[In 2003, Justin Lee, the founder and Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, invited me to write an essay defending the traditional Christian belief that homosexual activity is wrong, and that gays and lesbians who are unable to marry a person of the opposite sex are called to celibacy. Justin wrote a companion essay arguing that God blesses gay marriage. Justin has made the two essays into a prominent GCN feature called the “Great Debate.” This is my half of that exchange.]
The Great Debate
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
The following reflections grow out of my search for God’s answers about homosexuality. Because there is a lot of food for thought to digest here, I have divided my reflections up into sections, to make it easier to work through bit by bit, and have time to take it all in. For those who don’t have time to read the whole essay, it might make sense to skip ahead to the Conclusion section, and read that, then come back to read the bits that seem interesting as time is available.
I have known Justin for almost six years now, and those years have been an education, I believe, for both of us—an education whose early stages is described in an essay I wrote over 5 years ago. “Friendship Across the Divide” is one of the most popular essays I’ve ever written. I still get occasional e-mails from appreciative readers. And an organization called Öt Kenyér even made an unauthorized (though not unwelcome) translation of the essay into Hungarian. So the story of our friendship has not only reached across the cultural divide in our own country: it has even reached behind the old Iron Curtain.
When he graduated from Wake Forest University in the spring of 2000, Justin was selected to deliver a “senior oration” during graduation weekend. In his speech, he observed: “You can ask almost anyone in this nation about controversial topics and they’ll be happy to give you an opinion – frequently with arguments and facts to support their view. Anyone can take a stand, and almost anyone can argue for their viewpoint. I believe that we are obligated to strive for something more – to carefully examine all sides of an issue, to listen attentively to the arguments being made, and to come to a true understanding of how different people see the issue and what it means to them. Then, and only then, can we form an educated position and lead boldly in that direction, all the while demonstrating compassion for those with opposing views.”
“Learning,” he continued, “necessarily involves being challenged. When we question our long-held assumptions, we test their foundations. Whether they come from a professor, a life experience, or simple internal reflection, challenges will help strengthen well-founded ideas and rid us of weak ones. As our previously unexamined opinions begin to crumble, we have to reexamine everything in a new light, hopefully with the aid of people from different perspectives.”
The process of examining and challenging our beliefs about homosexuality has not always been easy. We all understand how emotional discussions about sexuality and the Bible can become—we know because we have had many of those discussions on the GCN forums. But I want to extend my thanks to Justin for the challenge that his ideas have offered to mine over the years. His thoughtful, honest questions have forced me to reflect more deeply on Scripture and my own experience, and his temperate, non-confrontational style has done much to keep a dialogue alive that could otherwise have degenerated into an unproductive, angry debate.
So I thank Justin for years of friendship, and for this opportunity to share my beliefs with the GCN community.
I do not bring these reflections as a theologian, for I have no formal theological training. Nor do I write as a judge, laying down the law, for Christ commands us to judge not, lest we be judged. And the Apostle James adds that mercy triumphs over judgment.
Christ called us to be His witnesses, and I come as a witness, to share what I have learned in prayer, in Bible study, in reading Christian writers, in conversations with friends, and in my own reflections.
Yet as I thought of this image of humans placing themselves in judgment, it brought to mind an observation C. S. Lewis made in his essay “God in the Dock.” Lewis wrote:
The greatest barrier I have met [in presenting the Gospel] is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin... The early Christian preachers could assume in their hearers, whether Jews, Metuentes, or Pagans, a sense of guilt. (That this was common among Pagans is shown by the fact that both Epicureanism and the mystery religions both claimed, though in different ways, to assuage it.) Thus the Christian message was in those days unmistakably the Evangelium, the Good News. It promised healing to those who knew they were sick. We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.
Humility is important in the Christian life, and I have tried to write with the humility of one who will be judged by Christ. Yet in my own life, I have had to learn (and it is one of life’s most difficult lessons) to be humble enough not to make myself judge of God’s revelation. It is all too easy for me to demand that the Bible “justify the ways of God to men,” and refuse to obey until it has satisfied all my objections.
This pride is woven into the most basic assumptions of the modern world view. Yet as the Apostle Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him” (Romans 12:2-3).
Sober judgment reminds me that I’m not a great theologian, nor am I in a position to judge others. I can only listen to the Gospel as it comes to us in the Scriptures, allow it to challenge my beliefs, my desires, and my preconceptions, and strive to let it transform my thoughts and my actions. And yet in submitting humbly to the Gospel, I hope that I have learned a few things worth sharing with the GCN community.
When the Pharisees brought the woman taken in adultery to Jesus, He said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:3-11). He does not ask us to take God’s place and pronounce final judgment and sentence. Yet it sometimes seems that some Christians think that He said, “Let him who is without sin quote the first Bible verse.” Some believe that even to call adultery a sin is a form of judgment that is forbidden by Christ.
If that were the case, no human being could bear witness to the truth, because we have all fallen short of the truth. But helping each other to understand God’s will, so that we will be better able to stand before Him at the final judgment, is an act of charity, not cruelty.
Thus we must never pass judgment on anyone, because we do not know their heart or all of the hidden reasons behind their actions. But we must always bear witness to the Truth revealed by Christ, because it is that Truth which will set all of us free from judgment (cf. John 8:32).
The Nicene Creed begins with the words I believe: “I believe in God the Father Almighty... and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord... I believe in the Holy Spirit...”
Christians live by faith and “hope for what we do not see” (Romans 8:25). God has not chosen to reveal either His existence or His purposes in an incontrovertible way. He desires to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (cf. Ephesians 1:9); but He does so through His witnesses, and not through raw displays of His power.
Throughout history, His witnesses have brought His words to the world, and the world has often refused to listen to the message, reviling and persecuting the messenger. Yet all who receive His message and believe have become His sons and daughters (cf. John 1:12).
As all of us who have received Christ know, faith cannot always be explained. Nevertheless, the following is an attempt to sketch what I believe that the Scriptures, Church history, and personal experience reveal about God’s design for human sexuality, and how He wills that His sons and daughters live their sexuality in His image. And I believe that, like the woman at the well, we will find in His teaching a spring of living water within us, welling up to eternal life (cf. John 4:14).
God reveals Himself in many ways. He gives to all human beings an enduring witness to His divine nature in His creation (cf. Romans 1:19-20). He also revealed Himself by words and deeds to the Patriarchs and the Prophets. Then, in the fullness of time, His “Word became flesh” (cf. John 1:1-18), and God spoke to us through His Son (cf. Heb. 1:1-2). The Apostles, anointed by Jesus Christ as His witnesses (cf. Matthew 28:19-20), and guided by the Holy Spirit who would guide them into all Truth (cf. John 16:13) recorded His words and deeds. These stories, written down by the Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles, are found today in the Bible.
St. Augustine once observed that, “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” The various books of the Bible are addressed to a variety of cultural situations, ranging from nomadic tribesmen to the citizens of the stable and prosperous kingdoms of David and Solomon; from slaves oppressed in a strange land to exiles taken captive by invading armies; and from Jews living in Judea under Roman rule to Gentile converts spread throughout the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, I believe that all the books of the Bible, though they were addressed to diverse cultural situations, still speak with a unified voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament, God prepares His chosen people to receive Christ; in the New Testament, the Word of God Himself speaks, and the Apostles become His witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth (cf. Acts 1:8). Thus, the two Testaments are two parts of the same story, shedding light upon each other. As the Apostle Paul instructs Timothy, “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The diversity of cultural contexts found in the Scriptures can raise interesting questions when it comes to discerning the unchanging principles behind changing situations. It is worth remembering that the same Apostle Paul who insists that all Scripture (including, of course, that Scripture which reveals the Old Testament law) is useful “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” also insists very firmly that “no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law,” because “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:20-22). Yet the law is not useless, for “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
In his booklet, “What the Bible Says—and Doesn’t Say—about Homosexuality,” Mel White makes the following astonishing assertion: The Bible is a book about God. The Bible is NOT a book about human sexuality.
White explains: “The Bible is a book about God, about God’s love for the world and the people of the world. It is the history of God’s love at work rescuing, renewing, empowering humankind. It was never intended to be a book about human sexuality. Certainly, you will agree.”
Unfortunately (and I do not know whether to blame this on my genes or my home environment growing up), I cannot agree with Mel’s assertion. Let me give a slightly different example: suppose someone said, The Bible is a book about God. It is NOT a book about human love. Would such a dichotomy make sense?
The Bible is a book about God, of course, as it is a book about human love; but it is also, from the very beginning, a book about human sexuality. The Bible says (Genesis 1:27) that human beings are created “in the image of God” (the Bible is a book about God) and created “male and female” (it is also a book about human sexuality). This should not surprise us, because God’s plan for human sexuality tells us a great deal about God and about human love.
In marriage, a man and a woman “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Jesus explains this further, saying that it is God, not man, who “joins together” a couple in marriage (cf. Matthew 19:6). In the prophets (particularly Hosea), Israel’s infidelity to God is described in terms of sexual infidelity, and in Romans 1, the Apostle Paul argues that there is an intimate connection between rejecting the truth about God and rejecting the truth about human sexuality.
The Bible is certainly a book about God’s love, and the story of how that love is revealed in Jesus Christ. However, the Apostle Paul says that the union of a man and woman in marriage is a “profound mystery” that refers to the union of Christ and the Church (cf. Ephesians 5:32). And the book of Revelation describes the Heavenly banquet as “the marriage feast of the Lamb” (cf. Revelation 19:1-9). Marriage, then, is an important image, symbol, or icon of God’s love revealed in Christ, and when we distort our understanding of marriage, we distort our understanding of God’s love.
The Bible is also the story of God’s love poured out through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was present in Creation, “moving over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2); and He came down at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2), fills the Church with His gifts (cf. I Corinthians 12; Galatians 5:22-24), and guides Her into all truth (John 16:13; cf. Acts 15). Jesus is very clear that we must be “born of the Spirit” (cf. John 3:1-18) and Paul is equally clear that we must “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). Yet when David commits adultery with Bathsheba, he cries out in deep contrition that God will not take the Holy Spirit from him (Psalm 51:11). And the Apostle Paul’s teaching illuminates this, because he says that the sexually immoral man sins against his own body, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:18-19). Sexual immorality defiles the Holy Spirit’s dwelling place within us, leading Jesus to say of lust that it is better for one of our members to perish than for our whole body to be cast into Hell (cf. Matthew 5:27-30).
It is true that too much attention to the niggling details of sexual rules can distract us from what Bible passages about sexuality have to say about God. But it is also true that failure to take seriously the truths the Bible reveals about human sexuality will progressively blind us to the truths the Bible reveals about God, leading us to embrace another Gospel, alien to the one revealed in Scripture (cf. Galatians 1:6-9).
One of the thorny problems for Christian theologians concerns explaining the similarities and differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Adultery is forbidden by Moses; Jesus forbids not only adultery but even lustful desire (cf. Matthew 5:27-30). Divorce and remarriage are allowed by Moses; Jesus forbids divorce and remarriage under all but the most limited circumstances (cf. Matthew 19:3-10). Circumcision is required by Moses (cf. Genesis 17:10-14), but “avails nothing” for Christians (Galatians 5:6). The Jews have to follow complicated dietary laws, but Christians do not (cf. Acts 10:10-16).
Why? If Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), why would some things be permitted under the Old Covenant but forbidden in the New; other things be either permitted under both or forbidden under both; and still other things be forbidden under the Old but permitted in the New? Obviously, it would be possible to draw up lists of things that are permitted and forbidden under each covenant, and compare/contrast. But if we’re trying to understand the principles behind the New Covenant, we need to dig deeper than this.
Clearly, this is a complicated problem, and different theologians have come up with different solutions. But as we seek a framework for distinguishing which Old Covenant commandments still have force in the New Covenant, we should aim for a framework which uses principles found within Scripture to distinguish between different kinds of laws.
On such a complicated question, some background can be helpful, and so I have prepared one document showing some of the similarities between the Old and New Covenants, and another document exploring some of their differences.
While I do not think I have a complete solution for distinguishing which laws are still binding and which are not, I offer the following suggestions that should help to give shape to the discussion.
The entrance of Gentiles into the Church played a pivotal role in Christians’ release from the ceremonial laws, and so I believe that we will learn something about the principles distinguishing the New Covenant from a key New Testament text about the Gentiles.
Writing to the Church in Rome, the Apostle Paul says, “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16). Certain Gentiles, Paul argues, “do by nature what the law requires” because it is “written on their hearts.” Not only so, but “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20).
We arrive, then, at the notion that there are certain elements of the law which are written on the human heart, built into human nature, and a part of the very order of creation itself. These laws bind Gentile and Jew alike. On the other hand, I believe that most readers will agree that when he said that the Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires,” the Apostle Paul did not mean that they abstained from pork, circumcised their male children on the eighth day, refused to wear mixed fabrics, or observed the Passover on 14 Nisan.
To the extent that the Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires,” Paul seems to be referring to the things the prophets referred to: doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God (cf. Micah 6:8). Today, when the Jews speak of a “righteous Gentile,” they do not mean a Gentile who is circumcised or who doesn’t eat pork. They mean a man like Oscar Schindler, who though he was not a Jew, and though he did not follow the Jewish purity laws, nevertheless dedicated himself radically to justice and mercy.
We may therefore, I believe, speak with some confidence of a Scriptural category we might call “Natural Law”: the law which God inscribed on the human heart at creation, and which is still operative in the hearts of those who obey their conscience. However, the Apostle Paul is clear that this “Natural Law” does not hold sway in every heart. “For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Romans 1:21-23). Thus sin, at work in every human heart, at least partially obscures this natural revelation. But even for the Gentiles, who do not have the written commandment, sin’s power is not absolute: it is still possible to discover this “Natural Law” and strive to obey it.
It is important to stress that “Natural Law” in the Scriptural sense is not at all similar to what scientists call “the laws of nature.” St. Thomas Aquinas (following the Apostle Paul), said that “The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at creation.” It is this law that Paul says (in Romans 2) that some Gentiles listen to, and (in Romans 1) that other Gentiles have suppressed. But because this law is a true moral law (concerned with what we ought to do, rather than what we actually do), it is not at all the same things as the findings of the social sciences (which studies what is, rather than what ought to be).
I would suggest, therefore, that the operative principle behind the Old and New Covenants can be expressed this way. At the creation of the world, God inscribed His will onto the human heart. If human beings had not sinned, that knowledge of His will could still be discerned without confusion or struggle. But because of sin, God is hidden from us, and we are strongly tempted to obscure even what we can see of Him. As the Apostle John says, “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God” (John 1:19-21).
After Adam and Eve fell, God desired to restore the human family to Himself. The Old Covenant was an imperfect covenant, which sought to point human beings back to God, but which did not address the central problem: the hardness of the human heart (cf. Psalm 51:10-12; Ezekiel 11:17-21; Matthew 19:8). Therefore, it addressed adultery, but not lust in the heart; it allowed divorce as a concession to “hardness of heart” (Matthew 19:8); it required circumcision in the flesh, while the New Covenant demands “circumcision of the heart” (Romans 2:29). The Old Testament dietary laws helped to mark the Jews as separate; but all animals were created by God, and so “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (Acts 10:15).
As I said, I do not claim that this scheme will answer every question, but it offers an approach which is rooted in Scripture and enables us to provide a reasonable framework for looking at differences between the Old and New Testaments. With this framework in mind, then, let us look at how the New Testament defines the New Covenant, particularly with respect to sexuality.
The Sermon on the Mount is the Magna Charta of the New Covenant. It is the most comprehensive of Christ’s sermons. Addressing sexual morality, Jesus says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).
In this passage, Jesus is primarily concerned with the heart, as He is throughout His ministry. He not only maintains the Old Covenant’s prohibition on fornication, adultery, and other sexual sin: He deepens it to demand not only purity in external actions, but also purity of heart. Here, as in other parts of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets a seemingly impossible standard of perfection. However, He is able to demand a deeper obedience because His own sacrifice on the cross will free us from sin, and He will send the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.
After condemning several forms of sexual sin, the Apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun sexual immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the sexually immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (I Corinthians 6:16-20).
Those who sin sexually defile the temple of the Holy Spirit within them. Sexual sin thus has unique power to cut us off from life in the Spirit, and enslave us to life in the flesh. Because “the sexually immoral man sins against his own body,” cutting himself off from the life of the Holy Spirit, in which alone salvation is possible, Jesus exhorts His audience that “it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
Another important element of Jesus’ approach to sexual sin is found in His response to the adulterous woman (John 8:3-11). The Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery before Jesus, and said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?”
John says that they said this to test Jesus, so that they might bring some charge against Him. Jesus responds very simply: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” When the Pharisees heard this, they went away, and Jesus and the woman were left alone. “Has no one condemned you?” He asked her.
“No one, Lord,” she replied.
“Neither do I condemn you” Jesus said to her; “go, and sin no more.”
This incident illustrates John’s teaching, earlier in the Gospel, that “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). Christ’s concern is not to punish this woman for her sin, but to release her from it, to release her from the guilt that brings death, but also to call her out of the sin, so that she can “go, and sin no more.”
The Apostle Paul emphasizes the same point in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. That is what some of you were; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:9-11).
Paul makes the same point in different language in his letter to the Romans: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4).
The second lesson to be drawn from Christ’s treatment of sexual sin, then, is that He is concerned with redemption, not punishment. His commandments are not meant to condemn us, but to teach us how to avoid sin, so that “the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” This second lesson is very closely connected to the first, because this freedom from sin comes from the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees concerning divorce (Matthew 19:3-12) illuminates a third key element of His sexual ethic. A group of Pharisees approached Him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
Jesus answered: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female (cf. Genesis 1:27), and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (cf. Genesis 2:24)? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Some have argued that the creation stories in Genesis are just stories, that they describe the origins of the human race in a sort of mythical way, but they don’t have any prescriptive force—that is, they don’t tell us the way things are supposed to be, they just tell us the way things were. It seems to me, however, difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus appeals to Genesis precisely because they did have prescriptive force, telling us what God intended sexuality to be “from the beginning.”
It seems that Jesus is arguing that marriage, like the new birth itself, comes “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). It is God who joins husband and wife together in marriage, and “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Once again, we see Jesus strengthening, rather than weakening, the commands of the Old Covenant. The Pharisees would allow divorce and remarriage, but Jesus says, “For 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 unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Why would Jesus be so strict about marriage? I believe the Apostle Paul this when he refers to the two becoming one flesh, and then observes: “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). Christ is deeply concerned with marriage because it is intended to be an image of His love for the world.
This should remind us of a point that comes up over and over again in both the Old and New Testaments: the close link between sexual immorality and idolatry. If the one flesh union of husband and wife is an image of Christ’s love for the church, then a distortion of that union also distorts our image of Christ and the church. False sexual union, then, has an organic connection to false worship.
It also seems to me quite significant that when Jesus speaks of marriage, He begins by reminding the Pharisees that God made us male and female and says that a man shall be joined to his wife.
Again, some have argued that this part of the creation account is descriptive: it merely tells us that God did, in fact, create human beings with two sexes, but that the passage is not prescriptive: it does not tell us anything about God’s intent in creating two sexes. Once again, this argument does not seem convincing to me. Jesus seems to invoke this passage not merely as an observation, but to teach a lesson about the nature of marriage.
And as I’ve thought about this more carefully, I believe that human beings’ sexual design is not simply a biological accident, but a theologically significant issue. From a purely biological perspective, God could have adopted a different reproductive strategy. Most flowers are androgynous, with each organism containing both male and female reproductive systems. This provides the genetic diversity benefits of sexual reproduction without requiring sexual differentiation among organisms. Again, bees solve the reproductive problem in a way very different from humans: the vast, vast majority of bees are infertile female worker bees. Each bee hive has a single queen bee who is the mother of all bees in the hive. And male bees, or drones, live just long enough to fertilize the queen.
The division of the human race into two distinct genders who both participate in child rearing is not a biological necessity. An atheist can regard it as an accident; but a Christian who believes that God intimately guided the creation must accept that the details of creation have significance, especially when Christ explicitly points to them as significant.
Paul’s warning about women and head coverings is one of the least popular passages in the New Testament. And yet I think it is important to study this passage, because to do otherwise risks conforming our thought to the world, rather than allowing our thought to be reshaped by the Scriptures.
“Judge for yourselves,” Paul asks. “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (I Corinthians 11:13-15). Most contemporary Christians are inclined to dismiss this as culturally conditioned patriarchal prejudice. However, Paul does not ground his argument in cultural but in theological arguments. We must therefore not dismiss his conclusion too easily.
Now, it is important to recognize that there is a cultural element here: elsewhere, Paul says, “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety” (I Timothy 2:9). But standards of modesty in dress vary from culture to culture. As C. S. Lewis observes in Mere Christianity, what would be considered modest in one culture would not be considered modest in another, and vice-versa. John Paul II makes the same point in Love and Responsibility. Therefore, I think that Christians can reasonably consider arguments that suggest that the basic principles that Paul articulates may have different application in modern culture than they had in the ancient Near East.
Nevertheless, we cannot ignore those basic principles. Paul tells the Church in Corinth that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (I Corinthians 11:5). He then talks about head coverings, saying that men should not wear them in Church, and women should, for a man “is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man” (11:7).
Complementarity is not a one-way street placing men above women. Paul continues, “in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God” (11:11-12). Elsewhere, he says, “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And he tells the Church at Ephesus, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:22-27).
One can, I think, argue that the cultural manifestations of male-female complementarity can vary from one culture to another. Samuel Johnson once observed, “Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.” If one thinks of the colorful male costumes of the Eighteenth Century, obviously what was considered appropriate male costume then varied a great deal from what is considered appropriate now. Lace is not as manly as it was in Johnson’s days.
This is a large topic, and I do not have space to get into detailed arguments about what kind of cultural variation is consistent with the Gospel, and when cultural variation occurs because one culture is really less modest than another. But while I think it is appropriate to argue that the cultural manifestations of male-female complementarity can vary to some degree from culture to culture, the basic theological principle of male-female complementarity, established in Genesis and confirmed by both Jesus and Paul, cannot be set aside without fundamentally altering the Gospel, because the mystery of sexuality is not just about men and women: “it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32).
It is especially important to defend the principle of male-female complementarity in our culture, where it is not merely the cultural manifestations of complementarity that have come under attack, but the very notion of complementarity itself. With those who argue that the theological principles articulated by Paul can be applied differently in a different cultural situation, I think very productive dialogue about cultural norms is possible. But with those who deny Paul’s theological principles, I think dialogue about cultural application is impossible, because there is no common ground of jointly accepted theological principles. To those who reject complementarity in principle, I think we can only say (as politely and as humbly as possible), “you reject the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of your own culture” (cf. Mark 7:8).
Some readers may believe that the interpretation of “male and female” I am putting forward here cannot be squared with scientific discoveries about intersexed individuals. I strongly believe that the Church needs to be sensitive and understanding toward those born with gender ambiguities; but I do not think that the reality of gender ambiguity changes the Biblical principles I have outlined above. (For those interested in hearing more of what I think about the relationship between gender ambiguity and homosexuality, click here.)
Up to this point, I’ve been focusing on underlying principles which I believe should guide our understanding of the Bible as it applies to human sexuality, with particular focus on the teachings of Jesus. (For those interested in the argument that “Jesus does not mention homosexuality,” click here.)
Now I am going to turn to those verses in the Bible that are directly concerned with homosexuality: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:18-32, I Corinthians 6:9-11, and I Timothy 1:10.
Naturally, over the years, I’ve spent a lot of effort trying to discover a “spin” on these passages which would enable me to embrace a gay relationship. But each time I’ve tried to do so, I’ve found that my conscience clobbers my pro-gay arguments. In the following paragraphs, I’ll try to sketch out why I was not able to find a convincing way to interpret these passages to allow a gay relationship.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22).
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them (Leviticus 20:13).
First of all, I would like to make a couple of observations about context. Leviticus is not organized in a systematic way like Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For example, 18:22 and 22:13 say almost the same thing, but are separated by a whole bunch of unrelated commandments.
It also happens that one of the most quoted verses of the Old Testament—“you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)—falls between these two injunctions. But the verse immediately following the command to love your neighbor is one of the most reviled examples of Old Testament arbitrariness: “You shall not let your livestock breed with another kind. You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you” (Leviticus 19:19).
Therefore, we cannot judge the significance of a commandment in Leviticus by its neighbors, because Leviticus consists of a hodge-podge of short commandments put together. Sometimes there is some sense of connection between them, but even when there are some connections, one cannot make the assumption that adjacent commandments are closely related, in the sense that they would be in a more systematically structured work. It therefore makes more sense to take each command in Leviticus 18-20 separately.
Taken alone, Leviticus 18:22 would prohibit all same-sex activity without distinction.
For this reason, those who wish to justify same-sex relationships must argue either that the prohibition on homosexual acts is part of the ceremonial law, or else that the prohibition in Leviticus only applied to sexual acts involving minors, or coercion, or pagan ritual.
In the first place, I believe that those making these arguments don’t know Jewish culture very well. Jews do not overgeneralize; if anything, their weakness is in finding distinctions where no distinction exists. For example, Christ says to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?” (Matthew 23:16-17). A text with no exceptions in Jewish literature probably really is a text with no exceptions.
And in the second place, those who try to find exceptions generally do so by appeals to the surrounding context. Such appeals make relatively little sense in a document as unsystematic as Leviticus; nevertheless, for those who are interested, I have considered the arguments at greater length here.
This passage is, of course, part of the Law of Moses, and Christians are not under the Law of Moses. Yet, as the Apostle Paul argues, the law is not useless, for “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). The law teaches us what sin is, but it is only by faith that we can be set free from slavery to sin, and enter the “glorious liberty of the children of God.
I Corinthians 6:9-11
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor active homosexuals [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (I Corinthians 6:9-11).
The key debate over this passage concerns the meaning of the term arsenokoitai. There is a lot of debate over this word, but having studied Greek, it seems to me fairly self-evident that arsenokoitai is a compound word referring to those offenders condemned in Leviticus 18:22. In the Septuagint, we find “You shall not lie [koiten] with a male [arsenos] as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22).
The linguistic problem seems to me to be exactly analogous to this: suppose I have an Old Testament text which says, “it is unlawful to lay bricks,” and I have a New Testament text that says “bricklayers are lawbreakers.” It would seem inconceivable to me to say that “Greek scholars don’t know exactly what bricklayer means.” Yet Mel White claims (with an apparently straight face) that “Greek scholars don’t know exactly what arsenokoitai means.”
While I can appreciate Mel’s desire that this should be true (since I shared that desire for years), it simply is not true. My New Testament Greek Lexicon (put together by Greek scholars!) defines arsenokoites (the singular of arsenokoitai) as “one who lies with a male as with a female, sodomite, homosexual.” It is true enough that there are some Greek scholars who reject this interpretation, just as there are some Biblical Scholars who argue that God is not the Creator, or that Christ was not born of a virgin, or that He wasn’t the Son of God, or that He did not rise from the dead. But if Christians had to give up their beliefs every time a scholar professed disbelief, Christianity would not have survived a week.
Linguistically, the transformation from “it is unlawful to lay bricks” to “bricklayers are lawbreakers” is identical to the transformation from “you shall not koit?n with an arsenos” to “arsenokoitai shall not enter the kingdom of God.” In both cases, the verb has been conjugated to function as a noun, and the object has been joined to the verb to form a new compound word.
Words have to mean something, and the obvious grammatical meaning of arsenokoitai is “men who lie with men,” a reference back to Leviticus 18:22. This does not automatically prove that this is what Paul meant. As some have pointed out, “ladykiller” does not mean either a lady who kills or a person who kills ladies. But most compound words have obvious meanings. A homosexual, for example, is a person sexually attracted to their own sex.
There is a tiny amount of room for skepticism about the meaning of arsenokoitai, but in order to make a compelling case against the obvious meaning, one would need to propose an alternative meaning, find documentation of that alternative meaning, and show that the alternative meaning would make at least as much sense out of Paul’s argument as does the grammatically obvious meaning.
I welcome serious, faithful scholars who challenge and question our beliefs about the Scriptures. Many of the great heroes of the faith have done this, challenging Christians to take more seriously the Word of God. Such men and women have started great reform movements. But after two years of studying Greek in college so that I could understand the translation arguments in the passages treating homosexuality, my reaction was something like, “this is the best challenge we can make on the translation of arsenokoitai?” I, at least, did not find the argument convincing.
And moving beyond the specific question of whether or not arsenokoitai refers to active homosexuals, the statement that fornicators, adulterers, active homosexuals, and other sinners will not enter the kingdom of heaven is logically connected with the statement a few verses later that sexual sin defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s argument in the latter half of I Corinthians 6 is that sexual sin separates us from the spirit (and thus from the kingdom of God). But he also argues that sinners can be washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (See Jesus and Sexual Morality: Life in the Holy Spirit, above).
None of this is to single out homosexual sin for special condemnation; adultery and fornication are just as serious in God’s eyes and much more commonly practiced. But for those of us tempted to homosexual activity, it is important to recognize that the Scriptures say that such activity can cut us off from God by defiling the temple where He dwells through the Holy Spirit within us.
It is also important not to be discouraged. Romans 7 is very clear that the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit is not over in a moment. It is a part of every Christian’s daily walk with Christ. As long as we keep returning to the cross in repentance, we will receive forgiveness and Christ will help strengthen us and progressively free us from sin. That is why Paul is clear in I Corinthians 6:11 that we can be set free from our sins. The way is not free from struggle, but the battles do lead to victories, and freedom from the power of sin.
I Timothy 1:8-11
Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, active homosexuals [arsenokoitai], kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (I Timothy 1:8-11).
Again, I find the argument that arsenokoitai means “men who lie with men” compelling. But this passage is also important for what it says about the law.
Christ said that “all the law and the prophets” was summed up in two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. The Apostle Paul teaches that those who live by the Spirit are not under the law—as he argues in this passage, “the law is not laid down for the just.” Those who live by the Spirit will show in their lives the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). But, Paul is equally clear that “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). The New Testament vice lists remind us of what sin is. If we are using our “freedom” to engage in sin, then we are not free; we have become slaves of sin (cf. John 8:34; Romans 6:16-18). There are numerous New Testament vice lists; I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:10 mention homosexual acts among several other vices which separate us from God.
Again, this is not to single homosexual acts out from all the other acts which bring condemnation. But in these passages, Paul argues that homosexual acts can 1) keep us from the kingdom of Heaven; 2) defile the temple of the Holy Spirit within us; and 3) place us back under the judgment of the law.
Given the stakes involved, it is not a risk I am willing to take. Even more so, I would never risk inflicting consequences that serious on another man whom I loved.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error (Romans 1:24-27).
Romans 1 is probably the most important passage about homosexuality in the whole Scripture. While I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:10 make clear that homosexual acts are forbidden under the New Covenant, Romans 1 helps to explain how this prohibition fits into the distinction between natural and ceremonial law outlined above. It also enables us to connect the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality with some of the broader themes of sexuality and the New Covenant, also outlined above.
Paul begins this section by saying that God’s wrath is revealed against those “who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). For, he continues, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (1:20). Turning back to Genesis, we read, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). In a very special way, then, the complementarity of male and female reveals God’s “invisible nature” through “the things that have been made” (see Jesus and Sexual Morality: Male and Female above).
Therefore, when Paul links “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” with “women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another,” one element of the “truth about God” which is being set aside is the truth of male/female compilmentarity, because the writer of Genesis links this complementarity with the “image of God” in us.
Both in Romans 1 and I Corinthians 11, Paul ties gender roles to nature and to the Creation order. Because the one flesh union of husband and wife is a “profound mystery” which “refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32), tampering with our understanding of marriage necessarily tampers with our understanding of Christ.
Although Romans 1 deals extensively with idolatry, Paul’s argument is not that homosexual acts within the context of Pagan idol worship is wrong. Rather, Paul argues that there is a link between “exchanging the truth of God for a lie” and believing that homosexual acts can be as good as God’s design for sexuality in marriage between a man and a woman.
As the logic of Romans 1:18-32 develops, Paul condemns a wide range of sins. All of these sins result in one way or another from “exchanging the truth about God” and His will for human relationships for a lie. The temptations to these sins, too, result from the Fall, in which Adam and Eve believed the very first lie, the lie that they would “become like God” if they ate the fruit.
However, merely to be tempted is not to exchange the truth for the lie. In Eden, Satan offered the lie, but Adam and Eve did not sin until they exchanged the truth that they were not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for the lie that the tree would make them like God. In the same way, to be tempted to homosexual acts is simply one of the many forms of temptation faced by human beings in this fallen world. I believe that I would sin if I exchanged the truth that God has forbidden homosexual acts for the lie that sexual intimacy with my own gender is in accordance with God’s will and would be good for me. But I do not think that the temptation itself means that we have turned away from God: Christ Himself was “tempted in every way, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
In his senior oration, Justin called the realization that he was attracted to other guys the biggest challenge his Christian worldview has had to deal with. It has been the same for me, and I think that it was the shared experience of growing up Southern Baptist and grappling with our sexual attractions which gave us the foundation for the dialogue we have had over the years.
For me, trying to deal with my faith and my sexuality has been a long, turbulent process of being pulled in many different directions, and listening to many voices. For both of us, the process has involved challenging a lot of deeply-held beliefs. And in that process, our conclusions have diverged in several important ways. However, despite these differences, we are both dissatisfied with some of the important arguments put forward by both sides, and we share the conviction that different ways of framing the questions would lead to more fruitful examination of the issues involved.
For myself, I finally came back to the view that the Bible forbids gay relationships, in part because though I could see the reasons to doubt the traditional position, I couldn’t see any solid evidence to support the idea that God blesses gay marriages. And the more I sought to find in the Scriptures principles which could be used to support gay marriage, the more I realized that the basic principles in the Scripture for guiding sexual expression would rule out gay relationships.
I recognized more and more clearly that sexuality is not just an intense way of expressing affection for another person. Marriage clearly involves the very human choice to join oneself to another; but behind the human will is God’s will, for it is ultimately God who joins the two into one. Having this meaning behind it “from the beginning,” marriage becomes an icon of God’s love for His Church—a meaning which the Old Testament foreshadowed and the New Testament brought into focus. I came to understand how this line of thought ran without interruption through Scripture and left no room for homosexual activity—from Genesis and the Mosaic Law to the Apostle Paul’s condemnation of homosexual activity in the prologue to his most important treatise on the New Covenant (Romans 1:18-32). In this context, I saw that our sexual choices have profound theological significance.
Thus, in more concrete terms, I began to see that the connection between sexual sin and idolatry goes deeper than just the fact that pagan worship sometimes involved sexual activity of one kind or another. As I searched, I began to see that the fundamental question about human sexuality did not concern its human dimensions but God’s own foundations for it.
As I pondered the connection between the Great Commandments to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40) and the rules about homosexuality, I was struck again and again by the sharp warning Jesus offered His disciples at the Last Supper: “if you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). I was further struck by both Jesus’ and the Apostle Paul’s summing up of the law in the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Romans 13:9; cf. Matthew 19:18-19).
It seemed obvious to me that if I murdered my neighbor, or stole from him, I was violating the law to love God and my neighbor. I realized that if the command against homosexuality was really a command from God, my violating it would entail the violation of the two greatest commandments.
In college, I took Greek not only because I was a committed Christian who wanted to have more tools to understand the Scriptures, but also because I wanted to look at the arguments about homosexuality as closely as possible. Explaining this aspect of my studies in great depth here would not be of much help to a largely non-specialist audience, but suffice it to say these studies convinced me that the pro-gay arguments about the meaning of Greek words were weak, at best.
At the end of the book of Eccelsiastes, Solomon concluded that, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:12-14). And here I, too, could end, for “much study is a weariness of the flesh” and I have already put much study into this paper. “Keep the commandments” would not be a bad ending, but it would not do full justice to the Good News of the Gospel.
The negative side of things which I have been describing here was really not what moved my heart most strongly to embrace celibacy. It was a powerful force, and without this negative belief that the gay marriage route was closed off, I would have put a great deal more energy into pursuing that kind of relationship with another guy. But the Scripture whose rich depths offer far more than the negative prescriptions of the commandments, and the fear of God that they engender, had another driving force waiting in the wings.
That negative conviction alone would have felt like a trap. But as early as 17, I had realized that while the Scriptures seemed to take a dim view of sexual activity between two men or two women, the stories in the Bible took a much higher view of friendship than the surrounding culture does.
After the death of Jonathan, David lamented, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (II Samuel 1:26). At their first meeting, we are told that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (I Samuel 18:1). Other translations say that they became “one in spirit.”
The imagery of this relationship is powerful in its own right, but it is also clearly in contrast to the “one flesh” imagery of man and woman in Genesis 2. It is a different kind of relationship from the marital bond, a relationship which, at least in David’s eyes, can be more wonderful than the marital bond. But it is fundamentally different, focused on spiritual union, rather than physical, sexual union.
This recognition fundamentally altered how I saw God’s law.
As long as I focused on the prohibition of homosexual acts, I saw a conflict between my will and God’s will. I wanted a gay relationship and God didn’t want me to have it. I therefore saw being “freed from the law” in terms of being free to follow my own will.
But this freedom is plainly at odds with the Gospel’s concept of freedom: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:12-14).
As I began to embrace the ideal of spiritual friendship exemplified by David and Jonathan, however, I saw that my own sinful nature was holding me back from being able to embrace that vision. But while I desired the spiritual vision, I found my flesh getting in the way. After I had begun to glimpse the vision of friendship rooted in the Scriptures, however, I saw that the law was good, because the law warned me against the sins that would turn a good spiritual friendship into a sinful parody of marriage.
This brought alive for me the Gospel’s logic: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good” (Romans 7:14-16).
It also brought alive an important theme from the Psalms, the great prayerbook of the People of God: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:1-3). For those who follow the Law with all their heart, it becomes a source of life, strength, and peace of spirit.
I cannot read those words without being reminded of Jesus’ words to the woman at the well: “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). After some more conversation, Jesus boldly announces, “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
The Old Testament’s prohibition on homosexual activity was not the cruel imposition of a dictator, but the wise provision of a loving God who desired to see His chosen people grow in love. Perhaps (though there is no explicit evidence for this in the text) at some point the intensity of David and Jonathan’s affection for each other might have spilled over into sexual temptations. If so, the “delight in the law of the Lord” which moved David to song protected them from sin and kept their souls knit together in a pure and spiritual love.
In the same way, by declaring the “truth of God” that homosexual acts are sinful, the New Testament helps those of us who struggle with same-sex attractions to discover what it means to “worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”
This is why, after dealing at great length with the problems (sexual and otherwise) in the Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul suddenly changes gears: “And I will show you a still more excellent way” (I Corinthians 12:31):
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things
“Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13).
It is love that inspires me to be celibate: the love of God which gives me the desire to obey His commandments, and the love for my friends in which I strive to express the spirit and truth of God’s intent for human love.
But because love is the heart of the Gospel, Satan always tries to fool us with counterfeits of true love. Against these counterfeits, the Apostles and Prophets warn us again and again. God is love, and so nothing that is against His will can be love. He only approves of certain kinds of love, but punishes His people for loving idols, foreign women in the case of Israel, foreign deities, multiple wives, money, sexual love between close relations (incest), etc.
We do not always understand these prohibitions; God’s reasons for forbidding gay relationships may seem like dim shadow in a mirror to us when we first confront them. But it is love, not understanding, which God most desires from us. To place our hopes in Him even when we do not understand His ways is a mark of great faith, and even greater love.
Just as the “obedience of faith” made it possible for Abraham to become the father of many nations, though he was past childbearing years, and made it possible for Mary to give birth to the Messiah while keeping her virginity intact, so the “obedience of faith” makes it possible for us, little by little, to embrace the plan for human love and human sexuality described in the Scriptures.
It is not an easy path, and just as the Apostle Paul expressed the struggle between flesh and spirit, all of us will face struggles. But when we struggle, or when we fail, we should not lose hope. Rather, we should remember that Jesus said even of the soldiers who killed Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And even when we fall again and again to the same familiar sins, we should remember that Christ told Peter to forgive others not seven times, but seventy times seven times (cf. Matthew 18:22). If God commands such mercy from us, how much more will He, who is Mercy Himself, show mercy to us in our weakness?
It is the Spirit who, by setting us free and renewing our hearts, enables us to love God just as He loves us and allows us in turn to love our neighbors, be they brothers or sisters in Christ or anyone else, in a manner that is consistent with the Apostle Paul’s great description of the excellent way of love.
In 2003, Justin Lee, the founder and Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, invited me to write an essay defending the traditional Christian belief that homosexual activity is wrong, and that gays and lesbians who are unable to marry a person of the opposite sex are called to celibacy. Justin wrote a companion essay arguing that God blesses gay marriage. Justin has made the two essays into a prominent GCN feature called the “Great Debate.”
For the Summer 2004 issue, Notre Dame Magazine planned to do a special issue focused on homosexuality and the Catholic Church. They invited me to contribute an essay describing how I came to accept Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Rather than focusing on theological arguments, they asked me to focus on telling the story through my own journey and experiences. The whole package won the 2005 first place Press Award for “Best investigative writing or analysis” from the Catholic Press Association. This is a somewhat revised version of the essay. Click here for the original version on the Notre Dame Magazine website.
In late 2002 and early 2003, there was an ongoing controversy in the letters section of the New Oxford Review over the editors’ use of the word “fag” in an article. With encouragement from several members of Courage who were deeply frustrated with the exchange, I wrote this essay, which was published in the June 2003 issue of the New Oxford Review.
This essay was originally written in 2003, in response to the planned protests of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings in Washington, DC by Soulforce, a pro-gay group. Edited slightly to remove references to the original protest, it still provides a good overview of some aspects of Catholic teaching related to homosexuality.
Also written in response to the Soulforce protests, this essay examines prejudice against gays and lesbians, and attempts to provide a Catholic Response.
This is the keynote speech I gave at the January, 2007 Gay Christian Network Conference in Seattle, WA. It voices frustration at the ways that gays and lesbians are sometimes treated by Christians, and focuses on the importance of obedience to God, even in the most difficult circumstances.
If you knew nothing about human biology, you could listen to most of our debates about abortion and never realize that men are involved in any way. We talk about the woman’s body, the woman’s right to choose. We in the pro-life movement talk about the unborn child’s right to life. But what about the father? In this speech, delivered at the March 25, 2006 Symposium on Life Issues at St. Monica's Catholic Church, I looked at the role of men in building the Culture of Life.
On January 22, 2006, the Knights of Columbus invited me to give a brief reflection at a memorial service for the unborn, held at Mt. Angeles Memorial Park to commemmorate the 33rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
On November 3, 2005, the Philosophy Club at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette invited me to debate Dr. Rick Swanson on the question: “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” I do not have a complete transcript of the debate; however, I have made my opening statement available here.
On January 23, 2004, the Washington, DC chapter of Courage and the Georgetown University chapter of the Knights of Columbus invited me to speak at Georgetown about Catholic teaching and homosexuality.
[The responses in this section were originally written in response to questions I received from friends or others. Before posting them here, I edited both question and response in order to enhance clarity and readability.]
Question: In God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door, Alan Chambers writes, “This is why I believe that it is so important to clarify that just living a celibate gay life is just as sinful as living a sexually promiscuous one. The sin is in identifying with anything that is contrary to Christ, which homosexuality clearly is” (218). Would you be willing to identify as a “gay Christian”? How do you think such an identity relates to the arsenokoitai of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 6? [ Read response ]