Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Defining Vocabulary in the Homosexuality Discussion

A few weeks ago, I preached on Matthew 7:1-5, specifically, "Do not judge..." A small part of my sermon was calling us to be more compassionate and merciful to gay people inside and outside our community. One of my friends sent me an email later in the week asking for more information. I'd like to post part of her email and my response. I want to direct your attention particularly to how go about discussing homosexuality and how important it is that we are careful with what words we use and how we use them.

My friend:
I really enjoyed your sermon last week.  I really liked the part you said about going out of your way to show a gay person love.  I find
this is not the usual reaction for Christians, when it comes to homosexuals. But it seems like they need it the most! So, cheers to
that! I find it very difficult to understand them, but I know that I cannot judge them or their backgrounds that got them to where they
are. And I think that too much damage has been done by some people who say they follow Jesus, that they certainly don't need me to add to
it. My job is just to love them and accept them.

But, what I wanted clarification on, was what you said about the issue being debatable. Did you mean that many people debate whether it is a
sin? Or did you mean whether the Bible was unclear on it?

For me, the Bible is clear on the subject. There are many things that it doesn't say anything about, such as if music and dancing are okay
or if drinking in moderation is possible. But I feel that homosexuality is very clearly mentioned as off limits for the

I want to know, I guess, how you interpret Scripture.

My response:
Thanks for your feedback and your question.
Actually, in my sermon, when I said that homosexuality is "debatable" or "disputable," I meant that it is actually debated and disputed. I think that any time there are a wide variety of Christians (especially Christians whom we otherwise respect) who have differing opinions about an issue (ethical, political, theological), then we should approach those issues with a great deal of humility and a high expectation for mutual listening. I also tend to believe that we should not let issues like this (issues on which there is widespread standing disagreement) divide our fellowship.
Many Christians from a wide range of backgrounds and denominations take stances on both sides (or on the fence) on this issue. I have been very surprised to discover many otherwise very conservative Christian leaders who are fairly outspoken either in favor of gay marriage or in favor or an intentional stance of ambiguity.
Homosexuality is clearly in a different category than many other debatable issues (issues for which there is little or no direct discussion in the Bible). I think it is unwise and possibly prideful for us to say this issue is crystal clear when so many people within the body of Christ clearly disagree. I also don't think it will do to say that anyone who believes that homosexuality is OK is clearly not a Christian. So in terms of our interaction and discussion on this issue, I feel a deep need for humility and awareness that any of us (or all of us) might be wrong.

OK, so that's where I was coming from in the sermon, but that doesn't fully answer your question. You want to know what I believe and how I interpret scripture on this issue.
Before I answer that question, I think it would be good to discuss the issue of language. Many times our discussions and judgments get cloudy or inaccurate because of a muddled use of language. Here's what I mean. "Homosexuality" is a sexual or romantic attraction to the same gender. It is a descriptive term of a person's "orientation" or desires. A "homosexual" is a person who has or feels this orientation. "Homosexual practice" is sexual activity (including intention and mental fantasies) involved in a homosexual relationship.
As I understand it, even from the most conservative view point (which is still rationally consistent), only homosexual practice would qualify as sin. Having an illegitimate desire is not sinful. Acting on that illegitimate desire with our minds or bodies is sinful.
We have to apply the same standard that we apply to heterosexuals. For example, there were times when I was in college, when I really wanted to go to a Frat Party and have a one night stand. That desire was illegitimate. However, simply wanting to have sex was not sinful. That is very natural. If I had acted on that desire for a one night stand, or if I intentionally fantasized about what that would be like, then that would be sin.
My point here is that simply having homosexual desires or a homosexual orientation is not sinful. For example, there are many Catholic priests and nuns who are gay. The most famous was Henri Nouwen. He chose to be celibate so that he could remain faithful his vows within the Catholic church (and possibly to his understanding of the Bible - I don't know about that). Yet Henri Nouwen has been a source of inspiration for Christ-followers around the world. The fact that he was attracted to men and not to women is irrelevant since he didn't take action on that attraction.
This may not seem like an important point, but it is. When we condemn "homosexuality" in general, we are condemning people for their desires and orientations - regardless of how they have acted in response to those desires. We are condemning people who valiantly choose to be a single, celibate gay than any of the other options available to them.
From another perspective, my personal desires are for an abundance of unhealthy foods. I could eat ice cream and barbecue and nachos until I was 400 pounds. My desire for those foods is clearly out of balance and illegitimate (gluttony). However, I'm not acting on those desires to overeat (at least not often), so the desires remain the realm of potentiality (or temptation) not actual sin.
So, even though the language is a little awkward, I think we need to make the discussion about "homosexual practice" not "homosexuality." People may or may not be able to change their orientation or desires, but all people can change their actions. I know that there are several Christian programs to help gay people go straight, but they don't work for everyone.
Also, if we attack "homosexuality," most gay people will feel like we are attacking their very identity - who they are as a person. That is very different from attacking sins like: gossip, lying, debt, etc. Our identity is not usually wrapped up in those issues, but for most people their sexual orientation is part of their identity as a person.

I still didn't answer her last question - about how I interpret scripture on this issue - but I decided to stop there. I think this discussion of language is prior to how we interpret scripture, which is bound up in language. I don't think this is the time or place for me to make a definite statement about how we deal with the scriptures on this issue. However, I think it is fair to say that this issue is extremely complex and heavily laden with emotional connotations. We need to talk about it, and we need to talk humbly, with lots of grace, and with a deep desire to learn from the other people who are talking.
My prayer in all of this is that we will be truly faithful to Jesus in all of this, and being truly faithful may necessarily mean leaning hard toward grace and mercy.
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