In recent years there was probably no other question I was asked more frequently in ministry than concerning my view on same-sex relationships.
Sometimes the theological or anthropological intention of the enquirer, i.e. his or her concept of God or man, can be recognized by the way the question is asked. And sometimes it feels as if the enquirer intends to judge me on the basis of my answer – as if a person could be reduced to one single view or opinion. I think we should not hastily force each other into certain thought patterns or stereotypes. Instead, we should candidly deal with the views of others. Things like empathy, wanting to understand, bearing with other views, respecting others, assuming good things about the other are not easily done, but are so important for good relationships.
Since our sociopolitical debates have been dominated by issues connected with the topic of homosexuality for years, Christians and churches feel challenged: Is there something like a Christian view on the topic? How do we act towards homosexuals? Are gender roles actually acquired? Does God have anything to say about it? And how can the bible help us when looking for answers?
In what follows I want to try to describe my 10 key ideas concerning this discussion. Naturally, I cannot depict the complexity of the topic in this article. Those who want to develop a profound position of their own cannot get around personal bible study and intense studies of historical sources and recent scientific insights.
Idea 1: All human beings must face their sexuality. Questions about identity, about sexual fantasies, aspirations and behavior are challenging for all of us. And every one of us is fallible in this area and dependent on God’s grace.
There is a simple truth: Those how point their finger at another point back at themselves with at least three fingers. Jesus says it in this ways: “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). We can tend towards recognizing others’ faults immediately while at the same time being blind for our own. Therefore I have decided to listen in such a way as if Jesus spoke to me, when he speaks. He means me, e.g. even with the following statement: “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28). I have learned: If I want to honor God with my attitudes and actions I need his grace and power to do so.
Of course, someone can be of the opinion that he or she lives his or her sexuality properly and according to God’s standards. Nevertheless, the awareness that there are many other areas in one’s life that need improvement will lead to humility of heart and cautiousness when it comes to judging others.
Idea 2: We see in history that homosexuals have suffered a lot of marginalization, oppression and violence – even caused by Christians, in God’s name and allegedly commissioned in the bible. That is embarrassing.
For many centuries homosexuals were not only socially ostracized, but persecuted, punished, labeled as sick and even executed. Many Christians consented to this treatment and did not treat people with dignity who had homosexual feelings or practiced homosexuality. This I find sad and embarrassing.
I am convinced: Those who are guided by Jesus’ example how he treated people and at the same time take seriously the homosexual’s long history of suffering, are not able to take a stand against gays and lesbians using flat, unkind and callous slogans. Unkindness and coldness is the opposite of what Jesus taught to his disciples. Therefore we should always encounter people with respect and dignity, even when opinions and views differ. This includes developing awareness for the history and the present situation of the other person, since we cannot really appreciate the other without considering his or her background and present context.
Idea 3: The first and most important commandment for man is to love God and to love his neighbor as he loves himself. This is the first and foremost task of Christians. And those who love even speak the truth.
By stating the double commandment of love Jesus pointed to the main road Christian ethic is to take its course on (Matthew 22:34-30). Because God himself is love, we are to love each other. We are to esteem the dignity of others, be considerate of each other, show appreciation for each other, and respect others. This is according to God’s heart. But the call to love is not a call to accept all sorts of things. This would be a great misunderstanding. Not despite love, but precisely because of love we have to have unpleasant talks sometimes. Parents only obtain their children’s confidence if they set limits and point out consequences. Real friendship will only develop if it is possible to speak the (sometimes unpleasant) truth to each other. Life of society will only succeed if there are rules and guidelines.
I can think of countless times in my pastoral ministry when I particularly because of my love to the people was not allowed to withhold what I had identified as biblical truth. Quite often I have witnessed that people felt confronted by God and his word. Especially in our time characterized by individualism and self-realization people often are reluctant to accept normative authority outside themselves. But if we really let God be God, will not he be the one who sets the standard for our lives? Isn’t he the one who knows best what is good for us? Shouldn’t we first of all try to find out his intentions concerning those issues that matter most to us? Would that not even be true in the questions concerning our sexuality? I believe the answer is “Yes!”. And I think that real love includes loving others “into the truths of God”.
Idea 4: Jesus was not guided by mainstream opinion, i.e. the socially accepted, concerning the message he preached and the values he lived, but he set new standard that changed culture. Those who want to make a difference in this world are allowed to have different values than the world.
In a short parable Jesus speaks of a housewife who mixes leaven with flour until the whole dough is leavened (Matthew 13:3). It is my understanding of this parable that the kingdom of God might seem ordinary and small, but where it spreads it penetrates and changes the surrounding culture and society. It is not the dough that is to influence the leaven, but the leaven should influence the dough. In order to do this it must not negate its power and otherness. Likewise, when Jesus speaks of “the salt of the earth” and of “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16) I see in this a call to be turned toward society and also a call to be an example in society and live out new values that change culture and thus bless society.
Many times we see a call to holiness in the bible (e.g. John 17:17 or 1 Peter 1:14-16). “Being holy” also means “being different”. Christians do not need to hide because of their otherness, but are allowed to express it confidently and lovingly. The fact that they often are a minority with their values I do not perceive as weakness, but as strength. As human beings we learn and grow through the otherness of others.
Idea 5: The term “homosexuality” was not known to the people who lived during the period of origin of the bible, but they were familiar with the issue of same-sex relationships.
Today we speak differently of same-sex relationships than the people in biblical times. We certainly have different associations how same-sex partnership could be expressed. During the course of history many things have changed in this respect. The standard for homosexual relationships in ancient times was certainly not a long-term partnership characterized by mutual responsibility. Nevertheless, the possibility of and the topic of same-sex relationships were well-known and wide-spread. Certain aspects and elements of what only in modern times was named “homosexuality” can also be found in ancient times.
As early as in the Babylonian-Assyrian cults long before the time of Jesus and in the religions of Canaan the strongly sexually defined gods were reflected even in the sexuality of the people. This can, for example, be seen in the ritual prostitution that was both heterosexually and homosexually oriented. Starting with the 7th century BC homosexuality increased distinctly and from the 6th century BC it was quite widespread (e.g. “Sacred Band of Thebes” or “Cybele cult”). In Classical Greece there could be found both sporadic and permanent same-sex relations. It is said that of the 15 first Emperors in Rome that only Claudius did not have same-sex relations with boys.
After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD the Christian church grew away from its Jewish roots and had to position itself in a multi-cultural and multi-religious environment. Adaption and assimilation would certainly have been the easy way, but the witness of the Early Church is unambiguous: Practiced homosexuality was in no way recognized as Christian. From the early 4th century also church councils and synods started to with the issue of homosexuality. We do not have a single record of a resolution that integrated homosexuality.
Idea 6: There are not many passages in the bible dealing explicitly with the practice of homosexuality. That does neither mean the bible does not have to say anything about it nor that God does not have a position about it. We must not confuse frequency with relevance.
When homosexual activities are mentioned in the bible it is always with a negative connotation. This is done mainly against the backdrop of cultic homosexuality and pederasty. However, cult and everyday life were always strongly connected in Israel’s faith. It is unthinkable that cultic homosexuality was rejected on the one hand and profane homosexuality was cherished on the other hand. Likewise, it is unthinkable that respective statements in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 1:18-32 or 1 Corinthians 6:8-11) only refer to the sexual activities of the males of the upper class. When Paul writes to simple Christians and presents statements about sexuality he addresses his recipients and their way of life directly. He also speaks about lesbian relationships (Romans 1:26). Neither does Paul exclusively turn against homosexual relationships that are not established on a voluntary basis. After all, he does not endorse sexual intercourse with prostitutes which is agreed upon on a voluntary basis (1 Corinthians 6:15). And the statements of the New Testament do not only deal with the mere act of homosexual intercourse, but – like in other ethical questions – with the underlying mindset. In the context of Romans 1:18-32 things like “thoughts, foolish hearts, lusts, vile passions, debased mind” etc. are mentioned. Furthermore, in this important passage Paul points to a deeper root of the ethical disorientation of man: His fundamental turning away from God. Certainly Paul is not interested in stigmatizing homosexuality as “the sin of all sins”, but he lists homosexuality together with 20 (!) other trespasses and by doing so he describes the consequences of man being separated from God. These are no peripheral thoughts. On the contrary, the bible contains strong statements about the sexuality of man.
In summary: The mere fact that other topics – e.g. unkindness, unforgiveness or stinginess – are mentioned in the bible more often does not turn homosexuality into a peripheral issue. Those who argue along these lines confuse frequency with relevance.
Idea 7: Because God created human beings as men and women, there is also an original purpose of the sexuality of man. Continuation and design of life are only possible through the polarity of both sexes. This concept of God is the decisive criterion for Christian sexual ethics.
It is not really interesting what the bible says against homosexual relationships, but what it states in favor of heterosexual relationships. In the narrative of creation in the very beginning of the bible we learn that the fact, that human beings were made in the image of God, is depicted in man and woman (Genesis 1:27-28). After all, continuation and design of life are only possible through the polarity of both sexes. In this a standard is given pertaining to both partnership and sexuality that results from the original purpose of the creator. It is the absolutely decisive criterion for the Christian view on sexuality. It is also a fundamental fact that Jesus unambiguously confirms this divine institutional statement (Mathew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12). From my point of view it is therefore impossible that any other constellation of relationship – regardless of its acceptance in society – could even come close to God’s original concept. Homosexuality as something like a variant within creation is foreign to the bible, whereas the partnership between man and woman is continuously emphasized.
It is crucial if someone is willing to acknowledge God as his or her creator and Lord. This would mean to perceive oneself as a created being, to humbly submit to the purposes of the creator to and seek his original plans for one’s own life. When I read the bible I realize the following: What separates man from God categorically is his egoism, his insistence to be his own Lord and thus to set the standard for life himself. In order for us to be able to overcome this egoism and to live again in dependence on God and in a relationship with God, Jesus has died on the cross, and through his resurrection he has overcome the curse of being separated from God conclusively.
Idea 8: There is a difference between homosexual feelings and homosexual practice. Our feelings can be temptations that need to be withstood.
The biblical answer to the question of sexual practice outside marriage ordained by God is abstinence (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:8-9). Sexual desire only becomes transgression when there is sexual practice outside of marriage. Fantasies, longings and desires can be temptations that need to be withstood through the power of God. After all, it is part of the Christian everyday life to handle temptations in a godly manner (Mark 14:38).
As a pastor I have counseled quite a number of persons who were greatly challenged in this respect – even persons with homosexual inclinations. I consider it my pastoral duty to guide these people with lots of sensitivity and empathy on a path within the standards set by God. I do not do this in a judgmental or know-it-all manner, but I try to win the hearts of the individuals for God’s purposes. God’s commandments do not intend to constrain us, but are given to set us free for a life in his fullness. They were not made to mankind’s disadvantage, but to his advantage (e.g. Mark 2:27).
Idea 9: Faith in Jesus leads to a changed way of life. This includes abandoning old behavioral patterns and adopting new ones. God’s power can even bring about changes concerning sexual feelings and behavior.
The biblical concept of man includes man being bound to sin as well as the liberating power of the gospel. Wherever negative habits, negative behavior and sin are part of our identity it can be changed (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). If up to now lust, adultery, wickedness, envy, drunkenness, slander etc. characterized one’s life, these areas should now be changed by the grace and the power of Jesus. The gospel has the potential to make us completely new. It is an all-pervasive power of God (Romans 1:16).
I am aware that in the in the vast majority of cases sexuality cannot simply be changed overnight by prayer. Our sexuality is a complex structure shaped by genetic preconditions, experiences, habits, encounters, special moments, parent-child experiences etc. But in my opinion it is untenable to argue that sexuality is an unchangeable part of our being. By using this argument we could always talk our way out – regardless of which part of our being or conduct urgently needs renewal. By turning to Christ a change concerning sexuality is possible (1 Corinthians 5+6). The redemptive work of Jesus wants to impact our conduct directly, including the way we deal with our body: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Idea 10: We should never reduce people to their sexuality. All of us will meet at the foot of the cross.
We should never diminish a human being – regardless if someone is a banker or bald-headed – if he takes anti-depressants, drives a Mercedes or was born in Kazakhstan. We should liberate us of such categories, because we are all equal before God. At the foot of the cross of Jesus both the immeasurable greatness of God’s of God and the immeasurable vastness of man’s fallibility are revealed. Because I am aware of my fallibility I want align my life according to the divine standard and in all humility want to take the bible seriously – namely in its spiritual authority and its historical embedding. Thus I arrive at the conclusion that according to God’s concept sexuality should be modeled in the lifelong alliance of one man and one woman. By stating this I do not want to judge anyone, but I intend to humbly submit to God and his word.