Apologetic Bites (link from the app) are brief talking points to help equip you to defend the faith when asked some common questions.
A Christian response to homosexuality
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
This was the well-known catchphrase from the 90s sitcom Seinfeld. Anytime the topic of homosexuality was mentioned – usually in the context of a character denying that they were gay –someone would quickly clarify, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
In some way, Seinfeld helped to change a generation. It did so by giving us this memorable phrase that encapsulated a complex shift in thinking. It didn’t just tell us that we ought to change our attitude toward homosexuality; it showed us how to do it. For a start, it acknowledged that for most people the thought of it made them at the very least uncomfortable. Yet in that one simple phrase, it modelled for us how to acknowledge our personal distaste at the idea, but still make a choice to look beyond our gut reactions; a deliberate decision to be mature and accepting. “He’s one of them.” “He bats for the other team.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Very soon it came to define Generation X’s position on the issue.
In fact, in the space of a generation the acceptable community attitude to homosexuality has changed radically. It’s gone from being one of disgust or ridicule or shame, to its acceptance now as a common and valid lifestyle choice. More than that, it’s now lauded as an heroic embracing of one’s identity in the face of pressure to conform – a celebration of authenticity. It reached the point where a few years ago, of the six Emmy nominees for best supporting actor in a comedy series, three of them played gay characters. And not laughable caricatures like in years gone by. (Yes, Are you being served? we’re talking about you.) These were real, likeable people. The world has changed in the space of a few decades.
So where does that leave us as Christians? I mean, we can’t just go along with Seinfeld, can we? Because we know our God says that there is something wrong with that.
Yet when we say that, we end up being labelled homophobic. Unless we accept homosexual practice, we’re told that we fear it. Or we’re painted as gay-haters. And to be honest, some Christians haven’t really helped to dispel that image, waving placards at the Mardi Gras parade about how gays are going to burn in hell. There’s been some ugly, unloving stuff done in the name of Christ. This makes it doubly hard for us to change society’s perception that God hates gays.
Christians have been painted into a corner by the media, and we’ve been given two choices. One writer, Murray Campbell, puts this in diagram form (1):
We’re told that we can be one of two things: we can either be loving and inclusive, accepting homosexual practice; or we can be unloving and exclusive, and reject gay people. These are the two choices – and who doesn’t want to be loving and inclusive?
Yet this is far too simplistic. Campbell argues that the diagram should look more like this:
accept the person
accept the practice
accept the person
reject the practice
reject the person
reject the practice
This affirms that rejecting gay people is unloving. But it also sees that it’s just as unloving to accept homosexual practice when we believe God says it’s wrong. This is because love is doing what’s best for the other person, acting in their interest. Love doesn’t simply validate and encourage whatever behaviour a person might choose. Is it loving to allow your child to run onto the road because it’s their choice? Or is it more loving to warn them of the danger? The loving middle ground is where we reject the practice of homosexuality, but accept the person.
This is a nuance our black-and-white world doesn’t want to hear. And even if it did, it’s a nuance that’s hard to communicate. We certainly can’t do it as concisely or memorably as Seinfeld. For instance, “Not that there’s anything more wrong with that than with any other of the many deviations from God’s plan for humanity which result from our rejection of God’s rule and fallen human nature, and so God and we love you just as much as anyone else among the unredeemed masses of this world” – it’s not particularly catchy, is it? Even if it’s what we want to get across.
So in this article, I want to suggest how we might give a loving, thoughtful, sensitive response to the question of homosexuality. We’ll begin with a look at how the Bible is clear that homosexual practice is not compatible with following God. And then we’ll look at a couple of pastoral questions that come up when we do insist on following what God says.
Does the Bible really prohibit homosexual practices?
So does the Bible really prohibit homosexual practices? That’s what many people will ask; even some sections of the church. They wonder whether the bible’s prohibitions of homosexual practices are outdated, belonging to a bygone era, a world of head-coverings and holy kisses. After all, we seem happy to ignore parts of the Bible that seem to accept the practice of slavery, encourage corporal punishment for children, and capital punishment for adultery. Why can’t we do this with homosexuality? Culture has moved on, and so should we.
How do we respond to this? In particular, how do we respond to accusations of inconsistency in how we apply the Old Testament Law. Take the following verse from Leviticus, for example:
Lev 20:13 ‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death…’
This seems clear enough. But then three verses earlier, it says this:
Lev 20:10 ‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbour – both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.’
So if we’re not killing adulterers in our churches, then we’re not obeying the Bible. But for some reason, gay sex is still wrong. Why do we get to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we obey and which we don’t? You can see their point, can’t you?
What they don’t get – and what many Christians don’t really understand – is that the rules and regulations of Leviticus don’t apply to us today. They were laws given under the Old Covenant to a particular people at a particular time. And the NT specifically tells us that we’re no longer under the OT law, primarily because Jesus has fulfilled it on our behalf. And he’s rendered much of it obsolete through his once-for-all sacrifice. We can still learn from the OT law, particularly aspects about God’s character and what it means to be his holy people. But these are no longer binding commands for us, unless they’re specifically reaffirmed under the new covenant by Jesus or the apostles.
So if it were only in Old Testament law books like Leviticus that homosexual practices were forbidden, maybe we could consider it obsolete. However, it’s not just found in the OT law, as there’s a consistent witness right across the biblical timeline. No matter what time or culture, and no matter what point in salvation history, there’s a consistent message that homosexual practices are sinful.
Further, this isn’t just one of those obscure laws about not mixing two kinds of cloth (designed to prohibit practices connected with worshipping Canaanite idols, see Lev 19:19). Human sexuality goes to the heart of how God created us. Right from the beginning we’re told this:
Gen 1:27 So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
In the very next verse we’re told to procreate:
Gen 1:28a God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number”
The story of Eve being formed from Adam’s rib teaches us that the two genders were made for each other. This was not just for procreation, but for lifelong companionship. It was God’s plan for a man and a woman to become one.
Gen 2:22-24 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Exclusive heterosexual relationships are what God created us for, something we find affirmed throughout the entire Old Testament (not just the law). Conversely, homosexual practices are condemned, such as the goings on in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where a story of homosexual rape is presented as typical of some of these societies. The biblical writers condemn this, and God destroys these two cities.
Now some try to argue that there’s a precedent for homosexual relationships in the bible. That David and King Saul’s son Jonathan were more than just good friends. They take it from verses like these:
1 Sam 18:1 After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself.
19:1-2b Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you….”
But you have to be looking for it to find it there. A bromance perhaps, but nothing more.
When we get to the New Testament, the same witness is maintained. Now Jesus himself doesn’t mention homosexual practice specifically; he had no real reason to, since in Jewish society homosexual practice was uniformly condemned. (It was different in Greek and Roman culture, as we’ll see below.) But what Jesus says in the area of sexual ethics is important. Far from relaxing the old covenant regulations, he calls us to an even higher standard of sexual purity. It’s not just what you do, but it’s also about the lustful thoughts you might have. Jesus affirms, and intensifies, the Old Testament stance on sexual purity (see Matt 5:27-28).
Moving to the epistles, the apostle Paul includes homosexual practices in several of his sin lists:
1 Cor 6:9-10 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Tim 1:9-11 We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practising homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers. And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.
Notice that we would never think that any of the other items in those two lists to be debatable. Would you hear anyone ask, “Maybe the injunction against parent-killing only applies in the first century?” Or, “Surely greed is OK these days, since our society is so full of greed.” Clearly Paul is talking here about sins that cut to the core of our morality. And he includes among these, homosexual acts – and indeed all forms of sexual immorality.
Finally, we have the first chapter of the letter to the Romans, in which Paul details the fall of humanity. He talks about the rejection of God’s rule in favour of idols, with humanity deliberately choosing to forget his commands. As a result, God allows them to reap the consequences of choosing to live apart from God – and one of those consequences, it seems, is a perversion of sex:
Rom 1:25-27 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Clearly the Bible, from start to finish, testifies that homosexual practices are sinful. More than that – they are a deliberate rejection of how God created us as human beings. They are the logical result of human sexuality without God in the picture, and a violation of the created order.
But some would argue that this simply reflects society’s views on sexuality back in those days. Just as the Bible tells women to keep their hair long and men to cut it short, in keeping with social conventions of the time, maybe its condemnation of homosexuality is just a reflection of the culture back then. We’re more enlightened these days. We’ve moved on. We’re post-Seinfeld in our views on sexuality. Maybe it’s OK now?
The problem with that argument is that it doesn’t stand up to a careful study of sexuality in ancient societies. For example, Canaanite culture included male prostitution at their religious shrines. Homosexuality was rampant in first century Greek culture. An entire school of philosophy – the Epicureans – saw it as a virtue. According to them, love between males was of a higher order than love with a female. There was quite a culture in some quarters for rich married men to take a younger gay lover. And Corinth, to some extent, was the San Francisco of the ancient world. Yet even to the Corinthians, to a society at least as broad-minded as ours today, Paul writes this:
1 Cor 6:9b-10 ‘Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practising homosexuals …will inherit the kingdom of God.’
It’s clear, isn’t it, that we can’t ‘get around’ this doctrine, no matter how much our culture tells us we should. The Bible’s message is clear and unmistakeable.
Two Pastoral questions
However, this leaves us with questions of a different kind, which arise when this clear doctrine comes into contact with real life. Our theology gets put to the test when it stops being an abstract principle, and has to deal with real people.
Why would God make some people gay?
For a start, it leads many people to ask: if homosexual acts are sinful, why would God make some people gay? Isn’t that just a bit unfair?
This taps into the whole ‘nature versus nurture’ debate: are people born gay? Or is there something about their upbringing and life experiences that makes them gay? I’m not going to get too involved in that debate here. Firstly, because the Bible doesn’t, and also because I’m not a psychologist. But let me point out one of the potential biases we need to be aware of. Because by and large, the media and the academic world has an agenda on this issue. This means that studies which point to a role for nurture tend to get limited airtime, whereas any hint that we’re getting closer to finding the ‘gay gene’ becomes front page news. This will be the gene that validates homosexuality once and for all.
We need to be careful that we don’t simply accept a one-sided view by a media that has an agenda. Personally, I think much is environmental, particularly when it’s presented as a lifestyle “option” to our teenagers, at age where we already struggle with identity, self-image, and hormonal changes. The message is then sent: maybe you’re gay? Maybe that’s why you’re feeling this way. Give it a try and see if it works for you.
Yet although outside influences are strong, we can’t get away from the observation that some people seem naturally more inclined to same-sex attraction than others. At the extreme end we have those born as hermaphrodites, or with significant hormone imbalances. So I’m sure there are less extreme cases that still owe more to nature than nurture.
However, homosexuality isn’t unique in this way. Plenty of sinful tendencies are a combination of nature and nurture. For example: a tendency to be greedy and selfish; to be proud; to be lazy; to be lustful; to be unforgiving. Some of it is learned behaviour, but not all of it. You just have to look at two children in the one family, raised in a similar way yet their sinful tendencies can be markedly different. The bible says we’re all born with a sinful nature – a predisposition to sin – but it’s still no excuse.
What if a proud person said: “well I’m naturally proud. God made me that way. Why should I have to change?” I’m sure we’d them to pull their head in, in short order. We would have a similar response to someone who claimed, “I was born selfish”, or “I was born manipulative & deceitful”. Maybe they were, but it’s not God’s fault. It’s a result of our fallen humanity. If a heterosexual person said: “I was born with a tendency to be promiscuous,”, what would we say? “Well OK then, God made you that way. Sleep around, that’s fine. You’re just being true to yourself!” Of course not!
So a person with homosexual feelings is not unique in that all of us are born with a predisposition toward sinful actions. We all struggle with our sinful nature, not because God made us that way, but because sin entered the world.
However. I do believe people with same sex attraction wanting to follow Jesus need an extra measure of grace. They need extra consideration and support from the rest of the body of Christ. This is because our sexuality is so integral to our sense of personhood and identity. And I’d say the same for those who struggle with any other deviation from God’s intention for sex: that is, exclusive sexual relationships between a man and a woman. Resisting sin is difficult for everyone. Resisting sexual sin for some can be even more difficult.
What happens when a gay person responds to the gospel?
This leads us to our next question: what happens when a gay person responds to the gospel?
Firstly, it involves accepting God’s forgiveness for sin. It involves being declared right with God because Jesus lived the perfect life we were unable to live. It means being forgiven because Jesus paid the penalty for sin.
Yet we also know that responding to the gospel involves repentance, which means turning from sinful behaviour. As Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery, whom he has just forgiven (John 8:11): “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” Forgiveness is given in response to repentance.
So for a gay person coming to Christ, it necessarily involves acknowledging that homosexual practices are sinful. It means accepting that they are against God’s intention for humanity, and affirming that they no longer intend to do those things.
That’s why it’s unloving to gloss over this, minimising it or making it optional. Or even – as some do – to redefine it as being obsolete. Why is it unloving? Because it gets in the way of repentance. It prevents people from responding to the gospel and being forgiven. So as unpopular a message as it is, we can’t shy away from it. Homosexual practices are sinful, and responding to the gospel involves repentance from them.
Now as with any sin, a person might continue to fall sometimes, for which the blood of Christ has bought forgiveness. But repentance means acknowledging that these things are wrong, as with any other sin. Repentance means a desire to be changed by God, as with any other sin. And repentance means working together with God in that transformational process, again, as with any other sin.
We also acknowledge that the desires which encourage homosexual practices are counterfeit desires. That is, they promise satisfaction, but don’t deliver. And they stop us from finding the true satisfaction offered in Jesus. Again, it’s no different from any other sin. When a person gives in to any temptation, they are buying into the lie that sin will bring satisfaction. As the serpent said: ‘you will not die… you will be like God’ (Gen 3:4-5). They deny the truth that only God can bring true satisfaction. Turning from homosexual practices means naming those desires as counterfeit and deceptive.
In its place, we need to take hold of the truth that when we come to Christ, we are a new creation. Our old self has been crucified with Christ, and we have been given a new nature. Interestingly, just after Paul’s sin list in 1 Corinthians, this is exactly what he says:
1 Cor 6:9b-11 Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practising homosexuals … will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Paul is saying: That is what some of you were. But God has justified you. God has forgiven you. And he’s at work transforming you into what he always intended you to be. Don’t buy the devil’s lie that says people don’t change. God can transform your behaviour, your mind, and even your desires.
But what’s the extent of this change? I think it varies. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people whose lives have been so transformed by the gospel that even their sexual desires are now different. God has changed them to be in line with his intention for humanity. And although this gets mocked in the media as the church’s programme to ‘cure gays’ – many people have been transformed in this way. Yet many are not; their sexual desires remain the same.
But ultimately, this transformation of sexual desire is not the main focus. As with all sins, transformation of the counterfeit desire should primarily be replaced with the desire for God. In discipling a proud person, the primary goal isn’t to make them humble; it’s to help them find their sense of worth in God, not in themselves. For the selfish person, the primary goal isn’t to make them selfless; it’s to help them see that life’s about God, not about them. It’s the same with a gay person coming to Christ. The goal isn’t to ‘make them straight’. First and foremost it should be to help them find their satisfaction in God and God alone, whether their sexual desire is transformed or not. For some, the feelings may never change. But as an act of obedience to God, and a defiant determination to trust that God is and has all that we could ever need, they choose to remain celibate. This is a perpetual act of worship that shows God and shows the world how supremely satisfying he is.
Now that’s not easy. But it’s part of ‘taking up one’s cross’ and following Jesus. And remember, it’s not just those struggling with homosexual feelings. Worldwide, statistics show that females in church outnumber males. Many women in our churches, as an act of obedience, will choose celibacy over marrying a non-believer. They’ll choose faithfulness to God’s word over their powerful desire for male companionship, sex, and parenthood. So as a church, we need to support them just as much.
Let’s not sugar-coat it. It’s not easy for a gay person to come to Christ. But neither is it for a rich man, or his poor squashed camel (Matt 19:23-24). But as Jesus said: ‘With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ (Matt 19:26).
Articulating our response to the world
So what do we do with all of this? Here are a few closing suggestions:
If you’re helping someone whom you know is struggling with homosexual feelings – go the extra mile for them, because theirs is not an easy calling.
If you’re a parent or a family member of someone who’s gay; and if you know that for them, it’s the biggest stumbling block to them responding to the gospel – continue to pray for them. Remember that God’s still in the business of miraculous transformation.
If you hear Christians being condemned as homophobic – equip yourself to defend our position:
Show how it’s not a case of picking & choosing some bits from the bible and ignoring others. Argue for the consistency of our position.
Show how if the bible is true (which we believe it is), it would be unloving to tell people that their actions are not sinful if God says they are. Argue for the compassion of our position.
And at all times, show that sin is the issue – all kinds of sin, from pornography to petty theft; from adultery to anger; from sexual abuse to selfishness. Homosexual practice isn’t really all that special, it’s just another way in which we’ve decided to do things our own way, rather than God’s way. Acknowledge that it’s unhelpful how at times throughout history the church has singled homosexuality out as being worse than anything else.
But be ready to affirm without wavering that there is something wrong with that; that there’s something wrong with all of us. It’s called sin.
(1) Murray Campbell, “An Evangelical response to Keith Dyer’s ‘A consistent biblical approach to “(homo)sexuality”’”, 2010: 2.