Opinion: The path to discernment on homosexuality
By David Gushee
Associated Baptist Press
July 17, 2008
(ABP) -- I have sought to suggest in a handful of columns in recent
months that a rethinking of the church's stance on homosexuality is
Reading in the scholarly literature, one sees that some very fine
Christian minds are at work on this issue. Moving well beyond old
clichés and prejudices, these scholars, many of them quite
conservative both methodologically and theologically, are wrestling
with the idea that Christians may need to revise centuries-old
teaching about homosexuality.
Some of these thinkers are concluding that in fact a revision is
needed; others are not persuaded. It would be a significant
ethical-doctrinal change, though such change is not unprecedented in
Christian history (e.g., slavery, segregation, sexism, state killing
in the name of Christ, etc.).
In reflecting and dialoguing about this issue, certain things have
become clear to me.
It is clear that insofar as "Christianity" or "the church" is
primarily associated in people's minds with rejection of homosexuals,
as poll data shows, our mission as witnesses to the love of God in
Jesus Christ has been badly damaged. There are very good missional
reasons for Christian leaders to back off of public crusades against
gay rights, whatever one may think about the merits of the particular
issues under discussion. We must be known for what (who) we are for,
not what (who) we are against.
Secondly, it is clear that an uneasy "don't ask, don't tell" ethos
still pervades many (especially big city) churches when it comes to
the homosexuals in our midst. Most Christians have little taste for
outing and expelling folks who want to attend our churches that we
think may be homosexual. Most homosexuals have little interest in
provoking a confrontation and just want to attend a church that meets
their needs. Nobody asks, so nobody has to tell. Sometimes situations
will emerge in which "don't ask, don't tell" is not adequate. But the
issue is sufficiently explosive that most ministers will do all that
they can to avoid reaching that point.
It is clear that some Christian (and non-Christian) homosexuals, led
by a cadre of committed activists (as happens with any movement for
social change), will continue to ask the church to rethink its posture
on this issue. Some are okay with baby steps and incremental change;
others want much more, and want it now. Their strategies differ. Some
focus on legal issues and others on the internal teaching of the
church. Some appeal to basic values such as fairness and justice,
others to our compassion for the suffering of homosexuals, especially
young people driven by family and church into self-loathing. All are
asking us to offer within our churches a choice for gays other than
the closet, lifetime celibacy, change therapy, or finally rejection.
It is clear that our churches and their leaders are rarely prepared to
offer a serious discussion of the theological, biblical, scientific
and ethical issues that are at stake in the contemporary homosexuality
debate. That's because we are not prepared to offer serious discussion
of theological, biblical, scientific and ethical issues of any type.
We are not ready, for example, to discuss the normative significance
of male-female sexual complementarity, the relative importance of the
various "ends" of sexual intercourse, or the stubborn persistence of
creational sexual orientation diversity and how that relates to
cultural patterns and norms.
It's very clear that most of our churches are not getting the
intellectual and spiritual leadership they need from their pastors.
The leaders don't lead the people in thinking theologically. And as
for the Christian education program, let's just say that Sunday school
often is a profound waste of time. Some of the dumbest and meanest
things that anyone says about homosexuality-and a lot of other
issues-are said in church. This is truly scandalous.
In discussions recently with a number of pastors, it has become clear
to me that many of our churches are losing the will to fight the
abandonment of basic Christian sexual morality among our people.
Premarital sex among our youth is rampant. Cohabitation has become
routine. Our marriages are collapsing at an epic rate. Multiple
remarriages happen among us regularly and without reflection or
resistance. Children get swept along as the detritus of our
mix-and-match families. Ministers just try to be of some help amidst
the chaos, while hanging on to their always fragile jobs.
A church that is in the process of abandoning basic tenets of
Christian sexual morality has no credibility as a moral voice in
culture. And, ironically, it has no credibility if it decides to
abandon the church's traditional stance on homosexuality.
One can imagine a church in which the classic understanding of
Christian sexual morality has survived and even flourished. Ministers
teach that marriage remains normative and the only legitimate locus
for sexual expression, and the people still believe it. Celibacy is
understood to be both possible and expected for the unmarried, partly
because it is understood that sex is not life's highest good.
Faithfulness within marriage is strongly emphasized and rarely
violated. Divorce is treated as a rare, tragic exception to the
covenant of marriage, and not one in a hundred Christian marriages
ends in divorce. Community life is strong and nurturing, contributing
greatly to the emotional well being of everyone in the church, both
single and married.
That kind of Christian community might one day be in a position to
consider the pleas of homosexual believers that have formed families
and seek inclusion into the community of those whose permanent,
covenanted relationships receive the church's recognition and support.
This kind of church might have the capacity to reflect on the idea
that even though God's design for sexuality in creation was
heterosexual, in our fallen world a tiny minority among us is,
mysteriously, is just not wired that way, and needs some structure in
which their relationships and families can be properly formed and
sustained (if they are not called to the celibate path).
But in churches and denominations in which classic Christian sexual
morality has officially or unofficially collapsed, the abandonment of
ancient moral convictions related to homosexuality offers no positive
way forward. It is just one more abandonment, one more surrender to
culture, which makes it nearly impossible for more conservative
churches (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, charismatic/Pentecostal, black
and Hispanic, evangelical Protestant) to even consider the possibility
that the issue needs rethinking.
We need a careful, unhurried process of Christian discernment related
to scriptural teachings, our theological understanding of
homosexuality, and church practices in relation to homosexuals,
undertaken by those who are committed unequivocally to every (other)
dimension of the classic Christian sexual ethic -- in which sex
belongs within marriage (lifetime, exclusive, covenant partnerships),
marriage is for life, and the church is a disciplined countercultural
community in which these norms are both taught and lived.
The question on the table would be whether Christian homosexuals who
live according to these norms should be treated as faithful members of
the Christian community.
Future columns will offer some discussion of the basic tenets of
Christian sexual ethics, such as celibacy and lifetime marriage, and
what must be done to preserve them before they are entirely washed out
of church life by the waves of a sexually licentious culture. These
are actually the most important issues in sexual ethics - not
homosexuality - because they pertain mainly to the 98 percent of us
who are heterosexuals and who, on the whole, are not doing well in
this area at all.
-- David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian
ethics at Mercer University. www.davidpgushee.com