At the 1977 General Synod session a motion was made and supported that General Synod "go on record affirming the human and civil rights of homosexuals and lesbians." This motion was referred to the Theological Commission for study and recommendation (MGS 1977, p. 204f). In formulating its response the Commission deemed it necessary to broaden the scope of its inquiry. This study begins with a biblical and theological appraisal of homosexuality. This appraisal provides the essential foundation for the Commission’s response to the referral concerning homosexual rights. The church’s pastoral ministry to homosexual persons is the subject of an additional study being prepared for presentation to the General Synod in 1979.
Homosexuality has become a subject of major controversy in society and in the church. While homosexual practices have been recorded since the dawn of human history, they have also been proscribed in western civilization since the beginning of the Christian era. Efforts to legitimate the homosexual experience and accord full human rights to homosexual persons constitute a social movement of recent origin. This movement for homosexual liberation has received both impetus and opposition from members of the churches. The moral and legal status of homosexual persons and their place in church and society raise complex questions with deep personal, social, and pastoral dimensions which must be addressed.
Any responsible inquiry concerning the biblical perspective on homosexuality requires careful consideration of a new, emerging theological context. Speaking from within this context are committed Christian persons, both homosexual and heterosexual, whose biblical exegesis and theological reflection leads them to the opinion that a homosexual relationship may express the divine will for human life. Heretofore, that possibility was not considered. Paul, Luther, Calvin and, more recently, Karl Barth assumed the sinfulness of homosexual activity without question. Given the issues raised in the homosexual context, this assumption must give way to a careful re-examination of the scriptural witness in this matter.
The contribution of the human sciences to our understanding of homosexuality is an invaluable aid to biblical and theological reflection. Truth, as Calvin averred, is "of God" wherever it is found. However, the human sciences may not be used to abrogate the biblical witness. We must seek to evaluate all human wisdom in light of the Scriptures so that our moral judgments and conduct may conform to the Word of God.
Our norm is Holy Scripture, not our prior assumptions about a biblical perspective on homosexuality. Doctrinaire opinions, pro or con, concerning homosexuality should not be the starting point of an inquiry or be projected onto the texts. When one presumes to know in advance what Scripture will say to him, he reduces it to a mere human possession and hears what he wishes to hear. Thus, Scripture ceases to be for him that quick, sharp, and discerning word which is always intended to address and question its hearers (Heb. 4:12). With humility, and with compassion for persons who will be affected by our study, we propose a fresh look at the biblical material, careful exegesis, and interpretation that is both faithful to the historic Reformed witness and aware that always "God has yet more truth to break forth from His Holy Word."
Explicit Biblical References
It may be vexing to note that a major contemporary issue receives incidental attention in Scripture. Passages which make explicit reference to homosexuality are few in number, both in the Old and New Testaments. It should be acknowledged that neither the Old Testament prophets nor Jesus himself ever mentioned the subject. However, the texts which do refer to homosexual activity are unequivocal in their condemnation of the practice. It is not possible or necessary to offer detailed exposition of each of the explicit texts. To avoid repetition, key, representative passages will be considered. Brevity also prevents a detailed description of the various interpretations emerging from the homosexual context and in opposition to it. This spectrum of opinion is part of the research which informs this study and will be referred to at key points. This study is prescriptive rather than descriptive. It presents our conclusions drawn from the biblical material rather than enumerating the wide variety of current opinions.
Old Testament References
The following passages contain explicit reference to homosexual acts: Genesis 9:21-27; 19:4-11; Leviticus l8:22; 20:13; Deuteronomy 22:5; 23:17; Judges 19:16-26; I Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46.
The story concerning the men of Sodom (Gen. 19:4-11) merits consideration in some detail only because it has been a traditional locus classicus for homosexual condemnation and it figures prominently in current biblical re-appraisal. The key sentence is found in verse 5: "Bring them out to us, that we may know them." The men of Sodom importune Lot to release his male guests to them. The verb "know" (yadha) in this context bears a sexual meaning, as it does elsewhere, e.g., Genesis 4:1. The intent is homosexual rape. Thus Lot’s plea: "…do not act so wickedly" (v. 7).
It has been objected that this traditional interpretation rests on faulty exegesis. The sin involved is not homosexual aggression, but a breach of the sacred law of hospitality. Yadha bears a wide range of interpersonal meanings from making an acquaintance to sexual coitus. Apart from this passage, the verb has sexual meaning only in 10 of its 943 appearances in the Old Testament. In each of these 10 instances, the verb refers to heterosexual intercourse. The Hebrew term normally used in reference to both homosexual intercourse and bestiality is shakhabh. Thus critics of the traditional interpretation maintain that the focus of the text is on Sodom’s sin of pride and inhospitality which provoked divine retribution, not on homosexuality.
Despite linguistic considerations, this demurrer is not convincing. To excise the sexual import of the text one must translate yadha in two completely different senses within the short span of four verses. Lot offers his virgin daughters "who have not known man" to the men of Sodom, urging "do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men…" (v. 8). Lot is obviously attempting to placate their homosexual lust with the offer of his daughters for sexual use. It is, of course, the sacred law of hospitality which motivates Lot to seek his guests’ protection at such high cost. The men of Sodom do perpetrate a frightful violation of this law. However, the text stresses the reprehensible nature of the violation as strongly as the fact of the violation itself.
Granting the obvious sexual import of the passage, we must add that a responsible interpretation cannot justify the excessive homosexual condemnation and retribution which tradition has sought to deduce from it. Homosexual conduct is nowhere portrayed in Scripture as the only or chief sin which brought divine judgment upon the city. The heinous sins of Sodom are variously catalogued by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Homosexuality is not mentioned as one of them. Beyond the passage under discussion, the sole canonical reference to homosexual acts as a sin of Sodom occurs in Jude, which refers to the "unnatural lust" of the wicked twin cities (v. 7). Of primary interpretive importance is the tenor of mob violence, terror, aggression and assault which pervades the passage. The categorical difference between mob sexual assault and a consenting act between two persons need not be demonstrated. This text (and its obvious parallel in Judges 19) may be interpreted as a clear condemnation of persons who would force homosexual acts upon unwilling partners. The text by itself will not justify a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are found in that body of Hebrew cultic and ethical laws known as the Holiness Code (Lev. 17:1-26:46). The theological foundation of this legislation is the exhortation to Israel to be a holy people even as Yahweh their God is holy (20:26). As a separate people, bound in covenant to the Lord of history, Israel must exemplify his righteousness and shun the idolatrous practices of the "people of the land" who consort with pagan gods of nature and fertility. Among the many laws governing Israel’s cultic and moral purity are two which refer to male homosexual acts.
It is clear that the law condemns such acts. The substitution of homosexual intercourse for heterosexual is one of the "abominations" punishable by death. The reasons for this proscription and its extreme punishment raise questions of interpretation. Numerous scholars have demonstrated that homosexual behavior in Israel could never be considered a neutral act because it figured so prominently in the fertility cults of Israel’s Canaanite neighbors. In the Hebrew mind homosexuality was inextricably linked to the odious practice of sacred male prostitution, one of the ongoing threats to the integrity of Israel’s worship. This concern is seen vividly in the texts of Deuteronomy and I Kings noted above.
Examination of the Leviticus texts in their context indicates, however, that they cannot be dismissed solely as the expression of a cultic bias which no longer has relevance. The proscription of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18 is one in a series of laws governing the proper sexual relations which must obtain among a holy people. Here cultic bias is not prominent. Thus a case against homosexual behavior is clearcut if Leviticus 18 can be accepted as a normative statement of divine will, as universally binding as the Ten Commandments. However, serious problems, biblical and theological, hinder such acceptance. While Leviticus 18 condemns adultery, incest, bestiality, and male homosexuality on moral grounds, the same passage accepts polygamy without question, forbids sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman, and says nothing at all about female homosexuality. Not without reason did Calvin refer to the "shadowy" character of Old Testament legislation (Institutes II. vii. 16 and viii. 28, 29.)! Only by a casuistic picking and choosing can one find justification in the Old Testament laws for a condemnation of homosexual persons in our own time. How can one condemn a male homosexual according to the law without, at the same time, advocating his capital punishment, shunning women in menstruation, tolerating polygamy, and ignoring lesbianism? Such casuistry, not unknown among the people of God, always involves the imposition some extra-biblical principle of interpretation upon the text. Further, it leaves the casuist foundering in a legalistic morass. It is precisely this dilemma to which the New Testament speaks, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ; "For Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified" (Rom. 10:4); "…love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:10). For a true reading of Scripture in this matter we must consider the explicit New Testament texts and, then, the sense of Scripture as a unified whole summed up in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
New Testament References
Explicit references to homosexuality in the New Testament are few. In addition to the Jude text cited above there are three, each penned by Paul: Romans 1:26f.; I Corinthians 6:9-10; I Timothy 1:9-10. While Paul’s rejection of homosexual activity is beyond question, it should be noted that in none of the passages does Paul make it his theme or the object of an independent statement. Homosexuality is always mentioned as one among many manifestations of a deeper human problem. The Romans passage will be considered here because it is Paul’s most familiar statement on the subject and his sharpest rejection of homosexual behavior. Also, by focusing on this text we may bypass the complex exegetical debate as to whether the Greek malakoi and arsenokoitai in I Corinthians and I Timothy were ever intended to refer to homosexual behavior.
Paul’s specific references to homosexuality in Romans 1 have as their context his general diagnosis of the human condition (1:18-3:20). All men stand condemned before God’s righteousness, enslaved to sin, and incapable of saving themselves. Salvation is afforded, not on the basis of law, but through that righteousness which is appropriated only by faith (1:16-17). Apart from faith, man stands under "the wrath of God." To demonstrate his case, Paul begins with the moral failure of the Gentiles. The truth of God as creator and Lord is plainly visible in the created order. However, man does not honor the Creator or live in grateful obedience, i.e., faith. In self-willed rebellion he chooses to worship and glorify himself. Man’s basic problem, then, is the sin of idolatry. He seeks to be his own god. Thus, a frightful "exchange" (v. 23) takes place in which the worship appropriate to the Creator is misdirected to the created order. Seeking a higher place than God ordained for him, man falls prostrate before the gods of his own making. Paul concludes his diagnosis with an observation characteristic of the biblical view of man. The disruption in the vertical, God/man relationship necessarily foments a disruption on the horizontal plane of human relationships. Idolatry leads to moral depravity not by chance but as the direct result of God’s judgment in "giving man up" (v. 24) to the dishonorable consequences of his bad exchange.
Having diagnosed the human predicament, Paul goes on to offer his own illustrations. The evil results of idolatry are sensual vices (vv. 24-27) and antisocial vices (vv. 29-31). He cites lesbianism and homosexuality to illustrate sensual vice or "dishonorable passions." Paul is one with his Jewish forebearers in loathing homosexual conduct as the prime example of idolatrous perversion. Cultic homosexuality was common, not only in ancient Canaan, but also in Paul’s Graeco-Roman environment. Significantly, the same verb which indicates the vertical exchange (v. 25) is repeated to describe this horizontal perversion: "Their women exchanged (metellaxan) natural relations" (v. 26) thereby acting "against nature" (para phusin), and the men did "likewise" by "giving up" natural relations with women to vent their burning passions in shameless acts with men (v. 27).
Of passing interest is the fact that Paul, sometimes accused of slighting the role of women, here not only refers to lesbianism but gives it first mention! Far more important are the conclusions about homosexual behavior which are to be drawn from the text. First, we note that Paul is condemning a form of sexual activity that results from a conscious choice. He understands homosexuality to be the intentional perversion of one’s natural, heterosexual orientation. Homosexual acts are a self-chosen sexual "exchange" for which a person is responsible and held accountable. The horizontal perversion is parallel to and occasioned by the vertical act of self-willed rebellion, the original idolatrous exchange. One who dishonors God will dishonor his own body as well.
Secondly, it is apparent that homosexual perversion is one among many consequences of man’s sinful state. It is not singled out as an especially heinous form of depravity which merits a more stringent opprobrium. Paul goes on to censure with equal force covetousness, malice, envy, gossip, disobedience to parents, and other sins of the mind and heart. The pervert and the gossip, side by side, stand in need of redemption. Further, lest anyone take particular delight in Paul’s condemnation of homosexuals, we must note that his indictment continues in Romans 2 and 3 to include a similar condemnation for any of God’s people whose idolatry consists in the aspiration to be judge and lord over their fellow creatures.
Finally, we disagree with those within the "homosexual context" (see above) who dismiss Paul’s censure of homosexual acts as merely another instance of Jewish cultural bias. His conclusion rests on firmer ground–a carefully constructed theological foundation. This is apparent in his assertion that persons who exchange heterosexual relations for homosexual are acting "against nature" (para phusin). Those who claim that Paul’s use of phusis is ambiguous or an extraneous borrowing from Stoic thought fail to appreciate the extent to which Paul’s use of Hellenistic terminology is colored by his profound understanding of salvation history drawn from the Old Testament and his personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Paul’s perspective on homosexuality presumes a theology of creation, not simply an aversion to sex orgies in the name of divine worship. Thus we must move on from explicit references to consider the broader biblical themes that have bearing on the subject.
The Sense of Scripture
The Reformed tradition has never been content to make theological judgments based on isolated biblical texts. Rather, it seeks to determine God’s will for human life in the light of Scripture as the unified witness to God’s saving acts culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christian ethical reflection is informed by those key doctrines which present the "sense" of Scripture as a coherent whole. A biblical perspective on homosexuality involves the broader understanding of human sexuality as a vital component of the self. Full treatment of the broader subject is far beyond our scope. However, it can be said that the Scripture’s repeated endorsement of heterosexuality as the Creator’s express intent is far more significant for our understanding than the few negative pronouncements concerning homosexuality. Further, when God’s will for human sexuality becomes the focus, we approach the subject in a way that implicates all of us.
When Paul rejects homosexual acts on the grounds that they are "against nature" he expresses and reaffirms the clear sense of Scripture: Human sexuality was created for heterosexual expression. This is not to say that human sexuality must result in physical acts. The New Testament legitimates sexual abstinence and affirms the celibate life as a gift of the Spirit given to some persons (I Cor. 7:1-7). The above conclusion only means that when human sexuality becomes functional, the nexus should be male-female. When the subject of homosexuality is raised, the majority of modern opinion still seems to be: "People weren’t made to be that way." If such opinion is expressed with fear, loathing, or recrimination, as is often the case, it must be pitied and resisted. When the same statement is made in humility and with compassion, it may be considered biblical:
Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female…and the two shall become one? (Matt. 19:4-5).
The differentiation of the sexes is an indelible mark of creation (Gen. 1:27; 2:18ff.), an enduring constant despite its distortions in the fall (Gen. 3:17), and one necessary focus of Christ’s redemptive work.
In the second creation narrative (Gen. 2) the Lord God detects only one dissonant note in the creative harmony. "It is not good that man (ish) should be alone" (v. 18). Man’s restless incompleteness remains until the Lord God acts to make the "fit helper" for him. Woman (ishah) is extracted from the man’s very self, yet she is so enticingly different! The man’s ecstatic song of joy (v. 23) celebrates both their oneness and their essential differentiation. Man and woman come to know themselves fully only in the presence of one another. They are driven to seek union and completeness in the physical act by which they again become "one flesh." The creation account in Genesis 1 is more terse but equally significant:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen. 1:27).
One humanity is created but again in definite sexual distinction. The plural "he created them" is an intentional contrast to the preceding "he created him." This juxtaposition rules out any notion of an originally androgynous being. Both male and female appear when mankind is created. Each is an equal bearer of the image of God. Each is created as "Thou" for the other. In their sexual separateness, each is complemented and completed only by the other.
The purpose of this essential sexual differentiation now becomes clear. "One flesh" implies much more than a physical union. The image of God as relatedness includes sexual oneness while extending far beyond it. Genesis 2 stresses sexuality as a bodily drive toward psychic fulfillment, interpersonal wholeness, the completion of the total self in a relationship of communion on all levels of being. Genesis 1 shares this emphasis while identifying the other telos of human sexuality. God instructs the male and female: "Be fruitful and multiply" (v. 28). This command may seem less urgent in an overpopulated world, but it has theological significance. The procreative purpose makes the Creator’s heterosexual ordering of creation even more apparent. Roman Catholic thought has tended to accentuate the procreational purpose. Protestant tradition has cited the relational intent as sufficient reason to free sexual intercourse from procreational necessity. But neither have doubted that God’s will is fully expressed only in the unity of the two. It is not convincing to argue, as some in the homosexual context do, that the divine relational purpose of sex can stand alone to justify any homosexual act done in love. Procreation need not result from every sexual act, but it testifies to the fact that within the sexual act is a divinely ordered potential which only man and woman can make actual.
The Bible makes no grudging or reluctant admission of human sexuality. Heterosexual love is celebrated! The original man greets his bride with ecstatic song (Gen. 2:23). Proverbs urges a husband to faithfully "rejoice with the wife of thy youth" (5:18). The Song of Solomon spares little detail in its rhapsody of sensual delight. The psalmists and prophets compare Yahweh’s covenant with his people to a marriage bond. Paul urges mutual love and submission in marriage (1 Cor. 7:4) and sees in the mysterious, mutual attraction of husband and wife a metaphorical expression for the love which binds Christ to his church (Eph. 5:32). Thus, the sense of Scripture expresses rejoicing that human beings are heterosexual by nature, that is, by God’s creative intent. Man and woman together become sexually fulfilled only within a binding relationship of interdependence, fidelity, and self-giving love.
We have now reached a conclusion which is both reassuring and fraught with danger. Heterosexuality is not only normal; it is normative. Homosexual acts are contrary to the will of God for human sexuality. These statements may be distressing to some homosexuals and a matter of indifference to others. They may bring a healthy reassurance to the Christian heterosexual seeking moral guidance in evaluating a complex contemporary issue. They may offer counsel to youth, parents, and others in an era of sexual confusion and exploitation. But our conclusion may also be a grave stumbling block to the church, an occasion for pride and hypocrisy. It is one matter to affirm that self-chosen homosexual acts are sinful. It is quite another to reject, defame, and excoriate the humanity of the person who performs them. This distinction has often been missed. It is possible and necessary on biblical grounds to identify homosexuality as a departure from God’s intent. However, as the creation story makes clear, all human sexuality suffered in the fall (Gen. 3:16).
The conclusion to Paul’s diagnosis of the human condition is most relevant:
For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:22-23).
No man or woman may claim that their sexual life or any other aspect of their fallen humanity fulfills the Creator’s original intent. Heterosexuality in itself is no "righteous work" which can justify a person before God. No sexual act is an expression of pure, self-giving love. No marriage achieves the complete, "I-Thou" communion which Scripture terms "one flesh." Selfishness, exploitation, promiscuous thoughts (Matt. 5:28) if not actions, and other evils taint every heterosexual in their sexuality. Persons who populate Reformed church pews should need no lecture on total depravity, only encouragement to apply this sense of Scripture to the subject at hand. Despite the compulsive fear and loathing which homosexuality arouses in our society, there are no theological grounds on which a homosexual may be singled out for a greater measure of judgment. All persons bear within them the marks of the fall.
The above statements do not imply a suspension of ethical judgment or a leveling of all moral conduct. They do mean that all persons, regardless of sexual orientation or conduct, stand in need of God’s redeeming grace in Jesus Christ and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. The righteousness which we do not possess and cannot establish by good works, sexual or otherwise, is given as a free gift of grace (Rom. 5:17). It is through faith and not moral rectitude that we are saved. To complete the gospel message, however, we must note carefully that Jesus preached repentance as the doorway to the kingdom, and Romans 6 follows quickly upon Romans 5:
Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom. 6:1-2).
The love of God is not indiscriminate nor is his grace "cheap." Faith can never license a lifestyle of intentional sin. New life emerges only from the "death" of the old. Paul, and later Calvin, demonstrated the essential link between justification and sanctification. Man is accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness and then given power to begin acting according to that righteousness in his own life. Sin remains, but it has been dethroned (Rom. 6:14).
For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification (Rom. 6:19).
The Christian life necessarily entails a putting to death of sin and the progressive renewal of the self in every area of personality. The Holy Spirit is the dynamic force which empowers this transformation of life and leads to personal wholeness (Rom. 8:11; Gal. 5:16ff.).
The gospel is good news to all persons in their sexual brokenness. In an age when curative functions have been largely handed over to the physician and therapist, the church must not underestimate the decisive role which the Spirit can play in a person’s quest for wholeness or fail to emphasize the healing potentialities inherent in the good news which Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated. To those who practice homosexual perversion (see crucial distinction between perversion and inversion, below) the gospel offers not only a mandate to change, but also spiritual resources to draw upon in that struggle. To the church in its dealings with the homosexual, the gospel offers not only a mandate to Christian love, but also the spiritual resources needed to become a redemptive community.
Scripture affirms that it is within the body of believers and through the body that the Holy Spirit works to bring life and growth, strength and healing to its members and to those outside. The time is overdue for the homosexual to be accepted by the church as one who bears the image of God no less than others and whose need of God’s saving grace is equally great. This does not mean that a homosexual’s journey toward wholeness is not a steep, uphill climb. The path is often marked by profound inner conflicts, anxiety, and loneliness. Preachments and platitudes will not help, nor will a spirit of judgment. A caring, person-centered ministry is imperative. The homosexual must be affirmed as a person even while his/her acts of perversion cannot be. And this caring affirmation of the person must precede and extend beyond any rejection of the person’s acts. In the church’s pastoral ministry, ignorance must give way to knowledge of the complexities involved in the homosexual condition and the immense obstacles to its resolution. Finally, while calling the homosexual to repent of his/her perversion, the church must also repent of its revulsion and fear. The Holy Spirit does his work among those whose mutual dependence upon God’s grace is acknowledged and shared. Only in that climate of grace are persons freed to face themselves honestly and to become open to the transforming love of Christ as it becomes embodied in the fellowship of believers.
The Human Sciences
Responsible biblical interpretation must take into account the relevant empirical evidence concerning its subject. While use of the term homosexual (or heterosexual) is necessary, it must be recognized as an abstraction. By referring to a segment of humanity on the basis of sexual behavior, one makes discourse about them possible, but at the cost of their individual personhood. Sexuality is but one dimension of the self emerging from and expressing each inimitable and complex individual gestalt. Beneath every individual act, sexual and otherwise, are the complex inner drives and motivations which give rise to it. Similar acts result from a diversity of motivations and these motivations, in turn, from a myriad of biological, psychic, and social sources.
Nowhere is this complexity more obvious than in the homosexual phenomenon and the plethora of scientific opinion as to its nature, cause, and cure. Theories abound among therapists, physicians, sociologists and other experts, but a consensus is not within sight. Is homosexuality a disease? Four years ago the board of the American Psychiatric Association determined that it is not. A recent poll of 2,500 member psychiatrists revealed that 69 percent disagree.1 What causes homosexuality? Factors most frequently hypothesized include hormonal imbalance, genetic abnormality, distorted psychosexual development due to unhealthy parent-child relationships, and external factors such as adolescent experimentation with conditioning effects and peer group pressure. Of these factors, the weight of scholarly opinion points to some form of distorted psychosexual development. Homosexuality has no identifiable common cause but results from a combination of one or more factors in varying degrees in different individuals.
This conclusion has significance for biblical interpretation and Christian ethical reflection. A considerable body of scientific research and opinion distinguishes between homosexual perversion and homosexual inversion. Kinsey’s widely-quoted research revealed that 37 percent of the male population surveyed had at least some overt homosexual experience to the point of orgasm. Ten percent of white males were preponderantly homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 65, while four percent were and apparently remained "exclusively" homosexual after the onset of adolescence.2 (Research among females or minority groups is less extensive or conclusive.) Shocking as Kinsey’s statistics may be, they do support the distinction between pervert and invert, and give further indication of the complexity of the homosexual phenomenon. The term perversion is used to designate homosexual acts engaged in by persons whose basic sexual orientation remains heterosexual. Perverts choose to act contrary to their predominant orientation. Such perversion may include temporary adolescent experimentation, neurotic adult pleasure-seeking, or situational instances in which heterosexuals engage in homosexual acts while isolated from persons of the opposite sex, e.g., in prisons, the military, etc.3 Kinsey’s research suggests that the vast majority of homosexual acts (33 out of 37 percent) are instances of heterosexual perversion.
When we consider the remaining four percent, however, we are dealing with representatives of very different homosexual type. Homosexual inversion is a condition resulting not from conscious choice but from determinative factors over which the person has no control: genetic, hormonal, or psychosocial damage done in infancy and early childhood. Unlike the pervert, the invert does not decide to become a homosexual. Rather, his/her orientation comes as a painful discovery during some developmental stage, usually adolescence. The homosexual invert has no more choice in the matter of sexual attraction than does the "normal" heterosexual. It must be noted further, that homosexual inversion has not lent itself readily to medical or psychotherapeutic treatment. While statistics regarding invert reorientation are not promising, nonetheless, change cannot be ruled out and help should be sought.
The distinction between homosexual perversion and inversion is crucial to Christian ethical reflection. First, its recognition demonstrates a willingness to face the homosexual issue with some regard for its inherent complexity and with the awareness that simple answers are not always adequate to complex reality.
Secondly, this distinction should serve to strengthen the church in its normative stance. When it is understood that most homosexual acts are performed by persons with some measure of heterosexual orientation, the urgency of the church’s moral witness becomes obvious. Contrary to popular opinion, evidence suggests that most homosexuals do have some measure of choice. Thus, the church cannot abandon the adolescent struggling to achieve sexual identity, the ambivalent adult, or the neurotic gay bar "cruiser" to the painful vagaries of a promiscuous culture or the ethical relativism of our time. While avoiding simplistic and obnoxious social crusades, the church must affirm through its preaching and pastoral ministry that homosexuality is not an acceptable, alternative lifestyle. God’s gracious intent for human sexual fulfillment is the permanent bond of heterosexual love. This redemptive word must be spoken, with sensitivity, caring, and clarity to any person who would make a perverted sexual choice, and to society as a whole.
Finally, the distinction noted above means that the church must learn to deal differently with persons who are homosexual by constitution and not by choice. Although a minority, they are numbered in the millions. One has no reason to doubt that inverts are also numbered among laity and clergy of the Reformed Church in America. The inverts’ presence, often clouded by fear of discovery, loneliness, and guilt, and the shape of the church’s ministry toward them, are the most challenging issues which emerge from a study of the biblical perspective on homosexuality. As demonstrated above, Paul’s indictment and the sense of Scripture as a whole define homosexual behavior as a conscious act of horizontal rebellion, a willful perversion of one’s basic heterosexual nature, a bad "exchange" made by choice. Scripture does not refer to the problem of homosexual acts which emerge in accord with one’s conscious, sexual orientation and not against it. As Jesus remained silent on the entire subject, so the biblical writers did not address the human condition now known as homosexual inversion. It does not follow from this fact, however, that the heterosexual norm is less binding, as many in the homosexual context aver, or that any sexual act accords with God’s will if it is performed in fidelity, trust, and love. The norm expressed in creation and reaffirmed in Jesus’ own teaching is not abrogated by the fact that some persons cannot conform to it, any more than it is set aside because some persons will not live by it.
We cannot fail to recognize, however, one basic axiom of ethical reflection and common sense: a person cannot be blamed for a situation over which he/she has neither control nor choice. There is firm biblical support and every humane reason to understand the invert’s predicament as evidence of the problem of evil, rather than sin. As the Bible makes clear, the tragic effects of the fall were precipitated by a chosen act of rebellion, but they extended far beyond it. Sin’s result is cosmic disorder on a grand scale in which the innocent suffer along with the guilty. Evil erupts in natural disasters, accidents, and disease, while the whole creation "groans in travail" and longs for its redemption (Rom. 8:22f.). Stated simply, the homosexual invert is no more to be blamed for his/her condition than a retarded child. It follows, then, that the church’s ministry to the invert may best begin with the attempt to lift a burden of guilt that need not be carried. Inverts may not idealize their orientation as a legitimate alternative, but neither should they blame themselves for their sexual orientation.4
The most vexing ethical question is posed by persons who maintain that although homosexual inversion is not a sin, the decision to act it out is. Here the church’s tolerance of ambiguity will be tested by the need to offer hope as well as morality. Here, also, the intersection of Christian ethics and pastoral ministry is clearly focused. Ethical judgments weigh upon the lives of real people whose aspirations and needs are at once spiritual, psychological, and physical. Judgments must be made, but not without regard to the amount of weight each individual is able to bear. The homosexual person’s decision will not be made with the objectivity of the ethicist or the discrimination of a deliberative, ecclesiastical body. If the church is involved at all in the personal decision, we may hope it will be through the ministry of a sensitive and skilled lay or clergy counselor. Here the church’s primary role must be pastoral. Informed by biblical interpretation and theological reflection, the church’s ministry to homosexual persons should receive careful consideration. The scope of a pastoral ministry to homosexuals will be the subject of an additional study which the Theological Commission will submit to General Synod in 1979.
Approval of the homosexual orientation or acts is not a prerequisite to firm support of basic civil rights for homosexual persons. Sexual conduct is primarily an ethical question and not the concern of criminal law, except when sexual acts are committed against minors or public decency or when they involve rape or prostitution. Criminal laws to deter such acts are in force and applicable to both heterosexual and homosexual persons. Statistical evidence denies any allegation that homosexual persons are more inclined to commit violent crimes than heterosexual persons. Further statistical comparisons indicate, for example, that a child is no more likely to be seduced by a homosexual teacher or youth worker than by a heterosexual in the same role. Therefore, legislation specifically directed toward homosexual persons is unnecessary and constitutes a prejudicial attempt to legislate private morality.
Sincere and legitimate concern is sometimes expressed by parents and other adults concerning the possible negative effects of homosexual role models on children and adolescents. While this concern is valid in instances where homosexuality is espoused or flaunted, parents should recognize that negative sexual role models abound in our permissive and promiscuous society. Human sexuality is debased and exploited in advertising, in the media, and on the street in many unseemly ways. Inevitably, young people will observe some persons who act out their sexuality in an irresponsible manner. Although youth cannot be isolated from such influences, they do need guidance in discerning right from wrong and making moral judgments in sexual matters. Here the teaching ministry of the church as well as the healthy sexual modeling and nurturing role of parents in the Christian home are crucial to a child’s maturing sexual awareness and identity. The church should also respond to the need for a constructive Christian social witness in matters of sexual values and conduct. Concern for youth is better expressed in these positive ways than through blanket, discriminatory sanctions against all persons of one sexual type.
While we cannot affirm homosexual behavior, at the same time we are convinced that the denial of human and civil rights to homosexuals is inconsistent with the biblical witness and Reformed theology.
1 Reported in Time Magazine, February 20, 1978, p. 102.
2 Alfred C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (W. B. Saunders Co., 1948) pp. 651ff. While the Kinsey reports are weak at certain points, they represent the most exhaustive scientific studies available and must be relied upon until better research is forthcoming.
3 H. Kimball Jones, Toward a Christian Understanding of the Homosexual (New York: Association Press, 1966), pp. 20ff.
4 Lewis B. Smedes, Sex for Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), p. 71f. Cf. Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 283f.