The Challenge of Homosexuality

Dale Martin, Professor of New Testament at Yale, lays down the following challenge to Christians determined to continue the Church’s traditional stand against homosexuality:

“There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of ‘heterosexual fulfillment’ (a ‘nonbiblical’ concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as ‘healing’?”

The challenge here is certainly not one that is unique to the issue of homosexuality, but indeed, involves the whole of Christian ethics.  Too often Christians have been satisfied with a flat, blunt, divine command approach to ethics–“God says no, so that means no.  Deal with it.”  This means that for many, God seems like an arbitrary dictator who is against fun, who is against freedom, who is against fulfillment.  This problem did not, perhaps, loom so large when society was more homogeneous, when widely-accepted customs comported nicely with Biblical morality, so that the commands and demands of Christian ethics seemed on the whole quite natural.  “Well, of course it’s bad to sleep around–everyone I know seems to agree on that, and I’d be a pariah if I did.”  With the breakdown of a social consensus, however, and the increasing diversity of Western society, people have been left asking, “Well, why not?” and the Church has often been unready to offer a compelling answer, unable to show how the demands of the Gospel are really “good news,” that points us back toward what we were created to be and toward true fulfillment, and not merely oppressive and arbitrary rules.  In our age, this disconnect, and the consequent rejection of the Church as “intolerant,” “unloving,” and “judgmental,” has been particularly pronounced in the area of sexual ethics, and is perhaps most acute on the issue of homosexuality.  

Indeed, it is here that traditional Christian ethics can look most arbitrary–sure, we can give good reasons why serial fornication, for instance, is not just against God’s will, but ultimately destructive, undermining human fulfillment, but why should a committed monogamous relationship be so terrible, just because it’s between people of the same sex?  And it is here that traditional Christian ethics can look most oppressive–after all, the categorical refusal of the opportunity for sexual intimacy and lifelong companionship is among the most difficult and comprehensive demands you can possibly make on a person.  And yet, for the most part, the Church has been singularly unready or unwilling to step up to the plate and show that God’s “No” to homosexuality corresponds to a “Yes” to creation, a “Yes” to the deepest desires of human nature and to human fulfilment; instead of just being a “No” to fun, a “No” to enjoyment, a “No” to fulfilment and freedom.  

This is why O’Donovan argues in The Church in Crisis that the Church must learn how to preach the Gospel to gays as gospel—as good news.  Of course, good news doesn’t mean easy news—the Gospel isn’t that for any of us:  “The righteousness of Jesus Christ is not comfort without demand, any more than it is demand without comfort. It is never less than that demanding comfort by which God makes more of us than we thought it possible to become.”

The urgent need for the Church today is to develop an evangelical ethic which embodies this “demanding comfort”—which integrates both Law and Gospel, creation and redemption, calling us out of brokenness to new life, and showing us why the hard road self-denial that this entails for all—but perhaps especially for the gay Christian—is a price well-worth paying, a journey well-worth embarking upon.  

2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Homosexuality

  1. Brad,Good post, I'm glad that you decided to revisit the issue of homosexuality in such close conjunction with my post on gay marriage. It's indirectly helped to clarify things I'm still sorting out. To address both the ideas of your post and of mine, I'd like to know your take on which social "arenas" you think are most important for traditional Christians to exercise the "demanding comfort" of the Gospel in? Should it mostly be exhibited informally amongst those immediately in our communities? Or formally in articulated oppositions to things such as gay marriage, DADT, etc? Can the demanding comfort be shown largely independent of the "on paper" debates that happen in our societies official squares? Or is the gay marriage debate, for instance, inevitably at the forefront of what traditional Christians face when setting out to work through this issue?Our society is widely heterogeneous as you indicated and the momentum of our social institutions is largely to accomodate and legitimate that heterogeneity. Where does that put the Church when it comes to addressing the most visible manifestations of the homosexual issue?Perhaps you could shed some additional light on some of those questions.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Caleb,Thanks for reminding me (politely and indirectly) of my failed promise to weigh in on your gay marriage post. It was on my agenda at the beginning of the week, but slipped my mind sometime late on Monday and hadn't found its way back there yet till your comment–it was something else entirely that prompted this post.I will still try to get to your post, if it's not too late altogether…though with just a couple days between now and dropping off my computer at a repair shop, I'm not sure it'll happen. So some brief thoughts here, in response to your helpful questions.I think one obvious point that has to be made is that both sides of this "demanding comfort"–this evangelical law–cannot be conveyed in the political arena, which by its nature is a fundamentally a realm of law, not of grace. Inasmuch as the Christian ethic can and should be brought to bear in the political sphere (and how much it should be is a complicated question, of course), it can only be expressed in its demand form; the law cannot express the comfort of the Gospel, since this comfort does not consist in a relaxation of the demand. This being the case, I think it's important that Christians, having overemphasized the demand without the comfort, be wary of making the political arena their primary arena in addressing homosexuality. No matter how loving we may be toward gays personally, no matter how ready to share with them God's love and welcome them in Christian fellowship, we will be perceived as hateful bigots if our only engagement with the issue is through the political "No" to gay rights. If we establish our churches as places that are genuinely hospitable to gays (and other sinners), if we cultivate personal relationships with gay people in which we can express to them the full-orbed message of God's calling for them, then we might actually have the credibility to get up in the public square and say, "We have a real problem with this." Now, I believe that the political sphere is a legitimate realm in which to express God's "No" to homosexuality–marriage is a social good that the state should safeguard for the good of the whole society, and a Christian ruler should be particularly concerned that God's basic standards for this building block of our social lives be maintained. If I have a chance, I will try to say more on this in reply to your post. However, I guess what I'm saying is that perhaps, in the larger interest of conveying a full-orbed Christian witness on the issue, and expressing what we stand for and what we care about as Christians (which is the redemption of broken people's lives, not policing them to prevent them from experiencing fulfilment), we ought to call a sort of moratorium on politicking about the issue. Now, of course, I recognize that the reason many Christians are so earnest about this issue is because of the perceived urgency–if we don't stand up right now for the principles of marriage in the public square, gay marriage will become the norm, and by the time we're ready to end the moratorium, it'll be too late to reverse it, too late to give political expression to the "demand" of the Gospel. And of course, I recognize that some Christians are called to engage in politics, and if you're going to engage in politics, you will need to state your conviction on this issue, which means speaking out against gay marriage. So I recognize that of course the language of "moratorium" is too simplistic. It doesn't work that way. However, I am wary about the current emphasis among Christians, many of whom seem far more ready to insist on the demand of the Gospel against homosexuality in the public square, than to insist on its comfort in their churches and communities. So I'd like to see us start working to change that emphasis, so that opposition to homosexual marriage does not become the issue that defines us as Christians.

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