The following excerpt is adapted from a book I just released, Essential Christianity: The Heart of the Gospel in Ten Words. Here’s what author Rebecca McLaughlin wrote about the book: “If you’re wondering what on earth to believe in a confusing and often disappointing world, Essential Christianity could be just the lifeline you need. In it, Pastor J.D. Greear peels back the layers that can get piled on top of Christianity and helps us see the first-century original, which offers life-changing hope to billions around the world today—including you.”
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One of the biggest objections contemporary people have to Christianity is the biblical view of sex—particularly homosexuality. So, for instance, when we pick up the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, we might come across sentences like these and wince:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural sexual relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another… (1:26–27 ESV)
Maybe Paul’s words feel like a conversation-stopper to you. I’ve heard the Bible’s prescriptions on sexuality called a “defeater”—that is, an aspect of a belief system that is so outrageous that it invalidates everything else in that belief system. For many, the Bible’s teaching on sexuality does just that.
Before you condemn Christianity as morally backwards, at least give me a chance to address three myths that our culture—and far too often our churches—has promoted about the Bible and homosexuality. And then I want to offer a suggestion that has helped me—and scores of people I’ve known over the years—not get derailed by this in our search for God.
Myth 1: When It Comes to Homosexuality, There Are Only Two Choices: Affirmation or Alienation
Many assume that when someone announces they are gay, our only options are affirmation or alienation, and if we are not doing the former, we must be doing the latter. Not embracing someone’s sexual choices, we are told, dismisses them as a person.
Tragically, the church has often embraced that dichotomy. How many heartbreaking stories do we have to hear of parents rejecting gay children, of gay kids bullied by “Christian” friends at school, or of churches ostracizing those struggling with same-sex attraction? Too often, the church has treated the LGBTQIA+ community more like a political adversary to be vanquished than a community to be loved and served.
Jesus took a different approach. He spoke truth, no matter how unpopular or countercultural it was, but he also befriended outsiders. He told people hard truth, but only as he drew them close. Unlike us, he did not push away those whose lifestyles he disagreed with. He asked about their problems and ate at their houses. He saw the outcasts in his society as individuals made in his Father’s image to be valued, befriended, and loved.
Behind this myth is another one: Our sexual orientation defines us. “Gay” and “straight” are treated as identities that form the inextricable core of who we are. The gospel teaches something different: Every person is first and foremost a man or woman bearing the imago Dei (image of God). We cannot reduce anyone (including ourselves) to their choices or desires. Every person is worthy of our respect and compassion because they bear the stamp of our Creator. All of us, alike, have rebelled against our Creator. At the most fundamental level, we’re all in the same boat.
Because of that, we do not need to choose between affirmation and alienation. Jesus showed us a third way—grace. That is, we recognize that the corruption that someone else experiences may be different than the corruption we experience, but that doesn’t mean that they are fundamentally different than me. We are both made in the image of God with the same root problem, sin; needing the same divine solution, salvation.
That brings us to myth number two.
Myth 2: Homosexuality Is the Worst Sin
Paul lists homosexuality as one of the many fruits of a disordered heart, not the only one. It is an example of doing what I desire rather than what the Creator desires—of seeking to be who I want to be rather than who the Creator has declared me to be in my cell structure. Homosexual behavior shares the same “root sins” with all other sins: idolatry and rebellion—substituting my desires for God’s and usurping his authority with my will. Those roots are buried deep in the hearts of us all, even if they “flower” in different ways.
In Romans 1, Paul offers multiple examples of that rebellion: things like deceit, boasting, greed, disobedience to our parents, unnatural sexual desires, slander, covenant-breaking, and many other things. Each of us struggles with certain things on Paul’s list more than others, but they are all fruits of the same poisonous roots—idolatry and rebellion.
Let me be clear: Homosexuality in and of itself does not send you to hell. Here’s how I know that: Heterosexuality doesn’t send you to heaven. What condemns any of us is refusing to allow Jesus to be the Lord of our lives, regardless of how that rebellion manifests itself—in your sexual life, in what you do with your money, in how you relate to authority, how you talk to your parents, or how you talk about your neighbors.
Rosaria Butterfield, formerly a practicing lesbian and professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University in New York, recounts her conversion to Christ in her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. She says that Paul’s letter to the Romans pushed her to look beyond her sexual desires to the root questions behind them:
Who in my life gets to declare what is good? Who or what is Lord in my life—my desires or God’s Word?
She says that homosexuality is not the core of our rebellion against God; a desire to be God—to be the one who gets to declare what is good and what is evil—is. At root, she says, it’s about pride: “Proud people always feel that they can live independently from God and from other people. Proud people feel entitled to do what they want when they want to.”
Ultimately, Butterfield says, we all come to Christ in the same way—by repenting of (that is, turning away from) our rebellion and putting our faith in the finished work of Christ.
Repentance for the LGBTQIA+ is essentially the same as repentance for a straight person: “God, I’m sorry for elevating my desires over your will. I’m sorry for attempting to define my identity aside from your design for me. I’m sorry for taking on myself the authority to declare what’s good. I’m sorry for seeking satisfaction in self-fulfillment rather than from giving glory to you. I recognize Jesus is Lord and turn over control to him.”
The gospel message is not “Let the gay become straight” but “Let the dead become alive.”
What condemns any of us is refusing to allow Jesus to be the Lord of our lives, regardless of how that rebellion manifests itself.
Myth 3: Being Born With Something Makes It OK
Often we hear this objection: “Most gay people didn’t choose to be gay; at some point they discovered they were. It’s wrong for God to condemn someone for something they had no choice in.”
But it’s not as simple as that. Many impulses instinctive to us we recognize as wrong—things like anger, greed, and vengeance. If a shamed man feels that the only way he can restore his honor is through an “honor killing,” most of us would say that is an impulse he should suppress, even if exacting vengeance feels right to him. The point is not that homosexuality is comparable to an honor-killing, just that mere possession of a desire does not make it right.
The Bible never points us to look within for truth. There are some beautiful things in our personal makeup that reflect God’s image, but Mr. Hyde also lives in there. We were not born pure. Scripture says we’re all born under sin, and because of that, Jesus says, we must all be “born again” (John 3:3). We need a new start and a new heart: a heart that loves what God loves.
Trusting Christ as Savior is how we obtain that renewed heart. When we embrace the gospel, our sins are forgiven and we are born again. Full transformation, however, doesn’t happen all at once. Christianity is a lifelong struggle of denying our sinful natural desires and trusting Christ for renewal. Persevering in the struggle honors Christ, even as we wait for final redemption.
The Bible Is an Equal-opportunity Offender
Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it clear: Practicing homosexuality is a sinful choice—a departure from God’s design. In another letter, Paul says: “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men … will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10 NIV).
I realize that this is countercultural in the twenty-first-century West. If it’s any consolation, the Bible’s sexual ethic has offended almost every culture, though for different reasons. Ancient cultures were offended by the New Testament’s emphasis on monogamous marriage, the equality of the sexes, and Jesus’ impulse to forgive a female adulterer rather than stone her (John 8:1–11). Of course, we accept most of those as “givens” now. That’s why I say the Bible is an “equal-opportunity offender.” Sam Allberry, a Christian writer and speaker who from his teenage years has experienced same-sex attraction, says it like this in his book Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?:
Christian sexual ethics have been countercultural in every culture. This is important to understand. It is easy to assume that Christian sexual ethics are old-fashioned. But that presumes some prior time in history when the Bible’s teaching neatly matched our own sensibilities. But this has never been the case.
…The teaching of the Bible always ends up critiquing major aspects of any culture’s view of sex and marriage, even while affirming other aspects. We might look at the Bible’s teaching in horror, exclaiming, “But it’s the Twenty-First Century!” But it’s not all that different from someone in the Roman Empire reading [Paul] … exclaiming “But this is the First Century!” Though the reasons have varied from age to age and culture to culture, Christian teaching on this issue has never been in vogue.
Paul’s approach to homosexuality is neither what we’d call classically liberal nor classically conservative. He doesn’t deny homosexuality’s sinfulness, nor does he treat it as if it were a fundamentally different kind of sin. He lists homosexuality and gender confusion as one of many manifestations of the corruption that came from humanity’s decision to reject God and worship other things in his place.
Still Not There Yet? It’s OK to Punt for a While
As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, sexual ethics are not the center of the Christian message—Jesus is. Conversion means surrendering to his Lordship. If he’s Lord, you’ll probably have a lot of things to rethink. So, to use a metaphor from American football, it’s ok to punt on this particular question for a while. Focus on the question of whether Jesus is Lord. If he is, you can work your way outward from there. He’ll help you.
I love how Sam Allberry concludes his book:
[Christianity] is a message not primarily concerned with what we do and don’t do with our genitals (though it has significant things to say about this), but with who we will ultimately give our hearts to, and where we will look for our deepest experience of love.
Christianity is all about Jesus. Throughout his life, we see him demonstrating great sympathy for those caught in sexual sin. In one incident, he was confronted by a group of religious leaders about to stone an adulterous woman to death. (You can read about it in John 8:3–11.) He did not tell her that her sexual choices were nobody else’s business, nor did he write her off as permanently disqualified. His most challenging words were not directed to her but to the men who were judging her. To her he said words he extends to all willing to come in surrender to him:
“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11 ESV).