The debate surrounding homosexuality has become one of the most contentious and divisive in the history of the church. Not since the debate over Jesus’ divinity in the fourth century, or the infallibility of the pope in the 16th century, or the issue of slavery in the 19th century has there been so much heat generated by a debate—and so little light.
And of course there is no middle ground. The debate quickly falls into two clearly defined positions. You are either for the Bible and against homosexuality, or you are for homosexuality and against the Bible.
Fault lines form around these contours of the debate and tremors generated by the ensuing arguments tear through communities and churches and even families. Even those already part of the church but who accept homosexuality find themselves cast out and forced to invent their own church, or form new churches out of pieces of the old.
Heated debate tends to generate exaggerated rhetoric as each side demonizes the other. Fundamentalists are accused of “stealing Jesus,” by denying forgiveness and acceptance to those who would seek him. Homosexuals are accused of being a part of a vast conspiracy that seeks to infuse homosexuality into every aspect of American life.
Obviously the truth lies somewhere in a murky middle.
Perhaps most frustrating and most dangerous is the way in which the debate has moved outside the church into the wider community. After all, it is the Bible, the sacred text of Christians and Jews that uses language such as “sinner” and “abomination” to describe homosexual behavior. But these are religious terms and have to do with standards of conduct within the covenant community of faith.
But our society is based on a constitution not a covenant. So far, there is not a sexual-orientation test of citizenship in the U.S. Constitution. If the founders had any opinions about homosexual behavior, they chose not to codify them in our governing document.
As a result religious sensibilities clash with civic responsibility. There are places in this country where a homosexual person, guilty of no crime or offense other than his or her sexual orientation, would be denied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is one thing for a faith community, governed by sacred texts to exclude someone from the fold, but it is another matter altogether to use biblical doctrine to determine citizen rights.
But even with that distinction clearly made, the debate still spills over into our political discourse. During the last presidential election no less than 11 states were simultaneously considering legislation which would block homosexual unions.
If the country follows the church, homosexuality will increasingly become a disruptive issue that will divide not only churches, but our nation as well. Do we really want citizenship tied to sexual orientation?
A hopeful resolution to this thorny issue may actually exist within the confessions of the Christian community. The Bible I read and preach from every Sunday states that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The Christian church has traditionally taught that God hates the sin but loves the sinner.
If all that is true then it seems to me that the common ground we seek is available to us in the universal experience of human failure. In other words, we are all just ordinary sinners who are loved by a God of extraordinary grace.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn,Ala.