Homosexuality in the Thought of the Church: An Appropriate Response
HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE THOUGHT OF THE CHURCH: AN APPROPRIATE RESPONSE
In the past forty years Christian teaching on homosexuality has come to the fore as one of the most divisive issues in the Church. Traditional mainline denominations, as well as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, have undergone repeated questioning of their historic teaching on homosexuality, have agonized through polarizing debates, and have experienced growing uncertainty about how to minister to homosexuals. While evangelical denominations have not yet experienced the intensity of these debates, every indication points to an ensuing struggle within their churches as well.
This article will explore how the Church understands homosexuality from an historical and theological perspective. Our purpose is to listen to the voice of the Church as spoken through the centuries, not just the present, in order to create a larger context in which to develop our understanding of homosexuality, our response to the current debate in the Church, and our ministry to the increasingly visible gay community. To begin, we will present a cursory sketch of the contemporary Church’s response to homosexuality; then we will survey the Church’s historic teaching on same-sex relationships, followed by an exploration of how the Church has understood the causes of homosexual propensity; and finally, we will conclude with a few summary remarks.
I. CONTEMPORARY UNDERSTANDINGS OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE CHURCH
Presently, as we survey the Body of Christ, from more liberal mainline denominations to more conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Churches, four general positions on homosexuality can be identified: full rejection, partial rejection, partial acceptance and full acceptance. While these positions are not rigid, they help to establish a spectrum of opinion existing in the Church today, assist in helping us to determine where we fall in the current debate, and provide a context in which to locate the Church’s historical perspective.
The first and most conservative position is full rejection of homosexuality. In this perspective homosexual practice and homosexual desire are condemned entirely and are not tolerated in the Church. Homosexuality in any form (desire, orientation, practice) is considered incompatible with the Christian faith. Even people who possess homosexual desires are categorically rejected as Christians and cannot be considered for membership in the Church. Typically, this perspective sees homosexuality as an “abomination” in the eyes of God, one of the most depraved sins, a manifestation of absolute moral destitution, which left unchecked leaves society open to divine judgment and wrath. As such, homosexuality must not be tolerated in secular culture as well. Homosexuality is primarily viewed as a choice people make that quickly leads to the establishment of a spiritual stronghold, which can be overcome only by Christian conversion.
The second position expresses partial rejection of homosexuality because it is careful to distinguish between homosexual desire or orientation and homosexual practice. Homosexuals are ultimately people who practice homosexuality, not people with gay inclinations or orientation. While homosexual desire is not seen as God’s will for human beings, an issue which God seeks to address, homosexual practice is what is condemned. People who seek to keep their homosexual propensities in check and seek to be released from their inclinations are recognized as Christians and are integrated into the full life of the Church. The Church seeks to act redemptively in the lives of people who have repented of their homosexual practice and are seeking to live new lives in Christ Jesus, even if they occasionally stumble. Typically, in this position homosexuality is treated like any other sexual sin. Homosexual orientation is seen as arising from a variety of circumstances – societal influences, personal choices, early sexual trauma, family dynamics, and possibly, genetics. Because there are no simple explanations for the cause of homosexual desire or orientation, homosexuals are treated with respect and compassion. However, unrepentant homosexual practice is not tolerated in the Church.
The third position expresses partial acceptance of homosexuality. While this position affirms God’s heterosexual intention in creation, it also recognizes that the Church exists in a fallen world, where human sexuality has been corrupted to varying degrees. The world does not function as God intended and homosexuality is an expression of corrupted sexuality. The Church functions to help people live as close to God’s original plan as possible, however complete realization of God’s intentions are impossible. As such, the Church encourages people with same sex orientation and desire to approximate God’s ideal to the extent they are able. Homosexuals who are capable of changing their orientation or desires are obligated to do so. Homosexuals who can not change their desires should attempt to live a life of celibacy. If this is not possible, then they should seek to express their sexual desire in committed monogamous same-sex relationships. Given the fallen state of humanity, and the entrenchment of sin, the Church recognizes that Christians can exist in any one of these given states. Typically, in this perspective homosexuality is seen as an inevitable reality among some Christians. Homosexual orientation or desire is seen as arising from a variety of circumstances, all of which are an expression of the corrupted created order. The Church tolerates and supports only homosexual expression it considers responsible and loving.
The fourth and most liberal position in the contemporary Church is full acceptance of homosexuality. In this perspective homosexual orientation is understood as a divine creation and its expression in faithful, monogamous, loving relationships is ordained by God. God in His goodness has specifically created diversity in sexual orientation by making people heterosexual and homosexual. In response the Church recognizes the innate goodness of homosexuality and readily accepts into membership homosexuals seeking to express their sexuality in healthy monogamous relationships. Homosexuals are recognized as Christians, are incorporated into every level of the Church, including clergy, and have their relationships blessed as marriages. Typically, this view treats homosexuality like racism and sexism. At one time the Church condoned such prejudice. However, as the Holy Spirit has led the Church into deeper knowledge and understanding, the sins of racism and sexism have been repudiated. Likewise, as the Church recognizes its historic heterosexism and homophobia it will repent of its sin and will eventually embrace homosexuality as a good gift of God’s creation.
II. THE HISTORIC UNDERSTANDING OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE CHURCH
In order to ascertain the Church’s historic position within the preceding spectrum, it is necessary for us to examine her historic understanding of homosexuality. While the subject of homosexuality does not occupy a prominent place in the history of the Church, when it is addressed, there is a clear message: homosexuality is not God’s intention or will for humanity. When homosexuality is treated in commentaries on Romans 1 by an early Father, a Medieval Mother or a Reformer, when it is addressed in an early, middle or late Church council, when it is listed in a penitential from the sixth or sixteenth century, and when the Church’s teaching is cited as a basis for civil law on sexual conduct in the Patristic or modern period, homosexuality is portrayed always in a negative light. All references to homosexual acts between men, between women, between men and boys and between women and girls are explicit in their rejection of such behavior.
Primarily, the Church’s discussion on homosexuality focuses upon the practice of homosexuality, rather than upon same-sex desire or attraction. The sin of homosexuality is almost exclusively tied to the act of engaging in sexual relations with someone of the same sex. This can be seen in the most basic vocabulary used in the Church to describe homosexuality - sodomy. Sodomites are people who practice sodomy, engage in gay sex, not people who simply experience same-sex desire or attraction. For example, people who struggle with homosexual propensity, but never indulge in sodomy, are not considered Sodomites. Likewise, people who commit sodomy, repent of their actions, and never engage in homosexual behavior again, even if they are sorely tempted or disposed, are not considered to be sodomites. Homosexuality is generally an “act” specific sin in the Church.
At the most basic level, the Church considers homosexual behavior sinful because it is “contrary to nature;” it violates the created constitution and function of men and women. For example, Patristic and Medieval theologians teach that God created men and women to have strong sexual desires for one another, created the male to give and the woman to receive in sexual relationships, in order for their union to bring about children, ensuring humanity’s survival. Men are not created to receive in sexual relationships and women are not created to give. To reverse these relationships goes against humanity’s created nature. Similarly, early Protestant theologians argue that engaging in homosexuality is as contrary to the human body as idolatry is to God. Just as idolatry dishonors God and is not God’s intention in divine-human relationships, so the practice of homosexuality dishonors the human body in human relationships. Homosexual practice uses the body in ways never intended in sexual relationships. In the twentieth century Karl Barth, picking up the idea in Genesis 1 that God created humanity male and female, proposes that the image and likeness of God in humanity is never completed in an individual, but only as the individual is in relationship with the opposite sex. Men and women come into full humanity only in relationship with each other. Therefore homosexual practice is a corrupted “substitute,” without hope of fulfilling the purpose of the sexes – the realization of the divine image in each other.
Because homosexual practice is “contrary to nature,” the Church at times has used strong language in her denouncements, calling it an “abominable” offence, more grievous than other sexual sins and moral offenses. As such, Tertullian declares that homosexual practices are “monstrosities;” John Chrysostom, that they are worse than murder, and Bernadine of Siena, that they will be punished more extensively in hell than any other sin. However, the Church generally has treated homosexual practice no differently than other sexual sins, like adultery and fornication. This can be seen in Basil of Caesarea recommendation that Christians caught in homosexual behavior receive the same discipline as an act of adultery, in the medieval penitentials’ treatment of sodomy in the same way as fornication, and in the Westminster Larger Catechism’s mention of sodomy in a long list of violations of the seventh commandment, giving it no special place of prominence among sexual sins.
As has been intimated already, the Church has recognized that homosexual practice exists among her members – laity and clergy. While the Church has taken extreme measures at times to address homosexual conduct, especially by our standards, the underlying purpose of the Church’s discipline is to integrate fallen members back into the full life of the Church. Examples of specific measures for penance and restoration include the Council of Ancyra’s requirement of 20 years penance before full restoration, the Third Lateran Council’s instruction for fallen clergy to be demoted and kept in monastic reclusion and the Code of Canon Law’s allowance of a presiding bishop to determine the discipline of an offending party, depending upon the “gravity of the act.”
In pastoral guidance to people who struggle with homosexual temptation, the Church has demanded celibacy and offered the hope of healing from homosexual propensity. While contemporary society sees sexual gratification as a human right, even a scared right, the Church has not. As such, the Church has affirmed that under the Lordship of Jesus Christ sexual inclination need not dictate sexual practice. Homosexual desire and attraction does not need to translate into action. Building upon a foundation established in the New Testament, the Church has borne witness and continues to bear witness that faithful Christians can live lives of freedom, joy and service without sexual relationships. Furthermore, Christians with a homosexual orientation are encouraged to seek deliverance from their propensities. While the Church has never guaranteed complete healing of homosexual desire to every Christian in the present life, it has been held out as a distinct possibility by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
III. THE CHURCH’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE CAUSE OF HOMOSEXUALITY
At this point, let us explore the historic doctrine of the Church to help us understand theologically the origin of homosexuality in people. In the past two millennia as the Church has addressed the issue of homosexuality, a variety of answers have been given to the question of its cause. Some responses have attributed homosexuality to simple human choice; others have argued that homosexual orientation originates in environmental factors, such as an absent father, an overbearing mother or an early sexual trauma; another group contends that it is rooted in a genetic predisposition; and still others propose that human choice, social environment, and genetics combine together in various ways to form homosexuality.
Presently, the most provocative answer, stirring the most passionate response in the Church, is the theory that people are born with a predisposition to same-sex attraction. Many in the gay community and their advocates in the Church believe that if they can prove that sexual orientation is innate, they can argue that God is the creator of homosexuality. In response, conservative evangelical Christians, buying into the same logic, vehemently deny such an idea. God would never create a human being with an innate homosexual attraction. Unfortunately, both perspectives have a flawed understanding of the Church’s teaching on divine providence, original sin and the corrupted state of the created order.
Fundamentally, the Church has seen homosexuality (its propensity and action) as an expression of the fallen order of creation and the fallen state of humanity. While some Christian theologians have argued that God directly creates human beings, fashioning them exactly as He wishes, the consensus of the Church has taught instead that God is “indirectly” involved in the creation of humanity. Through cooperating or concurring providence God empowers the natural procreative processes of the human body, enabling men and women to generate human life according to their nature, so that whatever constitutes humanity, human parents are enabled to bring into being. As such, the uniqueness of humanity is not found in how human life is generated, because human life comes into being in the same way as other animal life, rather, it resides in the fact that human beings bear the image and likeness of God, an aspect of humanity that parents are empowered to transmit to their children in procreation. In a created order untouched by the corrupting influence of sin, perfect humanity is empowered to beget perfect humanity.
However, human beings have been corrupted by sin, along with the rest of the created order. Human beings do not exist as God intended and they live in a world that does not function entirely as it should. Likewise, the image and likeness of God in humanity has been extensively marred. Because God still operates through cooperating providence, human beings are still able to create according to their nature, albeit a corrupted nature and a marred divine image. Corrupted humanity begets corrupted humanity. Therefore, when men and women engage in sexual relationships, whether their relationship is within the holy boundaries of marriage or not, whether they are consensual and loving relationships or not, human life is produced bearing the marks of corruption, with something intrinsically wrong.
For babies this corruption is made manifest in a multitude of different ways. Physically, it can be seen in neonatal deformities and diseases, mentally, in learning disabilities and levels of retardation, emotionally, in maternal bonding and agitative disorders, and spiritually, in rebelliousness and a “bend toward sinning.” Likewise, human sexuality and sexual orientation are not spared from the corrosive influence of sin. Human sexual predisposition and drive for the opposite sex, originally created good and holy by God, and at least present in nascent form in babies has been corrupted as well. This corruption can be made manifest in different ways, including homosexual inclinations, which, when combined with living in a fallen order, subjected to the additional corrosive influences of society, and the consequences of personal sin can lead to homosexuality. As such, the Church has recognized that homosexuality is ultimately one manifestation of many expressions of the fallen order in the world.
However, the Church has also affirmed that just because people have been born with a homosexual inclination, exacerbated by the fallen order around them, and fully materialized through personal sin, this does not mean they are without hope of healing from this manifestation of corruption. The redemptive work of Christ made available to believers through the sanctifying work of the Spirit can empower people to keep their homosexual inclinations in check and offer hope of healing of their corrupted sexuality. The practice of homosexuality is sin and same-sex orientation can be a manifestation of the corrupted sexual drive, but both can be overcome through the grace of Jesus Christ made manifest in the loving, disciplined ministry of the Church.
In summary and conclusion, the Church has seen homosexuality and its propensity as an expression of the fallen order of creation and the fallen state of humanity. The Church’s traditional understanding of homosexuality and her ministry to homosexuals places her perspective closest to the “partial rejection” position, outlined earlier in our paper. While the Church has accepted that some Christians may struggle with homosexual desire, some people even from birth, the Church has never condoned homosexual practice. Christians with homosexual propensities are called to live celibate lives while seeking to be delivered from their corrupted sexual desires, which can occur through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. When Christians have engaged in homosexual activity, the Church has endeavored to exercise redemptive discipline with the goal of restoring them fully into the life of the Church.