By C. David Hess
American Baptists and other mainline denominations are deeply divided over the question of what is the appropriate stance the church should take toward gays in our midst. I think it important to share with you my interim reflections on the matter.
The first thing, and the main thing, I want to say is that we need to forget about simple answers. There are none. We are fooling ourselves if we think there are. There are certainly no simple answers as to how or why someone becomes a homosexual. The debate still rages as to whether it is caused by genetic or environmental factors. The two are not mutually exclusive. There is evidence that there is a genetic linkage with homosexuality (twins studies), but the same studies indicate that genetic factors alone are insufficient to cause a person to be homosexual. Some theorize that homosexuality is at root heterophobia (essentially the Freudian view). Maybe for some it is. We do not know enough to come up with any one theory or explanation as to why or how a person becomes homosexual.
There is common agreement among psychiatrists that individuals do not choose their sexual orientation. However, human beings are flexible creatures, and there is evidence that the sexual orientation and behavior of some can be modified. It is the general consensus among psychiatrists that most cannot change their sexual orientation. We in the church should keep all this in mind as we wrestle with the issue. We should not be too eager to offer simple solutions. If gays know anything, they know there are no simple answers. If we want to have any credibility with them, we should not offer any. Unfortunately we do, again and again. The answers we offer are different, but usually plagued by the same defect. They are too simple.
Before I go on, let me say something about the spirit of the debate, particularly our debate in the church. It generally has been altogether too hostile. Christians have voiced such terms as "homosexual" and "homophobic" with equal bile. That shouldn't be. Let's agree right up front that, whatever our opinions, we are all sinners, but we are all sinners trying to do the right thing.
The "conservative" response that the church has given goes something like this: The Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Therefore, what gays need to do is repent (change) and seek forgiveness. Even if they do not have the power to change their sexual orientation, God does. If gays just come to God in repentance and faith, God has the power to change them.
There is much to commend this view. Those who hold it do so because they hold a high view of biblical authority and of God's life transforming power. However, I believe in the end this approach falls short. It is just too simplistic. Of course, God does have the power to change a person's sexual orientation. God has the power to cure diabetes too, but He usually doesn't. The only "moral" alternative left is for the gay person to live a completely celibate life. Some homosexuals and heterosexuals can (I'm living proof), most cannot. Could you?
The "progressive" Christian answer goes something like this: We should not just take what the Bible says about homosexuality at face value. Though the Bible always speaks about homosexual acts in a very negative way, it actually says very little about homosexuality. Certainly the biblical writers didn't know as much about constitutional homosexuality as we do. It should be noted that Jesus didn't mention the subject at all. When Peter was given a vision of a sheet of unclean animals descending from heaven, he heard the voice of God telling him to "rise, kill, and eat." Peter objected. His Bible (the Old Testament) told him this was sinful But the heavenly Voice said, "Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean." Peter took this vision to be divine authorization for him to take the gospel to the "unclean" Gentiles. The vision forced him to the conclusion that what his Bible said was not necessarily so. Perhaps we should re-examine homosexuality in the light of this. Are we not all created by God? If we are gay or straight, it is because God has made us this way. We should accept and rejoice in the gifts God has given us. Our sexual orientation is ultimately of no more moral significance than skin color or left handedness.
This view has much to commend it. It is compassionate. It rightly points out that we should not be superficial in our use of scripture. (I would note that even the most ardent fundamentalist preacher is not a complete biblical literalist on this subject. I have heard none of them advocating that all gays be stoned to death.) The "progressives'" arguments about interpretation of scripture have weight. In the end, however, I believe this view is also too simple and just doesn't work in reality either.
I believe it fails first in the area in which it most wants to succeed. It is not pastorally sensitive enough. To tell a gay person, "God made you that way," is often met with the response (inwardly, if not verbally), "What kind of cruel trickster is God?" For the truth is, many gays would prefer to be otherwise. Some even pay thousands of dollars to psychiatrists and spend years in therapy trying to change their sexual orientation only to find they cannot.
Some "progressive" Christian therapists try hard to convince their gay clients that they should accept their homosexuality as a gift of God. This usually requires a hard sell. The gay person cannot easily escape the deep heartfelt feeling that life, or fate, or God, or someone has played a cruel trick on him or her. We are definitely working against the grain when we try to convince a gay person otherwise. I believe we are not really taking their pain or situation seriously. We are trying to make things too simple. We are crying, "'Peace, peace,'" when there is no peace."
Also, I can find no warrant or foundation whatsoever to say that being gay is a gift of God. There is certainly absolutely no biblical warrant for this. It seems to be based solely on the a priori assumption that whatever we are is what God has made us. Are babies born blind because God intended them to be that way? Is everyone's sexual orientation a gift of God? What about pedophiles? (Please do not misunderstand me here. I am in no way suggesting a moral equivalence between homosexuals and pedophiles.) Pedophiles do not choose their sexual orientation either, nor can their orientation be easily changed. Should we say to them: "God made you a pedophile. Rejoice and be glad in it!"
The truth is, all of us, straight and gay, know fundamentally that the natural purpose of sex, though not the only one, is biological reproduction. There is no getting around that. The homosexual knows that in light of that most basic fact his or her sexuality is distorted, and he or she grieves over that. They grieve that they will never be able to know the full complementary love of a person of the opposite sex. They grieve that they can never have children. We should grieve with them.
The "moderate" Christian answer goes something like this: We do not believe that God ever intends any of His people to be homosexual. We believe people are gay not because they choose to be so, but because all of nature is fallen and out of wack. We recognize that God does not always remove the thorn in our flesh or psyche no matter how fervently we pray for Him to do so (though sometimes He might). Though the thorn is a "messenger of Satan" we, like Paul, can ultimately be thankful for it because it teaches us to rely more on God's grace. Our practical advice for the gay Christian is change your orientation if you can. If not, be celibate if you can. If not, be as moral (i.e. monogamous) as you can.
Many will reject this "moderate" view because it is a path of tension. They will prefer either the "conservative" or "progressive" view. These positions have dealt with the tension by denying it. But there is much to commend this "moderate" view. Indeed, I am most personally comfortable with it. It takes both scripture and the situation and the pain of the gay person seriously. It recognizes the difficulty of a person's changing his or her sexual orientation. It also recognizes the difficulty of living a celibate life.
However, this view also sounds better in theory than it works in practice. It encourages a gay person to have a monogamous gay relationship if necessary; however, it does not recognize the difficulty of doing so. If you haven't noticed, heterosexuals seem to be having a tough time living in monogamous relationships too. This is the case even though we have great ecclesiastical and civil support systems for the institution of heterosexual marriage. Think how hard it must be for a gay person to live a purely monogamous life without the blessing of, or any support from the church and society.
All the church's answers are too simple. Until we all recognize this we will never be in a place to truly minister to the homosexual. Given that, what should the church do?
A sermon of William Willimon's1 has caused a passage in the book of Acts to come alive for me. Neither Willimon's sermon nor the biblical passage mentions homosexuality, but I cannot read the passage now without thinking about this issue. The story is about an Ethiopian eunuch. To be sure, a eunuch, a man who has been castrated, and a homosexual are not the same thing, but there are similarities. Neither can function fully as a heterosexual person. Neither has chosen their "orientation."
This eunuch, a high Ethiopian official, is riding down the road in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah. Why? Why is he even reading the Bible? A eunuch was not even allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Old Testament in Deuteronomy 23:1 declared: "No man who has been castrated may be included among the Lord's people."
Can you imagine what that is like? To be excluded from the people of God? To be disallowed from even entering the church?
The passage the eunuch is reading says: "He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, like a sheep before its shearers is dumb. He didn't open his mouth. Justice was denied him. He has been cut off from the land of the living. Who is going to declare his posterity?"
What posterity? This man has been "cut off." He will have no posterity, no descendants. He is like the eunuch. He will have no children, no family.
The eunuch asks Philip, whom God has sent to meet his chariot, "Who is this man of whom the prophet speaks?"
He wanted to know desperately. I am sure he also knew the passage in Isaiah which says: "The days will come when the foreigner will no longer say, 'The Lord will separate me from his people.' The days will come when the eunuch will no longer say, 'O I am just a dry stick.' The days will come when the eunuch who loves me and my house and my covenant which shall be better than a thousand sons and daughters and will be remembered forever."
Could the man the prophet is talking about be the one to bring in this new day when even a eunuch could be a part of God's family?
After hearing Philip tell the story about Jesus, the eunuch asks Philip, "Can I be baptized? Can I be a part of this new family of God?"
Philip says, "Yes." (No doubt he was thinking, "Boy, am I going to get in trouble for this." He had already found himself in trouble with some in the church for previously baptizing some Samaritans.)
As I noted before, this passage does not mention gays, but can we truly say that it has absolutely no application to them?
When I was a pastor in New Jersey I always made it my custom to visit all the new people who moved into the neighborhood around the church in order to welcome them to the community and to invite them to worship with us. One day I heard the news that two men had just moved into a house near the church. The word was that they were gay. What if they were gay? Should I invite them to our church? What if they came? Would they be welcome? What if they wanted to become members? What would we do? I chose not to visit them.
It did enter my mind that they might come to our church on their own and that all the events I imagined might occur. What would I do? What would the church do? Of course, the church would have to decide for itself. I decided I would speak with them in as pastorally sensitive a way as I could. I would probably talk with them about my own wrestling with the issue of homosexuality pretty much as I have here. My and the church's "bottom line" would probably be: Neither I nor the church can unconditionally approve of your lifestyle, but you are welcome.
I don't know whether I would have been right or not, but I don't know that any other approach would have been more right. Perhaps after they had become part of our community we could have given them more support to be as moral as they could be, whatever that may be.
Is gay love distorted and perverted?
Yes, but all human love is to some degree distorted and perverted. That goes along with the fact that we are all sinners. It is just that our love is perverted and distorted in different ways. Gay love also can be fulfilling and admirable. How can one not admit this after seeing a gay man compassionately care for his companion who is dying of AIDS? Should gays have all the civil rights and protections as other people. Yes, most definitely. I would also say that for the sake of those whose sexual orientation is still being formed (a process of which we are still largely ignorant), society needs to somehow express its clear preference for heterosexuality without denying the dignity of anyone. I do not pretend to believe this will be easy.
Can the church handle this issue in a way that is compassionate and true to the biblical teaching that sexuality should be fully expressed only in a lifelong monogamous heterosexual relationship? Yes. The church already has demonstrated that this is possible in the way that we have learned to deal with the issue of divorce and remarriage. Not long ago the church told its members that they should never get divorced. If they did get divorced, they should not marry someone else while their divorced partner was alive. To do so was to live in a kind of legal adultery. The church believed that this was most clearly the biblical position. The church, like Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (but not Mark and Luke) allowed an exception in the case of marital infidelity. We have loosened on this considerably. We have recognized the complexities which lead to the break up of us married heterosexual sinners. The church ultimately decided that compassion would not allow it to require divorced Christians to live a life of enforced celibacy, sexual frustration, and loneliness. The church decided that, though it could not unconditionally approve of divorce, it could and would welcome divorced and remarried people into the life of its community.
Ultimately, the word the church has to give to gays or anyone else is not, "I'm okay, and you're not okay." Neither is it, "I'm okay, and you're okay." Our message is ultimately, "I'm not okay, and you're not okay. But that's okay."
Ultimately, the church has no simple answers for gays or anyone else. Ultimately, the only thing the church has to offer is the only thing it really has, Christ crucified, the Lamb that was slaughtered. The cross is no simple answer either, not even for God's Son. He is there on the cross for all, feeling their pain bearing their sin. His word to all is, "I forgive. Do the best you can in your struggle with sin, and trust My grace for the rest."
To gays I say: There are no simple, easy answers for you. Of course, you already know that. You can choose to live in the closet always in fear of discovery. You can choose to come out of the closet and risk being ostracized, totally or partially, by your family, your friends, your church, and your employer. To come out of the closet may mean your expulsion from the rest of society into a gay ghetto. You are the most ostracized people in our society. Blacks may be discriminated against in housing and employment, but at least they can count on the support of family, friends, and church. You cannot. You have no simple choices. The church has no simple answers for you either, but we do grieve with you.
Jesus invites you to come to the foot of His cross. The cross is the place you can come when you have exhausted all the simple answers. (Indeed, does anyone come to the cross any other time?) Christ is there on the cross for you. He will not turn you away. That is what Jesus will do with you. I don't know what the rest of us gathered there on Calvary are going to do with you. I really don't. But I hope we will choose to welcome you.
1William Willimon, Peculiar Speech; Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 1992), pp. 116-122.
This sermon was last revised on February 22, 1996.
©1996 C. David Hess
I feel the greatest value of my sermon has not been the sermon itself but the discussion which has resulted. If you are interested, you may read some e-mail I have received .
E-mail I have received has led me to do further reflection on the subject of the sermon. If you wish, you may check out my Addendum. This also contains a discussion of gay marriage.
Other Links of Related Interest:
Bridges Across the Divide provides models and resources for building respectful relationships across the divide among those who disagree about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Homosexuality and the Bible; An Online Debate
The Evangelical Network - A positive resource and support network for Christian and non-Christian gays.