Homosexuality and the Gospel: A Crucial Distinction

The Bible is perfectly clear both that the offer of the Gospel is nondiscriminating and that homosexuality is morally wrong. That is, our Gospel outreach should never be limited in its scope, but there are lifestyles and behaviors that are condemned, and an active homosexual lifestyle is among these. In fact, any sexual activity outside of marriage (clearly understood in the Bible as being exclusively between a man and woman) is condemned, according to the straightforward teaching of Scripture. Now I realize that all of these claims are highly controversial in much of today’s society. However, I won’t in this article be arguing for any of them because I want to say something to those who already hold these as truths.

It seems to me to be a simple fact that the church has failed to reach out to the homosexual community. Instead, we have allowed a vicious and loud minority to be the face of the church as they picket funerals and other events that are sometimes only loosely connected to homosexual agendas. Though there are notable exceptions, the evangelical church has, on the whole, stood on the sidelines when it comes to sharing with and ministering to homosexuals.

Though there are notable exceptions, the evangelical church has, on the whole, stood on the sidelines when it comes to sharing with and ministering to homosexuals.

I will admit from the outset that outreach to the homosexual community is, in some ways, more complex. There are different challenges to navigate if a homosexual couple wants to give their lives to Christ and join your church as opposed to when a heterosexual couple makes a similar decision. There is of course the radical change that all go through in making Christ Lord, but the heterosexual couple can continue to be in a romantic relationship whereas the homosexual cannot, so the cost can be seen as greater. What also has made things difficult is that the conversations about these issues are so very emotionally charged and folks easily become hurt and hurtful without even trying. Thus, a well-intentioned conversation can quickly spin out of control.

I definitely don’t have all the answers on this issue; however, there is a crucial distinction that is almost always neglected (even in thoughtful discussions on these matters) that I think should shape our outreach. The distinction is between choices that are morally evaluable and desires that are not. Though we can, to some degree, cultivate certain desires and attractions, these are not under our direct control. However, we do choose how we will act. For many moral philosophers, it is only actions of choice, broadly construed, that are the sorts of things that are morally right or morally wrong. If there is not a choice being made, then it doesn’t seem to make sense to say you morally should or shouldn’t do it. Suppose someone says something hurtful to me, and I suddenly find myself in a state of anger. If I surrender this to the Lord and restrain myself from lashing out, then it seems that I haven’t done anything wrong. In my anger, I haven’t sinned. To be sure, part of Christian discipleship is to take these desires and reactions captive to the obedience of Christ, but I would submit that there is no moral wrong in the instant when an aberrant desire strikes us. If we choose to dwell on these thoughts (e.g., act lustfully) or directly act on these desires, then the action becomes morally evaluable.

Homosexuality-as-desire vs. Homosexuality-as-action

So the absolutely crucial distinction is between homosexuality understood as a person’s sexual desires or attractions for a member of the same sex (call this homosexuality-as-desire) and homosexuality understood as a person’s acting to fulfill these desires and attractions (call this homosexuality-as-action). Insofar as homosexuality-as-desire is not chosen, then it is not the sort of thing that is morally right or morally wrong. Homosexuality-as-desire should be thought of as a struggle that many people have that is not, in principle, different from when a person struggles with anger or pride or a poor self-image. These desires need to be taken captive, for we must be transformed by the Gospel of Christ. The upshot of the distinction is that we should be able to work on all of these, including homosexuality-as-desire, in the context of Christian community.

We have unfortunately made the debate turn on whether a person is born gay. If a Christian becomes convinced that people are born gay, they tend to accommodate the lifestyle as morally permissible. It seems obvious to me that one’s upbringing and background (including one’s own choices) has an impact on one’s sexuality but, on the other hand, there are plenty of examples of individuals who have a very “normal” upbringing and yet profess homosexuality. So I think the answer is that homosexuality results from a combination of both nature and nurture. But even if homosexuality-as-desire is inherited, it doesn’t follow that to act on these desires is morally acceptable. In fact, whether or not one is born with same-sex attractions is irrelevant to the moral question since the moral question has to do with what choices we make. One could be born with the desire to invest all of one’s life savings on Powerball lotteries. It doesn’t follow from this that one should do so. Suppose one finds oneself with a desire to commit adultery, and let’s suppose that it is determined that this desire is genetically inherited. It seems crazy to think that because it is inherited, one should get to routinely cheat on one’s spouse. We all have certain struggles and challenges that we did not seemingly choose (again, from both nurture and nature). It simply doesn’t follow that we get to therefore act on these desires. In fact, in many cases doing so would be morally wrong.

Let me illustrate some of this in a personal way. It is, in my mind, entirely possible that one of my young children may one day come to me and confess having same-sex attractions. For one thing, I feel confident that I will not change my views about homosexuality (as some political types have been apt to do of late). What he or she would be confessing is homosexuality-as-desire, and we would now have a significant challenge on our hands. My counsel to him or her would be, on the basis of the clear teaching of Scripture, do not act on these desires for this is morally wrong. Again, just because he or she has these desires, it doesn’t follow that he or she should act on them. However, I would not hesitate to make clear that I will stand by and love with all my heart him or her as we walk through this struggle together.

… this struggle is not beyond the pale of the Gospel, and ministering to those who struggle with same-sex attraction certainly does not fall outside the responsibility of the church.

The point here is that this struggle is not beyond the pale of the Gospel, and ministering to those who struggle with same-sex attraction certainly does not fall outside the responsibility of the church. If a person is willing to align themselves with the clear admonitions of Scripture against what it sees as aberrant behavior, then we can accept with arms wide open those who struggle with desires and attractions of any sort.