Over the past several years, a growing number of Christians have shifted their theology to affirm monogamous gay unions and gay marriage.
They didn’t wake up one day and decide to change their beliefs. They got to know LGBTQ+ people, and listening to their experiences or watching their lives made them question what they’d previously thought, including their theology.
If you’re in a place of questioning what the Bible says about homosexuality or if you’re simply concerned about the number of Christians breaking with traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality, this article is for you. In this article, I’m going to talk about three things:
1. The value of real experiences with real people.
2. The Bible and sexuality.
3. A different vision for Christians seeking to live, as Jesus did, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:25).
Real Lives, Real People
What prompts people to examine or re-examine what Scripture teaches about homosexuality has more to do with people they know and their experiences than it has to do with something they discover in the pages of the Bible. This isn’t a criticism. Real people with real stories have a way of changing our perspective, and this is a good thing.
Mother Theresa, who spent her life with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India, said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
Without listening to real people’s stories, we cannot know them. And if we do not know them, we cannot truly love them.
If, on the other hand, holding to our theology requires us to close our ears and eyes to real people’s real life experience, then our theology is not really Christian. After all, the focal point of Christianity is the incarnation—when God took on flesh and entered fully into our real lives.
So if you haven’t, listen to the stories of gay and lesbian men and women. As you do, you’ll be challenged, you’ll hear pain, you’ll discover common ground, and you’ll come face to face with a living soul whom God loves.
Over the past 18 years, I’ve been privileged to hear many stories of men and women walking with homosexuality. Their stories have included pieces like these:
• “After I told my friend about my homosexuality, he pulled away. I got the impression he was either disgusted with me or was afraid people would think he was gay by association. Either way, it hurt like hell.”
• “Hoping for support and accountability, I shared about my lesbian attractions with a girl in my Christian fellowship. She was so gracious and understanding and our friendship deepened. But eventually, our relationship turned sexual. Now I’m afraid to grow close to any women in my life.”
• “I don’t really go to church anymore. It’s too tiring trying to pretend I’m something I’m not, and I know I won’t be accepted if people find out I’m homosexual. ”
• “I didn’t choose to be gay. I was actually scared when I started having feelings for other girls in my school. How can something I didn’t choose be a sin?”
• “Our pastor growing up would talk about how gays are going to hell. Meanwhile, I’m a scared little kid sitting there knowing I’m gay. At night, I cried myself to sleep, begging God to make me straight. But he didn’t.”
• “I tried to change. I went through Christian programs and therapy. When it didn’t work, I felt like something was wrong with me. I finally reached the point where I decided I was done hating myself and done being alone. I left that church and found a new one that supports me just the way I am.”
Real stories like these stir something in us. When we see the pain people are living with and when we observe hypocrisy or injustice in church first-hand, we think: “This isn’t the version of Christianity I signed up for. This isn’t the Jesus I know and love. Something’s got to give.”
Something does have to give. Here I agree, and I hope you do, too.
But it’s not the Church’s traditional understanding of the Bible’s view of homosexuality that needs to give. What does may surprise you, and it will certainly cost us all much more than affirming gay unions will.
The Bible and Sexuality
While this isn’t an article that will thoroughly exegete what Scripture has to say about homosexuality, I do want to touch on what the Bible conveys about sexuality more broadly, and I want to offer what I believe is much-needed guidance for all of us when bringing our questions about homosexuality to the Scriptures.
Revisionists suggest that the church’s traditional understanding of certain Old and New Testament passages about homosexuality are incorrect. They say that these passages don’t mean what we’ve thought they mean, that they’re not about what we thought they were about, and that committed homosexual unions as we know them today are an entirely different thing than what’s condemned in the pages of the Bible. Here are the passages in question:
Leviticus 18:22, 20:13
1 Corinthians 6:9
1 Timothy 1:10
At face value, the passages seem to condemn same-sex sex, but revisionists raise questions about textual context, translation, inconsistencies in church practice, and cultural context. Some of their arguments are more compelling than others. If you want to read more about this, you can read revisionist authors like Matthew Vines, David Gushee, or Daniel Kirk, but if you do, make sure also read authors who represent the traditional view like Dr. Robert Gagnon, Joe Dallas, and Kevin DeYoung.
For a brief explanation of some of the revisionist arguments for each and responses to these arguments, you can look on Regeneration’s web site.
Whether you do or don’t explore these differing views, let me offer this guidance to all Christians concerned about this topic:
1. Look at Scripture as a Whole: Scripture is not a book about homosexuality. It speaks of same-sex sexual behavior only a handful of times. This isn’t because Scripture has little for us on the matter, but because Scripture is a book about something bigger.
Scripture speaks of a Creator God who, out of love, created humanity for a loving eternity with Him. It speaks of our rebellion against God and the devastation this rebellion brought to all God’s creation. It speaks of God’s enduring love and His pursuit of us, ultimately rescuing us through sacrificing Himself and rising from the dead. And it speaks of the day when our rescue will be completely realized and we can be with Him eternally.
Throughout Scripture from beginning to end, God unfolds this story on an even more personal level: His love is compared to the emotional and physical love between a husband and wife. This analogy is used more than any other in Scripture to express God’s relationship with His people.
Grapple with what this means.
God created male and female in His image. Just as God is Triune—three in One, man and woman together is a perfect, complementary fit. In the marital-sexual union, the two become one flesh, their love is joyous and it creates new life in their image—life and love begetting life.
This marital-sexual union furthermore expresses the great mystery (Ephesians 5:22-32) of Christ the Bridegroom and His church, the Bride. Jesus on the cross lovingly gave His body for His Bride; he poured out His life so that she might receive His life and live. Likewise, in marriage, a husband is called to give himself completely to his wife, to love her sacrificially, putting her needs before his own. In the marriage bed, he gives himself to his wife, and she, if she is willing, opens herself to receive him as he pours out his seed (life) into her where new life is conceived—unto a new birth.
To speak this way about God may feel scandalous to us, but that is only because we’ve been so influenced by a pornographic culture that devalues sex. To view these connections between a traditional Christian sexual ethic and deeply orthodox Christian spirituality is to believe we are in fact created in God’s image, that the Word became flesh because our bodies matter deeply to God and our maleness and femaleness are not inconsequential to the gospel, they’re signs pointing to it.
This is why Scripture begins and ends with a wedding. The first is between Adam and his bride who broke their union with their Creator, the last is between Christ and His Bride, the restoration of our union with our Creator.
To examine Bible passages about homosexuality apart from grasping this larger arch of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, is like trying to figure out if cholesterol is good or bad without knowing anything about human physiology. The Bible is not about homosexuality, but what the Bible is about certainly has implications for our understanding of homosexual sexual unions.
I’d recommend reading Christopher West, C.S. Lewis, John Piper, Edward Sri, and Tim Keller. As you do, ponder the meaning of our bodies, the meaning of marriage, and the spousal mystery of Christ and His Church. Ponder the magnitude of the incarnation.
2. Read Old Books: C.S. Lewis once wrote of how important it is for us to read Christian writers from previous centuries. In his words:
“Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old…A new book is still on its trial…It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages.”
Lewis is pointing out that each time period has its blind spots, errors, and unexamined assumptions, so that even as we argue with those on the “opposite side” of an issue, we actually are all approaching the argument with common assumptions—assumptions that people in other times would think absurd. A relevant example in our time, believe it or not, is the word “homosexual” itself. Before the end of the 19th century, no such word existed in English. People would refer to behavior (e.g. a man had sex with another man), but on a sexual identity level, there were only two: male and female. Whether you think this change in language is an advancement or not, it’s undeniable that the change has shaped our thinking significantly.
I spoke not long ago with a gay man in his sixties who has experienced a good deal of wounding by Christians over his lifetime. Toward the end of our conversation, I felt compelled to ask him if he saw any way that a Christian could get to know him, love and respect him, and see him as simply a man, rather than a “gay man.” This particular man’s response was emphatic: “Yes! That’s what I want! I just want people to see me as a man like any other guy out there!” Others might feel differently, but it seems to me our era’s use of “homosexual” as a descriptor connected to identity has limited this man in ways previous eras would not have.
Likewise, in the scope of Church history, non-traditional views on sex and marriage have only recently garnered attention among Christians. Christian saints for 2,000 years believed sex is to be reserved for marriage and marriage is to be between one man and one woman. Subsequently, they agreed that all forms of sexual behavior outside that context—from lust to adultery to masturbation to homosexual sex—were forbidden by God, without qualification. It’s fair to consider how our position would be viewed by Athanasius, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or even closer to our time, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, or Oswald Chambers.
We’re a part of a larger body than the Christian voices and influencers of our day, and unity with those who have gone before us matters, too.
3. Consider First-Hand Experience: Hearing real stories from gay men and lesbian women changes our perspective on the topic of homosexuality. In that very same vein, there are homosexually attracted Christian men and women who adhere to the traditional view. Some have and do remain celibate, while others have entered into heterosexual marriages and have children. Some have experienced varying degrees of change in their attractions and some have experienced no discernable changes. Some refer to themselves as “gay Christians,” some do not.
Their stories, although sometimes scoffed by the broader culture, offer a unique and important perspective, one that cannot be dismissed if we’re seeking to love those impacted by homosexuality. Examples include Rosaria Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay, Ed Hill’s Same-Sex Attraction and the Church, Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, Andrew Comiskey’s Strength in Weakness, Melinda Selmys’ Sexual Authenticity, and Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic, among others.
4. Test the Spirits: As post-enlightenment, evangelical Christians living in the West, we esteem highly each individual’s responsibility to look into a matter and come to his or her own conclusions. We see ourselves like the “noble-minded Bereans” in Acts 17 who examined the Scriptures themselves to “see whether these things were true,” and we believe with study and prayer, we’ll find the truth. There is so much good in this—so much good—and yet, we forget that Christ-followers have disagreed vehemently about vital matters of orthodoxy since the very beginning (see Acts 15:1 – 29), and several of these disagreements were only resolved by councils and creeds.
Despite our best efforts, we can be deceived and we can fall into grave error. Indeed, entertaining a simple question, “Did God really say…” led Eve to see a deadly piece of fruit as “pleasing to the eye and able to make one wise,” and we’ve been reaping the consequences of that ever since.
Because of this, we do well to look to the universal Church throughout time. As we do, we find no break with traditional views about marriage and sex. We also are wise to look at present day writers through a lens that “tests the spirits.” Consider what you’re reading or hearing in the light of foundational Christian doctrines like the Imago Dei, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, Christ’s Crucifixion and bodily Resurrection, the Judgment, the Life to Come and the Wedding of the Lamb. For example, you might ask, “According to this view, how does humanity express the image of God? If a husband and wife’s sexual union mirrors Christ and His church, what does this person’s view of homosexuality mirror? According to this view, does the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus have any bearing on my sexuality? According to this perspective what does it mean to deny myself, take up my cross daily, and follow Christ (Luke 9:23)?”
Likewise, do not go it alone. In contrast to our individualistic approach to Christianity, the fathers of our faith did not journey alone, nor did they come to their conclusions alone. Confess to God and others your doubts, your biases, your hopes, your fears, and your helplessness. To the individualist, living “by faith” means, in the end, it’s up to me to discern truth. But to the majority of Christians throughout the ages, living by faith includes trusting in the authority of both Scripture and the Church universal.
A Different Vision of Love
After 18 years of walking with men and women wrestling with what to do with their homosexual orientations, I’m convinced Jesus does not lead us away from what the Church has understood and taught about sex, sexuality, personhood, and marriage for over 2,000 years.
I am also fully convinced we can hold to the orthodox view and love gays and lesbians as Jesus does. The traditional orthodox Christian sexual ethic does not run contrary to love. Nor does it run contrary to grace, compassion, or humility. And for those with same-sex attractions, it doesn’t run contrary to a life of intimacy, belonging, and fulfillment.
Jesus was scandalous in who He spent time with, who He chose as His closest friends, who He ate and drank with, who He let touch Him, who He touched. He lived up close and personal with men and women rejected by the religious of His day. And that ought to give any thoughtful Christian pause when considering who we’re spending our time with, who we’re choosing, who we’re having over for dinner, who we’re opening our arms wide to, and who we’re pulling close and holding there, who we’re giving big, sloppy wet, holy kisses to.
How can we do likewise?
1. Return to the depth of our faith: Sexuality and spirituality in the Christian tradition are not opposed. They’re not even in separate parts of the house. Sex as God designed it is a sign pointing us heavenward. In a correlating way, so is celibacy. So for starters, invite Christ to reorient your sexuality. Homosexuality is by no means the only fallen experience of sexuality within the church. Heterosexuality does not, in and of itself, equal holy sexuality. Sexual desire, as Christopher West puts it, is meant to serve as a rocket aimed heavenward, but we’ve pointed that rocket toward the earth and are reaping destruction. Christian boundaries on sex are not because sex is so evil, but because it is so sacred. We must take pains to recapture this, not just intellectually, but day by day, and this will require a combination of our effort and God’s supernatural power.
2. Forsake your little gods: Jesus is not leading His followers away from orthodoxy. But I do believe He may indeed be leading us away from our individualistic, autonomous, consumeristic, homogenized, comfortable Christianity.
Idols of various kinds were once set up in cities, or temples, or homes, and those who worshiped them did so in hopes these gods would provide real life needs the people could not give themselves: rain for their crops, a good harvest, children, victory over their enemies, peace, healing from sickness. Today, our idols aren’t statues of wood and stone, but we look to them nonetheless for the same kinds of things, and they are set up and sacrificed to in our homes and even our churches.
3. Esteem Christian singleness: Despite the fact that Jesus was single, despite Paul’s words that it’s better not to marry so one can be wholly devoted to serving the Lord, evangelicals usually view singles those who aren’t “married yet.” Where’s the place in evangelical churches for maturing singles who are either choosing or accepting singleness as a way to fully serve the Lord? Not only where’s the place, but where’s the esteem?
Wesley Hill writes, “Jesus’ resurrection, and with it the promise of our collective resurrection, makes sexual abstinence a viable, honorable life choice. Skipping the earthly preview, believers can now jump straight to the main event of the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb,’ as the first-century prophet John called it, pinning all their hopes on the undying community to come and giving up sexual intimacy in the meantime.”
4. Open your home: Hill’s words above are true enough, and we must recognize that the real stories of real singles also includes loneliness and other real life challenges those in families don’t face. This is why 20-something gay Christians worry about submitting themselves to Church’s traditional view: If I don’t get married, what does my future hold? I’ll be alone, lonely, and longing for intimacy. My friends will all go off and create families of their own, but who will take care of me when I’m sick? Who will sit with me when I’m lonely? Who will care for me when I’m old? These are very real concerns. For those of us with families not to enter in to this is to be like picketers at an abortion clinic who won’t lift a finger to help an unwed teen mother.
Consider Jesus’ words in the context of the singles and the celibates in our congregations:
“I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me…Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me” (Matthew 25:42 – 43, 45).
Referring again to Wesley Hill’s words above, if single Christians can give up sexual intimacy by pinning their hopes on the Kingdom to come, married Christians can give up the quiet comfort of home and “family time” by offering hospitality to singles, by taking seriously, as the early disciples did, that we are now the family of God. This is a sacrifice to be sure, but the earthly preview that is marriage and family can be offered back to God, because the abundant, fully satisfying, peaceful, lavish, loving family gathering of the “marriage supper of the Lamb” is soon coming.
5. Take up your cross, embrace suffering: Western Christianity in the 21st century seems to suggest that if we’re following Jesus, it’ll make us happy, financially secure, enjoying a happy marriage, raising great kids, and enjoying a house designed by HGTV. But Jesus promised His followers no such thing. Living with unfulfilled romantic and sexual desires is painful. Your homosexual friends who choose to submit their sexuality to Jesus and live chastely will have ups and downs. They’ll hurt sometimes, they’ll get lonely, they’ll get tempted, they may even fall sexually. This isn’t a sign they’re not spiritual. It’s a sign they’re human beings living in a romance-obsessed, sex-worshiping, pornographied, fallen world.
To love as Jesus loves does not mean removing your brother or sister’s cross. Just as it was for Jesus, likewise for us, there is no resurrection without the cross. As Elisabeth Elliot (who knew a thing or two about living with unmet desire, grief, and loss) said years ago, “We are not meant to die merely in order to be dead. God could not want that for the creatures to whom He has given the breath of life. We die in order to live.”
That’s your loved one’s part. But your part is to enter in with your loved one in their difficulty. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). To love others as Jesus loves does not mean removing all their sufferings, but it does mean being willing to share in them, to walk with those who suffer, to weep with those who weep.
And this brings me to one final point: The quality of your love is not, in the end, measured by those you’re seeking to love. On a practical level, it is good and right to listen to LGBTQ+ loved ones to learn how your words and actions are impacting them. This is true for any relationship. A husband inclined toward doing has to learn when his wife just wants to be heard. A rough and tumble dad needs to learn the love language of a sensitive son. Paul had to become weak to win the weak and all things to all people in order to save some (1 Corinthians 9:22).
I grew up in a family that loved by giving words of affirmation. My wife’s family primarily feels loved through acts of service. I had to learn to pick up a hammer, a rake, or a sponge instead of just trying to strike up a conversation.
At the same time, the quality of your love is not ultimately judged by the person you’re seeking to love. Otherwise, all manner of unhealthy relational dynamics arise. A drug addicted spouse may tell you you’re cruel for refusing to give him money. A student may feel you’re heartless for giving homework. An athlete may loathe you for pushing so hard. A child may hurt because you disciplined her. A patient may limp because you did surgery. A gay friend may feel rejected because you refuse to revise Scripture to affirm same-sex sexual unions. None of this means you acted without love.
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway. – Mother Theresa
If you are following Jesus and allowing His love to transform you as the man or woman He created you to be, your love, like His, may change the world. It also may be misunderstood, rejected, refused, ripped apart, spat upon, mocked, and crucified.
Thank God Jesus loved anyway. Let us go and do likewise.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God – Hebrews 11:39-12:2