I have frequently suggested that the church is making huge mistakes in how it addresses the modern same-sex debate. Let me explain, albeit simply, what I mean. I want to articulate several truths that I believe we desperately need if we are to move forward with a compassionate and faithful biblical alternative to accepting everything the culture tells us about sexual practice.
1. The church has chosen to primarily fight same-sex thinking and practice through politics. This is a debate that we are bound to lose unless something unforeseen happens. We are sure to lose this battle in the culture and we will likely lose it inside many churches as well, given enough time. “Just say no” will not stop same-sex practice nor will it help serious Christians who do not want to surrender their bodies to unsanctified sexual inclinations.
2. Treating same-sex practice as the ultimate evil can not be supported by Scripture (if properly read and interpreted within the historical context of the church’s faith and practice). Anyone who reads the Bible can plainly see that same-sex practice is only addressed a few times in the New Testament and it is listed alongside other sins that most churches tolerate. So long as we single out this sin as the most hideous of all sins we will lose the battle both in and out of the church.
3. Dividing the church over this issue is unacceptable. I know the arguments. Most of them suggest that this is “the line in the sand” and if we do not stand here we will embrace sodomy in the name of Christ. If we do this then the church is doomed. This logic is not rigorously logical if you have a right view of faith and of a human, flawed and broken church. I personally oppose liberalizing the church’s stance on same-sex marriage and practice. I have said that I oppose same-sex practice in every context where I have served. At the same time I refuse to condemn those who disagree with me. (I can express my response without condemning everyone who disagrees with me.) I have made my understanding clear and I will not violate my conscience in the process but I have not “drawn a line in the sand” and said, “All who cross this line are not Christians and I am leaving you behind.” Sin is far too insidious and complicated for me to make this one sin the test for orthodoxy. Having said this I am well aware of the dangers inherent in approving personal sin and lifestyle choices that will harm the body and soul of all those who practice them.
In short I remain in a church where this debate rages and will do so until I am forced out because of conscience. I would not leave because someone, or some group in the church, “crossed the line.” In every case that I know the most liberal churches still affirm the historic faith while at the same time they teach things that are in error. But so do some of the most conservative churches I know but few are willing to see or admit this problem. If the ancient biblical standards are applied to the modern church in the West we all fall far short of what we ought to be. And who raises the pressing question of how much schism is acceptable when we already have experienced far too much? History tells me schism almost never solves the problems it set out to solve.
A friend who left the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) put this well for me. He said, “We did not leave our church when many of our friends left many years ago. We left when the church completely and finally left us. And we left with tears and a broken heart, following bishops that sought to keep the church faithful to its own confession but failed. Further, we did not leave to protest but rather to plant vibrant, healthy churches.”
So what should be done positively to address this problem of same-sex practice inside the church?
1. We must offer real hope and real healing to those who are trapped in the sin of sexual lust and ungodly practice. We must not just offer this to people in the grip of same-sex attraction but to everyone involved in sexual sin, in both mind and practice. Read that sentence again. This includes just about everyone I know if you follow it carefully.
2. We must not single out any one type of sin, especially because we find it personally offensive. Rather, we must treat all sin as a call for radical grace and true sanctification. We must teach people to be mature disciples and offer them living role models of narrated truth. This means the church must become genuinely inter-generational. It also means we must not create an atmosphere where any sinner would feel repelled by our words and actions because we are intolerant and judgmental.
3. We must recover the biblical narrative of Genesis 1-2. We must teach people, young and old, that God designed a covenant called marriage and marriage is designed for one man and one woman who enter into a great mystery because they desire God’s blessing upon them and their family. The Genesis story has been lost, at least as a defining mega-story. We debate the details of exegesis and miss the epic nature of what is actually going on here. God made us “male and female” (both genders) in his image. He then brought us together in holy covenantal union to become “one flesh.” Only this powerful story will help us recover the holy meaning of true marriage.
4. We must teach the biblical doctrine of celibacy. And we must teach the Pauline ethic found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-20. We must further teach that those who freely give themselves to illicit sexual relations will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:5-6). And we must explain the somewhat complicated, but truly relevant, words of 1 Corinthians 7:20-40. This content should be factored into our thinking and teaching as normative Christian teaching. Remaining unmarried is a distinctive kingdom choice that some should make. I celebrate marriage but I feel we have turned it into a human right more than a divine calling. In the process we have given single people little hope unless they can find a sexual partner. Can a person have strong sexual desires, for the same sex or for the opposite sex, and remain free and single? The answer has to be yes or the whole history of the church has been wrong and the Scripture has plainly misled us.
Sadly, most evangelicals do not teach celibacy, except before marriage. They seem to hear this as a “Catholic” dogma. It is nothing of the kind if you search the Scriptures carefully. We are not defined by sexuality and our bodies are meant for so much more than sexual pleasure, even though it is a wonderful gift to the married.
There is a positive way forward in the midst of great chaos and confusion. Will we pursue this way or simply keep fighting the “culture wars”? If we fight these battles it will be to our own loss and only lead to continued ineffectiveness in our distinctly Christian witness to the modern age.