Culture wars are not becoming for a people of peace. So when rainbows clash with black and white, it is not our first instinct to jump into the fray. But as our society fiercely debates the morality of love, sex, and marriage, neither is it helpful for us to stay silent. It’s time for us to talk—with God and each other—about our understanding of sexuality, how we’ve come to be where we are, and how Jesus wants us to live, love, and treat others.
First things first
Let’s remember, we were sinners. But in Christ we are no longer defiled and defined by sin; it’s been defeated. We have been reconciled to God and belong to Him, as well as to each other. We have a new identity—a new purpose—and as we walk in the light we experience God’s transforming power to live a holy life. This is not from us or because of our strength, but from God and in our weakness. Therefore, as we talk about sexuality—or anything else, for that matter—we need to speak with a heavy accent of humility and a rich vocabulary of redemption, along with confidence that God’s power is at work among us.
As Brethren in Christ, we stand against hate and dehumanization of any person. After all, every person bears the image of God. Yet, even if we feel we are personally extending grace and love to all those around us, we must come to terms with ways in which we, or the broader evangelical community, have failed to stand against the dehumanization of gay people. People who, like us, bear the image of God.
Brothers and sisters, any dehumanizing attitudes and responses must go. We might have to let go of some cultural assumptions, too. There are no guarantees that the world around us is going to accept or affirm our perspectives; in fact, we’re assured that we will have trouble.1 But we are called to depart from the patterns of the world—pride, self-centeredness, and mockery—and “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.”2
Sex in the kingdom
In the beginning, God created humans as sexual beings. Our genders—male and female—each reflect different facets of our Creator’s image, and He made men and women with the capacity for a relationship that has emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual dimensions.3 In the context of the marriage relationship, sex binds two people together, expresses love, and produces children. This, we believe, is God’s intention for sex—but in a broken world, we see many expressions of sexuality that fall short of what God designed.
Sexual desire is powerful, and it is not always directed toward husband or wife. Sex is power, money, and status. It’s a vehicle for dominance, marketing, entertainment, and self-realization. In short, our sexuality is warped. We may not all have the same type of brokenness, but there is a hollowness in every man’s and woman’s sexuality crying out for redemption.
Which makes the life of Jesus so incredibly powerful. Born with the same longings that we all inherit from our parents, Jesus relied on God alone to fill and complete Him. As we attempt to follow in His divine footsteps, we can derive a great deal of comfort from the knowledge that Jesus became human like us—finite, fragile, and hungry—and God was always enough. And He is still enough.
But what did Jesus say about sex?
In the Gospels, Jesus speaks about marriage, divorce, and immorality. He affirms marriage using the foundational statements of Genesis to describe gender and the sexual, spiritual union of a man and wife becoming one flesh. When speaking of sexual immorality, He used the word porneia—referring categorically to any sexual activity outside of male-female marriage.4 This would be a clear word to His audience, who shared a long-established Jewish understanding of sexual sin. Jesus also describes sexual sin, along with all forms of immorality, as coming from within the heart—evil thoughts that defile.
In His sermon on the mount, Jesus taught an even narrower understanding of God-honoring sexuality than Jewish law required:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”5
Rolling out this new code of ethics, Jesus goes beyond moral obligation, loyalty, and honor to expose our hearts and our minds. This doesn’t sound like a teacher who’s broadening the definition of godly sex; it’s the exhortation of a teacher who’s raising the bar.
The legacy of the law
By modern (and ancient) standards, the bar was already pretty high. The law given to Moses, as recorded in Leviticus, states unequivocally that to have sex with a close relative, with someone else’s spouse, with someone of the same sex, or with an animal is to defile oneself—the opposite of sexual holiness.6 Because Jesus has atoned for our sins, and because we do not live in the theocracy of ancient Israel, we no longer live by the judicial laws of the Old Testament—and, therefore, are not bound to carry out the severe punishments prescribed in Leviticus 20. Jesus’ blood covers our sins, but it does not shift the moral boundaries God has put in place for humanity. Like any loving parent, God has set guidelines for our own protection, nurture, and well-being.
Paul knew these guidelines well and insisted that the Early Church “flee from sexual immorality,” employing the same broadly applicable word for “sexual immorality” used by Jesus and extensively by the apostles and New Testament scriptures.7 Some writers call for a different interpretation of Paul’s letters, suggesting that Paul didn’t really condemn gay sex;8 he was simply denouncing lust and idolatry.9 But Paul’s letter to the Romans describes a timeless human situation:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. . . . Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.10
Further, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul declares that “It is God’s will that you are sanctified; that you should avoid sexual immorality.”11
For 2,000 years, this is what Christians in many different cultures and times have believed and taught: Sex is reserved for a man and woman in the context of marriage. Ron Sider writes,
Some believe that the track record of evangelicals is so bad that we should just remain silent on this issue. But that would mean abandoning our submission to what finally I believe is clear biblical teaching. It would mean forgetting the nearly unanimous teaching of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians over two millennia. And it would mean failing to listen to the vast majority of contemporary Christians (who now live in the global South).12
Back to the future
The Christian Church in North America is no longer unanimous in its view of marriage. In addition to the secular celebration of same-sex marriage in our culture, some energetic voices declare that any mutual, monogamous relationship can be pleasing to God, regardless of gender: From their perspective, it’s all love, and surely God is for that. And, they reason, He is glorified in mutual sacrifice and commitment, even in same-sex relationships. But we Brethren in Christ believe the moral and physical boundaries established at creation still have authority; therefore, same-sex sex is outside of God’s plan for humanity.
So what about followers of Jesus who experience same-sex attraction? Are they cut off from love and any prospect of family? It depends on how narrowly you define love and family, but the Brethren in Christ understanding of sexuality provides for two options—marriage between a man and woman or celibate singleness—each an invitation to submission and freedom with an orientation toward God. Let’s be clear: Married love is not the pinnacle of human existence, nor is it a human right. We do not need sex, romance, or marriage in order to be fully human. To be sure, humanity is called to “be fruitful and multiply,”13 but we would be foolish to ignore the positive role models we have in Jesus and Paul, who submitted their sexuality to God through relational, intentional celibacy. Sider points out that the traditional view of sex within marriage “demands celibacy for vastly more people than just the relatively small number with a same-sex orientation. Widows and widowers, along with tens of millions of heterosexuals who long for marriage but cannot find a partner, are also called to celibacy.”14 In light of this, perhaps the Church ought to put as much care into preparing people for celibacy as it invests in premarital counseling.
A higher calling
It is important that we exhibit Christ-like humility in all of this. For decades, people living as lesbian, gay, transsexual, and queer have gotten a pretty clear message from the Church: Their sexual desires are not O.K. But just because one is married or celibate doesn’t mean one’s heart and mind are pure. In many ways there can be a temptation to hide behind an appearance of holiness while misusing the gifts of Christian celibacy and marriage.
God calls all of us to holiness and humility, especially as we face the debate about sexuality. Christian anthropologist Jenell Paris suggests that in the debate the Brethren in Christ have a unique asset to bring to the table. “Within our tradition, we have tools for conflict transformation—processes of listening, processes of holding onto ourselves when emotions heat up, and active listening. The question for us is, ‘How can we take conflict not as a problem to do away with but as the context for our faith in this generation?’”
A new conversation
The debate about sexuality and marriage is fraught with pain and all kinds of complexities that many of us would rather avoid. But if we remain silent, we run the risk of being unfaithful to Scripture and dishonoring our Creator. If holiness sings out in our actions and relationships, if our speech is soaked in humility and transparency, and if the Holy Spirit guides us, we can redeem this discussion and turn the current debate about sexuality into true communication and understanding.
As we talk about these important issues, it doesn’t have to be about us and them or orientation or the laws of the land. It can simply be a conversation about what it means to follow Jesus with all of our being, including our sexuality. It will take patience. It will take earnest biblical interpretation, compassionate listening, and submission to the Holy Spirit. We will experience disagreement with other believers and, possibly, enmity from nonbelievers. But we owe God our devotion in this matter, and we owe one another—as fellow disciples—the dedication it takes to search Scripture and listen to the Spirit together. As we humble ourselves, love can cause us to rise in humility, grace, and truth.
1 John 16:33
2 Matthew 6:33
3 Genesis 1:27
4 Matthew 15:19
5 Matthew 5:27–29
6 Leviticus 18
7 1 Corinthians 6:18
8 1 Corinthians 6:9
10 Romans 1:20–27
11 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8
12 “Tragedy, Tradition, and Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate,” Christianity Today, November 18, 2014
13 Genesis 1:28
14 See 12