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Compassion - An Alternative Lifestyle
John C. Cress
Don* was apprehensive about returning to church, having put a great deal of distance between himself and the spiritual tradition in which he had been raised. He was fearful that members of the local congregation would misunderstand and reject him because of who he was and where he had been. Throughout most of his adult life Don had actively pursued an openly gay lifestyle. By the time of his return to the church he had been diagnosed as a carrier of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and had begun a process of recovery from both chemical and sexual addictions.
There are not a few like Don. Many pastors and congregations have already grappled with the reality of having homosexuals in their membership or of having them seek it. In the near future many more will. This article suggests ways that churches and their leaders may positively respond to homosexual persons and the issues surrounding them, so that the witness of our congregations may be both prophetically clear and genuinely compassionate toward persons struggling with issues of moral consequence.
Turning down the stereotypes
Homosexuals are often assumed to look and act like certain exaggerated media portrayals - soft, effeminate males and "butch" or over-masculinized females. One pastor quickly discarded his stereotypes when a professional football linebacker attended his services and confided that he was homosexual. Beyond perpetuating gross inaccuracies, such caricatures diminish the humanity of homosexuals, encouraging some people to treat them in ways that they might not otherwise treat individuals from whom they differ and with whom they disagree. Thoughtful Christians will avoid generalizations in favor of a more informed and realistic picture.
Choosing our words carefully
The term homosexual simply describes a sexual orientation. Despite the fact that the terms "gay" and "lesbian" are frequently used as virtual synonyms for the word "homosexual," the terms gay and lesbian more precisely describe attitudinal and behavioral responses to the homosexual orientation, rather than the orientation itself. One may be homosexual but not gay or lesbian in the same way that one may be a "dry alcoholic" - having the inclination to drink but abstaining. Critics of this view point out that homosexual sounds too clinical and that popular culture assumes no semantic difference between gay and homosexual. Some pro-gay activists have embraced the term "queer," seeking to disarm the pejorative label and its intimidating impact. For purposes of clarity and as a means of helping to illuminate God's calling to individuals with same-sex attractions, I use the term homosexual to describe men and women with same-sex orientations but who may or may not be sexually active.
Who is homosexual?
The term homosexuality represents a broad spectrum of desires and behaviors ranging from incidental experiences of arousal or experimentation to lifelong preferences for same-sex intimacy. The seven-point heterosexuality/ homosexuality scale presented by Alfred Kinsey and his associates in their groundbreaking 1948 report on male sexuality in America describes the continuum of experiences for individuals who are exclusively heterosexual (0 on the scale) to those who are exclusively homosexual (6 on the scale).
Thoughtful pastors and churches will distinguish between a person's orientation and his or her choice to act on the basis of and in response to such desires in sexually intimate ways. They should no more condemn persons for their homosexual orientation than they would condemn a heterosexual for desires of an illicit nature. Both must be held to a biblical standard of behavior in spite of their strong inclinations.
Prevalence and problems
A summary of the most objective and thorough research available today suggests that Don was among the approximately 6 percent of the population who experience some type of same-sex relations during his or her lifetime and approximately 1 percent of the population who consistently desire same-sex practices.(1) These figures differ greatly from the popularly accepted myth (based on misinterpretations of skewed data in the Kinsey report) suggesting that 10 percent of the population is homosexual.(2) The 10 percent factor has been often cited to suggest a degree of normalcy for homosexuality. A corresponding leap in logic has allowed many people to conclude that normal equals natural and natural is the equivalent of morally acceptable.
An accurate understanding of the numbers may help the church understand that to the degree that it operates within the surrounding culture and reaches out evangelistically to draw hurting humanity to Christ, it must expect to find persons with homosexual inclinations within its fellowship.
Health problems associated with homosexuality go well beyond the much-publicized, global acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) crisis. Rates of alcohol consumption run twice as high for homosexual males and as much as seven times as high for homosexual females, compared to the general population. Other chemical dependencies are dramatically higher for homosexuals, and a disproportionately high number of homosexuals experience depressive disorders and suicidal thoughts and actions. The incidents of HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), as well as infections from a host of other pathogens and parasites, are dramatically higher among homosexuals, as are certain physiological traumas among males associated with insertive anal intercourse - rectal tearing, chronic incontinence, prostate damage, and hemorrhoids, ulcers, and fissures, which open the system to additional infections.(3)
Activists, seeking to propagate the "gay myth" that homosexuals are as happy and healthy as the rest of the population, minimize the well-documented negative health statistics. Outspoken individuals on the other end of the ideological spectrum, some Christians among them, often diminish their case by exaggerating and sensationalizing the data and vilifying the homosexual. Thoughtful Christians must steer clear of avoidance and naiveté on the one hand and the harsh judgmentalism of those on the other side of the "culture wars" over homosexual issues. They must create an informed and compassionate response in the face of the immense suffering experienced by many homosexual men and women.
What causes homosexuality?
From an early age Don knew intuitively that he was different from his peers. When he learned that there were words to describe who he was and how he felt, he discovered that such terms were frequently pejorative, punctuated with expressions of hatred, disgust, and fear. Despite his keen intellect, winsome personality, and many talents, Don encountered the indicators of rejection everywhere. His theology studies on a conservative Christian college campus only compounded his despair over the powerful inclinations within him that ran so diametrically counter to his strongly held and closely examined moral convictions.
There are many theories about what causes homosexuality. A synthesis of the most comprehensive studies suggests that homosexuality results from a complex matrix of factors. Thomas E. Schmidt, in his informed treatment of homosexuality from an evangelical Christian perspective, Straight and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate, presents a multiple-variable model for homosexual identity formation.(4) Biological factors as well as cultural and environmental influences combine with one's moral climate, personal choices, and behavioral experiences to form the basis of one's sexual identity, according to Schmidt.(5)
Don's experience was consistent with the large body of data indicating a close association between adult homosexuality and the child's experience of significant family dysfunction. Other contributing factors are the loss of a father to death or divorce before the age of 10 (6) and childhood sexual abuse. To date, no conclusive evidence exists to point to genetic factors of causation despite significant research efforts in that direction.
What should be clear is that the process of identifying possible causes of homosexuality in no way negates the necessity of moral responsibility on the part of the homosexual. As William Johnsson recently wrote, "Adventists distinguish between tendencies and practice: we all have inclinations in various directions, but what counts is how we respond to these drives by God's grace." (7)
Can homosexuals change their orientation?
Successful "conversions" have been reported by secular therapists and religious "change ministries" using a variety of techniques.(8) Because the evidence for "conversion" is often anecdotal and because definitions and methodologies differ so widely, it is irresponsible to suggest that all homosexuals may become heterosexual by following a particular program. Some, however, have achieved a significant level of change.
"I prayed fervently for God to change me," Don told me. "I did not choose homosexuality. Why would I choose to be misunderstood and rejected? God can change my orientation, I am convinced of that, but for whatever reason He has not. What He has done for me, however, is just as miraculous," Don said with deep emotion in his voice. "He has delivered me from multiple addictions and has enabled me to remain sexually abstinent." In a talk he gave to students at his alma mater shortly before he died of AIDS, Don left no doubt about what he believed to be the gospel imperative for his life: "No sex with other people and no sex with myself."
Don believed his stance to be the only way for him to maintain biblical fidelity and moral integrity. It was not an easy choice. Not only did he feel continuing misunderstanding from the heterosexual majority, but because of his choice of celibacy be faced bitter opposition and rejection by homosexuals who had formerly been his friends, including some in the Kinship organization who had been instrumental in leading him back to Christ.
What does the Bible really say?
Despite attempts by revisionist theologians to suggest that the Bible affirms or condones intimate same-sex relationships, "only towering cynicism can pretend that there is any doubt about what the Scriptures say about homosexuality," states Michael Ukleja.(9)
Sherwin Bailey's word count study argues that the sin of the men in Genesis 19 who desired to "know" Lot's guests was merely a breach of hospitality. Bailey correctly notes that in only 12 of the 943 uses of the Hebrew word yada ("to know") in the Old Testament does the term refer to sexual intercourse.10 But what Bailey minimizes, of course, is the importance of context in determining the meaning of words. Lot's offering his own virgin daughters instead of his guests for the sexual satisfaction of his rude neighbors indicates that he knew exactly what the men wanted, and purposely tried to lead them in a different direction not only for reasons of hospitality.
J. Boswell, and later L. William Countryman, presented studies suggesting that Romans 1:26, 27 declared same-sex relations cultically impure but not sinful. Schmidt responds by saying: "Paul's profound analysis of the human condition in Romans 1 finds in homosexuality an example of sexual sin that falsifies our identity as sexual beings, just as idolatry falsifies our identity as created beings. Homosexual behavior is 'revolting,' not because heterosexuals find it so - they have their own dirt to deal with (2:22)-but because it epitomizes in sexual terms the revolt against God. It is sinful because it violates the plan of God, present from the creation, for the union of male and female in marriage." (11)
Same-sex relations are condemned by Scripture because they stand in opposition to God's created order and His plan revealed from the beginning. While it is true that the Creation stories do not present us with neatly packaged commands about sex, they do provide "a basis for biblical commands and for subsequent reflection on the part of those who wish to construct a sexual ethic to meet changing situations."(12)
The apostle James recognizes a distinction between orientation and behavior. Every person "is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:14, 15, NIV). For all who possess human nature and wrestle with a host of temptations, this should come as welcome news. Only in the arena of moral choices and behavioral responses to one's inclinations is sin or the resistance of it possible by God's grace. Inclination alone does not constitute sin.
How shall we then respond?
We must be discerning, allowing our perspectives to be shaped more by the Word of God and refined by His Spirit than by the polemical winds of social opinion raging around us. Mature Christians will be informed and balanced, avoiding polarization and fully embracing the truth that will set men and women free. The recognition of the difference between orientation and behavior is a beginning point for discernment on this issue.
We must be faithful to Scripture, affirming what its clear sense affirms, avoiding what it prohibits, and proclaiming boldly the good news of Jesus Christ, which brings salvation and wholeness to all. Novel and revisionist interpretations come and go, but God's Word has proved itself for centuries to stand firm and trustworthy in the midst of cultural chaos. Faithfulness to the Bible also means following Christ and exemplifying His attitudes in the way we deal with those doing battle with difficult "sins of the flesh."
We must be redemptive, seeking to heal and using our words to show Christ to others. Christians whose lives have been deeply touched by Christ will prefer straightforward, descriptive terminology to emotionally charged language, stereotyping, and name-calling. Zealots accused of being "homophobics" rarely soften their rhetoric. Branding gays and lesbians as perverts and "shameful sinners" only drives them further from the only One who can make a difference in their lives.
We must be fair and not create double standards for homosexuals. The sins of the practicing homosexual are no more or less serious than the sins of those who, with a member of the opposite gender, act independently of God's ideal of sexual intimacy within the relationship of heterosexual marriage.
We must be humble. "People who picture themselves as soggy sailors clinging to overturned boats are not apt to treat their fellow flotsam with contempt.... What is needed are unrighteous people who recognize the universal need to receive God's mercy and power for obedience, whatever one's particular distortion of God's intent for sexuality. The log must come out of the eye."(13)
We must be accountable to one another. Wisdom recognizes that to hold homosexuals and unmarried heterosexuals to an equal standard of sexual abstinence ensures their well-being in ways that other options cannot. Celibacy, despite the popular protests to the contrary, need not assign one to relational loneliness, nor is sexual gratification the equivalent of life fulfillment, as so often seems to be represented in the popular media. Heterosexual Christians must be accountable for their own peculiar sexual aberrations as well as the tendency to hate those who are different.
We must create a new paradigm for ministry - a life model of Christian clarity and compassion. Christian compassion, exercised in informed, balanced, redemptive ways, is the real "alternative lifestyle" of our age. We must learn to understand, embrace, and bring healing to hurting homosexuals. We must risk our cherished reputations to reach out beyond our comfort zones. We must minister to AIDS sufferers in same the way Jesus touched the shunned lepers of His day. Jesus' example underscores the point that we need not compromise our moral convictions in order to embrace a lifestyle of compassion toward sinners.
My friend Don will be looking for us on resurrection morning. He will also be looking for others who had similar orientations to his on this earth, and who, like him, will be there because Christians chose to reach out in life-transforming love through the grace of Jesus Christ. He will be looking for evidence among the assembled "great multitude" that more and more congregations came to embrace compassion as Christ's alternative lifestyle while they awaited His return.
1. T. W. Smith, "Adult Sexual Behavior in 1989: Number of Partners, Frequency of Intercourse and Risk of AIDS," Planning Perspectives 23 (May/June 1991): 102-10'. Smith's data on the incidence of homosexuality are corroborated by recent comprehensive studies conducted by the National center for Health Statistics, as well as other studies compiled under Smith's direction at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. (Back to text)
3. Thomas E. Schmidt, Straight and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (Downers Grove, 111.: Intervarsity Press. 1995), pp.112-126.
4. Ibid., pp. 150-153.
5. Ibid. See especially Schmidt's diagram (figure 1 on page 152) for a visual representation of his causation model.
6. M. T. Saghir and E. Robins, Male and Female Homosexuality: A Comprehensive Investigation (Baltimore: Williams Wilkins, (973), pp. 139,296,297.
7. William G. Johnsson, "Seven Deadly Delusions," Adventist Review, July 25, 1996, p.5.
8. See Bob Davies and Lori Renuel, Coming Out of Homosexuality: New Freedom for Men and Women (Downers Grove, 111.: Intervarsity Press. 1993), for a comprehensive and practical guide for persons desiring change in their sexual orientation. Written from an evangelical perspective, it documents studies by believers and non-Christians alike, affirming the possibility of change, and describes a process by which change can occur. See also William E. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, Homosexuality in Perspective (New York: Bantam. 1979), pp. 400ff.. for evidence from respected "secular" researchers that change is possible. They reported a success rate of nearly 72 percent for homosexuals seeking change at the end of their six-year period of inquiry.
9. Michael Ukleja, "Homosexuality and the Old Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra (40(1983): 259-266.
10. D. Sherwin Bailey. Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1955). See also John J. McNeill. The Church arid the Homosexual (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McNeill. 1976) for another example of a revisionist attempt to posit the Scriptures as condoning homosexuality.
11. Schmidt, p. 85.
12. Schmidt. p. 41.
13. Schmidt, p. 55.
-- John C. Cress is the campus chaplain at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington.
This article was published in the
November 1996 issue of Ministry magazine,