Last evening I sought to represent the consistent moral position of the Christian tradition regarding the immorality of homosexual practice. The context was a student forum at William Woods College in Fulton, Missouri. William Woods is a Disciples of Christ college begun prior to the Civil War. Though there is an orthodox witness to the gospel on this campus William Woods is not a place where Christian values are dominant in any meaningful sense. The event at which I spoke came about because several Christians on campus desired to have a civil public discussion about this polarizing issue. The chaplain is a friend and a solid Christian minister with a growing witness for the gospel.
The minister who represented the position that the church should accept homosexual practice between consenting adults was the pastor of a local mainline church. He was a gracious, civil and able man. He treated me with dignity and respect. There were no sparks and no unkind words spoken. But we profoundly disagreed about the answer to central question of the night: “Does biblical Christian morality affirm the practice of same-sex relationships?”
It was interesting to see how we agreed on a number of issues related to justice and basic biblical interpretation. But the evening further allowed me to see clear ways that we profoundly disagreed. The minister argued that in addition to the role that Scripture, tradition and reason all play in moral issues (the three have commonly been used in framing Christian arguments for centuries) experience should also have a major role. (This type of argument is common to liberal Christianity since the nineteenth century.) I asked if there was anything that had final authority over human experience? For example, if a female student had been molested by her “conservative” moralistic father, how could we know for sure that this act was morally wrong? Was there a higher authority than her dad’s experience that we could appeal to in calling into final question the abusive actions of such a father? One can, of course, appeal to civil law but what stops the interpretation of civil law from being reversed (eventually) in this case? And on what basis is the father’s behavior really moral sin if his experience is a trump card in the attempt to find a solid basis for agreed upon moral authority?
My counterpart also stated, to my shock, that “The Bible does not give us guidelines for sexual behavior.” Had this forum been a formal debate I would have pressed this point rigorously. The Bible, he argued, “is important, but it is only one of our guides.” This underscored the central argument in the debate, namely, “How do we understand the biblical witness to sexual morality?” I argued that the Bible has been consistently, and universally, understood to say "no" to homosexual practice for millennia. Only in the last few years, and only in the West really, has this tradition been openly challenged. The famous European theologian Wolfhart Panneberg, certainly no fundamentalist thinker, expressed my view on this matter quite well when he wrote: “According to Jesus’ teaching, human sexuality as male and female is intended for the indissoluble fellowship of marriage. This standard informs Christian teaching about the entire domain of sexual behavior.” Bottom line: God gets to define who we are in relationship with others, not us! Rights are never absolute.
The usual arguments regarding Leviticus 18, Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 were also made. I am still amazed at how these regularly “recycled” views of these crucial texts are treated with respect when there is no serious tradition to support them. I made the point that the church in the Majority World (Africa, Asia, Latin America) is appalled at how liberal Christian arguments in the West have jettisoned biblical morality in less than one generation, reinterpreting central texts to fit modern sensibilities. While the West is in moral free-fall the rest of the world is moving toward historic Christian faith in larger and larger numbers. Could this again be one indication that the sun is setting on the Christian West?
I believe that it is crucial to see that we are being invited, by arguments such as those like I heard last evening, to move beyond the normal and likely meanings of ancient texts, and thus the solid consensus of historic Christianity. By this kind of argumentation, albeit sincerely made by decent people like my friend last evening, we are being led to believe that God has something new to say about basic sexual morality because we have now come of age, thus we better understand the text of the Bible in the last few years and now understand what ancient writers clearly failed to see in a world that was far, far less rigid about sexual practice than our own. I believe that we are rushing headlong into moral suicide and my saying so in public, with care and compassion, is not easy or popular. I believe making a sound case for biblical morality is a challenge I must continue to accept in the coming years.
I found myself praying two things last evening, over and over again. First, I prayed that God would keep me from saying anything that would harm the kingdom of Christ in any way. I wanted both my arguments and my manner of speaking to bring glory to Christ. Second, I wanted to demonstrate deep compassion and profound love for college students who were struggling with the question of sexual practice, and with the issue of what they should do in the face of grave temptation. I sought to argue that Scripture and Christian tradition consistently argue against accepting homosexual practice as normative. Only by acknowledging sin could these students see that there was real hope in this world, and hope for the world to come. In seeking God’s grace for healing they could know the power of God’s grace to transform them in their sexual brokenness. Those genuinely touched by God’s grace can then find the power of the Spirit and the support of the Christian community to be real resources for saying no to the desires of the flesh. By these means they can avoid grave sin in a morally confused time. I pray my work at evangelism and Christian apologetics bore fruit last night. Eternity will tell.