Homosexuality in the Christian Church

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Homosexuality in the Christian Church

In a 1975 update of his definitive study Religions of America: Ferment and Faith in an Age of Crisis, Leo Rosten described, denomination by denomination, the official stance of each group on the issue of homosexuality. Listed below is a sampling from his book:

Roman Catholics: "… homosexual practice [is] an unnatural vice." (p. 59)

Christian Scientists: "… random or deviant sexuality [calls] for specific healing rather than for condemnation …" (p. 80)

Greek Orthodox: "Homosexuality in any form is strictly opposed …" (p. 125)

Jehovah's Witnesses: "No homosexuals are permitted to be members …" (p. 140)

Methodists: "… we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." (p. 182)

Mormons: "… homosexuality is viewed as an equally grievous sin with adultery, considered second only to murder in seriousness." (p. 196)

Seventh-day Adventists: "Homosexuality is included along with adultery and fornication, both of which are grounds for disfellowshipping from the church." (p. 253)

Clearly, at the third-quarter mark of the twentieth century, homosexuality was vehemently condemned by most Christian churches, although there were denominations that at least on paper, if not in practice, either took no formal stand on the issue one way or another—Baptists and Episcopalians, for example—or, like Quakers and Unitarian Universalists, actually advocated for protections for homosexuals and worked to end discriminatory laws.

Among the more conservative denominations, little if anything has changed in the thirty-plus years since Rosten's book. Among the more socially liberal denominations, changes have been very slow and hard-won and the direct challenges required to bring them about have often produced a backlash of equal or greater magnitude. In 1990, for example, two Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregations ordained three gay ministers; ELCA subsequently ejected the congregations from the church, although only one was ultimately expelled.

Similarly, in 1990, Bishop Walter Righter was charged with heresy by the Episcopal Church for ordaining an openly gay man to the deaconate. (Not only was this man, Barry Stopfel, openly gay, but he lived in an openly gay relationship.) It was the first heresy trial in the Episcopal Church since 1924. On May 15, 1996, the Court for the Trial of a Bishop dismissed the counts against Bishop Righter, saying there was no clear doctrine involved. Shortly afterward, Bishop John Shelby Spong ordained Stopfel to the priesthood.

No single event since the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church in 1977 has created such a furor as the consecration in 2003 of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson (b. 1947) as the bishop of the (Episcopal) diocese of New Hampshire. Robinson's election brought the issue of homosexuality in the Christian Church to the forefront in a way that ordinations to lower-level orders had not, forcing the church to address the issue head-on in a way that it had previously done much more quietly and much more locally. Suddenly, there were no longer just gay deacons and gay priests. Now there was an openly gay bishop; a new—and much more solid—line had been crossed. The tacit understanding that the episcopate was off limits to gays had been violated. The result was—is—an uproar unprecedented in modern times.

Now, not just the Episcopal Church is embattled and in danger of imploding, but the worldwide Anglican Communion (of which the Episcopal Church is the American branch) is similarly threatened by schism. The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams (b. 1950), archbishop of Canterbury, trying to hold the church together, has consistently appeased the more conservative American, Asian, and African diocese by signing off on—if not actively advocating—requests for apologies and the demotion of the American church within the worldwide body. Three years after Robinson's consecration, articles such as Anglican Conservatives Seek Formal Ban on Gay Priests, for example, continued to appear in the press. The waves of unrest within one of the largest Christian bodies in the world will not be calmed any time soon.

Yet whether the Anglican Communion in general or the Episcopal Church, in particular, ultimately survives or breaks up overshadows a far more important point: Although at times the dialogue taking place within the church appears to be more shouting than anything else, there is, nevertheless, a dialogue going on in which this most divisive of issues is being examined, discussed, debated, and railed about. The debate is likely to continue for years and no doubt will consist of taking two steps forward and one step back, over and over again, until the issue becomes neutral.

Nevertheless, there is a window here, however small and fragile, within which change is possible. Bishop Spong said the following in a radio interview conducted by Geraldine Doogue of Compass on July 8, 2001:

We had an enormous battle in our church in the United States about whether black people were part of the body of Christ. We've solved that battle. We had an enormous struggle about whether women could be priests and bishops. We now have nine Anglican bishops who are women in my church. We've solved that problem. We had an enormous battle, it lasted for about twenty-five years, about whether gay and lesbian people could be part of this tradition. And ultimately we've solved that battle too. We're on the other side of that battle.

Bishop Spong thusly summarized the ways in which most of the mainline Protestant denominations have struggled in modern times with the hot button issues.

In stark contrast is the Roman Catholic Church, which, rather than dialogue, characteristically clamps down and reasserts its centralized authority. Partially in response to its own internal clergy sex abuse scandal and partially in response to the rising level of discussion about homosexuality in the wider Christian Church, the Roman Catholic Church has once again declared that homosexual men will not be ordained and the longstanding, on-going effort to root out gay men from their seminaries has intensified.

How is it that homosexuality became the most divisive of issues for the church? What made the church such a homophobic institution? Jesus himself, it is often argued, made no statement about homosexuality. Nothing in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John says anything about sex, sexuality, sexual orientation or gender issues as they are thought of in the early twenty-first century. Therefore, Christianity—if one defines it as following and emulating Christ—is completely neutral about homosexuality. Where does all the vitriol come from? To answer that question, researchers must look at the culture in which Jesus and his disciple, the apostle St. Paul (10 ce–67 ce), lived and preached.

In the world into which Christianity was born in the first century, homosexuality as thought of in the twenty-first century did not exist. That is not to say that there were not homosexuals. (There is even a school of thought that Paul himself was homosexual.) Homosexuality is a nineteenth century invention; that is, there does not appear to be a label to describe same-sex attraction prior to 1868 when the term first appeared. Moreover, "The idea that the gods would be angry with a man for loving boys would have struck any of Paul's Greek or Roman contemporaries as laughable" (Wilson 1997, p. 141).

Whereas civil libertarians guard against cracks in the separation between church and state, the more conservative churches worry about cracks in the separation between sexuality and spirituality, forcing their clergy, as well as their members, to choose. If one is heterosexual and married, one may have God and sex, albeit in very prescribed and proscribed ways on both counts. However, if one is anything other than married and heterosexual, one can have only God; there is no place for sexual expression of any kind. One may conclude, therefore, that these churches are antisex in general and antigay in particular. The result of this split between spirituality and sexuality is that both are harmed and that the oldest and strongest source for the rejection of homosexuality is religion.

Specifically, St. Paul's most famous prohibition, namely Romans 1:27, is based on his Jewish heritage, namely Leviticus 20:13. An argument can be made, however, that both Old and New Testament condemnations of homosexual acts existed to reign in sexual expression that did not have procreation as their intention simply because of the high rate of infant mortality as well as the high death rate among women in childbirth. Few children survived into adulthood and women who died giving birth obviously could not produce more children. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, among whom sexual expression had far more latitude, Jews were always a small minority whose very survival was at stake. It can be argued, therefore, that homosexual acts among Jews and early Christians were labeled as sinful because they could be construed as a self-inflicted genocide. It is a very small leap from there to also conclude that external control of reproduction and sexual expression constitutes the basis of political control. Therefore, the church can be seen as less concerned with sex in general and with homosexual sex in particular than with emotional, mental, and spiritual control, to which control over reproduction and sexuality is merely a means to an end.

Therefore, every demonization and punishment of homosexuality in the last 2000 years—far too legion to enumerate here—proves the legitimacy of the phrase that originated in the days of the Vietnam War (1954–1975): "When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."


"Anglican Conservatives Seek Formal Ban on Gay Priests." 2006. In The New York Blade, October 2.

Banerjee, Neela, and Laurie Goodstein. 2006. "Anglican Plan Threatens Split on Gay Issues." The New York Times, June 28.

Carr, David M. 2003. The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.

Duin, Julia. 2005. "Homosexuality Debate." The Washington Times, January 12.

"Exclusion of Homosexuals from Roman Catholic Seminaries." Available from www.religioustolerance.org.

Hekma, Gert. 2006. "The Gay World: 1980 to Present." In Gay Life and Culture. New York: Universe.

Kelley, Tina. 2006. "For Diocese, Picking Bishop Means Facing Diocesan Rift." The New York Times, August 5.

Norton, Rictor. 2002. "A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory." June 1. Available from http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/social14.htm.

Raab, Kelley A. 2000. When Women Become Priests: The Catholic Women's Ordination Debate. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rosten, Leo, ed. 1975. Religions of America: Ferment and Faith in an Age of Crisis. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Safire, William. 1993. Safire's New Political Dictionary. New York: Random House.

Wilson, A. N. 1997. Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. New York: Norton.

                                       Christopher Nigel Ross