In every generation, the church is faced with a certain test-case, a certain issue which is the clearest barometer of the conviction and biblical commitment of the people of God. The church in Germany, for example, faced this sort of question with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. Today, the church in America faces a secular regime of unrestrained moral revisionism, especially on the issue of homosexuality.
In 1997, the historian Paul Berman made an interesting argument in A Tale of Two Utopias. Looking back at what he called “the gay awakening,” he said this: “We seem to be hearing: ‘There are no marshals today–not on the question of heterosexuality versus homosexuality. On that most crucial and personal of questions, you, each and every one of you, are responsible for yourselves.’ We are hearing: ‘Concerning homosexuality, it is forbidden anymore to forbid.’” Then as now, the general moral principle regarding the issue of homosexuality that rules in the larger culture is this–It is forbidden to forbid. Today, that principle can be applied to almost every dimension of life. It is forbidden to forbid–except in the areas ruled by political correctness. For it is not forbidden to forbid when it comes to the sex codes adopted by so many colleges and universities. That aside, it is forbidden to forbid that which the historic Christian faith has opposed.
The issue of homosexuality is currently the most heated front in the culture war. Homosexual activist groups are pressing for the identification of homosexual men and lesbians as a special class which is granted protections under civil rights legislation. Moreover, it is now commonplace to find homosexual and homoerotic literature in public libraries, and even now in some public schools. The normalization of homosexuality is becoming a social fact.
The larger secular academy has for the most part capitulated to the homosexual movement. Gay studies programs are now a growth industry in academic culture. The mainstream media portray homosexuality in a positive light, and the GLAAD organization (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) publishes an annual roster of how many homosexual characters are presented in primetime television. That used to be a very short list, but it has grown to be a very long one as network television has pushed the envelope further and further.
Even the older Protestant mainline denominations are currently debating homosexuality, with attention currently focused on the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the ministry and the equivalence of homosexual unions with heterosexual covenantal marriage.
How did this happen? The origins of the homosexual movement as a major cultural force can be traced to the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Manhattan. It was there that the civil rights impetus of the 1960s and the moral radicalism of the far Left coalesced in the identification of homosexuals as a people group denied legal rights and thus deserving of particular protections. The patrons of the Stonewall Bar launched a movement that would become the inaugural symbol of the gay liberation struggle.
What followed has been a measured and strategic effort to win the legitimization of homosexuality, to promote homosexual themes in the media, and to receive special entitlements as a legally protected class. Furthermore, the movement has pressed for specific public policy goals such as the removal of all anti-sodomy laws, the recognition of homosexual partnership as being on par with heterosexual marriage, anti-discrimination laws, and the removal of all barriers to homosexuals in the military, the academy, business, and the churches.
In order to pursue these goals, the homosexual movement has organized itself as a liberation struggle. Based on an ideology of liberation from oppression drawn from Marxism, the intention has been to identify with other liberation movements, including the Civil Rights movement, the feminist agenda, and others. But the goal is not the mere legitimatization of homosexual activity, or even the mere recognition of homosexual relationships. Rather, their goal is the creation of a public homosexual culture within the American mainstream. This movement is a stark challenge to all sectors of the society. It is the driving engine of a social revolution which is now well underway in American life and which affects everything from the family to the state itself.
An evangelical perspective must recognize that such a revolution is itself a direct challenge to the foundations of gender, family, sexuality, and morality, which are some of the central issues of a Christian worldview lived out in the world. Thus, this is a challenge evangelicals cannot fail to meet with both courage and grace.
The homosexual movement did not spring from a vacuum. Indeed, this challenge has emerged from within the context of a culture shift which has transformed Western societies during the twentieth century. The term “culture shift” points to a pattern of fundamental changes which shapes every level of social and cultural life. A culture shift is nothing less than a fundamental re-ordering of the entire society from top to bottom–ideologies, worldviews, morality, and patterns of knowledge. The culture shift from modernity to postmodernity has affected every community’s understanding of meaning. More importantly, it has radically reordered how Americans consider the issue of truth itself.
If nothing else, the last half of the twentieth century has demonstrated that the left wing of the Enlightenment has finally won the day. Whereas most pre-Enlightenment persons understood truth to be an objective reality to which they must submit, modern Americans view truth as a private commodity to be shaped, accepted, or rejected in accord with personal preference, taste, or communal decision. Americans are now a nation of over 250 million moral relativists. The vast majority reject the very notion of absolute truth and consider all matters of faith and morality to be no more than expressions of private preference. It is not that we believe something to be true, but that we believe something to be true for us.
This all-embracing, undiluted individualism underlies our current cultural confusion. The progressive shift in the locus of truth and the locus of authority from the Christian worldview to the state, to the mass market and eventually to the isolated individual, leaves the American public unarmed for authentic moral discourse.
An opening came for the homosexual movement in a shift which Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School calls the transfer to “rights talk.” At some point in the last thirty or forty years, the American civic discourse changed from a matter of debate over right and wrong to a debate over rights–my rights, our rights, your rights, and their rights. According to this perspective, it is not only the right, but fundamentally the responsibility of every self-defined interest group to claim its rights and to exercise those rights in the public square.
“Rights talk” is a fundamental shift in the way a society envisions its own order, its own priorities, and what issues are genuinely at stake. As a result we really can not talk anymore about ordering a society in terms of a category like “righteousness,” a word the nation’s Founders used rather naturally.
As the church confronts moral issues, it must quickly determine the relative importance of these issues as each relates to biblical revelation and the core truths of the Christian faith. One of the problems is that the church often does not know the difference between saying that something is unimportant and saying that it is of less importance. Our moral debate is very often clouded by such confusions, and when the world listens to us from the outside it often seems as if we believe every issue is of the same moral weight.
In traditional Christian moral theory there has been an understanding that there is a hierarchy of goods and a hierarchy of issues. The closer one gets to the most basic issues of life, as revealed in Scripture, the more important the moral issue of debate. That of course raises the question, “Where in a hierarchy of goods does the issue of homosexuality fall?”
There is no moral issue more fundamental than our sexual ordering, our gendered identity–the role of men and women and the institution marriage. Thus, the issue of homosexuality is a first order theological issue. Unfortunately, even that is a matter of debate among moral theologians. Some simply do not accept that it is a first order issue, but it most certainly is, because fundamental truths, essential to the Christian faith, are at stake in this confrontation. These truths range from basic issues of theism to biblical authority, the nature of human beings, God’s purpose in creation, sin, salvation, sanctification and, by extension, the entire body of divinity. To put this case bluntly, if the claims advanced by the homosexual movement are true and valid, the entire system of Christian faith is compromised, and some essential doctrines will fall.
Lest this be seen as an overstatement, consider the issue of biblical authority and inspiration. If the claims of the revisionist interpreters are valid, then the very basis of biblical inspiration is invalidated. But the challenge is yet deeper, for if, as the revisionist interpreters claim, Holy Scripture can be so wrong and so misdirected on this issue to which it speaks so unambiguously, then the entire evangelical paradigm of biblical authority will not stand.
The church is called to confront the challenge of homosexuality with both compassion and truth. Even as Christians confront this task, maturity and moral seriousness will require that we understand the fundamental importance of this question. The challenge of homosexuality is not merely a matter of cultural and political debate–it is a matter of urgent theological significance.