Robert K. Johnston, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA 91182. Prior to that he was Vice-President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Johnston is the author of Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice (John Knox Press 1979), from which this text is Chapter Five. Other chapters from the same book in Religion-Online include “The Debate over Inspiration,” The Role of Women in the Church and Family,” and “Evangelical Social Ethics.” Other works by Johnston include The Christian at Play, Eerdmans, 1983; Psalms for God’s People, Regal, 1982: and The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options (John Knox, 1985).
The influence of contemporary culture that has forced evangelicals to reconsider their theological understanding of homosexuality. In conflicting views concerning the theological usefulness of contemporary culture one can discern the developing lines of division within evangelicalism concerning homosexuality in the church. The author examines different evangelical approaches to the issue: rejecting-punitive, non-rejecting punitive, qualified acceptance and full acceptance. He lists the issues still to be settled.
In its first issue for the year 1978, Christianity Today asked a variety of evangelical leaders to assess what was the most noteworthy religious development of the previous year and to predict what would be most important in the upcoming one. Hudson Armerding, president of Wheaton College responded, “I personally feel that the issue of homosexuals in the church was one of the most significant religious developments of the year.” Stephen Board, editor of Eternity magazine, replied, “In 1978 1 think that the most interesting story will be the response of the United Presbyterian Church to various conservative concerns, specifically the question of the ordination of homosexuals.” Russell Chandler, evangelical religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, concurred and added, “Division among many Christians about how far to go in accepting-if not embracing-homosexuals will dominate religious news for several years.”(1)
Homosexuality and the Church
Although the issue of homosexuality is only now surfacing as a major area of theological controversy for evangelicals, it erupted as early as 1972 among mainline Protestant churches in America. In that year, William Johnson, a self-declared homosexual, was ordained for the ministry by the United Church of Christ. In 1972, as well, Motive, the United Methodist Church’s youth publication, stopped production amid controversy, publishing as its final volume two simultaneous issues advocating a gay life-style.(2) In 1973, Trends, a publication of the United Presbyterian Church, devoted a full issue to the topic “Homosexuality: Neither Sin Nor Sickness.”(3) Also in 1973, an ecumenical National Task Force on Gay People in the Church was recognized by the governing board of the National Council of Churches.
Since then, interest in the subject of homosexuality and the church has mushroomed to the point that there are presently fourteen denominational gay caucuses seeking acceptance for homosexuals in the church. Denomination-wide task forces or committees have responded by drafting (or are in the process of drafting) study do6uments on homosexuality for the United Church of Christ (U.C.C.), the United Presbyterian Church (U.P.C.), the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (P.C.U.S.), the Episcopal Church (whose Bishop of New York ordained as a deacon in 1975 a self-declared lesbian, Ellen Barrett), and the American Lutheran Church (A.L.C.). Moreover, these studies are not uniformly finding homosexuality to be sinful. The P.C.U.S. report, for example, concludes that “in view of the complexity of the issue, the disagreement among Christians and the variety in the character and experience of homosexual persons themselves, it seems unwise at this time to propose any one position as the position of our Church.”(4) The U.P.C. task-force majority report, which was ultimately rejected at the General Assembly level, was even less traditional. For in granting local congregations and presbyteries the option of ordaining self-affirmed sexually active homosexuals, it seemed to indicate that homosexuality per se was not to be considered sinful.
Books on the church and homosexuality have been rolling off secular and church presses alike in increasing numbers.(5) These books present a wide range of theological positions, from condemning homosexuality as a particularly vile sin to advocating it as an alternative approach to loving relationships. Outside of the traditional denominational structures, but seeking affirmation by established churches, the Metropolitan Community Church (M.C.C.) has ministered primarily to gay Christians since its inception in 1968. It reported at the end of 1976 a total membership of 20,731 in 103 congregations. Taken together, such evidence suggests that homosexuality has become a major theological concern of the Protestant church in America.
In spite of the general interest in the topic among the wider Protestant church, it is surprising that homosexuality has become a major issue among evangelicals. For evangelicals have traditionally held the Bible to be clear on this point. Richard Lovelace represents the past evangelical consensus when he argues: “If we can reinterpret the Scripture to endorse homosexual acts among Christians, we can make it endorse anything else we want to do or believe.”(6) Such would have been the near-unanimous opinion of evangelical theologians until recently. And such remains the opinion of an overwhelming number of evangelical lay women and men. The Christian Herald, for example, polled its readers in January of 1978 and found that 94% opposed the ordination of homosexuals, even if otherwise qualified.(7) A survey of 60,000 McCall’s readers produced a similar result; 70% of those labeling themselves born-again Christians considered homosexuality to be “sinful, unethical or immoral.”(8) Yet an increasing, albeit small, number of evangelicals are suggesting that the church’s theological position regarding homosexuality must be rethought. Such a suggestion has brought an immediate and varied response from the evangelical press, as the recent output concerning homosexuality in evangelical periodicals attests. His The Wittenburg Door, The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Eternity, Daughters of Sarah, The Reformed Journal, Christianity Today, Inspiration, Moody Monthly, The Christian Herald, Faith at Work, The Other Side-all have had since 1977 major features or whole issues devoted- to a Christian understanding of homosexuality.(9)
The topic of homosexuality is being pushed to the theological forefront in evangelical circles for a specific reason. While conflict between Reformed, Anabaptist, and American fundamentalist traditions has been largely responsible, as we have seen, for fostering division over the church’s understanding of social ethics, and while a lack of consensus regarding Biblical hermeneutics lies behind much of the continuing controversy concerning women’s place in marriage and church, it is the influence of contemporary culture that has forced evangelicals to reconsider their theological understanding of homosexuality. Moreover, it is in conflicting views concerning the theological usefulness of contemporary culture that one can discern the developing lines of division within evangelicalism concerning homosexuality in the church.
The Role of Contemporary Culture
The gay liberation movement was born on a summer evening in 1969 in New York’s Greenwich Village when patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, resisted police harassment. The resulting riot lasted three nights and “gay power” was a reality. Since then gays have accomplished much. Presently it is estimated that there are over 1,800 gay organizations. Gays have lobbied successfully to get homosexuality both decriminalized and demedicalized. In 1973 the American Bar Association called on state legislatures to repeal all laws which place homosexual activity between consenting adults in private in the category of a crime., In 1973, as well, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from the category of illnesses and the American Psychological Association similarly voted to- remove homosexuality from the category of the abnormal. What gay advocates have also sought is to persuade the church to remove homosexuality from the category of sin. The church is no longer able to remain neutral; it must respond affirmatively or negatively.
Besides the pressure of public demands, the personal testimony of increasingly bold homosexual Christians within the church is forcing evangelicals to rethink their position. At a leading evangelical church in New York City, for example, after the morning worship service one of the outstanding elders stood and announced to a hushed congregation that he could no longer hide from them his homosexuality. He asked for their affirmation of himself as he was, homosexuality and all. The Presbyterian Task Force to Study Homosexuality had as one of its members Chris Glaser, a self-avowed gay Christian. Discussion becomes in such a situation radically concrete. Gay Christians are claiming that they are “the best source” for the church as it attempts to understand the homosexual.(10 ) As U.C.C. minister William Johnson writes:
Rather than looking to the psychologists and the psychiatrists and the sociologists, and even to the theologians, to find out about gay people, there is a need to listen to gay people withinour churches and within the society, to begin to understand what we perceive to be the problems, and then together to work on those problems.”(11)
What gay Christians perceive is widespread homophobia (revulsion and/or fear of homosexuality) in the church which has kept it from formulating an adequate theological response. Evangelicals must respond to the charge.
Finally, culture is pressuring the church regarding its traditional theology of homosexuality by providing it with new data from the social sciences. Perhaps the single most significant event in bringing on the current dislocation in evangelical churches was the publishing of the Kinsey Report in 1948. What Kinsey suggested, and what subsequent work by Masters and Johnson, Evelyn Hooker, and Paul Gebhard has confirmed, is that the incidence of homosexuality in America is higher than most church members imagined. Rather than homosexual activity being donfined to a few people who are abnormal, Kinsey documented the fact that it must be viewed much more widely on a continuum of human sexuality that runs from the exclusively heterosexual to the exclusively homosexual. Kinsey indicated that on this continuum, at least 37% of the male population and 12% of the female population had some kind of overt homosexual experience between adolescence and old age. Those who were exclusively homosexual throughout their lifetime were 4% of the adult male population and 1 to 2% of the adult female. In terms of numbers those percentages translate into contemporary society as 4.5 million Americans. Paul Gebhard, the current director of Indiana University’s Institute for Sex Research, has recently indicated that that figure might actually be as high as 5.8 million. He concludes, “Considering problems of sampling, etc. I would prefer to think the true number [of predominant or exclusive homosexuals] at any one time lies between 4 and 6 million.”(12) Whatever the precise number, by the time you include parents, brothers, and sisters, such a statistic suggests that homosexuality is of central concern to a large percentage of the American people. These people are looking to the church to see how it will respond to them.
Almost every recent article or book by evangelicals begins, not with Scripture, but with cultural data from societal events, personal experience, or scientific analysis.(13) Although some evangelicals attempt to dismiss such input (e. g., Anita Bryant in her interview in Playboy refused to accept Kinsey’s statistics for “he had no spiritual beliefs, no religious beliefs”(14), most have admitted the-need for greater knowledge and have sought out information from the larger culture. What they have discovered is that there exists a great variety among homosexuals; they can’t be stereotyped. Not all male homosexuals are effeminate, nor do all lesbians hate men. Some are trouble prone and sex-obsessed, but others lead well-adjusted, quiet lives. In an exhaustive study of 1,500 homosexuals in the San Francisco area by psychologist Alan Bell and sociologist Martin Weinberg entitled Homosexualities.- A Study of Diversity Among Men & Women, the homosexuals’ life-style is documented as ranging from “closed couples” to “open couples…… functionals” to “dysfunctionals” and “asexuals.”(15) Perhaps all that homosexuals have in common is their defining characteristic: the propensity to be sexually aroused by thinking of or seeing or physically contacting persons of the same gender.
Having noted the strong influence of contemporary knowledge and experience on the issue, it is not surprising that the current lack of scientific agreement on this topic is the single most important source of present evangelical conflict. The larger culture has both raised the issue of homosexuality for the church and left in doubt several crucial judgments concerning its nature. Surely the central unresolved question is whether homosexuality is to be considered normal or abnormal. Although the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association voted in 1973 to “demedicinize” homosexuality, a recent poll of 2,500 psychiatrists revealed that 69% continue to think that homosexuality is a pathological adaptation (as opposed to a normal variation), while 13% expressed uncertainty and only 18% dissented.(16)
The judgment on whether or not homosexuality is a pathology will affect one’s conclusions concerning both the cause (etiology) of homosexuality and its remedy. If homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexuality, the motivation to uncover its real cause is lessened and the topic of cure is made superfluous. If it is a sickness or an abnormality, its cause(s) and cure(s) become central. But here again, unfortunately, scientific data are conflicting and incomplete. Some posit as homosexuality’s source an arrested state of development; others, an inadequate family structure. Some feel the absence of opposite-sex targets in early puberty holds the key; others, that the competitive and aggressive male ideal in American life has been eroticized and then possessed sexually. The evidence to date does not permit any definitive statements as to cause. Ralph Blair concludes his survey of the etiological literature by saying: “The theories are contradictory, incomplete, and based on inadequate samples of patients examined and interpreted by clinicians from different schools of thought without the control of standard definitions and procedures.”(17) Yet most theorists concur that homosexuality is a learned behavior; “the process takes place primarily after birth and the basic fundamentals are completed before puberty.”(18)
As evangelicals make use of such scientific opinion as to the cause(s) of homosexuality, they are finding themselves to differ over the emphasis which should be placed on the fact it is a learned response, rather than an involuntary patterning from an early age which precludes choice. If one’s homosexual orientation is programmed through a kind of patterning, then responsibility is thought by some to be lacking and acceptance of the homosexual’s orientation as a given would seem both a realistic and a “moral” approach to homosexuality. Instead of seeking to cure homosexuals, the Christian might instead seek to help homosexuals live more self-actualizing lives as they are (that is, if the Biblical data can be reevaluated). If homosexuality’s learned nature is made the focus, then it would seem likely that one should be able to unlearn it with the help of psychological and/or spiritual aids. If so, the evangelical church must proclaim the power of God to cure homosexuals from their sinful orientation. The possibility, or lack thereof, of a “cure” for homosexuality is in this way becoming central to the developing debate among evangelicals. We will need to look in some detail at the arguments in what follows.
Medical opinion toward the homosexual remains an unsettled issue within contemporary debate. What is clear, however, is that homosexuality involves both one’s orientation and one’s expression of that orientation — there are both motivational and behavioral factors. A homosexual person is not, first of all, one who engages in given physical, sexual acts, or even one with certain feelings, wishes, and fantasies toward someone of the same sex, but one with a propensity for such activities and/or feelings. The awareness that homosexuality is first of all a “condition,” or “orientation,” and only secondarily one’s thoughts and actions does not seem to have been recognized prior to the turn of the century. If this is indeed the case, then certainly this distinction was foreign to the Biblical writers. What, if anything, this implies concerning a Christian response to homosexuality is again disputed. Here as well, contemporary judgments are the occasion for the rising evangelical debate.
Thus, a brief survey of current discussion concerning homosexuality already suggests major divergencies which evangelical theologians are taking. Homosexuality can, for this reason, serve as a test case for evangelical theology in how to make use of contemporary culture (whether it is social pressure, scientific analysis, or personal testimony). Should the contemporary homosexual challenge be the occasion for a redefinition of the traditional view of both human sexuality and homosexuality? How does the Bible as final arbiter relate to the possibility of new insights or corrective thrusts from God through his creation? The issue once again is the question of theological hermeneutics, or interpretation. Can the Bible truly function as the ultimate rule of faith and practice amid theological ferment currently motivated by cultural influences? If so, how?
Current Evangelical Assessments
In his article “Homosexuality and the Church,” James B. Nelson offers “a typology of four possible theological stances toward homosexuality.”(19) Nelson uses as his examples well-known theologians who, for the most part, stand outside the evangelical tradition. At the most negative pole for Nelson are those holding to a “rejecting- punitive” approach — one which “unconditionally rejects homosexuality as legitimate and bears a punitive attitude toward homosexual persons.” Nelson believes there are no major contemporary theologians who take this position. This stance, however, is amply attested to in the life of the church. A second position he labels the “rejecting-nonpunitive” stance. Swiss theologian Karl Barth adopted this approach, arguing that although men and women come into full humanity only in relation with persons of the opposite sex, God’s grace precludes any condemnation of the homosexual person even while the sinfulness of homosexuality is maintained.
A third theological option mentioned by Nelson is that of homosexuality’s “qualified acceptance.” Theologians like the German Helmut Thielicke are arguing that although homosexuality is a “perversion” of the created order, its “constitutional” nature is not always susceptible of either treatment or sublimation. In such cases, homosexuals must seek the optimal ethical possibility (adult, faithfully committed relationships). The fourth theological stance is that of the ‘full acceptance” of homosexuality as a natural variation of human sexuality. English theologian Norman Pittenger takes such a tack, arguing that loving same-sex relationships are fully capable of expressing God’s humanizing intentions.
What is interesting for our purposes is that this typology of theological options for the church holds true not only in those wider ecumenical circles where pluralistic approaches to theological authority are taken, but also within the evangelical community which seeks to distinguish itself by an allegiance to the Bible as its final arbiter. Nelson’s categorization of the theological discussion concerning homosexuality is proving equally valid for the developing evangelical debate. As in the larger Christian community, no major evangelical theologian holds to a punitive approach, though it is observable in the evangelical popular press. Richard Lovelace and Don Williams, both evangelical members of the United Presbyterian Task Force on Homosexuality, represent variations of the rejecting nonpunitive position. Reformed theologian Lewis Smedes and Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke illustrate those evangelicals who are arguing for homosexuality’s qualified acceptance. And coauthors Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Mollenkott and evangelical psychotherapist Ralph Blair argue with differing degrees of certitude for the full acceptance of loving, committed homosexual relations. Let me describe more fully how this range of opinion is developing.
- A Rejecting-Punitive Approach
Both the success and the excess of Anita Bryant’s Dade County, Florida campaign have focused the prevalent Christian bigotry thatpersists concerning homosexuality. For example, Jerry Falwell, the successful evangelical television minister, introduced Bryant at one rally by saying that the ” ‘So-called gay folks (would] just as soon kill you as look at you.'”(20) Popular evangelist Jack Wyrtzen is quoted in a similar vein, exclaiming to a different anti-gay-rights rally: ” ‘Homosexuality is a sin so rotten, so low, so dirty, that even cats and dogs don’t practice it.’ “(21) Gay evangelical Ralph Blair has had evangelical leaders describe homosexuality to him as a ” ‘vile, filthy, wicked, ungodly, low-down, beastly, degenerate, horrible sin,”‘ and Anita Bryant makes much the same assessment in her Playboy interview.(22) Such hysteria must be challenged. The widespread prejudice against homosexuals which now exists in the evangelical community under the guise of righteous indignation must end. Even if the evangelical church reaffirms as its consensus the sinful nature of homosexuality (whether orientation or activity or both) it cannot deny the gospel’s central thrust by seeking punitive measures toward homosexuals. A Victorian backlash against the gay movement finds no theological support.
2. A Rejecting-Nonpunitive Stance
Representative of those books resisting the trend toward the ordination of avowed and practicing homosexuals are two volumes by Richard Lovelace and Don Williams. Lovelace’s book, The Church and Homosexuality (1978), calls the church to defend itself through the dynamics of the spiritual life against the neopaganism of gay advocates who are presently challenging it. The church must not endorse their views or change its position, but Lovelace believes it must be willing to listen, study, and respond.
For Lovelace, the first step in this study process is an examination of the church’s own received teachings. Summarizing the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Thielicke, Lovelace finds the traditional theological interpretation to be that homosexuality is a sin, perhaps as Calvin wrote, ” ‘the most serious of all’ ” sins.(23) Second, Lovelace surveys the new theological approaches to homosexuality which have surfaced in response to society’s reevaluation. Beginning with Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (I 95 5), he notes the major theological commentators on the subject up to and including Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1978). Lovelace evaluates the current theological direction, concluding that one can detect in the growing acceptance of homosexuality a “false religion” (its antipathy toward Biblical revelation is a sign), a “cheap grace” (repentance is ignored’.), a “powerless grace” (the possibility of cure is denied), and an antinomian ethic” (the balance between Law and gospel is undercut).
Only after completing his theological assessment does Lovelace turn to the Biblical evidence for support of his position. He finds five texts (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. I:16-27; I Cor. 6:9, 10; I Tim. 1:8-1 1) which teach that “homosexual behavior is contrary to the will of God.(24) Tellingly, Lovelace turns to texts teaching on human sexuality more generally, only after he has considered the specific passages prohibiting homosexual practice. Moreover, he finds general sexual expression to be grounded in the covenant of heterosexual marriage, not in the prior creation of human beings as male and female. This leads Lovelace to assert:
Fornication, adultery, and homosexual practice are not simply itemized as forbidden behavior; they are treated as objects of legitimate forms of “homophobia” and “heterophobia” so long shame and loathing. It even seems that biblically there are as the fear and hatred implied by these words are focused on behavior and not on persons.(25)
What is the church’s ministry to homosexuals? The church, Lovelace feels, must undertake a dual repentance-“gay” Christians must renounce their active life-style and “straight” Christians, their homophobia. Beyond this the church should sponsor the ministries of avowed, but repentant, homosexuals within the gay communities and call homosexuals to be cured through the dynamics of the spiritual life. Conspicuously absent in Lovelace’s discussion is any wrestling with the data of the empirical sciences. Such, he feels, are not directly useful as a source of ethical norms, being at best value-free, or more typically, anti-Christianly biased. Though culture can call the church to reevaluate its theology, Lovelace believes it has little, if anything, constructive to contribute to the theological task once begun.
Don Williams’s book The Bond That Breaks.- Will Homosexuality Split the Church? (1978) uses a radically different methodology from that of Lovelace. After relating his personal experience with homosexuals in counseling and after analyzing the contemporary movement toward gay liberation, Williams devotes successive chapters to a discussion of four social scientists’ views of homosexuality, to an analysis of the Biblical teaching, and finally to a presentation of the positions of three representative theologians — Barth (traditional), Thielicke (moderating), and McNeill (accepting).
Williams concludes his survey of contemporary theological trends concerning homosexuality by noting “the growing weight which is given to the ‘facts’ proposed by the social scientists on the nature of homosexuality.”(26) Yet the variety of theories and definitions stemming from the observation of the homosexual phenomena suggests to Williams that such “facts” must be judged according to an outside authoritative standard. This Williams finds in the Biblical position. But even if the social sciences were more unanimous, Williams would want the Bible — “God’s revelation of his will” — to be the starting point. He concludes:
We can never depend on observation leading us to divine order. Rather, we must let the revelation of God guide us in our observation of the world around us. When the social sciences have the first word, the Bible may have the second word, but the social sciences will be the final arbiter as they select what of the Bible is relevant for us.(27)
Thus, where historical theology guides Lovelace (who is a church historian at Gordon-Conwell Seminary), Biblical theology is the starting point for Williams (who is a New Testament scholar at Claremont Men’s College).
Where Lovelace comes to the Bible seeking specific passages to buttress traditional theological viewpoints, Williams comes to the Bible seeking guidance in the conflicting discussion of the empirical sciences. He finds in the opening chapters of Genesis such a perspective. For not only are these foundational for all Christian theology, but they reveal specifically God’s order for human sexuality. God has created persons “to live as male and female before Him and with each other. This order determines our proper sexual relationship.”(28) It is in the creation of humanity itself, and not in God’s subsequent blessing on the covenant of marriage, that Williams finds the definitive Biblical word regarding homosexuality. Humanity is created male or female to live as male and female (Barth). “Having understood Genesis 1-3, the rest of the Bible falls into place,” asserts Williams.(29) Sodom (Gen. 19) and Gibeah (Judg. 19) become illustrations of the violent challenge to God’s order for human sexuality. The Levitical laws reflect this same ordering in their condemnation of male homosexual acts, as does I Timothy 1:10 whose catalogue of sins is a reworking of the Decalogue. Jesus’ teaching (e. g., Matt. 19) and Paul’s letters (e. g., Rom. 1) affirm the order of creation.
Williams understands the opening chapters of Genesis as revealing three divine gifts to humanity: order, purpose, and freedom. God graciously orders us male or female, creating cosmos from chaos. Moreover, he calls us to fulfill his purpose by reflecting his image by living together in freedom as male and female. Homosexuality as an abuse of this freedom, a denial of humanity’s purpose, and a flouting of the divine order has its origins in the fall itself. It is not a “special” sin as some think, but it nevertheless is a sin. Repentance and restoration to the divine image in Christ are called for.
3. Qualified Acceptance
Lovelace and Williams choose to focus their theological analysis, not in personal testimony or empirical evidence, but in church history (Lovelace) and Biblical theology (Williams). The emphasis of those who are arguing for a “qualified acceptance” of homosexuals tends in a different direction. Such writers as Helmut Thielicke and Lewis Smedes seek to deal concretely and pastorally with the tragedy of “an ethically upright, mature homosexual who is struggling with his condition.”(30) Though tradition and Biblical theology inform their judgments, Thielicke and Smedes find contemporary observers (both homosexuals themselves and social scientists) to be necessary and equal partners in the process of theological formation. For both Williams and Lovelace, the evidence of contemporary culture is to be considered secondarily, if at all, as a general theological statement concerning homosexuality is hammered out. For Thielicke and Smedes, on the other hand, the evidence from contemporary culture is thought to be crucial and is given an equal footing with that of Biblical exegesis and historical theology, as pastoral counsel is given to real people with real suffering.
Two concrete matters are given particular weight by Thielicke and Smedes in their analyses: first, that there are occasional, stable, loving homosexual relationships; and second, that a generally effective therapy or cure, whether in the clinic or the church, is lacking. If it is true that homosexuality is at times “incurable” and that stable monogamous homosexual relationships are possible, even if difficult, could it be that homosexual practice might be counseled as the optimal ethical possibility in some cases? Both Thielicke and Smedes raise the suggestion tentatively as a possible position for the pastoral counselor.
Along with G. C. Berkouwer, Helmut Thielicke is the most influential Continental theologian among evangelicals today. But although Thielicke’s book The Ethics of Sex was published in 1964, it is just now becoming known in evangelical circles for its position regarding homosexuality. As with C. S. Lewis, evangelicals at times overlook divergent opinions of scholars whom they otherwise trust. Such seems to have been the case here, until the recent controversy, that is. In The Ethics of Sex Thielicke understands the divine ordering of humanity to be a male-female duality. Thus, homosexuality is not simply a variant of nature but a disturbed relationship resulting from the fall. It is a pathology, a sickness. To begin one’s discussion of homosexuality with the orders of creation, however, is easily to overlook the phenomenon itself for the larger patterning. The homosexuals’ sickness is easily judged a s;n and the homosexuals wrongly condemned for that which transpired apart from their conscious choice. In this way homosexual relations are dismissed in blanket fashion as perverse, though they often authentically reach out for the totality of other human beings. Instead of beginning theoretically with the divine order of human sexuality, Thielicke counsels that theologians must first listen carefully to contemporary opinion to be sure that one’s medical, as well as theological, view is not distorted.
Second, Thielicke sees the need to consider afresh the relevant statements of the Bible. Though the male-female duality in Genesis is foundational, Thielicke believes that the specific Biblical injunctions against homosexuality have enough interpretive problems associated ivith them to give the pastoral counselor “a certain freedom to rethink the subject.”(31) Why doesn’t the Old Testament, for example, link Sodom any more directly with homosexuality (cf. Isa. 1: 10; 3:9; Ezek. 16:49; Jer. 23:14)? Does the role in the ancient cult of the injunctions against homosexuality in the Levitical codes qualify their applicability for today? Could I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy 1 be referring only to a particular kind of homosexual behavior? Is it significant that Paul uses homosexuality illustratively in Romans 1, rather than substantively? Although Paul and Leviticus clearly reject homosexuality, Thielicke thinks it is somewhat unclear how categorically their condemnation is to be taken.
In treating homosexuality pastorally, Thielicke believes that the counselor must not affirm or idealize what is, in fact, a perversion of God’s created order. Instead, the consultant’s perversion should be considered an “abnormality” in constitution following from the fall. However, homosexual orientation must be judged ethically neutral, for it occurs apart from conscious choice. The homosexual should be encouraged to seek healing and/or to practice abstinence. But if healing proves impossible and if the gift of celibacy is lacking, then the homosexual should be counseled to seek the “optimal ethical potential of sexual self-realization,” i. e., an acceptable homosexual partnership.” Such advice is on the borderline of ethical possibilities. However, loving concern for the concrete person demands that such an option exist.
Writing in a much more popular style, Lewis Smedes, in his book Sex for Christians, echoes much of Thielicke, though perhaps even more cautiously. Smedes begins by arguing that Christians must affirm that their sexuality belongs to creation itself. Our sexuality is the God-given form we take in life as persons. Yet this sexuality can be distorted. One such distortion Smedes discusses is homosexuality. The case is set up on a theoretical level for Smedes to make a blanket judgment relating to homosexuality; but, like Thielicke, he resists this. Instead, he says:
Christian moralists, speaking in the twilight of their ignorance, are often amazingly quick to spell out the exact line of duty for the homosexual person. Karl Barth, for instance, felt quite free to lay down one simple mandate for anyone with this “perversion”: let him be converted and turn from his decadent way of life. This may be theoretically sound admonition — as long as it is abstracted from real persons. It may not be bad ethical judgment; but it is ineffective pastoral counsel.(33)
Seeking to minister to homophobes and homophiles alike, Smedes realizes he risks having his comments “misunderstood by Christian heterosexuals as flabby concession and by homosexuals as unfeeling intolerance.(34) Nevertheless, he proceeds in a pastoral vein, attempting to exercise humility, compassion, and sober moral judgment.
Smedes seeks to steer a course between viewing homosexuality as an alternate form of normal sexuality and as a self-chosen perversion. The informed Christian must reject both assessments, Smedes believes. For regarding the former: (a) the Biblical indicators seem clear in judging homosexual practice as unnatural and godless. Moreover, (b) homosexual activity is only rarely an expression of creative personal relationship. And (c) homosexuality is rarely well integrated into the total development of a person’s character. As to the latter, Smedes cautions: “No homosexual, to my knowledge, ever decides to be homosexual; he only makes the painful discovery at one time or another that he is homosexual.(35)
Instead of these two options, which are based in sentiment or revulsion, homosexuals should be counseled to face the abnormality of their condition without feeling guilt for it, but recognizing fully their responsibility for how they make use of their homosexual drives. They should seek change through divine healing or modification of their behavior through counseling. If neither proves possible, the homosexual person should seek an “optimum homosexual morality.” To counsel such a course is not “to accept homosexual practices as morally commendable. It is, however, to recognize that the optimum moral life within a deplorable situation is preferable to a life of sexual chaos.(36)
4. Full Acceptance
Thielicke and Smedes see the need to be informed by contemporary opinion concerning homosexuality, both as to the possibility of committed loving relationships (occasional, though rare) and as to the possibility of cure (unlikely). Moreover, they detect a certain ambiguity in those Biblical passages directly mentioning homosexuality, even while asserting heterosexuality to be the wider Biblical norm. Although the Bible considers homosexuality “unnatural” (Rom. 1:26), for example, it makes the same judgment concerning long hair in men (I Cor. II: 14).(37) What can be concluded? Thielicke and Smedes leave such questions open, but they refuse to stray far from traditional theological judgment.
There are other evangelicals, however, who are willing to entertain much more fully a new theological stance. In their book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? — Another Christian View (1978) coauthors Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott continue to evidence some of the above tentativeness as they couch their conclusions in questions. But the thrust of their writing is distinct from that of either Thielicke or Smedes. They believe that while the Bible clearly condemns certain kinds of homosexual practices (“in the context of gang rape, idolatry, and lustful promiscuity”), it is silent concerning both “the idea of a lifelong homosexual orientation” as described by modem behavioral sciences and “the possibility of a permanent, committed relationship of love between homosexuals analogous to heterosexual marriage” as witnessed to by homosexuals’ personal testimonies.(38) Recognizing these gaps in the Biblical record, evangelicals must seek to base their theological judgments on sources that are available-personal testimony and informed contemporary opinion, as well as the wider Biblical principle of compassion for the underdog and the Biblical analogue of loving, monogamous heterosexual relationships. In this way Scanzoni and Mollenkott seek to be both faithful to the Biblical witness and honest with the data from our wider culture.
Scanzoni and Mollenkott draw heavily from the social sciences. The heart of their argument hinges on the fact of the homosexual’s involuntary orientation. Scientific research shows that there are some persons for whom homosexuality is as “natural” as left-handedness. Certainly God cannot condemn people for an orientation over which they had no choice and which cannot be changed, the authors reason. Furthermore, is it fair to demand of such persons a standard that is more exacting than that for heterosexuals (after all, Paul counsels heterosexuals to marry, rather than “burn”)? By insisting that Christian homosexuals either become heterosexual or live celibate forever after, both of which the authors believe to be beyond the capacity of many, aren’t Christians driving the homosexual away from the church and toward relationships that tend toward the promiscuous?
Such questions cause Scanzoni and Mollenkott to reevaluate traditional teaching. Peter wrestled with God’s call for him to violate Jewish dietary laws which had been ingrained from childhood (Acts I 0- I 1). Huck Finn’s friendship with Jim caused him to wrestle with the traditional religious opinion which classified human beings as property. So Christians today must be willing to risk a reassessment of their theological stance concerning homosexuality for the sake of Christian witness and human liberation.
Because we live in a homophobic society, Scanzoni and Mollenkott believe that our Biblical interpretation has been colored accordingly. Although the account in Genesis 19 has made “sodomy” a synonym for homosexuality, the actual offense for which the citizens were punished was one of its perversions-violent homosexual rape. Although Leviticus I8 and 20 prohibit homosexual activity, why is it that prohibitions within the same legal codes that carry the same penalties (cf. not having intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period, Lev. 18:19) are ignored by evangelicals today while homosexuality is labeled a vile sin? As for Romans 1, Paul’s description does not fit well the case of sincere homosexual Christians who neither worship idols, nor lust in their relationships, nor choose a sexual activity that is contrary to their sexual orientation. I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy I refer perhaps to particular perversions of homosexual practice. The upshot of such reinterpretation of the Biblical texts is to conclude that the Bible is silent regarding exclusive homosexuals and their monogamous relationships.
Not having realized this, Christians have, on the basis of supposed Biblical truth, been “bearing false witness” against their homosexual neighbors. They have claimed that homosexuality is freely chosen and have cruelly held out the hope of cure when such is extremely difficult if not impossible. The church might better open its doors to homosexuals, calling them to monogamous loving relationships. Scanzoni and Mollenkott realize that such a conclusion will surely bring down the scorn of many establishment Christians, but they find encouragement in the fact that some theologians like Smedes and Thielicke are cautiously moving in an accepting direction already. The price of caring will be high, but Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan might serve as a model of courage and of love.
Psychotherapist Ralph Blair is less careful in both his Biblical and theological analyses and more doctrinaire than Scanzoni and Mollenkott concerning scientific evidence, but his conclusions are similar. As president of Evangelicals Concerned (a national task force which has Virginia Mollenkott as its Advisory Board President), Blair has sought to correct traditional judgments in the church toward homosexuality and to organize gay Christians and their supporters. In booklets such as An Evangelical Look at Homosexuality (1977, revised) and Holier-Than-Thou Hocus-Pocus & Homosexuality (1977), Blair asserts that the Bible does not offer judgment on loving, monogamous homosexual activity between exclusive homosexuals (those with no heterosexual propensity). It is not to the Bible that Christians must turn, for it is silent. Rather Christians need to listen to the social sciences in order to understand better the cause and treatment of homosexuality. Evangelicals must realize that homosexuals do not choose their orientation, — nor is it susceptible to change.
Blair, like Scanzoni and Mollenkott, enlists Smedes and Thielicke as allies in the battle. But although there are important similarities in their approaches, there is also a fundamental difference: the amount of attention given to the Genesis accounts’ description of human sexuality. Blair omits the topic altogether, while Scanzoni and Mollenkott add only a brief postscript to their discussion, admitting that “for many Christians, the biggest barrier to accepting the possibility of homosexual unions pertains to an understanding of the creation accounts in chapters 1, 2, and 5 of Genesis and in Jesus’ commentary on them in Matthew, chapter 19.”(39) The authors suggest that perhaps “cohumanity,” rather than heterosexuality, is the intended focus of these passages, but even they do not find this hypothesis to be totally adequate.
Ralph Blair’s writings have been largely ignored by the wider evangelical establishment, but the reviews of Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s book reflect the deep-seated controversy which is developing in evangelical circles. Don Williams, writing in Etertnity, concluded that the book was “polemical apologetics carrying out biased exegesis, selective data and fallacious conclusions.”(40) Tim Stafrord, on the other hand, writing in establishment evangelicalism’s leading journal, Christianity Today, had this to say. Scanzoni and Mollenkott
write in a good Protestant tradition, reevaluating traditional interpretation while holding to the authority of the Scriptures. … Most of the people who hate this book will be, I suspect, people who have not read it. One can disagree strongly with its conclusions-I do-and yet wish for more books like its well-documented, compassionate, and courageous style .(41)
Kay Lindskoog on the other hand responded in The Wittenburg Door:
When I finished reading the book I asked myself if practicing homosexuals should be fully accepted into all church positions the same as practicing heterosexuals, with the same standards of fidelity and responsibility applying to both. I felt just like Mark Twain: “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”(42)
Issues to Be Settled
The above survey indicates that evangelicals have a number of important issues to settle before they can present a theological consensus concerning homosexuality. Evangelicals must settle, first of all, whether observation can, indeed, be a starting point theologically or whether an analysis of Scripture must always initiate the discussion. If observation has a valid role to play in theological formation, what can be said about the possibility of a cure for homosexuality? Again, can theologians make use of the social scientists’ distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual activity, or is such a dichotomy a sub-Biblical rending of actions and attitudes (cf. Jesus’ statements regarding lust and adultery)? Concerning Scripture, evangelicals must decide whether texts referring to human sexuality generally or to homosexuality specifically are the proper starting point. Furthermore, they must judge the exegetical validity of the new interpretations surfacing regarding specific passages. It is to these five concerns that we must now turn, as we seek to indicate a possible direction evangelicals might move in their attempt at consensus-building on this issue.
1. One’s Starting Point.- Revelation or Observation?
Most contemporary evangelical studies of homosexuality begin contextually, relating a personal story or recapping the rise of the gay movement in this country. Yet there is a marked divergence of opinion regarding the usefulness and rightful place of personal, cultural, and scientific observation in the theological process. Lovelace believes “‘the experience of Christian people’ is notoriously unreliable as an ethical guide” and ” ‘the data of the empirical sciences are not directly useful as a source of ethical norms. When it plays by its own rules, science is value free; when it does not, it is misleading,” he cautions.(43) Williams is more willing to make use of “man’s observation of the human condition,” but he too believes it is crucial for Christian theology to begin its analysis with God’s revelation of his divine will. “Nature, although created by God, does not reveal the unclouded will of God. There is always potential distortion…. God’s will is not the result of a majority vote,” he argues.(44)
Both Williams and Lovelace seem to be confusing one’s theological starting point with one’s theological norm. Although Barth argued otherwise, most theologians have granted the possibility of nature (through general revelation) serving as a “point of contact” with the divine. As the Christian seeks God’s will in his Word regarding the issue of homosexuality, observation (whether personal testimony or scientific analysis) can serve as a guide. Such observation can sharpen our critical evaluations, helping us to overcome our homophobic biases and avoid simplistic and superficial answers. It can set the stage for a responsible Christian response. As David Hubbard counsels:
Our Christian belief in God as Creator tells us that information gained from human experience or scientific research has a validity to which we should pay attention. Christian revelation is twofold. God speaks through his world and through his Word. The Bible, of course, is the final authority when it comes to Christian belief and Christian conduct, but a solid knowledge of the causes and effects of human behavior can be of substantial help in understanding and applying the teachings of Scripture to our daily living.(45)
Independent of the homosexual controversy, Lovelace and Williams would no doubt agree with Hubbard’s statement. But their encounter with gay advocates who claim that what is “natural” must be right and what reflects “love” must be true has caused them to deny cultural observation its initiatory role in this issue. The misuse of empirical data by some has caused Lovelace and Williams wrongly to reject the social sciences as one possible theological point of entry. Theologians need, at times, the instruction and sensitization that careful observation can bring, even while it is recognized that one’s decision concerning the will of God will need confirmation, correction, and/or enlightenment through the Scriptures.
There is an ongoing danger in the theological use of observation to be sure. Letha Scanzoni, for example, in a reply to Smedes’s discussion of homosexuality in The Reformed Journal, makes the mistake of absolutizing experience, arguing that because homosexuals exist and God is sovereign, then they must have “God’s express permission .(46) But surely to recognize the existence of a phenomenon (cf. evil) is not to necessitate God’s moral approbation of it, as Scanzoni desires. To regard as divinely ordained what a fallen society or a pathological family has produced is to elevate the observation of creation to normative status (cf. Rom. 8:19-22). Under the power of sin, the world’s orders, including its sexuality, remain ambiguous.
In his appendix to The Bond That Breaks, Williams criticizes the majority report of the Task Force on Homosexuality of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. He likens those who let scientific study serve as their starting point chronologically with Helmut Thielicke’s analysis in The Evangelical Faith of “Cartesian theology.” Such an approach, he believes, starts with humanity, not with God. But this is to misread Thielicke, again confusing the theological initiator with one’s ultimate norm. If one gives paramount importance to empirical “findings”-if one is unwilling, that is, to let the Holy Spirit, working through the Biblical text, toss aside our preliminary observations and questions-then one has fallen prey of what Thielicke labels Cartesianism. But this is by no means necessary; cultural observation need not dictate one’s conclusions. Moreover, Thielicke rightfully recognizes that we all have “pre-understandings” based in our social and historical context which we bring to a given subject. These serve for everyone as points of entry as they come to the reading of Scripture. The present situation and its questions, therefore, can be profitably heard, in order that one’s pre-understanding be made the more adequate. But, reasons Thielicke, while current questions and self understanding must be heard, “they must not become a normative principle nor must they be allowed to prejudice the answer; they must be constantly recast and transcended in encounter with the text.”(47)
Here is the evangelical’s agenda regarding a theology of homosexuality. Listen carefully to the social sciences and to personal testimony, but never permit personal sentiment or intellectual pride to inhibit the recasting and transcendence of human observation through objective encounter with the Spirit in Scripture. Subjective pride and sentiment are a constant danger for both advocates and detractors of a Christian homosexuality. Compassion and revulsion can equally becloud the issue (though the former is certainly more defensible). Arrogance is the temptation of all thoughtful Christians who at times confuse human judgment with divine will. But initial interaction with one’s larger culture need not cause such theological pitfalls. It can serve as a positive, informing guide into an otherwise easily confused topic. Such is surely the case in regard to homosexuality.
2. Is a Cure Possible?
The current controversy over the possibility of change in the homosexual’s orientation makes starting with human observation all the more problematic for theological discussion. Who is one to believe? Ralph Blair adamantly claims that no exclusive homosexual has ever been cured. “There is not one shred of evidence of a validated conversion to heterosexual orientation through therapy or Christian conversion and prayer,” he writes (48) At the other end of the spectrum, Richard Lovelace claims that homosexuals can, and indeed are being healed and transformed in their sexual orientation, as Paul himself asserts (I Cor. 6:1 1), through the full resources of grace available to the Christian.(49)
Who is correct? The answer seems to be neither, completely. Paul did not seemingly have a change in homosexual orientation in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians concerning a conversion in their life-style (i. e., activity) through Christ and his Spirit. For the presence, medically, of a homosexual orientation seems to have been unknown until a few years prior to the turn of this century, and thus Scripture remains necessarily silent concerning any direct, non miraculous cure for it. But Blair is also mistaken, for scientific evidence is not as uniform as he asserts, though documentation of successful therapy is indeed rare. E. Mansell Pattison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, asserts, in the September 1977 issue of the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, that a five-year study he has conducted indicates that
Christian men and women have achieved successful changes in their homosexual orientations, their life-styles, and achieved major emotional and spiritual growth. As a result, much like Alcoholics Anonymous, small cells or groups of “ex-gays” are now offering counseling within the context of a nurturant Christian community, with apparent success.(50)
If this is true, it not only qualifies, but seriously undercuts both Blair’s and Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s theses. For these writers base much of their argument on the permanency, and thus “naturalness,” of one’s sexual orientation.
It must also be said, however, that scientific evidence or Biblical revelation does not allow one to hold out the guarantee of a cure at this time for all who desire reorientation of their homosexual propensity. The personal testimony of countless sincere Christian homosexuals, many who were involved in supportive Christian communities, suggests that some exclusive homosexuals might indeed be fixed in their orientation, just as alcoholics remain addicted even when sober. We will need in our discussion of human sexuality below to comment further on this point, for those like Scanzoni and Mollenkott would claim that those without hope of cure shouldn’t be denied all sexual outlet. What is at stake in such an evaluation is the nature of “singleness” vis-a-vis God’s intended ordering of humanity as male and female. Must one be sexually active to be complete?
3. Can One’s Orientation and One’s Action Be Separated?
Along with controversy over the possibility of a successful cure” for the homosexual’s orientation, we have noted that questions concerning the cause of homosexuality remain the most perplexing area of homosexual study among scientists. But while its origins remain mysterious, there is near unanimity about the fact that individuals exercise no real personal choice in the development of their sexual orientation-heterosexual or homosexual. Both precede the development of any sexual desires or activity. It is knowledge of this fact that has caused contemporary evangelicals like Thielicke to distinguish between a homosexual orientation (usually judged non-condemnatorially) and homosexual practice (usually judged as sinful). Writing in Moody Monthly, for example, Kay Oliver and Wayne Christianson conclude: “Though the Bible condemns homosexual practice, it does not condemn the homosexual desire. There’s a big difference. The act, not the bent, is the sin.”(51) Writing in Christianity Today, Episcopal Bishop Bennett Sims makes much the same conclusion, finding in Galatians 5:16 (“walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh”) evidence that an orientation that is not enacted need not be judged sinful.(52)
Such conclusions have problems, however, as Scanzoni points out. They seem to require a sub-Biblical split between what someone is and how someone lives, between what people feel and what people do. Scanzoni writes,
This [bifurcation] … is actually a concession to the weight of scientific evidence that shows that homosexuality is not a willful choice. Accepting the orientation but censuring the act seems compassionate and yet retains an allegiance to traditional interpretations of Scripture regarding the wrongness o homosexual behavior. But I think that approach catches us in a trap. The Scriptures are quite plain in teaching that if an action is wrong, the longing to engage in that action is just as wrong (e.g., Matt. 5:27-28; 1 John 3:15).(53)
To concentrate on actions alone would be legalistic. Scanzoni is correct. But it is perhaps equally mistaken to conflate, as Scanzoni also does, one’s orientation with one’s feelings and longings. The latter are the result of one’s conscious choice to act out internally one’s orientation. The former is a product of evil in a fallen world. It is antecedent to choice and, thus, to sinful activity, being one particular manifestation of the fall.
Even as orientation, however, homosexuality is not morally neutral. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics provides a useful discussion in this regard. It distinguishes human guilt (our offense against the divine order) from human sin (our disobedience to the claim of God and of neighbor). Bonhoeffer discusses Jesus in this regard:
For the sake of God and of men Jesus became a breaker of the law. He broke the law of the Sabbath in order to keep it holy in love for God and for men. He forsook His parents in order to dwell in the house of His Father and thereby to purify His obedience towards His parents. . . . As the one who loved without sin, He became guilty; He wished to share in the fellowship of human guilt; He rejected the devil’s accusation which was intended to divert Him from this course.)54)
Jesus took upon himself the guilt of humanity and was, therefore, forsaken by God in his last hour. Yet through this event, he has freed our consciences from the paralysis of guilt so that we might be open for service to God and to our neighbor.
Analogously, the Christian might judge the homosexual’s orientation as reflecting the disorder of a fallen world and, as such, producing guilt. But only the acting out of this orientation in feelings or deeds would be sinful, that which is contrary to God’s simple will for each person’s life. One’s homosexual orientation produces guilt, for it offends God’s intended order of human sexuality. But only one’s homosexual activity (whether in thought or deed) can be judged sinful. Moreover, both humanity’s guilt (based in our corporate participation and responsibility in a fallen world) and humanity’s sin (based in our willful claim to be “like God” and thus able to choose what is right and wrong) are removed by the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. Though we are all condemned as guilty sinners, we are also free in Christ to live out his desire for our lives.
Instead of judging the homosexual’s orientation as “ethically neutral” (something that will be increasingly difficult to communicate pastorally as God’s intended order of human sexuality as male and female is understood), the Christian would do better to counsel homosexuals to admit their guilt. Homosexuality is a disordered sexuality, but the righteous judgment of God includes within it his love. God’s “no” to sin and guilt remains, but it has been both fully revealed and encompassed by his “yes” on the cross. Guilty, yet forgiven-here is the repentant Christian homosexual’s standing with regard to his or her orientation.
4. Human Sexuality or Homosexuality — One’s Biblical Starting Point?
The previous questions have challenged differing aspects within each of the three viable theological options for evangelicals conceming homosexuality. Moreover, all have arisen from evidence coming from the social sciences and from the testimony of practicing homosexuals. In a more indirect way, perhaps, such evidence from our larger culture can be seen as important, as well, for an assessment of the proper starting point for Biblical interpretation. For the social sciences are confirming the opinion of some Biblical interpreters that an adequate understanding of homosexuality can only be gained within the larger context of an investigation of human sexuality.
It is a critical weakness in the interpretation of Scanzoni and Mollenkott and Blair that the theological context of homosexuality in human sexuality is almost entirely ignored in their discussions of the Biblical witness. (This is a particularly curious omission in light of the women’s excellent discussion of human sexuality in their treatments of women in the church and family. Cf. chapter III.) As Don Williams states:
If we start our discussion of the Bible with the specific passages on homosexuality (as all gay advocates do) rather than with the opening chapters of Genesis, it is like trying to understand a tree by starting with the branches. Forgetting that the branches come from the trunk, we can dispose of them one by one without ever understanding their origin or their interrelationship. Only as the specific passages on homosexuality, like branches, are related to the trunk of Genesis, do they make a tree.(55)
Without a firm grounding in a Biblical understanding of sexuality (Gen. 1-3; Jesus’ commentary on it in Matt. 19; the Song of Solomon), the Biblical texts pertaining to homosexuality are reduced to occasional references which are easily misunderstood.
A lack of attention to the topic of Biblical sexuality also has a second consequence. It ignores the important Biblical perspective that sexual activity is nowhere considered foundational for one’s full humanity. If sexual completeness is based in sexual acts, it is unfair to deny homosexuals this expression of their sexuality. If, on the other hand, sexual completeness consists in a healthy interaction of male or female as male and female, then intercourse is a God-given, but by no means necessary expression. If fulfillment of one’s sexual urges is made a prerequisite for the expression of one’s full humanity, one is forced to wonder whether Jesus was indeed fully human. Reflection on the Genesis accounts suggests, however, that sexual happiness need not have the added blessing of intercourse. Humanity was created first as male and female in relationship (Gen. 1:27; 2:18-23). Only then were the blessings of procreation (Gen. 1:28) and marriage (Gen. 2:24) added. Our sexual happiness is, thus, not based in either our heterosexual or homosexual unions, but in the normal give and take of male and female together. Here is a perspective that allows a high view of singleness for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Without such a starting point, as one grants homosexuals expression of their God-given urges, pressure mounts to be consistent and give the privilege of genital relationships to single heterosexuals with similarly frustrated desires as well. And what of the frustrated married partner who truly falls in love with someone else (e. g. Anna Karenina)?
In response to such criticism, Scanzoni and Mollenkott argue that homosexuals must be distinguished from heterosexual singles for the latter have at least the possibility of sexual fulfillment within marriage. But surely this is merely a “theoretical” possibility for some, given circumstances and personhood. Does the lonely, heterosexual, single male or female with strong sexual urges that are ungratified differ in practice from that of the continent single homosexuals? Surely it would be wrong to argue that homosexuals per se have a higher degree of sexual energy than heterosexuals. A more substantive rebuttal is Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s assertion following Thieficke that only with the gift of celibacy freely chosen can abstinence be a creative alternative for fulfilling one’s God-intended humanity (here is the exception clause under which Jesus’ and Paul’s humanity can be viewed). But this again implies that sexual relations are morally justified before marriage and among those who remain single, if the freely chosen gift of celibacy is lacking. However, Scanzoni, in her previous writings on singleness, has not drawn such a conclusion, though consistency would cause one to expect it. She writes,
Of course, there is no denying that some single persons are persuaded they don’t have the gift of singleness, just as some married persons may not have the gift of marriage-and some parents don’t have the gift of parenting. Persons may find themselves in any of these categories by force of circumstance rather than by choice or a sense of God’s call, and they may need our special love, encouragement, and understanding.(56)
Scanzoni rightly suggests that the situation of singleness demands responsible action, irrespective of special calling or free choice in the matter. It seems true to the Biblical witness to conclude that where responsibility is required (in this case, homosexual continence), there God will supply the “gift.” Where discipline proves almost uncontrollably difficult, the special love, encouragement, and counseling of the Christian community will be even more vital.
5. What Do the Biblical Texts Mean?
In his excellent review-article of the books of Scanzoni and Mollenkott and Williams, Tim Stafford comments: “[Scanzoni and Mollenkott] write in a good Protestant tradition, reevaluating traditional interpretation while holding to the authority of the Scriptures. They don’t suggest that some biblical commands should be ignored because an ethic of love is more important. Instead they assume that a correct understanding of the biblical commands will identify the meaning of love.”(57) While this is indeed true, one is obligated to judge the validity of their interpretations (and those like them) and ask, is the Biblical record interested in prohibiting only certain forms of homosexual abuse while permitting monogamous, loving homosexual unions? In light of current arguments that have surfaced, and upon which Smedes, Thielicke, Scanzoni and Mollenkott, and Blair all draw, the answer seems to be “no.” A Biblical case for loving relationships between exclusive homosexuals has not yet been adequately drawn, and even the assertion of Biblical silence and thus indifference on the matter would seem unjustified.
Scanzoni and Mollenkott assert that since the Biblical context of those passages referring to homosexuality is always a negative one (violence, idolatrous worship, promiscuity, adultery), the Bible cannot be judged as providing any information concerning positive homosexual relationships. Certainly some of their argument is convincing. Exegetes have often claimed too much for a text. The Genesis 19 account of Sodom, as Scanzoni and Mollenkott rightly assert, is not about homosexuality in general, but violent homosexual rape for the purpose of humiliating the victim (much like what goes on in our prisons today). Not all of their arguments are convincing (can Jude 7’s “unnatural lusts” refer only to the fact that the strangers were “angels”?), but it is nevertheless true that “sodomy” has wrongly been made a synonym for homosexuality.
Concerning Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Scanzoni and Mollenkott find the historical context of these prohibitions in the need for ceremonial cleanness and the desire to separate from the fertility cults of Israel’s neighbors which used male cult prostitutes. Here their argument is extremely tenuous, for there is no positive evidence for cultic homosexuality in Canaanite religions and such a practice would seem to be nonsensical within those cults which sought to use the sympathetic magic of male-female intercourse to arouse the fertility of the gods. Although the texts that are used as support (Dent. 23:17-19; 1 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 23:7) indeed seem to refer to male “cult prostitutes” (cf. the RSV translation), this is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word qadesh. The root meaning of the word qadesh is “sacred,” referring in this context to those who worked in the non-Jewish temples. And while the female qadesh(ah) had sexual duties, the male qadesh were rather priests with other functions in the cult.
A stronger argument for relativizing the blanket injunction against homosexuality in Leviticus is the inconsistency with which the Levitical code is followed today in evangelical circles. Why is it that evangelicals ignore the prohibition against intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period (Lev. 20:18) or the prohibition against rare steaks? Although the issue is complex, the answer can perhaps be given that it is because the New Testament nowhere relativizes or qualifies the injunctions against homosexuality as it does the others that are mentioned (cf. Mark 5:25-34; Col. 2:16). Again, it is the case that the Old Testament presents heterosexuality as the norm (Gen. I -3; Song of Solomon). Finally, the New Testament explicitly labels homosexual activity as sinful.
The context of Romans I is not simply individual lust and idolatry among those denying their “nature” (i. e., their heterosexual orientation). It is rather the fall and its resultant disorder — toward God (1:19-23), within ourselves (1:24-27), and toward others (1:28-31). Paul is arguing that we are all sinners and he uses homosexuality as an illustration of how this perverts our intended humanity. Homosexuality is certainly not the worst sin or even a tisignal” sin. It is only one example of our chaos that the fall provoked. Such a judgment is also borne out in Paul’s catalogue of vices in I Corinthians 6:9, 10 and I Timothy 1:8-1 1. Scanzoni and Mollenkott point out that in the Corinthians text, the two Greek words which are combined and rendered simply “sexual perverts” in the RSV translation (malakoi and arsenokoitai) are obscure in their meaning and might refer only to specific kinds of homosexual abuse. But even Scanzoni and Mollenkott leave such a judgment as a largely unsupported possibility. To sum up, there is contrary evidence from the texts which counters Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s position.
Finally, there remains the fundamental fact that there is no positive Scriptural support for even a qualified homosexuality. In the somewhat analogous situations of slavery and feminism, where long cherished positions of Biblical interpretation were shown to be erroneous, there were supporting Biblical data to assist one’s evaluation (e. g. Gal. 3:28; Gen. 1:27). But no one is seriously claiming among evangelicals that Scripture in any way explicitly supports a homosexual union. Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan are mentioned as Biblical models in non-evangelical circles, but the lack of textual support for such claims has kept evangelicals from enlisting these in their cause.
Bound up with a Biblical doctrine of the human, rooted in the order of creation, spelled out by the Law, and reinforced by Paul’s treatment of both the Law (1 Tim. 1) and the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6), the Biblical mandate against homosexuality seems strong. While new evidence might be forthcoming which would alter this assessment, it is not, at present, available.
Perhaps after reading this chapter some are asking, “If the result of this discussion is merely the reaffirmation of traditional theological judgments, what has been gained?” Has interaction with our contemporary culture proven instructive in any way to the theological task? While it would seem that the overall evaluation of homosexuality as a deviation from God’s intended order of human sexuality should remain unchanged, the current ferment is nevertheless contributing to the theological task of the church in several important ways.
First, the current controversy is pointing out the existence of a widespread homophobia (fear and/or disgust of homosexuality) among evangelicals. This must be eliminated if the Bible is to remain the sole norm of faith and life in the church. As we have seen, there is no Biblical support for singling out homosexuality as uniquely offensive to God or harmful to people. It is one sin among many. To argue, as Lovelace does, that the sin of homosexuality is the lid to Pandora’s box, which, once opened, leads both to widespread perversion and “paganism,” is both sub-Biblical and without adequate historical support. To be rejected, as well, is the sensationalist discussion in otherwise serious literature that would, for example, compare the sexual appetite of homosexuals to “starving people in besieged cities of the past” who “found their mouths watering for such delicacies as boiled rats.”(58) An evangelical theology must be based in a genuine Christian response to homosexual persons, not in a revulsion or fearful recoil. As a sign of the church’s penitence in this matter, it might begin by removing from its informal vocabulary words such as “queers,” “fags,” “fairies…… homos…… perverts,” and the like. Though the term is unsuitable in many ways, “gay” remains a better informal designation for the homosexual and lesbian, for, because it is the homosexuals’ self-designation, it suggests the church’s acceptance of their personhood.
Second, current theological debate is demonstrating the need for the correction of widespread ignorance among evangelicals on the topic of homosexuality. This misinformation pertains both to the cultural data and to the Biblical record. Although evangelicals might have been correct in their basic assessment of homosexuality’s sin, they have been guilty of false argument and misstatement in much of their theological discussion. Sodom cannot be used to justify homosexuality’s “detestable” character. Nor can the notion of “choice” be simplistically asserted as justifying homosexuals’ responsibility concerning the adoption of their sexual orientation. Evangelicals need to bury these and similar “myths,” repenting of the smugness in which they have often dealt with the topic in the past.
Finally, the theological controversy concerning homosexuality can provide evangelicals a model for the handling of theological issues in other areas of faith and life as well. How should one respond to continuing input from the broader culture? Certainly openness and humility are demanded. Prejudices and misconceptions need correction. Hurtful responses demand repentance and, wherever possible, restitution. Beyond this, the controversy concerning homosexuality leaves one with the awareness that the burden of proof remains on those proposing theological change. Authors like Scanzoni and Mollenkott are to be commended for the courageous and compassionate manner in which they have explored the issue of homosexuality. Although evidence is lacking for any major redirection in theological judgment, their work might yet prove helpful to evangelicals in moving beyond petrified opinion. Until evidence surfaces, evangelicals should gratefully receive the corrections gay advocates can offer, while continuing to assert in love that the traditional position concerning the sinfulness of all homosexual activity is true to the Biblical norm.
1. ”Religious Leaders: A Glance Back, a Look Forward,” Christianity Today 22 (January 13, 1978):30.
2. Motive 32 (Nos. I and 2, 1972).
3. Trends 5 (July-August 1973).
4. ”The Church and Homosexuality: A Preliminary Study,” Office of the Stated Clerk, The Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1977, p. 28.
5. Current-day theological discussion can perhaps be said to have begun with Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955). Other noteworthy studies include Robert Wood, Christ and the Homosexual (New York: Vantage Press, 1960); Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, trans. John Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1964); H. Kimball Jones, Toward a Christian Understanding of the Homosexual (New York: Association Press, 1966); The Same Sex.- An Appraisal of homosexuality, ed. Ralph Weltge (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1969); W. Norman Pittenger, Time for Consent. A Christian’s Approach to Homosexuality (London: SCM Press, 1970); Is Gay Good — Ethics, Theology, and Homosexuality, ed, W. Dwight Oberholtzer (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971); Troy Perry, The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Co., 1972); Alex Davidson, The Returns of love — A Contemporary Christian View of hornosexuality (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971); Barbara Evans, Joy! (Carol Stream, Ill.: Creation House, 1973); Loving Women / Loving Men: Gay Liberation and the Church, ed. Sally Gearhart and William R. Johnson (San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1974); Clinton Jones, Homosexuality and Counseling (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974); John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual (Kansas City, Kans.: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976); Lewis Smedes, Sex for Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976); David Field, The Homosexual Way — A Christian Option? (Bramcote, Nottingham: Grove Books, 1976); John White, Eros Defiled.– The Christian and Sexual Sin (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977); Letha Scanzoni and Virginia R. Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (New York; Harper & Row, 1978); Don Williams, The Bond That Breaks.- Will Homosexuality Split the Church? (Los Angeles: BIM Publishing Co., 1978); Jerry Kirk, The Homosexual Crisis in the Mainline Church (Nashville: Nelson, 1978); Greg Bahnsen, Homosexuality.– A Biblical View (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978); Richard Lovelace, The Church and Homosexuality (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1978).
6. Richard Lovelace, “The Active Homosexual Lifestyle and the Church,” Church & Society 67 (May-June 1977):37.
7. ”What You Think About the Christian in Today’s World,” Christian Herald 101 (January 1978):29.
8. McCall’s, quoted in Record (Newsletter of Evangelicals Concerned, Inc.), Spring 1978.
9. Cf. His 38 (February 1978); “Behind Closet Doors: The Door Looks at Homosexuality,” The Wittenburg Door 39 (October-November 1977); “A Biblical Perspective on Homosexuality and Its Healing,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 29 (September 1977): 103-1 10; Lynn Buzzard, “How Gray Is Gay?”, Eternity, April 1977, pp. 34-37, 42, 44, 46; Don Williams, “Shall We Revise the Homosexual Ethic?”, Eternity, May 1978, pp. 46-48; Virginia R. Mollenkott and Letha Scanzoni, and John Ostwalt, “Homosexuality: 2 Perspectives,” Daughters of Sarah 3 (November-December 1977):3-7; Lewis Smedes, “Homosexuality: Sorting Out the Issues,” The Reformed Journal 28 (January 1978):9-12; Letha Scanzoni, “On Homosexuality: A Response to Smedes,” The Reformed Journal 28 (May 1978):7-12; Bennett J. Sims, “Sex and Homosexuality,” Christianity Today 22 (February 24,1978):23-30; “An Historic Dialogue … Homosexuality: A Gift from God?”, Inspiration 1 (1977): 83-88, 108, 110,112; Kay Oliver and Wayne Christianson, “Unhappily ‘Gay’: From the Closet to the Front Page,” Moody Monthly 78 (January 1978):62-68; Don Marty, “The Church and Homosexuals,” Christian Herald 101 (January 1978):42-49; Virginia R. Mollenkott and Letha Scanzoni, “Homosexuality: It’s Not as Simple as We Think,” Faith at Work 91 (April 1978):8-10,18; Don Williams, “Gay Ordination: A Personal Reflection,” Radix 9 (March-April 1978):21; and The Other Side, June 1978.
10. Chris Glaser, “A Newly Revealed Christian Experience,” Church & Society 67 (May-June 1977):5.
11. William Muehl and William Johnson, “Issues Raised by Homosexuality,” Raising the Issues (materials distributed as Packet 1, Task Force to Study Homosexuality, United Presbyterian Church), p. 4.
12. Letter from Paul Gebhard to R. Adam DeBaugh, February 10, 1978. Used by permission.
13. For example, Buzzard, “How Gray Is Gay?”; Michael Campion and Alfred Barrow, “When Was the Last Time You Hugged a Homosexual?”, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 29 (September 1977):103-106; Ben Patterson and Kirt Anderson, “A Belated Answer,” The Wittenburg Door 39 (October-November 1977):18-19, 22-25; Mollenkott and Scanzoni, “Homosexuality: It’s Not as Simple as We Think”; Oliver and Christianson, “Unhappily ‘Gay’: From the Closet to the Front Page”; Williams, The Bond That Break,t
14. ”Playboy Interview: Anita Bryant,” Playboy 25 (May 1978):85.
15. Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg, Homosexualities.- A Study of Diversity Among Men & Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978).
16. Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, November 1977, quoted in Williams, “Shall We Revise the Homosexual Ethic?”, p. 47.
17. Ralph Blair, Etiological and Treatment Literature on Homosexuality (New York: Homosexual Community Counseling Center, 1972), p. 24.
18. John Money, quoted in Determinants ofhuman Sexual Behavior, ed. G. Winokur (Springfield, Ill.: Thomas, 1963), quoted in Ralph Blair, Holier-Than-Thou Hocus-Pocus & Homosexuality (New York: Homosexual Community Counseling Center, 1977), p. 17.
19. James B. Nelson, “Homosexuality and the Church,” Christianity and Crisis 37 (April 4, 1977)-65-68.
20. Jerry Falwell, quoted in “Battle Over Gay Rights,” Newsweek, 6 June 1977, p. 22. Copyright 1977 by Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
21. Jack Wyrtzen, quoted ibid.
22. Quoted in Ralph Blair, An Evangelical Look at Homosexuality (New York: Homosexual Community Counseling Center, 1977), p. 2; “Playboy Interview: Anita Bryant,” pp. 76, 78.
23. Quoted in Lovelace, The Church and Homosexuality, p. 21.
24. Ibid., p. 87.
25. Ibid., p. 106 (Lovelace’s italics).
26. Williams, The Bond That Breaks, p. 103.
27. Ibid., pp. 110, 109.
28. Ibid., p. 84.
29. Ibid., p. 118.
30. Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, p. 271.
31. Ibid., p. 281.
32. Ibid., p. 285.
33. Smedes, Sex for Christians, p. 70.
34. Ibid., p. 63.
35. Ibid., p. 70.
36. Ibid., p. 73.
37. Ibid., p. 67; cf. Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, p. 281.
38. Scanzoni and Molienkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor, pp. 111, 71, 72.
39. Ibid., p. 129.
40. Williams, “Shall We Revise the Homosexual Ethic?”, p. 47.
41. Tim Stafford, “Issue of the Year,” Christianity Today 22 (May 5, 1978): 36.
42. Kay Lindskoog, review of Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (by Scanzoni and Mollenkott) in The Wittenburg Door 39 (October-November 1977):36.
43. Lovelace, The Church and Homosexuality, p. 85.
44. Williams, The Bond That Breaks, pp. 128-129.
45. David Hubbard, “Homosexuality: Why Can’t I Love the Way I Want?” in God Speaks to the Moral Dilemmas of Our Day (Los Angeles: Fuller Evangelistic Association, 1977), p. 11.
46. Scanzoni, “On Homosexuality: A Response to Smedes,” p. 8.
47. Helmut Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 127.
48. Ralph Blair, letter to the editor, Eternity, July 1977, p. 56 (Blair’s italics).
49. Lovelace, The Church and Homosexuality, p. 147.
50. E. Mansell Pattison, “Positive Though Inaccurate” (response to Campion and Barrow, “When Was the Last Time You Hugged a Homosexual?”) in Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 29 (September 1977):107.
51. Oliver and Christianson, “Unhappily’Gay’: From the Closet to the Front Page,” p. 65.
52. Sims, “Sex and Homosexuality,” p. 29.
53. Scanzoni, “On Homosexuality: A Response to Smedes,” p. 10.
54. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1955), p. 244.
55. Williams, The Bond That Breaks, p. 117.
56. Letha Scanzoni, “Changing Family Patterns,” Radix 8 (May-June 1977):10.
57. Stafrord, “Issue of the Year,” p. 36.
58. White, Eros Defiled. The Christian and Sexual Sin, 113.