolution rest on philosophical sand and so must instead be based on political power. The brute fact is that once ethics are separated from nature, once we are no longer willing to say that certain things are intrinsically, essentially right and wrong, that our rights and wrongs are deeply rooted in what we know about human beings and human life, I say, when we can no longer say that, right and wrong will be, must be, simply whatever the powerful want them to be. Might makes right! That is the moral logic of tyranny. That is a moral theory that has been tried before, invariably to the misery of untold millions. The sexual revolution has been pursued at the cost of jettisoning any objective moral standards. It is the only way to get the sexual revolution. It’s fundamental principle is: “do your own thing,” or “I should be able to seek my pleasure as I please.” It is the ethic of the self, not of the community, and certainly not of nature. The imperative is no longer tied to the indicative; what ought to be is no longer rooted in what is. It is an ethical system that, in the nature of the case, must pit people against one another, divide them from one another, and alienate them from one another, because no one can pursue his own pleasure without sooner or later finding that his pleasure can be pursued only at the cost of another’s freedom. We’ll see where this takes us, but one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict that conflict and oppression are in our future as never before.
Unlike the culture that almost never seriously engages these larger questions, the church must be raising thinkers, people who can connect the dots, who can see the implications of ideas, and explain both where they have come from and what their result is likely to be.
We are entering new territory as Christians in the United States. We are going to have think harder than others (and frankly that shouldn’t be too difficult); we are going to have to renew our commitment to live out our faith in both love for God and man and in fidelity to the truth once and for all delivered to the saints. We must remember Augustine’s wisdom concerning the church in his day, a day increasingly like our own: “The world was won by suffering, not by fighting.” And even better than Augustine, the Lord Jesus Christ.
“…I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”