Answering Your Question: The Church and Homosexuality

March 6, 2015

We are going to have a discussion in our small group regarding the issue of homosexuality and the church’s view towards their place in church leadership, i.e., as pastors, elders, deacons, etc. It is easy to ‘pick out’ various scriptures that support personal views. How do we/I present a Biblical interpretation of this issue while remaining true to the grace that covers us all?–Rich

Rich, thanks for your searching question. It’s an important one today that many in the Church are asking. I appreciate that you bring up the importance of a responsible Biblical reading to help inform us. Let’s start there.

One of the riches of the Reformational tradition in Christianity is its emphasis on searching the whole of Scripture, even when addressing a specific topic. This means that when studying a topic like homosexuality, there is much more to consider in a healthy Biblical hermeneutic than just the six specific passages that come up in a word search for “homosexuality” in a concordance. In fact, often resolution and instruction that speak into the stickiest of Biblical quandaries are found in the broader scope of Scripture, in what I would call, the trajectories.

For example, with the arrival of Pentecost, Acts 2 assumes an unfolding drama that will continue far beyond the close of the canon, let alone the chapter. In this approach, we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture but we also find faithful ways of responsibly applying the ancient text to our present situation. In fact, much of Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, envision a fuller picture of the Kingdom of God in this world as eternity breaks into the present. This occurs whenever God’s people move more fully toward his picture of shalom for all of Creation.

Here is another specific example as to how a particular text can offer a trajectory for God’s people well beyond its immediate context:

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, two key points are often overlooked but necessary for reflection today more than ever. First, Jesus tells the story in answer to an inquiry from an expert in the law who asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)? What follows isn’t merely a story about how nice people act, despite the passage typically being taught that way; it’s a story that answers a question about eternal life—painting a picture of what heaven looks like when it breaks into the present. The second point that’s often overlooked is that niceness and being neighborly misses the point. The stakes are much higher than that!

The parable of the Good Samaritan is truly about heaven breaking into earth in the interactions between people who see the world very differently. According to Jesus, eternal life breaking into the present looks like kindness-without-question extended toward those we don’t readily associate or find affinity with. For many Christians, people of differing sexual attraction likely fit into the category of those we don’t easily relate to (even typically avoid, if we’re honest with ourselves).

In Jesus’s parable, the Good Samaritan doesn’t first inquire of the hurting man to find out what he believes, how he lives, his religious worship style preferences, or his sexual orientation. In fact, the most significant point made about kindness in the story is that the Good Samaritan extends compassion without regard for his own safety, reputation, or agenda. The Good Samaritan loves across social boundaries with the kind of world-changing enemy-love so often evident in Jesus’ depictions of the Kingdom of God (e.g. Matthew 5:43-48).

Yes, the Church today needs to study the Scriptures concerning homosexuality. But not just the six “concordance” passages. And not even because we need to find the right answer to our questions. Truly, we need a fresh approach to the discussion because too quickly, we act like finding the right answer is the only objective. Sadly, throughout history, we Christians have run over many a person in our righteous quest for truth. Sometimes this causes us to lose our audience along the way, only to celebrate our victories in the echo chamber of the Church, oblivious to those left in our wake.

It’s often been said that might doesn’t make right. However, consider the reverse as well: right doesn’t always justify might, either. As a favorite professor of mine in seminary, Rikk Watts, always used to say, “What if, in the end, Jesus is as interested in us being good as he is in us being right?”

In other words, we would do well to consider the process involved in discussing potentially divisive issues within the church as well as the outcome. Moreover, tending to the process always must precede preoccupation with the outcome. Right answers aren’t the only thing we are after because how we arrive at our answers also sends a significant message, a message sometime even more convincing than the answer. Neighbor-love and even enemy-love, on the way to a conclusion, must be part of the Biblical discussion.

Now, please, hear what I’m saying and what I’m not saying. Does Jesus want us to strive for truth? Yes. Should we be willing to take stands on issues in the world, even if it means finding ourselves peculiar in the eyes of our broader culture? Without a doubt.

So, in an effort to refresh the gracefulness of our conversations a bit, here are a few practical ideas for how we could frame them a little better:
Find ways to state your ideas in humility. Can we talk in such a way that if we found out years later that we were wrong in our position on homosexuality (one way or the other), that we wouldn’t be embarrassed for our old self?

Speak about people as if they were in the room with you. How would they feel about the way you are talking about them? Honored? Like a fellow image-bearer?

Reach out in love. Invite someone who is same-sex attracted to talk with you and ask them what it actually feels like to be Christian and gay at the same time. Jesus demonstrated a great ability to listen well (which is a profound act when you consider the knowledge he quietly held within).

Place the issue in broader context. For every discussion in Church and especially for potentially contentious ones, we should ask, why are we talking about this sin or this issue rather than other issues facing the Church today? Are we giving it undue attention? Not enough? Why or why not?

No one cares how much you know unless they know how much you care. It’s the golden rule of pastoral care. What would it take for someone to feel so loved by you that they didn’t lose sight of your love and care for them, even if you disagreed on any number of issues?

I can sincerely appreciate that Christians want to discuss whether or not gay people should be involved in leadership positions in the church when we talk about homosexuality. Given how this issue is currently moving in the broader culture, it’s a valid question to discuss. However, I don’t think we’ve properly delineated the most necessary questions to ask, or the order in which to ask them, in this discussion. Observing Jesus’s interactions in the Gospels with those he met, I notice a consistent progression that moves from a) compassion and care to b) healing and restoration to c) sending forth.

On the issue of homosexuality, the Church has too often leapfrogged Jesus’s first step of care and compassion for all who are hurting. Re-establishing the right order of approach to the discussion is vital because it relieves us of the typical trap of binary thinking that quickly ensues between speaking truth and living in grace. Indeed, both grace and truth are needed. However, the order of their application matters greatly as it helps us to have conversations with people, not just about them. Grace earns its audience and the ability to speak truth. It allows us to reclaim an approach Jesus demonstrated when interacting with those in society’s margins. Consider the story of Jesus’s defense and interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11).

Whenever the Church either abdicates its role in caring or even begins with anything else, it loses its relevance and voice in everything that follows. When this occurs, people no longer believe we are for them. Rather, we become the enemy. The broader cultural perception toward Christians on the topic of homosexuality testifies to this reality. That is why discussions surrounding Church leadership should be placed into the third sequential category of sending forth—a legitimate discussion, to be sure—just one that will prove more fruitful if we tend well to the discussions that must precede it.

About the Author
  • Aaron Baart serves as Dean of Chapel at Dordt University, where he provides oversight for Campus Ministries and as co-founder and chair of One Body One Hope, a church-planting, community development, and reciprocal missions organization at work in Liberia and the U.S.

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  1. Thank you Aaron for your thoughts on this church and societal issue. You only covered a small portion of the question. Certainly, the Good Samaritan story teaches the broad scope of compassion but it doesn’t speak directly to homosexuality. Groundwork (CRC and RCA production) did a segment on this a few weeks ago. If you haven’t heard that, it is worth listening to it. My son, Tim, has an audio segment on it that I sent him. Check with him.

  2. Marion, thanks for chiming in. Yes, I tried to answer the heart of the question that sought a helpful and responsible way of reading the Bible. This seemed like the right place to start. I wanted to offer a Reformational hermeneutic applicable to the study Rich was seeking, but also one that would work for any serious
    question. I did this deliberately because too often on any issue, Christians want to approach Scripture as a means of proof texting what they already believe. What I am suggesting lets Scripture be Scripture. It places it over us, not below us. I hope that helps.
    And yes, thanks for the tip. I’ll follow up with Tim.

  3. Is it implied here that the only valid starting point for Christians is to see homosexuals as hurt, troubled, or damaged in some way?

    This would indeed be the “biblical” view of Jews in the ancient world, as well as Greeks and Romans, of the “natural eunuch.” All based their thinking on Aristotle’s writings or made similar assumptions about gender, sexuality and sex. For Jews, men who were castrated, injured, born without functioning genitalia, or hermaphrodites were all classified as “eunuchs” — a subset of males who were not fully men — including the “natural eunuchs” or “eunuchs from birth” Jesus speaks of in Matthew 19:12.

    The identity of a “natural eunuch” is extensively debated in ancient rabbinical literature Jesus probably knew; the Talmud describes a range of physical defects (or simply effeminate traits) with which a male might be “afflicted by heaven” that make him unable or unwilling to procreate with a woman. (Sirach 30:20 refers to how embracing a woman makes a eunuch groan with displeasure.) In the Talmud, one rabbi contends such men can be cured — i.e. made to marry and procreate. For those eunuchs who could not or would not marry and procreate, they tended to be regarded as second class citizens at best — even prohibited from religious assembly. Orthodox Jews today still maintain the ancient near-eastern view that a man is only fully a man if he is physically capable of procreating and has the inclination to do so. Procreative sex is what makes a marriage and a man whole.

    Male homosexual relations were and still are considered immoral by Orthodox Jews for defying gender anatomy, wasting the male seed, and potentially making a man abandon his family for another man. Female homosexuality is not recognized except as a lesser type of prohibited activity in Leviticus that does not count as adultery or make a woman illegible to marry a priest.

    Even the comparatively liberal Roman law in the early 1st centuries could not recognize a homosexual marriage. The “natural eunuch” was regarded as a woman-like male who was impotent with women but granted the same rights as a man, including the right to marry a woman and adopt children.

    Early Christianity also offered full inclusion for eunuchs and higher status for women also, including as leaders. In Acts the first convert is an African eunuch. Celibacy was an ideal in the early church even for married couples — precisely because procreation was now being opposed out of expectation of the apocalypse. When Christ did not return what developed in the Catholic church is an Aristotelian view with an obvious kinship to Judaism that prizes procreation above all else.

    Where would you locate the Reformed position?

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment. I find the connection you make between historical views on ‘eunuchs’ and the GBLQT question intriguing; it’s something I haven’t heard of before. To clarify, though, I’m wondering if you are claiming that Biblical discussions of the ‘eunuch’ ought to be construed as applying to the question of homosexuality more broadly–or are you just claiming that, on the Catholic/Aristotelian view they can be grouped together, since neither leads to procreation?

      Is there more literature on this topic (the relation between eunuchs and homosexuality) that you might be able to point me (and others) toward to look at this further?

      1. I was asking if Dean Baart’s starting point is that “LGBTQ” essentially means being “broken” and in need of healing in a way others do not need. From a contemporary perspective, that seems like an ethically and scientifically dicey proposition. From a premodern, prescientific, and also biblical perspective it is almost self-evident. This presents a problem from contemporary Christians who take the bible and their tradition seriously yet also realize the benefits of modern science which Moses and St. Paul did not have.

        I am saying the historical Christian (Protestants included until rather recently), Jewish, Greco-Roman and even Muslim views are essentially similar at their core on this issue. They were all deeply affected by two millenia where Aristotle reigned supreme, but it is not just Aristotle. Much of what Aristotle says about sex and gender resembles what Plato says, and both reflect the broader culture they were part of where masculinity/procreation/marriage are prioritized and in that order. All that changes on the path to western secular modernity is the order of priority, which reverses to marriage/procreation/masculinity with the last two increasingly seen as optional and even unwanted by religious and non-religious people alike. This is what makes it possible now to fit same sex couples into marriage, but this was all but unimaginable in the premodern let alone ancient, biblical world. We should ask then where people who did not fit into a heterosexual norm did fit or were placed. There is a substantial body of scholarship on this subject now, and I’ll give you a few titles at the end, but the following is all from basic primary sources and common knowledge.

        In Greek society eunuchs (castrated men), effeminate men, and men who are penetrated sexually (especially by a social peer) were seen as similar, often overlapping, and typically somewhat shameful if not openly lampooned categories. (Lesbians, by contrast, were seen as hypermasculine women.) When homosexual relationships were celebrated, masculinity and the active, superior member of the couple were emphasized. From the 4th to the 6th centuries Roman law (Theodosian and Justinian compendiums) were under the influence of Christianity and Christian emperors. Aspects of same sex relations and possibly a form of same sex marriage were criminalized. Such legislation displayed the traditional focus on the shamefulness of the passive, effeminate man taking the role proper to a woman. Since eunuchs who were castrated were regarded as neither men nor women, these laws may have led to an increase of eunuchs used specifically for homosexual sex; meanwhile the law also gave full status and rights to men who were classified as a eunuchs but not by any reason of physical harm or deficiency, so this would be the logical status for a same-sex attracted male citizen to take.

        Jews, unlike other peoples around them, did not castrate men and saw eunuchs in an even worse light. A castrated man was not to be accepted into the community, and castrated animals could not be used as sacrifices because procreation was valued so highly. The rabbinical concern in the Talmud with congenital and man-made eunuchs brings up the curious status of a man who is not castrated or clearly damaged in his reproductive organs who nevertheless resembles a man who was castrated before puberty. Or, like a castrate he is simply, inexplicably uninterested in women in a society where marriage and fatherhood is everything.

        So what we see in the ancient Mediterranean and near east is that eunuchs can include what some other cultures regard more distinctly as a third sex — i.e., effeminate men, same-sex attracted men we’re now likely to classify as gay, transgender and/or transvestite. The Indian hijira (translated as “eunuchs” in English) have been considered a third sex since ancient times and sometimes undergo religious castration rituals as did early Christians who took Jesus literally when he called his followers to be eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. Christianity introduced a radical ideal of celibacy that is the one thing alien to the mainstreams of Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures but perhaps very appealing to many of the female, less/differently masculine, or in some physical and/or psychological way “feminine” males. Christian celibacy could be and was understood as giving up sex entirely, marrying but generally abstaining from sex, and actual castration. The church father Origen castrated himself. Tertullian called Jesus and Paul eunuchs. This was likely appealing to men who typically had an otherwise lowly social status. You could say it is part of a trajectory toward inclusion of the marginalized by normative categories that could be too narrow and oppressive, but over time it was recuperated into a masculine ideal and is at bottom an asexual if not anti-sexual ethos that finds sex and the human body (or specifically female bodies) repulsive. This too was common across the ancient world and can be blamed on Aristotle, but perhaps it is a very natural or instinctive response.

        Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 2nd ed. OUP, 2009.
        Jane Gardner, Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life. OUP, 2004.
        Matthew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. U Chicago, 2001.
        [more from Kuelfer here:
        Kathryn M. Ringrose, The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium. U. Chicago, 2007.
        Foxhall and Salmon, eds., When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power and Identity in Classical Antiquity. Routledge: 1999.
        Shaun Tougher (ed.), Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond. London: Classical Press, 2002.
        “Eunuchs in the Bible,” Acta Theologica 2005: Supplementum 7 (University of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein) [online]

        1. Thanks Andre. I will check out some of the books and readings you give at the end. I’m wondering if you are familiar with Genevieve Lloyd’s excellent little book “The Man of Reason”? In a short space (around 100 pages) she does a good job of tracing the shifting accounts of masculinity/femininity throughout Western history alongside the shifting accounts of reason/rationality. There are some very interesting parallels between how the West has thought about masculinity and how it thought about rationality. Given your claims above about the relation between masculinity, marriage and Aristotle, I think you might find the book interesting.

          As for your main claim, I don’t see Aaron saying that homosexuals are ‘broken’ any more or less than the rest of us–though I can see where the confusion could arise. I took his claims about Jesus’ way of interacting with people (compassion and care–healing and restoration–sending forth) to apply to how we ought to deal with ALL people, as all of us are broken and in need of Christ’s healing and restoration. This, I think, is why we need to start with ‘compassion and care’: if we jump into ‘healing and restoration’ without compassion or care, we risk viewing people as a ‘problem’ to be ‘fixed’, rather than as image bearers of God, in need of love and divine restoration.

          As for the problem you highlight regarding the need to take the Bible seriously and value modern science, I think you are getting at what I would look at as a ‘Reformational’ approach to things. In the Reformational tradition, we tend to look for God’s revelation in both the Biblical text and in creation. This is not uniquely a problem for those who know modern science, as I think the church has been struggling with this almost since its inception (it’s a big part of the reason why Aristotle had the influence he had, as you pointed out). In our modern scientific era, we’ve separated ‘science’ into more sub-disciplines than Aristotle did. This has led to innumerable breakthroughs and discoveries, but I think we sometimes lag behind in how to integrate those many discoveries back into a coherent, big-picture account of the world: how, as you put it, do we realize the benefit of modern scientific discoveries (including ‘scientific’ exploration of the Bible via theology, hermeneutics, etc.) while taking the Bible and the tradition seriously? How is Biblical revelation to be shaped by creational revelation and vice versa? It’s a great question, and one that applies far beyond the “homosexuality issue.”

          1. This former soldier who did his dissertation with Kuefler has an interesting blog that will quickly get you into his very interesting field of ancient history, masculinity, and sexuality: Like Kuefler he’s working in late antiquity when (according to Kuefler) Christianity played up the masculine and martial qualities of eunuchs and celibacy as the empire faced a crisis of defeats, more and less literal “rape,” and blamed its “feminization.” A super-masculine side of the eunuch’s identity had always been present due to the use of eunuchs as soldiers and leaders of men despite the Aristotelian theory that they would lack the requisite vigor and “heat” in their souls and blood.

            Again, identities we would call LGBTQ were associated with eunuchs but “eunuch” is not at all identical with “gay” or what we mean by “trans,” although even John MacArthur makes this identification and in some sense you can say that gelding pre-pubescent boys creates a third, feminized-male gender. (Conservatives like MacArthur contend that Mosaic law prohibiting castration applies to modern sex change techniques but then struggle with what to do with these people who are both excluded and included in the Bible.) What conservatives fail to appreciate is how uncomfortable even pagan societies were with homosexuality and the eunuchs they created or any other person or relationship incapable of producing children. There is some debate over whether some Roman laws did address a practice of “gay marriage” for men, but we only know about this practice not because it was ever protected in the law but because a Christianizing Rome (possibly) produced laws against it on the basis of the threat to family, piety, virility, and collective self-preservation. These are utterly normal, conventional concerns in ancient and premodern societies where daily life for many if not most people would be intolerably abusive and physically, sexually violent to us. Our present situation is so far removed from that world it is inevitable that our values and perspective will shift also.

            I have never heard of Lloyd but her thesis seems eminently sensible. Male dominated patriarchal societies inhibit themselves profoundly by excluding half their population from many productive roles and activities, and by simply degrading and discouraging them, making them instruments and objects to use and possess. Misogyny generates not only segregated societies but divided minds that cannot think, see, or love some substantial sector of creation and inevitably some part of themselves too. In this way misogyny is like racism, ethnocentrism, slavery, child sacrifice, infanticide, isolation and lack of care for the elderly, the poor, the widow, the prisoner, the foreigner, the outcast, dare we say even the “unbeliever,” “the immoral,” and “the homosexual.” No church can be universal or worship a God who is, or experience creation as whole with such divisions rending it.

            These “primitive” practices (many of which we retain) were all tendencies that Jews and Christians have notably rejected or resisted more than others even while doing so imperfectly, going backward at times, and even falling down to a bestial state themselves where power, strength, and virility (narrowly conceived in only or mainly masculine terms) are the master gods to worship and make our sacrifices to — Baal-zebub, the original “Lord of the Flies.” We may not generate eunuchs intentionally as a social practice anymore, but we do still despise, mock or tepidly tolerate people who by nature or some other typically unknown reason do not fit into our preferred categories. They may or may not feel they are whole, but this often has something to do with how the “we” of a social majority regard and treat them. At the same time, history, text and tradition do not seem to give us much to work with if we are unhappy with the only options handed down to us: procreative heteronormative marriage (regardless of “orientation”), more or less celibate marital cohabitation, or celibate singlehood. Christians today valorize only marriage, if even that much, and have made quite a mess of it as much as anyone else.

    2. The CRC’s position is very clear: “Homosexuality is a condition of disordered sexuality.” The catechism of the catholic church uses the same language: “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” “Rape is always an intrinsically evil act.” “Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” All of them are expressions of what Sigmund Freud called man’s
      “polymorphous perversity.” Al Mohler’s “The Age of Polymorphous Perversity” is a good reformed insight into the disorder of our times.

  4. Pastor Baart,

    Thank you for this article, which I recognize comes from a place of compassion for and experience with gay people. However, as a gay Christian myself (and a Dordt alum, in fact), I’d like to commend to you the benefits of certainty. I have chosen to remain celibate in my life. I made this choice because I realized that the Bible was not going to change, that I would never look into Scripture and find God’s encouragement in my relationship with a man, that the most I could hope for was to bend the Bible enough to sneak my relationship in. I’m content with my choice, and I experience God’s grace in it every day, but you can imagine, this is not easy to maintain. The media, the academy, the government, the internet – every other voice in our national culture is screaming that a gay relationship is GOOD, it’s HEALTHY, it’s BRAVE, it’s EASY. To keep my commitment, I need the support of fellow believers. I need a church that affirms my choice 100%, that does not allow for the suggestion that I might be missing out on a lifetime of happiness unnecessarily. For me, there is no such thing as “undue attention” to this point – this is my life. (Conversely, I imagine a Christian in a gay relationship would be similarly distressed by a church that was continually discussing, and never concluding, on whether he was living in sin.) In Isaiah 45, God says, “I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’” Certainty on this point IS possible if we ask God for it, and gay people need to hear that. The sentiment that certainty here is not so important seems to me, respectfully, to be an expression of straight privilege.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and vulnerable testimony. You are correct in that the article sought to initiate a conversation that establishes a clear and solid platform of compassion. It’s a start. And, I can only imagine that as a gay Christian, you eagerly desire clarity and community from your church family in order to hold a position of celibacy. When the church acknowledges the reality of same-sex orientation but holds to a definitive position that articulates open homosexual relationships or activity as unbiblical, then, the church absolutely must be the support and loving community of relationships that person stands in need of. I hope and pray that you have found a church family that has offered you exactly that!

  5. Striking words, convincing thoughts! A well-framed article to chew on
    This both relieves and challenges at the same time

    Thank you for this wonderful insight