This weekend I shared a message with CityLife Church entitled "A Conversation about Homosexuality." I highly recommend that you listen or watch the message (podcasts will be available by Wednesday) Below are some summary notes that accompany the message.
The Church in Conflict
Sometimes we have an overly pristine view of the early church as a church in revival where they were always of “one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32) as they followed God together. This is partly true but there were also times when people complained (Acts 6:1), when leaders had sharp disagreements (Acts 15:36-44), and when churches argued and debated about various controversial matters (Acts 15:1-35). In the latter case, time was given to consider the contribution that Scripture, tradition, and experience each made to the debate. For example, in the issue of whether the newly converted Gentiles should be circumcised or not, they used their God-given reason to realise that their experience of seeing Gentiles filled with the Holy Spirit in the same way as at Pentecost required them to see their Scriptures and Jewish tradition differently than they had up until this time. Talk about a paradigm shift!
Over the centuries, various controversies have required a similar approach by the church of Jesus Christ. It took centuries for slavery to be abolished and for Christians to see that just because the Scriptures assume and address slavery (for instance, in the apostle Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters) doesn't mean it endorses it. It took years for the Christian church to realise that Paul’s admonition that women keep silent in the church and not usurp authority over the men (in a context where false doctrine was spreading amongst the women in the church at Ephesus) didn't mean that women couldn’t lead and minister in a healthy Christian community. Of course, some churches have not come to this understanding. More recently the issue of divorce and remarriage has been a hot topic. Many churches have now come to accept that some marriages do break down beyond repair and that divorce is not the unpardonable sin. In each of these cases, we all know what the Bible says. But what does it mean and how does it apply to our lives today? These questions are not questions about the inspiration or authority of the Scriptures but rather they are questions regarding biblical interpretation or what theologians refer to as ‘hermeneutics’. This is the reason why there are differing views in the church today. Does this mean that truth is relative or continually up for revision? Not at all! But it does mean that we need to walk in humility, continuing to listen to the text of Scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the collective wisdom of the community of faith.
One of the most hotly debated issues of our time is homosexuality. The term ‘homosexuality’, a word added into the English dictionary in the year 1892, refers to sexual attraction and/or behaviour between people of the same (‘homos’) rather than the opposite (‘hetros’) sex or gender.
Our sexuality is an important part of our humanity. In regards to sexuality, it is important to differentiate between sexual attraction (which may be momentary), sexual orientation (which is determined by a continual and persistent similar form of attraction) and sexual behaviour (what we do in response to our desires). Having sexual attraction is not sinful in and of itself. It’s what we do with those desires that matters most. The vast majority of people have only attractions for the opposite sex while a smaller percentage of people experience attraction only to the same sex (anywhere from 3-5% of the population). An even smaller percentage of people experience both opposite and same-sex attractions (referred to as ‘bi-sexual’) or have no discernible sexual attractions at all.
Debates continue as to where sexual orientation comes from. Is it biological or environmental? Is it a product of nature or nurture? Do we discover it or decide it? There is no convincing scientific evidence to support either view, which means that there is most likely a combination of factors that shape our sexuality, rather than a single explanation. Regardless of the source of our sexual attractions or orientation, we can and do choose our behaviour and how we respond to any attractions we may experience.
There are a variety of opinions as to whether a person’s sexual orientation can change or not. Experience indicates that some people can and do experience change while others do not. Those who do may see a reduction in the strength of one type of attraction more than a complete or instant change. Sexual orientation is not some kind of a switch that you can just simply turn one way or another.
The Bible and Homosexuality
The Bible is the source of guidance for matters of faith and practice for all followers of Christ (2 Timothy 3:16). There are a handful of biblical texts that address the matter of homosexuality:
- In the book of Genesis, we have the creation mandate where God made humans “male and female” giving them the mandate of dominion and reproduction (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18, 21-24). Of course, the entrance of sin into our world affected everything and nothing is completely the way God intended it to be. Jesus would later affirm marriage as being between a man and a woman (Matthew 19:4-6).
- The story of Sodom (Genesis 18:20−19:29) has been used as a clear denunciation of homosexuality for most of Christian history. The issue here is bigger than inhospitality (Ezekiel 16:49-50), although some see this as an attempted gang rape that involved a case of heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers. This is also the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21.
- The purity codes include the following law: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable (Leviticus 18:22. NIV).” Another translation puts it this way: “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin (NLT).” The penalty was death (Leviticus 20:13). Male and female prostitution was also forbidden (Deuteronomy 23:17-18).
- While not mentioning homosexuality directly, Jesus does refer to the sin of Sodom six times in the Gospels.
- The apostle Paul condemned pagan society for its downward spiral into unrestrained sexual lust (Romans 1:24-27). In his description of this promiscuity, he describes people who choose to go against their own nature and engage in sexual acts with others of the same sex. Paul also listed homosexual behavior in his lists of vices or sinful acts (1 Corinthians 6:9-11. 1 Timothy 1:8-11).
- The writer of the epistle of Jude sets out three examples of God’s judgment: the unbelieving generation who had been delivered from Egypt, the angels who rebelled, and Sodom and Gomorrah (which is similar to 2 Peter 2:4-10, although homosexuality is not mentioned there).
The Church and Homosexuality
When it comes to interpreting and applying the biblical texts referring homosexuality to our contemporary situation, there are a huge variety of views and approaches by evangelical churches and Christians around the world today. These could be simplified into three basic approaches:
1. Change. Some churches/Christians believe that homosexuality is always a choice and therefore people can and should repent and change their same-sex attractions and/or behaviour. The views in this approach range from condemnation of the person (even denying the concept of ‘orientation’) to a promise of healing for ‘sexual brokenness’ (through some form of prayer ministry, counseling or reparative therapy). [The most exhaustive book upholding this view is The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon]
2. Acceptance. Some churches/Christians believe that same-sex attraction is not a choice for everyone and therefore may not change. Those with same-sex attraction are accepted as they are without shame and encouraged to live celibate lives of sexual abstinence within a supportive community. Churches with this stance are called 'welcoming but not affirming' churches. [To understand this view further, I suggest reading books such as Welcoming But Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality by Stanley J Grenz, Redeeming Sex by Debra Hirsch, or Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill]
3. Affirmation. Some churches/Christians believe that same-sex attraction is not a choice and that celibacy is not a gift that everyone has. They believe that the biblical references against homosexuality are primarily about abusive relationships (for example, homosexual rape, male prostitution or pederasty, which refers to sexual relations between a man and a boy). They see promiscuity as wrong but that a same-sex loving, committed, monogamous relationship is acceptable before God. Churches with this stance are called 'welcoming and affirming' churches and as a result are usually supportive of either civil unions or same-sex marriage. [To understand this view further, refer to Changing Our Mind by David Gushee, an evangelical ethicist, or the more in-depth The Bible, Gender and Sexuality by James W. Brownson]
These approaches are held by churches/people who declare Jesus as Lord and believe in the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. The difference in views result from the differing interpretations and applications of the Scriptures in this matter. Despite the enthusiastic endorsement of their adherents, each view has some unique difficulties and challenges. For instance, the Change approach can cause great damage to people who don’t see any change, ranging from feelings of failure to suicidal tendencies. The Acceptance approach involves a high personal cost for those who don't feel that they have the gift of celibacy. The Affirmation approach requires a complete rethink of everything we’ve known about gender and sexuality, as well as the interpretation of the biblical texts (more of a paradigm ‘leap’ than a paradigm ‘shift’, in the words of David Gushee).
CityLife Church takes a combination of Approaches 1 and 2. Some people are confused about their sexuality for various reasons and so we would begin the conversation by exploring environmental or circumstantial factors that have shaped a person’s sexuality, which may be addressed through prayer and counsel. If there is not a change over time, then we go with Approach 2. CityLife is a ‘welcoming but not affirming’ church community. The reason for the choice of this stance is our concern about the lack of compassion and the damage sometimes caused by the Change approach and our discomfort with the hermeneutics that is required for an Affirmation approach.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What should a Christian do if they believe they have same-sex attraction? Talk it through with a Christian pastor or counselor. Counseling can help you understand who you are (emotional roots and family dynamics) and what has shaped you, as well as the frequency and intensity of your sexual attractions. The outcome may not be a conversion but rather a decrease of one type of an attraction and an increase of another, or for some people there may be no change at all. Either way, don’t go it alone. People of faith throughout the centuries have lived single, celibate, and fulfilled lives. They had a close relationship with their Father God, a cause to live for, and many close friends. We are complete ‘in Christ’ not through marriage or sexual experience. Know that Jesus does not shame you or reject you because of your temptations and feelings. He never married and faced daily pressure and temptation. He understands what you are going through. He is there to help you.
2. How should we respond to someone who tells us they have same-sex attraction? Avoid over-reacting or responding with hurtful words. Don’t reject the person or withdraw love. They may be confused about their sexuality and possibly feeling condemned. Ask questions and seek to understand. Encourage counseling. For parents or family members, there may be feelings of anxiety, failure or even anger. Don’t reject your children. Make the relationship the priority, even though you may disagree.
3. Can a person in a same-sex relationship attend our church? Yes,our church is open to all people regardless of where they are on their spiritual journey. However, once people discover that we are a ‘welcoming but not affirming’ church that may affect their decision to continue or not.
4. Can a person with same-sex attraction be a leader? Yes, a person with same-sex attraction (and not acting on those attractions) would be able to be a leader within CityLife. It is the same with a single heterosexual person who has sexual attractions and is not acting on those. However, we would not bring into leadership someone involved in a same-sex relationship (just the same as we wouldn't bring into leadership a person living together with a partner of the opposite gender and not married).
5. What about same-sex marriage? The Australian Government already provides a range of benefits for people in de facto relationships, including same-sex couples, and a relationship register has been created. As Elders, we support the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. We encourage people to form and voice their own opinions on this matter to the various political leaders and lawmakers. No doubt, society's views about 'marriage equality' are changing.
6. What if a CityLife member or leader has a different view on this issue to the church? We are a church community where there are variety of views and opinions on many issues. Unity is not uniformity. We have people in our church with personal views in each of the approaches mentioned above. If individuals differ personally with CityLife’s stance on this issue, we respect their right to do so, but ask that they be supportive of our approach within the church community. A united approach by the church leadership and pastoral team is vital so as to avoid confusion for people. The issue is not disagreement but how we handle our disagreements. If we do so in a mature, loving and non-divisive manner, potential damage to the community can be avoided.
Where to from here?
Homosexuality is a complex subject. However, it is vital that not avoid talking about it, even if it makes us uncomfortable. So how do we respond to all of this?
1. Educate yourself. Ignorance is not bliss. Humility acknowledges that we are all on a journey of learning and discovery about God and his ways. We all know ‘in part’ (1Corinthians 13:9-12). Pray, read widely, ask questions, listen to people’s stories, reflect, and learn all you can about this matter. Be informed.
2. Be compassionate. Show empathy and seek to understand. All of Jesus’ teaching applies here: love your neighbour as yourself and do to other people as you would have them do to you. It may be helpful to put yourself in the place of a same sex attracted person growing up in a Christian community. Many same-sex attracted people feel rejected by those who express anti-homosexual sentiments. Recognise that in any group of 20 people, at least one person may feel that they are same-sex attracted. Your words and attitudes affect them deeply. Christians are to be known by their love.
3. Engage in conversation. Church should be the safest place for people to have open and honest conversations. Attributes such as integrity and authenticity are vital in the creation of meaningful relationships and community. Discuss and debate the issue but don't attack or throw mud at people, especially over social media. Let’s talk about this – in constructive ways.
1. Reflect on your schooling years. What were your experiences/impressions of people who were ‘gay’?
2. Why do you think that this issue is such a heated topic in the Christian church today?
3. Do you think people in the Church community consider homosexual sin worse than heterosexual sin?
4. Reflect on the different approaches churches/Christians take in regards to homosexuality today. How do you feel about the stance that the eldership has outlined for our church?
5. Read about the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. What can we learn from how these early Christians processed such a heated disagreement?
6. Reflect on the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’. Do you have any additional suggestions or thoughts?
7. Spend time in prayer that we will be the kind of church community that Jesus had in mind.