Homosexuality and the Great Commandment
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An address given at the annual convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, November 1, 2002
By Peter Moore

Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1998, by a vote of 526 to 70, declared that homosexuality was incompatible with Scripture. This summer, at the request of the Bishop of New York, nine theologians countered this decision with a document entitled "Let the reader understand..." It is an explanation of why the Lambeth decision was wrong.

"Let the reader understand..." will probably be seen as a semi-official approach to the application of biblical texts to specific moral issues within the Episcopal Church. It will be used to justify local option regarding the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing of same sex unions. Therefore, it is worth studying and pondering for what it says, as well as for what it does not say.

Different interpreters

The basic claim of these nine theologians is that those, like them, who argue for acceptance of homosexuality, do not disregard the authority of Scripture. Rather, they accept Scripture's authority, but interpret Scripture differently, and come to a different conclusion about homosexuality. It is the interpretation of Scripture, they say, not its authority that is in question.

These nine theologians put forward thirteen principles of interpretation to support their approach. Each of these is backed up by references to the Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and Scripture. What is surprising is that these theologians think that their principles of interpretation are fundamentally different from those that have guided the Church through the ages.

For example, everyone believes that God did not dictate the biblical text. Everyone knows that it contains more than one kind of literature that God's saving work in Jesus Christ is the center of the Scriptural message, and that God's rules are not coercive and deterministic. Every scholar I know believes that the New Testament interprets the Old, and that you cannot rip individual texts out of context and applies them directly.

Pretty much everyone believes that different parts of Scripture carry different weight and authority, even while the whole is still God's Word. Everyone believes that the Law is fulfilled in the Great Commandment, and that the Church must always struggle to interpret Scripture aright, and that the Church sits under Scripture rather than over it.

Each of these thirteen principles is cited by these nine scholars with great gravity, as if they told us something new. These very principles have guided the mind of the Church for centuries -- the same Church that concluded at Lambeth that homosexual acts are not in accord with God's will.

It is in the implications they draw from these principles that the scholars who wrote "Let the reader understand..." begin to take us into new territory.

First, they say, rightly, that there is always a great danger of substituting fixed and lifeless rules, codes, laws, and morals for the dynamic presence of God in our midst. This is an old ploy and a gratuitous use of rhetoric. Are we saying that love never expresses itself in rules?

Second, they claim that God changes His mind as circumstances change. Well, there is development in Scripture, and revelation is progressive. But describing this development as "God changing His mind" is the equivalent of saying that God's Word is self-contradictory.

Third, they note that our experience shapes how we understand Scripture. Of course that is true. But let us not think that our experience is self-authenticating. It too stands under the governing hand and judgment of Scripture.

Fourth, they claim that God adapts what He is saying to the relative maturity of those to whom He is speaking. This is true in a sense, for revelation itself is an accommodation to our limits. But do you detect the remarkable paternalism in this statement that I do? Now that we have come of age, God has to say something new to us.

Fifth, they note that part of God's law has a temporary purpose, and has been set aside. Fair enough. Again true -- but it is the ceremonial and civil law that was temporary, not the moral law.

Sixth, they note that some actions once permitted in the Bible (such as polygamy and levirate marriage) are now forbidden, while other acts once forbidden in the Bible (such as eating meat with the blood still in it) are now permitted. Again, each case is addressed specifically in Scripture. Nor was it always true that things permitted were in accord with God's will. Some, like polygamy, were customary but seen to bring trouble, jealousies, and spiritual compromise. Jesus says that multiple wives were not part of God's original intention (Mark 10:7).

Seventh, they argue that since slavery was permitted in both Testaments, and we've changed our understanding, why should we not change our understanding about sex and marriage? I will address this in a minute.

Their implication

The implication that these nine theologians draw from their basic principles -- the same principles they share with the rest of us -- is that you cannot settle the matter of homosexuality by referring to a handful of biblical texts. Instead, experience, our newfound maturity, a more nuanced approach to rules and regulations will cause us to hesitate to draw the conclusion that all homosexual relations are wrong.

The bishops at Lambeth erred in their 1998 decision (as church councils have in the past). They acted precipitously and did not arrive at their conclusions through the use of sound hermeneutical principles. The theologians imply that now, in the light of a more thoughtful approach to the Bible, the bishops ought to suspend the judgment they rendered.

Interestingly, there is no effort in "Let the reader understand..." to unpack the actual texts of Scripture that do refer to homosexuality. Nor is there any consideration of the whole tenor of Scripture in relation to sexuality, and the place of homosexuality within that larger framework. The paper simply relativizes any and all specific Scriptural texts by declaring that if they can be shown to our modern consciences not to be in concert with the Great Commandment to love God and to love one's neighbor, they are no longer relevant. The paper thus invites the church to move beyond the most normal and likely meanings to be found in the text of Scripture, and to expect God to say something new and different to us because we have come of age.

"Let the reader understand..." is a variation of the position we have heard consistently in the homosexuality debate: there is development in the Bible, new situations require new duties, God appears to change his mind, what was once forbidden is now permitted, and so forth. There appears to be no embarrassment at the fact that, if these claims are true, we really have no clear access to the Divine will on these matters. Hence, if Scripture is revelatory at all, God must be seen as contradicting Himself.

But let's take the point of development within Scripture. We all know that the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were set aside by Jesus Christ. We all know that Jesus modified certain commandments, or at least applied them differently than the Pharisees of his day. We all know that many Christians thought for centuries that slavery was OK, but discovered in the 19th century that it was immoral. We also all know that the Church forbade women in leadership for centuries, based on certain texts of Scripture, but in many places now permits women to be ordained. We all know that divorce was once held to the letter of the law, but now those Scriptures that speak of abandonment are interpreted more broadly than they were in the past.

Would any of this really surprise the bishops at Lambeth? Does any of this surprise those of us who, with those bishops, believe homosexual acts are still wrong today?

The idea that there is development, growth, change in the Bible, and that God does a new thing when it pleases Him, has been a fundamental principle of Scriptural interpretation from the earliest of times. No one thought, however, that that meant that God contradicted Himself. Clearly the Bible is a living document; and therefore we see development, movement and growth in the whole process of revelation.

The really important thing

But the really important thing is that when you come to the matter of homosexuality there is no development or change in the Bible.

Contrast the Bible's teaching on homosexuality with its teaching on slavery. Slavery was tolerated in both Testaments; but never seen as a positive good. The Jews regulated slavery along humane lines. But the Bible's overall message undermined slavery almost from the start. In the Old Testament, the motif for salvation was freedom from slavery. In the New Testament it was freedom from bondage -- to sin. Paul urged slaves who could secure their freedom to seek it (I Corinthians 7:21). He sent Onesimus back to Philemon not just as his slave but also as his "brother." And he taught that in Christ there was neither slave nor free, but all are one (Galatians 3:28).

Contrast the Bible's teaching on homosexuality and on the role of women. Women made great advances in the Bible from more primitive times. By restricting sex to marriage, as happened in the sexual revolution God instituted among the Jews, women's status was dramatically lifted. In the New Testament women become objects of special attention by Jesus. In the earliest churches they are in responsible positions of leadership. Perhaps there was even a woman among the apostles (Romans 16:7)? Women are the first witness to the resurrection. Also, as Galatians 3:28 says, in Christ there is neither male nor female.

Contrast the Bible's teaching on homosexuality and on the food laws, such as eating meat with blood in it. While it is true that the Jerusalem church sought to impose this on gentiles (out of charity towards weak Jewish consciences, we presume), this regulation does not seem to have been enforced. Furthermore, eating bloody meat could not compare in its potential for spiritual contamination with eating meat that had been offered to idols. But Paul sees no problem in eating meat offered to idols. Why the change? In Peter's vision in Acts, we read that God declares all foods clean (Acts 10:15; Mark 7:19).

So there is a trajectory in Scripture in each of these areas. Even with divorce, while God "hates divorce" according to Malachi 2:16, there is the Mosaic permission, "for the hardness of your hearts" (Matthew 19:8), the Matthaean exception, "except for adultery" (Matthew 5:32), and the Pauline consent, "If the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so" (I Corinthians 7:15). These indicate that the modern church may not have gone against the will of God in adapting basic principles to new situations. The same might be said to be true in regard to lending money at interest. Old strictures yield to new situations.

However, there is no such trajectory in the Bible with regard to homosexuality. Homosexuality is considered a particular abomination in the Holiness Code of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Leviticus 18 & 20). The Sodom and Gibeon stories may have been primarily about rape (Genesis 19, Judges 19), but the horror in the text implies that the homosexual nature of the intended behavior was repugnant. When you turn to the New Testament, homosexual acts are also condemned. You see this in Romans 1, I Corinthians 6, I Timothy 1, and Jude. Furthermore, while the Old Testament doesn't mention lesbianism, the New Testament explicitly expands its prohibition to include lesbianism.

When we come to Jesus, far from relaxing these Old Testament laws, he actually stiffens them -- especially when it comes to sexual sin. He said it isn't wrong just to commit fornication and adultery, it is even wrong to think about committing them in one's heart. Even a lustful look is sinful. The Old Testament never says that. (Similarly, Paul expanded the punishment for incest. In Leviticus it was death, but Paul said, "Consign such a one to Satan..." [I Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:7] Which is worse?) At the same time, Jesus demonstrates a special concern for the sexually broken: Mary Magdalene, the Woman at the Well, the Woman taken in adultery, and the Prodigal Son. In each case his redeeming power leads to a break with former sinful patterns, and a new life of obedience and genuine love.

None of these prohibitions have ever been thought of as going against the Great Commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself. Quite the contrary, to truly love somebody is to help them walk in the way of Christ, whose service is perfect freedom.

Real love

I know this is very painful for most homosexuals to hear. Their pain is similar to an alcoholic who is told he must stop drinking. In the film, Leaving Las Vegas, based on a book by John O'Brien, Nicholas Cage decides to kill himself with drink, and he tells his live-in partner, played by Elizabeth Shue, "The one thing you mustn't do is tell me not to drink."

She agrees, and then she watches him die of alcohol. Was it loving for her not to try to persuade him to stop drinking? No. I don't even think the author, John O'Brien, thought so. The whole story is a tale of desperation. In fact, O'Brien himself committed suicide two weeks after he sold the movie rights to his book.

After seeing the movie, I read the critics' reviews. Did any of them think Shue should have told Cage to stop drinking? No, they all thought it was wonderful that she didn't moralize. They all thought it was a wonderful love story, and that the real point of the film was the quality of the relationship between Cage and Shue.

Which raises the question of what is real love? Is it really loving to let another person continue in a pattern of behavior that has a high likelihood of causing great harm, and that one knows is wrong? Or does love demand a greater toughness, and a greater willingness to enter into the pain and brokenness of the other? How do we fulfill the Great Commandment when it comes to another's behavior that is both wrong and destructive?

We are often told that the Church should bless homosexual relationships because they are, after all, loving. And it is not my point to question whether there is some love between homosexual and lesbian partners. There can be care, concern, and compassion in such a relationship. But just because there is love, is the Church called to bless it?

Here we go to the heart of what it is that the Church does when it blesses a marriage. The Church not only says that there is something good here, something loving. It says two other things: first, that what is being blessed reflects the kind of love the Creator has with the creation, and secondly, it reflects the kind of love our Redeemer has with the redeemed.

We bless marriages because, as the Prayer Book says, "The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee." (BCP, 1979, p.423) In other words, marriage both reflects the created order, and images the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.

Homosexual relationships can do neither. Beyond the ordinary care humans should have for each other, homosexual relationships do not parallel heterosexual marriage -- except in the fact that both involve sexual attraction, some sexual release, and sometimes a longing for permanence. But that's it. What the Bible calls love between a husband and a wife is something quite different.

Biblical love

Take these hallmarks of the biblical understanding of love.

First, fidelity. Every married couple says they will "forsake all others." At least that's the intention. The Church does not unite couples who do not promise to limit their sexual behavior to their spouse. And even though divorce and promiscuity in America are rampant, the fact is that heterosexuals remain remarkably monogamous. 80% of heterosexual men and 90% of heterosexual women had only one sexual partner last year. Monogamy still appears to be the norm.

But homosexuals neither pledge fidelity nor really value it. At the two "Beyond Inclusion" conferences held for the Episcopal Church in Los Angeles and New York, advocates decried the attempt to limit gay sex to monogamy. Why? Because as is well known promiscuity among homosexual men is not just the majority experience, it is the only experience. The largest gay magazine in America, The Advocate, did a study in 1995 of 2,500 gay readers. They reported that over the life span of their average 38 year-old male only 2% had had sex with just one man. 57% had more than 30 male sex partners, and 35% had more than 100. In the past year alone, about 2/3 (63%) had more than one male sex partner and the large majority of these (over 60%) had five or more [1]. Almost 80% of close-coupled homosexuals reported at least one incidence of cruising in the previous year, contrasted with 10% among married heterosexuals, and 23% among co-habiting heterosexuals.

Real love, by contrast, will be characterized by fidelity -- because it images God's love for us. Real love will pledge fidelity, value it, and make serious efforts to keep it. But, even among homosexual relationships that seem relatively stable, fidelity is not widely valued, nor is it the actual norm. Frequently, it is depicted as an unrealistic expectation foisted on the gay community by heterosexuals.

Second, permanence. Virtually every married couple says that it is "till death do us part." The Church doesn't marry people unless they make that promise, even when it has been broken in the past. Marriage mirrors the permanence of God's love for us. Its covenant status reflects God's repeated declarations that God will be faithful, even when we are faithless. "Hesed", God's "steadfast love" illustrated so poignantly in Hosea and boldly declared in the Cross, is reflected in the pledge a couple makes before God and human witnesses. "To have and to hold from this day forward." We see a reflection of the permanent love of the Good Shepherd for His flock. "Having loved them, He loved them to the end."

But homosexual relationships make no such promise, and therefore cannot mirror the eternal commitment Christ has made to his Church. Even among "close-coupled" homosexual males in America, where you would expect to find permanence it doesn't exist. Fewer than 8% of homosexual relationships last as long as 4 years. [2] Lesbian relationships may last longer. However, only 1 in 7 lesbians had had only one female sex partner, and 23% had eleven or more, according to the study conducted by The Advocate cited above. According to an earlier study by Bell and Weinberg (1970), 75% of lesbians had more than 5 partners in their lifetime.

But what if our culture changed and supported homosexuals who wish to be monogamous? Wouldn't that encourage more to be so? I question whether that would make a difference. After all, most homosexual relationships that attempt to be permanent take place within a subculture where already they are reinforced and encouraged.

Reconciliation of Mars and Venus

Third, reconciliation. We are all aware of the fact that "Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus." The differences between men and women extend far wider than the obvious fact of our biological complementary. Psychologically boys and girls show marked differences from childhood on. We are socialized differently. We are strangers to one another.

When we fall in love, the erotic and psychological attraction we have for one another goes a long way towards bridging our differences -- for a while. But the honeymoon comes to an end, and the task of building unity between two opposite creatures becomes a lifelong challenge. We are called to enter humbly into the mystery of the other gender in order to know union. This requires everyone's support and encouragement, as our marriage service underscores.

Marriage is God's way of reuniting two opposites. Two who once were one, but who have become alienated. We confront an "other" in the opposite gender, and we are reconciled to an "other" in marriage. Frequently this otherness is psychological. Lots of introverts marry extroverts, sports types marry stay-at-homes, strong leadership-oriented ones marry supportive ones, artists marry activists, and so on. Not always; but with remarkable frequency.

Opposites attract because we are meant to find completion in one another. The point of this is that real love requires reconciliation. That's why it takes the grace of God active in our lives, weaving forgiveness into the fabric of our fallen selves, to enable us to build oneness instead of alienation.

Homosexuals say there is no moral significance in the male/female distinction. Biological differences have no moral connotations. Sex between a same and sex between opposites -- there is no moral difference. But it is not just sex; it is the whole quality of love I am talking about. Homosexuals search for someone like themselves. In their search for a same, homosexuals demonstrate a need to fill a void deep within. Most males are searching for a never-affirmed masculinity -- lesbians for a never affirmed femininity.

But God, in the gift of a partner at creation, did not just satisfy an urge. God gave man a task. By giving Adam no mirror-image companion, but a 'her', God was challenging Adam to discover the difference and live with the tension of that difference. Yes, Adam recognizes in Eve a common humanity; but she is different, she is female. In every way they are complementary. They are to find fulfillment in one another. They are to reunite what is separate. This is a challenge with moral and spiritual significance.

Health and sacrifice

Fourth, health and wholeness. Monogamous heterosexuals do not normally expose one another to health risks. St. Paul writes, "No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body." He then relates this immediately to marriage, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." In this context he tells husband and wife to love each other as themselves (Ephesians 5:29-31,33). The obvious implication is that love implies the kind of mutual care one has for one's own body. Indeed, the spouse is now part of one's body, just as we are part of Christ.

Sadly, homosexual sex exposes the partner to serious health hazards. The lining of the rectum is not tough and capable of penetration like the lining of the vagina. It is easily perforated, permitting the intrusion of all sorts of diseases. Leaving AIDS aside, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among the homosexual population is epidemic. 75% of homosexual men have a history of one or more sexually transmitted disease, and in any given year 40% of them are sick. Despite the great talk of "safe sex" the use of condoms is not totally safe.

As Thomas Schmidt writes: "Sexual liberation has brought homosexuals out of the closet into a shadow of physical affliction where a score of diseases lurk. And as if this were not gloomy enough, the more deadly specter of HIV infection deepens the shadow, not only for the ever-growing number who die but also for those who are left behind to grieve and to wonder who will die next."[3] Life expectancy for an active homosexual is approximately 20 years less than for the average male in North America. [4] It is hard to reconcile that with the loving care we are called to have for others. The homosexual community needs to face the fact that for the vast majority sexual behavior is obsessive, psychopathological and destructive to their own and other's bodies.

Fifth, real love is sacrificial. The primary form this takes in marriage is the common burden of child rearing. Couples sacrifice for the long-term goal of rearing children. Procreation is of course not the only reason for sex, nor is procreation always possible within marriage. But the willingness to bear children, if God allows, is built into the expectations of marriage. It is the natural result of sexual intercourse.

Homosexuals say that sex should be totally separated from procreation. That is why it is logically impossible for those who advocate homosexual sex to be against any form of mutual consensual sex: incest, polygamy, pornography, bestiality. That is why William Countryman, the outspoken Episcopal advocate of homosexuality, sees nothing wrong with a little incest, polygamy, pornography, or bestiality.

Judaism and Christianity brought erotic love, marriage and procreation together. It was revolutionary in the ancient world, just as it is today. But when you totally separate sex from procreation, or the possibility of procreation, it no longer exists for the sake of others. It no longer images the costly dimension of love that normally is expressed in parenthood. Married couples sacrifice time, money, sometimes careers, health, and many good things in life in order to provide for children. This sacrifice channels the sexual drive, especially the marauding male sexual drive, into long-term goals that benefit the species and fulfill the creation mandate to "be fruitful and multiply."

Conclusion

As Christians we must approach the issue of homosexuality not with the secular criteria of rights, but with the Christian value of love. Of course we accept basic civil rights for homosexuals, as we do for all people. But that does not mean that they have a right in the Christian community to be accepted as they wish, despite their behavior. We do not define who we are to one another, or to God. God defines us, and we find our identity in God's definition of us.

No rights are absolute. Many so-called rights are proscribed even by our government, as well as by the Church. We do not have the right to commit suicide, the right to assist a loved one to die, the right to engage in sex with a sister or brother, the right to have more than one wife, the right to have sex with animals, and so on. Individual rights are subservient to the kind of community we wish to have.

Love, however, is absolute. We are to love one another, absolutely. That is the point of the Great Commandment. But we cannot fulfill this commandment until we know how to love those whose sexual preference goes against both the created order, and God's revealed will.

What we find is that true love forbids us to bless homosexual relationships. The church can never bless what God has not blessed. Rather our task is much more difficult and much more costly. We must labor alongside those with unruly emotions, who believe that sexual restraint and healing are impossible, and who put themselves and others at grave risk. We seek to do this with all the sensitivity of Our Lord himself; and we seek to do this by demonstrating, that it really is possible to live a new life in Christ.

For some homosexuals that will mean openness to healing and even marriage. For many others it will mean celibacy, either short term or long term. Those of us who desire to fulfill the Great Commandment will be active in trying to persuade our brothers and sisters, however much they may not want to be told it, that this is the way of real love, and true liberation.

Notes

[1] Janet Lever, Ph.D., "The 1994 Advocate Survey of Sexuality and Relationships: The Men: Sexual Relations," The Advocate, (Aug. 23, 1994): 16-24, cited in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Robert A. J. Gagnon, Abingdon, Nashville, 2001, p. 455.

[2] P. Blumstein and P. Schwartz, "Intimate Relationships and the Creation of Sexuality," in Homosexuality/Heterosexuality: Concepts of Sexual Orientation, ed. D. P. McWhirter, S. A. Sanders and J. M. Reinisch, Kinsey Institute Series 2, New York: Oxford, 1990, p.317, table 18.2. the exact number was 79%.

[3] Thomas Schmidt, Straight and Narrow? IVP, Downers Grove, 1995, p. 122.

[4] Paul Cameron, Kirk Cameron, and William L. Playfair, "Does Homosexual Activity Shorten Life?" Psychological Reports 83 (1998): 847-66.