CT convened four leading Christian thinkers to discuss how Christians should address homosexuality in the public sphere. The participants all started from the assumption that genital intimacy between persons of the same sex is not scriptural and is incompatible with the holiness to which God calls Christian disciples. The question was not how to deal with homosexuality in the church but what Christians have to say in the public arena about homosexuality and how they should communicate it.
The forum was chaired by Richard Mouw, president and professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. Panelists included David Jones, professor of theology and Christian ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri; Stephen Spencer, professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas; and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, professor of psychology and resident scholar at the Center for Christian Women in Leadership at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
Richard Mouw: What is essentially wrong with homosexual practice? Many gays and lesbians can say, "Well, having this very intimate sexual relationship with one other person, so long as it's consensual, is not hurting anybody. Why should society care about it? Why should Christians?"
David Jones: Our sexuality is part of the way we are made; God made us for each other, male and female. We run up against something that is very structural in that relationship, which means that no other relation outside of the marital relation can live up to how we are designed as human beings.
Stephen Spencer: I agree that homosexual practice violates the creational order that God made; whether people are satisfied with alternatives isn't the question. The question is whether that's the way things are supposed to be. There is personal rebellion and alienation against God in this, whether people are aware of it.
Mouw: We live in a large, pluralistic culture with people of many different religious and nonreligious persuasions. How do we evangelicals address public practice and the policies that govern public practice in matters related to homosexuality? Do we say, "Live and let live"? Or "This is the way we understand right and wrong but we don't want to impose that on you"? Or do we want to shape public life in accordance with biblical standards?
Spencer: When we offer people the gospel, we do not hesitate to be explicit about what we would like and what we think God likes. The question is: How do we talk when we're dealing with public policy?
Jones: Because all human beings are created in the image of God, public policy ought to protect all human beings regardless of their sexual behavior. Therefore, we don't make sexual behavior a test case for civil rights in terms of those things which are due to all of us as citizens. We need to assert in a strong voice that just as we give civil rights to adulterers, so also people that we believe are involved in homosexual sin have civil rights.
Quite a different question is whether homosexuals need special protection rights.
I think that Christians also must make the case, without quoting Scripture, that there is a compelling state interest in the public recognition of the unique sexual relationship of husband and wife and its implication for the rearing of children.
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen: It's also important for evangelicals to be honest and confess that we have, in a sense, made peace with the larger sexual revolution. Evangelicals have made their peace with divorce: in fact, the accepted norm now of sexual license in the evangelical church is serial monogamy.
We've got to do our homework on the issue of abuse, also. I was on the Synodical Committee on Abuse for the Christian Reformed Church and we found that the prevalence rates of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse were no different in the church from what they are anywhere else. Marriage, like every other creational institution, is like the little girl with a little curl on her forehead: when it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad, it's horrid.
Taking the middle ground
Mouw: Before we discuss practical details, let's make a distinction here among three voices that we evangelicals might want to capture.
First, the obvious case of moral evangelism. People are caught up in addictions. They're caught up in sexual misdeeds and other kinds of wicked activity. There are times when it's very important to say, even standing on the street corner or preaching in a public square, that the only solution is to turn to Jesus Christ. Obviously, we don't want to exclude that very explicit biblical voice from the public square.
The other extreme is illustrated by a wonderful phrase in Rousseau's Social Contract, where Rousseau discusses the general will. He says that when a law is proposed before an assembly of people, each of us must ask not what do I want but what does the general public want. In those moments, we're trying to think on behalf of the whole body politic. Consider domestic partnership legislation: we might not approve of the behavior that such legislation might encourage, but at the same time, we might think that for the general welfare this is none the less a good thing in a pluralistic society.
But there's a middle area where we don't want simply to evangelize but to try to explain to people why this biblical world-view is a good way to live. We might want to explain that God's prohibition of homosexual sex is good for people; we might want to explain that the Bible hasn't given us arbitrary restrictions. In this view, we would argue that even if you don't accept the Scriptures, somehow you ought to be open to the possibility that this is a better way to live, that people were created to live this way.
Van Leeuwen: In the end, what's convincing is not that you talk about it but that you demonstrate it. You have to be able to demonstrate the winsomeness of this creation theology, not just to argue it.
Because of charitable-choice legislation that allows federal funds to come into Christian organizations, we have a better opportunity than ever before to demonstrate the winsomeness of heterosexual monogamy and celibate singleness. But we've got to get our own act together first. We've got to do some backtracking on the ease with which we've been accepting divorce, premarital cohabitation, and so on. We need to set up better marriage preparation and mentoring systems.
Jones: That's Deuteronomy. It's not just having the law but showing it to the nations.
There are three components to social transformation. First, personal renewal, which has to continue.
Ecclesial practice is the second necessary component. We are a light to the nations and should demonstrate that reality, not least in the area of sexuality.
The third area is structural reform. If our calling is to do justice and to love mercy, there is a calling for public justice. We must ask how to go about that from the point of view of the Christian policymaker.
Emil Brunner once said, "A Christian engineer doesn't build Christian bridges. A Christian engineer builds solid bridges." I think that Christian policymakers don't make Christian policy; they make solid policy that derives from their world-view.
A third way
Mouw: There is a very deep tendency among evangelical Christians either to withdraw or to try to take over the culture. The question is, how can we be present as fellow citizens seeking the welfare of the place that the Lord has called us to live in without, at the same time, trying to take it over and establish Zion?
Van Leeuwen: One of the major questions is how to think about domestic partnerships. Some policymakers have suggested that we should have domestic partnerships but we shouldn't think of them in terms of sexual orientation. I had three cousins, an unmarried woman and two unmarried brothers, who ran a farm. They lived together and ran a farm their whole lives. They were an economic community. Should they or should they not get the benefits or tax breaks of being an economic community?
Another example is Lee Bryant, a Canadian woman in her early seventies, who is a celibate lesbian. At 72, Lee is still an adjunct teacher at the community college, trying to make ends meet. She shares a household with another woman, Betty, a British immigrant to Canada who is on a British pension. Betty is sickly and may die soon; Lee actually said to me as many as ten years ago, "I don't understand why I can't be entitled to some of Betty's pension and vice versa."
The state has a compelling interest and Christians have a compelling interest in people's emotional and economic commitments to one another. If people can demonstrate that they are emotionally and economically committed to one another, then they should have some of the tax benefits in that particular culture that would be given to a married couple.
Jones: I worked one summer at Camp Nathaniel in Kentucky when I was in college and spent some time with two single women who were part of that organization and owned a home together and lived together in a perfectly chaste relationship. If one of them went to the hospital, I would expect the other to be able to serve as next-of-kin.
Van Leeuwen: Another example is the vast number of middle-aged women who are looking after aged parents in their own homes. This is the nuclear family getting reconstructed for our generation. If there are tax breaks to be had or zoning laws that need to be set aside in order to have granny flats or whatever, I'm all for it.
Mouw: You're saying that the law should recognize persons who live together and have deep and abiding friendships, whether or not those friendships are genitally intimate.
Jones: It's not the state's business whether they're chaste or not.
Mouw: I've seen situations where parents of a person dying of aids would not allow his long-term partner in the room. That's just horrible. You may want to say things happen within that friendship that you don't approve of, but it's wrong to keep people of abiding friendships from being together when one of them is dying.
Van Leeuwen: We agree that the state should recognize emotional and economic commitments. The practical question is this: How do we define economic and emotional commitment? What constitutes evidence for a domestic partnership? Is it evidence that you've got two signatures on the ownership papers for the house and the car? Is it evidence that you've been together for two decades? If we do not define carefully what constitutes evidence, domestic partnerships are open to great abuse. I could have a first cousin in Maine who happens not to have a dental plan and wants to be in one, so I could declare a domestic partnership with that person, never mind that I never see him or her.
Mouw: Let me raise two slippery-slope issues that we need to deal with before we endorse domestic partnerships. The one is, if we endorse domestic partnerships where two people live together, then what about three people living together? What will keep us, down the line, from endorsing three people living together, four people living together? Already we hear people in the gay and lesbian community saying that their goal is, really, to defeat the heterosexist model of two persons living together in a lifelong committed relationship.
The other slippery-slope issue that I find very troubling is the rhetoric of the pro-gay movement over the last several years. Several years ago, we heard gay/lesbian rights. Then suddenly, it was gay/lesbian/bisexuals. Then it was gay/lesbian/bisexuals/transsexuals.
Jones: People are hesitant to address any of the domestic-partnership issues be cause they fear that it will lead to the implementation of some larger agenda from the gay and lesbian community. The removal of the sodomy statutes stalled when people perceived that it was part of a larger agenda.
Mouw: You're going on record now as opposing sodomy statutes?
Jones: Yes. I don't think they're necessary. At the same time, we should oppose laws that would make it mandatory for Christian schools to hire practicing homosexuals or a Christian couple who own a rental property to rent to a gay couple if it is against their conscience.
Mouw: So how do we look at these issues? We know we cannot isolate them from a larger program to take us far beyond the blessing of same-sex, faithful relationships. Wouldn't it be a step in the direction of a much more completely open society with regard to sexual arrangements and sexual identities?
Van Leeuwen: First, we don't call them marriages. Rather, we should approach this from a totally different point of view and say: We are in a society that is reducing the welfare state. There are a lot of people who are going to fall through the cracks, economically. How can we have compassionate policies that allow those people to survive? We could call them economic units. Economic units encourage people to support each other, to be there for each other in ways that the simplistic notion of the welfare state can't or won't do.
Second, there are models of how to avoid the slippery slope. For instance, in the Scandinavian countries where they do have legal domestic partnerships that gays take advantage of, it is forbidden by law to have medically supervised artificial insemination of lesbians and it is forbidden by law for gay people to adopt. Even in what's supposed to be the role model for "enlightened attitudes toward gays," the Scandinavian countries have said, "This far and no further."
On your first slippery slope argument, that we might get into a situation with domestic partnerships of three or four people, I would say: if two people want to live together as an economic unit and get benefits and tax breaks, then why not three? Why not four?
There are Christian precedents for this. I think of this every time I drive by the Villanova University on the Main line in Philadelphia. Right in front of the university is the graveyard where all those Augustinians are buried. They're not buried in their family plots; they're buried in the plot of the religious community in which they have lived.
I remember when I was in graduate school at Northwestern, the Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston was starting to get big just at the time when other assorted hippies wanted to have licentious communes. The government of Evanston, which was a great conservative town, bent over backward to find ways to allow the Reba Place Fellowship. They invented a loophole that allowed communities in which there is a clearly stated leadership structure of a religious nature.
You have to remember: Jesus was, in some ways, considered a family breaker. He relativized marriage and said, "Your first family is the family of God." I think about John Boswell's book The Kindness of Strangers, a history of the adoption of foundlings. This is another example of legitimate models of nonbiological community within the history of Christianity that we need to respect and resurrect.
Spencer: We need to remember that we live in a broken world. What works in a broken world by broken people isn't always truth. We don't want them to look too carefully at what works; we don't want to look too closely at whether the gospel works, because the gospel won't work. It'll kill you. It'll get you nailed to a cross. As Tom Schmidt (Straight and Narrow?) put it: Truth isn't to be applauded. It's to be nailed to crosses. We want to be able to say, "Come and drink and be filled and it will bring wholeness to you," but there are qualifications to that in this world. Not just because we aren't up to it, but be cause, at this stage of God's work, it'll never be pulled off quite well. So while agreeing with you, that little rider somehow has to be attached.
Van Leeuwen: A parallel here can be made with divorce: My strong stance on maintaining marriage isn't meant to say that abused women should stay with their husbands. We live in a broken world, and God hates divorce, and we should hate divorce, too. But sometimes it is the lesser of two evils.
Spencer: God hates divorce, but that's not the only thing he hates.
Caring for the children
Mouw: Much of the Christian Right has emerged out of a legitimate concern about raising children. We're saying that there are no theological, biblical obstacles to advocating laws that permit the rights of domestic partners, from hospital visiting rights to sharing insurance plans and tax status. But we are still left with the question of children.
One of the things that the advocates of same-sex unions, marital-type unions, want are reproductive rights: the right to use alternative insemination, conception technologies to biologically produce children in the case of, say, lesbian couples. What do we say to that?
Van Leeuwen: The fair thing to say as a social scientist is that the jury is still out, because we do not have enough data. But there is plenty of research to suggest that, other things being equal, heterosexual marriage is good for both men and women. People live longer, they're mentally healthier. The process of having a nurturing father involved with both sons and daughters does something that a mother by herself can't do. It's not because he's teaching his son how to chop wood and praising his daughter when she flirts. It has nothing to do with reinforcing roles. Now, of course, mothers are important in that process, too, but the reason that I emphasize fathers is because they're the ones that are absent.
By having an available father, the message goes out to the son that lowest-common-denominator masculinity is not where it's at: that acting out hypermasculinity is not what it means to be human. The same message goes from the father to the daughter. I can't tell you the number of daughters of divorced parents who are prematurely sexual, just throwing themselves around. It's sad to see. It's as if they have a developmental arrest that is dealt with in a warped way. When you separate kids, especially boys, from their fathers they grow up misogynist. They retreat into a defensive masculinity that includes misogyny, and that is not good for the next generation of children, whether boys or girls.
So the parallel with the divorce culture is instructive. After 30 years of tracking the effects of divorce as a cultural institution, the divorce culture is a disaster. We don't have any reason to think that this kind of infinite pluralization will be any better. Barbara DaFoe Whitehead (author of The Divorce Culture) recently said to me: "I have sat in courts and watched what people do to each other in custody battles when you have only two people involved. Think what's going to happen if you have three people involved or you have a surrogate mother who starts to claim legal rights, and then two gay fathers who are trying to divide the baby. It's not going to be Solomonic, that's for sure."
Mouw: Suppose a single woman in Des Moines, Iowa, decides that she wants to be a mother, so she flies to Romania and adopts a kid from a Romanian orphanage. How much data do you need to know that that kid's life is going to be better living with that single woman than living in a Romanian orphanage, where there are often just horrible conditions? Now suppose it isn't a single woman but it's two lesbians or two gay men, and they fly to Romania to adopt.
Van Leeuwen: Yes, but single-parent families or unusual families always seem to work best if they attach themselves to a church, to an extended family, to something that approximates the normative heterosexual ideal. Indeed, an awful lot of single mothers will say in evangelical churches, "I would really like it if some man in the congregation would sit beside my son once in a while." They don't even do that.
We have to get our own act together, in terms of supplying resources. We should help them. We should be the extended family to help them; that is the kind of social parenting that is symbolic of what it means to be part of the body of Christ.
Mouw: But suppose a lesbian couple has a baby and they say, "We really need to join your church, Mary."
Van Leeuwen: You can't undo the baby. The baby is there. If they want to join the church—I don't know, Rich. This is such a hypothetical issue; I don't know what I would do.
But what I do know is that this whole question is part of a continuum. This is not something that popped up like an iceberg out of nowhere. This is something that the church has contributed to, by accepting divorce and the sexual revolution writ large.
The church should be saying to people, "Look, we do not agree with your lifestyle, but some of you may need some refuge from the politicization of the gay movement. If you want to worship God, we're going to help you worship God." It's basically what Ed Dobson is doing in his Saturday night services at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids.
Spencer: Yes, Dobson contacted some members of the Grand Rapids gay community and said: You know what our stand is on homosexual practice, but we love you and want to do some thing. How can we help you? What would you like us to do?
Mouw: The leaders of an evangelical group on a university campus came to me and said, "We've had very uncivil dialogue with the gay/lesbian groups on campus because we ran ads in the university newspaper stating our position against homosexual practice; they countered with their protest against us, and it's been nasty. How could we have avoided that?"
I said, "It would have been wonderful if before you ran the ads, you contacted them and said, 'We're planning to issue a statement but we want you to see it first and even to talk to you about it if you're willing. We want to do this in a way that states our convictions but doesn't stir up anger for you.' " They never thought of that. Simply reaching out and saying, "Can we talk?" would be a wonderful gesture.
Jones: We must be intolerant of persecution of gays just because they're gay. We must send out the message that persecution of gay people, especially—but not only violence toward them is wrong. We cannot tolerate the various ways in which people, by their jokes or sneers or whatever, put down people, who are made in the image of God, just because of this sin.
Mouw: They are too real to me as human beings, and in some cases as Christian human beings, for me to stereotype them and to treat them as less than human. At the same time, I have a sense that many people in the secular gay/lesbian community haven't seen a very human face of evangelicalism. They need to be as caught up short by the human realities of the people that they disagree with, as many of us have when we've befriended homosexual persons or found out that many of our good friends are in fact homosexual.
Van Leeuwen: We need to say, "Yes, we are together on the Nicene Creed," but there are secondary principles on which we can and do legitimately disagree.
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