The Righteous shall Live by Faith
This article was first written for Third Way magazine and published in April 2002 under the editor’s title ‘The gay and narrow way’. It is reproduced here by Courage with permission, albeit in an updated and slightly different edited form.
For many years I struggled with the apparent conflict between being ‘gay’ and ‘Christian’. Back in the 1980s, I gave up my photographic career to try and resolve it, both for myself and others, founding the ministry of Courage after training with an ex-gay ministry in California, called Love in Action. For six years we ran a specialised discipleship programme, ‘Steps out of Homosexuality’, operating on the underlying assumption that resolution would be found if we accepted that God had created us to be heterosexual and that a homosexual orientation needed to be changed, or at least redirected. More than a decade later, I’ve been forced to conclude that I was mistaken.
Over the years it has become apparent that former participants in that programme did not experience the lasting sense of freedom from their homosexual orientation they had hoped for. In spite of their ongoing struggle a few have married, but most continued to experience a profound conflict between their orientation and Christian faith (as it is perceived by some Christians).
My own journey is not untypical. Though I married in October 1991, I would not in all honesty claim that my underlying orientation has changed (though fortunately this has not become a major issue for me). After twelve years of marriage, my wife and I have grown to love each other more and more; we remain committed to one another and to a pastoral ministry for gay people. However, many others have gradually moved towards acceptance of their homosexuality and sought same-sex partnerships. In turn, many of those who have been successful have in fact matured in their faith, making a significant recovery from depression and other debilitating problems.
I appreciate that other Christian ministries to gay people have different views and would claim varying degrees of success in helping people to change their orientation. I do not wish to take issue with them here. What I can say is that after several years of wrestling with the theological and pastoral issues myself, I believe that the greatest lesson we learned through this painful time was to recognise the need that gay people have for companionship and that their need is God-given-just as it is for everyone else.
The most enduring message throughout the Bible, with its story of God’s loving and compassionate outreach to sinful man, is that the righteous shall live by faith. ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ (Galatians 5:6 NIV). Likewise, Habakkuk 2:4 says: ‘The righteous shall live by faith’. Our salvation is assured by God’s faithfulness to all who believe.
Sadly, in society at large nowadays, Christians are not known to be men and women of faith but rather as men and women of the Law, our integrity compromised by double standards. We rightly believe that no one can find true fulfilment apart from God and we are troubled by the insidious way in which secular values are dragging our society into idolatry and sexual hedonism. Yet in identifying such temptations and warning of the dangers we need great wisdom. Because if we ignore people’s need for companionship and belonging while maintaining a prurient yet disapproving attitude to sexual matters, we create momentous stumbling blocks to faith.
It is plain that a significant (though small) minority of people grow up to experience a strong erotic attraction to the same sex. For this reason they may be unable to marry, or at least they find heterosexual marriage inappropriate. Yet gay people long for companionship as much as anyone else. Their need is no less acute than it was for Adam (Genesis 2:18). But Christians traditionally have demonised this longing because it is not directed towards the opposite sex.
It is ironic that condemnation by Christians (and, until recently, society at large) of even the most loving and committed of gay relationships has served only to drive many gay people underground into a furtive and promiscuous subculture. As a result, the church, having refused to recognise the love and commitment that can exist between people of the same sex, now finds itself decrying a less wholesome stereotype that it helped to create. We cannot have it both ways. Christ looks at the heart. The church, it would seem, looks only at the sexual orientation and for the most part is not prepared to allow, or apparently even consider, any creative ways of resolving the severe inner conflict that gay Christians experience.
Difficult though it may be for ‘straight’ Christians to understand or accept same-sex erotic attraction, we must surely acknowledge that people can view the same issues very differently, and act on their convictions without apparently compromising their walk with God. Indeed, Paul makes allowance for the possibility of contemporary disputes between believers over issues of conscience in Romans 14, when he discusses the question of whether or not it is right to eat food that has been offered to idols. An issue that can divide believers today, for instance, would be the question of whether it is right to take up arms in times of war or great social unrest -some would take a strictly pacifist view while others are convinced of the need to defend their country or their loved ones. But at the end of the day, it has to be recognised that while rebellious defiance of God or failure to communicate the gospel will profoundly affect the course of history, a genuinely unselfish love between gay men or women most certainly will not.
The controversy today is surely fuelled by an almost innate hostility towards homosexuality which tempts many Christians into the trap of focussing on arguments over ‘genital contact outside marriage’ rather than the life-changing power of the gospel and the Spirit. One of the challenges in our commission to preach the gospel is that Jesus calls gay people too, to follow him. The authentic ministry of Jesus in our world today might be more easily recognised if, instead of condemnation, gay people were able to experience-and openly bear witness to-an acceptance and genuine concern for their well-being at the hands of Christians.
The compassion of Christ calls us, surely, to recognise as legitimate the need gay Christians have for intimate companionship and acknowledge as appropriate their desire to seek God for a creative resolution to their need.
But if (I hear the protests coming) as a church, we ‘allow’ gay Christians to seek and develop intimate companionship, where does that leave our 21st-Century understanding of sexual identity and practice? For some Christians it would seem that everything goes if we ‘legitimise’ the practice of homosexuality! Or as one bishop put it to me, ‘If homosexuality is not immoral, however do we define immorality?’. Clearly this is a great worry for many conscientious and thoughtful Christians.
I would be the first to agree with and indeed strongly endorse marriage between a man and a woman as the relationship given by God to provide intimacy and companionship-in the normal course of events. More than that, marriage provides the essential requirement of a secure setting for the raising and nurturing of children, and stable companionship throughout life into old age. Commitment to supporting the marriage covenant must surely remain the bedrock of a stable society. Popularly this is thought of as ‘supporting family values’. The extraordinary irony is that by opposing same-sex partnerships, few Christians seem to realise that in doing so they are in fact acting in opposition to family values!
It is interesting to note that Jesus actually drew attention to the fact that some people will be unable to marry (Matthew 19:11,12). However he did not, as many Christians are quick to assume, take the opportunity to suggest that his own example of renouncing marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God is a requirement for all. Indeed, he qualified his statement by saying that ‘not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given’. Maybe he wanted to stimulate a compassionate response, having recognised the hard-heartedness of God’s people as the reason Moses permitted divorce?
The oft-quoted maxim, ‘A text taken out of context becomes a pretext’ is so true where homosexuality is concerned. We need to look again at those verses that are supposed to give the last word on the subject. It is hard to imagine that the biblical writers had in mind anything remotely identifiable with our lives in modern times.
For instance, those preachers today who insist on upholding the Levitical texts proscribing sex between men as ‘an abomination’ would have more credibility if they regarded the laws of Leviticus in general as a source of practical guidance for their own lives. Is God’s law demanding care for the alien in the land (Leviticus 19:33,34) irrelevant to Christians ready to damn gay people? And who among our Christian leaders recommends putting to death the rebellious son who curses his father or mother, in accordance with Leviticus 20:9?
Romans Chapter One, often cited as a ‘proof text’ against homosexual behaviour, does condemn men ‘inflamed with lust for one another’ (NIV), interpreting this unnatural behaviour as a consequence of turning their backs on God. Yet Paul introduces that heart-breaking passage with the triumphant proclamation that ‘ ... in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed-a righteousness that is by faith from first to last’. His overall concern was not to provide pastoral guidelines for seekers of God who are homosexual in orientation but to call us all to faith in Christ, recognising that to refuse God’s grace has the most tragic consequences.
I appreciate people’s disquiet about ‘unnatural acts’, but I believe that their censure is fallacious in a day and age when (to give just one example) the ‘unnatural’ practice of chemical birth control is deemed acceptable. If we believe the Protestant view that sex was created for companionship before procreation, then surely it is hypocritical to oppose gay people who seek such intimacy?
It is even more ironic that the basis of ‘the protest’, which led to the reformation, is Luther’s claim that salvation is by faith alone. Yet many Protestants today are so obsessed about gay people keeping within the law that we have lost the whole point of the protest!
The thorny question as to what sort of intimate expression is appropriate would take a book to address adequately. But fundamentally this must surely be a matter for gay Christians to work out-in the same way as any heterosexual couple would-except, of course, that there is little in the way of support available from family or church while same-sex relationships remain taboo. We can only seek the guidance of God’s Spirit, remembering that our underlying motivating attitudes make all the difference.
Paul warns that ‘Anything that does not proceed from faith is sin’ (Romans 14:2023). Therefore people who are driven by lust or greed, who show no proper concern for the well-being of others, are condemned (1 Corinthians 6:9), whether their sin is that of greed, theft, drunkenness, slander, cheating, or the heterosexual sins of fornication or adultery. Paul’s list includes what the NIV calls ‘homosexual offences’-the essential message from Paul being that we cannot claim to be men and women of faith if our actions are motivated by self-interest at the expense of others. If we have no concern for the way of Christ, which is about developing an active faith in God with concern for the values that Jesus taught, then we shall not bear good fruit for all to witness. We are in fact deceiving ourselves.
The crucial message for our time, I believe, is that Jesus still calls us to be men and women who are seekers of God, living by faith. Being gay or lesbian-with or without a partner-does not need to be a stumbling block to a saving faith; but hardness of heart just might be.
© Jeremy Marks 2002 (updated October 2003)