A Grace Too Far: Homosexuality and the Christian Church

“You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” — Luke 15:16

“How do you know right from wrong?” the woman on the phone implored frantically.

It was 1995 and I had answered the phone at the television station where I worked. Our local morning talk show had just concluded a live interview with author Michelangelo Signorile on his book “Outing Yourself.” The phones began ringing off the hook almost immediately after the interview was over, with some calling before it was done.

“How can you promote that immoral lifestyle?” the woman insisted when I answered the phone.

“What lifestyle would that be, ma’am?” I asked.

“Your station is saying it’s okay to be gay,” she accused.

“No, ma’am, Michelangelo Signorile said it was okay to be gay,” I clarified.

“But your station is promoting it,” she insisted.

I was tired of this. I had been a writer for several years for this show and each time a gay positive guest appeared the phone calls came from conservative Christians who demanded that we renounce anyone “promoting” homosexuality. We tried to explain that the show was a diverse program, presenting diverse views, but it always fell on deaf ears. For me, this was the last straw.

“Ma’am, why do you assume that the person you’re complaining to is straight?” I asked.

“I’m … I’m not assuming that at all!” she sputtered.

“Good,” I replied. “Since I’m a lesbian.”

Then came the question, the question that has befuddled me since that day: “How do you know right from wrong?”

How do I know right from wrong? It stopped me then as it does now. What on earth does that have to do with my sexual orientation? This woman had fallen into the fundamentalist reasoning that homosexuals have a “reprobate” mind. Simply because I was an “admitted homosexual” she reasoned that I must, at my very core, be immoral to the point that I could no longer tell right from wrong.

The station received similar calls just a year later when I appeared on the same program to talk about Whosoever, the new magazine I had founded for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians. My friends in the newsroom informed me that the calls started even as the topic of the interview was announced.

“What Bible is she reading?” one caller asked.

“Who is she to challenge the church’s teaching on homosexuals?” another incredulously implored.

“All gays are going to hell,” another said matter-of-factly. “You can’t be both gay and Christian. It’s an oxymoron.”

The questions were not new to me. Since I started the magazine I had heard them over and over again, in email discussions, in face-to-face confrontations with other believers and in my own mind.

“How can you be both gay and Christian?”

Everything I’d ever learned being raised in the home of a Southern Baptist minister and his wife proved that it was impossible. It was an oxymoron. God detested homosexuality. Not only that, God detested homosexuals who were to be put to death for their sin. How could you be a Baptist your entire life and miss that lesson? I obviously had not.

However, there was something deep inside of me that knew that the Baptist answer to the question was wrong. I knew it in my heart that God had made me this way for a reason. In my younger years I had prayed, fervently, to have my sexual orientation changed — to have this thorn in my side removed. It never happened. It took me many years of pain and trial to understand that God’s “No” was really God’s “Yes.” God’s “Yes” to my call; God’s “Yes” to my yearnings to be closer to God; God’s “Yes” to my innermost desire to meet God in the depths of my heart.

But, knowing all of this on some level in my gut did nothing to quell the arguments outside. The old conservative Christian message ran deep in my psyche. I needed to know — not just in my heart — but in my head that God was okay with me. I needed the head knowledge to back up what my gut already knew but had no words to express. I needed the ability to fight the lies and hatred that had been unleashed on God’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians from otherwise well-meaning believers. With my question in hand — “how can one be both gay and Christian?” — I embarked upon a seminary career to arm myself with solid, intellectually and theologically sound, answers.

I can say, quite assuredly, that I found them. Thanks to courses in the Old Testament, New Testament, exegetical methods, surveys of various theological thought and methods, and two grueling semesters of Christian history that made me disbelieve the entire basis of the faith for two more semesters, I can say that I accomplished my goal. I could argue texts used against homosexuals with the best of them. I can run theological circles around many an average believer who subscribes to the slogan, “My pastor said the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

The most important lesson I learned, however, is that most of my detractors neither deserve nor want answers. Instead, they seek to be “right,” like the woman on the phone. They seek to tell their side, to use a handful of scriptures ripped from their original context to back up their modern day prejudice against gays and lesbians. They have no interest in a rational discussion of differences. They merely want their position accepted as truth, with a capital “T,” and discussion is out of the question.

Rev. Chris Rumfelt epitomizes this type of detractor in his email to me:

The truth will set you free! You can find a Bible that will tell you what you want. You can find a church that will tell you what you want to hear. I’m glad the truth will set you free, and to be free in Jesus Christ is to be free indeed. If you are a homosexual, gay, lesbian, transsexual, you are living a life of sin and need to be saved. A true Christian will love you but hate your sin just like God does. If you will allow the Holy Spirit to examine your heart you will see your corruption that is hidden in your soul. Then, and only then, can you receive Christ as your savior. If you die a gay, les, tran, etc. you will be damned to hell forever. However if you let Christ save you, he will change your desires and you will become a new creature in Christ. (II Cor. 5:17 KJV) There is no such a thing as a gay Christian. Please let God save you today. No matter how wicked or how deceived you have become Christ died for our sins. (I Jn 1:9) He will forgive.

Be Free in Christ, submit to him he will do the changing for you.

The Truth,

Rev. CR

To even begin to argue with one such as this is fruitless, just as arguing over proof-texts and their interpretation leads to a dead-end. Rev. Rumfelt and the woman on the phone are not interested in hearing about my deep relationship with Christ. They are not interested in hearing about my journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance. They are not interested in hearing about the grace-filled moments of my life when God has touched my heart so deeply that there could be no mistaking God’s presence in my life. No, they simply need to be right, not so much for me, but for themselves. Being wrong means their interpretations must be rethought. Being wrong means that God might actually love someone they find unlovable. (A feeling eloquently expressed by a man at a recent Soulforce protest at Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia, who remarked that “God’s love is cheap if he throws it around to everyone.”1) Being wrong means their faith might actually have to be put to the test by loving someone they personally find disgusting.

“You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” The words of Luke 15:16 have become a place of refuge for me in the face of such letters and calls. God knows my heart. Other people don’t need to. The woman on the phone, and Rev. Rumfelt do not deserve an answer. God knows my heart.

Defending hope

Always be prepared to make account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15)

That is not to say, however, that a reasoned argument for being both homosexual and Christian should not be made. The acceptance and affirmation of gays and lesbians within the body of Christ is an issue that is tearing at the fabric of the church. Denominations are split over the issue, not to mention individual congregations. Some opponents of accepting and affirming gays and lesbians as full members of God’s realm are like the woman on the phone and Rev. Rumfelt, you cannot argue with them. There are, though, a good many in the Christian church that would welcome a reasoned argument, based on scripture, experience, reason, and tradition. Such arguments are imperative if the church is ever going to come to a resolution on the question, “Can you be gay and Christian?”

As both a lesbian and a Christian I must defend my hope when it is challenged, yet I am called to a gentle and reverent defense. I cannot, no matter how much I might like to, return reviling for reviling. When Christians reason together is when the truth comes to light — no matter how dark the glass is that we must look through at the moment. Come, now, let us reason together.

The nature of sin

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1b-2)

One of the main arguments against being a gay Christian is that one is continuing in “sin” by not renouncing the “gay” part of that phrase. It’s why Rev. Rumfelt is confident that “there is no such a thing as a gay Christian.” Homosexuals are “living in sin” because they have abandoned God’s plan for sexuality — namely the union of a man and a woman in marriage, mainly for the formation of new life. We shall get to the question of marriage and its reflection of our right union with God in time. For now, let us focus on the nature of sin.

Shirley Guthrie defines sin as “self-destructive breaking of relationship with God and fellowmen.”[2 One of the forms of sin then is disobedience. By remaining gay while claiming to be Christian, gays and lesbians are condemned for disobedience to God by “continuing in sin.” Opponents of gay Christians reiterate this stand with six passages of Scripture3 that they interpret to condemn all acts of homosexuality for all eternity. As we have said, argument around these six passages has proved fruitless and shall not be pursued here. Instead, let us look further at what it means to be disobedient to God.

Sin is not just transgression of the “law” in a moralistic or legalistic way. Instead, we must examine how Jesus interpreted the law. In Matthew 22: 35-40, Jesus is quite clear about what commandments are paramount:

“And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great first commandment. And a second is like it, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.'”

For Jesus, it was not the letter of the law that condemned us but a violation of the spirit of the law of love. Jesus was not so much concerned with outward actions as he was with inward intent.

“Sin as disobedience in relation to our fellowman is not only the external act of adultery. It is wanting to commit adultery (Matthew 5:27). … Sin is not just lynching or shooting Negroes or killing six million Jews. It is having contempt for any human being (Matthew 5:21-24).”4

Thus, sin as disobedience happens when we intend to hurt another or separate them from God. This is a sin committed by conservative Christians every time they use the phrase, “I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.” It is precisely in their hatred, no matter how well intentioned, that they show their true contempt for gay and lesbian human beings. Denying them full membership in Christ’s household is the true sin of disobedience, the sin of placing a stumbling block before a brother or sister. In their rush to uphold the “law” of “right sexuality” they bar the gate to heaven to gays and lesbians who seek to enter. Instead of acting on faith — faith that God will deal with whatever “sin” resides in the hearts of their fellow brothers and sisters — they insist on the letter and not the spirit of the law. In their zeal they alienate gays and lesbians from God — which Paul Tillich says is quite clearly a sin.

“It is not the disobedience to a law which makes an act sinful but the fact that it is an expression of man’s estrangement from God, from men, from himself. Therefore, Paul calls everything sin which does not result from faith, from the unity with God.”5

It is in following Jesus’ law of love, however that “sin is conquered because estrangement is overcome by reunion.”6

Sin as sensuality

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. (Romans 8:12-14)

Sin is also defined in terms of sensuality when applied to gays and lesbians. Opponents accuse gays and lesbians of living a “fleshly” life, which is a code word for living a life of sexual immorality in the form of promiscuity and licentiousness. Forget for a moment that, just numerically speaking, there are more heterosexuals engaged in promiscuity and licentiousness than homosexuals and many of them, too, claim to be Christians. These people are not shunned from the church and some may even be elders or leaders in good standing. Certainly many pastors occupying pulpits today are adulterers or divorced — two behaviors high on Jesus’ list of sins. Again, one must closely define one’s terms before jumping headlong into assumptions about what a “fleshly” life entails.

Guthrie reminds us that the source of all sin is the “heart.” Again, we are back to intention. It was Jesus who told us that what comes out of us as far as conduct is concerned is what is in our heart. When our heart is right, so are our actions, regardless of any law.

“When the New Testament speaks of ‘sinful flesh’ (Romans 8:3) or living ‘according to the flesh’ (Romans 8:12), it is not referring to the body alone, but to the whole personality of sinful men. Thus the ‘works of the flesh,’ according to Galatians 5:19 ff., include physical sins: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, drunkenness, carousing and the like. But ‘works of the flesh’ are also such non-sensual sins as idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit and envy. And Paul does not suggest that one kind of ‘fleshly’ sin is worse than the other.”7

So, for those who believe gays and lesbians sin by their mere existence as sexual beings, then one must also believe with equal fervor that those who drink to excess on Saturday night and fall asleep in the pew Sunday morning are just as inherently “fleshly” as the gay person. Or, those who spread strife, jealousy and anger within the church’s ranks are just as deserving of the church’s shunning as any gay person. These too are “sins of the flesh” according to scripture, yet these sins are not singled out with the utter voracity unleashed on homosexuality. Many congregations conveniently overlook the “fleshly sins” going on within their ranks. Often they welcome, with open arms, those who are in direct violation of Jesus’ explicit condemnation of divorce except in the case of infidelity.

This zeal to enforce the letter of the law over the spirit is another form of conduct “according to the flesh” according to Rudolf Bultmann. He believed that zealous pursuit of the law is “a turning away from the Creator, the giver of life, and at turning toward creation — and to do that is to trust in one’s self as being able to procure life by the use of the earthly and through one’s own strength and accomplishment.”8 Conservative Christians are constantly seeking to “prove” their piety through works — by paying strict allegiance to the “law,” boasting of their own righteousness and questioning the faith and righteousness of anyone who might dare to believe differently, especially those who dare to be both Christian and gay. They demand proof that God approves of their lives — proof they say we cannot present until we erase the “gay” the precedes “Christian.” Rev. Rumfelt said it quite clearly, “there is no such thing as a gay Christian” because they have not presented that outward “proof” that they have become new creatures by shedding their sexual orientation.

Bultmann points out that this “fleshly” proof was also demanded of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:3 by people who commended themselves for being righteous and holy and demanded others present “a tangible accomplishment capable of being presented for inspection [as proof of possessing the Spirit.”9 This “work of the flesh” is in effect every time a church, or a Rev. Rumfelt, asks a gay person to become “ex-gay” in order to convince the world that God is present in their lives.

This is not a new argument. Paul had to deal with this argument within the house churches as Jewish Christians began to demand that Gentile converts undergo circumcision as outward proof of their inward change. Paul’s answer to the argument, laid out in 1 Corinthians 7:19-24 is clear, “stay the way you are.”

“Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping God’s commandments. Let every person stay in the calling in which they were called” (v.19-29). A person cannot change their status in hopes of winning God’s favor. “Just as the change from uncircumcision to circumcision implied a doubt in the sufficiency of grace, so any change in manner of life, such as change from marriage to celibacy, could easily be an unnecessary and unfaithful attempt to make oneself more acceptable in God’s sight.”10

For God to accept gays and lesbians without a change in their “sinful lifestyle” — meaning their sexual orientation altogether — would be considered by conservative Christians a grace too far. God cannot go that far, grace does not extend to the gay or lesbian person who remains homosexual while claiming to be a Christian. Remember, “God’s love is cheap if he throws it around to everyone.”

But, what if grace did extend that far? What if grace, and its unpredictable nature, showed up in the lives of gays and lesbians? Romans 1 is the favorite chapter of conservatives who believe that grace would never go near a “practicing” homosexual. The chapter describes the actions of people who have turned away from God to pursue these “works of the flesh” that we discussed earlier. But, what of gays and lesbians whose lives do not fit the description of the people portrayed in this chapter? What of gays and lesbians who have not “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Romans 1:23)? Can grace be evidenced in their lives?

It’s useful to point out that Paul’s argument here is not one of biology. He’s not saying that because these people engage in same-sex sexual activity that they are biologically predisposed to take part in idolatrous practices. What he is arguing about here is faith. It’s an argument about salvation and liberation at the hands of God. The question according to Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, is “[what are the signs of that salvation and liberation, that it is present in the people, being lived into?”11

In Romans 1, Paul lists almost every sign that they are not present in the people he describes — and he believes that among some people, not all, homosexual activity is the mark of a turning away from God.

“What if homosexual acts are among the signs of faithful lives, among, say, the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ Paul enumerates in Galatians 5?” Hopkins asks. “What if folk who exhibit ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ are also engaged in homosexual acts, that those acts are part of a relationship of depth and commitment that produces fruits of the Spirit?”12

For conservative Christians bent on seeing outward proof of change in the lives of homosexuals, why will they so easily discount the obvious fruits of the Spirit shown forth in the lives of countless gay and lesbian Christians? These signs are not enough for them or are criticized as “false” because the most important “sin” has not been renounced or removed. But how can sin produce the fruits of the Spirit? By all rights, it cannot. Even Jesus was once accused of working for the devil but responded, “If Satan casts out Satan he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:26) For his disbelieving disciples he recommended that they believe that God was within him, “but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”

The tangible signs of salvation and liberation are evident in the lives of gay and lesbian Christians. For the church to continue to deny this puts them at odds with the apostle Peter. He concluded that Gentiles should also be accepted into the church because, “if then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” (Acts 11:17) Peter recognized that there is no such thing as a grace too far. God’s grace extends to even the Gentiles — those people that Jesus called “dogs” (Matthew 15:26). The church continues to hinder God by casting out God’s gay and lesbian children because of some perceived “sin” — not realizing that it is not their place to judge the sins of others — especially if those people exhibit an obedience to the grace of God in their lives.

Is that to say that homosexuality is never sinful? No. If we define sin as basically “the experience and condition of alienation … from God, from the neighbor and from the self,”13 how does homosexuality fit into the category of sin? It seems obvious that if one’s sexual orientation becomes a barrier to unity with God, neighbor and self then it is something with which to be dealt. This is a sword that can cut both ways. If one is convinced that their sexual orientation, be it heterosexual or homosexual, stands between them and God, neighbor and self, then that orientation must be repressed or controlled in some way — most likely through celibacy. If one discovers, however, that their sexual orientation produces no barrier to unity with God, neighbor and self, then that sexual orientation should be embraced and used for the glory of God. In short, we should become who we are in Christ, whether that is straight or gay.

For many, homosexuality presents no barrier to full communion with God, neighbor and self. Instead, many gays and lesbians find that only by fully accepting their sexual orientation can they find any peace. Such was my case. As previously mentioned, I fought my sexual orientation for years, finally deciding that if I could not be both gay and Christian, I would simply be gay. This is the path chosen by many gay and lesbian Christians. When faced with the choice between gay and Christian, often being gay is top priority — being true to one’s self instead of a human idea of what constitutes a “true Christian” who must show that outward proof of inward change. However, after years away from God, I found my way back and reconciled my faith with my sexuality. It was no easy task and one that still continues with each challenge to my existence as both gay and Christian.

It’s ‘Adam and Eve,’ not ‘Adam and Steve’

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Despite this evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of gays and lesbians, condemnation of homosexuals unions persist within the church based on this handful of verses. Gay and lesbian relationships are treated as “sinful” unions because they violate what the church considers the only right way to express sexual intimacy — through heterosexual marriage — which is “a symbol for the covenant relationship with Yhwh.”14 Marriage, the church says, is between one man and one woman, ordained for all time because God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

That trite phrase, however, glosses over the one constant about marriage — it has changed radically over the centuries. For the ancient Israelites, the primary reason for marriage “was to insure for the man a legitimate heir to continue the family line and possess the family property.”15 That property included the wife, often many wives. The unions were based on property considerations, not love. Levirate marriages required that the man become the husband of his dead brother’s widow. This was justified by Deuteronomy 25:5 so that the man’s lineage would continue and “his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” In the Roman world, the purpose of marriage became twofold: to bring up children as “citizens of the empire, and it was the means of providing for the transmission of family property.”16 Women still came under the authority of their husband, although by this time marriages were more based on consent by both bride and groom than by familial arrangement, although that still took place.

For Augustine, the main reason for marriage was procreation and in 401 he wrote in his booklet “On the Good of Marriage” that it is a holy bond or sacramentum which cannot be broken. Augustine was rigid in his idea of what role sex played in marriage. “Since marital sex is a favor, not a right, couples should avoid making love merely for enjoyment or because they felt like it. Only propagation of the species, Augustine warned, entitled them to make use of the marital privilege blamelessly.”17

Augustine’s rigid view of sex within marriage has long been discarded by a society that vaunts heterosexual activity for sheer pleasure to sell everything from toothpaste to cars. Equally scorned these days are Luther and Calvin’s admonitions that even within marriage, sex is still restricted and is not made “intrinsically” good simply because it occurs between two married persons. Marriage does not equal sexual indulgence, Calvin said. On the contrary, “they are admonished that [their union must not be filthied by intemperate and dissolute lust.”18

The history of marriage is basically one where property is exchanged — meaning the woman is given by her father to her husband, in a union of property, money and lineage. This is what traditional marriage has celebrated, not the union of two lovers. Marriage, as a human institution, has simply been legal unions, sanctioned by the church and conducted with as many important people as possible to witness it. The church’s insistence that marriage is “a symbol for the covenant relationship with Yhwh” and is grounded in the sexual differences between a man and woman is a function of patriarchal views meant to keep women “in their place.”

“Homosexuality,” writes Beverly Harrison, “in our society and cultural context, represents a break with the strongest and most familiar control on sexuality — compulsory heterosexuality — and thus is a break with that strong social patterning which, because it is familiar, makes sexuality seem safe and conventionally channeled.”19

Harrison believes that our society’s revulsion around homosexuality is rooted in the idea that such sexuality breaks free of the tight constraints of sex within marriage as the only form of “healthy” sex. Recognizing homosexuality as “healthy” would mean recognizing that “sexuality itself is good not merely when channeled in ‘reputable’ and well-patterned ways but good per se.”20

Conservative Christians believe that heterosexual marriage is the only healthy way to engage in sex because of the sexual differences between men and women. Homosexual acts then “convey rebellion against sexual differentiation” making such acts “untrue or incomplete with respect to the interdependent goods of physical complementarity, procreation and responsibility to the human community.”21

These gender differences are deeply ingrained, says Schmidt, whether they are present from birth or the result of social construction. Schmidt argues that since a penis fits a vagina that male and female are complementary and are meant to go together. Yet, is this the only way to honor God? Simply because the parts fit together, does this necessarily mean that men and women are meant to be together? Is sexual union the only way to truly open ourselves “in humility to the mystery of the other gender in order to know union?”22 To posit that we can only truly understand the nature of God by partaking in a sexual union through marriage to the opposite sex is to belittle the relationship to God that single or celibate people create. By putting marriage on a pedestal as the be-all and end-all model for a relationship with God is to put conditions on how one can know God’s presence.

This notion of complementarity — that men and women can achieve a sense of wholeness and closeness to God through the marriage bond — “means that our theology is dependent upon our genitals.”23 According to Rudy, this type of thinking means that we no longer understand ourselves as parts of the Body of Christ seeking to find wholeness and relationship with God within the larger community of the church but “rather that each woman needs a man and each man needs a woman to ensure wholeness and relationship with God.”24 Instead of finding our identity within the community of the church, the notion of complementarity “leads us to a God who is mediated through our genitals and to a church that is virtually unnecessary.”25 This flies in the face of Paul’s assertion that to God there is no male or female. To make marriage a place where gender is key to union with God is to undermine Paul’s assurance that gender is meaningless to God.

This male/female dualism espoused by the notion of complementarity, then, is a false dichotomy, according to Harrison because it is based on misogyny — a deep hatred for women and all things feminine. The argument for sexual differentiation is a thinly veiled appeal to male supremacy where “male nature is held to be expressive of full humanity while female nature is held to be different from and of less value than male human nature.”26 This observation holds true in conservative circles where women are expected to submit to their husbands and be nothing more than their “helpmate” because of a societal belief that women “have a different sort of rational capacity than men have.”27

Homosexuals, then, challenge this belief that sexual difference is the basis for a good marriage. The dualism of male and female complementarity — of “tab A” fitting into “slot B” for everyone for all time — is blown apart by homosexual couples who blur the rigid gender roles in their partnerships. Gay and lesbian relationships are not based on male/female gender roles. Homosexual partnerships are more egalitarian with each partner alternating in such roles as doing the laundry, washing the dishes, cleaning the house or taking the car to the shop.

This behavior, Harrison says, enrages those who wish to promote rigid gender roles because “by coming out, [gays and lesbians signal that they will no longer cooperate in refusing to rock the ecclesiastical boat: They join women in expecting the church, finally, to come of age regarding human sexuality.”28

In that coming of age, the idea of marriage must again change — just as it has over the centuries. Instead of an institution based upon an opposing set of genitals that come together in a “complementary” form, a new ethic of marriage relies upon “a tradition-free sense of mutuality, on a self-evident sense of collaboration.”29 Harrison calls this new ethic “one foundationally grounded in mutual respect … a feminist ethic of radical mutuality — the simultaneous acknowledgement of vulnerability to and need of another, the recognition of one’s own power to give and receive pleasure and to call for another’s power of relation and to express one’s own.”30

A redefinition of marriage in this way opens the door to same-sex unions to express the fullness of God’s intention for human relationships — namely, mutuality — a healthy union of equals that “rejects as inappropriate all sexual relations or any dynamics of human relationships characterized by inequities of power and lack of mutuality.”31 Marriage would no longer be seen in the light of rigid gender roles or a “correct” joining of disparate genitals, but as a union of equals in relationship devoid of patriarchy and unequal power. In short, allowing same-sex marriages would allow society and the church to finally realize the goodness inherent in all sexuality — the power of sexuality to unite humans and God, no matter what the genital configuration of the union.

How did you get “that way?”

But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:7)

Perhaps it might be helpful at this point to explore the idea of sexual orientation itself. There has been much speculation in years past about how one “becomes” gay or lesbian. For many conservative Christians, the idea behind finding a “cause” — whether it is nature or nurture — is to then find a “cure” — whether it’s changing the nurturing or developing tests and treatments for homosexuality before a baby is born.

Leaning more toward the “nature” argument of sexual orientation, two widely used continuums have been developed that postulate that sexuality can not be rigidly categorized as either “heterosexual” or “homosexual.” Instead, every human being falls somewhere along the continuum of sexual orientation.

The most famous of these scales is the Kinsey scale, developed by Alfred Kinsey in the late 1940s and early ’50s who concluded that people “do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories… The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”32

Kinsey Scale

0 – Exclusively heterosexual with no homosexual
1 – Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
2 – Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
3 – Equally heterosexual and homosexual
4 – Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
5 – Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
6 – Exclusively homosexual

Instead of looking a sexual orientation as an either-or condition, Kinsey developed a seven-point continuum based on the degree of sexual responsiveness people have to the members of the same and other sex.

A variety of activities must be considered before assessing where and individual might land in the continuum. Fantasies, dreams, thoughts, the frequency of sexual activity and emotional feels all play a role. Considering all of these areas, many “heterosexuals” fall somewhere between 0 and 3 because they might occasionally think, dream or fantasize about sex with someone of the same sex and might occasionally act on those feelings.

Over a three-year period, Kinsey’s researchers discovered:

  • 4 – 6 percent of men were rated as 6;
  • 10 percent of men were rated 4, 5, or 6;
  • 18 percent of men were rated as 3, 4, 5, or 6;
  • 37 percent of all men experienced orgasm in a sexual activity with another man at some time in their life;
  • 60 percent of all men had some type of homosexual relationship before they were age 16;
  • 30 percent of all men had some type of homosexual relationship between age 20 – 24.

Ranks for women were about one-half that of men (exact percentages were not provided by Kinsey). Keep in mind that this research was conducted as a time of lower sexual activity for women than recent surveys have indicated.33

This is a far cry from saying one is either homosexual or heterosexual.

There is also the Klein sexual grid, developed by Dr. Fritz Klein in 1990 that researchers consider to be better than the Kinsey scale because it demonstrates the dynamics of sexuality in one person. Klein examines the element of time in more detail than Kinsey by asking about sexual behavior during the present (the most recent 12 months,) the past (up to 12 months ago,) and the ideal (which is as close as one can get to intention and prediction of future behavior.) The biggest change from previous work is Klein’s inclusion of many aspects of sexual orientation in addition to sexual behavior. These include sexual attraction, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, lifestyle preference, and sexual identity.

This is the Klein Sexual Grid:

Rate each category from 1-7, where
1 — heterosexual only
2 — heterosexual mostly
3 — heterosexual somewhat more
4 — heterosexual/gay equally
5 — gay somewhat more
6 — gay mostly
7 — gay only

The time scales are:

  • Ideal: What do you think you would eventually like?
  • Present: The most recent 12 months
  • Past: Your life up to 12 months ago
  • Sexual Attraction: To whom are you sexually attracted?
  • Sexual Behavior: With whom have you actually had sex?
  • Sexual Fantasies: Who are your sexual fantasies about? (They may occur during masturbation, daydreaming, as part of real life, or purely in your imagination.)
  • Emotional Preference: Emotions influence, if not define, the actual physical act of love. Do you love and like only members of the same sex, only members of the other sex, or members of both sexes.
  • Social Preference: Social preference is closely allied with but often different from emotional preference. With members of which sex do you socialize?
  • Lifestyle Preference: What is the sexual identity of the people with whom you socialize?
  • Sexual Identity: How do you think of yourself?
  • Political Identity: Some people describe their relationship to the rest of society differently than their personal sexual identity. For instance, a woman may have a heterosexual sexual identity, but a lesbian political identity. How do you think of yourself politically?

To use the Klein scale, choose one point on each of the three time scales, either past, present or ideal. Each scale represents a continuum, so if one feels they are halfway between reference points 1 and 2 on a scale, it can be described as 1.5.

Klein’s research and the experience of many people indicates that sexual identity is fluid (at least for some people), and can change from one period of a person’s life to another. A person’s identity may move to a new position on the continuum; that is,

  • a heterosexual may change to a bisexual or homosexual identity;
  • a bisexual may change to a homosexual or heterosexual identity;
  • a homosexual may change to a bisexual or heterosexual identity.

Many people were sure that they would be, for instance, heterosexual all their lives, but discovered later that they no longer were (or vice versa). It therefore behooves one to treat others as one would like to be treated regardless of one’s current sexual identity, as one’s sexual identity may change. Despite the fact that someone may have had different sexual identities at different times, each sexual identity was appropriate and valid for that person in its time.34

If Kinsey and Klein are right, and our sexual orientation is fluid, then how can we then say that one sexual orientation is “sinful” while another is not? It would seem ridiculous to reach such a conclusion. Instead, we must look at the particular sexual behaviors practiced by those of a particular sexual orientation and judge whether they might be considered sinful.

To answer that, it might be helpful now to return briefly to the six “clobber” passages that are so often used as proof-texts against homosexuality. What is the underlying message in all of those texts? Do they condemn all forms of homosexuality for all times, or are there specific actions, specific intentions — since sin comes from our heart’s intent — that are sinful? By viewing these passages as a whole, it becomes clear that what is condemned are sexual acts that use or abuse another person. This is evident in 1 Corinthians 6:9 where the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai, which are so often translated as “homosexual offenders,” are lumped into a list of vices including greed, adultery, thievery and gossip. Each of these actions reduce people to a means to an end or break relational covenants with another person. Thus, the “homosexual offender” would be a person who uses their sexual orientation as a means to an end — for sexual pleasure and not a sexual bond within a committed, loving relationship.

These passages also condemn sexual activity that springs from idolatry, as in the case in Romans 1 and Leviticus. Both passages are rooted in historical condemnation of the fertility cults of the times and again show sexual activity merely as a means to an end with no thought of a person’s worth or dignity. What is instructive about these so-called “clobber passages” is that it informs us about what sexual behaviors are acceptable and which are not whether one is heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or somewhere else on the continuum of sexual identity. Nowhere, however, do these passages ever speak a word of condemnation against loving, committed homosexual relationships.

Love the sinner … forgive the sin

For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. (Matthew 9:5-6)

In an effort to put a kind face on their condemnation of homosexuality, conservative Christians often use the phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin,” to denote their concern for the human being engaged in what they view as sinful practice. The compassionate duality such a phrase attempts to engender, though, is false. One simply cannot separate the “sin” from the “sinner,” no matter how much they might try. What this phrase really means is that conservative Christians love “sinners” for what they can be, not what they are. This is not the form of love that Christians are called to display. Kierkegaard makes the point very well that as Christians we are to love people as they are, not as we wish them to be.

“[There is always the desire, and a worthy desire, too, that the person we are to love may possess endearing perfections; we wish it not only for our own sake but also for the sake of the other person. Above all, it is worthy to wish and pray that the one we love might always behave and be such that we could give our full approval and assent. But in God’s name let us not forget that it is not to our credit if he is such a person, still less to our credit to demand it of him — if there should be any talk about anything being to our credit … then it should be just this, to love with equal faithfulness and tenderness in either case.”35

When conservative Christians profess to love the homosexual sinner but not their sin, they are not loving the people that they see, they are loving the people that they wish to see and in doing so makes their “love as loathsome to himself as he makes it difficult for the beloved.”36Professing to love the sinner while hating the sin is soon unmasked for the true double-minded saying that it is. Because in truth, the sinner is hated just as much as the sin when Christians work vigorously for the exclusion of homosexuals from their congregations and their society while welcoming other sinners like adulterers, drunkards, gossipers and thieves.

Jesus never uttered such a phrase and his actions clearly show that his philosophy was one of “love the sinner, forgive the sin.” Jesus shows us quite clearly in the story of the healing of the paralytic in Matthew 9:2-8 that we, as humans, have the power to forgive sin. He informs us “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Jesus is not talking about the “Son of Man” as the incarnation of God or as the Messianic figure sent to suffer and die for our sins. The Greek word used here is huios, which means “son” or “child” and the Greek word anthropos means “man” or “mortal” or simply “humankind.” So, when Jesus joins the two words together in this passage, by “Son of Man,” he quite clearly, means “humankind” or “mortal.”

What Jesus is telling us, then, is that “humankind (the Son of Man) has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Even the crowds realized this as they went away “filled with awe,” that God “had given such authority to human beings.”

Jesus does not leave us there, however. He gives an example of how, exactly, we are to go about exercising this power.

“For which is easier,” he asks the scribes, “to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” To show us our incredible power as human beings to forgive sins, Jesus commands the paralytic to stand up and walk. What is Jesus trying to tell us here?

The message is plain when we look closely at the passage. Which is easier — to say that we forgive someone, or to actually do it? Jesus is showing us that anyone can say, “you are forgiven” but meaning it, putting it into action — saying “stand up and walk!” — is much harder. With true forgiveness comes freedom! The paralytic can walk! The dumb talk! The blind see! When you truly forgive someone, they are freed from the bondage of sin.

This is the test of true forgiveness. Every time we truly forgive someone’s sins we tell them to “stand up and walk!” If the person who is the object of our forgiveness is still paralyzed, we have not truly forgiven them.

When this example is applied to those conservative Christians who use the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” in reference to gay and lesbian people it becomes clear that they have not yet come to a place of true forgiveness. They are still “hating the sin” instead of exercising their power to forgive what they perceive as a “sin.”

If they truly came to a place of “forgiveness” about homosexuality, then they would work toward full social equality for gay and lesbian people. The fact that they say that they “love” the “homosexual sinner” and then work to exclude such people from many of the civil and social rights that they as “heterosexual sinners” enjoy, shows the hypocrisy of their “love.” If they took an attitude of “forgiveness” of the “sin” then, by their actions, they would free gays and lesbians to be fully human — fully actualized and equal in society — no longer paralyzed by inequality.

That’s not to say that the conservative Christians would have to renounce their belief that homosexuality is a sin. They are still welcome to believe such a thing. Equal rights, however, should not turn on whether or not someone is perceived as a “sinner.” If that were the case, none of us would deserve equal rights, since Christianity teaches that we are all sinners who fall short of God’s glory.

Jesus shows us that true forgiveness of sin results in freedom. It results in life abundant, which is what Jesus came to give us. If we truly forgive then we free others to live fully. We cannot say we offer forgiveness, or “love,” with one hand while denying justice with the other. That is not true forgiveness. The paralytic cannot stand up and walk when love and justice, or forgiveness and mercy, are separated. This is exactly why the phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin” rings so hollow — and so often translates into hating the sinner just as much as the sin.

The imperative to forgive

… if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Parent will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Parent forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)

Continuing in a mindset of “love the sinner, hate the sin” is, in itself, sinful. It denies our power as human beings to forgive the sins of others that Jesus has so plainly revealed in the story of the paralytic. We must come to a place where we can live by the rule, “love the sinner, forgive the sin” for this is the place Jesus calls us to live.

Time after time we see Jesus forgiving the people around him — even those who finally persecuted and killed him. How much clearer could Jesus make his call to us to exercise our God-given power to forgive? Nowhere in the gospels do we find Jesus hating anyone for anything — instead, we find him forgiving everyone, even his executioners. This is not a model of “loving the sinner and hating the sin.” Indeed, this is a model of “loving the sinner and forgiving the sin.”

In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples forgiveness is key. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). If the phrase isn’t clear enough, Jesus expounds upon the directive in verses 14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Parent will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Parent forgive your trespasses.”

How could Jesus be clearer on our purpose? Our goal is to forgive, not once but “seventy times seven,” (Matthew 18:22) if necessary.

Do not think, however, that forgiveness means forgetting or condoning sin. It does not mean that at all. Forgiveness is not about forgetting. Trespasses against us hurt and often leave deep and lasting scars. We tend to nurse these scars, these grudges, holding on to them sometimes for an entire lifetime. Often we’ve been hurt so deeply by the sins of others that even the idea of forgiveness seems laughable. Forget about forgiving the “sin” of homosexuality. Who could forgive a murderer? Who could forgive a rapist? These are serious trespasses that leave a lasting impact on us — and they are hard to overcome.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean our hurting will stop. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we will ever forget the offense or pretend that the offense never happened. Forgiveness, as Richard Foster so eloquently writes, “means that we will no longer use the offense to drive a wedge between us, hurting and injuring one another. Forgiveness means that the power of love that holds us together is greater than the offense that separates us. … In forgiveness we are releasing our offenders so they are no longer bound to us. In a very real sense we are freeing them to receive God’s grace.37 In a very real sense, we are telling the paralytic to take up his mat and walk home. We release our offenders from the binds that, more often than not, we have placed on them by our unwillingness to forgive.

Conservative Christians like Rev. Rumfelt and the woman on the phone do not need to stop believing homosexuality is a sin to release homosexuals from the bondage they have placed them in by “hating the sin.” Forgiveness means that the wedge between heterosexuals and homosexuals is removed. We no longer hurt and injure one another. In forgiveness, conservative Christians no longer seek to use the rule of law to exclude and make one group of people second class citizens because of a “sin” they have yet to forgive. In forgiveness, conservative Christians would acknowledge the power of love to overcome their hurts and fears. In forgiveness, conservative Christians would release those who they see as “sinners” to receive God’s grace, which can never be a grace too far — freeing gay and lesbian people from their paralysis so they can “stand up and walk” as full members of the church, society and ultimately God’s realm.

  1. Brennan, Shannon. “Soulforce Spreads its Message.” Lynchburg News and Advance 28 Oct. 2002.
  2. Guthrie, Shirley. Christian Doctrine. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1968, p. 207.
  3. The six passages are: Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:9-10. For exposition and interpretation of these passages see https://whosoever.org/the-bible-and-homosexuality/, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality by Daniel Helminiak, or Openly Gay, Openly Christian, How the Bible Really is Gay Friendly by Samuel Kader.
  4. Guthrie, p.208.
  5. Tillich, Paul. “Estrangement and Sin” from Paul Tillich: Theologian of the Boundaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991, p. 201
  6. Ibid, p. 201.
  7. Guthrie, p. 209.
  8. Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955, p. 239.
  9. Ibid. p. 241.
  10. Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988, p. 207.
  11. Hopkins, Michael W. The Bible, Authority and Contemporary Homosexuality.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Nelson, James. “The Liberal Approach to Sexual Ethics” in From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics. Boulton, et al. Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1994, p. 355.
  14. Olsen, Glenn W. Christian Marriage: A Historical Study. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2001, p. 26.
  15. Ibid, p. 17.
  16. Ibid, p. 70.
  17. Brundage, James. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 92.
  18. Jordan, Mark. The Ethics of Sex. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2002, p. 121.
  19. Harrison, Beverly. “Misogyny and Homophobia: The Unexplored Connections,” in From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics. Boulton, et al. Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1994, p.331-2.
  20. Ibid, p. 332.
  21. Schmidt, Thomas E. Straight & Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995, p.162.
  22. Ibid, p. 46.
  23. Rudy, Kathy. Sex and the Church: Gender, Homosexuality and the Transformation of Christian Ethics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997, p. 119.
  24. Ibid, p. 119.
  25. Ibid, p. 120.
  26. Harrison, p. 332.
  27. Ibid, p. 332.
  28. Ibid, p. 337.
  29. Rudy, p. 121.
  30. Harrison, p. 341.
  31. Ibid, p. 341.
  32. Kinsey, Alfred. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders; Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, p. 639.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Keppel, Bobbi and Alan Hamilton. Using the Klein Scale to Teach about Sexual Orientation.
  35. Kierkegaard, Soren. Works of Love. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962, p.162.
  36. Ibid, p. 162.
  37. Foster, Richard. Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992, p.188.