Homosexuality and Christian Faith: A Theological Reflection
by Theodore W. Jennings
Dr. Jennings is assistant professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. This article appeared in the Christian Century February 16, 1977, p. 137. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The question of the appropriate relation of the church to homosexuals and homosexuality has emerged as one of major importance in the deliberations of denominational bodies. The ensuing debate too often takes the form of a contest between defenders of traditional morality on the one hand and apologists for homosexual life style on the other. What is too often lacking in this conservative-liberal confrontation is attention to pertinent theological reflection. In what follows my aim is not so much to provide as to provoke that kind of reflection.
From the outset I should indicate how I became interested in this subject and what my biases are. I have, over the past several years had a number of friends and associates who were quite self-consciously homosexual. Many of these have been related in significant ways to the church. Some are committed laymen and laywomen, some are active clergy, some are seminary students. Some of these friends are extraordinarily talented and powerful people. Others are haunted by self-doubt and self-loathing. All of them share a concern to understand themselves in the light of Christian faith. As pastor and as friend I want these folk to know that the Christian faith is ultimately a word not of judgment but of grace. I know how difficult this is when the church, through its official pronouncements and its unofficial atmosphere, reinforces in them the impression that they are neither understood nor wanted, neither loved nor even to be “tolerated.” One of my biases is to want to defend these folk against the church. But I also have another bias: namely, that heterosexuality is a fundamentally superior form of sexuality to homosexuality.
As a theologian I have tried to ask whether either of these biases is appropriate or pertinent. I have had to discipline both my knee-jerk sympathy and my knee-jerk heterosexual certainty.
In the meantime the issue of homosexuals in the church has come to the fore in unexpected ways. I believe that the debate has both raised and obscured important issues, but it has seemed important to me that theologians address themselves to these issues in such a way as to help clarify them and to serve the church as it struggles to determine the appropriate stance.
What I will not do is propose a theology of homosexuality. That is, I do not intend to discover special principles which apply to this complex of issues in an ad hoc way. Rather I propose to ask how the fundamental principles of Christian theology illuminate this question or complex of issues.
God’s Grace and God’s Judgment
The basic principle of all theology, but one most forcefully brought to expression in this century by Karl Barth, is this: that in Christian faith we have to do with the gracious God whose one and supreme intention is to justify, save and redeem humanity not on the basis of a discrimination between better and worse persons but solely on the basis of God’s own gracious election. Followed through with consistency, this principle maintains that no human act or condition can of itself constitute an insuperable obstacle to God’s grace.
The violation of this theological principle places in human hands the capacity to effect our own salvation. But this is justification by works, and therefore a counsel of human pride whose end result can only be despair or self-righteousness. Thus whatever is to be said in “Christian ethics” must always stand under this first principle and cannot be allowed to rescind God’s gracious decree, election and activity in Christ in justifying the ungodly. With respect to the understanding of homosexuality, therefore, neither homosexual condition nor homosexual inclination nor specifically homosexual acts may be interpreted as excluding one from the domain of God’s gracious intention.
A second principle, closely and indeed inseparably connected to the first, has to do with the universality of God’s judgment in relation to which our fundamental human condition is disclosed as unrighteous whether as observers or as violators of “the Law.” Thus the negative import of the gospel of God’s grace is the radical undermining of all our attempts to establish ourselves in the pursuit of either “righteousness” or “unrighteousness.”
What this means is that no “natural” human condition or life style is intrinsically justified or righteous -- neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality, closed nor open marriage, celibacy nor profligacy. This negative assertion therefore stands against all attempts to argue for the autonomous or intrinsic legitimacy of any “life style” and against those who condemn homosexuality from the standpoint of an assumed righteousness of heterosexual marital fidelity or those who, condemning the obvious hypocrisies and oppressions ingredient to the institution of marriage, claim the autonomous validity of a homosexual life style.
These two principles in their interconnection (in which priority belongs to the first) make clear that no absolute or ultimate distinction can be made between homosexuality and heterosexuality. In both we have clearly exhibited the sinful condition of human beings -- which human beings in this condition are encountered in a shattering and redeeming way by God’s gracious will.
The use of the notion of “sin” in this connection frequently betrays a large-scale misunderstanding. As both Jesus and Paul make almost excessively clear, they address themselves only to “sinners” and the “lost.” One should therefore view with alarm discussions of this question which, discovering that homosexuals are sinners, conclude that they are unfit for the ministry and, almost, for Christian community. Are we then necessarily to conclude that since homosexuals are sinners -- and healthy heterosexuals are less so -- that Christ died for homosexuals but not for us? Out of our own self-righteousness we therefore have condemned ourselves.
The Otherness of the Other
Now if the matter were left here in the ultimate context of God’s judgment and grace, we would not have a Christian ethic. What we want but also what the Christian tradition provides is guidance in matters penultimate as well as ultimate.
I will begin here with another principle forcefully illuminated by Karl Barth. It is that our created, fallen and redeemed humanity is to be understood as cohumanity. This assertion derives from the clue of Genesis 1:26 that the image of God in us is expressed in that we are created male and female. I believe Barth is correct to take cohumanity, as evidenced in the two-gender character of our existence, to be the crucial determinant of our humanity.
This principle is applied by Barth and others in such a way as to place homosexuality in the wrong when contrasted with heterosexuality. Barth does not do this in a way that violates the first set of principles, but other theologians (e.g., Otto Piper) do. In either case we must ask whether this application is justified.
I believe the answer must be negative. That our humanity is cohumanity cannot be interpreted only in a sexual or genital way. If this is done, nothing remains of the symbolic and thus ethical significance of cohumanity. We then would have literalized the metaphor so as to deprive it of its general ethical significance. That significance is this -- that human beings differ from one another; that this difference is that which we constantly seek to abrogate, so as to make the other conform to our desire (on the sexual level this is lust, on the political level it is oppression). But the otherness of the other is God’s gift to us, by which gift we are summoned out of our isolation and into the cohumanity of love (Bonhoeffer).
Thus with respect to any relation the principle of cohumanity leads us to inquire: To what extent is this relationship predicated upon the reduction of the other to our own desire, and to what extent does it, however brokenly, embody the mutuality of cohumanity? Thus the principle of cohumanity does enable us to distinguish between better and worse relationships, but it cannot serve to dismiss homosexual relations as worse a priori.
Procreation and Family-Centeredness
A further principle often adduced in the discussion of homosexuality is that of natural law. As it applies to this context the argument goes: sexuality belongs to the law of nature, but it is ordered toward a particular purpose; namely, the procreation of children. Sexuality which does not have this end in view violates that order. Homosexuality is thus a perversion of the natural order and therefore of the law of God. This position, of major importance in Catholic moral theology, is also used in some Protestant discussions.
Obviously, all forms of human sexuality which do not have procreation as their goal fall equally under this principle: masturbation, contraception, nongenital sexuality between husband and wife, homosexuality. It is simply inconsistent to apply this principle to only one member of this set. Protestant sexual ethics in general have a more celebrative and less goal-oriented understanding of sexuality, and it is on this basis that contraception is not proscribed by Protestant theology. On what basis, then, can we revive this understanding of natural law to condemn homosexuality?
In the American situation the ghost of this natural-law principle lives on in the “sanctity of the home and family.” Christianity in American Protestantism has been linked closely with the preservation of the life of the family, and on this basis homosexuality is understood as a clear violation of the ideal of family life.
Now as a theologian I am inclined to ask whether the “family-centeredness” of American Christianity can be justified theologically, and here (against many of my own instincts) I must answer No. We have only to remind ourselves of how suspicious of family ties both Jesus and Paul were to see what an anomaly the identification of Christian life with family life is. But if this identification is an anomaly, then we certainly cannot argue that because homosexuality (as a permanent and exclusive sexual pattern) precludes marriage and family, it must be ruled out a priori as unchristian.
The Biblical Proscriptions
Let us turn to the scriptural passages which are frequently adduced to buttress the proscription of homosexuality. Of course a responsible application of Scripture cannot proceed from a mere collation of proof texts. If that were an appropriate procedure, then we would find it necessary to side against the liberation of women (including giving them a significant role in the church) and against modern science with its evolutionary perspectives. More seriously, perhaps, we would violate the clear hermeneutics of Scripture itself with its continual modification and correction of the traditions which are received in any particular stage of its development.
Thus we must ask in each case whether the passage in question brings to expression a central principle of the faith or is to be understood as accidental, peripheral or timebound.
In the space available here, I must restrict myself to the Levitical texts and Romans 1:26 f. (A more detailed investigation may be found in D. Sherwin Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition.)
The two passages in the Leviticus holiness code (Lev. 18:22 and 20:13) clearly condemn (and demand the death penalty for) acts of sexual intercourse between two males (apparently anal intercourse). We must note that no reason is given for the prohibitions; they are simply listed among a whole series of such prohibitions. Since these prohibitions are found in the ritual law and are apparently equal in severity with prohibitions against drinking the blood of an animal or having intercourse with a menstruating woman, or having an ox which gores one’s neighbor, their pertinence for theological ethics is generally disputed. It is sometimes asserted that the Old Testament proscribes homosexual acts because they are nonprocreative, but this connection is never made in Leviticus -- or elsewhere in Scripture. Thus we must ask to what extent we consider the proscriptions against homosexual acts in Leviticus generally binding upon the Christian conscience. Unless we understand ourselves bound to all Levitical proscriptions equally, then some reason in principle must be provided for discrimination among them. We have seen that principles normally invoked to make the proscription of homosexual acts binding do not in fact justify such a procedure. We must conclude that the Levitical texts do not provide us with sufficient grounds to enforce such a proscription.
With respect to the oft-cited passage of Romans 1:26 f. we must notice that Paul’s mention of anal intercourse between males functions as an illustration of the consequence of God’s having abandoned the gentiles to their own wickedness. Thus these acts are taken by Paul to be expressive as much of God’s judgment as of human depravity. In any case, it is clear that the aim of Paul’s argument in Romans is not to exclude those who perform homosexual acts from the sphere of God’s grace but rather to use the example of homosexual activity as an expression of the great need which all human beings have for the grace of God which justifies the “ungodly.”
So far our reflections have produced a somewhat negative result. I have argued that there is no theological principle which compels us to perpetuate the proscription of homosexual acts. Let us now turn to inquire whether there may not be in fact principles of theology which illumine the relation between the church and homosexuality in terms other than the proscription of homosexual acts.
Standing with the Outcast
One theological principle which has a clear basis in Old Testament prophecy and the teachings of Jesus is God’s identification with the poor, the outcast, the oppressed. In order to apply this principle to the case of homosexuals we must ask to what extent homosexuals in our society constitute a class of oppressed and outcast persons. I do not suppose that all clear-headed and morally sensitive Christians will come to the same conclusion here. After some reflection on the legal and social plight of homosexuals in our society, I have concluded that homosexuals do, to a significant degree, fall within this category. They are persons against whom existing laws are enforced capriciously and arbitrarily, persons who are continually threatened with exposure, with loss of job and social standing.
To the degree to which the principle of identification with the oppressed applies here, the church must stand with homosexuals against those sociopolitical structures that deprive them of the protection of the law and the rights and privileges of full members of society. This principle has been recognized by the United Methodist Church and other churches. Moreover, it has a lasting tradition in the history of the church, whose official position has always been to shield homosexuals from the application of civil authority. Existing laws against homosexual acts are derived from the attempt of King Henry VIII to divest the church of its power and to replace it with the state in the enforcing of moral legislation.
Thus it appears clear to me that the church appropriately allies itself with many of the aims and interests of gay liberation, as it also and for similar reasons may ally itself with the aims and interests of women’s liberation or black liberation. This is not to say that these expressions of liberation from oppression are equitable or stand on the same plane, or place the same demands upon us. It is rather to say that the way in which any of these movements places a claim upon us is by way of our responsibility to imitate the divine mercy which takes the place and the side of those whom society casts out and oppresses.
The Perilous Character of Sexuality
Further clarification of our problem may result if we consider the theologically ambiguous character of sexuality. I realize that many of us inside and outside the church have come to suppose that sexuality, both as condition and as act, is morally neutral at worst. In this case sexual activity, where it does not “violate the other person or oneself,” may be understood not merely as morally neutral but as morally positive as well. I have myself entertained this view, but further reflection upon the biblical and ecclesiastical traditions, upon philosophical and psychological interpretations, and upon my own experience and that of others to whom I am related as pastor or friend has led me to believe that this “emancipated” view is naïve at best and is even potentially damaging to any moral sensitivity at all. The more overtly sexual our relationships become, the more perilous they become as well. For in sexuality we are placed in the greatest physical and psychic proximity to one another, and thus it is here that we are most severely tempted to reduce the other to the instrument for the realization of our narcissistic desire.
Whatever proclivities toward a Manichean libel of God’s creation and its goodness we may discover in the “puritanical” streams of the Judeo-Christian traditions, and however much we may deplore and seek to correct these proclivities, we must also see that here at least the seriousness of sexuality was recognized. However much we may wish to assert the goodness and even the playfulness of sexuality (I remain persuaded that we both may and must assert this against all defamations of God’s gifts), we must not forget that we assert this in the face of a fallen condition in which sexuality has become perilous, fraught with the temptation to do violence to one another.
How then does this principle of the perilous character of sexuality apply to the question of homosexual “life style”? Its application means, first of all, that we cannot regard things like sexual life style or sexual “preference” as a matter of no importance or as an area in which the individual is to have free reign. These things are not morally neutral but morally ambiguous. By “morally ambiguous” I mean that they are heavy with the perils of temptation at the same time that they are or may be the good gifts of creation.
The way sexuality as a thoroughly ambiguous and perilous phenomenon in the fallen creation has been correlated to a restored and redeemed humanity is through the notion of vocation. Protestant Christian ethics have made the category of vocation central for an understanding of the Christian life. In this setting, vocation is a comprehensive designation for all that characterizes the relation of the Christian to the world of nature and society. Traditionally this notion has been applied to sexuality in terms of two vocations: marriage and celibacy. Under the protective signification of these two vocational stances, sexuality has been understood as restored to or attaining a positive status.
The Question of Sexual Vocation
Now we must ask how the category or principle of vocation applies to the situation of the homosexual (that is, one who is inclined or driven to seek persons of the same sex for sexual gratification). It is possible to argue that an unalterable tendency toward homosexuality, when it means the impossibility of traditional marriage, must also mean that one is called to celibacy (the renunciation of sexual activity for God’s sake). This stance is regularly presupposed even by Protestants who do not otherwise have any use for the vocation of celibacy (e.g., Billy Graham).
The difficulty of such a position is that it equates the vocation of celibacy with the condition of homosexuality without any clear basis for doing so. In fact such a view misunderstands the character of celibacy as vocation, which is never to be confused with mere abstinence nor founded upon some “natural” inclination.
A further possible application is to agree (as Norman Pittenger does) that celibacy is not a category to be applied a priori to the situation of the homosexual. In this case Pittenger then suggests an ethic for homosexuality which approaches as closely as possible the vocation of marriage; i.e., permanent, monogamous relationships integrating sexual activity together with serious regard and love for one another.
A third possibility is to inquire whether marriage and celibacy exhaust the possibilities of an obedient sexuality. Here we are on relatively new ground, I think, but it is terrain which must be explored (even if not finally colonized) if we are to be able to respond constructively not only to the questions of homosexuality but to the questions of sexual life style which confront us again and again under such headings as “open marriage” or “new morality.” It is only with an understanding of vocation and the question of sexual vocation other than marriage and celibacy that a responsible Christian sexual ethic can be elaborated which is neither reactionary nor soft-headed, neither simply orthodox nor simply enlightened, but a genuine application of Christian moral insight to the contemporary setting.
It is with this principle of vocation that we enter most fully into the situation of pastoral counseling and moral guidance. The deployment of this principle here means first to insist that the homosexual is not abandoned by God or by Christ’s church. The homosexual (I mean here the full range of homosexual inclination from exclusive to subliminated: this range therefore may include all of us) is confronted also as homosexual by God’s grace and judgment and is summoned to a comprehensive vocation inclusive of his or her homosexual inclination.
To what use then is one of homosexual inclination to put this homosexuality? What is the vocational character of homosexual inclination? How is this inclination to be put in service to Christ? Here, I think, no a priori answer is appropriate. Here there can only properly be careful probing, conscientious questioning and obedient response.
Is homosexual inclination an obstacle to be overcome -- a training ground for the will in the discipline of renunciation which prepares one for some further obedience? As a pastor I cannot rule this out, but I also cannot impose it. (Placing homosexuality in this context calls into question behavioral modification schemes for remedying an unruly homosexual inclination. Vocation entails obedient freedom, not conditioned response. I am unable to understand at all how Christian pastors can possibly recommend this “remedy” to homosexuals.)
Should a homosexual inclination be placed in an order similar to that of marriage? Here homosexuals may ask themselves whether their homosexuality is to be placed in the service of God through the establishment of a committed and enduring relationship. Such a relationship may then be understood as a witness in a world of broken and impersonal relationships to the God-given possibility of and provocation toward fidelity and trust among persons.
If we are persuaded that there may be a third category of sexual vocation, then the homosexual may further ask: How is my homosexuality to be acted out in such a way as to contribute to God’s purposes for me and my fellow human beings? What are the features of a homosexual pattern of relationships which point toward or bring to expression the lordship of Christ? Responses to such a question are possible only on the part of persons who understand themselves as claimed by Christ in their homosexuality.
The kinds of responses which are made to this question on the part of Christian homosexuals will have great importance for all of us. For these responses may help to illuminate also the situation of heterosexuals for whom neither marriage nor celibacy, as traditional categories of sexual vocation, function to clarify their situation of concrete obedience to Christ.
The Forms Temptation Takes
Exploration of the question of obedient vocation in relation to homosexuality is an urgent pastoral task. It can be most fruitfully explored if we church people attempt to understand more clearly the moral ambiguity of the situation in which the homosexual is placed. We must become sensitive to the peculiar forms which temptation takes in this sphere if we are helpfully to interpret an understanding of Christian vocation in this same sphere. Let me suggest a few questions about the peculiar form of temptation to which a homosexual life style may be open. These are leading questions -- not to be permitted to become a priori pronouncements about the condition of persons of homosexual inclination, history or intention.
1. Is there a peculiar form of a temptation toward relational irresponsibility here? To what extent is the choice (if it is that) of a homosexual life style a refusal of the responsibilities which others bear in connection with ongoing relationship, marriage and family? (To what extent is this temptation the obverse of a temptation, characteristic of a straight, middle-class life style, to become all-responsible as a means of self-justification?)
2. Is there a peculiar form of a temptation toward irresponsibility concerning oneself here -- the temptation to blame one’s genes, one’s parents, one’s culture for one’s choices? Is there here a refusal of freedom which results in one’s sinking back into sensuality?
3. Is there here a refusal of the genuine otherness of another expressed in the flight from women, from straights, etc., which results in a “community” of persons who are the mirror image of one another? Is there here a peculiar form of that temptation we all share to associate only with “our own kind” -- religious, racial, etc.?
4. Is there here a temptation to reduce relationships to the most trivial possible form of encounter, severing sexuality from its integration with comprehensive relationality? (This would be the obverse of the way in which a straight marriage presents the temptation of total personal subjugation of the other person on the basis of sexual ownership.)
Now, as even this brief and arbitrary list of questions should indicate, any illumination of the peculiar temptations of a homosexual life style may also serve to illuminate the peculiar temptations of a heterosexual life style and the commonality of temptation for both. Moreover, the illumination of the peculiar forms of temptation is the necessary corollary for the illumination of the peculiar forms of vocation pertinent to a homosexual life style. By keeping the questions of temptation and vocation together, we avoid the twin dangers of simply issuing a priori denunciations of homosexuality on the one hand or a priori justifications of homosexuality on the other. Neither attitude is a way of taking the other seriously. To take another seriously is to understand the other in the light of Christ as one who in his or her concrete situation is a sinner claimed by God’s grace for the vocations of obedience and freedom.
The views which I have put forward as my own in these last few paragraphs no doubt require considerable amplification and clarification. I have been able to suggest only the outline of a position -- and it is also very much a position “on the way.”
I would be very surprised indeed if the position I have outlined does not also need correction from various quarters. Theology functions not in a vacuum but in a dialogue with many voices. It seems to me that these corrections may come from two directions -- from the Judeo-Christian heritage and from a better understanding of homosexuality (which includes above all the context of dialogues with gay men and women).
The position which I have articulated therefore is, like all other positions in matters theological, an attempt to see through a glass darkly. In these matters our capacity to see is only as great as the mutuality of aid and of correction in which the church bears witness to its hope for that dawning of apocalyptic lucidity in which we shall know even as we are known.