The last two years have witnessed a flood of literature advocating tolerance, approval, and even a kind of appreciation for homosexual behavior. Much of this writing comes from ostensibly Christian quarters. Because of the religious or Christian language in which the prohomosexuality arguments are often couched, evangelicals need to familiarize themselves with the biblical approach to this problem. To aid in this, CHRISTIANITY TODAYinterviewed Dr. Klaus Bockmühl, professor at the St. Chrischona Pastors’ Training Institute in Basel, Switzerland. Pastor Bockmühl holds a theological doctorate in ethics from the University of Basel. He was formerly chaplain to students at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

Question: Dr. Bockmühl, in a German address you charge that a number of supposedly Christian theologians have “given Scripture the boot” as the norm for Christian ethics in regard to homosexuality. Where did this start?

Answer. It began in England. The tremendous increase in publicly reported homosexuality—an 850 per cent increase in homosexual offenses recorded by the police between 1934 and 1954, as compared to a 223 per cent increase for all other offenses—resulted in the preparation of the so-called Wolfenden Report in 1957. This report was preceded by a number of independent investigations, made by the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, the British Medical Association, and other groups. These reports deal primarily with the legal and sociological aspects of homosexuality, though the Anglican report goes into detail on the pastoral counseling of homosexuals and speaks of the necessity for conversion. The Anglican report, like that of the BMA, makes a sharp distinction between homosexual propensity and behavior: the propensity is morally neutral, but the homosexual has no right to demand greater moral freedom for his behavior than for that of his heterosexual brother, for whom sexual relations are sanctioned by God only within marriage.

Q. This would then suggest compassion for homosexually inclined persons but condemnation of explicitly homosexual behavior. What has changed since 1957?

A. Among German-speaking authorities, the argument was raised in 1959 that because homosexuality had supposedly been proved to result from constitutional, i.e. biological, factors (actually, this “proof” does not exist), it is a variation resulting from Creation itself. Therefore it should be recognized by the Christian Church. Professor Helmut Thielicke of Hamburg published an important article in the Zeitschrift für evangelische Ethik in 1962: after summarily disposing of what Scripture actually says—and of course the Bible never mentions the “constitutional propensity” to homosexuality, but explicitly condemns homosexual behavior—he claims that the question should be decided on sociological and psychological grounds. From all this Thielicke—together with some others—comes to the curious conclusion of recommending “sublimation” for homosexuals, by which he means that they should be given opportunities for social welfare and youth work, and encouraged to go into the ministry. In the same issue of the Zeitschrift, Professor H. J. Schoeps claims that Paul’s opposition to homosexuality resulted from the narrowminded hostility of the Jews of the Dispersion to the Hellenistic culture that surrounded them. Later that year Schoeps called for the abolition of all laws against homosexual behavior.

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The discussion in Germany was brought to focus with the publication of a book entitled Sexuality and Crime (1963), in which a number of prominent scientists, theologians, lawyers, and doctors of medicine raised their voices against the German government’s “overly conservative” proposals for legislative reform. Unfortunately the essay by Thielicke was reprinted in this book, giving readers the impression that he spoke for Christian ethics.

Q. Historically, Christianity has taken a strong stand against homosexuality. What arguments were used by religious spokesmen to justify their change of position?

A. A complete presentation of the argument is given in a marriage manual published in 1962 by Dr. Theo Bovet, in which, discussing “The Couple,” he includes as a subsection “Homophile Couples.” Observing that sexual morality is stricter in the atheistic Soviet Union than in the “Christian West,” Bovet concludes that the Christian faith has no distinctive sexual morality of its own. He obviously assumes we can decide what our ethical norms should be by observing present-day practices. Thus the Kinsey Report assumes major importance with its assertion that homosexuality is quite widespread.

Q. What conclusions are drawn from this “finding”?

A. The marriage manual quoted takes an extreme stand, maintaining that homosexuality is just another natural possibility of development, like heterosexuality; the difference between them can be compared to that between right- and left-handedness. Therefore the concept of homosexual seduction of the young—and of laws against it—becomes irrelevant, for all seduced youths must already have been homosexual. If homosexuality is a natural pattern, it can be reconciled with Christian faith. Since homosexuality is not a sickness, it cannot be healed. Since it is not a sin, there can be no conversion from it. Any apparently reformed homosexuals were in reality bisexuals who succeeded in overcoming or suppressing the homosexual part of their inclinations.

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Q. What are the consequences of this for the Christian concept of marriage?

A. Marriage is highly exalted, and the essence of marriage is defined as “partnership.” Religious counselors who follow this line would logically try to promote “fidelity” or “marriage-like” relationships between homosexuals.

Q. What argument can be brought against all this?

A. I am glad to say that this development did not go unopposed. As early as 1963, Professor Walter Eichrodt of the Old Testament department at Basel published a defense of the traditional Christian teaching that homosexuality goes against the law of God and of nature. And in June of that year, a number of specialists in medicine, psychiatry, law, sociology, and theology took part in a conference on homosexuality called by the Swiss Evangelical Church Union.

Q. What conclusions did they reach?

A. First of all, the scientists demolished the “proof” that homosexuality is constitutional or determined by one’s heredity. One physician summed it up like this: “ ‘Hereditary homosexuality’ is an empty label we apply when we cannot find any explanation for an individual’s homosexuality in his case history.” A psychotherapist appealed to participants to do everything possible to dispel the myth that homosexuality results from a constitutional predisposition. A number of the theologians present stressed that the Bible not only establishes firm ethical standards but also emphasizes renewal through the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9–11).

Q. How do you view the situation?

A. The permissive attitude toward homosexuality came from the false presupposition that it is constitutionally inherited. This contention drags the theological discussion onto unfamiliar territory and silences the Bible’s own teachings, which deal with conduct. Still more harm is caused by the inadmissible conclusion drawn from the presupposition of “constitutional” homosexuality, namely, that anyone who has this predisposition cannot be considered morally responsible for his acts or subjected to ethical judgments. A thorough study of the medical literature on this subject reveals no evidence that homosexuality has a physical or constitutional origin.

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The unwarranted presupposition that homosexuality is hereditary also leads to the unsound practice of using statements made by “constitutional” homosexuals as the basis for ethical norms. This overlooks a fundamental fact: Christian ethics is prescriptive, not descriptive, or, to put it another way, Christian ethical standards are the product not of statistical research but of revelation.

Further harm is caused by another inadmissible conclusion drawn from the thesis of “constitutional” homosexuality, namely, that a person who has this constitutional predisposition cannot be considered morally responsible for his acts or subjected to ethical judgments. This is rather like saying that since the heterosexual sex drive is stronger in some people than in others, only those in whom the drive is weak or nonexistent can be held accountable for their behavior.

As a result of all this, the important distinction between propensity and practice, which had to be made at the start in order to discuss homosexuality at all—in view of the Bible’s categorical condemnation of it—has now again been abandoned. The Anglican report of 1956 carried the distinction through to a consistent condemnation of homosexual behavior, but some more recent writers have gone so far as to claim that abstinence would be harmful for homosexuals.

The remarkable and distressing thing is that not only have church spokesmen lost sight of the biblical condemnation of homosexual acts; they have also abandoned the biblical message of healing and restoration for those involved in homosexual sin on the same terms as for those involved in other types of sin. Thus “Christians” appear to be denying what many secular psychiatrists affirm, that homosexuality can be cured. Whenever churchmen of this persuasion hear of a “converted homosexual,” they dispose of the problem by saying that either he was not a “true” homosexual or he has simply subjected himself to effective—but by implication unnecessary—self-discipline. The naturalistic bias is revealed, for example, when some disparage a healing that leads “only” to abstinence. They think that a “cure” for homosexuality must necessarily involve heterosexual excitement or temptations.

Q. Dr. Bockmühl, you still haven’t explained how these people deal with the straightforward biblical condemnation of homosexuality.

A. In the Scripture homosexual acts are forbidden or categorically condemned in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:22–28, First Corinthians 6:9–11, and First Timothy 1:10. Most Protestants who have discussed homosexuality have felt obliged to deal with this unanimous biblical verdict, but few have done so adequately.

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The most comprehensive treatment of the biblical position is given by D. S. Bailey, the editor of the Anglican report, in two chapters of his book Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955). Bailey’s treatment of the biblical passages is feeble, especially when compared with his presentation of historical material. He holds that the Christian “prejudice” against homosexuality results from a misunderstanding of the story of Sodom in Genesis 19. The Hebrew verb jada, know, does not necessarily mean sexual knowledge. Perhaps, he suggests, the Sodomites really only wanted to get acquainted with the strangers. How that could have been interpreted as a breach of hospitality, or why Lot would feel it necessary to offer to sacrifice his daughters to prevent it, Bailey does not explain. He devotes only two and one-half pages to the New Testament, chiefly to a discussion of whether the Greek terms are correctly translated in the Bible. At any rate, he concludes, the Bible does condemn certain vices of the ancient world but does not touch on the problem of constitutionally inherited homosexuality, which is what is supposed to concern us today.

The clear prohibition of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18:22 is often dismissed with the claim that what the text really has in mind is not homosexual activity as such but only contact with the alien religions that practiced male prostitution. In other words, it is a question not of morality but of religious purity. This bold argument is put forward on the basis of dubious evidence, for even Bailey observes that there is scant reason to suppose unnatural vice was widespread among the Egyptians and Canaanites and no reason at all to suppose it had a place in their worship.

At least Bailey finds the New Testament passages “quite clear.” Some other interpreters, however, see Romans 1:22–28 not as condemning homosexuality as such, but only as making it an “illustration” for the depravity of the ancient world. They leave it to the reader to answer the question: If the whole pattern is rejected as depraved, how can we accept the feature of it that is expressly cited as an illustration? Others claim that homosexuality is presented not as sinful in itself, but as punishment for sin. This explanation is more than naive. In Romans 1, Paul is completely in tune with the Old Testament idea that God can punish a sin by delivering the sinner over to it completely.

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First Corinthians 6:9–11, by contrast, not only explicitly condemns homosexual practices but also clearly proclaims liberation from them. As a result it is popularly ignored. Some writers do not even mention it, while others simply list it without devoting even one sentence to what it says. The same thing happens to First Timothy 1:10, a passage that has an important bearing on the question of the political applicability of the moral law (the usus politicus legis) inasmuch as it places homosexual offenses in the same category with other deeds that are to be punished by public law.

Q. Can you sum that all up for us?

A. As far as the New Testament passages are concerned, the usual method is to say that Jesus does not expressly condemn homosexuality, and that even Paul was thinking only of the excesses of ancient society. Paul, it is claimed, could not have been speaking about constitutionally inherited homosexuality, because in his day it was completely unrecognized. Once the biblical standard has thus been shown to be “irrelevant,” sociological or psychological values can take its place. Other commentators on the subject draw on a nebulous, cover-all principle of “love,” which will always make it possible to show great “compassion” for the homosexual in his variant way of life. This procedure is always alleged to be based on a “pastoral, compassionate understanding” of the individual.

At this point I have to ask myself whether this proposal—to abolish the biblical standard as an act of compassion, “for the sake of the individual”—can possibly be meant seriously. Anyone who looks at First Corinthians 6 without the prejudice that permits the fantastic exegetic somersaults we have been discussing will discover that in the New Testament the Law is for the good of man. How can it then be compassionate to eliminate it?

Q. What do you think the attitude of believing Christians should be on this issue?

A. We must make certain distinctions. First, we should recognize that the central doctrine of the permissivist position, that homosexuality is inborn, has been virtually demolished.

Second, as wide reading on the subject and pastoral experience have shown me, such a thing as a psychic predisposition to homosexuality does exist. Again and again we see a case unfolding as in the textbook: a physically or psychologically absent father and/or a dominating mother produce lasting damage in the child or adolescent in the form of a homosexual fixation. In cases where a fixation has already occurred through early childhood experience or other factors, we can only agree with the Anglican report: such a fixation relieves the homosexual of accountability for his homosexual propensity, but it cannot relieve him of responsibility for his homosexual acts. We must always make this distinction.

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Third, there is the ethical question. In his remarkable sociological and psychological study made for the British Home Ministry, The Homosexual Society (1962), Dr. Richard Hauser warns that a narrow line divides abnormal from normal behavior, and that there is great danger of crossing this line during adolescence, when a person passes through a phase of sexual ambivalence. This is the time when a homosexual fixation of emotional and social development can most easily take place. We must firmly repudiate the myth that such a fixation is necessarily irreversible. Hauser produces evidence to show that only 4 to 8 per cent of the active homosexuals are exclusively homosexual in their orientation; the far greater number are bisexual. This brings the real problem into focus: it lies not in the existence of a miniscule number of people who really might have a strong predisposition to homosexuality but in the greater number of those who have chosen homosexual behavior, so that homosexuality threatens to become an aggressive social epidemic.

As Hauser points out, putting oneself above the law on the question of homosexuality often goes along with a feeling of being above the law in other matters as well. A celebrated and typical example is the case of Guy Burgess, but similar attitudes are shown in the statements of homosexuals cited by Hauser: an attitude of being “beyond good and evil.” One is reminded of Karl Barth’s treatment of the problem in Church Dogmatics (Vol. III, Part 4, p. 185 of the German edition), that the first steps on the homosexual path can seem to “shine with a special beauty and exotic spirituality, even with an aroma of sanctity,” and that therefore we should warn against them from the beginning, and not begin to confront people with the law of God only when faced with serious, overt offenses. This is all the more crucial when we recognize that every human being has the possibility of a more or less far-reaching homosexual development.

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Fourth, there is the matter of healing. A number of ecclesiastics today are thoroughly skeptical about the possibility of healing or cure for homosexuals. The sociologist Hauser, by contrast, believes that homosexual behavior patterns can be overcome when the particular pressures that led to them are lifted: “You have to have seen their joy and relief when people realize that they do not have to stay that way.” Some time ago the New York Academy of Medical Science reported a rate of cure of 50 per cent in the psychiatric treatment of homosexuality. Convincing overt homosexuals to begin treatment remained a major problem, doubtless aggravated by the current climate of permissiveness, even approval, in certain church circles.

A believing Christian certainly ought to be able to have even more hope than Hauser expresses. We know that in the early Church there were Christians who had been “like that.” But it was behind them, because they were subsequently “washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Finally, we ought to note that a number of practicing physicians have been convinced that an encounter with the saving power of Jesus Christ can decisively change the homosexual’s situation.

When such cures are cited—as in the BMA report—two things always stand out. First, when the individual has been claimed for a higher purpose and brought into the battle to fulfill God’s will on earth, his previous preoccupation with himself diminishes. Second, true Christian fellowship is a prerequisite. Again and again we hear that a change began in the life of a homosexual when a Christian group created a new moral and spiritual climate for him.

Nevertheless, every healing in the Christian sense depends on the individual’s answer to the question, “Wilt thou be made whole?” It is necessary for him to admit the sin in his past life, make confession, accept forgiveness, and begin to struggle against his impulses and for the cause of Christ, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of God’s plan of salvation for the world.

Finally, I would like to say this: The Church of Jesus Christ has to resist the trend that would ironically make it the agent for the abolition of its own ethical norms, an abolition for which neither the Old nor the New Testament offers the slightest justification. The biblical norms are relevant precisely because they deal with homosexual behavior, which is exactly the problem today. It is impossible to see why the principle of the lordship of Christ, which is applicable to every other aspect of human shortcoming and error, should not also have a healing and helpful impact in the area of homosexuality. In First Corinthians 6, Paul gives us a model of a creative approach, for he describes not only the required standard but also the source of power for a new life.

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The decisive criterion of Christian ethics is the lordship of Christ, and in the area of sexual ethics this means that physical inclinations must be subordinated to his will, not used as an excuse for transgressing it. For this reason our attitude toward the current campaign to rehabilitate homosexuality in Christian ethics must be the same as that toward other, similarly based attempts to “modernize” Christian ethics—for example, in the field of heterosexual relations.

Today it is not only in systematic theology but also in Christian ethics that theology is being reduced to mere anthropology. What it really comes down to is this: Our whole generation is facing the choice, “Whom will you serve?”

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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