An edited version of a talk delivered on campus at the University of Canterbury in August 2014
I thought I’d begin this article with a worship song – not a worship song about God, the kind that some of us are used to singing at church on Sundays. This is a worship song about something different: sex.
If you pay attention to the content of a lot of music today, it becomes obvious: we are taught to worship sex. And it’s not just music; it’s also TV, movies, and other forms of pop culture. Sex is depicted as an ultimate goal, something to chase after and live for. Not having sex makes you a loser, but having (great) sex makes you a winner. Pursuing sex, at the expense of other things, is a worthy goal.
In particular, much of our society today idolizes the idea of sexual freedom – pursuing pleasure and fulfillment in whatever way seems best to you, without restrictions, and without anyone else telling you what to do.
In that environment, who we are sexually is who we are! Our sexuality is seen as absolutely core to our identity, and therefore to say anything negative about a person’s sexual activities is seen as not just backward and outdated, but as an attack on the core of a person’s being. Critiquing someone’s sexual practices or preferences is seen as the height of ‘intolerance’.
When it comes to homosexuality, then, any deviation from the popular point of view is often (wrongly) labeled as being ‘homophobic’. Hence, the question I’m addressing here: Is God homophobic?
In a situation like that, it’s hard to read (and write!) an article like this one. But it’s not just a hard topic because of confusion or mistakes on one side of the discussion. It’s not just ‘the world out there’ that has gotten things wrong.
As a Christian, I have to admit – and I think all Christians should be willing to admit – that Christians have indeed made mistakes over the years by mistreating gay people. Sometimes that has happened through people’s words, and sometimes it’s happened in other kinds of action. The sad fact is, some Christians ARE homophobic. It makes absolutely no sense, and the Bible gives no reason to be genuinely homophobic (as I hope to explain below), but it’s the reality. These mistakes have caused a lot of unnecessary pain and confusion for many people – and I, for one, am sorry that has happened.
Moreover, sometimes Christians have done a poor job of understanding where our gay friends, or those lobbying on their behalf, are coming from. We can easily fall into the trap of thinking that the ‘gay lobby’ is out to destroy the world, or that supporters of gay marriage can’t wait to see our society go to hell in a hand basket. “I’ll ruin this country if it’s the last thing I do!” (followed by a maniacal laugh) is how we can imagine things.
But the truth is – although there is a very different worldview underlying the approach taken by the ‘gay lobby’ – people who take a contrary view to mine are still fighting for good things like equality and freedom. Sure, we may disagree on how to best achieve those aims, and we may even disagree on what exactly ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ are. But we share some important common ground.
What’s more, there are those who call themselves Christians and have pushed for churches and ministries to change their teaching on this subject in recent years. And even though I’d see it quite differently and I think that’s a serious mistake, as I’ll explain, it’s helpful to acknowledge that people who take that view aren’t doing it to be evil. They’re doing it because, in their view, this is an issue that goes to the heart of the Christian message (as they see it) – because just as God freely accepts all people in Jesus, so should we freely accept all people just as they are today (they would say).
All in all, no matter what our viewpoint, there is way too much painting ‘the other side’ as the enemy, rather than listening and actually trying to understand where people are coming from.
However, just because this topic is hard doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it. It doesn’t mean we should water down our sincere beliefs, or refuse to explain what we really believe. We should continue arguing our point of view, and seeking to persuade others. That’s what people do in a civilized society. All it means is that we need to talk very carefully and patiently.
So if you’re reading this post and you’re gay, or you’re not gay but you have very deep, personal feelings on this topic, or you’re not a Christian and you’re trying to work out what Christians believe and why – I assume the fact that you’re reading this article means you’re willing to engage on this vital issue. So let me say thank you very much for being willing to read and think about this topic. It means a lot.
What I want to do in the rest of this article is outline a Christian view of sex and homosexuality. For some of you, this will mean taking a walk inside a very different way of seeing the world. This isn’t just a situation where ‘we basically see the world the same way, just with different sexual ethics’. This is a situation where people see the most fundamental levels of reality in extremely different ways – with very different sexual ethics flowing out of those worldviews.
If you’re not a Christian, my aim is not to convince you of the truth of Christianity within this article. But hopefully, I can help you to see that maybe the Christian way of thinking about life is more logical, more profound, and more loving than you may think. I hope to help you see how the Christian view of sexuality makes sense, and how we can have a framework for understanding and talking about these issues. This might mean you’ll be able to continue the conversation with others – or maybe join the conversation and think seriously about what you believe for the first time ever. Perhaps most of all, I want you to see that the Christian way of seeing the world is not fundamentally about sex. The Christian worldview is about Jesus.
For now, come with me as we look at one of the earliest Christian writings. This is a short part of this letter written by Paul, one of the very first Christian leaders, to a Christian church in a city called Corinth in the first century. Corinth was a port city, and (like many port cities) had a high level of sexual promiscuity and openness. That’s the backdrop to some of what Paul tells them.
Let’s look at what Paul says to the Corinthians, and then think about it under four headings.
Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. And some of you used to be like this. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Homosexual behaviour: prohibited for Christians
This first point is the hardest one, so I might as well be direct! (But make sure you stick with me until we get to the other points.) Homosexual behaviour is clearly prohibited for Christians. In fact, it is listed as something that stops a person from inheriting the kingdom of God (which means sharing in the full blessings, both now and for eternity, that God offers to his people).
Why is this the case? Is it just a random prohibition on something that Paul didn’t like? Is it just a random prohibition on something GOD doesn’t like? Is God, in fact, homophobic?
Let me begin to approach this by stepping back to look at the big picture of Christianity.
Christians believe in one God. We believe this world is not all there is – we believe in angels, and the possibility of miracles, and a God who made the world and is intimately involved with his world.
What’s more, we believe that God hasn’t kept himself hidden from the world, but that he has shown what he is like. God has done that in two specific ways: one, by sending his own Son into the world – the man Jesus Christ; and two, by speaking to us in the words of the Bible, which he inspired human authors to write. When we read the Bible, we’re not just reading the words of people – we are reading the very words of God. (For more on why Christians believe that, click here.)
What does the Bible tell us about God? Christians believe that one God made the whole world, and that he made it very good. Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation – not just another creature like the animals, but God’s image bearers. Part of being God’s image bearers in his world is that we’re designed to relate to God not just as though he’s a silent, passive observer who lets us make up our own rules, but as a loving, active, good God who made us, knows what is best for us, and tells us how to live in the world he’s made.
When it comes to sex, Christians believe that sex is really, really good. God made sex, and he approves of it. In fact, he approves of it so much that he made the human race depend on sex for its survival. But God also made sex to unite people together at a very deep level, and to just be plain fun. Why is sex enjoyable? Because God designed it that way! Like all God’s good gifts, it can be misused and abused – but that doesn’t stop it being a good thing.
God made sex to serve a particular purpose within a particular relationship, and that relationship is marriage. And the Bible is clear that marriage is between one man and one woman. I don’t have time to lay out all the reasons for that now – but the first two chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-2) make that clear, and Jesus himself endorsed that view of marriage (for example, in Matthew 19).
But if marriage is designed by God to be between a man and a woman, and if sex is for marriage, then it follows that any other sexual activity is outside God’s good created purposes for sex. That includes homosexual activity.
That, in a nutshell, is what we’re talking about.
We’re not talking about Christians just being backward or old-fashioned, or about Christians being fearful of people with different sexual practices (which is what homophobia actually means). It’s not that Christians just don’t understand homosexuality, or they’ve worked it out for themselves, or they’re just prejudiced, or they’re on a power trip, or they’re just sexually repressed prudes. The Christian attitude to homosexual practice comes from somewhere very different. It’s based on who we think God is, how and why we understand that he has made us, and how and why he has made the world. And even though the Bible says some things that go against our instincts or against our culture, God is God. It’s only right that the Creator of the world be in charge of his own world, and of the people that he’s made.
God is not cruel or oppressive, and he is certainly not homophobic. He is loving and good, and (even when we don’t fully understand why or how) what he tells us is ultimately for our good. (More on how we know that in a moment.)
And here, in 1 Corinthians 6 – and in a number of other passages too – the Bible says that people who practice homosexuality are conducting themselves in a way that is contrary to God’s design for his world and for us, his image bearers. So that’s the first point, and it’s the one that in some ways I’d love to sidestep. But I have to state it clearly, because the Bible does.
Thankfully, the rest of the points are slightly easier for us to get our minds around, and hopefully they will help to put the first point in its proper context. In their own way, each of these points is just as important as the first.
Homosexual practice: no worse than any other sin
Did you notice the long list of vices mentioned in the passage? No sexually immoral people will inherit God’s kingdom. No idolaters will inherit God’s kingdom. No adulterers, no one practicing homosexuality, no thieves, no greedy people, no drunkards, no verbally abusive people, and no swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
God is not homophobic. God is against anything that means we are not living in line with the way he made us to live. For example, verbal abuse (‘slander’) can hurt others deeply, and God cares about that. To take another example, greed distorts the way God wants his world to operate, because the greedy person is living as his own little god and worshiping created things, rather than worshiping his Creator and using what he has to bless and care for others. God cares about that. And we could go on and on.
The temptation for Christians today is in one of two directions. One temptation is to say that homosexual practice is not an issue – that each person is free to determine their own sexual practices, and that God doesn’t care about that or have a say in how we act sexually. That attitude is very tempting, because it’s where most of our culture’s arguments and emotional energy are pulling us, and it’s an attitude that will make it easier for us to fit in.
In the end, however, it’s an unloving attitude. If we conclude that God does care about how we use our sexuality and God does know what’s best for us, and if we conclude that homosexual practice is therefore not the best for people and is not in line with God’s designed purposes for sex, then the loving thing to do is to patiently, carefully, and honestly share this with people.
But there’s another temptation. For all kinds of reasons, we can react against homosexual practice by starting to believe that it’s worse than other sins. That is just as unloving and just as wrong as the alternative. There is no simply way you can read the Bible and think homosexual practice is worse than any other sin.
The truth is, you are sexually broken (no matter who ‘you’ are). I am sexually broken. The question is not whether or not you are sexually broken. The question is what kind of sexual brokenness you face, and – as we’ll see in a minute – what you choose to do with that brokenness.
This means that none of the Bible’s teaching is an excuse for any form of homophobia or mistreatment of gay people by an individual or a church. Remember, disagreements or concerns (as long as they are loving expressed) are quite different to phobias. But as I said earlier, if you’ve been hurt by genuine homophobia masquerading as Christianity, or if you know people who have been hurt, or if mistreatment by people claiming to be Christians has added to your confusion on this issue, I am really sorry that’s happened.
If you’re a Christian and you mistreat or look down on gay people, shame on you. If you think you’re better than someone because they’re gay and you’re not, you really haven’t understood the message of the Bible at all.
The challenge for those of us who are Christians is to find the sweet spot between those two temptations: to hold onto the Bible’s teaching that homosexual practice is outside God’s good design for us and our sexuality – but to do it humbly, respectfully, and lovingly. We need to remember that many, many people will find it nearly impossible to understand our views on sexuality. We have a choice: we can blame them for misunderstanding and shout ever louder; or we can show love and patience to people by working extra hard to express ourselves clearly, given the emotion and confusion surrounding this topic.
Again, it is possible to disagree with the choices that a person makes or the way a person lives their life in some way, but to still love and respect that person very deeply. We need to find ways of talking and listening that show each other that kind of love and respect. We’ll have a fighting chance of doing that if we remember that homosexual practice is no worse than any other sin.
Homosexual practice, not homosexual inclination
The wording used in 1 Corinthians 6 is clear – anyone practicing homosexuality – not just anyone who experiences same-sex attraction.
We all struggle with different temptations, but it’s possible for us to make choices. Depending on the temptation we face, some of those choices may be very hard to make. But when we work hard to overcome our temptations because we want to please and honour God, it does please and honour God.
So if you’re struggling with same-sex attraction, or you have friends who are struggling, remember – that temptation is similar to the temptations that we all face. It’s not easy to resist homosexual temptation, just like it’s not easy to resist any temptation we face – whether it’s greed, slander, or whatever. It’s not easy for a straight single person to remain sexually pure. Heck, it’s not easy for a straight married person to remain sexually pure! But with God’s help, we can do it, and it honours him when we resist temptation.
There are some excellent books written by Christians who have faced this temptation and, with God’s help, are dealing with it in a godly way. Five books that I’d recommend are:
All of this brings me to the last point – which is, in many ways, the most important point, and the one that really sets Christianity apart.
God’s offer of free forgiveness: Needed by all, and available to all
Look back at our passage from 1 Corinthians one more time. Paul reels off a long list of behaviours that place people outside the kingdom of God, but then he injects these life-giving words: “And some of you used to be like this. BUT you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Do you see what Paul is saying to the people in Corinth? This long list of vices and struggles – that’s what you guys used to be like! You’ve lived in ways that, on their own, express just how much you’ve rebelled against God and which would leave you outside God’s kingdom, outside of his love and forgiveness.
BUT that is not the end of your story. That is not God’s final word on you. God has done something to enable you to be washed clean. God has done something to give you a fresh start.
Those words ‘sanctified’ and ‘justified’ are kind of Christian jargon words – but they essentially mean that you have been forgiven for all the ways you’ve rejected God and his rule (whatever they may be) and you have been changed from the heart, from the inside, so now that God has forgiven you, you can begin to live a new life.
And what is it that God has done to make all this possible? It’s all about Jesus – that’s why he says ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ’.
Remember I said back near the beginning of this post that the Christian worldview is not about sex, but about Jesus? Here’s what I meant: The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. None of us treats God properly, and none of us treats each other properly. That’s expressed in all kinds of ways, including, at times, the misuse of our sexuality.
But God is kind and loving. He doesn’t just leave us in our brokenness and in the consequences of our actions. What did God do? He sent his son, Jesus, into the world – a real man, living a real life in real history. Unlike us, Jesus lived a perfect life, always living in line with God’s word and God’s plans. So when Jesus died, he was dying for us – in our place, if you like. He was willingly taking on himself the judgment of God that every single one of us rightly deserves for how we’ve treated him and for the wrong that we’ve done.
Being washed and forgiven is not about washing ourselves, and it’s not about earning God’s forgiveness by changing our sexual practices or becoming more moral. It’s about humbly coming to Jesus, and trusting him to wash us clean. It’s about knowing that Jesus offers us the forgiveness and the fresh start we all need. It’s about simply trusting in what he’s done for us.
A Christian is not someone who has managed to avoid sin and brokenness. The difference is that Christians recognize and confess that brokenness, and they see that it matters. They admit they can’t overcome that brokenness by their own efforts to be good. They refuse to believe there is no way back to God.
To be a Christian is to bring your brokenness to God, and to trust that he is loving and that he will forgive you, because of what Jesus has done for you. And yes, it means living a transformed life from that point onwards, following God’s will and God’s ways out of a renewed desire to honour him and live for him. But our obedience is not the thing that saves us; it’s what flows out of the salvation that Jesus freely wins for us. The penalty for every sin – homosexual practice, or anything else – has been completely paid by Jesus when he died for us, if we turn back to him and trust in him. There is absolutely nothing that you have done which excludes you from receiving God’s incredible gift of love and forgiveness through Jesus.
In the end, this is how we know that God’s instructions to us in the Bible are not harsh or oppressive. Even if we don’t understand them all straight away – even if they sound strange or even harsh to our ears when we first encounter them – we can have total confidence that God’s instructions to us are for our good because God has shown us that he is loving and good. He has shown us that he can be trusted. He has shown his love and care for us in the most spectacular way possible: by giving his beloved Son, who came into the world and was willing to die for us.
That means Christians can obey God joyfully and happily (though not always easily) because we know that listening to a loving God is ultimately the best thing for us.
No matter what brought you to read this post today, or what you believe, please don’t leave thinking, ‘wow, I really need to change my sexual activities so God will accept me!’ Merely changing your sexual behaviour won’t remove your brokenness, and it won’t deal with the real problem. I would love you to finish this article and be left thinking about one word: Jesus. ‘Maybe I ought to look into Jesus. Maybe there is something to this guy that could make a difference…’ That’s my hope and prayer for us all.
God is not homophobic. God loves every gay person, and he loves every straight person. He loves the gay person and the straight person so much that he gave Jesus for us, to give us the fresh start that every single one of us needs.
* A brief note on the title of this article: A letter to Canta magazine complained about the title of the original talk (when advertised on campus), which triggered a term’s worth of letters back and forth. For the record, I came up with the the title, so it’s my responsibility. The original title was simply, ‘Is God Homophobic?’ I had hoped a title like this would get some attention – and it did! Less successfully, I had hoped / assumed the implied answer would be ‘no’, and that the title was gently mocking anyone who thought the answer was yes. Turns out not everyone saw it that way! So, my apologies to anyone offended by the title of the original talk, or by the title of this post. I trust that the content of the article helps to address some concerns.