One of the most alarming trends of recent years has been the changing attitude to homosexuality. The symptoms abound. In San Francisco a homosexual sued his church for dismissing him from his post as an organist. In Holland, one of the highly respected churches is admitting known homosexuals into full communicant membership. The Church of England is divided on the issue of whether or not practising homosexuals should be ordained to the priesthood. The House of Commons voted to legalise homosexual acts between consenting adults in private and opened the way for them to enter into civil partnerships.
These episodes are significant in themselves, but behind them lies something more sinister - the new cohesion and brazenness of the homosexual community. Magazines like Gay News flourish; homosexual bars, clubs and associations proliferate, often aided from public funds; and more and more people - including clerics - seem to think there is something therapeutic in announcing to the world, "I am a homosexual."
Keeping a sense of proportion
It is important for the church, of course, to keep a sense of proportion. We have often been guilty of speaking out forcefully against sexual sins while voicing only muted protests against hypocrisy, injustice, bigotry and violence. It is surely strange, for example, that when we say of a man, "His morals are not very good!" we are referring only to his sexual behaviour. He may be greedy, selfish and a gossip, but if he is not promiscuous he is presumed to be of good morals.
Scripture doesn't share this attitude. Nor does it regard homosexuality as the most heinous form of moral deviation. Even in the detailed analysis of pagan degeneracy in Rom. 1:18-32, homosexuality is only one element. It is indeed spoken of in the most severe terms possible and those guilty of it are said to be worthy of death. But then so are those who "disobey their parents, are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless". Furthermore, the denunciations of the first chapter are followed by those of the second, which are aimed specifically at people who are confident that they are guides to the blind and lights to those in darkness.
The teaching of our Lord is to the same effect. The Judgement Day, he says, will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for those who saw his miracles, heard his message and yet rejected him. And among the virtuous people to whom the very word homosexual is abhorrent there are surely many who have never so much as given a cup of cold water to a little one for the sake of Jesus Christ. The inevitable end of such a life, despite its self-assured morality, is banishment from God.
Any discussion of homosexuality must begin, therefore, by asserting that our morality is not to express itself in an irrational fear, hatred and intimidation. Nor can it take the form of depriving homosexuals of their basic human rights. Christians are duty-bound to offer to all men protection from exploitation, victimisation, violence and despair, regardless of their moral condition.
Looking at the teaching of the Bible
One feature of the Bible's teaching on homosexuality is its reserve on the subject. Their historical situation and the pastoral problems facing them made it inevitable that the writers of Scripture would face this issue. Yet the references to it are scanty and inexplicit. This was deliberate, for these were things of which it was shameful even to make mention (Eph.5: 12). This reflects the conviction that even to talk of these matters defiles those whose calling was to present their bodies (including their tongues) as holy sacrifices to God. On a deeper level, it reflects the biblical understanding of the psychology of sin. Frequent reference to perversion, even from the stance of condemnation, can reflect an unhealthy obsession with it. Moreover, to speak of matters even in the language of prohibition can itself be titillating and suggestive. Paul remarks in another connection, "I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'Do not covet''' (Rom.7:7). It is at least equally true that many people never gave homosexuality a thought until they heard someone forbid it.
Today, there appears to be a conspiracy to drag sex out into the open and get people talking about it. Indeed, the humanist has gone a long way towards eroding the Christian ethic if he has managed to remove the veil of modesty which Scripture (and nature) suggest we should cast over these things. This is particularly true of homosexuality. However praiseworthy the motives, there is a danger of excessive reading in this area and of excessive references to it. Only when the pastoral situation is critical and an urgent problem exists is it wise to discuss it; and even then it must be done in a guarded way lest we defile ourselves or sow the seeds of corruption in others.
Another feature of the Bible's teaching is that it makes a distinction between a homosexual condition and homosexual practice. What is condemned unequivocally is homosexual practice-"men committing indecent acts with other men and receiving in themselves the due penalty of their perversion" (Rom. 1:27). This distinction must be applied with care, however. The Bible does not limit its condemnation to the overt physical act. It extends also to lust. No one is blameworthy because he has no interest in the opposite sex. But to be inflamed with lust (Rom. 1 :27) for one of his own sex certainly incurs guilt, even when the desire finds no physical gratification.
The Bible's teaching has a further striking feature - the unambiguous clarity with which it teaches that homosexuality is a moral, not a medical, deviation. It is a form of responsible behaviour which can be evaluated in terms, either of praise or blame, and against which there are divine sanctions. This is implied, for example, in Rom. 1:18-32. It is sexual impurity, a degrading of the body and, above all, it's against nature (something which is not true of fornication and adultery, vile though they are).
Listening to the views of homosexuals
Homosexuals are of the opinion that homosexuality is something primarily biological, holding fast those who practise it in the bonds of an inborn compulsion. The basis on which they claim this is exceedingly slender.
For example, there is little evidence that homosexuals are genetically different from other human beings. The most that can be claimed is that "twin studies provide some evidence that homosexuality may be genetically determined, but only in a proportion of patients".
The study of hormonal factors has been equally inconclusive; and what little evidence there is is complicated by the fact that we still do not know whether the hormonal differences are the cause of sexual habits or the result of them.
Nor, as many homosexuals assert, is homosexual activity the outcome of personality factors. Many people of homosexual orientation have never committed homosexual acts: and many others who used to indulge in the practice have discontinued it. Moreover, professional counsellors report that many homosexuals are completely free from all symptoms of psychiatric disorder and give every appearance of being stable, well-adjusted personalities.
Nor, as some would argue, is homosexuality the determinate result of environmental factors such as an early parental influence. It is no doubt a misfortune to have a weak father and a domineering mother. But there are many such people who never become homosexuals.
Spokesmen for homosexuals have resorted to two further arguments of a more general kind. First the argument from naturalism; it is as natural, they say, for a homosexual to express himself in his own way as for the heterosexual to express himself in his.
The immediate Christian response to this must be that this contradicts the teaching of the Bible. According to Scripture, homosexual behaviour is against nature. What is natural cannot be defined simply in terms of individual biological impulse. Otherwise, we would have to regard psychopathic behaviour as natural. However, when defining natural we must surely include reference to God's intention for mankind as we have it in Gen. I :27, "male and female he created them." When the male is attracted to the female, that attraction can find a physical expression which is natural. When a male is attracted to the male, that attraction can also find physical expression. But such an expression would not be natural. It would flagrantly contradict the order of sexuality which God imposed on humanity at the very beginning. The natural course, therefore, for the person tempted in this way is abstention.
This brings us to the second more general argument, namely, that to forbid homosexual activity is cruel, for it is to deprive many human beings of the only sexual pleasure of which they are capable and thus to deprive them of fulfilment. This surely is to over-value sexual relationships as if without them life would be scarcely bearable. The argument also proves too much. If valid, it would apply equally to heterosexuals, many of whom, for one reason or another, have abstained, without any disastrous experience of deprivation. There is no reason why homosexuals should not do the same and live lives of total contentment.
It also begs the question as to whether the homosexual experience is at all rewarding or fulfilling. Not only does it seriously endanger health, but it inevitably leads to a deep inner conflict since men know innately that those who do such things deserve death (Rom. 1:32). When we add that it also exposes men to the wrath of God, the scenario is not one of joy and fulfilment but of guilt, frustration and despair.
Taking action in the church
First, the churches must face the discipline issue. No denomination which seeks to be loyal to the headship of Christ and the traditions of the apostles can condone homosexual practice on the part of its members. To do so is to violate explicit instructions, to disgrace the whole body of believers, to run the risk of totalling corrupting it and to expose it to the wrath of God.
What is true of ordinary believers applies even more strongly to those ordained to the Christian ministry. The leaders of the church must be examples to the flock, blameless in the eyes of outsiders and models of Christian self-discipline. How can they be any of these if, by the very standards they profess, they are in the bonds of iniquity?
How can churches - especially churches which make extravagant claims to apostolic succession - give episcopal or presbyterial sanction to so-called "gay" churches? The lives of such people are a disgrace to the Christian religion. It is hypocrisy to imagine that men can carry their sodomy with them through the narrow door and along the narrow way that leads to life.
Secondly, the churches must raise their voices. They must protest against every move to teach homosexuality as part of sex education in our schools. We must also object strongly against homosexual couples being considered as adoptive parents. We must give support to owners of hotels and bed and breakfast establishments who do not want to be seen condoning homosexuality by giving hospitality to those who practise it. We should also call on the State to reflect biblical standards.
Love for the homosexual doesn't mean we are not to disapprove of his conduct. We do him a great wrong when we make him feel comfortable in the lifestyle that God abhors. But we must show our disapproval without being offensive. We must do all we can to maintain open communication and warm friendship.
Above all, we must defend our liberty to condemn homosexual practice and resist all attempts at preventing us preaching what God's Word teaches on this matter.
Thirdly, the churches must be able to provide meaningful pastoral counsel. This involves giving clear expression to God's condemnation of homosexual practice and to his insistence that it be abandoned. This, curiously, can be encouraging because by offering the homosexual fixed points of reference we hold out to him at least the possibility of charting a new course.
But, in the main, Christian pastoral concern will focus on two issues: the hope of forgiveness and the hope of conquest and victory. The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7) and, in the light of that, no man, however great his guilt, can be allowed to despair. More than that, the Gospel insists that the homosexual can, by grace, conquer his sin. He has no right to persist in it on the grounds that it is invincible. He is offered Christ as Saviour not only to instruct him by his teaching and inspire him by his example but also to indwell him by his power. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
On one level, that means hope for all who are prisoners of perversion. On another, it means the sternest and most demanding challenge of their lives, making it impossible for them ever to plead, "1 couldn't help it!"
* Homosexuality is a comprehensive term which includes Lesbianism-same sex relationships between females.
Homosexuality-The Straight Agenda, edited by: Brian Edwards, Day One Publications, 1989
Homosexuality and the Bible, Mark Bonnington and Bob Fyall, Grove, 1996