This has turned into a ridiculously long 3500-words post due to the complexity and sensitivity of the subject, so you may wish to tackle it in two or three sittings. 🙂
So, having set out my thoughts on how Christians should disagree (with shedloads of love and respect), it’s time to get down to some of the real issues that Christians do disagree on. Like homosexuality.
Views on homosexuality and homosexual practice have hugely divided Christians, and in recent years have repeatedly threatened to split the Anglican communion. On the liberal, pro-gay side it’s seen as a straightforward issue of human rights, akin to the historical Abolitionist, Civil Liberties or Suffragette movements. On the conservative side it’s viewed as a matter of upholding unchanging Scriptural Truth and time-honoured morality in the face of libertarian attacks which are seen as undermining the stability of the family, of society and of the church. (I have some sympathy for both positions while not fully agreeing with either.) Meanwhile the secular world looks on bemused and unedified by the sight of the church locked in a very uncivil civil war.
I’ve said in my Creed that I’m largely agnostic on the issue of homosexual practice for Christians (including clergy). It’s not an issue I have hugely strong feelings about either way. In my more evangelical years, I broadly accepted the church’s prevailing view that it was wrong for Christians (particularly clergy) to be actively gay. These days I’m broadly of the view that it’s okay, within the same parameters as for heterosexuals – i.e. within a faithful monogamous long-term relationship. I’m still not entirely comfortable with it, but I’m aware that may simply be the result of prejudice. And I may well be wrong.
I’m also aware that I have only fairly limited knowledge of the psychology, biology and theology of homosexuality, and being (as far as I can tell) hetero, I have little personal experience to draw on either. I’d therefore greatly welcome contributions from others who have more expertise or direct experience in these areas.
One who I have already listened to with interest is the controversial gay US bishop Gene Robinson, who I heard speak at Greenbelt in 2009 (you can listen to his talks here). To some Robinson is a hero and saint, to others a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He struck me as an unassuming, thoughtful and genuine Christian, and I was impressed both by what he had to say and the way he said it, while not necessarily agreeing with every point he made. I’ll draw on some of his arguments below.
Firstly it’s worth thinking a little about the basis of homosexual orientation, which is still something of a mystery. On the question of whether people are born gay or become gay (nature or nurture), my own view is simply that we don’t currently know enough to be sure. It also seems to me that homosexuality is a complex phenomenon and may not be subject to a single, simple one-size-fits-all explanation or cause.
My uncle-in-law is an immunobiologist who worked on the Human Genome Project. I asked him some time ago about the concept of a ‘gay gene’ and he said that biologists would reject such a simplistic notion. His view at the time was that there could possibly be a genetic component to some homosexual orientation; however, it would never be the simple result of a single gene but would arise from an almost incalculably complex combination of separate genetic components. So in the vast majority of cases, it seems we can’t confidently ascribe homosexual orientation to purely genetic factors. However, it’s certainly possible some may be born with a genetic predisposition towards homosexuality.
In their October 2007 ‘Submission to the Church of England’s Listening Exercise on Human Sexuality’, The Royal College of Psychiatrists stated:
“there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation. It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment. Sexual orientation is therefore not a choice.”
This seems to me a slight over-simplification given that we still don’t fully understand the basis of homosexual orientation, and cannot confidently attribute individual instances to single causes. However, the Royal College’s view appears to be the prevailing academic thinking at the moment, though this may change.
Despite this view, some psychiatrists suggest that psychological factors may play an important role in at least some aspects or instances of homosexual orientation.
In the 1983 pop-psych classic Families and How to Survive Them Robin Skinner sets out an intriguing view on the psychological origins of male homosexual orientation. Children all start off on the mother’s side of a metaphorical bridge, and initially their sexual identity is fairly fluid. During the toddler stage, most boys cross the bridge to the father’s side to ‘join the male team’, in other words gaining their male or masculine sexual identity. They can then turn to face the mother’s side and develop a ‘romantic’ relationship with her, enjoying a safe flirtation. Thus far, this all seems to be fairly standard child sexual psychology.
Skinner’s view, based on the research up to that time, is that boys who develop homosexual orientation are those who make it part-way across the bridge but get stuck there, unable fully to join the father, perhaps because he is physically or emotionally distant and so unable to form the necessary bond. The boy remains ‘facing’ his father, seeking the missing male closeness and warmth; thus the same-sex orientation develops. Of course, this is just one view and the research this was based on may well now have been superseded or amended. But it’s interesting at least.
Another more generally-accepted point which Skinner makes is that homosexuality is a spectrum, with people positioned at different points across the ‘bridge’. He believes that those men who have made it nearest to the father’s side are most likely to form stable, satisfying long-term same-sex partnerships. Again, this may be speculative; it may or may not shed light on the allegedly promiscuous nature of homosexual relationships.
Perhaps more important is Skinner’s view (again based on the research up to then) that male sexual identity is fixed quite early and that it is very hard for it to change later, even with willingness and therapy. Sometimes straight men may go through a temporary homosexual ‘phase’, particularly when they are isolated from female society; similarly, some homosexual men may be able to form fairly stable marriages with women; but (in his view) in neither case has the core sexuality really changed.
So in Skinner’s view as a psychiatrist, homosexuality is not the developmental norm, but neither is it evil or abhorrent; it just is, and needs to be accepted. I find his ideas interesting and plausible, while aware that they’re out of step with current psychiatric doctrine.
Norms and nature
Homosexuality is of course not the biological norm for humanity (or any other species, except possibly the natural hermaphrodites); clearly, if it were the species would cease to exist.
But the norm is a slippery and not always helpful concept. It’s arguably not the norm to be left-handed but that certainly doesn’t make it wrong. It’s certainly not the norm to be born with Down’s Syndrome, or to be born deaf, but that doesn’t make those who are any less valuable or any less human; nor does it make them in any way sinful.
It’s now acknowledged that homosexual behaviour is relatively common in the animal kingdom, which suggests that it is not ‘contrary to nature’ in one sense (though of course it’s not possible to make a case for human morality based on animal behaviour).
Some would therefore argue that while homosexuality is not the biological or societal norm, it could still potentially be a valid and acceptable expression of human sexuality. A norm does not necessarily imply an ideal, a moral or an eternal absolute. (According to Jesus, in the Kingdom to come we will all be either celibate or sexless anyway – Matt 22:30. Though that may be a misinterpretation.)
Bestiality, paedophilia and incest
Some though draw parallels between homosexuality and bestiality or paedophilia, asking how and where we draw the line in terms of what’s morally acceptable. In truth though, these are not equivalent or comparable phenomena. Both bestiality and paedophilia are fundamentally about control and abuse – ultimately rape. There can be no mutuality or true consensuality between adults and children, or between people and animals. Neither children nor animals are emotionally, mentally or physically capable of engaging in adult sexual activity, and any instances will necessarily be abusive and damaging.
Furthermore, there is no longer any mainstream acceptance among psychologists and medics of the old view that homosexuality is technically a perversion.
Others ask, then what of incest? If same-sex intercourse is okay, why not same-family? This seems a slightly daft argument-by-extension to me. The reasons against same-family sex are fairly obvious; emotionally it’s a minefield, quite aside from the biological and genetic problems with any resulting offspring. (Incidentally, the patriarch Abraham’s marriage to Sarai in the Bible was technically incestuous as she was his half-sister, but no legal or religious prohibition was apparently in place at that stage.)
I suspect that many simply feel deep down that homosexual practice must be wrong because they find the thought of the physical details distasteful, even repugnant. However, to be frank, and pornographic fantasy aside, the intimate details of any form of genital intercourse could put anyone off their dinner.
In any case, our physical or emotional response to something often has little bearing on its rightness or morality. Physically, pornography can be very appealing but few Christians would see it as morally beneficial. Physical deformity can produce a reflex ‘yuk’ reaction in many people, but that clearly doesn’t make it morally bad. We can’t base morality simply on our emotional or physical responses.
Homosexuality and the Bible
on the subject of homosexuality
So let’s get on to the Bible, which is the heart of the issue for many.
Most conservative Christians would use the Bible as their prime evidence that homosexual behaviour is a sin. However, we can never just say ‘The Bible says’, on this or any other complex issue. The Bible needs to be read in full and in context, and interpreted for our very different circumstances. (After all, both slavery and sexism are arguably ‘biblical’ if you take a very literal approach.)
Many now argue that most Bible references to homosexual behaviour concern ritual or cultic sodomy, pederasty, or homosexual rape (often apparently straight men raping other men); for example the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), and of the Levite and his Concubine (Judges 19:22). Faithful long-term same-sex relationships are largely a modern phenomenon; though homosexuality was revered in Graeco-Roman society, it was very different both in nature and practice from what we have in our own society.
Nonetheless, the Old Testament prohibitions (both in Leviticus) seem quite stark: ‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable’ (Lev 18:22) and ‘If a man has sexual relations with a man… they are to be put to death’ (Lev 20:13). However, the overall context is the Levitical purity laws, arguably designed largely to set the Jewish people apart from the idolatrous practices of surrounding nations. The prohibitions against gay sex occur alongside others against tattoos, mixing fabrics, and various ‘unclean’ foods – which Jesus famously later declared clean. And let’s not forget that the penalty for Sabbath-breaking – something modern Christians tend not to worry too much about – was also death. So though Leviticus is pretty unequivocal in its condemnation of homosexual behaviour, I’d argue that it’s not possible to extrapolate a once-for-all Christian morality from that. (I’ve argued against the death penalty elsewhere).
Homosexual practice is only mentioned directly three times in the New Testament (Rom 1:26-27, 1 Tim 1:10, 1 Cor 6:9) and I’m told all could be translated or interpreted in other ways. In Romans 1 in particular, the context is paganism and idolatry, and those who commit ‘unnatural’ sexual practices are also described as being “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful”. This description certainly can’t be applied to people like Gene Robinson or other Christians struggling with their sexuality.
The 1 Corinthians 6:9 passage is also interesting because in English translations it appears to roundly condemn homosexual acts, but the original Greek words are far less clear. One is malakoi, translated ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ but apparently rarely used for actual homosexuality; the other is arsenokoitai, which Paul appears to have coined from arseno (man) and koite (bed). While it could conceivably refer to homosexual acts in general, there were clear existing terms Paul could have used had he wanted to convey that. It therefore seems more likely in context that it refers to shrine prostitution (as condemned in Deut 23:17), or else to pederasty.
Note also that only the Romans passage appears to refer to female homosexual practice at all.
Jesus is notably silent on the subject of homosexuality, which could be because it wasn’t an issue for the people he was addressing, or could be because it wasn’t an issue for him. In contrast, he is unequivocal in his teaching against divorce and remarriage, teaching which much of the modern church has re-interpreted or ignored (but again it’s a question of context, and I’m not getting into that debate now!).
Support from the New Testament?
The Bible clearly lends no direct support to homosexuality, but a few New Testament passages could be interpreted as offering indirect support.
As I said, Christ controversially declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), which by extension could possibly be seen as lifting the ban on previously forbidden but non-harmful sexual practices. (A strong symbolic association between eating and sex almost certainly pre-dates Freud by several millennia, and can be seen in the biblical Song of Songs.) What’s also particularly interesting about this passage is that it overturns previous scriptural law, showing that the Bible’s moral rules are not all necessarily set in stone for all time (though of course that doesn’t mean we can just change them whenever we feel like it).
Another New Testament passage which might just possibly lend support by extension to homosexuality is the famous verse in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Might it not be at least possible to consider adding ‘neither gay nor straight’ into this list? (NB in context the passage is really about the breaking down of barriers rather than the removal of all categories or prohibitions, but it can certainly be used as an argument for inclusivism.)
Finally, and most directly, Romans 11:24 positively re-interprets the whole idea of ‘contrary to nature’ raised in the Romans 1 passage about homosexuality (‘acts against nature’). Paul talks of the Gentiles (us) being cut out of a wild olive tree and, ‘contrary to nature’, grafted into a cultivated olive (Israel) to become participants in God’s life and blessings. Since both these passages occur in the same letter it could certainly be argued that the latter sheds light on the former; that even things which are fundamentally ‘against nature’ can be made holy by God’s redeeming action.
In any case, even if homosexual behaviour is in fact a sin, bear in mind that so are self-righteousness and judgementalism – and homophobia.
We dare not condemn those struggling with their sexuality in the light of their faith – or with their faith in the light of their sexuality. There but for the grace of God go any of us. Christians need to be first in treating gay men and women with dignity, respect, compassion, understanding and grace.
Of course Christians can’t condone homosexual promiscuity any more than hetero; but I’m increasingly coming to the view that committed, monogamous homosexual partnership is acceptable (whether ‘ideal’ or not is another discussion). Some of course believe that gay men are inherently promiscuous; I can’t comment on this, as I have little data either way – as with straight men I’ve known some who are, some who aren’t. I can only again point to Robin Skinner’s view that there is a spectrum of homosexual orientation and those at one end are likelier to form stable long-term partnerships than those at the other.
Those homosexual Christians who in conscience feel that they must remain celibate should have our full support. But those who do not should not have our condemnation and judgement. We don’t have to agree with them or even approve their behaviour if our own conscience tells us otherwise; but we have to recognise that our conscience (like theirs) is only a partial and flawed guide, often influenced by hidden emotion and biological instinct. Their conscience is telling them different; can we be so sure that ours is the correct one?
I mentioned homophobia, something that those outside the church often accuse Christians of. Certainly there are homophobic Christians, many of whom are quite vocal. And in reality of course, all of us are prejudiced to a degree on all sorts of issues, though obviously we don’t have to act out of our prejudices.
On the other hand, I think charges of homophobia can sometimes be a little over-cooked, resulting either from misunderstanding or mere name-calling polemic. Of course many Christians do believe that homosexual acts are morally flawed – as indeed did most of the western world until fairly recently, and as much of the rest of the world continues to believe. We may not agree with this view, but those who hold it are not necessarily homophobic. If they treat homosexual people as people, with all care, love and respect, while nonetheless holding their sexual behaviour to be morally wrong, I do not see how this can be called homophobic. (There’s no hate or ‘phobia’ involved; simply a difference of moral view.)
Similarly, most Christians have non-Christian straight friends who are co-habiting; if they view this behaviour as morally wrong (‘living in sin’) that doesn’t constitute ‘heterophobia’ or hatred against co-habiters. I have passionately vegetarian friends who consider my meat-eating as morally repugnant; I disagree, but I’m not going to accuse them of carniphobia against me, as they still treat me with kindness and respect. (They also probably wouldn’t elect me to presidency of their Vegetarian Association, which seems fair enough to me.) So I think sometimes we can be too quick to level unhelpful accusations of whatever-phobia, which do nothing to aid dialogue and understanding.
Nonetheless, it’s true that many who vocally oppose homosexual practice, while perhaps not strictly homophobic, are at least ungracious and unloving in their manner. Even if it turns out they are right in their theology and morality, they are often far from right in their attitudes. Christ calls us to love our enemies, and he strongly warns us not to judge or condemn others. We can get so obsessed with being morally or theologically correct that we forget that it’s even more important to be gracious and loving, to listen, to seek to understand; to treat people as people. I said in my previous post that to hold and proclaim the truth in an unloving way means we do not really have the truth, for Christian truth must always be rooted in love. It’s better to be wrong but to have love than to be right without love, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13 slightly.
A matter of conscience
In the end then, I believe that homosexuality is a matter for individual conscience – both on the part of those Christians who are homosexual, and on the part of those who are trying to decide whether or not they can accept homosexual practice for Christians.
If in conscience you feel you can’t be ministered to by a practising gay vicar or bishop, then by all means move church. But do so with love and humility, not with accusations and condemnation. We can be different and not necessarily heretical or hell-bound. Gay Christians are fellow human beings and fellow-believers first; our different sexuality and moral views do not have to destroy our relationship.
Ultimately I’m not certain that non-celibate monogamous homosexual relationship is okay for Christians (I’m not absolutely certain about many things these days!) – but I’m certainly open to the possibility. And it definitely isn’t my place to pass judgement on the circumstances and consciences of others on either side of the debate.
Resources for investigating homosexuality and Christianity
If you want to look into the subject further, here are some links you might find helpful:
- Courage – links (resources for Christians interested in gay and lesbian issues)
- Talks by Bishop Gene Robinson (Greenbelt talks)
- ‘It’s not about homosexuality’ – Dave Tomlinson (Greenbelt talk)
- ‘God Bless Adam and Steve?’ – John Bell (Greenbelt talk)
- Queer Saints and Martyrs (blog)