I have recently urged gay rights advocates To Treat One Another As Humans. We Christians need reminders at times, too. Our public face in the gay-rights controversy is dominated by the message of “You Can’t Do That!” We don’t entirely control how the media portray us, but we can at least be sure that we’re much more balanced than that as individuals and communities. Yes, we will hold on to biblical truths regarding morality, but we must bring grace into the conversation, too.
Jesus Christ was the perfect embodiment of truth and grace (John 1:14, 17) combined in full measure without contradiction. It’s a hard example to live up to, and we don’t often do a great job of it.
We have no record of Jesus addressing homosexuality directly, but it is certainly one aspect of what he taught on sexual immorality. He taught that marriage from the beginning was for male and female (Mark 10:6-8).
Having this clear standard, though, Jesus never used it to condemn from afar. He directed his harshest criticism against what I call the smug religionists who did. He himself moved into relationship with those who needed repentance. I fear that many Christians who pronounce condemnation on homosexual behavior have never even had a conversation with someone who struggles with it. In this we are failing to follow Christ.
I use the word “struggle” quite deliberately. There may be some people who chose not to have a heterosexual orientation, but I haven’t met them and I doubt there are more than a few. More likely in conversation they will say, “Just as you can’t imagine being attracted to the same sex, I can’t imagine being attracted to the opposite sex—and it’s not because I haven’t tried. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to. It’s just not in me.” How many of us Christians have actually listened to someone talk about what it’s like? Again I remind you, Jesus did not approve immorality. In his public teaching he spoke of right and wrong without compromise. Still he never judged any individual from afar.
The gay or lesbian is what he or she is, not usually by choice, and not believing there is any way out of their circumstance. The message from gay-rights leadership is that they ought not to need or want a way out of it. Into this mix of feelings and message comes the jarring pronouncement from Christians: you are forever denied fulfillment of their sexual desires, on account of a rule we understand though you probably don’t. In view of that lack of understanding, our message must seem confusing if not maddening. Christians, if we’re committed to treating one another as humans, we need to reflect on what it must be like from others’ perspective, and let that sink in. Better yet, we could actually ask someone what it’s like.
They are also hearing a message that they are lesser beings, condemned and unworthy, on account of their sexuality. This is not what the Bible says, so wherever they’re getting this message from, it’s not biblical Christianity. Yet they are somehow getting it from sources that claim to be representing the Christian position. We need to let that sink in, too.
Effeminate boys and gay men are often bullied on account of their relational styles. I don’t know the statistics (and I don’t know if lesbians experience much bullying). Maybe they experience this more than straight males, maybe not. The public perception is that they do, but that hardly matters. “Bullying” is a schoolyard term that we ought to think of instead as “oppression”—a more familiar biblical term. The prophets repeatedly called God’s people to stand against oppression. It would be good for us to reflect, again, on what it might be like to be treated that way, or (better yet, again) ask someone. Some of us have experienced bullying, and we know how awful it can be, even if it’s not for the same reason.
Let me head off one possible objection at this point. The prophets’ message, generally speaking, had to do with oppression of the helpless and the innocent, and maybe this doesn’t apply to gays. In response I would agree that the gay-rights advocacy crowd is anything but helpless, and certainly not innocent. Bullying happens one person at a time, though, and the victim is often completely powerless to stop it. Some—those who are simply perceived as effeminate—may be completely innocent morally. For those who are not so guilt-free, though, name-calling and physical bullying are still completely inappropriate and wrong. Not every accusation of hate against homosexuals is true (my position is clear on that), but bullying really is a hateful thing to do. Christians, if we’re going to treat all our fellow human beings as fully human, we ought to be empathizing with them in these kinds of things, too, and taking a stand against this sort of oppression.
We ought further to remember that gays and lesbians are not condemned on account of their sexuality. We are all condemned on account of our rebellion against God, which we all express in our own treacherously creative ways. My only hope, and yours and everyone else’s, is the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf. This is standard and well-known Christian doctrine that we echo often in church. Is there even one “sinner,” though—as the smug religionists called them—who knows how freely you accept him or her? Again: Jesus did not judge from afar. He moved into relationship.
Finally (for now), I don’t need to tell you that sex is a big deal these days. Most people take it as given that being human means having sexual relationships. What is our message of hope to gays and lesbians, as we tell them they must never fulfill their sexual desires? Shall we offer them “reparative therapy?” That won’t come across as hopeful. Though it’s more real and more effective than its opponents claim (in my view, at least), as a word of encouragement it falls flat, if only because from their perspective it’s completely unrealistic. What good is a word of hope when the listener can’t even begin to believe it?
The hope I would suggest we offer instead is that God can satisfy regardless. This is a true word, and we can speak it believably, but we have considerable work to do first. Do we ourselves know that God can satisfy us when our desires go unmet? We’ll have trouble saying it credibly unless we have tested and discovered how deeply God will work it out in our own faith experience. I have much more to say about this, too much to include in this blog post, so I will save it for an upcoming “Part 2b.”
I will leave this incomplete until then, but please allow me to summarize what I’ve said so far. Just as I want gay rights advocates to treat Christians as humans, I also call on Christians to be sure we treat homosexuals as humans: relationally, first of all, and also with empathy for the genuine pain of their struggle and with unwillingness to allow anyone to be oppressed. That does not mean supporting immorality in any way. Rather it means offering grace in the form of genuine love, along with the truth of biblical mandates. We can also offer them the truth and grace of knowing that God can satisfy even when desires and felt needs go unfulfilled; but it’s possible that we too have a lot to learn about that.
Also posted at First Things: Evangel