Before You Talk or Write about Homosexuality…

A few friendly tips, if I may, for those Christian leaders, preachers, professors, pundits, activists, and anyone else who wants to participate in our culture’s ongoing discussion of homosexuality, whether same-sex marriage, bullying in schools, the rights of religious institutions or individuals to discriminate on the basis of their traditions, and so on:

• Do your homework: You can’t plausibly discuss matters from a serious Christian point of view—or even just about Christian views you don’t share—unless you’ve actually studied the main text of the Christian religion, the Bible. No more quoting just a few choice verses on this side or that. Either study the whole Bible’s teaching on sexuality, or keep quiet. Otherwise, you’re really just reasoning from your own intuitions and pasting on a few Bible verses as ornaments…or firing them as ammunition.

• Same with the legal and political situations. Don’t just refer vaguely to “the Charter” or “the Bill of Rights” or this or that piece of legislation, but actually find out what is and isn’t legal, what is affirmed and what is merely tolerated, and what is being proposed and what isn’t.

• Situate anything you say about homosexuality within the context of sexuality in general. If you’re discussing the ethics of homosexuality, make sure you’re discussing them in the context of a comprehensive sexual ethic. If you’re discussing homosexuality and church life, make sure you’re discussing it in terms of  all the church needs to say and do about sexuality. If you’re considering homosexuality and public policy, make sure you’re considering all of sexuality and public policy, not just the parts dealing with one, small sector of the population.

•Make clear that you appreciate that everyone faces sexual challenges. Sex is so deeply connected with matters of identity, self-esteem, happiness, social relations, and more that no one could plausibly claim to be perfectly healthy in this regard. So always talk about homosexuality as just one aspect of universal aspirations, struggles, successes, frustrations, joys, dysfunctions, delights, and sorrows in the sexual sector of life.

• Keep matters in proportion. Make sure heterosexuality, and particularly heterosexual misbehaviour, comes in for its proportionate share of attention. Make clear why homosexual behaviour is treated so seriously in Scripture…and then deal with the fact that the Church has rarely been as concerned as it ought to be about all the those things listed alongside homosexual actions.

• Acknowledge ambiguity. Don’t be more clear, or categorical, or comprehensive than the Bible is. In fact, it’s always a good rule not to try to be more holy or strict than God.

• Tell the hard truths. Tell them lovingly, but tell them. Avoid the easy yeses and noes, but don’t avoid the hard yeses and noes. Otherwise, we’re just “making nice” and not seriously addressing serious issues.

• Make sure those hard yeses and noes include matters of love as well as truth, matters of compassion alongside matters of correctness, matters of health alongside matters of happiness, matters of forbearance as well as matters of faithfulness, and matters of discipline alongside matters of welcome.

• Know some people who identify as homosexual or LGBTQ+ or whatever, and know how things look and sound and feel from their (various) points of view. Don’t settle for generalizations about “the homosexual community” (as if there is one and they meet down at the “homosexual lodge” on Thursday nights). Then keep considering how what you’re about to write or say is going to be heard by your homosexual friends or neighbours or family members. You might decide not to say it. You might still say it, but it won’t sound the same coming from someone who is truly connected personally with the issues in this way. We need to know, “Do you see? And do you care?”

• Watch your language. Use terms carefully and define them. “Homosexuality,” “homosexual,” and the like are terms of relatively recent coinage, and those who want to offer leadership in these debates had better know something of the history and nature of this terminological thicket. Likewise, keep clear the differences among words such as “orientation,” “identity,” “desire,” and “action,” and understand at least something of the contests over their definitions and relationships. Certain activists, and both “pro” and “con,” prefer to blur these terms together as if they simply have to come as a package, and it will be both psychologically and politically helpful to keep them properly distinct. (I, for example, have particular desires of a particular orientation, but how I then act in regard to those desires reflecting that orientation is open for ethical consideration: I, and the Christian tradition generally, do not claim that I am entitled to act sexually simply on the basis of my sincerely held desires and authentic orientation. They are not necessarily a package.)

• Beware the cheap or loaded analogies. Sexual behaviour just isn’t the same as being a woman, or having an ethnic identity, or belonging to a particular religion. Yes, in some ways some of the matters involved are matters of civil rights on the same plane as women’s suffrage, say, or the just treatment of formerly oppressed ethnic groups. Yes, in some ways the matters involved are matters of individual or corporate freedom, as is the case with religious persons or communities. But in some ways choosing with whom you have sex just isn’t the same as being a women or being black or belonging to a religion. So if you’re not just trying to score points but actually pursue the truth, be careful about what is similar and what is different and avoid the misleading equation of This with That.

• Don’t talk or write about this terribly painful and political issue at all unless you can say everything you want to say about it. Don’t just “mention” it in passing in a sermon or column, and certainly don’t use it as an example of some other point you’re making. As soon as it comes up nowadays, everything else stops and our attention is riveted on it. So bring your whole message, or don’t even start.

• On any issue, an effective speaker or writer has to connect with his or her audience in terms of reason (logos), yes, and in terms of integrity (ethos), yes, but also in terms of feeling (pathos). All three have to be evident and abundantly evident in discussions of these vexed questions. So don’t try to get by with only a good argument, or a good reputation, or a good heart.

I have turned down far more invitations than I have accepted to discuss this issue in the media, in print, and in person because I truly don’t want to make things worse in a painful, polarized situation. It is so easy on this set of issues about which we all feel so strongly and about which so many are ready to quarrel simply to add gas to the fire, suffering to the wounded, frustration to the alienated, and fog to the confused.

So I take my time before I speak into this culture-wide, and now church-wide, set of conversations. And perhaps this checklist can help you prepare well for when you want to venture into them, also.

20 Responses to “Before You Talk or Write about Homosexuality…”

  1. brgulker

    Either study the whole Bible’s teaching on sexuality, or keep quiet. Otherwise, you’re really just reasoning from your own intuitions and pasting on a few Bible verses as ornaments…or firing them as ammunition.

    It seems to me that this piece of advice assumes that there is a cohesive, unified teaching from the bible regarding homosexuality.

    I think that most often when people are “pasting a few bible verses,” they are often attempting to undermine the idea that the bible is as clear about sex as many Christians believe.

    Frankly, I think there’s a great point there. What do stories like David and Solomon and their sexual escapades mean for the idea so often espoused that the bible teaches “one man, one woman”?

    This obviously doesn’t rule out scholarship, reading scriptures in context, and all of those very good things. I’m just pointing out that there may be some very good reasons why people employ these types of methodologies, even if the methodology itself doesn’t work all that well.

    • John

      No, I’m not presuming a “cohesive, unified teaching.” Such cohesion, or lack of it, has to be demonstrated. But that’s what doing your homework, in this case, would mean.

      As for David and Solomon’s sexual histories, yes, that’s all grist for the mill.

      What I don’t see, however, is the ground for your last sentence. What are the good reasons why people would adduce just a few preferred Bible texts rather than engage the Bible thoroughly?

  2. gingoro

    I wonder if anyone can speak given all your conditions? It seems to me that there is also a psychological understanding with regard to the distaste or even revulsion that some feel about differing sexual practices.

    But John we do need this topic addresses by orthodox Protestant theologians as the current situation seems unjust and highly unfair.
    DaveW

  3. John Carter

    Since when do we need to know what we are talking about and also be accountable for our words? Requesting educated opinions framed so as to not deliberately or unnecessary do harm is terribly unfair. Next thing we know you will be asking us to guard our tongues in general.

  4. Mike in Pennsylvania

    Your “Homosexuality: Sexual Morality, Pastoral Implications, and Public Policy” on Regent Audio is a good example of your suggestions above. As far as doing your homework could you give a few suggestions of resources for someone who is just beginning to think through this topic?

    (I teach Scripture/Ethics, etc. to High School students. They’ve asked me to discuss the topic and I had to be honest and tell them that I haven’t thought about it thoroughly enough to do so. I can’t avoid it any longer.)

    • John

      The most comprehensive work on the Biblical texts is by Robert Gagnon. I don’t agree with Rob on aspects of ecclesiastical and public policy questions, and there are details of his work in the Bible with which I might quibble. In general, however, he makes a very strong case–and anticipatory provides answers even to recent books (like Brownson’s). The late Stan Grenz co-authored a helpful book, “Welcoming, but Not Affirming” that I have only glanced at but found a useful introduction to some of the issues involved.

  5. Beth

    Hi, I’m one of the gay people John knows. John, I appreciate the heart behind your tips, wanting Christians to be especially careful and thoughtful on this topic. I hope you don’t mind if I add a few tips of my own:

    – Above all, be humble. Admit that you could be wrong about this. Acknowledge that sincere Christians who take the Bible seriously are coming to different conclusions about this. Don’t assume that all Christians believe gay sex is against God’s will. Don’t assume that means that you can’t remain in community with them and love them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

    – On the topic of avoiding cheap analogies, please don’t compare homosexuality to alcoholism, and don’t compare committed monogamous gay relationships to adulterous or pedophilic relationships. Even if you see links between them, these comparisons have been extremely hurtful to those in gay relationships, because their loving commitments are being equated with broken marriages or life-destroying addictions.

    – On the theme of watching your language, please try to avoid the term “homosexual,” either as an adjective or a noun, but especially if you’re directly addressing gay people. Several years ago, I thought using “homosexual” was simply more politically correct than using “gay” or “LGBT” (much like using “First Nations” instead of “Indian”). But I soon found out that most gay people really don’t like the term “homosexual” (and as a gay person, I don’t like it either). It’s clinical-sounding, draws attention exclusively to the sexual aspect of their personhood, and is almost exclusively used by conservative Christians. I know the wide variety of terms can create confusion, but if you want to be missional and use the language that marginalized people choose for themselves, you can at very least avoid “homosexual.” Better choices include “gay,” “LGBT”, or “queer.”

    – Remember that lives are at stake in this conversation. Gay people are still regularly bullied and killed worldwide. Countless gay Christians have killed themselves because they thought they were worthless and unlovable, by the church and by God. There are also lives at stake in countries where LGBT people are criminalized. No matter what your theology, please show that you care about these people’s lives when you speak or write.

    I’m always happy to share how I’ve come to a different conclusion that John on this topic, while still maintaining what I feel to be a godly sexual ethic, so feel free to contact me if you want to hear about it.

    • Andy

      I appreciate Beth’s caution about using “cheap analogies,” and too many Christians cause offense here.

      But the question about which analogies to use is crucial. Avoiding certain analogies because they cause offense cedes part of the debate. For instance, analogizing homosexuality with issues like divorce, civil rights or slavery imports several crucial (and to me, mistaken) assumptions and assumes too much. Those are “cheap” analogies to me. And I need to thoughtfully respond to those points even if I find them offensive.

      But if homosexual behavior is sinful (including committed relationships), then the best and closest biblical analogies are indeed other sexual sins like adultery, incest and the like. I am aware at the offense those analogies can cause if used casually, but we cannot rule them out of bounds for that reason alone. Robert Gagnon makes a strong argument about proper analogies on his website.

      • Beth

        Andy, thanks for this. I can definitely understand why those who see gay sex/marriage as sinful would employ analogies to other kinds of sexual sin. However, I would hope that they would first consider how it sounds to a gay Christian when you take their loving, exclusive covenant with another person and compare it to a someone’s choice to break a similar covenant. I would also hope they consider the different fruit brought about by these two “sins” – a healthy, happy, monogamous relationship versus a broken, betrayed relationship.

        I believe the use of this analogy only highlights the need to have a good answer for what makes homosexual relationships sinful – why God would forbid it, in what way it contributes to brokenness in the world.

  6. John Carter

    Keep in mind that “John” is not me. My comments were ironic if not sarcastic … directed at those poor scholars and worse Christians who make it their business to produce shallow moralisms about the sins of others. My recommendation is to start with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and after 20 years, maybe we will have something to offer one another. While I’m not one of the gays John speaks to, I am generally imperfect so I’m in the same category.

  7. Beth

    Hi John Carter – sorry I wasn’t more clear – the John I was referring to throughout my comment is John Stackhouse. 🙂

  8. Paul

    I have very strong views about the morality of many issues, among which are included views on sexuality. However, my views about love and grace are just as strong. I do not have to agree with someone else about any of the issues upon which I hold strong views, but I can still hold my views and love those who hold views different from mine. Remembering that my views should apply to how I live my life and need not be imposed upon people I come in contact with. Also, others need to be aware that because I speak about a view I hold, does not mean that I am imposing my view on them. I can talk about something, say what I believe, without insisting that they agree. They too, can do the same, and we can come away with a caring attitude toward one another.
    Let me use as an example my strongly held view about homosexuality. Simply, I find homosexuality as being opposed to what I have learned from my study of the bible. However, I can state that without judging someone who holds a view different from mine. I don’t hate someone who claims to be homosexual, nor do I fear them, nor do I feel that they are going to do harm to anyone. My strongly held view about this is for my own life. I must live according to those views, but that doesn’t mean I should insist the same for those who believe differently, or anyone else for that matter.
    Anyone who disagrees with someone is in effect saying the other person is wrong about that issue. That is what disagreeing is about, but that does not mean that because they disagree, and believe the other person is wrong, that they are attempting to insist that the person change. In addition, I love some people greatly, yet I often disagree with them, think they are wrong, and wish they believed like I do. I don’t wish they believe as me because I hate them or am afraid of what they believe, but instead because I do love them. In addition, because they love me, they too wish I believed as they do. Neither of us would insist or force the other to believe differently or to agree with them on the issues involved.
    It seems we live in a society where some people feel name calling, labeling, and in generally bullying those who don’t believe as they do, is ok. Unfortunately, doing so only demonstrates a lack of love on the part of the person calling the name, labeling or bullying. In addition, that sort of behavior usually only strengthens the resolve of those with whom they disagree.
    Those individuals in our society who apply a loving attitude first, then discuss an issue in question with those who hold different views, while continuing to demonstrate love and care, are far more likely to persuade those with whom they disagree to change, or to find reason to change themselves.

    It is said that God only makes perfect things. I wonder, could it be that God made us all perfectly imperfect? Could it be that our imperfections are what makes us perfect in His eyes?

  9. John Carter

    For those who speak of the Bible as if it was one thing, I will give the benefit of the doubt and assume they are referring to the Canon of Holy Scripture agreed upon by the gathered churches at certain times. If authority is our chief ground here, I don’t discount a community from authorizing texts in which they vest with the authority of canon law. Whether you view that law as a plumb bob for truing ourselves or a legal formulation to which we ought to submit ourselves to the letter of that law is not something that can be automatically assumed, given entire segments of Christianity that have divested themselves of the leadership and councils of the authorizing communities who have us Scripture.

    But let’s take Scripture as a given and look to it. There’s one reference in Leviticus that quite obviously refers to an act akin to rape in time of war or possibly the sort of act one sees in prisons. It would seem obvious that any violent act used to humiliate and harm another ought to be off limits. There simply isn’t text there that says anything about gays. Are you willing to suggest that all prison rape is done by gay inmates? Does the act make one gay without the orientation? Similarly, if one has the orientation yet commits no sexual “acts” … is that gay? Leviticus gives us nothing to clarify that. It condemns an act of violence … and doesn’t give us the luxury of expanding that to interpret other things as equivalent.

    The only other reference drawn upon is Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here, he speaks of two men lying with each other. Reasonable to assume sexual acts are involved. Not reasonable to assume that sharing a two-man tent while climbing Mt. Everest is gay. Note no mention of two women lying together. So if we are taking the letter of the law, women having sex with one another is not forbidden nor mentioned. So, as I see it, this one reference in an epistle to the Romans is the only canonical reference at all.

    Do we take every comment by St. Paul as equal to the words of our Lord himself? Are we to put the biblical account of Bel and the Dragon at the same level as the gospel accounts? I don’t think so. I think we naturally and appropriately give greater authority to the gospel narratives than to the accounts in the Old Testament or even to the letters attributed to St. Paul. We need not give up the authority of Scripture nor give up the Canon in order to do this. And we all do … even the tiny weirdo communities where men have multiple child wives which is allowed and in some cases required (you are required to take your wife’s sister to wife if she is widowed.) How many of our churches require head coverings for all women in church? Forbid women from teaching men? This law/advice comes from the epistles of St. Paul from the canon of Holy Scripture. So when we begin to pick and choose, and I would argue that this is inevitable, we are simply not able to live under the law without being condemned by it. Originalism is a game by which we try to use the original texts as something other than what they are. What are they? Assuming we are speaking to Christians rather than Jews or Muslims who use some part of these texts, they are the records of the existing worshipping church. They are not a summary but a part of the expression of that fellowship. I’m sympathetic of the need to fall back upon sources for authority but the Letter of the Law is not sufficient. Before we can say whether modern ideas about “sexual identity” are adequate to Christian understanding, we first need to be clear(er) about what Christian understanding is.

    • John

      Thanks for this thoughtful response, John. I do disagree with a number of the theological points you make, both in terms of theological method (e.g., privileging the gospels, which I think is indefensible) and in terms of particular claims (there is a LOT of Scripture relevant to the normativity of heterosexual marriage, which is really the pertinent data set). But I can’t argue all that here.

      Happily, I have argued all that in my last book on ethics, in my forthcoming book on epistemology, and in my lecture (available via Regent Audio) on homosexuality.

      For now, I’ll simply thank you again for a theologically pithy response, as I appreciate Beth’s offer to interact with people from her new paradigm and Paul’s sensible remarks as well.

      • John Carter

        Privileging the Gospel is kind of central in my view to being a Christian. The words of our Lord will always be of a higher importance and ranking than those of Amos, for example. That doesn’t mean all Scripture isn’t inspired. To give you a reference point, I’m Eastern Orthodox.

        • Andy

          I agree with John S. re the problems with privileging the gospels. If all Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, then setting the accounts of Jesus’ life apart from other books is theologically problematic given the Trinity. This is the same issue I have with the “red letter” Christian movement making Jesus’ spoken words more authoritative than Paul’s or Ezekiel’s.

  10. May Ocean

    There is another aspect of the Bible that people forget– It is designed to grow and change… as Jesus grew and changed and as he set the precedent: changes regarding the Old Testament. Recently Geneticists have discovered Tetragametic Chimera Humans– found in most humans. What this essentially means, is that during the early stages of gestation our bodies had absorbed a twin. This explains why some people are born having both male and female organs, AND, this is a logical/natural explanation for Homosexuality, Bisexuality, etc.

  11. May Ocean

    I should also say that I’m bisexual person in a same-sex relationship for the past 22 years.

  12. Daniel Ginn

    John Stackhouse, you said, “As soon as it comes up nowadays, everything else stops and our attention is riveted on it. So bring your whole message, or don’t even start.”

    And you said, “Either study the whole Bible’s teaching on sexuality, or keep quiet.”

    I agree that both of those are useful aspects of scholarship for Christians to undertake for those who are equipped and have the resources to do so, but effectively what you do when you make when you make pronouncements like this is tell a large number of people that you think they’re not qualified to participate in the discussion because they are not experts. “Bring your best, or stay home,” so to speak.

    Yes, it’s true, much damage has been done by well-intentioned people who don’t fully understand the nuances behind everything involved in the various tribes of queer experience. I don’t claim to be one of the people who does understand it all, either.

    But whatever the truth of the Biblical record is, it is something that God has entrusted to people, and not only does the Biblical record include the truth God has revealed about human sexuality but also it includes a truth of far greater significance and worth–the Gospel. One doesn’t have to be an expert rhetorician to share it, thank God. Certainly, competence, wisdom, and knowledge of the facts and of one’s audience help in both missions.

    But if not having all the facts straight about the Gospel doesn’t prevent it from reaching and transforming people, then, as an analogy from the greater to the lesser, God’s truth about human sexuality should be much the same, right?

    The sad part is that the stark polarization over this issue is the most emotionally significant encounter many will have with Christ-followers and that it will lead to defensiveness on all sides rather than to dialogue. My roommate likes to remind me that we are no longer so very far away from the culture of the first-century Roman Empire in some respects.

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