In its 1978 report to the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, its Theological Commission presented a study document entitled "Homosexuality: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal." That document serves as the theological context for this paper. The commission sets forth in this study the responsibility of the church to the homosexual who turns to it for help.
The story of the church’s dealings with the homosexual is mostly a story of ignorance, ineptitude, and ill will. For centuries both church and society have used legal punishment and severe moral censure to control or eradicate homosexuality. The approach proved worse than useless, and in employing it the church denied its essential nature and failed the homosexual. Falling readily into the role of the elder brother (Luke 15:25-30), the church either drives homosexuals underground, or, if acknowledging them, at best extends conditional affection. At worst, the church excludes homosexuals leaving them the choice either of isolating themselves or joining the homosexual community. Through this paper the Theological Commission voices its conviction that when the church is true to her Lord’s intention for her she will be God’s instrument for extending refuge, new beginnings, and healing to all whom life has damaged or overwhelmed, excluding no one.
The Church’s Pastoral Responsibility
During his final days on earth Jesus instructed his followers to cultivate mutual love and unity of spirit (John 17:20-23), to do works of mercy (Matt. 25:37-40), and to bear witness to God’s good news in Christ. Jesus made no exceptions to these instructions. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). He did not demand instant sanctification of those who responded nor did he impose on them severe sanctions for failure. "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:29-30). The Christian fellowship is instructed to extend Christ’s invitation freely to all.
The climate of the Christian church is to be receptive, gentle, and humble. Christians are to think of themselves as a household, a grateful family of redeemed sinners and not as a club for the socially approved. In this fellowship there is time to learn what faith in Christ is to mean for one’s character and pattern of life. The faithful are to understand that becoming mature in Christ is at best uneven and often painfully slow. The Good Shepherd entered the lives of those who needed him without condescension. He responded to people’s needs with respect, concern, solace, healing, and challenge to new life. This spirit marks his church whenever it is faithful to her Lord. Jesus teaches us that what is basic and most important about a person is always larger and deeper than anything negative presently associated with him or her.
Toward the penitent, Jesus was unfailingly compassionate. The guilt-ridden and the despised found him an unfailing source of forgiveness, renewal, and hope. As Christ’s agents on earth, the church must be conscious of persons who understand the biblical teaching on forgiveness but who cannot appropriate God’s forgiveness unless and until they experience the forgiveness of fellow Christians. When the Christian withholds his forgiveness from those whom God has freely forgiven, he presumes to sit in judgment on God as well as on the penitent. Maturing in Christ begins with confession of sin. Freedom to confess openly and fully requires a climate of love, trust, and forgiveness. John Calvin sums up the destructiveness of an unforgiving spirit with his comment that "without the hope of forgiveness, men are stupefied in their sins."1 The spirit of judgment silences the penitent. In his enforced silence he is desolate. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, "He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone."2 The church must come to the penitent and the guilt-ridden as the expression of Christ’s forgiveness and hope and joy.
The Homosexual’s Perspective: Reasonable Expectations of the Church
The ministry of reconciliation to the homosexual must not be left to the "gay" church. While a certain affinity grouping within the church seems unavoidable, given the world as it is, the body of Christ is fractured when groups are segregated or find it necessary to segregate themselves from much of the church in order to feel accepted and free to be open about their deep concerns. We believe however, that people now turning to affinity groups should have an option. There should be a place for the homosexual in the Reformed Church in America as well. John Mc Neill points out what the homosexual, and all others, may rightfully expect from a Christian congregation:
Homosexuals will never be able to master their sex drive in a positive way and integrate it successfully into their whole personality development until they are aware of themselves as persons of dignity and worth, worthy of their fellow human’s respect and consideration. For that matter, neither will anyone else.3
If the church is serious about ministering to the homosexual, there are areas of congregational life with which it must come to terms.
Toward elimination of the double standard of morality applied to the homosexual. The church seems arbitrarily to have placed certain sins, homosexuality conspicuously among them, beyond its own responsibility for ministry and, by implication, beyond the reach of God’s grace. As is stated in the previous study, homosexuality is not a sin that is to be singled out for special condemnation. In the Scriptures it appears as one in a list of offenses (e.g., Ex. 18:7-23; 20:9-21; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). There is, after all, nothing in the Christian faith which guarantees exemption from marital problems, cancer, or broken legs. Christians struggle with all the temptations and difficulties of mankind, including a wide range of sexual problems. The Christian faith does, however, provide a helpful perspective on human problems and promises resources for dealing creatively with them. The church’s mission to the homosexual is in most respects the same as it is to the heterosexual: to preach God’s good news of grace and forgiveness through Christ, release to those in bondage and liberty to the oppressed (Luke 4: 18).
The church should acknowledge its sins against the homosexual. The church is obliged to reflect her Lord’s openness to all persons. This includes such obligations as learning what people are really like. If an aggressive apology on behalf of homosexuality is to be deplored, so is homophobia, a compulsive, irrational fear and loathing of those suspected of homosexuality, rooted in ignorance and triggering expressions of rudeness and hatred. Homosexuality is neither to be celebrated nor persecuted. Homophobia must be replaced by a sense of common humanity, the desire to understand, and the determination to put away the sins commonly committed against the homosexual, which include:
- Caricaturing or stereotyping fellow human beings by identifying all homosexuals with the blatant, flaunting "fairy" or female "butch."
- Labeling: reducing a person to some aspect of his behavior, i.e., identifying a person’s sexual orientation with the totality of his being.
- Enjoying disparaging humor at the homosexual’s expense. Most church members would probably not go out of their way to do a homosexual person a bad turn. They are not so much hostile as unconcerned, disinterested in the homosexual’s difficulties, and quite willing to join in derogatory "humor" at his expense or similar expressions of contempt.
The church should make a genuine effort to understand homosexuality. As explicated in the prior paper (Homosexuality: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal), homosexuals frequently have been subdivided into "inverts," who are regarded as exclusively homosexual, and "perverts," who have capacity for heterosexual response but who for a variety of reasons practice homosexuality. The church must be willing to understand and deal with the concrete life situation in which the sexual invert finds himself. It is most unlikely that any invert ever faced himself in the mirror and said to himself, "I’m going to be homosexual." Malcolm Boyd probably speaks for all inverts when he says,
I don’t understand why I’m involved [in homosexuality] and I might just as soon not be because who wants any more problems. But I didn’t dig it up… this is something that has intruded itself directly into my life…4
The sexual invert finds himself trapped in a sexuality he did not deliberately choose yet is expected to contain, a sexuality which is looked upon by society as something not only wrong but revoltingly unclean. He hears people like himself referred to as "queers" and "perverts." How, then, is a decent, sensitive person to cope with the feeling of being unclean and false? Guilt, self-loathing, and a fear of close relations readily become a prominent part of his life. The resulting loneliness makes him vulnerably prone to expect too much too soon from others, e.g., instant, unqualified approval. Such a response is altogether unlikely, leading to disillusionment and despair. Moreover, to be preoccupied with one’s homosexuality, something difficult to avoid, encourages a person to minimize his abilities and qualities of character and to neglect cultivating them. A pervasive sense of futility paralyzes the will and prevents constructive decisions.
There is much we do not know about homosexuality, but we do know that it is a complex phenomenon. The word embraces a wide spectrum of behavior and psychological experiences. Homosexuality is found at all socio-economic levels, in all ethnic groups, in urban areas and in rural areas. Some homosexuals function well in everyday life, while others are maladjusted in varying degree, some to the point of severe disturbance. Some have learned to make their homosexuality a relatively incidental part of their lives while others are dominated by it, sometimes to the point of obsession. Also, there is a wide divergence in sexual responsibility. Homosexuals who become sexually involved only with another consenting adult in the context of a long-term, affectionate relationship must be viewed differently from those promiscuously given to "one night stands." There is, then, as wide a personality variation among homosexuals as among heterosexuals.
The church should know that the pivotal issues in researching homosexuality are by no means definitively resolved. Evelyn Hooker delineated four unresolved major issues.5
- Is the human being psychosexually neutral at birth, so that learning fully determines homosexual object choice, or are there inherent sexual dispositions which influence selectively one’s learning?
- What is the nature and content of the learning processes by which a homosexual object choice develops? Is it a matter of a deviant developmental role model for the child? A model whose personality, motives, and gender identifications are incompatible with adult relations with the opposite sex?
- What are the critical periods in the developmental process for homosexual object choice? Early childhood? Adolescence?
- Are parent-child relations in the nuclear family crucial in determining whether a person becomes homosexual? Or are peer relations in childhood and adolescence and/or deviant subcultures in adolescence or early adulthood of equal or even greater importance.5
- A fifth issue was delineated by Dr. Henry W. Riecken in a letter to the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health.6
- The persistence or plasticity of homosexual phenomena. Are they enduring and unchangeable, as some therapeutic efforts would suggest? Or are they highly transient and temporary, as some anecdotal reports about exclusively male societies would suggest.
- These unresolved issues underscore the fact that in considering homosexuality we are indeed dealing with a complex, imperfectly understood phenomenon about which facile pronouncements are inappropriate. Consensus of scholarship points to multiple causation of the disorder and agrees that it is at best a persistent state which is not easily modified.
The homosexual should reasonably expect personal acceptance and an understanding of the process of sanctification. Healing and growth toward Christian maturity begins with an experience of grace. The church, as a healing fellowship, is to be the earthly expression of God’s gracious acceptance of the penitent. Within this fellowship of love the homosexual must be accepted in his homosexuality. If this is not the case he is left with the choice of leaving the fellowship, wearing the mask of heterosexuality, or being contemptuously condemned. Most choose the mask. The effect is to leave the homosexual feeling hypocritical, unwanted, and unknown. He lives in fear of exposure because this spells rejection. Christian congregations seem more concerned with "instant righteousness" or the appearance of righteousness than with the patient, often painful process of growth in godliness.
Sanctification begins with genuine, responsible self-confrontation before God: "If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive…and to cleanse…" (1 John 1:9). That is to say, if we are to "become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13b), we must begin by removing our masks of propriety and spiritual attainment and joining our fellow Christians in the task of growing together in godliness.
If honesty and responsibility are the preconditions God has laid down for personal healing and growth to take place, it follows that self-justification, self-deception, or self-concealment prevent healing and growth. Whenever a person feels bound to hide important aspects of himself, personal relations, however cordial, remain shallow. Trust is tenuous. One fears putting much stress on a relationship lest it be destroyed. But the homosexual has found the sanctions of society so severe that honesty has seemed a bad bargain. To acknowledge his homosexuality is to invite loss of job, social ostracism, and even physical cruelty.
The difficulty Christian congregations face in any effort to deal openly with homosexuality or any other troublesome problem is that they rarely deal openly with one another about their sins and spiritual struggles. The homosexual in his closet is, then, by no means the only member of the congregation living a double life. Snared in the American obligation to be a success, people feel free to share only their victories. In a context such as this, the idea of anyone s emerging from his closet, whatever his temptation and sin, poses a severe threat. This is the dilemma as the church tries to be the healing fellowship it is intended to be.
Is there a way out of the dilemma? Not if the church persists in looking for easy victories. The way out will require humility, a teachable spirit, prayer, faith, and courage. The church most learn once more that healing and growth in the personal realm is not a case of ever upward and onward. Progress is uneven. Lapses are universal. Christians should be warned against demanding a smooth, effortless, error-free movement toward maturity. Nor should they expect to be able to do it alone, but as members together of Christ’s body (Rom. 12:4,5). In a context such as this idolaters, the covetous, the homosexual, slanderers, the sexually immoral, those who oppress and exploit people, and sinners of all stripes can find the hope and the help they need to become more fully the person God knows and intends them to be.
The Church’s Perspective: Reasonable Expectations of the Homosexual
Just as the homosexual who turns to the church for help brings with him certain reasonable expectations of the church, so the church has reasonable expectations of the homosexuals who seek its help.
Little can be done to help anyone who does not commit himself actively and unreservedly to a life of discipleship. The church may reasonably expect that the homosexual and all others who seek her help will participate regularly in worship and submit themselves to the authority of the Word of God. As the sinner receives God’s gracious acceptance through Jesus Christ, he is freed to respond to "the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:4) and be transformed by the "renewal of [one’s] mind" (Rom. 12:2). The homosexual ought not react helplessly to his homosexuality, but seek instead through maturing in Christ as far as possible to modify or eradicate its negative effect on his life.
As one who has been redeemed, the homosexual is given a new way to think of himself. "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship…The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…" (Rom. 8:15-17). He ought not, then, identify himself primarily with his homosexuality. It is not the most important thing about him. A person’s standing before God as one redeemed and cleansed through Christ is what is most important. The redeemed are to think of themselves as necessary and contributing members of Christ’s body who are being transformed by the power of God so as to "become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13).
The church can also reasonably expect that the homosexual will not regard only that love to be genuine which affirms his homosexual behavior.
Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin…It is a ministry of mercy, an ultimate offer of genuine fellowship, when we allow nothing but God’s word to stand between us, judging and succoring.7
One can love a person without approving those things in him which retard his fullest development.
The homosexual does well not to preoccupy himself with blaming others, though they may have contributed to his discomfort and unhappiness. Nor should he nurse a sense of injustice. We should in no way want to minimize the difficulties of homosexuality. Nursing a sense of injustice, however, furthers nothing constructive. The homosexual must learn to see his fellow Christians as unfinished products who are in many stages of maturity. He must learn to bear with those who cannot yet respond to him with love and encouragement and not let their distance or unkindness overweigh the efforts of those who can and do reach out to him. People need time to overcome negative conditioning. Giving people time to get acquainted often markedly changes attitudes. It is much easier to be hostile toward an abstract category than toward a fellow member of the congregation who sings in the choir and who is making efforts to grow as a Christian.
The church expects its people to be open to new possibilities. The homosexual must not place a ceiling on his capacity for growth. It is important that a person submit his whole self to Christ without excepting his homosexuality. This means letting go of the myth of incurability. A facile, overly optimistic view toward change and healing is unwise, but fatalism is even more so. With a teachable spirit, the desire and determination to find something better, a sense of the presence of Christ, who wills healing and growth, and support of the Christian fellowship much valuable growth can take place. Crucial to the process is the recognition of one’s inability to deal with the problem alone, and the willingness to trust himself fully and openly to someone skilled and understanding.
The Contribution of the Pastor
If the pastor is to be of help to homosexuals, then he must be sensitive to the hopeless frame of mind in which they so often seek out the church. The homosexual needs to experience being known, understood, and loved unconditionally as a person. While the pastor has confidence in the healing power of Christ, this ought not lead him to expect or to suggest the possibility of quick, easy solutions. Premature reassurance fails to enter into the seriousness of the homosexual’s situation. The homosexual should be expected to shoulder all appropriate responsibility but should be assured that he is not alone in his struggle.
Among the most important of the pastor’s contributions is infusing an appropriate emotional climate by word and example. By steady emphasis upon the biblical teachings dealing with grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and fellowship, he helps create a climate of mutual burden-bearing and an expectation of transformation.
The pastor serves as mentor for spiritual development. He is a key figure in sustaining the homosexual on his pilgrimage. The pastor will most likely be involved in any decision the homosexual makes concerning therapy. Pastors ought not be surprised nor dismayed when setbacks occur, but should be prepared to help the person deal with the paralyzing disappointment that can follow from a lapse.
In the final analysis responsibility for a life of discipleship rests with the homosexual himself. The pastor can help both homosexual and Christian community to see that this problem is not unique, but is of the same order as other problems with a strong compulsive element.
1 John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 5, p. 132 (Psalm 130:4).
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, New York. Harpers. 1954. p. 110.
3 John Mc Neill, The Church and the Homosexual. Kansas City. Sheed, Andrews and Mc Meel Inc., 1976. p. 155.
4 Malcolm Boyd, "Interview," The Wittenburg Door. Oct.-Nov., 1977, p. 33.
5 Evelyn Hooker, "Homosexuality," in J. M. Livingood (ed.), National Institute of Mental Health Task Force on Homosexuality: Final Report and Background Papers. p. 12.
6Ibid, p. 71.
7 Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p. 107.