On Homosexuality and the Conscience: Responding to Criticisms
I’ve managed to provoke a wide range of responses and emotions in my recent post on homosexual behavior and the human conscience. The response isn’t altogether surprising. It’s representative of the climate and world we live in. As many evangelical leaders have pointed out, we’re at the point now where there’s no longer any dispassionate position on homosexuality. You can mention it once in 20 years like Louie Gigglio, or you can be a former homosexual who only sings and preaches the grace of Christ like Donnie McClurkin, and you will find yourself vilified for opposing this behavior. It’s a time for God’s people to be full of grace and truth, sacrificing neither and proclaiming both.
I’m now in southern Africa, where internet connections and data speed are at great premium. So I’m trying to respond to some of the issues raised in the comments thread before disappearing from social media for about two weeks. I don’t want anyone to think I’ve shouted “fire!” in a crowded theater only to run away without giving an account. But this will have to briefly suffice before beginning ministry here in Africa.
The Original Argument in Brief
Since a number of people misrepresented or misinterpreted me and my post, I thought it would be helpful to state the argument in brief. No one commented on the lengthy discussion of how the rhetorical campaign for “gay rights” developed. Rather, most everyone focused on my call to speak in ways that address the human conscience. Here’s an outline of the thinking in that section:
1. The world suppresses the knowledge of God and righteousness (conscience) in unrighteousness. That’s the plain argument of Romans 1:18-32. Specific to our discussion, Romans 1 describes homosexuality as a shameful leaving of the natural use of the body and is the only NT passage that addresses lesbian behavior in the same way.
2. This suppressed, weakened, and distorted conscience means at least three things. First, such a person who suppresses the truth in unrighteousness does not know God and part of the judgment of God being revealed is the “giving them over to a reprobate mind” or distorted conscience (Rom. 1:18, 24, 26, 28). Second, the world’s suppression of the conscience means conversations about homosexuality need to return to first principle questions about sexual behavior that awaken or challenge the conscience so that people would not be lost. Third, without these first principle consciousness-raising questions, public debates about homosexuality, “gay marriage,” sex education curriculum, and so on will be based on secondary factors (at best) or be dishonest in its comments on the sexual behaviors in question (at worst). Without real discussion of the behaviors in question we’re in danger of enacting public policy that may be either amoral or immoral.
3. It is a Christian duty, especially as pastors, preachers, evangelists and counselors, to awaken the conscience so that both the ugliness of sin and the beauty of redemption in Christ may be seen and hopefully responded to in repentance and faith. No man with a dead conscience can live to God. If we want to see our family, friends, neighbors and coworkers saved in Christ, our ministry to them must necessarily include comments on sin that awaken their particular need and conscience.
The Criticisms Offered
In the lengthy comments thread that followed, a range of criticisms were offered. I’ve grouped them into four broad categories that I hope sufficiently capture the replies.
1. Pragmatic Critique: Speaking of sexual acts in the way I propose is likely to be ineffective in awakening the conscience or winning people over.
2. Critique of Conscience: Some people’s conscience will not find homosexual behavior objectionable, so preferences, tastes or “disgust” will not establish any agreed upon morality.
3. Hypocrisy Critique: Some people indicated that heterosexuals engage in the same sexual behaviors in greater numbers than homosexuals. They suggested that the sexual behaviors in question could not be wrong since heterosexuals practice them or that my argument against those behaviors amounts to hypocrisy.
4. Ad Hominems: Some people did not respond to the argument but attacked me instead. In their view, simply writing the things I wrote in the post demonstrates that I am “mean-spirited,” “bigoted” and “oppressive” toward people with same-sex attraction.
My Responses to the Objections
1. Pragmatic Critique. Perhaps it is true that what I recommend would be ineffective. But two things ought to be noticed in the resultant exchange.
First, I never offered these questions about sexual behavior as an end or a final statement but as a beginning to conversation and a return to first principles. I fully agree with all those who say appeals to conscience are not enough to carry the day. Fully agree. But I stand by my contention that the entire debate at a minimum (there’s much more involved to be certain) involves some public statement about the moral goodness and rightness of the acts themselves. For at minimum that’s what we’re being asked to “accept” or “approve” in all these debates. So, we ought not define morality without actually discussing the specific acts involved. We wouldn’t adopt any public policy without due consideration of the morality it enshrines. Who, for example, could pronounce prisoner interrogations “moral” without discussion of specific interrogation practices like waterboarding, torture, solitary confinement, and the like? Can we decide if our wars are just without some moral reflection on the use of drones? Certainly not. The same is true of debates regarding homosexuality.
Second, we ought not miss the fact that the substantial part of the comments thread did in fact focus on sexual behavior and its morality. Folks showed up on both sides of the issue and made their case. That’s the first order debate to have. That’s the debate that precedes and frames any subsequent debate about benefits, rights, and protections. Those who said this “will not work” ought to consider whether significant parts of the comments thread don’t prove that it can and does work.
2. Insufficient Conscience Critique: It is true that not everyone goes “yuck” at the description of the sexual acts in question. I regret using “gag reflex” as shorthand for the conscience’s reaction. I regret it for two reasons. First, though I contend abhorrence is one legitimate reaction of the conscience, it is not the only reaction. Second, using that colloquial expression was too liable to be misunderstood, misused and hurtful. Some people intentionally misused my words, falsely saying I called people “disgusting.” I did no such thing. But I do see how such a loosely defined and provocative term can be hurtful—not only to my cause, but more importantly to people. For writing in this way, I offer my sincerest apology to every reader, not just those hurt.
Here’s what I need to say regarding the conscience’s reactions now. First, reactions of conscience are not equivalent to taste preferences as some contended. Reactions of conscience involve moral reasoning while matters of taste may be little more than amoral preferences or signals from taste buds. Second, reactions of conscience may vary, just as some correctly pointed out. There is repulsion, but there is also guilt, shame, and approval among others. This is why I completely agree that these reactions cannot themselves establish morality. But they do, if we’re sensitive to conscience, call us to investigate moral questions, which was my basic point.
Let me use an example. A virgin wife on her wedding night and a 15-year old girl may both feel deep shame with their first sexual encounter. This is not uncommon. Shame, a reaction of the conscience, suggests to them something morally wrong has happened. But are they both wrong? What is “wrong” in their cases? Should they even feel shame? Is the conscience working properly? A host of moral questions arise. The teenager, perhaps under relentless pressure from a slightly older boyfriend, might feel both legitimate and illegitimate shame. She has willingly committed sexual sin, thus some of her shame is legitimate. But some of her shame feelings may be illegitimate because she shoulders guilt that rightly belongs to the boyfriend. The wife’s shame may be entirely illegitimate given her sexual acts occurred in the proper bounds of marriage. Perhaps she had an upbringing that made all sex and talk of sex taboo. But she has not, in fact, done anything wrong and need not feel shame. Her conscience needs to be informed by better moral reasoning—moral reasoning best grounded in Scripture.
In the comment thread, it seems to me that nearly everyone’s conscience reacted to those explicit descriptions used in the last post. Some were repulsed at the descriptions. Some reacted with “moral outrage” that I would ever write such things. But the fact that we had different and strong moral reactions illustrates the need to have first principle discussions. It also reveals that the consciences of some (you decide who) need to be informed morally. But if we cannot raise and answer these moral questions then it’s likely we’re being merely political in our concern or we’re afraid we can’t answer the questions credibly enough to move from visceral reactions of conscience (pro or con) to defensible moral positions that the entire public must adopt and protect no matter their own private conscience. Once again, this is what the public debate about homosexuality is at least about: what is moral and whose morality should be enshrined in public policy and practice for all to obey. We’re not simply creating space for people to do what they do in private quarters; we’re debating whether it should be the law and morality of the land.
3. Hypocrisy: Straight people do it, too. Frankly, I think sexual confusion in fallen culture is widespread. It’s even widespread in the church. And sometimes where the church is clearest morally and biblically, it still experiences methodological confusion when it comes to engaging a sexually confused world. Even when we’re clear about some moral issue, we do not automatically “get it right” when we engage actual persons who are still fighting or experiencing that confusion.
But just as we don’t want to base public morality on “gut reactions” alone, so we don’t want to base public morality on the prevalence of a behavior. In citing these things as practices in heterosexual relationships, we’re only giving evidence of how widespread sexual confusion is and how weak the conscience is in such matters. If these practices are wrong, they are wrong among heterosexuals, too. Nothing in my post should be interpreted as saying heterosexuals as a rule have their sexual lives in moral order. The evidence is much to the contrary and it raises its own moral questions, too.
But, there’s a tremendously important difference to note between heterosexuals and homosexuals who practice these things. Heterosexuals are not insisting that anyone treat their private practice as public policy. In the debate about homosexual behavior, it seems many of our gay neighbors want to say simultaneously, “Stay out of my bedroom” and “Make our acts acceptable and normal.” That, in my opinion, is where the hypocrisy occurs in this debate. Holding that these behaviors are private while insisting on their public acceptance amounts to either a glaring inconsistency, hypocrisy, or politics. And once again, we cannot and should not establish public morality on so incomplete and potentially dishonest a basis.
4. Personal Attack: “Thabiti, you’re a mean bigot.” I trust everyone sees that such statements are not arguments at all. It’s a personal attack. It barely deserves answering, except that these statements reveal other important realities about where the debate stands in the culture.
First, some want to “win” this discussion by bullying. Most of these folks chose not to answer the basic question—a question that could be answered in as little as two letters. Instead, they chose to try personal attacks. We see this kind of thing all around us—from Gigglio to McClurkin to the disgraceful and evil acts of violence and bullying committed against people with same-sex attraction. I condemn it all as unworthy of people made in God’s image. Nowadays, many of the victims have become the bullies and many well-meaning supporters have joined them in their bullying and prejudice. Without question Christians have blown it and acted sinfully in our encounter with homosexuals. But let’s not pretend it doesn’t happen both ways, and let’s not be so “morally outraged” we become what we say we hate. Let’s condemn this kind of behavior everywhere we find it.
Second, such statements should never come from Christians. I found reading vitriol from brothers and sisters both ironic and sad. Many of my brethren claimed they would be like Jesus in their love for persons with same-sex attraction (completely right and commendable) while they spewed invective in the public sphere. We all have inconsistencies in our walks with Christ and are growing by His grace in conformity to His character. But before we launch into personal attack, we should remember that Jesus never reviled in return (1 Pet. 2:23) and taught the disciples to turn the other cheek when mistreated. If we emulate Jesus in His love, we ought also emulate Him in His patient perseverance of mistreatment.
Third and finally, it seems to me the charge of bigotry and the like aims primarily to shut down debate and silence opposition with social stigma and epithets. So we need to ask ourselves: What does it mean for a “free and democratic society” to systematically silence the voice of dissent? It means we’re in danger of no longer being “free” or truly “democratic.” Those will be far bigger losses than any gains in homosexual rights can justify. For if we lose those things, we lose the very weapon for gaining and ensuring rights themselves. We have to have this debate in a manner that upholds our best ideals and ensures genuine participation from all.
That’s longer than I intended, but I wanted to give some attention to these four categories of critique. I hope it’s helpful in some way. Because I don’t have internet access in order to moderate and respond to comments, I ask two things. If you comment, please keep it civil and respectful. Disagreement—even strong disagreement—has always been welcomed on this blog and it is welcome now. But let’s disagree without being disagreeable. Also, if you comment, please be patient in awaiting any reply from me. I’m not ignoring you. I’m just not able to access an internet connection in reliable and timely ways.
One last thing. The views and opinions expressed on this blog are mine. They do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of any other blogger at TGC, of any member of the council of TGC, or of TGC as a whole. I write this to make it clear that if you find this problematic, the blame is my own. Direct them to me. The efforts of some to smear TGC are both unnecessary and uncharitable.
The Lord bless us all and grant us the light of His glory and grace.