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.