The telephone rang at 2:00 a.m. Frank, a gay Christian, had just finished reading my book and wanted to thank me for encouraging him to reevaluate his lifestyle and to seek help. It was 5:00 a.m. in his time zone, and I must confess that my impulse was to extricate myself from having a conversation with someone who seemed long-winded and a possible wacko. However, as I listened I realized that this call might have been made by me, with only some details changed (the 2:00 a.m. part of it for one!).
Frank is a man who experiences sexual temptation. He is well aware that the small comfort supplied by sex does not replace the deeper comfort only God can supply, but he is driven by needs for human companionship and touch. Analysis of how he got this way, or exegesis of key biblical passages, do not help in the middle of the night.
And so I listened to Frank. Then I let him listen to me, and we became friends. Now we talk every few weeks (at reasonable times) and share the assurance that "He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us ... as you also join in helping us by your prayers" (2 Cor 1:10, 11)." We are two men with very different temptations, but with the same Lord, who wants to transform our fallen natures, making them like His perfect nature.
The emerging issue
My friendship with Frank is personal, but may have broad applications. As I have engaged audiences around the country and attempted to keep up on the literature produced by Christian advocates of homosexual practice, I have observed that the emerging issue for pastoral response is not only theological or psychological. It is, rather, a matter of personal experience in moral decision-making. Increasingly, those who defend homosexual unions are setting aside the disputed biblical passages and scientific opinions, and claiming the positive experience of some as a guiding principle for all. Loving, monogamous same-sex unions, some advocates contend, provide a model for Christian homosexual practice. If we would only listen to their stories, some suggest, we might learn from their experience and thus let go of our prejudices.
At this point I could launch into a discourse on the growing impact of postmodernism, but pastors today need not study Foucault to recognize the spirit behind these words: "I'm not too sure what the Bible says, or what science says, but this seems right to me, so I'm going to do it." The notion is hardly new that without a clear locus of authority "all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25). What is new is that this attitude has invaded the church, and it will pervade the church if pastors respond to a new generation only with denunciations of relativism. When the passengers are already drowning in the water, it doesn't help to tell them they were better off in the boat. What we need are forward-looking strategies, ways to address the needs and attitudes of a postmodern culture. These strategies must express the way of our Lord, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
In this article I offer a few suggestions that I hope will stimulate further discussion and constructive action on the part of pastors and leaders. More specifically, I will offer a series of amplified statements that address two issues: first, the role of experience in the current moral debate; and second, the advancement of a traditional moral stance by pastors and church leaders.
Experience and moral authority
God's presence may be known where His preference is not. Have you ever known someone in your church who exhibited the fruits of the Spirit? Perhaps they even took part in church leadership. Then you discovered that for some time that person had been involved in wrong doing of a financial or sexual nature? Did you conclude that the person was not a Christian or that the Spirit was not behind the good things he or she was doing? Or did you decide that the shady business deal or the adulterous affair was morally permissible because an otherwise remarkable person was involved?
The point here is not to deny the reality of experience or the ministry gifts of those who engage in same-sex relationships. Rather, the point is that experience and ministry gifts do not constitute an argument in favor of the morality of that behavior. If it is morally permissible, it must be so on grounds other than good experience or impressive giftedness.
Experience may dictate when all else fails, but all else hasn't failed. If, in fact, Scripture were silent about sexual ethics (and I mean not only the proscription texts but also the presumption of the normativeness of heterosexual marriage throughout the Bible); or if we had no reason on medical, psychological, or social grounds to question the behavior; or if we had no strong Christian tradition that spoke consistently to the issue, then we might want to give experience or giftedness a louder voice.
But the fact is, the voice of experience on this issue is a very recent voice, and the obvious suspicion is that it expresses Christian conformity to the surrounding culture rather than decisive leadership in the culture. What has the church gained since the sexual revolution of the sixties? What have women gained by our tacit compliance with the proliferation of premarital sex, divorce, and prime-time pornography? Unfortunately, it is true that the cutting edge of morality is often in actuality the edge of a cliff.
Rule by experience makes all rules questionable. The argument from experience attempts to shift the discussion from the question Why is this right in view of scriptural teaching? to How can this be wrong in view of this life-enhancing experience? Or more bluntly, How dare you question what 7 experience as positive? One problem I have with this shift is that it leaves little to say in response to virtually any traditionally proscribed behavior. Advocates of pedophilia, for example, argue along similar lines: They say Scripture is silent or ignorant of modern relationships of mutual consent and that the condition of pedophilia is immutable and perhaps genetically determined. People's opposition to pedophilia stems, they say, from unreasoning prejudice and so on. But if we object to pedophilia only because we feel more strongly against it than we do against homosexuality, why can't we experience new feelings later and become more tolerant? To make experience the rule is to invite moral chaos.
Liberation from guilt is more compelling than liberation from shame. Guilt is a recognition that I have done wrong; shame is a feeling imposed on me by others' disapproval. What I have observed in comparing the accounts of those who have experienced deliverance from homosexual practice (guilt) and those who have experienced deliverance from homophobia (shame) is that the stories of the former strike me as much closer to the New Testament message of salvation from sin. That is, those who leave the lifestyle do not spiritualize their victim status; rather, they experience the power of Christ to find new behaviors and even new desires. This makes sense to me as I think of my own heterosexual temptations: my transformation in Christ does not begin with self-validation, but with humility regarding my own fallen nature.
Advancing a more traditional stance
Noting the connection between Genesis and Romans is crucial in countering the argument that when Paul speaks against homosexuality, he speaks only of pederasty. The most common "dust in the air" approach of revisionists is to discard Old Testament passages as irrelevant pre-Christian casuistic apprehensions, and to discount Romans 1:26, 27 (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9, 10; 1 Tim. 1:10) as limited only to the man-boy relations prevalent in the New Testament pagan world. It is crucial to understand how Paul bridges the testaments by deriving his proscription in Romans from the Creation and Fall narratives of Genesis (including the Sodom story) and not simply from changing cultural mores. Paul's expression definitely reveals his reliance on underlying principles that are integrally connected to the biblical norm of heterosexual marriage. I can only summarize here what I develop in detail in my book, in which I enlarge on the meanings of the relevant biblical passages in light of modern revisionist treatments.
We are embodied souls. The notion that the human body can transcend its biological function and reproductive potential is Gnostic, not Christian. Unfortunately, the ongoing influence of the ancient Greek dichotomy between body and soul, coupled with the more recent influence of Eastern thought, has opened the door to extreme spiritualizations of sex. In the biblical view each of us is an embodied soul whose sexuality is rooted in a unified being with a potential reaching into eternity. How our bodies work and what we do with them matter greatly to a God who makes us His temples (1 Cor. 6:19).
Experience is a two-way street, and only ex-gays have walked both sides. Why do those who claim to represent tolerance not tolerate the voice of ex-gays? Instead, many of them level accusations of self-deception at ex-gays and promote negative anecdotal stories of ex-ex-gays. It seems to me, however, that those who have left the homosexual lifestyle (published accounts include Mario Bergner, Andy Comiskey, and Jerry Arterburn) possess an experience that includes that of practicing homosexuals (e.g., Mel White, Gary Comstock, Leonard Goss), while the latter have not experienced the transforming power of Christ. We should consider carefully the voices of those who have seen both sides of the experience.
The nature/nurture debate is an interesting question, but not a moral question. While acknowledging the advantage of media-driven claims that sexual behavior is determined by inexorable, invisible forces, most educated gay activists acknowledge in-house that scientific and moral questions are not the same. Adulterers, or pedophiles, or pornographers, will gain little sympathy from the claim that their genes made them do it. Why should the homosexual be considered in a different genetic light? No, however fascinating or apparently comforting it may be to explore how the patterns of genetic structure and social surroundings combine to create for each of us a moral context, we must nevertheless also recognize our responsibility to act obediently within that context. As moral agents we say yes or no to each potential sexual encounter.
Celibacy is not a booby prize. One standard defense of homosexual practice is that the struggling heterosexual can hope for marriage, whereas the homosexual has no such outlet. This approach is ineffective in many respects. The hope of an eventual marriage is hardly a control mechanism against the pressure toward immediate gratification; and even within marriage the problem is often not physical but relational, and there may be a strong desire for multiple partners. The real problem is that our culture overemphasizes and overvalues sexual fulfillment. We could learn much from the positive experience of those within the church over centuries who have practiced the gift of celibacy. Celibacy has a strong tradition that extends back to the apostles and, by all means, to Jesus Himself. When someone is called to live a life of celibacy, must we think of them as somehow crippled or seriously deprived?
The church must expand the matter to forthrightly include other issues of sexuality. There should be no question of "holding the line" against a "liberal agenda" with respect to homosexual practice. Instead, the church should find in this issue a springboard to open discussion of all areas of sexuality. After all, heterosexuals do the vast majority of the sinning, and have tiptoed around the issues far too long in our churches. The longer we keep the monster in the closet, the bigger it grows.
Discussion must begin and end with acknowledgment of our general sexual fallenness. I began this article with the story of a small success, not because my record has been an unqualified success, but because I have learned that God is more likely to use me as a vulnerable fellow human than as a pedestaled expert. How refreshing it is to hear a pastor talk about a serious problem he is having right now! How frightening it is for a pastor to do this. But we cannot afford to quote Romans 1 while neglecting the challenge of hypocrisy in Romans 2. We must stress the points of analogy or similarity between our own fallen sexual nature and those of the people we wish to exhort.
Congregations must be educated and resource-ready. Some Christians are gifted to work the front lines, others work behind the scenes, but all are obligated at least to know what and why they believe. Congregations can be trained in basic responses and can make counseling referrals. Churches can also make helpful literature available to congregation members, discreetly if necessary. A few volunteers at a local AIDS hospice speak volumes about the Christian's ability to distinguish human care from moral analysis. Homosexuals are flawed people like all of us, and it must be said of those who perceive them as enemies whose wounded can be left dying on the battlefield, "it will be more tolerable for Sodom [on the day of judgment] than for that town" (Luke 10:12).
Change occurs one person at a time. This seemingly harmless suggestion is perhaps the most controversial. I do not support the focus of some Christians on political and legal means to preserve traditional Christian standards of morality. Public policy debates easily become cold, issue-oriented, and seriously distanced from people and people-oriented approaches. It is easy to get so caught up in serving the cause of Christ that we neglect the way of Christ. The gospel is not ultimately about changing laws, but about changing lives.
Frankly, when it comes to homosexuality, I think that the so-called culture wars in politics, law, and education were lost some time ago. This is not said from a pessimistic perspective or to be discouraging. Rather, it is meant to be a call to us who are Christians to renounce all power except the power of the love of Christ. This is an energy that welcomes hurting people into a home. It offers healing. It celebrates the transformation of our natures, whether we are homosexual or heterosexual sinners, until we all come into the measure of Christ's full stature.
* Bible texts in this article are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.