Note: This essay is based on one main assumption: You accept that a gay, lesbian or bisexual person can also be Christian. If you cannot agree with this statement, then this essay is not intended for you. Its arguments and conclusions will mean little to you. Therefore, it is suggested that you thoughtfully read more into why and how it is possible to be both gay, lesbian or bisexual and Christian. Issue two of Whosoever is a good starting place, and there are many links to other sites within that issue or on our Resources page that can help you sort through this topic. If you agree with this essay’s main assumption and are ready to be challenged as a gay, lesbian or bisexual Christian (or those friendly to them!) then, please, read on!
“How do you know right from wrong?” the woman on the phone implored frantically. 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. The phones were ringing off the hook. The fundie frothing had begun 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 promotes it,” she retorted.
I was tired of this. I had written for several years for this show and each time a gay positive guest appeared, the phone calls came, demanding that we renounce anyone who “promoted” homosexuality. We tried to explain that we were a diverse program, presenting diverse views, but it always fell on deaf ears. This was the last straw.
“Ma’am, why do you assume that the person you’re complaining to is straight?” I asked.
She sputtered, “I’m, I’m not assuming that at all!”
“Good,” I replied, “since I’m a lesbian.”
Then came the question, the question that has befuddled me since that day. She said, “How do you know right from wrong?”
How do I know right from wrong? It stopped me then as it does now, with the question, 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. Because I was gay, she reasoned that I must, at my very core, be immoral to the point that I could no longer tell right from wrong.
Before we delve into the issue of right versus wrong, let me relate a little background about why this essay is being written in the first place. It was sparked by the constant comments I have heard or read from Christian fundamentalists, like this woman on the phone, who use the word “homosexuality” to describe the concept of “immorality.” My original intention for this essay was to point out why that is wrong. I was going to write about how we as homosexuals can show these misguided fundamentalists that just being a homosexual does not automatically make you immoral. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation like heterosexuality. It is morally neutral. It is how we use our sexuality that makes a particular act moral or immoral. With that premise I was set to begin the laundry list of moral and immoral sexual practices. But, as I took this topic around to friends and loved ones I realized I could not dictate to your or to anyone else a list of do’s and don’ts. They are meaningless unless you agree with them! Instead I want to delve further into the underlying moral standard that we are called to uphold as Christians, not just homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual or transgender Christians.
But first a question: do we even need God to decide what is right and wrong? While browsing the internet, looking for views on morality I found this paragraph penned by John Leckie, on a sight dedicated to atheists and freethinkers:
“What does ‘GOD’ have to do with morality? Imagine for a moment that there are no gods, no heaven, no hell. Think about your family, your friends, your neighbors, your reputation, and your self-respect- would you suddenly start killing, stealing, and lying if you truly no longer believed in any gods? Freethinkers and atheists and secular humanists think better of you than that, and we ask you to give yourselves- and us- more credit. Human beings are important. Our culture can be improved for all our sakes- we can and should learn to treat each other better- but there is no necessary connection between believing in any god and morality.”
I agree completely, you certainly don’t need God to act morally. I believe most of us, at our core, know the difference between right and wrong. Some of our morality comes from teaching, some from traditions, some from law, some from the fear of being caught and punished for doing something wrong. Yes, we all can judge right from wrong without God. But, since we profess to be Christians, followers of Christ, we must take our moral cues from Christ. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 4: 1-2, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love.” We are called to be Christians, and we must exercise our morality in the light of God. I believe at the heart of our Christian morality we will find two things: grace and love.
GRACE AND THE MORAL HOMOSEXUAL
One of the more interesting conversations I’ve had as I researched this essay was with a man in one of the e-mail lists to which I subscribe. We swapped many e-mails within the group and he refused to define the standard of morality he uses in his daily life. He told me it’s not his place to judge, and he would not give do’s and don’ts for others. But neither would he define his personal do’s and don’ts. Instead, he reiterated that he has grace and that is sufficient, and therefore judging is not his job.
True, ultimately judging others is not our job, that is God’s job. Our job is what we’ll call “discerning judgment.” This is the ability to discern the right action.
Grace and this discerning judgment are inseparable in our morality. Just having grace does not free us from the responsibility of acting in a moral or just manner. Grace begs us to thoughtfully consider all of our actions in every situation. All acts must glorify God. To choose right action we must use our discernment. We must discern the will of God in the moment. The rightness of every decision rests upon our best judgment — given to us by the power of God’s grace. Our actions and their motivations must be carefully considered so they do no harm to ourselves or others (our neighbors). This is no easy task, and we often fail, but God’s grace never fails. We are promised “grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) When our efforts fail, we are called to try again to do right.
But, it’s tempting to take our decisions in specific situations and try to apply them across the board in all situations, and then make them rules for everyone else to follow. This is how we generate those general moral laundry lists of do’s and don’ts that we expect everyone to follow to be “moral.” Instead of discerning God’s will in the moment we want iron-clad rules to apply to every situation. This is wrong and leads to unbending, unforgiving legalism. I believe this is what the man in the e-mail group was ultimately afraid of, so he refused to even share personal definitions of morality, fearing they may be taken as absolutes for everyone. Indeed, you cannot dictate a moral list to everyone in each situation, but you must figure out what’s right for you, and then live by it. Others must judge what is right and wrong for them, given all the circumstances they face.
As C.S. Lewis writes in “Mere Christianity:”
“One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons — marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.”
In Romans 14:13-14, Paul says:
“…let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother or sister. I know I am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean.”
St. Thomas Aquinas confirms this in Summa theologiae, “Because of the diverse conditions of humans, it happens that some acts are virtuous to some people, as appropriate and suitable to them, while the same acts are immoral for others, as appropriate to them.”
Remember, where there is grace, there is responsibility. Paul tells the church in Corinth that “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) Certainly we may do as we please, but not all actions are to our benefit! You may steal, lie, or cheat … but you must take the responsibility that comes with breaking society’s laws. Certainly you may do things that others may call morally bad. But if they are not beneficial to you, then you must stop and ask why you continue to do things that harm you, or those around you. All is lawful, but ultimately you must decide for yourself if actions you engage in are going to be the most beneficial for the well-being of yourself, and your neighbor.
God freely gives us grace that covers us in all our sin. If our actions are not ultimately beneficial, and we’ve made mistakes, then God’s grace covers us. God’s grace is abundant and he seems to demand nothing in return. But, how can you accept grace, the greatest gift anyone has ever given you, without feeling gratitude? As Paul states in Romans 5:2, “through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” It is my gratitude for this grace that makes me want to live a moral life. I want to please God. I know that no single (or numerous) act will save me, only grace can do that! But, Jesus tells us not to hide our light under a bushel. I have grace and I want to share that with everyone!
But if I tell others of the grace I have found, and continue to live a life of sin, what does that say about my faith? It says I don’t value the life that Jesus came to give me. If I’m still living old ways, then I have rejected the new life Christ died to bring me! If I say I have grace, but fail to live a Christian life, I dare say I probably do not have grace at all! Paul affirms this in Romans 6:1-2, “are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
True experiences of grace are transforming. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
C.S. Lewis cuts to the chase, “If conversion to Christianity makes no improvement in a man’s outward actions — if he continues to be just as snobbish or spiteful or envious or ambitious as he was before — then I think we must suspect that his ‘conversion’ was largely imaginary … Christ told us to judge by results. A tree is known by its fruit … ”
Grace is freely given, but there is a responsibility to live a Christ-centered life. To me, that means emulating Christ! In Titus 2: 11-14 we are told: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all. It teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
I am eager to do good and live a life of compassion, love, and integrity. These are the fruits I seek to bear.
LOVE AND THE MORAL HOMOSEXUAL
Paul gives us good advice for our walk with God in Ephesians 5: 1-2, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you.”
The operative word in this passage is “love.” This is the heart of our morality.
It was pointed out to me in an e-mail group that no one can “command” us to love. That is true when we talk about love in a sense of romantic and friendship types of love. I cannot be “commanded” to love Jerry Falwell in these ways. But I am “commanded” by Jesus to love him with agape love. This is a love that means “good will” and “benevolence.” In his book, “Moral Responsibility,” Joseph Fletcher reminds us “kindness, generosity, mercy, patience, concern, ‘righteous indignation’ — these things are dispositions of the will, attitudes, and therefore psychologically speaking they are perfectly possible requirements of duty and commandment, of covenant.” So, yes, we are commanded to love with this agape love. This type of love is not a feeling, but an attitude. While I cannot be forced to love Falwell in a friendly or romantic way, agape love dictates that I must stop taking pleasure in the thought of him stepping in front of a bus!
In Matthew 22: 37-39, Jesus gave us the two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. He also gives us the golden rule in Matthew 7:12, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I believe this is the basis for all Christian morality. With these three commandments, Jesus called us to live a life of integrity. This is the standard we must use in any moral decision. This is how we share the glory of God.
If you revolve your life around these three points I believe you have no choice but to make moral decisions. You would not murder anyone because you love God and God clearly tells us not to kill. You would not murder because you love yourself and you do not want to die. You would not murder because you love your neighbor as yourself, and you would do them no harm. Finally you would not murder because you would not want someone to murder you.
Substitute lying, cheating, stealing and other moral wrongs into this matrix and I think you’ll see the underlying moral standard with which we must measure all situations.
It is Jesus who says whatever you do unto your brother or sister (the “least of these,” as Jesus calls them in Matthew 25:40), you do unto me. That means how we treat people here is how we treat God. If we abuse our brother or sister, we abuse God. If we love our brother or sister, we love God. If our sexual relations are deep and meaningful, our relations with God are deep and meaningful, if they are shallow and meaningless, so is our relationship with God.
It is love, not law that we must use to judge all of our actions. Love must be the measure. In Romans 13: 8-10, Paul sums it up for us: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, `you shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, `you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
SEX AND THE MORAL HOMOSEXUAL
So, how does this ethic of love apply to sex? In each sexual situation love must be the measure. If you are involved in abusive, anonymous or shallow sex, where is the love? Remember, love is an attitude of goodwill, not a feeling. We are talking about a love that seeks the ultimate good of everyone. If agape love, a love of concern, is not in our sexual relations how can those relations be moral?
I believe that right use of sex must have several ingredients: love, trust, respect and constancy. In that light, one-night-stands, glory holes, bathhouses and other forms of anonymous or meaningless get-your-rocks-off sex are immoral. That’s me stating an absolute that might offend some, or some may say “You’re holding us to heterosexual standards.” But what makes that standard wrong? Does it make you uncomfortable that I’ve ruled out one night stands as morally wrong? If it does I think we’ve hit a deeper nerve here that goes far beyond a sex act.
Let us look closer at this issue. My pastor and I were talking about this topic and he told me of a counseling session he and his partner were in. The counselor asked what each would do if one partner cheated. My pastor said “I’d kill him.” But his partner replied, “I’d like to know why.” I think this is the best question to ask ourselves in any situation.
If you are headed for the bar every night to pick up another trick, it’s time to ask why. What is your motivation? Does the sex fulfill something that is lacking? Is the sex a substitute for something you seek? Could that something be a closer walk with God? I’ve found that since I’m growing in my faith, that I’m feeling spiritually fulfilled, I no longer want to engage in such sex. To me sex has become something sacred, only shared with the one woman I love, trust, and have been with for nearly 7 years. I can’t imagine a one night stand being very fulfilling or loving.
Meaningless or anonymous sex, or cheating for that matter, is more than a sexual act, it is a symptom of something else, something deeper within us. We must stop and examine our motives for these actions. Sex is often used as a substitute for things we are missing in our lives. It feels good, it helps us forget things for awhile. Instead of heading to the bar for a quick emotional fix, we must look to God to fix the broken parts of our lives. Remember, if our human relations are a direct reflection of our relationship with God, what does a shallow sex life say about the depth of our individual connection with God?
Fletcher points out that people are to be loved and things are to be used and that “promiscuity ignores and flouts the value and integrity of persons, turning casual sexual partners from true subjects into what some psychologists significantly call, ‘love objects.’ It turns them into things.”
Our churches need to be taking up the topic of sexual morality. So many gay churches serve up what I’ll call “spiritual milk.” Indeed, we are called to be as little children when we come to God. But, God also asks us to draw closer to him, to learn more about a walk with him. In 1 Corinthians 14:20 Paul tells us: “… do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature.” There comes a time in our faith when we must stop serving the spiritual milk of “God loves you and he knows you’re gay,” and instead serve up some nourishing spiritual food that will challenge and grow our faith! Challenging the sexual and moral ethics of the gay community is a first step toward maturity in our faith.
But, do not think that sex is the main issue we must be concerned with when we talk about morality as Christians. Sexual morality is only a small part of morality as a whole. Fletcher emphasizes that “Jesus showed more concern about pride and hypocrisy than about sex. In the story of the woman taken in adultery, her accusers were guiltier than she. Among the seven deadly sins, lust is listed but not sex…”
True, some gay and lesbian sexual practices could stand some scrutiny. Since we have no moral expectations placed upon our relationships by the greater society, we tend to take that as permission for anything goes! If we had more societal support for long term loving homosexual relationships, there would certainly be more. What a testament to the perseverance of those gay and lesbian couples who make their relationships last despite the adversity!
AN ANSWER FOR THE WOMAN ON THE PHONE
The woman’s question still rings in my ears, “how do you know right from wrong?”
I admit, at the time I did not have an acceptable answer for the woman, the question bowled me over so completely. But, if I could have her back on the phone I believe I could answer it now, by asking her the same question.
I have a feeling her answer would be something along the lines of, “because I am a Christian, and the Bible is my guide for life.” I would say that this should be our answer as well.
We are Christians, and as such, we have a handy guide for determining right and wrong. His name is Jesus. He lived a life of compassion and integrity by practicing unconditional love. This is our moral gauge. It is not easy. Sometimes unconditional love is hard to have for ourselves, let alone the guy who just cut us off in traffic. We will not always practice unconditional or agape love, but we are called to try. We are called to shine our light, to display our gift of grace to the world. We can only do that by doing what is right. We can only judge what is right with love. Remember, love is an attitude, not a feeling. Love is a commandment, a Christian responsibility. Show good will and benevolence to all, in all situations. Love even the unlovable … even when that means ourselves.
So, how do we discern which moral rules to apply in any given situation? I agree with one woman in the e-mail group. She believes Deuteronomy 30:15-20 best illustrates the need for rules and laws to live by: “loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him” … why? …”for that means life to you…” But we turn it into rule books and death dealing restrictions. Her advice, and mine as well is to “test a rule; an ordinance. Does it give life? or does it bind and give power to someone else.” That is our guide as we seek to show love for ourselves and our neighbors in any situation.
SO WHAT IS HOMOSEXUAL MORALITY?
Finally, to address the title of this epic, “homosexual morality.” I don’t think by reading this piece you get a clear definition of homosexual morality. Good. Originally I set out to give you a clear definition of this phrase, but as I have researched the topic of morality in a Christian framework, I have concluded such a thing as “homosexual morality” does not exist. Neither does “heterosexual morality.” I believe instead there is a “Christian morality,” based ultimately on grace and love. This is how we are called to live as Christians, whether we are gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian or transgender.
Paul spells out the duties for our life in Christ in Colossians 3: 12-15: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these things put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”
My gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual brothers and sisters, we are the body of Christ. Let us live with love, compassion and integrity and make every action one that glorifies God.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.