On Evangelical Faith and Homosexuality
A Lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary
March 21st 2003
What’s so immediately evident is this: Of all Christians, Evangelicals have perhaps the most difficulty integrating any expression of homosexuality with Christian faith. But here’s what’s not so immediately evident: Of all Christians, Evangelicals should have the least difficulty integrating at least some expression of homosexuality with Christian faith.
Why do so many Evangelicals have such difficulty? Perhaps it’s because they tend to take neither sin nor the evangel as seriously as they say they do? They would not have such difficulty if they but took sin and the evangel as seriously as they ought.
Evangelicals say that sin is so horrible that it cost Jesus his life on the cross. And it is so horrible. And it did cost Jesus his life. Jesus went to the cross to atone for the horror of this world’s sin including the sins of sexual assault, sexual greed and sexual pride. But do we really think that Jesus went all the way to the cross to atone for a loving expression of an unasked for psychosexuality? Did he come to die because a committed same-sex couple sleep and eat together and wash the dishes together?
Evangelicals preach that the transaction at Calvary trumps everything. And it does. It trumps all the sin in the world, whether expressed in horrors of cruelty that are so readily seen to be sin or in horrors of religiosity that are not so readily seen to be sin. And it trumps sin’s sequelae death, ‘the wages of sin,’ and hell itself. Jesus died so sinners might be saved from sin, death and hell.
But in antigay rhetoric, Jesus seems to have died so an anatomical technicality might be tweaked and trumped. It’s what a couple does with two penises or two vaginas instead of what another couple does with one penis and one vagina that constitutes the sin in the antigay argument. As an Evangelical antagonist argues: ‘the complementarity of male and female sex organs [is] the most unambiguous’ indictment against homosexuality. [Robert A. J. Gagnon] But surely sexual complementarity is a bit more complicated than tinker toys! In both heterosexual and homosexual attraction, what draws two people together is the fascinating otherness that each sees in the whole persona of the other, not the shapes of genitalia. Besides, even in the physicality of sexual relationship, much more than the mechanics of genitalia is involved. Another antigay Evangelical argues that without such anatomical dissimilarity, ‘same-sex intercourse loses the symbolic dimension of two-becoming-one present in male-female sex.’ [Stanley J. Grenz] But he fails to appreciate the complexity of the one-flesh phenomenon, a union that surely has more to do with two persons than with two body parts. This ‘sin’ of homosexuality, then, comes down to a matter of anatomical correctness, for whether such same-sex behaviour expresses affection or assault makes no difference. In either case the ‘sin’ remains in the same-sex component period. That’s hardly an adequate view of even sexual sin.
Evangelicals are People of the Good News the New Testament’s euangelion. It’s the term from which ‘Evangelical’ is derived. According to an Evangelical biblical scholar, the terms ‘ ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelicalism’ are most useful when they are held to their etymology in the evangel, ‘the gospel [God] promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son.’ (Romans 1:23), on the assumption that such an ‘evangel’ is held with firmness and sincerity of heart. In this light, evangelicalism as a movement must be seen to be determined by its centre, not by its outermost boundary and even that centre must, in the light of its own confession, constantly be held up to the examination of Scripture.’ [D. A. Carson] An Evangelical historian adds: ‘Once past a shared commitment to a supernatural gospel, evangelicals are all over the place theologically.’ [Mark Noll] In fact, in the words of the president of Southern Baptist Seminary and a church historian at Westminster Seminary: ‘No single evangelical tradition exists.’ [Albert Mohler, Jr. and D. G. Hart] If these observations are accurate in general, how can it be argued that when it comes to a caring and committed expression of same-sex orientation the Evangelical faith somehow inherently demands a virulent condemnation?
Ignorance certainly plays a part in opposition to homosexuality. And though honest ignorance can be remedied by better readings of the Bible, science and human experience, willed ignorance is immune to all data. And self-righteousness plays a part. But self-righteousness can be repented of and forgiven by God’s grace.
Opposition to homosexuality by conservative or Right-wing church groups can have as much to do with allegiance to Right-wing socio-political agendas shared with Right-wing secularists as with anything particularly Christian. It may be nothing much more than a succumbing to a suffocating Zeitgeist!
But unless sin is seen as something far more sinister than the juxtaposing of epidermal nerve endings in a same-sex expression of deep affection between two people committed to loving each other homosexuality will remain a stumbling block for these folk. And they will remain stumbling blocks for homosexuals, whether those who need to hear and respond to the gospel of Christ or those who, having heard and responded affirmatively, are now told that the simple gospel is simply not enough in their case.
And unless God’s grace in Christ is seen as something far more powerfully precious than a moralistic antidote to such juxtaposing of nerve endings homosexuality will remain a stumbling block for these folk. And they will remain stumbling blocks for homosexuals, whether those who need to hear and respond to the gospel of Christ or those who, having heard and responded affirmatively, are now told that that simple gospel is simply not enough in their case.
Here’s something else that’s evident: Liberal and Left-wing ecclesiastical camps seem to have no difficulty at all in integrating almost any homosexuality with Christian faith. What’s perhaps not so evident is this: The ease with which liberal and Left-wing church groups climb aboard every GLBTQ band wagon may have as much to do with their allegiance to socio-political agendas they share with liberal and Left-wing secularists as with anything particularly Christian. It may be nothing much more than a succumbing to the suffocating Zeitgeist!
People ask me about the personal struggle that they assume I had as a born-again teenager trying to come to terms with my homosexuality half a century ago. I’m always concerned that my response that I really never did struggle can seem callous in view of the severe struggles that so many go through these days. Why did I not have such distress as a 16-year-old in the mid-50s and at Bob Jones University, too? Why did I have so little discomfort with homosexuality as a student officer in InterVarsity at a state university and in my years at Dallas and Westminster Seminaries? And how was it that, as an IV staff member at Yale in 1964, I spoke out so affirmatively on homosexuality that I was not re-appointed for the following year?
These days, young Evangelicals come out of the closet after decades of a progressively more homosexually permissive society. And they’re filled with fear, hurt, frustration and anger. They unleash their fury against their upbringing in Evangelicalism. Many are so angry that they throw out the baby with the bath water. They don’t want anything more to do with Evangelicals. But their bitterness bespeaks an unrequited love. And sadly, they then fall for all sorts of shallow and sham spirituality so long as it’s pro-GLBTQ.
What else is to be expected? With an adolescent’s increasingly strong and involuntary same-sex desire, together with an increasing inability to manage cognitive inconsistencies in which psychosexual experience is at odds with a home church’s teaching that that same-sex desire is a ‘choice’ for ‘abomination,’ something’s got to give. And it won’t be what’s involuntary. It’ll be what was chosen the Evangelical church that was once such a haven of good news but from which one is now estranged because it preaches that one’s unasked for desire for intimacy is strictly prohibited. And if that church can be so wrong in what it declares about one’s experience of deep and abiding longings, how can a young person trust it to be right in what cannot be known from mere experience doctrines of God and Christ and salvation and what-have-you? That’s some of what young Evangelicals who happen to be same-sex oriented are faced with these days.
What factors contribute to the difference between my own relative ease in earlier days and the trauma of those coming out these days?
Most significantly, there was the clear presentation of the plain gospel I heard as a child. The good news invitation was to come to Christ. How? In the words of Anglican hymn writer Charlotte Elliott, sung at the close of every Billy Graham meeting: ‘Just as I am, without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bid’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.’ John 3:16 straight! That preaching was not cluttered with all of the socio-political add-ons of an angry Religious Right. Of course a moral standard was taught. But, at best, the do’s and don’ts were of doing or not doing acts of rigorous loving kindness, in gratitude for the loving kindness of God. The moral standard did not trash a person’s very being.
Back in the ‘50s there were no ‘role models’ of GLBTQ Christians. But no matter. I had plenty of role models for being a Christian period! And that’s what mattered. I was a Christian. I was a Christian who happened to be attracted to a few people of the same sex. Okay? I took the simple but profound gospel of Christ at face value and moved on from there to work out the details. Whatever I encountered of petty legalism and a majoring in minor matters, I took to be contrary to the gospel and the all-embracing love of Christ, and the Get real! Christian lifestyle to which he calls us.
These days there’s also an aggrieved and exaggerated victim mentality that’s popular. And it’s linked with a sense of exaggerated entitlement in which so much is interpreted in terms of only one’s rights. Those who come out these days are as easily the victims of this hyper-sensitivity and hyper-vigilance of self-centred identity politics as they are victims of the homophobia and heterosexism that surely is there as well.
Such a self-centred way of seeing is certain to spawn feelings of hurt, fear, frustration and anger. Making matters worse, these feelings are experienced in a community where feelings are privileged over cognitive analysis. Trying to get on top of the feelings of hurt, fear, frustration and anger based in interpretations of oppression, people go into a rage. And such venting of hostility is promoted even programmed in the GLBTQ movement. But this approach only reinforces the hurt, fear, frustration and anger and leaves one trapped in a tantrum of impotence, demanding that others be blamed and others fix things they don’t much want to fix.
Short of getting others to change their ways with us always a tricky, if not impossible, task can we change our ways with us? Can we talk better sense to ourselves instead of trying to talk better sense into them? Can we at least begin to talk better sense to ourselves while trying to talk better sense into them?
Surely there must be a better way of dealing with homosexuality than most Evangelicals have found so far. And there is. It’s the old and true gospel way to which the church has had to return from derelict and dangerous detours time after time.
Paul emphasized the unadulterated gospel of God’s saving grace and justification by faith in Christ Jesus alone, apart from all conventional distinctions. Especially relevant to our interest is what he wrote in Romans 1 and 2, Romans 14, Galatians 3 and in these precious words from Romans 8. We’ve printed these words at the top of our EC newsletter for almost three decades now: ‘For I am persuaded, that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom 8:3839) By the way, there’s no textual support for the rumour that Paul added: ‘Oh, I forgot nothing, that is, except any and all homosexuality!’
For me, the genuinely good news of Christ’s gospel has always trumped the cheap, self-centred substitutes offered whether in fundamentalist or liberal circles or in the homosexuality obsessions of the Religious Right and the GLBTQ Left. In the wise words of 19th century evangelist D. L. Moody: ‘Look at what He is, and at what He has done; not at what you are, and what you have done. That is the way to get peace and rest.’
The Gallup Poll finds that 46 percent of Americans say they’re ‘evangelical’ or ‘born again.’ Thus millions of homosexuals and family members must deal with homosexuality and Evangelical Christian faith. And though most think they’re working with God-given truths, they have a woefully poor understanding not only of homosexuality, but also of the Evangelical faith. For, as has been indicated, their assumption that an antigay position is part and parcel of Evangelicalism as such is erroneous.
And so I would challenge my fellow Evangelicals to take a closer look at what they think they know about homosexuality and what they think they know about Christian faith. Let’s take the gospel seriously and not relegate it to a mere mantra. Let’s take sin seriously and not trivialize it as merely a matter of anatomical correctness. Let’s take Christian discipleship biblically, with no propping up of a few poorly grasped Bible verses out of all proportion to Jesus’ clear call for a grateful love for God and a rigorously generous love for our neighbours. And let’s take ourselves more honestly, that we might see others’ needs in our needs, others’ sins in our sins, and even others’ foibles in our own foibles, and find the self-sacrificing solution to hostilities at the cross of Christ, the only Saviour and Lord there is.
Copyright © 2003, Dr Ralph Blair. All rights reserved.
Suggestions for reading on contemporary Evangelicalism
Darrell L. Bock, Purpose-Directed Theology: Getting Our Priorities Right in Evangelical Controversies (InterVarsity, 2002).
Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology (Baker, 2002).
Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (InterVarsity, 1995).
James M. Penning and Corwin E. Smidt, Evangelicalism: The Next Generation (Baker, 2002).
John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (editor), What Does it Mean to be Saved? Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation (Baker, 2002).
John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (editor), Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Baker, 2000).