What are the main things that Christianity has to say to gay people?

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.

regaining faith in the face of ‘progress’

A book that I’ve long (at least 3 years) had on my wish list recently arrived in the mail, and it has not disappointed – I’m not quite finished it, but it has kept me up late for a few nights.

“Crisis of Doubt” gives brief biographies of seven leaders of skepticism/free-thought in the UK during the Victorian era who reconverted to orthodox (traditional – usually evangelical) Christianity before the end of their life. All were Christians as youth or young adults, but became skeptics at some point, rising to prominence in the skeptical community of the time, as debaters, anti-Bible lecturers and the like. One aim of the book is to challenge the popular narrative of the “Victorian crisis of faith”. In contrast to the loss of faith literature, which tends to be centered on middle-to-upper class literary intellectuals (as I understand), this book focuses particularly on people from the working class, often incredibly bright self-taught men who studied after hours. The words “skeptic” or “free thinker” were fairly broad terms at the time – the terms didn’t necessarily mean “atheist”, though most of the seven were atheists at some point, and all denied the divinity of Christ, disparaged most of the Bible, etc. In addition to the seven, there is also an appendix with a range of mini-biographies of a number of other people who had broadly similar life stories or are otherwise of interest for related reasons. One is Charles Southwell, a skeptic important in NZ free-thinking history (the NZARH still annually awards a Charles Southwell prize, I think) – he did not reconvert, though it seems he may have claimed to have done, for the sake of his reputation – the story is somewhat murky but fascinating.

Many who read this may assume that all or most reconversions of intelligent people were spurious – perhaps even made-up deathbed conversions, invented by over-eager Christians. The seven in this book however are all well-documented cases of leading skeptics praised in the free-thinking literature of the time who later wrote works in defense of Christian faith.

Here are quick summaries of two. I hope you enjoy them. If you’d like to borrow the book, I’d be pleased.

Thomas Cooper, born 1805, became an evangelical at the age of 14 through the preaching of Methodists. He became a preacher, but fell out with his denominational leaders. He was then a journalist, becoming increasingly religiously skeptical and politically radical as a Chartist. He was involved, it seems, in physical violence through this political movement. Imprisoned at the age of 38, becoming more anti-religious while there. Free-thinking lecturer 1846-1855 – according to a skeptics’ journal, “the most popular lecturer on Free Inquiry in the metropolis” [London]. Popularised German liberal theological scholarship, particularly Strauss. Began to think that secularism had limitations, particularly in grounding morality. Publicly, in place of a lecture that he was meant to give, declared belief in a moral law-giver in 1856, full acceptance of Christianity in 1857. Gave over 4000 Christian lectures and 2500 sermons as an apologist.

John Henry Gordon, born 1838, was a sunday school teacher at an early age, but lost his faith in his late teens, joining organized unbelief at the age of 19. He was soon contributing to a major secularist newspaper, and then secretary of the Edinburgh Secular Society. At 22 he was picked as one of 8 national secularist leaders invited to speak at a national convention of 5000 people (2 of the others invited also later reconverted – it seems it wasn’t a great time to be a leader in that movement). Lectures he was willing to give included “Why I hate Christianity”. On the particularly abusive side of the skeptical spectrum. He was employed by the Leeds Secular Society as a full-time lecturer – the first ever such (full time lecturer) position for a British secular society. Reconverted in mid 1862, disenchanted with the secularist leadership and after hearing a sermon from the gospel of John. In August 1862 he gave a public lecture to explain why, but was drowned out by angry secularists. Thereafter wrote a number of works of Christian apologetics and became a Baptist minister. Died 1878.

The other five stories are similarly fascinating (to me anyway) pictures of anti-Christian debaters/writers/lecturers who had a change of mind. Faith and doubt and their effects in people’s lives are hard to beat as topics to touch on in a biography.

One remarkable but unintended feature of the book (published 2006) concerns one of the modern skeptics interacted with, who gets 7 mentions (equal or more than any other modern skeptic, as far as I can see), AN Wilson. His book ‘God’s funeral’ is a popular account of the Victorian crisis of faith and subsequent history. His biography of CS Lewis, another one of his books, is apparently particularly unflattering. Wilson, a prominent atheist for 20 years after earlier being a Christian writer, himself reconverted in 2009 – perhaps God is still at work?

There is no inevitability to growth in atheism or decline in Christianity – witness China and Eastern Europe as two other recent examples. We live in interesting times.

crisis of doubt