For almost 20 centuries, there was little controversy over Christian teaching about homosexuality. For the last few decades, there has been an extraordinary amount of controversy. How should Christians respond to this changing situation?
The core truths of the Gospel never change (Hebrews 13:8). However, each generation of Christians faces its own challenges in sharing the good news of God’s love. Different cultures ask different questions and require different approaches to preaching.
This can be seen even in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul’s approach to spreading the Gospel changed according to the needs of his audience. Whether he spoke in person or by letter, he did not say the same thing in every situation. When he wrote, he crafted individual letters to each church, praising their unique gifts and addressing the particular challenges that they faced. And when he preached, he adapted his approach to his audience.
Some readers will be uncomfortable with this, afraid that different emphasis for different audiences smacks of relativism and situational ethics. This, however, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of truth. Paul preached the truth because he loved the people he preached to. And because he loved them, and wanted them to understand, he tried to present the truth in ways that responded to their needs and which they would be able to understand (see 1 Corinthians 3:2).
For example, when he spoke with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens, he spoke of their religious devotion to their many gods, including the temple with an altar dedicated “to an unknown god.” Then he spoke of God as the unknown god whom they worshiped, quoting Greek poets to illustrate his Christian beliefs in words they could understand (see Acts 17:16-34). On the other hand, when he came to Corinth, he used a very different approach. Here, he did not come to philosophers. Not many of those he spoke to were wise by worldly standards, or powerful, or of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26). Instead of using the approach he had used on the Areopagus, he focused entirely on preaching about Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2)—a topic that he did not mention at all in his dialogue with the philosophers as it is recorded in the Book of Acts.
Both in his preaching in Athens, and in his preaching in Corinth, Paul explained key elements of the Gospel. In both places, some of his listeners received his message and followed Christ. But he did not take a one-size-fits-all approach to sharing the Gospel. Instead, he tried to make wise choices about how to start where his listeners were ready to listen. When he spoke to the leading intellectuals of his day, he spoke to them of the quest to understand the unknown God who is the creator of all, and quoted their own poets to help illustrate his points. On the other hand, when he spoke to those who were weak and despised by the world, he spoke of the God who had taken on their weakness, and been willing to submit Himself to death on the cross. The good news that he invited his audiences to hear was the same in Athens as it was in Corinth, but the approach he used shifted as the needs and opportunities of his audience shifted.
Today we live in a culture that is in many ways radically different from any ancient culture. The good news that we have to share is the same good news that Paul shared in Athens, in Corinth, and throughout the ancient world. But at least some of the questions we face are different from the questions Paul faced, and in order to answer those questions, we may need to explain the Gospel in new ways.
None of this is to deny the fundamental continuity that must exist between the Gospel that Paul preached and the Gospel that we are called to preach. To recognize the need for different approaches to preaching the same message in different situations is not at all the same as altering the message to make it more palatable to modern ears.
Homosexuality has become one of the most divisive issues in modern western culture. It is not only divisive in relations between Christians and the larger society, but also in debates among Christians themselves. For Paul’s readers, however, it was apparently not controversial to claim that homosexual activity was wrong. Thus, he could use it as an example of pagan depravity (Romans 1:26-27) or list it as one among many different sins (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10), without needing to give any further explanation. Contrast this with his approach to a highly controversial issue in the early Church: whether the gentiles needed to be circumcised. Paul addressed circumcision repeatedly and in depth in his letters (see Romans 2:25-3:1; 3:30; 4:9-12; 15:8; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 2:3-12; 5:2-11; 6:12-15; Ephesians 2:11; Philippians 3:3-5; Colossians 2:11; 3:11; 4:11; Titus 1:10).
In our own day, circumcision has almost no place in Christian theological debate. Although there are some arguments in the culture regarding whether circumcision is a good idea or not, these debates have virtually no religious significance for Christians: the arguments are made in terms of medical expediency or of parents’ rights to make decisions for their children based on their (Jewish or Muslim) religious beliefs. When Christian theologians do write about circumcision, it is not, as it was for Paul, in order to address a contemporary debate over whether Christians must be circumcised in order to be saved. That issue was settled almost twenty centuries ago. It is rather in order to examine and explain the deeper issues that led Paul to reject the need for circumcision. It thus becomes an example that enables us to examine the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
Today, the once-controversial circumcision debate can be addressed in passing, as Paul could speak in passing of the sinfulness of homosexual acts. And Paul’s teaching about homosexuality, which was once easily accepted, is now a source of seemingly interminable controversy. As same-sex relationships have become more accepted by society, Christians have had to think more deeply about why Paul called same-sex intercourse “contrary to nature.” As a result, more has been written on this topic in the last few decades than had been written in the previous two millennia.
Some Christians are puzzled or frustrated by this need to explain what seems so clear in the Bible: homosexual activity is repeatedly condemned in both the Old and New Testaments (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10). What more needs to be said?
This frustration is, perhaps, understandable. However, if we look at Paul’s example, we see that he was always willing to meet his audience where they were at. Starting with the questions they were asking—questions about circumcision, for example—he would not only tell them the correct answer, but in his efforts to explain this he would end up illuminating other, deeper aspects of the Gospel. This is why theologians today can still illustrate important features of the Good News by looking at Paul’s teaching on circumcision, even though there is no live debate among Christians about whether it is necessary for salvation anymore.
It is easy to become frustrated with contemporary debates about homosexuality. However, I believe that if we seek to understand why Paul saw homosexual acts as radically contrary to God’s design for human sexuality, we will come to understand both the Gospel itself—and that design—much more deeply. In order to do so, however, we must take time to reflect, trying to offer the more in-depth response that Paul would certainly have offered if he had written to an audience, like our own, which was deeply confused about these questions. Although this may seem like an audacious goal, we know that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth (John 16:13).
We should not be afraid to admit that the Bible’s very brief treatment of questions related to homosexuality does not say enough to answer the questions raised by our culture. But we should be confident that if we reflect more deeply on deeper themes connected with the Gospel—creation, providence, marriage, celibacy, sin, redemption, resurrection, etc.—we will find the resources for understanding Paul’s teaching on homosexuality, even though Paul himself does much less than many of us would like to explain the reasons behind the prohibition.