A proper starting place

The initial question in the debate over homosexuality must be, is it sin?

By Jonathan Waits

With three parts out of several written and published, David Gushee’s careful examination of the issue of homosexuality and the church has been enjoyable reading. 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 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 a 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 believers 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 is 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’ 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 is 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 decide 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.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.