Christianity versus Practicing Homosexuality

This article is a sequel to my December 20, 2013 post, “A Strange Set of Juxtaposed Topics: Duck Dynasty, Homosexuality, the Wrath of God, Idolatry, Christmas, Incarnation, Creation, Nature, and Irenaeus.”  Some of you will have either contributed or followed the comments made in reply to this last-named article.  If not, I would encourage you to read the original article and the ensuing comments before reading this current submission.  I especially appreciate that my colleague at Taylor Seminary, friend, and brother, Dr. Allan Effa, contributed two very thoughtful replies to the original article and to my response to his first reply; and I value his contributions.  I decided to write this current article in order to both expand on the first article, and to reply to some of the points Dr. Effa made in his second post.  I may repeat some things from my first reply to Dr. Effa’s first post, but it would still be good if the reader perused the original interchange in the comment section.

Before I begin, I want to make a distinction that I was not careful in making in the original article.  No one has actually called this to my attention, but, in hindsight, I realize that I should have been more careful in differentiating between homosexuality and practicing homosexuality.  While I consider both to be against “nature,” I only consider homosexual acts or practicing homosexuality to come under the condemnation as laid out in Romans 1.  So, in this present article, I will be careful to make the distinction.

(1) First, I want to reiterate from the first article that I believe that Romans 1 is setting up a biblical-theological antithesis.  Romans 1:1-17 should be understood as a redemptive-historical statement, i.e., it constitutes, in very broad strokes, a history of redemption.  It is concentrated, to be sure, on the most recent action of God in that history of redemption: the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; but that is, of course the most important development in that history.  It is a demonstration of the righteousness of God in salvation.  The second half of the chapter, vv. 18-32, contains the antithesis to the history of redemption; it is, in fact, a history of destruction.  It is about the plunge of humanity into sin and degradation, and it is about the righteousness of God revealed in his wrath and destruction.  The sins listed in the second half of the chapter are in direct opposition, direct antithesis, to the “obedience that comes from faith” in v. 5, and the righteousness that is lived by faith in v. 17.  Thus, the Gospel, and the obedience to the Gospel are related antithetically to idolatry, suppression of the truth, wickedness, practicing homosexuality, depravity, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slander, hatred of God, insolence, arrogance, boastfulness, invention and creativity in doing evil, disobedience to parents, senselessness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness, as well as rejoicing in the evil practiced by others.  We have here the tale of two cities: the city of God and the city of man.  We have here two histories: the history of redemption and salvation, and the history of perdition and destruction.

(2) Dr. Effa, in his reply to my reply, says, “I stand by the statement that we do need to read all scripture with discernment in terms of how it is to be applied to our missional context.”  I certainly appreciate the need to use various levels of caution in how we take biblical data and apply to them to “our context” or a “missional context.”  But I am not quite sure how the term, “discernment,” is being used here.  If he means that we need to exercise discernment as to whether we make the application, I would have a very strong disagreement.  As I said in my initial reply, an impressive list of Romans commentators, practically a “who’s who,” understands that Paul is not limiting himself to some kind of cultic homosexual prostitution or pederasty, but is condemning all forms of homosexual activity, including what would correspond to what we refer to today as “committed and loving relationships.”  N. T. Wright, for example, in an interview, states:

As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato. The idea that in Paul’s today it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever … of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing. They knew about the whole range of options there. Indeed, in the modern world that isn’t an invention of the 20th century either. If you read the recent literature, for example Graham Robb’s book Strangers, which is an account of homosexual love in the 19th century, it offers an interesting account of all kinds of different expressions and awarenesses and phenomena. I think we have been conned by Michel Foucault into thinking that this is all a new phenomena.  (the entire interview can be accessed here)

So, in terms of “whether,” I don’t think any serious discernment is needed at all.  Dr. Effa referred to the “long hair” example in 1 Cor 11:14, saying that, “Clearly Paul’s understanding of the ‘very nature of things’ is very different from our understanding of the nature of things today.”  There are certainly a number of difficulties, not only in this one verse, but also in the larger surrounding context.  But appeal to this passage as a kind of analogy doesn’t really work to relativize the application of the Romans passage, for at least five reasons.  First, the very lack of clarity in this passage as to what Paul is saying provides a huge contrast to the Romans passage, where there is practically a consensus among scholars as to Paul’s meaning.  Second, “long” is, of course, a relative term.  How long is too long?  This does not compare well to the Romans passage, where a homosexual act is a homosexual act is a homosexual act.  Third, note that trying to figure out what Paul says here has to take account of the fact that there are other passages where, apparently, the opposite is envisioned or mandated.  I refer here to the Nazirite vow, and also the case of Samson.  Paul would have recognized these exceptions, and would not have wanted us to take his statement about long hair as an absolute statement.  Fourth, there may actually be a very close relationship between the Romans and Corinthians passages, in that they may be talking about the same thing.  One very credible interpretation of 1 Cor 11:14 is that it is doing the same thing as the Romans passage—serving as a condemnation of homosexual behavior, with long hair being seen as a sign of effeminacy, making oneself to appear as a person of the opposite sex, and thus inviting homosexual relationships; that would not necessarily be the case in our context today.  So what Paul might be condemning here is not long hair, as such, but, rather, a man growing his hair long for the very purpose of looking effeminate.  Fifth, it is important to note that this is the only passage that talks about long hair in the New Testament, and the reference appears in isolation.  By contrast, the explicit condemnation of homosexual behavior appears in at least three passages in the New Testament, and, in each of the three, it occurs in a larger list of vices (Romans 1:21-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10).

If Dr. Effa means, “how” we apply, then I would be in complete agreement; though I wouldn’t refer to this so much as discernment, but, rather, tact, or care.  First, we have to distinguish, as I have already said, between homosexuality and homosexual behavior.  As I see it, we have no choice, as those who are committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ and the revelation of his character and his will in the pages of the New Testament, but to condemn homosexual behavior as sinful in the eyes of God.  Whereas Dr. Effa suggests that perhaps we should hold our convictions “tentatively” and be “suspicious of certitude,” I believe certitude is entirely warranted here (but, of course, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind,” Rom 14:5).  But this condemnation can still be done in love and compassion.  And especially with regard to homosexual orientation itself, the church needs to demonstrate love, compassion, and understanding, and needs to be non-judgmental.  A person with a same-sex orientation can lead a very tortured existence, and not simply because of the external pressures of family, church, and society, but also due to internal pressures.  One of the most poignant examples of this is the twentieth-century composer Samuel Barber.  I don’t know if anyone has ever been able to demonstrate a connection between Barber’s struggles with his homosexuality and his haunting, pathos-filled lament, Adagio for Strings, but the connection has been suggested by many; and, appropriately, the piece has been used in films as background music in scenes where homosexuals are depicted in their struggles with who they are and with how society views them (one version of this piece, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, can be accessed here).    So, I very much appreciate and laud Dr. Effa’s own sensitivity here, as well as the call for sensitivity.  But I would also argue that we can express this sensitivity, love, understanding, and compassion, while at the same time carrying out our missional mandate to teach all people to observe what, God, Jesus, and the Apostles have commanded.  And, again, as I said before, declaring homosexual behavior to be sinful does not need to be our lead article, so that we become more identified by what we are against than what we are for.  But we should not shy away from the declaration as the need arises.

(3) Dr. Effa, while acknowledging that a genetic predisposition toward homosexuality has not been demonstrated, nevertheless points to studies that perhaps seem to suggest a genetic cause, and then notes that, if such a genetic link could be demonstrated, “we could be faced with some rather challenging theological acrobatics.”  I do not, however, think this is the case.  As I said in my original reply, “But, for the sake of argument, granting that it could be genetic, it does not mean that same-sex urges have to be actualized. I do not consider homosexuality to be a sin; but I do consider homosexual acts to be sins. And all human beings have inclinations, genetic and otherwise, to do things which they should not do. In the sexual area this includes: adultery, sado-masochism, the desire for multiple sexual partners, etc. Outside the sexual area there are other potentially genetically caused predispositions, such as kleptomania, susceptibility to various addictions, etc.  But these inclinations should not be acted on. And people should not be encouraged to act on them.  Genetic predispositions can be understood as being in the same category as temptation.  We do not view temptation as sin.  So I don’t see why there would be any need for “theological acrobatics.”  And many defenders of the traditional position agree with this conclusion.

(4) For my last point, I want to interact with Dr. Effa when he says,

there are, of course many Bible-believing people who have wrestled with passages such as these and come to different conclusions. While my denomination has taken a stand to be “welcoming, but not affirming” there is an association of Baptist churches that are both welcoming and affirming and, of course entire denominations have come to similar conclusions. I don’t think it is fair to dismiss them as being completely sold out to culture nor that they are sloppy exegetes. (I am not suggesting you have labeled them as such, but just making the point that they have done so with integrity and a sincere pursuit of truth).

I appreciate Dr. Effa’s assurance that he is not suggesting that I “have labeled them as such.”  At the same time, I am willing to admit, despite Dr. Effa’s kindness in not prejudging me here, that I actually think that, for the most part, this is the case.  I believe that the number of exegetes who have honestly, and with a careful and rigid scrutiny, come to a position different from the traditional historic Christian understanding of the Romans passage is indeed very small.  I believe there is a larger number of people in these churches who have sincerely relied on what these exegetes have told them, and this, of course, lessens their culpability.  So, the ordinary “sheep in the pew,” I can excuse.  But the exegetes, the professional theologians, the leaders and bishops of the flocks, are highly culpable.

A couple of quotes here are in order from both an Old Testament scholar and a New Testament scholar, neither of whom could be regarded as “flaming fundamentalists,” and both of whom teach in mainline, rather than avowedly evangelical, seminaries.  Old Testament scholar, Christopher Seitz, in an article entitled, “Sexuality and Scripture’s Plain Sense: The Christian Community and the Law of God,” notes the following concerning what he regards, rightly, as revisionist interpretations of the biblical data:

I introduce my fairly traditional reassertion of the church’s proscription of homosexual acts in this way in order to candidly confess a misgiving and to point to what I believe is a real hypocrisy in this debate.  My misgiving is that is that it does not seem to me that the church was ever in much real doubt about this issue.  If it were not for massive changes in sexual behavior over the past decades, I doubt that we would be considering this issue on the ground that it is one contested in Scripture itself.

In other words, if it weren’t for the rise of gay activism, the discussion as to whether the New Testament condemns homosexual behavior would not even be taking place.  Note that none of the other sins listed in the three passages have been the focus of attempts at revisionist  interpretations.  I am not necessarily against the idea that developments in science and culture might cause us to rethink traditional interpretations of biblical texts.  But that is not what is happening in this case.  It seems that the only motivation for the revisionist interpretation is to try to get out from under the plain sense of Scripture, and, all of a sudden, to have something declared right which the church has always regarded as wrong.

The other quote is from New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hays, in his book, the Moral Vision of the New Testament.  In a substantial section where he discusses homosexuality, he tells about one of his friends, Gary.  Hays and Gary had been friends in undergraduate school.  Now a number of years later, Gary, a practicing homosexual, is dying of AIDS, and has come to visit his friend to talk about homosexuality and the Bible.  Hays notes that Gary

was angry at the self-affirming gay Christian groups, because he regarded his own condition as more complex and tragic than their apologetic stance could acknowledge.  He also worried that the gay apologists encouraged homosexual believers to draw their identity from their sexuality and thus to shift the ground of their identity subtly and idolatrously away from God.

In particular, Gary wanted to discuss the biblical passages that deal with homosexuality.  Among Gary’s many gifts was his skill as a reader of texts. . . .  He had read hopefully through the standard bibliography of the burgeoning movement advocating the acceptance of homosexuality in the church. . . .  In the end, he came away disappointed, believing that these authors, despite their good intentions, had imposed a wishful interpretation on the biblical passages.  However much he wanted to believe that the Bible did not condemn homosexuality, he would not violate his own stubborn intellectual integrity by pretending to find their arguments persuasive.  [A fuller version of this account may be accessed here]

For the most part, the attempts to revise our understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding homosexuality are neither exegetically cogent, nor morally responsible.  They are rather, as I sometimes tell my hermeneutics classes, exercises in exegesis by wishful thinking.  The sheep in the pew, the nonspecialists in hermeneutics and biblical interpretation, are being misled by those who should know better.  As I also tell my hermeneutics classes, there are several kinds of “distance” that separate us from the biblical text.  Those distances can be categorized as cultural, linguistic, historical, geographic, temporal, and transcendent.  But another one of those distances can be categorized as moral.  We must always be cognizant of the gap that exists between the biblical text and ourselves in the area of morality, and also the gap that exists between ourselves and the Holy Spirit, whose role in hermeneutics is to convict with regard to sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11).  Our natural “orientation” is to avoid this convicting process.  And that is what I see happening among the interpretational revisionists when it comes to the New Testament teaching on homosexuality.  It is important to note, then, in this regard, that Paul talks in Romans 1 about those who engage in such behavior as “suppressing the truth in wickedness,” because they “did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God.”

The list of churches and denominations which have taken an “affirming” stance with regard to practicing homosexuality is not one that commands a great deal of confidence.  The great majority of such churches and denominations have previously departed from one or more tenets of the Christian faith.  And many of the denominations which have affirmed same-sex relationships have also, and rightly so, lost significant numbers of their dioceses, churches, and members in the process.  Perhaps the most egregious example is the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), led by the, at least nearly, heretical bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori (as well as her predecessor, Frank Griswold).  The blessing of same-sex marriages, and the ordination of openly practicing homosexual priests and bishops has caused many dioceses and churches to leave the ECUSA and align themselves instead with other Anglican bodies, such as the Southern Cone, or Anglican bodies in Africa (Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan).  And Bishop Schori, who has not been willing to defend and guard the faith of the church, has, nevertheless, been more than willing to aggressively and litigiously defend the right of the ECUSA to retain the properties and holdings of the churches who have seceded.

I have so much appreciated the response of the Anglican churches in Africa to the deterioration that is taking place in the ECUSA.  Two examples are given by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, in their book, Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be).  The first is Peter Akinola, Primate of the Anglican Church in Nigeria, who, in response to the ordination of Gene Robinson as Bishop, wrote:

We are astonished that such a high level convention of ECUSA should conspire to turn their back on the clear teaching of the Bible on the matter of human sexuality. Even more shocking is the violation of their own constitution in which they claim to be in fellowship with churches “upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.” Yet at the time of testing, this has proved to be, for the present generation, no more than mere rhetoric. They have chosen the path of deviation from the “historic faith” once delivered to the saints.

Our position on this matter is already well known. We have taken this position prayerfully, being aware of the pain this will bring to all who understand the price some have had to pay to preserve the faith of our fathers. But more than our human pain is the anguish this must bring to the heart of the Lord of the Church and the setback to our witness as a Church before the watching world.

We applaud the admirable integrity and loyalty of those gallant 45 Bishops of ECUSA who have refused to succumb to the pressure for compromise. In the language of the Bible, they have refused to bow their knees to Baal. We assure them, and all the faithful within ECUSA, of our unflinching solidarity and fullest cooperation. We shall continue to be in full communion with them and we will do all that is necessary to actualise this bond in practical terms.

As for ECUSA, the present development compels us to begin to think of the nature of our future relationship, which would be determined after the ongoing consultation with other Provinces and Primates.

Nevertheless, as things stand, a clear choice has been made for a Church that exists primarily in allegiance to the unbiblical departures and waywardness of our generation; a Church that enthrones the will of men over and above the authority of God and His revealed and written Word. Such a Church is bound to become a shrine for the worship of men rather than God. We cannot go on limping between two opinions.

May the Lord, who has promised to build His Church so that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, bless His Church in this dark hour.  [Available online here]

Even stronger was the response from Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo of Uganda in a letter to the ECUSA:

Considering those things, we were shocked to receive a letter from you informing us of your decision to send a delegation to the enthronement of our new Archbishop in January, and your intention for the delegation to bring aid and assistance for the people who live in desperate conditions in the camps in Gulu that you have ignored for years.

Recent comments by your staff suggesting that your proposed visit demonstrates that normal relations with the Church of Uganda continue have made your message clear: If we fall silent about what you have done–promoting unbiblical sexual immorality–and we overturn or ignore the decision to declare a severing of relationship with ECUSA, poor displaced persons will receive aid.

Here is our response: The gospel of Jesus Christ is not for sale, even among the poorest of us who have no money. Eternal life, obedience to Jesus Christ, and conforming to his Word are more important. The Word of God is clear that you have chosen a course of separation that leads to spiritual destruction. Because we love you, we cannot let that go unanswered.

If your hearts remain hardened to what the Bible clearly teaches, and your ears remain deaf to the cries of other Christians, genuine love demands that we do not pretend that everything is normal. As a result any delegation you send cannot be welcomed, received, or seated. Neither can we share fellowship nor even receive desperately needed resources. If, however, you repent and return to the Lord, it would be an occasion of great joy.  [Available online here]

My only regret about the departure of these groups from the ECUSA, as well as the departure of other groups of churches from denominations who have done the same as the ECUSA, is that they were occasioned by the issues of same-sex marriage and ordination of openly practicing homosexuals, rather than by the prior apostasy of those denominations from the more foundational tenets of the Christian faith.

So, for those churches who have affirmed same-sex relationships, again, I feel sympathy for the ordinary person in the pew.  The real culpability belongs to those pastors and bishops whose responsibility it is to guard the flock of God entrusted to their care, and have, instead, abdicated that responsibility.

My initial point in the first article was that the thrust of Paul’s discussion of homosexuals acts was that they were the revelations of God’s righteous wrath against societies that had become idolatrous and departed from the right knowledge of God.  Now, I would like to further the point and say that the same thing can happen to churches.  When churches depart from the right understanding of who God is and how he has revealed himself in the Holy Scriptures and in his Christ, the revelation of God’s righteous wrath against those churches can take place in his giving them over to the affirmation of practicing homosexuality.  I believe this has already happened.

Hermeneutics and biblical interpretation should happen in community. So, again, I appreciate Dr. Effa’s heart and his contributions to this dialogue, and I invite others of you to feel free to join the dialogue and either affirm me (Amen, preach it brother!), push back at me (you’re way out in left field, barely in the ball park; how did you ever get that PhD in hermeneutics?), or nuance the discussion as you see fit.  Thanks, and blessings.

Jerry Shepherd
December 28, 2013