I received an email requesting that I post something on being gay in the Churches of Christ. I’ve split the email into 8 parts, to fit my answers more closely to the reader’s questions and because his poignant email raises several important issues that merit careful thought and a comprehensive response.
I thought at first of responding privately, but the letter asks for a post, and I’ve come to think that’s the right response. After all, as the writer says, most of our churches have gay members. Most churches have homosexual members who’ve chosen to be single and chaste, surrendering their sexuality to Jesus.
But few would be willing to admit their struggles to the congregation. And this says much about how much further we have to go to truly be like Jesus.
I invite my readers to join in with any other words of encouragement you think appropriate. I make no claim to expertise on this topic.
I stumbled upon your blog this evening [identifying information omitted]. I have been reading for over an hour and could go on reading. I really like your insights and your style of writing.
I’d like to ask you if you would at some point write on the topic of homosexuality in the churches of Christ. I think the church has its head buried in the sand by not dealing with the issue. Undoubtedly there are gay people in the church. Usually they’re in the singles class, but of course more and more married men have been caught in gay relationships.
I’m flattered and humbled that you chose me, of all people, to ask about how to deal with being a gay Christian in the Churches of Christ.
Let me begin by saying I have no training at all in counseling — and it shows. My skills, such as they are, are in theology, that is, in interpreting God’s written word. And so forgive me for answering in theological terms.
But before getting to the theology, it’s critical that you realize that you’re accepted and loved by Jesus for who you are. Even though I conclude that homosexual actions are sinful, being a homosexual — having homosexual urges — is not. God never condemns us for how we are made.
(Psa 103:11-14) For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
In other words, God knows that we are all made less-than-perfectly and treats us accordingly, that is, with compassion and mercy.
I’m working on a series based on some of the writings of N. T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and likely the most important Christian theologian living today. I’m a Wright fan, because he’s conservative, in the sense of taking the Bible’s words and authority very seriously. But he’s unorthodox in being willing to provide answers contrary to accepted views.
I thought he would be particularly appropriate to quote because the Anglican/Episcopalian Church has wrestled with the Biblical treatment of gays, and Wright was part of the committee that sought to find a means of dealing with the impact of the ordination of gay bishop Gene Robinson.
Here’s how he explains the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality from an interview publishing in the National Catholic Reporter [paragraphing is modified to facilitate reading on a blog]:
NCR: There are two inter-related questions concerning the current crisis within Anglicanism. The first is a moral analysis of homosexuality, the second how one understands ecclesial communion. Let’s start with the first point. One locus for the debate over homosexuality is Romans 1:26-28. How do you understand what Paul is saying?
Wright: I’ve written quite extensively about Romans in various places, particularly my commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible, and anything that I say should be filled in with what’s there. The main thing to realize about Romans 1:26 and following is that it isn’t just a side swipe out of the blue.
Paul’s argument at that point is grounded in the narrative of Genesis 1, 2 and 3. As often, he’s referring to it obliquely, but it’s there under the text. He’s drawing on it at various stages. He sees the point about being human as being to reflect God’s image, which he says in a number of places in his writings. He clearly sees that in Genesis 1 it is male plus female who are made in the image of God.
He chooses the practice of homosexuality, not as a random feature of “look, they do all sorts of wicked things.” His point is that when people in a society are part of an idolatrous system — not necessarily that they individually are specifically committing acts of idolatry, but when the society as a whole worships that which is not the true God — then its image-bearingness begins to deconstruct. An obvious sign of that for Paul, granted Genesis 1, is the breakup of male-female relations and the turning off in other directions.
Then it’s important to see how that is stitched into the argument that he mounts later on in the letter about how humankind is restored. When in chapter four he talks about Abraham, he talks about Abraham specifically did the things which in chapter one that human beings did not. In chapter one, they refused to know God, to honor God as God, to acknowledge God’s power and deity, and all the rest of it. This is the end of Romans 4. The result of Abraham acknowledging God and God’s power, recognizing that God had the power to do what he promised and giving God glory, which is the exact opposite word-by-word of what he said in chapter one, is that Abraham and Sarah were able to conceive children even in their old age.
It’s a specific reversal, the coming back together of male plus female, and then the being fruitful, which is the command of Genesis 1: “Be fruitful and multiply.” This is why he can talk in Romans 5 of how in Christ, who has fulfilled the promises to Abraham, what God wanted to do through Adam has been put back on the rails.
Can you draw a straight line between what Paul understood by “homosexuality” and how we understand it?
Not a straight line, because there is no one understanding today of what constitutes homosexuality. There are many different analyses.
As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do.
In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato.
The idea that in Paul’s today it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever … of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing. They knew about the whole range of options there.
Indeed, in the modern world that isn’t an invention of the 20th century either. If you read the recent literature, for example Graham Robb’s book Strangers, which is an account of homosexual love in the 19th century, it offers an interesting account of all kinds of different expressions and awarenesses and phenomena. I think we have been conned by Michel Foucault into thinking that this is all a new phenomena.
So the attempt to get around Paul’s language on homosexuality by suggesting that its cultural referent was different than ours doesn’t work?
At any point in Paul, whether it’s justification by faith or Christology or anything else, you have to say, of course this is culturally conditioned. He’s speaking first century Greek, for goodness’ sake. Of course you have to understand it in its context.
But when you do that, it turns out to be a rich and many-sided thing. You cannot simply say, as some people have done, that in the first century homosexuality had to do with cult prostitution, and we’re not talking about that, therefore it’s something different. This simply won’t work.
So yes, it is impossible to say, we’re reading this in context and that makes it different. What can you still say, of course, and many people do, is that, “Paul says x and I say y.” That’s an option that many in the church take on many issues. When we actually find out what Paul said, some say, “Fine, and I disagree with him.” That raises all kinds of other issues about how the authority of scripture actually works in the church, and at what point the authority structure of scripture-tradition-reason actually kicks in.
Can a Christian morality rooted in scripture approve of homosexuality?
The word “homosexuality” is an abstract noun. What in the Anglican Church we’ve tried to do is restrict the debate to the practice of homosexual relations.
Of course, many people claim to be “rooted” in scripture in a variety of ways. But if a church is actually determined to be faithful to scripture, then not only at that point but at several others — for instance, some of our economic practices — we would need to take a long, hard look and say, maybe we’re getting this wrong.
So a Christian morality faithful to scripture cannot approve of homosexual conduct?
Correct. That is consonant with what I’ve said and written elsewhere.
I apologize for the long quotation, but Wright’s analysis is important, I think, because so many have tried, based on the theories he addresses, to argue out of the Biblical teaching that homosexual acts are sin .
Whenever Jesus or Paul is asked a question dealing with sexuality or marriage, they refer back to Genesis 1-2 as describing the ideal and the curse in Genesis 3 as the fallen state of man. And then they call on their audience to return to the ideal of a one woman/one man marriage.
But both Jesus and Paul teach that a disciple may remain single, as did both Jesus and Paul, and both teach that in some ways being single is preferable to being married. There is certainly no sin in remaining single. After all, as Paul explains in 1 Cor 7, being single allows one to be a better servant of Christ.
(1 Cor 7:32-35) I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world –how he can please his wife — 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world — how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.