In Straight and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (InterVarsity Press, 1995), Thomas E. Schmidt has made it abundantly clear—against some revisionist interpreters—that the Bible does not warrant homosexual behavior. He has also marshaled disturbing and seldom admitted medical evidence that aids is but one of a number of serious health risks to practicing homosexuals. But Schmidt also provides wise advice to the church on how to relate pastorally to homosexuals. The following points are taken from his "final words."
1. We must express our disapproval of homosexual practice in the context of our own sexual fallenness.
Unless we acknowledge that we are all in need of God's grace and healing in our sexuality, we will continue to prevent homosexuals and others from listening to us. They will hear only our fear and revulsion, not our love and similar need of grace. We should always draw a connection between homosexuality and the inappropriate desires and actions of the heterosexual majority. This approach kicks the legs out from under the reaction that we are simply homophobic; but more important, it is the right thing to do. Only when we show that we have a greater concern about our own sin will we have a right to confront sin in others. This is not tolerance. It is justice.
Our heterosexual sin includes hatred toward homosexuals. Whenever we initiate or tolerate slang terms, demeaning jokes, or derogatory offhand comments, we send a strong message that these people for whom Jesus died are, in civil-rights terms, niggers; or in biblical terms, Samaritans. In so doing we make a lie of the slogan "hate the sin and love the sinner." That slogan, known and despised by homosexuals, is tired and needs to be replaced. A more appropriate motto would be "look in the mirror before looking out the window."
Christians who cannot deal with the issues of homosexuality calmly and compassionately should keep their mouths shut; they should certainly stay away from the front lines of ministry and public-policy debate-not to mention radio and television talk shows. The people we are trying to reach must be convinced that the way of Jesus is the way of the Wounded Healer, not the Holy Terror.
2.We must find avenues of ministry consistent with our moral stance.
Churches face an awkward dilemma. The exclusion of practicing homosexuals from worship and ministry may push them away from Christianity; but inclusion in every aspect of church life may send a message of approval toward homosexual behavior. The morally ambiguous "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which satisfies neither side in the military, is downright cowardly in a church. The better course is for church leaders periodically to make it clear from the pulpit (and privately in specific cases of concern) that the church represents forgiveness and power to change—as well as redemptive discipline in cases of sexual disobedience, including homosexual acts.
Education within the church is imperative. Our members need to know what they are up against. And even more critically, they need to know what we stand for. Churches should make available to their members annotated reading lists and names of local counseling agencies and reputable Christian ministries, and information about the resources of the local church itself, including support groups and counseling opportunities. Such information should be as widely distributed in the church and as readily available as condoms are outside the church.
The body of Christ is not just a mouth. Christians should be known for the kind of hands-on help that characterized the ministry of our Lord. People with AIDS, in particular, are the lepers of our day. These people lose work, insurance, and finally the ability to care for themselves, all before they are sick enough to require hospitalization. They often need errands run, basic housekeeping, and home-cooked meals. In areas where no hospice care is available, they may need money or a place to stay. More than anything, they need simple human companionship. As relationships of trust develop, they may open up to spiritual help. But there is no guarantee of this, and we should not make it a condition of service.
We may view many of them as enemies, and the feeling is often mutual. But in a war, would we leave our enemies to die alone on the battlefield, reasoning that they deserve their fate and should not absorb the precious resources of "our side"? I submit that those who applaud these deaths proclaim thereby that their side is not the side of Jesus but the side of Satan, and the words of Jesus himself provide a fitting malediction: "It will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for those people"(see Luke 10:12).
3. We must understand the relation between morality and truth.
Our culture is rapidly moving away from the notion of absolute truth. People see truth and morality as subject to the changing whims of those in power, and accusations of relativism fail to sting because people perceive them as accurate descriptions of the way truth and morality work. The clearest indication of this is that, for many if not most Americans, tolerance is valued more highly than truth.
If Christians disagree with the prevailing winds of culture, if we find that God has revealed himself and his way in a book, we must place limits on our tolerance in the interest of truth. We should not expect the truth of biblical revelation to prevail or even that our culture will tolerate it much longer. But instead of shaking our heads and lamenting the sorry state of the world, we should recognize that truth is not meant to be applauded but to be nailed to crosses. And we had better know the truth well. That means, first of all, knowing Jesus. It also means knowing the Bible, backwards and forwards, and far more deeply than most churches currently require. Finally, it means knowing well the larger ideas competing for the minds and hearts of people.
4. We must bring the gospel to individual people.
When it comes to moral issues, many believers find it difficult to distinguish their responsibility as believers from their responsibility as American citizens. Too many confuse the cause of Christ with the way of Christ. In practical terms, Christians should be wary of public-policy debates that tend to foster issue-oriented rather than people-oriented approaches. It does not have to be one or the other; but in my observation, those who get caught up in the political aspect of a moral issue often adopt a simplistic we-they attitude and a set of tactics based on the acquisition of power. They may succeed, but the price may be the loss of humility, tenderness, and integrity. I do not oppose work through the political process to legislate morality: that is the democratic process. I simply warn that it is a limited and limiting goal. The gospel is ultimately not about changing laws but about changing lives.
Recently I heard a powerful testimony of Christian service from an elderly woman who had joined her psychiatrist husband in a lifetime of service to his clients by opening their home to them. "The kitchen must be the center of love," she said (and her life proved), "for Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread." True and convicting words for those of us who perceive open homes, unhurried conversation, and table fellowship as nostalgic elements of another generation of Christians. True and convicting words for those of us who would march off to fight in the culture war—past Lazarus at our gate.
The call is clear. If we are to walk in the way of Jesus, it is not the nuclear family that we need to promote but the hospitable family. We do not need people who love family values nearly as much as we need families who value love for people.
Thomas E. Schmidt is a New Testament scholar in Santa Barbara, California.
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