CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A Theological Dead End

Apr 22, 2003

Three guesses as to who said the following: “Even in purely nonreligious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty and, in the words of one…educator, of ‘human construction.’ It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding, and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as a minority martyrdom…”

No, it was not Fred Nile, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. It was Time magazine, in Jan. 21, 1966.

Obviously times have changed. For millennia there has been strong social disapproval of homosexuality. Only in the past few decades has there been a major rethink on the issue. And as is often the case, when the surrounding secular culture moves in one direction, the church will soon follow. Thus the Christian church is now revisiting the issue as well.

Now changing social trends do need to be canvassed by an unchanging word of God. It is proper to think biblically and critically about recent social and ethical issues, reapplying scriptural principles. But for many religious folk revisiting the homosexual issue, they have allowed radical social changes to determine how they read scripture, instead of the other way around. That is, some Christians are judging the Bible in the light of recent social practices, instead of judging the social changes in the light of an unchanging Scripture.

A clear example of this can be found in a recent issue of the Victorian Baptist Witness. An editorial on homosexuality in the March 2003 issue resulted in a number of letters to the editor in the April issue. One letter in particular, signed by eight Baptist pastors and Bible college academics, is worth examining.

The letter rightly notes that quoting isolated Bible texts is a dangerous practice, and then focuses at some length on the warnings against homosexuality found in Leviticus 18 – 20. They argue that this passage does not provide a sufficient basis for condemning homosexuality.

They then argue that God’s grace is for everyone, even “our gay and lesbian friends”. Then they appeal to Acts 10 and the story of Peter’s rethink on the issue of eating unclean foods and accepting Gentiles into the Christian faith.

From this they conclude that “God has made some people homosexual. . . . We are convinced that God’s words apply to those whose sexual orientation may differ from ours: ‘What God has made clean you must not profane’.”

Given that this letter came from Christian leaders who presumably have a fairly high level of theological training, and given that they exercise some influence as academics and pastors, this letter cannot go unchallenged. Theologically and intellectually, it is on very shaky ground indeed.

Let me begin where the authors do, with the passages on homosexuality in Leviticus. Most evangelical scholars recognise that the passages in question (18:22; 20:13) are both prohibitive of homosexuality and normative for today. Thus Old Testament scholars like Harrison, Wenham, Ross and Hartley and ethicists like Grenz, Schmidt and Satinover all argue for the important ethical norms stated in this passage. The holiness code, of which these passages are a part, was a clear reminder to Israel to maintain distinct ethical practices from the surrounding Canaanite nations. As such it contains numerous prohibitions, some of which are still normative for today, and some of which are not. The whole of Scripture offers the context in which we make such distinctions.

But let us leave all that aside, and concede for the sake of argument, that the Leviticus passages are at best, ambiguous, and at worst of no direct bearing on the issue. However, the argument does not end there. Not only are there other important passages that clearly condemn homosexuality in both Testaments, but even these need to be seen in context.

The very simple and very clear teaching of Scripture – something which these eight men should be well aware of – is that all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is unequivocally condemned in Scripture. This goes right back to the early chapters of Genesis. That has always been God’s intention, and it is in this light that all other teachings on sexuality in the Bible are to be judged. Thus one can throw out the book of Leviticus altogether and still have a clear biblical denunciation of homosexuality.

Next, as to their argument that God’s grace is for everyone: this is of course true – in one sense. It is made available to all people. But not everyone avails themselves of it. The grace of God can be accepted through only one doorway: the atoning work of Christ. And that can be accepted only on God’s terms: by renouncing and repenting of sin, and changing allegiances from self to Christ.

Yes, God’s grace is available to a homosexual, just as it is to a murderer or an adulterer. But the grace is received when we acknowledge our sin and turn from it. Yes the process of putting off the old and putting on the new is a lifelong process, but it does no good to say that because God extends grace to me, I can keep living in lust or deceit or any other known sin.

The attempted analogy from Acts 10 is really quite surprising, given that these eight men are, we presume, highly educated and biblically literate. The whole point of Acts 10 (or more accurately, 9:32-11:18), is to teach Peter (and other Jewish Christians) that salvation is no longer the sole domain of the Jews, but is made available to all people. It has nothing to do with continuing in known sin. This is simply comparing apples and oranges, and the analogy just does not hold up. Indeed, to argue that this passage means that God somehow accepts everyone just as they are, with no repentance necessary, is “an exceedingly childish error” to use Calvin’s phrase.

We should not withdraw the offer of salvation to anyone. That is the message of Acts 10. But once a person has accepted the gracious good news, that is when a major house cleaning takes place. Again, it does not occur over night, but as Paul says in Ephesians 4, let those who steal, steal no more. Or as he says in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, “such were some of you”. Yes, some of you were adulterers, thieves, homosexuals, and other sorts of sinners. But that has been put aside once salvation has come. Now is the time to pursue holiness and renounce sin.

We do not become perfect, or try to become perfect, in order to obtain salvation. We can’t do it. That is why it is all of grace. But once that acceptance of God’s gracious gift has taken place, there is then the life-long process of sanctification: renouncing and forsaking all known sin by God’s grace and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, these authors state that “God has made some people homosexual”. That is like saying God has made some people adulterers or fornicators or thieves. Sorry, but God made all things good; sin however has spoiled that good creation. The effect of the original sin now extends to all persons, so that some people are born blind, or are born missing an arm. Such is the result of living in a fallen world.

And some people may indeed be born with a predisposition to anger, or over-eating, or same-sex attraction. That is all the result of living in a sinful world. In that sense we are all born with orientation to sin, and that manifests itself in different ways. But we dare not say that God is the author of that sinful orientation, whatever form it takes. That is the product of living in a sinful world, and that is what Christ came to set us free from.

These authors seem to assume that because we are all born in sin, this is somehow normal, and to be accepted. But that is just what Christ came to undo. He does not intend to leave us in slavery, but to set us free from every bondage, every addiction, every sinful orientation.

Indeed, the authors seem to fall into the trap of making an unbiblical distinction between outward practice and inward orientation. Scripture knows of no such distinction. Throughout scripture, the condition of the inner man is intimately connected with outward actions.

When Jesus spoke of adultery as lust in Matthew 5:28, he was making it perfectly clear that it is not only the act, but the thought, which is sinful, and in need of transformation. When Paul speaks of homosexuality he uses terms like “thoughts”, “desires” and “lusts”, as in Romans 1: 24, 26, and 27.

When David prayed his great prayer of repentance in Psalm 51, he didn’t just ask that he would no longer commit acts of adultery. Instead, he pleaded with God for a clean heart and pure thoughts (v. 10). A person’s disposition (or what the Bible often calls our ‘heart’), is the ultimate driving force behind our actions. As Proverbs 4:23 put it, “Out of the heart are the issues of life.” Whether heterosexual or homosexual, God is concerned that the mind’s thoughts and the heart’s desires conform to his holiness.

In sum, it is actually hard to understand how intelligent and theologically trained individuals can get their thinking so very wrong on this issue. Undoubtedly they may well have good intentions. And yes the Christian church has often been less than Christ-like in its response to homosexuals. But the way to show Christ’s love to homosexuals is not to leave them in their sin and addiction, but to present them with the glorious good news of God’s liberating power. And many homosexuals have been set free by just such power.

Indeed, these eight men should look more closely at another letter in the same paper, written by a believer struggling with homosexual temptation, who is encouraged that his pursuit of holiness “is a valid mandate from God”. He goes on to say that any other approach would “be to claim His grace was unnecessary, his healing unrequired, His death self indulgent”. That is the good news that we proclaim. That is the good news that the world desperately needs to hear.

Any theological revisionism which somehow suggests that homosexuality is God’s intention for mankind is grossly mistaken and at odds with Scripture. And it is the very last thing that people struggling to be free of their homosexual addiction need to hear.

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