I’m honored again to have a guest post from my friend Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush. Wehner served also in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, serves now as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and coauthor with Michael Gerson of City of Man and with Arthur Brooks of Wealth and Justice.
An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality
I recently had a series of exchanges with a Christian acquaintance on the matter of homosexuality. He argues that it’s clear God wishes us to vehemently oppose homosexuality and same sex marriage; that there is a sophistication and internal coherence when it comes to ancient Israel’s legal jurisprudence (including laws in the Hebrew Bible against homosexual conduct); that we need to take those strictures more seriously than we do today; and that sexual purity is a concern to God and should therefore order our personal life and how we encourage society to order its affairs.
My interlocutor’s belief seems to be that if more Christians were more spiritually-minded, they would recognize the threat posed by the legitimization of homosexual conduct and speak out more boldly and forcefully against it.
This engagement afforded me the opportunity to further clarify my own attitudes, as an evangelical Christian, on homosexuality – attitudes that are certainly open to refinement and amendment.
As a starting point, I’d associate myself with the views of Timothy J. Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Dr. Keller, who recently spoke at this Faith Angle Forum, observed that in the Bible homosexual behavior is spoken in every instance in negative ways. It privileges heterosexuality. Now one may disagree with the wisdom of that stance – one may believe it is misguided, or benighted, or no longer relevant — but there’s no real debate about the plain meaning of the text.
At the same time Keller points out that homosexuality is referred to only seven times in the Bible. He believes, too, that we’d be better off, and more in line with the mind of God, if we narrated what the Bible says about sexuality in general. Dr. Keller says the Bible teaches that male and female both have their own unique glories and that we do best when recognizing them. And in all of this, he argues, Christians should be peacemakers, the people who are most willing to say “let’s talk” and to be civil and gracious.
In dilating further on this matter, it’s perhaps worth observing that many of us who are of the Christian faith pick and choose issues we focus on, often issues that confirm our pre-existing views while ignoring or downplaying those that don’t.
For example, it seems to me to be clear, and clearly relevant, that (a) Jesus was more concerned about how a society treats the poor than how it treats homosexuality (which He never mentions in His recorded ministry) and (b) the Scriptures mention concern for the poor and justice for the poor hundreds of times, while mentioning homosexuality only a handful of times.
Now the frequency a topic is mentioned doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about its importance. For example, Jesus doesn’t speak against genocide, even though we can say with confidence that He would be horrified by it. On the other hand it would be unwise, I think, to act as if the number of references to a topic isn’t an important indication of what was most on the mind and heart of the Lord. And while homosexuality may not have been a particularly live moral question in much of the first century world, it was enough of an issue that the Apostle Paul refers to it in several of his letters.
Many Christians also employ something of a double standard. We’re told in Malachi, for example, that the Lord “hates” divorce. Jesus spoke in negative terms about divorce because it fractures the marital ideal. And divorce itself has done far more damage to children and society than homosexuality ever has. Yet many Christians approach divorce and homosexuality in very different ways. The fierce opposition to one is missing when it comes to the other. People of faith have accommodated themselves to divorce, for reasons that are understandable and in some cases appropriately sympathetic. There’s a realization that we all make mistakes in judgment and experience areas of brokenness in our lives — and we still require grace. But this bifurcated approach toward divorce and homosexuality may also have to do with our habit of speaking with less sympathy on issues that are largely outside of our experience. Many of us have known more divorced people than gay people.
It also needs to be said that much of what biblical law once considered forbidden (like idolatry or breaking the Sabbath) was never meant to serve as a legislative template for American society. The reason has to do with God’s unique (and non-transferable) relationship with ancient Israel. From a Christian perspective, the covenant with Israel was not intended as the model for human government. While it’s true that the law contained a partial definition of the character of the lawgiver (in this case God), its very severity had the express purpose of bringing about the discovery of sin, which in Christian theology was dealt with on the cross.
And even if you believe, as I do, that the New Testament church is more analogous to how God dealt with ancient Israel than any current nation-state, many of the laws (ceremonial and civil) that applied to ancient Israel don’t apply to the New Testament church. Why? In brief, and in part, because ever since the crucifixion of Jesus, the way Christians are supposed to face certain behavior in our selves and others has changed (for example, we are told in the New Testament to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to pray for those who despise us and to expect persecution). Christians are also to see themselves as pilgrims and sojourners, as citizens of an everlasting Kingdom that (as Augustine put it) we did not build and cannot destroy.
This does not mean Christians should be indifferent to pursuing justice on this earth. What it does mean is that determining precisely how that is done is an enormously complicated matter. For the purposes of this discussion, the task for Christians is to understand which enduring principles inform Biblical laws and injunctions while avoiding a mechanical application of them. Cherry-picking is a bad way to engage in Biblical exegesis. And I think it’s reasonable to say that even for orthodox Christians, how the Scriptural injunctions against homosexual behavior should manifest themselves in modern American law and society are not self-evident.
For example, you might believe homosexual conduct is not what God intended but (like idolatry) that view should not be written in law. Or it may be that you believe the law should favor heterosexual marriage and not go beyond that. But that raises another question: What about putting laws on the books that punish sodomy (something that was not judged to be unconstitutional prior to the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case)? And if one believed anti-sodomy laws were appropriate, should it be viewed as a capital offense (as it was in Leviticus), as a lesser felony, or as a misdemeanor?
Some orthodox Christians I know oppose anti-sodomy laws in principle on the grounds that it’s not the duty of the state to regulate private sexual behavior but it is the duty to regulate marriage because it is the institution established by God for the fulfillment of the procreative mandate. Others would say that at one time it was the duty of the state to regulate private sexual behavior and it should be again, since private sexual behavior has profound public consequences. I raise these questions and different interpretations simply to underscore how fraught with difficulty this matter can be. A “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” mindset is clearly insufficient.
Here I need to insert a few clarifications, the first of which is to acknowledge that in the New Testament the Apostle Paul speaks in critical ways about homosexuality but doesn’t draw any legal or legislative implications from it. The second clarification is to stress that one can make a serious case that society should privilege heterosexual marriage without reference to verses in Leviticus and Romans — a case based on sexual complementarity, teleology and the public good. The third clarification is that some efforts, including government efforts, to pressure Christians to abandon biblical teaching on human sexuality is deeply unwise and threatens religious liberties. What I’m focusing on here, however, is responding to those who invoke the authority of Scripture in shaping their views, including their public policy views, on homosexuality and gay marriage.
Which brings me to my final point. Precisely where one lands on the matter of the appropriate societal stance toward homosexuality and same sex marriage isn’t dependent on Biblical literacy. Faithful Christians can hold different views on when and how to apply a Biblical view on a range of sexual matters, as well as the spirit that animates their position.
What I think this comes down to, as so many things in life come down to, is discretion, prudence, and wisdom. Some of us are drawn to certain issues and rhetoric that we believe honor the righteousness of God; others of us are drawn to certain issues and rhetoric that we believe honor the grace of God. Would Jesus, if He were here today, be speaking out against gays and their political agenda based on what might be called a theological anthropology? Or would He be more inclined to warn critics of homosexuality against stridency, judgmentalism and blindness to many other matters (like acquisitiveness) that we so easily ignore? Or would He be challenging everyone, in different ways, based on their particular challenges and needs and the state of their hearts?
None of us can know for sure. We all see through a glass darkly. And we all are drawn to certain Scriptures and models of engagement. James Dobson has an approach that appeals to some; James Davison Hunter has an approach that appeals to others. For a complicated set of reasons, most of us are drawn toward one pole more than the other — and then we attempt to construct Biblical reasons to justify our predilections. It’s very easy for us to proof-text the Bible and end up in a place that is quite some distance from where the Lord would have us.
For my part, I’m reminded of what Philip Yancey wrote in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? He cites the Swiss doctor Paul Tournier, who said that what patients truly seek is grace. Yet in some churches they encounter shame, the threat of punishment, and a sense of judgment. When they look in the church for grace, they often find ungrace. And Yancey tells of how prior to writing his book, he began asking a question of strangers when striking up a conversation. “When I say the words ‘evangelical Christian’ what comes to mind?” Yancey wrote that he mostly heard political descriptions – and not once did he hear a description redolent of grace.
Yancey then adds this:
Grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it and I am one of those people. I think back to who I was — resentful, wound tight with anger, a single hardened link in a long chain of ungrace learned from family and church. Now I am trying in my own small way to pipe the tune of grace. I do so because I know, more surely than I know anything, that any pang of healing or forgiveness of goodness I have ever felt comes solely from the grace of God. I yearn for the church to become a nourishing culture of that grace.
Now I realize that one common error within Christianity is to use grace as a way to elide wrongdoing; and that those who are willing to stand up for Biblical morality can easily (and unfairly) be caricatured as ungracious. But my point in citing Yancey is (i) his insights are worth wrestling with in terms of Christians and their role and impact on public matters, particularly on social and cultural issues; and (ii) he’s obviously a faithful Christian who sees things at one angle v. those who sees things at a very different angle.
It’s not an issue of who knows the Bible better; it’s a matter of hermeneutics, of what issues we focus on and the manner in which Christians in the public arena carry themselves.
I received a note the other week from Stephen Hayner. Steve, who is currently president of Columbia Theological Seminary, played a crucial part in my life while I was in college and has been a model to me ever since. He mentioned that he’s going through the Gospel of Luke and was struck again with the grace and embrace of Jesus for those whom the religious elite had every reason (they thought) to kick to the curb. People on the low rung of life, including those with frailties and flaws, flocked to Jesus — not because he preached moral rectitude but because He was willing to love them, to listen to them, and to welcome them.
“I’m sure that many were self-justifying and hardened in their life patterns,” Steve wrote me. But Jesus’ main mission was to convince them of God’s love and invitation. And then he went on to speak about those willing to stand in the middle of the tensions that necessarily attach to faithful living in a broken world.
“I doubt whether God will have much to say about our political convictions in the end,” Steve said to me, “but I’m quite sure that he will have something to say about how we loved the least, the marginalized, the outcasts, the lonely, the abused — even when some think that they have it all. Political convictions that lead toward redemption and reconciliation are most likely headed in the right direction.”
That isn’t a prescription for a particular kind of political involvement. It’s certainly not a roadmap on how to deal with issues like same sex marriage. It is, however, a reflection on how Christians might consider engaging the world. It seems to me there is great wisdom in his words, and great richness in these words: Redemption and reconciliation.