Redefining Sexual Sin Won't Make a Wrong a Right

Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president of the Family Research Council. | (Family Research Council)

Tim Keller's gracious and biblically faithful article on human sexuality and the drive by some to re-interpret Scripture's teachings concerning homosexuality is important. An Evangelical "Cardinal," as it were, has spoken clearly and firmly, albeit with great civility, on the immutable teaching of the written Word of God on sexuality and sexual intimacy. This is meat to my soul.

Here is an excerpt. It is profound and elegant. Read carefully:

 … male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories — they each see and do things that the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a life-long covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together.

Therefore, in one of the great ironies of late modern times, when we celebrate diversity in so many other cultural sectors, we have truncated the ultimate unity-in-diversity: inter-gendered marriage.

Without understanding this vision, the sexual prohibitions in the Bible make no sense. Homosexuality does not honor the need for this rich diversity of perspective and gendered humanity in sexual relationships. Same-sex relationships not only cannot provide this for each spouse, they can't provide children with a deep connection to each half of humanity through a parent of each gender.

Keller's excellent and timely article is well worth reading. However, near the beginning he makes a statement that demands some clarification:

… when I see people discarding their older beliefs that homosexuality is sinful after engaging with loving, wise, gay people, I'm inclined to agree that those earlier views were likely defective. In fact, they must have been essentially a form of bigotry. They could not have been based on theological or ethical principles, or on an understanding of historical biblical teaching. They must have been grounded instead on a stereotype of gay people as worse sinners than others (which is itself a shallow theology of sin.) So I say good riddance to bigotry. However, the reality of bigotry cannot itself prove that the Bible never forbids homosexuality. We have to look to the text to determine that.

This statement seems incoherent: disregarding the belief that homosexuality is sinful sheds bigotry, but the Bible forbids homosexuality as … sinful.

Perhaps what he meant is this: Getting to know people who affirm their attraction to the same sex dispels ideas that gays and lesbians are somehow intrinsically predatory or that they are all eager to flaunt their homosexuality flamboyantly, etc. He's right, and I agree that developing personal relationships with people who identify as gay and lesbian dissipates false apprehensions and humanizes them to people leery of such relationships. It also enables Christians to show fellow image-bearers of God who espouse a homosexual identity both the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.

But it is not bigotry to affirm what the Bible says about human sexuality and sexual intimacy. The weight of Keller's article is all about affirming this, to which end I think his foregoing paragraph is just poorly expressed.

As to homosexuality being worse than other sins, consider Jonathan Parnell's thoughtful comments on the gravity of certain types of sin at Desiring God. As he says, "homosexual practice just gets all the press because, at this cultural moment, it's the main sin that is so freshly endorsed in our context by the powers that be. Let's hope that if there's some new cultural agenda promoting thievery — one that says it's now our right to take whatever we want from others by whatever means — that Christians will speak out against it. The issue is sin. That's what we're against. And that's what should make our voice so unique when we speak into this debate."

In other words, the reason Christians who are faithful to biblical teaching are occupied with homosexuality at present is that it's the salient moral issue at play in the public square, not because of some bizarre preoccupation or fascination they have with it. It's also worth noting that more broadly, it is not social conservatives who are seeking to redefine marriage legally or culturally. We are unmoved by arguments to this end, and thus are characterized in often hostile and demeaning terms by cultural elites and same-sex marriage activists frustrated and sometimes enraged by our intransigence and unwillingness to accede to their political and legal initiatives.

Scripture does teach that some sins are worse than others. For example, Jesus spoke of Caiaphas, the high priest, as having "the greater sin" than Pilate (John 19:11). Theologian Robert Gagnon, the leading orthodox Protestant theologian on human sexuality, notes that Scripture characterizes homosexual practice as being in "the first tier" of sexual sins and that "the historic position of the church over the centuries is that the Bible understands homosexual practice as an extreme sexual offense."

However, although a grave sin, homosexual conduct is not seen as a unique sin. As Gagnon also points out, it is one of a number of sins deeply offensive to God, including all forms of heterosexual adultery (see Leviticus 20:10-16). And since Jesus intensified the Mosaic Law's commandments – "I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28) – those who characterize homosexuality as a uniquely evil act might want consider His words and then look into their own hearts a bit more closely.

I close by pondering a question Keller asks that merits humble consideration by those professing believers who are asking Christian orthodoxy to embrace their novel and unconvincing exegetical efforts concerning homosexuality:

… until very, very recently, there had been complete unanimity about homosexuality in the church across all centuries, cultures, and even across major divisions of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions ... One has to ask, then, why is it the case that literally no church, theologian, or Christian thinker or movement ever thought that any kind of same sex relationships was allowable until now?

Suggested answers: Because (1) our Christian forebears were intellectually honest enough to know they couldn't and because (2) many of them understood that to redefine sin diminishes the gravity of the cross. Sin put the Savior on that cross, out of His love for all sinners. When we de-list certain sins from God's catalog of transgressions, not only do we play false with His Word but we debase the very heart of the atonement – that all sin merits eternal punishment, and that God sets the standard for what is and isn't sin, not us. Saying something God says is wrong is not just right but worth celebrating demeans Christ's becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (II Corinthians 5:21). May that never be.

May Christians never forsake these truths. Love for God and for all those for whom Christ died demands no less.

For more commentary on Christian faith and homosexuality, check out the new e-book by FRC's friends Andrew Walker and Eric Teetsel, Marriage Is: How Marriage Transforms Society and Cultivates Human Flourishing. Also, see "Seven Things I Wish My Pastor Knew About My Homosexuality" by Jean Lloyd, Ph.D. and Matt Anderson's "Why I Am Opposed to Gay Marriage."

FRC has produced a number of resources related to the Bible's teaching on homosexuality and marriage that further explore these critical topics:

An Unlikely Convert: A Former Lesbian Professor's Journey to Faith – lecture by Dr. Rosaria Butterfield

Jesus, Scripture, and the Myth of New Knowledge Arguments about Homosexual Unions – lecture by Dr. Robert Gagnon

The Bible's Teaching on Marriage and Family – FRC booklet by Dr. Andreas Kostenberger

Leviticus, Jesus, and Homosexuality: Some Thoughts on Honest Interpretation – FRC paper by Rob Schwarzwalder

The Bible's Teaching on Homosexuality: Clear, Final, and Sufficient – op-ed by Rob Schwarzwalder

Complementarity in Marriage: What it is and Why it Matters – FRC paper by Rob Schwarzwalder

Rob Schwarzwalder, Senior Vice-President of the Family Research Council, was a presidential appointee in the George W. Bush administration chief-of-staff for two Members of Congress. He is a longtime member of the Evangelical Theological Society."

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