Recently, I’ve seen more discussion than usual about the homosexuality debate in the church. Several sub-debates seem to rage on within this larger debate. I think many of those are doing more to distort and confuse the issue than they’re doing to help. They lead to a lot of talking past each other.
Though they break down into many smaller camps, there are generally two camps in the discussions I see: those who believe the church should be fully open to homosexuals, 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.]
Let’s try to properly frame the issues here.
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 LGBT 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 an inclination to do something you believe is sinful. Some people are born inclined to compulsive consumption of alcohol. We call that alcoholism. Some are born with a unique urge to steal. We call that kleptomania. Surely the church doesn’t exclude anyone with these inclinations. Inclinations and sexual orientation aren’t the issue.
Openness Camp, you need to drop the hospitality 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? 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… 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.” Yet I think those are mostly red herrings. Go back to the example above of 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 I think 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 a line in the sand 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 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.
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. You disagree on an exegetical issue, not on whether sin is a big deal. And your demeaning attitude toward them is, well, sinful.
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 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.
- Why The Church Is So Concerned With Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination – Tim Tennent wrote this excellent article to people who already believe that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching, explaining why the debate must be a big deal for them in the church, even if they don’t want it to be. You really should go read it if you’re among those who believe homosexual behavior is sinful.
- Stealing – an attempt to show that whatever the issues are here, I don’t think they are about bigotry or inhospitality. At least, they shouldn’t be.