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  • Writer's pictureElijah Blalock

Homosexuals And The Church, Part 1: The Meaning Of Sex

Last year, the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention removed Town View Baptist Church of Kennesaw, GA from the convention after the church accepted an openly gay couple to membership (You can read more about it here). Jim Conrad, the pastor of that church, said, "What we decided is that when we say everybody’s welcome, that means everybody." As you can imagine, this garnered much attention both locally and from major news outlets. I don't intend to delve into the details of this story, but I bring it up because it raises important questions—not only about sexuality but also about church membership.

We cannot ignore these questions because we cannot ignore our neighbors. According to a Gallup poll, the number of American adults identifying as homosexual or bisexual is rapidly increasing with each generation. 15% of American adults in Generation Z (born 1997-2002) identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. This is not merely an issue for people outside the church, or some policy to be voted on. This involves the students that sit in my youth ministry. I can safely assume that nearly all of my high school students know and are likely friends with someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual. I know students who have wrestled with same-sex attraction, and I would not be shocked to find out that there are more who simply haven't confessed it yet. I can't give a comprehensive response in a blog post, but I hope that if I can answer the two questions above, I can set us up to respond in a Christ-like way.

To make this readable in one sitting, I'm going to break this up into three parts. In this post, we will deal with God's intentions for sex. The next post will describe what it means to be a church member, and the last post will present a gospel response to those who are struggling with homosexuality. Throughout these posts, I will make a distinction between a person's sexual orientation, behavior, and identity (Borrowing from Dennis Hollinger's book, The Meaning of Sex). Orientation describes who a person finds sexually attractive: the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. Just because a person may be homosexual in their orientation does not mean that they actually engage in homosexual behavior. Sexual behavior describes what a person actually does. Finally, sexual identity is a person's understanding of themselves—the label that they would place on themselves. For example, person may find himself attracted to the same sex, but he may not wish to publicly identify himself as homosexual or understand himself in this way for a variety of reasons.

What Are God's Intentions For Our Sexuality?

There are a handful of important verses for this conversation: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Each of these verses, both Old and New Testament, condemn homosexual activity in strong terms. Some scholars have argued that the New Testament wasn't referring to committed and consensual relationships, but rather to homosexual prostitution or pedophilia. I can't respond to that in any detail without getting into a very long and technical discussion of each verse, but suffice it to say that I and many others find these arguments to be very unconvincing. However, most of the argument does not center on these verses anyways. The debate is more so about the grand biblical vision for sexuality.

In high school, I started to realize that people could make the Bible say almost anything with a handful of Bible verses. Of course, we want to respect what each part of the Bible is saying. If a particular text clearly teaches something, we want to submit to that teaching as God's authoritative Word. However, we also know that the Bible can be taken out of context and misinterpreted. To guard against this, we ask, "where else does the Bible speak to this subject? How does this fit with the larger narrative and teachings of the Bible?" We should ask these questions as we interpret the verses above. This will also help us move beyond a merely negative sexual ethic ("This is what sex shouldn't be") to a positive one ("This is what sex should be").

Some would argue that these texts merely reflect the human author's thought as it was shaped by the culture they lived in and that they do not give permanent commands regarding sexuality. In this view, these texts could be compared to Paul's repeated command to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Th. 5:26). Hopefully, you don't kiss everyone at church. Yet, the Bible repeatedly commands it. Are we disobeying God? No, because Paul was simply commanding that the church welcome one another in a way that was appropriate in that time and location. It was essentially a command to say hello to others and be friendly. While we should not kiss one another here, we should greet each other in church and be hospitable. We could perhaps then say that the Bible's teachings on homosexuality were appropriate for that time but not for ours. The question then is whether or not the prohibitions against homosexual behavior are born out of the cultural setting of the Bible or if they are born out of its underlying teaching about sexuality.

So what is sex for? Genesis 1:27-28 says that God created humans male and female and that he commanded them to be fruitful and multiply. Some Christians devalue our earthly bodies and see sex only as a temptation, but that isn't what Genesis tells us. God created us with sexual bodies, and He called them good. Further, 2:25 says that the man and woman were naked but not ashamed. Before sin, there was no shame or insecurity regarding their bodies. They were in perfect harmony spiritually, emotionally, and physically, and sex was the ultimate expression of that unity.

We experience spiritual and emotional unity and even intimacy in many of our friendships, but sexual intimacy is different. We might share our thoughts, feelings, and possessions with our friends, but in sex, we share our very bodies and become one flesh with the other person (Gen. 2:24). This is why Paul wrote that wives do not have authority over their own body, but the husband does, and the wife likewise has authority over her husband's body (1 Cor. 7:3-5). The point here is not that someone may demand or force anything out of their spouse, but that men and women should freely offer their bodies to their spouse in an act of self-giving love and should not deprive their spouses sexually. The husband and wife are to be totally given to each other. Song of Songs shows us what it's like when this is done properly. The result is both pleasure and an ever-deepening love for the other.

But this union is powerful not only for what it does to the participants but because it is procreative. Out of this loving union, people are created. Love begets objects to love and be loved by—children. Significantly, God does not speak in Genesis 1 as an "I," but as a "we." 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love, but how can God have been love before He created something to love? God is love because God is Father, Son, and Spirit, and these three exist in perfect love. God did not need to create something to love as though He was lonely or dependent on something to be most fully Himself. God was totally sufficient in and of Himself. However, out of His own abundant and perfect love, He creates something new to share His love with. This is one of the ways that we bear God's image. When a man and woman love each other, that love begets something to love. This is another reason that the Bible confines sex to marriage. Sex needs to be kept within a relationship that can care for the result of sex: children. Sexual relationships are, therefore, important to society. It is not a private matter because the relationships formed and the children produced change communities and societies at large. One need not look very far to see that sexual immorality begets broken marriages and neglected children, which in turn create broken communities.

We need to reckon with the power of sex because our culture treats it so casually. To give an example outside the realm of homosexuality, consider the abundance of pornography available on the internet. In his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman notes that religious conservatives tend to see porn as dangerous because it promotes lust and objectifies its participants, which are certainly bad. But Trueman points out an even deeper problem: "it repudiates any notion that sex has significance beyond the act itself" (p. 99). In other words, pornography divorces sex from any greater meaning or purpose beyond the act itself. The act itself and the pleasure it produces are ends in themselves, and there is none other. It is not directed towards a loving intimate relationship or towards raising children. Porn shows none of the participants' past nor their futures. All that matters is the moment of the act.

This is, in many ways, representative of our culture's attitude towards sex. It is an end in itself without any higher purpose. If this is the case, sex is purely a matter of personal preference. If you prefer sex in the confines of a loving marriage, so be it, but if you prefer many partners or partners of the same sex, it doesn't matter. Sex has no deeper significance or meaning, so it is mostly a matter of preference. This kind of thinking is only possible in a society where birth control is widely available. To every other culture before ours, it was perfectly obvious that sex was connected to children. That is not the case now. This is not to say that birth control is wrong or sinful. However, the purposes of sex, if they are given by God, do not change because of new technology. Therefore, Christians should reject this thinking in all of its forms. By contrast, we should see sex as something meaningful, having a purpose designed by our creator that transcends the act itself. In his book, The Meaning of Sex, Dennis Hollinger helpfully summarizes the purposes of sex according to the Bible: it has spiritual significance (symbol of Christ's love for the church, and more), consummates a marriage, creates children, expresses love, and is pleasurable.

In this framework, it does not seem that the Bible's prohibitions against homosexual behavior are merely a part of its cultural setting. The passages cited above are consistent with what the Bible teaches about sex. Men and women were created to be complimentary. This is most obvious in procreation. Children cannot be made without a man and a woman. Additionally, men and women are different in many ways and were designed to be so. In a marriage, a man and a woman learn to love something very different from themselves, and yet that is designed to complement them. God uses this union to teach us to love that which is different from us, making it a symbol of His love for us (Eph. 5:22-33).

Homosexuality subverts this God-given order. One might object and say that a dedicated, married homosexual couple also displays Christlike love in the same way that a heterosexual couple does. This, however, neglects that marriage is inherently sexual, and that sex is complimentary—designed for a man and a woman to reach its proper purpose. Men can of course display Christlike love towards other men, and likewise women towards women. Jesus Himself said that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for a friend (John 15:13). However, the love of friendship is perfectly Christlike without sex. Sex is unnecessary to display Christlike love. After all, Christ Himself never had sex. Sex is a different sort of thing. It has its own purposes, and while it can be used to express love, it is only designed to do so in a relationship ordered towards its God-given purposes. As with all sin, taking sex outside of God's designed boundaries for it will ultimately be destructive.

We can conclude that homosexual behavior is sinful. While a person may not be able to help their orientation (who they are attracted to), they can help their behavior and should not engage in homosexual acts (more on this in a later post). However, this does not answer how churches should respond. After all, all church members are sinners, and all have some form of sexual sin. To respond, we must now consider what it means to be a Christian and a church member. That will be the topic of the next blog post. Stay tuned.

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