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Conservative Christians and Gay Civil Rights

by Letha Scanzoni

Ms. Scanzoni, a free-lance writer, has recently published (with John Scanzoni) Men, Women, and Change: A Sociology of Marriage and Family (McGraw-Hill). This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 13, 1976, pp. 857-862. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


When Bloomington, Indiana (population 62,000 and home of Indiana University), adopted legislation guaranteeing civil rights to homosexual persons, a heated controversy arose. By a city council vote in December 1975, discrimination based on sexual preference was prohibited in employment, housing, education and access to public accommodations. Many of the community’s conservative Christians saw the ordinance as a sign of moral laxity, and letters poured in to the local newspaper denouncing homosexuality on biblical grounds.

"Good versus Evil: it is that simple," declared a businessman’s letter urging Bloomington citizens "to prayerfully make it a matter of immediate personal decision: to shun the sodomites and their supporters, to use every lawful device to eliminate homosexual activity in this area, and to rededicate our community to standards set forth by God." More than 3,000 persons signed concurrence when the letter was circulated in a number of area churches, and it was later reprinted in a full-page newspaper advertisement along with as many signatures as could be fitted on the page. Additional paid advertisements (both radio and newspaper) stressed that "God says ‘no’ to gay."

To other Bloomington residents, the sexual preference amendment signaled a victory for human justice and civil liberties in keeping with the spirit of American democracy. In the tense atmosphere of the city council meeting the night of the vote, Presbyterian minister Paul Miller acknowledged that emotions were running high but told the overflow crowd he spoke from "deep pastoral concern"; he then read a prepared statement signed by 18 members of the clergy who decried "the recent efforts to single out a given group . . . and to seek to castigate them as being unworthy and unfit to belong to our community." He called for a "spirit of tolerance and understanding deeply rooted in religious faith." (A self-avowed lesbian of the Jewish faith later told me that Miller’s stand had touched her deeply and had given her a "better image of Christians," since she had considered herself to be a victim of what she termed a "hate campaign.")

"We were not acting out of hate, as many thought," says Douglas Hacker, pastor of the Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, whose views represent another group of ministers who disagreed with Miller’s statement. "I love the homosexual community, because I love sinners," Hacker told me, adding that it was the propagation of homosexuality that he worried about. "My concern was that the council was acting with seeming disregard for the teachings of Scripture. The statement of the 18 other ministers troubled me. . . . We had to get God’s side out." He pointed out that the human rights ordinance "had brought the community’s conservative churches face to face with the problem of homosexuality for the first time."

Scriptural Interpretation

Why the issue of homosexuality has posed such a problem for conservative churches relates to their understanding of Scripture. There is widespread agreement with the view presented in the article on homosexuality in Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics (edited by Carl F. Henry [Baker Book House, 1973]), which declares that "those who base their faith on the OT and NT documents cannot doubt that their strong prohibitions of homosexual behavior make homosexuality a direct transgression of God’s law." Chapter of Romans, with its account of humanity’s movement from God toward idolatry, has furnished the text for countless sermons claiming that homosexual behavior signifies the lowest depths of human depravity. The attempted "gang-rape" incident of Genesis 19 is interpreted as saying that Sodom’s destruction resulted from homosexuality. (Some gays ask why so many Christians ignore Ezekiel 16:49, which says Sodom was destroyed for its "pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease" and for failing to care for the poor and needy. Perhaps, they suggest, it is because that judgment hits so much closer to home.) Texts such as Leviticus 20:13 ("If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death") were frequently cited at the height of the Bloomington controversy, prompting one gay to write to the newspaper and ask: "Is God suggesting that heterosexuals kill us?"

"Maybe some of the things we said were too strong -- too harsh," says James Root, pastor of the Solsberry Christian Church. "But sometimes you have to shout to get attention. We wanted to counteract the view that the gay life style is a good alternative." At one point, he and others considered court action against the ordinance, having been told by attorneys that their chances of winning were good because of state sodomy statutes. But upon further reflection they decided "that wasn’t the route for Christians to take."

One graduate student at Indiana University, recalling the mood of the gay community during the winter controversy, told me that "everyone was conscious of intense oppression. It was a gut feeling that there were people out there who thought we shouldn’t exist." Her voice stung with hurt as she said: "I felt that what the Christians were doing was very vicious; I couldn’t understand why they hated us like that." Several homosexual persons said they even feared physical violence on the part of the conservative Christian group. (There was suspicion on both sides, I found, when later I reported that fear to one of the conservative ministers. His response: "Why, that really surprises me! I should think we should have been the ones to be afraid of them!")

First Encounter

But somehow in the midst of the contention, the two sides saw a need to talk together. In looking for a new approach to the gay issue some 20 pastors comprising the Monroe County Evangelical Ministers’ Association found themselves divided into two camps. "One group was concerned about showing love, and one group was concerned about showing the community moral leadership about the evils of homosexuality," reports Indiana University doctoral candidate Ronald Rife, who co-pastors a church in a nearby town. At Rife’s suggestion the group invited 52-year-old former gay activist Guy Charles to hold a series of meetings. Charles had practiced homosexuality for 37 years but had turned from that life upon his commitment to Christ in 1972. He then founded a counseling ministry in Arlington, Virginia, called Liberation, which is geared toward helping homosexual persons who want to change their way of life.

A number of evangelical student groups (among them Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, the Navigators, and Campus Crusade for Christ) joined the ministers in sponsoring a February visit by Charles, which included several days of seminars for ministers and counselors. His public lecture on the Indiana University campus was widely advertised. Braced for confrontation, a number of gays stood at the Whittenberger Auditorium entrance waving placards reading: "Gay is proud"; "Christian, Gay, Proud"; and "Stop Christian persecution of gays!" The gay community services center provided fliers for all persons attending the lecture. "Are you a homophobe?" was printed at the top, with "homophobia" defined as "the condition of hating or fearing homosexuality and gay people." At the bottom was an invitation to have refreshments and to meet gays after the lecture.

Jim Heuer, then co-chairperson of the gay community services center, saw the informal postlecture social time as profitable for both sides:

This was the first time ever that there was direct communication between the evangelical ministers and their flocks and the gay people. . . . There’s such a tendency among Christians to lump all homosexuals together as a group of faceless, nameless "perverts" and to make statements not rooted in fact. They don’t see us as people. . . . I had a fabulous dialogue with one of the evangelical ministers, who told me he couldn’t change his theological point of view -- and I said I could understand that. But he indicated he now had a different perspective on the human rights issue.

Speaking of that same conversation, General Association Baptist pastor Stanley Fowler called it "a step in the right direction" because both men had been so honest with each other. In considering a Sunday afternoon Bible-study group for gays from an evangelical background, Fowler said that he believes efforts to reinterpret Scripture to justify homosexuality are "unfair to Scripture," but that he would "be interested in examining Scripture with those who believe they can be both gay and Christian."

This spirit of open dialogue and of coming to see one another as human beings began to facilitate understanding on both sides. Much of what Charles had said paved the way, because he had hit hard at bigotry in churches. He contended:

Christians must befriend homosexuals. Rather than speaking of condemnation, Christians must share Bible passages which speak of love and hope. Instead, we have savagely caricatured, ridiculed, and condemned homosexuals in a way we have done to no other group. Homosexuality has somehow gotten pegged on top in pigeonholing sins, but it’s really no greater sin than lying or pride.

Asked about the value of the newspaper debates, Charles said that trying "to lead people to salvation by pointing out sins. . . only brings antagonism and rebellion and shoves them away. And, to the surprise of almost everyone, Charles came out strongly in support of gay civil rights. In reference to his own past political activism, he said he knew the pain of discrimination firsthand, having lost an important employment opportunity after someone revealed his sexual orientation. With an account of taking part in demonstrations for gay civil rights, only to have his efforts rewarded with a cracked skull, he reminded his gay brothers and sisters that society’s more tolerant attitudes and the rights they enjoy today were in large part earned by him and his colleagues who championed gay rights in the 1960s when such action was far more difficult than now.

Condemnation Replaced by Concern

"I wonder if the conservative Christians feel they’ve been cheated," somebody commented after the lecture. Asked about this, most ministers admitted surprise at hearing how Charles stood on gay rights. "I find the whole thing so repulsive from a Christian standpoint that it has been hard for me to be fair from a legal standpoint," said one candidly. Another pastor told me he had been "torn in two" over the ordinance, feeling it wouldn’t be beneficial to the city." I don’t think it’s good to advertise that we accept homosexuals as equals here," he said. "But after hearing Guy Charles, most of the ministers have come to the place that they realize these people must earn a living." In the opinion of S. C. Couch, president of the evangelical ministers group, bringing Charles in had been well worth the time and money; many gays, he said, have written to Charles since his visit because "he spoke the truth and showed the love."

A few ministers qualified their new position on gay rights and suggested some employment limitations, particularly in teaching sex education. One expressed fear that "homosexuality would be taught to a new generation." Complained another:

The present ordinance gives gay rights but could infringe on Christian rights. For example, suppose I owned a Christian bookstore. I could be taken to court for refusing to hire a gay person. Yet I wouldn’t want that person representing me or selling in my bookstore. Or suppose I advertised for a church secretary and a lesbian applied for the job?

Some pastors wondered if the principle of separation of church and state would exempt Christian schools from being forced to hire homosexual faculty members or admit homosexual students.

When asked if evangelical ministers had "changed" because of his ministry, Charles replied that he saw many struggling seriously to overcome prejudices and felt that there would be a different attitude in the future. I think he was right. In speaking with a number of the pastors in the months since the lecture, I have found that by and large the earlier spirit of condemnation has been replaced by sincere concern and compassion. The most prevalent attitude I encounter could be summed up as follows: Homosexuals are human beings, and it is not in keeping with Christian love to regard them as less than that. As human beings, they have needs for food, shelter, jobs and education, just as all other human beings do. Again, it is not in keeping with Christian love to prevent their meeting those needs. Viewed this way, the gay civil rights issue becomes not a matter of compromising with evil but rather a matter of showing Christ’s love, compassion and justice.

In other words, Bloomington’s conservative Christians came to realize that there are at least three sides to the subject of homosexuality: the civil rights factor, the human factor, and the theological factor. Before the Charles visit there was a tendency to lump all three together and consider them as one and the same. Afterward, many conservatives realized they could show compassion in recognizing the human side and could support the antidiscrimination ordinance without compromising their theological position (viz., that the Bible condemns homosexuality as sin from which persons need to be redeemed). Again and again, Charles hammered home the point that it is not necessary to oppose gay civil rights on Christian principle; but it is necessary to show love and acceptance, because the church has the responsibility of welcoming and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with all people. Describing himself as a charismatic, Charles told his audience that he doesn’t hesitate to take homosexual friends ("even in drag") to his church and that fellow Assembly of God members warmly accept them. "Any changing of lives is up to God," he stressed. "Your part as Christians is to give a positive, radiant witness."

Disappointments Remain

While glad to see the change of attitude among conservative Christians with respect to gay civil rights and acceptance of gays as human beings, some persons were troubled over other aspects of the issue. According to one of the ministers who backed the gay rights amendment from the beginning: "The real, crucial question in all this is: Can the church’s ministry be directed to gays without demanding that they become heterosexual?"

How various Christians approach that question seems to hinge upon whether they regard homosexuality as a matter of choice or as a developed condition or orientation over which the individual has little or no control. In Charles’s view, homosexuality is "an act of the will which becomes a habit which becomes a life style." Since Paul Gebhard, director of Indiana University’s renowned Institute for Sex Research (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the "Kinsey Institute" after its founder), had attended the lecture, I asked his opinion of Charles’s statement. Disagreeing with the emphasis on choice -- "I have never known anyone who is homosexual by choice" -- Gebhard added that the die is cast early. "But one may choose to accept one’s homosexuality." He explained that there are many ways to become homosexual and the etiology is simply not clear.

Some members of the gay community, perhaps to follow up on that line of thought, have indicated a desire to speak to the evangelical Christian community. During the early stages of the controversy, they too used the newspaper as their vehicle. One letter pointed out that once it was Christians who were thrown to the lions. Some referred to behavioral science research. Others appealed to the rights of gays as tax-paying citizens. And some spoke of their own Christian experience. Wrote Ed Parrish: "I personally have accepted Christ as my Savior. Most churches, however, flatly deny us. We have had to form our own churches to worship the same God heterosexuals do. . . . Christ died for all!"

When another letter-writer called it "nonsense" to think a homosexual could be a Christian, Parrish replied: "There is One there [in heaven] who knows whether or not I am a Christian. I do know that for me to live a life without someone to love (in the only way I can) would be hell for me." When I later asked Parrish about that newspaper letter exchange, he commented: "I felt like someone was trying to sit on God’s throne and pronounce judgment. God knows where I’m at, and he still loves me.

Most gays interviewed have told me they feel that Charles did a tremendous service in increasing understanding between the gay community and conservative Christians -- although a few remained skeptical. "Probably more people have learned to think of us as human beings, but they’ll still think of us as primarily sexual human beings," said one lesbian activist. "And perhaps they’ll try to love us now, but it will be conditional love rather than accepting us as we are." On the other hand, doctoral student Collin Schwoyer declared, "I can live with them if they think it’s a sin, as long as they give me my right to live."

Schwoyer made the point that many people think of homosexuals as concerned only with lust. "That’s not true of a lot of us. True, some gays are promiscuous, just as some heterosexuals are. But for a lot of us, it’s love and a lasting, committed relationship we care about." Many were unsatisfied with Charles’s answers on same-sex marriage and felt that he had not addressed himself to homosexual love even though he spoke of having experienced it in his own past (at one time, he said, he had lived with a male lover for 14 years).

Another area disappointing to a number of gays was Charles’s refusal to regard as authentic the experience of those who were persuaded they could be both Christian and gay. One man, now living in a permanent committed relationship, told of his struggles with guilt and self-acceptance and said: "Accepting Christ and becoming openly gay have changed my just plain sexuality into love-expressive sexuality." He believes, however, that Charles and other conservative Christians would not accept his experience as a valid Christian one.

Dealing with Theological Complexity

Since Bloomington’s conservative Christians have spoken out to the gay community, many gays feel it is now their turn to reach out to Christians of all persuasions. At the next Gay Awareness Conference, scheduled for spring of 1977, the Bloomington Gay Alliance is planning to deal with the theological concerns and to facilitate dialogue and understanding between heterosexual Christians and the homosexual community. In addition to seeking cooperation, from gay movements in mainline Christian bodies, such as Dignity (Roman Catholic) and Integrity (Episcopalian), the group has invited Ralph Blair, director of the Homosexual Community Counseling Center in New York city. Psychologist Blair studied at a number of evangelical schools (Bob Jones University, Dallas Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary) and is a former pastor and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship staff worker.

During this year’s convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, Blair, an NAE member, launched a group called Evangelicals Concerned, which is described as "an educational task force for ministry with homosexuals and their families and churches." The official news release carefully pointed out that the organization was "not officially connected" with the NAE’s convention but that its statement of faith is the same and its membership (open to both homosexuals and heterosexuals) is composed of "members of NAE and various evangelical churches." Many Bloomington gays are hoping Blair and other speakers invited to the Gay Awareness Conference will engage in dialogue with ministers and laypersons, both heterosexual and homosexual, in efforts to deal with biblical passages, theological viewpoints, worship, and ethical concerns.

Commented a deeply religious member of the gay community during a summer interview:

A lot of gays don’t really see the complexity of the theological issues. And churches haven’t dealt with the issues responsibly. There has been intolerance rather than understanding -- on both sides. Gays feel they can affect politics, so they get involved there; but often they feel the church won’t listen to them, so they simply leave.

One outcome of the events surrounding the civil rights controversy in Bloomington has been a new concern to face the myriad questions relating to homosexuality and religion and to minister to the spiritual needs of gay persons. Some churches are considering workshops or seminars on the subject. The Center for University Ministry (interdenominational) is endeavoring to reach out to gay persons through its counseling staff, through worship and Bible studies, and through the publication of a special bibliography on homosexuality and religion designed particularly to aid clergy and other counselors.

Evangelical Continuum of Views

Where will conservative Christians fit in all these discussions? Several of the ministers said the questions raised by the human rights ordinance had "caught them offguard" but had forced them to face up to the fact that homosexuality exists and can no longer be evaded. Some would like continued dialogue with the gay community in order to show Christ’s love.

What has been happening in Bloomington, it seems to me, is part of a pattern occurring throughout much of that segment of Christendom that uses the labels "conservative" or "evangelical." The official publication of the Christian Booksellers’ Association recently carried an article on trends in religious publishing which predicted more books on homosexuality "down the road (maybe five years or so)" and noted that just as there has been evidence of more compassion toward divorced persons, "Christians in the future will be saying homosexuality is still wrong but God loves homosexuals and values them as persons" (Bookstore Journal, January 1976).

I see a continuum of views developing. On one end is the noncompromising "sin perspective" summarized in these words from an article in a conservative periodical: "The New Testament blasts homosexual activity as the lowest, most degraded kind of immorality" (Alliance Witness, July i6, 1975). On the other end is the view of the Metropolitan Community Churches and of Evangelicals Concerned, both having doctrinal statements most conservatives could sign -- except for the acceptance of homosexuality as a viable life style for persons of that orientation. In his booklet An Evangelical Look at Homosexuality (Homosexual Community Counseling Center, 1972), Ralph Blair suggests that "part of the task of evangelicals is to abandon unbiblical crusades against homosexuality and to help those who have quite naturally developed along homosexual lines to accept themselves as Christ accepted them -- just as they are -- and to live lives which include responsible homosexual behavior."

Between these two ends of the continuum range a number of views both questioning and compassionate. Perhaps the emerging one most widely held is the "dichotomized view" which distinguishes between homosexual acts (sinful) and a homosexual nature (an orientation not the fault of the individual). Engaging or not engaging in homosexual activities is viewed as a choice, and thus the power of Christ is needed to enable the person to change or resist homosexual temptations. The 1975 Continental Congress on the Family (a nationwide gathering in St. Louis of more than 2,000 evangelicals) issued a statement declaring that "while we acknowledge the Bible teaches homosexuality to be sinful, we recognize that a homosexual orientation can be the result of having been sinned against." The statement called for understanding, forgiveness and spiritual support of homosexual persons; expressed opposition to "the unjust and unkind treatment given to homosexuals by individuals, society and the church"; and pledged to minister to homosexuals and "to help them to change their life style in a manner which brings glory to God."

Also on the continuum is a view that might be called "compassionate questioning." Joseph Bayly, a widely read evangelical author, confesses honestly: "For years I have been troubled by a strict application of the Bible’s strong condemnation of homosexuality, and total judgment of the homosexual person. . . . I accept the Bible’s authority; at the same time I have wondered -- as with suicide -- about a precise identification of every person of this type with the biblical model" ("The Bible and Two Tough Topics," Eternity, August 1974). Two books published by Inter-Varsity Press also call for compassionate understanding, with one showing the struggles of a young male homosexual who seeks to live a celibate life although he deeply loves another man (The Returns of Love, by Alex Davidson, 1970). The other book (Who Walk Alone, by Margaret Evening, 1974) speaks of the gifts, sensitivity and loving natures characterizing many homosexual persons and includes this statement:

If people wish to regard homosexuality as a freak of nature, and even if it is not the condition ordained by God when He said that it was not good for man that he should be alone, then we can only rejoice that God is, as ever, bringing good out of evil. We can thus accept with humility the special gifts mediated to us through those who are His homosexual children, our brothers and sisters whom we cannot and would not disown.

Two somewhat bolder views on the continuum include one of "cautious accommodation" suggested by Fuller Theological Seminary ethics professor Lewis Smedes (in Sex for Christians [Eerdmans, 1976]), who speaks of options for the Christian homosexual. First and foremost is the goal of seeking change. But if that is not possible, he discusses two forms of accommodation: preferably celibacy, but, if that seems impossible, "optimum homosexual morality" (nonexploitation and especially a permanent relationship). To develop such a morality, emphasizes Smedes, "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." A Netherlands pastor makes the point even more strongly by urging Christian moralists to "develop a morality for homosexuality in consultation with homosexual people" (The Sexual Revolution, by J. Rinzema [Eerdmans, 1974]). He calls for a "viable homosexual ethic" which "comes down to a plea for permanent relationships between unchangeable homosexuals."

Bridges to Be Built

Like Christians of all persuasions, conservatives are being forced to face the homosexual question and make important decisions about attitudes toward those of homosexual orientation. Over a decade ago, in his book The Comfortable Pew (Lippincott, 1965), Pierre Berton chided the church for its tendency to "cast out the outcasts," with homosexuals at the top of the list. "A very good case can be made that the homosexual is the modern equivalent of the leper," he added.

Many Christians are now concerned about changing that. The theological issues are far from resolved; but, judging from what has happened in Bloomington, even conservative Christians (though traditionally among those most opposed to gay civil rights) are learning that theological concerns need not blind any of us to the needs and rights of homosexuals as human beings. Navigator staff member Jim Proud had already made that point in a letter to the newspaper during the earliest stages of the controversy: "We have no grounds then to condemn the ‘gays’ but rather should seek to communicate meaningfully to them and help them to know the joy and fulfillment we have in Christ. We ought to pick up the stones around us and instead of throwing them, use them to build bridges."


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