While many progressives and liberals feign incredulity, the conservative Christian objection to same-gender sex is not difficult to understand.
It is rooted in the way Christians tend to approach moral issues generally speaking — by referring to the sources of the faith and then to the traditions that followed. Traditionally, same-gender sex has been considered a sin. Why is this? (1.) Because it has generally been assumed that Jesus was pointing us to a standard of marriage that is heterosexual, monogamous, and permanent for the lifetime of the partners. If Jesus hadn’t referred back to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve in Matthew 19:3-12, Christians might not have turned to that story for a standard of sexual behavior. But, he did and we do. The traditional marriage ceremony reflects this. “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation….” (Book of Common Prayer). It has been generally believed that marriage conforms to some purpose and plan in the mind of God. It therefore reflects the notion that there can be a meaning and structure to life to which we may aspire — something has been communicated to us about God’s plan and purpose for us. Christians see the notion of marriage as resonating with Scripture in other ways as well: “…and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.” (Book of Common Prayer). Sexual behaviors outside of this standard of marriage have always been seen by Christians as being either wrong or, at least, suspicious. (2.) There are several specific condemnations of same-gender sex in the Bible. These are found both in the Old and New Testaments. Several of them appear in passages where context doesn’t seem to be a factor — isolated laws or lists of vices. While these (like anything else) could be related to specific practices of the time in which the Bible was written, (a.) they don’t seem to be, and (b.) they fit very well with notion of marriage as a paradigm for sexual behavior. And, then (3.) the early Christian tradition has often outspokenly condemned same-gender sex. (Though, we all recognize that Christian tradition is diverse and it can be wrong — and in need to correction in the light of new information.)
So, the conservative case is simple and seems air-tight. Conclusions have been drawn from all this to further elucidate what marriage is all about: “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” (Book of Common Prayer)
So, if that is the case, what’s the problem?
The problem can also be simply stated. There are people who are sexually attracted to those of their own sex. This is not a condition that they chose and it not a condition that is likely to change. Yes, there is some degree of drifting in people’s sexual inclinations over the course of their lives — but, this also is not the direct result of choice. The fact is that a person who is attracted to people of their own gender will most likely remain that way through the course of their life. No one really knows why. But, the therapies which have been used in the past to attempt to change a person’s sexual attractions have been discredited and are now recognized as being ineffective — if not downright harmful. I am not suggesting here any particular theory about why some people are attracted to their own sex. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone knows. It certainly seems likely that there is some sort of physical or chemical basis for this — but the facts are what they are regardless of that.
Such people are nowadays regularly called gay or lesbian. These words are used to talk about people in terms of their sexual attractions — and not necessarily their sexual behaviors. So, someone who is gay is a person who is attracted to people of their own sex — regardless of their sexual behavior. They may be totally celibate for all we know. But, their sexual attraction is for people of their own sex — and that is a stable characteristic of who they are.
Simply put: gays don’t become straight.
Two recent books that help to bring the issue into focus are: Justin Lee’s book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, and Tim Otto’s Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. Both of these books focus on the personal narratives of the authors — who talk very frankly about what it is like to be both Christian and gay. While Justin’s book does attempt an argument in favor of gay marriage, that is not the main focus of the book — the main focus is to help conservative Christians get past the “gays versus Christians” controversy — and help people to see the personal dimensions of the issue more clearly. Justin is the executive director of the Gay Christian Network. Tim Otto’s book is especially noteworthy for its positive and optimistic tone. The book does not engage in argument, but does seek to foster understanding and respect. Tim also has a web site that is “Waging peace in the church’s conflict over LGBT sexuality” here: Oriented to Faith. These are excellent resources in helping to bring the pastoral and personal issues into focus.
So, here is the conservative Christian dilemma on same-gender sex: gay and lesbian people exist. What place do they have in the church? What moral advice can conservative Christians give them about how to live their lives — especially their sexual lives? As long as discussion and debate (and name-calling and whatever) remains focused on the Scriptures and their interpretation, and on theological principle, the practical, pastoral issues are obscured.
I can see only two major positions here.
(1.) CELIBACY. In this view, while gay and lesbian people are valued as children of God and invited to participate in every way in the life of the church, same-gender sex is still considered a sin and forbidden. They are therefore pointed to the path of sexual abstinence — for the remainder of their life. Sex outside of marriage is a sin; gays and lesbians are not attracted to people of the opposite sex, so marriage doesn’t seem to be a viable option — and, it follows that celibacy is the only option. Actually, the traditional term for this is chastity — abstaining from sex outside of marriage — but for some reason in our culture the term celibacy is commonly used. And, really, in the case of gays and lesbians I suppose it should be used— since we are talking about sexual abstinence for the course of a person’s life.
Some gays and lesbians have chosen this path themselves. I am thinking here particularly of the writers associated with the Spiritual Friendship web site. These include: Ron Belgau (who teaches Ethics, Medical Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of the Human Person at St. Louis University), Wesley Hill (who is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry and the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (2010)), Julie Rogers (Ministry Associate for Spiritual Care in the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College), Melinda Selmys (writer), Eve Tushnet (writer), and several others.
And, there is support for this option within the Christian tradition. Yes, Christians often talk about self-fulfillment (as other groups do), but in Christian teaching, self-fulfillment is found in self-surrender. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 NRSV). The Christian tradition contains many examples of people who chose to forgo sex in the pursuit of their spiritual life. And, anyway, in Christian teaching marriage is a commitment to another person, not a promise of personal fulfillment. The vow is “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.” (Book of Common Prayer). Each partner commits themselves to the well-being of the other. There is no guarantee against debilitating illness, for example. And there shouldn’t be. One partner may need to care for the other. It’s not about what you are getting from it, but what you are giving to it. Many of us have particular conditions and circumstances in our lives we come to see as the cross we have to bear. These may be physical disabilities or difficult circumstances over which we have no control. We can find fulfillment in Christ, but we dare not expect it from our circumstances or from other people.
So, what is wrong with this picture? As a happily married heterosexual Christian I am in a very uncomfortable position recommending such a route. I can easily see why gays and lesbians scoff at this. This forces conservative Christians to recommend a way of life they themselves would not choose! This really does not seem fair. Furthermore, where are the community resources in our churches to support people in this life of sexual abstinence and singleness? Many highly family-oriented churches provide very little support for singles — including the never-married, the widows and widowers, and the divorced — as it stands. Some conservative Christians are up-in-arms against people who call themselves gay or lesbian regardless of the fact that they have chosen a life of sexual abstinence — their very existence seems to be an offense to them. Are churches prepared to love and support the gay and lesbian Christians in their midst?
Furthermore, the widespread acceptance of divorce and remarriage within our Christian churches raises questions about consistency. Are churches being more strict with gays and lesbians — who are counseled to seek a life of sexual abstinence — than with divorced heterosexuals — who are often pointed toward seeking a new marriage?
I suppose if I were same-gender attracted and I were as committed as I am to the Scriptures and to Christian orthodoxy (understood in a broad sense), this is the camp to which I would belong. But, I wonder how much support — and how many safe spaces I could find in the Church —where I could be honest about myself and my faith. In a highly polarized church, I think few safe spaces exist. But, be that as it may, that is not who I am. And, I know I am not in a position to pontificate about an experience of life that I have not had.
(2.) GAY MARRIAGE. The second option would be for conservative Christians to find a way to support gay marriage. This option comes in two flavors:
(A.) Gay marriage as an accommodation to special circumstances. The argument goes like this: Yes, marriage — generally speaking — is a covenant between a man and a woman. Yes — generally speaking — sexual attraction is a procreative impulse. Yes — generally speaking — same-gender sex is condemned in the Bible. But, in the case of the person who is attracted to their own sex, gay marriage is a close enough approximation to the Christian standard. Heterosexual marriage would not be the best option for such a person, so gay marriage is the best option in this case.
Don’t scoff at this. We usually recognize that general rules have exceptions. There are special circumstances which make things that might be wrong under other circumstances the best moral option available. A lie told to save lives is not a sin because the imperative to save lives is more important than the imperative to honesty. And, so forth. Obviously, one can always question what is an allowable exception — but exceptions exist because in the real world, moral principles come into conflict. In the case of gay marriage, what is being recommended is a life of companionship — a basic human need — and a life where sexual expression is allowed as an alternative to promiscuity or sexual frustration. It is a life of mutual commitment — as any other marriage would be. 1 Corinthians 7:9 could be cited in this regard: “For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (NRSV). (In a way, every gay marriage is an exception to a general rule, since most people would not want to marry someone of their own sex.) This is essentially the position the Lutheran theologian Helmut Theilike took in the Appendix to his book The Ethics of Sex (1964). If I understand him correctly, this is also the position taken by the great Christian Reformed ethicist Lewis Smedes. And, I think it is a position like this one that people are advocating when they have said things to me like: “it’s the same love.” The concept of marriage is not in doubt (I think they are saying) it just needs to include all those who “have the same love.” I would also include Steve Harper’s book For the Sake of the Bride in this category — a book which addresses the issues in light of the conflicts in the United Methodist denomination.
And, notice that this point of view leaves everything in the opening paragraphs of this post intact. Nothing is being thrown out, it’s just a matter of recognizing an exception to a general rule. A person might want to add that ancient people may not have understood “sexual orientation” the way we do (a bit questionable) — or might not have considered it relevant to anything in a day when marriage was far more about procreation and the survival of the tribe and the nation, than it was about love or companionship or personal fulfillment.
Yet, I can sense that this “exception to the general rule” argument is something that is a little difficult to get behind. It justifies gay marriage on the same basis one might justify telling a lie to save a life. It justifies it on the same basis as re-marriage after divorce — or: “just” war, for that matter. Some people will always question what is a legitimate exception. Even at best, this argument amounts to something less than a ringing endorsement for gay marriage.
(B.) A re-interpretation of the Bible that eliminates the condemnation of same-gender sex. I’m calling this the revisionist school of thought — though I’m not using the word “revisionist” in any pejorative sense. Two recent books — arising from the evangelical camp — that take this approach are: Matthew Vines’ widely read and discussed God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, and James V. Brownson’s interesting and well written Bible, Gender, Sexuality. I don’t want to conflate these writers and their arguments, but I am saying that these writers — and many others that can be found on the Internet — are seeking to demonstrate the same thesis. They seek to establish that, rightly understood, the Bible does not condemn same-gender sex in general, and that there is, thus, no reason to oppose gay marriage. In this view, gay marriage is not simply an accommodation to special circumstances — it is a positive good.
But, this often requires dismantling the support for the conservative Christian view outlined above. The standard way to begin is to label the Bible verses that condemn same-gender sex as “clobber verses” and undermine their credibility seriatum — beginning in the Old Testament with the book of Leviticus and moving through the Bible. Each verse is knocked down one at a time. Ancient culture was different than ours. The ancient condemnations of same-gender sex had a significantly different context than the one in which we live. The meaning of some words is a bit unclear. And, so forth. The argument often gets long and complicated. (This is where the debates come in.) And, it is often assumed that in other respects the Christian teaching about marriage still stands (though, I would think, the same type of approach could knock that down too). The argument asserts that there is no true condemnation of same-gender sex in the Bible, so the standards of marriage are applicable to same-sex couples as they would be with heterosexual couples.
Brownson’s approach is significantly different than this — and (to my mind) much more perceptive. He argues that the standard of marriage should not be viewed as necessarily heterosexual. We should think of it as a kinship bond. Thus, Brownson seeks not simply to knock down individual verses, but re-frame the debate as a whole. He is interested in the moral logic of the Scripture’s teachings. From this perspective, he feels that there is no basis for condemning committed same-sex couples — and every reason to celebrate their relationships. This is one of the most interesting and accessible resources I have seen from this revisionist school of thought. Here are some quite divergent evaluations of Brownson’s book: Four views on James Brownson’s Bible Gender Sexuality. Obviously, opinions differ on the success of this argument: but it is an honest attempt at a faithful re-reading of Scripture that would allow for same-sex marriage. This kind of argument is fraught with difficulties.
So, it seems to me that those are the options. We know that same-gender attracted people are loved by God, just as much as anyone else. They are human beings of sacred worth. They need our support and understanding. They need people who are willing to respect and to listen. Once we recognize that such people really exist we become motivated to find a way to truly include them in the company of the church. They have a special and unique perspective to add to the mix of the community of faith.
This is the conservative Christian dilemma on same-gender sex. It is not strictly a theoretical or theological or Biblical dilemma: it is a very practical and pastoral dilemma. How can we most effectively support gay and lesbian people in their spiritual journey of life?
ADDENDUM: In response of some twitter feedback from Matthew Vines, I want to make it clear that my general characterization of the revisionist position is not a direct critique of his book. Also: in Matthew’s point of view he is not “knocking down” verses — that is my (arguably snarky) way of stating things. Matthew is deeply committed to the authority of Scripture. Also: I was reminded by someone on Facebook that Christopher Yuan is another good example of a gay man who has chosen the celibacy route. Christopher has written Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God. A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope.