In an effort to extend charity to homosexuals pressing for the right to marry, some Christians are distorting truth.
The Lutheran church is in turmoil after a stormy debate over same-sex marriage. In August, a conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which represents 4.6 million Christians, gave its backing to homosexual relationships, same-sex marriage, and clergy in same-sex relationships. They did all this in the name of charity and justice.
Many Lutherans were horrified. In late September a splinter group, the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal (CORE) gathered in Indianapolis to debate whether they should split from their brethren over this non-Biblical teaching.
One of the organisers of CORE, the Rev Paul Spring, told the media, “I am saddened that a Lutheran church that was founded on a firm commitment to the Bible has come to the point that the ELCA would vote to reject the Bible’s teaching on marriage and homosexual behavior. It breaks my heart.”
Separation could be a painful step for these Lutherans, but they are convinced that true charity and compassion means fidelity to the truth at all costs.
This is just the latest installment in a debate among American Christians about homosexuality. What I find distressing is that niceness and social acceptance often seem to count for more than medical, psychological, social and Biblical truth.
Somewhat surprisingly, even so-called conservatives are wobbly on this issue. Take the best-known preacher in the US, Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, a mega-church in California. He is renowned both for his popular book, The Purpose Driven Life, and for giving the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inauguration last January.
Last year Warren seemed unwavering in his opposition to same-sex marriage. At one point, Warren had even compared gay couples attempting to marry to a brother marrying a sister and with older men marrying children. The gay community criticised this as bigotry and hate-speech, and chastised Obama for honoring a “bigot preacher”.
Last October, two weeks before the vote on Proposition 8, the voter-approved amendment to the California State Constitution defining marriage between a man and a woman, he said: “Now let me say this really clearly: we support Proposition 8 -- and if you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8. I never support a candidate, but on moral issues I come out very clear.”
Yet, more recently, he has shifted his position. On the Larry King Live show in April he apologised for his support of Proposition 8. He stated emphatically that he has never been nor will ever be an “anti-gay or anti-gay marriage activist.” Although he didn’t believe that marriage should be redefined, he told King that it wasn’t high on his list of priorities. “No, no, it's very low,” he said. “In fact, I am working with a number of gay organisations on issues that we care about, in saving lives.”
Not surprisingly, many evangelicals were shocked at this back-pedaling. So Saddleback Church issued a clarification. Warren still backs the Biblical view of marriage, but he regretted giving the impression “that consensual adult same-sex relationships were equivalent to incest or pedophilia”.
But what now sticks in people’s mind is that gay marriage is low on the list of Rick Warren’s priorities. It was a statement which has boosted the stocks of gay marriage. New York Times columnist Frank Rich asked: if Rick Warren won’t lead the charge on same-sex marriage, who will?
Why are US Christians so wobbly on homosexuality? I discuss the problem at some length in my recent book Born to Love. It is a complex issue, but two reasons spring to mind. The first is a well-intentioned desire not to offend. Like Rick Warren, many Christians fear that they will be harsh and discriminatory unless they accept people who live in a homosexual lifestyle. Up to a point, this is correct. My advice has always been to stick to the truth, but with charity, as the Bible says. Without truth we ignore the wounds which many homosexuals have within them; without charity the wounds will not heal.
The truth is that homosexual actions -- and all sins -- are intrinsically disordered, they tarnish our being created in God’s image and likeness, and they lead people to lives of frustration and unhappiness. Unbiased science and psychology support this. It is wrong for pastors to deceive Christians by pretending that it makes no difference to have extra-marital sex -- whether “straight” or gay.
For Christians, charity in truth means imitating Christ in witnessing to the truth. Christ befriended and forgave the woman caught in adultery, while admonishing her to go and “sin no more” (John 8:2-11). She felt loved by Jesus Christ, perhaps for the first time in her life, and it transformed her whole existence. So it is really possible to love the sinner and hate the sin.
Second, Christians who defend the compatibility of homosexuality with Christianity also claim that there is support for their position in the Bible. I discuss some of these passages in my book.
The clearest Biblical condemnation of homosexuality is in Genesis where God destroys Sodom after all its men try to break into Lot's house to “know” -- ie, to rape -- his two visitors. Ah, allege some revisionist theologians, what the Sodomites really wanted was to get acquainted with the two men and offer them hospitality. Furthermore, the Gospel of Luke seems to confirm that, because Jesus says that if a town inhospitably rejects his disciples, “it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town”. But this strains the biblical text beyond recognition.
Or they cite David’s lament for his friend Jonathan: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” But the Bible never mentions even a hint of impropriety here. Such a homosexual interpretation is simply -- if not wishful -- fantasy.
In his latest encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity… Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.”
This is precisely what is happening in many Christian communities. Rather than give the slightest offence, they are redefining love and marriage.
Rick Warren chooses not to make the truth about marriage -- which he clearly sees as Biblical -- high on his list. But is this true charity? Or is this the “empty shell” of which Pope Benedict warns us?
Fr John Waiss has been a Catholic priest since 1987. He attended Notre Dame where he studied mechanical engineering. His other books include Couples in Love: Straight Talk on Dating, Respect, Commitment, Marriage, and Sexuality and Letters Between a Catholic and Evangelical: From Dialogue to Debate.