Homosexuals are no longer “in the closet”, you now see them in your living room on popular television shows such as “Scandal”, “House of Cards” and even Fox’s new show “Empire”. Government organizations, companies, and schools have support groups for them. Several states have felt their lobbying power when debating the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. It’s clear that homosexuals are no longer hiding.
Through-out church history there have been great theological and doctrinal debates. From the very beginning of the Christian movement, believers have tried to make sense of the impact of Jesus of Nazareth on the Jewish religious movement. Believes debated various issues ranging from the circumcision of Gentiles to the deity of Christ. One of the current debates many churches and denominations are facing is how to address openly gay persons in our congregations.
In 1985 the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) challenged churches and denominations to take a stance. Their General Synod adopted a resolution encouraging UCC congregations to welcome lesbian, gay,bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members. This resolution helped give birth to the term “Open and Affirming”. That term suggest not simply welcoming those of the LGBT community but also affirming their life style. In recent years several denominations have struggled with or even split over this issue.
Before attending Howard University School of Divinity I was informed that the Dean and several faculty members had publicly announced their support for the Open and Affirming movement. Several of my classmates and friends struggled with hiding their sexuality in an effort to be ordained in a particular denomination. During the time leading up to the Launch of Uplift Church we received several phone calls and Facebook messages asking if Uplift was an Open and Affirming Church. During outreach some people would not even take one of our flyers until they heard whether or not we were an Open and Affirming Church. These events helped solidify for me the need to engage in this sensitive theological and ethical conversation.
Proponents of the Open and Affirming Movement give several reasons for their position. One such proponent is John J. McNeill a theologian and professor of Christian Ethics. In his book “The Church and the Homosexual” Dr. McNeill ask, “How can Christian homosexuals accept themselves and their homosexuality with any sense of their own dignity and value as long as they must see themselves and their actions as organically expressing the effects of sin in the world and as essentially in contradiction to the divine will for man.?”
To support the Open and Affirming movement, McNeill refutes the popular use of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:4-11) to describe the sinfulness of homosexuality. McNeill suggest that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was primarily their in-hospitality to strangers. McNeill also explains the Apostle Paul’s reference to homosexuality in Rom 1:26,
“26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:”
McNeill notes that Rom. 1:26 is the strongest New Testament argument against homosexuality. In an effort to correct assumptions made about the text McNeill suggest that we bring Freudian psychology and social taboos into our understanding of the phrase “against nature” para phusin. McNeill states, “Once again it is difficult to ascertain what this phrase meant for Paul. The same phrase in Romans 4:18 is used to express that idea that God himself is acting [against nature] para phusin in grafting a wild olive branch (the Gentiles) onto a cultivated tree (the inheritance of the Jews). McNeill and other scholars such as James B. Nelson and John Boswell do not see homosexuality as sin but rather an expression of love that should be affirmed. He also suggest that churches can be helpful to homosexuals only if they are willing to accept the person as part of the gay community and accept their responsible relationships as well. He argues that the failure of mainline churches to do this has lead to the establishment of “gay” churches.
While McNeill and others suggest that homosexual relationships are an expression of love which should be affirmed some Christians believe that homosexuals are destined to burn in hell. Because some mainline churches and denominations have taken such a hard-line stance against homosexuals, it would appear that gays are not welcome or wanted. The social stigma that goes along with being gay in some Christian communities has pushed many away from the church. Recently a friend shared with me that his brother had been rejected by their family and came close to committing suicide. Another friend shared that he refused to use his gifts in churches because he struggles with homosexuality and he has prayed for deliverance but deliverance has not come. He wants to serve in church but feels too sinful. Is there room for gays in the Christian church?
While the term Open and Affirming has become popular, I believe that it does more harm in the long term. Once we segment off a particular group of people in the Christian community, they become more like an exhibit in a zoo. They become someone to be viewed differently, rather than someone to experience life with equally. Churches by nature are open to “all” therefore we do not need to create a special category within the “all”.
Not only is the term Open and Affirming counterproductive it may also do more to push believers further away from God. Only a few biblical passages explicitly address homosexuality and proponents of the Open and Affirming movement make a good defense. McNeill was correct that many Christians misinterpret the reason for Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. While homosexuality is eluded to, it was not the root cause of the distribution. The clearest statement about the city’s destruction is found in Ezekiel 16:49, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Sodom suffered more from greed than homosexuality.
The bible also addresses homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 this passages address what is considered the holiness code.
“18 You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”
The same act is mentioned in Leviticus 20:10-16 as one of the series of sexual sins including adultery, incest and bestiality that are punishable by death. Of course some would say it’s and obsolete law and crazy to reference this scripture because it makes no since to put someone to death over his/her sexual preference. The Old Testament does contain many commandments that are considered obsolete. Some example of obsolete commands would be commands concerning dietary practices or circumcision.
Many of the laws in Leviticus are not longer upheld by the Christian community, but some are. In order to have a better understanding of this we can look at the followers of Jesus in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul challenges the Corinthians with a rhetorical question “Do you not know that wrong doers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” To drive his point home, he then list some of the wrong doers: “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers. What’s of importance is to note how Paul referred to homosexuals (arsenokoitai), he does not use a Greek word but rather a translation of the Hebrew word meaning (“lying with a male”), this word is derived from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Given that Paul uses a term from the laws in Leviticus suggest that the followers of Christ did not abandon all Old Testament commands.
McNeill was correct that one of the strongest statements against homosexuality in the New Testament is found in Romans 1:18-32. McNeil only focused on verse 26 but there is more to it this passage. According to Paul God’s wrath against sinful humans is not hateful anger but rather allowing them the freedom to have their own way, abandoning them to their own issue. God’s judgement allows sin to play itself out and for human desire to lead to destruction. Paul is sharing with us that widespread homosexual activity and support does not bring about God’s wrath but rather is evidence of God’s wrath. To use the term “Open and Affirming” may be displaying that God has “given us up” to our own sin. Our affirmation of the homosexual lifestyle does not display the love of God but rather as a Christian community it shows that God has judged us.
Before we demonize homosexuals we would do well to continue reading Roms. 1: 29-31. Paul is not singling out homosexual activity but rather uses it as a vivid example of sin. Homosexual activity is listed with several other displays of human unrighteousness. Paul shares with us that Homosexual activity is no worse than gossip or disrespecting parents. Paul doesn’t stop there, he does what I would consider to be a masterful preacher move. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul gets total buy-in from the reader, you can almost hear the Amens. Then in Rom. 2:1 he drops the hammer. Paul says,
“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the very same things.”
Paul’s reminds us that we are all equally sinners in need of God’s grace. Paul helps us to understand that a self-righteous judgment of homosexuals is just as sinful as the homosexual act.
I do not believe that any Christian Church should be “Open and Affirming” but rather we should acknowledge that we are all sinners homosexuals, gossipers, adulterers, cheaters, greedy etc. Because we are all sinners we come together on an equal playing field praying that God would forgive us. As we all recognize our need for God’s forgiveness we can also agree that God is able to delivers us from whatever our vices are, but that does not mean that God will. It is our responsibility to continue to seek God regardless. Therefore to all “Open and Affirming” churches you are displaying that God has “given you up”, please reflect on this. To all “gay bashing” churches remember that your bashing equally condemns you. Let’s all simply be the Christian Church a place where all can bring our sins before a gracious forgiving God.