Can Christians embrace a same-sex lifestyle and still be members in good standing in a Christian church?

I've been asked to comment on the controversy provoked by a recent interview in the Atlantic with Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International—an evangelical ministry founded to help Christians and non-Christians find freedom from the guilt and power of a same-sex lifestyle.

Christians may debate public policy, but in this interview, Chambers raises issues that are very clearly addressed in Scripture. Especially when we are dealing with human lives, daring to draw our counsel from God, we need to affirm the simplicity of biblical teaching on the subject while rejecting an over-simplifying of the issues involved.

The problem (sin and death) as well as the solution (redemption in Christ through the gospel) are simple, but hardly simplistic. In terms of sin, Scripture is quite clear about the condition (original sin—guilt, bondage, corruption leading to death) and the acts that arise from it. There are versions of the pro-gay and anti-gay agenda that assume a simplistic rather than simple understanding of the issue—at least from a biblical perspective. Reject it or embrace it: that's the easy choice that makes for great sound-bites but ruins lives.

So let's apply this "simple but not simplistic" formula to homosexuality.

Simple …

First, the Bible's teaching on the subject is simple in the sense of being straightforward and unambiguous. Does Scripture forbid homosexual behavior? Of course it does. Jesus and his apostles taught that God's intention in marriage is for a man to leave his parents and join himself to one woman (Matt. 5:27-32; 19:3-6). Furthermore, the New Testament clearly teaches that homosexuality is immoral (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:10) and that those who embrace a sexually immoral lifestyle will not inherit Christ's kingdom (Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7-9; Eph 5:5; 1 Thes. 4:2-8). Isn't it more complicated than that? After all, doesn't Paul have in mind relationships based on temple prostitution or perhaps slavery, rather than committed relationships? No, the noun arsenokoitēs means "those who practice homosexuality." It is an unusual compound, but it makes Paul's point. And it's not like prohibitions against eating shellfish or pork chops: part of the old covenant law that distinguished Israel visibly from the nations as a theocratic nation, which foreshadowed Christ and is now obsolete since the reality (Christ himself) has arrived.

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As with the law, Scripture is also marvelously simple in proclaiming the gospel: Christ has won for us that victory over sin's guilt, dominion—and ultimately, presence—that we were helpless to defeat.

… Without Being Simplistic

However, just at this point the complexity of both sin and redemption come into the picture. If sin were just a behavior, we could stop it. If we had done it a lot, we might need some help in stopping it, but eventually—if we tried hard enough—we could. However, sin is not just a behavior. Long before they made any choice about what to do with it, people were predisposed toward same-sex attractions. Affirming original sin, Christians don't have trouble accepting this. We reject the Pelagian reduction of sin to an action that one can overcome with enough will-power. We are depraved (warped) in every respect: spiritually, morally, intellectually, volitionally, and physically. Long before genetics became a flourishing field, Christians have spoken about sin as an inherited condition. Furthermore, we can inherit specific sins—or at least tendencies—of our fathers and mothers. Then add to that the ways in which people are sinned against by the attitudes and behaviors of others, especially in childhood. So even before we actually decide to take that first drink, place that first bet, unleash our first punch, or fool around with our best friend, we are already caught up in the tangled web of solidarity in sin. At the same time, we are responsible for our choices, which reinforce or counter the specific sins toward which we are especially disposed.

There is no reason to think that Christians who struggle with these attractions are any less justified and renewed by God's grace in Christ than are those who wrestle especially with greed or anger or gossip. The gospel frees us to confess our sins without fear of condemnation. Looking to Christ alone for our justification and holiness, we can finally declare war on our indwelling sin because we have peace with God.

If there is no biblical basis for greater condemnation, there is also no scriptural basis for greater laxity in God's judgment of this sin. It is as unloving to hold out hope to those who embrace a homosexual lifestyle as it is to assure idolaters, murderers, adulterers, and thieves that they are safe and secure from all alarm. Nor will it do to say, "Well, we're all idolaters, etc.," since here—in 1 Corinthians 6—Paul's concern is not to beat down legalistic self-righteousness but to warn professing Christians that they cannot worship Diana on Tuesday and Jesus on Sunday. Paul's point is clear: For Gentiles, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, within proper social boundaries) is normal, but to take that view is to exclude oneself from the kingdom of Christ. A proud sinner defiantly ignoring the lordship of Christ while professing to embrace him as Savior is precisely what Paul says is impossible. These passages do not threaten believers who struggle with indwelling sin and fall into grievous sins (see Romans 7 for that category); rather, they threaten professing believers who do not agree with God about their sin.

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At the end of his rope, a young man called me at the suggestion of a mutual friend. After a summer of discussing these questions and building new categories, with the support of a good church, he returned home. He told his parents that he was neither "gay" nor "straight." Secure in Christ's sufficient work, he was a Christian struggling with same-sex attraction yet who rejects the gay lifestyle. It was not a category for these folks. After his pastor informed him that he was one of those Gentiles whom Paul refers to as "given up" by God to their depraved desires, this friend and brother committed suicide. Superficial views of sin can be deadly, especially when the lethal weapon was a misuse of Scripture.

Yet for every simplistic condemnation there are 20 simplistic approvals. Given that only decades ago psychologists and psychiatrists were torturing LGBT patients in the name of science, it may have been on balance salutary when the American Psychological Association issued dire warnings against those who regard homosexuality as a "disorder." However, psychology exceeds the boundaries of its competence when it imagines that taking a behavior off of the psychological disorder list means that it cannot be considered a disorder (or sin) in a moral and spiritual sense.

One problem of simplistic views of sin is that they always generate simplistic views of redemption. Scripture speaks of salvation in terms of a tension between the "already" of salvation and the "not-yet" that still awaits us. Unwilling to embrace the paradox of being "simultaneously justified and sinful," we reject either justification or sanctification. However, a simplistic view of sin as acts requires as its solution nothing more than red-faced threats or smiling therapies for getting our act together. "Just stop doing it," says the simplistic anti-gay position. "Just embrace it," says the simplistic pro-gay position. There is even a version of the gospel today that is just as simplistic as the legalistic alternative. In many ways, it sounds like a thinly Christian veneer laid over a basically therapeutic message: "God loves you unconditionally" (with no mention of repentance, faith, or even Christ); "no matter what you do, God isn't angry toward you," and so forth. Anyone who imagines that how we live does not affect our relationship with God has not taken seriously the warnings and exhortations throughout the New Testament. Self-trust is not the only sin that distracts us from looking to Christ alone in faith.

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Conformity to Christ's image can only be driven by the gospel. And yet it is directed by the specific commands and exhortations of God's word. How many times are we admonished to flee temptations in Scripture? Sin is attractive largely because it is always a corruption of something good, true, and beautiful. One may have a greater propensity for inordinate eating, drinking, or workaholism than others. Yet it is the duty of Christian wisdom to resist situations that inflame our fallen tendency to pervert God's good gifts. Lust is a perversion of sex and homosexuality is a perversion of philia—that profound love that men and women have for each other that is wonderfully different from the love of husband and wife.

A repentant Christian is one who agrees with God about the nature of sin and the need for redemption through Jesus Christ. Even when such a person falls, the face is set against the besetting sin and fixed on the faithful Savior at the Father's right hand.

Refusing to agree with God about the nature of such behavior as sinful, those who embrace sexual immorality as a lifestyle reject the gospel. One cannot even seek forgiveness for something that one does not regard as sinful in the first place. Repentance means "change of mind." It does not mean that one never struggles with that sin again; in fact, the struggle indicates repentance! Rather, it means that has decisively set his or her face against it. And we repent together, not just by ourselves.

"A Hospital for Sinners"—Really?

We like the idea of the church as a hospital for sinners-in-general; it's specific illnesses that we'd rather not have to treat.

Often in our churches there is a tendency to idolize marriage and the family. From the New Testament perspective, the church as God's family is more ultimate and intimate than our natural one. Yet if someone asks what our church has to offer families, most of us can think of something to say, while we might be at a loss for words if someone asks what our church has to offer single people—especially Christians struggling with same-sex attraction.

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And yet, when it comes to cross-bearing, what greater testimony to Christ's cross can there be than that a sinner would find his or her sufficiency in Christ to the extent that even sexual pleasure could be surrendered? Like other single Christians, freed from many domestic responsibilities, these brothers and sisters are able to invest more of their lives in the fellowship of saints. It changes the rest of the congregation, too, as others have to wrestle with their own responses and vulnerabilities. Children growing up recognize the seriousness of their own sin and the call to holiness; they also see firsthand just how true the gospel is on the ground, as they receive Communion together with brothers and sisters who have been forgiven much and therefore love much. This witness to Christ's Cross expands beyond the local church. The unbelieving world may express hostility toward the traditional denunciations of homosexuality by churches, but it's more difficult to mock people who have actually turned up their nose at the culture's prized idol: the self with its unlimited range of identities. No, there is something more ultimate in reality and therefore more ultimately worth knowing than sexual pleasure.

It may sound like compassion, but it's actually self-righteous pride to deny to some sinners that privilege of church membership and discipline that the rest of the body enjoys and from which it grows up into its head, Jesus Christ. We are all under church discipline: that is, the obligation to mutual accountability in the body of Christ. This is exercised, by Christ's own appointment, through pastors and elders. Even in the extreme case of excommunication, where, after long-suffering admonitions and tearful pleas, unrepentant members are excluded from Communion in Christ's body and blood, the goal even of this "tough love" is repentance and restoration to fellowship. Christians who fall are not under this threat. Rather, they are guided, encouraged, absolved, and admonished along with the rest of us. However, members who refuse the yoke of Christ are not Christians. It is one of the most obvious teachings in the New Testament that without repentance no one can be saved.

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We dare not try to cut Christ in pieces, as if we could receive him deliverer from sin's guilt but not from its dominion, or as Savior but not as Lord. Nor can we cut ourselves in pieces, severing our body from our soul—as if we could give our heart to Jesus and keep the title deed to our body. It's precisely because our bodies are too important to the biblical drama that they cannot be exempted from biblical discipleship. As Paul put it:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, 'The two will become one flesh.' … Flee from sexual immorality … You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:13-20).

Michael Horton is professor of theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary, California, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, most recently, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God's Strategy for Making Disciples (Baker), the thesis of which will be the focus of a cover story in CT in the coming months.

Today's other related articles on salvation, grace, antinomianism, sexual ethics, and other matters include a news story on Alan Chambers's recent statements, a Wesleyan Arminian response from Ben Witherington, and a CT Classic on "Lordship Salvation."