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Homosexuality & Christianity
Douglas Groothuis argues that it is possible for someone to be gay, happy, and committed to traditional sexual ethics.
Critics of Christianity sometimes argue that its sexual ethics are unlivable, especially regarding sexual orientation and activities outside of traditional marriage. Recently Philosophy Now ran an article to this effect by Rick Aaron [‘Christianity & Homosexuality’, Issue 138, Ed], who argued specifically that putting conservative, heterosexual, marriage strictures on Christian gay peoples’ sexual activity was not ‘practically feasible’, since most gay people could not find a happy and meaningful life without living out their sexuality. I want to consider briefly whether a gay but religiously-inclined person could find satisfaction either by being celibate or by marrying someone of the opposite sex, both possibilities being denied by Aaron.
First, the idea that gay celibacy is not ‘practically feasible’ is questionable. Of course, what is logically or physically impossible is not morally obligatory. But what may seem beyond us morally or existentially may nevertheless be possible for a Christian. Talking now in non-sexual terms, the Golden Rule of ‘treating others as we would have them treat us’ is no piece of cake, either. Neither is ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’. Yet both of these apparently impossibly demanding norms, commanded by Jesus, are commonly agreed upon by Christians. Psychologically, it may seem more feasible to be selfish, or to hold to a less demanding moral minimalism, such as ‘not hurting others’. Taking care of my dying wife often did not seem ‘practically feasible’ to me, given the exhaustion, stress, and dread. But I took our wedding vows seriously, right up to her death. Many others do likewise, and more.
Gay or not, any religious morality calls us to deny some aspects of our sexuality in order to keep social order and to please God. C.S. Lewis captured the issue well in Mere Christianity (1952): “There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong.” Lewis did not have homosexuality specifically in mind. Rather, according to Christianity, we all have sexual desires it would be wrong to act upon, in one way or another. Self-control is paramount for moral rectitude. Admittedly, a gay person who follows Christian morality will experience some suffering because of their sexual denial which is not experienced by a married heterosexual. But life as a celibate person (again, gay or not) is not psychologically impossible, nor necessarily less meaningful nor less happy than married (or cohabiting) life. A celibate life need not be cold, dark, lonely, and endlessly frustrating. I know two gay Christian men who are committed to celibacy because of their moral convictions. They enjoy Christian fellowship, friendships, intellectual pursuits, and many other joys. For them and others in the same situation, ‘denying themselves and taking up their cross daily’, as Jesus also taught, is different from the self-denial needed for heterosexuals. But for both sets, self-denial is still required. The cross of self-denial is the same weight for all Christians, but it may not have the same shape. And in Christian teaching, self-denial is always done for the sake of making room for something better: it is not mere asceticism for its own sake. Moreover, Jesus commended (but did not require) celibacy when he said, “There are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made so by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” So, being single may be a divine calling, and for that it has advantages over being married, despite the sexual denial involved. This applies to gay and heterosexual Christians equally.
Secondly, while it is easy to dismisses the idea that gay people should ever want to marry someone of the opposite sex, they can find fulfillment if they do so in a self-aware and realistic way. In Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (2019), Rebecca McLaughlin, a Christian, writes that although she is primarily same-sex attracted, she has never acted on it, and that she is happily married (to a man) with children. This kind of marriage may not be the answer for many gay people, but it is clearly not out of the question.
What’s more, if someone is both a traditional Christian and gay, he or she believes in the supernatural grace to obey traditional Christian moral demands – as well as in the grace to be forgiven when one doesn’t. Even through his intense suffering and the many trials he experienced, the Apostle Paul said that God’s grace was sufficient for him in every situation. The same holds true for the gay Christian who seeks to live out the demands of God’s Kingdom and to depend on God moment by moment. Thus, the issue really comes down to the truth or not of Christianity. If Christianity is true, then supernatural assistance is possible, and sexual self-denial is practically, and morally, feasible.
In these few words I have not tried to convince you that Christianity is true or that sexual activity outside marriage, including gay sexual activity, is wrong. I have simply responded to the idea that Christian sexual ethics is especially unfair and unlivable for Christian gay people. If you like, I have tried to ‘defeat a defeater’ of Christianity by defending the feasibility of its traditional sexual morality in order to show that if Christianity is true, its sexual ethic is not especially detrimental to gay people who are conservative Christians.
© Prof. Douglas Groothuis 2020
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary.