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A Better Conversation about Homosexuality
A Better Conversation about Homosexuality

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?”

I didn’t know that proclaiming “homosexuality is a sin” is a poor representation of Christian teachings. I now see that statement as a judgment that served my needs. I needed to believe my religion was true, my sexual choices were proper, and my moral bearings were sound. Feeling unsteady in an unfamiliar environment, I stabilized myself by leaning on judgment instead of love. Now I realize that love is not synonymous with morality. Love and grace are not doled out according to our righteousness, but according to our belovedness. Jesus’ good news should sound like good news, because it is. … Instead of speaking for God so quickly, I wish I had introduced a pause in the rush to judgment.

Paris’s book is the answer she wished she had given to her friend at the bar—an answer that doesn’t turn biblical religion into a zero-sum game: “It’s not that it was wrong of me to say that Christianity forbids same-sex sex; that just shouldn’t have been the first and only thing I had to say.”

Faced with a potential schism in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality, O’Donovan also wants to get Christians away from thinking that a moral judgment is “the first and only thing” we need to say. Definitive pronouncements don’t settle the issue, but only heighten the tension and expedite schism. He confronts the bewilderment of “how such a destructive outcome could derive from such a trivial cause.” Christians view the cause as “trivial,” he argues, when they unbind the sexual dilemma from its cultural complex:

The point at issue—whether homosexuality, capitalism, colonial slavery, or something else—is never the whole of what is at stake. Nobody has to make a decision about that and that alone. It would be nice to purify the question to the point when it was about one thing and one thing only; but if we had done that, it would already be nine tenths solved. The question is always, what does it mean, in this constellation of circumstances, to approve or disapprove this or that line of conduct? What relations are present to us in and through it? How do the various refractions of the demand of love within the moral law come together to form an understanding of where we stand? So what looks “small” at first glance can become the subject of the day, the focus of everyone’s attention, the test of where each and every person is morally situated, the divide between old friendships and new ones. From outside the historical context it may be hard indeed to comprehend why; but it is part and parcel of historical understanding that we should recognize how one issue acts as a conduit for others.

To “cope with the history we have been thrown into, and reach such an understanding of it as we can,” O’Donovan exhorts us to “untangle the knot of associations, identify the strange gods, flush them out of their cultural hiding places and leave the question of homosexuality disenchanted of them, ready to be seen precisely for what it is and not as the bearer of some wider cultural decision.” Holding this question “open with real existential commitment” is nerve-racking for many Christians because of “anxiety about doctrinal revisionism”—a legitimate concern, to be sure, but one that prematurely closes down the exploration.

To ease the anxiety, O’Donovan advises what one might call a “seek, and ye shall find” approach to Scripture: “One must purposefully look to the source from which an answer is sought, an answer not already contained in the question, which is therefore capable of reforming and refining the question.” If the quality of biblical inquiry is measured by how our moral questions get reshaped by the text, then O’Donovan is asking much better questions than the hackneyed and, frankly, banal question that’s frequently used as a litmus test of orthodoxy—“Is homosexuality a sin?” He asks “how this form of sensibility and feeling is shaped by its social context, how it can be clothed in an appropriate pattern of life for the service of God and discipleship of Christ?” Borrowing from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, how does the homosexual Christian hear the good news of Jesus Christ and show Christ to the world? And finally, “What good news does the gay Christian have to bring the church?”

The majority typically answers these questions for the minority, but O’Donovan entrusts them to gay Christians like Hill, who is admirably free of the liberal gay movement with its emancipation narrative and victim mentality. From a worldly perspective, the Bible’s no to homosexual practice is viewed as the impossible demand of a sadistic God and pharisaical church. We’re told that “being sexually active is the way to be most alive—to be fully, truly, beautifully human,” as Hill observes. But perhaps the Bible’s no to same-sex behavior is actually a yes to something even greater than sexual expression, which is good, no doubt, but also potentially idolatrous, especially in our oversexed culture, and certainly not our summum bonum (or highest good). Hill quotes philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” It’s this prior question that gets ignored in the debate on homosexuality because the church has mistakenly given primacy to ethics over the narrative functions of doctrine and ministry.

Hill is learning to struggle well as a celibate gay man because of his embeddedness in “the true story of what God has done in Jesus Christ.” That story, which gives context to the particulars of his own life, promises the forgiveness of sins, reminds him that all Christians undergo a painful and yet glorious transformation of their affections, proclaims that our bodies do not belong to ourselves but to God and the church, and commends “long-suffering endurance as a participation in the sufferings of Christ.” Where others might regard his abstinence as “choosing to prudishly, pitiably shelter [himself] from the only life worth living,” Hill celebrates the yes of the gospel story over the yes of sexual fulfillment: “Imitating Jesus; conforming my thoughts, beliefs, desires, and hopes to his; sharing his life; embracing his gospel’s no to homosexual practice—I become more fully alive, not less. According to the Christian story, true Christlike holiness is the same thing as true humanness. To renounce homosexual behavior is to say yes to full, rich, abundant life.” If “Jesus is the model of the fulfilled human being,” as biblical scholar Walter Moberly writes, then the absence of sex in our Savior’s life means an absence in ours is not an impoverished existence—far from it. On the contrary, “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” are blessed, even when it’s painful and lonely to bear up under that burden in our fallen condition (Matt. 19:12).

2. God did not create homosexuals and heterosexuals—people did.

Of the three authors under review, Paris’s book is, by far, the most groundbreaking in its proposal to end the use of sexual identity categories and subversive in its application to the church, which would entail changing its message and ministry toward those with same-sex attraction. Wedge politics infects American public life—the church is no exception. Every issue becomes polarized, eliciting support or opposition. But when it comes to something as complex and mysterious as the sexual lives of human beings, is it even “sensible, humanizing, and holy” to say we are for or against homosexuality? What if there’s no such thing as a homosexual (or heterosexual)? In that case, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and others like him are posing a question—“Is our purpose to make homosexuals into heterosexuals?”—that has little or no traction whatsoever. The pastoral question—“How does God make sinners into saints?”—eclipses the therapeutic one.

Christians should pay attention to the insights of anthropology, Paris argues, because “other societies, including those described in Scripture, can be both windows and mirrors: windows that offer glimpses into other ways of life, and mirrors that help us see ourselves more clearly.” Her fascinating research into other societies reveals the church’s cultural captivity to Western ideas about sexuality—ideas that are not “timeless, universally true or biblical”:

“Homosexuality" as an identity category is not something that arrived in our world directly from Creation (in which case it would be good) nor directly from the Fall (in which case it would be bad). Really, it came from nineteenth-century U.S. medical researchers who were attempting to categorize people whose sexuality deviated from a male-female, marital, procreative norm. Sexual identity categories, however they are named, lay a grid of meaning over our created nature as males and females and, even more fundamentally, as humans. Being gay or straight is more complex than just feeling certain feelings and then taking on the social identity that matches the feelings. [emphasis mine]

Social stratification based on humanly constructed—rather than divinely given—sexual identities violates the anthropological categories of the Bible at the specific level of “individual,” general level of “humanity,” and spiritual level of “sons and daughters” of Abba, Father (or what Paris calls “beloved”). This framework creates unbiblical in-groups and out-groups, where straight people are empowered and gay (or, by implication, “crooked”) people are subordinated. Consequently, a culture of shame begins to characterize the church instead of a culture of grace. Shame keeps people oppressed when Christ’s mission was “to set the burdened and battered free” (Luke 4:18, The Message). This framework homogenizes all individuals under a particular label when their sexual experiences are remarkably diverse and irreducible. Finally, this framework assigns the role of self-determination to human desire when the Bible clearly depicts the heart—the seat of desire—as fickle, flawed, and fragile, not to mention beyond comprehension (Jer. 17:9–10). If the framework is to be used at all, Paris argues it should be used strategically. That is to say, the gospel relativizes the framework.

On her office door Paris has taped a favorite quotation: “What is defined as real is real in its effects.” The vital question she raises is whether we are letting the church (via the biblical script) or the world (via the experiential script) define—sexually speaking—what is real. Rather than being “resident aliens,” Paris fears that Christians have colluded with the spirit of the world and “contributed to the cementing of sexual desire as central to human identity.” Eve Tushnet, a lesbian Catholic who has chosen celibacy, reinforces why this move is so troubling in Commonweal:

If we seek to overcome any aspects of our culture that conflict with the gospel, I’m not sure why we would expect the gay liberation movement—slightly over a hundred years old, and largely Western in character—to be less culture-bound, and therefore a better guide to the countercultural aspects of the gospel, than the Catholic Church. The church is bigger and older than you, me, or the very concept of the homosexual person. (The view that sexual orientation is intrinsic and constitutive of a person’s deepest identity comes from a school of psychology that owes very little to the gospel, and a great deal to anti-Christian forms of philosophical materialism.)

Both Hill and Paris are keenly aware of how the apostle Paul’s logic goes against the cultural logic of his day and ours: What we desire or do sexually is not who we are. When Paul addresses a catalog of sins in the Corinthian church, including “the sexually immoral” and “men who practice homosexuality,” he says—with emphasis on the past tense—“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11, ESV). Today many well-intentioned but misguided Christians interpret that process of repentance (metanoia) through the framework of sexual identity categories, as if the decisive change is one of sexual orientation rather than conformity to the image of Christ. What matters is not whether a person can boast of being an “ex-gay”—a bizarre appellation—but whether, after undergoing burial and resurrection with Christ, he or she “[walks] in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4, ESV). The gay self—and its binary opposite, the straight self—is not a true self. Let us, then, baptize Polonius’s advice to his son in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self—in Christ—be true.” That self tells stories about growing, however messily, in grace (2 Pet. 3:18), not about “coming out” of the closet or switching orientations.

Paris quotes religious writer Thomas Moore on soul care: “A major difference between care and cure is that cure implies the end of trouble. If you are cured, you don’t have to worry about whatever was bothering you any longer. But care has a sense of ongoing attention. There is no end.” Reparative therapy programs that try to cure homosexuals do more harm than good if “success” is narrowly defined as conversion of sexual orientation. (According to a longitudinal study by Christian psychologists Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones, only 15% of participants in reparative therapy experience conversion, 23% experience chastity, 29% continual same-sex attraction, 15% no response, 4% confusion, and 8% defeat.) Hill and Paris long for a church that focuses on care instead of cure because that will help same-sex attracted persons to live with fruitful ambiguity, responsibly steward their sexuality toward holiness, and keep their real identity as God’s beloved intact—regardless of whether they convert.

If sexual identity is a new fiction, radical solidarity follows for erstwhile label-holders. “When it comes to sex,” Paris claims, “there is no privileged, holy ‘we’ and no sinful, troubled ‘them’; there’s only us, each of whom finds both virtue and vice in sexuality.” What’s the cost of this solidarity? Everyone is on a level playing field. Heterosexuals enter “the game as players instead of umpires”; they “just might find themselves in the same boat with those who have been seen as lowly, damaged or damned.” So too, homosexuals must downplay or relinquish the specialness of their experience. In a New York Times profile, for example, Mark Oppenheimer observes how Tushnet makes much ado about being gay and Catholic:

It is not simple to embrace both traditional Catholicism and unrepentant, if sex-free, gayness. … She may befuddle others, but for her, life is joyful. She takes obvious pleasure in being an eccentric in a tradition with no shortage of odd heroes, visionaries and saints. “You can be really quite strange, and the Catholic Church will canonize you eventually,” she says. She loves eating the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which she believes is a carnivorous meal, not a metaphor. She loves gay synth-pop bands. “I really think the most important thing is, I really like being gay and I really like being Catholic,” she says. “If nobody ever calls me self-hating again, it will be too soon. Nothing is quite as great as getting up in the morning, listening to the Pet Shop Boys and going to church.”

Although Hill takes care to make “gay” an adjective to the noun of “Christian,” he maintains the privilege of gayness by exploring “how, practically, a nonpracticing but still-desiring homosexual Christian can ‘prove, live out, and celebrate’ the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms.” Shouldn’t sanctification be construed fundamentally in human terms—not homosexual terms? Whenever we put on Christ, aren’t we also taking off superfluous clothing? The cross denudes us, laying bare our core identity. How else can we explain the radical solidarity of Paul’s teaching that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, [and, we could add, there is no gay or straight], for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, ESV)?

Paris may not go far enough in her application. Just as “there’s no moral high ground for heterosexuals and no closet for homosexuals,” should we reserve a pedestal for homosexuals—a pedestal that establishes a special vocation or a special gospel? Are Tushnet and Hill at risk of constructing a ground for their identity other than their redeemed humanity in Christ? Only they can answer that question. O’Donovan limns the biblically acceptable identity: “Gays are children of Adam and Eve, brothers and sisters of Christ. There is no other foundation laid than that. ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd’; from which it follows, simpliciter and without adjustment, that he will feed gays like a shepherd, too.” While acknowledging that “there are other, less fundamental senses to the concept of ‘identity’” and special needs in the flock, he cautions the church against exaggerated differences:

The gospel is addressed to human beings irrespective of their condition, and there is no prima facie place to dismember it into a series of gospels for discrete social sectors. Why would there by a gospel for the homosexual any more than a gospel for the teacher of literature, for the civil magistrate, or for the successful merchant (to name just three categories that the early church viewed with the same narrowing of the eyes that a homosexual may encounter today)? It is for the church to address the good news, we may say; it is for the recipient—homosexual, pedagogue, politician or captain of industry—to hear it and to say how he or she hears it in and from this or that social position.

The challenge, I submit, is for the church to develop a ministry of recognition, in which same-sex attracted persons are dignified—alongside others—as “beloved,” while avoiding a ministry of difference, where such persons are excused from integration, licensed to innovate beyond Scripture and tradition. Put differently, same-sex attracted persons should be grafted onto—not subtracted from—the one tree of Christ, nourished from that root (Rom. 11:11–24).

Starting Point

On a subject fraught with pride and prejudice, each of these books shows “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). Washed and Waiting sensitizes an obtuse ear to the ethical and emotional timbre of a same-sex attracted man, who eloquently and touchingly shares how he’s becoming storied in the gospel. Hill’s narrative is urgent because real life seldom affords us opportunities to hear the stories of people who are different from us. It succeeds by inspiring an intense concern for his destiny (and that of others like him), a respect for his rich inner life, and an awareness of our common vulnerability. One cannot read Washed and Waiting and continue to debate homosexuality abstracted from the flesh-and-blood creatures who undergo this trial of existence. In its finest moments, the book causes the reader to entertain the needful thought that this suffering person might be me if circumstances were different, and thereby hastens compassion.

With an ironic smile, The End of Sexual Identity attempts to perform reparative therapy on the church, so that she will convert from her cultural orientation back to the biblical one where humans are regarded as just humans—not reduced to their sexual deeds and desires. Paris shows that the sexual identity framework was not dropped on earth by some divine skyhook; we’re better off without this newfangled invention. Hers is a prophetic call for the church to get over its heterosexist moral superiority and get on with its business of shepherding all persons toward sexual holiness.

When many Christians have lost their manners—and then some—in the debate on homosexuality, Church in Crisis delivers sophisticated etiquette for moral deliberation. O’Donovan gently but firmly disabuses the Christian of two hermeneutic pitfalls: liberals conform Scripture to their own moral enlightenment, which thinly veils the cultural pieties of the day, and conservatives suppress dissent and discussion because of their fossilized interpretations of Scripture, which substitutes an unreflective biblicism for the living authority of God’s Word. Both sides are eager to throw in the towel. Liberals want to advance the church while conservatives want to preserve the church. O’Donovan exposes the seduction of schism for what it is and counsels patience—ever more patience:

The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time. Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come! There is no right, or duty, of schism. As unity is given to the church as a gift, so it is taken away as a judgment. But on no account can disunity be a course of action that the church may embrace in pursuit of its mission or identity. The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert.

For now, Christians need to sit in quiet, self-critical reflection on the two big ideas raised by these books. Much of the conversation so far has failed to untangle the ethical question of homosexuality from its cultural matrix, which leaves no one unscathed, and failed to deepen our humanity beyond the erotic body. The flourishing of same-sex attracted Christians will depend on “a hope against all hope” (Rom. 4:18) that sex is not essential to human fulfillment, on celibacy that is not only a thorn in the flesh but also a goad to joyful service and creativity, on enduring and intimate friendships that embrace each person as “a real ingredient in the divine happiness” (C. S. Lewis), and on churches that achieve their metaphorical content as a “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

Christopher Benson has been recently appointed to the English faculty at The Cambridge School of Dallas. He earned degrees at Wheaton College, Missouri School of Journalism, and St. John's College. His writing appears in various publications, including Books & Culture and The Weekly Standard.

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A Better Conversation about Homosexuality