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.