(This is the fifth in a series of eight readings and discussion questions, that make up “Leading Your Church to be as Gay-Friendly as the Bible Teaches.”)
by Dr. Preston Sprinkle
The issues we’ll cover in this Discussion, while always related to the Bible for Christians, deal with larger themes, as opposed to chapter and verse exposition. These are the types of arguments many younger Christians are embracing because each of them has an element of truth, which makes them believable without more critical examination. So, let’s step back and consider a few of the more popular arguments for the affirming view.
Reason 1: Understanding Same-Sex Laws along a Trajectory Ethic This one has arguably become the leading argument by thoughtful affirming Christians. In many ways, it’s an attempt to get around the counterarguments I’ve given to the previous affirming arguments.
A trajectory ethic assumes that the Bible doesn’t always give us a complete or fully developed position on all ethical matters. Take slavery, for example. The Bible never comes out and condemns slavery as an institution. However, we can see some rumblings of the institution being challenged, especially in the New Testament. That is, we can identify a trajectory in the Bible that doesn’t quite condemn slavery but is moving toward this goal.
Some argue the same thing with women in the Bible. The Old Testament appears to be patriarchal, but the New Testament is moving toward full equality and liberation. Some argue, therefore, that the biblical trajectory is headed toward the full inclusion of women into all areas of ministry and leadership. Since the Bible gives us an incomplete ethic, so the argument goes, we still see a residue of patriarchy in passages where Paul tells women to keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14) and forbids them from holding leadership and teaching positions (1 Timothy 2). Follow the trajectory towards its logical conclusion, and these patriarchal commands fade away.
Let’s just assume a trajectory ethic for slavery and women. The question is: Can we also identify the same trajectory for same-sex relations? Does the Bible begin to move away from prohibiting homosexual behavior and sanctioning it? Is there anything in the Bible where we see gay marriage being included as part of God’s design.
Many affirming Christians say, “Yes!” But there’s really no evidence for this. From Genesis to Revelation, there are almost no changes to God’s vision for sexuality and marriage. I say “almost” because there are some. Polygamy, for instance, is allowed in the Old Testament but we see the New Testament moving away from it. Divorce too was allowed in the Old Testament, but Jesus himself tightened up on those laws in the New. Think about this. When the Bible augments its vision for marriage and sexuality, it moves toward a stricter ethic not a more expanded one. We see movement toward the Genesis 1-2 ideal of one man and one woman, bound together in an inseparable one-flesh union.
If you interact with someone on this issue and they bring up the trajectory ethic, humbly ask them to show you where they are getting this in Scripture? Don’t be snooty or snarky or arrogant, of course. Genuinely ask them to build a case accurately where they see signs in Scripture of God moving toward accepting same-sex behavior.
The fact is, whenever same-sex behavior is mentioned, it’s always considered to be sexual immorality. And sexual immorality is always condemned in Scripture.
Reason 2: Christians Have Often Been on the Wrong Side of History Before I often hear people point out that for hundreds of years, the church believed slavery was okay. We only recently realized that slavery is a horrible evil. Is not the current debate about same-sex relations the same thing? Non-affirming Christians are like our slave-owning forefathers. One day, we’ll realize that we were on the wrong side of history.
It does boggle my mind that so many confessing Christians actually held slaves, were blatantly racist, and viewed women as less valuable as men. Are non-affirming Christians doing the same thing with gay people?
The analogy sounds powerful, but it ultimately breaks down. The sexuality discussion is about whether same-sex behavior is considered to be sexual immorality. It doesn’t question the inherent value and worth of a human being, even though some will say it does. The slavery discussion, however, is all about whether some humans should be treated as property rather than God’s image bearers. To compare the two is like comparing apples and astronauts.
Plus, let’s look at the history of slavery and same-sex relations. For the last 2,000 years, the church has always and unanimously viewed same-sex sexual relations as immoral. But the same is not true of slavery. Throughout church history, various leaders opposed slavery. Leaders like William the Conqueror (1027-1087), Saint Wulfstan (1009-1095), Anselm (1033-1109), Pope Paul III (1468-1549), and even the great theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) all said slavery was sin. Sociologist Rodney Stark says, “The problem wasn’t that the leadership was silent. It was that almost nobody listened.” And this doesn’t even include the fact that Christians led the way in ending slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Christians are far from perfect; it’s why we need a perfect Savior. On the other hand, it’s not as if the entire body of Christ for 2,000 years was pro-slavery. But the church has held a uniform belief about same-sex relations until the late 20th century.
Reason 3: I Was “Born this Way,” How Could it Be Wrong? This argument is still very popular on blogs and pop media, even though scholars realize that it’s not scientifically accurate. Some affirming Christians argue that gay people are “born gay” and therefore they should be allowed to express their love within the context of a consensual, monogamous relationship. Put differently, since God made some people gay, they should be permitted to engage in same-sex relations.
There are several things wrong with this line of reasoning. First, it misunderstands God’s involvement in human birth. While God is Creator and He gives life to the womb, every human since Adam is born into a fallen world where things “aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.” People are born with all sorts of biological, mental, and emotional traits that aren’t naturally aligned with God’s will. Just because some people are naturally angry, jealous, lustful, or prone to alcohol or drug abuse is not an excuse the Bible accepts for acting out of these natural desires. Simply because a person experiences a desire doesn’t mean they should or can act on it—no matter how strong or seemingly “fixed” that desire is.
So even if some people were born with a fixed same-sex orientation, this wouldn’t in itself mean they should engage in same-sex behavior. Even Justin Lee, founder of gaychristian.net doesn’t buy into this argument. He says:
Just because an attraction or drive is biological doesn’t mean it’s okay to act on…We all have inborn tendencies to sin in any number of ways. If gay people’s same-sex attractions were inborn, that wouldn’t necessarily mean it’s okay to act on them, and if we all agreed that gay sex is sinful, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that same-sex attractions aren’t inborn. “Is it a sin?” and “Does it have biological roots?” are two completely separate questions.
And Justin is an affirming gay Christian. Even he believes that the “born this way” argument isn’t a good way to construct a Christian sexual ethic.
But are people “born gay?” Without getting caught in the weeds of research, the best scientists who have studied the question of orientation say that it’s not that simple. There’s most likely a complex blend of nature (biology) and nurture (environmental influences) that shapes same-sex desires. According to the American Psychological Association says,
[N]o findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.
A recent, major study on sexual orientation by Johns Hopkins University comes to similar conclusions. Keep in mind, these aren’t conservative Christians trying hard to prove the “born this way” argument wrong. These are just scientists doing good scientific research.
So whether the cause of same-sex attraction is nature or nurture (or both), the Bible still prohibits same-sex sexual behavior.
Reason 4: Shouldn’t Christians Just Love Everyone?
Many people say that the non-affirming view is inherently unloving. It’s unloving, they say, to deny a person’s right to pursue the romantic relationship they desire. After all, a same-sex relationship isn’t harming anyone. Why do Christians care about what two people do in the bedroom? And didn’t Jesus teach his followers to love people—all people—especially those have been marginalized?
Before wrestling with this argument, we must all check our hearts and ask: Have we been unloving toward gay people? Have you told a gay joke, laughed at a gay joke, looked down upon a gay person, or ignored someone who’s wrestling with same-sex attraction? There are many ways in which straight Christians have not been loving toward gay people. When we hear the “What about Love?” argument, we need to first repent from any unloving thing we’ve said or done.
As for the argument itself, it rightly prioritizes love but wrongly defines it. Jesus tells us to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), and that last part is important. When Jesus loved his disciples, he didn’t always (or usually) affirm their behavior or desires. It’s worldly love, not Christian love, that says: if you love me you’ll affirm everything I desire to do and believe about myself to be true. When Jesus loved people, He loved them toward holiness not away from it. And this includes sexual holiness—as defined by Scripture.
Christian ethics can’t be reduced to the secular code of do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s true, most sins end up hurting other people. But some don’t. If I bow down to an idol in the secrecy of my basement, I’m not hurting anyone. If my wife and I didn’t have kids, and we happened to “fall out of love with each other,” we wouldn’t hurt anyone by getting a divorce. But the Bible never uses the do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone logic for determining what is right and wrong.
As we love people, we must love them as Jesus love them—toward holiness not away from it.
Some people describe this as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I actually don’t like this phrase. It comes off as bit too self-righteous—as if we are standing over here in all our holiness and loving all those other sinners over there. At least, that’s how the phrase sounds when gay people hear it.
Instead of love the sinner and hate the sin, how about love the sinner, hate your own sin, and let’s pursue Christ together! That’s the texture of Christian love.
Reason 5: The Bible Hardly Talks about Homosexuality It’s true that Scripture only mentions same-sex relations less than a dozen times. And for “verse counters,” this must mean that it’s not all that important. After all, the Bible mentions greed and the misuse of money in more than 2,000 passages! Why aren’t we more concerned about the abuse of wealth than we are homosexuality?
Certainly, we should care deeply about how we use our money. But we have to be careful not to determine the importance of something based on adding up all the verses that address it. There are several sins that the Bible rarely mentions, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t important. We can’t just add up verses to determine how important a sin is. That’s not the way biblical ethics work. Some sins are mentioned much more frequently in the Bible because those are the sins that God’s people struggled with the most. Counting verses is not a good indicator of how much God cares about a particular issue.
Plus, the Bible frequently addresses sexual immorality in general, and the Judeo-Christian view of sex has always considered same-sex relations to be sexually immoral. So even if we went the verse-counting route, we’d still have a fair amount of verses to go on. But rather than adding up verses, let’s work hard to understand and obey the verses we do have.
Reason 6: Jesus Never Mentioned Homosexuality This is true. Jesus never explicitly mentions homosexuality. And some people have understood this silence to mean he either doesn’t care about it or he probably would have affirmed same-sex relations. But this is reading way too much into Jesus’s silence. Here’s why:
First, Jesus was a Jew, and first-century Judaism was the context of his life and teaching. The topics debated with other Jews were always ones that were disputed within Judaism (like divorce or how to keep the Sabbath). But same-sex relations were never disputed within Judaism. Every Jew in and around Jesus’s day believed that same-sex relations were against God’s will. And this is probably why Jesus never mentions it. It wasn’t relevant for his specific, Jewish context.
Second, Jesus actually does mention “sexual immorality,” for example, in Matthew 15:19 where he says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” Again, every Jew in Jesus’s day considered same-sex relations to be immoral based on the sexual laws in Leviticus 18. Even though Jesus doesn’t directly mention homosexual behavior, he does so indirectly.
Third, when Jesus does depart from a traditional Jewish sexual ethic, he doesn’t expand that ethic but tightens it in. For instance, divorce was debated within Judaism. Some Jews were strict while other Jews were more lenient. When we look at Jesus’s view of divorce, he held to a stricter view. Same with adultery. Many Jews believed that you haven’t committed adultery unless you actually slept with another person’s spouse. But Jesus tightens in the Jewish ethic: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Again, when Jesus does depart from a Jewish sexual ethic, he moves toward a stricter ethic not a more lenient one. Based on what Jesus does say about sexual ethics, there’s no evidence that he would have affirming same-sex relations if the question came up.
In sum, Jesus’s silence on homosexuality cannot be taken as indifference or affirmation. We must interpret Jesus within his first century Jewish (not our 21st century Western) context.
Reason 7: Isn’t This Just an Agree to Disagree Issue? This argument isn’t so much an argument for the affirming view, but it’s often given by people who question whether non-affirming Christians should even care about this issue at all. Is it really a big enough issue for Christians to fight about and divide over? Can’t we all just agree to disagree—like the timing of the rapture—and not let this divide us?
Disunity is a serious issue. Christians should be concerned about it and should work toward unity. But calling sin righteousness is also a serious issue. Sexual immorality is a very serious issue. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus shrug his shoulders at sexual sin and say: Well, there are different viewpoints on this issue, so let’s not make a big deal about it. Whenever same-sex relations are mentioned, they are treated as serious deviations from God’s will (Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
The Bible does talk about some ethical questions as “agree to disagree” issues. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-9 mention some so-called grey areas that Christians can disagree on, but sexual sins aren’t one of them. Whenever sexual sins are mentioned, they are profoundly serious and nonnegotiable. I’m not saying that Christians should just assume that the traditional view is correct. I believe every Christian should consider the reasons for each view and weigh them against Scripture. But I also think that Christians should rightly handle God’s word on sexual sins. We can’t afford to throw up our arms and plead the fifth. Real lives are at stake. We have a duty to push people towards the holiness of Christ, for the good and joy of all people.
I don’t think the question of sexuality is an agree to disagree issue. Our God, who created us as sexual beings, has revealed to us His guidance on sexual morality. It’s up to use to obey it.
Reason 8: But Christians Don’t Care about Gluttony and Divorce but want Ever Same-Sex Law is Enforced Vigorously The last argument we’ll address isn’t really an argument. It’s more of a “Yeah, but…” type response. It doesn’t give any evidence for affirming same-sex relations; it simply points out that non-affirming Christians brush over other sins—like gluttony and divorce—so why should they care about same-sex relations?
Yes, it’s true, some Christians (certainly not all) have been lax in their view of gluttony and have ignored the wide-spread problem of unbiblical divorces and remarriages. There’s no excuse for this. We shouldn’t respond in turn with another “yeah, but…” We should acknowledge it. Own it. And repent from it. In fact, I would go so far to say that one of the blessings of the LGBTQ conversation is that it’s forced the church to reflect on its own sins and ask the question: “How can we be more holy in our marital and sexual lives?”
That said, there’s no logical or ethical or biblical reason why laxity in one area (gluttony or divorce) should encourage laxity in another (same-sex behavior). I can’t imagine Jesus looking at the church’s gluttony and divorce rate and saying, “Well, since you all have really dropped the ball by overeating and divorcing your spouses, I think it’s only fair that you lighten up a bit more on my Father’s sexual ethic.”
With the divorce question in particular, we should acknowledge that not every divorce is against God’s will. Jesus allows for divorce if there’s been sexual infidelity (Matt 5) and Paul says that if an unbelieving spouse leaves, the believing spouse is no longer bound to that marriage (1 Cor 7). While divorce is never encouraged, the Bible does make some allowances. But the same cannot be said of same-sex sexual behavior. There’s nothing in the Bible that views some types of same-sex behavior as permissible.
In short, we should respond to the What about Gluttony and Divorce response by taking the gluttonous log out of our own eyes, so that we can help others who are struggling with sexual (including same-sex) temptations.
Summary As we reflect on the last two discussions, there are two wrong ways to read them. One, is to use them to go out and win an argument. We can never lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about real people with real lives. The biggest problem facing the church is not that it can’t win an argument, but that it doesn’t know how to love gay people well. At the same time, there is an ethical debate going on inside the church about same-sex behavior. And it’s important for Christians to know why some people believe the things they do. Indeed, it’s crucial for us all to know why we believe what we believe, not just that we believe it.
Another wrong way to read these chapters is to think that we’ve thoroughly dismantled the affirming position. I’ve only given you, in summary form, some of the main arguments; I haven’t given an exhaustive treatment of the affirming view. You need to know that most affirming Christians have read a ton of books and articles on issues related to sexuality and gender. They often come to their view after doing a lot of research. If you try to debate with them, you’re likely to get your clock cleaned.
So, I’d recommend that when you’re presented with these arguments and positions that you are, “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Try to understand why this person has taken the position they have. They may have a gay friend or relative who’s been hurt by Christians. And of course, it’s possible your friend is personally struggling with this temptation and is trying to convince themselves of these arguments.
Listen. Ask questions. Then tell them you’d like to pray and do some of your own research and get back to them. This is not only an honoring response, it’s a wise one. It allows the Holy Spirit to teach you what to say and how to say it when you next meet.
I would highly encourage you to keep working through these questions and doing more research on your own. Not so that you can win an argument. But so that you know why you believe what you believe.
What I want us all to walk away with is this: The historic, traditional Christian sexual ethic is not just traditional. It is indeed biblical. And we have good, credible reasons for holding onto this traditional ethic, even in the face of some modern pressures. Stay true to the Bible, but do so graciously.
Discussion Questions: Due to the theological nature of Discussions 4 and 5, we would recommend going through the following questions with a pastor or someone trained to talk about the theological nuances of homosexuality.
Which of these popular arguments surprised you the most and why?
Which of these arguments have you heard before and did not feel prepared to answer?
Do you disagree with any of our responses to the affirming arguments? If so, explain your disagreement.
What other popular arguments have you heard that weren’t addressed in this discussion?
Discuss how you might share your beliefs on what the Bible says regarding homosexuality with someone who is affirming (approving of the identity and practice of homosexuality) using at least one of the arguments listed.
Do you believe it is helpful to try to understand the “other side’s” point of view? Or are you fearful that empathy will be interpreted as acceptance? Discuss ideas for gracefully making sure an affirming person knows you love them, but doesn’t get the impression that by your kindness you’ve accepted this argument.
Share what words, facial expression, tones of voice, and posture may hinder or help your communicating both grace and truth.
Further Reading: For a more thorough response to some of the affirming arguments mentioned in Discussions Four and Five, please see the following books:
Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions about Homosexuality, the Bible, and Same-Sex Attraction (The Good Book Company, 2013).
Kevin DeYoung, What the Bible Really Teaches about Homosexuality (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015)
Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015)
For a book that contains scholarly arguments for both affirming and non-affirming views, see: Preston Sprinkle (ed.) Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016)
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. This is the title of Cornelius Plantinga’s excellent book on sin: Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
. Justin Lee, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate (Jericho Books, 62).
. For instance, bestiality and incest aren’t mentioned very often, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t that bad. I use these examples with hesitation, since they are sometimes compared to homosexuality—as if they are the same kinds of sins. I would recommend using much caution if you refer to incest and bestiality in the same sentence (or conversation!) as homosexuality so as to avoid unintended association.