A debate on homosexuality and leadership
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight explores the controversial issue of homosexuality and the church.
A Christian gentleman contacted recently me regarding an issue over homosexuality and whether practicing homosexuals should be permitted to be in leadership in the church.
The upshot of the situation is that the Governing Body of the group of churches (including his church) is asking member churches to sign new rules for various practices, one of which involves allowing practicing homosexuals to become ministers within the organisation.
He asked for my opinion on whether the document should be signed. I will attempt an answer to the question, along with a broader analysis of the surrounding issues regarding homosexuality. Those who only seek quick condemnations with religious clichés will be disappointed here – this is a knotty issue, and the subject deserves more time than most Christians have been prepared to give it. This week I will be focusing primarily on what homosexuality is, and how we should broach the subject in preparation for decision making.
Before I begin, I just want to make a general comment about the history of bad treatment towards homosexuals that many Christians have been keen to administer from their evangelical hobbyhorses, because it is probable that this reaction has been a bigger problem than any issue of sexual orientation within the church’s history. Something that often hinders these debates is that in many cases the whole homosexuality issue has been hijacked by religious folk who look for easy ways to pigeonhole and condemn people, and who seem to be devoid of much empathy towards people struggling with their sexual orientation.
It is important to remember that grace and the cross have already been accomplished - we are all so heavily soaked in God’s love that the reformed murderer and the reformed thief both have equal reason to celebrate, because Jesus has already taken away our burden of sin and replaced it with grace. Given that theft and murder are crimes, and homosexuality isn’t, that ought to compound my point further about not being caught in a hasty legalistic judgmentalism.
I should also like to remind the less tolerant folk that the whole point of the new covenant of grace was precisely because human Judaic history is observable textual evidence of the failure of legislation to provide the ultimate fix to the human problem – only grace can do that, so one ought to consider that writing homosexuality off as sin that needs eradicating is perhaps to be guilty of paying insignificant regard to the deeply loved humanity that exists in each one of us – a deep love given to us by Christ Himself.
It's perhaps also worth noting how some Christians who probably understand virtually nothing about the subject seem to have an obsession with starting threads designed to make gay people feel ashamed. It’s not too dissimilar to the way some creationists always want to start threads bashing evolution. It's as though they are trying to convince themselves rather than anyone else – but this pattern of behaviour remains consistent with the other patterns I’ve observed in Christians. The bullying pastor or mother superior who thinks his or her congregation deserves regular beatings to ‘get the sin out of them’ doesn’t really function well as a human being in other areas of his or her ministry. The extremist who harasses a homosexual Christian and forces her out of the church on grounds of disapproval knows deep down that she is following a dogmatic line not countenanced by Christ at all, and that such unkindness is not how we should treat each other.
What is the purpose of this potentially incendiary feeling other than to make homosexuals feel bad and quarantined from their heterosexual Christian ideal? I certainly do not wish to be contentious, but the trouble with the extremists is that they have not brought their minds to bear on the issue of what one 'is' and what one 'does' - they seem not to understand the difference between homosexual impulses (genetics) and willingness to practice. Their censorious attitude also neglects the point that there is a distinction between motivations that find their provenance in temptation, how someone with homosexual impulses can manage those motivations, and why there is any reason to make that person feel abnormal or on the fringes of a Christ-like Christianity that loves everyone with equal abundance, irrespective of their sexual orientation.
Food is something to enjoy as well as being essential for survival, and in my experiences the only people who obsess about it are obese people and anorexics. I’m sure you can see the analogue - the only Christians who obsess about homosexuality are those with an axe to grind (often a homophobic axe). I think one must be very careful to avoid fooling around promiscuously (pun intended) with words like ‘sin’ and ‘sins’ in relation to homosexuality when our knowledge of biology in this present day has laid out the justified abhorrence that stigmatises claims that being of a homosexual inclination is dirty, diseased, evil, or whichever horrible adjective suits the mind. With all that in mind I will now consider the case carefully.
Is homosexuality simply choice or is it part of our biology?
A homosexual is someone whose inclinations are towards those of the same sex. Homosexual practice is the willful acting out of those desires in various forms of sexual union. We have no singular pronoun which can refer to either a man or woman, but my definition of ‘homosexual’ naturally includes males and females with categorical equivalence. Homosexual behaviour is sometimes seen as merely a choice one makes, regarding sexual orientation and the willingness to have a sexual union with someone of the same sex. Yet others argue that one only chooses to act on what one is, be they homosexual or heterosexual individuals. I must make an important distinction that is often missed; many are so busy looking for ways in which scripture (in particular St Paul) is anti-homosexual that they’ve forgotten to ask what homosexuality is, and the necessary distinction between inclination and practice.
Here I want to outline the difference between criticising someone for what they ‘do’ as opposed to what they ‘are’. In the first place, this is a much more complex issue than many are willing to acknowledge, for we know that homosexual activity is widespread amongst many animals (most in fact); for example, it is quite frequent in social birds and mammals, and occurs very frequently in primates. Some animals are asexual and reproduce with what's called 'parthenogenesis' where an unfertilised egg develops into a new individual (sea urchins and aphids qualify here), and there are some animals that are hermaphroditic, displaying many bisexual tendencies. So virtually all animals practice homosexuality in some way, shape, or form - it's part of our evolution - and we are animals too, so criticising someone for what they are, and what the gene pool has turned up in their bodily composition strikes me instinctively as being wrong.
Last count we have found over 1000 species that show evidence of homosexual behaviour within the species. Although we cannot ask about the moral implication with animals, as this is purely a case of biological programming, we can ask about the passing on of those genes – after all, if natural selection is about fitness, survival and reproduction, it is sometimes thought that genes for homosexuality wouldn’t be selected for, as they would reduce the differential reproductive success rate of a species. Although there is some truth in this line of thinking, quite obviously there is not a sufficient quantity of homosexuality in the gene pool to reduce propagation of the species to near extinction, because we know evidentially that there are many homosexuals in homo-sapiens and yet the human race is thriving. Besides, even if 15% of the males in a population were to be homosexual (it's not that high), the differential reproductive success rate would only drop by 15%, leaving 85% unaffected by this differential.
Moreover, consider animal groups in which an alpha male does most of the breeding - that's a much lower rate than 85% of the species doing the breeding, yet they thrive in propagating their genes. It's not as though alpha male breeding is incongruous in the selection process - it is actually part of the selection process, because alpha male exclusivity comes with some tremendous positive gains in differential reproductive success for the group as a whole, most notably a large number of the male population not being vulnerable to predation when in the act of procreation. In some cases as much as 95% of the male population is restricted from procreation, so the above argument against homosexuality is ineffectual, because such mechanisms can be offset by a more valuable safety within a species.
These evolutionary mechanisms are just like many others that contain side effects. If the advantage of a particular solution is not outweighed by the negative aspects of the side effect, the solution will usually remain in the gene pool, and that's what has happened with homosexuality - the offshoot is a by-product of sexuality in general, and its comparably minor disadvantages to differential reproductive probability are not strong enough to weed it out, so it has remained in the gene pool. Another probable beneficial solution to its survival is that non alpha male pack animal species often exhibit homosexual behaviour as a kind of interpersonal dynamic, whereby the non-mating contingent bond in order to cooperate with each other during the hunt. The upshot is that whichever way we cut the cloth, there is overwhelming evidence that homosexuality is genetic and hormonal as well as environmental and cultural, and this is played out right throughout the animal kingdom.
What do we mean by homosexuality in relation to sin?
I find that too many Christians are willing to say ‘Homosexuality is a sin’ without really giving much thought to what they mean. Given the foregoing observation regarding the animal kingdom and our genetics, it is fairly obvious that any talk of someone being a sinner because of their ‘being’ a homosexual’ with homosexual inclinations is a misjudgement. If we cannot reasonably say that homosexual inclination is a sin, the most we can contend is that perhaps homosexual practice is to be regarded as a sin. Many Christians would have you believe it is, many would say it isn’t – so what we must do is see if there is a Biblical justification for calling homosexual practice sinful.
Is there any Biblical justification for calling homosexual practice sinful?
The dilemma I have is this - I am pretty liberal, and given our present day knowledge of genetics, I find it immensely difficult to see homosexual practice as a sin, and I have had many homosexual friends and know the deep struggles that it brings. Yet as hard as I try to remain convinced that leeway should be given to those who are willing to engage in homosexual practice because of a desire to have a share in the sort of love that heterosexuals enjoy, I find it difficult to deny that St Paul is quite explicit in his condemnation of willingness to engage in homosexual practice:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Applying these (what admittedly seem to me harsh) teachings to the gospel of salvation, it would appear that St Paul explicitly calls for those with homosexual inclinations to be disciplined in being willing to manage and suppress their desires for engagement in homosexual practices. For that reason I don't feel right about advising that practicing homosexuals should be in leadership, and this feeling is heightened because instinctively a bit of me feels that leadership should ideally be within the ambit of 1 Timothy. Being sympathetic and empathetic men and women of God, isn’t there perhaps a case for arguing that if homosexuality is encased in a person because of their genetics that they ought to have the same moral rights as a heterosexual to enjoy a sexual and loving relationship with a partner of the opposite sex? If we say no then that seems an awfully harsh and maybe even churlish condemnation of what must be in all honesty an orientation that brings about lots of unhappiness and insecurity and loneliness – one which the church is mostly only known for exacerbating. If under St Paul’s rubric we are to just say ‘Sorry, it’s tough on you being born homosexual, but rules are rules, you cannot enjoy any of the marital or sexual fulfilments a heterosexual man can enjoy’ we would have to declare that some of God’s creation have been severely handicapped in the domain of love.
Given the overwhelming experiential factors related to nurture, the oft-proffered argument that people are only homosexual because they chose to live that way seems remiss and somewhat irresponsible. It is because of those experiences I had, and my genuine love for my fellow humans, that I cannot easily feel comfortable with how St Paul expresses his views. How does such a trivialisation of the needs of those who expressed such loneliness and need for acceptance and mutual love fit in with the rest of St Paul’s teachings – a man who we know had one of the biggest hearts for the world and for human suffering that we’ve ever seen? Excepting our Lord Jesus, who naturally stands alone, St Paul was arguably the greatest mind we’ve had; which to me means only two things – he was being quite explicit in his teachings on homosexuality, and us liberal folk have underestimated the power of the sins being committed, or his teachings were not a blanket disapproval, but instead a commentary very specific to the day, and to first century church needs.
Let’s look at the latter first – although I am not sure myself, I will present an impartial philosophical argument in defence of the latter position, and then one for the former. The first point to make is that, naturally, we cannot simply make doctrines of verses in scripture without recourse to further consideration regarding their proper meaning. Take 1 Corinthians 8:7-8 as an example:
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
No doubt the church you attend doesn't have the slightest issue over this - the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols simply isn't relevant to your church life - but to the Corinthian church to whom it was addressed this was a key issue of the day, because such an offence was considered by some to be a sin against the First Commandment. In most cases like the above, one instinctively knows the relevance and time frames of scriptural teaching, so I need not over-indulge in time spent on that particular aspects of hermeneutics. But whereas most subjects seem to lock together in a scripture-conscience embrace, it seems that this issue of homosexuality isn't one of them, hence my writing this article.
What this dilemma about homosexuality shows is just a microcosmic example of a question that has been pervasive right through Christian history - the age old question of what in the Bible we should take as unchanging truth and what in the Bible we can take as being specific to the time and open for investment of new feelings and developments. We always have to be on guard against doing the wrong thing; on the one hand we don’t want to be intransigently fundamentalist whereby we take something that was very specific to the time and make a rigid doctrine out of it, because in doing that the church seems outmoded and out of touch with the more developed world. But equally we don’t want to be so liberal that the discipline behind the edict is lost in a morass of vagueness and subjectivism, because when that happens societies can easily slip into bad moral habits.
Regarding what the Bible says, there are two important things to consider for the man who says “The Bible says X is wrong so it must be”- you can’t just allude to ‘The Bible says’ without recourse to the proprietary interpretative component attached to your proposition; and secondly, remember that with subjects that refer to the temptations of the inner man there is no room for blanket condemnations – we must always take into account the complexity of the issue being dealt with, not just what the Bible seems to say about it directly.
If homosexuals are to be precluded from leadership then it must be on the grounds that St Paul insisted homosexuality is unnatural and mutually exclusive to the Christian life. This is the crux of the dilemma because it is seemingly not thought by many people nowadays that homosexual practice is unnatural (as we’ve seen, it is not biologically unnatural) – in fact, many attempts have been made by the more progressive nations to give homosexuality recognition within the orbit of accepted marital practice.
So even if we find a solid reason for accepting or rejecting the proposal for homosexual leaders in church, it must be considered that our view will only be one of many within the church, and that throughout the world there will be thousands of different denominations, all with their take on this. If we were having this conversation in Britain in the early fifties many would be calling for homosexual practice to be punishable by incarceration. If we were having this conversation in Uganda the consensus would be that homosexuals should be put to death, never mind serving in leadership. Now in our more evolved state we (most of us) see things in a different light, just as we did with the abolition of geocentrism and slavery. This is because the history of any one time is always trying to catch up with the best and most radically gifted thinkers and most influential people (not always the same people) of its day. Where you find high levels of intelligence and social development you find progression; where the opposite you find more backward approaches, and that is why the citizens of Britain treat homosexuals differently to those of Uganda.
So it always ought to be considered that we may well have reached a point in history where we're still in the birth pains of tolerance towards homosexuality. With these tricky issues I think an important piece of wisdom is this; remember that whenever you opine about a particular issue being right or wrong, you are opining from one point of reference in a long and complex human history, with many future points of reference still to come. The past legacy of improved perspectives gives us a clear indication that the future will be full of improved perspectives too – and just as we look back on the cruder attempts at ethics, socio-politics, inventions, and similar such things, and think to ourselves how much better things are now, so too our future descendents will look back on our comparably crude attempts at putting systems in place and putting perspectives on scriptural issues.
The Christians of, say, 150 years henceforward may well look on us as being quite fundamentalist in our views about homosexuality – and given that it is prevalent in most of the animal kingdom, our future knowledge of the human physiology may well lead us into a new epoch of greater understanding and greater tolerance. If you found yourself born in Britain in the year 2150 you would probably look back at the present church’s attitudes to homosexuality in the same way that we look back on the previous attitudes towards slavery. Of course, that wouldn’t make the views of those in 2150 right – in fact, they may be having a similar debate to the one we are having, and they may conclude that they’ve been too liberal and drifted too far from the scriptural rubric. Or they might go further the other way and conclude that even more tolerance is needed, we have no way of knowing – but the point is essential – at any one time we are opining from one particular reference point in history, and the current word is not the last word.
I will now offer a hypothetical scenario to give clearer exhibition to why we must be careful in our disapprovals. Let’s say, for example, that there are 300 homosexual Christians in Norwich. Feeling misunderstood, they decide to form a new church congregation (entirely self-funded) and appoint a homosexual pastor to lead them. Let’s call this church ‘Unity in Christ’. This pastor just happens to be one of the most gifted Christians of his day – his education is vast and diverse, he is well travelled and influential in planting many churches, his IQ is off the charts, his generosity, kindness, humility, grace and love is abundant, and his ability to connect with God (and others) and help others connect with God is profoundly impressive. Let’s also say that this ‘Unity in Christ’ church acquires a fantastic reputation for being very welcoming and producing great and challenging scriptural teaching. Plus, they become known for wonderful generosity, reaching others, charity, kindness, superlative conduct, and successful growth.
Given the foregoing descriptions I don’t know that I can find any reason to disapprove. It would seem very churlish and misguided to suggest that one could impugn the integrity of all those successes based on the comparably trivial fact that the Christians that attend are attracted to the same sex, much less that the pastor could have his integrity impugned based on sexual orientation. But if I am to stick rigidly to St Paul’s instruction and take it as a blanket disapproval then apparently I must object to this church, despite the fact that its general reflecting of the gospel is in all other areas superb.
It must be said, though, that while the above hypothetical scenario wouldn't be a good argument against homosexuality it certainly wouldn't be a good argument for its allowance either, at least not philosophically, because qualities like being very welcoming, and producing great and challenging scriptural teaching, becoming known for wonderful generosity, reaching others, charity, kindness, superlative conduct, and successful growth, are not exclusively homosexual qualities - they could equally be applied to and practiced by mainstream churches.
As a further point about your particular point of reference in which you find yourself, how one feels about homosexuality is likely to be based on one’s upbringing; so ostensibly, your ill-feeling towards it, or your liberalism towards it, were likely to have been passed on to you from your patents, family or church leaders. Thus one must always consider that you could have found yourself in very different surroundings with a different background. If you came from a conservative Christianity that focuses primarily on law, doctrine, judgementalism and authority, remember that it is only by the circumstances surrounding your birth, your geography and your culture that shapes this view. If you were from a very liberal Christianity that focuses on love, spiritual experience, acceptance, and enthusiastic grace you would probably be saying how unfair the judgementalists are, with as much certainty of being right as you are now about not wanting homosexuals involved in the church.
Personally I believe that when a Christian is harbouring homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and other such choleric expressions, the man's continual cognitive dissonance ought to lead him to conclude that something is remiss here, and that his view is probably at least in some way faulty. Sadly, if he has been culturally indoctrinated from the cradle upwards then even awareness of this discomfiture may not be enough to catalyse a positive departure from his current worldview.
This does also bring a further question - which is primary in these affairs of the heart and the passions when there is a conflict - is it conscience, or is it a trusting assent to scripture? Sometimes this is difficult. Our commitment to being "radically welcoming communities" is a vital part of being Christians because it helps us connect with those disenfranchised by society - a term that aptly describes many homosexuals. But if that welcoming stretches to imprudent practices that are actually proscribed by scripture then we have taken it too far, and must give leeway to those who insist that they won't risk commissioning something that contravenes scripture or something that takes their actions beyond the orbit of its authority.
This issue was identified by Luther in what he called 'bound conscience' - he says "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God". So in answer to the above dilemma Luther would presumably place the word of God over conscience when he felt the two conflicted. Of course, in most cases scripture doesn't ask us to affirm something contrary to our conscience - most things have a definite meaning, because even with the changing times over centuries, conscience-driven Christians usually find their living by the word is God in action along the same coterminous developments.
It needn’t even be the case that my interlocutor’s refusal to sign the document put forward by his Governing Body must be based on sound biblical instruction that homosexual practice is a clear cut case of being wrong whenever it is practiced. One can simply make decisions based on what is believed to be the wisest action to take. Weighing up the consequences of the Church of England allowing homosexual ministers and not allowing them, it could be reasonably argued (I think) that in the present climate not allowing them would cause fewer problems than allowing them, so the conviction could be accepted as one of prudence. And of course, if one is to do this, they would be advised not to castigate churches that homosexuals set up, if those churches are doing well. At the moment that is my only real argument against the hypothetical ‘Unity in Christ’ church – my reasons for caution are based on practical issues of prudence, and the well-being of the church in the face of those in opposition.
Personally I am not confident to say that strong disapproval is the right way – but equally I am not confident in saying that a more liberal attitude definitely is the right way, because firstly when compared to the successful union between man and woman in marriage, homosexual relationships never strike me as following any scriptural template in relation to the natural goings on of mankind.
You have, I hope, realised by now that this issue is not an easy one on which to opine – and I offer no expertise or any suggestion that I will reach a conclusion that satisfies all. But next time out I will try to present some interesting thoughts as I expand my philosophy further – and although we may not arrive at a definitive answer, we will have plenty more to think about.
More next time
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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