I have been struggling to get a firm grasp of why Homosexuality has taken so much the Church’s focus. In my opinion there appears to be a disproportionate amount of attention given to this issue in light of the many challenges the Church is facing. It would be too easy to write this off as an irrelevant trend. Instead, I choose to believe that there is deeper issue and the issue of Homosexuality is perhaps a more convenient way of dealing with what we are not willing to more openly address.
It is my firm conviction that the most difficult problem in reaching the lost is to convince them of the ravaging nature of sin. However, the sin we are most in need of repenting for is the sin of self-righteousness or “trying to be God.” Throughout history, religious leaders have focused on sins that have most threatened their authority. For example, during the period of Reformation the charge of heresy was the “highest” sin. The disproportionate amount of attention given to the sin of heresy was really masking the issue of religious intolerance and abuse of power. I cannot imagine in our present society that someone would be sentenced to death for heresy or for claiming to be the Messiah; we would most likely just ignore such a person, until we believe they are a real danger to themselves or others.
Truly, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The momentary, fleeting pleasure of sin (Hebrews 11:25) is all the bait the Devil needs with some people. Thousands sink into the quagmire of evil without realizing how deadly Satan can be. In Isaiah we learn that iniquities separate humanity from God and produce a chaotic, misspent life that affords no peace to the ungodly (Isaiah 57:21; 59:2). Micah tells us that shameful men and women “do evil with both hands earnestly” while Hosea proclaimed, “they sin more and more.” Sinful folk rise early to corrupt their own lives (Zephaniah 3:7) and thus become as chaff which God blows away! The vain nothingness of corruption and licentiousness is best described in Jeremiah 3:25:
“We lie down in our shame, and confusion covereth us: for we have sinned against the Lord our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.”
Beyond the eternal consequences for all individuals living in any sin, what are the implications for how the body of Christ responds to its brother or sister? How should the Church maintain an unapologetic commitment to Scripture and yet not harshly judge any of God’s children. Richard Hays, author of The Moral Vision of New Testament, offers critical insight into the task of balancing the integrity of scripture, the redemptive power of the cross, church tradition and reason. In this Blog I will offer an evaluation of the way in which Hays uses ethical sources to inform the church on how to live faithfully before God and, yet, do no harm to any of God’s creation. Hays does not offer an easy escape from the constant tension between being free from condemnation under the Law of the Old Covenant and being willfully submitted to the full redemption offered by Christ. Rather than affirming the well-intentioned efforts of others who ignore Old Testament scripture that prohibits the act of homosexuality, Hays challenges the limit of hermeneutics that replace the voice of God with the voice of gay apologists that ostensibly “encourage homosexual believers to draw their identity from their sexuality….and idolatrously away from God (Hays, pg. 379).”
Unlike other moral issues such as slavery or equality of women where the Scripture seem to offer contradictory statements, the Bible’s treatment of the moral issue of homosexuality is not ambiguous. Although the Genesis text (chapter 19:1-29) is most often cited as the prohibition of homosexuality, Hays points out that the text does not actually address the issue of consensual homosexual intercourse. The text does, however, point out the sinful and wicked state of Sodom. Hays illustrates this point by citing Ezekiel 16:49, which provides an abbreviated list of the sins of Sodom. They key observation in the Genesis text is that homosexuality is not singled out as a unique and more horrible sin, but a smaller part of the sinful condition of the community. This is a foundational observation that Hays will build on.
The holiness code of Leviticus unequivocally addresses the prohibition of male homosexuality. It is important to note that the code addresses homosexuality within the context of other sexual offenses, including the limits of sexual intercourse between married heterosexuals. Hays does not fully exegete this text, or attempt to address which of these codes are to be mandated in perpetuity. He does, however, provide a cursory remark regarding certain ethicist who regard the prohibition of homosexuality as “merely a part of the Old Testament’s ritual ‘purity rules’ and therefore morally irrelevant today.” I am not in full agreement with the Hays’ suggestion that the New Testament is the lens by which we unilaterally choose to observe certain purity or moral law. Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. I believe that failing to appropriately address the issue of the Levitical Code within its context, leaves the window open for debate over which codes are to be kept and through which lens one ought to use to interpret the Code. Hays attempts to confront the issue of “fulfillment” through his treatment of “realized vs. future eschatology.”
The New Testament texts addresses the moral issue of homosexuality in Paul’s letters to the churches in Rome and in Corinth. In both instances, Paul does not single out homosexuality as being greater or worse than any other sin. Instead, Paul seeks to help the churches understand the sinful state of humankind in opposition of God’s intended order for creation. He does not seek to condemn. Hays cites Ernst Kasemenn, “Paul paradoxically reverses the cause and consequence: moral perversion is the result of God’s wrath, not the reason for it.” This is a critical observation and a shift from the Levitical Code. In the Torah, we understand that curses follow disobedience and blessings follow obedience. Hays, skillfully exegetes Romans 1:22-25, to make his point that homosexuality, while sinful, is not to carry specific damnation in the New Testament church. The act itself is a symptom of alienation from God and that is damnation in itself, and consequently causes one to stand among other sinners in need of grace.
Hays is careful to mention that “the biblical witnesses against homosexual practices are unequivocal.” Hays skillfully moves the focal point from condemnation of “homosexuals” to recognition of sinful behavior in need of grace and transformation. Unlike the gay apologists who defend and consequently give unique identity to the being of those who live with homosexuality, Hays invites those who struggle or live with homosexuality to join other believers who struggle or live with other sinful behaviors. There is no human without sin and everyone should be able to share in the Christian community’s experience of God’s boundless love. If the Church places a limit, then who can be loved and who is to be denied grace? What image of God do we serve? How will God love his Church and those yet in sin? Hays makes his case with three points:
- God’s creative intention for human sexuality:
- Unfortunately too many Christian stop here!
- “Adam and Eve” not “Adam and Steve”
- While sin is a choice, apart from God our human nature compels us to feed our sinful desires. There is an intended purpose for our lives; nevertheless, much more is required to experience God’s purpose for our lives.
- The fallen human condition:
- Unfortunately in our sinful state we cannot see the fallen human condition.
- We can be blinded by our own intellect.
- No matter how well reasoned, one’s sexual orientation does not define their “redeemed” condition.
- The demythologizing of sex:
- Obsession with sexual fulfillment is the primary issue!
- Hays deals directly with the specific and general issue of sexuality here, by helping the reader to understand that Scripture addressed sex as a matter of secondary importance. The primary concern is love of God of and love (agape not eros) of neighbor as Christ loves the Church.
Hays builds on these foundational principles as discerned from Scripture, to examine the moral issue of homosexuality through the lens of Community, Cross and New Creation. In his discussion of community, Hays revisits the condemnation or the “cutting off” of homosexuals. In Leviticus, it is clear as to how the community is to deal with the issue. Also, in his letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth, Paul expresses similar concern and demands that the church expel the man engaged in a sexual relationship with his step-mother. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament references to the prohibition against homosexuality distinguish between “cutting off” the act alone and “cutting off” the person. It is not clear how the New Testament Community is to embrace people who willfully intend to continue in any act that is known to be sinful. What then, is the basis for accepting Hays’ argument for the inclusion of individuals who are living with homosexuality?
It is at the cross where Hays finds room for the community of faith to accept the sinner. Hays makes the not so subtle shift from condemnation to sacrificial service. Hays argues that no one should be locked out of the transformative power of the cross [as experienced among the faithful]. No Christian can argue against Hays on this point. According to Romans 3:23, there is not one among us that has come to Christ without sin. The privilege to carry all of humanity’s sins to Jesus was granted at Calvary, and no person can deny another this privilege. The question that arises is what is the behavior after coming to the cross? Has there been a change? Were the sins of the past left at the cross?
In defense of his argument for acceptance into the community, Hays sharply attacks those who demand immediate fulfillment, as though it were a right or guarantee. Hays states that those who believe this are living in a state of adolescent illusion. It is in this argument for New Creation that Hays forces the reader to accept his methodology for interpreting scripture. In spite of his observation that “the biblical witnesses against homosexual practices are univocal,” Hays inserts his voice on how the church should embrace people living with homosexuality. He erroneously argues that “hope seen is not hope at all,” but ignores that faith is a gift to be received or not received. With faith comes obedience. The power of the Holy Spirit is that which empowers humans to not return to their old sinful ways (2 Cor 5:17). It is true that the Christian continually works out how to live a life free from bondage to sin. It is also true that we should not continue to practice the same sins. How one responds to the understanding of new creation is critical to how one addresses the moral issues of homosexuality and how it is lived in community.
According to Romans 6:21, the shame of sin should be enough to keep any Christian far from it. While Hays argues that immediate fulfillment of God’s grace is an adolescent illusion, it is not unreasonable to expect one to sincerely seek deliverance from the struggle with the sin. In nearly every instance of sinful behavior this is not an issue for the Christian Community. The problem occurs for the Church when someone chooses to live with homosexuality and essentially affirm a lifestyle that is sinful. There is no limit to how many times the sinner can seek forgiveness, but the church is not called to extend an invitation to the unrepentant sinner (Acts 5).
It is unclear to me why Hays needs to distinguish whether or not the New Testament text clearly articulates a rule against homosexual practices. Does it really matter whether it is probable or certain that Paul or Luke articulated a specific prohibition against homosexuality? Either Hays is trying to give credence to the arguments made in favor of acceptance of believers who choose to live with homosexuality, or he is attempting to build the case for his understanding of “new creation.” It is not clear. I would like to believe that a faithful Christian, who is openly practicing homosexuality, would have a better justification than Hays offers. The wages of sin are death. While I agree that to live in sin is symptom of alienation from God, I also believe that to live in sin brings the wrath of God in eternal judgment. All of humanity stands in need of a transformative grace. If there is no evidence of transformation, then what shall be said about new creation? Hope springs eternal but what is the new creation – the changing life style of an individual in sin or that “hope seen is not hope at all?” If the new creation is not to be seen, then what is the transformative of power of the cross?
I concur with many of the Hays’ conclusions. For instance, it is “prudent and necessary to let the univocal testimony of Scripture and the Christian tradition order the life of the church.” Although Hays invests significant effort in encouraging the reader be patient with the transformative work of the cross in new creation, he clearly states that Scripture prohibits Christians from participating in same-sex erotic activity. The unresolved tension is with how the church welcomes the believer who chooses to live with homosexuality or does not see it as a sin to be delivered from. What support does the church provide to help those who struggle with homosexuality? Also, how does the church carefully avoid highlighting one sin above another?
Quite frankly, I believe that someone who is personally unable to disassociate their identity from their behavior or sexual orientation would reject Hays argument completely. Hays does not adequately address the argument for sexual orientation being created by God. The distinction between the act and the person is further complicated with the question of ordination of people who live with homosexuality. I agree with Hays that the moral issue of homosexuality needs to be dealt with early on in the Christian journey; however, by the time one seeks ordination, the redemption of the cross and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit should have taken root and began to bear fruit. My interpretation of Hays new creation argument gives a platform to accept the ordination of individuals with a homosexual orientation without judgment. At some point the sin and the person can no longer be separated. I do not know whether it is at the point of salvation, new member classes or in discipleship classes; however, it is not an adolescent illusion to expect a change in the desires of someone who sincerely seeks salvation. It is also my belief, that the “visible” hope for the “body of Christ” should be embodied in the work of the clergy, who have been set apart or ordained. Likewise the visible hope for the world should be embodied in the lives of those who call themselves Christian. The best sermon is the one not preached, but lived out before the congregation. How then can one who still live with the burden of homosexuality, fornication, adultery or other openly sinful behavior give the best sermon? For new believers, the testimony of one who has truly been delivered is powerful evidence of the redemption of the cross and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
In summary, Hays carefully and methodically guides the reader to open their hearts without compromising their belief in the integrity of Scripture. Scripture defines the act of homosexuality as a sin and it should not be actively practiced. Nevertheless, it is fully a part of the human condition that aligns all of humanity at the cross in need of grace and hope for a new creation. The act of homosexuality, according to Scripture, does not define one’s being. In fact, the Biblical narrative relegates sexual fulfillment to a lesser good, not to compromise the love of God. Hays does leave open the eschatological door of “unseen” hope for the individual with a homosexual orientation to fully experience the Christian journey to include ordination. It is important to distinguish that this moral insight could not have been arrived at through a strict exegete of the Levitical Code. Instead, Hays draws from the Scripture a foundation that condemns judgment of certain persons and yet causes one to love their neighbor regardless of sexual orientation.
The bottom line of this issue is not really about Homosexuality at all! The real issue is sexual immorality among clergy, but it is too painful and too ubiquitous to deal with. One cannot claim any knowledge of the number or percentage of clergy actively engaged in sexual immorality or having done so since being ordained, but the number is substantial and should not be ignored. If we are going to be sincere and honor our commitment to Scripture and integrity of the Pastoral Office, then we must be willing to deal with the whole of the issue. Continue to pray for the Church and God children!
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