By Bruce Lowe
The Morality of Homosexuality
1. The Bible’s Silence on the Morality of Homosexual Sex
Until the late nineteenth century, as already mentioned, the concept of homosexuality was totally unknown. No Bible writer knew of homosexuality, so no Bible writer could have said anything about it. The Bible writer is always talking about the only kind of people he knew anything about, the only kind anyone knew about for another 19 centuries; today we would call them heterosexual In statements in the Bible about same-gender sex, the writer is saying that when two of these (heterosexual) people have same-gender sex, they are lustful and sinful. We believe the Bible and we believe that. There cannot be anything in the Bible that says anything about (unknown) homosexuality or homosexual people or acts by gay or lesbian persons. Many writers point this out, but alas, homophobics are not reading.
No one questions the Bible's condemnation of sexual lust, and with our understanding of orientation today that would be whether it was homosexual or heterosexual. Lust is a matter of the human heart. It is the lust in the person that is condemned, not the act itself.
That last statement is important, for some may say that the Bible condemns the act of same-gender sex regardless of whether it is a heterosexual act or a homosexual act. But all ethicists tell us morality is only in persons. Only people are moral or immoral, not spoken words, not actions – only the people behind the words or actions have morality or immorality. We often say some action is wrong, but that is figurative; literally it is the person who is wrong. If someone takes a gun, points it and pulls its trigger, that is an act. Any morality is in the intent of the gun-handler. It could be murder, self-defense, target practice, putting a suffering animal to sleep, etc. It is not the act, it is the mind behind it that God judges. When the Bible talks about evil, it is talking about persons., not acts.
We need to understand clearly: No act performed by anyone is moral or immoral in itself. That is, no act performed by a homosexual is immoral. It is simply an act, nothing else. God is looking on the heart of the person.
If anyone insists on believing that the Bible writers could and did talk about homosexuality, gays and lesbians, he or she should consider that if the Bible's condemnation of opposite-gender sex acts, many times, does not mean that all opposite-gender sex acts are condemned, then the Bible's condemnation of same-gender sex acts, a few times, does not necessarily mean that all same-gender sex acts are condemned.
Since the Bible has no specific reference to homosexual sex, nor condemnation of all same-gender sex acts, we must find our understanding of its morality from the principles the Bible teaches us. So I shall try to address that.
2. The Criteria for Homosexual Morality
Whatever the criteria are for moral sex expression, they are as accessible to
the homosexual as they are to the heterosexual.
Now we are face to face with the question of what is moral in sex expression. What are the criteria to be met for sex expression to be moral? Professor Kathy Rudy says, “Christian ethicists, moral theologians, and religious leaders throughout the ages have spent an enormous amount of time and energy thinking about when sex can be considered moral and when it cannot.”[i]
One reason theologians and Christian ethicists have difficulty finding a sex ethic in the Bible is that the Bible’s condemnation of sexual acts is always associated with immoral, selfish lust, while Scripture says nothing that specifically defines a loving sex life.
We know that promiscuous sex is lustful, sinful. Some homosexual people are promiscuous. Probably the church needs to think more than it does about how to help these people, but I am not thinking of them now. Nor am I thinking of the millions of gays and lesbians who spend their lives in their closets without promiscuity, some of whom do come to our churches. The question remains about the morality of those gay men and lesbian women who have fallen in love with someone of their own gender and formed a loving, committed partnership. When they ask for membership in our churches saying, “Christ is our Lord and Savior and we want to serve him with you in this church’s fellowship,” should we assume their union is sinful when there is nothing in the Bible that says so? We turn to Bible principles for guidance. Let us look at some pertinent questions.
To be moral, must sex be between male and female?
We know that just because a sex act is between male and female, that does not make it (or literally, make the people) moral. The final criteria for morality will be found elsewhere.
We know, also, that while the procreative sex act must be between male and female, sex involves many other acts, some of which sometimes become more important than that act. God made both men and women with desire and potential joy in all those other sex expressions. There is nothing in the Bible that declares that for sex to be moral, it must be between a man and a woman.
To be moral, must sex be in marriage?
We are certain that all sex in marriage is not moral; there is often selfishness, exploitation when one considers the other as merely a sex object, even rape. Whatever the final criteria are for moral sex, they will be found somewhere outside of, beyond, legal marriage, for morality is in people, not in a legal status. But so many think sex outside of marriage is sin; sex in marriage is not. They consider it as simple and black and white as that. But nothing as complex as sex, which plumbs both the heights of beauty and the depths of ugliness, can be simple, and no black and white rule can define it.
McNeill speaks to this:
The average person has associated and confused the question of the morality of sexual conduct with the question of its objective legal status. The reason for this confusion is, in part, that one finds a very easily applied objective norm: sex before marriage is wrong; sex after marriage is right. … There is something more to the moral quality of sexual behavior than the purely objective legal question of marriage. … Something else ought to be present; that something else is love. … The human conforms to the divine image revealed in Christ not by acting in an impersonal, rational way, but by acting from a motive of love.[ii]
For gays and lesbians to be moral, must they be celibate?
Some say that if homosexuality is unchangeable and if homosexuals cannot love a person of the opposite sex, then they must remain celibate. The Bible gives its blessing to celibacy under certain conditions (Matthew 19:12), but gives no guidance about its adoption. Paul seems to recognize that not all people can remain celibate (I Cor. 7:9).
Psychotherapist/theologian McNeill expresses what I have found in my reading to be supported by many psychologists with regard to celibacy: (a) it is wrong to consign a person to such isolation and loneliness, one who is thus cut off from close relationships with either sex, not temporarily but until death; (b) it is unrealistic to expect this for it is virtually impossible for it to be done; (c) many of those who attempt to do this do so for pathological reasons; (d) the “almost inevitable results [of attempting celibacy] will be tragic in terms of suffering, guilt, and mental disorder;” and (e) growth and maturity require deep and committed relationships in one’s life.[iii]
Pathology in attempts at celibacy? McNeill’s explanation:
In my experience as a psychotherapist, I have found that the vast majority of people living out a life of abstinence do so for pathological reasons. Many have internalized the homophobia of the surrounding culture and the Church and as a consequence hate and fear their sexual feelings…. Others live out a life of abstinence because of serious trauma to their capacity for intimacy with another human… .Those who have repressed or denied their homosexual feelings for pathological reasons are the ones in greatest danger of acting out those needs compulsively, imprudently, and unconsciously, seeking punishment for what they see as their crime. . . . I would heartily advise all gay people to develop the most intimate and committed relationship possible for them.[iv]
Other highly respected theologians, also, have concluded that gays and lesbians need to develop intimate and committed relationships. Thielicke: “It is true that the homosexual relationship is … very certainly a search for the totality of the other human being. He who says otherwise has not yet observed the possible human depth of a homoerotic-colored friendship.”[v] William Barclay, whose commentaries on the books of the New Testament have sold over a million copies, has this comment on celibacy: “Sex is a part of life and the deliberate annihilation of it is not a virtue; it is a criticism of life as God made it and meant it to be.”[vi] McNeill believes, “Only a sadistic God would create millions of humans as gay with no choice in the matter and no hope of changing and then deny them the right to express their gayness in a loving relationship for the rest of their lives under threat of eternal damnation.”[vii]
Louise, I think we must conclude that requiring celibacy of gay men and lesbian women cannot be supported by the Bible, is unjustifiable from an ethical standpoint, and can be damaging psychologically. Sex, created by God in every person, has the potential of being beautiful and blessed by God in any person.
If the morality of sex is not defined by a specific sex act, by being married, or by being celibate, how is it defined?
Theologian James B. Nelson’s concept: “I believe that our best biblical scholarship reaches Walter Wink’s conclusion: ‘There is no biblical sex ethic. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.’”[ix]
Theologians have tried to define the kind of love required by moral sex. Nelson’s concept is that sexual acts ought above all to be “shaped by love, justice, equality, fidelity, mutual respect, compassion, and grateful joy.”[x] Ethicist Michael Keeling believes that covenant is the essential factor for moral sex that we find in the Bible, that sex between two people who have made a covenant with each other is moral.[xi] Norman Pittinger believes the same criteria hold for either heterosexual love or homosexual love: “the centrality and primacy of love—love which is mutuality, sharing, giving-and-receiving, life together in the most radical sense of the phrase.”[xii] Christopher Levan expects moral sex to “embody the divine intention for self-giving love. … Thus, sexuality is not a question of right technique, it is a question of right relationship.”[xiii]
Can homosexuals have this kind of love?
Historical theology professor Rosemary Reuther writes:
Once sex is no longer confined to procreative genital acts, and masculinity and femininity are exposed as social ideologies, then it is no longer possible to argue that sex/love between two persons of the same sex cannot be a valid embrace of bodily selves expressing love. If sex/love is centered primarily on communion between two persons rather than on biological concepts of procreative complementarily, then the love of two persons of the same sex need be no less than that of two persons of the opposite sex. Nor need their experience of ecstatic bodily communion be less valuable. [xiv]
One of the earliest affirmations of this that I found is a statement made by Quakers back in 1963: “… the Quaker committee, after a long study of homosexuality, drew the conclusion: ‘Surely it is the nature and quality of a relation that matters; one must not judge it by its outer appearance but its inner worth. Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and, therefore, we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse.’”[xv]
In 1975 a symposium on homosexuality at the annual meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies (note Christian Association) reported that behavioral science research and the realities of their clinical practice had forced them to propose that while promiscuity, fornication, and adultery should be regarded as sinful for both homosexual and heterosexual persons, a loving, committed, permanent relationship between two persons of the same sex was in an entirely different category and was not condemned in Scripture, and that Christians burdened with an involuntary homosexual orientation could choose a committed homosexual relationship as within God’s will rather than an unwanted celibacy.[xvi]
Louise, if I can believe, as I do, that gay and lesbian people can in their hearts and minds meet the criteria set forth above in their relationships just as fully as heterosexual people can, then I can believe, as I have come to, that their sexual expressions of love are moral in God’s sight, are within the moral principles that God expects us to live by. Love by these criteria, heterosexual or homosexual, is Godlike, for God is love.
These criteria are narrow. If a couple says, “We love each other so we can move in together. If we find we're compatible, maybe we'll marry later," it is quite doubtful they have the kind of love, selfless devotion and lifetime commitment required for these criteria. I know of a couple, unmarried for very special reasons, who live in a relationship that evidences full commitment to each other, to the Lord and to the church. I do not question the morality of their relationship. The criteria are spiritual, not legal. But they are narrow.
Unfortunately, loving, committed homosexual couples represent only a small percentage of all homosexuals (10% in one large-scale study of gays[xvii]). Many believe that number would increase greatly if society accepted homosexuality and encouraged committed homosexual relationships just as it does heterosexual relationships.
[i] Kathy Rudy, Sex and the Church (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 108
[iii] Ibid., 103
[iv] Ibid., 165, 204
[v] Thielicke, 271
[vi] William Barclay, A Spiritual Autobiography, 115
[ix] James B. Nelson, “Sources for Body Theology: Homosexuality as a Test Case” in
Jeffrey S.Siker, Ed., Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, 81
[x] James B. Nelson, Are Christianity and Homosexuality Incompatible, 102
[xi]Michael Keeling, “A Christian Basis for Gay Relationships,” in Malcolm Macourt, Ed.,
Towards a Theology of Gay Liberation, 101
[xii] Norman Pittinger
[xiii] Christopher Levan, “Homosexuality and Sin” in Pamela Dickey Young, Ed.,
Theological Reflections on Ministry and Sexual Orientation, 65
[xv] Alastair Huron, ed., Toward a Quaker View of Sex
[xvi] Nava and Dawidoff, 120, 147
[xvii] Stanton Jones and Don E. Workman, “Homosexuality: The Behavioral Sciences and the
Church” in Siker, 97