Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Treatment of Those with Homosexual Orientation within the Local Church

The following is a paper I wrote for my Ethics class this past semester. Feel free to provide any feedback!

            The issue of homosexuality particularly plagues the church in twenty-first century America. While the local church has engaged the issue of homosexual behavior (both internal and external to the church), it has largely ignored the issue of homosexual desire or orientation. On a popular level, orientation seems to be something that is ignored or treated only in concert with behavior. Because of this, many faithful believers who struggle with homosexual desires are left to deal with the temptations on their own—or worse, they are condemned if they voice their struggles.
            This paper seeks to answer the question of how the local church should treat those who identify as homosexual with respect to orientation. It will contend that those with this temptation are not being sub-Christian, and it will suggest a proper method of application for ministering to these believers. First, biblical considerations of homosexuality will be examined. Then, a distinction will be drawn between desire and lust. Finally, an ethical proposal for the local church and homosexual believers will be given. The church should recognize Christians struggle with homosexual temptations and attempt to minister to these members in a biblical manner.
Biblical Considerations of Homosexuality
            No discussion of a Christian ethical view of homosexuality is complete without an appeal to the Scriptures. In fact, the Bible must serve as an ultimate foundation for one’s conclusions on the matter. This means that one cannot contradict the conclusions of Scripture on the matter, and Scripture must at least allow the beliefs or implications of one’s considerations. This paper shall consider four aspects of homosexuality in the Scriptures.

The Creation
            The creation of mankind on the sixth day is relevant precisely because it reflects the created order (Gen. 1:26). Millard Erickson argues that because God created humans, they are not free simply to do whatever they please; they have a function or purpose to which they must aspire.[1] There are other considerations of human sexuality within the creation.
            John Hammett emphasized “the fact that God created two sexes would seem to imply some differentiation [between the sexes].”[2] This differentiation will necessarily involve the family. Within heterosexual relationships, there is a sense of completion of roles that God originally intended. Hammett also pointed out these gender roles are “nonreversible.”[3] The affect this has on homosexuality is obvious: homosexual relationships cannot fulfill the gender and familial roles assigned to them by God (even in principle). David Jones adds to this when he argues, “to undermine marital relationships [which is done by homosexual behavior and relationships] is to erode the core of civilization itself.”[4] If this is true, then the very creation of mankind eliminates homosexual relationships and its gender-indefinite roles.
Sodom and Gomorrah
            The most famous case of homosexuality in the Scriptures surrounds the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is found in Genesis 19. It is also mentioned in the New Testament (NT).
            Sodom’s destruction was revealed in Scripture in Genesis 18:20, which states the sin of the two cities “is exceedingly grave” (NASB). The KJV translates the clause as “their sin is very grievous.” The idea of the word is that there is a weightiness or heaviness to it, so that it can be said to grieve a holy God. What sins could be so grievous to the Lord? Genesis 19 provides the example. Verse 5 states that the men of the city saw the angels and said, “Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them” (NASB). The KJV translates this as “know;” it is the same “know” as in Genesis 4:1, and it is an idiom for sexual relations. Of course, it was not merely the homosexual behavior of the men that earned them condemnation (though that was very sinful). It was also the strength of the lusts of their evil hearts. Verse 24 details the end came through fire and brimstone of the Lord.
            Throughout the rest of the Old Testament (OT), Sodom and Gomorrah were used as a cautionary tale of where Israel could have been or where they will be if they do not mend their ways. Deuteronomy 29:23 states that the cities were overthrown in God’s “anger and wrath” (ESV), while Isaiah 3:9 claims that Israel, like Sodom before her, “brought evil on themselves” (ESV). The sinful cities stood as a symbol of both extreme sexual sin and God’s judgment and wrath in the Old Testament.
            In the NT, it clearly stands as a continuation of OT thoughts. Luke 17, however, shows Jesus’ use of Sodom as a symbol of the final judgment. Verses 28-29 establish that the careless and continual nature of the sin of Sodom contributed to the shock of the judgment from God. This insight can show the attitude of homosexual sin as careless or even defiant will eventually incur the wrath of God. 2 Peter 2:7 describes Sodom as “the sensual conduct of unprincipled men” (NASB), and Jude 7 mentions that they were “giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh” (KJV). There can be little doubt that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sins are viewed in the NT the same way as the OT.
The Old Testament Law
            The third aspect concerns the view of OT Law. While God clearly punished homosexual behavior in excess, perhaps it was only this excess that caused God’s judgment. The OT Law will serve to show an appropriate Scriptural view toward any homosexual behavior whatsoever. Leviticus 18:22 commands, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination” (NASB). Lev. 20:13 spells out the penalty for homosexual acts: death.
            Phyllis Bird believes that the former passage is only a prohibition on male homosexual acts. She writes, “In view of the fundamental orientation of the OT laws toward the rights and responsibilities of males, primarily in relation to other males, I do not think we can conclude anything . . . about the incidence or acceptance of lesbian relations.”[5] This conclusion, however, seems disingenuous. Jones indicates that taking these passages seriously within the field of biblical ethics will yield a conclusion that homosexual acts are immoral.[6] For Bird, the OT is just not clear as to the reasoning used to proclaim homosexuality immoral, and she claims Western Christians find a prohibitionist-worldview “unacceptable.”[7] It seems clear that she finds the conclusions to be reprehensible and so does not accept the normal view of Scripture.
Romans 1
            The final aspect of the biblical considerations of homosexuality is Romans 1. This chapter describes homosexual acts in various ways. The two verses of record are 26-27.
            Homosexual activity is described as “degrading passions,” “unnatural,” and “indecent acts” stemming from “the lusts of their hearts” (vs. 24, 26-27, NASB). Erickson describes these verses as communicating an avoidable error[8], so that if one were confused as to whether or not behavior is in view, he should not be. Frame points out that this passage is clearly teaching that homosexual behavior is sexual sin that is the result of idolatry. He also points out that all homosexual activity is sin, since it all will come outside of the confines of God-ordained marriage.[9] It is also interesting to note that this homosexual behavior, like Lev. 20:13, is condemnatory of both male and female participants. It also appeals to a “natural order” that would seem to render ceremonial considerations to be of less importance than inherent morality. It has been suggested that, biblically, homosexual behavior is immoral. The next consideration should be the distinction between desire and lust.
Considerations of Desire and Lust in Homosexuality
            The considerations of desire and lust ought to be taken into account, as it is relevant to the concept of homosexuality (and hence, homosexual believers). First, it must be pointed out that a society ruled by lust shows that something is very out of proportion in regards to sexual desire.[10] C.S. Lewis used the example of the slow uncovering of food drawing massive audiences to show that society would be regarded as perverted; in the same way, a society that glorifies sex and lust is also perverted.[11]
            A natural question that presents itself is this: is there a difference between desire and lust? If there is not, then any homosexual desire is also lust, and thus it is sinful. This would mean that all homosexual believers are constantly in sin whenever they experience such desires. For Frame, there is a definite distinction between desire and lust.[12] The desire for a specific gender can be “a matter of degree,”[13] and thus believers can struggle with it in either lesser or greater ways. If “desire” and “lust” are conflated, a bad situation for all believers ensues. This is because a basic desire is what forms the foundation for temptations; Christ experienced temptation; therefore, Christ sinned.[14] Of course, such reasoning must be rejected; this means the desire-as-lust argument must go.
            Not only is there a distinction between desire and lust, but also desire can be positively identified with temptation. William Lane Craig argues that there are many Christians, struggling with homosexual temptation, who do not choose to have homosexual desires.[15] This suggests that desire is closely associated with temptation. This is especially true in cases where the specific desire cannot be fulfilled righteously. For Craig, being a homosexual is simply a descriptor for the state of being disposed to desire the same gender in a sexual manner, and not acting out homosexual acts (this is because one can be a heterosexual and engage in homosexual actions).[16] Craig writes, “Being homosexual, as such, is no sin.”[17] It is to engage in the act that is sinful.
            Because of these last two considerations, there is going to be a definite difference between homosexual orientation and personal identity. Too often, homosexuals (and critics of homosexuality) take great pains to remind everyone that they are homosexuals, and to criticize homosexual activity is really just to criticize homosexual persons themselves. One can see why this can be rhetorically powerful. Craig observes, “Part of the agenda of proponents of the homosexual lifestyle is to portray sexual orientation as a defining characteristic of who you are, part of your very identity . . . . Rather, I would speak of ‘describing’ oneself in a certain way. Descriptions can change . . . and so need not define who we are.”[18]
            The debate often revolves around whether or not orientation is something that is inborn or not. The idea is that if it is, it is part of your identity and thus one is excused from his behavior. But Craig argues that even if one’s behavior is genetically predisposed, this does not excuse his behavior.[19] Think of the psychopathic murderer, for instance. One should not excuse his behavior either. In that case, orientation-as-inborn becomes irrelevant to the issue of whether or not the behavior can be condemned.[20]
            Christine Gudorf argues that science’s discovery of orientation should lead Christianity to embrace homosexual activity as normal.[21] Despite the fact this is a non sequitur, Gudorf makes no attempt to argue that orientation is determinative, rather than dispositional, of behavior. She confesses, “It is impossible to know whether the sexual experience led to the orientation or some innate predisposition to the orientation led to the experience.”[22]
            Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse have interacted directly with the scientific material that claims orientation is purely inborn. This material would claim personal identity is bound up in genetic identity. This is what the authors refer to as “essentialism.” They contend that “science cannot validate or invalidate the ethical conclusions which seem so frequently drawn from essentialism,”[23] and “Science does not prove essentialism to be true; it rather usually presumes it.”[24] The further argue that the scientific research itself tends to be either vague or inconclusive, so that proclamations of causation are unwarranted.[25] If homosexual believers do not find their identity in their orientation, then the local church must reach out to them in love.
The Church and Homosexual Believers
            If desire is separate from lust, then mere homosexual desire is not necessarily sinful for the believer. In fact, desire can then be identified with temptation, and can be successfully resisted (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). If orientation is not an identity for the homosexual believer, then he will find his identity in Jesus Christ (cf. Eph. 2:5). The local church must be willing and able to assist the homosexual Christian in these cases.
            First, the local church is to do this with an ethic of love and compassion. Mark Toulouse believes the best way to do this is to have a unified discussion that moves toward acceptance, avoiding the rhetorical extremes.[26] These rhetorical extremes, he argues, are why the “muddled middle” majority refuses to delineate clear instructions dealing with homosexual members.[27] This advice seems neither wise nor loving. As an alternative, Craig suggests Christians “accept and lovingly support brothers and sisters who are struggling with this problem.”[28] It is no part of Christian love, therefore, to condemn someone based solely on his temptations. Romans 12:10 commands, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (ESV). Christians struggle with various sins; most Christians struggle with one or more particular sins all of their lives. Yet the struggle is itself praiseworthy. It is only when one gives himself over to sins instead of fighting them that he is condemned (cf. Rom. 6:11-14). Far too often, local churches have been unwilling to help a brother or sister who struggles with these issues.
            Second, an ethic of wisdom is needed. This has a couple of facets. First, wisdom is needed in the context of the local church’s response to a believer who admits his temptations and struggles with homosexuality. The church is sometimes implicitly hostile to such believers, often exhorting them to “pray harder,” or “get your mind out of the trash and into the Word!” While prayer and Bible reading are certainly essential, it is not the better part of wisdom to assume the homosexual Christian does not read his bible. The church must be a safe place for those believers who want help or counseling.
Next, wisdom is needed on the part of the individual believer. Some ministries are built around the idea of deliverance from the temptation of homosexuality. Frame points out that while eradication of this temptation is possible, many such people admit “that they continue to experience homosexual attraction.”[29] What happens in practice is that these believers become frustrated with themselves and with God, and simply give in to their temptations because they are tired of fighting. Jones and Yarhouse take great pains to point out that it is not impossible for orientation to change.[30] Nevertheless, there is good reason to think that, for most believers, this temptation will never fully go away (this side of glorification). Why expect temptation to be taken away when it is not the majority of the time? Craig writes, “Every young, heterosexual Christian male will tell you that he has prayed again and again that God would help him conquer lust, and those prayers go repeatedly unanswered!”[31] The key to fighting temptation in wisdom is not to be rid of it, but to persevere through it.
            Third, an ethic of resisted temptation is needed. This is easier said than done. In addition to having an attitude of love, compassion, and wisdom, local churches must be willing to take action. The first recommendation is not to call more attention to it than other temptations. One does not wish to alienate a fellow believer. Thomas Schmidt points out that “God takes me wherever I am and begins to remake me.”[32] The idea is that God will slowly change and grow a believer. A homosexual Christian may find the temptation to be an hour-to-hour battle, but as he relies on God, the resisted temptation becomes more frequent (not necessarily easier). The church ought to emphasize this. Too many programs focus on the idea that resisting temptation should be easier, or that one’s desires should change, or that one will never stumble into lust, and so on. Instead, programs should focus on the believer conforming to the image of Christ so that he can resist these temptations. It is unwise for local churches, therefore, to put struggling believers in certain situations in the context of ministry. This would include one-on-one counseling with someone of the same gender, amongst other things.
Churches should set up support groups, both specific and general, for these believers. There should be a support group for homosexual Christians who fight against their desires (unsegregated by gender). The danger is that, like singles ministry or divorce care, the group becomes a center for dating (and therefore sin in this case). This is why general groups such as church small groups or Sunday school should balance the former group. These believers should be part of regular church body life, seeing as it is the vehicle for Christian maturation. Ephesians 4:16 teaches, “From whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (NASB). For the believer, the two sides of the wisdom coin involve staying away from temptations that may be overwhelming for him, and being heavily involved in the life of the local church for his own personal growth (as well as to serve others).
Churches sometimes suggest that the afflicted brother simply become involved in a heterosexual marriage; this is not always a good idea. In fact, Schmidt argues that celibacy is a legitimate option.[33] This is certainly better than bringing a family into a potentially volatile situation. John Stott warns of this when he writes of the “reversal of [one’s] sexual bias” being a tenuous thing.[34] The church should help the believer find his identity in Christ, and that will help sustain him.[35] This means the church should not exercise church discipline on a believer, even if he engages in homosexual behavior, unless he also does so unrepentantly. In this way, the homosexual Christian is not to be treated differently than any other believer.
Fourth, an ethic of the empowerment to serve needs to be communicated to the believer. If the believer is to be truly a part of the life of the local body, then he must be included in the body. Jay E. Adams has written, “A counselee is a whole person.”[36] This must be kept in mind. The homosexual believer is not defined by his temptations. The other members of the church certainly would not want to be identified with their own temptations. If it is true, as Adams claims, that everything a person does relates in some sense to everything else that he does,[37] then the church must involve the homosexual believer in the life of the service of the church.
In order to resist temptation successfully, the believer must grow, and in order to grow, he must be part of the local church. Churches should limit the believer’s service so as not to arouse the temptation to sin. This may rule out youth/children’s ministry or others. However, the believer should be free and encouraged to serve. This form of “rehabilitation” can be applied to every believer, but it will especially allow the homosexual Christian to feel he is truly a part of the local body of Christ.
            This paper has pointed out there are homosexual Christians, so defined as those who experience same-sex temptation. This temptation is not itself a sin, though this paper has shown homosexual activity is biblically condemned. The distinction between desire and lust allows the church to become involved in supporting the believer, and the believer should be integrated normally (with a few practical restrictions) into church life. The church should recognize Christians struggle with homosexual temptations and attempt to minister to these members in a biblical manner. Love demands no less.

Adams, Jay E. The Christian Counselor’s Manual. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973.

Bird, Phyllis A. “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture. Edited by David L. Balch, 142-76, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000.

Craig, William Lane. Hard Questions, Real Answers. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.

________ and Joseph E. Gorra. A Reasonable Response. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.

Gudorf, Christine E. “The Bible and Science on Sexuality,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture. Edited by David L. Balch, 121-41, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000.

Hammett, John. “Human Nature,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007.

Jones, David W. An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013.

Jones, Stanton L. and Mark A. Yarhouse. “The Use, Misuse, and Abuse of Science in the Ecclesiastical Homosexuality Debates,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture. Edited by David L. Balch, 73-120, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Schmidt, Thomas E. Straight & Narrow? Compassion & Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995.

Stott, John. Same-Sex Partnerships? A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1998.

Toulouse, Mark G. “Muddling Through: The Church in Sexuality/Homosexuality,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture. Edited by David L. Balch, 6-42, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000.

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 511.

[2] John Hammett, “Human Nature,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 354.

[3] Ibid., 356.

[4] David W. Jones, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 182.

[5] Phyllis A. Bird, “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, ed. by David L. Balch (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 152.

[6] David W. Jones, 35.

[7] Bird, 154-55.

[8] Erickson, 585.

[9] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 758-59.

[10] Erickson, 488.

[11] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 96.

[12] Frame, 760.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] William Lane Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 134.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 144.

[18] William Lane Craig and Joseph E. Gorra, A Reasonable Response (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013), 345.

[19] Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers, 134.

[20] Ibid.

            [21] Christine E. Gudorf, “The Bible and Science on Sexuality,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture. Ed. by David L. Balch (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 140-41.

[22] Ibid., 126.

[23] Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, “The Use, Misuse, and Abuse of Science in the Ecclesiastical Homosexuality Debates,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, ed. by David L. Balch (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 119.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 104.

[26] Mark G. Toulouse, “Muddling Through: The Church in Sexuality/Homosexuality,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, ed. by David L. Balch (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 36.

[27] Ibid., 34.

[28] Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers, 144.

[29] Frame, 265.

[30] Jones and Yahouse, 112. They rightly point out that even if only some success can be shown, it nonetheless follows that orientation is possible to be changed.

[31] Craig, A Reasonable Response, 346.

[32] Thomas E. Schmidt, Straight & Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexual Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 164.

[33] Ibid., 166-67.

[34] John Stott, Same-Sex Partnerships? A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1998), 73.

[35] Ibid., 76-79.

[36] Jay E. Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 254.

[37] Ibid.


  1. On a related note, what d'you think is the best way of responding to the sceptic who may argue it is unfair of God to allow someone to be born with such an orientation in the first place? Obviously we may say that having such an orientation does not mean one has to give in to one's feelings/urges but the sceptic I guess could say it's almost as if God is making it more likely for them to sin by letting them be born that way (if indeed it is genetic, since some writers point to studies on identical twins which suggest it may not be; though that's not to say it's a "choice" either)

    1. Hi James! :)

      For the purposes of my paper, I largely left that alone, except to point out it doesn't excuse actual behavior. But notice something in particular about this type of claim: it is the same type of claim of the form, "God allows X, so God is evil." But the only way to know this is to know there are not morally sufficient reasons for allowing X.

      Another factor to consider, that is related, is that God's allowance of the natural order, both positive and negative, make possible both good and bad things to occur (both in the moral and non-moral senses). God allows someone to be born with a limp; God allows someone to be born with below-average intelligence; God allows someone to be born with great athletic ability; God allows someone to be born with great intelligence, and so on. These natural order defects or deficiencies (for that is what they would be on an analysis of both the "born-this-way" claim conjoined with the idea that homosexual behavior is sinful) can be allowed insofar as this type of world can be allowed. That is to say, any defense or theodicy that is available there is available here as well.

      For the Christian, part of that is the realization that God allows the natural order to run its course 99.9999999% of the time; after all, he's the one who set it up! I think part of the confusion is the "born-this-way" crowd assume that however one was born is wholly and solely the result of God's direct causal action. "How can it be bad," they say, "when God made me this way?" If by "made me this way," they mean that God caused or directly brought about evil urges, then I don't know too many Christians who embrace that.

    2. Hi Randy,

      You said, "But notice something in particular about this type of claim: it is the same type of claim of the form, "God allows X, so God is evil." But the only way to know this is to know there are not morally sufficient reasons for allowing X"

      D'you think we can come up with a possible reason for God allowing someone to be born with homosexual urges? [I know I may be asking too much there :)] Obviously you point to similarities with the POE and the fact that we are not always in a position to know why God allows certain evils. That seems fair enough to me though it's always more intellectually satisfying (both to me and I guess to the sceptic too) when someone can construct a possible reason for God allowing certain states of affairs. For example, in regard to a question about the POE, William Lane Craig says that a possible reason (or one of them at least) for God allowing Hitler come to power is that if God had stopped him then "Perhaps an empowered and emboldened Josef Stalin would have wrought worse atrocities and eventually plunged the world into war anyway. Perhaps there would have been a nuclear war by now." D'you think we can come up with a similar "story" about God allowing someone to be born gay? (if indeed they are)

    3. Perhaps there are. For instance, in the book of Romans, God allows certain things for the purposes of broadening mercy. The apostle Paul mentions homosexuality in a list of sins, and says, "such were some of you," but God's mercy had saved them. It's impossible to do anything but speculate without knowing individual circumstances (that's the benefit of the Hitler example). But a possibility is such: God allows the natural order to make it such that X is born with an inclination toward same-sex attraction. X comes to believe in Christ, but suffers the same temptation. X overcomes (not gets rid of) this temptation through Christ, and is able to be a powerful witness, both to those experiencing this temptation and those who have not (since God can overcome even the strongest temptations). On the other hand, had X not had this temptation, perhaps he is not able to have such a powerful testimony to bring others to Christ. Or perhaps he does not come to Christ at all, seeing that it was his own problems that helped to bring him! All speculation, since this is a hypothetical person. But we can multiply hypothetical examples. For the one who would not be saved, perhaps this evil is allowed to harden (through the choices of the individual) because it helps to form the world we now live in (which, if morally allowed, would be the response to the POE). That kind of stuff.

    4. OK, thanks for the help :)


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