Framing the Church’s human sexuality debate appropriately

Human sexuality is a heavily debated topic in the church right now. Sadly, most of the debate involves directly talking past each other. People on opposite sides of the discussion focus on different aspects of the debate and rarely acknowledge they understand what’s being said from the other side.

Though they break down into many smaller camps, the discussions I see break into two primary camps: those who believe the church should be fully open to practicing homosexuals,1 and those who don’t. I dislike all the typical terms used for these two groups, so here I’m going to refer to these groups as the Openness Camp and the Holiness Camp, respectively, based on the primary arguments I tend to hear from each side.

[I’m trying to be neutral with these two identifiers. I’m open to suggestions of better terms and not trying to make any larger statement with them. These terms are not meant to suggest that any camp doesn’t care about openness or holiness. They’re simply to represent the primary argument the group is making.]

Let’s try to properly frame the issues here.

Sexual orientation & Scriptural authority

Holiness Camp, you need to quit talking about sexual orientation in negative terms. Quit debating whether someone can be inclined to homosexual attraction from birth. And for Christ’s sake, don’t even think about excluding anyone from the church or Christian fellowship because of sexual orientation!

You begin with the premise that homosexual behavior is sinful. We’ll get to that later. But you’re doing incredible harm and creating a logical inconsistency for yourselves when you assume that anyone of LGBTQI orientation needs to be “fixed” or should be excluded from church membership or leadership based on sexual orientation.

Attraction isn’t the issue here. If you exclude everyone who is attracted to someone whom they shouldn’t have sex with, you’ll just about empty the church. Nor is the issue about anyone’s inclination to do something that you believe is sinful. Inclinations and sexual orientation aren’t the issue.

Also, Holiness Camp, you’re not helping yourselves to argue that you believe in scriptural authority and the other side doesn’t. Most Openness Camp people will also claim Scripture as authority. They’re interpreting Scripture differently than you are, and that’s a fair debate to have. But don’t accuse them of “not believing the Bible.”

Hospitality/Exclusion

Openness Camp, you need to drop the hospitality/exclusion rhetoric. Stop saying things like, “The church should be open to all people.” You don’t mean it, and you’re going to back yourselves into an uncomfortable corner.

First, if being open to all people means “regardless of sexual orientation,” then I think we should all be able to agree. Yes–full membership and leadership in the church should be open to people of all sexual orientations. See above.

Second, if being open to all people means “regardless of sexual behavior,” then I don’t think you really mean it. Will you allow full membership and leadership rights to someone who openly has one-night stands every week?2 Yes, we believe God still loves this person. Yes, we believe final judgment belongs to God alone. Yes, we believe Jesus called us to love and hospitality and gave an example of such. But still, you probably won’t give this person full membership and leadership rights. You have lines, too. The “hospitality” and “love” arguments don’t hold up for you. It’s time to drop them (except when the Holiness Camp is violating what I asked them to drop above).

A pastor in the UMC just asked in a Time Magazine article, “If what you understand to be an act of love is declared a sin by the Church, what does that do to your soul, your understanding of morality and salvation?” This is a deeply flawed and unserious question. The Church would say that many things dubbed as “acts of love” are sinful. Extramarital affairs, polygamy, incest…3 Yes, many people engaging in these things may deem them “acts of love,” but does that mean the Church should be silent about them, or endorse them?

The Real Issue

Openness Camp, some of you were just offended that I used one-night stands in analogy to homosexual practice. That’s likely because you don’t believe homosexual behavior is sinful (many of you would qualify that to say, “if it’s in a committed, monogamous relationship”), but you believe one-night stands are. And that leads us to the two real issues–how the church handles sin and whether homosexual practice is sin.

Let’s handle the easier one first. The church cannot be fully open for membership and leadership to those who don’t earnestly repent of their sins. Persistent, willful sin can’t be ignored. There are thousands of sub-debates that can ensue. “What makes one sin worse than another?” or “Who made you judge?” or “Sounds like a witch hunt.” Those are mostly red herrings. Go back to the example above about the promiscuous person. Will you allow that person to be your pastor? That persistent, willful sin was judged problematic enough that almost everyone will exclude that person from leadership, possibly membership (an issue to get into more later). So we’re nearly all on the same page here. Persistent, willful sexual sin should at least prevent someone from being in leadership in the church. Yes, I said “sexual sin.” I say that because I know of no churches that will stand for their pastors committing obvious sexual sin (e.g. one-night stands or adulterous relationships). My hope is that we’ll go well beyond “sexual sin,” but it seems there’s at least already common ground here.

This leads to the more difficult issue: is homosexual behavior sinful? And for this, we have to do the hard exegetical and hermeneutical work. We need to look at Scripture and the Church’s tradition. I’m not attempting that in this post. But I believe this must be the framing issue for the discussion.

If we don’t call homosexual behavior sin, then all the rest is void. If this is acceptable behavior in light of Scripture and the orthodox faith, then it should have no bearing on full membership and leadership opportunities.

Holiness Camp — you’ve got to quit accusing others of turning a blind eye to sin and/or not believing the Bible. You disagree on an exegetical issue, not on whether sin is a big deal. And your demeaning attitude toward those who disagree with you is, well, sinful.

If we call homosexual practice sinful, then the arguments about hospitality and God’s love only come to bear in determining how we remain hospitable and loving in the face of sin. And the Openness Camp must admit that they don’t fully open membership and leadership rights to everyone, regardless of sins they are committing.

Openness Camp — you’ve got to quit accusing others of lacking love or hospitality. You disagree on an exegetical issue, not on love. And your demeaning attitude toward them is, well, less than loving.

For any of you who really are doing what you’re doing because you don’t care about love or hospitality or sin… you’re wrong. But I don’t think many of you will claim that as your position.

This may all strike you as rather obvious. Yet I think it’s necessary to emphasize a proper framework here, since it seems that the discussion keeps ending up chasing the rabbits of hospitality/exclusion and sexual orientation–or even worse, making appeals to what our culture thinks is best or arguing about how our secular government should rule on gay marriage.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether I’m framing this correctly.

BIG NOTE: I don’t want the comments turning into a fight over whether homosexual practice is a sin. I want to know what you think about the framework. I will DELETE any comments that turn the argument here into the question of whether this is sin.

————–

  1. I use this language here, as it’s the language used in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which I’m watching debated.
  2. A note: this is not to compare someone in a monogamous homosexual relationship to someone having one-night stands. This is simply to note that all of us deem certain behaviors–and even certain sexual behaviors–incompatible with leadership in the church.
  3. For the sake of clarity, and at the risk of redundancy, this is not to compare a monogamous homosexual relationship to an extramarital affair. It is simply to acknowledge that all of us deem certain “acts of love” as sinful. We’re establishing common ground here. Now we’ll need to press into the harder work of identifying which “acts of love” we would deem sinful. But we all have a line somewhere…

30 thoughts on “Framing the Church’s human sexuality debate appropriately

  1. Teddy-

    I think you’re off to a good start. I’ve contended for sometime that Scripture is also a starting place both sides need to drop lest they be inconsistent. If we’re looking through our lenses of interpretation (i.e. the Wesleyan Quad), then both sides have a claim to parts of the text. Therefore neither has a true claim of scriptural authority. This is actually an argument of Tradition vs. Experience — Does our ongoing experience make for a viable challenge of a traditional reading of the text?

    Keep up the good work! I hope you do a follow-up based on the responses you get here.

    • Good question about experience, Ben. My general approach to the use of experience in theological method is what Thomas Oden suggests: “Scripture and tradition are received, understood, and validated through personal experience, but not judged or arbitrated or censored by it.”

      What do you think?

  2. I think you have framed the discussion well, Tedd. In my experience discussing this issue with people on both sides, there seems to be a serious hijacking of terms and attempts to pigeon-hole the other side. I too have been guilty of both at times, but I hope that the discussion can take a turn so that we can begin to allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to bring healing and lead us toward our mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ. I will reference your work here in an effort to more fully understand the discussion and how to reach out to my brothers and sisters with whom I disagree. Thank you for bringing this to light.

  3. Teddy, this is a good beginning to the discussion. The question that immediately pops into my mind is then what do you do if scripture don’t give a clear answer to the issues of homosexuality? There are a number of modern topics that are hard to parse because the scriptures either don’t spend a lot of time on the issue or it is an issue that didn’t come up in the same way in the period of history that the scriptures were written. Or, even the context was very different.

    For example, human cloning isn’t discussed in the Bible. The Bible has a mixed record on the issue of slavery. etc.

    So what do you do if you do the exegetical and hermeneutical work and still don’t come out with a clear answer?

    • Thanks Tim. You’re right that Scripture doesn’t point-blank address a lot of today’s issues. We can’t look to Scripture as an easy-answer book in those occasions. Nevertheless, I think the Scriptures and the Church’s historic theological tradition have a lot to give us on these sorts of issues. For me to really explore that would take a lot of thinking and writing. I’m sure others have done this well. I might try to post some of those resources in the future because your questions are the ones many people have.

      In the meantime, I would suggest reading something by William T. Cavanaugh. He’s a professor of theology at DePaul University and approaches today’s climate with what I would call a brilliant theological imagination.

  4. In what you call the “holiness” camp, I notice disgust for gay people. Not always, perhaps, but some feel it.

    And therefore you get lies. They state there is no gay gene, and deny orientation can exist.

    • Hi Clare,

      I’m sad to hear that, though I’ve seen some of the same. This is why I’m pleading with that camp to drop the issues regarding orientation. That’s a road that doesn’t lead anywhere helpful (and has led to some pretty harmful places), in my humble opinion.

      • Amen. Sadly I too have seen folks who hold hurtful views. If I felt the choice was between hating gay people and loving them I’d choose love every time. I’m glad to have found I can love everyone while still holding onto my own convictions.

  5. Teddy,
    I like the general framework you present here. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not completely comfortable with the language of “Holiness camp.” I think I fully understand the point you are making. However, I believe that language in and of itself can turn some people off, as if to imply that anyone not of their camp is not concerned with holiness. Since I believe the issue of sexuality, in and of itself isn’t a moral issue, I’d hesitate to use that label. Sexual behavior is surely a moral issue, thus concerning the “holiness” factor. But general sexuality is not, as I understand it, a moral issue. I hope this makes sense. I’m not sure that I have a great suggestion for a better label. And again, I think I fully understand why you used that label. I just know that in the extensive interaction I’ve had surrounding this issue, that language could cause problems that would prematurely close doors.

    Secondly, I think to fully understand the broad framework, there also exists a necessity to differentiate between sexual orientation and someone’s overall identity. This is vitally important, in my experience and understanding.

    Again, I hope this makes sense and is helpful. Thanks for gently laying a more useful framework than most people have done.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Jeffrey. I worried about the use of “Holiness Camp” much more than the use of “Openness Camp” for the reasons you list. Shows it wasn’t just me who was sensitive to that. If anyone could suggest a better neutral name, I’d love to change it. For what it’s worth, “Openness Camp” isn’t to imply that the others aren’t “open.” In all, I’d say one of the main charges of those who favor open acceptance of homosexual behavior is that the others aren’t “open.” And one of the main charges of those who don’t accept it is that the others aren’t concerned enough about “holiness.” I’m not sure either of those charges are (usually) fair.

      I agree with you about the issue of sexuality not being a moral issue. This is about behavior, not orientation. I tried to say that but may not have been clear enough.

      Finally, I absolutely agree that someone’s overall identity transcends his/her sexual orientation. Thanks for pointing that out.

  6. You ask the question :
    Have I framed the argument correctly?

    From a researchers standpoint, you have begun with prejudice.
    The subject of any unbiased study is from “cradle to grave” without preconceived ideas, prejudice or assumptions.
    The results of the study form the conclusion and not he other way around.
    In your framework you have drawn conclusions.
    The “harm done” statement is a conclusion.
    Holiness camp is a term used that is prejudicial..
    The problem with this issue is the human factor.
    It always falls to a judgment call, (no matter what the data concludes) to the “harm factor’ to the person, to the church and authority and reliability of scripture.

  7. In general, I agree with your formulation of the disagreement, Teddy. The real issue is whether homosexual behavior is sinful. I want to push back a bit on your critique of the holiness position. If homosexual behavior is a sin (as the holiness camp maintains), then the word “attraction” really means “temptation.” One should not be excluded from the church based on the fact that they have temptations. We all do. However, the temptation to drink alcohol to excess is not alcoholism–but drinking too much can be. The temptation to steal is not kleptomania–but stealing compulsively can be. In other words, its the actions, not the temptations, that cause the problem. So I am with you in saying that persons with temptations to sexual sin (homosexual or heterosexual) should not be excluded from the church.

    However, it can be helpful in the course of our struggle to resist and overcome temptation in our lives to examine where the temptation comes from. It is helpful for the alcoholic to examine his/her family of origin and life experiences that may have opened them up to that particular temptation, for example. (There may be a genetic predisposition, but environmental factors appear to be decisive in unleashing the alcoholism.) In the same way, it can be helpful to understand the family of origin issues and life experiences that can unleash homosexual temptation. For example, a very high percentage of lesbians have experienced rape or sexual assault from a man sometime before their lesbian attractions develop. Wouldn’t it make sense to try to bring Christ’s healing into those places of sexual violation, with perhaps the result being that the lesbian attractions would diminish?

    That is the motivating factor behind why the holiness camp people talk about the origin of sexual orientation. If we say it is genetically determined, we end up going in one of two directions: 1) Since it is genetically determined, it must be “natural” and therefore acceptable. It is unfair to ask someone to act counter to their genetic makeup (like asking a left-handed person to live right-handedly). 2) Since it is genetically determined, there is nothing we can do about it. You just have to suck it up and find a way to abstain from sex in order to comply with God’s requirements.

    I would much rather have a third option on the table that says, there may be factors in your life that motivate or strengthen the homosexual temptations that you experience. With God’s help, there may be healing possible in relation to those factors. It may not stop the temptations, but it could help weaken them and make it possible to live in victory over them. This is much different from saying that they must be “fixed,” especially that their temptations need to go away before they become acceptable to God or the church. That is not the holiness camp position.

    This may be more than you wanted to deal with in this post. I’ll understand if you need to delete this comment. Overall, I think you are on the right issue of whether or not homosexual behavior is sinful.

    • I would not necessarily want this comment deleted, because I am glad it is shown such views persist, but I call these views a Devilish and Evil denial of the truth.

      Rape and abuse makes you lesbian.” No, it doesn’t.

      I am transsexual. Like most of my kind, I struggled very hard to make a man of myself. My family wanted me manly, and gave me the beautiful archetype of the Christian Gentleman as something to aspire to.

      We are human beings!! Listen to us!! We tell you we are born this way. We tell you of our struggles to change, because the heteronormative world can be pretty toxic for us, driving so many of us to suicide, and because of the lies about God people like you tell us. Listen to the APA and the APA!! They are scientists, seeking truth and healing, not Satanic conspirators with the Gay Agenda.

      Can you open your heart to us by the size of a mustard seed? Can you realise that we really are born this way?

      • Hi Clare,

        First, I agree with you that many people who are LGBT were likely born with those attractions. I think there’s enough honest science and life testimony to support that. And regardless of one’s position on homosexual behavior, I don’t believe anything in Christian theology precludes us from believing people can be born with homosexual attractions.

        Second, just so you don’t get too upset by Tom’s remarks — I don’t think his intention was to say that “rape and abuse makes you lesbian.” I think he rightly points out that these experiences can be so traumatic as to change someone’s attractions. I’m sure that has happened to some people. I’m also sure that it’s not true for many people.

        Just so you know, I chose to remove one of your paragraphs, with link, as it began taking us down the road of whether homosexual behavior is sinful. If I let that can of worms open — when it wasn’t the purpose of this post — it just won’t close.

      • Teddy, that is fine by me. That whole comment is making rather than framing the argument. However I think that a factual argument- are we born that way? cannot be answered Biblically, but by evidence: practical theology if you like, look around and see how the World really is, by testimony of people, some of whom think homosexual lovemaking is sinful, and by science. I came across a blogger arguing that we could not be born that way, because Romans 1 calls our lovemaking “unnatural”.

    • Hi Tom,

      Well this probably is more than I wanted to deal with in this post, but I think it’s helpful. And you’re not presenting an argument about whether or not homosexual behavior is sinful (the arguments I didn’t want to get into here) but critiquing some of what I’ve said here. I’ll leave it for now, so long as this doesn’t begin to become a forum for arguments about the origins of homosexual orientation. I’ve seen enough evidence to believe that not all people who claim any particular sexual orientation were genetically predisposed to it. I’ve also seen enough to be convinced that many people are genetically predisposed to a particular sexual orientation. Yes, I just gave myself the last word on the issue. I’ll delete my comment along with the others if a fight breaks out over it.

      I’d say you’re right to point out that if we call homosexual behavior sinful, it makes sense to call that attraction a temptation and to offer some therapy. I would note that I’ve had plenty of attractions to women who weren’t my wife, and I think it’s equally fair to call those temptations — and to offer therapy if it would be helpful.

      • Is all attrraction outside heterosexual marriage truly “temptation”? I think this is an assumption- filled statement. To be attracted can mean simply noticing beauty. That’s not temptation. It’s appreciation. A temptation may be associated with it, but should not be confused with it.

        *I’m not offended if this comment needs to be deleted because it distracts from your post. You made it clear that you might choose to do so. I offer my thoughts with that knowledge.

        • Hi Tom,

          That’s a good point. I suppose we can get into parsing words here. Indulge me. I would tend to define “attraction” as a bit different from recognizing something/someone as “attractive.” That is, I’m seeing and using the word “attraction” here as “sexually attracted to” (as it was used in this context). So as intended and used, I mean to suggest that “attraction” has inherent temptation involved in it. But I would distinguish that from calling something/someone “attractive,” which can be done with no temptation. I can state that I believe a man or woman is attractive, without having a sexual attraction toward them. If I had that sexual attraction, but it would be sinful to act on it, then I would call that temptation.

          This is similar to a conversation I just had where I said we can fear God without being afraid of God. The former is good, the latter is unnecessary. But if this seems like I’m just splitting hairs here, I’m also open to the suggestion of different words to make the same point.

  8. Teddy-

    I don’t have a whole lot to add here theologically but am grateful that you’re attempting to re-frame this discussion that has turned into a stale mate. I wish so much that both sides of this discussion could just back up and start over. I wish the gay and lesbian community could have the hurts they have experienced from the Christian communities erased. When I listen to stories of how my friends have been treated in communities of faith I’m heartbroken. And I wish that as the Christian community we would take a step back and realize something is not working in the way we are approaching this. I think as Christians it is up to us to fall on our faces before the Lord and ask Him to move us forward into His Way which allows us to be open, loving and holy all at once. It is only through God’s grace and leading that we can re-shape this discussion to make it a beneficial one and I’m thankful you have decided to delve into it! I think we should all prayerfully do the same.

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  11. It is as you say an exegetical issue. I’m a bit uncomfortable casting this as openness vs holiness. I care a lot about holiness and I think it’s possible for someone outside the lines of binary gender normality to live in a holy chaste monogamous sexual relationship.

    • Morgan, I would add that those I’m calling the “Holiness Camp” care a lot about openness. I chose the names based on the primary arguments I’m hearing from either side. As you’ll see in the comments above, I was hesitant to suggest anything beyond neutrality in these names and would be open to others.

      I’ve removed the rest of your comment, as it attempts to debate what is sin. An argument I’ve said I don’t care to sponsor here.

      • Judging from the rest of the comments, I’m not sure you’re applying that standard evenly. As a general rule, I don’t edit other peoples’ words when they comment on my blog. I do appreciate your trying to wrestle with this issue in a way that seeks to be fair to everyone and avoid time-wasting acrimony. I see your heart, and I think your approach to this is honorable.

      • Thanks Morgan. And thanks for your affirmations about providing a place to discuss framing properly. I think the large majority of what I see and hear would go away if people could understand the true nature of this debate.

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  13. I agree that one’s scriptural hermeneutic has a lot to do with where one resides on these issues. However, I also think that theology, in particular hamartiology, has a lot to do with how people think through these issues. This undoubtedly intersects with scriptural interpretation, but I think it also exists outside of the Scriptures. It also intersects with modern understandings of science and truth. If we are trying to affectively delineate how and why there is such a disagreement in this, I think the framework is incomplete without the outlining the differences of understanding pertaining to sin.

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