There is, at present, a lively discussion on campus about homosexuality, homosexual practice and the position of Scripture and church relative to these two phenomena. Much of this debate has apparently been engendered by a convocation program conducted last Tuesday evening. Since I did not attend the convocation, I cannot write about the specifics of what took place there. I trust then that my comments will be seen as a reflection on the issues and a contribution to the discussion rather than as an attempt to uphold or to refute anything said in that public meeting.
It seems to me that there are two factors which have obscured the discussion of this issue for some time. The first of these arises from a lack of clarity in definitions, the second from imprecision in our views of the role of Scripture. In order to make my own comments clear, I will first address these issues.
What is homosexuality? The term is used ambiguously to refer either to a mental or psychological orientation or to a set of behaviors. Some people will use "homosexuality" to refer to a drive in a person which causes that person to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex; men to men or women to women. Others use the term to refer to sexual practices which involve two persons of the same sex. Obviously, there is a connection between these two, but they are not inextricable. Some people who do not normally feel attracted to persons of the same sex may, in some circumstances, engage in sexual acts with a person of the same sex. Others, who do feel such an attraction, may abstain. In order to avoid the ambiguity of this term, I will refer to "homosexual orientation" and "homosexual behavior/activity" to identify these two related but distinct phenomena.
Imprecision regarding the role of Scripture also clouds this discussion. In speaking of the Bible, we may sometimes refer to what it says on an issue, sometimes to the principles which seem to lie behind the text and sometimes to our understanding of its implications an applicability to our own situation. We may also privilege some parts of Scripture or some ideas from Scripture above others. Here I will take the plain sense of Scripture as an authoritative expression of the will of God and will base my assertions about its applicability on consideration of its statements in their context in the canon.
The Bible touches only lightly on the question of homosexual orientation, with only a single clause in Romans 1:27 mentioning attraction of men to men, there regarded more as a consequence of sin than as a sin per se. On the other hand, homosexual behavior is somewhat more widely discussed, though not as widely as (for example) greed or violence. The passages which relate to this issue are Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26-28; I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10. The first two of these identify the act of sexual relations between men as an abomination. The passage from Romans describes homosexual and lesbian practices as examples of the problems which fall on the world as a result of the rejection of God. The last two texts identify those who engage in homosexual practices as one of the groups who are doing things "contrary to sound teaching," who are therefore excluded from the kingdom of God. There are other passages of Scripture which may contribute to this discussion less directly, such as the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, but I will confine my remarks here to the five texts which actually refer to homosexual activity.
The two texts in Leviticus state a reason why homosexual behavior is not to be tolerated among the Israelites. It is because these actions are "abominations" to the Lord. The latter of these two texts identifies homosexual activity as a capital offense. There are many other sins of a cultic nature mentioned in Leviticus which may result in "defilement" (meaning that a person who is thus "defiled" is not permitted to enter the sanctuary) but few of them are call "abominations" punishable by death. Homosexual practice, then, is regarded as something far more severe than cultic defilement. We too, must regard it as a grave sin, even if we do not impose capital penalties for it (or for idolatry, adultery and several other sins which merited the death penalty in ancient Israel).
As mentioned above, the passage in Romans treats homosexual practice as one of the various negative consequences which follow from the rejection of God. In this context it is associated with "a debased mind" which does "what ought not to be done" and is placed together with being "filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. . . . envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness" and with people who "are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless." The passage explicitly states that these are the sorts of things that can be expected of people who depart from God, and it clearly implies that these things will not be done by those who are faithful to God. The other two New Testament passages also locate homosexual practice in lists of sins. The terms used to identify homosexual practice are used widely enough in non-Christian literature for us to be quite certain about their meaning.
All of these passages present homosexual behavior as objectionable and forbidden. But none of them can be taken as a condemnation of homosexual orientation. No one is excluded from God's kingdom because he or she experiences same-sex attraction. The focus of Scripture is on homosexual acts. In this light, we must see homosexual activity as a sin like any other sin. Temptations come to all of us. Some are tempted in one way, some in another. The fact that we are tempted does not exclude us from God's kingdom. In fact, in the same passage in Corinthians 6 where Paul says homosexual activity excludes one from God's kingdom, he goes on to say, just two verses later, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:11) Clearly, those who experience same-sex attraction but who turn away from homosexual practice may be as fully a part of God's kingdom (and of the church) as any other sinner saved by grace. Further, those who practice homosexuality are as much loved by Christ as any other sinners and they ought to be just as much the objects of our love and concern.
Donn W. Leatherman
School of Religion
Southern Adventist University