An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality – by Peter Wehner

An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality – by Peter Wehner June 11, 2013

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

By Peter Wehner

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.

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  • Marta L.

    I found Dr. Wehner’s approach to be commonsensical and evenhanded, and quite liked it. I disagreed with his assertion that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality. The Bible clearly condemns certain ancient practices that involved two men sleeping together, but I have read many Christians (and historians whose religious persuasion I’m unsure of) say that this is very different from the contemporary understanding of homosexuality. As I understand it, the sexual acts being described were between presumed heterosexuals who had sex with their same gender either as part of idolatry or as a way of subjugating other people. So whether the Bible condemns modern homosexuality seems like a live question to me. But I do think you do a praiseworthy job of balancing that conviction with a balanced sexual ethics that doesn’t single homosexuals out for special condemnation.

    One question I’d add to this discussion is: what is a good sexuality (including celibacy under that category) for a homosexual? If you believe celibacy is the best course – and that seems to be the best option for folks who both think homosexual sex is a sin, and think homosexual inclination isn’t something we can change – that challenges Christians to work hard to welcome *all* singles, homo- and heterosexual alike, into a church that’s so often built around the nuclear family. As a single heterosexual woman, I’ve come up against a lot of churches that don’t so a very good job on this particular issue.

  • Susan Gerard

    Good message! Would that, as a first step, Evangelicals looked at divorce, alcoholic excess, acquisitiveness, gossip, adultery, lies, pride and other sins as they do homosexuality and abortion. Then to recognize God’s grace is for all of us would be a wonderful starting point in our witness to and interaction with the world.

    We live in a republic, not a theocracy. If the majority favors legalization of (divorce, acquisitiveness, alcoholic excess, homosexuality), then that is what will be done. Our freedom of speech is intact, as is our freedom of religion.

    • Esther Starr

      You mean homosexuality and murder? I agree that abortion specifically is an important *type* of murder that’s more in the public consciousness than others, but let’s not bracket it off into its own separate category.

      • Susan Gerard

        Why in heaven’s name not? In killing another, there’s first degree murder, second degree murder, felony murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, euthanasia, abortion… it is already in a separate category, and because you object, does not change the fact. Rhetoric and culture wars. The spirit of this post. “Political convictions that lead toward Redemption and Reconciliation are most likely headed in the right direction.” Do you think calling abortion “murder” helps you toward Redemption and Reconciliation? You know your convictions. How do we engage with someone who has had an abortion? Someone who is thinking of having an abortion? Remember, Redemption and Reconciliation.

        I believe that to refer to it as killing a child is less polarizing that to label it murder.

        • Esther Starr

          It may be in a separate category politically, but there are “facts” that go beyond politics, and just because YOU object does not change that either. Slavery used to be legal too.

          So, an abortion doctor reaches into a mother’s womb, dismembers the unborn child, and pulls it out piece by piece, putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle to make sure nothing’s left inside. And you *don’t* want to call *that* first-degree murder? Please do correct me if I misunderstand.

          There is grace for those who have confessed their sin, understand the magnitude of it, and are truly penitent. And for those in the consideration stage, it is all the *more* urgent that they be given a right understanding of what an abortion truly is. Many lives have been saved by this.

          • Susan Gerard

            Esther, you don’t want me to correct you if you’re wrong; you just want to argue. And use poor logic and reasoning. Like the slavery non sequitur.

            Read up on murder. It is defined by law. The typical legal abortion is not first degree murder as defined by law. At times, prosecutors attempt (sometimes successfully) to define death of a fetus as murder (usually first degree) if violence done against a pregnant woman is particularly heinous and results in the deaths of both mother and fetus in order to procure a more severe sentence against the killer.

            Do you know that there are many devout theologians who, though it is sad, do not agree that abortion is morally wrong? Also many Christian scientists, and Christian doctors. Just saying…

          • Esther Starr

            Susan, with all due respect, I get the impression that you don’t really understand how to use philosophical terms. I’m getting my degree in philosophy. I know what a non sequitur is. I also know what a (real) fallacy is. Whether you realize it or not, I have committed no fallacies.

            You are making the argument (if I understand you correctly), that there is no objective reality in the matter of murder, and that it is a purely political construct. That’s nonsense. However, if you would like to insist as much, let’s get down to brass tacks here: abortion is morally wrong, it is always morally wrong, and it is monstrous. There, I didn’t use any legal terminology. Will you engage with the moral fact of the matter now?

            Furthermore, you have committed a (real) bandwagon fallacy with your last paragraph, further demonstrating that you are clueless when it comes to anything remotely philosophical. If you want to admit that you don’t have a rational leg to stand on and argue from pure emotion, that will at least be honest. Right now, you’re just embarrassing yourself. Please stop, for your own sake.

          • Susan Gerard

            It was indeed a non sequitur. I thought you were getting a degree in mathematics (as you claimed in another thread). You really are a rude little girl, Esther, and I wish you would stop hounding me on the threads I post on. It’s trying my patience.

            As I said, you are not interested in learning, you are interested in arguing. You rarely evaluate with wisdom any answer that doesn’t suit you, regardless of whom you are arguing with. You just look for things to disagree with, over and over again.

            You are the first Christian who has ever addressed me in this manner on this entire site. You, however, have been been called far worse by multiple commenters. Learn some humility, Esther. You would be well served in life, and it is Godly. Your pride is appalling.

            This is not an ad hominem attack, because I am not addressing your argument. I am addressing YOU.

          • Esther Starr

            I’m getting a double degree in philosophy and mathematics (but would like to pursue something even more advanced in mathematics). Sorry for the confusion.

            YOU’RE the one who keeps responding to everything I post. I just happened to break form and respond to your initial comment on this one. I have little desire to engage in long debates with you, but for the most part (beginning from the very first comment you ever directed at me), you keep starting them and then insisting we continue! So who’s hounding whom? I’m glad that you’re finally getting impatient with me, because maybe now you’ll stop wasting my time by dragging me back into these pointless discussions. Lord knows we both have more profitable things to do.

            But since I don’t have anything to do at this particular moment, let me just SHOW you your logical error in calling my comment a non sequitur. It’s good practice for me anyway. Here is the argument which I *think* you mistakenly assumed I was making (though your accusation was so vague it was frankly difficult to trace your reasoning):

            1. Slavery used to be legal.
            2. Slavery is wrong.
            3. Abortion is legal.


            4. Abortion is wrong.

            Now that WOULD be a non sequitur, but it would also be utterly nonsensical, so I’m mildly amused that you seem to think I was arguing in this way. Now, here was my actual argument:

            1. Slavery is wrong.
            2. Slavery used to be legal.


            3. The mere fact that something is legal has no bearing whatsoever on the moral wrongness or rightness of a given issue. Q.E.D.

            I brought it up in this context because abortion, like slavery, is so manifestly heinous that any reasonable person should see that it’s ridiculous to sit around splitting hairs on the matter.

  • Daniel Staub

    Hi. I respect this forum and have a responsibility to comment, when appropriate. In my experience there is an instance when Jesus is reported to have commented on a subject that may be related to this topic. Could the author provide an opinion on the three types of eunuchs? This verse is from Biblegateway:
    Matthew 19:12
    For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” I really would like to understand this verse. Thanks!

  • Leon Fisher

    It was an interesting article, actually a little surprising. I think he has some really good points, points that more Christians should read and contemplate. My only objection is something that to me is foundational in a discussion about homosexuality: and that is that he is generalizing the term “homosexuality”. He does not define what Scripture is referring to when it uses the term. He does a good job pointing out that the Old Testament does not apply to us today, even the references to homosexuality. However, he doesn’t mention that every time the New Testament uses the term “homosexual”, it is always in the context of idol worship and temple prostitutes. In fact, until 1958, EVERY translation of the New Testament in English, German, Spanish and Italian translated this word in the New Testament “homosexual prostitute”. It wasn’t until 1958 (the “Leave It To Beaver” era) that translations simply dropped the word “prostitute”, leaving the word “homosexual” to stand alone. So, my response to Peter Wehner would be that the New Testament is not referring to committed, monogamous, gay relationships when it refers to “homosexuals”. The concept was completely foreign to that time period. Therefore, we cannot lump today’s committed homosexuals in with the New Testament references to homosexuality.

  • Cynthia Brown Christ

    I am a Christian who is saddened when other Christians don’t chose love. My attempts to engage in discussion about this with those whose perspective is “against” mine, goes nowhere often, but sometimes gets to a really good place. I know for sure that the good place comes only when the conversation is borne out of love and respect and covered in grace.

    But this article – it is so eloquent! So amazing. Reading it brought me hope. Hope that the body of Christ can become more like the Jesus of the gospels, and less like the reflections that were given to Yancy.

    And it also helped me to see where my approach must change,

    Wow! Thank you so much for writing this, and for sharing this. It is meaningful for me in its clarifications. I am printing it and tacking it to my desk wall as a reminder.

  • Gil Reich

    ” … 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 …” Yes. But I’m also quite sure that He will have something to say about how we defended or helped chip away at the teachings of our parents, at value systems, etc. Sometimes key elements of the value systems we inherited are wrong. The Bible comes out on both sides of the outcast vs the system. Compassion for the outcast doesn’t necessarily mean changing society norms.

    • Esther Starr

      I agree with Gil. It is by no means “compassionate” TO HOMOSEXUALS to grant every demand of their own agenda. Participating in the sinful fiction of gay “marriage” is not kind or loving to anyone concerned, particularly children who may be adopted by such people, but yes, even the couples themselves.

      • John (not McCain)

        Stay out of my life, lady.

        • Esther Starr

          Oh, hullo. You must be the second disliker of all my comments on here. Perhaps I should try posting something about fluffy kittens and just seeing what happens.

          • John (not McCain)

            What an obnoxious busybody you are! It must be distressing to you that in real life nobody gives a rat’s ass whether you live or die, much less what you think.

          • Esther Starr

            Wow. And here I thought gay people were supposed to be teaching us Christians how *not* to be nasty. But I’ll take notes for the next time I want to drop a pointlessly vile drive-by insult on someone’s blog. Thanks for the tips!

  • Esther Starr

    Many problems with this article, but I’ll just focus on one: the comparison of divorce to homosexuality. Wehner rightly points out the fact that who your friends are can profoundly shape your position on a given issue. Nevertheless, it’s patronizing to assume that this is the only substantive difference between these two issues. In a divorce, one party may be completely innocent. So obviously, if we know the innocent party well, we will rightly judge that he (or she) is exonerated of any blame in the matter, and in certain cases may even be permitted to remarry. Even in cases where there was technically no unfaithfulness involved, one party may still be heavily more to blame than another (e.g., the case of an abusive husband). This is pretty easy to see. And in cases where we simply know that a person has been divorced, with no further information about the case, we don’t assume the worst until we know more, because such a person could have been the innocent party in exactly such a situation.

    On the flip side, the two parties entering into a same-sex union are both fully to blame and responsible for their actions.

    This bifurcation is not an arbitrary one, by any means.

  • drdanfee

    For nearly every traditional believer with whom I’ve happened to speak (or just read, for that matter?) those two words, Redemption and Reconciliation, simply mean that any LGBT person who happens to live on the planet simply MUST stop being LGBT.

    Yet the plain language truth is that not one word of the Old or New Testaments can accurately be translated by what we today mean, when we talk about ‘homosexuality’, ‘homosexuals’, and related topics. Although ancient near eastern cultures were quite familiar with a whole range of possible same sex behaviors, they were much less familiar with the mutual giving and pairbonding that is more or less built into our contemporary understanding of sex, sensuality and embodiment.

    We first of all, lack one of the governing assumptions that heavily defines ancient near eastern norms or codes or expectations about sexual behaviors of all kinds. That core being Power, not sex or gender as we modern folks tend to grasp these realities.

    An ancient near eastern Powerful Person could basically have any kind of sex he (and occasionally, she) might feel like having with any lesser and less powerful person around. That active cross-cultural ancient norm took for granted that when you imposed your powerful sexual self upon some lesser object for your own exclusive pleasure taking, you would have already determined that the lesser object of your attentions did not already belong to some other Power Person. If another Power Person already owned or even temporarily laid claim to the inferior pleasure object you were considering, then a commonly enacted cross-cultural norm said that you must refrain, lest you intrude upon and/or violate the other Power Person’s esteemed sway. A defining cue of your own self truly being Powerful was frequently that you would pause to consider/acknowledge your own potential obligations to some other Powerful Person. Once that bit was kept, as a Powerful Person you could let loose sexually with some lesser person, pretty much however you wished within the limits of the occasion.

    This frame of reference is so far afield from what most of us think even begins to describe sexuality-sensuality and embodiment that, well, we have to work pretty hard to get back to what in the way of Power ancient near eastern cultures simply took for granted as a basic.

    Aside from this Power bit, it would also upgrade our conversations if we could let go of at least some of the false negatives which tend to be taken for granted when LGBT life issues arise. One of the most misleading habits is that of defining that everything simply goes together in one closed package of characteristics, so that anatomical sex equals all the rest of our related embodiment, gender, sensuality, sex roles personalized, and so forth. Solid empirical data urges us to drop these topics as categories, and start embracing them as continuums along which many people will clearly vary and be different. Empirically speaking, our quite varied insides (habits, life cycle developmental pathways, motives of the heart?) are the determining influences that make our outsides meaningful.

    O what a change it might be, if we started on LGBT issues, by first asking what powerful insides were illuminating or energizing some piece of the outside – like wanting to legally and financially protect and nurture your life’s husband or wife, despite you yourself being also a husband or a wife?