Conservative Christianity’s struggle with homosexuality may be more common than many like to admit.
When the topic of discussion is homosexuals in the church, mainline denominations automatically come to mind. Most mainline churches have caucuses organized around the issue. Groups such as Affirmation (United Methodists) and Presbyterians (PCUSA) for Lesbian and Gay Concerns have pushed for full acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, including the ordination of active homosexuals.
In more theologically conservative circles, homosexuality is not nearly so visible, at least as a debatable issue. Virtually all conservative denominations and evangelical colleges are on record as regarding homosexual behavior unbiblical. Yet there are some who maintain that the percentage of homosexually inclined persons in conservative church circles is no different from the percentage of such people in liberal denominations or in society at large. (The most commonly cited figures are 4 to 10 percent for men and 3 to 4 percent for women.)
“We’re not just talking about people in the pews,” said Ralph Blair of the New York City-based Evangelicals Concerned. “I know of people in high positions in the evangelical church—pastors, denominational and parachurch leaders, publishers, best-selling authors—who are homosexual but who realize that to disclose this would ruin their careers.”
Blair started Evangelicals Concerned in 1976 on the premise that there is no inconsistency between the Christian faith and a monogamous homosexual lifestyle. The organization now has more than 20 chapters nationwide. Except when it comes to homosexuality, it affirms the fundamental tenets of evangelical faith.
The Origins Debate
According to Blair, there is no logical reason to think the proportion of homosexuals among evangelicals is any different from the proportion of homosexuals in the larger culture. This contention is based on his view that homosexuality is not chosen or learned, but something with which a person is born. Blair claims the scientific research is on his side.
But the origin of homosexuality is a pivotal point of debate as mainline church groups, including the PCUSA and the United Methodist Church, continue developing what could be landmark statements within those denominations on this issue.
Most evangelicals, including many who have struggled personally with homosexuality, strongly dispute Blair’s contention that homosexuality is inborn. They maintain that homosexual orientation is learned, that it is usually traceable to early childhood, and attributable to some form of deficiency in the parent-child (most often same-sex) relationship.
Jeff Collins, executive director of the Annapolis, Maryland-based Love & Action, a ministry to people with AIDS, said all he has experienced personally and in ministry supports the view that homosexual orientation is learned. “Ninety-five percent of the AIDS patients we have worked with who are homosexual had absentee fathers,” said Collins. “Or their parents were divorced. Or for some other reason they were deprived of normal parent-child relationships.”
Collins agrees with Blair, however, that homosexuality is far more common in the evangelical community than is generally acknowledged. Love & Action has visited about a dozen Christian colleges in the last year to generate support for AIDS ministries. As part of that effort, students are invited to sign up for anonymous meetings if they are struggling with homosexual feelings. Collins said that on average about 4 percent of a school’s student body accept the offer.
He suspects the actual percentage of homosexually oriented students is at least twice that. He observed that the AIDS crisis has functioned “as a means to grace” by forcing more and more young people to address their sexual confusion.
Several deans of students and heads of counseling programs at Christian colleges interviewed by CHRISTIANITY TODAY generally agreed that, as a problem that affects Christian students, homosexuality is underrated. Accurate statistics are difficult to come by. Said Stan McCloud, dean of students at Gordon College, “Students who are struggling with this or who have made a decision to live as homosexuals don’t feel free to discuss it or seek help.” Part of the explanation is that these students are subject to disciplinary measures.
Jay Barnes, dean of students at Messiah College, has conducted anonymous surveys on students’ sexual behavior. He said the results indicate that about 4 percent of the men and 2 percent of the women have engaged in homosexual behavior as adults. Counselors interviewed by CT generally held that the percentage of homosexually inclined students was probably not as high as in the larger culture, but that it is close.
Homosexuality and the Bible
Those who argue that the Bible does not condemn homosexual behavior often compare the issue with debate surrounding the role of women in the home and church. They say interpretations of Scripture that would allow women’s ordination ought also to accept homosexual behavior.
Klyne Snodgrass, Bible professor at North Park Seminary in Chicago, disagrees. Snodgrass is among the leading scholars to favor women’s ordination based on the Bible. But with equal certainty, Snodgrass argues the Bible teaches that homosexual behavior is sinful.
One big difference, he says, is that the Bible contains several uncritical references to women in ministry which need to be considered against those that appear to oppose women’s ordination. In contrast, said Snodgrass, “Nothing in Scripture suggests that homosexuality is a viable lifestyle. In all references to homosexual practice, the Bible speaks negatively.” Various scholars, including Yale University’s John Boswell, have offered alternate interpretations to the Scriptures most commonly cited to condemn homosexual behavior. Snodgrass says he has studied these interpretations but has concluded that they are without merit. At the same time, he also believes the church is guilty of rejecting homosexuals and putting homosexual sin in a category by itself. Such an attitude, Snodgrass says, also has no justification in Scripture.
Challenging The Church
Collins maintains that Christian colleges reflect the wider evangelical culture. “Almost daily we get calls from evangelical ministers asking for help,” he said. “And from missionaries. Sometimes it’s missionary kids who were shipped back to the states to go to school while their parents stayed on the field.” The ministry refers such calls to counseling programs in callers’ localities.
How such programs operate depends largely on their views of the origin of homosexuality. Said the head of the counseling program at a Christian college who did not want to be identified, “As far as I’m concerned, the jury on causality is still out. In some cases it can be traced to a particular experience. In other cases, that’s harder to do. All the studies I’ve seen lead me to think at this point that [homosexual orientation] is multicausal.”
And there are those who, like Blair, believe the church should reconsider its position that homosexual behavior is immoral. Lloyd Bowman, who attended Messiah College from 1984 to 1988, said after graduation he finally “came to peace” with his homosexuality. Bowman said he simply could not identify any negative experiences in his past that could have caused him to be homosexual. Explaining why he came out of the closet, he said, “I realized I had been living a lie.”
Bowman said that while in school he felt coming out of the closet would lead to harassment—verbal as well as physical—at the hands of fellow students.
Among those interviewed by CT, there was widespread agreement that attitudes in evangelical circles toward homosexuals are in need of some repair. Said Barnes, dean of students at Messiah, “Colleges and churches need clear standards of behavior. But we need to make sure we begin by accepting others as persons.”
Barnes continued, “In conservative circles, we are generally hesitant to talk about sexuality. Homosexuality especially is emotionally loaded. It’s easier today than it was ten years ago for people to talk about having been sexually abused. That has not happened with homosexuality.”
Collins called for churches to become “places of transparency, places of refuge where people can open up and talk.” He said, “As long as a person desires to be free [from homosexuality] the Bible mandates the church to walk with him. It may always have to walk with him.” He continued, “Young people are confused. They have questions. And if they don’t get answers from the church, they’ll get answers from the county health department or from the local gay AIDS clinic. And those answers will not be biblical.”
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