A Christian understanding of homosexuality is a topic I've shied away from, although I obliquely address it in The Liberal Agenda, because it can be so divisive. That it is a divisive and difficult topic makes me deeply sad. A refusal to face a topic because it is difficult could reasonably be called cowardice, so here we are.
People love to know the rules don't they. It's a fact of human nature that we want to be told what we're allowed to do and what we're not allowed to do. This is "the law" and the old testament of the bible is largely the story of humanity understanding God's nature and how to be right with God through a very detailed set of rules.
In Jesus' time there was a group of religious people who particularly loved the rules. Read Matthew 23 for some of the choice things Jesus had to say to these men, the Pharisees:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?Heavy stuff! The trouble with the law is that it can't help you, all it can do is tell you when you've broken the law. The law can't save, it can only condemn.
Jesus didn't come to remove the law, but he did fulfil it. In effect he rewrote the rulebook, and in his new rulebook there are only two rules (from Mark 12:30-31 or Matthew 22:37-40):
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.In Romans 13 Paul simplifies this even further "Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10 or similarly in Galatians 5:14).
There's obviously a great deal of working out of this to be done, but most of what Christians understand as sin - greed, hate, selfishness and so on - can be clearly seen to be against this law of love. (Or the law of liberty as it's called in the letter of James.)
Much of Christianity misunderstands sin (in practise if not in theory). The question of whether any individual act is "a sin" or not is mostly irrelevant. Our outward sins are symptoms of our damaged nature. Our real sin ("Sin" with a capital "S" - the sinful nature) is our failure and inability to love deeply. This is a topic I explore in Sin and Freedom.
However, if we are to categorise any act as "sin" or "not sin" (something Christians seem determined to do) then all we need to do is examine whether or not this act breaks the law of love. If an act hurts another person, or yourself, then there's a good chance it is against the law of love and can be called (if you insist) sin. A harmful symptom of the sinful nature. Conversely, if something is not harmful, if it is loving and upbuilding, then it is hard to categorise it as sin. You see where this topic is going?
In my essay on Sexual Purity in Marriage I discuss how lust is damaging, even within marriage, and how sexual intercourse can be an act of deep and genuine love. The sin in sex is not the act itself, but the selfish nature. So if sexual intercourse, between two people who love each other and are deeply committed to each other, is a genuine act of unselfish love then how does the gender of those involved change whether or not this act breaks the law of liberty?
Titus 1:15 To the pure all things are pure.
1 Corinthians 6:12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.So, your understanding of specific scripture not withstanding (and to be addressed shortly), if you are to believe that committed homosexual relationships are not acceptable to God you have to be prepared to explain how they are harmful and therefore break the law of love.
Merely saying that these relationships are harmful because they are not what God intended, or are harmful because they are sinful, is a circular argument. The only possible explanation for why homosexual love (or the physical expression of that love) is unnaceptable to God, is that homosexual love is not the same as "straight love", that homosexual love itself is inferior and damaging - a tainted love. If the pure and unselfish physical expression of love between two homosexual people is unacceptable to God, or that a pure and unselfish physical expression of love between two homosexual people is not even possible, it must be because there's something wrong with the nature of that love (and therefore the nature of people who have an orientation towards that love). And because this is what your heart says when your mind and rulebook says that homosexuality is unacceptable to God, this is what homosexual people hear.
This is why the common Christian response of "acceptance" for homosexuals is inadequate. This attitude, currently the official attitude of my church The Jesus Fellowship, was exemplified by Hillsong in response to discovering that one of their choir leaders was gay (from Do I Love Gay People):
So if you are gay, are you welcome at Hillsong Church? Of course! You are welcome to attend, worship with us, and participate as a congregation member with the assurance that you are personally included and accepted within our community. But (this is where it gets vexing), can you take an active leadership role? No.The idea that you can claim to love someone without being able to fully accept them into your church (in our church those in a homosexual relationship are not able to come into covenant membership nor live in our community) seems odd to me. Similarly, if they have a leadership ministry of any kind to claim to love them but not permit them to fulfil that ministry, not really permit them to be who they are, is odd. The real issue though, is that whilst you are claiming to love and accept them you are simultaneously stating that the physical expression of their love is harmful and damaging, that part of their nature, is unacceptable to God. You may think you're being loving and accepting, but they sure as hell don't feel loved or accepted.
The principle of acceptance of homosexuals, without accepting the practise of homosexuality, as adopted by many modern evangelical churches says that there is nothing sinful about a homosexual orientation but gay sex is still wrong (we're so obsessed with sex aren't we!). I don't think this is a rational and consistent belief. If gay sex is wrong it must be because either homosexual love can't be expressed in a pure and unselfish way, or because the pure expression of homosexual love is sinful. Either way it comes back to the nature of the homosexual love itself being wrong for the physical expression to be unacceptable to God. So to claim that homosexual love is not sinful but its physical expression is doesn't make sense. Or maybe it's not just the sex but the being in love that is the sin. Does that seem right? Not to me.
To put it in perspective suppose a married couple, say a black man and a white woman, came to your church. Imagine if your response was to welcome them, to make it clear that you loved them, but also to say that they couldn't fully join the church nor have any leadership role unless they divorced because you didn't think mixed race marriages were acceptable to God. A patently ridiculous position to take obviously. Do you think that couple would feel loved and accepted? Obviously not, they would feel hated and rejected. However much you may claim you love and accept homosexual people, if you believe that their love is unacceptable to God they will feel hated and rejected. Or they may be so conditioned by the belief of the world in general that homosexual love is wrong (and make no mistake this world hates Gay people) that they come to agree with you and reject themselves. This is sadly a common story for gay Christians.
So what about the bible and those verses that condemn homosexuality as sinful, the "six bullets in the gun" on the opposing side of this "debate"? Thankfully other people have written far more eloquently, and with deeper insight, than I could hope to. The definitive work on this topic, and on a mature understanding of the bible, is A Matter of Integrity by Steve Chalke. For those who want something shorter, or prefer video, I recommend this short one by Matthew Vines:
Reading and watching these it is obvious that the question of whether the bible outlaws loving same sex relationships is at the very least not straightforward. In this light any claim that the bible is "clear" on the topic is poorly informed at best (and really, really hard not to see as disingenuous).
It is possible to read and understand these and still disagree. This I can respect, we won't all agree and we have to be able to discuss difficult topics without acrimony. But please be clear about the consequences of your beliefs and statements. To believe that the expression of homosexual love is sinful is to believe that homosexual love is unacceptable to God, that the homosexual nature is damaging. This may well still be what you believe, but please don't at the same time claim you are loving and accepting of gay people.
The danger is that if homosexual love is acceptable to God, which is the only relevant question - not what the bible says but what the heart of God is, then we shut the door of the kingdom to people that God is desperate to welcome in. We may be confused on the topic, the church may be confused on the topic, but one thing is clear: God is not confused! For a genuine understanding of this topic, or any topic really, an understanding of scripture is not sufficient. We need a deep understanding of the heart of God, of sexuality and of gender. Without this we will quite simply get it wrong, misunderstand scripture and hurt and reject people. Let's not do that.
Sex at its best is an act and expression of love. If homosexual love is genuine love - deep and real in spirit and truth - do you think that its physical expression can never be acceptable to God? Is that what you think of the heart of God: that he accepts the love of heterosexuals but not the love of homosexuals.
If that is what you believe, surely the only way to reconcile that is to conclude that homosexuals don't really love each other, not in spirit and truth. That homosexuality is a perversion of real love. That's what the church has taught for centuries so you wouldn't be alone in that belief. I don't think this stands up to reality though, not to knowing and loving homosexual people. Their love is real.