Pulling it all together: Is homosexuality a sin?

Before, during, and after the SoulForce visit to the ACU campus the big question on the campus, in the classroom, and on our minds was, "Is homosexuality a sin?" How do you answer that question unless you are very clear on how to discern the nature of sin? So, I backed up and asked myself the question, "What makes a sin a sin?" If you have been reading along with me, you've seen that, for me, there are five main approaches to defining sin. That list and my exposition of it is probably very naive and superficial, but it is the best I can do right now.

With our five perspectives I now think we are in a better place to answer the question.

Summarizing my prior five posts greatly, we have the following:

1. Divine Command: A pro-sin argument against homosexuality.
2. Created Order: A pro-sin argument against homosexuality.
3. Hedonic Terminal Desire: A pro-sin argument against homosexuality (especially if you are a Catholic).
4. The Harm Principle: An argument that homosexuality is not a sin.
5. The Holiness Equation: An argument that homosexuality is not a sin.

Let me unpack the last two, just to be clear. Strictly following the harm principle, given its narrow criterion, homosexuality is not a sin. That is, it causes no harm. Applying the Holiness Equation, if the homosexual act is Other-oriented, bound within a covenant and servant-based relationship, we cannot, on its strict criterion of selfishness, call homosexuality a sin.

Thus, we have divergence among our criteria. Which criteria should trump? Well, that is the million dollar question.

I think we can dispense with Hedonic Terminal Desire if we restrict our focus to homosexual sex in a covenant relationship. That is, the sex is not the goal of the relationship, the greater good of the partner is the focus (i.e., the Holiness Equation). This might not satisfy any Catholic readers, but it satisfies me. (I'm Protestant.)

So, what we are left with are two arguments viewing homosexuality as a sin and two arguments viewing homosexuality neutrally (not a virtue, but not a vice...kind of like heterosexual sex).

The sin arguments are pretty easy to articulate: "The Bible says so" combined with fairly obvious observation about genitalia. The common-sense clarity of these arguments make them strong and ubiquitous. Doesn't take a graduate degree in theology to make these arguments in a debate. Thus, any Tom, Dick or Harry can, given superficial appraisals, articulate an argument against homosexuality that seems to be, to use a baseball metaphor, a walk off homerun.

But the trouble is, despite their obviousness, those two arguments are theologically thin. They are certainly powerful arguments, but an honest appraisal has to admit that beyond a simple "The Bible says it. I believe it. And that's that." there isn't much else to be said. If you ask why God finds homosexuality offensive you get a blank stare. The unspoken assumption is, Who knows? God is God. He's a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It's not for us to ask such questions.

But this situation begs for questions and answers. The situation and experience of homosexual persons begs for some kind of response. The Divine Command argument leaves the church with nothing productive to say to give warrant for her standard of ethics. The Church says, No! The World asks, Why? And the Church responds, We don't know, but No! That may truly be the situation we are in. But we cannot be faulted for trying to discern a little about what is going on.

But, when we begin to look for theological rationales, what we come up with are the Harm Principle and the Holiness Equation. Hurting people and selfishness. And those two arguments just don't line up behind Divine Command in this case. So, we are back at the beginning. How do we adjudicate?

Well here is a big surprise, I'm not going to adjudicate this. I'm simply going to set up the machinery of choice. How you compute the outcome will be up to you.

Basically, and I bet you guessed this, it comes down to how you weight the arguments against each other. Since equations are on my mind (I'm teaching multivariate statistics this semester) let's play around with that metaphor again:

Weight X (Divine Command) + Weight Y (Created Order) - Weight Z (Harm Principle) + Weight W (Holiness Equation) = ?

(Note for the the mathphobes: The weight is the degree of importance you assign a given argument. You feel this weight, as I'll discuss in a post next week, in your bones or gut.)

If you come out strongly positive on this computation, you're probably a fundamentalist. You probably weight the Bible at "Infinity times Infinity" (which strictly speaking, according to Cantor's set theory, is still infinity...) and are very suspicious about theology. In short, you strongly feel that homosexuality is a sin. In fact, you might even hate homosexuals.

If you come out moderately positive on this computation, you're probably a moderate evangelical. You're not immune to theological argumentation, and you don't hate homosexuals, but you're fairly certain it's a sin.

If your score is zero I'll get to you in a minute.

If your score is moderately negative, than you're probably Episcopalian. If your score is very negative you're probably Unitarian.

Sure, you might not actually be any of those groups. I'm speaking theologically, such as "You're a Unitarian in a Church of Christ body." Something like that.

I'm kind of playing around with this, but I think I'm making a fairly strong point: How does theology relate to Scripture? How does Reason relate to Scripture? How does human experience relate to Scripture?

If you are like me, your score is close to zero. You don't like a theologically thin reading of the Bible. Because without theological discernment the Bible is a confusing and morally problematic document. Thus, if you feel like me, you realize that the Bible actually needs theology.

But if you love the Bible, like me, you also don't want theology, reason, or human experience to trump the Bible. We want the Bible and theology/reason/experience to work in tandem, mutually supporting and fueling each other. And this is why the issue of homosexuality is so painful for many Christians, it almost perfectly cuts down the middle. And, if you don't want the Bible to trump theology or theology to trump the Bible, you are left with frustrating ambivalence.

So what are we to conclude? This: That given the data, Christians, as they weight the data, will and have come out differently on this issue. Given my own ambivlance, I go with the old theological concept of adiaphora ("middle matters" or "matters of indifference"). This term was used by Reformers as a label for issues where consensus could not be reached on doctrinal disputes. I realize that this term was mainly used to handle differing Biblical disputes. Clearly, I'm using the term to cover an undeciable Bible vs. Theology dispute which is a stretching of the concept. But it is the best concept I have at hand.

When the Reformers invoked adiaphora they called for tolerance. And, since I'm invoking it, I'm calling for tolerance between Christians and churches as well.

Clearly, Christian churches will discern things differently on this issue. They already are. And we should tolerate the heterogeneity amongst us. My final Biblical position on this, then, is similar to Gamaliel's in the Book of Acts. As the Christian movement was growing the Jews were attempting to discern the will of God (just like we are in this instance): Were Christians evil? Or good? Gamaliel gave this advice to the Jewish leaders: If this movement is from man, then it will ultimately crumble. But if it is from God, who can fight against it? I don't know if the gay-Christian church is from God or man. But, like Gamaliel, I've decided to stand aside, to love, and to allow it room to grow. Only God will know the final outcome. Until then, I pick up the towel and don't bother much with whose feet I'm washing.

From here on out I'll start moving toward issues I know a lot more about: The psychology of morality and religion. The first of those posts will still connect to issues of sin, but gradually I'll be moving away from this topic into other areas. I hope you've found this week's posts interesting and stimulating.

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5 thoughts on “Pulling it all together: Is homosexuality a sin?”

  1. Dr. Beck,

    I know you are long since past this post, so I apologize for commenting so late in the game, but I've been reading through your posts and have a question/comment.

    Could you, at some point, elaborate on point 2 a little further? I read the post in which addressed "Created Order" (natural/unnatural), but you never seemed to reach a moral conclusion. You correctly pointed out pro- and anti-gay activist groups' logical fallacies, but you never seemed to offer a reason to think that created order offers "a pro-sin argument against homosexuality."

    If we are to avoid Hume's is/ought fallacy, should we not assert that created order offers arguments neither for nor against the acceptance of gays and lesbians in Churches of Christ?


  2. GR,
    In this post, when I say that the Created Order is a pro-sin argument about homosexuality, what I'm doing is summarizing my prior post (see March 27, “Theology and Sexuality, Part 2: The Created Order”) in stating that many people (but not me), in these debates, often play the "unnatural" card.

    But if you look at that earlier post, you'll see I talk a lot about Hume and the naturalistic fallacy and conclude what you conclude: An argument from the Created Order is a non-starter.

    In short, if you look through all these posts, from start to finish, I work though each argument and list its pro’s and con’s. I then array them against each other and call it a draw. Given the standoff, I call for tolerance.

  3. Couldn't you also reasonably subtract the weight of the created order argument if you believe homosexuality to be a natural phenomenon?

    I wonder if you are aware of the arguments that the Bible does not actually condemn homosexuality as immoral? According to this view, the levitical prohibitions of homosexuality were about cleanliness, not immorality. One example of this is the fact that the adjective used to describe how bad homosexual sex is ("abomination") is also used for eating shellfish. The cleanliness laws - like the dietary restrictions - were pretty much overturned by Jesus.

    See http://www.godmademegay.com/ for a very full argument.

    So yeah, I'd be a Unitarian.

  4. If your score is moderately negative, than you're probably Episcopalian. If your score is very negative you're probably Unitarian.

    Sure, you might not actually be any of those groups. I'm speaking theologically, such as "You're a Unitarian in a Church of Christ body." Something like that.

    Ok, I know this post is long since dead, but that cracked me up. =)

  5. Out of all of the posts I've read, this one seems the most tainted. I can't find your personal orientation, which obviously has impact on your luke warm conclusion.

    Can I really re-define sin through reason? Create some mathematical weight formula to justify my position? Then I can keep doing what I shouldn't do, because I can't accept the commands from a Father who says "Because I said so".

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