As an evangelical Christian, there are many things I cherish about my tradition. But an honest member of any tradition will always have his critiques — even with hotly contested issues like homosexuality. This is why I make no apologies in saying: we’ve gotten a lot of things wrong in this discussion.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe we’ve gotten a lot of things right. For instance, the unanimous witness of Christian tradition has always believed that same-sex relations are against the will of God. This Christian tradition grows out of the unanimous witness of our Jewish roots, which also prohibited same-sex relations. And our Judeo-Christian roots sink down deep into our sacred Scripture, which both affirms sex difference in marriage (Genesis 2:18; Matthew 19:4-6) and prohibits same-sex sexual behavior (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27).
Christianity has a long history of diversity and disagreement. But until very recently, the ethical questions about homosexual relations weren’t one of them. Christians need to get beyond just what we believe and pay attention to how we believe. This is where some (perhaps many) evangelical Christians have got it wrong.
Here are five things we have gotten wrong about homosexuality.
1. Being gay is a sin.
Evangelical confusion about homosexuality begins with our misunderstanding of the word gay. Some think that the word gay means gay sex. When someone says, “I’m gay,” Christians mentally race to the bedroom and conclude that they are in sin. Or they understand the word gay along socio-political lines. If someone is gay, then they must be marching in pride parades and fighting for gay rights.
While some gay people are having sex and might march in the next pride parade, this isn’t true of every gay person, and it’s certainly not what the term gay means. When someone says, “I’m gay,” this only has to mean that they are attracted to the same sex. They may be acting on it — or they may not. They may be proud of being gay — or they may be struggling with it. Some of my friends identify as gay, even though they’re committed to a life of celibacy because they believe it’s immoral to act on their attraction.
Either way, when someone says, “I’m gay,” all this means is that they’re attracted to the same sex. And being attracted to the same sex is not a morally culpable sin unless that person acts on it.
So when someone says, “I’m gay,” don’t flip out. Get to know them before assuming you know more about their life than you actually do.
2. Gay pride is why Sodom fried.
I once read about a group of Christians who protested a gay pride parade. One of the protestors held a sign that said, “Gay pride is why Sodom fried.” The message assumed a particular understanding of Genesis 19, where God destroyed the city of Sodom. According to this protestor — and according to many Christians — God destroyed Sodom because its residents were gay.
But they weren’t. There’s nothing in Genesis 19 that talks about gay people. The main sin committed in Genesis 19 was attempted gang rape. And I don’t know any gay person who’s trying to justify gang rape. In fact, whenever Sodom is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, the city is usually described as being inhospitable and not caring for the poor — an ironic description of many straight Christians.
Sodom has been associated with homosexuality since the beginning of Christian history. For years, the term sodomite referred to men who had sex with other men. But there’s nothing in the Bible that says the people of Sodom were having sex with other men. While it’s true that they attempted to have sex with other men in Genesis 19, this was an act of domination, not attraction, like when one male prisoner may rape another male prisoner as a display of power.
Inhospitality and not caring for the poor is why Sodom fried.
3. The gay lifestyle is wrong.
Too often, the terms gay (or homosexual) are quickly followed by the word lifestyle. We need to be careful with this term. Lifestyle. Does every gay person have the same lifestyle?
Think about it. How would you feel if someone talked about the straight lifestyle and then lumped you into a category with every other straight person who walks the planet? I think you’d probably resist such a label, since you are a unique person, not some clone cut out of straightness.
I think what people really mean by lifestyle is sex. After all, gay and lesbian people live the same lives as straight people. They work, they play, they eat and sleep. Both gay and straight people have gay and straight friends. So when people talk about the gay lifestyle what they may really mean is gay sex. But how do you know that gay people are having sex? Are you peeking in their window? Should someone call the cops?
The discussion about homosexuality is much more complex than just a conversation about sex. So let’s drop the lifestyle lingo.
4. We need to stand against homosexuality.
Much of what evangelicals get wrong about homosexuality has to do with our language. There’s an old saying that goes, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” This is a terrible lie. Words have the power to heal and to hurt, to comfort and to kill, to push someone off the edge of a 20-story building. Or in the words of Albus Dumbledore: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” Just ask your gay or lesbian friends if they’ve ever been hurt by words hurled at them by other people. And then ask them if those people were Christians.
This is why broad-brushed phrases like “the sin of homosexuality” or even worse “the abomination of homosexuality” can be so damaging. If you’re a 13-year-old kid who’s wrestling with same-sex attraction, and you hear that “Jesus is against homosexuality,” you will very easily conclude that Jesus is against you. Unfortunately, this is the conclusion of many gay teens who grow up in the church.
As Christians, we need to be much more careful and precise with our language. Again, the Bible prohibits same-sex behavior. And as Christians, we should be clear about this. But the Bible also — and much more pervasively — prohibits withholding Christ’s love from those who don’t agree with us.
5. Quoting the Bible settles the issue.
Twenty years ago, a debate about the Christian view of homosexual behavior could be settled by simply quoting the Bible. But this is no longer true. You may find this shocking, but most books written about what the Bible says about same-sex relations conclude that the Bible does not prohibit consensual, monogamous, same-sex relations. This doesn’t mean they’re right. (I don’t believe they are.) What it means is that many scholars and writers are affirming same-sex relations by studying the Bible.
Today, the debate is not about what the Bible says but about what it means. Christians need to do the hard work of interpretation and not sluggishly rely on quotation if we are going to truly understand what God says about same-sex relations.
Preston Sprinkle is the author of People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is not Just an Issue.
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