No issue has brought more conflict and division into the 21st-century Western church than the issue of homosexuality. Families, congregations, and whole denominations have been fractured by irreconcilable differences and disagreement over this one topic alone.
As society’s views toward homosexuality have relaxed since the late 20th-century, the church has increasingly felt the pressure of this shift in our culture. And the church continues to wrestle with questions about the role of gay people in the church and their need to change. Is it possible for someone to even be gay and Christian at the same time?
Any person, regardless of sexual preference, may be saved by God’s grace through Jesus. But homosexual activity remains a sin. And as God does with all sins, He calls us to rely on His Spirit to overcome our sins as we grow closer to Him.
The Basics of Salvation
Before we go any further in our discussion, it is important that we take a moment to define what being a Christian actually means. A Christian, quite simply, is a person who has been saved by Jesus and is trusting in His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God.
It is essential to understand that we receive salvation in Jesus by faith through grace, defined as God’s unmerited favor (Ephesians 2:10). For this reason, there is nothing that any of us can do to make ourselves eligible for salvation.
There are no sins or lifestyles that we must overcome in order to be ‘good enough’ to receive salvation. As soon as we start adding human requirements, it becomes a salvation of works.
Therefore, salvation works the same for homosexuals as it does for anybody else. But equally true is that Jesus rescues each of us in our brokenness, and calls us to turn from sin.
Each of us, including homosexuals, is in need of transformation, regeneration, and renewal. The process of being transformed and made more like Jesus is called sanctification.
Salvation vs. Sanctification
Salvation came to us through Jesus while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). And while we are free from the eternal consequences of sin at the moment of salvation, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to sin and temptation. We still live in an imperfect world with a sin nature that tries to drag us back to our old ways (Romans 6:11-14).
But though the Spirit’s work in us, we are conformed more and more to the character of Christ as we continue on our faith journey. This is a lifelong process that is finally perfected when we enter into the next life.
As we grow in the faith, we become more like Jesus in our thinking (1 Corinthians 2:14-16) and manifest more of his presence in our behavior (Galatians 5:19-25) as we take on an identity that is centered in him. So even though the tendency toward sin will not be fully overcome in this life, through the Spirit’s work, every disciple should be making progress along the way.
Because scripture makes a distinction between the sinner and the sin, it necessarily makes a distinction between salvation and sanctification. And for this reason, we must make a distinction between being gay and practicing homosexuality. However, our cultural discourse does not always make it easy for us to discuss this distinction.
Identity vs. Behavior
One of the main reasons that disagreement over homosexuality is present in the church is because one perspective centers on a person’s identity, and the other on a person’s behavior.
Some Christians might be surprised to learn that the Bible does not address homosexuality as an orientation, or homosexuals as people.
But it does address homosexual activity.
And in every such instance, scripture unambiguously declares that homosexual behavior is a sin because it is a misuse of God’s intended design and purpose for our sexuality.
By contrast, homosexuals and their allies do not speak in terms of their behavior, but their identities. The message of the homosexual is, “this is who I am,” and not “this is what I do.”
So who is right? In a way, both sides are right, but it takes some work to get everyone speaking the same language.
Sin or Not?
Let’s start with the fundamental question. Is being gay a sin? This wording is intentional. As noted above, the Bible speaks to homosexual sex, but not to homosexual attraction. This is the dividing line that both sides of the debate are seeking to move.
One side desires to move the line toward the side of permissiveness, reasoning that because homosexual attraction is part of a person’s identity, then any behavior response to that attraction must be accepted as normal. This line of thinking has led to the increased acceptance of same-sex marriage throughout ‘progressive’ branches of the modern church.
The other side, however, says that since the resulting behavior is always sinful, such behavior cannot be justified by an individual’s preference, attraction, or predisposition. This is the reason that what we call ‘traditional’ churches continue to teach that the church should not facilitate, sanction, or bless same-sex marriages.
The question that we are left to wrestle with is this:
If homosexual orientation is innate, how can it lead to a behavior that is sinful? Why would God create me this way if He didn’t want me to live this way?
Thoughts vs. Actions
We think of sin largely in terms of behavior, but scripture speaks of our sin nature, which we addressed when we reviewed sanctification. Because we are born with a sin nature, we are born with a way of thinking that is broken by sin. All of us have desires and predispositions that are in some way contrary to God’s intention for us.
Sometimes, thoughts, feelings, and sentiments are declared sinful in scripture. The most obvious is the sin of covetousness, which is prohibited in the Ten Commandments. Coveting, of course, is a sin of the mind and heart. But it leads to the actions of stealing and adultery, which are also included in the Ten Commandments.
Jesus further reveals the importance of checking our thoughts before they become actions in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us that hating a brother is akin to murder and that looking on a woman with lust is an act of adultery (Matthew 5:22, 28).
Paul elaborates on this relationship between thought and action in Romans 1, where he describes the progression from attitude to behavior. In verse 21, he speaks of futile thinking and foolish hearts, a point which he underscores again in verse 28, saying that “he [God] gave them over to a depraved mind.”
Between these two bookend points, Paul notes that it is the sinful desire rooted in faulty thinking that leads to the physical sin of homosexual activity.
Checking Our Desires
For all Christians, our desires are an important checkpoint. One person might be naturally inclined to act with violence when wronged by another. Some men might want to sleep with every attractive woman that they meet. And others might desire to engage in sexual activity with members of their own sex.
All of us are broken and sinful, and each of us has strayed in our thoughts. In all instances where our thoughts and desires are not in line with God’s, our call is to resist temptation and seek the Lord. This applies equally to all sinful desires, including same-sex attraction.
Sometimes, the homosexual who comes to Christ is called to celibacy. Of course, this is the call placed on some heterosexual people as well (1 Corinthians 7:7).
Why Pick on Gay People?
If all sin is equal before God, and salvation covers all sin, why does the church seem to be singling out homosexuality above all other sins? The answer is, with the exception of a few misfocused sign-wielding congregations, the church doesn’t add any additional weight to homosexuality.
On a typical Sunday in a typical American church, you are far more likely to hear a sermon that challenges pride, greed, lack of compassion, resentment, or unforgiveness than a sermon that addresses homosexuality. But those sermons don’t make the news, and those sermons aren’t challenged by changing cultural ideals.
If the church seems to address homosexuality with disproportionate frequency, it is doing so in response to a culture that is asking the church to change its position. It is important for those outside of the church and within the church alike to recognize this truth.
But more so, it is important for all Christians to recognize that we are all sinners saved by grace. Just as Jesus loves us so fully that he meets us in the brokenness of our sin, he also loves us too much to leave us where he finds us. No matter what particular sins we wrestle with, he calls each of us to take up the cross of self-denial and follow him.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:1-2