The Bible and Homosexuality: Wrong and Right Lessons
The news broke this week that City Church San Francisco has reversed its prohibition against practicing homosexuals being admitted into church membership (see here). Previously, only celibate homosexuals were accepted as biblically faithful Christians. Senior Pastor Fred Harrell explained the shift on the basis of recent "social science research" that convinced him and his elders that inhibiting homosexual practice "has not led to human flourishing" (see the church statement). It strikes me from the reports of this shift, both at City Church and elsewhere, that the wrong lessons of history are being advanced while the right lessons are being ignored.
As for the wrong lesson, I have particularly in mind the analogy between homosexuality and racism. Here is the argument: in the past, Christians wrongly used the Bible to support racism and now the Bible is being used to support discrimination against homosexuals. Just as it took open-minded believers to show how the Bible urged tolerance for race, we now are urging tolerance for sexual preference.
I would argue that this is precisely the wrong lesson to learn from history. In fact, the prior example regarding racism and slavery argues against the acceptance of homosexuality in the church. Let me offer three reasons for this view: 1) whereas the Bible does not in fact support racism, it does prohibit homosexuality; 2) the analogy between race and sexual behavior is a false one; and 3) advocates for the acceptance of homosexuality are following the example not of those who opposed racism but of those who wrongly taught racism. By this last point, I mean that in prior generations the Bible was contorted to teach racism because Christians were conforming to the sins of the culture around them. Now, the Bible is being made to embrace homosexuality for the same reason: conformity to the sin demands of a perverse and ungodly world. I admit that my argument here assumes that it can be shown that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. I would point readers to these fine articles by Kevin DeYoung and Robert Gagnon, which make that very case.
If the advocates of homosexual acceptance are making the wrong lesson from history, what is the right lesson? The right lesson is that once Christians and churches compromise the authority of Scripture, they have stepped onto a slippery slope where there is no place to stand against worldly encroachments, however perverse they may be. I realize that the "slippery slope argument" causes many progressive Christians to turn red in the face with frustration. But the recent decision of City Church San Francisco is yet another data point proving that the argument is valid.
Let's review the history. City Church San Francisco was planted in 1997 by a team led by Pastor Fred Harrell. This work was heavily financed by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a conservative Reformed and evangelical denomination. The City Church website notes the inspiration that came from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, especially with regard to "methodological winsomeness." In 2004, City Church left the PCA in order to have freedom to ordain women to the offices of elder and deacon. Here, if not earlier, is when (in my view) the authority of Scripture was breached. The New Testament clearly restricts these offices to males. The arguments used to deny this teaching (see here for more) are essentially the same arguments that are made to permit homosexuality today. In short, in ordaining women as elders, the Bible was made to teach the opposite of what it actually says, setting up the slippery slope that has now led to the previously unthinkable acceptance of homosexuality.
Notice how City Church's rationale for accepting homosexuality marginalizes the authority of Scripture. Consider the explanation by a City Church representative that the leadership studied the issue by "reading the gospel, books by evangelical theologians and social science research." What does "reading the gospel" mean? It seems to mean drawing broad conclusions from Jesus' graciousness toward sinners in general, without clear reference to the biblical passages that deal directly with this sin. Especially when we read that the church has acted according to its own view of what constitutes"human flourishing," we see Scriptural authority subverted. In this way, the policy shift at City Church San Francisco reflects what happens whenever Christians turn from the Bible's clear teaching on a culturally contested matter (in this case, a complementarian view of church office). The breach of biblical authority leaves us with no bulwark against capitulating to further demands of worldly culture, in this case, homosexual practice.
Not only is the City Church decision to allow homosexuality a result of the slippery slope, but it is also a cause of more. We see this in two ways. First, Pastor Harrell defended the City Church decision by pointing out recent debate regarding the Bible's teaching. "Scholars and leaders who have previously been united in their interpretations are coming to different conclusions," he notes. This is how it goes these days. There is a doctrine that is settled and established among Christians based on clear Bible teaching. Someone then writes an article or book challenging that doctrine. Immediately, it is asserted that there is diversity of view among loving fellow-believers and we are urged, as Harrell does here, to "counsel humility with how we each hold our views." The effect is not to decide the debate but to delegitimize the debate. All the while, the Word of God speaks clearly and loudly to an issue that more and more believers feel free to compromise.
Last, we see the slippery slope advancing further in City Church's insistence that homosexuality must only be practiced within the bounds of marriage. I gather that this is supposed to be an expression of biblical principle. If so, how ironic and contorted it is. Now, along with sexual practice, the institution of marriage is handed over to secularist control. As I point out in a forthcoming book, marriage is so bound with heterosexuality that it was in the context of instituting marriage that God actually created the first woman, so that the man would have a suitable helper (Gen. 2:18-24). So in calling for homosexuality to be practiced "chastely" within marriage, Harrell and others are turning the entire biblical order on its head and engaging in discourse that is biblically perverse in the extreme.
Here, then, is the right lesson to learn from the various churches urging tolerance towards homosexual sin: instead of learning to surrender biblical truth to a sinful culture, we should be bold in standing firm on the clear teaching of God's Word, humbling ourselves before God by refusing to compromise with worldly unbelief and seeking his power to use our faithful to witness for the repentance and salvation of many through faith in Jesus Christ.
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