Speaking about Homosexuality

by Donald H. Juel

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It need hardly be noted that dealing with matters as intimate and as fundamental as human sexuality requires considerable delicacy. Participants in such conversations have much of themselves invested. “Dispassionate” discussions are thus inconceivable given the stakes, unless participants completely abstract themselves from their own situations and their own experience – in which case it may fairly be charged that such discussions are probably dishonest and are surely evasions of real conversation. We all come to these discussions, however reluctantly, with experiences and ideas and biases.

It is possible to converse about matters in which we have heavy emotional and personal investment. In such cases, however, the ground rules for the discussion and the resources for the conversation must be clearly spelled out. We must be clear about what will count as a good reason for one view or another.

The resources for our discussion include the Scriptures, which are the “norming norm,” the confessions and historical experience of the church, human experience, and finally personal experience. Clarity about how the various sources are interrelated is not given in advance; it must be argued. Of particular significance is the way in which the Scriptures function as norm.

The Issue

Our discussion should not attempt too much. The particular issue which has been brought before the church has to do with the ordination of homosexual persons. A decision has been made about how to deal with the issue; at the very least, our conversation should take that as a matter requiring reflection. The policy regarding ordination has been spelled out because the issue was raised by homosexual persons. The church has thus been forced to speak about matters it has chosen to deal with at a personal – and often unexamined – level.

What has been asked of us as a seminary faculty is thus first how to think about the matter of ordaining homosexual persons. That reflection will necessarily require reflection about matters of human sexuality, though it need not await a definitive statement about everything. Given our tradition, it is a bit difficult to imagine what such a “definitive” statement would look like or who would make it. We ought rather to think of our task modestly. We need to help pastors and congregations think about particular forms of sexual expression in this particular setting – offering perhaps some guidelines for thinking together about other matters as well.

For the church to “know its mind” on this matter, public discussion is the only possible route. We have no pope, no college of bishops, no teachers charged with speaking for the church. We can only make arguments to one another with the conviction that God’s will will emerge from the discussion.

In view of the complexity of the discussion, clarity about terms is necessary. As presently used, “homosexuality” is not a useful word. It is a modern word, used to speak of an “orientation” or self-understanding which may or may not result in particular acts of genital expression. The scriptural terminology – and the language of virtually the whole of our tradition – is more precise: it speaks of particular types of genital expression. If we must use the term, “homosexuals” should refer to people who do particular things – in this case, engaging in genital intimacy with people of the same gender.

It would be most helpful for our conversation to speak about “homosexuality” in this respect, just as we would speak of “heterosexuality” in terms of genital intimacy with persons of the opposite gender. The scriptures, the tradition of the church, and our present church policy thus speak about actions, not orientations – or rather, people who act in particular ways.

The Starting Point

It is our proposal that the matter of homosexual behavior be discussed first of all as a public issue – as something in which the whole society has a stake. That is to dissent from a prevalent view that sexual expression is essentially private and belongs in the realm of individual preference. There should not be much disagreement about this among Christians familiar with the scriptures and the tradition, where matters of sexual propriety are always discussed as community business. Society has everything invested in the relationship between men and women, and it has generally taken great care to protect and regulate those relationships in such ways that will preserve its investments.

In theological terms, that is simply a way of saying that homosexual behavior should be discussed as a matter of law.

The statement requires some comment. The matter at issue is not whether or not persons who commit homosexual acts can be saved. Discussing the propriety of divorce or murder and the appropriate steps society must take to deal with divorced persons or murderers can be done without suggesting that the availability of the gospel to either group is at stake. The propriety of homosexual acts can be discussed without prejudging the nature of the church’s ministry to homosexual persons. Again using the language of the-tradition, we can distinguish between law and gospel without collapsing one into the other. Much confusion has arisen within the church because these distinctions are not made.

If we can agree that the discussion of homosexual acts belongs properly within the realm of legal discussion – that is, that it has to do with the rights of society and the well-being of the neighbor – we will have taken a crucial first step. That will not settle the issue, but it will surely provide direction to the discussion. The critical issue will then be how we think about matters within the realm of the law – and in particular, the matter of homosexual acts.

In practical terms, it means that discussions within the church cannot begin with particular instances and individual experience. That may work in law courts, where lawyers and judges presumably know the law and seek to understand a particular case within that framework. Within the church, “the law” (understood in scriptural and traditional terms as the structures by which God preserves the created order from destruction and orders human life) is what is least clear. We would do a great service to the church by providing an example of how to think about individual behavior within the realm of the law. We may expect difficulty here in a society that is committed to individual rights and often seems powerless to think productively and creatively about the well—being of the neighbor.

Ground Rules for Reflection “Under the Law”

1. Our tradition has spoken of the “orders of creation,” but it has never insisted on any single detailed exposition of those orders. While matters of human sexual expression are dealt with in the OT as matters of “law” as revealed by God, the narratives indicate how this “law” arises from human experience as well and how transgression of it brings suffering and death. Likewise, in Jewish tradition the “revealed law” requires exposition and application. And that process is largely one of community reason. The Mishnah and the Talmuds are the authorized community reflection on matters of religious law. In such discussions, the law becomes real in the experience of particular communities.

2. In the OT codes, in the table of duties in Eph and Col and I Peter, the structuring of the world takes special pains to protect family life. It is presumed that the world must be ordered, and that at the center of the structures are parents and children. Husbands, wives, and children are assigned roles. Wives and children in particular are accorded protection from faithless fathers and husbands (this is particularly true of the prohibition of divorce in Mark 10). Gender roles are ordered to foster the raising of children – a matter in which society has everything at stake. And they are discussed in a ways that seeks to make ordered life possible.

3. What is “natural” is determined by particular societies. Because there are important investments in the natural order, boundaries are drawn and maintained by threat of punishment. Quarantines isolate those with diseases that threaten the rest of the community; laws protect the weak from exploitation by the strong. In the same way, men and women who establish families are safeguarded – hemmed in – by laws.

It is worth noting that such sentences are seldom found in discussions of sexual behavior, at least at the popular level to which most people have access. Our society has its own particular ways of defining what is natural and what is aberrant. In discussions of homosexual behavior, for example, many turn to social scientists for a definition of what is natural. Based on “new” evidence, psychologists will now speak of-a “broad range of sexual expression” rather than acceptable and unacceptable behavior. One might observe a decided change in the so-called scientific community whose opinions are sought. While anthropologists and sociologists are included in the conversation, it has been psychologists and psychiatrists who have dominated popular thinking about “nature.” Discussions of natural inclinations or orientations suggest that the determining factors in sexual behavior are located within individuals, not societies. The right of individuals to self-expressions would then seem to be the ultimate good.

Christians should insist, however, that value judgments regarding individual behavior be made from the vantage point of impact on others. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to speak of a “natural” inclination (meaning that it can be observed in nature) while condemning actions arising from that inclination as unnatural or abhorrent if they are damaging to the neighbor.

4. While men and women do not have to marry, and while all married couples do not have to have children, the future of the society will forever depend upon parents providing support and nurture for children. Society thus provides favored conditions and considerable support and protection for families. And while there are many roles that can be assumed by either men or women, only women can bear children. That fact will always remain important in the structuring of society. This is perhaps the main reason why marriage has been established as a legal institution.

5. The observation that the Bible does not say much about homosexual behavior (and nothing about homosexual orientation) is susceptible of more than one interpretation. The presence of such terms as arsenokoites in traditional lists of vices categorizes such behavior as out of bounds. The lack of discussion of such practice suggests it is so abhorrent to society as not to require detailed discussion. There is no extended discussion of intercourse with animals or children because it is unnecessary. The risk of such behavior to society is obvious to all.

6. In the discussions about human behavior, the creative power of language has rarely been appreciated. Our language can shape the way we experience the world. We know, for example, that a word for a disposition to preference for members of the same gender was invented in the 19th century. “Homosexuality” appears in English first in the 1890’s. This may be read as an attempt further to protect society from a perceived perversion. But it may also be viewed as-a further breakdown of social realities into psychological. Such abstract “orientations” suggest that people “are” essentially what they imagine. Scientists feed the theory by providing more and more imaginative orientations. It may be that in other societies, people cannot even imagine what it would be like to be a “homosexual” because the possibility does not exist in the language. What is important in such social systems is not reflection on human self-reflection, but the well-being of the neighbor.

A professor from Madagascar, for example, pointed out that in his native language, the only words available to speak of what we term sexuality were words that described intercourse between males and females. Both genders are included in the words. While people in his society are familiar with other forms of intercourse – say, with animals, it is always clear to the imagination that the partner in the sexual act is a substitute for the proper partner. Any forms of sexual intimacy outside that of a male with a female are necessarily viewed as aberrant. The language offers no other possibilities to the imagination.

Language that speaks of acts is thus primary. Homosexuality as an “orientation” exists at all only because we have provided a word for it. That scientists are unable precisely to identify “homosexuality” is hardly surprising. That will require mythologization. While such a process may hold its own fascination, the primary stake Christians have in the discussion is the well-being of the neighbor. It is the acts that are of concern.

7. The primary question is, therefore, to what extent the safeguarding of gender distinctions is basic to society. Analogies to this kind of reasoning are not difficult to find. Though men may be “naturally” inclined to have intercourse with every woman, for the well-being of society laws regulate sexual behavior. Though some may be inclined to have intercourse with children, they are required by society to suppress or sublimate their natural urges upon pain of punishment. From the vantage point of the law, it is irrelevant what is “natural” to them. That may be relevant for treatment and socialization.

Some may object to the analogies. Their validity depends upon the views of a society. Are there good reasons to believe one thing or another? The persistent use of -”homophobia” suggests that suspicion of same-gender intercourse is a malady. But why is not “healthy suspicion” a more appropriate designation of society’s aversion to same-gender intercourse? Human society is fragile. Relations between men and women are complex – and everything depends upon a salutary ordering of those relations. There may be good reasons to suspect that a confusion of gender roles, if sanctioned by society, can do enormous damage to the whole society. That would seem to be the collective wisdom of our tradition.

An example makes the danger clear. In many societies other than our own, men are much freer physically with one another. A missionary noted that in Ethiopia, men regularly embrace, hold hands, even kiss one another. Such behavior is acceptable because homosexual intercourse is taboo. And because it is unthinkable, there is freedom in relationships. The lack of such fixed boundaries in our society means that we dare not be free with one another. Women cannot trust men – even pastors – to respect intimate boundaries. Children cannot trust adults, even parents. Physical gestures can be misunderstood because there is no clear system of values. The result is quite the opposite of a free society; it is a society in which any kind of physical intimacy becomes threatening.

There are many issues to consider. We would surely agree that the “good” can be discussed in relative terms. If there must be same-gender sexual expression (as there will be divorce), committed relationships will be more salutary than non-committed. What is requested of church and society, however, is an affirmation of same-sex genital intimacy as a legitimate form of expression. One might ask how that will benefit society. Arguments have been offered in the scriptures and in the tradition of the church. We can articulate reasons why society can suffer by the confusion of gender roles. In the absence of sound reasons why the approval of homosexual intercourse will benefit society, there seems little reason to make radical changes in policy or to tempt young people unduly by planting in their imaginations suggestions about destructive life-styles from which they cannot protect themselves.

In our deliberations, the wisdom of scripture and the tradition cannot be cited as “God’s answer” to the matter, but neither ought that wisdom be summarily dismissed as irrelevant or outdated. And if we cannot find compelling reasons to dismiss such views about homosexual practice, the church is obligated out of concern for the well-being of society to refuse to ordain homosexual persons to public ministry or to endorse homosexual practice as legitimate expression of one’s sexuality.

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