We have encountered a bewildering variety of opinions competing for attention. On the one hand, there are strong voices clamoring for full acceptance of homsexual relationships. On the other hand, there is an equally persistent plea to deny such recognition. While it is not likely that we can come up with solutions that satisfy everyone, we can at least hope to be able to reach something better than what we have had.
It should not need to be said that violence against anyone, including gays and lesbians, cannot be condoned. Yet, we know that violence against queers is more common than we care to admit. People suspected of being gays or lesbians are more likely to be attacked on the way home from school or from a night out with friends. A mother of a gay son knows what it is to worry whether or not the young man will be safe. Her fears are often justified.
There was a time when gays were persecuted openly and executed publicly, often by burning (hence the abusive term "faggot"). Today no respectable theologian or church body any longer resorts to this sort of extreme. However our careless use of inflammatory language can have unfortunate consequences.
The shocking story of Matthew Shephard serves as a reminder that among the North American populace, the threat of violence follows gays like an ominous shadow. Although leading anti-gay activists do not advocate violence, one may wonder to what extent our rhetoric is responsible for inciting or at least for tolerating such violence. A literal fundamentalist interpretation and application of certain biblical passages such as are found in the Levitical Holiness Code (see Study Two) can easily lead to atrocities.
How can we reduce the threat of violence toward gays?
Reformed theologian Greg Bahnsen affirms unequivocally, "What God commands is always to be obeyed and what God forbids is always to be rejected." Would you agree with this statement? What, if any, difficulties can you foresee in trying to implement this rule?
Jesus warned that the days will come when those who persecute his disciples will think that they are doing God a service (John 16:2). Is there a lesson in these words? If so, for whom?
J. F. Harvey, writing with ecclesiastical approval, advises Roman Catholic priests to request persons who are not prepared to leave an active gay relationship, to absent themselves from the Lord's Table. This amounts to an inducement to opt for voluntary excommunication.
Lutherans will no doubt oppose the use of the sacrament as a weapon to enforce morality. We practise open communion. We cannot speak for all Lutherans everywhere, but in most of our ELCIC congregations the pastor announces that all baptized Christians are welcome to partake of the sacrament. Those who are hungry and thirsty are invited to come and eat and drink, freely, without money and without price. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ, as we understand it.
What does it mean to be worthy to receive the sacrament?
Presumably there are gays and lesbians in many congregations. They participate in the worship service, join in the confession of sins, hear the absolution, and receive the Lord's Supper. Is it appropriate to say that they are still sinners in ways in which the rest of us are not?
Many are concerned that the increasing acceptance of gay relationships may become a threat to the traditional norm regarding sex and the family. Some popular preachers warn that family values will be compromised if it becomes respectable to be gay.
The biblical norm for sexual unions is most clearly expressed in the creation accounts in Genesis. These two texts are often understood as a mandate which declares the union of a man and a woman to be the only acceptable expression of God's will for human sexual relationships. The fact that Jesus himself pointed to that account, when he spoke about divorce, is often seen as confirmation of that point.
As we have seen in Study Two, there is general agreement that such a one man–one woman relationship exists not just for purposes of procreation and the perpetuation of the human race (Genesis 1:28 "be fruitful and multiply"). Rather, the focus is on companionship and complementarity. The two persons are made for one another; they are fitting, appropriate partners. A man "leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife" (Genesis 2:24) so that the two can become "one flesh." One might say that ideally, the two are to become one soul and one spirit, one mind and one body. They are intended to share their life together and to find joy in losing themselves in each other's intimate company.
We do not need to fear that men and women will cease to be attracted toward one another. Queers are in the minority. Heterosexual relationships far outnumber any alternative relational pattern. Gays do not expect that their homosexual relationships will become the social norm. Gays want a place in the sun, not the whole beach.
Donald Faris expresses the fear that a homosexual lobby is out to infiltrate and conquer society. The very title of his unabashedly polemical book—Trojan Horse: The Homosexual Ideology and the Christian Church—conveys that theme with flamboyant rhetoric. But even Faris stops short of claiming that heterosexual relationships are in danger of passing into oblivion.
The retention of the man/woman relational pattern as the norm for the human family is not on the negotiating table. However the question is what exceptions to that norm can be tolerated. "Can we recognize the normative character of heterosexual relationships and also recognize that the person who discovers he or she is homosexually oriented will expect, appropriately, to relate to others as a gay person?" asks Jersild.
How would you define family?
When you think of the biblical and societal norms for the family, do you visualize a rigid pattern into which all must fit, or do you think of a rather more flexible range of relational models?
There is considerable disagreement on what, if anything, is to be regarded as sinful in the context of homosexuality. As we have seen in Study One, there are those who see nothing wrong with either the homosexual orientation or homosexual behaviour. Others argue that both orientation and behaviour can and must be modified, while still others welcome persons of homosexual orientation but ask them to desist from homosexual behaviour.
Timothy Lull reminds us that, at least since Luther, our ethical tradition has urged us to ask not just what is sin but also why something is sinful. We are not called upon to obey arbitrary commandments. "It will not be persuasive just to assert that 'everyone knows it's wrong.' One should try to spell out more coherently what it is about homosexuality that makes it sinful," he writes.
Some consider homosexual sex irresponsible and sinful because it allows for the enjoyment of sex while eliminating its natural consequence, pregnancy. To be consistent, people who hold this view should also reject the use of contraceptive methods such as vasectomy and tubal ligation.
Commenting on Romans 1:18–32, Richard Hays emphasizes that "we all stand without excuse before God's judgment. Self-righteous judgment of homosexuality is just as sinful as is the homosexual behaviour itself." Yet Hays contends that there is something different about the sinfulness of homosexuality, since the Scriptures without exception condemn homosexuality, whereas on other ethical issues one finds "internal tension and counterposed witness" ("Awaiting the Redemption of Our Bodies," Sojourners, July 1991.)
However in terms of emphasis, Hays observes that homosexuality is "a minor concern, in contrast, for example, to economic justice." It follows that "any ethic that intends to be biblical will get the accents in the right place." Hays makes an important point. "Homosexual acts are not … specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness" (as listed in Romans 1:29–31). They are "no worse than covetousness or gossip or disrespect for parents."
This is an important reminder to non-gays. However gays will likely not be convinced that they have been vindicated by this reminder. They would say something like, "I repent of homosexuality in the same way that you repent of heterosexuality." To this the straight community will likely answer, "But heterosexuality is not something one needs to repent of." To which the gays will respond, "Then, neither is homosexuality."
The Social Statement on Sex, Marriage and the Family (1970)of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) maintains that "persons who engage in homosexual behaviour are sinners only as are all other persons—alienated from God and their neighbour." Many take issue with the word "only" in that sentence. The LCA statement seems to say that gay and straight persons stand on equal footing before God.
According to a Quaker statement on the topic, homosexuality itself is no more sinful than is heterosexuality. What is sinful is not homosexuality as such, but exploitation of the other person. Such exploitation is equally sinful in the case of heterosexual relationships.
Is there a mandatory connection between the enjoyment of sex and the bearing of children?
All of us confess without reservation that we are "by nature sinful and unclean," and we regularly ask for forgiveness of sins, both "known and unknown." What is gained by labelling homosexuality as sin? Do we want to say that gay people are more sinful than straight people?
Are we in a deadlock? Can we agree that all of us, gay and straight alike, need to repent of our sins in matters of sexuality, since we all idolize sex and use it in selfish and hurtful ways?
A goodly number of churches have gone on record to say that they welcome gays and lesbians. What does such an invitation mean?
At the 2000 graduation ceremonies at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Bishop G.W. (Lee) Luetkehoelter invited the congregation to think of a person who has been invited to a friend's home for dinner. As the food is passed around, the host dumps a big dollop of broccoli on our friend's plate with the words "it is good for you!" Several more times during the evening, the host makes such decisions for the "good" of this invited guest. Is our friend welcome in this house? On whose terms? Does the invited guest feel welcome?
In Batchelor's Homosexuality and Ethics, Muehl puts it this way, "[Homosexuals] have as much place in the pews as all the rest of us sinners. And as long as they recognize it as a problem and are prepared to seek help in dealing with it, there should be no arbitrary limits placed upon their full participation as leaders in the Christian fellowship."
Since that statement requires gays to see their identity as a "problem," they will find it difficult to feel welcome under these terms.
After many years of clinical and pastoral experience, Harold Haas raised some agonizing questions. What would you say to a young member of your congregation who has been baptized, confirmed, and has had the benefit of a fine Christian upbringing, but now must face the fact that he is gay? Would you tell such a friend that he is perverse or immoral or sick? Would you tell him that he must remain sexually unfulfilled for life?
How would you answer these questions?