The July/August issue of Trends magazine may have jolted a few United Presbyterians out of their hammocks or beach chairs or whatever else they had settled down in for some leisurely summer reading. The magazine is produced by the denomination’s Program Agency “as a resource for study by older youth and adults.” And the message for older youth and adults in this summer issue was: Homosexuality should be accepted as a variant life-style; the homosexual relationship is neither unnatural, sinful, nor sick. Practicing homosexuals were portrayed as whole, healthy, appealing persons.
Trends writers argued that the laws against homosexuality should be abolished, and that homosexuals should not be kept out of the armed forces nor denied any jobs open to heterosexuals. They claimed that practicing homosexuals are not dangerous to morals or a threat to young people. Interestingly enough, less than a month after the magazine was in the mails the Houston, Texas, homosexual murder case came to light. At least twenty-seven boys and young men had been tortured, subjected to homosexual assaults, and brutally killed in what was the worst mass murder in American history. But this was, of course, a wildly extreme case and cannot be said to reflect upon the tendencies of homosexuals in general any more than the rape-murder of a woman by a man reflects upon heterosexuals in general.
My purpose here is not to consider the case for or against laws restricting homosexual conduct. Nor will I discuss whether homosexuals should be given equal job opportunities in business, government, and the armed forces. I will not here make a case against private homosexual activities between consenting adults. My intention is to deal with two questions: What is the Christian or biblical view of homosexuality? And what should the attitude of the churches be toward the place of homosexuals in their midst?
To define my terms, I accept the definitions laid down in Trends:
Homosexual: Having a preference for intimate relationships with persons of the same sex.
Gay: Being free from shame, guilt, misgivings, or regret over being homosexual.
Heterosexual: Having a preference for intimate relations with persons of the opposite sex.
Straight: Not deviating from the general norm or the prescribed pattern [p. 6].
I exclude from discussion non-practicing homosexuals; there is no reason why they should not be received into any church and ordained to any ministry. My concern here is with practicing homosexuals.
Trends makes effective use of the technique of brain-washing. The purpose is to create in the opponents of homosexual conduct a sense of guilt, and to persuade them that they are persecutors and oppressors of an unjustly maligned group of healthy, honest, brave, and appealing people who only want rights that belong to them but have been denied them. How well do the arguments stand up to the dictates of reason and biblical revelation?
1. The autobiographical account of Bill Johnson illustrates what might be called the sob-story technique, designed to create sympathy at the emotional level but devoid of biblical support save for a few general statements about God’s love and grace. We will let him speak for himself.
I am gay and I make that affirmation with joy and pride.
I am a good person. I know that caring, honesty and mutual responsibility are the foundation of my relating to other persons. I [know] of the beauty of same-sex relationships, of intimacy with another man, of gay love.
Bill Johnson graduated from the Pacific School of Religion and sought ordination in the United Church of Christ. He found it hard going.
My ordination would not have been challenged had I not affirmed my gayness.
As in most experiences of human interaction, the ways in which persons related or failed to relate to me [note: not how he relates to other people but how other people relate to him] told me more about those persons than about myself.
Many persons sought unsuccessfully [my italics] to separate the issue from the person. This tactic is the essence of dehumanization [note: as though it were wrong to seek objective standards that apply irrespective of the person or persons involved; to do so is a “tactic” and is “dehumanization,” an emotionladen term that discards the question of truth and seeks to create sympathy while avoiding the issue] and is, I have come to learn, the way in which most [my italics] heterosexuals seek to relate to gay persons.
His determination to be ordained, though ultimately successful, brought him through rough waters:
Suddenly I found myself face to face with a leader of the persons who had regularly opposed my request for ordination. He looked me in the eye and said, “You make me sick. All my life I’ve been a good family man. You’re a disgrace, not a man. If this is what the church wants, I won’t be part of it.” He was gone before I could reply.
No sooner had he left when another hostile delegate cornered me. Angrily he spouted, “I hope you’re happy, you pervert. This is going to destroy the church!” And he spit in my face.
I was ordained to the ministry of the United Church of Christ on June 25, 1972.… Looking back on the experience, I marvel that I endured it.… I am glad that I am gay.… I believe my position is rooted in the gospel of the Christ.
The testimony of William Johnson (he is now executive director of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual) was impressive for its advocacy of autonomous selfhood; he can do as he pleases and let the chips fall where they may. “My feeling,” he said, “that I, and all human beings, have the right to self-definition and the right to relate, without fear, with whomsoever we choose to relate, caused me to take the step of affirming my sexual feelings within the Christian community.” And this position, he says, “is rooted in the gospel of the Christ.” Shades of the Book of Judges, where each man did what was right in his own eyes. If this view is to be found in the “gospel of the Christ,” it is exceedingly strange that responsible scholars have not found it there yet.
2. Editor Dennis Shoemaker of Trends portrays homosexuals he met in the course of his research as nice persons, whole persons, persons whose life-style is only a variation of the heterosexual pattern. He attended a symposium on religion and the homosexual claiming that he didn’t want to go, and didn’t want his mind changed. “But I went and it was,” he says. The chairpersons “were friendly, charming, on-the-ball types, who didn’t at all look like ‘homos’ ” (any more, we might remark parenthetically, than murderers must look like murderers, or prostitutes like prostitutes, or pickpockets like thieves). Later he went to a gay nightclub that featured a stage show. He thought it was in very bad taste but on reflection stated, “I would say it was in no worse taste than the nudie girl shows featured at dozens of night spots in the nearby area that cater to heterosexuals.”
Shoemaker was particularly interested in the homosexual poet Paul Mariah. He could feel the “magnetism of his humanity” and spoke of Mariah’s “mystical religious experience.” Mariah “came through as a person of warmth, charm and exuberance, a deeply reflective and sensitive human being whose taste of the bitterness of life had lent him the gift of grace and radiancy. He may be described simply as ‘a whole person.’ ”
Shoemaker saw films depicting homosexual love acts, designed to clinch the argument expressed by one homosexual: “One kind of sexual activity ought to be as legal and acceptable as another, because they are all so similar.” Shoemaker “agreed that such knowledge was important and also to his point that the sexual act was not all that different from what heterosexuals do if they are in any way creative. But my appetite for such knowledge was sated.”
3. The Reverend James E. Sandmire, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, a homosexual congregation, asserts in Trends, “I’m a gay man and a minister. I expect to go home tonight to my gay lover with whom I have lived for thirteen years. Tomorrow I expect to preach to my congregation and to administer Communion to them. And I think God and I will feel quite good about it all.” Sandmire came from a Mormon background, graduated from Harvard College, and for years sublimated his homosexual leanings, even entering into marriage. But two weeks after his marriage he fell in love with a man in Salt Lake City, and “suddenly he was all that mattered.”
Sandmire says he had to face objective reality, by which he means the fact that he was gay and was going to stay gay. The other objective reality the homosexual has to face, Sandmire says, is this:
That he isn’t sick, and that he doesn’t even feel sick. He isn’t sinful either. In my case, I felt that God answered my prayers and that I was close to him. So my intellectual reaction was this: Society says that I am sick and that I am sinful, but I feel neither. Therefore I have to make a decision. Am I or am I not? I decided at that point I wasn’t. And interestingly enough, I really wasn’t. When I decided I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t sick. And when I decided I wasn’t sinful, God seemed more open in his dealings with me.
Florence Bryant, one of the editors of Trends, furthers Sandmire’s argument. She first adduces her own case: she was married, divorced, and remarried. Since she had divorced one man and married another while the first was still living, she says, according to the Bible she committed adultery. And since she was warmly accepted and supported in the fellowship of the church, why shouldn’t homosexuals who also have broken the law of God be similarly received? For after all, may it not be that “biological females and biological males each contain masculine and femine qualities? Would such an interpretation rule out homosexuality as being God-willed for some individuals and heterosexuality as being God-willed for others?” This would negate, of course, the biblical assertion that homosexuality is sinful; but even if it is sinful, none of the passages in the Bible “says that homosexual acts are any more heinous in the sight of God than other sins nonsexual in nature, such as drunkenness and greed.” She speaks favorably of the emerging attitude that homosexuals are neither sinful nor sick. Homosexuality is merely “a variant sexual preference.” In 1963 an English Quakers’ committee reported, she says, “that homosexuality was a natural, morally neutral condition, no more to be deplored than left-handedness in respect to right-handedness.… A homosexual relationship can be just as selfless and loving as a heterosexual one. Therefore, the committee said, it cannot be morally worse.”
4. In a preface to this issue of Trends, the editors acknowledge that both the Book of Leviticus and the Apostle Paul condemn homosexuality as a prime example of sin. But “Christian doctrine holds that both are subject to a higher authority, to a law that commends love rather than scorn.” The editors say they “have chosen to emphasize this perspective [that homosexuality is neither a sickness nor a sin] because we believe it is most in keeping with the biblical doctrine of grace for all persons.” In view of this, “the burden seems to shift away from the homosexual, who now has less need to determine his innocence or guilt than does the church to explain its history of discriminatory attitudes and practice toward the homosexual. How will the church deal with its own sin of oppression?”
This issue of Trends was an effective propaganda piece for the increasingly accepted view that homosexuality is a legitimate sexual variation. What should evangelicals say in response?
1. The essayists in Trends take pains to emphasize that gay people are nice people, normal except for their gayness (which of course they regard as not abnormal). The fact is, obviously, that some gay people are nice and some are nasty, just as there are heterosexual people of both sorts. Being gay certainly does not mean that one must be crude, unpleasant, boorish, or arrogant. Homosexuals cannot always be identified as such, and many successfully conceal their sexual tendency throughout their lives.
But let no one suppose that all homosexuals are innocent people who keep to themselves and do nothing to try to induce straights to take part in homosexual acts. The sex urge in mankind, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is very strong. Just as some heterosexuals who engage in fornication and adultery actively seek out partners in their sin, so do some homosexuals solicit partners, often in straight society. My own son was solicited in a train by a homosexual. Clergymen have been known to try to seduce members of their own sex in their churches, sometimes their younger fellow clergymen.
In saying this we must grant that there are no activities of homosexuals that cannot be duplicated in varying forms by heterosexuals, masochists, sadists, and the like. But to try to use the immoral and biblically condemned activities of non-homosexuals to justify another form of immorality is futile. In condemning homosexual activity, the Christian must be equally firm in condemning heterosexual immorality as well. And the immoral heterosexual is neither better nor worse than the practicing homosexual. Both come under divine judgment.
The Scriptures are very clear about a point that rightly vexes homosexuals. Everywhere Scripture dictates that believers are to love sinners even as they hate their sins. The lack of compassion many Christians show for homosexuals is inexcusable. It may be easier to show compassion for the drunkard and the adulterer than for the homosexual. But this ought not to be. Christians who are deeply offended by homosexual behavior must still reflect the compassion of Christ for sheep who have gone astray. And they must have a heart of loving concern for homosexuals’ redemption and for their personhood, however much it has been defiled by sin.
2. What does the Bible say about homosexuality?
The Old Testament Scriptures (e.g., Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the book of Leviticus is the book of the holiness code or the way of life for a covenant people) prescribe the death penalty for homosexual acts. But there are other prohibitions in the Levitical code that no one would think of requiring today. They have been superseded or abolished under the new covenant. Why not adopt the same attitude toward homosexuality?
The answer is plain. The New Testament (and thus the new covenant, which speaks to the people of God in this age of the Church and of the Holy Spirit) also condemns homosexuality while it does not repeat nor advocate some of the other prohibitions of the old covenant. Paul declares that homosexuals shall not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9, 10).
But Paul does not single out homosexuals as special offenders. He says that idolators, adulterers, thieves, coveters, drunkards, and extortioners shall not inherit the kingdom, either. And he also says that the Corinthians have been delivered from these sinful habits: “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). There is hope for the homosexual. He can be delivered from his sin—just as adulterers, drunkards, and idolators can.
The Bible condemns homosexual behavior and says that homosexuals cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Whether a homosexual feels good about his homosexuality or proclaims that he has no sense of guilt doesn’t alter the biblical prohibition. Good feelings cannot deliver him from the judgment of God. If he does not repent he is doomed, but he is not alone. So are all other unrepentant sinners. God is no respecter of persons; he is also no respecter of one’s sexual appetites. Hell will be partially populated by “caring, honest, whole persons” who were proud that they were gay.
3. If the biblical commandments about homosexuality are set aside and homosexuality is viewed as only a variant life-style, then other sinners can use the same logic to justify their own aberrations. Prostitutes, for example, can argue that their activities do not represent sickness or sin, only a different life-style, and that they can’t help the way their sexual instincts lead them. Fornicators and adulterers can argue that their behavior is not deviant, only variant, and perfectly acceptable so long as it doesn’t harm others. Indeed, fornication and adultery are not contrary to nature even though expressly forbidden by the law of God, whereas homosexuality is also a violation of nature itself.
4. The editors of Trends say, “At the very least, then, we can conclude from this that homosexually oriented people ought to be received within the church, and society generally, on the same basis as everyone else. We are all sinful, and we are all equally redeemable.”
It is quite true that all men are sinful. It is also true that all men are redeemable. But the redemption of men does more than secure their acceptance by God and supply them with the grace of justification. They are also delivered from sin’s thralldom. No one can be justified who does not repent. And repentance includes a turning from the old life and the old sins.
One writer in Trends misuses the Scripture when she talks about the woman taken in adultery. (Although this account is not found in some of the oldest extant manuscripts, we will regard it as part of the autographs of Scripture.) Florence Bryant states that “Christians who condemn homosexuals as sinners might do well to remember what Jesus said in the case of the woman taken in the act of adultery, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ ” She seems unaware of what the law said about adultery. Both the man and the woman taken in the act were to be stoned. Here the wicked scribes and Pharisees brought only the woman. Since she had been taken in the act of adultery, her partner must have been known. But he was not brought before Jesus. (Indeed, the partner might even have been one of the accusers.) Jesus knew their intent and suggested that any one of them who was without sin should cast the first stone. But when Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee,” he was saying nothing more than that the law required at least two witnesses for the sentence to be passed and the judgment executed. And there were no witnesses against this woman. Moreover, Jesus stated that she was a sinner and guilty, for after this he said to her: “Go, and sin no more.” The homosexual can be forgiven his sin by Jesus too. But with the word of forgiveness comes the word of admonition: “Go, and sin no more.” To conclude that the homosexual who comes to Christ can continue to be a practicing homosexual and remain in a state of grace is to misread the Scripture. If he remains a homosexual, whatever else may be true, he cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
This brings us to the question of admitting homosexuals to the church—to membership, to baptism and the Lord’s supper, and to ordination. The church cannot admit those whom God excludes. It must make it clear that the homosexual cannot continue in his sin and still be with God (see James 2:14–26). A church that decides to show compassion toward the homosexual by admitting him to full rights and privileges shows a false compassion that confirms the sinner in his wicked ways.
It is discrimination on the part of the church to exclude homosexuals, but it is not oppression. Discrimination lies at the heart of Christianity. The ax of God’s holiness and righteousness divides the saved from the lost. The church does not admit atheists and agnostics to its fellowship, and this is discrimination; it does not admit unitarians either. Nor should it admit fornicators, adulterers, and drunkards, whom the Scriptures say are not eligible for admission to the fellowship of the saints.
Homosexuals have a just complaint when they say that churches often selectively apply the Word of God: they disbar homosexuals but take in others whose activities Scripture condemns. The churches should certainly cease this hypocrisy and apply justice evenhandedly. Idolators, revilers, drunkards, robbers, fornicators, and adulterers should be treated the same way homosexuals are treated. Paul says “not to associate with anyone” who is guilty of these things. “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:11–13).
Churches make a grave mistake in admitting to their fellowship those who do not meet the required standards of God. It is dangerous to permit within the churches those who insist upon diminishing the biblical standards and compromising the law of God. Members of any church who permit this to happen and who support policies that undermine the plain teachings of Scripture can be sure that they have supported an evil that will bring down upon their church God’s judgment.
Those who stand in opposition to homosexuality are frequently accused of being uncompassionate, unprogressive, and out of tune with modern developments. But as Harry Blamires ably points out, Christianity “is supernaturally grounded, revealed not manufactured, imposed not chosen, authoritative, objective and irresistible.… No human being invented the Christian faith. It was God’s idea. If you think it a bad idea, you’d better blame God.… He gave us this Christianity. We can accept it. We can reject it. But we can’t tamper with it as though it were something put together by human hands or human brains” (The Christian Mind, pp. 119, 118). The final and the conclusive argument against homosexuality does not come from the psychologists, the sociologists, the secularists, or the humanists. It comes from God, who has spoken his word against it and has never stuttered in his speech.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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