Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor
November 13, 2016
I can still remember the day that my friend Mike told me about his struggle. Mike is a guy who stayed on a different floor of the same dorm that I stayed in when I was in Seminary. From the get-go, I knew that Mike was a very gifted guy. He was extremely intelligent – a great Bible Scholar. He was Incredibly humble and approachable- just a Prince of a guy. He was – and is – a great friend.
As our friendship progressed, we could talk about anything. As the years after Seminary had gone by, we had talked about my highs and lows in ministry. We had talked about my family’s calling to Africa. We had talked about his engagement to and break up with his girlfriend. I had seen Mike grow into a really good Pastor – a great teacher who loved his people dearly. So I was surprised when Mike told me that he was thinking about stepping away from his church.
I was even more surprised when he told me why. There was a young man in his church that Mike was attracted to. Mike was surprised that it happened. It didn’t feel like a choice on his part. He didn’t want to feel that way, but he did. He was attracted to this guy. It was a serious struggle. He hadn’t physically acted on it, but it was distracting him in his ministry and distressing him about himself. He wondered if he should step away from that church. I think he wondered if he should step away from ministry altogether, because of this struggle. So what do I say to that? As a Pastor, as a friend, as someone who cares very deeply about Mike – what do I say about that feeling – that relationship?
Is it OK or is it not OK? Where should we as Christians land – on the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality and same-sex relationships? To be honest – as we read the cultural and religious landscape – it can seem very confusing right now:
- On the one hand, there are churches and denominations that speak out against homosexuality. Some do it graciously and say that we should love our gay neighbors, but that God doesn’t condone that kind of lifestyle. Some do it less graciously. But many speak out against it.
- On the other hand, some Christian churches and denominations have condoned it. They have chosen not just to have gay church members, but to ordain clergy that are in committed same-sex relationships.
Which Christians are right?
In addition to that, people disagree about what the Bible actually has to say. I have had many Christians tell me that the New Testament never addresses this issue – that the Bible only speaks about homosexuality in Leviticus. I’ve had other Christians say that Jesus never addressed this issue, so we don’t know where Jesus would stand on the it. I’ve had Christians say the opposite. So, which is it? It can’t be both ways.
Finally, there’s the issue of choice – which underlies much of this debate. Some people say that same-sex attraction is always a choice that people make. They are responsible for that choice and that feeling. While others say that people are born that way – that they have no control and that, therefore, there is no choice and can be no blame.
Where should we as Christians land on this issue? It’s not something that we are going to preach on every week, but it’s something that we should have an understanding about as a church. The perfect time to develop that understanding is now – before we invite our guests in.
So today we’re going to wrestle with this issue of same-sex relationships today. And really – this is where our values begin to guide us, because:
- On the one hand, we have the value of community. We are called to live in community with our neighbors and to truly love them.
- At the same time, we have the value of Bible. We believe that the Bible is true, that it fits together and that it is really good for us.
Today as we wrestle with this issue. we are going to look primarily at one passage. It’s a passage from the New Testament. It isn’t the only passage that discusses this issue, and we’ll make reference to others. But this is probably the passage that has the most to say about the topic. It gives us a lot of clarity. It gives us a lot to think about. As we approach this passage, I need to tell you a couple of things about it:
- First, this is not a passage about homosexuality. Rather, this is a passage about everyone’s need – my need – your need – our neighbor’s need—for the forgiveness that comes from the gospel. So this isn’t a passage about homosexuality, but Paul does use homosexuality as an extended example in this passage.
- Second, this passage is going to come across as a harsh passage. In many ways! This is not a popular passage – not one you cross-stitch and put on your wall! This is a tough passage! But it is a part of God’s Word.
We are going to frame our discussion around three observations, and we are going to be going back and forth between our two value questions:
- What does the Bible say about the rightness or wrongness of same sex relationships?
- How do I truly love – how do in live I community with – my neighbor?
It’s my prayer that we will be faithful to both of these values as we deal with this issue. It’s my prayer that you will gain some clarity today as to how God calls us to relate to our neighbors. Maybe for some of you that you would gain clarity on how to deal with same sex attraction in your own life.
Paul has just greeted the Romans. He has told them how much he cares for them and how he is very eager to preach the gospel at Rome when he tells them this:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. – Romans 1:16-32
It’s a sobering passage. I want to make three observations from this passage:
This passage teaches that homosexuality is not the lifestyle that God has for his people
The passage does say that, and it says it pretty clearly. Paul uses some pretty strong language in this passage about all sin. He calls heterosexual immorality “the degrading of our bodies with one another,” so he’s not mincing his words about any sin in this passage. He uses strong, strong words to describe homosexual activity:
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. – Romans 1:26-27
You can see that from the bold words:
- He calls it shameful lust. He calls it un-natural for a woman to have sexual relations with another woman. He calls it indecent for a man to have sex with a man.
- The word perversion at the end there might be a little strong – you could translate that “error” or “deviation.”
But listen – the exegesis is pretty straightforward here. I’ve probably taught my way through Romans in Greek or English ten times. It pretty much says in Greek what the New International Version of the Bible says in English. It’s pretty straightforward.
This passage is in the New Testament. This isn’t in Leviticus. It’s not part of the Old Testament Law. This isn’t the only New Testament passage that says this. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men. – 1 Corinthians 6:9 also specifically says that the act of same sex relations is wrong:
This was written after the Old Testament – after Jesus – and Paul would certainly have considered what he said here to be in line with Jesus’ teachings. Some people point out that Jesus never specifically prohibited homosexuality by name. That’s true: Jesus never used the word homosexuality. But in all fairness, Jesus never specifically prohibited many sexual behaviors that we know he would not approve of. He never prohibited incest or rape. What he did prohibit was porneia – a word that means immorality of any kind – and in Jesus’ day homosexuality would have been included in that.
While Jesus didn’t give us a negative command – a “thou shalt not” – he did touch on the issue positively when he was asked about divorce and immorality. Here’s what he said:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate”- Matthew 19:4-6
Granted, Jesus is primarily speaking about divorce and immorality there – but he does touch there on the way that God made things to be.
Scripture is pretty clear. It’s not just Leviticus. It’s really not much of a judgment call on whether Scripture says this is right or wrong. This passage – and others – teach that homosexuality is not the lifestyle that God has for his people. I don’t delight in saying that. I don’t mean to be insensitive. I don’t mean to diminish anyone’s value as a person. But Scripture does say that.
Now – having said that – I want to clarify a couple of things that I think are very important. The way I’ve stated this first point here is very deliberate. So let me clarify:
The sin is not in the temptation – it’s in the response. There is a difference between struggling with same-sex attraction – and acting on it. That’s why I said “homosexuality is not the lifestyle God has for his people.” It’s not the temptation. It’s the lifestyle – what we live out. It’s very important that we understand that. Temptation is not a sin. Jesus was tempted, but he never sinned because he never gave in. In a group this size, there may be some who are tempted with same-sex attraction. And if you do feel that, there’s a chance that you’re going “what’s wrong with me? Does God hate me for having this desire? Why can’t I have victory? Listen, you need to know that the temptation – the attraction – is not a sin. Let me explain it this way: I’m a happily married man. I have a beautiful wife. We love each other. I’m attracted to her. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not capable of being attracted to other women. That capacity is still there. And the capacity – that attract-ability – is not sin. It doesn’t have to distress me that I’m tempt-able. Now, if I act on it – if have sex with another woman – or if I kiss another woman – or if I set my mind on another woman through pornography – or just through what I meditate on – then we’ve got a problem. But it’s not the attraction – the temptation – that’s the sin.
Maybe some of your friends – or some of you – carry this weight of same-sex attraction. You want it to be taken away – and you’ve asked God – and you still wrestle with it – maybe you feel shame about it. Listen, I’m sorry that’s a cross that you have to bear. But you need to know that the temptation is not where the sin starts. The sin is not in the temptation. It’s in the response. That’s the first clarification.
Notice that I say this lifestyle “is not what God has for his people” – for his people. He does call us to live differently. What I’m talking about today is the way that Scripture calls you and me – as followers of Christ – to live. What I’m saying today is for Christians. Romans 1 is not a call to hate gay people. It’s not a call to picket the LGBT community. It’s not even a call to legislate. It’s simply helping us see the way that God calls his people to live.
Just so we’re clear: I see nothing of Christ in the behavior of churches that picket and protest and say that God hates the gay community. This isn’t a call for us to judge those outside of the church in that way. It’s a call for us to know right and wrong in our own life as followers of Christ.
But scripture does speak clearly to this issue. The first observation from the passage is that homosexuality is not the lifestyle that God has for his people.
This passage portrays a corporate numbing to the truth
The passage portrays a corporate – a communal numbing – or deadening – or desensitization – to the truth. I don’t understand everything about how this works, but I think it’s worth looking at this – because it does relate to the issue of how much same sex attraction and homosexuality is a choice – so let me show you this from the passage. Paul says this:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Now look at this:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, (look again) God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. Romans 1:21-28
Then Paul describes in detail what that looks like in the next few verses. Notice there is that phrase “God gave them over.” Three times it says that – versus 24, 26, and 28. Three times. God gives man over to sin. And every time, if you notice – it’s to a sort of deeper level of sin. In fact – there’s a cycle in this passage: Where we suppress truth ( versus 18) – and God responds to that suppression – by hiding the truth. We suppress it – God hides it – again and again, giving us over to deeper levels of sin while we become number and number to the truth.
If you look at the passage, there is a sense of irony to this cycle.
- First man refuses to worship God, so God says “fine, I’ll let you worship nature…”
- Then man refuses to repent, so God gives him over from the worship of nature to the worship of natural affections.
- But man still refuses to repent, so God gives him over from natural affections to unnatural affections.
- And man still refuses to repent, so in the end God gives him over to what Paul calls a reprobate – or depraved mind – a mind that is upside down in its thinking and cannot recognize right from wrong.
There is this cycle where we suppress – and God hides – and we become numb or hardened – to the truth. So there’s this cycle of numbing or hardening. Now I want you to notice two things about this passage:
First of all, notice that homosexuality is specifically mentioned in this cycle. It’s not the bottom step – that’s a debased mind – but it is specifically named as a step in this process. I don’t know if the cycle of hardening always follows this specific order or not – but look at the pattern as Paul has presented it:
- Failure to worship
- Heterosexual immorality
- Depraved mind
This is just my observation – Our culture has been playing around in that second stage (heterosexual immorality) in an increasing way for years. The sexual revolution – the rise of pornography to sort of mainstream status through the internet. Even things that aren’t bad in and of themselves – like birth control and the ability to cure STDs – have all worked together to enable us to become an oversexed society. The public tolerance and even encouragement of heterosexual immorality has just slowly been going up for decades. We’ve been suppressing God’s view of heterosexual intimacy for a long time.
When I look at Romans 1, it doesn’t surprise me that we are now confused – that we are now divided – that we are now unable to recognize together what God has to say about homosexuality. We have been suppressing it. It makes perfect sense that God would start hiding it, and that we are confused as a culture about this matter at this time. Sorry – that’s harsh – but I think it’s true.
Now the second thing I want you to notice from this passage is that it’s corporate. This passage is corporate. It’s a group thing. The focus in this passage is not on individuals – even though I think this passage can happen in individual lives – the focus in the passage is corporate. Listen to the pronouns: For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. And on and on it goes. There are no singular pronouns in this passage (except for the ones about God) – and it’s “God gave them over” – plural.
What that means is that this cycle of suppression and hiding – and suppression and hiding – and really the removal of choice – as best I understand it – it not just about what happens in your individual life. This cycle makes it harder for everyone to see the truth. The whole culture experiences this cycle. Because God’s truth has been suppressed in other areas – because we’ve pushed it down – He has finally relented and stopped confronting us with it – and it’s harder for everyone to see it. His truth seems less and less reasonable, and we have less and less choice whether we have personally engaged in the rebellion of steps 1 and 2 or not.
People get hurt by sin not just because they engage in it, but because they are around it.
Many people will say that their same-sex attraction doesn’t feel like much of a choice. You know what? I think they are telling the truth. It doesn’t feel like much of a choice. It’s not the same for them as it is for us. In many instances that’s through no fault of their own. They are not at step 3, because they have chosen to resist God at steps 1 and 2. They are at step 3, among other things, because they are immersed in a culture that has resisted God at steps 1 and 2. That doesn’t mean they have to act on their same-sex attraction. That doesn’t make acting on it right, but it makes it a lot more understandable.
Let me give you an example, and see if I can clarify what I’m saying: My friend Mike can tell you how his particular same-sex attraction came about and why it doesn’t feel like much of a choice. In Mike’s situation, he came from a family that didn’t really live according to God’s truth. His folks didn’t function well as a family. They split up early in Mike’s life. His Dad was not a nice man. He had a lot of pornography at his place. When Mike would stay there, he had a lot of questionable women spending the night. Mike saw things. He didn’t see heterosexual intimacy as a good, healthy thing.
In addition to that, his Mom responded to her loneliness by over-involving herself emotionally in Mike’s life. There was this unhealthy intimacy. Heterosexual physical relations weren’t seen in a healthy way, and intimacy with women became stifling to him. That heterosexual avenue in Mike’s life just got shut down. Meanwhile, he still had a desire for companionship and intimacy – and even male approval – and that desire expressed itself in same-sex attraction.
Now here’s what Mike would tell you about where he’s at with his sexuality: He would tell you that he sometimes still feels attracted to men – just like I can feel attracted to women who are not my wife. He would tell you that, in many ways, the struggle he feels was not of his making. It came to him from a family that didn’t live according to God’s truth. He would tell you that it would be wrong, as a Christian, for him to act on that attraction. Jesus says “Don’t do it.”
I’m not saying that Mike’s story is everybody’s story that struggles with same-sex attraction. But I am saying this: This passage displays a corporate reality – a corporate brokenness – a corporate numbing – that goes beyond just our individual choices and responsibilities. There is a corporate reality there. The more confused our culture is about this issue, the more individuals are going to struggle – not just through their own doing – but because of the culture.
So we’ve made two observations from the passage:
- This passage shows us clearly that homosexuality is not the lifestyle that God has for his people
- This isn’t just about individual choice – there is a corporate reality.
But there’s one more observation we have to make from this passage. We can’t miss it – and it’s this:
3. This passage is about the gospel
This passage is about the gospel
This passage at its root is not about why homosexuality is wrong. That’s not what it’s really about. It’s about why the gospel is right. Right for everyone.
Paul is not saying that homosexuality is a special sin and that homosexuals need a special Savior. He is saying that all of us have sinned and we all need a Savior. And if you miss that, you miss the point of the whole passage.
We’ve all participated in this cycle of what Paul calls “the wrath of God.” This cycle of suppressing the truth. Think about the passage. How many of us have always glorified God and given him the thanks he truly deserves? None of us. Did you notice when Paul talked about a debased mind – that not everything he said was unthinkable for us – right? He talked about greed – deceit – gossip – boasting – disobedience to parents (the worst!). Who among us hasn’t done one, or two, or all – of those? The point is – we all need a Savior.
That’s why Paul starts the passage by saying this:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last – Romans 1:16:17
Paul is saying we all need a Savior – and we all have one in Jesus! So listen: When we talk to our gay neighbors – when we love our gay neighbors – when we welcome our gay neighbors into our homes and our church – we are not going to think that the most important thing about them is their sexual orientation. The most important thing about them is that they are people who just like us are made in the image of God. They are people who just like us need a Savior. They are people who just like us have a Savior in Jesus!
And we don’t know their story. Maybe it’s like Mike. Maybe it’s not, but we’re going to love them enough to listen – if they choose to share. We are going to welcome them to join us as we worship our Savior – and we’re going to encourage them to keep coming. And we’re going to believe that the gospel is powerful – and that at just the right time – maybe in a small group meeting – maybe in a sermon – maybe as they read their Bibles – or talk to one of us – God is going to deal with that in their lives.
We’re not going to hide what we believe about this: If we’re in Roman1 or 1 Corinthian 6, we are going to deal with it honestly. But we are going to love them and invite them to join us in our need for a Savior. That’s how we are going to balance – our belief in the Bible – and our love for our community.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” – Romans 1:16-32