Homosexual people and the church
In the previous issue of Headline John Job provided a comprehensive account of the biblical passages immediately relevant to homosexual practice, and we now explore some of the pastoral challenges that arise. I have struggled in preparing this article. I would prefer not to think about this subject, but I know that as Christians we have a responsibility to face up to sensitive and difficult issues and to make a measured response. There are serious pastoral challenges here for all of us, whether we are heterosexual or homosexual, and we should all resist the temptation to leap out of our ghettos, shoot and retreat, without prayerfully considering the reason for, and the implications and effects of, our attitudes and actions.
Not so different…
The phrase in the previous paragraph ‘whether we are heterosexual or homosexual’ may have surprised or shocked you, for we have a tendency to think about ‘us and them’ as though evangelical Christians are heterosexual and it is only others who are homosexual. Nevertheless, there are amongst us men and women who are attracted to people of the same sex. We need to distinguish here between sexual orientation and sexual practice. Homosexual orientation in itself is not wrong, although it is challenging. According to traditional biblical teaching, genital sexual activity outside marriage is not acceptable to God - and that includes both heterosexual and homosexual activity. We are all capable of disobedience and in a society where there is sexual chaos, the church has a unique opportunity to offer forgiveness, support and/or challenge as appropriate. The church has increasingly provided this in cases of opposite-sex failures, but it has largely failed to help homosexual people, sometimes condemning them without regard to any struggle on their part to conform to accepted standards. In other words, homosexual sin has been viewed as more serious than heterosexual sin. This has resulted in the isolation of some damaged and vulnerable homosexual people while those who have erred in opposite-sex relationships are welcomed back. The situation is of course somewhat different if the person persists in their disobedience, but we still tend to make allowances for heterosexual people more than for gay and lesbian people. In God’s eyes there is surely little difference.
But a bit different…
The difference for people attracted to those of the opposite sex is that they have the potential to marry, whereas those attracted to the same sex do not. The latter are therefore in a more difficult and potentially frustrating position, and may need additional care and support. But this is not a simple matter because even within the life of the church, people of homosexual orientation have a wide range of approaches to the issue, and this calls for a variety of pastoral responses from the church.
Some approaches adopted by people of homosexual orientation
Some, accepting their homosexuality as irreversible, feel called to celibacy resolving to abstain from sexual activity throughout their lives *
Some see homosexuality as an illness, and seek healing
Some, for a variety of reasons, struggle to be heterosexual, and marry
Some try to abstain from sex but stumble from time to time
Some have a regular sexual relationship but feel guilty
Some have a secret sex life
Some have a sexual relationship and, believing that it is right, feel fulfilled
Some openly promote homosexuality as an acceptable way of life
What might be appropriate pastoral responses in these situations?
To the celibate (i) we can offer support, and ask ‘What can we as a church offer which will in part replace the love, support and sexual fulfilment a partner would have provided?’
If we cannot offer that, we need to ask ourselves what is the root of our prejudice; is it fear of difference, fear that children are in danger (though there is no more risk than from a heterosexual person), belief that all gay and lesbian people are profligate (they are not) or some other feeling?
(ii) Celibate gay and lesbian people need encouragement if they are to hold on to their principles, and especially if they are to stand up and be counted, for others can so easily jump to wrong conclusions, judging, condemning and ostracising them.
(iii) All of us need close friends, and we should not devalue good and healthy friendships between people of the same sex. It is unjust to assume that two people of the same sex living in the same house are having a sexual relationship.
(iv) Churches can offer positive teaching on singleness, and not treat single people as oddities.
(v) The temptation to find them a nice husband or wife should be avoided!
To those (few, I think) who see their homosexuality as an illness, we can offer prayers for healing, but not lay blame if there is no evident change of orientation. Much well-meaning damage has been done by Christian people seeing the lack of change of orientation as failure on the part of the person seeking prayer. That sense of failure may drive them from church where they most need to be.
If gay or lesbian people marry, against their inclinations but in an attempt to become heterosexual, we can offer support to the whole family, being sensitive to the struggle all of them engage in. And if the marriage fails, we must accept the honest decision to end it, and continue supporting everyone involved. (If at that point the gay man or lesbian woman chooses a relationship with a person of the same sex, we should continue to care for them, while not agreeing with their actions. In his book What’s so amazing about grace? Philip Yancey speaks movingly of his great friend, a well-known Christian leader, who struggled with his homosexuality, finally leaving his wife and family and adopting a homosexual lifestyle. Yancey could not condone his friend’s behaviour, but he was still his friend and supported him through threats, condemnation and persecution which largely came from other evangelical Christians).
Those who struggle to abstain from sexual activity and from time to time fail desperately need our compassion and not condemnation. Some attempt suicide because of the sense of failure and isolation, and they will benefit from professional help. If they experience rejection from the church, they may be drawn into the gay scene to find support. Forgiveness is available to those who seek it through the death of Jesus. If he offers it, we cannot deny it.
We can confront those who are ambivalent about their sexuality and their sexual practice, feeling guilty about it but continuing in it. They will not be at peace until they have resolved their ambivalence.
Our response to those who openly follow a homosexual lifestyle is more challenging. God shows unconditional love for humanity and we should reflect that; not a sentimental love, which permits people to do whatever they want, but a tough love which challenges destructive behaviour. How then do we apply the principle of love to people whose lives appear to deny some biblical injunctions? To condemn them as sinners and have nothing to do with them will not be helpful. Disapproval of other people’s actions should never cause social withdrawal or rejection, hatred, and persecution – where would be the love in that? A condemnatory attitude on our part can lead to secrecy in those who have not yet declared their sexuality, with the risk of the threat of blackmail. I wonder what we are about when our attitude causes some honest and sincere Christians who hold a different view about the authority of the Bible from ours to hide behind lies about their sexuality and their sexual practices? We cannot condone their practices but we can show respect even when we fundamentally disagree.
It is hard for us to accept that practising homosexual people and their heterosexual supporters sincerely believe that they are right. Some practising gay men and lesbian women I have talked with genuinely believe that their relationship with their long-term partner is neither destructive nor unhelpful. Though we view a long-term loving relationship between two people of the same sex as outside God’s plan for human relationships, we will surely see it as less damaging than promiscuity or an abusive relationship of any kind.
Gay and lesbian rights groups, both within and outside the church, campaign vocally for the acceptance of homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. This should be firmly and robustly challenged, as it contravenes both biblical teaching and Methodist standards. Let’s engage with them, enter into dialogue, get to know them, and make our views plain, without being offensive. We are a community of both grace and truth, and our words and attitudes should always reflect that.
If ever the Church were openly to condone the activities of practising gay and lesbian people, those who have opted for celibacy as the appropriate way of life would feel profoundly betrayed. In addition, our relations with other religions, particularly Islam and Judaism, would be greatly damaged.
There are many aspects I have not directly addressed in this short article, including that of ordination of practising homosexual people (though it is evident from the above that I would have no problem with the ordination of a celibate gay man or lesbian woman, whereas, on current understanding of scripture and the Methodist stance, I would have to resist the ordination of a sexually active homosexual person; and neither would I entertain the promotion of a homosexual lifestyle within the church). I have not addressed the move towards the institution of civil partnerships nor other human rights issues, which may soon impact on our churches, including complex issues around bisexual or transsexual men and women.
These are painful and difficult matters and I accept that not all readers will agree with all my comments. My plea is that we seek to avoid that blanket judgmentalism which Jesus hated so much, and which understandably gives rise to the accusation that we are homophobic. I ask that we attempt to understand the varying views of those who differ from us, neither condoning what we believe is wrong, nor ignoring or demonising the person. Meanwhile, let’s not expend so much energy on this issue that we do have not time to address our main task – to let an unbelieving world know that God loves them, Jesus died for them, and his Spirit can live in them!
* True Freedom Trust (TfT) exists to support gay and lesbian people who want to be celibate. It offers local support, counselling, prayer and publications. Contact address: TfT Office, PO Box 13, Prenton, Wirral, Cheshire CH43 6YB (Tel:0151 653 0773) Website: click here
Margaret Parker is a former Vice-President of the Methodist Conference.
Headline, Summer 2004 pp 25-26.