Just at the point of exhaustion and irritability, when we think the debate on homosexuality in the church has reached its end—with every position articulated, every line drawn in the sand, every constituency ghettoized—other voices emerge to remind us that the conversation must proceed. Despite anxiety for ourselves and the church, the conversation must proceed because God has called us to this annoyance as he has called previous generations of Christians to other annoyances; the interpretation of Scripture requires us to think deeply and wait patiently upon God; the shalom of the church is at risk if we close down the search for agreement; and, lest we forget, some of God’s precious children live upon the rack.
Three fresh and challenging voices aid us in their books: Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan), Jenell Williams Paris’s The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are (IVP), and Oliver O’Donovan’s Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion (Cascade). Here’s a “gay Christian” and burgeoning New Testament scholar who pursues the vocation of celibacy (Hill), an anthropologist who questions our unexamined appropriation of sexual identity categories (Paris), and a British theologian who reflects on the troubles in his church without entanglement in America’s culture wars (O’Donovan). Two big ideas emerge from their writing. They who have ears, let them hear.
1. The moral status of homosexuality is (not) important.
Against those who regard the moral status of homosexuality as all-important—whether in condemnation or celebration—a minority of progressive evangelicals (Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, and Andrew Marin) have called for a public moratorium on judgments of any kind so that a space of reconciliation can develop between the church and its gay neighbors. They are right to insist that Christians should repent of heterosexism and love their “enemies,” if we conceive of homosexuals that way. But is silence on the moral teachings of Scripture the best way forward? Does respectability with the gay community come at the cost of biblical truth-telling, pastoral care, and church discipline? When Christians wear “I’m Sorry” T-shirts at Gay Pride events, are they apologizing for the church’s spiritual abuse of homosexuals or for the hard edges of the gospel?
Keeping with the church’s traditional consensus on the sin of homosexuality, Paris, O’Donovan, and Hill view the moral status of homosexuality as important but not all-important. Paris recounts an experience in graduate school when a bisexual, atheist classmate asked if she could handle going to a gay bar, even though she had never been to any bar before. Feeling “like a fish out of water or, more to the point, a conservative Christian out of church,” nothing about it shocked her. When this friend tested her—“Jenell, now that we’re on my turf, let me ask you this: Does Christianity really condemn homosexuality?”—she answered as most of us have answered with a simplistic message that affirms the sinfulness of homosexuality. Seeing the hurt and anger in her friend, regret followed. “I had stood up for my faith,” she writes, “so why did I feel like my faith had let me down?”