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Tragedy, Tradition, and Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate

As 2014 comes to a close, many believe the question of the legal, public status of gay marriage has been effectively settled—even before the Supreme Court finally pronounces on the matter. Fierce battles over religious freedom will continue, but already about 60 percent of all Americans now live in states where gay marriage is legal. In those states, and perhaps soon in the entire country, the public policy issue is largely settled at least for a generation or two.

But the change in public policy need not—and should not—settle the issue for the church. Instead all of us are being compelled to examine our beliefs and practices. This is a good thing. We deeply need a new approach to our neighbors and our churches’ own members, especially those who live with a same-sex attraction or orientation. To find this will require acknowledging the tragedy of our recent history, the continuity of Christian teaching, and the opportunity for a new kind of ministry.

The Tragedy

We must start with the tragedy that evangelical Christians who long to be biblical are widely perceived as hostile to gays. And it is largely our own fault. Many of us have actually been homophobic. Most of us tolerated gay bashers. Many of us were largely silent when bigots in the society battered or even killed gay people. Very often, we did not deal sensitively and lovingly with young people in our churches struggling with their sexual orientation. Instead of taking the lead in ministering to people with AIDS, some of our leaders even opposed government funding for research to discover medicine to help them.

At times, we even had the gall to blame gay people for the tragic collapse of marriage in our society, ignoring the obvious fact that the main problem by far is that many of the 95 percent of the people who are heterosexual do not keep their marriage vows. In fact, self-described evangelicals get divorced at higher rates than Catholics and Mainline Protestants! We have frequently failed to distinguish gay orientation from gay sexual activity—even though if any of us were judged by the persistent inclinations of our hearts, on sexual matters or otherwise, none of us could stand.

If the devil had designed a strategy to discredit the historic Christian position on sexuality, he could not have done much better than what the evangelical community has actually done in the last several decades.

Some believe that the track record of evangelicals is so bad that we should just remain silent on this issue. But that would mean abandoning our submission to what finally I believe is clear biblical teaching. It would mean forgetting the nearly unanimous teaching of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians over two millennia. And it would mean failing to listen to the vast majority of contemporary Christians (who now live in the global South).

Biblical Consistency

The primary biblical case against homosexual practice is not the few texts that explicitly mention it. Rather, it is the fact that again and again the Bible affirms the goodness and beauty of sexual intercourse—and everywhere, without exception, the norm is sexual intercourse between a man and a woman committed to each other for life. Although this is familiar ground, and less and less contested even by those who advocate for a revision of Christian ethics, it is important to state just how strongly and consistently the Bible speaks to the goodness of marriage between a man and a woman, and equally consistently to the immorality of sexual acts (heterosexual and homosexual) that do not honor that bond.

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Tragedy, Tradition, and Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate