Christian Response to Homosexuality
By Stuart Briscoe
A little over a hundred years ago England was rocked by a major scandal. Oscar Wilde, the flamboyant, iconoclastic playwright, was charged with “gross indecency” – a Victorian way of referring to his homosexual liaison with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry - and sentenced to two years of “hard labor.”
His painful experience in prison and the anguish and sorrow he suffered there are vividly portrayed in his “A Ballad of Reading Gaol” and “De Profundis.” He wrote, “Prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others.” Humiliated, ostracized, and broken, on his release after serving his sentence, he left England never to return.
Fifty years later, at the age of 17, I spent part of my first paycheck purchasing a pair of brown suede shoes. My mother, horrified, announced with considerable force, “I always said no son of mine would ever wear suede shoes.” When I inquired what she had against that brand of footwear she replied, “Homosexuals wear them!” To the best of my knowledge that was the first time I ever heard my mother refer to “homosexuals” and so I asked her, “Why do you dislike homosexuals ?” and she replied, “I don’t know and I don’t want to know!” There is no doubt that my mother, a godly upright lady, had a visceral reaction against certain people she knew little about, but I’m sure she would never have wished to see them treated like Oscar Wilde.
Attitudes were changing.
Fast forward another 30 years to a dinner conversation with my teenage children. The topic, to my amazement, was whether or not one of their high school teachers was “gay.” As a small girl my daughter had once asked in horror over some incident or other, “What would Grandma say!?” Listening to my children on that occasion I wondered the same thing! In a handful of decades the recognition of the homosexual lifestyle and varying degrees of acceptance of it had gone through rapid change and I’m not sure how my mother and her generation would have coped.
Now my three children have children of their own – teenagers and young adults – and the general consensus among many young people in their age group seems to be that homosexual proclivities, preferences, and lifestyles are with us, they’re not going away and so we should ensure that everybody, regardless of their “sexual preferences” ought to be treated equally. That, they see, as a right. So if homosexuals want to be “married” we should change the definition of marriage to accommodate them. If they want to serve in the military they should not be deprived of the privilege. If they would like to be bishops in the Anglican Church or ministers in some other mainline church, why should their “sexual preference” stop them?
A couple of years ago on a vacation cruise to Antarctica we met many interesting fellow adventure passengers, including two sharp young Wall Street professionals who told us they were on their honeymoon. Did I say they were both male? The majority of the passengers were enthusiastic in their congratulations to the “happy couple” and they were quickly afforded celebrity status.
“The times they are a’ changing.”
Undoubtedly the hardest moment in my 30-year pastorate arrived when one of my young associates was accused of improper behavior with some of his charges. Tragically, he responded by committing suicide. The event generated an enormous amount of publicity and I received a huge amount of mail. One letter demanded that I publicly accept responsibility for the young man’s death because of my “homophobia.” The letter was signed by two of the leading members of the homosexual community in our city, so I wrote back and requested a meeting with them to discuss their accusation and demands. They agreed to meet and on arrival in my office said, “We hope you’re loaded for bear, Stuart. We are!!” I assured them I had no interest in fighting with them and in fact I had come unarmed! We talked for about a-half-an-hour concerning my perceived homophobia and their perceptions (actually assumptions) of what had transpired. Slowly, the heat disappeared from the discussion and light made a welcome appearance. During a pause I said quietly, “I would love to hear your stories because I see pain on your faces and anger in your hearts.” To my surprise both men began to cry and one of them said, “Those are the first kind words I’ve ever heard from an evangelical.” Their stories were sad and they told them gladly – delighted someone really wanted to know. But their words troubled me – not least as I heard of their experiences at the hands of professing believers.
After I had listened to their sad stories they listened to “my story.” I explained to them the dilemma facing evangelical Christians such as myself. I acknowledged that they saw me as unloving, prejudiced, and homophobic – without knowing me - but I added that it would be helpful if they could see that evangelicals have a problem. Not that there is anything new about the problem – it’s just more acute in the modern era. It’s the age-old problem of how to be faithful to the unchanging truth of Scripture as we understand it and relevant to a dramatically changing culture as we see it. Or, more specifically, “how to love the sinner and hate the sin?” Incidentally they saw this as a cliché and dismissed it! But they were willing to accept they were sinners because I freely admitted I was one too. However, they were not as willing to see their homosexual behavior as a contravention of God’s principles. And they said that loving the sinner and hating the sin looked to them more like hating who they were as well as what they did!
For some believers and unbelievers alike, the problem is resolved by simply changing unchanging truth to conform to the contemporary zeitgeist. The rationale usually being that love is all that matters and the only loving thing to do is to treat the homosexual person as I would wish to be treated myself. That means giving them all the “rights” that others enjoy and regarding their lifestyle as valid as any other and perfectly normative. And as there is no such thing as objective truth - things always change - there cannot be an unchanging truth. On the other hand, most conservative believers are convinced that the Bible is true in all that it affirms, so it in no way allows the homosexual lifestyle to be regarded as normative. In fact, it describes it as a gross perversion of divine standards of sexual behavior. I genuinely cared about these men’s temporal and eternal well-being, but I could not in good conscience go against what I saw as the clear teaching of Scripture. That in a nutshell was my problem! I told them that they should respect my right to hold certain convictions as I must respect their right. God, after all, gives us all the right to be wrong! But neither of us had the right to denigrate or demean the other because we are all created in the divine image, all are fallen, but all are redeemable. In fact what we have in common far outweighs the differences upon which we so frequently major.
By this time – far from hunting bear – we were making a genuine attempt to bear one another’s burdens. Their burden was their bitterness towards believers whom they believed had abused and denigrated them; mine was the burden of loving people realistically with whose lifestyle I disagreed profoundly.
Eventually they asked me two questions. “Would we be welcome in your church?” I replied immediately, “Of course you would be welcome provided you were willing to observe appropriate behavior in a place of worship.” Then they asked – and I’d been expecting this one –“Would you employ a practicing gay on your staff.” My reply was equally prompt, “Of course not. For the same reason I would not knowingly employ an adulterous hetersexual, a single person addicted to pornography, or a young couple cohabiting outside wedlock, because they all contravene God’s standards of sexual behavior that we expect from a person accepting leadership responsibility in the church.” They seemed satisfied with my response and after welcoming my suggestion that I pray with and for them, they left with lots to think about.
A good case could be made that Oscar Wilde was treated inhumanely and fortunately attitudes have changed. I’m glad about that. In the days when suede shoes were suspect it appears that attitudes were divorced from understanding and some steps have been made in the right direction in this regard as well. That’s good. And while “Grandma” would have died rather than discuss the high school teacher with her grandchildren, but for them the topic was on the table for discussion. For my mother’s generation it was swept under the carpet in the fond hope it would go away. The modern way is much better. But joining in the celebrations of the honeymooning couple? Unfortunately, it’s not something I can do.
So here’s my position on this tricky issue.
1. I do not know what causes homosexual tendencies. Some instances suggest perversion of some kind; the more difficult ones suggest inversion on which there seems to be no agreement with regard to causes. Tendencies may be beyond our control; acting on them is our responsibility.
2. I do not believe that homosexual behavior can be regarded as normative when, along with other types of sexual behavior, it falls outside the divinely ordained confines of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
3. I believe that the call to “love our neighbor” obviously applies to those whose lifestyles we find unacceptable for the simple reason that those who live this way are loved by God and they share our humanity.
4. This being the case acts of civility, friendship, and kindness should be normative for Christians and actions and attitudes that suggest otherwise should be rejected and avoided.
5. Human sexuality is such a powerful dynamic and is subject to such exploitation and misrepresentation in contemporary society that the church must speak out with love, grace, understanding, and encouragement on the subject.
6. The aggressive agendas of some homosexual groups – and their allies – are such that their methods and tactics are not above reproach. The temptation is for the church - often the target of their aggression - to respond in like manner. This should be avoided at all costs.
7. Change comes in various packages. It may be for the better or the worse. A knee jerk reaction against it or a headlong rush to embrace it are equally misguided. Some things we must change, others we dare not change. We need wisdom to know the difference and courage to do what is necessary.