Terminology, Definitions, and the Importance of a Biblical Framework
Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 6:00 p.m. Sermon #: 1720
Pastor Don Horban
A hard subject, this. And there are two easier paths. The first is to hunt down Biblical texts and beat those who don’t measure up. It is always a temptation to love absolute Biblical truth in such a way as to hate those who don’t practice it. The problem with this approach is you have to be selective in the truths you take into battle. You have to take your aim at sins other than the ones you commit.
The other easy path is to ignore the Biblical moral absolutes altogether. Or at least place them all under the idealistic umbrella of some morally indifferent divine love. Everyone is a sinner, after all. So no one is in a position to judge. Jesus loves us all, just as we are. So let’s live and let live. The only sin left in this system is intolerance.
My hope is to avoid both of these easy paths. My hope is to love both truth and sinner. In fact, my conviction is no one truly loves the sinner - any sinner - meaningfully if he withholds the one thing we all need the most - the redemptive revealed truth of our Creator. For imperfect and, at times, self-destructive people, authentic compassion sometimes involves confrontation. “Live-and-let-live” is only loving if absolutely none of us is ever inclined to a fatal mistake.
One more thing. In mentioning our Creator I too am making one great foundational assumption. If we have a Creator at all, then all of our rights are derivative and secondary to His rights. God has the most rights of any person on planet earth. It is, after all, His own creation.
Tonight we will introduce this series by spending time looking at two areas. I want to consider the terms and definitions used in the discussion of sexual orientation. That sounds simple enough, but in any meaningful study the words used are the most important starting place.
Then, second, I want to look into the broad framework assumptions that drive the debate forward. Assumptions are where opinions and arguments come from. The heat in the debate is only the result of assumptions that we often carry without putting them out in the open. We’re going to consider some of these tonight.
1) TERMS AND DEFINITIONS - HOW THE WORDS WE USE CHANGE THE NATURE OF THE DEBATE
According to the Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America the word homosexuality was originally coined in German in 1869 by Karl-Maria Kertbeny. It was introduced in a pamphlet written to oppose the adoption of what were then called Prussian anti-sodomy laws in the new constitution of the unified German state then being formed. The term homosexuality was then brought into English in 1892 when Charles Gilbert Chaddock translated Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s writings into English.
Now, of course, we rarely hear the term “sodomy” used to describe the kind of same-sex activity receiving God’s historic judgment in the city of Sodom. But it’s important to take note of the change in meaning that has taken place with the change of terms. Homosexuality is not just a more up-to-date or polite term describing the same issue as sodomy.
With the introduction of the term homosexuality the emphasis shifted from the act of sodomy to the orientation of the inner sexual person. Homosexuality’s key dogma was people were sexually wired for same-sex attraction. And the fruit of this shifted the issue to the intolerance of those who were prejudiced against those who were just being what they were by nature or by divine creation.
This is now the natural direction for the debate. Chandler Burr in his book, “Homosexuality in the Church,” shows some advocates of the sexual orientation debate liken it to the example of left-handedness. It is simply the way some are born. Most people are born right-handed (roughly nine out of ten people). And we can quickly note the kind of prejudice that exists in the way we often refer to those who don’t fit the majority - like the way a clumsy person is still said to have “two left feet.” We never say he has “two right feet.”
So just to bring this point home, the terms have changed the debate. Editor Michael Lefebvre sums it up well in “The Gospel and Sexual Orientation” - “Words like ‘sodomy,’ ‘sodomite,’ ‘sexual perversion,’ and so forth, reflect the traditional presupposition that same-sex activity is a perversion of a person’s natural gender role. The term ‘homosexual’ (along with its counterpart ‘heterosexual’) was coined to convey the new idea that some people are same sex oriented by nature and ought not be prejudiced against simply because it is a minority orientation.”
Certainly it is usually acknowledged by everyone that some may engage in same-sex activity for factors other than inner orientation. All admit that circumstances can play a role in some cases. But the word “homosexuality” is by far most commonly used as the classic definition of the GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer) Encyclopedia: “Homosexuality and heterosexuality emerged as concepts in late nineteenth-century European medical and juridical discourse. Their introduction and popularization occasioned a revolution in the way sexual behavior was understood by linking that behavior inextricably to social identity, hastening cultural changes in the organization of sexuality already underway in urban areas of Europe and North America”
We need to understand where the discussion is today. The dominant assumption of our media and culture - and the increasingly common view in much of the church, particularly those under 35 - is now such that we will miss the point if we don’t see where the debate actually lies. To show statements from the Bible that condemn homosexual acts will leave everyone unconvinced simply because those texts address acts which the entire gay community will say, if they apply at all, apply to people who commit these acts for reasons other than being true to their inward homosexual nature or orientation.
This is so important. They usually don’t deny these texts. They simply accept them as saying something different from what we see them saying. And their interpretation will almost always leave a more tolerant after-taste than the more traditional interpretation. And for many, tolerance trumps everything else in the quest for truth.
The difference here is huge. Wicked actions make you a wicked person - in any sane moral discussion. But orientation is like left-handedness or even skin color. So the first openly gay NFL player is likened to the first black major league baseball player. And my point here is there is an evolving, carefully calculated terminology that makes these commonly heard comparisons appear reasonable.
We have miles to go in covering these arguments. My only opening point here is we need to recognize where the debate lies. The title of this series isn’t “The Bible and Homosexual Acts.” It’s “The Bible and Sexual Orientation.” That’s the hub of the issue. And this is what the church must address.
2) HOW SHOULD THE CHURCH RESPOND TO THE WAY SAME-SEX ISSUES ARE ANALYZED SCIENTIFICALLY?
Certainly it is fair and accurate to say we have changed in terms of the social acceptability of same-sex relationships. The old fashioned term sodomy came from the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, where the same-sex demands of the men of Sodom against Lot’s guests were judged by a literal outpouring of hellish fire. This is very different from contemporary terms homosexuality, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. There is nothing in these terms to pin them in any way to something frowned upon by a creating God.
In the first part of the last century psychiatry led the way in searching for social influences that may have paved the way for same-sex attraction. In fact, it is easily overlooked that until 1973 homosexuality was actually listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” as a psychiatric condition. I’m not saying it should have been so listed. My point is only to illustrate the varied, and frequently contradictory paths science has taken, and continues to take, in mapping the cause of same-sex orientation - Christianity aside.
All of this confusion is illustrated by homosexual author Chandler Burr in his book, “Homosexuality and Biology” - “Psychiatry has succeeded in defining what homosexuality is not - not in explaining what it is.”
Biology has taken the lead from psychiatry in the last few decades looking for the “gay gene” or perhaps actual brain structures associated with same-sex desires. Few definitive conclusions have been reached. In fact, in 2009, in a pamphlet on the subject from the American Psychological Association, the scientific community was summarized like this:
“Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles....”
Christians shouldn’t gloat that a dominant scientific consensus hasn’t yet formed around the cause of same-sex orientation. There is no room for religious arrogance. It is simply a matter of time and research before some kind of consensus is reached. A definitive cause for same-sex desire will emerge or will be manufactured.
My own view is this research should be welcomed by the church as background for pastoral care for those coming to the church for help. Anything that is discovered that is true is helpful for the Christian cause. But it shouldn’t change the Biblical conviction as to the sinfulness of homosexuality. Anything that enables us to respond helpfully to the pastoral obligation to those seeking repentance and grace must be welcomed. Anything that erases the Biblical pronouncement of homosexuality as a sin displeasing to God must be rejected.
And that leads us into the closing point. We’ll just open it up tonight and continue with it next Sunday night:
3) CAN A LOVING GOD HOLD US ACCOUNTABLE FOR ACTIONS THAT SEEM TO FLOW NATURALLY FROM OUR INWARD DISPOSITION AND CHARACTER?
What I want to start unpacking tonight is this idea: The reason many in the church find themselves incapable of seeing clearly through the issue of same-sex orientation as sin is we have long ago lost the Biblically robust theology of the effects of original sin on the human race. We have, for so long, been preaching and teaching stories, self-help, and motivational moralisms we have made our light conceptions of the core of our faith unable to deal with our deeply flawed inner selves and the deep issues this brings to our thinking.
The proof of this is everywhere. Chandler Burr echoes the response of many in the church today in the way he poses the question: If sexual orientation is found to be biologically determined, “How can one justify discriminating against people on the basis of such a characteristic?....God made gay people this way....and like it or not...., there are majority and minority expressions of sexuality....”
Or, consider this statement of Dan O. Via, professor emeritus of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, in his book, “The Bible, The Church, and Homosexuality”: “We do not know for certain whether homosexual orientation is essential (biological and genetic) or constructed (psychological and social) or both; but whatever is the case, even some who hold very strongly to the traditional view agree that at least some part of the gay population is immutably so....Should then homosexual orientation not be considered a different sexual order of creation, the actualization of which in practice would be natural?”
Please notice the way both these writers link up sexual orientation with the creative work of God. In other words, those with sexual orientation are oriented the way they are because that’s the way God oriented them. But this isn’t a conclusion reached by any text of Scripture. There aren’t any such texts.
No. This conclusion is a piece of deduction. It’s a conclusion reached by this logic: If people are oriented toward same-sex intercourse then they didn’t choose this for themselves. And because they didn’t consciously choose their orientation, it must have come from God.
But there’s something very important missing here. They are assuming an unbroken link between the way God initially created this world and the way this world presently exists. And that’s a huge omission of necessary Biblical data. A huge part of the story is purposely omitted. And sadly - tragically - many Christians don’t even consider it.
Just as a reminder, consider this quote from chapter six of the Westminster Confession of Faith: “By Adam’s sin, our first parents fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation.”
I know that’s a lot of theology to digest on a Sunday night. But the important point for our study is our sexual identity is included in the “all parts and faculties of soul and body” which have been disordered by the effects of sin.
This is the kind of truth the whole church used to know like you’d know your own phone number. But, of course, it’s not considered polite, trendy, or seeker sensitive to talk too much about sin anymore. And even if we do talk about it we limit our discussion only to outward actions rather than universally deformed inward character. And the only outward actions considered seriously sinful are those deemed relationally hurtful to others. That God is the one ultimately wronged is not brought much into the picture.
But this is miles from where the whole church used to live. Consider, just as an example, these words written by Jonathan Edwards in his “Treatise On Religious Affections” in 1776: “Allowances, indeed, must be made for the natural temper, which conversion does not entirely eradicate; those sins which a man by his natural constitution was most inclined to before his conversion, he may be most apt to fall into still....Yes, true repentance, in some respects especially, turns a man against his own iniquity; that wherein he has been most guilty, and has chiefly dishonored God. He that forsakes other sins, but preserves the iniquity to which he is most chiefly inclined is like Saul, who, when sent against God’s enemies, the Amalikites, with a strict charge to save none of them alive, but utterly destroy them, small and great, slew the people, but saved the king.”
My only point from that quote is the church was once rooted soundly in the idea that every one of us continues to be deeply effected by the Fall of mankind and original sin - in Edward’s words, “the sins to which we are most inclined.” The present condition of the human race - the entire human race - is disordered from its proper design. We are not all effected in the same way. But that we are all effected is beyond doubt. In fact, it is beyond our understanding - Jeremiah 17:9 - “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
This is Paul’s great burden as well - Romans 7:22-25 - “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,  but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
This is the way the Apostle Paul contemplates his own inward self. He’s pulled - oriented - in ways he both loves and hates. He finds his heart drawing him into things he knows God’s Word disallows. This is always the way the Church has understood sin. This understanding of sin - and only this understanding of sin - is what brings a deep thirst for the gospel. Our moral struggling and resolutions are no match for this.
I close with this. Throughout life every person will struggle with sexual temptations, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Some will battle pornography more than others. Some will live with a frigid or perhaps sickly spouse and must learn a forced celibacy in honoring God. Some will remain single and be drawn into a love for Christ that must drown out the absence of spouse and children. Homosexual men and women are not the only ones called to honor God’s design in the face of extreme difficulty.
True enough, not all struggles are distributed fairly. But the point of this teaching still stands. Proving a genuine cause of same-sex orientation in no way changes God’s heterosexual creative intent. And the church must constantly walk the difficult line of showing compassion for all forms of inward fallenness in all seekers of grace while at the same time holding out the absolute, life-giving truth of God’s Word which alone can bring light into a deceptively dark culture.