Picture of a castaway on a beach

A Non-Slippery Non-Slope

Late in “What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?” Kevin DeYoung makes an observation which deserves to be placed on the study wall of everyone who is involved with this debate. He writes, “Nothing in the Bible encourages us to give sex the exalted status it has in our culture, as if finding our purpose, our identity, and our fulfillment all rest on what we can or cannot do with our private parts. Jesus is the fullest example of what it means to be human, and he never had sex” (DeYoung, 2015, p. 119).

I agree with that statement, but that does not stop me disagreeing with some of the other things that DeYoung says in the book. In this post, I will discuss more of those disagreements.

DeYoung says, “It would be strange for the prohibition against homosexual practice to be set aside when the rest of the [Old Testament] sexual ethic is not” (p. 48) . However, whether it is “strange” or not depends on one’s view of the fundamental reason for the ethic that God enjoins upon us. DeYoung believes that any sexual connection that is contrary to God’s original design for humankind is forever wrong and forbidden. I argue instead that the reason for all of God’s ethical commands post-Fall is to safeguard the presence and growth among us of the Kingdom of Heaven. An adulterous or incestuous or bestial relationship harms that objective just as much now as it would have done in the days of Moses, but I would argue that a faithful same-sex relationship does not. By my argument, there is a difference in kind between a faithful same-sex relationship and the other sexual connections that were forbidden in the Law, so it is not in principle strange if it should turn out to be the will of God that the Church should now treat the one kind differently to the others.

I agree with DeYoung that the New Testament writers would not have envisaged such a change, but – as I have written before – I believe we need to think through this controversy in the knowledge that we are on a different place in the arc of redemptive history than they were. We are not in a different place in the modernist sense that asserts that the growth of scientific knowledge compels us to leave behind some of the so-called primitive and superstitious ideas of the Biblical writers, but we are in a different place because the gospel itself has had a profound impact on the world, so a change of Church practice may now be possible that would have been dangerous earlier in the Christian age.

Understandably, DeYoung and other conservative writers believe that changing the Church’s standards with regard to faithful same-sex relationships would be the first step on a slippery slope. This concern can be seen for instance when DeYoung writes, “If the “is-ness” of personal experience and desire determines the “ought-ness” of embracing these desires and acting upon them, there is no logical reason why other sexual “orientations” (say, toward children, or animals, or promiscuity, or bisexuality, or multiple partners) should be stigmatized” (p. 111).

In that sentence, DeYoung implicitly sets two positions against each other, even though he mentions only the second of them. The first position is his own, that the entire sexual ethic of the Law of Moses is forever unchangeable because it is founded in God’s pre-Fall design for humankind, and the second position is one that argues from the “is-ness” of personal desire to entitlement to act upon it.

I have already argued above that DeYoung’s own position is wrong, and I would argue that the second position is also wrong. Yes, if the Church were to change its stance toward faithful same-sex relationships, it would be compassionately motivated by the “is-ness” of the anguish of those who feel unable to enter a successful heterosexual relationship, but it would have assessed that move against the whole counsel of Scripture and the need to advance the Kingdom of God and protect those who find shelter in it. That assessment would give the Church every logical reason to continue prohibiting its members acting upon the other “orientations” in DeYoung’s list. There is therefore no slope and nothing to slip on.

DeYoung shows the same error of thinking elsewhere. He says, “It’s strange that some Christians would treat homosexual activity as an imperfect but allowable choice or simply less than God’s best when we would never speak so dismissively about the sin of ethnic prejudice, economic exploitation, or violence against women” (p. 101). The difference, of course, is that those other acts damage the Kingdom and are indeed sins, but a faithful same-sex relationship, far from harming the Kingdom, can contribute to its support and extension and as such should not be categorised as a sin.

DeYoung also challenges the view that it is wrong to “…ask [homosexuals] without the gift of celibacy to live a life God has not called them to… Celibacy… must be a choice” (p. 113). His attempted rebuttal includes this: “If chastity is too much to ask of the person with same-sex sexual desires, then it is too much to ask of the person with heterosexual desires. What about the single Christian woman who never finds a husband? Or the godly man whose wife is paralyzed at thirty years old, making sexual intimacy an impossibility? Did these believers choose the gift of celibacy?” (p. 114) My reply would be, “No, they did not, and it is not in the Church’s power to lift that exigency from them, but it is in the Church’s power to do so for gay people who are able to find a life partner. It would be a strange kind of pastoral care that said, “We can’t bring this blessing to everyone, so we won’t bring it to any”!

Two other planks of DeYoung’s attempted rebuttal are equally rotten. (1) He says that the revisionist argument (as he calls it) depends on the assumption that “homosexual desires cannot change” (p. 113). In fact, it does not. It depends only on the assumption that at least some of those who experience homosexual desires will never experience a change in the direction of heterosexuality. DeYoung is able to provide an instance of someone whose desires did change to heterosexuality (and, indeed, I know of others), and DeYoung uses that as though it is proof that all can change and no other hope need be provided. His reasoning is not only logically invalid, it chooses to disregard the anguished testimonies of the many Christian believers who have struggled and prayed for change and have found that God did not grant it to them.

(2) He also asserts that the revisionist case “… overstates the sexual freedom found in marriage… Every married man I know still wrestles with some measure of not-to-be-fulfilled sexual desire” (p. 114). Well, of course—me, too! And I don’t believe anyone who supports the “revisionist” case imagines that allowing same-sex relationships will somehow deliver same-sex couples into a utopia that heterosexual couples have not been able to achieve. Moreover, DeYoung’s words imply that a homosexually-oriented person with 0% of their sexual desires fulfilled should be able to take solace in the fact that their heterosexual friends are not achieving 100% satisfaction. This second point of DeYoung’s attempted rebuttal is altogether mistaken and irrelevant.

His final plank of rebuttal concerns the meaning of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7, leading to the conclusion that it’s unthinkable that Paul … would now be suggesting that people with strong homosexual desires should be able to satisfy those desires if sexual purity seems too onerous” (p. 115). I’m sure DeYoung is right about Paul, but my contention is that the Church has the authority under the Word of God to now accept faithful same-sex relationships in a way that Paul could not.

At the start of this post I highlighted an excellent observation that DeYoung makes, “Nothing in the Bible encourages us to give sex the exalted status it has in our culture”. However, the debate about the acceptance or not of same-sex relationships ignores a vital element if it focuses solely on the sexual aspect of such relationships. The missed element is the longing for a relationship with another human being who knows you almost totally and loves and accepts you. When such a relationship is found—as I found with my wife—sexual desire for the loved one burgeons in a way that goes well beyond the play of hormones and pheromones. The sex is then an outcome of the love, not the other way round. If someone is not able to achieve that depth of relationship with someone of the opposite sex, and we forbid a deep relationship with someone of their own gender, we are committing them to a life of loneliness that even the deepest of relationships with Christ will not compensate for.

Head and right shoulder of Rodin's Thinker

Perversity or Perplexity?

Should churches accept and seek God’s blessing for certain same-sex relationships, or should they not? This question is being hotly debated among Christians. Many conservative pastors and teachers think that the Scriptures in Leviticus 18, Romans 1, and 1 Corinthians 6 settle the matter with no room for doubt. They are right that those passages have all forms of same-sex relationships in view, including those that might have been consensual, committed relationships between people whose lifelong orientation had been toward their own gender. All such relationships were forbidden to the Israelites when God gave them the law through Moses, and were also proscribed by Paul when the New Testament church was established.

However, several circumstances have worked together over recent decades to stir many pastors and teachers to ask whether God would have the Church now lift part of that proscription. The first circumstance is that in many jurisdictions same-sex relationships are no longer outlawed. Consequently, it has become possible to gain a much more objective, statistics-backed understanding of the homosexual world. It has therefore become clear to many that same-gender attraction is not a wilfully chosen deviation from heterosexual normalcy but is something that the person may have felt from childhood, even before there was any element of sexual stimulation in it.

The second circumstance is that, except in the most red-necked of conservative congregations, professing Christians who feel same-sex attraction are more willing to discuss it openly with their pastor. Pastors are therefore learning three things:

  • Some people who have a credible testimony of faith in Christ and whose Christian lives are exemplary in every other way find their same-sex longings overwhelmingly strong.
  • Many such people testify that, despite their prayers and struggles, God has not given them the grace for a celibate or heterosexual life. Believing with standard church teaching that their temptation arose from Satan, they have attempted to resist the devil but found that he did not flee. Therefore, they have wondered whether same-sex longings were a sinful temptation at all, or something else in God’s eyes.
  • A response along the nouthetic lines, “Well, you just haven’t yet prayed long enough or resisted hard enough,” is a denial of the energy that many have put into their struggle and the agony they have felt.

Some pastors may have noted another anomaly, too, because Romans 1 teaches that the ancient world’s adoption of homosexual practices arose after societies replaced the worship of the creator with the idolatrous worship of humans and other creatures, because God then removed his restraining hand from them. Modern pastors, however, are meeting people who believe every word of (say) the Nicene Creed and who worship the Triune God who is represented there, and who affirm the goodness of God’s creation design, but who nevertheless find no release from their same-sex attraction.

It is valid to take from Romans 1 that the existence in the world of homosexual desires and relationships is a consequence of the Fall, but it is not valid to reason in the opposite direction and assert that everyone who experiences same-sex attraction or engages in a same-sex relationship is shown to be an idolatrous rebel against God. Kevin DeYoung is wrong in logic when he asserts, “According to Paul’s logic, men and women who engage in same-sex sexual behavior—even if they are being true to their own feelings and desires—have suppressed God’s truth in unrighteousness” (DeYoung, 2015, p. 52).

The question is therefore not resolved as simply as DeYoung and other respected conservative teachers believe it is. As I continue this series of posts I will, God willing, try to answer some of the other objections that have been raised against the idea of a change in the Church’s stance – for instance, DeYoung when he says, “It would be strange for the prohibition against homosexual practice to be set aside when the rest of the sexual ethic is not” (p. 48) and “If the “is-ness” of personal experience and desire determines the “ought-ness” of embracing these desires and acting upon them, there is no logical reason why other sexual “orientations” (say, toward children, or animals, or promiscuity, or bisexuality, or multiple partners) should be stigmatized” (p. 111).

I will also attempt to show that

  • A change in the Church’s standards toward people in certain same-sex relationships would not run contrary to the doctrine of the unchanging simplicity of God.
  • The Church has a God-given responsibility and authority to consider and make such a change.
  • Such a change can be made consistently with a conservative view of the authority of Scripture. It does not require its holders to adopt a view of the kind that says that scripture is just the sum of believers’ imperfect and fallible testimonies to their experience of God.