Category Archives: Homosexuality
A few weeks ago Nicholas Wolterstorff made big news when he delivered a speech at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in favor of same-sex marriage. The speech has evoked mixed reviews. Those who desire to see the church affirm monogamous same-sex sexual relationships are ecstatic to have a philosopher of Wolterstorff’s stature on their side (however cautiously he may have presented his case), while those committed to the biblical conception of marriage as being between a man and a woman are discouraged and, admittedly, somewhat surprised at how little Wolterstoff engaged scholarly exegesis with respect to the relevant texts, not to mention the broader scriptural context of what the Bible says about homosexuality.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that Nick is a friend and mentor to me. I respect him deeply and have learned a tremendous amount from his work on love and justice. I meet regularly with him for coffee and conversation and I have discussed this presentation with him in a charitable and constructive manner. In that sense I am reluctant to write this piece, but I do so out of a sense of obligation as the professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary, appointed by the Christian Reformed Church to offer some measure of theological leadership on moral matters, and because Nick himself has welcomed just this sort of response to his work. All that said, whatever you do, do not read this as an attack on Nicholas Wolterstoff. Read it as an affectionate, yet deeply concerned, response from one of Nick’s own admiring students. There has been no breach of friendship or respect between us, and if anything, this discussion gives us an opportunity to serve the church through respectful, substantive dialogue.
Let me say first of all that I largely agree with the way Wolterstorff framed the issue. That is to say, I think he raises the right questions. 1) Is homosexual practice really a violation of the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself? If so, how and why? 2) If homosexual practice is not a violation of the love command, do we oppose it simply because scripture opposes it? In other words, is this merely an issue of biblical authority, with no why or wherefore to it other than the arbitrary will of God? 3) If we answer yes to these questions, then shouldn’t we revisit scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, understanding it in its proper context, to see if we have interpreted it properly?
In addition to these questions let me stress that I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s argument that we cannot simply fall into proof-texting on this issue. Those who seek to affirm homosexual relationships do so not because they fail to see where scripture seems to fall on the issue, but because they no longer understand its logic or rationale. And that leads them, like Wolterstorff, to wonder whether there might not be some other way to read the texts in question, one which may give rise to an interpretation different from our initial reading, and one whose logic and rationale makes more sense to us. In short, the question is not, What do the texts say when taken out of context?, but, What do the texts say when understood in light of the broader context of scripture and of the gospel?
So for that reason I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s insistence that we respect context. Context. Context. Context.
Hence my disappointment with Wolterstorff’s presentation. He does not, in fact, look at the issue of homosexuality, or scripture’s discussion of it, in its full biblical context. Indeed, Wolterstofff did not even mention foundational scriptural passages on sexuality and marriage such as Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 6, or Ephesians 5. Rather, he focused on the seven texts where scripture explicitly mentions homosexuality. And even there, he does not actually interpret those passages in light of their broader context.
For instance, with respect to the all important passage of Romans 1, Wolterstorff zeroed in narrowly on what Paul says about homosexuality in verses 24-27. He entirely ignored the context of those verses, in verses 18-23. And, as I will argue, that makes all the difference in the world.
Wolterstorff presented Paul’s logic in Romans 1 as if Paul was trying to show how evil people are who experience homosexual passions. He then argued that since we know that not all people who experience these passions are evil, Paul must not have been talking about the sort of people who are committed to monogamous homosexual relationships.
But that is to miss Paul’s point entirely, because it is to take it out of context. In a sense, Wolterstoff is guilty of just the sort of proof-texting against which he warned us at the beginning of his presentation. What Paul is actually doing in Romans 1 is showing us how people suppress the truth of God revealed in creation, exchanging that truth for the lie of idolatry. Hence they worship the creature rather than the creator. They are guilty of turning the order of things on their head, and so living a lie.
The result, Paul argues, is that “God gave them over” to sexual impurity (1:24). “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:25). And the shameful sexual passions to which he “gave them over” (1:26) are the “due penalty for their error.” Why are they the “due penalty”? Paul is telling us that there is a logical correspondence between the practice of homosexuality (the practice in which “men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another”) and the practice of idolatry. In each case a natural or created good is “exchanged” for something objectively disordered.
The West is jettisoning the Christian understanding of human sexuality at an alarming speed. It is doing so, to a significant extent, without any meaningful understanding of how Christianity shaped western sexuality in the first place. Many seem to think that by freeing ourselves from the burden of Christian teaching we will finally be able to enjoy our sexuality without hindrance, as if this is what human beings were doing before prudish Christians came on the scene and ruined everything.
For this reason, Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is an illuminating read. Harper wants the West to better understand our inheritance. He wants us to appreciate what sexuality looked like in the Roman world, and how revolutionary Christianity’s impact was on western sexuality, for good and for ill. Harper is not a Christian, as far as I can tell. He writes as a historian who wants to get the story right….
Romans did not wrestle with the morality of sex outside of marriage or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Rather, they wrestled with what was honorable for a free-born man or a free-born woman. It was acceptable for a free-born man to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys (under certain conditions), so long as these things were done in moderation. But a free-born man must act as a man. It was shameful for him to play the passive role in sex.
The restrictions on a free woman, on the other hand, were much tighter. A woman’s modesty (i.e., sexual honor) was a fragile thing. “The sexual life course of free women was dominated by the imperatives of marriage. In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-mortality regime, the burden of reproduction weighed heavily on the female population” (39-40). Women were expected to marry at a very young age and to produce children for their husbands and for society. To commit adultery was to violate a respectable woman and so to sin against her husband. To do so was without excuse, because any man was free to have sex with slaves and prostitutes at will.
Underlying this double standard was the lucrative and omnipresent Roman sex trade, which itself was inseparable from the Roman system of slavery. The masses of slaves, prostitutes and other dishonorable persons had no claim to honor, and thus no entitlement to sexual morality. Slaves, especially girls and women, were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). They were utterly without social or legal protection. “The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability… Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27). Prostitutes “stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels ‘were visible everywhere’” (47).
When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world. For Christians sex lay at the heart of what it meant to be a free person destined for communion with God. And Christians called all people, whatever their status or gender, to lives of sexual purity.
Harper refutes the notion that Christian teaching on sexuality was simply the product of Greco-Roman conservatism or even of Judaism. The Apostle Paul, he shows, developed a fresh sexual ethos and a new sexual vocabulary to go with it. The threat to human beings was not shame or dishonor, first and foremost. It was sin. In the Corinthian church Paul was faced with a libertinism that owed much to the Roman sense that sex outside of marriage, including sex with prostitutes, was simply a matter for moderation. In response, Paul called Christians to flee porneia just as they would flee idolatry. He turned the body – indeed, all human bodies – “into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine” (92). Porneia, for Paul, encompassed all sex except that between a man and a woman in marriage, and it bound men and women, free and slaves, with equal rigor.
Paul closely associated sexual immorality with idolatry. “[S]exual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous.” Same-sex practice was a “particularly egregious violation of the natural order” (94). Harper observes that “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). Paul’s originality, he maintains, lies in the fact that he did not reject homosexual behavior because of a logic of status, age, hierarchy, exploitation, penetration, or active and passive roles, but for the simple reason that it is not between a male and a female as intended from creation. For Paul, it is a simple question of gender difference. Natural sex, for Christians, following Paul, “came to mean, exclusively, the one configuration of body parts that has generative potential” (145).
Read the rest of this review at Reformation 21.
For far too long in this country it has seemed possible to enjoy both the Christian life and the American dream. Christians have conflated the way of Christ and the pursuit of happiness. It has never worked as well as it was supposed to, but the inconsistencies and contradictions have always seemed relatively minor. Now that has all changed, and in this excellent little book Ed Shaw, pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, England, is calling the church to wake up.
Christians, including young evangelicals, are increasingly being persuaded that it is unreasonable, or, as Shaw puts it, implausible, to ask those who experience exclusively same-sex attraction to live celibate lives. Sexuality is considered to be central to human identity, and sexual experience is thought to be an essential part of any decent life. To expect a person to be celibate – for his or her entire life – is to ask that person to deny his or her very own self. It is to reject any and all possibility of happiness. And for many Christians this is simply too difficult to stomach. God wants us to be happy, doesn’t he?
Shaw captures the humanity and emotion of the argument for same-sex relationships in his opening story about a young man named Peter. Peter is an enthusiastic member of his evangelical church. Like other teenagers, he has experienced the excitement, the challenges, and the temptations of puberty, struggling to manage the fascinating new phenomena of sexual attraction in Christlike ways. But unlike all of his friends, Peter knows that he doesn’t merely have to wait, to practice abstinence until he finds the right woman. Peter is exclusively attracted to men and hasn’t been able to change that, and he knows that according to Christian teaching, that means he may never have sex.
In the sex-saturated culture in which we live, both progressives and traditionalists have come to embrace overly sexualized narratives of sex, marriage, and family. Both tend to idealize sex as a fundamental part of human flourishing, essential to personal wholeness. Progressives emphasize the goods of sex to such an extent that they have largely abandoned the notion that good sex can only take place within a heterosexual, married relationship. The only ethical guidance they seem to be able to provide individuals seeking sexual flourishing is to tell them to respect the consent of others and do what seems right to them. Traditionalists, for their part, idealize the permanent union between a man and a woman and the nuclear family that is supposed to flow from it as if it were the greatest and most wonderful relationship that any person could know in this life.
These narratives have deeply shaped Christians too. Progressives in the church increasingly find themselves questioning classic Christian prohibitions of fornication (i.e., sex before marriage), homosexuality, and divorce, while traditionalists cling all the more tightly to the glories of the married relationship to which everyone is called and for which everyone who is not having sex must necessarily wait. Progressives are abandoning gender as merely a human construct, while conservatives are holding to gender distinctions all the more rigidly as the inviolable decree of creation. Both groups seemingly despise the celibate life, finding it deeply implausible, and both tolerate divorce in virtually every instance in which a couple really wants it.
From the perspective of the gospel, both of these narratives are deeply flawed. True, Jesus clearly affirmed traditional Jewish teaching regarding sexual immorality, and he affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman because that is how God declared it to be from creation. Up to that point, at least, the traditionalists are right.
But Jesus said so much more than that – the gospel says so much more than that – and that is getting lost in the debate. If the church hopes to truly exercise a prophetic voice in the midst of a culture whose radical oversexualization produces ever greater numbers of abused, scarred, and disillusioned victims, it needs to recover the good news of Jesus for sex, marriage, and the family.
Catholic ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio points out that Jesus consistently challenged his followers not to hold too tightly to marriage and family. Jesus, like his most famous follower, the Apostle Paul, lived a celibate life, and like the Apostle Paul he did not hesitate to characterize the celibate life as one that is especially conducive of devotion to the kingdom of God. He called his disciples to leave their family members for the sake of the kingdom, using language that still shocks us today (if we have ears to hear it):
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)
The problem, for Jesus, was not sex. The problem was that marriage, like other familial bonds, places on human beings a host of demands that can easily distract us from the things of God. It calls us to serve one another with absolute fidelity. It tempts us to pursue a life oriented to pleasure, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It makes us, like the rich young ruler, unlikely to be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus once we have considered what the cost of such discipleship might be.
Indeed, when the disciples heard the extent of Jesus’ teaching on marriage their response was not, as it is for so many traditionalist Christians today, to yearn for it all the more deeply (and feel ever more guilty for denying sex to those who are not yet or cannot be married). On the contrary, they exclaimed, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). And Jesus does not rebuke them for this conclusion. On the contrary, he said,
Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Luke 19:12)
When is the last time you’ve heard a sermon on that text? Jesus, like Paul, recognized that there is something better than sex in this life, a calling that far transcends gender roles, and one that is worth pursuing for those willing to receive it. He himself chose that path, rather than the path of marriage.
And yet, his point was not to reject the family. His point, rather, was to get his followers to look beyond their own marriages and families to the much more important family of those who have been reconciled into communion with one another and God. When his own biological family came seeking him, attempting to interrupt his kingdom work, he spoke words that would shock us if we actually took them seriously:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Luke 12:48-50)
Nor was Jesus simply thinking of his own unique messianic situation when he said that. On the contrary, each of the synoptic gospels records Jesus, immediately after his conversation with the rich young ruler, pointing his own followers in the same direction. As Mark’s version puts it,
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundred-fold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mark 10:29-31)
To be sure, sex, marriage, and family are good things, gifts from God. But they are not the best thing. And if the words of Jesus or Paul mean anything to us at all, there is something about the celibate life that is, in fact, closer to that best thing. The early church saw that (indeed, they took it much too far), but our culture has blinded us to it.
If the Christian sexual ethic has become less plausible in American churches today, if churches are less and less willing to call their followers to the path of radical discipleship, indeed, if the celibate life of the Christ to whom we are supposed to be conformed has itself become inconceivable to us, then that is a testimony to just how much Christians – progressive and traditionalist alike – have failed to hear the gospel and believe it. Just like our culture, we have idolized sex, marriage, and family. We have confused the American dream with the gospel.
If that is indeed the case, then as Ed Shaw puts it in his must-read, Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life, the church should give thanks for the phenomena of homosexuality and same-sex marriage because it might just serve as the wake-up call the church needs. In the words of the songwriter Rich Mullins, “We are not as strong as we think we are.” If progressives are caving in to the spirit of the times, then traditionalists are too often basking in a hypocritical self-righteousness. Both need to repent and return to the gospel.
If the church wants to speak a prophetic word that is indeed good news for a culture steeped in sexual confusion and scarred by a pandemic of abusive and failing sexual relationships, it must once again hear this word from its lord. Starting with ourselves, we must give up our idols, take up our cross, and follow him.
My (sort of) colleague at Calvin College, Micah Watson, has written an excellent piece at Public Discourse reminding pro-life human rights supporters why they should never support federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Watson explains why certain practices should never be accepted or promoted based on the values of principled pluralism, even though principled pluralism is good and necessary for liberal democracy. As he puts it,
Any morally acceptable pluralism will have to draw lines somewhere, excluding some groups while including others…. Our pluralism is broad indeed in the legal sense, as our commitments to freedom of association and freedom of speech extend to a host of groups with which no morally decent person should associate. Government funding, however, is a different matter. Government funding sends a positive message that the government’s partner in this or that venture is a reliable organization promoting the public good. Whatever complexity abides in some gray areas of public policy, as Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George write in the Harvard Health Policy Review, there simply is no understanding of the public good that can include funding organizations that perform and profit from the deliberate taking of innocent human life.
It’s an excellent piece, and one that will help us think more carefully about what we try to justify on the basis of principled pluralism. For instance, a growing number of Christians argue that the church should accept same-sex civil marriage as a legitimate expression of principled pluralism (see one report soon to be discussed by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church here).
As Watson demonstrates, however, if pluralism is to remain principled, it must have its limits. Ever since the Apostle Peter declared that “we must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29), Christians have maintained that government’s authority ends precisely where it actively promotes injustice or immorality. It is one thing for government to tolerate slavery, abortion, adultery, poverty, or same-sex sexual relationships, for instance; it is another thing entirely for government to promote such phenomena. And whatever the government does, the church must continue to proclaim the justice and righteousness of the kingdom.
Watson is not writing about the church, per se, but he makes a strong argument that those who support the human right to life should insist that federal funding for abortion is outside the bounds of principled pluralism. You can read his whole piece here.
In one of his famous dialogues with the Pharisees Jesus skillfully appealed to creation norms to trump the part of the Mosaic Code that permitted men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons.
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. . . . Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:4-6, 8-9)
Here Jesus intertwined the teachings of Genesis 1 and 2 to tie marriage indelibly to the ordering of human beings as male and female, an ordering that was itself indelibly tied to God’s purposes for sexuality and procreation. By linking the sexual relationship between male and female introduced in Genesis 1 to the one flesh union introduced in Genesis 2, Jesus pronounced judgment on all legal engineering that would reduce marriage to something else (in the case of Matthew 19, an opportunity for men to treat women like slaves).
Read the rest of this article at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.
Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.
The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.
But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.
But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.
It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.
As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.
Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?
What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.
We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.
Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.
The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.
One of the reasons why many Christians are struggling to determine the appropriate response to America’s affirmation of homosexuality – and why some are even arguing that the church should embrace homosexual practice – is that they grasp that the Gospel is supposed to be good news. The Gospel is supposed to be liberating. The Gospel brings salvation, not judgment.
How can Christians, who are supposed to represent good news, be identified with a political and cultural position that is associated with animus and bigotry? What has gone wrong? Is the traditional Christian position on homosexuality misguided? Even if we assume that the world is wrong to denigrate this traditional position as one of animus or bigotry, surely no Christian can be comfortable with this state of affairs. No Christian can take lightly the fact that the Christian witness is being interpreted primarily as one of judgment.
I realize that some Christians think we solve this problem if we simply distinguish between politics and the church. Then we can oppose gay marriage at the political level while showing love and grace at the personal level. But what about our churches? Increasingly it is not just the mainline churches who want to welcome those practicing homosexuality to the Lord’s Table; prominent evangelicals are moving in this direction too. The reality is that the angst Christians have experienced dealing with homosexuality at the political level is nothing compared to the angst they ought to feel witnessing to the Gospel’s implications for sexuality at the personal level, and in the church.
At a time such as this we need to remind ourselves why our witness regarding homosexuality needs to be rooted in the Gospel, not just the law, and we need to wrestle more deeply with why the Gospel is ‘Good News.’ Too often Christians have assumed that by standing for what the law says about sexuality they are fulfilling their obligation to witness to Christ. They have imagined that opposing gay marriage in and of itself is standing for the Truth, capital T. And then they wonder why gays, lesbians, and various liberals do not see the graciousness of the Gospel.
Christian witness is not fundamentally about standing up for the law. Nonbelievers don’t need us for that. That is what the conscience is for. The law is written on human hearts (Romans 1-2).
What nonbelievers need Christians for is their witness to the Gospel. What men and women who practice homosexuality need to receive from Christians is a clear sense of how in the world the Gospel is Good News, not just for the righteous, but for gays and lesbians.
But how can a message that rejects a person’s very identity be received as Good News? This question lies at the heart of the anxiety many Christians feel about the church’s response to gays and lesbians.
What is the Gospel? Stated most simply, it is the good news that because he loves the world infinitely, God has sent his only Son to take the world’s sorrow upon himself, in order that the world might be saved from sin, oppression, and death. He accomplished this through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, reconciling all things to himself, such that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. Now Jesus has sent his Spirit to lead men, women, and children to faith in order that they might receive the forgiveness of their sins, empowerment for a life of love and justice, and the promise of life in the coming kingdom of God.
This is fundamentally a message of liberation. When Jesus first preached this Gospel of the Kingdom he proclaimed it in the form of blessings on those who found themselves on the underside of history. It is an approach that much of the contemporary church has long forgotten but that we would do well to recover. (We tell ourselves that the beatitudes of Matthew and Luke are purely ‘spiritual,’ which seems to mean that they don’t really mean what they say.)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. (Matthew 5:3-6)
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)
Does the church preach this Gospel today? Is this the message for which we are known?
We live in a world in which the masses who do not believe the Gospel are desperately trying to make meaning for themselves. Women and men pour their energies into all manner of ambition, sensuality, self-righteousness, and idolatry (the buzz words are success, self-expression, affirmation, and fulfillment) because they think that they can find happiness in the pursuit of these things. As time hurtles by, reducing all of us to decay and death in a series of accidents without meaning, people existentially cling to their autonomy as the only means of attaining some small measure of happiness. The opportunities for pleasure and fulfillment seem endless, but the enterprise is ultimately futile, the sheer weight of expectations crushing our accomplishments, relationships, and manufactured identities.
This is a scenario ripe for good news.
True, there are some people who are so invested in this futility that they will consistently reject the Gospel. Their minds are too darkened by the present age to see good news when it is staring them in the face. But there are many others who grasp that their deepest desires cannot be fulfilled by this world, that it cannot liberate them from the powers and failures that oppress them.
What Christians need to communicate to these children of God, many of whom are gay and lesbian, is that the Gospel brings with it complete salvation: not just the forgiveness of sins, not just the end of homosexual practices, not just personal affirmation, but complete salvation, the fulfillment of every purpose and desire for which we were created in the God who is love. It clears away our inadequacy and guilt by paying the price of sin, it tears down our pride and self-righteousness by filling us with love for our neighbors, and it ends our need to manufacture and fulfill our own identity by identifying our purpose in faithful response to the love of God.
Yes, the way in this life will be hard. It will require tremendous self-denial on the part of gay and straight alike. In the short term we have nothing to offer but that a person deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Christ. But while this is a hard way, it is also a fulfilling way because it is the way of Truth. In the long run it is easy and light because it leads to Life. And in the end, that is what many people so desperately desire. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Let’s show it to them.
Rosaria Butterfield was a professor of women’s studies who specialized in Queer Theory at Syracuse University. A practicing lesbian, she was an activist in the gay and lesbian community until she converted to Christianity in 1999. She is now a Reformed Presbyterian.
Given such a story, you might expect Butterfield to have an interesting perspective on the relationship between Christians and the academy. And you will not be disappointed. Only seven pages into her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield declares that she maintains her appreciation for the university and her respect for feminism:
Although I live my life now for Christ and Christ alone, I do not find myself in like-minded company when my fellow Christians bemoan the state of the university today. Feminism has a better reputation than Christianity at all major U.S. universities and this fact really bothers (and confuses) many Christians…
But how has the church responded to this truth? Too often the church sets itself up as a victim of this paradigm shift in America, but I think this is dishonest. Here’s what I think happened: Since all major U.S. universities had Christian roots, too many Christians thought that they could rest in Christian tradition, not Christian relevance.
These words accurately capture many Christians’ bewilderment about what has taken place during the past few decades. The academy, leading the culture, has abandoned Christian teaching about gender and sexual ethics wholesale. Not only are sexual promiscuity and divorce widely accepted, not only have traditional gender roles been widely jettisoned, but the very normativity of sexual complementarity has lots its persuasive power. And it has lost persuasive power not only to a few fringe radicals in the academy, mind you, but to the very people who determine the highest law of the land. Christians are not shocked because they do not expect to witness evil in this life. They are shocked because these developments defy what Christians think are the most basic common sense assumptions possible about the differences between male and female.
Butterfield’s words confirm what many Christians are only beginning to realize. Our worldview – our moral paradigm – is not nearly as intuitive or persuasive as we have imagined it to be. The authority of our churches and our sacred texts is nowhere nearly as widely respected as we thought it was. We are quite out of touch. We have not been engaged. We have been resting on the laurels of more than a thousand years of Christendom. As Butterfield puts it,
Too often the church does not know how to interface with university culture because it comes to the table only ready to moralize and not dialogue. There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted. Like it or not, in the court of public opinion, feminists and not Bible-believing Christians have won the war of intellectual integrity.
A few points jump out at me from Butterfield’s reflections.
1) Attempting to impose our moral framework on American law is not the same as being engaged in the nation’s moral conversation. We have too often confused political activism with thoughtful engagement. If we can’t even persuade the country to uphold marriage at a civil level, what does that say for our ability to witness to the need for the gospel at a moral and spiritual level?
2) Preaching at people – proclaiming the truth – is not the same thing as communicating. We need to proclaim the gospel, of course, but we have too often confused the bare declaration of various messages found in Scripture with the thoughtful engagement that comes from wrestling with what the word of God has to say in light of what we learn from observing, listening, loving and conversing with our neighbors and fellow citizens. We prefer to imitate the way the apostles confronted the covenant people of God (i.e., Acts 4) rather than the way they witnessed to the Gentiles (i.e., Acts 17). We mimic the way Jesus confronted the Pharisees (Matthew 23) rather than the way he ministered to “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 14-15). But America is not the covenant people of God and Americans are not – by and large – Pharisees.
3) Our inability to wrestle with the way the word of God speaks to contemporary culture in a thoughtful, humble way communicates a lack of integrity on our part. Why? Because a tendency simply to preach at people as if they share our basic assumptions about life – while ignoring the fact that they don’t – shows that we do not respect them. We do not take them seriously. We are not willing to learn from them, let alone grant them equality in a conversation. What we think is faithfulness looks to the world an awful lot like arrogance. And Christians, of all people, should know that this is a problem. The Christian tradition has a lot to say about the evil of pride.
We have a lot of work to do, and not primarily at the political level. As James Davison Hunter argued several years ago in his book, To Change the World, we need to be less focused on politics and more focused on culture, less focused on power and more focused on people, less focused on winning and more focused on witnessing.
I think our situation is a little bit like that of a husband and wife whose conversation has gradually escalated to the point where they are talking past one another and each is equally frustrated that the other person is not listening – no doubt willfully. It is time to step back, do some real soul-searching, and think about what and how we are communicating. Communication does not simply consist in declaring what you think and feel is true. Communication is a two-way street. Messages must be received and understood, not simply delivered. And that can only happen in contexts of respect, friendship, and trust.
As in a marriage, if we think the fault is all on the other side we are sadly deluded. In that case, the road ahead will be quite rocky indeed.