It sometimes seems that you can never get away from the whole issue of sex in Britain. Our newspapers are full of the lurid details of celebrity affairs and the church is presented as “bigoted” and “out of date” whenever it seeks to uphold Jesus’ teaching on sexual morality. How do we even begin to tackle these questions when we are coming at the issue of homosexuality from such different perspectives? For so many of our friends personal identity is defined by what I do sexually.
The first thing to ask ourselves is – do Christians hate homosexuals? The truth is that some individuals who call themselves Christians have acted hatefully towards homosexuals, and we need to begin by very definitely rejecting that reaction and expressing our sorrow that this has happened. In my work in different parts of the country I have encountered a surprising number of people in various churches who are struggling with the issue of sexual identity, who feel that they have been on the receiving end of terrible treatment by the church. We need to take heed of this as Christians as we try to present what the Bible says about homosexual practice and remember that we are treading on incredibly sensitive ground. The best answer to the question about hating homosexuals is to be a Christian who loves people in the gay community.
But if we as Christians don’t hate homosexuals aren’t we bigots to say that homosexual activity is morally wrong? This question is often asked by heterosexuals and it can be quite a barrier to someone taking an investigation of the gospel any further. The word bigot means ‘a person who is intolerant of the views of others.’ Is this true of us as Christians? I don’t think it has to be. Christians are of course prepared to tolerate the views of others – but this does not mean that they have to agree with those views. The word tolerate itself implies this – if I tolerate something I don’t agree with it but I put up with it and respect the other person’s right to express that view. (If I agreed with them there would be nothing to tolerate.)
If we aren’t bigots – aren’t we stuck in the dark ages – don’t we need to catch up with the rest of society and stop being such prudes? The bible texts which speak against homosexual practice should be taken as being in a particular cultural context which is completely irrelevant to a western liberal society. It is argued that in a society where homosexual partnerships are culturally acceptable these texts simply do not apply anymore. They are out of date -and so the church should “catch up” with the moral developments of the society it finds itself in.
The assumption behind this idea is that the Bible was written in a moral context equivalent to the Victorian era in Britain when any sexual activity outside of marriage was frowned upon. However this is simply not the case. Homosexuality was widely practised in the Roman Empire as well as the preceding Greek civilisation. Homosexual partnership between an older man and a youth was often seen as an integral part of a young man’s education. While some Roman writers may have protested against the sexual abuse of slaves, where there was consent on both sides homosexual practice was accepted. It is in this context of widespread homosexual activity that the New Testament is written. So if these texts are not entirely culturally conditioned and dependent upon a moralism outside of themselves, what are they actually saying? Interestingly, the same is true of the Old Testament; the cultural context of the Canaanite and Assyrian civilisations around Israel was a general acceptance of homosexual practice and yet texts such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 rule out homosexual practice as a lifestyle choice for those of the Hebrew religion. The fact that the other things outlawed in these texts such as wearing clothes of mixed fibres and eating shellfish are no longer prohibited for the Christian is down to Jesus’ claims to have fulfilled the requirements of the Old Testament law for us. The New Testament does go on to uphold the moral law in the life of the Christian both in Jesus’ teaching an in the letters of the other apostles. It may seem arbitrary to hold onto some of the Old Testament and not other bits, but for the Christian the means of doing this is Jesus’ teaching and the rest of the New Testament.
While the practice of same-sex sexual activity is no innovation of a Western liberal society of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries it appears that the view that people are by “nature” homosexual has entered main stream opinion more recently. The question posed to the Bible may be something along the lines of “How can a loving God deny people the opportunity to be what they are by nature?” Here we come back to the foundational issue in this question. The question of identity. What makes me what I am? This may well be the crux of the area of disagreement between us. For the Christian an individual is not purely defined on the basis of their sexual orientation or activity. It may be an important part of our self-expression but it is not the final definition point of our nature. The Bible teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and that human life is therefore precious. The individual has significance and dignity just by being human and every human is loved by God. This may sound banal but it is actually incredibly profound. However we behave, whatever our proclivities we are precious.
It is also important to be clear here that it is not Christians alone who may want to dispute the idea that people are gay by “nature” or that one’s sexual orientation is in some way pre-determined. It is interesting that a vocal gay rights campaigner such as the founder of Outrage! Peter Tatchell could condemn any search for a gay gene as “the flawed theory which claims a genetic causation for homosexuality.” [1. The Times 20th February 1997.] It is likely that a whole range of factors contribute to a homosexual orientation from environmental, to hormonal or behavioural conditions. The human being still has a capacity to make choices and pursue goals. The Christian would want to affirm the dignity of every human being and make a distinction between personhood and behaviour.
When answering this question we need to be incredibly sensitive about where our friend is coming from. For many people this is a painful personal issue, for may others it is an intellectual objection to taking Christianity seriously. This does not mean that there are not meaningful answers to be given, but our manner and tone are all important. Can we convey the love of Jesus – the most loving person who ever lived and yet still stand by his moral teaching? Namely that sex is given by God for expression within marriage, and obedience to Christ asks that we live this out. God knows that this will involve pain and sacrifice not just for the person inclined towards homosexuality, but also to some heterosexuals who would love to marry but don’t find a partner and for married people who are unhappy or unfulfilled but remain faithful to their marriage vows. Can we somehow be real about the fragility of our sexuality and the pain that is involved in working these issues out, whilst at the same time trying to be faithful to the teaching of the Bible? I hope so.