Right down to the present day, these venerable traditions are continued, with various modifications, in our own church. We are rightly concerned that ordained ministers, elders and deacons should not fall below their high calling in the way they conduct their lives. Since homosexual behavior, as is well known, has traditionally been proscribed without qualification, what difference should the distinctions make that I have urged? Are there ever circumstances in which sexually active gay and lesbian people should be considered for ordination in our church?
It is one thing to make a case for homosexual partnerships, and quite another to make a case for “responsible discretion” in considering sexually active homosexuals for ordination. Although the two cases are closely related, I will take them up one by one. (Since the very idea of “bisexuality” seems inseparable from casual, promiscuous or adulterous relationships, it does not qualify for consideration.)
Reorientation and celibacy are the only viable alternatives to committed (lifelong) homosexual partnerships. The former, I believe, has been sufficiently discussed in my “Theses for the Crisis in Our Church.” Here I will add only that according to some estimates, reorientation can take up to ten years, and that it promises only a 30 percent “success rate.” However commendable it may be for all, and however wonderful it may be for some, it can hardly be viewed as a requirement even for the most conscientious.
That leaves us with celibacy. It is interesting to note what is said about it in our Book of Confessions. Celibacy is regarded as a “gift” or special charism (C-5.245). If given, it does not come merely by good intentions or by taking a vow, for it is a gift bestowed “from Heaven” (C-5.245). How does one know if the gift has actually been given? The familiar biblical test is supplied: one knows because one can embrace it from the heart, because one is not constantly beset by fantasies that are impure or incontinent, and because one is not “aflame with passion” (C-5.245). Otherwise, the gift has not been given. Moreover, it can be “taken away” so that marriage is one’s only recourse (C-5.245). No Christian should “entangle” himself or herself in any vow “which is not in his [or her] own power, and for the performance whereof he [or she] hath no promise or ability from God” (C-6.126). “Entangling vows of single life” (like, by the way, “undue delay of marriage”) are clearly to be approached with great caution (C-7.249).
If we take seriously, as I have argued, that a homosexual and a heterosexual disposition are essentially comparable, then it is hard to see how our confessional position on celibacy as something that is always a special charism (though written with only heterosexuals in mind) can be denied to homosexuals as well. The principle of equity, by which Calvin’s entire understanding of ethics was shaped, would seem to demand nothing less. The rule for each of us to use, wrote Calvin, as taught by Christ, is “for each to offer the other what he would have done to himself” (Commentaries, Matthew 7:12).
To this argument there are two main objections. Although each has some merit, neither is decisive. The first has already been touched upon in my theses. Why aren’t Christian homosexuals in the same situation as heterosexuals who would wish to marry but cannot find a suitable partner? Beyond what I have already said, I would add the following. It seems proper to make a distinction between the grace of abstinence and the grace of celibacy. In principle, the former is provisional while the latter is a vow of lifelong commitment.
Abstinence does not renounce the hope of finding a life partner. Since all casual and promiscuous sexual intercourse is proscribed for Christians, abstinence for those seeking a partner is clearly the general rule. A strong presumption exists before God against making oneself an exception to it, even in the midst of a promising though not yet finalized commitment (e.g., “engagement”). (The “guidelines” suggested in my theses for assessing ex post facto circumstances where couples are already “living together” ought not to be taken as a concession to license .) Unlike the grace of celibacy, the grace of abstinence can be seen as promised and available to all.
While never easy, abstinence presupposes the practice of a devout and holy life lived in a communal context centered on Word and Sacrament (as described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together). (Low-commitment religion and mediocre Christian niceness are not enough.) In any case, the grace of abstinence for all Christians, regardless of sexual orientation, presupposes, and does not exclude, the hope of finding a true life partner.
The second objection is that homosexual intercourse is always proscribed without exception, because according to Scripture it is intrinsically sinful. This objection appeals to the plain sense of the biblical passages dealing with homosexuality. While the objection is not wrong to respect the plain sense, it fails to take adequately into account (as I have previously argued) our advance in modern knowledge that homosexuality is, in fact, a deep-seated disposition that is strong, involuntary and basic (as opposed to being merely volitional).
Commenting on the most important passage, Romans 1:26-27, Joseph A. Fitzmyer sums up the broad ecumenical consensus that Scripture sees homosexual intercourse as “contrary to nature.” This phrase means, explains Fitzmyer, that such intercourse contradicts “the order seen in the function of the sexual organs themselves, which were ordained for an expression of love between man and woman and for the procreation of children.” (“Romans,” Anchor Bible, vol. 33, 1993, p. 286.) In light of our advance in knowledge, if we think with the spirit of the plain sense, yet beyond the letter, then the traditional interpretation will be tempered without being jettisoned. Homosexuality will be seen as a tragic disorder contrary to the Lord God’s intention, even as sexually active, lifelong homosexual partnerships will receive “discreet toleration” in the church. But, most emphatically, neither will be seen as an “abomination” to be condemned.
Consider for a moment the logical consequences of the contrary view. If homosexual behavior is indeed always an “abomination,” then any believers who engage in it jeopardize their salvation. It follows (logically) that the community has no choice but to excommunicate them until they repent and take a vow of celibacy (regardless of the fact that, for all intents and purposes, such a vow for them may be as “contrary to nature” as to grace). (Excommunication is the policy advocated by Robert A. J. Gagnon in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Abingdon, 2001, pp. 308, 345n.3, 488, 489.) I suspect that most people in our church would regard this terrible conclusion — that believers in a homosexual partnership must be barred from the community — as severe, unfeeling and wrong-headed. It seems more admirable in consistency than in wisdom.
Believers who form lifelong homosexual partnerships are sanctifying as best they can a condition that they did not choose. Although these partnerships cannot be placed on a direct par with marriage, they deserve the community’s “discreet toleration,” acceptance and respect. Apart from sexual disposition, sexually responsible homosexuals in the community differ from their other sexually responsible sisters and brothers in nothing. They have the same gifts, the same needs, the same foibles, the same virtues, and the same worth. It is high time for our church to stop stigmatizing them as a group. And that means, among other things, “responsible discretion” when it comes to candidates for ordination.
Posted March 13, 2002Guest Commentary