HOMOSEXUALITY – A SIN OR IN-BUILT DIFFERENCE

HOMOSEXUALITY – A SIN OR IN-BUILT DIFFERENCE?

For centuries it was assumed that homosexuality was a chosen behaviour outside mainstream approval. Currently we can see there has been a shift in attitude, partly in reaction to changes in society and partly because through scientific and psychological research the current understanding is that those with homosexual orientation are now widely believed to have no real choice in the matter. From reactions in the community and Church it is clear that the new understandings have not always been translated to visible changes of attitude. Even where the Churches are aware of the appropriate research and although many societies have relatively recently come to recognise and even safeguard the rights of homosexuals, in many places this has been a very grudging acceptance. For example here in New Zealand even the mainstream Churches who for the most part supported homosexual law reform have generally been less than encouraging in their acceptance of homosexual ministry.

The more conservative Churches, and conservative members within more liberal churches in general are frankly opposed to homosexual behaviour claiming that there are passages in the Bible, which in some cases are literally accepted as applying to all time, condemn homosexuality as sin. Aware of that situation, even the New Zealand Methodists for example, who have possibly been the most liberal of the mainstream churches in this regard, still leave it open to individual parishes to state whether or not they would accept homosexual appointment.

The Presbyterians have pulled back from their earlier acceptance and have now adopted a position that although those already in ministry can continue, they do not currently accept homosexual ministers into first appointments.

There is no officially stated policy with the Anglican Church although there is majority agreement with the most recent Lambeth Conference and the Windsor report that it is not acceptable for clergy to be practicing homosexuals. The Maori and Pasifica tikanga are particularly committed to this viewpoint, and appear quite clear they see homosexuality as a sin. Strangely although there is no official support for the ordination of actively gay or lesbian clergy, there can be local support. Some Pakeha parishes are more open to supporting gay and lesbian positions on a number of issues, including ordination and blessing of unions. Auckland and Dunedin dioceses are notable for a more liberal stance and as with other mainline churches there are a number of ordained clergy and blessing of same-sex relationships have been officially recognised. One or two prominent Anglican clergy are widely believed to be practising homosexuals.

Since Catholics have a policy of abstinence for all clergy, the question of a practicisng homosexual priest is not an issue. When it comes to homosexuals amongst Church members the Catholic Church position is little changed since the October 1986 Vatican letter to bishops entitled “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” when it was stated those who find themselves to be homosexual should change their orientation through prayer and counselling or, failing that, live totally chaste and sexually inactive lives. (The letter did not say “loveless” but this seemed to be the implication for some thus affected). This letter was claimed as necessary to offset “deceitful propaganda” coming from gay Christian groups challenging the church’s tradition and its interpretation of Scripture. By implication, according to the Catholic position, sexual fulfilment is exclusively the right of the heterosexual.

The Catholic position is fairly reflected by a similar stance by some in mainline conservative churches where the emphasis is on the correction of the aberrant and sinful position. I have heard the term “love for the sinner but not for the sin” used quite frequently when such matters are discussed.

There is a curious sense of embarassment in even discussing the issue in New Zealand in that in general, the fastest growing portion of the Church is the conservative Pacific Island sector and it would be difficult to challenge such a grouping when the challenging opinion might be misconstrued as prejudice against a group on racial or cultural grounds. The other aspect of the embarassment is that restrictions on ministry on grounds of homosexual orientation places the Church in contravention of the Human Rights act which states that people may not be discriminated against for employment on grounds of sex or sexual orientation. Although the Church can produce the technical argument that strictly speaking ordained clergy are not employed by the Church, and that it is rather a response to a call to follow God (ie employed by God?) this may be a subtelty lost on both the general public and aspiring homosexual clergy.

Some of the other Churches have been particularly strong in their condemnation of homosexuality – particularly for ministry. The Destiny Church would be typical of some of the newer ultra-conservative churches in this regard.

The origins of prejudice against homosexuality appear partly biological and partly cultural and religious. Before any change to current positions and attitudes is expected it may be helpful to recognise some of the contributing factors.

One phenomenon found right through the animal kingdom is the way in which members with aberrant appearance or behaviour are rejected, often forcibly, by the rest of the group. Often explained in Darwinian terms, this has been argued to have deep seated biological advantage in terms of breeding mate selection as well as advantage in helping the group know which members are likely to agree with consensus behaviour.

In an age where groups only survived by virtue of the strength of support for the tribe and tribal values, it possibly made more sense to look to accept tribe members with common values, and conversely to have ways of detecting those who did not fit. Homosexuals appear to have been a case in point. Where the success of a tribe was partially dependent on viable offspring it was more than just heterosexuality which was valued. For example centuries of observations of breeding may well have given rise to the observation that unions between close relatives frequently acted against viability and may well have been a factor in helping subsequent tribal rule makers determine that close family members should not be allowed to mate. The biological reason behind unsuccessful outcomes of such unions ie. that recessive genes were being expressed with the union of near biological relatives, would not have had to be understood before the social rule developed. A series of children with discernable weaknesses from such unions would be part of the group knowledge. This would then be expected to influence recommended rules for behaviour. A modern variant of this attitude is that homosexual behaviour is widely believed to be a contributing factor in the spread of AIDS. This belief, which at best is only a half truth, can however be expected to carry through to influence group attitude and behaviour.

Similar social Darwinian principles were part of emerging religions and it is now relatively widely accepted that teachings about confirmed and agreed sets of behaviour helped build a sense of common identity and attitude of mutual support. Not all would agree that the Bible was composed with such issues in mind. For example a sizeable percentage of those identifying themselves as Christian are also believers that the Bible was divinely inspired and should be accepted as both inerrant and literal in its commands and instructions. When it comes to the frequently heard proposition that the Bible states homosexuality is to be condemned, the objective evidence is a bit more ambiguous. In a modern Western society, where the groups are much larger and more diverse than those in Bible times, many of the social reasons for rejecting same sex relationships are not longer relevant.

While it is true that there are passing references in the Bible to decree homosexuality as an abomination, there are many things in the Bible declared abominations, such as people with slanted eyes, eating shellfish and people eating with Egyptians. Just because the Bible declares that we should stone someone who has shaved his sideboards or picked up wood on the Sabbath, the cultural setting for the instructions and the changed understanding that a modern society has by virtue of developing understanding of science and other cultures should give us sufficient reason for caution in interpretation. We no longer see the Leper as a victim of evil spirits and we need to be free to use our growing knowledge in other areas of our faith as well.

What is probably more important is that we identify the main and growing themes in the Bible and consider how we might learn from them. For example a theme like compassion is a recurring theme, and generosity to the poor is directly mentioned well over one hundred times, as is the need for justice. If being true to the main teachings of the bible is important it may then follow that we give emphasis to the main themes of the Bible in our lives rather than those areas which appear incidental. The fact that homosexuality only gets 8 direct mentions, some ambiguous in intent, and that it is of so little consequence in the teachings of Jesus it is not mentioned at all, might suggest we step back and consider carefully before consigning homosexuals to rejection and perdition.

We may also reflect on the way in which our views are expressed. For example one of the brief mentions of homosexuality brackets it with a host of other abominations like having haughty eyes. At a minimum, the “holier than thou attitude” when it comes to saying what homosexuals should do (and for that matter what anyone who does not conform to majority expectations should do) is built on the hidden assumption that the one expressing the opinion has already assumed that they are superior to the one being discussed. In any case, to express an opinion in such a way that comes across to that person being discussed as less than considerate and caring certainly runs counter some other major injunctions, particularly those emphasised by Jesus, like loving one’s neighbour.

Since the free choice aspect of homosexuality is the one which gets a great deal of attention, there are some important understandings coming out of science research which should also inform our discussion. For example the brain structure and neural pathways are becoming much better understood. To give one example, (Ian Sample in The Guardian, Monday 8 June, 2008) the Scientists from the Stockholm Brain Research Institute announced that they had identified a symmetry in appearance of brain structure when comparing the brains of homosexual men and heterosexual women. This was not present with heterosexual men and lesbians where the brain was asymmetrical. The researchers also showed that the same regions of the brain preferentially fired for women and homosexual men whereas for men and lesbian women different areas were favoured. They even suggested that the popularly claimed difference between men and women for map reading ability was a consequence of this symmetry and function difference.

This is of course part of on-going research and structural differences can be affected by experiences after birth as well as at birth but such research opens up some new possibilities for discussing free will in the establishment of homosexual behaviour.

As with other essays on this site, the aim is to stimulate thinking. Over to others to respond.

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12 Responses to HOMOSEXUALITY – A SIN OR IN-BUILT DIFFERENCE

  1. I agree that all persons should be treated with respect and compassion. After all, if my reading of the Bible is accurate, we are all sinners in need of a Savior. I am particularly fond of Paul’s list of sins in Romans 1 that ranks disobeying parents with murder, greed, gossip and homosexuality. There’s no room for anyone to condemn another’s sin as worse than his or her own.

    It seems to me that in this discussion we start with the assumption that all heterosexual behavior is moral and that the church only condemns homosexuals. This is inaccurate and unfortunate. Rape and pediphilia are both immoral and illegal. We all want rapists and pediphiles to choose not to act out their sexual orientation. And instinctively we all expect exclusive faithfulness from our spouses.

    The development of sexual orientations is far more complicated than a gene here and a brain formation there. There are environmental and relational factors too. We have very little idea how each person shapes his or her identity. But even with a complete understanding of the development of a person’s orientation, each of us has the responsibility to decide how we will act. Some good behaviors come naturally to many people — not killing those who irritate us, for example. Some behaviiors the Bible calls sin come naturally to us as well — disobeying our parents, for example. The point is if we chose to live according to the principles of the Bible, we will keep sexual activity between a husband and wife, even if it does not come naturally for us.

    • peddiebill says:

      I can accept that yours is a mainstream attitude and would be held by many in the Church. I am also hoping you understand that your view is built on an assumption that the Bible principles do not need rethinking in a modern society where I happen to think science , psychology, sociological understandings and frankly new situations should inform our debate. If you read my article on bioethics you will note that there I am arguing that the general biblical principles must be rethought as new elements are brought into the situation. I recently read a criticism of an earlier Pope for his views on birth control. It went something like “You no playa da game, you no maka da rules” As a heterosexual I am cautious about telling homosexuals how they would be happiest living. It seems to me that we might do well to remember that imposing rules for those born with different make-up and born into different circumstances is not strictly in line with doing unto others as they would do unto you. Well – truthfully – would you be quite relaxed in allowing homosexuals to tell you that you must do as they do?
      Remember of course that the purpose of my site is to encourage thought and I appreciate your thoughtful reply. I will also be interested to see if others agree. Regards Bill

  2. TheFlyingOrc says:

    I certainly agree that careful thinking is needed on the issue, however, a few disagreements with your post –
    1. Let’s not pretend that the only verses that appear condemning of homosexuality are in the old testament. Paul addresses the issue several times. I have seen decent arguments that he was referring only to the practice of homosexual prostitution, and I find they have merit outside of Paul’s talk of unnatural desires in Romans 1. Romans 1 seems really clear cut unless you twist the language a lot.

    2. Whether or not something is your natural orientation is completely irrelevant to whether or not it is sinful. See Romans 9, where he says “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? ” I have, personally, many desires that I would find completely “natural” but are wrong – if a thing is only a sin when it isn’t the natural thing for you to do, then one can easily argue that nothing is sin.

    3. Either way, more progressive Christians need to declare war on the fervent hatred towards someone for having homosexual urges. There is no biblical ground for saying that a person is wrong for feeling temptation to sin. There can be contention about whether we should condemn homosexuality in practice, but to condemn the person who feels but does not act? Nonsense.

    • peddiebill says:

      I am puzzled that you think I was pretending that the only passages were in the Old Testament. Just for the record I am aware of the Old Testament Story of Lot (in Genesis 19) where Lot protects his angel visitors from non-consensual rape by offering his two daughters to the crowd instead for non consensual rape. (Which I would have thought is hardly guidance for desirable behaviour today). Leviticus 18:22 is clearer. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” The writer of Leviticus was definitely against it. (Of course the word abomination is not necessarily the same as an outright sin since other Old Testament Writers use the same expression “to’abhah” for other antisocial activities like eating with Egyptians (Genesis43:32), sacrificing imperfect animals Deutreronomy 17:11(which I am not in the habit of doing – although our three legged cat annoys me from time to time), using unjust measures Deuteronomy 25:13 and having haughty eyes Proverbs 6:16. Leviticus 20:13 actually proscribes the death penalty to homosexuality (along of course with a whole raft of other crimes like adultery, incest, sorcery, witchcraft, idolatry and cursing one’s parents.
      In the New Testament Romans 1:18-32 Paul condemns those who are heterosexuals who have turned to idols and homosexuality, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 there is homosexuality along with quite a list (including the haughty eyes example )
      The two examples in 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 7 appear to be referring to male prostitutes (ie the Greek words used) 2nd Peter 2:10 is more concerned with defiling passion which is a bit ambiguous.
      As it happens (and somewhat inconveniently for those amongst the gay bashers), the love between two men is frequently extolled. For example check out 1 Samuel 20:17, John 21:15-19,John 20:20
      But there is actually a more subtle question. If Paul, with presumably a less than perfect knowledge of the science of the human body, and certainly no knowledge of our different culture today with its very different set of social needs, says that something is wrong, does it need to stay that way when we now know different stuff. Paul thought having slaves was OK. I personally think it is wrong for today. Paul said women should not talk in Church. I see no reason in a changed society why they should not do so. Is your position that if Paul said something was a sin – nothing remains to say?

      • TheFlyingOrc says:

        “Is your position that if Paul said something was a sin – nothing remains to say?”

        Not at all, but it doesn’t mean we should whitewash it and discount it immediately because it fits with our society. Recall, in Paul’s time, saying that praying to idols was sin would be similarly received to saying today that homosexuality is sin.

        And I understand the arguments for all verses but the one in Romans – and I just simply disagree with the interpretation. Saying that Paul was attempting to say that homosexuality was only wrong for heterosexuals paints a very strange picture – a sin that is only wrong if you aren’t tempted to do it. Rather, it seems blatantly obvious that Paul’s use of unnatural refers to the act of homosexuality in itself being unnatural. It seems very odd that a first century audience would have the frame of mind to think in the more modern terms.

        Whether or not Paul’s proclamations are acceptable for all time, or rather to a specific audience, is a different discussion.

      • peddiebill says:

        I am still to be convinced that your telling me that Paul said something to be a sin means that I must accept his word for it for a very different age and time. If you are saying that you believe there is good reason to insist the homosexuality must remain a sin for our age, then you must share what the reason is. For example is the science discovery about some of the differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals off beam? Dont forget Paul was frequently invoked by the pro slavery people, backed up by the Church heirarchy but eventually even the Church leadership began to realise that times had changed.

  3. dave says:

    I was surprised to find the word ‘conform’ is found only once on this page. No one will debate that heterosexuals outnumber homosexuals; according to wikipedia, various studies range from only 2% to 13%. The debate is really about whether this subject matters. After all, no one will debate whether right handed people outnumber left handed people; according to wikipedia, various studies range from only 8% to 15%. The wikipedia article ‘Bias against left-handed people’ contains a rather ironic observation: ‘in 19th century Europe, homosexuals were referred to as “left-handed.”‘

    Most of the essay above describes how various churches around the world deal with this human anomaly. My concern is this might be just a tendency of the religious leaders to find some vague threat that they can defend their followers from, the ‘us vs them’ division. Any professed intolerance should be an immediate danger sign to everyone if it cannot be legitimately justified.

    From a very practical matter how does this matter? No one seems to claim the condition is contagious. Rape and pedophilia were mentioned by one of the commenters but both are irrelevant to this discussion. Any/every physical assault on another human being is morally unacceptable, regardless of how the assault is described. Verbal or emotional assaults (like bullying) are clearly more difficult to categorize.

    Human beings are apparently inherently monogamous as in a basic family unit of two adults, unlike our two closest genetic relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees. Most would agree that (regardless of sexual orientation) a unit of two adult partners seems the most common arrangement in most human communities over history (ignoring the oddities like the reputed hippie communes of the 1960’s). Bonobos have a peace loving community dominated by a senior female where there are no real partnerships while chimpanzees have a community dominated by an alpha male who maintains control of the group and his harem of females through intimidation and even violence. The human structure of monogamy supports labor specialization (why human beings took over the world!) since the acceptance of that family structure enables the adults to concentrate on serving the community when they do not have to fight to prevent others from taking their spouse and/or their children. This human tendency for pairing could be genetic.

    I take issue with one claim in the essay above, a comment about aberrant behavior in the animal kingdom being rejected. The book Good Natured by Frans de Waal relates several stories among primates, along with the comment these observations may not apply across the animal kingdom but perhaps only within the most intelligent creatures like primates. A rhesus monkey was born with a chromosomal abnormality, apparently similar to Down syndrome in humans. A Japanese macaque was born with the symptoms of cerebral palsy. Several monkeys have been observed to be born blind. A baboon was observed to have an epileptic seizure. The critical quote (page 52): ‘instead of being torn to pieces or abandoned as a useless community member, the disabled individual receives extra tolerance, vigilance, and care.’ The most intelligent social creatures in nature seem to possess empathy; it is not limited to humans.

    When each person finds a partner that willingly shares their lifestyle, whether that be a love of bird watching, NASCAR racing, raising a family, or anything/everything in between, there is no apparent problem for the community. A problem arises only when someone in the community takes offense at any non-conformity.

    The vitality of any human community is enhanced through its diversity. Who would tolerate living in a community where everyone was the same, where total conformance was critical? Conformance has its place in rules of behavior (like stealing property, respecting privacy, traffic control) but there must be limits to those rules when they cannot be justified. If everyone in a community likes country music and a new family likes rock music, has a critical threshold been crossed? The behaviors to beware are those that are damaging to individuals or the community, whether physically or emotionally or morally. The prejudice against homosexuality is based on none of these threats but instead seems based only on the professed need for conformity.

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks for this Dave – good points.
      There is one issue where we have been reading different literature and that is on whether or not animals reject on recognisable differences. For example :”Social rejection, exclusion, and shunning among the Gombe chimpanzees”
      a paper by Jane Goodall, who you may be aware is probably the most prominent of the ape observers talks in this paper about a number of cases where she observed rejections (Including the rejection of 2 apes who had contracted polio) I can provide many more references if you like on the same topic and I have observed similar with dogs and birds myself. I wasn’t making it up!
      However you are definitely helping advance the discussion and hopefully others will be stimulated to take it further.

      Cheers Bill

      • dave says:

        I hope I did not suggest the wrong impression that primates never reject another. The violent, merciless behavior observed in chimpanzees can be rather disturbing – but ‘good’ qualities also exist. The Frans de Waal book I mentioned actually references Jane Goodall and the polio cases among the Gombe chimpanzees (page 84): ‘it is one of many examples of the absense of compassion and mercy in a species in which at other times these very same qualities seem incipient.’ The book I mentioned is an investigation into the morality in other animals and I was perhaps highlighting some observations for the point being made here. The book contains a brief story (page 147) from Goodall’s 1986 book The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior, where an aging mother was too tired to climb the tree but one of her adult daughters grabbed two fruits, came down, and the two ate them together. That story is related to the topic here only because it reflects chimpanzees are capable of recognizing another at a disadvantage and dealing with it in a compassionate manner.

        Varying levels of empathy are observed in other animals, just as can be observed in people. In the case of people, I suspect everyone has an inherent capacity for empathy but that can be somewhat suppressed by insufficient nurturing or perhaps other ongoing conditions like poverty or persecution. When someone is insecure (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), their capacity for compassion is typically impacted.

        When a group of people are under attack they will circle the wagons and defend together with an intense commitment. That part of our nature (the us vs them threat) can be manipulated.

        The Defense of Marriage Act (recently declared unconstitutional) put into law prejudice and intolerance. I find no substantial difference between this ‘defense’ and any legislation against interracial marriage.

        I thought the references to compassion observed in other animals could serve a point. It is relatively rare in other animals because when an animal expends extra effort for another having a disadvantage, the first pays a social cost. Sometimes like during combat between tribes it is actually dangerous. Also for many primates grooming has both hygenic and social purposes. By grooming another, that can be reciprocated later and actually it becomes part of the pecking order (those at the top of the social ladder might be groomed more often). The time and effort dealing with one that is disabled takes away from those other interactions so a penalty exists.

        Similarly there can be a potential social cost when people deal with the issue of homosexuals. While there is a vocal minority pushing their intolerance, those seeking tolerance can be harassed by that minority, or in other words they pay a social cost. If that cost is too high then the tolerance can be successfully suppressed.

  4. Bill Peddie says:

    This is helpful to advancing the discussion. Perhaps the recent problems in law relating to civil unions is merely reflecting that prejudice is very hard to combat, and if a good percentage have intractable views on the subject, a democratic system finds it hard to legislate without recognising those views.

  5. David Poultney says:

    Thank you for this essay Bill. The strength of feeling this topic generates is still surprising to me at times. Unfortunately those of us at the centre of this debate, Gay and Lesbian Christians – especially those of us in ministry, carry a significant burden. Sometimes too heavy a burden for mere flesh and blood.
    Thank you for your citation of neurological research; now I know why I cannot read a map!
    Seriously though I want to say that sexuality is not simply about sexual acts. Sexuality is part and parcel of our affective self, how we are and how we relate. Healthy sexuality is not simply a matter of who does what and to whom but a matter of the completeness and integrity of a person.

    • peddiebill says:

      Good point David. Of course sexuality is part of the whole person. But here is a thought. Perhaps prejudice is as well, particularly if is deeply embedded, reinforced by culture and even partly biological in origin. Perhaps this is why there is unexpected strength of feeling, and why it wont go away even in the face of cool logic and reason.

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