Note: This is the latest in a series on homosexuality and Christianity. See the introduction and first, second and third parts.
I recently began a series of blog posts on Christianity and homosexuality, and then left off for a while. The truth is that I’ve been dreading writing the next installment — this one — in the series. Absolutely dreading it. Why? Many of my friends, colleagues and former students are homosexual. I respect them, admire them, like them, and love them. They are good people. And while many of them would object to other parts of the series so far, this is the part that will bother them the most. It pains me to think of paining them.
Yet the question in this case is not whether I dislike homosexuals. (I do not.) The question is whether homosexuality, in my view of things, is wrong. My responsibility is to speak the truth as well as I can understand it. Since I am far from infallible, since I am a limited creature and not immune to any number of wrong or irrational influences, and since I respect the opinions of many who have come to different conclusions on this question, I have to speak with humility. Yet I do have to speak, in part because of the social importance of the subject, in part because I believe the truth matters for individuals and their own welfare, and in part because I began this series and many people have asked me to continue. They wonder, for instance, how to speak with their gay friend or their lesbian sister, in view of their commitment to Christian teachings. So let me try not only to give an answer, but to model a way of delivering that answer.
Is homosexuality wrong? The answer is NO — and YES.
In other words, it’s time again for some finer distinctions. In the question “Is homosexuality wrong?”, it’s imperative to define what we mean by “homosexuality” and by “wrong.” (Fan though I am of Clintonian distinctions, I’ll assume we know what “is” means here.) I’m going to use a similar but slightly different set of distinctions here than the one I used when we were asking whether homosexuality is voluntary. It is:
- Homosexual desire: a single, discrete sexual desire for a person of the same sex.
- Homosexual inclination: an enduring predilection toward homosexual desires.
- Homosexual behavior: acting on a homosexual desire (this would be a single homosexual act) or acting regularly on homosexual inclinations (entering into homosexual relationships, whether serial or monogamous).
- Homosexual marriage: committing before God to a lifelong sexual, practical and spiritual covenant with one other person.
What, then, do we mean by wrong? It’s important to distinguish what is unintended — meaning that this is not what God intended for creation from the start — from what is morally wrong or against God’s will now. There may be some things which God did not intend, but which are morally justified in a fallen world under certain conditions. For instance, I do not believe that God intended for divorce; divorce is not ideal in an ultimate sense; in a fallen world, however, and under certain conditions, divorce may be the right thing to do. And let me be perfectly clear that whether something is wrong, and whether it is or ought to be illegal, are related but different questions. I am leaving the state out of (4), for instance, because the question here is not legality but morality. I can justify this at greater length in the comments, if someone has a challenge.
HOMOSEXUAL DESIRE: First comes the NO. It is not wrong to have a homosexual desire. Many people, even people who live their entire lives happily as married heterosexuals, have experienced, once upon a time, a spark of attraction for a person of the same sex. Since conservative Christians who care enough to write about homosexuality are often accused of fighting their own repressed urges, I have to say, in all honesty, that I have never experienced such a desire myself. When I look at other men, I feel no sense of sexual attraction, in the same way that some gay friends (they tell me) cannot imagine being attracted to someone of the opposite sex.
But I do not judge those who do feel such an attraction. If I am right in what I’ve written in this series thus far, people who feel homosexual attractions probably do so because of a complicated interaction between genetic inheritance, perhaps the birth environment, and certainly their environment in early life. You cannot be held morally accountable for these things. Whether or not they will experience same-sex desires is probably, at least in most cases, determined before they have become conscious of themselves as free and sexual creatures. It is not literally true, but is experientially true, that they were “born this way,” because they cannot remember ever feeling otherwise.
HOMOSEXUAL INCLINATION: Neither — for the same reasons — do I believe it’s wrong to experience an enduring proclivity toward same-sex desires. I know some men who very much wish they did not experience these desires, but the desires are there and they cannot simply wish them away.
To be clear, I do not believe that homosexual desires or homosexual inclinations were intended by God from the beginning. Here is where I am going to begin (if I have not already) to upset my gay friends. So please understand: This is a question of what I feel bound to believe according to the authorities in my life. I believe there is a Creator; in fact, I think it’s fairly obvious. I also believe — though this is less obvious — that this Creator communicated his love and his grace, but also his will and his Truth, in Jesus Christ and through the books now gathered together in the Christian scriptures. I spent many years studying the reasons why people reject these beliefs, but I feel that I have good reasons for them. The consequence is that I am bound to submit my understanding of true and false, right and wrong, to the Christian scriptures. Are they tough to interpret? Of course. But I do my best, and in many cases the proper interpretation is easily discerned.
I won’t go into the reasons now — I’ll save that for another part of this series — but I have come to believe that the scriptures depict sexual desire as something that men and women were intended to have for one another. In their difference, in their creative complementarity, in their companionship, and in their capacity (in general) to produce life, I believe that men and women were intended to unite and become one flesh. While I do not believe it is wrong to experience a homosexual inclination, neither do I believe that it’s what God intended.
HOMOSEXUAL BEHAVIOR: Here comes the YES. Behavior is not merely to experience a desire or inclination, but to act upon it. We are not always free to choose our desires or inclinations, but we are generally free in — and morally accountable for — our actions. This is not to say we are completely uninfluenced by external factors, or internal factors over which we have no control; but it is to say that we have some remainder of free agency, an ability to do otherwise than our desires and inclinations would lead us to do. So, I do not blame an alcoholic for wanting a drink, and I don’t blame a teenager for wanting to have sex with his girlfriend, any more than I blame a starving person for wanting to eat. But we are morally accountable for what we do with our desires. Do we act upon them at all? Do we direct them rightly? And if we find our desires are misdirected, or out of control, or leading us to harm ourselves or others, do we take the initiative to restrain or redirect or even refuse to satisfy those desires? So just as we’re responsible for how we act upon our desires, we are also responsible for the extent to which we are able to cultivate our desires over time. If it’s wrong to act upon a same-sex desire, then a person ought, if possible, to seek to diminish those desires and redirect them (cultivating his desires through a thousand minute decisions) over time. If I sin consistently by looking at other women, then I should not act upon those desires, and I should seek over time to diminish and/or re-train those desires.
I hasten to add: while I believe it is a sin to act upon homosexual desires, I also believe that I sin in a thousand-and-one ways every day. I do not believe that my gay friends are worse sinners than I am. In fact, in a very real sense, that sort of comparison is meaningless. St. Paul refers to himself as “the chief of sinners,” and the chief of sinners is always me myself. The longer you spend striving to live out the will of God (whether out of legalism or out of gratitude), the more you understand just how sinful you are. I’ve never been unfaithful to my wife, but I have many times fallen short in my thoughts and deeds. So I have no interest in judging other people. But I do have an interest in upholding the Truth.
I also hasten to add: I do not believe that homosexual sin cuts a person off from fellowship with God. I was good friends with a dormmate my freshman year, and she “came out” in her sophomore year. We met again in our senior year, and she told a heartbreaking story of how her Bible-belt church essentially told her that she could have no relationship with God until she stopped acting upon her desires. This is insensitive, counter-productive, and theological nonsense. We are always sinners — all of us, always, even when we are not counted as such in the grace of God — and we are often confused on what is right and wrong. Those who have gay friends or relatives wrestling with their sexual and religious identities should not require them to stop sinning sexually before they can turn to God, but should encourage them to spend even more time with God everyday. If we are right that gay behavior is against God’s will, then we should encourage our gay brothers and sisters to keep praying, keep worshipping, and keep listening — and we should trust that God will convince them in due time. He is the author and perfecter of their faith — not us.
It is, ultimately, not my job to convict another person of sin. The Holy Spirit will work through “the Law,” even “the law written upon their hearts,” to convict people of their need for grace. I am sometimes asked, “Do I need to tell my sister that she’s sinning?” In the majority of cases, people know when they’re sinning. They can feel it in their heart of hearts. And in those cases where they are confused, it is not our job to deliver the Law. If we are asked, we should speak the truth we have come to know. But generally people know, and generally people know what we believe. More importantly, it’s goodness that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). It is not condemnation, threats and fear, hellfire and brimstone, that lead to genuine confession and transformation. It’s the grace of God that saves and the grace of God that sanctifies.
I’m going to save HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGE for the next part of this series. Then I’ll explain some of the reasons why I believe the Bible makes clear that homosexuality is not intended and why acting upon same-sex desires is wrong. What I’ve provided above is really just a formal analysis of the logic of my own position. I’ve explained (in part) what I believe is wrong, but I’ve not yet explained why I believe it’s wrong. I owe you that.
In conclusion, whatever I might want to believe (and, to be honest, I want to believe that same-sex inclinations and behaviors are perfectly okay), I am convinced that this is the truth of the matter. C. S. Lewis called himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England,” and I likewise come to this view with great reluctance. It doesn’t make me popular in intellectual circles, and it certainly doesn’t help my case with any future faculty hiring committees (not that I’m looking to re-enter academia right now). So why speak up at all? Why not keep my mouth shut, and just say the nice stuff about grace?
Because, ultimately, I think it’s self-destructive to do what is wrong. I believe that God communicates his will to us for our own benefit. We are most truly ourselves, living the life we were intended to live, when we are acting in obedience. If disobedience is self-destruction, and if you care about someone, and they are acting in disobedient / self-destructive ways, and they ask you whether you think they’re doing something wrong, you owe them your true conviction. The false binds us in confusion and sin; the truth sets free. So, yes, I believe that my gay friends, my friends who act upon their homosexual inclinations, are doing harm to themselves. I believe they are acting in self-destructive ways. I know they feel otherwise, and they will not like me for saying this. But I hope they believe me when I say that I only tell them this because I sincerely believe it’s the truth, and I sincerely believe the truth leads to freedom.
And because I care for them. I don’t like conflict, and I don’t need the controversy. If I did not care, I would just shut my mouth.