Homosexuality and the Church
There are some theological and pastoral issues that are not approached with joy because of their tendency to polarise believers and even cause churches to split. Homosexuality is an example of such an issue. The debate on the question of homosexuality has been raging in many churches across the denominations for several decades. Sometimes these debates have been reduced to nothing more than heated sloganeering on both sides. Statements like ‘The Bible is clear …’ and ‘the Gospel is inclusive …’ are often repeated, while the substance of the debate is avoided or played down. Such approaches, which generate more heat than light, are often not only unhelpful but are also counter-productive and damaging. The assumptions that sometimes accompany such slogans are that Christian identity and the unity of the church has to do with this issue alone. There is a pressing need for discussion on homosexuality and the church to be located within the larger context of human sexuality and Christian discipleship.
The debate on homosexuality in the church is made complex and therefore more emotive by a number of factors. In recent decades, more homosexual Christians have declared their sexuality openly thereby joining their counterparts outside the church by ‘coming out of the closet’. A number of the church’s clergy, theologians and Bible scholars have also spoken or written in support of homosexuals and their lifestyle. Churches and denominations have also prepared official and semi-official statements affirming homosexuality and endorsing faithful homosexual relationships. In 1994, at an Episcopal convention, fifty bishops signed ‘A Statement of Koinonia (Collegiality)’, which asserts that ‘both homosexuality and heterosexuality are neutral, that both can be lived out with beauty, honour, holiness and integrity’. On this basis, the statement maintains that gay and lesbian persons who are in faithful relationships ‘should be honoured’. /1/ Others go even further by arguing that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a gift from God. Against the teachings of his own church, Roman Catholic writer Jerry Bartram could insist that ‘It is simply a fact … that homosexuality and the love of God do together’./2/
Such strong support of homosexuality from prominent leaders of the Church has at the very least created much confusion among Christians. Conservatives are sometimes regarded as pastorally insensitive if not bigoted. Any approach that does not support homosexual practices is quickly labelled as prejudicial if not homophobic. Rigorous arguments are sometimes ignored or eclipsed by strong and emotive rhetoric. Furthermore, the church does not exist in isolation from the larger culture. And secular society in the West, with its strong emphasis on autonomy and its distinctive language of human rights, has generally regarded any criticism of the gay lifestyle – especially criticism by religious voices –as a transgression of these inviolable principles. As Alex Montoya has written: ‘Secular society has more or less capitulated to the pressure from the gay and lesbian community to accept homosexuality as a viable and legitimate lifestyle.’/3/
It is clear that homosexuality has become a very complex issue in modern society. Its analysis requires a truly inter-disciplinary approach involving history, sociology, science, psychology, cultural studies, and politics. Our concern in this talk, however, is what the Bible and the theological tradition of the Church have to say about the subject. This does not imply that the other approaches are unimportant. But as a Christian community, we believe that since Scripture bears witness to God’s revelation, it is through the lens of the Bible that we must view this issue. Both Scripture and the theological tradition of the Church have much to say about human sexuality in general, and homosexual practices in particular. It is impossible, within the brief compass of this talk to discuss every aspect of the topic. But it is hoped that this talk can at least sketch the contours of the biblical teaching and provide a theological and moral framework within which to reflect on the issue of homosexuality. I will begin with an examination of some relevant passages in the Old and New Testaments. I will also discuss the alternative interpretations of these passages offered by gay exegetes. Next I will discuss, albeit very briefly, what Scripture and tradition have to teach us about human sexuality. And finally, we will look at some pastoral issues, for example, gay marriages, the ordination of gays into the ministry, etc.
As we turn to Scriptures to examine what it has to say about homosexual practices, I would like to point out at the outset that gay exegetes have challenged traditional interpretations of the key texts and have proposed alternative readings. Our examination of these texts would therefore be incomplete if the interpretations of these gay exegetes are not taken into consideration. It should be obvious, however, that it is impossible to conduct a detailed discussion in the limited space of this lecture. We will therefore only respond to the salient points raised by these revisionist exegetes.
We begin with the Old Testament, and the first passage that we would like to consider is Genesis 19. This chapter tells the story of certain strangers who visited Sodom and who were received by Lot as his guests to spend the night in his house. In Genesis 19:4-9, we read:
4 Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. 5 They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
6 Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him 7 And said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” 9 “Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
According to traditional exegetes, the townspeople in Sodom wanted to engage in homosexual acts with Lot’s visitors. The Hebrew word yadha repeated twice in this passage (Genesis 19:5, 8) means to ‘know’ or to ‘be acquainted with’. In at least ten occasions when the word is used in the OT, the reference is sexual intercourse.
In 1955, the Anglican priest Derrick Sherwin Bailey suggested that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality but inhospitality in his book, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition./4/ Yadha, according to Bailey, does not refer to the Sodomites’ intention to have sexual relations with Lot’s guests. Rather the word must be interpreted as ‘to get acquainted with’. What the Sodomites wanted, according to Bailey, was to ‘examine the credentials’ of Lot’s visitors. When Lot refused to allow this, the townspeople reacted with violence, thus causing a ‘breach [of] the rules of hospitality’. /5/ This was the sin of Sodom. Another influential revisionist scholar, John Boswell, could even insist categorically that ‘There is no sexual interest of any sort in the incident’. /6/ Taking a different approach, the late Peter J. Gomes of Harvard Divinity School interprets this passage as prohibiting homosexual rape, not homosexual relations per se. He writes:
The attempted homosexual rape of the angels at Lot’s door, while vivid and distasteful, is hardly the subject or the cause of the punishment … Homosexual rape is never to be condoned; it is indeed, like heterosexual rape, an abomination before God. This instance of attempted homosexual rape, however, does not invalidate all homosexuals or all homosexual activity. /7/
Impressive though these alternative interpretations are, closer examination would reveal that they are flawed. Despite Bailey’s insistence, the context of the story leaves little doubt that yadha refers to sexual relations. Even Bailey concedes that the second occurrence of the word connotes this meaning. The inhospitality argument forwarded by Bailey also makes little sense, given the context and progression of the story. If all the townspeople wanted were merely to establish the credentials of the visitors, there is no reason why Lot would shut the door and implore them not to ‘do this wicked thing’. Neither would Lot’s offer his two virgin daughters to the men to do what they like with them make any sense. Similarly, Gomes’ interpretation is also problematic. To be sure, homosexual gang rape was intended. But is this the only dimension of the sin of Sodom? Ezekiel says that the Sodomites were guilty of ‘abominable things’. This Hebrew word (to-e-bah) in this passage is also used in the Holiness Code in Leviticus to describe homosexual acts (Lev 18:22). This suggests that what is condemned in Genesis 19 is not just homosexual rape, but homosexual acts in general.
The next cluster of passages that deal with the issue of homosexual relations is commonly called the Holiness Code found in Leviticus:
22 Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable (Lev 18:22).
13 If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads (Lev 20:13).
Although the traditional interpretation of these two passages maintains that they categorically prohibit homosexual relationships, revisionist exegetes insist that they only refer to homosexual behaviour associated with idolatry. James Nelson, in his article in Christianity and Crisis, argues that ‘In these passages acts are condemned not because of some intrinsic aberration but because of their association with idolatry (particularly, in the sexual references, to Canaanite idolatry)’. /8/ There are passages in the OT that specifically prohibits both heterosexual and homosexual temple prostitution. An example is Deuteronomy 23:17, where we read: ‘No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute’. But the injunctions in the Holiness Code do not refer specifically to homosexual acts in the context of cult prostitution. Rather they are generic prohibitions to all homosexual intercourse as the command ‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman’ indicate. Even the revisionist scholar Bailey, whose views we discussed earlier, is honest enough to admit that ‘It is hardly open to doubt that both the laws in Leviticus relate to ordinary homosexual acts between men, and not to ritual or other acts performed in the name of religion’. /9/
The revisionist view is also problematic when other injunctions in the passage are taken into consideration. If the injunction concerning homosexual acts must be understood in the context of cult ritual or idolatry, so must the other injunctions in the passage. As Michael Ukleja points out: ‘To hold to such a distinction, one would have to conclude that adultery was not morally wrong (18:20), child sacrifice had no moral implications (18:21), and that nothing is inherently evil with bestiality (18:23)’. /10/ Concluding his discussion on the Levitical texts on same-sex sexual relations, Robert Gagnon, in his fine book entitled The Bible and Homosexual Practices sates that these passages ‘explicitly declared all sexual intercourse between males to be abominable or utterly detestable to God and worthy of the sentence of death. In taking such a severe and comprehensive stance towards male homosexual behaviour, Lev 18:22 and 20:13 represent a level of revulsion toward same-sex intercourse without parallel in the ancient Near East’. /11/
As we turn to the NT, we focus on what many scholars have described as Paul’s most explicit treatment of homosexual acts: Romans 1:24-32.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, Godhaters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
While most revisionists see this passage as representative of Paul’s attitude towards homosexual intercourse, they disagree with the traditional interpretation that it is an unconditional condemnation of such acts. The revisionist NT scholar Robin Scroggs argues that the NT writers were aware of only one model of homosexuality and that it is this particular type of relationship that Paul condemns in this passage. The homosexual relationship in question is pederasty, the sexual relationship between a male adult and a male youth. ‘Thus what the New Testament was against was the image of homosexuality as pederasty and primarily here in its more sordid and dehumanizing dimensions’, writes Scroggs. /12/ From this Scroggs concludes that Paul’s condemnation cannot be applied to other forms of homosexual relationships: ‘If he opposes something specific, then his statements cannot be generalised beyond the limitations of his intentionality without violating the integrity of the Scripture’. /13/ While Paul’s condemnation of homosexual practices in this passage includes pederasty, there is no basis to conclude that it refers only to this practice. Paul condemns sexual acts involving ‘males with males’ (v 27), not ‘men with boys’. In addition, the fact that Paul was concerned with homosexual acts in general terms is made clear by his reference to lesbianism: ‘women’ who ‘exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones’ (v 26).
Another interpretation of the passage forwarded by revisionist scholars is that Paul was condemning ‘perverts’ rather than ‘inverts’. Perverts are heterosexuals who engage in homosexual intercourse, while inverts are homosexuals by ‘natural orientation’. Boswell, for example, argues that in this passage Paul condemns heterosexual persons who were engaging in homosexual sex. /14/ But, he continues, Paul was not speaking against ‘inverts’, people who are naturally homosexual and who engage in loving and stable homosexual relationships. The key to understanding this text is the way in which Paul uses and understands the terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’. According to the revisionist scholars, when Paul uses the term ‘natural’ he is referring to sexual orientation. Thus, this passage condemns those who are ‘naturally’ heterosexuals but who have chosen to participate in homosexual acts that are unnatural for them. These people are, in other words, perverts.
The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes that Paul had an idea of sexual orientation, which he obviously did not. Peter Coleman is right to say that the modern ideas of inverts and perverts are imposed on the text by these revisionist thinkers. He writes: ‘it is probably unrealistic to suppose that Paul himself could have thought in this way … this is really an attempt to read the old texts with modern presuppositions’. /15/ When Paul referred to what is ‘natural’ he was not thinking about sexual orientation or preferences as such. He did not say that the people exchanged their natural sexual functioning. Rather, Paul was referring to the natural sexual functioning. What Paul called ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ has to do with God’s creative intention. Thus, theologian Stanley Grenz is right when he says that ‘we ought to view Paul’s concept of “nature” as a broad idea that refers to the world and human life as intended by God, so that conversely everything that runs contrary to God’s intention is “unnatural”’. /16/ Thus, like the Holiness Code in Leviticus, Paul issues a blanket condemnation of all homosexual acts in this passage in Romans.
The second major NT passage that we will examine is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Revisionist scholars have disputed the traditional interpretations of the two Greek words malakos (‘male prostitutes’) and arsenokoitai (homosexual offenders). Bowell maintains that arsenokoitai actually means ‘male sexual agents’ which refers to ‘active male prostitutes, who were common throughout the Hellenistic world in the time of Paul’. /17/ Scroggs, on the other hand, insists that this term refers to the active partner in a pederastic relationship. /18/
These scholars are therefore asserting that in this passage Paul does not condemn all forms of homosexual relationships, but only those involving cult prostitution. Let us take a look at these two terms more closely.
The first word, malakos, is an adjective meaning ‘soft’ or ‘weak’. In the GrecoRoman world, the word is sometimes used to refer to men who are ‘effeminate’. The revisionist scholar Bowell insists that the term ‘refers to general moral weakness, with no specific connection to homosexuality’. /19/ Scroggs, on the other hand, maintains that Paul was talking about pederasty: ‘Thus the use of malakos would almost certainly conjure up images of the effeminate call-boy, if the context otherwise suggested some form of pederasty’. /20/ But for the Greek philosophers this term is used to refer to homosexual behaviour, not just to pederasty. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians Archibald Robertson points out that for Aristotle ‘people are called malakoiin reference to the same things as they are called kolastoi, viz peri tas somatikos apolauseis(“concerning bodily pleasures”)’. /21/ Hence, the Bauer Greek-English lexicon interprets the term more generically as both ‘men and boys who allow themselves to be misused homosexually’. /22/
The second word, arsenokoitai, does not refer only to pederasty as revisionist scholars like Scroggs have claimed. As the Arndt-Gingrich Greek Lexicon has indicated in its translation of this term, arsenokoitai describes a ‘male who practices homosexuality, pederast, sodomite’. /23/ It connects this word with Romans 1:27, which, as we have seen deals with all forms of homosexual practices. In addition, it is pertinent to note that the Septuagint uses the two words that form arsenokoitai in its translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which as we have also seen, refer generically to all homosexual practices. Arsenokoites is, however, distinguished from malakos in that it designates the one who takes a more active role in male-to-male intercourse. This is gleaned from the noun koite the term that refers to the emission of semen. Thus in contrast to malakos that refers to the more passive partner, arsenokoites points to the one who assumes a more active role in same-sex intercourse. In his authoritative study, David Wright concludes that ‘It is difficult to believe that arsenokoites was intended to indict only the commonest Greek relationship involving an adult and a teenage’. /24/ In other words, for Wright the word must refer to all homosexual intercourse. In his study of this passage, Robert Gagnon offers this analysis:
If adultery is paired with idolatry, then malakoi and arsenokoitai constitute a pair of sexual sins distinct from adultery. Given such a pairing, our identification of malakoi with passive homosexual partners confirms the supposition that the term arsenokoitai refers to the active partners in homosexual intercourse. /25/
It is clear that by placing these two words alongside each other, the New Testament does not only condemn certain formsof homosexual practices but all same-sex genital acts.
Human Sexuality and Marriage
Turning now to theology, we begin by reflecting very briefly on the nature and significance of human sexuality according to Scripture and tradition. Human sexual distinction is first mentioned in the creation narrative found in the first book of the Bible. In Genesis 1:27-28, we read: ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”’. In Genesis 2:18-24, we find an elaborate account of how God created woman out of man thereby delivering him from solitude.
We begin by asking, What is the meaning and significance of human sexuality? Perhaps the most basic answer to this question is procreation, as the passage in Genesis 1 already makes clear. But the significance of human sexuality goes beyond reproduction. It has to do with the fundamental way in which we are in the world as embodied beings. Human sexuality therefore has to do with the way we are as well as how we relate with the world and with each other. The theologian Stanley Grenz has perceptively pointed out that ‘human sexuality is connected to our incompleteness as embodied creatures, an incompleteness that biological sex symbolises’. /26/ Human sexuality therefore points to the search for wholeness and completeness. In the second creation narrative, we find the interpersonal aspect of human sexuality. Adam could not find a suitable companion in any of the creatures that God has created until God created another who is both like and unlike him. When this ‘other’ was brought to him, Adam declared: ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man’ (Gen 2:23). This narrative ends with the male-female bond called marriage: ‘That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Gen 2:24).The bonding that sexual differentiation makes possible culminates in a most intimate union in which the man and woman become ‘one flesh’. Marriage is therefore the union of a male and a female that results in an exclusive sexual bond. This unique sexual relationship between the male and female is to be sure connected with procreation and the upbringing of children. But the marital union is also the basis for the husband and the wife to enjoy intimacy, companionship and friendship with each other. In the Bible and in the Christian tradition, only in the context of the covenantal relationship called marriage is sexual intercourse a legitimate expression of intimacy. This point is extremely important. The context for sexual intimacy is just as important as the love that such intimacy brings to expression and celebrates. Outside the exclusive covenantal relationship between a man and a woman called marriage, any form of sexual intimacy is inappropriate and therefore prohibited.
But in the Bible, marriage is more than just an exclusive bond between a man and a woman. It is a theological symbol that points to the relationship between Christ and the Church. In Ephesians 5, Paul quoting the Genesis passage concerning marriage writes: ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery –but I am talking about Christ and the Church’. For Paul, the sexual union between the husband and the wife has to do with more than just the order of creation. It points to and mirrors the covenantal union between Christ and the Church. This in turn says something significant about our sexuality and the sexual love shared by the man and the woman in marriage. The love of the husband and the wife becomes an analogy of
God’s love for the Church. That is why adultery as well as fornication not only distort the order of creation but also destroy the analogy of God’s faithfulness. The same is true of homosexual relationships. Gay exegetes and theologians argue that homosexual unions or marriages, like their heterosexual versions, are also able to reflect the covenantal union between God and man. But as John Noonan points out, homosexual marriage fails on every point of the analogy:
Even more emphatic are the basic paradigms. The God of Israel is a faithful husband, he is never a devoted homosexual lover. The Christ of the New Testament is a bridegroom, the Church is his bride; the couple are never presented as a homosexual pair. Human marriage itself, presented as the sign of Christ’s union with the Church, is presented as the union of man and wife. /27/
Revisionist writers like John Boswell claim to provide a more nuanced reading of the Christian tradition. Boswell argues in his book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality that during the first millennium of its history the Church generally did not prohibit homosexual behaviour, except for a few isolated cases. Even a cursory look at the important documents and writings of the Patristic era would show that Boswell’s thesis is untenable. In the Epistle of Barnabas (AD 70 to 135) we find explicit instructions that prohibit homosexual practices like pederasty: ‘Do not fornicate; do not commit adultery; do not practice pederasty; do not let the Word of God escape your lips in the presence of any that are impure’. /28/ The same prohibition is echoed in another early document, the Didache: ‘Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not practice magic’. /29/
The great preacher of the Church in Antioch, John Chrysostom, opposed the practice of homosexuality on the basis that it is contrary to nature:
Blurring the natural order, men play the part of women, and women play the part of men, contrary to nature … No passage is closed against evil lusts; and their sexuality is a public institution –they are roommates with indulgence. /30/
For theologians like Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, homosexual practices are offenses that are often equate with adultery. According to them, homosexual intercourse is a sin greater than fornication but less severe than murder or adultery. Augustine taught that homosexual practices, which he describes as a crime against nature, must be punished. In Confessions Augustine writes that ‘those crimes which are against nature must everywhere and always be detested and punished. The crimes of the men of Sodom are of this kind’. /31/ Theologians in the Patristic era as diverse as Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea share this view.
This view is held consistently throughout the history of Christian theology and ethics. It is the teaching of the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who treats homosexual behaviour in the category of lust in his Summa Theologica: ‘Therefore, since by the unnatural vices man transgresses that which has been determined by nature with regard to the use of venereal actions, it follows that in this matter this sin is gravest of all’ (ST 2-2, Q154). This view is also held by the sixteenth century Reformers. For example, in his Commentary on First Corinthians John Calvin describes the sin of homosexuality as ‘the most serious of all, viz. that unnatural and filthy thing which was far too common in Greece’. /32/ All the great confessional statements of the Reformation, such as the Heidelberg Catechism (Q 87), the Augsburg Confession (2.2), and the Westminster Confession (ch. 24) maintain that homosexual behaviour is contrary to the divine will. This is also the view of the United Methodist Church. The denomination’s The Book of Discipline clearly states that:
Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve the United Methodist Church.
Innate and Immutable? The Evidence from Science
In recent years, a number of scientists and gay activists have argued that same-sex attraction is hardwired in some human beings and therefore it is as natural as heterosexual orientation. This allegedly scientific basis for homosexual orientation is the result of two important developments in science in the twentieth and the current centuries, namely, genetics and neuroscience. The twentieth century has been described as the ‘Age of Biology’, with advances in genetic science stealing much of the limelight. In 1989, the then U.S. President George Bush declared 1990-1999 as the ‘Decade of the Brain’, and the European Brain Council has pledged to make 2014 the ‘Year of the Brain’. Accompanying genetic and brain research are the various myths imagined and promoted by scientists, philosophers, policy makers and the media. We have heard of the Gene Myth, where the gene is said to contain the secrets of humanity. And, with the rise of neuroscience, a new myth is emerging concerning the brain and how it is responsible for shaping human personality and behaviour. As we examine the different theories connecting sexual orientation and behaviour to the genes and the brain, we will do well to remember that science is never practiced in a cultural vacuum.
The first study that we will look at is known as the ‘twin-study’ conducted by John Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard in the early 1980s. /33/ Bailey is an American psychologist at Northwestern University, and Pillard is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University. They conducted a study to see if homosexuality in one twin could be correlated with the other twin. In other words, they wanted to see if one of the twins has homosexual tendencies, the other would also have similar tendencies. Bailey and Pillard studied fifty-four sets of identical twins and forty-four sets of nonidentical twins. They found a correlation of 52% in identical twins, and 22% in nonidentical twins. Since identical twins have the same genetic make-up, Bailey and Pillard concluded that homosexual orientation (indeed, all sexual orientation) has a genetic basis. Bailey’s and Pillard’s study has to do with statistics. They have not discovered –or claimed to have discovered –the ‘gay gene’. But because their study is situated in a context in which there is already much hype about genetic science, their conclusion that the statistics suggest the genetic basis for sexual orientation is uncritically accepted.
Bailey and Pillard’s conclusion, however, could easily be challenged. If homosexual orientation is the result of having a certain genetic code, why is it that not all of the identical twins are homosexual? Why only about 50% of them have homosexual tendencies, since identical twins have the exact same genetic code? Another anomaly in the study is that Bailey and Pillard also found that 9.2% of non-twin brothers have homosexual tendencies. If homosexual orientation is the result of having certain genes, how then do we explain such a high percentage of non-twin brothers with same-sex orientation? Far from demonstrating convincingly that homosexual orientation can be traced to the genes, Bailey and Pillard’s study in fact points to a more complex picture, where environmental influences obviously play an important role. Commenting on the Bailey-Pillard study, William Byne points out that, ‘This study clearly challenges a simple genetic hypothesis and strongly suggests that environment contributes significantly to sexual orientation’. /34/
The study that directly has to do with genetic code and whose conclusions generated much hype concerning the ‘gay gene’ is the one conducted by Dean H. Hamer, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. in 1993. Working with 40 pairs of homosexual brothers, Hamer discovered that 33 (83%) received the same sequence of markers in the X chromosome region known as Xq28. Hamer and his team concluded that ‘One form of male homosexuality is preferentially transmitted through the maternal side and is generally linked to chromosomal region Xq28’. /35/ Almost immediately, Hamer’s conclusions were greeted with criticism from the scientific community. Hamer’s methodology was criticized because he did not test his results against a heterosexual control group. If the same sequence that appear in homosexual men in chromosomal region of Xq28 is found also in the heterosexual population, then the presence of the sequence would be inconsequential. Hamer also did not test the heterosexual brothers of the homosexual men to see if they had the gene. There was also some controversy over the reporting of the research findings. One of the young researchers in Hamer’s team accused him of omitting findings that would undermine the significance of his results. That researcher was subsequently fired.
To be fair to Hamer, he was not as sanguine about his findings as the media that made extrapolations about the discovery of the ‘gay gene’. In his book, The Science of Desire (1994), Hamer quite honestly states that ‘The pedigree study failed to produce what we originally hoped to find: simple Mendelian inheritance. In fact, we never found a single family in which homosexuality was distributed in the obvious sort of pattern that Mendel observed in his pea plants’. /36/ In fact, in the same book Hamer admits that the environment also has a part of play in human sexual orientation. He writes:
We knew also that genes were only part of the answer. We assumed the environment also played a role in sexual orientation, as it does in most if not all behaviours. To most people, the environment means nonbiological factors, such as family upbringing, life experiences, and religion … /37/
Although the current rhetoric of gay activists for gay rights and so on is based on the assumption that science has decisively shown that the homosexual orientation is natural, that is, it has a biological base, this is not the case at all. Those who are familiar with the status of scientific research on genes and behaviour would know that no definitive causal relationship between the two has been established. This is true not only for sexual orientation. It is also the case for criminality, narcissism, anxiety, depression, etc. In their book, My Genes Made Me Do It! A Scientific Look at Sexual Orientation, Neil and Briar Whitehead offer this important assessment:
Science has not yet discovered any genetically dictated behaviour in humans. So far, genetically dictated behaviours of the one-gene-one-trait variety have been found only in very simple organisms … But if many genes are involved in a behaviour, then changes in that behaviour will tend to take place very slowly and steadily (say, changes of a few percent each generation over many generations, perhaps thirty). That being so, homosexuality could not appear and disappear suddenly in family trees the way it does. /38/
As we turn now to examine some important pastoral issues related to persons struggling with homoerotic temptations, we must at the outset reject two extreme approaches. The first is the affirmation or even acquiescence of homosexual behaviour. As we have seen, both the Bible and the tradition of the Church do not condone erotic same-sex relations. The Church’s message to practising homosexuals is the same message that she proclaims to all: Repent and believe the Good News of Jesus Christ! The Church’s message to practising homosexuals is that in Christ there is the forgiveness ofGod and the promise of eternal life. While we are still sinners, God has sent his Son Jesus Christ to offer his life as a sacrifice and atonement for our sins. Therefore, by his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, Christ has made available to all who put their faith in him, the salvation of God. This is the message of the Church for all because all humans are sinners in need of salvation. Homosexuality is but one manifestation of human sinfulness and the fallenness of human life.But the Church should also avoid the other extreme, namely ostracism and homophobia. This is because persons struggling with homoerotic temptations as well as practising homosexuals must be treated with dignity and respect because they too are God’s creatures. Whilenot affirming their behaviour, the Church should nevertheless welcome such persons and extend to them the same ministry of forgiveness, prayer, nurture and deliverance that she extends to all. By explicitly and unequivocally rejecting their lifestyle but at the same time welcoming them, the Church hopes and prays that such persons would encounter Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, come to the saving knowledge of God and be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Given this approach, Christians can never condone or support homophobia, which is a prejudice against persons who are attracted to members of the same sex. In fact, Christians should speak out against such attitudes. Thus, according to Grenz, in patterning their lives after Jesus, Christians should ‘love and value all persons –including gays and lesbians –as persons whom God loves and values’. /39/
Should a person with homosexual inclinations be allowed to participate in the worship of the Church? A person who struggles with homoerotic passions but who is determined to live according to the moral teachings of the Bible and the church should be allowed to participate fully in the life of the church. The church is the koinonia of sinners redeemed by the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. The members of Christ’s body have not yet attained perfection, but are being transformed by the power of the Spirit into the image of God. Christians must therefore encourage one another to deeper commitment. It is in the context of the community of believers that the Christian who struggles with issues of sexuality finds the strength to deepen his discipleship in Christ. And a significant way in which the believer grows spiritually is through the participation of the sacramental life of the Church. Asa member of the body of Christ, the Christian with homosexual inclinations should not be prohibited from participating in the sacred meal, the Lord’s Supper. But in doing so, he must remember that ‘whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 11:27).
The same principle applies to assuming leadership role in the Church. There is no reason why the Christian who is struggling with homosexual inclinations but who is determined to live according to the moral teachings of the Bible should be prohibited from assuming leadership in the Church. While the call to leadership in the Church is a tremendous privilege, it is also accompanied by awesome responsibilities. Paul provides a long list of qualities that a spiritual leader in the Church should possess. It is very clear in this list that character is more important than competence. The leader in God’s Church must be a person of impeccable character –beyond reproach, temperate, self-controlled, and respectable. This is the requirement of all leaders. The person who is called to a leadership role and who struggles with his sexuality must be self-controlled and determined to live a celibate life. Such a person should be allowed to serve in the capacity of a leader in the Church.
What about the ordained ministry? Should persons with same-sex attractions be ordained for the Christian ministry? The issue of the ordination of homosexuals to Christian ministry is being debated, sometimes very fiercely and polemically, in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Europe as well as Australia. Again, there are actually two different questions related to this issue. The first is: Should active homosexuals who are in a stable and committed same-sex relationship with one partner be allowed to be ordained? The answer to this question should be obvious from the position that we have taken in this talk. The Bible does not condone same sex relationships, even if they are stable, committed and loving. There can therefore be no question of ordaining persons involved in such relationships into the Christian ministry. The second question is: Should Christians who acknowledge that homosexual behaviour is sinful, but who are experiencing same-sex attractions be allowed to be ordained? There is no reason why such persons should not be ordained if the Church finds their vocation genuine and if they are willing to live a celibate life and submit themselves to the supervision and spiritual direction of their colleagues. There are of course those who insist that only when the person with same-sex attraction when they have fully overcome their sexual orientation can be ordained. This demand, however, is unreasonable. Stanley Grenz explains why:
The moral basis for ordination does not consist in the candidate experiencing a complete change in disposition, for no one’s sinful disposition is eradicated in this life. Nor does being an exemplary Christian necessitate complete freedom from temptation and struggle. Instead, the moral test for fitness for ordination lies with the candidate’s ongoing conduct, and exemplary Christian integrity entails leading a chaste life in the midst of the brokenness of our desires. Sexual chastity involves forsaking sinful practices, whether these be same-sex behaviours or licentious relations with persons of the other sex. /40/
The question whether people with homosexual inclinations can be healed of their condition through therapy or Christian counselling and prayer has been debated. There are some Christians who believe that homosexual orientation is the result of spiritual or even demonic activity, and that it can therefore be changed by prayer and special ministry. There are others who hold the view that all persons with homosexual orientation can be helped through therapy. The Church must respond to such views with utter seriousness. The Church should caution Christians against attributing homosexual inclinations to spiritual or demonic activities. Instead of speculating about its causes, the Church should concentrate on helping Christians with same-sex attraction who wish to live lives of obedience with their spiritual journey and struggles. As for the latter group, there is currently no scientific consensus on the cause of homosexual inclination. Neither is there consensus on therapy. Some persons who struggle with sexual orientation have found certain therapies helpful, while others have found the same therapies to be ineffective. Members of the Christian community should encourage Christians with homosexual tendencies to explore various therapy options. But the Church must continue to support these Christians when the therapies prove ineffective. This is an important but often neglected aspect of the ministry of the Church to such Christians.
The Church can certainly do much more to help people struggling with same sex attraction. Here, the Church must recognise the fact that persons with homosexual inclinations are often subjected to scorn, hatred and even violence. The Church must speak out against such derogatory treatment of people with same-sex attractions. Sometimes, Christians with very strong convictions about homosexuality are also guilty of treating people with same sex attractions with prejudice and even hatred. Insofar as Christians are guilty of this, they must repent. The Church must do its best to educate its members to always treat persons with homosexual inclinations with respect, compassion and sensitivity. This is because such people are also created in the image of God. They must be accorded the dignity and respect that every human being deserves. Christians who minister to people struggling with their sexuality must not do so with a sense of self-righteousness. They should prayerfully examine their own hearts lest they perpetuate the hatred and injustice that some have directed against people with homosexual inclinations.
Dr. Roland Chia
Dr. Roland Chia is Presently Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.
He is consulting editor of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture and the New Dictionary of Theology (currently in preparation). He has published numerous articles, reviews and books including Revelation and Theology: The Knowledge of God According to Balthasar and Barth, Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: Genetic Science and the Person, and Bioethics: Obstacle or Opportunity for the Gospel: Hope for the Word: A Christian Vision of the Last Things, Laws of the Heart: Reflections on the Ten Commandments, Biomedical Ethics and the Church, Hybrids, Cybrids and Chimeras: The Ethics of Interspecies Research etc.
1‘A Statement of Koinonia (Collegiality)’, August 25, 1994. See
2 Jerry Bartram, ‘A Sacred Gift from God’, Globe and Mail, 11 June 1994, D5.
3 Alex D. Montoya, ‘Homosexuality and the Church’, The Master’s Seminary Journal, 11/2 (Fall 2000), 155.
4 Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1955).
5 Bailey, Homosexuality, 4.
6 John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 95.
7 Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1996), 152.
8 James Nelson, ‘Homosexuality and the Church’, Christianity and Crisis 37 (1977): 64.
9 Bailey, Homosexuality, 151.
10 P. Michael Ukleja, ‘Homosexuality and the Old Testament’, Bibliotheca Sacra 140 (1983): 259.
11 Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 156.
12 Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 71.
13 Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, 128.
14 Boswell, Christianity, 108-14.
15 Peter Coleman, Gay Christians: A Moral Dilemma (London: SCM Press, 1989), 77.
16 Stanley Grenz, Welcoming But Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 54.
17 Boswell, Christianity, 344.
18 Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, 108.
19 Boswell, Christianity, 340.
20 Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, 65.
21 Archibald Robertson, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistles of St Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1914), 119n.
22 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, ed. Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), s.v. ‘malakos’.
23 Arndt-Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon, 488.
24 David F. Wright, ‘Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of Arsenokoitai(1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10)’, Vigiliae Christianae 38/2 (June 1984), 146.
25 Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 316.
26 Grenz, Welcoming But Not Affirming, 104.
27 John T. Noonan Jr., ‘Genital Good’, Communio 8 (1981): 220.
28 ‘Epistle of Barnabas’, trans. James A. Kleist, in Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 6, ed. Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe (New York: Paulist Press, 1948), 19.4.
29 ‘Didache’, II.2, trans. James A. Kleist, in Ancient Christian Writers, Vol 6, ed. Johannes Quastern and Joseph C. Plumpe (New York: Paulist Press, 1948), 16.
30 Quoted in Timothy J. Dailey, The Bible, the Church and Homosexuality: Exposing the ‘Gay Theology (Washington: Family Research Council, 2004), 30.
31 Augustine, Confessions, 3.8.
32 John Calvin, Commentary on First Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 254.
33 J. Michael Bailey and Richard C. Pillard, ‘A Genetic Study of Male Sexual Orientation’, Archives of General Psychaitry 43/8 (August 1986): 808-12.
34 William Byne, ‘The Biological Evidence Challenged’, Scientific American (May 1994), 54.
35 Dean Hamer, et el., ‘A Linkage Between DNA Markers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual Orientation’, Science 261 (1993): 321-327.
36 Dean Hammer and Peter Copeland, The Science of Desire (Simon and Schuster, 1994), 104.
37 Hamer, The Science of Desire, 85.
38 Neil and Briar Whitehead, My Genes Made Me Di It! A Scientific Look at Sexual Orientation (Lafayette, La.: Huntington House, 1999), 209.
39 Grenz, Welcoming but not Affirming, 149.
40 Grenz, Welcoming but not Affirming, 147.