Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Homosexuality A Christian Response

The following was published in "FOCUS" a magazine for Bethel Alumni. On April 18 the gay activist group called Soulforce will have their Equality Ride visiting Bethel's University's campus.
(Please ignore formatting issues. I didn't want to manually edit the whole document in html so it's a bit erratic)

The Panelists

James Beilby, M.A.T.S.,
associate professor of biblical and theological studies; a frequent speaker on theology and contemporary culture
Michael Holmes, M.A.,
professor of biblical studies and early Christianity and chair of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies
James Koch, M.A., Ph.D., professor of psychology; director of counseling
Sherry Mortenson, D.Min., associate dean of campus ministries and pastor of spiritual formation
Jenell Williams Paris, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology, author and researcher in the field of sexuality

We hear a lot of talk today about sexual identity and orientation. Could you
bring your perspective to this emphasis in our culture?

Holmes: The Apostle Paul [in the New Testament] nowhere discusses homosexuality
as an orientation. He discusses behaviors, and he never discusses them in isolation.
When he talks about same-sex behavior it’s in the context of opposite-sex
behavior as well. Paul has a category in which sex is rightfully exercised
and enjoyed—in marriage between a man and a woman—and another category
in which it’s not: for those outside such a marriage. His categories
are not heterosexual and homosexual; they are married or unmarried. We impart
so much of our culture into the way we read the Bible that it keeps us from
hearing the text.

Paris: While same-sex sexual behavior has long been recognized, “heterosexual” and “homosexual” as distinct human identities is a social construct that comes out of 19th century, maybe a little earlier. Sexual identity is not a biblical concept, and I don’t think this concept is true to the way God made us. Not many cultures have said sexuality is so important that, beginning in childhood, you need to explore it and think about it, and you can’t be a healthy adult without expressing and knowing it. That, in my view, is a sign of a culture that has made an idol of sex.

Is it even useful, then, for Christians to talk in terms of sexual identity?

Paris: Because we live in society, we have to engage this construct of orientation and work with it strategically, even though as Christians we don’t have to live by its power.

Koch: As a psychologist, I think it’s a valid concept. There are some
people who have a predisposition from a very early age. For others it’s
an evolving process. But as a society, and even as Christians, we confuse early
feelings of same-sex attraction with permanent orientation. When you flatten
those categories, it creates a tremendous amount of confusion for a young person
in development. Data today show young people are labeling themselves sexually
at age 15. Anyone in the midst of uncertainty is told what label to apply.
For some it feels like liberation, but for others it becomes a prison. I think
of my experience in high school compared to my kids’ experience and the
gay groups that are very mainstream now. It’s all part of an early labeling

Does the scientific community agree on causes, and how should that shape our
thinking as Christians?

Beilby: When we let culture define the categories for us, then we’re
forced into false either/ors. One of the fairly offensive things the Christian
community has done with respect to this issue is to say, “Well the Bible
says it’s wrong, therefore it was a person’s bad choice. People who are homosexuals are suppressing the truth.” It’s not that simple. There might be choices associated with sexual orientation, but it’s not one single choice. On the other hand, neither is it simple determinism either: “I am created to be this way.” Studies have shown there is not one single set of factors that creates homosexuality. Whatever it is—a complex mixture of potentially genetic factors, potential brain biochemistry, early experiences, and responses to those—may be precursors. But they do not remove the person’s moral responsibility any more than a person hard-wired with
a Type A personality does not have to resist their inborn inclination toward
arrogance. Mere desires are not a good indicator of right and wrong.

Koch: The fact that we have appetites and desires is part of who we are and
how we’re constructed. Having said that, if we are searching for a way
to understand those desires, we will draw meaning from our context. And if
that context is ill-defined, we need something to help guide our interpretation.
That’s where Scripture comes in. That’s where Lordship and discipleship
come in, because we are encouraged to bring our desires under the Lordship
of Christ. When we do, we’re growing into the creatures God made us to be.

How would Bethel respond to a student struggling with homosexual desires?

The stance of Bethel University on homosexual expression remains clearly stated in a covenant that students, faculty, and staff agree to honor: “We believe that sexual intercourse
and other forms of intensely interpersonal sexual activity are reserved for monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

Mortenson: Because we are a Christian liberal arts university, we look to the Word as our beginning place. The standard is the same for all relationships. The expectation in our community is that if we are not [heterosexually] married, we are celibate. I would minister to a student feeling same-sex desires in the same way I minister to students who come and say they’re addicted to pornography or are having sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend. I respond with truth, grace, and compassion, but also within the context of who God has called us to be as holy people.

Koch: Bethel’s position is, if you are struggling with same-sex attraction
or believe yourself to be homosexual in primary orientation, that is not a
sin. The issue is how that person or any of us lives our lives morally. If
someone is struggling with questions of sexuality at Bethel, there is room
to talk it through, whether through counseling services, with faculty, student
life, or campus ministries. We want Bethel to be a place where students know
they can work on this issue.

Paris: I would encourage anyone to work out their holiness and morality, with Scripture, in community with other Christians. What I’m afraid of is sounding like that isn’t concrete enough. It’s so sad to me that compassion and acknowledging the complexities of real life, when we’re
talking about sexuality, can sound liberal as though we’re not taking a conservative stance. Do we have to articulate hate or shunning or judgment in order to be proper conservatives? That’s just terrible if that’s the case. I’m taking my cues from John Wesley in Methodism where a healthy model for that student or anyone at all working on their sexuality would be
small groups of people meeting to pursue personal holiness together.

When should a Christian community discipline a homosexual individual by separation or other steps described in 1 Corinthians 6?

Beilby: A community that doesn’t talk about accountability is not a
biblically faithful community. But at the same time we also talk about grace—that
we’re all unfinished products and no sin is worse than any other. My
inclination is probably we’re not going to find one nice, neat principle
that we can apply in every single case. It has to be dealt with on a case-by-case
basis. But whatever we say in any given case, the emphasis on discipline has
to be consistent. It can’t be something we practice with respect to homosexuality

Holmes: Falling short in one area, such as the prevalence of divorce in the
church, does not justify giving up biblical standards in other areas. We are
called to uphold biblical standards with an equal hand. However, the church
also needs to recognize that it’s got to do a much better job of providing
resources for people to deal with the kinds of situations they find themselves
in. The church has tended to say, “Just say no,” and drop it without seeking to
provide the help, the discipleship, the support to find alternatives—particularly
in a culture that says you must be sexually active to be human.

Mortenson: With the issue of sexuality, I hear students who want to
know how far they can go. And I think whether we are struggling with heterosexual
or homosexual desire, we ask the wrong questions. We need to be asking “How
can I be someone who is holy and pure? How can I be someone whose life is a
reflection of my faith and commitment to the Lord?”

Some Christians believe that everyone with a primary homosexual orientation
can change to become heterosexual. What is your response?

David Clark, M.A., Ph.D., lead faculty in the M.A. in Christian Thought at Bethel
Seminary, moderated the first of the two faculty forums that wrestled with
the issue.

Koch: People wrestle with many conditions involving a physiological component
that do not fundamentally change throughout life. For some homosexuals, there
has been a change in orientation. I believe God’s grace works in this
world in many ways. But generally, if someone’s orientation is predominantly
same-sex and reinforced by circumstances, it is more difficult to become primarily
heterosexual. On the other side, if someone’s motivation is strong, if they’ve had successful heterosexual functioning and were not confused about gender identity in early childhood, that increases the likelihood that, yes, a change in orientation could occur more easily. In the field of psychology, we need better research.

Holmes: In this matter, as in many others, God’s grace comes to His
people in different ways. Paul himself prayed for deliverance from a “thorn
in the flesh,” but God’s answer in his case was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Similarly grace comes to some people in the form of deliverance, and to others in the form of a disciplined endurance. In both cases God’s grace is at work, in different ways. To expect that everyone will live in conformity to scriptural standards is biblical; to expect or claim that everyone will experience grace in exactly the same way is to infringe upon God’s sovereignty.

Paris: I’ve been paying attention to this field for about 15 years,
and it’s not a simple answer. If anything, academic and Christian dialogue
about it increasingly recognizes how complex sexuality is. So I think there’s
a practical question: What should we as Christians try to do about friends
or acquaintances who are homosexuals? Jesus was very straightforward about
our responsibility as Christians: we are to love others as ourselves. It’s
that simple. And whatever healing or change might happen for the homosexual
is up to that person and the Lord’s healing in their lives.

How are Christians to regard others dealing with longing or loneliness because
of persistent same-sex desire? Is that what a loving God would want?

Mortenson: I once heard two Christian women talking. One said to the other, “You
must be very proud of your son. He’s so successful.” And the mother replied, “Yes, I’m proud of that son, but I’m also very proud of my other son. He’s a homosexual and he’s living a celibate lifestyle. He brings such joy to my life.” And I thought what grace this mother was giving to her son! Also, I was a single person in the Bethel community until I was 35 and lived a celibate lifestyle. I never once thought that God did not love me or that I had less value.

Paris: It’s not easy to live without sexual fulfillment. But we learn
more about how to live with deep longing from Jesus than we learn how to get
all our needs met. And I think for gay Christians, however they work out their
sexual desire over time, that is part of their discipleship. If that includes suffering, that suffering is part of what they offer to God.

Koch: Even in psychological theory, well-being does not hinge on sexual fulfillment. When we place that in some way center stage, we do a disservice to our development as whole persons and really skew the discussion.

“We want Bethel to be a place where students know they can work on this issue.”

Voices challenging the church say that Scripture, properly read in our culture,
would allow for committed gay relationships.

Holmes: When Paul deals with this issue, he begins not with the particular
mores or ethics or psychology of his culture. Instead he establishes a theological
foundation for his discussion of sexuality. And because his starting point
is theological, it is therefore transcultural—it speaks to every culture,
without being tied to any one culture. Scripture is the arbiter over all cultural
perspectives; and the scriptural model is disciplined fidelity in heterosexual
marriage for those who are married, and disciplined chastity for those who
are not.

Beilby: For any of the eight passages in Scripture that prohibit homosexual
activity, there are five or six possible counter-readings. But none of these
is acceptable when you do careful exegesis. For example, Paul in a very explicit
way takes two key words from a passage in Leviticus, pulls them forward into
the New Testament, and validates the prohibition. In Romans 1 he adds a condemnation
of lesbian behavior as well.

Paris: We need to take Scripture as a whole and ask, “What does it say
about who we are as persons, who is God, and what is the world like that we
live in?” Sexuality is a derivative question from those broader themes, and homosexuality is derivative of that. When we start backwards, it seems as if six verses are for gay people and about five verses are for women, for example, when in fact all of Scripture speaks to all of us.

Summarize Bethel’s stance, then, based on a holistic approach to Scripture.

Beilby: There’s a two-part message. As a Bible-believing Christian community, we cannot just cut out passages that are uncomfortable for us or for the culture in which we find ourselves. When you look at Scripture carefully, the message that emerges is that homosexual activity is a sin. But sadly, so is the response of so many Christians to homosexuals. In our evangelical subculture we make this such an important issue when frankly there are eight verses that talk about it and a lot more that address social justice. Though we want to be clear and unambiguous that homosexual expression is a sin, we’re not elevating it to this level of the super sin. And we also need to be appropriately self-critical about what so many Christians do, and the attitudes they have, with respect to homosexuals.

How do we create at Bethel or in a church an atmosphere that upholds biblical
convictions while being compassionate toward people who struggle or fail?

Mortenson: I always say in chapel, there’s an evil power in the secret,
in holding issues in our lives. Students come to me with a variety of sexual
struggles. Over the years I have worked with many students who were not dismissed
from Bethel. They experienced grace. They experienced people who came alongside
of them offering love, who spoke truth in love. We need to be a community that
reflects who Jesus has called us to be regardless of what the struggle is in
our lives.

“We need to be a community that reflects who Jesus has called us to be regardless of what the struggle is in our lives.”

Holmes: There’s a theology that says you cannot be Christian and a homosexual at the same time. And therefore if you can’t change, you can’t become Christian. That sends a devastating message to those who are celibate, but who are also pretty firmly set in a same-sex orientation. They feel condemned to hell because they are given a theology without hope. The Scriptures don’t call one to change one’s orientation in order to be saved. They call one to come to Jesus in order to be saved.

Paris: I long for a church and a community in which people can say each of
us is on a life journey that includes sexuality, and each of us needs God’s grace.

What response and influence would you like to see Bethel graduates have regarding this issue as they go out into the culture?

Beilby: There is a public agenda out there seeking to label anybody who thinks of homosexuality as a sin as “homophobic.” We shouldn’t let ourselves be labeled just for disagreeing with homosexual advocacy groups. But it’s also crucial as a Christian community to distance ourselves from other voices who frankly respond to homosexuality in mind-numbingly inappropriate ways such as “God hates fags.” The sort of us-versus-them mentality
we see in some Christians is never exemplified by Jesus’ behavior. In the case of the woman caught in adultery, there was a great balance. He said, “I don’t condemn you. Go and sin no more.” The response is one of love and grace. We have to take seriously “What would Jesus do?”

“Homosexual activity is a sin. But sadly, so is the response of so many Christians to homosexuals.”

Holmes: Jim’s right. Evangelical Christians are part of a movement that
has a long history of status by negation: “We’re not like those people; we’re different.” It makes it very useful to construct an “other” out there and avoid the logs in our own eyes. There’s
so much concern about a gay agenda as an attack on the family when the far greater destructive force on the family in the United States is divorce among Christians.

Paris: There are common interests like discrimination or anti-gay violence
we can work on even if we don’t agree on everything [with homosexual advocacy groups]. Also, I would encourage people who want to engage in gay issues, to choose an avenue of service that matters to you. If that’s politics, become politically savvy. If you’re concerned about education or therapy, know the field and engage in it appropriately. I am wary when Christians, though, engage gay issues without ever knowing gay people. As Christians who are often caricatured by the media ourselves, we should not let national politics as filtered through the media be all we know about gay people.

Mortenson: Finally, I would hope we would be people who aren’t afraid
to ask questions. Sex does so much damage—not just the issue of homosexuality,
but sex in general—because it sits in the dark and it’s something we don’t talk about. So I would hope that we as a community, and then as graduates, go out and have the courage to talk about these issues, to try to shed some light on them, and to do that in love.

For further reading:

  • Hays, Richard, “Homosexuality” in
    The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation (New
    York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996), Ch. 17: pp. 379-403

  • Stanley, Grenz, Welcoming But Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to
    Homosexuality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)

  • Webb, William, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics
    of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001)

  • Position papers on human sexuality in the Resource Center of the Council
    for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) at

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Homespun Inc. said...

How is it that the views on sexual orientation here seems so tolerant where other Christians are so vehemently opposed to homoosexual lifestyles? Are you all reading the same bible?

I've recently posted on this same issue at and would appreciate any comments you might have about my mention of biblical references.

My interest in the Bible is largely academic-- and only peripherally personal. I'd like others who are more committed to it to have a chance to correct any mistkes I have made in making reference to it.

mrclm said...

I don't know if I would call this being tolerant of homosexuality. But because they are sinning, still does not change the fact that we as Christians are called to love them. We love the other sinners (which I am among) as well, the theifs, liars, cheater, adulterers, etc.

Big Chris