For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. Ephesians 5:8–12
When, back in 1995, a panel of the Church of England recommended that the phrase “living in sin” be abandoned and that unmarried couples, heterosexual and homosexual alike, be “given encouragement and support” in their lifestyles, most Christians were alarmed. Suggesting that “loving homosexual relations and acts” are intrinsically no less valuable than heterosexual ones, the panel proposed that love should be allowed to be expressed “in a variety of relationships.”1 Today such a statement would hardly raise eyebrows; dozens of denominations have asserted similar ideas, and people who disagree are hesitant to speak out. In the name of “tolerance” and “openness,” Christ’s teachings have been replaced by a false gospel that insists that sinful behavior is normal, even blessed by God.
Same-sex “marriage” was a fringe idea far out of the mainstream at the time of the Church of England panel’s report. Today it is the law of the land in much of the western world and beyond. Many politicians and an increasing number of clergy and ordinary people are afraid to say anything against this movement for fear of losing friends or their position. Very few dare to stand in opposition and say, “Enough!” But by refusing to recognize marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, they not only call into question the entire institution of the family, but flatly deny God’s order of creation. They are sending children the wrong message: that anything is okay as long as two people have feelings of love for one another, and that life-long commitment to one person of the opposite sex is merely one of many options.
All the more, those of us who believe in God’s unchanging truths must not be afraid to witness to his wonderful plan for human sexuality, and to demonstrate the beauty and freedom of a life of purity.
We must love everyone – and that is why we must also speak out against sin.
Every one of us is a sinner and falls short every day. Homosexual acts are no worse than other sins, and we know from the Bible that no transgression is so terrible that it cannot be forgiven or healed (Eph. 2:3–5). To mistreat gays or to judge a practicing homosexual more harshly than any other person is wrong.
The saying “Hate the sin but love the sinner” has been derided by gay-rights advocates, but in reality it expresses a fundamental truth of the gospel that applies to all people, not just those struggling with homosexual inclinations. Jesus came to set all of us free from sin. It’s true that he accepts each one of us, yet he loves us too much to allow us to remain as we are. He hates the evil that enslaves us, and gave up his life to redeem us from it.
To affirm homosexual relationships is to deny God’s creative intent.
Homosexual conduct is a sin. It is “against nature,” against God’s creative design, and it is a form of self-worship and idolatry (Rom. 1:26). As a sexual act between two people of the same gender it is the “very grievous” sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:20).
In Leviticus 18:22–23, God calls homosexual intercourse an abomination: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” Let those who discount this prohibition by arguing that we are now “no longer under the law, but under grace” then explain why the prohibitions on incest, adultery, bestiality, and human sacrifice are not to be likewise ignored. All of these abominations are condemned in the very next sentences of the same passage.
The New Testament also condemns homosexual behavior. In Romans 1:26–28 Paul writes:
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. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And in 1 Cor. 6:9–10 Paul writes:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men…will inherit the kingdom of God.
Many people reinterpret these Scriptures as condemning only offensive homosexual (and heterosexual) behavior. But isn’t it clear that when Paul speaks of “homosexual offenders” he is speaking of the offense of homosexual behavior itself ? If only “offensive” kinds of homosexual acts were evil, then what about the rest of what Paul mentions in the same passage: adultery, idolatry, and so forth?
What could be clearer than Paul’s words in Romans, where he calls homosexual conduct “sinful desire, sexual impurity” and says that it is “degrading and shameful”? Or his unmistakably sharp words against giving oneself over “to a depraved mind”? (Rom. 1:24–28) Homosexual acts are always wrong, for they always distort God’s will for creation. They simply cannot be defended in any way by Scripture.2 And this is just as true when they take place in a “loving” lifelong relationship. Adulterous heterosexual affairs may also be felt to be loving and may be long-lasting, but that doesn’t make them right.
It is typical today to hear people talk about the injustice of holding homosexuals responsible for an orientation that they themselves did not necessarily choose. But this misses the point. Whether or not homosexuals are responsible for their sexual orientation has no relevance as to the rightness or wrongness of their behavior. To explain behavior is one thing. To justify it is altogether different.
A slate of books has recently been published arguing that the Bible never condemns same-sex “marriage”; it only rejects certain kinds of homosexual behavior: rape, ritual prostitution, and promiscuous sex. They argue that nowhere does it condemn homosexual attraction, per se, nor committed relationships between two consenting adults of the same sex.3 But what these books fail to remember is God’s original purpose for sex and his original plan for marriage: the joining together of a man and a woman who become “one flesh” to make possible the creation of a new life. In other words, sexual love as God intended it is far more than an intense feeling of mutual attraction or a sexual-romantic partnership. If that is all marriage means, then open marriages, incestuous relationships, or polyamorous relationships including multiple partners would also have to be affirmed. After all, such relationships may also be “loving” and long-lasting. But clearly even where this is the case, that doesn’t make such relationships right, or biblical.4
Whatever its origin or kind, sexual temptation can be overcome.
The sexual desires of a homosexual can be acute, but so can those of anyone else. All of us are “naturally” predisposed to do what we should not do. But if we believe in God, we must also believe that he can give us the grace to overcome whatever struggles we may have to bear: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
In speaking out against such sins, we must always remember that even though scripture condemns homosexual behavior, it never gives us license to condemn those who engage in it. As Christians we certainly cannot condone the denial of any person’s basic human rights, for whatever reason. It is all too easy to forget that the Bible has much more to say about pride, greed, resentment, and self-righteousness than about homosexuality.
Nevertheless, we need to resist the agenda of those who try to present homosexuality as just another lifestyle – especially as it affects the legalization of same-sex “marriages” – as well as efforts to compel religious groups to go against their basic beliefs and accept practicing homosexuals as members and even ministers.
It is also important to consider the difference between homosexual inclinations or orientation and an active homosexual lifestyle. Whereas homosexual orientation can arise by means of psychological influences, social environment, and perhaps genetic makeup, an active homosexual lifestyle is a matter of choice. To argue that our culture, family, development, or genes make us powerless to choose for or against sin is to deny the concept of free will.
As an orientation, homosexuality is an especially deep-rooted condition, and those who struggle with it deserve compassion and help. Therefore we always need to be ready to receive the homosexual man or woman into our fellowship and stand with him or her – in patience and love, though also with the clarity that refuses to tolerate continued sinning. Above all, we need to remind those burdened with same-sex attraction that they are more than their sexuality.
I have counseled many people who have struggled with homosexual temptations. Sometimes a person’s situation seems hopeless, but in my experience, even someone who has been ingrained in the gay lifestyle for a long time can be helped. Whether a struggling person acts on his temptations or not, one thing remains the same: if he turns single-mindedly to Jesus, he can be helped and freed; if he is divided in the depths of his heart, even the most valiant efforts to resist temptation will cramp him spiritually. Even a perverse glance shows that a person is not decided – and Jesus calls this “adultery” in the heart. Lasting freedom can be found only in decisiveness.
It is all the more important, therefore, that people who are not burdened by homosexuality try to understand the tremendous inner need, pain, and loneliness that many homosexuals live with.5 Their misplaced sexual desire often stems from an intense yearning for a genuinely loving connection with others. Many homosexuals have never known unconditional, accepting love from those of their own gender. In fatherless and abusive homes across our country, a void exists that is capable of inducing homosexual feelings in children. And in our culture, driven as it is by competition and the will to dominate, it is easy for some people to feel left out; they may turn to homosexual activity as a result.
I have known Howard and his wife, Ann, ever since they joined our church two decades ago, yet it was not until recently that I fully understood the depth of Howard’s struggle. Abused as a child by his uncle, neglected by his workaholic father, and ridiculed by his peers for his lack of athletic ability, Howard grew up feeling misunderstood and out of place. He craved attention: from his father, other men, and boys his own age. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he was homosexually active. While Howard does not blame his upbringing for choices he made later in life, his story should warn every parent of what can happen when children grow up without the support of a caring family.
But Howard’s story is more than a warning. It bears witness to Christ’s power to redeem; to the importance of repentance; to the healing force of forgiveness; and to the joy that every one of us can know. He writes:
When I was sixteen, I began to mess around with other boys. It wasn’t long before I allowed older men to “experiment” with me. These sexual experiences excited me, but they left me feeling very guilty. I was not able to open up to anyone about what I was going through. I even lied to my father when he confronted me directly and asked if I had such feelings.
By the time I turned twenty-one, I had done virtually every homosexual act possible. Nothing satisfied me. My encounters with other men were empty; I preferred to look at pictures and create my own fantasies. I never tried to come to terms with my attraction to men, excusing it as something I “couldn’t help.” Even when my insurance paid for psychotherapy because of work-related stress and anxiety, I did not tell the psychiatrist anything personal. I was convinced: there was no point talking to anyone; no one would understand me, and it wasn’t possible for me to change, anyway.
I married the first woman I had a sexual relationship with. Ann loved me and accepted what she knew of me. We talked about our personal feelings from the start, but we’d been married two years before I worked up the courage to share my secret with her. Naturally, Ann responded with stunned surprise. She could not understand how it was possible. I told her about my childhood and about the thoughts and desires that burdened me. I made it clear to her that I wanted nothing to do with these things, and she accepted this and seemed to have hope that I could change. Even though I fell into casual encounters with other men on several more occasions, she continually forgave me.
Many homosexuals were “coming out of the closet” at that time, revealing their lifestyle to family and friends and trying to find acceptance. I dreaded this, because I was sure I would not be accepted. Actually, at heart I did not want acceptance; I wanted help to overcome my problem. Finally I told my story to a lay pastor whom I trusted. He helped me find the strength to share my struggle with a small group of people I knew and felt close to. They were at first shocked, but then also very supportive, knowing that they too had struggles. This was the beginning of my path to recovery. But only the beginning.
Later my wife and I joined an intentional Christian community, sensing that we had arrived at a place where true healing could be found. To a degree this was true, but sometimes when I felt low and depressed, I would still give in to lustful thoughts and looks, which on several occasions nearly led me back into my old ways. Clearly I could never overcome my problems in my own strength. All the same, I kidded myself into believing I could, and convinced my wife I was doing okay. In the meantime, I was blocking out Jesus’ words about the lustful look. My conscience became duller and duller. My heart grew harder and harder.
Ann continued to trust me, and God gave us two sons. Yet in spite of these blessings, I sunk deeper and deeper. Then one day a friend discovered me looking at pornography. Though at first I tried to lie my way out, I finally found the courage to admit my sin. I half expected to be “run out of town.” But while no one condoned my behavior, I did not feel condemned. Men who I thought would be totally disgusted with me suddenly looked me squarely in the eyes with true, brotherly love. My hard heart began to melt…
My wife and I separated for a while so that I could find my true bearings again. During this time Ann stood faithfully by her commitment to the church community and to me. She told me later, “When we married, I had no idea what we might face in the future. We promised to remain faithful – come hell or high water – to God, to the church, and to each other. We had no idea what we were promising, but I know this is what protected us. This is what led us together again.”
Ann was right, of course. It was only through God’s grace that I was able to recognize how badly I needed to come completely clean, to open up my heart wider than I ever had before, and to set straight every single wrong act or ingrained attitude from the past. I saw how my own selfishness lay at the root of my problem. Bit by bit, I felt my bondage to darkness breaking.
As my repentance deepened, my heart grew lighter, my mind freer. Finally, I moved back in with my wife and children. Now we are closer as a family than we ever have been. And the curse I have lived with all my life has been transformed into a deep joy. Christ has given me the gift of a clear conscience – there is no greater gift. It gives me courage to face anything that might come in the future. I know I will be tempted for the rest of my life, but I also know that there is always a way through. I can receive help beyond my own strength.
True freedom is possible for every man and woman, and it is up to us to believe this (Gal. 5:1, 13). Howard and Ann’s story should remind us not to pretend that victory is easy, or that it can be achieved once and for all. It may not be. For every person who is granted healing, there are dozens more who have to struggle with temptations for years, some for the rest of their lives. Yet is it any different for the rest of us? There cannot be many Christians who have not longed and prayed, seemingly without result, for deliverance from some besetting sin. Ultimately, Christ will free us if we give ourselves unreservedly to him.
For many who experience same-sex attractions, the call to discipleship may mean a celibate single life. Yet the same applies to any Christian who is unable to marry, including the many men and women who long to find a marriage partner but never do. No matter what our situation, whether married or single, we should never doubt that since we are created in God’s image, there is always hope for a faithful life of service and love.
1. “Church report accepts cohabiting couples,” The Tablet, June 10, 1995.
2. See, Andreas J. Kostenberger, God, Marriage and Family (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), ch. 10 for an excellent, readable summary of the biblical teaching on homosexuality.
3. Many also argue that since Jesus never spoke out against committed same-sex relationships, they must not be sinful. Not only is this an argument from silence (Jesus also never speaks out against incest), but it ignores the fact that Jesus, as a faithful Jew, simply assumed that marriage was between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:1–10). For a rigorous refutation of common contemporary objections to the biblical teaching against homosexuality, see Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).
4. Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter Books, 2012).
5. A beautifully written and honest book about what it means to live with same-sex attractions is Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).