Saturday, March 30, 2019

Gospel-Centered Sexuality: A Biblical Response to Same-Sex Attraction, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity

As the so-called culture war rages, Christians across western society and the blogosphere have sought to arm themselves for battle. Constructs such as same-sex attraction, sexual orientation, and fluid definitions of gender identity have drawn particular fire. Often the Christian strategy in countering these things can be summarized in the sloganeered, biblical-sounding principle of “love the sinner but hate the sin.” The idea is that sinful acts can be condemned in the public square in a manner that portrays God’s love. Yet the tide continues to roll in with greater and greater acceptance across society—and even within the church—of not only behaviors but sexuality-centered identities that were inconceivable half a century ago. “Love the sinner but hate the sin” has failed as an engagement strategy, both in terms of failing to sway public opinion or behavior, but also—and more tragically—in failing to engage lost souls with the saving news of the gospel.

There are two reasons that this approach seems to fail. First, it is based upon terms defined from a secular, not a biblical worldview. Second, it frames the issue on moral rather than spiritual terms, omitting core elements of gospel truth and instead using the Bible as mere source material for a tit-for-tat counter-argument. The consequences of this are that the message fails to point others to Christ, resulting in lost sinners remaining lost and saved sinners ill-equipped to turn from sin.

Language and Context

How we frame these issues, and the language we use to discuss them, matters. If you are a follower of Christ, you did not become so in a vacuum. You heard and received the message of the gospel in a particular language, at a particular time in history, and within a specific culture (and sub-culture). For you to understand the gospel, and in particular to understand your need for the gospel, it had to be communicated to you within a language, time, and cultural context with which you could connect. For example, if you were raised in the United States and someone preached Paul’s sermon to the Athenians found in Acts 17:22-34, it is unlikely that you would connect with Paul’s call to repent from worshiping idols made of “gold or silver or stone.” On the other hand, this sermon is an outstanding example of contextualizing the message of the gospel to a language, time, culture, and worldview. The fundamental call to turn away from whatever we’ve been worshiping and instead turn to God and his means for our salvation remains the same throughout the entirety of the Bible, but how that message is contextualized in language and culture has varied both within the Bible and since the completion of the canon. In other words, the message stays the same, but the language and cultural context within which it can be encased for consumption has varied almost limitlessly over time.

Because of the need to relate eternal truths in temporal language and cultural contexts, it is helpful to reflect a bit on the language and cultural context we are in here and now, in the United States 21 centuries after the birth of Christ. The idea is to recognize that language, culture, and history are not neutral players in the war for the souls of a lost and dying world. There are two notions in particular which color much of the worldview of people in the United States (and much of Western civilization) and which are vital to be accounted for when contextualizing the gospel in this setting.

First is the elevation of tolerance to a pursuit for its own sake. This is explicitly the case in progressive culture and mainstream media, but it is also evident in its implicit effects on the counter-narrative put forth by many Christians. It is a badge of honor for some that they are not “politically correct.” Implied here is a sort of rejection of the tolerance-for-its-own-sake narrative. What is important about tolerance is that violation of it is perceived as an inherent vice. That is to say, tolerance isn’t considered a problem because it necessarily leads to some other more awful thing. Rather, it is itself the awful thing. Much more could be said about tolerance, but this is not our primary aim. The key takeaway is to remember that tolerance is widely considered our society’s noblest pursuit, and that intolerance ought to be our greatest enemy. Therefore, when contextualizing the gospel message for one who is not a believer, language that is perceived as intolerant can be expected to be met with rejection or dismissal, and perhaps even strong negative emotional responses. The exclusivity of the gospel as the only means for salvation will necessarily evoke the charge of intolerance, but we also want to guard against carelessly exposing the gospel message to unnecessary claims of intolerance.

Second is the value of scientific explanations above all other explanations. This belief is so ingrained in our society that the naturalistic and mechanistic philosophies that underlie modern scientific pursuits have become completely invisible actors in our worldview. The very notion that there is anything “philosophical” about science is absurd to most. Again, much more could be said on this, but the takeaway for our purposes here is that scientific explanations for things are accepted almost unquestioningly in our society, and a message which seems to contradict science is likely to be dismissed or rejected.

These two ideas are important to keep in mind when communicating God’s truth in our context. The point is not to avoid anything unscientific or that could sound intolerant. Rather, it is a call to be intentional with our language. Tolerance and science are not inherently sinful, and therefore are not the natural enemies of God’s truth. The last thing we want to do is to be careless in how we present our Savior to a world who desperately needs him. We must be aware of how our language may sound to our audience. To ensure that it is God’s truth we are proclaiming, wherever possible we must use biblical language to allow the Bible to tell its own story.

Let’s Talk About Sex

The “love the sinner hate the sin” discourse on sex and identity falls short by simultaneously exposing the gospel to unnecessary claims of intolerance while also blurring clear biblical teaching in a haze of fallen-world semantics. Both arise from the same flawed strategy of allowing the world to set and define the terms of the conversation and attempting to apply biblical truth retrospectively.
“Sexual orientation,” “same-sex attraction,” and “non-binary gender identity” are phrases you will not find in the Bible. Certainly there are biblical principles that apply in some way to each, but none is explicitly defined in scripture. When we start combining these terms with the Bible’s teaching, we often end up saying things that the Bible doesn’t explicitly say. While our interpretations may be logically and even hermeneutically sound, I’d suggest they are not always helpful in promoting biblical faith, especially in addressing those who are not believers. On the one hand, we end up prematurely turning people away from the gospel when we condemn nonbiblical ideas with biblical language. On the other hand, when we attempt to hold these terms as neutral and apply biblical principles in an effort to redeem them, we blur the lines of clear biblical teaching and may end up approving of something sinful. I advocate using the Bible’s terms rather than world’s, and build our gospel message around the Bible’s language.

If I use the Bible as a reference book for developing tit-for-tat arguments against worldly concepts, I remove biblical truth from its natural habitat within a biblical worldview. Rather, our response should always point to the deeper biblical worldview that underpins specific biblical teachings. More importantly, our entire approach to engagement on moral issues should begin and end with our sole purpose for engaging the lost on any issue: to make and baptize disciples and teach them to obey Christ’s commands (Matthew 28:19-20). The fundamental flaw in the tit-for-tat discourse is that it begins with “teaching them to obey” before they are even disciples, painting the gospel as a burden rather than a liberation.

This is not to propose that we remain silent in the public square on the issue of sin. Rather, it is a call to keep sin in its proper, biblical perspective.

To illustrate this, if I am asked by someone who is not a Christian if I believe that “being gay is a sin,” my internal (if not voiced) response is, “it depends on what you mean by ‘being,’ what you mean by ‘gay,’ and what you mean by ‘sin.’” The Bible offers, on its own terms, ample means for addressing each of these in ways that do not unnecessarily alienate those earnestly seeking the Lord, and that also do not dilute that which we will teach the disciple to obey. However, if we offer a simple “yes” or “no” answer we may end up failing in both regards.

Why Do You Ask?

Before I would attempt to answer this question, I first want to understand the questioner’s reason for asking. The reason could be nefarious, such as to bait me into a response that can be painted as intolerant—or worse. The reason could be curiosity, such as a person who may have heard that Christians oppose homosexuality but who has never had the opportunity to talk with a Christian about this position. On a more personal level, the person may be looking for acceptance. Often, the implied question behind the question is, “Am I a sinner?” For this reason, I would begin by providing a context for understanding what sin is, what it isn’t, and why it even matters.

Sins vs Sin

When talking about sin with someone who is not yet a believer, I find it helpful to address the distinction between “sins” and “sin.” Paul teaches in Romans that the Old Testament law, which among other things contains detailed examples of various kinds of sins, exists to illustrate for us our fallen nature and need for deliverance (Romans 7:7). In other words, specific sins are best understood as symptoms of our underlying sin condition, that fundamental separation from God (Isaiah 59:2) that only God himself can bridge (Ephesians 2:8-9). To this end, our gospel presentation must emphasize that any specific sin (even sexual immorality) in and of itself does not condemn us; rather a specific sin is best understood as a symptom of our underlying sin problem, and what condemns us is rejecting the salvation offered only through Christ (John 3:18-19). We must not talk about sins without talking about sin, and we must not talk about sin without pointing to the only cure for sin: faith in Christ and his sacrifice on our behalf.

Ideally the conversation will remain in this realm, with a compassionate and bold sharing of the gospel. I find it is often most helpful to highlight the problem of sin by focusing on the broken relationship between the lost sinner and their Creator. Here I find the Life on Mission “Three Circles” approach (and app) helpful, because the gospel presentation begins with God’s good design for his creation and how we departed from that good design through sin. I’ll also often point to a specific sin related to the broken relationship with God to illustrate the idea of sins as symptoms of underlying sin. For example, I might say, “The Bible teaches that I was created to love God with all my heart, all my mind, and all my strength. If I have ever failed to do so, or if I have ever loved something more than I love God, even for a moment, then that is a sin, and is evidence of my broken relationship with God.” I always strive to keep the relationship with God at the center of the conversation, as reconciling this relationship is at the center of the gospel itself (Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).

If, after this, the conversation still demands addressing the original question of the sinfulness (or not) of “being gay,” the ground we’ve now already covered in providing a biblical framework for understanding what sin is and why it matters sets the stage for a more thoughtful and biblically sound discussion. Most importantly, we’ve already begun to allow the Bible to define the terms, and we will do well to continue to do so as we cautiously and prayerfully proceed.

Gay or Straight, We’re All Crooked

Assuming we have already defined sin in biblical terms and provided a basic gospel presentation, if our conversant wishes to continue with the original query about “being gay,” I would continue where we left off with God’s good design for his creation, to include sexuality, and then the nature of sexual immorality in general. This is, after all, how the Bible tells its own story. I believe we have forfeited much ground in the cause for the gospel by singling out specific sins—especially specific sexual sins—from their biblical context. It is never helpful to speak of a particular sexual behavior without, at a minimum, defining sin and salvation; usually it will also be helpful to encase it in a broader context of sexual immorality in general.

The Bible teaches that everything God created is good (Genesis 1:31), but that once sin entered the world through man’s disobedience, corruption entered, not only in our behaviors but into nature itself (Romans 8:19-22). We also know that God created people in his image and that part of bearing that image is that we are male and female (Genesis 1:27); in that same context we learn that the purpose of sexuality is for reproduction (Genesis 1:28), and that the bond that is created through the sexual union of a man with a woman is a fundamental aspect of the marriage relationship, and that sexuality in this context bears no mark of shame or guilt (Genesis 2:24-25). But, this also was a casualty of the fall. Our natural sexual desires, which God created to be good, have been corrupted like so many of our other natural desires and can lead us astray (James 1:14-15). So the naturalness of a desire is not an indicator of its goodness. Rather, sexual activity outside of the context—whether before, in addition to, or instead of—a marriage between one woman and one man constitutes sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 7:2). Furthermore, even thinking about sexual activity with someone other than our covenant marriage partner constitutes sexual immorality (Matthew 5:28). Unless a person is truly asexual, all people have equal likelihood at some point in their life of exhibiting some sort of sexual immorality. And any such episode of sin, no matter how fleeting, is evidence of our underlying sin problem that only can be addressed through Christ’s redemptive work on our behalf.

One grave by-product of condemning specific sexual behaviors in the public square has been the implication that one form of sexual immorality is more sinful than another. While the earthly consequences of one may be less apparent than another (for example, contracting a sexually transmitted infection through promiscuity versus contracting a distorted view of sex from viewing pornography), the eternal consequence of each sin is exactly the same. An implied hierarchy has the effect of pointing people toward supposedly less-sinful behaviors as potential remedies, rather than pointing people toward the one and only remedy for all sin, faith in Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
This error is particularly apparent in the way Christians have often addressed homosexual behavior or transgender identity. The remedy for the former is not heterosexual behavior and the remedy for the latter is not a cisgender identity. Rather, the answer to both is an identity grounded in Christ, which begins with saving faith, not with correcting immoral behavior (Ephesians 2: 8-9). When Christians speak out against specific sins on moral grounds, we risk implying a works-based gospel, which is no gospel at all.

We also distort the gospel when we use the world’s terms rather than biblical terms. The world talks about “being gay” in terms of orientation, in terms of biology, in terms of identity. The idea is that we are born the way we are, and we are that way to our very core. The Bible does not explicitly address sexual orientation, but it has important things to say about biology and even more important things to say about identity.

Sexual orientation was the brainchild of Freud, and is neither biblical nor was it derived from empirical or scientific inquiry. Building a gospel presentation or a discipleship plan around it is problematic because doing so implicitly regards as factual an aspect of human functioning that the Bible does not present. From a biblical perspective, the fundamental flaw of holding an LGBTQ+ orientation is not that it is not heterosexual. In fact, I’d propose that a heterosexual “orientation” is every bit as sinful as an LGBTQ+ orientation. A sexual orientation is an enduring pattern, a fundamental building block of a person’s identity. The Bible teaches that though sexuality is an important characteristic of our God-given design (Genesis 1:27-28), it is not the center of that design (1 Corinthians 6:13). To define oneself by sexuality is to miss the fundamental purpose for which you were created. In 10,000 years it will not matter one lick how you identified along any sexual orientation continuum. Only one of two possible identities will matter: sinner destined for destruction, or sinner saved by grace (Ephesians 2:4-5; Ephesians 5:8). Our cultural engagement with the gospel must focus single-mindedly on developing the latter identity.

So, putting it all together, here’s how I might respond to the question, “Do you believe being gay is a sin?”

It depends on what you mean by “gay,” what you mean by “being,” and what you mean by “sin.” First and foremost, I believe that we are all created in God’s image, and all are equally loved and valued by God. That is the first definition of “being.” But I also believe in the Bible’s teaching that we all have a sin problem that fundamentally separates us from God and keeps us from the relationship with him for which we were created. The Bible teaches that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength. That means that if for even one moment I have ever loved anything else—even myself—more than God, then I am guilty of breaking at least one commandment. That is sin. There are also a lot of other sins, and everybody commits piles of them. Those individual sins are specific “symptoms” of our underlying sin “disease.” The Bible teaches what the symptoms are so that we’ll understand that we have a disease and need a cure, and that there is only one cure that works. Jesus called it being “born again,” because it is God giving us new life, making us new creations. One of the individual sins described in the Bible is sexual immorality. There are lots of examples of sexual immorality in the Bible; Jesus said that sexual immorality even includes just thinking about sexually immoral things. The Bible also states that engaging in sexual behavior with someone of the same sex is one kind of sexual immorality. But let me emphasize that that one sin is not what condemns a person to God’s punishment for sin. Rather, the Bible teaches that rejecting God’s gift of salvation is what condemns a person. So, do I believe being gay is a sin? I believe that if I define my identity by my sexual attractions, that is a signal that I am missing out on who God created me really to be. Not only this, God’s wrath destroys sin (Romans 1:18); if I build my identity around a sinful desire, I am inviting my own eternal destruction.

Gender Identity

The same basic approach holds equally to addressing gender identity concerns. While we can build a case for exclusive male and female, biologically determined gender from the pages of scripture, the more fundamental issue isn’t that the person has departed from that biblical binary. Rather, it is that the person is defining themselves in a fundamentally different way than God does. We are all created in God’s image; we are also all sinners who have earned destruction for ourselves by our rejection of God, whom God seeks to reconcile through the saving work that Christ did on our behalf. Until we align our sense of our identity with what the Bible teaches is our identity, any efforts at change will lack eternal significance. To that end, the biblical response to a lost person’s questions about gender identity is to point them to their identity in scripture as a created being with whom God wants to reconcile a broken relationship.

Bottom Line Points to Remember
  • Always keep the goal of making and baptizing disciples the first priority, and remember no one can be taught to obey before they have become a disciple
  • Remember that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, that’s not our job; our job is to provide a faithful witness to our need for salvation that only comes from Christ
  • Always address sin in general and its natural consequences in general before discussing specific sins
  • Always address why sin matters before teaching whether something is sinful
  • Never discuss a specific sin without pointing to the gospel, the only true cure for sin
  • Always use the Bible’s own language wherever possible