An Evangelical's Response to Homosexuality


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

My husband Dan walked into a local car shop the other day, inadvertently interrupting a serious conversation between the store’s manager and another customer. After an awkward pause, the manager looked at Dan, and in his thick East Tennessee accent asked, “Sir, would you be offended if we continued our conversation about homosexuals?” 

A little taken aback, Dan replied, “Well…I guess that depends on what you’re saying about them.”

(He expected the worst. A few years ago, the Rhea County Commission voted to support a resolution banning gays from the county. It was later repealed, but the community still carries the reputation of being extremely anti-gay.) 

“Well,” began the manager, “I’ve recently changed my view on things…” 

He went on to tell the story of a friend and coworker of his who had recently gone off to college. Unmistakably effeminate since his youth, the young man was disowned by his father when he came out of the closet and announced he was gay. 

“I knew this guy real well,” said the manager, “and I just don’t believe that he was puttin’ on some kind of an act. The way I see it, he just was the way he was. There’s not much a person can do to change that.” 

“Yeah,” said Dan, “It doesn’t really make sense that someone would choose to get picked on his whole life, or choose to get disowned by his father….Sure does change things when you actually know someone, huh?“ 

“Yep.”

“Yep.”

And then they talked about tires. 

****

I know that for some of my readers, this story will reflect great progress. Tolerance and understanding are making their way across the country, even to the hills of rural Tennessee! For others, it will reflect further deterioration in the moral fabric of society. Look how pervasive the acceptance of sin has become! For others, it will simply conjure images from an episode of King of the Hill. 

For me, it is yet another reminder that when we talk about homosexuality, we are talking about people. These days it is nearly impossible not to have a friend, coworker, or family member who is gay, and it’s getting harder and harder to believe that one’ sexuality is a choice. But having grown up in the conservative evangelical subculture, I’ve been taught my whole life that being gay is a sin…or at least that having gay sex is a sin. In fact, I’ve been taught that homosexuality is just about the worst kind of sin that there is, one we ought to protest against and make laws about. 

But the truth is, I have my own closet to come out of; I’ve got my own little secret that I’ve been carrying around for a few years now, and it’s this: I’m absolutely terrified that evangelicals have gotten this wrong. 

Just think of the implications. 

How will our children look back on us if science confirms that being gay is not a choice? Will today’s evangelicals be remembered in the same way as yesterday’s segregationists? What if one day we come to regard biblical teachings about homosexuality the same way we regard teachings about slavery, or dietary laws, or women covering their heads in church? Will we be ashamed at James Dobson’s efforts to “reform” gay people, encouraging them to marry and start conventional families? Will we have done irreparable damage to the relationship between the gay community and the Church? Will we have inadvertently ruined our testimony to the world? 

If we’ve got this wrong, the implications are absolutely staggering. 

Now, let me be clear. I’m not taking a stand on one side of the homosexuality issue or the other. I’m honestly undecided. I have great respect for the Bible and its authority, and have no intention of willfully disregarding any of its teachings. But I’ve also got a nagging feeling that something isn’t right, that even if homosexuality is a sin, Christians haven’t been handling it the way they should…and if it isn’t a sin, then we’ve forever damaged our ability to minister in the world as followers of Christ. 

I write about this, not to start an argument or make a point, but to share my struggle. This isn’t something I take lightly. I’ve wept and prayed over this for a while now, and I’ve tried to read and study as well. For the sake of my legacy to my children, I don’t want to get it wrong. 

Homosexuality as a Sin

This is the position taken by William Webb in our book club selection for the month, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. Webb points to the oft-quoted passage in Leviticus 18 which condemns homosexuality as “an abomination,” and the highly negative references to homosexuality in the Pauline epistles.  Applying his (previously discussed) standards for determining whether verses are cultural or trans-cultural, Webb concludes that “the same canons of cultural analysis, which show a liberalizing or less restrictive tendency in the slavery and women texts relative to the original culture, demonstrate a more restrictive tendency in homosexuality texts relative to the original culture. Furthermore, the biblical texts not only hold an aversion to associative features (e.g., rape, pederasty), they appear to voice a concern about the more basic or core issue of same-gender sexual acts themselves (i.e., male with male; female with female).” (250) 

Webb has certainly done his homework, and is quite persuasive. It’s hard to ignore these passages of Scripture. However, I still have questions about the consistency with which we apply Levitical purity laws. (For example, by his own standards, Webb would have to admit that Hebrew dietary laws and economic laws were more restrictive than the surrounding culture. However, most evangelicals seem to believe that these no longer apply.) 

For the sake of argument, let’s say homosexuality is indeed a sin. Is the Church responding properly? 

I’m going to go out on a limb and say…absolutely not. First, there’s the glaring issue of hypocrisy. Everyone knows that the greatest threat to the “sanctity of marriage” isn’t gay marriage or civil unions; it’s divorce, which even among evangelicals hovers around 50 percent. But no one’s trying to introduce legislation forbidding divorcees from getting re-married or protesting in the streets with signs that say, “God hates divorce,” (even though that one’s actually a Bible verse.) The problem with divorce is that it hits too close to home. Christians can’t come out against it because so many are guilty of it themselves. 

We’ve isolated and condemned homosexuality as an especially egregious sin because 1) it’s a sexual thing (and we’re obsessed with sex), 2) it’s relatively easy to identify and name, (unlike gossip and materialism and greed, which are condemned more often in the Bible and are more pervasive in our culture), and 3) it is “other,” (when you’re straight, and in no danger of committing homosexual acts yourself, it’s easy to call it an abomination because it’s easier to remove specks from others people’s eyes.) Plus, I think that because homosexuality often offends our sensibilities, because it seems so unnatural, we are more prone to ostracizing those involved and making them outcasts. 

Of course, I guess if homosexuality is in fact a sin, Christians should still take a stand against it, despite our own hypocrisy and inconsistencies. My friends often remind me that perhaps the answer is not to stop condemning homosexuality, but to start condemning gossip and materialism in the same way. Another friend made a good point the other day, reminding me that sexual sins should be considered more serious because they cause more destruction. No one can look at the worldwide AIDS crisis and not acknowledge that sexual promiscuity has horrific ramifications. 

I think I’d have a lot more clarity on this issue if I knew what Jesus had to say about it. But unfortunately, if he did address the issue, we have no record of it. 

Sometimes I try to imagine how he would respond if he was asked what he thought about gay marriage. Sometimes I imagine him responding by saying, “Who are you to ask me about gay marriage, when you can’t even keep your heterosexual marriages together?” or even, “Why is it that you condemn promiscuity among gays in one breath and then condemn their attempts at monogamous, faithful relationships in the next?” Or perhaps he would simply say, “He who is without sexual sin may cast the first ballot against it.” 

I don’t assume to know what Jesus would actually say, but I have a feeling he would turn the tables in some way or another. He did that a lot, especially when people asked him about political issues, or about the sins of others. 

Homosexuality as a Genetic Disposition 

I’ve already addressed the devastating ramifications that evangelicals will face if it is discovered that homosexuality is not a choice. 

That being said, I know a lot of people who think that homosexuality is in fact an inherent disposition that a person cannot change, but that acting on those impulses is still a sin. I find this position to be a bit more believable than the position that people would consciously choose to be gay. However, it does little to alleviate the terrible shame and guilt that so many of our gay brothers and sisters must struggle with every day. A person’s sexuality is a pretty major part of his or her identity. It can’t possibly be as easy as we think it is to ignore. 

My greatest fear is that there are thousands of young people living in evangelical communities today who are afraid to openly discuss their sexuality because they’ve been told that being gay is a sin that will land them in hell. Can you imagine living with that kind of shame? Can you imaging living with that kind of secret? Suicide rates among gay teens are out the roof, and it’s easy to see why. I sometimes wonder if we are actually creating more damage by condemning homosexuality than we would be by embracing it…(or at least creating an atmosphere where gays can feel welcome and safe within the Church.) What if gays cannot be “reformed,” as James Dobson claims? What if we are encouraging people who are truly gay to enter into heterosexual commitments and start families? Are the long-term ramifications of that perhaps more destructive? 

***

As I said before, I’m unsure of my own opinion on this issue, and am open to your thoughts and ideas. I titled this post “An Evangelical’s Response to Homosexuality” because I get really tired of theologians and church leaders speaking at conferences on the topic of “The Evangelical Response to Homosexuality.” It seems to me that for every evangelical, there is a different response to this issue. This is simply my response…and it certainly isn’t definitive.

So what do you think? What is your response to homosexuality? How have your views on homosexuality changed over the years? Do you ever worry that you are wrong?

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