Disclaimer 1: This is at least a 20-minute read, but I think it’s worth your time.
Disclaimer 2: This is a highly contentious topic, and even though my heart isn’t to be divisive, there’s probably something here to offend everyone—including, and especially, Christians (equality, right?) But let me forewarn you: if you tap out before the half way mark, you’ll only hear one side of the story. If part way through you start thinking I might just be another bigot, please scroll down to “love” and be surprised.
“Don’t judge others. Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?”—Jesus
Around a month ago, five judges in the US changed the course of history for their nation, legalising same-sex marriage in all 50 states. It hit saturation point in the news media; Facebook supplied a rainbow flag app used in profile pictures by 26 million people; and the world was abuzz for weeks.
I found it interesting that just a few days earlier, 300,000 people from all over Italy converged on Rome to show support for traditional male/female marriage—and all the major news outlets were silent.
Likewise, the same week as the US decision, Pitcairn Island, a tiny Pacific nation of 48 people (and no gay couples) legalised same-sex marriage—a story picked up by many in the news media. But a month previous, when a same-sex marriage bill in the Austrian parliament suffered a landslide 110-26 defeat, journalists had more important stories to cover.
Zeitgeist, n. the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history.
We all tend to think of ourselves as objective. We’re freethinkers; we make our minds up for ourselves. But are we actually aware of how much we’ve been shaped by the influences around us—especially the media?
Everything is awesome
Every era of history has a defining spirit or mood. There’s a fantastic German word to describe it: the “Zeitgeist”. The Zeitgeist of our time is this: I decide truth for myself. It’s no one else’s place to tell me how I can or can’t live my life. With just a few exceptions (like terrorism and paedophilia and Christianity) everything is awesome. The more diverse, the better.
So today, not only is homosexuality an equally valid lifestyle choice, it’s in fact a hallmark of progress. The media celebrates diverse forms of sexuality with pioneering zeal. Opposing same-sex marriage is like denying basic human rights—freedom for slaves, or the right of women to vote.
This is the story being told by the major influences around us. Increasingly, Christians are finding themselves in the minority, unsure what to make of it all. Do they roll with the Zeitgeist? Do they challenge it?
They’ve often reacted in one of two ways (or, at least, the media has caricatured it as such). They’ve either made truth their motivation, and been very unloving. Or they’ve been motivated by love for their gay friends and family, but in the process, have kissed God’s truth goodbye.
In Ephesians 4:15, Paul talks about “speaking the truth in love”. Apparently you can have both. My heart is that Christian communities the world over would be places of both truth and love—especially to our LGBTQIA friends, family and neighbours. So let’s look at both truth and love.
Truth (what’s the big deal?)
How come this is even contentious? Christians are the biggest religious bloc in western nations, and by-and-large are the main people still opposing the LGBTQIA cause. Why?
It’s quite simple really. Their sacred text, the Bible, though penned by human authors, is believed by them to be the very words of God: his expressed will for how they should conduct their lives—both for their highest joy, and for his. And in that book, the seven places that homosexuality is addressed, it’s always portrayed as being against God’s will. (“Sin” is the Christian swear word used to describe things God doesn’t like).
People who are same-sex attracted should be made to feel completely at home in every Christian community on the planet.
Before we look at those texts, there’s a distinction of eminent importance to Christians (even if to no-one else) that must be made. Same-sex attraction and homosexuality are not the same thing. Same-sex attraction means having an internal romantic affection towards someone of the same sex. Homosexual describes someone who acts on those feelings and enters into such a sexual relationship. The reason this distinction is important to Christians is because the Bible nowhere calls same-sex attraction a sin.
For which reason, people who are same-sex attracted should be made to feel completely at home in every Christian community on the planet, right alongside the rest of us who struggle with all sorts of inward temptations and sinful tendencies. And while people who are living a gay lifestyle generally won’t feel comfortable in Bible-believing churches, they should certainly be made to feel loved and welcomed like anyone else.
This distinction is important because the Bible never calls same-sex attraction a sin.
Given that all the Bible’s references to homosexuality are negative, one of the following must be true if LGBTQIA lifestyles can be celebrated:
(A) The God of the Bible doesn’t exist
(B) God’s laws change with time and culture
(C) On closer inspection, the Bible doesn’t actually forbid homosexuality
(A) is how many resolve the issue: possibly there is no god, or maybe there is, but he or she is fine with whatever, and is far less opinionated than the Bible’s God. This leaves (B) or (C) as the solution for Christians who embrace not only LGBTQIA friends and family, but their lifestyle choices too.
Do God’s laws change with time and culture?
(B) essentially goes like this: In the ancient world, people were more homophobic, and were unaware of modern concepts like orientation (internal desires that are wholly independent of conscious choice). The people who wrote the Bible were speaking with relevance into their situation, but surely God’s standards for our world are more culturally appropriate now.
The problems with this position are at least threefold:
1. Paul (who we’ll hear from a lot) wrote, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” (Romans 7:15,19). That sounds a lot like orientation.
2. Paul was in fact being culturally inappropriate by opposing homosexuality. Homosexuality was practiced and defended in the ancient world, and he made himself very unpopular by writing against it.
3. If God’s standards on homosexuality have changed, what other standards have too? Adultery? Drunkenness? Love for neighbour? How do we know which of them have changed and which he still wants us to uphold? And if homosexuality is the stand-alone case, why does it get special treatment?
For obvious reasons, (B) is a difficult (and not very scholarly) position to hold, which is why most LGBTQIA-affirming Christians will opt for (C). So let’s inspect those seven texts more closely.
Does the Bible really forbid homosexuality?
Genesis 19:1-29 tells the story of Lot, a man living in the city of Sodom, who hosts two visiting men in his home. “The men of Sodom, young and old, came from all over the city and surrounded the house and shouted to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to spend the night with you? Bring them out to us so we can have sex with them!’” Lot begs them, “Don’t do such a wicked thing.” The story goes on, ending with God destroying the city of Sodom with fire and brimstone for its wickedness. (The Judges 19 story bears many similarities to this one, so I’ll let you hunt it down).
Some point to Ezekiel 16:49—“Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door”—arguing that these are the sins God judged Sodom for, not homosexuality. But this creates a false “either/or” dichotomy when clearly it’s “both/and”. True to Ezekiel, Sodom was punished for neglecting social justice. But it’s undeniable from Genesis that their sexual sins were also cause for God’s judgment.
The objection is also made that homosexual rape, not homosexuality per se, is what upset both Lot and God in the story. Possibly that’s true. But the further we look in the Bible, the less likely that appears.
Which brings us to Leviticus. “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.” (18:22). And, “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offence.” (20:13).
If Christians are happy to eat oysters and wear mixed-fabric underpants, why do they insist the Leviticus teachings on homosexuality matter?
To be sure, Christians today do not believe that those who identify as homosexual deserve the death penalty. If they do, they need to scroll to the half way mark of this blog, and examine their hearts. Christians know that this was the law God gave to Israel; capital punishment for this “detestable act” was specific to that nation in that time of history.
And relevant to this, God also called things like eating shellfish and wearing mixed fabrics “detestable” in Leviticus. He had his reasons: another (culturally complex) topic for another time.
So if Christians no longer believe in the death penalty for homosexuality, and are happy to eat oysters and wear mixed cotton/lycra underpants, why do they insist that this teaching about homosexuality in Leviticus is still relevant now?
“God made them male and female from the beginning of creation. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife…”—Jesus
Simply put, as a minimum, Christians believe that any commands from the Old Testament that are repeated in the New Testament still apply to them today. And while the New Testament has nothing to say against oysters or Bonds underwear, it does warn against homosexuality.
And this brings us to Romans 1, a passage that describes a whole world that has turned against God, with homosexuality addressed as one example:
“God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies… Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” (v24, 26-27). More to come on this.
And the final two we’ll look at are the so-called “vice lists”:
“Don’t you realise that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
“The law is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother or commit other murders. The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts wholesome teaching…” (1 Timothy 1:9-11).
Homosexuality was as widespread in the ancient world as it is in ours.
Those who bring new interpretations to these texts rest their case on the “not that kind of homosexuality” argument. It goes like this: What the Bible is condemning is wrong or abusive gay relationships common in the ancient world, not the healthy ones we have today. Pederasty (a sexual relationship between a man and a boy) was common in the ancient world. Some of these relationships were even exploitative. It’s these that God condemns. Or perhaps what’s going on, at least in Romans, is that God gave heterosexual attraction to some people, and same-sex attraction to others, and what God forbids is heterosexuals who go against their God-given orientation.
Again, the problems here are at least threefold:
1. This is an argument from silence. The texts don’t specify that pagan pederastic practices, abusive relationships, or heterosexuals are in view—this is a novelty of modern interpreters. And without such qualifications, all three passages evidently forbid homosexuality in general.
2. Homosexuality was as widespread in the ancient world as it is in today’s. And not simply pederasty. Every kind of homosexual relationship known today was known then, from lesbian relationships to gender-bending marriages to lifelong same-sex companionships. And there was no more moral consensus among the ancients about it all than our world has today.
3. All such arguments ignore key phrases in the texts themselves—phrases making it clear that both people in the relationships described were willing participants. In Romans the phrase “each other” appears three times, and the fact that “they burned with lust for each other” especially rules out both abuse and heterosexuals. And without being too descriptive, 1 Corinthians uses two Greek words behind “male prostitute” and “homosexual” that actually identify the receiving and giving man in the sexual experience. Both are held responsible.
Many would add that “Jesus never condemned homosexuality, so neither should we”. However, in Mark 10:6-9, Jesus makes his views on marriage and human sexuality very clear: “God made them male and female from the beginning of creation. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
God’s true purpose for our sexuality
In fact Jesus wakes us up to the bigger picture. See, for Christians, it’s not just a question of God’s opinion on homosexuality, but in fact his true purpose for human sexuality in general. And as Jesus points out, the entire storyline of the Bible speaks to that purpose.
In the beginning, God didn’t create two men or two women—or a tribe of ape-like hominids on the plains of Africa. Here’s where a Christian’s stance on Genesis as history or myth really comes into play:
God creates a man. Then saying that “it’s not good for the man to be alone,” from Adam’s rib he makes Eve—“a helper who is just right for him”. God then declares, “this explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one”. He blesses their union and tells them to make lots of babies and fill the planet. And they could, because he’d given them the biological bits and pieces to make it happen.
Song of Solomon is a book of the Bible dedicated entirely to the beauty of sex—inside marriage, of course. (Curious that it never mentions babies. Apparently God created sex for pleasure as much as for offspring). The two players in this book celebrating intimate love are, no surprise, a man and a woman.
From beginning to end, God’s plan for human sexuality is clearly and beautifully portrayed as one man, for one woman, for life.
Throughout the Bible, marriage is used as a metaphor by God to describe the relationship between the groom, Jesus, and his bride, the church. In fact the Bible is book-ended by a man/woman marriage: Adam and Eve in Genesis, and Christ and the church in Revelation. From cover to cover, God’s plan for human sexuality is clearly and beautifully portrayed in the Bible as one man, for one woman, for life.
Why is this topic so contentious? Because for a Christian to wholeheartedly celebrate LGBTQIA lifestyles, they must go against the testimony of Scripture, the views of Jesus and the apostles, the understanding of the church for two millennia, and—many would add to this—the fundamentals of biology and reproduction. And for most Christians, that’s understandably far too great an ask.
Love (the half-way mark)
Well done, you made it. So we’ve looked at truth, from the perspective of the Christian God. What about love? Why should Christians love their LGBTQIA friends the most?
Many don’t. Many stop at truth. On meeting a gay person, all some Christians have to say is, in effect, “You’re wrong. You’re sinning.” Maybe they don’t even bother to engage at all, thinking that if someone has chosen a gay lifestyle, they’re beyond the reach of God’s grace—so why bother?
If Christians want to be like Jesus, they must love radically the way he loved.
If you’re reading this and you’ve been hurt by that kind of Christian, I want to say to you, I’m so sorry. It was wrong that you were treated like that. That’s not okay.
Being a Christian is about far more than believing the Bible. It’s not less than that, to be sure. But primarily, being a Christian is being a “little Christ”. That’s what the word Christian actually means. And the Jesus I know cared most for those who felt the most marginalised and the most distanced from God.
Love. Don’t marginalise.
I began by saying that the Zeitgeist and the media are pro-LGBTQIA. That is true. But it’s also true that, in 2015, same-sex attracted people and those who identify as gay are mistreated and misunderstood in many homes, families, schoolyards, workplaces and religious settings around the world. In some Islamic nations they are even put to death.
It’s the misunderstood and mistreated that, in my reading of the Bible, Jesus had the most time for. So if Christians want to be like Jesus, they’re not just going to hold radically to the truth he held to, they’re going to love radically the way he loved.
Let’s start with something simple. The blog you’re now reading was the sermon I preached last night to the church at which I’m a pastor. Last night, I dropped this one on our youth and young adults: using the word “gay” (or even the concept) as some sort of insult or joke is one of the quickest ways to completely undermine your witness for Jesus today. To many, it’s as offensive as the curse “Jesus Christ!” is to us. Convicted about this a few years ago I stopped doing it, expecting others would too—but I’ve continued to hear it in Christian circles. Let me be really frank: it absolutely has to stop.
Luke 7:36-50 tells a story, known to many Christians from Sunday School, about a prostitute (who elsewhere we discover is called Mary) who interrupts a lunch date between Jesus and a holier-than-thou Pharisee by the name of Simon.
Christ at Simon the Pharisee | Sir Peter Paul Rubens | 1618
Uninvited, she joins them and breaks an immensely expensive alabaster jar filled with perfume, pouring it over Jesus’ feet, mingling it with her tears. Kissing his feet over and over, she then dries them with her hair. (In the ancient world, only the lowliest of servants would touch feet stained by the dusty roads—so try to capture the gravity of this moment).
It’s a silly Victorian-era sensibility that has lead many Christians to follow the culture in marginalising the people they are called to love the most.
Simon’s internal thoughts are central to the story. He thinks to himself, “If Jesus was a prophet, he’d know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”
In other words, “Eww, she’s icky.” Sadly, for many who have grown up in the church, and who are also products of their schoolyards, their reaction is exactly this towards the same-sex attracted or gay. “Eww, they’re icky.” And it’s this silly Victorian-era sensibility that has lead many Christians to follow the culture in sidelining and marginalising and even hating the people they are called to love the most.
Christians, take the plank out
Let me get preachy. Christians, are we like Simon the Pharisee? Do we simply find homosexuality alien and distasteful, completely apart from any gospel convictions we might hold, apart from any desire to see people restored to sexual wholeness, enjoying their sexuality the way God intends? If so, that’s the flesh in us, not the Spirit. And it’s horrifically ugly.
Christians are quick to point out “big sins” like homosexuality. But are we as quick to recognise the sins in our own lives that make us just as unqualified for God’s kingdom?
One of the greatest ironies in this story (and one you’ll only find by looking at the parallel account in Mark 14:1-9), is that Simon the Pharisee used to be Simon the leper.
In that culture, disease made you unclean. Leprosy, like other sickness, was seen as evidence of your sinfulness. Culturally you were required to call out “unclean” as you walked down the street so all the nice “clean” people wouldn’t accidentally touch you on their way. Simon used to be that guy. Now here he is, cut and polished, well housed and fed, and looking down his nose condemningly at a prostitute.
Simon wasn’t guilty of so-called “big sins” like prostitution. His sins were more respectable. Petty sins like theft and greed and cheating and lying and breaking promises. Where did I pull those examples from? You remembered: they come straight out of the “vice lists” of 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1.
“I am as undeserving of God’s love as the worst of sinners, but Jesus rescued me. So how dare I look down my nose at people who sin differently to me?”
See like Simon, we Christians are often quick to point out that “big sins” like homosexuality are forbidden by God and bar people from heaven. But are we as quick to recognise that the sins in our own lives are equally as serious and make us just as unqualified for God’s kingdom? Sexual sin is also mentioned: that includes things like pornography and sex outside of marriage. Do we take them as seriously as we do homosexuality? According to God, we should.
The Gospel, remember!?
Jesus said that people like Mary who’ve been forgiven lots, love lots—and that people like Simon who’ve only been forgiven a bit, love only a bit. Truth be told, it’s not that Simon was only forgiven a bit. It’s that Simon thought he’d only been forgiven a bit. He was a true Pharisee. He had self-righteousness nailed. He had a black, judgmental heart. Christians, are we the same? Or do we realise just how much we’ve been forgiven?
“The gospel is this: We are at the same time more sinful than we could ever dare imagine, and more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope.”—Timothy Keller
I was once disqualified from God’s kingdom because of all my sins. I was once a spiritual leper, unclean and unwanted. What made me eligible for heaven and for a relationship with God had nothing to do with me cleaning my life up. It had everything to do with Jesus cleaning my life up for me. Jesus said to me, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
I am as undeserving of God’s grace and kindness and love as the worst of sinners, but Jesus rescued me. So how dare I give up on anyone else, or look down my nose at people who sin differently to me?
Timothy Keller has said, “The gospel is this: We are at the same time more sinful than we could ever dare imagine, and more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope.”
Jesus came to us in our brokenness and sin and transformed us by his grace. If we can’t radically love our gay friends and family and neighbours, then we’ve completely missed everything he came to accomplish.
Our task isn’t to judge people outside of the community of believers for not living the right kind of lifestyle. It makes zero sense for Christians to assume that those who don’t know Jesus and don’t have the Holy Spirit empowering their lives, either can or want to live like a Christian. Our task isn’t to judge, but to love.
If we can’t radically love our gay friends and family and neighbours, we’ve completely missed everything Jesus came to accomplish.
The verse that directly follows 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says, “Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus.” Can someone turn around from a homosexual lifestyle? Absolutely they can. (The media won’t tell you these stories, but there are plenty out there). People did in Corinth, and people can today.
And whether God uses our love to work a new creation miracle in someone’s life, or whether our love makes no noticeable difference at all, we are still called to keep on loving. In the decades to come if we’re hauled before courts and dragged to prison for standing our ground (as many Christians fear—perhaps rightly), our commission remains the same: to love like Jesus.
Are people born gay or do they choose?
There’s one objection I haven’t addressed: “I was born gay: God made me like this, and surely he wants me to live a fulfilled life.”
Behind this idea is an assumption that says, “God made me perfect just the way I am.” That sounds great in greeting cards but it’s not a teaching of the Bible. Once again, a Christian’s view on Genesis as either myth or history has great relevance.
All of us are broken. Everyone struggles with sinful desires.
God did make creation perfect in the beginning, but we stuffed it up. At the fall of Adam and Eve, the world came under a curse, the effects of which we still experience daily—including in our genes. I was born with bad joints just like my mum, and a bad temper like my dad. Others are born with cleft palates and epilepsy—and genetics are also a factor in some mental illnesses. If we think all these things are perfect, why do advanced nations spend billions of dollars trying to fix them?
Every one of us is loved by God and made in his image, but we’re also full of imperfections. The reason the “born this way” versus “it’s a choice” debate has no relevance for Christians is because even if there are genetic factors in sexual orientation (which may well be the case), it’s actions, not attractions, that the Bible calls “sin”. All of us are broken. Everyone struggles with sinful desires.
The reason the “born this way” versus “it’s a choice” debate has no relevance for Christians is because it’s actions, not attractions, that the Bible calls sin.
The church of the future
Life is messy, and dealing with these realities in our lives won’t always be straightforward. But can I suggest four words for Christian communities to consider as we seek to love our LGBTQIA friends the most?
Community | As communities of believers, we absolutely need to be a soft place for people to land. What if this Sunday your friend sitting next to you in church turns to you and says, “I’ve never told anyone, but all my life I’ve felt same-sex attracted”? Without flinching, without a hint of “that’s icky”, without a word of judgment, we need to be able to turn to them and say, “I struggle with all sorts of things too. Isn’t it so good that we both have a home here.” The church is a hospital for the sick, not a museum for saints.
Healing | Many LGBTQIA people, including some who are friends of mine, can clearly point to an abusive event in their past that triggered same-sex attraction for them. This isn’t the cause for everyone, but it is certainly the cause for some. Jesus heals. He absolutely does. Churches need people equipped to walk that healing journey with those who have been hurt. I’m so thrilled to be part of a church that has such a ministry team. If your church is yet to equip such a group, what needs to happen for you to get there? What can you do?
The church is a hospital for the sick, not a museum for saints.
Sacrifice | For some people, on this side of eternity, same-sex attraction may remain a long-term struggle. Jesus and Paul talk about those who choose not to marry for the sake of the kingdom. That might be you. (Or you might happily marry heterosexually, but continue to deal with same-sex attraction). And it might not seem fair. Reality is, every Christian has a cross to carry. If life had gone a bit more according to my plan, I would have met and married the right person ten years ago. There are a lot of struggles that come with being a single 30 year old trying to live a pure life. But if you’re someone who chooses not to marry, more loudly than anyone else you are declaring to the world, “Jesus is enough”.
Identity | I look around in the media and the story I’m consistently hearing about homosexuality is that coming out is some sort of all-defining salvation experience. Coming out is literally promoted as the modern-day equivalent of being born again. In our world today, sexual experimentation is nothing less than a search for identity. Founding identity on sexuality is an empty promise, and one guaranteed to disillusion. Our sexuality is a great and awesome thing, but it wasn’t designed to bear a load so weighty. We are so much more than our desires. Sex is not the pinnacle human experience. Psalm 42 doesn’t say, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for sexual fulfilment”—but rather, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God.” Our sexuality isn’t our identity. Jesus is. Sex is good, but Jesus is far better. And he is enough.