Christians and homosexuality

By Brian Edgar

While evangelicals have a good reputation for holding to biblical truth – including the biblically expressed conviction that homosexual activity is sinful – they have not always had a good reputation for acting with grace towards those who differ.  Although the real situation is not as bad as is often suggested (as there are many who have acted very appropriately and in accord with the command to love one another) nonetheless, in order to make the situation clear the Australian Evangelical Alliance formed a small group of people to consider making a statement about homosexuality which would be biblically orthodox, pastorally helpful and completely gracious.

Consequently, the following people met to produce Beyond Stereotypes: Christians and Homosexuality, (Melbourne: Australian Evangelical Alliance, 2009)

  • Dr Brian Edgar, then Director of Public Theology for the Evangelical Alliance
  • Dr David Clarke, Professor, Dept of Psychological Medicine, Monash University, Melbourne
  • Rev. Ian Clarkson, Minister, The Branches (UCA), Adelaide
  • Debra Hirsch, Formerly of the Exodus Foundation, Minister, Church of Christ, Melbourne
  • Simon Riches, Pastoral Support Coordinator, Liberty Christian Ministries Inc., Sydney
  • John Waterhouse, Founder of Albatross Books Pty Ltd, Sydney and Chair of the Working Group

The book can be obtained from the Australian Evangelical Alliance

The statement begins in the following way.

Three gospel principles

1.     Repentance

We could start with a statement of our common faith and the experience of the life we have in Christ. Instead, we start with a statement of repentance. Like so many people who have been marginalised in the past, we acknowledge that homosexual people have been needlessly hurt and made to feel that God’s love is withheld from them. This is a great wrong and has been the cause of needless hurt over many years and generations.

Churches have communicated the idea that homosexuality, in itself, is on a different scale to other sinful behaviour— this in defiance of clear Christian teaching to the contrary. In doing this, Christian people in their institutional life have stigmatised homosexual people and demonised homosexual behaviour. This is, at best, unbalanced—at worst, ungodly. We regret and are sincerely sorry for these attitudes.

Of course, in still describing homosexual conduct as ‘sinful’, we have already made a value judgment that is unacceptable to many. This question will be discussed shortly. However, we would simply acknowledge that we deeply regret those times when Christians have failed to exhibit the unmerited love of God, a love that flows from of a Father who seeks out the prodigal son or daughter long before he or she ever repents.

2.     Grace

We would secondly acknowledge grace, not judgment, as the foundation and ‘first step’ of any credible pastoral response. For we are seeking a grace-based, not a judgment-based response. There are many biblical models of grace:

  • ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly’ (Titus 2: 11–12). Grace comes first. What, then, does grace say to us. . . male and female, straight and gay?
  • They said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery    . . . Now what do you say?’ When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’. . . Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. . . ‘Woman,  where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again’ (John 8: 4, 7 and 9–11).
  • God’s forgiveness to the individual flows out of God’s acceptance and grace. That offer of forgiveness precedes the command not to sin again. It is not a consequence of our moral behaviour. God’s kindness leads us to repentance.  God’s ‘acceptance’ of us precedes our repentance. . . and inward transformation.
  • The passage above (John 7: 57–8: 11) in which Jesus does not join the pharisaic condemnation of the woman caught in adultery is well known (though textually debated).The words to the woman  ‘Neither do I condemn you’ are immediately followed by the command, ‘from now on do not sin again.’
  • In Luke’s account of Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus Jesus’ willingness to accept one who others would not associate with preceded Zacchaeus’ own recognition of sin and his  act of restitution (Luke 19:1-10).    Jesus quoted approvingly others’ description of him as ‘a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matthew 11: 19).  He was not embarrassed to be seen with them or enjoy their company.

Grace is the acceptance of the person, but not of the status quo of disordered relationships. The acceptance which grace offers leads on to transformation.  Sexuality cannot be understood only by reference to its creation and to its present distorted form. It must be understood as an aspect of human nature which currently exists in a penultimate form, a part of the creation which eagerly awaits ‘the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom. 8:23).

In summary, we would acknowledge that historically Christian churches have tended to operate with a secondary truth first: that people are sinners. From this, we have extrapolated that God cannot forgive us until we repent. But whilst it is true we stand with our backs to the One who has made us, rejecting him by our lack of gratitude and idolatry (Romans 1: 20–22), we are still made in the image of God As we see from the story of the woman taken in adultery and the parable of the prodigal son (one historical, the other fictitious), God offers forgiveness before we repent.

Before proclaiming the secondary truth, we would encourage fellow evangelicals to proclaim that primary truth: to recognise that God has acted graciously to us by offering us unmerited forgiveness, and to urge people to see themselves as made by God for him. As we do so, we urge people to leave aside their messiness and moral failure, their sins of the flesh and of the spirit (pride, envy, covetousness, jealousy and anger). And this means all people, not just heterosexual people—all too often guilty of adultery, fornication and other licentious behaviour—but homosexual people as well.

All are made in the image of God. All are called to live holy lives. All are destined to be transformed into the image of God and conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8: 29).

3.     Acceptance

Implicit in this grace-based concept of God’s forgiveness—a wild, unlimited embrace of the individual that transcends rationality, challenges human logic and defies our ‘normal’ way of behaving—is the concept of acceptance.  This does not mean God condones our every action or attitude. But it does mean we are offered a safe place in which we can be welcomed and nurtured. It does mean that all of God’s actions are shaped by an underlying deep affection and attitude of good-will towards us.

We see the key biblical paradigm for understanding God’s love for us as in the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ (Luke 15: 1–32), perhaps more correctly called the ‘Parable of the Waiting Father’. Like all parables, we are not meant to read meaning into every detail. However, it clearly contains crucial insights into the nature of God’s love for us.

In this context, a key question is ‘When did the father decide to forgive his son?’ Was it after the son came to his senses in the far country, after he decided to seek his father’s forgiveness? Or was it earlier:  after the father gave him the inheritance—or even before he left home? Or do we think the father actually thought, ‘If you’re going to go off and waste your chances, go on, leave—but, if you do, don’t you ever come back here!’

Clearly, the father’s forgiveness preceded the return of the son. It even preceded the change of heart of the prodigal. It was an unmerited acceptance.  Often, this aspect of God’s grace or favour is described as ‘unconditional’ but there was one condition for the prodigal son to experience this unmerited grace: he had to return home. The son did not deserve it, but  ‘acceptance’ lay in the all-pervasive love of the father.

To be accepted by a loving Father suggests a range of related ideas or connotations: inclusion, reception, welcome, incorporation, God making his home with us. Above all, God’s call is based on an open, warm-hearted invitation: to come and share our life with God and he with us. Jesus put it to his disciples this way: ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ (John 14: 23).

Four pastoral implications

A number of implications flow out of a pastoral program based on grace, not judgment.

1.     Acceptance involves messiness

At base is God’s acceptance of us. This flows out of God’s grace, love and forgiveness.

  • Acceptance of others and, in the present context, especially gay people requires the right attitude. This may mean a change of attitude. This, inevitably, is a costly exercise at the personal and organisational level.
  • Acceptance means dealing with messiness. Discipleship is messy. Our churches, if they are to welcome the sort of people God accepts, will become more unpredictable and unruly, less ‘neat and tidy’, more open and welcoming. Are we sure we want to change the way we operate to accommodate certain people? Are we ready for their active participation? If not, they won’t come orif they do—they won’t stay.
  • Acceptance suggests a radical form of friendship—not just an acceptance of people ‘like us’, but an acceptance of people who are very different to us. This is very difficult for socially and morally conservative people. Our problem is that of the fastidious Pharisees: we have a high view of scripture and a deep (and genuine) desire to meet God’s approval. But following Jesus means mixing with sinners and welcoming them as God has welcomed us.
  • Acceptance requires patience. We need to accept people as they are while always anticipating change and transformation.  If we are inviting people to join us on the road of discipleship, we must be patient. Theyand weare undergoing change. We are people on a journey. We have still much to learn and implement in our lives. We are—as the old slogan puts it—a ‘work in progress’.
  • Let’s encourage people to live godly lives. But this means using more than words—it means loving, altruistic action. It means trusting the Spirit to deal with the messiness, the loose ends and any unresolved conflict in people’s lives—for the Spirit to give us the capacity to love people until they’ve got the energy to love others and help themselves.
  • If we see the divine stamp on all humanity, we will recognise the potential for goodness in all people. We will not expect instant sanctification, but allow people the space to grow. . . in holiness, in faith and obedience, in discipleship. This means looking at the whole church, not isolating one group as more ‘sinful’ than another.
  • All of this does not minimise the reality of sin. Human sinfulness has brought a profound fracture between us and God, yet God loves us despite us being ‘enemies’ (Romans 5: 8;     1 John 4: 8). This love is part of the very character of God that reaches us across the chasm of our indifference and wilful disobedience.

2.     Transformation involves renewal

The Christian gospel holds out the possibility of the transformation of people, whatever their background or personal history.  We are all, to different extents, ‘damaged people’. We live in a fractured universe. The ‘sin of the world’ is broader than our individual ‘sins’. There has been a poisoning of all of human relationships.

But the resurrection of Jesus has inaugurated a whole new world. It has signalled not just the ‘freedom of the glory of the children of God’, but the release of ‘the creation itself. . . from its bondage to decay’ (Romans 8: 20–21).

This is the theological backdrop for understanding human sexuality and, in particular, gay and lesbian people. The consummation of all things in Christ (Colossians 1: 15–20) involves the transformation of the cosmos as well as the transformation of individual people. Every aspect of our lives is changed, including our sexuality.

This transformation is the work of God who comes to enable us to do ‘those good works he has prepared for us’ (Ephesians 2: 10). This transformation finds its fruition, its fulfilment in the the rule of God—in individual lives, through nations, across all of human experience.

3.     Renewal means a new beginning

The Spirit of God guides us to those choices and decisions which are good for us, yet the fact of choice is also a tragic reminder of the reality of our sinful nature.  We tend to choose badly.

Yet God wants us to choose rightlyto avoid wrong choices. The very fact that we have to choose is evidence that we are alienated from God. We do have to choose but, according to the apostle Paul, we shouldn’t choose for our own convenience or satisfaction: ‘do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another’ (Galatians 5: 13; also see Romans 14: 13; 1 Corinthians  8: 9).

Here, then, is a Christ-centred vision for where God wants to take us. As the risen Lord alone is able to empower his people, Jesus’ role is crucial in our personal transformation. Present through the ministry of the Holy Spirit he calls us to be ‘holy and blameless and irreproachable before him’ (Colossians 1: 22). He makes it possible for us to choose rightly and to live lives worthy of the gospel—worthy of him.

4.     Respect involves recognising differences

It is one thing to affirm making right choices, but how does this mesh with being different? How far do we go in promoting difference? Do we want (or expect) everyone to be the same?

There is clearly a ‘divine diversity’ in the world. We respect personal difference (physique, temperament, talents), gender difference (male and female), cultural and ethnic diversity (Aboriginal, European, Asian, Pacific Islander, etc)—even obvious lifestyle variations and choices (where we live, what job we do, whether we marry or remain single, whether we choose to have children or not and how we raise them). Does this divine diversity also extend to variation within the genders? Are we left with not two, but an ever-expanding range of gender choices: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual? Are there other areas of human experience where difference is not merely to be accepted, but promoted?

Historically, sincere  Christians have adhered to a whole cluster of social mores that have acquired the status of moral law: anti-drinking, anti-smoking, anti-dancing, anti-gambling, anti sport on Sunday—‘anti’ most societal norms. Yet today alcohol is widely accepted within the evangelical world. Wine is on the table of many evangelical households, beer is drunk at church-sponsored functions, young people dance and listen to pop music, Christian colleges teach contemporary music and the performing arts.

The perceived gap between Christian and secular has narrowed. Yet the Christian world still remains more socially conservative. Society supports the notion of freedom of expression, including the (increasing) use of profanity in popular media. Society accepts same-sex relationships as a given, including the right of both gay women and gay men to parent children. Society draws the line at paedophilia, but still tolerates adult pornography and a whole range of sexual experimentation. It is true to say evangelical people still feel uneasy about these aspects of contemporary Australian life—and rightly so.

Whilst we may want to respect a broad diversity within humankind, recognising the right of people to be different and rejoicing in the richness that Australia’s cultural diversity has brought us, as ‘people of the Book’ we will also want to critique other aspects of society. Though there are many human rights protected by law—in US parlance, ‘inalienable’—these rights are not unlimited, but subject to the law of God. The language of rightsis problematic at the best of times.

As Australia responds both to cultural diversity and rival truth claims, especially in the domain of faith or religious belief, our role as Christians in society and our views on a range of social issues are likely to be viewed less sympathetically.

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