We had been pursuing the question of whether homosexual sex is a sin — and thanks to many thoughtful readers — Gary most especially — I’ve think we’ve covered the topic very thoroughly, whether you agree with me, Gary, or no one.
But a reader asked me a question I was hoping I wouldn’t have to answer, because it’s much harder to me than what we’ve been talking about. You see, I get emails —
Can we have fellowship with a practicing homosexual who believes he is in the right with God? In other words, is it a Romans 14 issue?
Since the readership is a well educated, bright, biblically literate group, I thought I’d introduce some thoughts and leave it to the readers to answer.
Some longtime readers will remember the GraceConversation.com debate that Todd Deaver, Phil Sanders, Greg Tidwell, and Mac Deaver participated in a while back in which we dialogued (debated, really) the scope of God’s grace.
In that series, quite far removed from the current discussion, Todd borrowed a story from me —
Some while back, one of Jay’s ministers met and converted a previously unchurched couple engaged to be married. Soon thereafter he began to counsel them in anticipation of marrying them.
In the course of his counseling sessions, he learned they were sleeping together. You see, coming from an unchurched background, they’d never been taught that this is wrong. Our minister lovingly explained God’s will, urged them to stop — to repent — and they did.
Was he asking them to move from an unsaved state to a saved state? No, they were surely in grace. They plainly had hearts for God, so much so that they immediately gave up their sexual relationship as soon as they learned better. They were penitent before and they were penitent after.
That fits squarely within my theology of grace — going back to my book The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace. Although the example was new back in 2009, I’ve been teaching this result in principle for over 20 years. Let me explain (so you don’t have to read the full text of the book or GraceConversation.com).
I utterly reject the theory that when we sin, we are immediately damned until we confess, repent, and ask for forgiveness (and do restitution where appropriate). I especially reject the notion that we fall away even if we’re ignorant of God’s will.
The result of the confess-repent-be saved again theory (which we borrow from Medieval Catholicism, I think) is that we’re always damned except immediately after uttering a prayer for forgiveness — which explains why, in the church where I grew up, we asked for forgiveness at least six times during church (opening prayer, “main prayer,” prayer for the loaf, prayer for fruit of the vine, prayer for the offering, closing prayer). We obviously were up to no good during communion!
Rather, my view is that forgiveness is continuous —
(1Jo 1:7 ESV) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
“Cleanses” is in the present tense and so carries the sense of continuous cleansing — a position that many very conservative Church of Christ authors agree with. Where we disagree is in defining the boundaries of the verse. I think it applies until you fall away due to rebellion — surrendering your penitence or your faith in Jesus. Others have a narrower view.
So let’s go back to the example of the newly saved couple who were sexually active pre-marriage. They were obviously penitent because, as soon as they learned of their sin, they repented. In my view, that means they would have gone straight to the arms of Jesus had they died before they learned God’s will well enough to obey it. I just don’t think that saved people are accountable for laws they are unaware of.
In fact, some time ago, I posted a series on Romans 5 —
— and I exegeted Romans 5 to conclude —
Next, Paul declares that “sin is not counted where there is no law.” And so ignorance of the law is an excuse! Surely Paul has a deeper thought in mind.
Paul is wrestling with the fate of those — the Gentiles — to whom God granted no special revelation. He’s also thinking about Adam and Eve, and they weren’t charged with sin other than eating of the Tree of Knowledge, but because that was the only law of God revealed to them. They could have sinned in other ways, but they were only accountable for the portion of God’s law that was revealed to them.
Makes sense. I think it’s what Paul intends to communicate — and if we get this, much of what Paul says elsewhere makes much better sense.
So if that’s all true, then what if the engaged couple didn’t believe the preacher when he lovingly and gently explained to them that pre-marital sex is sinful? What if they’d heard theories to the contrary (they exist) and really, really, really didn’t believe him based on serious, prayerful Bible study?
We are accountable for what God has revealed so that we know his will, but what if we don’t believe his will is really his will (and we’re otherwise in grace and penitent)?
Let’s take it from another angle. Imagine that you think it’s okay to worship God with an instrument at home — and you do, being a highly skilled pianist or guitarist. Your sister thinks that’s sin. Wouldn’t you argue that because you are acting as a truly penitent believer, obeying the word of God as you understand it, that she should treat you as a fellow saved Christian, even though she disagrees and thinks you’re guilty of unrepented sin (despite being penitent generally)? Not because the question is uncertain but because saved people who remain penitent and true to their faith in Jesus remain saved?
Well, she might respond that, now that she’s handed you a tract explaining why instrumental worship at home is sinful, you’re now accountable under Romans 5 — and but for grace, she’d be right (as to the accountability question, not the instrument).
(Rom 5:20-21 ESV) 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Why did grace abound? Because when the Jews received the Law, they became accountable for far more commands, couldn’t keep them, and could only remain in right relationship with God by grace. More knowledge of God’s will means more obedience — but also — inevitably — more disobedience. We’re weak, fallen, broken beings.
Sticking with me? Am I making sense? Okay …
So what if the sin is moral — like premarital sex? Or prostitution? Or incest? Or homosexual conduct?
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul gets on to the Corinthians pretty severely for consorting with prostitutes, because it violated the one-flesh commitment described in Genesis 2 — and yet these people were newly converted from paganism, and it’s possible that many had no idea that consorting with prostitutes was the least sinful. After all, it was not considered immoral in Greece — at least, not when practiced by adult men.
Paul assumes that they’d been taught better, but what if they weren’t convinced? (Of course, Paul was speaking with apostolic authority. I’m not sure they were privileged to disagree.)
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul commands that a man be disfellowshiped for incest — and he argues that it’s necessary because even the pagans consider incest wrong. What if they didn’t? And does Paul seem to care whether the couple agrees with his understanding of the applicability of Leviticus 18’s commands against incest?
Fifteen years ago, few would argue that homosexuality in a committed relationship indistinguishable from heterosexual marriage, but for the lack of civil recognition in most states, is acceptable for a Christian. I mean, the argument just wasn’t made.
But here lately, there are very elaborate arguments made to that effect, often by bishops and other church officials of considerable theological training — and often by respected, heavily degreed theologians — such as Stanley Hauerwas, who is very influential among many Church of Christ ministers.
I think it’s abundantly clear that those of us who disagree should teach God’s word as we understand it — patiently, gently, and in love. We are not allowed to hide what we know. That would truly be unloving.
However, no matter how well we teach, there will still be two hard cases. Consider if you will —
1. A gay couple, married under the laws of their state, know nothing of Christianity or God’s sexual standards. They are converted, truly believe, truly repent, and are baptized for all the right reasons. They attend their local congregation, where gay marriage is approved. They take communion, give generously, and not once doubt the rightness of their relationship.
They read their Bibles, are aghast at what the scriptures say about homosexuality, visit their preacher, and he hands them a book by a highly degreed theologian who explains that those verses do not speak to them in their relationship.
In all good conscience, they remain church members, continuing to worship God with all their hearts.
They are sinning. Are they damned? Have they fallen away?
2. Exact same facts, except these guys or gals are avid readers of OneInJesus.info (of course). I post this series and explain as best I can why they are engaged in sexual sin to the disappointment of God. They read the comments — on both sides. And they go see their preacher.
Their preacher gives them the same book, and they are genuinely convinced that Jay is wrong and the guy with all the degrees is right. After all, what credentials do I have?
They are sinning, but are they so impenitent as to have fallen away? Are they damned?
Their preacher and the author of the book will be judged by a higher standard, of course. But the gay couple doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew, aren’t grad school material, have a cultural background that fully approves and affirms them, and to their thinking, there is nothing wrong with how they live their lives.
How does God deal with them? How should we deal with them?
And, yes, I’ve thought far enough ahead — as have you by now — to see what a huge loophole this might seem to create. But is that really true?
Or to simplify the question: If those who worship with the instrument in all good conscience expect to be treated as saved by those who think they are sinning — even those instrument-using believers who’ve read the tracts explaining why the a cappella worshipers see it as wrong — and disagreed — on what basis do we treat these gay couples any differently from how the instrumental worshipers wish to be treated?
And if their sins are covered by grace, does that open the floodgates for homosexual sin? (or premarital sex or any other sin condemned by God but approved by society?)
Then again, there are all these lists of sins that damn, such as —
(1Co 6:9-11 ESV) 9 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, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 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.
(1Ti 1:8-11 ESV) 8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
(Rev 21:8 ESV) 8 “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
And there are many more … Are these listed sins so obviously sin that God need not grant grace for those who think these actions are permissible — at least, if they ‘ve been warned?
So although I find homosexual activity plainly sinful, and so conclude that we must teach exactly that, the interplay with grace and fellowship is not easy, but then, nothing we might conclude could ever justify engaging in what someone knows or even believes to be sin —
(Rom 14:23 ESV) 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
[I’m going to skip a day or two of posting to let the conversation continue without me interrupting. Play nice. Today is my birthday.]