A proper starting place

With three parts out of several written and published, I have enjoyed reading David Gushee’s careful examination of the issue of homosexuality and the church.  The care and sensitivity he is bringing to the issue combined with an obvious desire to get it right is admirable.  The matter is certainly a thorny one made exponentially more difficult to deal with given the pace and attitude of social and legal changes in recent months.  But it seems to me that the level of analysis it is often given here and in other places makes the issue entirely more complex than it really is.  It seems to me that much of the analysis going on either overlooks or assumes on the response to a very simple question whose answer renders much of the approach to the issue easy to determine.

And the question is this: is it sin?  Is it a sin for people to engage in sexual relationships with other people of the same gender?  Understanding that Jesus set the standard for how all people shall be treated by His followers and really didn’t leave any wiggle room when it comes to those who may think and act in ways very different from us, the answer to this question must come prior to all other conversations.

Here’s why.  If, as a plain reading of the various things the guys who contributed to the Scriptures had to say on the matter, homosexual sexual interactions are in fact sinful, the response of the church should be obvious.  The whole idea of gay marriage is a contradiction of terms and thus there isn’t any question over whether or not it should be legalized.  It is very simply a state-approved license to engage in sinful behavior which will ultimately do much harm to the culture if left unchecked.  Individuals dealing with same-sex attractions–whether as a struggle or an embraced identity–should be treated as sinners.

And how are sinners to be treated?  With love and respect.  The inherent dignity they have as unique individuals created in the image of God should be honored at every turn.  They are to be called to the life-changing power of the Gospel with compassion and grace.  That should all go without saying even if it all too often does in fact need saying.  But, they are also to be called to leave their sin behind with humility and welcomed into a community of accountability where they will be given the tools and support they need to walk the  path of righteousness and no longer the path of subjugation to their desires.  All talk of orientation or identity comes off as largely irrelevant because people are born with desires for all kinds of different sins which, with the power of the Spirit through the path of sanctification, they learn to master in order that they may live as free people and not slaves to sin, whatever form that sin happens to take.  I should also add that far from being hateful or bigoted or homophobic, such treatment is essentially loving.  It is loving because if it is sin, then to call people from it is to call them to life.  On the other hand, folks who proclaim it is not are being dishonest, whether they are aware of it or not, and are enticing people stuck in a sinful pattern to remain in it.  All efforts to reassure homosexuals that they are okay just as they are are a refined and especially damaging cruelty.

If, on the other hand, it is not sin, the conversation changes radically.  Homosexual individuals should be embraced just as they are without asking them to change anything.  Gay marriage is a given since these individuals are merely pursuing love and happiness in line with how God created them and in a manner no different from heterosexual individuals.  To think otherwise in this case is bigoted and homophobic and prejudicial.  Believers who insist that homosexuals must either change their God-designed identity or else deny their God-given desires in a manner not similarly asked of heterosexuals are too caught up in an antiquated reading of Scripture that doesn’t take into account the most modern social science research to actually love this longsuffering segment of the population as Jesus would have done.  These folks are a shame to the name of Christ and present a constant and tiresome challenge to the sharing of the Gospel with the homosexual population, much of which is very distrustful of and bitter toward the church as a result of the treatment they have received at the hands of these fundamentalists.  If only they would learn to love as Jesus did we would be able to move forward together for the sake of the Gospel.

You see then that the two major sides of the debate that will be raging in the church for many more years even as the broader culture moves on to something else both find their starting point in the answer to a very simple question: Is it sin?  What more, this is not a question on which voting present is possible.  Either it is sin or it is not.  There is no such thing as a third way here.  Now, you may not have decided how you will answer that question personally, but analysis of the issue which skips this starting place is frivolous at best.  Analysis which comes after an answer has been decided should be honest at the outset regarding the chosen response lest it run the risk of being a deceptive attempt to sway those still undecided into thinking one way or another rather than deciding for themselves.  It is better to take the approach of author Matthew Vines’  in recent book, God and the Gay Christian.  His book is an attempt to persuade people to agree with its homosexual author that the answer to the question is no.  I respectfully, if vigorously, disagree, but I appreciate his transparency.  What more, I gladly take Vines’ confession of Christ at face value and count him as my brother in spite of thinking he is profoundly mistaken in his assessment.

So then, what’s the point of all this?  In a word, clarity.  Far too often the two sides of this issue in the church argue back and forth over issues peripheral to this most basic one.  We argue about orientation when an answer to this question makes such debates superfluous.  We debate gay marriage which an answer to this question renders such conversations moot.  We have dialogues, which are often really monologues, about the role gays should have in the church when an answer to this question makes the matter fairly simple.  We call each other heretics and bigots, liberals and bullies, not realizing that our ideological opposites on the matter have merely decided on an answer to this question that differs from our own and are being consistent with it.  At the end of the day we don’t have to agree, but let us be clear and charitable on the point of our disagreement.

Ultimately, each individual church and network of churches will have to decided on the matter, graciously allowing dissenting congregations and networks to align with others with whom they agree.  The lines between the two sides will in all likelihood continue to grow sharper in coming days.  But, let us not forget two things.  First, this is not a salvation-determining issue and we shouldn’t treat it as such.  The question at the Great White Throne will not be, “What was your position on homosexuality?” but rather, “Did you trust in Jesus as Lord?”  Second, Augustine’s advice for those issues which were not matters of salvation was to have liberty and charity.  This is advice worth heeding.  Let us debate with vigor and respect.  Let us make sure our theology and practice are consistent with our answer to the question.  Let us give grace to the folks who answer differently.  And, at the end of the day, let us embrace and celebrate that we are children of the same Father, siblings of the same Lord who will receive us warts and all if our trust is finally in him.  Let us let charity and clarity win the day.

Jonathan Waits

Author's Website
About the Author
Jonathan is the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, VA. He's the husband of one beautiful woman and the father of three active boys. A graduate of Denver Seminary, he loves connecting the dots between the Christian worldview and culture.

Read more posts by

  • RalphCooper

    I think that churches that answer your prime question with “Yes, it is sin,” need to be as open and vociferous in their treatment of other sins, and subject those sinners to the same standard. Let us start with greed in the pastorate, seeking of power over church members, over-indulgence in food and alcohol, divorce for “non-biblical” reasons, and failure to live up to the standard in Matthew 25. When churches treat all sin alike and all professing Christians who sin alike, regardless of what the sin is, then calling out homosexual behavior (not necessarily the fact of attraction) as sin will be treated as based in true religious conviction about sin and not culturally derived distaste for the idea of homosexuality.

    • Jonathan Waits

      Ralph, I think you are correct. The equitable treatment of sins by the church is a huge challenging facing congregations. Each congregation has its “pet” sins that it either tolerates or doesn’t tolerate. And depending on which side of the line your particular sin struggles fall, you will be left alone or else hounded to no end. Striving to stand with the voice of the prophets of old in calling out a manifold list of transgressions of the righteousness of Christ which should be our banner is a worthy goal. This being the case, failure in one part should not cause us to fall back in another. If the majority of the church’s stance on homosexuality comes off as hypocritical and offensive, the answer is not to back off there (though we must make sure that love is our guide where it has not been), the answer is rather to shore up the places that are lacking. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Jas25

    It’s worth noting that there’s a large number of people from within the church arguing for tolerance of what even they reluctantly acknowledge is defined by God as sin. Common phrases are “Why should we care?” or, even more common, “Who am I to judge?”

    As you’ve rightly stated, not caring would be the most unloving behavior and our judgement is unnecessary (and worthless) when scripture offers it’s say in the matter already. Unfortunately, in our effort to be the “good guys” and liked we forget that the world first hated Jesus (John 15:18-19).

    As lawlessness abounds the love of many will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). I think that’s happening on both sides of most politicized issues today. One side is carelessly tolerating sin because they want to be loved by the world and the other is offering their own judgement instead of the message of salvation through faith in Christ.

    American Christians have the added burden of being partially responsible for our own governing. The democratic process demands that we not only be responsible for our personal response to moral issues but also our legal response to social issues.

    That’s going to immediately put us at odds with the world (that’s self-destructive in nature), and on the public stage. I’ve also found that’s where compromise in my own life starts, because it doesn’t seem like the “right place” to make my opinions known.

    • Jonathan Waits

      Jas25, I like where you’re going here. Given our culture’s tendency toward a modern tolerance in which all forms of judgment are considered and evil, even believers today often misunderstand and misapply Jesus’ command to not judge. Jesus was talking about the eternal state of people, not their everyday behavior. Avoiding passing judgment on another person does not mean not humbly calling them out for their sinful behavior. This latter judgment needs to be made in contextually appropriate ways, but if we can’t call sin, sin, how will we ever call people to righteousness? You observe the fault on both sides of the line when it comes to this challenge well. And you are right on in your pointing out that as American Christians we are partially responsible for the state of our government. I’ve recently started reading Angelo Codevilla’s book The Character of Nations. He begins with a piercing observation of the reciprocating impact that culture and government have on each other. As followers of Jesus committed to seeing the kingdom of God played out in every sphere of life we need to be bold in our efforts to call our culture forward to righteousness rather than sitting back and passively letting it walk the road of destruction. Love must be our guide in this, but our progress must be forward. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Walt Woody

    Thank you for finally mentioning sin. Sin comes in all forms, from the obvious Ten Commandment breakers to judging others to sexual deviations. While I see homosexuality as sin, it does disturb me seeing people treat homosexuals as less than people created in God’s image (they have more patience with other sins).

    We need to look at this as either repentant or unrepentant sin just like any other sin. Belief in Jesus must go beyond the intellectual, however. The Greek word John quoted Jesus as He spoke with Nicodemus carries the imperative of commitment as well as intellectual belief (Jn 3:16) – as well as Jesus’ command to repent. If we are not willing to take up our cross in ALL areas of our lives, can we truly say we fully believe in Him? We cannot pick and choose what we want to follow in the Bible.

    • Jonathan Waits

      Walt, thanks for the comment. I agree with you. When we have a realistic understanding of sin (and Don Everts little book The Smell of Sin and the Fresh Air of Grace is a great tool for help in this effort) as well as a realistic understanding of the kind of commitment the Gospel requires (a total one), then we will be more ready to tackle the challenges of living it out in the culture. That challenge includes both boldly calling out sin where we see it and tenaciously showing grace and mercy to those mired in it. We must strive to accept people just as they are and to love them enough to not leave them there. This should be an equally applied standard. Where it is not, we have something to keep striving to reach. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with me.