What a Christian says about human sexuality serves as a primary theological litmus test these days. Churchgoers in particular want to know what their pastor has to say.
Usually, the question is drawn more narrowly: “What is your opinion of homosexuality?” In a church setting, those asking the question are wanting to know if the pastor thinks practicing homosexuals should be able to marry in church or be ordained as ministers.
I broaden the conversation to human sexuality because doing so creates a teaching opportunity. Over the years, I’ve repeatedly encountered people who were vigorously speaking against homosexuality while actively engaging in heterosexual sins—extramarital affairs, premarital sex, and pornography use, for example.
I’ve found that when I keep open the umbrella of human sexuality, a reflective calm falls on whatever audience I may be facing. As Christians consider their own sex lives or the pain they feel about the sex lives of close family members, the danger of focusing just on homosexual sin looms large. We’re reminded we need to pull the logs out of our own eyes before we go digging at others’ eyes. All sins separate us from God.
A Scriptural Approach
That said, as a pastor, people regularly ask me to give guidance on human sexuality, and being what I would call orthodox in my beliefs, I rely on Scripture to serve as the baseline for my theology. To quote both the Apostle Paul and Popeye, “I am what I am.”
Sex is intended for marriage, and marriage is between one man and one woman, with death being the only acceptable end of that marital bond. If you’re going to take Jesus seriously, you have to take seriously these principles he and his earliest followers declared. In particular, see how Jesus circles back to a foundational definition of marriage as he discusses divorce in Matthew 19:1-12.
In regard to homosexuality, I sometimes hear people point out that Jesus never addressed the subject directly. Jesus’ silence on the issue in Scripture proves nothing, however. His Jewish audience never doubted for a second homosexuality was against God’s will. Why waste time on a question no one was asking?
That point about era and audience does lead to a second argument from the “progressive” side. Progressives say today’s social context is completely different from the biblical context, and the Bible really doesn’t address the situation of homosexuals wanting to marry. As I consider this, I cannot see how they get around Romans 1:18-32. Romans is not only a holy book, it is the beginning of Christian systematic theology, and in it, we find an elaborate description of sin entering the world. This post-crucifixion, post-resurrection lesson about sin is to be understood as timeless, for every era.
Sin and Grace
First, Romans tells us, there was idolatry, a turning away from God. The result of that was God giving us up to a host of sins, many of them sexual, with homosexuality described in specific ways. Paul gives us a clear set of examples regarding what displeases God. (And again, in this list there are a lot of logs stuck in a lot of eyes, homosexuality being just one of them.)
We do have to balance this clear definition of sin with the powerful and sometimes perplexing nature of grace, God’s unmerited love given freely. God offers his abundant love to all. Christ overcame all sins on the cross.
Grace is why church leaders have been able to say God can place a person in a new, holy marriage after a first, less-than-Christian marriage has failed. Grace is why marriages can be restored even after affairs and pornography have ripped them apart. Grace is why people can learn to live joyfully in holy celibacy when a lifelong partner has yet to come along or is lost, or when heterosexuality proves impossible.
Scriptural principles create a kind of theological tension for Christians, but I believe it to be a healthy tension. We want to be holy; we want to live according to God’s will, and we want to encourage others to do so, too. At the same time, we also must continually acknowledge salvation as a free gift, one offered regardless of the sins that have ensnared us.
God meets us where we are. It does matter what we do after the meeting, of course. Once we know Christ, unrepentant sin remains a danger.
A Properly Framed Statement
A statement in the United Methodist Book of Discipline captures this necessary tension where human sexuality is concerned. (We also have statements prohibiting the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and the marriage of homosexuals by UM clergy.) I quote here in part from the Social Principles section of our Discipline:
We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.
Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
[Here, there is a paragraph condemning sexual abuse and exploitation.]
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
In this statement, we see a rejection of sin combined with a clear declaration of the power of grace. May the church hold to this attitude until Christ returns.