Out of the closet, homosexuality has successfully moved into mainstream culture, despite the protestations of conservatives and Christians alike.
While we’ve fought the culture wars for forty years, including ongoing battles to prevent homosexuality from being morally approved, culturally embraced, and/or legally recognized, the effort has been less than successful. Television, cinema, books and magazine articles, popular music, celebrities, and even local school districts are presenting homosexuality as an acceptable form of sexual expression. It’s just an alternative-but-normal lifestyle, sexual preference or orientation.
Public support for “gay rights” continues to increase. In 1996, Gallup Poll results indicated support for the federal government extending legal status to gay individuals stood at 25%. By 2010 support had increased to 52%.
A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 4 in 10 Americans gave churches a poor grade in handling homosexuality. While 44% believed sex between adults of the same gender was wrong, 46% did not.
Given a measurable and continuing decline in biblical worldview among both young people and the general public, it’s not too much of a stretch to think support for legal recognition of homosexuality is likely to increase. And if the experience of other Western nations is a clue, one would have to predict that openly practiced homosexuality in the fabric of American culture is here to stay.
If this is true, than it begs the question what do we do now? How should Christians respond and relate not just to the moral abstract of homosexuality but to the everyday presence of real LGBT neighbors?
Normalizing same-sex relationships
Western nations have long since taken steps toward the social acceptance of LGBT lifestyles. France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain legally recognize same-sex partnerships as domestic unions. Belgium, Spain, and Canada, all legally recognize gay marriage. Either way, the legal benefits are virtually the same as those historically assigned to married heterosexual couples, including inheritance and pension rights, bereavement benefits, and next-of-kin standing.
So far, the United States has taken a different path. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage on the federal level as a legal union of one man and one woman and allows states to refuse recognition of gay marriages or civil unions approved by or performed in other states or countries.
In reaction to political pressure to normalize same-sex marriage, 31 states, including Michigan, have passed some version of a “no gay marriage or civil unions” law.
Meanwhile, six states have legalized gay marriage: Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Iowa, along with Washington, D.C. Three states recognize but do not allow same-sex marriages to be performed: New York, Rhode Island, and Maryland. California is in legal limbo with challenges to Proposition 8 working their way through the courts.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
The Clinton-legacy “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the American military is under review. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently lifted a judge’s order to halt enforcement of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The Pentagon reputedly told recruiters not to deny individuals’ enlistment applications based on homosexual orientation. How recruiters are behaving at the moment is anyone’s guess and will likely remain unclear until the courts make a ruling on the constitutionality of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
In my lifetime, homosexuality has become a point of divisiveness in the Church. The turning point for some of the debate gets back to something called hermeneutics, how one interprets the Bible. Some believe God’s Word may be found in the Bible but do not believe the Bible is trustworthy in all its propositions. This perspective leads some to conclude that verses referencing homosexuality are culturally dated and thus not morally applicable in today’s more sophisticated environment. In this approach, experience trumps revelation.
Christians who adopt a different hermeneutic believe the Bible is God’s inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word, meaning all of it’s propositions are just as morally applicable now as the day they were written. This is my view.
If you believe the Bible is God’s moral will for the world, than you’ll embrace these beliefs about human sexuality:
- God defines one’s gender as either male or a female (Gen. 1:27),
- Sexuality is a gift of God that is often perverted to sinful ends (Gen. 2:24; 1 Thess. 4:3-8),
- Sexual expression is a moral choice (1 Cor. 6:18-20),
- Godly or moral sexual expression is assigned to the boundaries and bonds of monogamous heterosexual marriage (1 Cor. 7:2-5).
- Sexual immorality, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is sin and therefore indistinguishable morally in the eyes of God (Heb. 13:4).
We should note that at times Christians also struggle with their sexual identity and expression. This is a dirty little secret in the Church, but it’s there, and too many Christians in this struggle tell tales of rejection by the Church, not of their temptation or their moral choices but sadly of them. Some Christians struggling with homosexual desires remain celibate (like tempted but chaste heterosexuals) in order to honor God’s will.
Yet for all our focus upon homosexuality, far more Christians, as well as the public, struggle with heterosexual immorality. If we could count noses, this would be the bigger sin in the Church. So focusing upon homosexuality as worse than heterosexual immorality is socially naïve and morally unwise.
This may be where the Christian culture wars went a bit off-track. In a desire to defend and extend the Judeo-Christian moral consensus that historically undergirded American culture Christians didn’t always behave wisely. Eventually, the culture wars became more about politics and winning than about a winsome testimony to righteousness. In terms of homosexuality, Christians sent the message that “You may be out of the closet, but you’ll never be welcome in the Church,” even, it seemed, as spiritual seekers.
Standing against homosexuality, or its derivatives like same-sex marriage, may still be our moral outlook. But continually sending a stiff-arming message to the LGBT people we meet is not going to endear them to the Christian faith nor offer much hope of their coming to know Christ in a personal way.
It’s the nuance that’s important, disagreeing with a moral choice while loving and reaching out to a person. Christ most famously did this in his interaction with the Samaritan Woman at the Well (Jn. 4:4-30). He did not condone or endorse her checkered moral history, but he did not reject her either. In fact, he simply spoke the truth with love. This we must also learn to do if we ever hope to win the other’s trust and listening ear.
Coming to terms with homosexuality
The Christian Church needs to come to terms with homosexuality. By saying “come to terms” I’m not suggesting we change our biblically derived moral views. I’m saying we need to reject the “at war” metaphor and define a new way with attitudes and actions that build relationships.
This is neither acceptance of sin nor capitulation to an agenda. It’s acceptance of people in need of grace, just like the rest of us sinners.
Toward a new way I offer these observations:
- Christians should never be the ones creating environments in which people want to or must hide in closets.
- Teaching biblical doctrines of sin, or specifically not condoning same-sex relationships, is not necessarily homophobia, insensitive, or intolerant. Such teaching could be presented in unloving, condemning ways but need not be. God defines sin but always offers love, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. Understanding the chains of darkness, no matter what the sin, is the first step toward understanding the liberty of light.
- There is no biblical or logical justification for bigotry, hatred, gay bashing, bullying, or violence toward LGBT individuals. None. Such acts are expressions of fear not love and not faith.
- Christians should speak up, speak more, and speak loudly against acts of bigotry, hatred, gay bashing, bullying, or violence because we reject all these actions against all people no matter their ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, or moral choices.
- Christians should support LGBT people in their civil liberties and civil rights as Americans, not special rights but constitutional rights.
- Christians should avoid labeling people because labels can imply the existence of unalterable conditions. No sin, other than the ultimate and final rejection of Christ, is an unpardonable sin or an unalterable condition. In my view, LGBT persons are not defined by their sexual orientation or behavior. Consequently, rather than call someone lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender I’d rather say a person has chosen to express his or her sexuality in these ways. The Spirit of God always offers and can enable another Way.
- Christians can and should be as openly friendly toward LGBT persons—especially members of our extended families—as any other person. They won’t care what you know until they know that you care. It’s simply “love your neighbor as yourself.”
While I cannot endorse LGBT moral choices pertaining to human sexuality, I must recognize that each person is made in the image of God, that he loves them, and that Christ died for them as he did for me. “Those people” are not my enemy.