Dr. Nelson is professor of Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minnesota.
This article appeared in the Christianity and Crisis April 4, 1977. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.
The church is called to do its ongoing theological and ethical work as responsibly as possible. Fresh insights from feminist theologians, gay Christians, and those secular scholars who frequently manifest God’s “common grace” in the world remind us of the numerous ways in which our particular sexual conditions color our perceptions of God’s nature and presence among us. If the Protestant Principle turns us against absolutizing historically relative theological judgments, so also our openness to continuing revelation should convince us, with some of our ancestors-in-faith, that “the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth.”
The gay caucuses now active in virtually every major American denomination no longer will let us forget that the church must face the issue of homosexuality more openly, honestly, and sensitively than it has yet done. Beyond this legitimate and appropriate pressure, however, there are other compelling reasons for the church to reexamine its theology and practice:
1. Homosexual Christians are sisters and brothers of all other Christians, earnestly seeking the church’s full acceptance without prejudgment on the basis of a sexual orientation regarding which they had no basic choice.
2. While antihomosexual bias has existed in Western culture generally, the church must take responsibility for its share in shaping, supporting, and transmitting negative attitudes toward homosexuality.
3. The Christian mandate for social justice will not let us forget that discrimination continues today against millions of gay persons in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and in the enjoyment of fundamental civil liberties.
4. The church is called to do its ongoing theological and ethical work as responsibly as possible. Fresh insights from feminist theologians, gay Christians, and those secular scholars who frequently manifest God’s “common grace” in the world remind us of the numerous ways in which our particular sexual conditions color our perceptions of God’s nature and presence among us. If the Protestant Principle turns us against absolutizing historically relative theological judgments, so also our openness to continuing revelation should convince us, with some of our ancestors-in-faith, that “the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth.”
5. The heterosexually oriented majority in the church has much to gain from a deeper grappling with this issue: an enriched capacity to love other human beings more fully and with less fear.
The Bible and Homosexuality
A brief survey of pertinent scriptural passages must begin with a word about our interpretive principles. My first hermeneutical assumption — and the most fundamental one — is that Jesus Christ is the bearer of God’s invitation to human wholeness and is the focal point of God’s humanizing action; hence, Jesus Christ is the central norm through which and by which all else must be judged. Second, I believe that the interpreter must take seriously both the historical context of the biblical writer and the present cultural situation. Third, we should study the Bible, aware of the cultural relativity through which we perceive and experience Christian existence. And, fourth, our scriptural interpretation should exhibit openness to God’s truth that may be revealed through other disciplines of human inquiry.
With these assumptions in mind let us turn to the Bible, noting first that nowhere does it say anything about homosexuality as a sexual orientation. Its references are to certain kinds of homosexual acts. Understanding homosexuality as a psychic orientation is relatively recent. It is crucial that we remember this, for in all probability the biblical writers in each instance were speaking of homosexual acts undertaken by those persons whom the authors presumed to be heterosexually constituted.
While the Onan story (Gen. 38:1 — 11) does not deal directly with homosexual activity, it gives us important clues to some of the reasons for its ancient condemnation. Onan’s refusal to impregnate his widowed sister-in-law, a refusal expressed in his deliberate withdrawal before ejaculation, was interpreted by the biblical writer as so serious a violation of divine decree that Onan was killed by Yahweh.
Three interpretive observations are important to our subject. First, the story clearly represents the strong procreative emphasis characteristic of the Hebrew interpretation of sexuality. Our awareness that the very survival of a relatively small tribe struggling against external challenges depended significantly upon abundant procreation helps us to understand this emphasis. Yet, our own situation on an overcrowded planet is markedly different, and faithful response to God’s humanizing activity in Christ should compel us to reassess this procreative norm.
Second, the story is based in part upon a biological misunderstanding present throughout the Bible. The prescientific mind, and more particularly the prescientific male mind, believed that the man’s semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space, “ground for the seed.” Hence, the deliberate and nonproductive spilling of semen was equivalent to the deliberate destruction of human life. When such occurred in male masturbation, in male homosexual acts, or in coitus interrupt us, the deserved judgment was as severe as that for abortion or for murder. The third observation follows from this. Male masturbatory and homosexual acts have been condemned far more vigorously in the Judeo-Christian tradition than have similar female acts. The sexism endemic to a patriarchal society ironically bore with its logic a heavier burden upon “deviants” of the “superior” gender.
It is, however, another Genesis account (19:1 — 29) that we associate more directly with homosexual activity — the Sodom story. Contemporary biblical studies persuasively indicate that the major theme of the story and concern of the writer were not homosexual activity as such but rather the breach of ancient Hebrew hospitality norms and persistent violations of rudimentary social justice. That inhospitality and injustice are “the sin of Sodom” is evident when one examines parallel scriptural accounts as well as explicit references to Sodom elsewhere in the Old Testament. Further, the story is not given an explicitly and dominantly sexual interpretation until several centuries after it was written — in the intertestamental Book of Jubilees.
Given this general agreement, scholars do differ as to whether homosexual activity actually played any role in the story at all. However, within the context of the story’s major theme, what if we assume that the writer did intend to condemn certain homosexual acts as particularly illustrative of human guilt in the face of God’s righteousness? Even then, in fairness to the text, it is difficult to construe the Sodom account as a judgment against all homosexual activity, for its condemnation then would be directed against homosexual rape. Indeed, as John McNeill has observed, the use of the Sodom story in the Christian West may be another of those ironies of history. In the name of a biblical account whose major theme is inhospitality and injustice, countless homosexually oriented persons have been subjected to precisely that.
What are we to make of those Old Testament passages that in addition to rape condemn other homosexual acts? (See, for example, the Holiness Code in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13; also Deut. 23:17 and 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12 and 22:46.) Cultic defilement is the context of these passages. Canaanite fertility worship, involving sacral prostitution and orgies, constituted a direct threat to Yahweh’s exclusive claim. Yahweh was the God who worked through the freedom of human history and not, primarily, through the cycles of biological life. Thus, sexuality was to be seen not as a mysterious sacred power, but rather as part of human life to be used responsibly in gratitude to its creator. In this context these texts are most adequately interpreted, and this central message is utterly appropriate to the norm of the new humanity that we meet in Jesus Christ.
Also, remember that a common Middle East practice during this period was to submit captured male foes to anal rape. Such was an expression of domination and scorn. As long as homosexual activity was generally understood to express such hatred and contempt — particularly in societies where the dignity of the male was held to be of great importance — any such activity was to be rejected summarily.
In the New Testament we have no record of Jesus saying anything about homosexuality, either as a sexual orientation or as a practice. The major New Testament references are found in two Pauline letters and in 1 Timothy. The context of Paul’s widely quoted statement in Romans 1:26-27 is clearly his concern about idolatry. Three things should be noted. First, concerned about the influence of paganism upon the Roman Christians, Paul sees homosexual expression as a result of idolatry, but he does not claim that such practices are the cause of God’s wrath. Second, in this passage we have a description of homosexual lust (“consumed with passion for one another”) but not an account of interpersonal homosexual love.
Third, Paul’s wording makes it plain that he understands homosexual activity as that indulged in by heterosexuals, hence that which is contrary to their own sexual orientation. Thus, it is difficult to construe Paul’s statements as applicable to acts of committed love engaged in by persons for whom same-sex orientation is part of the givenness of their “nature.” Indeed, Paul uses “nature” as a flexible concept expressing varying concerns in different contexts. An ethical position that condemns homosexuality as a violation of natural law must turn to a nonbiblical philosophical position — but not to Pauline material — for its content.
Remembering Human Historicity
Paul’s other reference to homosexual acts (1 Cor. 6:9-10) is similar to that of the writer of I Timothy (1:8-11). Both passages list practices that exclude people from the kingdom — acts that dishonor God and harm the neighbor, including thievery, drunkenness, kidnapping, lying, and the like. Thus, if it is apparent that here homosexual acts are not singled out for special condemnation, it could also be argued that there was general disapproval. What, then are we to make of Paul’s moral judgment in this case?
Perhaps we should accept Paul for what he was — a peerless interpreter of the heart of the gospel and one who was also a fallible and historically conditioned person. If the norm of the new humanity in Jesus Christ obliges us to question the Apostle’s opinions about the proper status of women and the institution of human slavery, so also that norm obliges us to scrutinize each of his moral judgments regarding its Christian faithfulness for our time — including his perception of homosexuality.
Surely, the central biblical message regarding sexuality is clear enough. Idolatry, the dishonoring of God, inevitably results in the dishonoring of persons. Faithful sexual expression always honors the personhood of the companion. Sexuality is not intended by God as a mysterious and alien force of nature, but as a power to be integrated into one’s personhood and used responsibly in the service of love.
A typology of four possible theological stances toward homosexuality can begin with the most negative assessment. A rejecting-punitive position unconditionally rejects homosexuality as Christianly legitimate and bears a punitive attitude toward homosexual persons. While no major contemporary theologians defend this position and while official church bodies have moved away from it, this stance unfortunately is amply represented in Christian history.
If we have been ignorant of the persecutions of homosexuals, it is not without reason. Unlike the recognized histories of other minority groups, there has been no “gay history.” Heterosexual historians usually have considered the subject unmentionable, and gay historians have been constrained by the fear of ceasing to be invisible. A conspiracy of silence has resulted. Yet, the facts are there. Stoning, sexual mutilation, and the death penalty were fairly common treatment for discovered homosexuals through centuries of the West’s history. While the church frequently gave its blessings to civil persecutions, in its internal ecclesiastical practice its disapproval was even more frequently shown through the refusal of sacraments and ostracism from the common life.
The rejecting-punitive stance today may be milder in its usual manifestations, though it continues to bear highly punitive attitudes along with its theological arguments. If the latter are based upon a selective biblical literalism, the former are rooted in familiar stereotypes. All lesbians are hard, and all male gays effeminate; homosexuals are compulsive and sex-hungry; male gays are inherently prone to child molestation; homosexuals are by nature promiscuous. Each of the preceding stereotypes has been thoroughly discounted by reliable research; yet they persist in the minds of many, buttressed by untenable biblical interpretations. But the key criticism of this stance is simply the incongruity of a punitive orientation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The rejecting-non punitive stance must be taken more seriously, for no less eminent a theologian than Karl Barth represents his view. Since humanity is “fellow-humanity,” says Barth, men and women come into full humanity only in relation to persons of the opposite sex. To seek one’s humanity in a person of the same sex is to seek “a substitute for the despised partner,” and as such it constitutes “physical, psychological and social sickness, the phenomenon of perversion, decadence and decay.” This is idolatry, for one who seeks the same-sex union is simply seeking oneself: self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency. While Barth says homosexuality thus is unnatural and violates the command of the Creator, he hastens to add that the central theme of the gospel is God’s overwhelming grace in Jesus Christ. Hence, homosexuality must be condemned, but the homosexual person must not.
William Muehl argues for the rejecting-nonpunitive position from a more consequentialist stance. Maintaining that “the fundamental function of sex is procreation” and that homosexuality is an illness comparable to alcoholism, Muehl then turns his major attention to social consequences. Sheer acceptance of homosexuality would have “implications for our view of marriage, the limitations appropriate to sexual activity, the raising of children and the structure of the family.” Since we are relatively ignorant concerning such potentially grave social results, Muehl argues, we should respect the historic position of the church, which rejects homosexuality.
The rejecting-nonpunitive stance appears to rest upon two major stated arguments and two major unstated assumptions — each open to serious question. The first stated argument is that of natural law and idolatry. At this point Barth seems to forget our human historicity, apparently assuming that human nature is an unchangeable, once-and-for-all substance given by the Creator. Actually, our human nature is shaped in some significant part by the interaction of people in specific periods of time with specific cultural symbols and specific historic environments. Committed to this alternative interpretation, Gregory Baum fittingly writes, “In other words, human nature as it is at present is not normative for theologians….What is normative for normal life is the human nature to which we are divinely summoned, which is defined in terms of mutuality. This, at least, is the promise of biblical religion.” After examining the evidence of mutual fulfillment in committed gay couples, Father Baum concludes: “homosexual love, then, is not contrary to human nature, defined in terms of mutuality toward which mankind is summoned.”
Is Sex Orientation Chosen?
Barth’s idolatry judgments appear to rest upon several additional — and equally questionable — assumptions. One is that procreative sex is divinely commanded and normative. Yet, in light of the gospel and of our current human situation, we might better say that while responsible love and sexual expression cannot be sundered, procreation and sex cannot be irrevocably joined. Another assumption is that there can be no “fellow humanity” apart from the opposite sex. But is it not more biblical to maintain that there is no genuine humanity apart from community?
Still another assumption is that homosexuality means a “despising” of the other sex — an assertion without logical or factual foundation. Indeed, many homosexuals exhibit the ability to establish deeply meaningful and loving relationships with members of the opposite sex precisely because sexual “conquest,” in whatever form, is excluded from the situation. And the logic of Barth’s argument at this point would seem to be that heterosexuals by their nature should despise members of their own sex. Finally, Barth maintains that homosexuality is idolatrous because it is basically self-worship. It is as if the classic syllogism were to be changed to read as follows: “I love men; Socrates is a man; therefore, I love myself.” Non sequitur. In actuality, compared with heterosexual couples committed gay couples show no intrinsic or qualitative differences in their capacities for self-giving love.
The second major argument of the rejecting-nonpunitive position is that undesirable social consequences probably would result from homosexual acceptance. This argument appears to rest upon a major unspoken assumption: that homosexuals in fact do have meaningful choices about their same-sex orientation. If one makes this assumption, then one might (as Muehl appears to do) draw a further conclusion: that societal acceptance would bring in its wake a significant increase in the numbers of those choosing homosexuality.
Such assumptions must be radically questioned. Actually, statistics show no demonstrable increase in homosexual behavior in the quarter-century since Kinsey’s study, in spite of somewhat less punitive social attitudes in recent years. Further, it is probable that greater acceptance of homosexuality would have desirable consequences for families and child-rearing: Emotional intimacy among same-sex heterosexual family members would be less inhibited by unrecognized homosexual fears, and syndromes of alienation and destructive rejection of the homosexual child in the family would be lessened.
The great majority of homosexuals do not appear to have a meaningful choice concerning their orientation any more than do the great majority of heterosexuals. There exists today no general agreement about the cause of homosexuality. Major theories cluster around two different approaches, the psychogenic and the genetic, but both remain in dispute. It is significant, however, that in 1973 the Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from that association’s list of mental disorders, saying, “Homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities.”
Moral Responsibility and Self-Acceptance
The minority of gay persons who have sought therapeutic treatment to reverse their sex orientation have experienced an extremely low success rate. Behavioral modification programs using aversive therapy have conditioned some homosexuals against attraction to their own sex, but most frequently they have been unable to replace that with attraction to the opposite sex, a dehumanizing result. Indeed, Dr. Gerald C. Davison, who developed and popularized the “orgasmic reorientation” technique, recently disavowed his own treatment, calling upon behavior therapists to “stop engaging in voluntary therapy programs aimed at altering the choice of adult partners.”
The other underlying assumption appears to be this: that theological positions and ecclesiastical practices which reject homosexuality can, in fact, be nonpunitive toward those persons so oriented. This, too, must be radically questioned, and we shall do so in the context of the next major position.
The third major theological option is that of the qualified acceptance of homosexuality. Helmut Thielicke provides its best articulation. His argument follows several steps. First, similar to Barth’s contention, Thielicke maintains, “The fundamental order of creation and the created determination of the two sexes make it appear justifiable to speak of homosexuality as a ‘perversion’….[which] is in every case not in accord with the order of creation.” But Thielicke is more open than Barth to the results of contemporary psychological and medical research. Thus, he takes a second step: “But now experience shows that constitutional homosexuality at any rate is largely unsusceptible to medical or psychotherapeutic treatment, at least so far as achieving the desired goal of a fundamental conversion to normality is concerned.” Further, homosexuality as a predisposition ought not to be depreciated any more than the varied distortions of the created order in which all fallen people share.
But what of sexual expression? If the homosexual can change his or her sexual orientation, such a person should seek to change. Admittedly, however, most cannot. Then such persons should seek to sublimate their homosexual desires and not act upon them. But some constitutional homosexuals “because of their vitality” are not able to practice abstinence. If that is the case, they should structure their sexual relationships “in an ethically responsible way” (in adult, faithfully committed relationships). Homosexuals should make the best of their painful situations, without idealizing them or pretending that they are normal.
More than Barth and Muehl, Thielicke is empirically informed and pastorally sensitive on this issue. But his position is still grounded in an unacceptably narrow and rigid version of natural law. As such, in spite of its greater humanness his argument becomes self-contradictory. In effect the gay person is told, “We heterosexual Christians sympathize with your plight, and we believe that any sexual expression in which you engage must be done in an ethically responsible way — but do not forget that you are a sexual pervert!”
An ethics of the gospel ought never forget that moral responsibility is intrinsically related to self-acceptance, and that self-acceptance is intrinsically related to acceptance by significant others and, ultimately, by God. Gay persons in our society frequently have been told by their families that they do not belong to them, by the church that they are desperate sinners because of their sexual orientation, by the medical profession that they are sick, and by the law that they are criminals. In the face of such rejection, the amazing thing is that so many are emotionally stable and sexually responsible. If emotional problems still have a higher incidence among gay persons (as they do within any oppressed social group), we . cut through the vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecy and recognize where the root of the problem lies — in societal oppression. Thielicke fails to do this. More humane though his position is, by continuing to label same-sex orientation as a perversion of God’s natural law, he encourages continuing punitive attitudes toward homosexuals and in consequence undercuts his own hope for more responsible sexual relationships.
Realizing Our Intended Humanity
The fourth major theological possibility is full acceptance. While it usually makes the assumption that homosexual orientation is much more a given than a free choice, even more fundamentally this position rests upon the conviction that same-sex relationships are fully capable of expressing God’s humanizing intentions.
Though still in a minority, the advocates of full Christian acceptance are increasing in number. In 1963 the English Friends state in their widely read Towards a Quaker View of Sex: “One should no more deplore ‘homosexuality’ than left-handedness….Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse.”
Among individual theologians Norman Pittenger has articulated this position most fully. God, he affirms, is the “Cosmic Lover,” ceaselessly and unfailingly in action as love, and manifested supremely in Jesus Christ. God’s abiding purpose for humankind is that in response to divine action we should realize our intended humanity as human lovers — in the richest, broadest, and most responsible sense of the term. Our embodied sexuality is the physiological and psychological base for our capacity to love.
For all of its continuity with animal sexuality, human sexuality is different: As persons our sexuality means the possibility of expressing and sharing a total personal relationship in love. And such expression contributes immeasurably toward the destiny to which we are all intended. Hence, abnormality or deviance should not be defined statistically, but rather in reference to the norm of humanity in Jesus Christ. Gay persons desire and need deep and lasting relationships, just as do heterosexual persons, and appropriate genital expression should be denied to neither.
Thus, the ethical question according to Pittenger is this: What sexual behavior will serve and enhance, rather than inhibit, damage, or destroy, our fuller realization of divinely intended humanity? The appropriate answer is a sexual ethics of love. This means commitment and trust, tenderness, respect for the other, and the desire for ongoing and responsible communion with the other. On its negative side such an ethics of love mandates against selfish sexual expression, cruelty, impersonal sex, obsession with sex, and against actions done without willingness to take responsibility for their consequences. Such an ethics always asks about the meaning of any particular sexual act in the total context of the persons involved, in the context of their society, and in the context of that direction which God desires for human life. It is an ethics equally appropriate for both homosexual and heterosexual Christians. There is no double standard.
It is obvious by this point that my own convictions favor the full Christian acceptance of homosexuality and its responsible genital expression. I have felt quite personally the force of each of the other stances described in this article, for at various earlier periods in my life I have identified, in turn, with each one — beginning as a teenager with the full complement of antihomosexual stereotypes. In recent years, both through theological-ethical reflection and through personal friendships with some remarkable gay persons, I have become increasingly convinced that the positions of both Barth and Thielicke inadequately express the implications of the gospel on this issue.
Homosexuality: A Heterosexual Problem?
Reinhold Niebuhr has powerfully argued that Christians must learn to live with the tension of “having and not having the truth.” “Tolerance” in its truest sense, he maintained, is experienced when, on the one hand, a person can have vital convictions that lead to committed action and, on the other hand, that same person can live within the reality of forgiveness. The latter means experiencing divine forgiveness for the distortion of one’s own understanding and having the willingness to accept those whose convictions sincerely differ. Hopefully, it is in such spirit that this personal note is written, and in such spirit the heterosexual reader is invited to wonder with me at this point about three possibilities.
One possibility is that “the homosexual problem” may be more truly a heterosexual problem. We are learning that “the black problem” is basically the problem of white racism, and that “the woman problem” is basically the problem of male sexism. So, also, we might well wonder whether or not “the homosexual problem” could be rooted in a homophobia frequently experienced by heterosexuals.
My own experience suggests this. While in the preceding paragraphs, for the sake of economy, I have simply used the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” (or “gay”), the best available evidence indicates that we are all bisexual to some degree. True, most of us, for reasons not yet fully understood, develop a dominant orientation toward one or the other side of the continuum. But Kinsey’s early research repeatedly has been confirmed: On the scale of sexual orientation relatively few persons fall near the “zero” end (exclusively heterosexual) and relatively few approach the “six” mark (exclusively homosexual).
Though, for the majority of us, our adult genital expression may have been exclusively heterosexual, it is quite probable that we do experience homosexual feelings even if such are frequently relegated to the unconscious level. And males in our society generally have the greater difficulty with this, inasmuch as we have been continuously subjected to exaggerated images of masculinity. Thus, I believe it is worth pondering whether some of our common reactions against homosexuality might be linked to secret fears of homosexual feelings ourselves — Freud’s “reaction formation,” defending against an impulse felt in oneself by attacking it in others.
Gay people may also represent threats to us in other related ways. The gay man seems to belie the importance of “super-masculinity,” and his very presence calls into question so much that “straight” males have sacrificed in order to be manly. Homosexuals appear to disvalue commonly held public values related to marriage, family, and children. Because we so frequently judge others by our own standards, those who obviously deviate from them appear to be seriously deviant. And, strangely enough, homosexuals may awaken in heterosexuals a dimly recognized fear of death. Sometimes our hopes of vicarious immortality through our children and grandchildren are stronger than our resurrection faith. Then the presence of the gay person who (usually) does not have children may reawaken the fear of death, even though its conscious experience may be a nameless anxiety. I wonder.
Second, I wonder how much of the heterosexual reaction against homosexuality is related to male sexism. I suspect that some of our responses are. Surely, the more severe biblical condemnation of male homosexuality was not unrelated to the status of the male in a patriarchal society. For a man to act sexually like a woman was serious degradation (literally loss of grade). And in our own society, where male sexism remains a serious problem, it is still the male who more commonly experiences homophobia. Indeed, the striking parallelism between so many arguments against homosexual acceptance and arguments against full acceptance of women-men equality ought to make us reflect upon this.
Third, I wonder about the possibilities of augmented liberation for us all were a greater acceptance of homosexuality to come. Many of us have experienced some diminution of our own homophobia bringing new possibilities of tenderness, lessened competitiveness, and greater emotional intimacy with those of our own sex. Many of us males have become more conscious of the connection between the uses of violence and our needs for assurance of our virility, and we wonder whether greater understanding and acceptance of our own homosexual impulses might not well contribute to a more peaceful society. The list of liberating possibilities could be expanded, but perhaps the point is clear. In any event, I wonder about the relation between Jesus’ apparent silence concerning homosexuality and Jesus as the image of authentic human liberation.
Precisely because we must live with “having and not having the truth,” it is important that we share our serious wonderings. Perceptions of sincere Christians will differ on this issue, but we can all attempt to invite each other into our quests for fuller understanding of that humanity into which God invites us all.
Some Implications for the Church
The church’s firm support of civil rights for gay persons ought not depend upon agreement concerning the theological and ethical appropriateness of the homosexual orientation or of specific same-sex acts. Civil rights support ought to be considered an expression of Christian concern for basic social justice.
The present legal situation is still very uneven Some states and municipalities have legislated civil protection for gay persons, while others (the majority) have not. Most states still have punitive legislation on their books, though in actual practice enforcement is varied and often unpredictable. In any event, laws labeling “sodomy” or “unnatural sexual intercourse” as punishable offenses have a number of inherent problems. They violate the rights of privacy. They are ineffective and virtually unenforceable except through objectionable methods such as entrapment and enticement. However, enforced or not, sodomy laws stigmatize as criminal the person whose only crime is preference for the same sex, and inevitably such laws have considerable effect upon the gay individual’s sense of self-worth. Further, an important principle of church-state separation is involved. What some Christians on fairly narrow doctrinal grounds consider a sin ought not to be made a crime unless that moral judgment can be defended on broader grounds of public interest and unless the behavior in question constitutes a demonstrable threat to human well-being and public welfare.
Beyond the civil rights, if and when churches were to affirm homosexuality and its responsible expression as fully appropriate to those persons so constituted, the implications for church life would be many, and their implementation might well be complex.
What about the full acceptance of gay Christians in the ongoing life of congregations? Because such acceptance still is largely absent, the movement toward congregations organized principally for gay persons will undoubtedly continue. This movement is completely understandable, but regrettable, for the majority’s lack of acceptance then continues to fragment the body of Christ.
To be sure, congregational affirmation of gay persons would involve significant attitudinal changes on the part of many heterosexual Christians. With full acceptance, for example, all of those gestures and behaviors appropriate to heterosexuals in church gatherings must be affirmed for homosexuals as well. This should mean, then, no double standards concerning the hand-holding couple, the kiss of greeting, or the appropriate partner at the church dance.
The ordination question continues to be difficult. Not only division over theological and ethical issues but also differing patterns of ministerial placement and job security cause deep concern for many otherwise sympathetic church leaders. While no doubt there are presently ordained homosexual ministers in every major denomination, the vast majority of them continue secrecy about their sexual orientation. Only one major denomination has ordained a stated homosexual: The Rev. William R. Johnson was ordained by the United Church of Christ in 1972 and then only after prolonged study and debate in his association.
The recommendation made by the United Church’s Executive Council in 1973, if difficult to implement, is the appropriate stance: “It [the Executive Council] recommends to associations that in the instance of considering a stated homosexual’s candidacy for ordination the issue should not be his/her homosexuality as such, but rather the candidate’s total view of human sexuality and his/her understanding of the morality of its use.” This, indeed, is the logic of full acceptance. It is not the gay person’s sexual orientation that would cause difficulty in ministerial leadership, but rather the misunderstandings and prejudices held by those whom he or she would lead. (Should a dominantly white denomination ordain black persons to the ministry? The parallel with racism seems clear.)
Most difficult of all gay-related questions for the present denominational church is that of homosexual marriage. The ordinance of marriage has a very long theological and ecclesiastical history, and that history is a heterosexual one. Profound symbols are organic. They must grow and develop, and sudden changes in their understanding cannot successfully be legislated. Marriage, involving a wife and a husband and the possibility of children, is clearly a heterosexual symbol.
But new rites can be created to meet legitimate needs unmet by existing symbols. There are, indeed, gay Christian couples living in long-term, permanently intended covenantal relationships who earnestly desire the affirmation of their religious communion. A “blessing of union” rite (by whatever name) could function in ways not identical but parallel to marriage rites. Such an ordinance could give the church’s recognition, sanction, and support to a union whose intention is lasting and faithful. Indeed, if the church encourages responsible sexual expression among gay persons and then denies them its ritual and communal support, it engages in hypocrisy. If and when the church moves toward such liturgical recognition, it should also work for legal recognition of homosexual unions, involving such matters as tax laws and inheritance rights.
The ecclesiastical implications of full acceptance are undoubtedly complex. Very understandably, however, many gay Christians are tired of waiting for such complexities to be resolved. They have waited — and hurt — long enough. Their impatience, I believe, is a call for repentance and for urgent work by the rest of us. At its root the basic issue is not about “them,” but about us all: What is the nature of that humanity toward which God is pressing us, and what does it mean to be a woman or a man in Jesus Christ.