I have been studying what the Bible says about homosexuality for months now. I have wrestled with the texts, read commentaries, read books, prayed, talked with people, and meditated some more. I have come to some conclusions that I’m ready to share. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say this is God’s final word on the matter, but I am confident in what I will be saying. If you’re going to read it at all, please read it all the way through so you get the full flow of what I’m saying. Don’t just read one paragraph, or half of it, or you will both miss and distort my teaching.
I have studied all the texts in the Bible about homosexuality, but I’ve gone especially deep into Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, and Romans 1. I can say with unmitigated confidence that the Bible has an uncompromising consistency in its teaching about homosexuality. It’s just impossible to dismiss that in the Bible homosexual practice is considered a sin. It’s wrong, and there are no ways around it. Many books work tremendous gymnastics to exegete passages and explicate them to show that that’s not what the Bible really says, but they are all prodigious efforts to repeal the obvious. I have read the work-arounds and digested their exegeses. There’s no way around this one: homosexuality is consistently and unremittingly considered sin in no uncertain terms. I don’t know how to say this any more strongly. I will exchange notes with anyone who wishes on this one. BUT DON’T YOU DARE STOP READING HERE.
At the same time I have been studying the book of Galatians, on a completely different schedule for a completely different purpose, but it speaks, I believe, to the issue of homosexuality. While Galatians by no means advocates any sort of antinomianism (just chuck the law), at the same time it teaches very strongly that the Law does not hold us. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaches the same truth. Christ has set us free—free from sin, and free from the Law (Gal. 5.1). No one can earn their salvation by works, and none of us live by the Law. We are not defined by rules. We live by the Spirit, and we live by faith, through grace. We don’t live by any external bounds, but by the Spirit inside us. Our life in Christ is not about record-keeping, or even good behavior, but about grace and the Spirit.
This is not to imply that our freedom in Christ eliminates ethics. Far from it. Paul clearly saw the danger brewing in the whole thought of “we are free in Christ” and “the Law has no hold on us.” Read Gal. 5.13 and Romans 6.1. He clarified that those who live by the Spirit are called to be guided by the Spirit, and we are never to indulge in the desires and acts of the flesh. Look at Galatians 3.19. Even though the Law was a temporary interlude, it’s still greatly significant. It came from God and has good things to accomplish. It’s not like we throw it in the trash can, but we also recognize its place: It shows us very clearly what sin is, but it doesn’t govern our lives.
At the same time I was reading an article by Craig Bubeck in Christianity Today (“The Gospel in One Word,” CT, June 2013, pp. 53-55). God himself is love by definition. God’s justice and wrath must be described in the context of his love (Gen. 3; Rom. 5.8-9). God’s wrath is not an exception or counterpart to his love, but a consequence of it. When we are separated by our sin nature from his love, it is this very state in God’s wrath that occasions his sacrificial love. Jesus breaches the chasm that is sin and provides atonement. This atonement is not Jesus rescuing sinners from the hand of an angry Father, but restoring us to fellowship with Him. When we respond in faith, we return to Him the love for which we were created. Those who choose to remain in sin are still outside of this fellowship by their own election. God’s wrath is not about eliciting fear; Jesus didn’t come to save us from a monster God, but to show us God’s overpowering love. “What is the Law now?” Jesus asks. Love God, and love each other. The foundational, preeminent law of all Scripture is love (Mt. 22.34-40; Mk. 12.28-34; James 2.8; Gal. 5.13-14). God loves us (Jn. 3.16), sacrificially gave himself in love (Rom. 5.8), and we are asked to respond in love.
This morning (6/17/13) I was studying in Phil. 1.9-11 Paul’s prayer for the Philippian people: That their love would abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, to discern what is best and be pure and blameless. Yes, we are always called to love. Love is what defines us, just as God is love by definition, but that love is not some mushy sentimentalism where everything is OK. It is outrageous love, yes, just as the Father has shown for us, but with the necessary limitations of full knowledge and discerning insight. It is love that is based in truth (Jn. 17.17) and holiness, purity and blamelessness. Authentic and Godly love is always consistent with God’s character, and has God’s aim, ways, and means. It is a Godly mindset and Godly behavior. It grasps the heart of truth and lives it with consistency. It is discerning in that it selects, classifies, and applies what is furnished by a full knowledge of the truth. Love includes spiritual discernment and moral discrimination.
See, this is where all these things really matter. If love is discerning, and we no longer live by external laws but by the Spirit of God in us and the Law of Love, and if there is true freedom in Christ, then that has to inform everything about who we are, how we think, and how we behave. So what happens when this Law of Love comes face to face with sin? It has to discern what is best (Phil. 1.10). We have to apply the right tests and reach the right decisions in things which present moral differences.
When Paul came up against eating meat offered to idols, or making one day more sacred than another, he concluded that we are not to judge each other, for each is trying to live for the Lord, and each will give an account to God for what we choose (Rom. 14).
When Jesus was presented with the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8.1-11), he had no condemnation for her, but love, but also admonished her to stop sinning.
When Jesus was asked about divorce (Mt. 19.8), even though God hates it, Jesus spoke a principle of accommodation; it was allowed in certain circumstances because of the people’s hearts. Sin was affirmed, but there was a merciful concession. Something less than the ideal was authorized by God.
David and his men ate the showbread. Jesus’ disciples picked grain on the Sabbath. Paul said in Galatians that it wasn’t about circumcision or uncircumcision, but about faith showing itself through love (Gal. 5.6). This isn’t justifying sin, it’s living by the Spirit. The Bible always always invites us to take into account things such as motive and nature, behavior, spirit, and heart. It’s not just the behavior, but the heart that counts.
So this is what I am saying: The Bible is unrelenting in its description of homosexuality as sin, but it’s also true that some (and only some) who seek same-sex marriage today are not at all like the situations of Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, and Romans 1. The ancient world knew nothing of what is being played out in our society. Theirs was a harsh and sinful world of pederasty, dominance, rape, and sexual abuse. I would say without hesitation that many homosexuals today are still motivated by passion and lust, by rebellion, and by “against nature” (Rom. 1.18-32), and this behavior is an abomination, and these people will receive God’s judgment for their sin. By the same token, since we are using discerning love informed by deep insight, trying to apply the right tests and reach the right decisions in things which present moral differences, that those who are by nature homosexuals, and who even in their homosexuality are seeking God, that we must act in discerning love and principles of accommodation and merciful concession. In Paul’s day, idolatry and the Sabbath (Rom. 14) were no small issues. Nor was homosexuality. But he accommodates the first two, and we recognize that the homosexuality of ancient Corinth was mostly pederasty. I think God commands us to be people of discerning love, to take into account such things as motive and nature, behavior, spirit, and heart, and be mercifully accommodating in certain situations and circumstances.
Some would say that in such a position I am compromising and promoting sin. Paul took the same accusation on the chin when he spoke of living by grace and the Spirit of Christ rather than by the list of rules. See Rom. 6.1 and Gal. 2.17. It’s just not so. Was divorce ever allowed even though God hates it? Absolutely. Was adultery ever OK? Well, if someone’s brother died and left a widow, a surviving brother was to go have sex with his widow to create progeny, even if the living brother was married. I’m not endorsing compromise, weakening of ethics, or playing loose with holiness. I’m just trying to exercise the Law of Love and freedom based on the character of God and the way he has revealed himself. Does this open “Pandora’s Box”? It’s not supposed to, because what we are truly expected to do is follow the leading of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15.28; Gal. 2.17), which is far more than a liver-shiver and involves history, experience, wisdom, debate, and judicious assessment of a variety of forms of evidence, stories, and experiences.
In Matthew 9.13; 12.7 (Hos. 6.6), Jesus teaches that mercy supplants or relativizes the Law’s specific commandments (Ex. 34.21). Mercy is one of the most important character qualities that Jesus seeks to inculcate in his followers. Jesus was known to associate with sinners of all stripes. Mercy, not sacrifice (one of the chief acts of worship), is God’s will, and shows purity more than rules do. Showing God’s mercy to people is precisely what the Law requires of us.
The point is to exemplify a rigorous standard of righteousness, but also a heart of mercy, for justice values both authority and the value of persons. Honest judgment allows for both punishment and commutation. We must never be soft, but we need not always be hard. While justice requires righteous action, in the Scripture it is often connected with mercy: caring for orphans, widows, foreigners, the oppressed, the poor, and the infirmed. It only makes sense to let our attitudes and behaviors with regard to homosexuality be nuanced. Sometimes it makes sense to subordinate the Law’s specific commandments to its deeper intent, and deal mercifully with human weakness, frailty, and even failure. In Matthew 18.22 and the following parable, Jesus proclaims the superabundance of divine mercy that the church is called to display to the world.
Will some abuse this position? Of course they will, and they fall under the teaching of Galatians 6.1. But for those not abusing this position, it’s not my place to judge (Rom. 14). I have to discern as best I can. I am accountable for the way I think and live, and they are accountable to the way they think and live. Don’t get me wrong—we live in a very God-defying culture, and I think so much of the homosexual activity around us is a vivid illustration of it, just as it was in Sodom and Romans 1. It’s outright rebellion against God, and the spiritual depravity is obvious. But not all of it is, and in those cases I think we need to show nuance in mercy, wisdom, assessment, spirit, motive, heart, and morality.