Evangelical. Congregational. International.
Note to Reader:
These are responses to some questions I have received in the past. More may be added in the days ahead, as I have the opportunity. Please understand that the views expressed here do not represent the views of Park Street Church, its leadership, or its membership. They may not even express my own views, at least not very well. They are offered here, however, to encourage prayerful dialog about these important topics and further examination of the Word of God, which is our only standard of faith and practice. Because of the urgency of the need, I have not had sufficient time to edit them for clarity, felicity, accuracy, or balance. Therefore, please read them with charity, and feel free to offer corrections or suggestions for improvement to email@example.com.
Dear Gordon, We love the fact that Park Street Church stresses the Gospel of Christ, but it doesn’t get stressed out about so many of the secondary issues which seem to divide Christians (baptism, Charismatic gifts, style of worship, etc.). We sense, however, that there is not a similar openness to various points of view about the ethics of homosexuality. Why? Isn’t this an issue over which sincere Christians disagree? After all, Jesus never condemned homosexuality, and Paul only condemned heterosexuals who engaged in homosexual acts, which were “unnatural” for them.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful remarks and question about my recent comments regarding homosexuality…Let me say a few things about each of the main points you raise.
1. I tried to summarize as fairly as I could the principal convictions of modern evangelicalism and indicate a few areas where evangelicals in general, and Park Street Church in particular, recognize that there is room for honest differences of opinion. If we take the National Association of Evangelicals, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Evangelical Theological Society, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Seminary, Denver Theological Seminary, Phoenix Theological Seminary, Bethel College, Calvin College, Wheaton College, Gordon College, World Relief, World Vision, Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, Christianity Today, Focus on the Family, etc., as well-known organizations which are representative of the convictions of the mainstream of Evangelicalism in America today, ALL of these groups in official documents or writings by their leaders of which I am aware universally reject homosexual practice (NOT homosexual orientation) as a departure from the will of God. The same is true, at least to my knowledge, for every single Evangelical denomination in America or elsewhere in the world, including our own denomination (the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference). Of course, almost every one of these hundreds of denominations has had to study the question, because so many are asking about it. What is remarkable is that every last one has concluded that yes, in fact, the Bible really does reject homosexual practice. This should not surprise us. Even the recently ordained Episcopal Bishop [Eugene] Robinson, who is a practicing homosexual, has been honest enough to acknowledge that in several places the Bible does reject homosexuality (not just homosexual rape or promiscuity). Robinson defends his lifestyle, however, on the ground that, although these passages condemn homosexual practice, he believes that Jesus' priority on love outweighs them. My point here, however, is simply to indicate that it would have been dishonest of me to suggest in my sermon on Sunday that evangelicals are agreed that this issue is comparable to baptism, etc., on which evangelicals are found in large numbers on both sides of the question.
2. Since Paul was as well educated and well read as he was (he quotes secular authors like Epimenides, Aratus, etc.), he would have been quite familiar with the vast homosexual literature of the Hellenistic world in which tender, committed, nurturing homoerotic love was celebrated. No doubt, he would have known of Emperor Nero's own homosexual marriage to Sporus. Since Paul ministered for a length of time in Corinth, he may well have known firsthand of many other homosexual marriages. Despite all of this, at no point does Paul say even the slightest positive thing about homosexual practice. Instead, every time he addresses it, he rejects it as an option for Christians. Perhaps what may be most helpful to stress here is the fact that the precise language Paul uses in condemning homosexual practice is far more comprehensive than many English translations may imply. For example, the recently published 3rd edition of Walter Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2000) rejects the earlier speculative views of Derrick Bailey, Scroggs, and others who hypothesized that in 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul was only opposing homosexual prostitution. This lexicon, which is the recognized definitive authority for First Century AD Greek, argues that the terms which are mistakenly translated by the NIV as “male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders” in fact refer comprehensively to the passive and active partners of any homosexual relationship, not just ones that are commercial or abusive. The same conclusion is argued in detail by most of the recent scholarly commentaries on 1 Corinthians, including those authored by F.F. Bruce, C.K. Barrett, and Anthony C. Thiselton. It is also a view that is supported at great length by Robert A.J. Gagnon in The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon Press, 2001). Gagnon is a graduate of Harvard and Yale, and he is now Professor of New Testament in Pittsburgh. Although he is not an Evangelical Christian, Gagnon's book is enormously useful and has been reviewed very positively by leading biblical scholars such as Brevard Childs of Yale, James Barr of Oxford, etc. If I had the time to develop my thoughts here, I would stress that Paul does not speak of "homosexuality" in the abstract in 1 Corinthians 6. Instead he uses the language that he does precisely in order to include ALL homosexual acts (whether receptive or active), but to EXCLUDE homosexual orientation.
3. It is sometimes claimed, based on Romans 1, that Paul only condemned heterosexuals who were acting like homosexuals. This view has been frequently repeated since it was first invented by Derrick Sherwin Bailey in 1955 in his book, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. Unfortunately, however, it is mistaken. Virtually no New Testament scholar of any stature (regardless of his or her theology or sexual orientation) now supports it. Based on the evidence of similar vocabulary in Philo and Josephus, who are Jewish authors from the First Century AD, the present scholarly consensus is that, whether we agree with the New Testament or not, Paul rejected homosexuality in all of its forms as a violation of God’s moral order for our lives. See now C.E.B Cranfield, The International Critical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark 1975) pages 125-127; Douglas Moo, Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Eerdmans, 1996) pages 113-118; Leon Morris, Romans (Eerdmans 1988) 87-93. Especially convincing is, once again, the thorough re-examination of all the arguments pro and con offered by Robert A.J. Gagnon, in The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon Press, 2001).
4. The Old Testament prohibitions of homosexual acts are just as general as the New Testament prohibitions. They do not just condemn homosexual rape, or pederasty, or some other deviant behavior. Leviticus 18:22 says "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable." The language of this prohibition could not be more general. It includes both one-night stands and life-long committed affectionate sex. It does NOT, however, include a homosexual orientation. I want to stress this since, in my opinion, the issues for homosexuals and heterosexuals are really not so different. Each of us, because of our decadent culture and our own sinful proclivities, faces sexual temptation in an endless variety of guises, and this is just as true for married persons as it is for single persons. This is why the Bible has as much to say about adultery and lust as it does about premarital promiscuity. In the end, every one of us has to decide day by day, to Whom do we belong? No one has the right to tell you, me, or our homosexual neighbor what he or she should do with his or her body (unless, of course, it is to another's detriment, as in the case of rape). But God made us, and Christ redeemed us, and now we belong to Him twice over. So He has every right to tell me that even things that might feel very natural and pleasurable to me (like pride and selfishness) in fact displease Him. If God's Word seems to suggest this with respect to homosexual acts, while we need to go the extra mile to stress our love and respect for our homosexual brothers and sisters (and go the extra mile in protecting them from harassment, prejudice, discrimination in public housing, education, and employment, etc.), we need to be equally careful not to do them the unkindness of implying that the Bible is less clear than it is.
5. You are right that Jesus nowhere explicitly condemns homosexual practice, but this is hardly evidence that he approves of homosexual practice. After all, one could also point out that, as far as the gospel record allows us to know, Jesus never condemned wife abuse, embezzlement, cannibalism, or a host of other evils. What are we to make of this? Certainly not that he approves of these activities. Really the safest conclusion is that Jesus never bothered to deal with a long list of sins because he did not need to. They were already condemned very clearly, whether explicitly or by implication, in the Old Testament. The main issues that Jesus addressed were areas where the Jews of his day had twisted or misinterpreted the Old Testament, and they needed to be corrected. They thought, for example, that just because we are commanded to love our neighbor in Leviticus 19, this justifies us in hating our enemy. So Jesus corrects their misunderstanding. Otherwise, according to Jesus himself, his ethics are the EXACT same as the Old Testament. See the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:17-20, where he makes this point.
6. Despite the lack of explicit teaching from Jesus on the topic of homosexual practice, I think we can safely infer that Jesus condemned it in any form. I say this based on the "law of excluded middle." In Matthew 19:1-12 Jesus takes up the matter of marriage and sex. He reminds his contemporaries that God's original plan for human beings was lifelong faithful marriage between a male and a female. Accordingly, Jesus condemns any who would break up "what God has joined together." Furthermore, Jesus insists that there is no approved ground for a divorce apart from sexual infidelity ("fornication," which includes willful desertion) on the part of one's spouse. The disciples were astonished to hear this very strict position, since the conventional teaching of Jesus' day was that a man could divorce his wife for virtually any cause, just so long as he followed the proper procedure (giving her a bill of divorce). In their shock the disciples exclaimed that if what Jesus was teaching is the case, it would be better to avoid marriage! Jesus surprises them again, perhaps, by affirming a life of singleness as a status that God approves, just like marriage. But what is notable for our discussion is that as far as Jesus is concerned, there is no THIRD option! One must either be chaste ("a eunuch... for the sake of the kingdom") or one must be faithful in a heterosexual marriage ("male and female" "united to his wife"). Surely if Jesus wanted to affirm life-long committed homosexual unions, here is where he needed to do it because his own disciples were astonished at the radical and difficult requirements he seemed to set before them. But Jesus did not allow that third option.
7. Park Street Church is blessed with many wonderful Christians who are now or have been homosexual in the past. As you may know, we have a significant ministry to the homosexual and lesbian community, including our weekly support meeting called Alive in Christ. The fact is, some men and women who struggle in this area have come to our church from other churches because they decided they wanted to change. Strangely enough, although those other churches seemed welcoming to them when they identified themselves as homosexual, as soon as they wanted God's help to change, they felt profoundly rejected and isolated. They were condemned, as if they were "homophobic," and they were told "you can't change," or "you just have to accept the fact that this is the way you are!" I don't understand how any church can say this since, after listing homosexuals, etc., Paul boldly declares, “And that is what some of you were” (1 Corinthians 6:11). What does it mean to be a new creature in Christ, if it does not mean that we can change in any way God wants? Besides, although there is almost a conspiracy of silence on this subject, it is only fair to acknowledge that even apart from Christian faith, the foremost sex researchers in the 1980’s, Masters and Johnson, reported in an article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry that their five-year follow-up success rate for helping homosexuals change was 65 percent (“The Masters and Johnson Treatment Program for Dissatisfied Homosexual Men” in volume 41, pages 173-181). Similarly, A. Canton-Dutari reports in a study of homosexual patients who sought the help of therapists to change, sixty-one percent remained exclusively heterosexual after four years, and 10 percent had become celibate, engaging in neither homosexual nor heterosexual behavior (see “Combined Intervention for Controlling Unwanted Homosexual Behavior: An Extended Follow-Up,” in Archives of Sexual Behavior, volume 5:4, pages 269-274). The result is that we have become a kind of refuge for many. In fact, we have a number of key leaders in our church who are quite open about the fact that they were once in the gay life (in some cases before their marriages—their testimonies of transformation are amazing), while others admit that they still feel temptation in this area, but they are committed to giving their lives of singleness to God (to be eunuchs for the kingdom, as Jesus put it). When I hear their stories and realize how much they honor the Lord every day by asking for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to live a life that is pleasing to Him, I am proud to be in such a place, and I am challenged to do the same thing with my many sins (including materialism, pride, worry...). May their courageous example have a similar effect on many in this wonderful church.
8. Finally, although I probably don't need to say this, I do want to emphasize that I do NOT consider homosexuality to be worse than any of the zillion sins I commit every day. In fact, it is tribute to the infinite grace and mercy of God that the sanctuary roof stays up each day that I walk into the room. In any case, we are not on some kind of crusade to single out those who may be dealing with this issue. Although I want the liberty to be honest with the Bible and to address this topic from time to time, I have no intention of so stressing it that the many homosexual guests and visitors who are not interested in changing will feel put off or unwelcome (or at least no more put off or unwelcome than the many materialists who are not yet interested in changing). On the other hand, I want to say enough so that those who are trying to surrender this part of their lives to Christ will be encouraged, and also so that the rest will not be misled by a culture that increasingly is allowing only one side of the discussion to be heard. I hope that this is helpful. Thank you again for your honest comments and for being a part of our church family.
Yours in Christ, Gordon Hugenberger