The issue of homosexuality threatens to divide Christian churches today in much the way that slavery did 150 years ago. One side asserts that people should be welcomed into our churches, into the ministry, and into our understanding of the American family regardless of their sexual orientation; the other side insists that any sexual preference other than heterosexuality is a sin and should be proscribed by all faithful Christians. No apparent solution to these disagreements lies on the horizon. From the personal viewpoint, it is the wrong way to think about the relationship between sex, God, and the Christian church, or to understand what our genders and sexual preferences have to do with our relationships with God and with each other. In order to build true Christian community, people must discuss the philosophical and cultural presuppositions behind their understandings of moral and immoral sex. Unfortunately, many Christians do not see sex as being about the business of Christian community and loving God; rather they act as if it is too private to discuss. In our refusal to discuss the connection between sexuality and spirituality, they lose the ability to understand the Christian possibilities involved in the act of sex. Gay people offer new and exciting methods of understanding sexuality and organizing sociosexual life, methods that could be helpful models for the church in its quest for a more faithful way of life. According to my argument, gays and lesbian can be true Christians similarly to any other heterosexual.
The Episcopal Church’s current official position, generated at the 1979 sixty-sixth General Convention and affirmed in 1991 at the seventieth General Convention, recommends that although homosexuals can worship, they must remain celibate. As the document goes on, “It is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual, or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside of marriage” (Siker, 1994:195). The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 1991 report “Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Justice,” took a different tack, arguing that “worship is open to all members of the Presbyterian Church ( U.S.A.), regardless of their sexual orientation and that celibacy not be a requirement for ordination” (Siker, 1994:195). In the same vein, while the United Methodist Church’s 1993 “Report of the Committee to Study Homosexuality to the General Council on Ministries” carefully and exhaustively affirmed the individual worth of homosexual persons especially in pastoral settings, it ultimately refused ordination to the “self-avowed practicing homosexual” (Siker, 1994:196). Finally, the 1993 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s study “The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective” attempted to recommend “more openness on the part of the church toward gay and lesbian persons” while at the same time affirming earlier Lutheran positions suggesting that “homosexuality is a departure from the biblical, heterosexual structure of God’s creation” (Melton, 1991:117). Therefore, it is evident that churches across the world discriminate homosexuals from worship, servitude and ordination primarily because of their sexual orientation.
These denominational documents and teachings have set a confused tone for mainline American Christians, endorsing at best a “don’t ask, don’t tell” atmosphere, and at worst a sense of grave instability regarding Christian social teaching. Our confusion is largely due to the fact that these official denominational positions are attempting to satisfy both conservative and liberal factions within the denominations. This is no easy task, because both advocates for gays and lesbians and their opponents argue that their position is the only one compatible with the heart of the Christian message. From one perspective, official endorsement of gays to the ordained ministry would be a stroke of liberation; from another, it would only be a capitulation to social pressure to condone morally corrupt behavior. The current church documents reflect the attempt by mainline denominations to adjudicate between these two deeply opposed beliefs. As a result, if gay ordination is allowed at all, it is contingent on invisibility. Gay Christians who hope to serve the church through ordained ministry need to be able to “pass” – in the eyes of the church – as heterosexual; although individuals may identify themselves as “gay,” they are not allowed to act, to seem, or to “practice” in any way differently than heterosexual Christians.
As these conflicts and the resulting inconsistent official positions demonstrate, mainline denominations are no longer speaking or acting as unified bodies, but rather as a group of divergent and competing factions. American Christianity is no longer united under a coherent or comprehensive set of religious symbols, or by beliefs about the role of religion in public life, the authority of the Bible, or the eschatological vision behind the new creation. We are instead divided roughly into two competing political orientations: the liberal church, which holds that inclusivity, tolerance, and social justice lie at the heart of the Christian message, and the conservative church, which valorizes tradition and family-centered values as the core of Christianity.
The opposing sides involved in denominational debates, along with the scholarly research supporting their competing assertions, make a number of assumptions worth investigating. First, most liberals and conservatives agree on the idea that homosexuality is self-evident; we all know exactly what homosexuality is and can identify it both in today’s milieu and throughout history. The work of John Boswell, widely acknowledged as authoritative in denominational conversations, serves as an example here. In his highly influential Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Boswell argues that gay people have a recoverable, positive history and a direct lineage with gays who lived within the early Christian Church (Boswell, 1980:333). According to Boswell (1980), the Bible says relatively little about homosexuality because it was a fully accepted part of everyday life; people who self-identified as homosexual were completely integrated in early Christian culture. The few passages in Scripture and in early patristic documents that oppose homosexuality were, according to Boswell, either written by people who were from rural areas where homosexuality was much less common, or were written about individuals with heterosexual orientations who opposed their own natures by participating in homosexual acts. While this conclusion is debated among mainline Protestants, Boswell’s assumption that homosexuality as we know it existed in the ancient world is virtually uncontested.
For example, Richard Hays accepts that homosexuality existed in the ancient world and argues that the Bible is much less friendly toward gay practices and people than we are today (Hays, 1986:200). For Hays, the practices, meanings, and intentions associated with homosexuality have gone unchanged for 2,000 years and hold the same ontological and ethical status in the ancient world as they ought to today; that is, in his condemnations of “acts against nature,” Hays argues that Paul was referring to the same acts that we know today as homosexuality. In a similar vein, Richard John Neuhaus argues that Boswell’s favorable reading of Scripture is misleading; “Christianity has, in a clear and sustained manner,” he claims, “always taught that homosexual acts are morally wrong” (Neuhaus, 1994:56). Thus, like Hays, Neuhaus assumes that what counts as homosexuality looks, feels, and is the same across time and culture.
Paired with this shared assumption that homosexuality is transhistorical and transcultural is the shared belief that homosexuality is the result of some biological or natural phenomenon, that some people are simply born homosexual. What remains in the debate, therefore, is whether it is acceptable or moral to act on those natural desires. As liberals see it, the naturalness of homosexuality indicates that homosexuality is part of God’s design and therefore that gay men and lesbians ought to be free to act on their desires. Indeed, many suggest that homosexual desire, like heterosexual desire, is a gift from God and ought to be embraced and celebrated. Because, as one Methodist states, “no compassionate God would demand the impossible,” homosexual activity can be endorsed and practicing homosexuals should be allowed full access to ordination” (Williams, 1994:9). From the liberal perspective, responsible homosexual practice can be considered a healthy part of the Christian life, and gay and lesbian persons should be acknowledged as full participants within Christian communities.
The conservatives involved in the mainline denominational debates generally agree not just that homosexuality is biologically determined, but also that homosexual persons possess sacred worth and deserve compassion and Christian love. However, because they believe that homosexual activity is a sin, conservative mainliners can only support and ordain “nonpracticing” homosexuals, that is, homosexuals who do not have same-sex sex. For them, the fact that homosexuality is a function of biology does not automatically mean that it is a good gift from God. As one Methodist explained, “There are tendencies in all of us that are to be resisted, not affirmed or followed. A predisposition toward certain thought or action does not mean it is a good gift or morally correct. Many persons are predisposed to promiscuity, immaturity, gambling, alcoholism, or a long list of other temptations. The Christian faith offers not only the motivation but the divine power to resist what is contrary to God’s intention for human behavior” (Looney, 1994:112).
Thus, though homosexuals are born with a heavy burden indeed, it is not in the church’s interest to lighten that burden by condoning immoral practices. Homosexual Christians can only be full participants in Christian communities – and given access to ordination – if they agree not to act on their sexual feelings. As another Methodist commentator says, “No one is barred from the ministry because of predisposition or tendency. But persons who chose to practice what the church does not condone disqualify themselves” (Looney, 1994:114). Thus, although liberal and conservative mainline Christians are politically opposed on whether or not homosexuals ought to be allowed to act on their desires, they commonly share the basic presupposition that homosexual desire is involuntary, naturally or biologically determined, and permanently stable.
Mainline denominations, of course, did not come up with the idea of solidifying, naturalizing, and transhistoricizing the concept of homosexuality all on their own. Early gay liberation movements from the 1960s and 1970s also invoked these concepts as a way of claiming their place in the world, as a strategy of resistance to discourses and therapies that demanded that they change, become “normal,” become heterosexual. Early liberationists interpreted the sexual underground and erotic communities that flourished during the first half of the twentieth century into a natural and transhistorical “gay identity” as a political way of making alternative practices visible. People came “out of the closet” in droves in an attempt to make a space for difference in the way America organized sexuality; they represented to themselves and others the concept that married life in the suburbs was not the only road to happiness. Indeed, the concept of a firm and immutable gay identity remains an efficacious strategy against those who which believe that all homosexuals not only can, but must, change their sexual orientation to heterosexual.
Unlike mainstream conservatives, Christians associated with the far Right (as opposed to mainline denominations) today hold no ideas of a natural, transhistorical concept of homosexuality; indeed, homosexuality in their view is a new phenomenon that has both been caused by and contributed to the so-called moral deterioration of the nation. Thus, the new Christian Right works hard attempting to convert gay people to heterosexual lifestyles. Through dozens of workshops and videos and hundreds of books, how-to manuals, and pamphlets, the far Right consistently portrays the message that gay people can change. Local organizations and “ex-gay ministries” such as Desert Stream, Exodus, and His Heart, sponsor twelve-step programs and support groups for helping individuals “come out of gay lifestyle” and “re-enter God’s kingdom on earth.” The printed material that supports these “ministries” portrays homosexuality as the result of sin and/or an impure heart and suggests that the homosexual can change with God’s help and love. For example, Jerry Arterburn How Will I Tell My Mother? suggests that parents of young boys “discourage girlish behaviors,” “seek counseling if he has been labeled a sissy,” and “clarify Scriptural mandates”; if these fail and young boys “seek out a lifestyle of sodomy,” families should “refuse to speak to those boys until they take the pledge to go straight.” Other books, such as Bob Davies and Lori Rentzel Coming Out of Homosexuality, suggest that gay people need to “have an intimate relationship with Christ to be transformed by his grace.” (Davies & Rentzel, 1994:38). In light of these strategies which require heterosexuality as a precondition of Christianity, the mainline presupposition that “gay people are born that way” seems not only progressive but downright liberating.
As Christians, people are called by God to identify ourselves as the people of God. Believing in Got people are in this world, but not of this world; they diligently and consciously must challenge those worldly categories that do not help them lead more faithful lives. People are taught to disregard the things that divide them, to include in their midst outcasts, tax collectors, prostitutes, people with whom – under any other set of normal or worldly circumstances – they would hold nothing in common. Through baptism people become new people, with a new and radically different ontology; everything that they think and see and do in the world should reflect that they are a part of the Body of Christ. What holds Christians together is not wealth or class status or human-made law or ethnic background or race or nationality, but rather God’s self, which is revealed to them through their membership in the Christian Church. Their primary identification is and ought to be Christian; any identification that takes precedence over our baptism is to be avoided. Thus, if Christians are all functioning as Christians and attempting to be faithful to the kinds of people God has called them to be, why do Christians need the categories of gay and straight to conduct business in the churches? To divide each other up in those terms is to accept the definitions the world places on them; it is to participate in the notion that every one of them has an inherent orientation that affects even the most unsexual aspects of life and work. To ask whether gay people ought to be ordained is to assume that the gender of one’s sexual partner affects how one participates in and conducts God’s ministry. It does not. The only characteristic pertinent to worship and servitude is Christian faithfulness.
This is not to say that Christians should not talk about or recognize issues around sexuality. Indeed, that is precisely what we need to start doing. In the current climate where interest and debate focus almost exclusively on “homosexuality,” Christians make the mistake of assuming that all Christians know how to identify and participate in moral sex. Rather than spending their energies worrying about whether or not to ordain gays, Christians need to think more seriously about what moral sex looks like and how they can help other Christians recognize and participate in it. That is, Christians should be teaching teenage girls who want to be accepted among their peers how to say “no” when sex feels wrong; Christians should be teaching teenage boys how to mark their adulthood with other practices besides sexual conquest; Christians should protest advertising campaigns that use the promise of sex to sell everything from toothpaste to tires; Christians should be teaching young couples how to feel close to one another without necessarily being sexual; and Christians should be teaching other couples how to stay open and vulnerable in a relationship so that moral sex can occur. Most importantly, Christians should be thinking about what God has to do with human sexual practices. Christians should be showing each other that sex is one of many ways to overcome the loneliness of twentieth-century individuality, one of many ways to participate in the Body of Christ.
Jeffrey Siker, ed. (1994). Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press
J. Gordon Melton (1991). The Churches Speak on Homosexuality: Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc.
John Boswell (1980). Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Richard Hays (1986). “Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 14 (spring)
Richard John Neuhaus (1994). “In the Case of John Boswell,” First Things, March
Dorothy Williams (1994). The Church Studies Homosexuality, Nashville, Tenn.: Cokesbury
Richard Looney (1994). “Should Gays and Lesbians Be Ordained?” In Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality, ed. Sally Geis and Donald Messer, Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press
Bob Davies and Lori Rentzel (1994). Coming Out of Homosexuality, Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press