KINGDOM ETHICS D a v id p. G u shee
Six Aspects of the Homosexuality Issue Homosexuality is rapidly replacing abortion as the most bitterly contested ethical issue on the American scene. The tugging and pulling over gay marriage in California and on the East Coast dominate the news about this issue, but the issue is in fact everywhere visible, both in the churches and in the culture. With emotions inflamed and takeno-prisoners politics engaged, it seems almost impossible to create the conditions for a constructive conversation about this subject. I would like to suggest that one very small productive step is to try to separate out six distinctive aspects of the issue so that each can be addressed with care and precision. Here they are: 1. Identifying the origins of lesbian, gay, or bisexual orientation. Here our best guides are found in the personal testimonies of the human beings whose experience this is. Secondarily, we need to attend to current findings in the natural and social sciences. Evangelical Christians often lack the willingness to attend to either of these kinds of voices, unless they tell us what we are predisposed to hear. But we need to follow the data where it leads. 2. Interpreting theologically the phenomenon of sexual orientation that falls outside of the heterosexual paradigm. Any effort at such theological interpretation involves prior epistemological questions related to how Christians know what we know theologically. Evangelicals historically have affirmed the primacy of Scripture. Some emphasize more than others listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit; the role of
Christian tradition for contemporary Christian discernment is a matter of considerable conversation today. However we sift and arrange our sources of trustworthy knowing, we must employ them to tackle this issue just as skillfully as we can. Our outcome options include: (a) willful personal rejection of God and his will, i.e. sin; (b) unfortunate distortion of God’s design but not a matter of personal moral responsibility, on a level with congenital defects; (c) morally insignificant natural variation, comparable to the difference between lefthandedness and right-handedness; or (d) good gift from God, like the beauty of our God-given skin color. 3. Discerning the moral significance and status of covenanted same-sex erotic relationships. Let’s take it as a given that Christians cannot endorse non-covenantal sexual relationships in any context. That leaves open the question of our posture toward the covenanted same-sex relationships that exist in our world and sometimes in our churches. Our options here range from viewing such relationships as always gravely sinful, to sinful but praiseworthy as being preferable to promiscuity, to not sinful at all. 4. Deciding how to respond to persons involved in covenanted homosexual relationships who come into our local congregations seeking Christian community. Here I set aside either the person who acknowledges a latent but inactive homosexual orientation or a person involved in a promiscuous lifestyle to focus on those who come to us as committed couples. Should the church (a) reject such couples as involved in a sinful lifestyle that cannot be countenanced, (b) welcome to membership but explicitly state that their behavior violates God’s standards, (c) welcome to membership without comment on this aspect of their lifestyle, or (d) affirm and encourage the couple in their fidelity to their covenant commitments? The answer to this question involves critical issues in ecclesiology PRISM 2009
and not just in sexual ethics. 5. Determining the appropriate posture of the church in American public-policy debates related to homosexuality. Here our options seem to range as follows.We can believe that homosexual behavior is so gravely wrong that it is appropriate for the church to seek legal measures to block its legitimization and advance. Or we can decide that while homosexual behavior is wrong, personal and religious liberty interests are stronger than any public interests there might be in discouraging this behavior. We might conclude that while public interests might justify efforts to block advances for gay rights, the evangelistic mission of the church is harmed by our involvement in such efforts. Or, finally, we might conclude that covenanted homosexual behavior is not wrong and we should oppose all efforts to limit gay rights. 6. Deciding how to respond when a child, family member, or friend “comes out” to you as gay or lesbian. Thinking especially of the challenge facing Christian parents, the options appear to range from rejecting the child unless they seek to change their orientation or commit to a life of celibacy, to offering love to the child but no affirmation of a gay/lesbian identity or any relationships that might follow, to offering love to the child and affirming both their identity and their relationships. These are excruciating challenges for Christians today. The culture is changing rapidly around us. Historic Christian beliefs in this area are being rejected not just by non-Christians but also by many younger Christians. Christian advocacy on this issue appears to be hurting our witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. The issue demands our best thinking, immediately. n David P. Gushee is a distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga., and co-chair of the Scriptural/Contextual Ethics Group of the American Academy of Religion.