By David Gushee
I have sought to suggest in a handful of columns in recent months that a rethinking of the church’s stance on homosexuality is needed.
Reading in the scholarly literature, one sees that some very fine Christian minds are at work on this issue. Moving well beyond old clichés and prejudices, these scholars, many of them quite conservative both methodologically and theologically, are wrestling with the idea that Christians may need to revise centuries-old teaching about homosexuality.
Some of these thinkers are concluding that in fact a revision is needed; others are not persuaded. It would be a significant ethical-doctrinal change, though such change is not unprecedented in Christian history (e.g., slavery, segregation, sexism, state killing in the name of Christ, etc.).
In reflecting and dialoguing about this issue, certain things have become clear to me.
It is clear that insofar as “Christianity” or “the church” is primarily associated in people’s minds with rejection of homosexuals, as poll data shows, our mission as witnesses to the love of God in Jesus Christ has been badly damaged. There are very good missional reasons for Christian leaders to back off of public crusades against gay rights, whatever one may think about the merits of the particular issues under discussion. We must be known for what (who) we are for, not what (who) we are against.
Secondly, it is clear that an uneasy “don’t ask, don’t tell” ethos still pervades many (especially big city) churches when it comes to the homosexuals in our midst. Most Christians have little taste for outing and expelling folks who want to attend our churches that we think may be homosexual. Most homosexuals have little interest in provoking a confrontation and just want to attend a church that meets their needs. Nobody asks, so nobody has to tell. Sometimes situations will emerge in which “don’t ask, don’t tell” is not adequate. But the issue is sufficiently explosive that most ministers will do all that they can to avoid reaching that point.
It is clear that some Christian (and non-Christian) homosexuals, led by a cadre of committed activists (as happens with any movement for social change), will continue to ask the church to rethink its posture on this issue. Some are okay with baby steps and incremental change; others want much more, and want it now. Their strategies differ. Some focus on legal issues and others on the internal teaching of the church. Some appeal to basic values such as fairness and justice, others to our compassion for the suffering of homosexuals, especially young people driven by family and church into self-loathing. All are asking us to offer within our churches a choice for gays other than the closet, lifetime celibacy, change therapy, or finally rejection.
It is clear that our churches and their leaders are rarely prepared to offer a serious discussion of the theological, biblical, scientific and ethical issues that are at stake in the contemporary homosexuality debate. That’s because we are not prepared to offer serious discussion of theological, biblical, scientific and ethical issues of any type. We are not ready, for example, to discuss the normative significance of male-female sexual complementarity, the relative importance of the various “ends” of sexual intercourse, or the stubborn persistence of creational sexual orientation diversity and how that relates to cultural patterns and norms.
It’s very clear that most of our churches are not getting the intellectual and spiritual leadership they need from their pastors. The leaders don’t lead the people in thinking theologically. And as for the Christian education program, let’s just say that Sunday school often is a profound waste of time. Some of the dumbest and meanest things that anyone says about homosexuality-and a lot of other issues-are said in church. This is truly scandalous.
In discussions recently with a number of pastors, it has become clear to me that many of our churches are losing the will to fight the abandonment of basic Christian sexual morality among our people. Premarital sex among our youth is rampant. Cohabitation has become routine. Our marriages are collapsing at an epic rate. Multiple remarriages happen among us regularly and without reflection or resistance. Children get swept along as the detritus of our mix-and-match families. Ministers just try to be of some help amidst the chaos, while hanging on to their always fragile jobs.
A church that is in the process of abandoning basic tenets of Christian sexual morality has no credibility as a moral voice in culture. And, ironically, it has no credibility if it decides to abandon the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality.
One can imagine a church in which the classic understanding of Christian sexual morality has survived and even flourished. Ministers teach that marriage remains normative and the only legitimate locus for sexual expression, and the people still believe it. Celibacy is understood to be both possible and expected for the unmarried, partly because it is understood that sex is not life’s highest good. Faithfulness within marriage is strongly emphasized and rarely violated. Divorce is treated as a rare, tragic exception to the covenant of marriage, and not one in a hundred Christian marriages ends in divorce. Community life is strong and nurturing, contributing greatly to the emotional well being of everyone in the church, both single and married.
That kind of Christian community might one day be in a position to consider the pleas of homosexual believers that have formed families and seek inclusion into the community of those whose permanent, covenanted relationships receive the church’s recognition and support. This kind of church might have the capacity to reflect on the idea that even though God’s design for sexuality in creation was heterosexual, in our fallen world a tiny minority among us is, mysteriously, is just not wired that way, and needs some structure in which their relationships and families can be properly formed and sustained (if they are not called to the celibate path).
But in churches and denominations in which classic Christian sexual morality has officially or unofficially collapsed, the abandonment of ancient moral convictions related to homosexuality offers no positive way forward. It is just one more abandonment, one more surrender to culture, which makes it nearly impossible for more conservative churches (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, charismatic/Pentecostal, black and Hispanic, evangelical Protestant) to even consider the possibility that the issue needs rethinking.
We need a careful, unhurried process of Christian discernment related to scriptural teachings, our theological understanding of homosexuality, and church practices in relation to homosexuals, undertaken by those who are committed unequivocally to every (other) dimension of the classic Christian sexual ethic — in which sex belongs within marriage (lifetime, exclusive, covenant partnerships), marriage is for life, and the church is a disciplined countercultural community in which these norms are both taught and lived.
The question on the table would be whether Christian homosexuals who live according to these norms should be treated as faithful members of the Christian community.
Future columns will offer some discussion of the basic tenets of Christian sexual ethics, such as celibacy and lifetime marriage, and what must be done to preserve them before they are entirely washed out of church life by the waves of a sexually licentious culture. These are actually the most important issues in sexual ethics – not homosexuality – because they pertain mainly to the 98 percent of us who are heterosexuals and who, on the whole, are not doing well in this area at all.