Should the Church be willing to bless same-sex relationships?
The great debate threatening to split the Church of England today is over the question of accepting or rejecting same-sex relationships. St Paul wrote about a society in which men and women "exchanged natural relations for the unnatural" in Romans 1:26,27, and men "abandoning natural relationships with women and committing indecent acts with other men." For many Christians, same-sex partnerships are not just unnatural, they are a travesty of what we have always understood marriage to be. To "bless" such a relationship is anti-God and contrary to God’s order in Creation. Marriage, from the beginning, meant the union of male and female (Genesis 2:23,24). This understanding must surely have been in Paul’s mind when he wrote of men "inflamed with lust for one another" as being unnatural. The licentiousness and promiscuity associated with the popular image of a modern gay lifestyle seems only to confirm that Paul was condemning the very ungodliness endemic in our society today. For many Christians there simply cannot be an ethical case for blessing same-sex relationships!
Ethical arguments such as these are surely not based on theological considerations alone. There exists a deep strength of feeling that many people experience against same-sex relationships. Where does this come from? We all know—even those of us brought up by parents unhappily married can at least imagine—the value of being raised by a mother and father who love each other and are committed to one another, as well as to their children. Moreover, stable family life is essential to a healthy society, which is deeply damaged by the lack of self-giving love in relationships and the consequent marital breakdown. Marriage and family life has been profoundly undermined in today’s world, with divorce rates incredibly high (practically half of all marriages in the UK now end in divorce!). For many Christians, blessing same-sex partnerships would be the final nail in the coffin for "family values" in our society!
Historically in society and through 2,000 years of Christian tradition, homosexuality has been seen as a perversion of God’s natural order determined at Creation. Homosexual practice has been deemed a sign of rebellion against God—an activity guaranteeing God’s judgement in this life (Romans 1:27) as well as the next (Jude 1:7). So the very idea of blessing same-sex relationships in the Church is anathema for many Christians. As a Bishop once commented to me, "If homosexuality isn’t immoral, then however do you define immorality?" So even to consider blessing same-sex relationships can appear to be an arrogant idolatrous defiance of God’s natural order, contrary to the plain anthropological and biblical fact—that marriage is the union of male and female. With such a strong traditional cultural antipathy as well as an apparently strong biblical argument against the very idea, same-sex blessings are deemed by many in the Church to be deeply immoral and fundamentally unethical.
The debate would not have continued to gain momentum over the last fifty years, however, if the reasons for pursuing it were entirely spurious. There are, I believe, profound reasons as to why the arguments continue to gain momentum.
As a Christian who experienced erotic same-sex attractions from the age of thirteen, this subject has been one of great personal significance. From my early teens I assumed unquestioningly that there must be something profoundly wrong with me. Finding these feelings deeply disturbing, I resisted my same-sex orientation and desires with all my might, though in forty years they have never left me.
In 1988, my local Church set me apart to found a ministry called "Courage" to help lesbian and gay Christians by providing practical support to live a godly celibate life. Together we sought to find the way out of homosexuality. We never doubted that this would be possible since we assumed that same-sex partnerships could never be an option. We believed that God would reward (with hetero-sexual wholeness) those who followed Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives.
In common with many "gay Christians" that I meet through my ministry today, I was raised an evangelical and taught to adhere strongly to traditional biblical teaching. Any consideration of same-sex relationships would not only be thought likely to imperil my spiritual growth, but also would have been to challenge the authority of the Word of God, indeed question God’s sovereignty! By my mid-twenties, having still not "grown out of" my homosexual feelings (because according to pop psychology at the time, I believed that my feelings would be a passing phase on the road to heterosexual maturity), I sought psychiatric help, healing prayer and even deliverance ministry. I left no avenue unexplored to try and rid myself of what I assumed to be a fundamentally ungodly orientation that plagued my life. Since none of these strategies produced the desired result, I resolved to live a life of celibacy and obedience.
My perception of God’s will centred around "taking up one’s cross". To me, this meant living a disciplined life, accepting God’s challenge to Cain to "master sin" (Genesis 4:7). I also believed that heterosexual marriage must be possible—the fruit of obedience and righteous living for someone walking in accordance with God’s plan for mankind. This was a demonstration of my commitment to pursue Christian ethical requirements for holiness, morality, and righteous living. The outworking of this conviction, resulted in me marrying a long-standing friend in 1991, my wife having been aware of my homosexual feelings and knowing the ministry I had founded. We both shared the same conviction that the Christian life is one of obedience to God’s will.
However, the fruit of 10-12 years of ministry, when for much of the time we ran discipleship courses in residential communities and offered healing prayer, was to see the majority of those hundreds of people who came to see us end up completely disillusioned. Many became deeply depressed and even suicidal. When they moved on from us, the lack of community support left them at the mercy of their resurfacing same-sex attractions. Many fell away from the faith altogether and those who retained their Christian faith did so, in the main, either by denying they had a real problem (repenting after frequently falling sexually) or by embracing their sexuality and coming to terms with it, as a step of faith before God.
We also learned the hard way, what a dreadful thing it can be for a person who is actually gay to marry someone of the opposite sex—not just for themselves but even more poignantly for their spouses! The majority of couples we have worked with have involved a gay man marrying a heterosexual woman. We have seen the utter devastation for a woman coming to realise that however kind and loving, committed and faithful her husband may be, if fundamentally he does not desire her as a woman in a physical/sexual way (rather than a kind of brother/sister relationship) this has the effect of making her feel deeply destroyed as a woman. I have never witnessed a sense of grief and pain in any pastoral situation that equals the emotionally corrosive pain of a woman married to a gay man. Many wives in such a situation tell me that they have found bereavement easier to deal with! Very few such couples are able to come to terms with their situation sufficiently to remain married. Therefore I can only conclude that to encourage a gay man to marry is in fact profoundly unethical.
We observed another particularly unfortunate dynamic—a kind of no-win situation—that a great many suffered from. According to traditional Christian theology, gay men could never legitimately express their desires for same-sex intimacy, so a pressure-cooker situation develops. With no way out—no pressure valve—sooner or later the lid blows and all too often these men become involved in anonymous sexual encounters, Worse still, a certain way of thinking in our churches enables them to crudely absolve their consciences by "repenting" the next day. It seems that in many Christian fellowships, as long as they are always "truly repentant" they can be forgiven as often as necessary and continue to find acceptance, because everyone seems able to love a repentant sinner! But this cycle has proven to be a certain road to the destruction of their faith—and their marriages, as many had married hoping this would resolve the conflict, only to find the pressures greatly increased. By contrast, those who accepted they were gay and sought same-sex partnerships, developing them on the basis of unselfish love and commitment, were almost the only ones who have done well in the long term, maintaining their Christian convictions and living a God-fearing life.
In 2001, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the annual conference of a group called Evangelicals Concerned based in the USA, founded by a Christian psycho-therapist Dr Ralph Blair, in 1975 (see www.ecinc.org). Dr Blair believes that committed same-sex partnerships are entirely appropriate for the gay Christian. Since the gospel reveals that we are saved by grace through faith (grace overcoming the law) and not through anything we can do to improve or change ourselves, our sexual orientation, he believes, is irrelevant. This is not to suggest that the law has no place in Christian ethics but that the important principle of guidance for gay Christians is that we must live by "the golden rule"—as he refers to the two most important commandments (Mark 12:28-34 ANIV):
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
29 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
32 "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no-one dared ask him any more questions.
At that conference and on subsequent visits (see www.ecwr.org), we discovered a mature ministry and met many conscientious, theologically conservative evangelical Christians living in committed, stable and enduring same-sex partnerships. This brought us to the point where we had to recognise that God blesses same-sex partnerships and that the Church must therefore acknowledge this too.
Having said that, for us this was no overnight revelation: rather our changed conviction came after years of heart-searching, prayer, studying the Scriptures and talking to others, outside the rather rigid hardline parameters of traditional evangelical teaching. We came to value discussion with other sincere Christians who held different convictions.
We have since come to realise that acting in denial of one’s genuine feelings is deeply damaging and lacks authentic biblical support. It seem more likely that an anti-gay view is maintained by some Christians today not for truly ethical or biblical reasons but more for the sake of upholding a certain view of doctrinal purity. It is beyond the scope of an essay of this length to debate the rights and wrongs of pro-gay theology (see bibliography for a list of helpful books) other than to comment that none of the well-known "clobber passages" (as the Americans like to call them) in the Old or New Testaments even attempt to address the pastoral or ethical questions about gay people entering committed partnerships. They all address idolatrous behaviour especially characteristic of pagan societies. However, from the viewpoint of a man who is first and foremost a committed Christian, yet basically orientated towards the same sex, I have learned that with humility we can approach our heavenly Father with complete honesty, sharing our hearts and receiving compassionate, non-condescending, non-judgmental support—in fact blessing—for a same-sex partnership.
Whatever the reasons anyone develops a same-sex orientation, the fact is that we no more choose our sexual orientation than we choose the colour of our skin or the gender we are born with. In the same way, victims of the thalidomide scandal in the 1950's could not choose to be physically "normal" in the eyes of the rest of the population. Yet as recorded in an outstanding Horizon documentary by Faye MacLean, broadcast in recent years, the thalidomide victims who have done well in life, some marrying and raising families against all the odds, are those who came to terms with their physical limitations and have made the most of their lives, without descending into despair or angrily denying the existence of a loving God.
It does no good to live in fear of a [false] god who demands a pay-off on his own terms, like the one-talent man in Jesus’ parable (Luke 19:11-27)—burying one’s "talent" out of fear rather than owning and making the most of it. Rather the true God desires that we make the most of what He has given us. Those of us attracted to the same-sex not only share the heterosexual person’s propensity for sexual immorality but also share the desire for and potential to make a loving committed relationship. Therefore, I believe, we must embrace our sexuality with thanksgiving and seek opportunity for sincere relationship rather than worry about the non-standard mechanics! After all, God’s creation of man as male and female surely came about to fulfil God’s agenda that man should multiply and populate the earth, rather than make an abstract point about biological or gender compatibility. A description of God’s creation of male and female should not be assumed to be a prescription indiscriminately applied to everybody.
Our Christian faith still challenges us as gay people to live according the ethical values that Jesus taught—which requires that we love God with all our hearts and love our neighbour as ourselves. Moreover we are called to make the most of every opportunity in life to make the Kingdom of Heaven known to all who do not know Christ. But the Kingdom we preach is based not on obedience to rules, but on knowing and following Christ.
Through the 45 years of my Christian journey, I have learned that Jesus’ Way is fundamentally about trusting in him and in the kind of person that he is. It is not about compliance with certain traditionally upheld principles, revering them more highly than knowing Christ in our hearts, which is idolatry. There is no law against love or any of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-,23), as Paul wrote. However, Jesus warned (Matthew 7:21-23), that not everyone who claims to serve Jesus Christ as Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven—some may even be denounced by Jesus as evil-doers! The crucial question is whether or not we live according to the ethical values Jesus demonstrated and proclaimed—whether we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit people in prison etc. (Matthew 25:31-46); whether we learn to "love our enemies, bless those who curse us and reward evil with good" (Sermon on the Mount, e.g. Luke 6:20-29). Moreover, the will of God was understood by the prophet Micah in this way:
"He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God."
In today’s world, where Christians, sadly, are better known for whom we are against than whom we are for, it is no wonder that lesbian and gay people feel pariahs and outcasts. And when one is seen as an outlaw, then it is little wonder that one ends up living outside the law (of God) pursuing a life of hedonism and promiscuity. But just as every man and woman longs for companionship and belonging, gay people desire companionship and belonging too, and when this is recognised as normal and appropriate, then there will be a real incentive to seek something better than clandestine encounters. The Church has perhaps inadvertently been guilty of driving homosexual people into a lifestyle which we claim to abhor because we have refused to acknowledge the possibility of relationships founded on love and commitment—on the basis of a certain view of life and creation that we regard as incontestable. A little more mercy, humility and willingness to listen on all sides would be invaluable to ongoing dialogue, about blessing same-sex partnerships, if this debate is ever to be resolved.
There is therefore, I believe, an entirely reasonable ethical argument for supporting the blessing of same-sex relationships where they are based on mutual desire, self-sacrificing love and commitment. To be sure, this is not something that every Christian can accept without seeking God in prayer. But it is the understanding of this Christian, who also happens to be gay, having endeavoured to live his life according to traditional ethical views on the subject, that same-sex partnerships are entirely compatible with Christian discipleship. Moreover, proper acknowledgement of such partnerships actually supports the "family values" of a stable society — because these are about love, commitment, longevity and stability—the heart-cry of gay as well as straight people.
Opposed to same-sex relationships:
"Same-sex Partnerships?", John Stott
"Homosexual Practice", Robert Gagnon
"Straight and Narrow", by Thomas Schmidt
"A Strong Delusion" by Joe Dallas
"Someone I love is gay", by Anita Worthen and Bob Davies
"Coming out of homosexuality" by Bob Davies
"Steps out of homosexuality", by Frank Worthen
"Pursuing Sexual Wholeness" by Andy Comisky
Some issues in human sexuality: A guide to the debate. Church House publishing
Accepting of same-sex relationships
"Permanent, Faithful, Stable", by Jeffrey John
"What the Bible really says about homosexuality", by Daniel A. Helminiak
"On being liked", by James Alison
"Faith beyond resentment", by James Alison
"Is the homosexual my neighbour?", Letha Scanzoni & Virginia Mollenkott
"Unheard Voices", by Jeffrey Heskins
"Face to Face", by Jeffrey Heskins
"Dirt, Greed and Sex", by L. William Countryman
" Theology and Sexuality" edited by Eugene F. Rogers, published by Blackwells.