We’re continuing with the conversation that will become an important new book – “Who Owns Marriage?” – published in early April by Evangelical Alliance Ireland! Each morning, for 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays). Or indeed to email them to email@example.com
Today the discussion moves on to Same-Sex Attraction (including its causes), the importance of Identity, and the role of the Old Testament in forming a Christian approach to homosexuality. Tomorrow we will move on to the New Testament.
Same Sex Attraction
Surveys yield dramatically varying results as to the percentage of people who are sexually attracted at one time or another to someone of the same gender. However, even the very lowest figures cited would still indicate that hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland have experienced some sort of same-sex attraction at some point in their lives. This would mean that most, if not all, Evangelical churches have men and women in their congregations for whom same-sex attraction is a real issue and not merely a theological abstraction.
Popular media often presents the issue as if there were simply two groups of people – heterosexual and homosexual, or ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’ In reality things are much more complex. Some people are exclusively attracted to one gender or the other. Others would be largely attracted to one gender but have experienced instances of attraction, whether acted upon or not, which might have caused them to question their orientation. Others are genuinely bisexual, attracted to people of either gender. Then there are those who have repressed or repudiated their feelings of same-sex attraction, often for religious reasons or due to societal pressure. Some of these people struggle with feelings of frustration, while others have quite maintained satisfactory relationships with the opposite sex, or have chosen a path of celibacy.
One of the more curious manifestations of sexual orientation is the considerable number of men (and a smaller number of women) who would consider themselves to be exclusively heterosexual, but when incarcerated in prison or in another single-sex environment will quite readily engage in sexual activity with those of the same gender. Once released from prison they will often revert to heterosexual behaviour and would, if questioned as to their orientation, vehemently reject any suggestion that they are gay or lesbian.
My point is that same sex attraction, while quite prevalent in one form or another in society, is much more complex than pigeon holing everyone as ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’ There are those who see their sexual orientation as fixed and unchangeable, and would rather remain celibate than engage in any other kind of sexual relationship. Others, however, would see their orientation as a preference for one gender, but can enter into different kinds of sexual relationships if the only other option is celibacy. This leads us to the relationship between sexual orientation and our sense of identity.
A few months ago I met up with a prominent LGBT activist for coffee. We talked about various issues to do with sexuality and religion. I explained my position that I was not in the slightest interested in seeing our views or values imposed on anyone else, and that when Evangelicals took a traditional, or conservative, view of sexuality it was more to do with the morality and behaviour of those who were within our movement.
He responded that must still be tremendously difficult for anyone within an Evangelical church who felt attracted to others of the same gender. Was this not asking them to deny who they were? He explained that, for him, being gay was a key component of his identity. “You know,” he said, “Just like your identity is as a heterosexual.” I thought about this for a moment, and then replied, “But actually I don’t see my identity as being heterosexual. My identity is that I am a follower of Jesus.”
That conversation really helped me to think through how important the concept of identity is to any discussion of faith and sexual orientation. It is also vitally connected with the distinction between rule-based and relationship-based morality.
For Evangelical Christians, the moment when we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ is when we receive a brand new identity. This new identity supersedes the previous things that dominated our lives and thinking. For example, before I became a Christian I was homeless due to my chronic alcoholism. My primary identity was as an alcoholic.
At first, after I had committed my life to Christ, I still saw my identity as being an alcoholic, albeit one who was now a Christian and was struggling to change. I attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where everyone told me, ‘Once an alcoholic – always an alcoholic.’ I listened to the mantra of ‘one day at a time’ and thought that, even if I maintained sobriety for an extended period of time, I was still going to be an alcoholic. In fact I couldn’t even maintain sobriety for more than a few days at a time, and endured several more weeks of failure and self-condemnation.
At this time I was staying in a Salvation Army hostel. One morning, after a night where I had been on another epic bender, I was seated on my bed with my head in my hands. A Salvation Army Officer, Captain George Hardy, came into my room and sat down on the bed beside me. “Nick,” he said, “You might be in the gutter again, but you don’t belong in the gutter anymore. That might be who you were, but it isn’t who Nick is now.”
That was a turning point. I would still struggle with my addiction for some time after that, but now it was a battle that I could win because I understood that my identity had changed. I do not see myself as an alcoholic, not even as a recovered alcoholic. I am a guy who used to be an alcoholic but am now an enthusiastic and committed follower of Christ. My identity has changed.
It is for this reason that I could not sit quietly over my cup of coffee and accept that being heterosexual is somehow crucial to my identity. As an Evangelical Christian, my relationship to Jesus Christ is my identity. When I yielded my life to Christ, any other claims on my loyalty become secondary to that central truth.
Now, before any of my LGBT friends start accusing me of comparing their sexual orientation to chronic alcoholism, let me say that our identities, before we come to Christ, may be rooted in many things, and those identities may be obviously debilitating (as with my alcoholic identity) but they may also be socially respectable and even considered to be admirable by society at large. For example, for many people, their primary identity is their national identity. In most societies patriotism is considered to be a praiseworthy virtue. That’s why so many people get all misty-eyed when their national anthem is played or their flag is flown.
Coming back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer once more, this was why he came into such conflict with the political authorities. He lived in a culture, 1930s Germany, where nationality and racial heritage was assumed to be everyone’s primary identity. The forms of ‘Christianity’ that accepted that assumption thought that they could practice their religion as a subset of that primary identity – by being Germans who happened to also be Christians, rather than being Christians who happened to have been born in a place called Germany. In the process they so distorted and prostituted their religion as to make it unrecognisable as anything resembling real Christianity.
One of the major problems with modern Evangelical Christianity is that we have often been insufficiently radical in making Jesus our primary identity. We have, to use biblical language, been guilty of worshipping other gods. It is small wonder that the world sees us as homophobic when we tolerate profoundly unchristian identities within our movement, yet then refuse to be as flexible when it comes to accepting someone who identifies themselves as gay or lesbian.
Let me give an example. In October 2014, Jonathan Merritt blogged about how David Gushee, a leading Evangelical ethicist, had changed his stance and now supported same-sex marriage. Merritt wrote, “To be sure, Gushee’s change of heart is not entirely unexpected — he has parted company with many fellow Evangelicals on a number of issues, including left-of-centre positions against torture and on the environment.”
Stop and think about that for a moment. Apparently, among some Evangelicals in the US, to be opposed to torture places one to the left of centre. That in itself is a staggering indictment on the state of Evangelical Christianity.
I cannot comprehend that there is a legitimate wing of Christianity that could ever, under any circumstances or provocation whatsoever, see torture as morally acceptable. The idea of deliberately and systematically inflicting pain on another human being is profoundly opposed to the entire revelation of God in Jesus Christ as outlined in the New Testament. Indeed, it could be argued that for a Christian to support torture is, by definition, a denial of biblical authority.
The issue of professing Christians supporting the practice of torture is, at its core, to do with identity. If your defining identity is your patriotic love of your nation, then pretty much anything is justified in the defence of that nation. Similarly, if you see your primary identity as a political ideology (be it conservative or liberal) then your adherence to that ideology will override faithfulness and obedience to the teaching and example of Jesus.
When I say that Evangelicals have been insufficiently radical in making Jesus our primary identity, I mean that we have tolerated profoundly unchristian identities (such as those that would validate torture) within our movement. Why should we be surprised then, if someone who sees their primary identity as being gay wants to combine that with Evangelical beliefs and values?
As Christians we affirm that our primary mark of identity is our relationship with Jesus Christ, not our nationality, not our political affiliation, and not our sexual orientation. That means we submit all other possible identities to the goal of pleasing Jesus Christ – and that, in turn, means that we follow a code of sexual morality that the New Testament indicates is pleasing to God, we turn the other cheek when others abuse us, and we forgive those whom we perceive of as our enemies. Oh yes, and we don’t torture people or support the actions of others who might torture people.
And this brings us back to the concept of rule-based and relationship-based morality. If my relationship with Jesus Christ is my primary identity, then all other identities and yearnings become secondary. If any of those secondary identities cause me to want to do things that are incompatible with following and obeying Jesus, whether that be engaging in certain sexual acts or adopting certain political stands, then those actions are actually a denial, not a fulfilment, of my primary identity. The theological word for that is ‘temptation!’ Temptation is not easy to overcome, but overcoming it is possible and is a liberating and empowering experience.
If, however, my relationship with Jesus is not my primary identity, then I am going to constantly suffer conflict in that my identity is clashing with the rules that I feel I am expected to obey. This experience is draining and dispiriting, even where the rules concerned might seem like good rules, and it rarely produces liberation or empowerment.
Causes of Same-Sex Attraction
There has been much heat, and very little light, generated in a continual debate as to whether same sex attraction is caused by nature, nurture or personal choice. In other words, are people born gay, did something happen in childhood that made them gay, or did they choose to be gay?
It is difficult to assess the evidence impartially in the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, as each side has a vested interest in the outcome. Many religious people feel that they have to prove that same-sex attraction is not a natural trait, because otherwise they fear that it would have to be viewed as something inherently good – a ‘gift from God’ even. In fact, from a theological standpoint, that isn’t the case at all.
Evangelical Christians have often argued that same-sex attraction is a ‘lifestyle choice,’ as if it were similar to choosing one’s favourite football team or deciding which music to listen to. Those in the LGBT community have sometimes responded by pointing out that they would hardly voluntarily choose a lifestyle that frequently attracts bullying from others and can cause painful misunderstanding in their family. That is a fair point. For example, there have been horrific and tragic cases of young people who have committed suicide because they feel so ashamed of their sexual orientation. The idea that their orientation somehow represented a ‘lifestyle choice’ is callous and insulting.
Other Christians have argued that same-sex attraction is frequently caused by childhood trauma or abuse. They often present anecdotal evidence to support this claim, although it is questionable whether this can be supported statistically. Again, one wonders about the impartiality of those on either side who present statistics to support or deny this assertion. The religious side feel it would strengthen their cause if environmental, rather than hereditary, factors were the primary cause of same-sex attraction. Gays and lesbians, quite understandably, are anxious to reach an opposite conclusion, resenting the inference that their sexual orientation makes them ‘damaged goods.’
On the other hand, there have been those in the LGBT community who want to prove that same sex attraction is caused by genetic factors (the search for a ‘gay gene’). This is sometimes accompanied by the argument that “Being gay must be OK because God made me this way.”
If I understand the concept of a ‘gay gene’ correctly, the idea is not that everyone who possesses a certain gene will be sexually attracted to those of the same gender. The idea is rather that those with certain genetic traits may be statistically more likely to be gay. This hardly sounds like biological determinism, so it would seem that the jury is still out on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate.
The causes of same sex attraction actually make very little difference, from either a logical or a theological standpoint, to the issue of whether homosexual behaviour should be considered moral or immoral. The ‘God made me this way’ argument should have little merit for any thoughtful Christian. We believe that although God created a good earth, we live in a fallen world, and that the world as it exists now has been distorted by evil. This doctrine of the Fall sees all of creation as standing in need of redemption. Indeed this restoration of all things to their original goodness is part of the great future hope of historic Christian teaching.
In other words, people are not necessarily born in the condition that God originally intended for them. A very obvious example, and one where we can clearly see the results of human sinfulness, would be where a baby is born already addicted to crack cocaine due to the actions of others (both the activity of the mother, who took drugs while pregnant, but also the activity of her dealer and others who facilitated her abuse of her unborn child). But the doctrine of the Fall is not limited to such obvious examples. The idea is that creation is so warped from its original condition that none of us are born as God originally intended us to be.
Feeling that we are naturally drawn to a particular action does not thereby imply that such actions are morally permissible, otherwise we would be forced to morally endorse some very nasty things indeed! I have heard people justify all kinds of reprehensible behaviour by saying, “But it’s just the way I am. I was born this way.” So, even if it does turn out that people are born with a fixed sexual orientation, that has nothing to say, positively or negatively, as to the moral validity of acting upon same-sex attractions.
The causes of same-sex attraction, therefore, while perhaps interesting for a psychologist or anthropologist, are not likely to prove to be anything other than a red herring in discussions concerning morality.
The Misapplication of Scripture
It must be said that sometimes Christians are our own worst enemies in the ways that we use the Bible. Sometimes those of us who are supposed to love and understand the Bible display the most appalling biblical illiteracy. For example, I remember speaking with one pastor in the United States who cut short all discussion on same-sex marriage by declaring, “The Bible says they (gays) are an abomination!”
This reference to Leviticus 20:13 was made over lunch at a seafood restaurant where this pastor had just loaded his plate with a generous portion of shrimp. He didn’t see the irony in that Leviticus 11:10 condemns the eating of shellfish as an abomination. Nor did he appreciate it when I pointed out his inconsistency.
As Evangelical Christians we believe that all of Scripture is inspired by God. However, our view of the Bible is Christocentric – in other words, the revelation of Jesus is the central theme of Scripture and the Old Testament Jewish law was a step in the progressive revelation that leads to Christ. To simply cite a verse from Leviticus as a proof text against a practice is a dangerous way to handle Scripture – not unless we want to be bound by everything in the Law of Moses!
This is not to say that Christians have ‘dumped the Old Testament.’ The Old Testament Law serves several important purposes. It shows us how God progressively revealed Himself to His people over the centuries, and how He prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ.
Types and Shadows
Some of this preparatory function of the Old Testament was in the form of ceremonies that were types and shadows of Jesus – glimpses of principles that would be properly explained and fulfilled in the New Testament. The apostle Paul described this as the Law being a schoolmaster, or a tutor, that lead people to Christ.
A good example of this is the Old Testament concept of the Sabbath. The Jews observed the seventh day of the week (Saturday) as a day of rest, a prophetic looking forward to the day when they would no longer have to struggle and strive to please God or earn His favour, but could enjoy the forgiveness and peace that comes from knowing that Jesus has done everything necessary to please God.
Jesus Himself indicated that this fulfilment was taking place when He invited His followers to come to Him, to enjoy being in a place of calm and rest, and to understand that following Jesus was not intended to be a burden.
Paul further explained this by telling Christians that they were no longer to allow anyone to judge them in the matter of Sabbath observance. Indeed, he declared, such practices were only the shadow of what was to come – the reality was to be found in Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews took this idea even further by explaining that the Sabbath was no longer limited to a Saturday (or a Sunday) but that ‘Today’ (in other words, every day of the week) the followers of Christ were to enjoy being in a place of rest.
I find a helpful way to think of this is to compare it to a mother who tells her daughter, “You must always hold my hand when you cross the road.” That commandment is given for a good and valid reason, but it does not remain binding for the entire lifetime of the child. For example, what if the daughter is now a 35-year-old surgeon? One can only imagine her reaction if she was told that she was not allowed to cross the road without holding her mother’s hand!
It is not that the commandment about crossing the road was bad. Nor do we conclude that the surgeon had two separate mothers – an Old Testament mother who ‘laid down the law’ and a New Testament mother who was relaxed and easy-going about crossing roads! It would not even be accurate, strictly speaking, to say that the hand-holding commandment had been abolished. Rather we should say that the commandment is now fulfilled. It has achieved its purpose in seeing the daughter grow to maturity without running headlong under a truck, and now circumstances have changed to the point where the commandment is no longer required.
Apart from types and shadows, another way in which the Old Testament is useful to Christians today is that it highlights moral principles that are important if we are to live in a relationship with God. Certain laws and commandments teach attitudes and behaviours that are quite clearly not just intended to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. For example, the commandment not to steal still has relevance for any Christian today who is seeking to live in a meaningful relationship with Christ. It would be farcical to say, “Since the commands against theft were preparing us for the coming of Christ, now that Jesus has come it’s OK for Christians to rob banks.”
The penalties prescribed in the Old Testament clearly do not apply to us today (which is why no genuine Christian advocates stoning people to death), nor are we living a rule-based morality. Yet much of the Old Testament still teaches us enough of the character of God to help us develop a morality that helps us follow Jesus better.
For example, Martin Luther King sought to live a life that would reflect the revelation of Jesus Christ that he saw in the New Testament. Yet Dr King, in his speeches on civil rights, repeatedly drew on the Old Testament to encourage his hearers to follow a Christian path of non-violence that pursued social justice. He quoted from the Book of Amos to declare that “We are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The Old Testament only mentions homosexual behaviour in a few passages. Despite what some preachers would have you to believe, it devotes less space to the subject than it does to stressing the importance of showing kindness and hospitality to immigrants. Nevertheless, those passages that do speak of homosexual behaviour do so in the most negative of terms. A key question for Christians is whether we should view these passages as ceremonial parts of the Law, like Sabbath keeping or eating bacon. Or are they moral absolutes, like welcoming immigrants or not stealing?
One key principle in understanding how to answer this question is to continue to interpret Scripture Christocentrically. We read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. For example, we know that the division of food into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ categories was a ceremonial issue, and longer binding on us today, because the New Testament tells us so. We know that showing hospitality to strangers was a moral issue because such behaviour is still encouraged in the New Testament.
I cannot find a single passage in the New Testament that indicates that the Old Testament negativity towards homosexual behaviour was a purely ceremonial matter. There is no passage in the Epistles of Paul that says, ‘Let no man judge you on account of whether you engage in homosexual activity.’ Nor do you find any of the Gospel writers commenting, ‘By these words Jesus taught that it’s all the same whether you sleep with the same gender or the opposite gender.’
On the contrary, even the most radical reinterpretations of the New Testament passages concerning homosexual behaviour aim at nothing more than to explain them away to a point where the New Testament is seen as silent on same-sex intimate relationships. That in itself is a powerful argument against treating the Old Testament passages as being purely ceremonial.
Nevertheless, Christians who simply try to quote Leviticus against homosexuality do themselves, or the Bible, no favours. It is easy for anyone to counter such an approach by quoting other passages from the Old Testament law that no-one would consider following today.
If Evangelical Christians are going to make contributions to the debate on same sex marriage, then we should at least ensure that we have the ability to understand Scripture, read it in context, prioritise the New Testament, and ground our opinions on the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.