People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue

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Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, then you know that the most hotly contested issue within American evangelicalism is the subject of homosexuality. While there are a host of issues that are being debated within American evangelicalism, this topic is the elephant in the room that everyone is talking about. Progressives on the left largely agree that same-sex sexual practice should be allowed within the church and conservatives on the right largely agree that same-sex sexual practice should not be permitted within the church.

For the sake of full disclosure, let me state that I locate myself within the broader conservative camp. Through my own study of Scripture, theology, and Christian tradition, I have come to agree with the traditional sexual ethic of the Church, that the only licit form of Christian sexual behavior is between one man and one woman in a monogamous marriage. However, this is not simply an academic issue for me. Through my own interactions with several gay people (including one of my best friends, who is a celibate gay Christian) my theological framework has been refined around this issue. As such, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with many of my fellow conservatives in their defensive measures against progressives.

My frustration is that, in the midst of our defense, we have forgotten that there are real people in our churches who are silently seeking to faithfully work out their sexualities in a world that often views them as pariahs. In many ways, we have become partially blinded by our defensive maneuvers. We have forgotten that gay people are still people who need to be loved, even in the midst of our defense of orthodoxy.

I am not alone in this thinking. Preston Sprinkle, a New Testament scholar, pastor, and professor at Eternity Bible College, has recently written what may be the best conservative, evangelical treatment of homosexuality available. In his new book, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue, Sprinkle approaches the topic from both a biblical and pastoral perspective, first examining the biblical texts that speak to the question of same-sex sexual behavior, and then looking at how conservative evangelicals can move forward in loving their LGBT neighbors.

The first two-thirds of the book are devoted largely to Sprinkle’s in-depth examination of the five major biblical texts that address same-sex sexual behavior: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Before diving into these key texts though, Sprinkle begins by looking at Genesis 1–2, and the “holy otherness” (as Sprinkle describes it) that God has built into opposite-sex sexual relations. This “holy otherness” is not only in accord with the distinctions present in creation, it also serves as a created reflection of the “holy otherness” that exists ultimately between Christ and His Church. By taking this approach, Sprinkle frames his later discussions of the key texts within the larger narrative of God’s pre-Fall creational intent for human sexual behavior. This animates the rest of the first section with a positive view of human sexual behavior (what sexual intercourse between one male and one female in monogamous union is for) instead of only a negative view (what sexual relations are not for).

Sprinkle spends the rest of the first section examining—in quite amazing detail for a lay and pastorally-oriented book—each of the five major texts listed above, all the while critically interacting with, and contesting, the strongest “affirming” interpretations of the texts (e.g., James Brownson, Robin Scroggs, etc.). In the end, Sprinkle comes to the conclusion that the Bible simply does not affirm same-sex sexual behavior. However, what Sprinkle rightly notes throughout his exegesis is that the Bible only condemns the action of same-sex sexual behavior, not gay people. Even in texts like Leviticus 18:22, where the shocking word “abomination” is used, it is only used for the sex act, not for those involved in it.

This is incredibly important, and the implications of it fill the final pastoral section of the book. This means that while the biblical texts consistently prohibit same-sex sexual behavior, they also never ever call gay people “abominations.” All the sermons preached that have called gay people such things are not biblical and certainly not Christian. All people—Jew and Gentile, male and female, gay and straight—are fallen and mired in sin, but no subcategory of humanity is inherently an abomination based on how they are born. Gay people are just as loved by God and made in His image as straight people are. However, as Sprinkle notes (and I agree with him) just because we are born a certain way does not necessarily mean that is how things are supposed to be. All aspects of our humanity have been negatively affected by the Fall, including our sexuality, and sadly—because of the complexities of a fallen world—gay people suffer more so than others in this area.

This means that while we should stand firm on the traditional, non-affirming sexual ethic of the Church, we should equally surround LGBT people in our churches with love, compassion, and grace in the midst of their struggles and pain. Sprinkle offers many pastoral suggestions in this regard:

– We make our churches and small groups safe places for gay Christians to talk about their struggles without alienating them.

– We affirm the gift of celibacy and singleness equally alongside the gift of marriage.

– We weep with our gay Christian brothers and sisters in their trials, and celebrate with them in their triumphs.

– We kill homophobia within our churches. To quote Sprinkle: “Non-affirming Christians should be just as relentless [as affirming Christians]—if not more—in confronting the unchristian posture [of homophobia] toward gay people that runs rampant in the church.”

As Sprinkle forcefully and rightly argues, the proper Christian response to homosexuality is to affirm the humanity and worth of the LGBT people in our midst, without affirming same-sex sexual behavior. We do affirm the humanity of gay people. We do not affirm same-sex sexual behavior.

In the end, the title of the book sums up Sprinkle’s thesis. Homosexuality is the presenting issue in the American evangelical church right now and it is not going away any time soon. A firm, orthodox, biblical stand must be taken in regards to traditional marriage and human sexuality.

However, homosexuality is not just an issue. At the heart of the topic are gay people in our churches and in our midst, who are struggling, seeking to be faithful to Jesus, and finding little if any help from us conservative evangelicals. In the midst of our defense of the traditional ethics of marriage and sexuality, we must also actively remember that gay people, as with all people, are people to be loved.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent treatment of this situation. Having spent 3 years on The BWC conference LGBT dialogue team, as one who believes our Discipline has it correct, I have come to the same conclusions that were presented in this column. I could only accept these conclusions by recognizing that Jesus died to deliver us from the power of sin, and suffered just as we do, but without sin; therefore, he carries the torch for anyone who wants to come out from under the bondage of sin.

    As well constructed as this column is, it stops short from the complete package for non-affirming Christians, in their desire to live God’s love to the LGBTQ individual. We should actually believe in, and proactively offer the power of the love of Christ to help anyone overcome the lies of evil. If all we can offer is a weak and tepid Jesus, we do not properly represent him. However, If we hold forth the Word, in all its truth and love, we can expect to see the glory of the risen Savior show up in mighty ways.

    On another note, I hope Sprinkle also addresses the proper relationship we should have with the more militant of the LGBTQ community. It is not an easy thing to tell someone you have been praying for and been in fellowship with that, as you do not yet recognize that homosexuality is sin, we can not allow you into certain areas of responsibility, such as teaching youth.

  2. So, what about the people who are divorced and remarried to another person (D&R)? The New Testament, including Jesus and Paul, says that those who divorce and remarry another person is committing adultery. Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, does not even give an out for the first spouse being unfaithful. I don’t hear or read too many evangelicals speaking out against this sexual sin. Why is that? Too many people in our churches who give too much money who are D&R. We want D&R people in our churches and we welcome them. We perform many of their second marriages in our churches. Many of our pastors, evangelical and progressive, are D&R, yet we welcome them leading our church and ministering to our people. What is the difference between welcoming D&R with full inclusion in our churches and our continued exclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Hypocrisy is the only difference. I have never seen any argument that defends this hypocrisy.

    • Hello Gary. Those are some great points you make. And you’re right, we evangelicals have done a pretty abysmal job overall of obeying Christ’s command regarding divorce and remarriage. We do need to address such hypocritical behavior. However, abuse/failure on one moral command does not invalidate another moral command. Rather than simply accepting the status quo of laxity in regards to divorce and remarriage and then also becoming lax on sexual ethics, we should do a better job of actually living, fostering, and encouraging an ecclesial environment that makes living into such moral imperatives more realizable.
      – Taylor

  3. Ok, nice try, I guess, Mr. Brown. But what about these two facts….1. what about people who are in a loving relationship with someone of the same sex? Then what? Stop loving that person or just don’t love them as much? and 2. Same sex attraction feelings are real feelings and they don’t ‘go away’ as I think most straight xians really want to happen.

    • Hello Tom. To answer your first question, neither I nor Preston says that gay people have to “stop loving” their significant other. In fact, the question of whether a gay celibate Christian can live with another gay celibate Christian is a perfectly reasonable one to ask and investigate and doesn’t invalidate in an ethical teaching, either biblical or ecclesial. For ancient Jews, Jesus, and Paul the most important thing was the sex act itself. Being same-sex attracted or even loving someone of the same sex with a chaste love was not considered sinful, and even in the Catholic Church today is not considered sinful. However, implicit in your question is a Freudian presupposition that love can only ever be fully actualized in the sex act. For the writers of Scripture and for the vast majority of Christian thinkers throughout history this is simply not true. Indeed, Jesus Himself lived, died, and was resurrected as a celibate virgin. Yet He was the most fully actualized person who has ever and will ever live, including in His ability to love. Love is necessary for human existence and strong human relationships; the sex act is a means of such love, but it is far from the only (or even the best) means of such love. Thus, while the details would have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis, it is feasible that two Christians who are in a loving same-sex relationship could stay in that relationship as long as it was celibate in nature.

      To answer your second question, I am fully aware that same-sex attraction doesn’t just “go away.” As I mentioned in the review above, one of my best and closest friends is a gay Christian man who has willfully chosen to live a celibate life. His attractions did not go away when he became a Christian and they remain after he chose to be celibate. We talk often about our attractions to other people (his to men, mine to women) and how we can encourage and support one another in our Christian walks and love others without objectifying them. But of course attractions and feelings remaining into our Christian lives (be they same-sex or opposite-sex attractions) is nothing new. It is part of living in the “now and not yet” of Christian time. Our bodies are still subject to the desires of our corrupted sinful state, while at the same time our minds and souls are being renewed and reordered toward living as Christians, even as we anticipate the same for our bodies at resurrection. So, just because feelings do not “go away” does not mean that Christians (gay or straight) are allowed to ignore living into Christian holiness.

    • Hello Donald. I actually have devoted extensive exegetical research in both Greek and Hebrew to the five texts that Preston discusses in the book long before having read it. I even go back to each one on a regular basis and reassess my exegetical arguments to make sure I didn’t miss something or see if maybe I was wrong after all. I probably head back to the Romans and 1 Corinthians texts (as well as the Gospel texts you mention in your other comment) at least once every two or three months and reassess my previous arguments. However, each time I come away from my exegesis being convinced that the only exegetically and hermeneutically sound way to read such texts is from the traditional perspective. Preston did not actually convince me of this. My own research in the original languages and socio-historical contexts did that. I am sure you would find my arguments just as unpersuasive as Preston’s, so as much as I appreciate the offer to discuss it with you via email, other responsibilities prevent me from engaging in such a dialogue at this time. Blessings to you.
      – Taylor

      • OK, I understand.

        I used to be non-affirming until I investigated it further.

        I find that I always miss things if I only read stuff from others I already agree with, so I try to study all sides in a debate such as this one. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I will try to make myself available if you wish.

        • Thank you for the input Donald. I was actually leaning much more toward the affirming side until I studied the subject further and engaged in deep Greek and Hebrew exegetical study of the biblical texts and the larger biblical-theological themes on my own. This was precisely because I wanted to study the texts for myself. In addition to my own exegetical study I have tried to read the major arguments from major affirming and non-affirming scholars. In the end, I found the non-affirming position to have the better arguments and more explanatory power and explanatory scope in relation to the biblical and theological data. Again, Preston’s arguments did not move me toward a non-affirming position. My own study of the Greek and Hebrew texts in their socio-historical contexts did that.

          • Here is where I am. I think both sides in the debate are trying to be faithful interpreters but there is a lot that we cannot be sure about. For me, this means I need to back up to higher principles and do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I happen to be heterosexual and married. Unless I was sure that there was no way to be a faithful interpreter and be affirming, I could not be non-affirming. I think there is at least one way to be a faithful interpreter and be affirming. It depends on the choices one makes in interpretation, which is similar to many other debates in Christianity, including water baptism, which is one of the milk teachings according to Hebrews.

            So I wonder if you are non-affirming because you believe it is the only faithful interpretation? Or do you agree there are faithful interpretation attempts on both sides and one chooses between them.

          • Also, FWIIW, everyone thinks they have done their best to come to the conclusions they have. And everyone is in the same boat in terms of trying one’s best to figure out what the authors meant and what the original audience understood. And yet people come to very different conclusions about many different things about what Scripture teaches.

            My hope and prayer is that you agree that others like me can have very different understandings of what Scripture teaches in this area and yet be considered faithful by you.

  4. You are misunderstanding Jesus on divorce and remarriage by taking text out of context and, in effect, doing a magic trick on yourself. I can explain more if you wish

      • Sure.

        Here is a verse taken out of its immediate context: Mat 19:9 (Jesus speaking) “Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the basis of sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”

        The concern is that this verse is not a standalone truth statement. The teaching unit (technical term: pericope) this verse is contained in Is Matt 19:3-12. No one should have any confidence in trying to figure out the meaning of a text by taking the text out of its immediate context.

        The teaching unit starts with a question by Pharisees. The Pharisees taught what they called the Oral Torah and what Jesus called the traditions of men, as indicated at this time they were oral, but later (about 200 CE) were written down in the Mishnah, which is the earliest part of the Talmud.

        Of relevance to the question, the sages Hillel and Shammai had a debate as recorded in the Mishnah about divorce, specifically the reasons for divorce given in what we now call Deu 24:1. Shammai claimed there was one reason, indecency; while Hillel claimed there were 2 reasons, indecency and a word translated as matter or cause or thing, which came to be known as the “Any Matter” or “Any Cause” divorce, which meant a divorce for no specified reason, just because the husband wanted a divorce. This turns out to be the question the Pharisees are asking Jesus, in effect, does Jesus agree with Shammai or with Hillel on Hillel’s idea of an “Any Cause” divorce as found in Torah, specifically Deu 24:1. Notice that this greatly reduces the scope of the question in v.3.

        What Jesus does is this teaching unit is correct seven misinterpretations of Torah as taught by the Pharisees, but there is not space to get into all of them. The one that matters for right now is Hillel’s “Any Matter” divorce. It turns out Jesus does not explicitly answer the question until the verse in question, v. 9.

        v.3 Pharisees: Is Hillel’s “Any Matter” divorce in Torah (Deu 24:1)?
        v.9 Jesus: No, in obeying Deu 24:1 unless a husband divorces his wife for indecency (that is, according to Shammai’s interpretation), you have an invalid divorce (Hillel’s “Any Matter” divorce is not a valid divorce) and those with an invalid divorce are still considered married.

        For more on this, see David Instone-Brewer on Marriage and Divorce.

  5. I’ve been following the debate on human sexuality carefully for a number of years, and as a divorced person (not my choice) who is remarried (my choice). I chose to re-marry based on my denomination’s teachings on grace rather than one section of the bible that tells me not to re-marry. On one hand, I understand the arguments for biblical consistency and principle, but on the other hand, if we accept that our gay brothers and sisters are in fact real people and are or have been struggling with their sexuality, then are we not forcing celibacy (the law?) on them whether or not they are called to celibacy? I have a number of gay friends who are very faithful to Christ and committed to the Christian way, and have chosen to live in a monogamous, married relationship with their partner. I’m thinking we need some rabbinical wisdom to help move us forward in ways that are both biblically faithful and accepting of the reality of our gay brothers and sisters.

  6. One of the most common arguments in favor of homosexuality is that Jesus never openly condemned the practice.

    By the way homosexuals can be found here: https://www.firecams.com/category/gay

    Allegedly due to the fact that Jesus never specifically said: “Homosexuality is a sin”, then no blame on his part of this way of life can be interpreted as his approval. This justification absolutely wrong.

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