The main thing that Christianity says to gay people is “don’t have sex with the person/people you want to.” “Oh… and sure as heck don’t get married to them.” Well, that’s a common thought. I’m pretty sure it’s wrong, however. Dangerously wrong. What does this all mean, though? Perhaps that sexual ethics is best summed up as “get consent, have fun, be nice to people and try not to be hurt”? Here’s an attempt to explore a position in the no-man’s-land of the middle ground.
Christians sometimes have a lot to say to gay people, perhaps there’s just awkward silence. But what does the Bible say? Here are some of my personal thoughts.
Firstly, gay people (and more generally, LGBTI) have been treated badly and Jesus welcomes those who society rejects.
Those who are not seen as fitting the norm; as meeting the sexuality standard or as being relationally respectable; are amongst the first in God’s kingdom. How often have you heard that, from those who would say they have a very high view of Christian scripture? I fear seldom. Eunuchs, prostitutes, childless women, and one central unmarried man are important figures in the story of the Bible, written about and from within cultures where having a respectable marriage and gazillions of children were very much the ideal. God is used to using people who aren’t great models for ‘traditional family values’. King David was an adulterer and a murderer. Solomon, teacher of wisdom, had a few too many wives. etc. The first non-Jewish convert to the Christian faith who we’re told of was a castrated man who wouldn’t be allowed into the temple. God himself hung naked nailed to a cross while people gambled for his clothes and mockingly pretended to hail him as a king. It’s not quite a perfect G-rated fit with the glitter and cotton wool and 90s Christian kids songs of a typical Sunday school lesson.
This is the main thing I wanted to say in this post, but the rest is written to try to fill it out a bit in response to queries people may have.
I suggest that a biblical view has a much higher view of gay people than a secular one. Infinitely higher. A secular view says that every person – even if they’re gay! – is, at the end of the day, living out culturally constructed myths of meaning and morality in a world of cold (sub-atomic) wavicles, with an ultimate destiny of being worm-food. A biblical world-view holds out hope of a life that never ends on a restored Earth with people washed clean of their nastiness and selfishness and given new hearts that don’t incline towards evil.
Of course, you may well think that this is all a myth, but it is a higher view nonetheless. Whether it’s a true view will depend on whether Jesus actually rose from the dead.
“So, that’s cool (if you’re religious)… And, that means that any sexual activity that we sincerely consider to be situated within a loving context is okay, right?”
No, because that picture is an inaccurate and incredibly dangerous portrayal of the purpose of sex.
“An inaccurate portrayal of the purpose?” Oh, so you’re giving, like, a natural law argument? That sex is for making babies?” No, (and I wish I had more to say about the place of such reasoning) the purpose of sex is much higher than that. Jesus has repurposed it, or at least repainted its purpose, such that it now is intended to be part of marriages which illustrate the connection between Jesus and the church, the motley-but-washed collection of people who trust him, as his bride.
It’s for this reason that I (as an unmarried person) too shouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage-as-thus-intended. This post is actually written to remind myself more than anything else, and to think through the contours of biblical relational ethics. If I never get married, I should never have sex. ‘Sex is for procreation’ isn’t enough there (though, incidentally, Alexander Pruss’s fascinating account of ethics in “One Body” makes a valiant attempt at arguing for something kind of similar to that).
“So why did you say ‘dangerous’ – are you going to try to back that up with dubious cherry-picked negative stats from dodgy fundamentalist studies which if they have any truth in them are mostly explained by your religion’s twisted oppression of gay people anyway?”
Sex outside of marriage is not dangerous primarily because of any potential health (physical or mental) consequences, and I’m not interested in them – it’s much worse than that. Sex has the potential to be spiritually dangerous, because it has the potential to enact falsehoods about human nature, and to make a mockery of something that God had a particular, good, purpose for. There is probably much more to say on that, but I will leave it to actual theologians.
We all do however, have some reason to take a ‘traditional’ sexual ethic fairly seriously. We all tend to acknowledge that there is something significant about sexual relationships, different to other physical or social interactions. We tend to think that, for instance, love should usually be involved in some way. With reflection on the nature of love and relationships between the kind of creatures that we are, it seems not unreasonable to see sex as one of the fullest kinds of commitment that we could make to someone – not just social or psychological but also physical. If the nature of sex is also reproductive or in some sense aimed at reproduction (at least biologically, with or without conscious intent), perhaps that adds yet more reason to treat it with care and constitutes a part of its significance. Again, there is more to say, but that will do as a start.
I don’t think there are good arguments that should convince someone who’s not a Christian to live in the way suggested here. Some aspects of the picture may be defensible from assumptions or beliefs held in common with others, I don’t know – but it is more important to ask whether the central Christian claims are true. “I don’t like them”, “meh, it’s just a myth”, or “that’s just your opinion” will not suffice as a response, in my view. I don’t expect someone who is not a Christian to live according to a Christian sexual ethic, or any other aspect of a Christian view of ethics. But, I do expect people to want to know whether the central Christian claims are true.
Does this all mean that I should keep my religious morality to myself and perhaps occasionally my similarly-convinced-friends then, and leave it well away from the public square? No, I don’t think so, any more than I expect my non-Christian friends to leave their (e.g.) secular moral systems out of their speech in public. All worldviews should be on the table and open to discussion.
Incidentally, in the discussion over the definition of marriage, as a matter of public policy, I think the traditional picture which restricts that institution to opposite-sex couples is a reasonable one to advocate in the public square, and I think it should have broad public support. Briefly, this is because I think the broadly-accepted norms of the institution of marriage – an institution involving (at least) a long-term, romantic, monogamous, legally recognised social union of two people – can be made sense of on the traditional view (that marriage is an exclusive partnership between two people of the opposite sex) but not the ‘tradition+1addition’ view created through the addition of same-sex couples to the current legal form of the institution. I think it is legally recognised because the norms involved are seen as valuable to society, particularly in the raising of children.
To conclude by going back to the start, Jesus treats people better than I do, and this includes gay people and everyone else. The picture he paints of the full, good, life lived in accordance with reality runs right against many strands of our culture and is deeply offensive to many of our inclinations and even our conception of our identity, but perhaps these things are small reasons to be sympathetic to it – our society is hardly infallible, and our identities are fragile whenever self-defined.