The gospel is about God’s purpose for humanity and for the world that is the goal of universal history now breaking into the middle in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is about the healing of humanity, and the restoration of the true humanity where Adamic humanity failed in rebellion. And the vocation of the people of God in the biblical story is to be a preview of that true humanity for the sake of the world. Paul’s letters, for example, offer a way of being human that he saw as the true way that had been lost in Adam. It was an answer to paganism where God’s purpose for humanity was thwarted by serving idols.
One way the church manifests its true humanity is in its unity. The disunity of the church is a scandal; it is not merely an unfortunate state of affairs.
Lesslie Newbigin illustrates the difference between a scandal and an unfortunate situation by reference to the old cultural movement of temperance unions. Temperance unions, of course, were organized to oppose the consumption of alcohol. Newbigin says that if there is more than one temperance union in a town and its members are fighting, that is unfortunate, but it is not scandalous.
However, if the members of the temperance union are walking around town habitually drunk, that is scandalous. It is a scandal because their lifestyle contradicts their message. For the church disunity is not unfortunate but a scandal because disunity is a contradiction of the message that God is uniting and reconciling all things including the life of humanity (Eph 1.9-10; Col 1.19-20; cf. Jn 17.21-23).
One of the most moving statements on the unity of the church that I have seen is found in Our World Belongs to God: The Contemporary Testimony.
We grieve that the church,
which shares one Spirit, one faith, one hope,
and spans all time, place, race, and language
has become a broken communion in a broken world.
When we struggle for the purity of the church
and for the righteousness God demands,
we pray for saintly courage.
When our pride or blindness
blocks the unity of God's household,
we seek forgiveness.
We marvel that the Lord gathers the broken pieces
to do his work,
and that he blesses us still
with joy, new members, and surprising evidences of unity.
We commit ourselves
to seeking and expressing the oneness
of all who follow Jesus.
I have reproduced here the original 1987 version of the Testimony because in the original text presented to synod the words about the purity of the church, the righteousness that God demands, and saintly courage were not found. They were added because it was recognized that there are times when the Christian faith is threatened in such a way that unity is not the priority but saintly courage to protect the purity of the church and the righteousness God demands.
While I am aware that this kind of statement can be misused and applied to issues that do not rise to this level of importance—and sadly has often been used in this way—I believe that the issue of homosexuality is one such issue. Embracing homosexuality as a normative expression of human sexuality must be resisted, I believe, with saintly courage.
I am aware that there is a growing literature that is attempting to rework the traditional biblical texts that oppose homosexuality to show that, in fact, they do not stand against faithful expressions of lifelong commitment. I remember one of my professors at Westminster Seminary saying four decades ago that it is possible to use our hermeneutical method to nullify the Word of God and make it say the opposite of what it actually says. That danger is always with us; there is no such thing as neutral exegesis. Our methods do not function as a bridge that allows us to leave our subjectivities behind and cross over to a neutral space where we can objectively embrace the reality we seek to understand, as Rene Descartes believed.
That is why we need the testimony of brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and in other times in history who do not share the idolatrous spirits of our culture. This is the only thing that can save us from our parochial interpretations. There is a Chinese proverb that says: “If you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish.”
That is, of course, because the fish is always swimming in the water and it is its native environment. The fish won’t know that the water is polluted. And I submit, as has been evidenced, for example, in the Anglican church that there is near unanimity in the thriving churches of the non-Western world that homosexuality is not compatible with Scripture. And this is also true of the church through history. It may be true, of course, that the Western church in the late 20th and early 21st century finally got it right. But it could also be, as one mother commented when she observed her son as part of a marching band: “Everyone is out of step except my son Johnny.”
It is important to stress this. This issue is often presented as if there are two positions that can be defended equally from Scripture. But to present this in such a way is a position itself I would reject. Rather there is an orthodox position that carries the weight of centuries of church history and also the global church that is being challenged in certain quarters by the shrinking Western church. To choose the position that affirms homosexual practice is to depart from the history of the church and to stand against the majority of the church in the non-Western world.
It is also well known that it is in the non-Western parts of the world where the church is healthiest today. And it is equally well known that the Western church is “an advanced state of syncretism” to use the words of Lesslie Newbigin. So, this is not a matter of weighing two equally defensible positions. This is a matter of standing with, or departing from, the majority of the church globally and historically.
This issue is serious not simply because it counters a ‘sexual ethic.’ It is not simply that in creation God has established heterosexuality as the norm for human sexuality. That is true and the creational foundation of the remainder of the biblical story.
But the problem touches on the very vocation of the church. We are called to be the true humanity that the Adamic humanity failed to be. The deepest problem of the rebellion of Adamic humanity is that as religious creatures, as God’s image, they turned to serve other gods. Idolatry, in other words, is the deepest expression of human rebellion. Humanity was created as God’s image, made to serve him in the entirety of their vocation. As they did, they would then reflect God’s image. But as they turned to serve other gods the very image of God would be distorted as they reflected their idols.
N.T. Wright makes this point in his reflection on Romans 1.18-32. Here he sees Paul as drawing on a typical Jewish way of describing the problem of pagan humanity. They turn from serving God and instead begin to serve idols (Rom 1.21-23, 25). God gives them over to their idolatry (1.24, 26, 28). And it finally reaps the bad fruit of injustice and immorality (1.29-32).
Note that reference to homosexuality is not found in these last verses amidst the description of rampant pagan immorality. Rather it is found in verses 26-27. Why? Wright argues that this is because idolatry always means the distortion of the image of God as they serve idols. Homosexuality is an expression of the unraveling of God’s image in pagan, idolatrous culture. As God’s image humanity was made male and female but this is compromised deeply in homosexual practice. Let me quote Wright at length:
The underlying logic seems to be as follows. Those who worship the true God are, as Paul says elsewhere, renewed according to the divine image (Col 3.10). When this worship is exchanged for the worship of other gods, the result will be that this humanness, this image-bearing quality, is correspondingly distorted. … his point is that homosexual behavior is a distortion of the creator’s design and that such practices are evidence … of the tendency within an entire society for humanness to fracture when gods other than the true one are being worshiped. The point is this: Exchange your God for an idol, and you will exchange your genuine humanness for a distorted version, which will do you no good.
This is why the affirmation of homosexual practice is not simply getting our sexual ethic wrong. It is abandoning our vocation to embody the Creator’s intention and design for true humanity for the sake of the world. Allowing homosexual practice a place among God’s people today is to take on the idolatry of our culture rather than to be a display people that embodies another way of being human. It is precisely to abandon our mission.
To take this stand is going to require that the church double its efforts to love, welcome, and embrace our gay neighbours. The church has not been very good at this. It seems that there are conservative churches which stand fast against homosexuality but find it hard to really love their gay neighbours. And progressive churches spurred by the loveless and self-righteous attitudes of their conservative brothers and sisters adopt a welcoming stance that includes the affirmation of their homosexual practice.
In my judgement neither of these options are faithful to the Scriptures and what the church is called to be. Both must repent. God made humanity male and female, and heterosexual practice is the way of creational blessing, and it is this blessing we long for all. But Christ welcomes the broken sinner, all of us, and we must embody this welcome.
We need to be humble: all of us are deeply broken in our sexual lives. We need to be compassionate and sympathetic: all of us struggle at deep levels and in different ways with sin in our lives. It will be vital, moreover, to recognize that all of us are both sinners and sinned-against. Our gay friends are not just sinners who need to repent but many have been deeply hurt and sinned against. To acknowledge this will stir us to lovingly and carefully listen to their stories. Humility, compassion, and sympathy do not need to be expressions of humanistic tolerance; they can be expressed without abandoning God’s creational norms for sexuality.
I conclude: to affirm homosexuality is to abandon our calling to embody God’s creational purpose for the sake of the world and to call all people into the true humanity that will one day fill the earth. It seems to me that this is a time for saintly and compassionate courage for the missional righteousness God demands.
Dr. Michael Goheen
Director of Theological Education, Missional Training Center, Pheonix, AZ.
Professor of Missional Theology, Covenant Theological Seminary