Four primary theological stances toward homosexuality

The Very Rev. Hollinshead T. Knight, Interim Rector at St. John's Episcopal Church in Jackson Wyoming, examines four primary theological stances toward homosexuality and finds the one that is appropriate for Christians. The following is reprinted in its entirety with his kind permission. The text remains unexpurgated although a few enhancemets have been added to make it more readable as a web page.

August 10, 2003 -
The Very Rev. Hollinshead T. Knight

This is one of those Sundays when the appointed lectionary that you have in your insert and heard read as the lessons bears absolutely no resemblance to what is going on in people’s minds. How much can you say about “the bread of life” for four weeks in a row, when there’s been a media frenzy over the approval of the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire? Our Wednesday Bible study talked a lot about it, as did our Thursday men’s breakfast; people I’ve run into this week have said either that they’re proud of the Episcopal Church or ashamed. It’s an issue few people are neutral about.

In a nutshell, I thought what General Convention did in approving Gene Robinson’s election as bishop was courageous, forward-looking, and true to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But I recognize that equally dedicated Christians may disagree 180 degrees about this issue. And I also believe that the tent of the Episcopal Church is big enough to include all of us.

Since the beginning of the Christian Church people have been arguing over who’s in and who’s out: Jews and Gentiles; slaves and free; blacks and whites; women and men; those who like the new prayer book and those who don’t; those who are baptized and those who aren’t. The list goes on and on. 30-some years ago the issue of the ordination of women threatened to split the Episcopal Church, but the church survived and women have brought an incredible richness to the ordained ministry.

God has great diversity. The more we discover about creation, the more diverse we realize God is. God is not limited -- it’s we who are limited. We fear anything new and different. And perhaps we’re just insecure enough in our own sexuality that we’re particularly afraid of anything different in that area.

The Christian Church has had gay bishops and priests and deacons and lay people from year one. There have been and are now gay bishops in the Episcopal Church. The difference with Gene Robinson is that he’s open and honest about his lifestyle. Do we scorn someone for being honest, rather than staying in the closet? Some would say yes, I just don’t want to deal with the issue.

The issue of homosexuality is one that has to be addressed by the church, much as many would prefer that it just go away. For too long Christians have treated gay people as modern-day lepers, in direct contradiction to Jesus’ law of love for all people, especially the oppressed.

There’s a wonderful story in the 10th chapter of the Book of Acts when Peter goes up on his rooftop to pray. He’s hungry, and falls into a trance, when he sees the heavens open and a large sheet being lowered to the ground. In this sheet are all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air, all of which are specifically forbidden in the book of Leviticus to be eaten. Leviticus even calls them an “abomination”. Three times Peter the good Jew protests, struggling to overcome his own fixed certainties and his repugnance. That was the Word of God as Jews understood it, and now suddenly God is telling Peter just the opposite: “Kill and eat. ...What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Are those of us who, like Peter, were taught to think a certain way as willing as Peter was to risk re-examining what we were taught? Are we willing to listen to the Holy Spirit, who I believe in our time is leading us to a new understanding of homosexuality, as the Spirit did with the ordination of women? A Christian ethics professor once suggested that there are four primary theological stances toward homosexuality. The first is a rejecting-punitive position; the second a rejecting non-punitive position; the third a conditional acceptance; and the fourth an unconditional acceptance. I think it would be helpful to look briefly at each position, since these four probably reflect the different attitudes of most church people today.

  1. Most biblical fundamentalists -- and many others -- take the rejecting-punitive position. To them, homosexual acts are perverse, repugnant and sinful. Like Peter’s argument with God, theirs too is based on a passage in Leviticus, chapter 18 verse 22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” What these people forget, however, is that the word “abomination” is used also in reference to eating certain foods, to a misuse of incense, and to intercourse during menstruation. Generally it does not signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or murder, but something that is ritually unclean. It was also generally believed at this time that the male seed alone carried life, and the woman only provided the incubating space. Hence any spilling of the seed outside of a woman’s body was considered as murder -- besides which procreation was very important then to a small nation in the midst of hostile ones. The other biblical passage frequently cited by people who take the rejecting-punitive position is Romans 1:26-27, which also denounces homosexual behavior. But the assumption in that passage in Romans is that those whom Paul condemns are heterosexual, and are acting contrary to their nature. In a pre-psychological age Paul is unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has very little choice, and sexual behavior. The Bible says nothing pro or con about the loving, long-term relationships known by many gay people.

    It isn’t Scripture that creates hostility to homosexuality, but rather hostility to homosexuality that leads certain Christians to retain a few passages from an otherwise discarded law code. We don’t follow biblical teaching on divorce, polygamy, nudity, Paul’s advice not to marry, slavery, or the stoning of a dulterers! Biblical scholar Walter Wink has said that there is no biblical sex ethic. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given culture or period. The problem is not reconciling homosexuality with scriptural passages that seem to condemn it; the problem is how do you reconcile the rejection and mistreatment of homosexuals with the love of Christ for all people, particularly the oppressed and the rejected? I don’t think it can be done. If the law of love is more important than the laws of biology, I don’t see how Christians can exclude and mistreat people on the basis of sexual orientation. Otherwise you end up with a Matthew Shepherd situation, for which we can all bear some of the blame.

  2. Second, the rejecting but non-punitive position condemns homosexual acts while trying not to condemn the homosexual person. According to this view, homosexuals are not criminals or sinners so much as victims of arrested development or some other form of psychic disorder, because fundamentally homosexuality is “unnatural.”

    The problem with this view is that most gay people assert that they did not choose their orientation, they discovered it -- the same way straight people did -- and scientific research supports that assertion. Psychologists say that it isn’t possible to force a change from homosexual to heterosexual any more than it’s possible to change a heterosexual into a homosexual.

  3. The third view is conditional acceptance. Many sensitive and caring straight people have struggled to reach this position. They believe in equal rights for gay people, including legal recognition of their union. They believe in the ordination of avowed gays. But they can’t picture a gay spouse in the rectory, they are uncomfortable with public displays of gay affection, and they’d be unlikely to invite a gay couple to a dinner party. In their heart of hearts they feel that homosexuality is not really on a par with heterosexuality. I have to confess that for many years this has been my own position. But I’m working on it, and I believe ultimately the third position is untenable.

  4. The law of love compels us to move to the fourth position, which is unconditional acceptance.

    Consider Jewish-Christian relations. Most Christians will insist that Jews should enjoy the same rights as Christians because they are just as good or as bad as we are -- we’re all humans together. Nevertheless in their heart of hearts they think Judaism is inferior. But isn’t Judaism just different, rather than inferior? The Roman Catholic bishops recently said that the Jews were in a saving relationship with God, God never repealed the old covenant, and therefore Christians should not feel they need to evangelize the Jews.

    I think straight Christians have to reach the same position vis-a-vis gays. They’re different, that’s all. I personally can’t imagine being sexually attracted to another man. I also can’t imagine being able to write legibly with my left hand. But many people do, and God made them that way -- they’re just different from me.

    The so-called “black problem” turned out to be a problem of white racism, and the “woman problem” turned out to be a problem of male sexism. Isn’t the “homosexual problem” really the homophobia of many heterosexuals?

    A day or so before the vote at the General Convention Presiding Bishop Griswold asked the bishops to make a list of the positive and negative aspects of approving Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire and then to pray over their list. Ted Eastman, a retired bishop whose 50th wedding anniversary I just blessed at the Chapel a couple of weeks ago, said he had a very long negative list and a very short positive list. But in praying over the lists he became aware that all his negatives were coming from a place of fear, and his positive list was from a place of faith and hope. That settled it for him -- the church is not about fear, but about faith and hope, and also love.

    Peter was willing to open his mind and widen his horizons to embrace a new idea he had been brought up to think was repugnant -- we certainly can do the same. It’s been said that a mind once stretched by a new idea can never return to its former shape. I believe the Spirit is leading the church into a new openness and awareness. The bottom line for me is -- if I’m going to err, I want to err on the side of being too inclusive, not too exclusive. I want to look more like Jesus. I hope you do too. Amen

Which theological position do you hold?
I hold the rejecting-punitive position.
I hold the rejecting non-punitive position.
I hold the conditional acceptance position.
I hold the unconditional acceptance position.

Your anonymous response will reach me.