What does God think about Homosexuality? Culture Wars, Identity, & Faithful Presence
Rick Marrs, M.Div., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Practical Theology, Director of the M.Div./RAR programs, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, firstname.lastname@example.org
What does God think about homosexuality? This question, in varied forms, is frequently addressed to pastors, Christian counselors, and the Internet in general (10.1 million hits the day this author looked). Before responding to this question, Dr. Robert Kolb always suggests this follow-up question: “Why do you ask?” Learning the motivation of the question helps the responder to know: is the questioner struggling with a sincere question, looking for an excuse for sin, looking for a way to address his or her own temptations—or pursuing some other concern? Should I respond with Law? Or with Gospel?
Same Sex Attraction (SSA) struggles have been around for thousands of years. But throughout biblical and Christian history, these struggles did not dominate the discussion of the Church. They do now. They have become one of the primary points of struggle and contention both within the Church, and between the Church and the world. Many Christians are asking for guidance on how to address their neighbor who has SSA struggles, as well as all the concomitant cultural issues such as same-sex marriage and same-sex marriage adoption of children. This article will primarily address the question, “How do I talk with my neighbors (including friend, son, daughter, spouse) when they say they struggle with SSA?”
As Christians who hold to the authority of Scripture, we do look to the Bible for guidance on what God really thinks about various topics. When it comes to homosexuality, the most commonly cited biblical texts are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:25-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10. These, in their plain reading, clearly declare that homosexual behavior is against God’s will. These are so frequently cited by Christians that many non-Christians and liberal Christians call them (and a few others) the “clobber verses”; the LGBTQ community either seek ways to reinterpret these verses or emphasize that Christians overreact with these few verses and ignore the thousands of verses that call for love, compassion, and justice. This article will not focus on the exegesis of these texts, but will take their content as historically and conventionally understood.
This article will focus on how Christians who view God’s word as authoritative can speak to persons who are sincerely struggling with the question “What does God think about homosexuality?” A few verses we should focus on are:
Galatians 6:1 “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”
2 Timothy 2: 24-26 “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”
2 Timothy 4:2-4 “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (NIV)
The reader is encouraged to notice how Paul teaches us to speak with those who are caught and trapped in sin, even those who will not put up with sound doctrine. We are to speak to them with gentleness and patience. We are called upon to correct and restore, but not in a resentful or quarrelsome manner. We are called to speak the truth, in love (Ephesians 4:15; cf. 1 Corinthians 13 for the description of love being patient, kind, etc.)
James Davison Hunter popularized the term “Culture Wars” in his 1991 book by that title. In it he points out that polarizing impulses of previous generations had been focused in the distrust and hostility of denominational differences: Protestant and Catholic, and to a smaller degree, Jewish and Mormon. But, as evidenced in a series of national surveys from 1966-84, those particular prejudicial feelings subsided. They were replaced by new polarizing impulses, based upon whether or not one had a worldview that was orthodox, that is, committed to an objective, unchangeable, transcendent authority; or progressive, that is, moral authority as defined more by the spirit of the modern age, ever unfolding, based in human emotions and rational thinking. In Hunter’s analysis, gay rights, abortion issues, and the increasingly progressive nature of public education were the primary disputes of this cultural conflict.
I believe that Hunter is accurate in his analysis of the culture of this generation. The orthodox have lost position in the culture, and have sought ways to win that position back through political power (think Moral Majority of the 1980s and traditional marriage laws of the 1990s). The progressives have gained status and influence, especially in the arena of gay rights. The orthodox (which is how many LCMS members would describe themselves), feeling threatened, have responded by being defensive and seeking political counters to their lost status. We sought power solutions in the left-hand kingdom to questions that were largely spiritual, right-hand kingdom concerns.
The Church of the previous generation (and perhaps farther back) fell prey to thinking that homosexual temptation and sin were somehow qualitatively worse than other sins, viewing homosexual sin in a darker, angrier light than they did heterosexual temptation and sin. I remember too many conversations I had with Christian friends and students in the 1970s to 1990s in which they did express homophobia. In those decades I heard too many Christians respond with either disgust (e.g., “homosexuality is just too gross to even talk about”) or by threatening physical violence (e.g., “a baseball bat might make them less gay”). These same Christians often passively ignored heterosexual sin (either their own or that of their friends) that was much more rampant. In the early 1980s I remember trying to have conversations with fellow Christians about why they assumed homosexuality was a more heinous sin that heterosexual sin; I often received dumbfounded looks about why that assumption should even be questioned. Sometimes fellow Christians simply walked away from the conversation, unwilling even to engage. By the mid-1980s I was a young psychology professor, so I had a platform to engage Christian students about this issue. They couldn’t just walk away because I was the professor, but many of them found such conversations very uncomfortable. Homophobia was quite rampant in the Christian community. While only a very few dropped to the level of hatemongers like those of the Westboro Baptist Church picketers, those hatemongers were often (and still are) portrayed in the media as representing evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity. (Having also been a parish pastor in northeastern Kansas, it always amazed me that the Westboroites would picket even LCMS churches and events because we believe that all sinners, even practicing homosexuals, can repent and be forgiven.) This previous generation is in need of repentance for our corporate homophobia that hurt our ability to reach out with the Gospel to hurting, sinful people struggling with SSA. The current generation should know that my generation did not prepare the field well for sowing God’s Word of Gospel to those who struggle with SSA. This is true not only of LCMS Christians, but evangelical Christians and many Roman Catholics as well.
In the past ten years, however, I’ve noticed a change among LCMS Christians, especially younger ones, in their desire to disengage from a “cultural wars” mindset. Though often reticent, they do want to engage with others in gentle, yet honest conversation about homosexuality. They are willing to listen to their neighbor who is struggling with SSA, but they often don’t know what to say after they’ve listened. They don’t want to be accused of being closed-minded, anti-gay, or using the “clobber verses.”
One of the primary authors as a resource for this engagement that I point people to is Mark Yarhouse. He has written numerous books and articles in the Christian psychology world. His most accessible book is Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide to Parents, Pastors and Friends (Bethany House, 2010). The book is helpful for those asking the question, “What does God think about homosexuality?” but also for the question, “What if my child (or spouse, or other close relationship) announces he or she is gay?” His website for the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity, http://www.sexualidentityinstitute.org/, is also well worth consulting.
Many Christians get caught in the error of thinking we should be debating with the LGBTQ community about what causes SSA, or if someone can “change” their sexual orientation, or what the Bible says about homosexuality. All three of these issues have importance, but they are not the key to having productive conversations across this cultural divide. Most people understand that the Bible has particular verses that prohibit homosexual behavior, but (as I said earlier) they either do not see Scripture as an authority they wish to follow, or they interpret those verses to apply only historically or to some different set of cultural assumptions. Many people admit that the evidence for the causes of homosexual orientation are mixed, but for Christians the causes of SSA don’t really matter since we who believe in original sin realize that all people, by genetics and environment, are predisposed to various types of attractions that are temptations. Some of us are tempted toward heterosexual sin, some toward inclinations to hurt or steal from others, some toward SSA temptations, but all of us fall short of God’s law (Romans 3:23).
Holiness Theology Vis-a-vis a Theology of the Cross
The issue of “changing” orientation has been a hot topic in the field of psychology and counseling. Yarhouse, along with one of his mentors and the provost of Wheaton College, Stanton Jones, conducted a series of research studies to determine if men who received Christian counseling for the SSA could, to some degree, change their orientation. They found that approximately one-third of the Christian men in their study who were struggling with SSA and received counseling about it reported that they did sense some level of becoming more heterosexual and less homosexual in their inclinations. About one-third reported that their level of SSA was still strong after the counseling, but that they were now more at peace with their ability to live a celibate Christian life, not acting out on the SSAs. And about one-third reported that their SSA was still so strong that they planned to live out a gay sexual lifestyle. Yarhouse and Jones’ research was extremely controversial within the secular counseling community; many in the progressive segment of the LGBTQ community believe it is unethical even to conduct such research. Because of the underlying assumptions pervasive in the secular counseling community, Yarhouse and Jones could not get their research published in established journals, despite the fact that many researchers agreed that their research strategies were very professional. They eventually compiled all of their various studies into one volume for publication as Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation by Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse (Intervarsity Press, 2007).
In terms of Hunter’s Culture Wars distinction, progressives vastly outnumber the orthodox in the fields of counseling and psychology. Pastors and other Christians often refer loved ones struggling with SSA to Christian counselors, to help them “change” their orientation. Progressives in many states have influenced professional and legal regulation, making it at least unethical and sometimes illegal for counselors to engage in “reparative” or “conversion” therapy that seeks to “change” one’s sexual orientation, even if the client signs an informed consent. Christian counselors may be threatened with loss of licensure if they do “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, especially with minors (even if the minor and their parents request it). Unfortunately, for decades, some groups like Exodus International approached “reparative therapy” with an underlying holiness theology that ignored Romans 7, a Lutheran emphases of simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner) and a theology of the cross. This holiness theology, mostly stemming out of Methodism and Pentecostalism, too often promised full change without temptation, if the sinner simply prayed hard enough and trusted God more deeply. (See how Walther taught otherwise in Thesis IX of Law and Gospel.) Evangelicals are finally starting to repent of that misguided “Holiness theology.” Exodus International, as an umbrella organization, actually disbanded in 2013, admitting that they had overpromised and therefore disappointed many people. Many of the local ministries affiliated with Exodus International, often with different names, still continue to support those struggling with SSA.
Yarhouse focuses on differentiating between Same Sex Attraction and sexual identity as Gay or Lesbian. I and many others in Christian counseling have found his distinction very helpful. A Christian may be struggling with SSA, but that does not mean they must identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian.” Yarhouse posits that the LGBTQ community has convinced the culture (and perhaps won this battle in the “cultural war”) with a very compelling script of self-discovery:
Same sex attractions are natural;
SSAs are the way one discovers who you are;
SSA is the core of who you are and should, therefore, lead to same-sex behavior because that will lead you into the fulfillment of your sexual identity.
The progressive branch of the LGBTQ community has convinced our culture, especially those who struggle with SSA, that sexuality is all about identity and about becoming who you really are through your sexual identity. If SSA is tantamount to one’s identity, then it becomes a very short step to asserting one’s rights, for example, to be in a same-sex marriage.
As Christians we realize that our first identity is “in Christ.” We are God’s rescued and restored creation, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Thus we have a new primary identity in Christ. All people who are “in Christ” still struggle with experiences and temptations that are “not the way things are supposed to be” (Romans 7). Yarhouse points out that SSA may be a part of a Christian’s experience, but this need not lead them to a different identity. One can choose to integrate one’s experiences of attraction (not discover one’s identity) into their biological sex and/or their Christian identity (as we do weekly in the liturgy that takes us from our sin to God’s grace). This allows for a more positive focus on identity—“I am in Christ”—rather than a negative focus of being “not gay.”
No one should assume that refocusing from a sexual identity to one’s Christian identity is a simple process. I have spent hundreds of hours counseling with men who are struggling with SSAs, nearly all of whom wish they were not, nearly all of whom realize that their SSA either is (or will be when it is revealed) a source of angst for their family, friends, and churches. One or two conversations will never be enough to remove their struggle with SSA, or to help them primarily cling to their Christian identity. They will need many hours of support and conversation from loving fellow Christians, spread over months and years before they start to come to a more confident sense of Christian identity.
I challenge seminarians and pastors to realize how strong their own sexual identity is by asking them to imagine how difficult it would be to give up their biological sexuality for the sake of their Christian identity—that is, become a eunuch for Christ (Matthew 19:10-12). Our sexual identity is an important aspect of who we are. But I do believe that Yarhouse’s reformulated script for identity in Christ rather than sexuality is extremely helpful to guide our conversations with those who struggle with SSA, both those who identify as Christians and those who do not. Yarhouse has even been able to convince some in the very progressive secular counseling community that his Sexual Identity Therapy is not an Exodus International sort of “reparative therapy” and is therefore acceptable with the ethical schema of the field.
A Faithful Presence
James Davison Hunter popularized the term “Culture Wars” in 1991. In 2010 he wrote another book titled: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. As a sociologist with considerable theological savvy, he argues that we Christians have sought to change the world by using worldly strategies and assumptions guided by individualism, idealism, pietism, even nihilism. We thought that if we just transformed enough people by means of evangelism or logical argument, that we would maintain (if we ever had it) a powerful influence in American culture. Unfortunately, our public witness came across primarily as a political agenda at a time when we were losing ground in culturally influencing arenas such as the media, entertainment, politics and education. Hunter offers a different paradigm, one he calls “faithful presence.”
Hunter’s faithful presence concept sounds rather like the Lutheran view of vocation and incarnation. God’s love became incarnate to the world through His Son, Jesus Christ: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” His faithful presence continues when God’s Word continues to be enfleshed in us, the Church, as the Body of Christ. His mercy pursues us through His sacrificial love. His faithful presence continues when others sense that same sacrificial love in us. This happens when we continue in our occupations effectively, when we are friends to our neighbors even when we don’t see eye-to-eye with them, and when we practice kindness, hospitality and charity in our communities. Hunter believes that “going into all the world” does not normally mean go to a different geographic location for mission, but going into the community where God has placed us at this time—in terms of this article, among those neighbors who are struggling with SSA. We are authentic and persuasive when the shalom of God is reflected through us. May the Holy Spirit empower a new generation of Christians to reach out in love and kindness to all our neighbors, helping them to see how our primary identity is in Jesus Christ, and helping all of us who struggle with temptations of all kinds, including SSA, to be attracted to that same faith-filled identity.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Bearing Their Burdens, Speaking the Truth in Love to People Burdened by Homosexuality by Rev. Tom Eckstein (Lulu, Inc., 2010)
Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation by Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse (Intervarsity Press, 2007)
Culture Wars: the Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law and Politics in America by James Davison Hunter (New York: Basic Books, 1991)
To Change the Word: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, by C.F.W. Walther (Concordia Publishing, 2010 version)
Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide to Parents, Pastors and Friends by Mark Yarhouse (Bethany House, 2010)