I continually seek to understand both the Scriptures and culture with regard to the very hot subject of human sexuality. I cannot think of a single issue that threatens to divide us and defeat us more than this one. We debate this in convoluted ways that are framed by paradigms never employed in previous debates void of modern notions about “rights” and true freedom. Some want to frame this entire debate entirely by a "civil rights” paradigm while others insist that homosexuality is an “abomination” that must end all further discussion. While the civil society debates this topic the church stands in the middle, so it seems, dividing one from another in ways almost beyond belief.
I am clear (in my mind) about several things in this debate.
1. The debate is hurting us on every side. Generations are divided, families are divided and churches are now divided. I see no end in sight.
2. The cultural debate is growing and will not stop. Everything will very likely change. There is very little that you or I can do to stop this even if we want to stop it. This is not “defeatism” but a recognition of the real dynamics of the issue and how things are changing with each passing year.
3. Each church will very likely have to choose how it will handle marriage and then realize that the government will make laws that have nothing to do with our sacred witness. Would it be so bad if the church conducted “religious” (Christian) ceremonies for weddings and the state only did the “civil” ceremonies and the two were not the same? I think not. I have never bought into the idea that I am a servant of the civil state when it comes to officiating at weddings. In most cultures, and throughout most of (modern and ancient) human history, the two were not the same.
4. The church must talk much more clearly about sexuality, all sexuality. The human person is a sexual being. We have avoided this for too long. We respond to same-sex inclinations (whatever label we put on this) and same-sex practice as a type of separate category of sexuality from the rest of our sexual nature. This is a huge mistake. The church or pastor that teaches on this subject must not settle for a series on homosexuality without putting this into the larger context of all sexuality.
5. Sexual needs are not the same as the need for food and water. Without food and water we will die. Without sex we might have trials and struggles but we can survive. We might even live a better life without sex in many instances. Where did we get the idea that sexuality meant God gave this desire to us to be used as we please, whenever we please, and always for our personal pleasure? Even with food the church has always taught that fasting had a place in growth. The big issue then is our lack of a solid biblical understanding of sexuality in general, not homosexuality.
6. We must teach about holy sexuality. The Bible clearly condemns sexual promiscuity. The debate should not be about whether this is true. Everyone knows that it is. The debate is about whether or not a person with strong sexual orientation or inclination toward the same-sex can act on this inclination and remain holy before the full-orbed teaching of the Scripture.
My friend Christopher Yuan, who was at one time a practicing homosexual, says he searched the whole Bible, after being converted to Christ in prison, to see if he could find “justification” for his sexual practice. He says that he found none. He says his decision was thus to stop practicing his homosexual relationships with other men and ask for liberation through Christ. His life is a powerful statement about this decision and the love of God.
He writes, “As I continued reading the Bible, I realized that my identity shouldn’t be defined by my sexuality. . . . My primary identity didn’t have to be defined by my feelings or sexual attractions. My identity was not ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual,’ or even ‘heterosexual,’ for that matter. But my identity as a child of the living God must be in Jesus Christ alone” (“Holy Sexuality,” in Wheaton Alumni, Autumn 2011, 57, italics mine).
Chris says that what gave him clear direction was the simple biblical requirement that God had clearly said, “Be holy, for I am holy.” He realized this meant he was to be holy in his sexual life as in everything else. He adds:
I had always thought that the opposite of homosexuality was heterosexuality. But actually the opposite of homosexuality is holiness. Therefore, I realized that I shouldn’t focus on homosexuality or even heterosexuality, but on the one thing God calls everyone to: holy sexuality. Holy sexuality was not focused on orientation change—becoming straight—but on obedience (Wheaton Alumni, 57).
What this means is that celibacy is appropriate for all single people. Holy sexuality is ultimately about being chaste before God because of who God is and who he made me to be. It is about living life the way God intended for you to live. It is not about having no feelings or attractions for the same sex, or for the opposite sex for that matter. It is about acting on those feelings in an appropriate way. God created us as sexual beings and as a result we have natural (good) desires for intimacy. But each one of us should express these desires in God-honoring, nonsexual relationships that can and do exist within and between both genders.
Perhaps the most positive thing that will come from all of this confusion is a whole new generation of Christians will arise who do not judge people the way mine did; e.g. the color of their skin, the status of their background, the amount of money they have, their sexual orientation, etc. I welcome this part of the sexual revolution.
But holy sexuality cuts across all social norms and accepted practices, both between same-sex people and opposite-sex people. Holy sexuality affirms intimacy but reserves the practice of sex for marriage. This is done for several very important reasons.
You might ask, “But what about marriage? Cannot two people (regardless of gender) get married if they love each other deeply?” My purpose today is not to define marriage. (I’ve done that elsewhere.) But everyone engaged in the present debate who takes the Scripture and Christian tradition seriously must admit that marriage between persons other than an adult male and female is not what we see in Scripture or in church history. This new idea of marriage is a modern innovation that is built on very shaky (Christian) ground at its best. This is why this debate will never go away. It is unlike debates about civil rights and slavery. Most Christians will never embrace homosexual marriage for every good reasons. Our friends who disagree need to acknowledge this and recognize that we are not responding as we do because we are homophobic but because we believe holiness demands that sexual practice be reserved for a man and his wife. This has always been the Christian position and all the debates in the world will not fundamentally alter this understanding. Why? Because marriage is defined and explained in Scripture in a way that does not include the various modern innovations. The church that embraces holiness will necessarily stand for love for all people, including homosexuals, but it will also stand for marriage between one man and one woman.
Sadly, this debate is being carried out in ways that preclude honest disagreement, at least at this point in time. Christopher Yuan recently spoke at Yale University and was demonized by college media for holding to positions that he clearly rejects and has never taught. If you enter this part of the modern public space, and express a Christian viewpoint on holy sexuality, expect to be attacked. But Christians know how to respond when attacked.We are called to love, turn the other cheek and never attack back in kind. I am thankful for a friend like Chris who understands the message of love and grace and has the courage to speak the truth as a gay HIV-positive man who embraces holy sexuality in both his teaching and sexual practice.
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Thank you for this thought-provoking article, especially in challenging the Christian community and the larger society to not get distracted in the wrong questions.
Thanks so much. Stories like Christopher Yuan are also encouraging testimonies of God’s grace.
Very good article. Very much needed at this time. I firmly believe that celibacy is the last defense of Western civilization. There has been an attempt to make celibacy unnatural and unhealthy. I saw an article on HuffPo where the author was trying to make the argument that to ask someone to be celibate was a call for them to love less. Really? Did Jesus love less? Did St. Paul love less? In Christian tradition celibacy is a way to love more! I think Protestants are finding themselves making a difficult pivot, because for centuries celibacy was a “Catholic thing.” Now with rise of gay marriage, celibacy is being rediscovered as a true call from the Lord. Protestants are having trouble selling this message because it seems that celibacy is only for homosexuals never for heterosexuals. Its important to remember that Jesus never asks us to do what he himself is unwilling to do. So the Church should never ask people to do what it is unwilling to do. As a celibate priest, I find its a lot easier to say to those with same-sex attraction, “Live like me.” After all I don’t consider it a death sentence. Many will point out the failed celibates, but they are the exception to the rule. To focus on only the failed is to forget the millions of the faithful celibates that were able to love more because of God’s call.
Great stuff, John. Have you read Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality? It’s a spectacular book (I have a feeling you’ll love it) by a young homosexual who has not yet found healing yet believes the Scriptures do not approve of homosexuality. Reading his book really reshaped my thinking on this issue.
I think Protestants are finding themselves making a difficult pivot, because for centuries celibacy was a “Catholic thing.” Now with rise of gay marriage, celibacy is being rediscovered as a true call from the Lord. Protestants are having trouble selling this message because it seems that celibacy is only for homosexuals never for heterosexuals. Its important to remember that Jesus never asks us to do what he himself is unwilling to do. So the Church should never ask people to do what it is unwilling to do. As a celibate priest, I find its a lot easier to say to those with same-sex attraction, “Live like me.
Thank you Landon for a very helpful comment and observation. I believe you are profoundly right and as more Protestants encourage and practice celibacy it could help us regain our balance. We need people in our communities who are practicing celibacy with joy and devotion to Jesus as Lord. Our reaction to Catholicism, at this and other points, has hindered our faithfulness.
I have Wesley’s book and know his story but have not yet read it. I will.
is it me, or does Landon’s comment seem to be lifted from Fr. Merrin’s comment?