Better theology needed in the public debate over homosexuality

One criticism I’ve seen of mainline churches is that they don’t do a very good job of connecting theology to congregational, individual, or public life. Whether or not this is true as a general matter, one area where it does seem to me to happen is the public debate–particularly in American Christianity–over the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the church. To hear people talk, you wouldn’t know that theologians have been grappling with these issues for literally decades or that over this time, a rich body of biblical and theological material has been developed supporting the case for the full equality of LGBT people. (Case in point: this recent exchange between Ross Douthat and William Saletan; to read this, you would never know that there was more than one “Christian” position here.)

It would seem that very little of the work that has been done in rethinking Christian attitudes toward LGBT people–largely by academics in theology and biblical studies–has filtered down to the congregational level and out into the public sphere. We still find ourselves rehashing the same half-dozen or so “clobber texts” and framing the debate in terms of “traditionalists” who uphold orthodox faith and “liberals” who are moral and doctrinal relativists. What this leaves out is, for example, the robustly theological (or theological-ethical) case for equality that has been developed by people like James Allison, Eugene Rogers, Gareth Moore, and others, or the work that has been done on the meaning and context of the relevant biblical texts. Bringing this to bear on the discussion would scramble the usual narrative of “liberals” being indifferent or hostile to theological arguments.

Mainline congregations have often exhibited good instincts in this area, basing their stance of equality for LGBT folks more on concrete experience than theory. But this leaves mainline Christians ill-equipped to make the case in theological and biblical terms, and they often end up ceding the theological high ground to their conservative opponents. It also allows more conservative forms of Christianity to be seen as the sole legitimate public expressions of the faith.

42 thoughts on “Better theology needed in the public debate over homosexuality

  1. Yes, I just saw a letter from the bishop of Wales which points out what so many people don’t seem to
    opinion about same-sex relationships …

    Fr. Alison is one of the few Catholic theologians who writes on this. I think Marilyn McCord Adams has preached and written on this subject. And Keith Ward has mentioned in at least one lecture ….

  2. Andy

    For me, the who homosexuality debate is rendered irrelevant simply by asking “What does God expect of me?” instead of “What does God expect of other people?” The deeper theological debates tend to be all about how the institutional bodies of the Church should handle homosexuality. I don’t think there’s really any room for debate about how individual Christians should relate to individual LGBT people. What’s more, I think that if the faithful behavior of the institutional bodies of the Church is at odds with the faithful behaviors of individual Christians then we’ve got a serious error in our ecclesiology.

  3. It may be irrelevant in the West (although I would argue with that idea), but it isn’t elsewhere – where gay people are under threat for their lives while the church (at the very least) does nothing.

    The Catholic Church, at least, officially takes the position that “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible…..[Homosexual persons] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” That’s a pretty important theological position, and one that’s been in place since the 1980s when the topic was first considered at the churchwide level. And it shows, in fact; Catholics have always been much, much more generous and reasonable on this issue than Protestants have. (I’m the first to acknowledge that the rest of the ideas in the catechism about homosexuality are wrong, BTW! What’s good, though, is that we show that they are wrong, because they are written down.)

    That’s far, far better than relying on the (perhaps momentary or provisional) good will of church leaders or even church members. It was only 40 years ago, after all, that literally everybody agreed with the church on this matter. Taboos – and the scapegoating of outsiders – go very, very deep; they are not happening at the conscious level. In places where the church is important, theological arguments really can make a huge difference.

    And in fact, they are even more necessary in Protestantism, I would say, since no Protestant body has anything like the Catholic Catechism, which does, at least, attempt to take the facts of the world into account and doesn’t try to argue around them. In Protestantism, interpretation of Scripture is the only argument available – and the only way to get there is theologically.

    1. Gabe Ruth

      Could you provide some examples of people showing that the rest of the Catholic teaching on homosexuality is wrong? This is something I would really appreciate. Mr. Alison’s simply asserting that it is so doesn’t do too much for me, and Dr. Rogers semantic arguments extending historical/mystical use of gender specific terms to say that there is no such thing as gender beyond the physical strikes me as disingenuous.

      1. I would read this article before anything else. It’s a quiet, patient, step-by-step demolition of the central argument on the topic in the Catechism – i.e., “The homosexual inclination, though not itself a sin, constitutes a tendency towards behaviour that is intrinsically evil, and must therefore be considered objectively disordered.” The demolition is accomplished by holding that statement up against the Church’s “uninterrupted teaching about grace and original sin.”

        I’ll just add here from my own point of view that there are other bits of the teaching that are simply and obviously wrong – and thus cast doubt on the rest of it. For instance: “This inclination….constitutes for most of them a trial.”

        Well, no. In fact, it simply doesn’t. What was “a trial” was the taboo surrounding itc; most gay people these days – 30 years later, now that the taboo has been lifted – do not consider our orientation to be “a trial” at all, but just something that is.

        Obviously, the church doesn’t have a clear picture of what’s going on – and never has.

      2. Gabe Ruth

        First of all, thank you for the article. Every one else I have ever heard argue on behalf of loosening the teaching on homosexual acts should shut up and point to this guy. I especially enjoyed the bate and switch at the beginning, setting us up for a demonstration of Godwin’s law to rile up the prejudices on both sides only to masterfully defuse the rhetoric by invoking the importance of the fear of God on his own part, reminiscent of Luther asking for a night to think it over before refusing to recant.

        Still, I am unconvinced. It is easy for me to say this, it costs me nothing. I can say that I hope sincerely that Mr. Alison is right, but I know that as a human being I delight in feeling morally superior and so I can’t discount the possibility that this tendency informs at least a part of my motivation. But you are asking me to believe that the teaching of the Church has been persistently mistaken on this point, because a specific act has been proscribed that certain people feel is central to their nature, and obedience to church teaching would be a betrayal of God’s will for them. This is theology by Lady Gaga. The alleged internal contradiction between the teaching on homosexuality and the doctrine of Original Sin and grace disappears if we accept the not at all insane premise that homosexual desire is disordered.

        The proposed mechanism by which a mistake becomes apparent is suspect also. Authentic objectivity in evaluating the effect of indulging the inclination towards homosexuality versus resisting it is an admirable thing to shoot for, but I doubt it’s attainable by the human mind. The author straight forwardly acknowledges this criticism, and begs the question.

        On a somewhat tangential matter, what do you think of Catholic teaching about contraception?

        Regarding hating the sin and loving the sinner, calling that a passive-aggressive stance is passive-aggressive. It is a general approach, not specific to this issue. Gene was responding to that subject alone, because he can’t help himself when it comes to dumb arguments.

      3. If you’re looking for a thorough response to traditional Catholic teaching, then I think Gareth Moore’s “A Question of Truth” is a good place to start.

    2. Many find the “double-speak” of the catechism to be disingenuous … the being nice to gay people but hating their acts. It seems like a kind of pasive-aggressive way to deflect responsibility for a stance that in practical terms
      does harm.

      1. gcallah

        And being nice to muggers, but hating their acts: disingenuous! If you’re going to love muggers, you’ve got to praise mugging as well.

      2. gcallah

        Crystal suggests that one cannot be nice to people but “hate” some of their actions. I offered a reductio of that. bls then makes the entirely invalid move that people who don’t want to deal with a reductio always make: he accuses the person who offered the reductio of EQUATING the original example and the example in the reductio. Of course, a reductio does nothing of the sort. In fact, the example in the reductio is often chosen precisely for being unlike the original example, in a way that makes clear what is wrong with the argument but was obscured somehow by the original example.

      3. Actually, gcallah, I think it’s called a “false analogy” and a “red herring” in the context of this conversation – which, if you remember, was about “a stance that in practical terms does harm.”

        So let’s talk about that, shall we? Rather than deflecting attention away from it, I mean. What’s harmful about a stance like this, would you say?

      4. gcallah

        No, bls, a reductio is not a false analogy, because it is not an analogy at all. Crystal accused the Catholic catechism of being “passive-aggressive.” That is, in my opinion, a stance that does harm. So I was talking about a stance that does harm.

      5. Actually, she didn’t. She said it was being passive-aggressive in this instance. You haven’t actually offered any kind of rebuttal to that – or, in fact, any other positive argument for whatever it is you’re arguing.

        What are you arguing, anyway?

    3. Even though no Protestant church has anything like as comprehensive statement of its beliefs as the Catholic catechism, official positions on various topics are provided by such things as churchwide statements. (For example, here is the list of the ELCA’s statemetns on a variety of social issues: And these are underwritten by some more-or-less explicit theological reasoning (of varying quality, it has to be said!). So, in that sense at least, these bodies are accountable to some intentionally taken position.

      1. Yeah, Lutherans have gotten this done in a better way than Anglicans; we define ourselves through our “liturgy,” don’t forget – which means that unfortunately we end up having up-or-down votes on the issues.

        Yikes, IOW….. 😉

    4. Andy

      I see that “irrelevant” was a poorly chosen word on my part, though I meant that the debate was irrelevant, not the issue. That is, any debate (regardless of the topic) about what the law of God means for someone else is always irrelevant and off-point.

      What I meant to say was that if we all would stop applying God’s will to others and instead apply it to ourselves then there would be no room for debate. Individuals would be obliged to treat their LGBT neighbors with love and respect and to stand up for their protection when necessary. Obviously that begins a conversation rather than ending one.

      It just troubles me that so many people want to pursue the questions about homosexuality by debating particular theogical/doctrinal points while pretending that we all agree on the matter of love.

      1. I see what you mean, Andy – and I agree: the whole “one law for me and another for thee” approach has worn pretty thin by now.

        And actually, that’s another point to be made here; the church really does expect diametrically opposed behavior from its straight and gay members. Heterosexuals are encouraged to form monogamous, bonded, lifelong partnerships; gay people are expected to break off any monogamous, bonded partnerships we’ve already formed…..

  4. (Anyway, it’s important even for non-LGBT people to have good theology on this topic. In fact, I think this whole episode is happening for everybody to learn something – including the church itself. So it will be important to work through it all properly; there’s more here than just the “presenting issue,” I’m certain.)

  5. (Hey, Lee: why is there a little infinity symbol next to the time and date of every comment? Does this mean that what we write here will be preserved for eternity, in saecula saeculorum, Amen….?


  6. gcallah,

    The separating of people from their actions doesn’t really make sense to me on a practical level – if we aren’t what we say/do, then what/who are we? Imagine how little sense this idea makes if you go the opposite direction: love the heroic act, hate the person who did it.

    And on another level, I think it’s dishones – the church wants to hate without taking responsibility for hating. Nothing speaks as clearly to the church’s real feelings about LGBT people as the church’s acts towards them …

    1. gcallah

      Hi crystal. Unlike bls, at least you actually treated my reductio for what it is. But, aren’t we all sinners? Don’t we all hope that who we are can be separated from at least some of what we do?

  7. Don’t we all hope that who we are can be separated from at least some of what we do?

    Well, if some of what we do involves mugging other people – sure, we would hope for that. But what does that have to do with the topic at hand….?

    1. gcallah

      “But what does that have to do with the topic at hand….?”

      Well, Crystal said one can’t separate the act and the actor. I am arguing that one can.

      It’s funny, but Crystal, although she disagrees with me, seems to have no problem at all following what I am saying, while it apparently leaves you bewildered, bls.

  8. Yes, I’m bewildered. The topic here is, after all: “BETTER THEOLOGY NEEDED IN THE PUBLIC DEBATE OVER HOMOSEXUALITY.” The rest of the people on this thread are actually discussing that topic.

    So, I’m asking: what does “separating the act and the actor” have to do with this topic?

    1. gcallah

      ‘So, I’m asking: what does “separating the act and the actor” have to do with this topic?’

      That sub-topic was introduced by Crystal, not me. But I think it rather obviously relates to the theology of homosexuality, doesn’t it, since that is, say, the Catholic Church’s position on the matter. So I don’t think it is fair of you to criticize Crystal for bringing it up.

      1. gcallah

        “gay people are expected to break off any monogamous, bonded partnerships we’ve already formed…..”

        Ah, I understand now, bls. You took my first comment to be in some way “anti-gay,” and since that point you haven’t been able to consider rationally anything I’ve said: thus, your bewilderment.

  9. Ah, I see now. You’re not actually interested in any sort of discussion; you’re just trolling.

    (And here’s me thinking trolling was so 1997 at this point! Well, maybe this is considered “retro trolling”….)

      1. Oh, gcallah. How very witty of you; how incredibly wonderfully original!

        I mean, I have never heard any of these things you’re saying here tonight before, anywhere. Whereever did you come up with them….?

  10. Sorry – I didn’t mean to get off subject. I just meant to say that though the Catholic church says in the catechism that LGBT people should be treated with love and respect, the actions of the church show them anything but love and respect.

    1. You weren’t off subject, crystal; pay no attention to gcallah, who seems to want to talk about anything outside of the actual discussion!

      I think you’re right about what you’re saying. I don’t think it started out that way – but ideology (and the effect of the taboo) trumped common sense about this issue. I actually think the church meant what it said about “love and respect” – but it didn’t understand the psychic effect of the word “evil” (although it surely ought to have!).

      The problem has been a complete lack of empathy, really. But then, that was true for everybody, because the taboo was incredibly deep. Even today, some people in the older generation (especially) can’t get beyond it.

      The church should have known better, though….

  11. (I mean, keep in mind that in the 1950s and 1960s, it was considered reasonable to treat homosexuality with electroshock therapy! Keep in mind that in Britain, Alan Turing – a war hero! – was arrested for “homosexual activity” and fed female hormones (a sort of chemical castration) to change him until, it’s thought, he killed himself.

    If anybody knew you were gay, you’d lose your job, no questions asked. Gay bars were regularly raided by the police.

    It was “the love that dare not speak its name” – and some people actually believed (not very long ago, too!) that it was a worse sin than any other. People were brainwashed about it. It all seems incredible now, but all this actually happened….)

    1. You can’t convince some people about these things, though; I’ve spent hours talking with Evangelicals who really can’t accept that there is no proscription of lesbianism in the Bible – and thus, there’s no proscription of homosexuality, either. I mean the one possible reference to lesbianism in the entire Bible wasn’t – as James Alison notes – read that way till Crysostom, although a number of rather important Church Fathers commented on it.

      But, some people just won’t accept it….

      1. And that’s the kind of thing that makes me believe people who think homosexuality is an abomination start out with that idea and then look for sources to support it, rather than the other way around.

    1. (Kind of like the old days, in fact – when homosexuality threads always drew thousands of posts and anything else just kind of went by the wayside.

      Ah, what memories….!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s