How does a Christian approach the topic of homosexuality?
All humans are simultaneously sinful and loved.
All people, regardless of their story, are deeply and unconditionally loved by God, each created with profound dignity and worth, not one more than another. This is more than mere religious happy talk — it’s truth whether one is gay, straight, or otherwise. But, all people are also stricken with a terminal illness: sin. Everyone. No exceptions and to the same degree. Our sin demands our repentance and needs forgiveness, and God’s love and grace are where we find both. This is basic Christianity and the great equalizer of all people.
Jesus wasn’t silent on homosexuality.
Some claim Jesus never said anything about homosexuality and therefore is neutral on the topic. Not true. Jesus was unequivocal in saying that to understand marriage and the sexual union, we must go back to the beginning and see how God created humanity and to what end. (See Matthew 19 and Mark 10.) Jesus holds up the creation story in Genesis not as a quaint Sunday school lesson, but as authoritative — reminding us that God created each of us male and female, each for the other. And the sexual union that God created and ordains is for husband and wife to come together in physical union, one flesh.
There is only one option.
Both Jesus and all of scripture approve of no other sexual union than that between a husband and wife. This is the uncontested historical teaching of Judaism and Christianity, and it is not something that true Christianity is free to adjust with the times. Yes, concubines and multiple wives are found in the Bible, but doesn’t make them “biblical.” In fact, they violate the Genesis narrative Christ points us to.
Male and female complete God’s image on earth.
It is not just mere “traditionalism” that makes sex-distinct marriage the norm for Christians. It is a common grace God has given to all peoples at all times that is rooted in deeper theological reasons. The first chapter of the Jewish and Christian scriptures tells us that humanity is uniquely created to show forth the image of God in the world — to make visible the invisible. God does this not just in generic, androgynous humanity, but through two very similar but distinct types of humans: male and female. They are human universals, not cultural constructs.
When God said that it “is not good that the man be alone” (Genesis 2:18) he wasn’t lamenting that Adam didn’t have a buddy or was just lonely. He was saying that the male could not really know himself as male without a human “other” who equally shared his humanity but was meaningfully distinct right down to every bit of her DNA. The same is true for her in Adam. Taoists understand this in that the Yin cannot be Yin without its corresponding and contrasting Yang. In both Jewish and Christian belief, both male and female become fully human in their correspondence and contrast with one another. This does not happen solely in marriage, but it does happen most profoundly and mysteriously in marriage.
- Sex is indeed about babies.
It is a new and culturally peculiar idea that human sexuality is all about intimacy and pleasure, but not necessarily babies. Babies and reproduction matter. And sure, while not every male/female sexual engagement is toward the end of procreation — intimacy and pleasure matter as well — it has been the overwhelming norm and desire in nearly all marital relationships throughout time. That some couples are infertile either by age or incapability does not diminish or challenge this reality. Infertility is the vast exception for male/female couples. It is the fact of same-sex unions, a human cul-de-sac. Heterosexual union reaches into and creates the next generation. To establish a sexual relationship without any interest in or openness to babies is contrary to God’s intention for such relationships.
How does a Christian approach the topic of homosexuality?
It may seem like LGBT people and conservative Christians inhabit two different worlds. But with 40% of same sex couples in Australia identifying as Christian, LGBT people are likely to be a significant, if covert, presence in conservative Christian churches.
So, what is it like for people who are both LGBT and Christian? How do LGBT Christians see their place in conservative Christian churches? And how do pastors care for LGBT people in their congregations, and include them in the life of the church? To answer these questions I spoke to LGBT people, and pastors of LGBT people, from Pentecostal-Charismatic churches in Australia.
Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, which emphasizes a personal experience of faith, together with ecstatic phenomena such as speaking in tongues and divine healing, is a fast growing global phenomenon. While there are many different denominations, Australia’s largest Pentecostal-Charismatic denomination, the Australian Christian Churches, boasts over 280,000 followers in over 1,000 member churches, including some of the largest “mega-churches” in the country, such as Hillsong Church in Sydney (20,000 attendees) and Paradise Community Church in Adelaide (6,000 attendees).
For most of the Pentecostal-Charismatic pastors I spoke to, a conservative approach to interpreting the Bible led them to be “welcoming, but not affirming” of LGBT people in their congregations. This means that LGBT people are welcome to attend, but their sexuality cannot be “affirmed” by allowing them to volunteer or minister. As one pastor I interviewed said:
At the moment our position is that if you’re going to volunteer here that we would hold to a fairly orthodox position of scripture… So yeah, we do have a line, and that line is drawn at volunteering.
A ‘welcoming but not affirming’ approach prevents many LGBT Christians from being actively involved within the Church community. Shutterstock
Several pastors permitted LGBT people who committed to remaining celibate to volunteer for leadership roles within the church, such as leading Bible studies or small groups, or even preaching. Nevertheless, the LGBT people I spoke to felt understandably rejected by this position. As one put it:
I couldn’t even take up the offering. I was simply looking to be actively involved and become a member of the church… Because I was gay, that was sufficient for [them] to turn around and say no. And by then, I thought, ‘That’s just not right.’
Volunteering is not only symbolic of acceptance and inclusion by the church community, it’s also a pathway to ministry and leadership. In fact, several of the pastors I spoke to began as volunteers. Therefore, this barrier to volunteering prevents LGBT Christians from moving into more senior roles in Pentecostal-Charismatic churches, where they could promote a more inclusive position.
The injustice of this position was keenly felt by both LGBT people and some of the pastors themselves. One pastor articulated this:
Being part of a Christian community is … The body, everyone’s got a part and a role to play. But all of a sudden, ‘Oh, but now you say you’re gay, you can’t do that any more’. So people’s natural response is, ‘Well, I don’t feel like I’ve changed. I’m the same person.’
Some LGBT Christians who come out in non-affirming churches make the wrenching decision to leave their congregations. One pastor described what happened when a leader at their church who “grew up at church, went to Christian college” took a same-sex partner:
Then she had to step down … So she’s left, and rightly so. It’s so sad, because for her, it’s her space of belonging. All her formation happened there.
Anti-conservative Christians at a marriage equality rally in Brisbane. Shutterstock
Faced with the moral conservatism of many Pentecostal-Charismatic congregations, LGBT Christians who stay may live closeted lives. Recent research strongly suggests that LGBT people who continue to identify as Christian experience heightened “homonegativity” – negative and shame-filled feelings about their sexuality – compared to non-religious, or even formerly Christian, LGBT people.
LGBT Christians in Pentecostal-Charismatic churches may still be confronted with services entirely geared to heteronormativity, with few concessions to the LGBT members, who are silenced in their midst.
One LGBT person said:
There really is no self respect in staying inside a community that holds up a banner saying ‘welcome home’, while simultaneously rejecting your very presence by silence. The silence was like thunder to me.
A generational shift
All of the pastors I spoke to recognised that the position they were offering LGBT Christians was less than ideal. Many had seen LGBT people have undeniable spiritual experiences. To Pentecostal-Charismatic pastors, these spiritual experiences can only have their source in God’s Holy Spirit, and they are what qualify a person for ministry, rather than ordination.
This leaves pastors of LGBT people with theological questions. Do these spiritual experiences qualify LGBT people for volunteering and ministry in the church? Or are they disqualified by their sexuality?
This theological tension led several pastors to express the view that the current exclusive positions of many Pentecostal-Charismatic churches are untenable and unjust. One pastor summed up the “welcoming but not affirming” position in this way:
It’s almost like with one hand you’re shaking them by the hand, and with the other hand you’re slapping them in the face.
Others believed that this position will be abandoned by future generations:
Anyone that’s under 30 doesn’t have an issue with [LGBT], and so we’re going to see a generational shift… It might take 10 or 20 years, but I think there’s definitely a progression in that way.
Some pastors believe that the Church’s stance on homosexuality is outdated. Shutterstock
Looking back to look forward
In looking for a way towards a more inclusive future, Pentecostal-Charismatic leaders could perhaps look to their own history. When the movement began in the early 1900s, it was years ahead of its time in its inclusivity, celebrating the ministry of African Americans and women long before many of the established churches. One former pastor pointed this out:
Modern Pentecostalism by and large has lost its way a little bit… if you’re reading the history… it was very much a movement on the margins… people who were oppressed, the poor… I don’t think they value the margins anymore. I think there’s been a dramatic shift, and I find that quite sad.
Although it seems change is likely to come, it appears that in relation to LGBT inclusion – unlike their early ethnic and gender inclusiveness – Pentecostal-Charismatic churches will bring up the rear-guard of cultural and social progress, rather than taking a leading position.
Last month, Pastor Jonathan Henderson, a chaplain at a Seventh-day Adventist educational institution, Pacific Union College, gave a theologically traditional yet loving sermon on homosexuality. Titled “Adam and Steve”, the sermon was grace-filled, showed an understanding of the LGBT community and the missing stories not typically allowed in churches, and was an example of how traditional Christians can still speak about this subject in a loving manner.
I’m used to hearing sermons about homosexuality that are rooted in condemnation. These sermons typically refer to LGBT people as an abomination or even “demon-possessed.” Pastors who preach this type of sermon feel it’s their God-given duty to never let people forget that homosexuality, in their understanding, is an abomination. If these pastors were to give a sermon that didn’t mention this, they fear they might be seen as “condoning” this abomination. Non-affirming, “The Bible is Clear” Christians refuse to acknowledge anything besides this approach, and it’s this approach that has left thousands of LGBT people spiritually and physically homeless.
I understand why having full theological affirmation is important to many LGBT friends of mine. A theology that says intimacy between same-sex individuals is a sin is a theology that considers LGBT people as second-class children of God. Yet, there will never be a full theological consensus on same-sex sex for all of Christianity. We’re too diverse in our hermeneutics, backgrounds, and beliefs to ever all agree. But can someone have a traditional stance on their understanding of this topic and still be a loving and safe person towards the LGBT community? I believe we can and Henderson’s sermon is a prime example.
There are a few things I disagree with that Henderson said in his sermon. Most notably, is the idea that some people can “choose” to be gay or have a non-heterosexual orientation due to sexual abuse is egregiously inaccurate. Although prominent “ex-gay” groups have promoted this theory widely, there isn’t a single reputable medical or psychological institution that would back those claims; in fact, they have all denounced it. But that was just a passing inaccuracy and was completely overshadowed by his overall loving approach.
Henderson first prefaced his sermon encouraging the congregation to listen directly to LGBT people: “You need to hear the perspective of those who have walked this journey,” he said. Second, He humanized LGBT people in a conservative culture that sexualizes us. “You create all these images as if they are not people that are having soul connections—relating to one another, identifying with one another,” he said. “You need to understand the foundation of relationships…and it’s not sex! It’s heart to heart connections.”
Next, he acknowledged that spiritual spaces aren’t usually safe for LGBT people – and that in itself is shameful. Pointing to the unofficial gay-straight alliance, GASP, on campus that promises to be a “safe place” for non-heteros students, Henderson reflects that the fact it has to exist is a “tragedy.” “How do you have a sanctuary within a sanctuary?” he asked. Lastly, he acknowledges the pain the church has caused, and continues to cause, in the name of God making LGBT people feel alienated from our religious spaces and sometimes even from our homes. His point, over and over, was that it is not our job to judge others, but to love.
This wasn’t a “liberal” sermon, but it was radical in the same way that the Gospel is radical. It was about trusting God and loving others — without the caveats that so often come with “love” in Christian churches today. It wasn’t about pointing fingers or policing other people’s bodies or bedrooms. It was about being a force for good—a force for a loving God—in the world.
This sermon was seen over 33,000 times in over 140 different countries from the church’s LiveStream channel before the school administration had it removed without explanation (though most likely due to conservative pressure). It has since re-appeared on YouTube and I want to share it with you all.
This message shouldn’t be too politically dangerous for any Christian. But because it didn’t include direct condemnation, and in today’s fraught political climate, that wasn’t “clear” enough for too many of them. This is the same backtracking we’ve seen with the Vatican’s statement from the synod and in the World Vision yes-we-do-wait-no-we-don’t fiasco. And that’s the problem that is driving my generation out of churches in an unprecedented way. If non-affirming churches won’t let pastors preach from a traditional theological understanding in a way that humanizes and shows actual love towards LGBT people, those churches aren’t even following their own theology.
At the heart of the claim that the Bible is clear “that homosexuality is forbidden by God” is poor biblical scholarship and a cultural bias read into the Bible. The Bible says nothing about “homosexuality” as an innate dimension of personality. Sexual orientation was not understood in biblical times. There are references in the Bible to same-gender sexual behavior, and all of them are undeniably negative. But what is condemned in these passages is the violence, idolatry and exploitation related to the behavior, not the same-gender nature of the behavior. There are references in the Bible to different-gender sexual behavior that are just as condemning for the same reasons. But no one claims that the condemnation is because the behavior was between a man and a woman.
There was no word in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” These words were invented near the end of the 19th century when psychoanalysts began to discover and understand sexuality as an essential part of the human personality in all of its diversity. Consequently, it cannot be claimed that the Bible says anything at all about it. The writers of the Bible had neither the understanding of it nor the language for it.
There is only one reference to sexual behavior between women, and that is in Romans 1:26. The context of this reference has to do with Gentiles rejecting the true God to pursue false gods; i.e., idolatry. And, the sexual behavior described is orgiastic, not that of a loving, mutual, caring, committed relationship. What is condemned is the worship of false gods.
Sexuality is a wonderful gift from God. It is more than genital behavior. It’s the way we embody and express ourselves in the world. But we cannot love another person intimately without embodying that love, without using our bodies to love. And that does involve genital behavior. Sexual love is for the purpose of giving and receiving pleasure with our most intimate partner. It is a means of deepening and strengthening the intimate union that exists. This can only be healthy and good if our behavior is consistent with who we are and with whom we love, and when we are true to our own sexuality and orientation.
In regard to marriage, it’s important to remember that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture that assumed men were in control and women were subject to them. Marriage was not an equal partnership, but a matter of a man owning a woman or women as property. Women provided men companionship, children and labor. Certainly, love between the man and woman or women could develop, but love was not the basis of marriage. Consequently, the biblical concept of marriage is not appropriate today. We no longer accept the inferiority of women and superiority of men. We no longer accept marriage to be a property transaction. The concept of marriage has evolved throughout history. Today, we understand it to be a voluntary spiritual relationship based on love, respect, mutuality and commitment. What really matters is the quality of the relationship, not the gender of the persons involved. And marriage is created not by religious ceremony or civil government. It is created by the persons involved who make their commitments to one another. Whether or not there is a religious ceremony to celebrate the marriage or marriage license to legalize it, the marriage two people make together in private is real and valid and should be honored as such. I hasten to add that marriage should never be understood as a requirement for two people in relationship. Intimate relationships must not always create a marriage commitment. Marriage is a lifelong commitment that not everyone is willing to make or should make. Being single in an intimate relationship is an honorable choice.
How do I view God’s position on “homosexuality?” I believe lesbian, gay and bisexual people to be a part of God’s wondrous creation, created to be just who they are, and completely loved and treasured by God. I believe God does not intend for any one to be alone but to live in companionship. And I believe God expects healthy loving relationships to include sexual love. The Bible doesn’t say this, of course. But neither does it deny it. I believe this to be true not only because of the Bible’s emphasis on the goodness of God’s creation and the supreme value of love, but because of the greater understanding of human nature that we have available to us today. I do not believe that God intends us to live in the small world of ancient biblical culture, but rather in God’s larger evolving world informed by science, reason and experience.
The following books are helpful in better understanding the debate about the Bible and homosexuality:
• Blessed Bi Spirit: Bisexual People of Faith, edited by Debra R. Kolodny (Continuum, 2000);
• Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else, by John J. McNeill (Beacon Press, 1995);
• The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, by Peter J. Gomes (William Morrow and Company Inc., 1996);
• Is The Homosexual My Neighbor?: Another Christian View (Revised) by Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (Harper & Row Publishers, 1996);
• The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background and Contemporary Debate by Robin Scroggs (Fortress Press, 1983);
• Our Passion for Justice: Images of Power, Sexuality, and Liberation by Carter Heyward (The Pilgrim Press, 1984);
• Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment by Ellen Lewin (Columbia University Press, 1998);
• Stranger At The Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America by Mel White (Plume, 1994);
• Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, gay and Jewish edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose, (Beacon Press, 1989); and
• What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality by Daniel A. Helminiak, Ph.D. (Alamo Square Press, 1994).