Conversations with conservative Christians about homosexuality inevitably turn to how Christians tend to respond to homosexuality more harshly than they respond to other sins, and there’s an argument that often comes up that rather baffles me. It goes something like this:
“Yes, Christians are more vocal about homosexuality than we are about other sins, and we may hold people to a higher standard with regards to sexual sins than we do with other kinds of sin. But that’s because there’s a growing movement of people who are trying to change our perception of homosexuality so that we no longer perceive it as sin. We don’t have to be harsh on impatience because we all agree impatience is sinful. We don’t have to be harsh on greed because we all know greed is sinful. We have to be harsh on homosexuality because some people no longer perceive it as sinful, and that’s a dangerous movement.”
The argument doesn’t sit well with me for two reasons. First, I’m honestly not sure that everyone is so convinced about the sinfulness of other certain behaviors—behaviors like impatience and greed. I say this because of how apathetic Christians seem to feel about the near-ubiquity of these behaviors in many of our Christian communities. I can gloat about overeating at a church potluck even though our community agrees on values like temperance and selflessness. We laughingly identify someone as “the church gossip” even though our community agrees on the havoc gossip can wreak. When certain kinds of sin are more culturally acceptable, we’re much more likely to talk in shades of gray, with statements like “It’s an area for growth in my life” and “We all struggle in those ways. We’re only human.” When certain kinds of sin aren’t culturally acceptable, we’ll make the boundaries clear, and we’ll use language of “standards” and “holiness.” If we perceive a behavior as sinful in any sense, we should perceive it as destructive to the spiritual life and to the faith community; and if we perceive it as destructive, we should work to eradicate it regardless of its prevalence. Because we don’t respond to impatience and greed with any ferocity, I’m not convinced we actually—on a gut level—perceive them to be sinful, at least not in the forms that tend to show up in our church communities.
Second, I’m not sure where this line of reasoning leads. Suppose the movement in our culture and in Christian circles reverses direction such that most Christians generally come to agree that same-sex relationships are sinful. Then what happens? Do we add homosexuality to that list of things that we all perceive as sinful and don’t enforce for anyone (impatience, greed, gluttony, gossip)? I’m being a bit cheeky here, of course, but I genuinely don’t understand why Christians are so keen on getting ethics right if we readily admit we don’t follow the ones we’re pretty confident about. What’s really at stake in our doctrinal disagreements if we seem to ignore our doctrines anyway?
This is the part where I could say conservative communities should be soft on homosexuality because they’re soft on everything else, but I’m actually going to say quite the opposite. Here’s my suggestion: If your faith community believes homosexuality is sinful, then enforce it. Be completely gentle and compassionate, of course, but hold people to a sexual standard that only the very Spirit of God could enable them to keep. As in Ephesians 5:3, let there be “not a hint of sexual immorality” within your community. And then hold everyone to a standard of behavior that’s just as high with regards to everything else you perceive as sinful. Remove all impatient acts. Exterminate every trace of gluttony and gossip. As in Ephesians 5:3, let there be “not a hint…of greed” within your community. For the sake of integrity, set the bar high for all kinds of immorality.
And in the meantime, use our culture’s current debates about homosexuality as an opportunity to take an honest, fearless look at your church’s sexual ethics. Are members of your faith community generally succeeding in their efforts to live up to your standards? Does it seem like you’re asking more of sexual minorities than you are of straight people? How has your cultural setting affected your perception of God’s standards for sexuality? What changes is God calling you to make in order to invite you as an individual to experience fuller life in God’s kingdom? Use our cultural context as a catalyst for growth instead of seeds for division.
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