October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 10, 2004
In October 1996, Christian leaders from across Canada gathered in Toronto for the gala “World Shapers ’96″ conference sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. While the thousand conferees were putting the final touches on the opening night festivities–singing heartily “Bind Us Together”–members of the Word of Life church in nearby St. Catherines broke the unanimity of the event by scattering pamphlets critical of the EFC. The organization’s flagship journal, Faith Today, had just published an essay on human sexuality that the church’s pastor, Peter Youngren, claimed denied the power of the gospel to deliver homosexuals from their “sinful, God-dishonoring condition.”
Barely a year later, a group of concerned citizens (that included several conservative Christians) sought to hold an open-air public informational forum in downtown Vancouver, focusing on the inappropriateness of using certain literature on homosexuality in the public schools. The meeting, however, never got off the ground. A cadre of shouting gay and lesbian activists took control of the microphones and intimidated would-be attendees, while the law enforcement officers present stood idly by.
These two events–instigated by persons whom we might dismiss as occupying opposite fringes of the political spectrum–stand as reminders of just how emotionally charged and potentially divisive the issue of homosexuality has become not only in North American society but within the church as well.
Conservative Christians believe that the Bible speaks clearly to this issue, and they note as well that throughout its history the church has consistently and unequivocally opposed homosexual behaviour. But why?
In what follows, I seek to respond to this question of “why?” My intent is to go beneath the strictures themselves and draw out from the foundational biblical narrative the ethical stance that motivated biblical writers such as the compiler(s) of the Holiness Code and Paul to declare same-sex intercourse to be “unnatural” and thus unethical. My assumption is that despite whatever influence other sources had on them, these authors were imbued with the narratives of God acting in human history that lay at the foundation first of the Hebrew and subsequently of the early Christian faith communities. Consequently, the scriptural injunctions against homosexual practices were embedded in a teleological understanding of “natural,” an understanding derived fundamentally from an outlook toward God’s intention for human life as depicted in the biblical narrative itself. For the biblical writers, then, the “natural” is what is in accordance with God’s purpose, goal, or telos for human existence. And the divine purpose encompasses human sexual practice.
In keeping with this assumption, I begin the discussion by placing human sexuality in the context of the biblical narrative. My goal in this first section is to set forth in summary fashion a Christian theological understanding of sexuality, marriage and the sex act. The theological understanding of sexuality that emerges from these reflections, in turn, provides the foundation in section 2 for an ethical appraisal of same-sex intercourse. In section 3 I interact with the question of sin as it relates to same-sex intercourse and homosexuality in general. Finally, I round out the discussion with a few comments about homosexuality and sexual expression. In this manner, I develop a basically teleological approach to the contemporary issue, an approach that draws from considerations of God’s telos–God’s purpose–for human relationships1 as given in part in the creation narratives.
Human Sexuality in Theological Perspective
An awareness of human sexual distinctions appears almost immediately in the biblical story. Standing at the apex of the first creation narrative is God’s fashioning of humankind in the divine image as male and female (Gen. 1:27-28). Sexual differentiation is even more prominent in the second story, which focuses on God’s creation of the woman to deliver the man from his solitude (Gen. 2:18-24). Throughout the Bible, the creation stories play an ongoing role, even in texts that emerged within social contexts that differed from the situation reflected in these stories. Paul, for example, appealed to the Genesis narratives, even though he lived in the more urban, less agrarian culture of the first century Roman Empire. Thus, the creation of humankind as male and female is central to the outlook toward human sexuality found within the entire biblical story. This broader creation-based understanding, in turn, lies behind the biblical injunctions that depict homosexual intercourse as “unnatural” and hence unethical.
The nature of human sexuality
Human beings are sexual creatures. But what is the significance of our sexuality? Our first response might be: “for procreation.” According to the biblical narrative, procreation is a crucial aspect of our creation as male and female, especially after the fall (e.g., Gen. 4:1). Yet the begetting of children is not the only purpose for our creation as male and female.
The second creation story suggests that our sexuality is not limited to the physical characteristics and activities associated with male and female reproductive roles. Sexuality encompasses our fundamental existence in the world as embodied persons. It includes our way of being in, and relating to the world as male or female. Above all, however, sexuality is connected to our incompleteness as embodied creatures, an incompleteness that biological sex symbolizes. Hence, sexuality lies behind the human quest for completeness. This yearning for wholeness, which we express through our seemingly innate drive to bond with others, forms an important basis for the interpersonal dimension of existence.
The second Genesis narrative highlights the interpersonal aspect of human sexuality. The story presents the creation of the woman as God’s solution to Adam’s solitude. The man enjoyed a relationship with the animals; yet none of them could provide what he truly needed, a partner with whom he could bond. Cognizant of this situation, God created another–the woman–to deliver Adam from his isolation. The man greeted her with the joyous declaration, she is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). The episode concludes with the narrator’s application to the phenomenon of male-female bonding: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (v. 24). In this manner, the narrator points out that the drive toward bonding finds expression in the coming together of male and female in the unity of persons we know as marriage.
The interpersonal dynamic is not limited to the sexual bond, however. Our creation as male and female contributes to personal identity development as well. We discover–or construct–who we are in our embodied maleness or femaleness in part through our interaction with the other sex.
This dimension of our sexuality is also evident in the second creation account. Adam first sensed his own maleness when confronted with the woman. That encounter led him to declare joyfully, “She shall be called `woman,’ for she was taken out of man” (Gen.2:23 NIV). In a sense, this aspect of the story provides an explanation of the first narrative, which links the imago dei to our creation as male and female (Gen. 2:27). We discover God’s intention for us to be the divine image bearers–and hence our full humanness–through our interaction with one another as male and female. This can occur within marriage, of course, but it is also operative in all male-female relationships.
The Old Testament narrative views the sexual bond of husband and wife as the foundation for human social relationships–family, tribe, and eventually nation. Jesus, however, inaugurated one significant alteration to this pattern. Rather than elevating earthly ancestry, he looked to his heavenly parentage, counting as his true family “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 12:50). In keeping with his own example, Jesus challenged his followers to place their relationship to him above all familial ties (Matt. 10:37). And he promised them a new spiritual family to compensate for the loss discipleship would exact from them (Mark 10: 29-30).
According to Jesus, the primary human bond is not marriage and family, as important as these are, but the company of disciples. In this manner, human sexuality–understood as the quest to forsake our solitude through relations with others–finds ultimate fulfillment through participation in the community of believers who enjoy fellowship with God through Christ. And our innate incompleteness, related as it is to our fundamental sexuality, points toward the consummation of God’s activity in the community of God’s eternal kingdom.
En route to that future day, humans enter into a variety of personal relationships. Most of these are informal and somewhat fluid. Some people join together into another type of relationship as well, which in contrast to the first is to be permanent and exclusive. Although both are the outworking of the human drive toward bonding and hence are in this sense “sexual,” they differ widely, including with respect to the type of sexual behavior proper to each.
In this manner, the biblical narrative provides the foundation for a rich understanding of human sexuality that forms a stark contrast to what the Dutch gay theologian Pim Pronk bemoans as the modern “static-mechanical” model. The model Pronk critiques treats human behavior as divisible into autonomous parts, among which is sexual activity. It draws a sharp distinction between sexual and non-sexual behavior on the basis of whether or not the external sex organs are involved. And it views the link between the sex drive and sexual behavior somewhat like the connection between “the wound-up alarm clock and its going off.” Pronk concludes that this static-mechanical view suffers from a “one-sided accent on the private character of sexual relations,” and as a result it “fails to do justice to the social dimension” of human sexuality.4
Sexuality and marriage
Of course, historically the most significant social expression of human sexuality is marriage. Viewed from the perspective of the Bible, marriage entails the coming together of male and female to form an exclusive sexual bond. The biblical writers connect this human relationship with procreation and child-rearing. The second creation narrative and the stories of the Hebrew patriarchs suggest that marriage also serves as a focal point for companionship, as husband and wife share intimacy and friendship.
In Scripture, marriage carries an additional crucial meaning. It provides a metaphor of spiritual truth. The bond uniting husband and wife symbolizes certain aspects of the relation between God and God’s people. The Old Testament prophets found in marriage an appropriate vehicle for telling the story of Yahweh’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s idolatry. The New Testament authors drew from this Old Testament imagery (e.g., Rom. 9:25; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). They spoke of marriage as a picture of the great mystery of salvation–the union of Christ and the church. Marriage illustrates Christ’s self-sacrifice for the church, as well as the submission to Christ (Eph. 5:21-33) of a people who anticipate the future coming of their Lord (Matt. 25:1-13; Rev. 19:7; 21:9-10; 21:2).
In this manner, marriage provides a picture of the exclusive nature of our relationship to God in Christ. Just as marriage is to be an exclusive, inviolate, and hence holy bond, so also our relationship to God must be exclusive and holy, for as God’s covenant people we can serve no other gods but the one God (Exo. 20:3). By extension, the exclusive love shared by husband and wife reflects the holiness of the divine love present within the triune God, which in turn overflows from God to creation.
The ancient Hebrews clearly viewed marriage as the norm. However, the New Testament opened the way for believers to fulfill a divine vocation as single persons as well, as is evidenced by John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul. This dimension of the biblical narrative reminds us that whether married or single we all enter into a variety of informal relationships and friendships with others. These friendships need not be permanent, they are rarely exclusive (that is, limited to only two people), and they are seldom entered through formal covenant. Relationships between single persons provide the clearest example of this non-exclusive, non-marital friendship bond. Like marriage, friendship carries theological meaning. In contrast to the marital union, the informal friendship bond is less defined and therefore more open to the inclusion of others. Further, the dynamic of love involved in friendship is generally not contained within exclusive boundaries. For this reason, friendship reflects the open, non-exclusive, expanding aspect of God’s love–the divine love that seeks to include within the circle of fellowship those yet outside its boundaries.
Sexuality and the sex act
As several contemporary philosophers have pointed out, events are more than physical happenings, for every event always occurs within a context that contributes to its meaning. Similarly, the meaning of a human act is dependent not only on the act itself but also on the context in which it transpires, which includes the actor’s intent.
As a human act, sexual intercourse is more than a physical occurrence. It is a highly meaningful metaphor. But the meaning of any act of sexual intercourse is dependent both on the physical act itself and the context in which it occurs. The participants pour meaning into the act by the intent that motivates them and by the relationship they bring to it.
The Christian ethic builds from the belief that God intends that the sex act carry specific meanings. Sexual intercourse is not valuable primarily as a means to some other goal, even such good purposes as to experience pleasure or to become pregnant. Rather, the sex act is what the Roman Catholic ethicist James Hanigan calls a symbolic or ritual activity. He writes, “Sex, then, finds its proper value as an act which focuses, celebrates, expresses and enhances the meaning of our substantive activities and relationships.”
In part, we may view sexual intercourse as the ritual that celebrates committed, loving relationships. Yet each of us enjoys many such relationships, which we celebrate in various non-genital ways. In fact, sexual intercourse would deeply wound, if not completely destroy, most of these relationships. Consequently, the context in which the sex act occurs is crucial, so much so that in certain contexts the sex act is simply inappropriate. According to the biblical writers the divinely-intended meanings of the sex act emerge only when the act occurs within one specific context: marriage.
Practiced within marriage as the sign of the unconditional, covenantal love of husband and wife, sexual intercourse carries several important meanings. It is a beautiful symbol of the exclusive bond between the marriage partners, as through this act wife and husband reaffirm their commitment to each other. Further, it is a beautiful celebration of the mutuality of the relationship, as each partner reaffirms his or her desire to give pleasure to the other. And because of its connection to procreation, the sex act expresses the openness of husband and wife to the new life that may arise from their bond.
Because of the meanings the sex act is intended to carry, the marital bond provides the sole proper context for sexual intercourse. The Old Testament law codified this view (e.g., Exo. 20:14), and Jesus and the New Testament apostles reaffirmed it (e.g., Matt. 19:3-9; 1 Cor. 6:9). As a result, the traditional Christian sex ethic rightly advocates chastity in the form of abstinence in singleness and fidelity in marriage. This ethic, in turn, provides the foundation for a Christian stance toward homosexuality.
The Christian Sex Ethic and Same-sex Intercourse
Most participants in the contemporary discussion agree that certain homosexual practices–like certain heterosexual practices–are morally wrong. Lists of immoral behaviors commonly include such abuses as prostitution, rape, and pederasty. But does this ethical judgment extend to all homosexual acts? More specifically, is same-sex intercourse morally wrong even when practiced within the context of a loving gay or lesbian relationship?
In dealing with this question, I will avoid the pattern of some advocates of the traditional position who enumerate the purported harmful physical or psychological effects of involvement in various homosexual behaviors.0Nor will I deal with the reciprocal argument of those who claim that homosexual liaisons must be affirmed simply because “they harm no one.” I want to probe the ethics of same-sex intercourse viewed apart from any “side effects” it may or may not have. My goal here is to determine in what sense the act may be deemed unethical in and of itself. What is it about this practice that makes it morally suspect even when it occurs within the context of a stable homosexual relationship? To anticipate my conclusion: Same-sex intercourse falls short of the Christian ethical ideal, because it is a deficient act occurring in the wrong context.
Same-sex intercourse as a deficient act
The significance of any act arises in part from the context in which it occurs. Similarly, the physical act is important as an appropriate carrier of intended meaning: A physical act must have the capacity to symbolize the reality it ritualizes and thereby serve as an authentic ritual. Viewed from this perspective, same-sex intercourse falls short. It is deficient as a vehicle for conveying the meaning the sex act is intended to symbolize. Because it cannot ritually enact the reality it symbolizes, it fails to make that reality present.
According to the biblical understanding, sexual intercourse is connected to the coming together of two persons as sexual beings into a one-flesh union. It represents the act of two becoming one at the deepest level of their being (e.g., Gen. 2:23-24; Matt. 19:4-6). As a result, the sex act entails more than the experience of sexual climax. (Indeed, sexual climax can occur apart from sexual intercourse, such as through masturbation or by the manipulation of the genitalia by another.) More crucial than the ability to attain sexual climax is the capability of the sex act to symbolize the uniting of two sexual persons into a new unity. As a ritual act sexual intercourse must be able to represent physically (and thus make present) the two-in-one sexual bond it symbolizes.
This meaning is readily expressed in sexual relations between a man and a woman. Each engages in the sex act through the whole body, of course, but primarily through those body parts (vagina and penis) that most explicitly symbolize their existence as embodied, sexual beings, that most explicitly separate male from female, and that most readily allow male and female to complement the other. In this manner, both their own personal identities and their “otherness” or difference from each other as sexual creatures become the foundation for the expression of the unity of the bond they share. As a result, the sex act itself serves as a ritual act, an appropriate symbol of the union of two who are sexually “other” into a sexual bond. It is not surprising that male-female intercourse provides such a vivid symbol of the sexual bond. As James Hanigan observes, “The unity ritualized and enacted in sexual behavior is a two-in-one flesh unity, a unity that has its created basis in the physical and biological complementarity of male and female.”
The partners in same-sex intercourse also bring to the act the physical features that most deeply represent their existence as sexual beings. But in this act, the specific body part each contributes to the act does not represent what distinguishes each from the other. Nor does it represent the unique contribution each brings to their sexual union, for their roles in the act can be interchanged. Further, in same-sex intercourse, some other body part (finger or even artificial penis in lesbian acts, mouth, or anus in male homosexual acts) routinely substitutes for the sexual organ that neither partner can provide. But whenever this occurs, one or the other partner presses an aspect of his or her anatomy into service of the sex act that, because it is not the definitive mark of the person as a sexual being, is not normally viewed as sexual.
In this manner, same-sex intercourse loses the symbolic dimension of two-becoming-one present in male-female sex. At best, it is only a simulation of the two-becoming-one ritual that the act of sexual intercourse is designed to be. And a homosexual couple can only imitate the unity of two persons joining together as sexual others, so vividly symbolized in male-female coitus. Hence, Hanigan is correct in concluding that homosexual acts are ultimately “only pretense or imaginative simulations of the real thing.”
Sexual intercourse within the wrong context
I noted earlier that acts derive their meaning from the context in which they occur. Same-sex intercourse is also deficient because it occurs within an improper context. That is, the context in which it is practiced–even if this is a stable gay or lesbian relationship–does not confirm the intended meaning of the sex act.
To understand this we must return to the three meanings of the sex act within the context of marriage. At first glance, it would appear that when practiced in the context of a stable, monogamous homosexual relationship same-sex intercourse could carry at least two of these meanings. The act could conceivably mark the celebration of the life-long commitment of the two partners to each other, as well as the mutuality of their relationship. Less possible, obviously, is the third meaning. Because children are simply not procreated in this manner, same-sex intercourse cannot express the openness of the couple to new life arising from their bond. At best, the act serves as an imitation of male-female procreative intercourse.
Are we to conclude, then, that ultimately the only basis on which same-sex intercourse can be discounted is its lack of the procreative potential? No. We drew from the biblical narrative the idea that the sex act is the ritual celebration of the exclusive bond of two persons united in a one-flesh union. And we concluded that when viewed from the biblical perspective, the marriage of male and female is the only appropriate expression of that exclusive sexual bond. Of course, this conclusion rules same-sex sexual bonding out of court, even when it involves a mutual, life-long commitment.
But why privilege heterosexual marriage? Why set up the male-female sexual bond as the standard? Why could we not view same-sex intercourse as the expression of the bond uniting two persons of the same sex, analogous to heterosexual intercourse as the ritual sexual act in marriage?
One response arises from another consideration drawn from the physical aspect of the sex act itself. It is instructive to note that by its very nature, any specific occurrence of male-female sexual intercourse involves–and can only involve–two persons, a male and a female. This characteristic forges a close link between the sex act and the reality it ritualizes, for the sex act provides a vivid symbolic declaration of the monogamous nature of the biblical ideal for marriage. It also connects the sex act as a symbol with the begetting of children, for biologically a child is the union of the contributions of two persons–the biological father and the biological mother.
At this point, however, same-sex intercourse differs fundamentally from heterosexual intercourse. There is nothing inherent in this physical act that would limit involvement to two persons. This observation leads us to ask: On what ritual basis would any homosexual bond necessarily consist of two and only two? If there is no intrinsic aspect of the ritual act that limits its participants to two, why should anyone privilege “monogamous” homosexual relations?
Further, if nothing intrinsic to the act inherently symbolizes the reality of two-becoming-one, then same-sex intercourse, even when practiced within a stable homosexual relationship, is simply unable to ritualize exclusivity. In contrast to heterosexual intercourse, it cannot function as the celebration of an exclusive bond and therefore cannot point to the exclusivity of the relationship God desires to have with us. In this way, same-sex intercourse loses the spiritual meaning of the sex act.
The same conclusion arises from a consideration of the nature of the bond being celebrated in the sex act. When viewed from the perspective we outlined earlier, same-sex intercourse entails a confusing of the bond of informal friendship with the male-female sexual bond of marriage.
We already noted that the otherness of the marital relationship is crucial to its symbolic significance. As Max Stackhouse declared, “the marriage bond is a community of love between those who are `other.’ This means not simply `an-other’ person, but one who is truly `other.'” Just as homosexual persons cannot ritualize a two-become-one unity in the act of intercourse, so also they cannot become a two-become-one unity in the shared life of unity and difference that typifies the marriage of male and female.
Stackhouse reminds us of one reason why this is crucial: “The marriage of a man to a woman…remains the normative physical, social, and moral sign that we are not meant to be isolated individuals or to focus only on relationships with those who are already much like us. We are created for community with the Divine Other and with the human other, and the bonding of sexual otherness is the immediate and obvious evidence of this.” Similarly, psychologist Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse appeals to the Song of Songs in declaring that “sexuality itself is a symbol of wholeness, of the reconciliation of opposites, of the loving at-one-ment between God and Creation.”
These statements lead us back to the central significance of marriage we noted earlier, namely, its theological symbolism. As the biblical writers themselves suggest, the exclusive bond of husband and wife forms a fitting metaphor of the exclusivity of the divine-human relationship. The sex act, in turn, is the ritual celebration of this exclusive bond. A homosexual relationship is not an appropriate context for the sex act, because in the context of such a relationship sexual intercourse simply cannot express this intended meaning.
This is evident when we realize that every stable same-sex relation is in fact an informal bond between or among friends. As we noted earlier, the friendship bond ought not to find ritualized expression in a sexual act. Several considerations point out why this is so. First, although like marriage friendship includes unity and difference, the difference exemplified between or among friends is not a sexual difference; same-sex friends do not manifest this unity and difference sexually. Further, friendships can wither and die without necessarily incurring moral fault on the part of any of the friends. Although in marriage both friendship and sexual attraction can and do die, the biblical writers suggest that the severing of the marital relationship itself always involves moral fault, however hard it might be to pinpoint that fault. Finally, friendship–which is generally neither an exclusive nor a formalized bond–proclaims the inclusive, rather than the exclusive, love of God. The intent of the sex act, however, is to celebrate exclusivity, not inclusivity.
Same-sex intercourse, then, introduces into the friendship bond the language of exclusivity and permanence that properly belongs solely to marriage. Of course we could back away from the grammar of pair-bonding and conclude that same-sex intercourse intends to say nothing more than “I find you attractive.” But mutual attraction is never a sufficient basis for sexual intimacy, regardless of the sexual preference of the persons involved. As ethicist Edward Batchelor pointed out, “love does not always justify sexual union.” The implication for homosexual attraction follows: “it is every bit as likely that the love of man for man or woman for woman bids them refrain from sexual intercourse as that it urges them to it.”
The Christian Ethic and Homosexuality
I have looked at the implications of a Christian theology of sexuality for same-sex intercourse. In this process, I drew from the divine telos for human sexual relationships as indicated in the foundational stories in Genesis and reiterated in the New Testament to indicate why the sex act cannot properly occur within a homosexual relationship. In this sense, same-sex intercourse is “unnatural.”
What does all this have to say about the contemporary phenomenon of homosexuality understood as a stable sexual orientation or preference? Specifically, in what sense, if any, is homosexuality sinful? En route to an answer, I will look at the contemporary argument favoring a positive outlook toward homosexuality as a sexual “inversion.” Only then can I seek to chart an alternative.
The “naturalness” of homosexuality
Many proponents of a more open stance view homosexuality as a stable sexual preference, which properly finds expression in acts such as same-sex intercourse. In effect, the apologetic for this position turns the biblical condemnation of homosexual behavior on its head. In contrast to Paul and others who claim that same-sex acts are “against nature,” proponents assert that homosexuality is in fact “natural.”
By “natural,” some theorists mean nothing more than that homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon among humans. The central foundation for this approach is its purported presence in a variety of societies throughout history.
This approach, however, has been exploded by social constructivists such as David Greenberg, who point out that homosexuality is not a single, identifiable, transcultural human condition. Instead, understandings of same-sex practices vary from culture to culture. These range from the ritualized rites of passage associated with adolescent sexual development found in several tribal societies to the spiritualized pederasty of certain Greek philosophers who downplayed any actual physical content within such relationships.
Other proponents speak of the naturalness of this sexual preference in more individualistic terms. Homosexuality is natural, they assert, in that it is not the product of conscious personal choice. Rather than choosing their sexual orientation, this argument purports, gays and lesbians “discover” their homosexuality as a preexisting reality. As the Christian gay activist and writer Chris Glaser declared, “In my experience, sexual orientation was a given, like race or gender. How I responded in faith to that given was what was spiritually significant to me.” Christiane Gudorf draws out the erroneous, but commonly asserted ethical implication:
“The agreement within medical and social science that sexual orientation is not chosen but more commonly discovered absolves homosexual orientation of sinfulness, and calls into question…the unnaturalness of homosexual acts for those with homosexual orientation.”
Statements such as these are an important reminder that most persons do not consciously set out to develop a specific sexual preference. At the same time, claims about its unchosen nature often harbor an overly simplistic picture of the development of homosexuality. While the jury is still out on what causes any specific instance, most scientists and psychologists agree that a constellation of factors–biological predispositions, personal experiences, and the attitudes and actions of others (including parents)–can contribute to disposing a person to this sexual preference. To this list we ought to add the constellation of social identities and roles that social constructionists like David Greenberg declare are involved in the construction of homosexuality. Yet in this equation we dare not overlook the likelihood of some element of personal choice. Certain psychologists conclude that homosexuality is a pattern that develops over time, and this conclusion opens the possibly of a limited, yet nevertheless active role of the person himself or herself. In short, as the designation itself suggests, one’s sexual orientation is also in some sense his or her sexual “preference,” even if once set that preference “can hardly be abolished by an arbitrary act of will,” to cite Greenberg’s assessment.0
More important, however, is the ethical critique of this perspective. Ethicists remind us that to argue from any supposed natural reality to moral rectitude is to commit the “naturalistic fallacy,” that is, to deduce an “ought” from an “is.” Ethics, however, is not the condoning of what is natural. Thus, even if homosexuality were indisputably “natural” people, this would not in and of itself justify their engaging in same-sex practices.
Christian ethics takes this critique an additional step: In contrast to those who assert that no one can be held responsible for acting according to his or her nature, the Christian tradition declares that personal responsibility is not limited to matters in which we have full personal choice. Why not? This question leads to the concept of sin. Viewed from the biblical perspective, sin means “missing the mark,” that is, failing to live up to God’s intention for our lives. Rather than a somewhat localized debilitation, this failure can be felt in all areas of human existence, and its presence predates our conscious choices. This is in part what the Reformers meant by “depravity.”
Because of our depravity, we find at work within us desires, impulses, and urges we did not consciously choose but which instead feel quite normal. Yet we dare not entrust ourselves to our natural inclinations, for these are not a sure guide to proper conduct. Jesus himself declared that evil deeds proceed from the human heart (Mark 7:21). Consequently, he instructed his disciples to distrust what they may perceive to be their natural inclinations and follow a radically new ethic.
Caution is necessary as much in our sexual conduct as in any aspect of life. The supposed naturalness of a person’s same-sex preference does not set aside the biblical call to engage in genital sexual expression exclusively within monogamous heterosexual marriage. To assert otherwise is once again to commit the “naturalistic fallacy” of arguing from “what is” to “what ought to be.” The same fallacy would be at work if I were to set aside the biblical call to marital fidelity on the basis that claim that as a male I am naturally promiscuous, as contemporary sociobiology suggests.
Rather than excusing us on the basis of the sensed naturalness of our inclinations, the Bible offers divine grace in the midst of the realities of life. This grace brings both forgiveness of our trespasses and power to overcome the workings of our human fallenness in the concrete situations we face.
This cautionary stance toward the appeal to what is natural must be tempered, however, by one additional consideration. Christian ethics does derive an “ought” from an “is”; an “is” does determine the Christian moral imperative. But this “is” is ultimately neither what once was, nor what now is. Instead, it is a future “is”–a “will be.” Specifically, the “is” that provides the Christian ethical “ought” is the future reality of the new creation. Our calling is to exhibit in our relationships in the here and now God’s intentions for human existence, which will be present in their fullness only in the future new community.
While the Christian moral imperative arises out of a future “is,” this future does not come as a total contradiction to what is truly natural in the present. As the fullness of God’s intention for human relationships, the future community is the completion of what God set forth “in the beginning.” And a crucial aspect of what God has intended for human sexual relationships from the beginning is depicted in the biblical creation narratives. This is why reading those stories in the context of the vision of the new creation provides the foundation for our teleological ethical approach to the question of homosexuality.
The “sin” of homosexuality
I have asserted that the felt naturalness of a same-sex sexual preference does not in and of itself provide a sufficient rationale for accepting homosexual behavior. But the question remains as to whether or not the preference itself is sinful.
Sin, judgment, acts, and disposition. The search for an answer leads once again to the biblical understanding of sin. Christian theology maintains that the present world is fallen, that is, creation does not yet correspond to the fullness of God’s intention. What can be said about humankind as a whole–and even the universe itself (cf. Rom. 8:20-22)–is true of each person as well. Each of us is fallen. This fallenness extends beyond our specific actions. It encompasses every aspect of our existence, including what might be called our moral disposition (which one day will be conformed to the character of Christ [1 John 3:1-3]) and even the body itself in its mortality (which will be transformed at the resurrection [e.g., Rom. 8:11,23]). Is this human fallenness “sin”?
In its widest sense, “sin” refers to every aspect of human life that fails to reflect the design of God. Viewed from this perspective, fallenness means that we are sinful in the totality of our existence. At the same time, we generally use the word more narrowly; thus, we speak about “sins,” i.e., specific actions, even transgressions.
The word “sin” immediately conjures up another idea that likewise carries two related, yet distinct meanings: “judgment.” On the one hand, insofar as God will one day transform every dimension of creaturely fallenness, human fallenness comes under divine judgment. On the other hand, the biblical writers consistently reserve the idea of a divine judgment leading to condemnation for sinful acts (e.g., Romans 2:3; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12).
Putting the two together leads to the conclusion that as the great physician God will heal our fallen sinfulness in the new creation, and as our judge God will condemn our sinful actions. Hence, our fallen disposition is sinful in that it is foundational to our sinning. But it is our sinful acts–which bring God’s condemnation upon us–that are what marks us as guilty before God.0
Sexual desire and lust. These observations have important implications for the discussion of homosexuality. To draw these out, I must reframe the conclusions about human sexuality I outlined earlier.
God created us as sexual beings. Within us is the drive to leave our isolation and enter into relationships with others and ultimately with God. We might term this drive “sexual desire,” because it arises out of our fundamental embodied existence as sexual creatures. One aspect of this drive is the “desire for sex,” that is, the urge to form a genital sexual bond with another person. Certain people find at work in their psyche a desire for sex with persons of the other sex. For other people the desire for sex is largely, if not exclusively, targeted toward persons of the same sex. At what point does sin enter into the picture? When does what belongs to the goodness of our creaturely existence run counter to God’s intention?
It seems that the clearest answer the biblical writers and the Christian tradition offer is “at the point of lust,” that is, at the point when a person harbors the desire for sex with someone who is not his or her spouse (e.g., Matt. 5:27-28). Thus, the presence in us of both sexual desire and the desire for sex are the manifestation of the goodness of our creaturely sexuality. But these good gifts can come under the power of sin.
With the incursion of sin the desire for sex gives birth to lust. Lust involves allowing the desire for sex to control us so that the goal of sexual satisfaction has become in that moment our god. Lust entails as well the harboring of the desire to engage in inappropriate sexual expressions, including the urge to introduce a genital sexual dimension into relationships in which this dimension would be improper.
What we said earlier suggests that all same-sex relationships are an example of one such improper context. To understand this, we must keep in mind that sexual desire in the sense outlined above does not only lie behind the drive to enter into the bond of marriage, it also gives rise to the desire to enter into friendship bonds–even close, intimate friendships. Such friendships may be formed with persons of either sex.
Because of the close connection between sexual desire and the desire for sex, we readily confuse the two, even within the context of our intimate friendships. Sin enters the picture whenever this confusion results in lust, that is, when we harbor the thought of introducing inappropriate sexual conduct into the friendship relationship. The desire to bring genital sexual behavior into a same-sex relationship is ethically problematic, because it involves treating a friendship like the marital bond.
But what about the situation of those persons for whom homoeroticism has become an ongoing, seemingly stable personal disposition? A proper response requires that we note where the ethical problem actually lies. The presence within the person’s psyche of either sexual desire or the desire for sex is not ethically problematic. Instead, the moral difficulty emerges when the person involved harbors–and thus creates an ongoing urge–to express the desire for sex in acts that are inappropriate, in that the “targets” of these desires are potential or actual friends. Ultimately, it is lust and it’s outworking in overt acts–not the sex of those toward whom a person might feel drawn (i.e., a person’s disposition)–that incur divine condemnation. Consequently, it is lust and its outworking that are ethically problematic.
Homosexuality as an orientation? One additional question remains to be treated. What about the language of “homosexual orientation” itself? Can we properly talk about “sexual orientation” as separable from sexual acts?
Many evangelical traditionalists find themselves in agreement with proponents of a more open stance at this important point. Both distinguish between a homosexual orientation (or propensity) and homosexual practices. But they do so for quite different reasons. Gay/lesbian theologians often claim that one’s sexual orientation is always good, because it is a gift from God. Consequently, the task of the homosexual person is to accept his or her sexual orientation, and this includes acting on the basis of it. Evangelical traditionalists, in contrast, generally assert that while the Bible condemns homosexual acts, it does not mention the orientation. On this basis, they treat homosexual feelings, attractions, urges, desires, and longings as temptations to be mastered, rather than as sins to be confessed. Sin, they add, emerges only when a person acts (whether physically or merely mentally) on these urges. The goal of this approach, of course, is to encourage believers who admit to the ongoing presence of homosexual inclinations but who are able to resist acting them out.
In a sense, the separation of orientation from behavior is appropriate. It offers a handy way of differentiating between what truly requires ethical scrutiny (lust and overt acts) and what does not (the desire for sex as a dimension of human existence). To this end, my argument in the previous section drew from a similar distinction, that of disposition versus conduct. Likewise, the pastoral goal of this separation is surely correct. Feeling guilty about what does not incur guilt is simply not justifiable ethically, and it can actually be counterproductive in the journey of discipleship.
While cautiously affirming its utility, we dare not overlook the dangers that lurk in the use of the contemporary language of sexual orientation. I have noted already that social constructivists object to the idea of homosexuality as a transcultural phenomenon. They point out that the idea of a given, stable same-sex sexual orientation that is somehow natural to a certain percentage of people is more the product of a contemporary social construction than an actual essential reality that can be sociologically or historically documented. By using the language of orientation, we risk transposing a construction of contemporary society into indelible scientific fact.
Further, using this language may encourage a significant group of people to construct, perhaps prematurely, their personal identity (the self) on the basis of these socially based cognitive tools. One important potential group is today’s adolescents. Research in the human sciences suggests that adolescents often move through a stage in their development in which certain same-sex activities are present. The grammar of sexual orientation may lead certain youths to assume on the basis of such experiences that they are constitutionally homosexual. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse indicates how such an assumption may work to their detriment:
“Adolescence is a period which requires the utmost of young people in working their way through the enormously difficult transition from childhood to adulthood….the anxieties surrounding the psychosexual maturation process are severe, and the temptation to opt for less than one is capable of is very great. While it is probably true that one cannot proselytize the invulnerable, there are a great many youngsters whose childhoods have been sufficiently problematic so that homosexuality presented to them as an acceptable alternative would be convincingly attractive.”
The “threat,” however, is not limited to young people. The widespread use of the language of sexual orientation tempts each of us in a potentially detrimental direction. It may lead us to place our sense of having a sexual orientation, and with it our desire for sex, at the center of our understanding of others and ourselves. But as certain radical lesbian theologians have asked rhetorically, why should the sex of those who we desire to sleep with be the determining characteristic of our identity? Indeed, just as “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), so also there is more to human existence than the desire for sex.
There is yet a deeper theological issue at stake here. The uncritical use of the language of sexual orientation may lead us to accept blindly the therapeutic focus rampant in our society. Traditional psychologists routinely assert that homosexual practices are in the end the outworking of a psychological maladjustment or a “disorientation.” To do so, however, is to replace the moral discussion by a disease model, and to turn a debate about ethics into a discussion of cures for a psychological illness. David Greenberg offered this sobering reminder:
“Though the Renaissance sodomite was depicted as a monster whose vice signified a repudiation of God and nature, no one suggested that he suffered from a disease and required therapy….His repudiation of God and morality was considered volitional; it was his acts, not his physiology or psychology that made him monstrous.”
While Greenberg’s choice of the word “monstrous” is unfortunate, his main point is well taken.
The potential problems of “sexual orientation” language ought to give us pause before too quickly adopting it. Nevertheless, being able to distinguish between homoeroticism and its outworking in thought and overt act–that is, between disposition and conduct–has certain positive benefit in discussing the ethics of homosexuality. Perhaps the best designation, given these considerations, is “sexual preference.”
Homosexual Persons and Sexual Expression
These conclusions raise one final ethical question: What viable options are there for homoerotic persons to express their sexuality? And does the stance argued in this chapter mean that a same-sex sexual preference “condemns” a person to a life devoid of sexuality?
The position taken in these pages leads to only two ethically feasible options for homosexual persons: fidelity within (heterosexual) marriage or abstinent singleness. Invariably, proponents of a more open stance toward homosexuality find this proposal uncharitably narrow. They claim that such a narrowing of the options for gays and lesbians is simply unfair.
The fairness critique would carry weight if the call for a life characterized by fidelity in marriage or abstinent singleness were directed solely toward homosexual persons. The fact is, however, that the elevation of marriage and abstinent singleness is merely the outworking of an ethic of sexual chastity intended for all persons without exception.
Some critics do not find this answer at all compelling. They argue that it is far easier for heterosexual than for homosexual persons to live out such an ethical proposal. James Nelson, for example, claims that this stance “demonstrates lack of sensitivity to the gay person’s socially-imposed dilemma.” Why? Nelson explains: “The heterosexual’s abstinence is either freely chosen for a lifetime or it is temporary until marriage. But the celibacy some Christians would impose on the gay person would be involuntary and unending. “Other critics add that this proposal erroneously assumes that every homosexual person is automatically called to celibacy. Pamela Dickey Young writes, “in making celibacy mandatory for homosexual persons we violate the traditional Protestant emphasis on celibacy as individual calling.”
These objections, however, are wide of the mark. The fact that some persons may find it easier to live out an ethical ideal does not mitigate against the ideal itself. Each of us could point to dimensions of the Christian ethic that we find ourselves disadvantaged to follow in comparison with other persons. But this does not mean that those who uphold the ideal are treating us unjustly. Further, proponents of a more open stance toward homosexuality are often overly optimistic about the viability of the marriage option for heterosexuals. In contrast to such optimism, many single people attest to the fact that despite their good intentions and personal willingness they are simply unable to find a suitable marriage partner.
Likewise, such objections often confuse celibacy and abstinence.0Pamela Dickey Young correctly pointed out that only certain Christians sense a divine call to celibacy, understood as forgoing marriage and genital sexual intimacy for the purpose of a special service to God and others. But this is not the same as my proposal that unmarried homosexual persons commit themselves to abstinence. Unlike celibacy, abstinence in singleness is not a particular calling for certain persons, but an ethical ideal for all who are not married. And unlike celibacy, which is a chosen, permanent (or semi-permanent) response to a sensed call from God, the commitment to abstinence in singleness is a particular, and for many people temporary, outworking of the overarching call to a life of sexual chastity that comes to all. This general call to chastity, while remaining the same call, demands a quite different response from married persons than it does from single people.
Finally, the objection that this proposal is unfair rests on a highly questionable emphasis on rights. John McNeill, for example, defends homosexual behavior on the basis that “every human being has a God-given right to sexual love and intimacy.” This claim, however, displays a faulty understanding of what a right entails. Love is a relational reality, and sexual love in particular requires a partner (a lover). For this reason, no one can claim a personal right to sexual love. Such a right would demand that a lover exist somewhere for every person, but no one is entitled to, or can be guaranteed a sexual partner. Further, such a right would place on someone else the corresponding obligation to enter into a sexual relationship with the person who possesses the right. But no one can require that someone else love, let alone become sexually intimate with, him or her.
James Hanigan draws out the implications of these considerations for same-sex relations:
“Since, strictly speaking, there is no positive right to sexual satisfaction, sexual fulfillment and sexual happiness, the human desire for such things and the pursuit of these goods, even the natural human orientation to these goods, cannot itself be a justification for doing just anything to achieve them….”
Therefore, just because a homosexual relationship may possibly be the only way some people can find, or think they can find, a satisfying degree of humanity in their lives does not make such a relationship morally right by that very fact.
In contrast to contemporary proposals such as McNeill’s, the New Testament writers do not build their ethic on an appeal to personal rights. Instead, the early Christian leaders were convinced that discipleship entails a call to follow the example of Jesus, who freely laid aside his personal prerogatives for the sake of a higher good (Phil 2:5-8; 1 Peter 2:18-25). This Jesus calls his disciples to give expression to their fundamental human sexuality in ways that bring glory to the God he himself served. As the New Testament writers concluded, his call requires chastity of all persons, a chastity that acknowledges the God-given boundaries of genital sexual expression.
But can we truly expect unmarried people to commit themselves to abstinence? Jesus himself noted that certain persons would willingly set aside the sex act for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matt. 19:12). The human sciences confirm that sexual activity is not a human necessity, thereby holding open the possibility of abstinence. In the words of Jones and Workman, “There is no basis in behavioral science…to suggest that abstinence is detrimental to human welfare, or that expression of genital eroticism is necessary for wholeness.” Abstinent single Christians stand as living examples of this possibility.
Homosexual persons and sexual expression
To commit oneself to abstinence outside of marriage does not mean that single homosexual persons are “condemned” to lives devoid of sexual expression. On the contrary, persons who are not “sexually active” still experience dimensions of affective sexual expression.
The differentiation between sexual desire and the desire for sex I made earlier suggests how this is so. As the basis for our innate drive toward bonding, sexuality is operative in the lives of all humans. Hence, our sensed needs to bond with other humans, to live in community with others, and even to find God are all aspects of human sexual desire. But as most of our day-to-day relationships indicate, sexual desire does not require that we fulfill the desire for sex, that is, that we engage in sexual intercourse. Rather, as I have argued already, the only context in which the desire for sex can be properly expressed is marriage.
At the same time, we all form non-marital friendship bonds with others. Whenever such bonding occurs, our fundamental sexuality–sexual desire–comes to expression. And as I noted earlier, friendship bonds know no gender boundaries. Hence, our fundamental sexuality readily leads persons of the same sex to develop close, even intimate friendships, albeit ones which exclude sexual intimacy in the form of genital relations.
A question commonly asked today is: “Does God really care about whom I sleep with?” We dare not answer this question in the negative, for to do so is to banish God from our sex lives. Rather, Christians seek to understand every aspect of life, including the sexual dimension, within the context of Christian discipleship. Christians seek to place life itself–and hence sexual expression–under the lordship of Christ. Viewed from this perspective, Christians are convinced that God does care about our sexual conduct. And by taking care to live in appropriate sexual chastity, the choice we make as to who we do–and do not–sleep with becomes a powerful theological statement. This choice speaks loudly about our understanding of ourselves, about our view of the nature of life, and ultimately about our deepest convictions as to what God is like. Ultimately, this is the challenge that underlies the discussions about sexual practices so rampant in our society, including the emotionally-charged debate about homosexuality.
This essay appeared in Reflections, Biblical and Otherwise, about Sexuality, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Tina J. Ostrander (Lenoir, NC: Reformation Press, 2001) and Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community, ed. Maxine Hancock (Vancouver BC: Regent College Publishing, 2003).
Stanley J. Grenz