I have been
deeply disturbed by reading a book which on more than one occasion rails
against the compromise of the church with society at large (and, indeed, its
tolerance) and uses as its prime example gay and lesbian priests and pastors.
The whole tenor of the argument is that anyone should immediately see what is
wrong with this picture.
Now, I do not
want to recite here the arguments for or against homosexuality being regarded
as a sin. There are certainly arguments for that position; many years ago now,
a friend asked me to review the scriptures and tell him if I thought they did
condemn homosexuality, and at the time I came to the conclusion that they did,
and told him so. I very much regret having come to that conclusion, because he
was at the time feeling a strong call to the priesthood, and my advice was
significant in dissuading him from that path. I think he would have made a very
fine pastor, had the denomination of his choice been accepting of his sexual
Since then, I
have read very many arguments against homosexuality as such being seen that
way, and arrive at the position that things are much less clear than they
appeared to me in 1972; I am not sure whether the Biblical writers did in fact
intend to exclude as sins even the manners of sexual intimacy which we consider
to be part and parcel of “homosexuality”, let alone an homosexual orientation
(which I do not think is actually mentioned in scripture). In point of fact,
homosexuality as such is not mentioned either, as witness this
article, but there are condemnations of, for instance, arsenokoites and
malakoites, two Greek words used by Paul the exact meanings of which are
unclear and disputed, but which very probably refer to practitioners of some
species of homosexual activity between men. Lesbianism is not mentioned at all.
Paul’s argument in Romans 1-2
things about these passage in the book immediately stand out to me. The first
is that the writer assumes that his audience will automatically feel that
homosexuality is repulsive. I don’t, and many of those of my generation don’t
(having grown up in the 60s and 70s), and I haven’t found anyone of my children’s
generation who does. My parents’ generation definitely suffered from this kind
of instinctive revulsion, though. I grant you, I’m a child of my time, and
thinking too much about any kind of sexual activity,
homosexual or heterosexual, makes me slightly squeamish. I don’t think sex is a
spectator sport – though I hugely value intimacy with my wife of nearly 40
is, if you read Romans 1 (one of the key passages for those who want to condemn
homosexuality), you will definitely find “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of
their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one
another” in verse 24 and “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.
Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the
same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed
with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and
received in themselves the due penalty for their error” in verses 26 to 27. The thing is, these are not isolated verses,
they are part of an extended argument.
Paul introduces this argument with “The wrath of God is
being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of
people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what
may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
For since the creation
of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have
been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are
without excuse. For although they knew God, they
neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became
futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools
and exchanged the glory
of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds
and animals and reptiles.” in verses
18-23. It’s beginning to look, at that point, very much as if Paul is using “sinful
desires” and “shameful lusts”, which his audience will immediately condemn, as
not the target of condemnation but the obvious result of turning away from God,
obvious to the audience who are going to be “God-fearers” and therefore adhere
to Jewish standards of behaviour for the most part – and Greek and Roman sexual
culture of the time will have been as distasteful to them as they were to my
Move on, and don’t stop at the end of the chapter (as the original
didn’t have verse numbers or chapter divisions), and we find “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone
else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the
same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who
do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on
them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
Or do you show contempt
for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that
God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” in Romans 2:1-4. I’ve emboldened and underlined the main point –
again, the original definitely lacked those.
Paul’s whole argument, therefore, is that those who are judgmental about
are no better than those horrible sexually immoral people who his audience will
naturally be disgusted by.
The thing is, studies show that only around 10% of humanity is born
with a homosexual orientation. Personally I’d guess that the real figure is
rather higher, particularly if you include people who are born bisexual and can
choose between the sexes for their sexual fulfilment; even in the much more
relaxed climate of the UK in the 21st century, social pressure is
such that, having both options available, many bisexuals will just stick to
heterosexuality in order to avoid the kind of instinctive condemnation the
writer of that book evidences.
That makes it, for a very sizeable majority of the population, a “sin”
which they can happily condemn because they feel absolutely no inclination to
commit it. Exactly what Paul was condemning in Romans (the argument continues
to Rom. 2:11 and then takes another turn). It’s “not my sin”. What Paul was asking people to do was to focus on
what was “their sin”, which was primarily judgmentalism at this point.
By using this kind of easy method of attack, what the writer is
doing is diverting focus from what the sins of the church actually are to one
which they can avoid by the simple means of excluding (judging) a minority
within their ranks. That distresses me hugely, and I note that the writer
expressly says that tolerance is wrong – whereas Paul is saying that lack of
tolerance is sinful.
Compromise with society
I actually have
some sympathy with the writer in thinking that the church as it stands has
compromised with society in a way which needs correcting (and this is the
second thing which stood out to me). However, Paul’s career as a whole shows that
we must not make easy arguments about compromising with society being a bad
thing. A huge focus of his mission to
the Gentiles involved persuading the church generally that converts did not
need to practice the Jewish dietary laws (in which respect let me note that
eating seafood is condemned as an abomination in Leviticus, just as is lying
with another man as with a woman) and that they did not need to be circumcised.
To the average Greek or Roman of the time, the removal of the foreskin in males
would have appeared to be a mutilation, and extremely distasteful, as witness
during the period of the Greek Antiochid rule of Israel the number of Jews who
sought an operation to reverse the operation.
In these two
things, therefore, Paul was absolutely “compromising with society”, and
Christianity continues to do this – it is, for instance, not considered a sin
for me to eat a bacon cheeseburger, at least not on the grounds that it is
twice forbidden in Leviticus, once as eating a pork product and once as mixing
milk and meat. I might also ask at this point why we are ditching one provision
in Leviticus but emphasising another.
Just as in the
time of Paul, it would clearly make it much more difficult to evangelise for
Christianity if among the first requirements were lopping off part of a man’s
tackle and forswearing bacon!
course, makes no mention anywhere in the gospels about same-sex relationships,
and where I think the Church has compromised with society is in going against
clear commands of Jesus. We do not, for instance, sell everything we have and
give it to the poor (except in some extreme cases, such as St. Francis).
Indeed, we tend to exclude the poor, even in those churches which avowedly
include them – you do not, for instance, see homeless people asked to be
sidesmen or greeters in any church I’ve ever encountered, though if we were
really following Jesus, they would no longer be homeless. We hang national
flags in our sanctuaries and pledge allegiance to those who currently occupy
the position which Caesar one did, and support our countries when they kill
people either as a legal penalty or in war; we frankly worship money, and consider
the possession of it to be the primary indication of the value of individuals,
we argue that financialised free-market capitalism is the way we should live,
despite it being based on greed and self-centeredness.
And we exclude
not just the poor, but also those who have slightly different beliefs from ours
(heretics!) who follow another religion (Satanic!) who have a different skin
colour or speak a different language (invasion!)… or, of course, who are of a
minority sexual orientation.
recent polls, by far the most common attribute ascribed to Christians by
non-Christians was “jugmental”. Exactly what Paul was arguing against in Romans
The conduct and character of clergy
The third point
is that the writer clearly thinks it entirely inappropriate for a member of the
clergy to be gay. This goes even further than thinking that homosexual activity
is sinful and that clergy should not engage in it (and has no scriptural
support which I can find). The writer clearly thinks that being gay is a “way
of life” which is in and of itself sinful, a position which is scientifically
untenable (sexual orientation is not something that people can choose,
otherwise there would have been no homosexuals at all in my parents’ generation,
because it was not just more or less universally condemned but actually
illegal) and instinctively wrong – if you are heterosexual, ask yourself
whether you could adopt “the gay lifestyle”. No? It isn’t a choice.
people I talk to who take the view that homosexual behaviours are biblically
condemned restrict their disapproval to clergy who are actually in a same-sex relationship.
They argue that one cannot lead a congregation if one not only sins but carries
on doing it.
So, let me
recall some Church history. In the early fourth century, there was a major
persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. In North Africa, the
governor was relatively lenient, and allowed those clergy who handed over their
scriptures as a token of their repudiation of the faith to go free, something which
many of the laity thought was an unpardonable sin (both in repudiating the
faith and in handing over the scriptures, in Latin being labelled “traditors”
from the word “to hand over”, which gives rise to our word “traitor”). After
the persecution ended, many of those clergy sought to resume their ministry,
and a group grew up which repudiated their authority to administer the
sacraments, called “Donatists”. This proved a problem to the developing
ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the result was that Donatism was condemned as a
heresy in 314. After many years discussion in the church, the position was
clarified at the Council of Trent in the 16th century for Catholics
as “The worth of the sacrifice does not depend by the celebrating priest”; it
did not matter for this purpose if the priest was in a condition of mortal sin
So, I can label
this position heretical, and, for protestants, it’s a declared heresy which is
far older than the Reformation.
Again, for any
of us, Christianity has as one of its most foundational principles that we
are all sinners and all in need of repentance and forgiveness. We confess
our sins regularly in church, and in particular before receiving communion –
and in most churches, that includes the officiating clergy. However, we are
also all redeemed or justified – as Martin Luther put it “simul justus et
peccator” (at the same time justified and a sinner). Complaining that your
pastor is a sinner is, therefore, equivalent to complaining that he or she is a
That said, I
have heard it argued that in the case of practising homosexuals, they do not
really intend to stop sinning, assuming for a moment that that is a sin. I have
two questions at that point – the first is “how do you know this?” I know of
homosexual clergy who do consider it a sin and who both confess it and ask to
be relieved of it on a daily basis. They are, like most of the rest of us,
aware that they will probably not in fact stop sinning in any of the specific
ways they have identified as a fault when they confess their sins. They are, I
admit, in a minority.
Far more have
determined to their satisfaction that God would not have ordained that it be a
sin to pursue the sexual orientation that they were born with, and so, to them,
it is not a sin and does not require confession or repentance. Some of us
respond that they are wrong, and therefore cannot be considered worthy of
leadership. My second question is thus “do you recognise all the sins you
actually commit and repent of them?”
And, if you say “Yes”
but still want to condemn homosexual clergy, let me repeat Paul’s words “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass
judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning
yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things”. For myself, I have to
say that I do judge people, and I don’t always notice that I’m doing it, nor
can I put my hand on my heart and swear that I will never do it again.
Indeed, I’m doing so in writing this post. I could excuse myself by
saying “It isn’t me who is judging, it’s the scripture I’m quoting to you”, but
that’s something I regularly hear from judgmental Christians.