Few modern concepts have been as influential as the psychosocial construct of sexual orientation. The concept is now firmly rooted in the national consciousness, and many Americans consider the concept to be thoroughly based in credible scientific research.
The concept of sexual orientation was an intentional–and quite successful–attempt to redefine the debate over homosexuality from same-gender sexual acts to homosexual identity. That is, from what homosexuals do to who homosexuals are.
Yet, this concept is actually of quite recent vintage. In fact, even within the past decade, the more common concept employed by the Homosexual Movement was sexual preference. The reason for the shift was clear. The use of the term “preference” implied a voluntary choice. The clinical category of orientation was more useful in public arguments.
The very notion of homosexuals as a category of persons constituted by sexual identity is a recent invention. The biblical revisionists cited [in yesterday’s commentary] were correct when they asserted that the Apostle Paul knew nothing of the category of sexual orientation. The concept is rooted in late nineteenth-century efforts to apply psychological categories to sexual behavior. As Marjorie Rosenberg writes: “From antiquity until perhaps a century ago, choice was presumed to govern sexual behavior. But in the late 19th century, with burgeoning medical science as midwife, a new kind of creature was born–‘the homosexual’–his entire identity based upon his sexual preference.”
The argument would now be that homosexuals exist as a special class or category–a “third sex” alongside heterosexual men and women. As Maggie Gallagher notes: “We have not always been so woefully dependent upon the sexual act itself. Two hundred years ago, for example, homosexuality did not exist. There was sodomy, of course, and buggery, and fornication and adultery and other sexual sins, but none of these forbidden acts fundamentally altered the sexual landscape. A man who committed sodomy may have lost his soul, but he did not lose his gender. He did not become a homosexual, a third sex. That was the invention of the nineteenth-century imagination.”
The new notion of sexual identity, later sexual preference, now sexual orientation, has pervasively shaped the current cultural debate. This was the ideological wedge used to force the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders in 1973. It is still the most effective tactical concept employed in the debate.
The politically useful concept of orientation is thus a trophy of the “triumph of the therapeutic,” which has seen psychosocial arguments seize the popular consciousness.
Evangelicals must not allow this category to frame the debate. The construct of orientation has no sound basis in science, and even its most vociferous proponents are divided along multiple lines of pseudo-scientific reasoning. If the idea of orientation is based in reality, then what is the causation? Biological destiny? Genetic factors? Cultural conditioning? Parental influence? Environmental factors?
No adequate scientific data exists to prove any one of these–or any combination thereof–as the source of homosexual orientation. It is important to note that the hypothesis preceded any scientific “proof,” and yet is has been accepted as virtually self-evident. Evangelicals must reject the category as a therapeutic construct employed for ideological and political ends.
While it is not necessary for evangelicals to resist all scientific research, science is often enslaved to ideological agendas, as has been evident in some scientists’ recent claims to have established a genetic basis for homosexuality. Evangelicals tend to overreact to such reports, some accepting the claims at face value and others running scared as if science could overthrow the moral structure by genetic research. Neither response is proper. Evangelicals should look critically at such research, and “debunk” its unsubstantiated claims.
Yet we must avoid the overreaction which implies that such research–even if verified to the satisfaction of all–would subvert God’s command. The Christian understanding of sexual morality is not based on scientific grounds, and it is not open to scientific interrogation or investigation. Scientists cannot discover anything which can call into question the authority of God’s command.
A genetic basis–unlikely in the extreme–would, if objectively established, not carry great theological import. A genetic link may be established for any number of behaviors and patterns, but this does not diminish the moral significance of those acts nor the responsibility of the individual. Genetic links have been claimed for everything from diabetes and alcoholism to patterns of watching television.
But something more is needed. Evangelicals must reject the therapeutic construct, and yet point to a biblical model. I believe that the lack of a mature biblical model for understanding homosexuality has diminished our ability to sustain a consistent moral argument in an adversary culture. We must continue to bear faithful witness to the clear biblical injunctions concerning homosexual acts–that such acts are not only inherently sinful, but also an abomination before the Lord.
But the evangelical approach must be far more comprehensive, for the Bible is itself more comprehensive in approach. Scripture does not address mere homosexual acts; it also provides a basis for understanding the implications of homosexuality for the family, society, and the Church.
First, as Romans 1 makes absolutely clear, homosexuality is an act of unbelief. As Paul writes, the wrath of God is revealed against all those “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” God has implanted all humanity with the knowledge of the Creator, and all are without excuse. As Paul continued: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason, God gave them over to degrading passions; for the women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” [Romans 1:22-27]
The broader context of Paul’s rejection of homosexuality is clear: Homosexuality is a rebellion against God’s sovereign intention in creation, a gross perversion of God’s good and perfect plan for His created order. What Paul makes clear is that homosexuality is a dramatic sign of rebellion against God and His intention. Those about whom Paul writes have worshipped the creature rather than the Creator. Thus, men and women have forfeited the natural complementarity of God’s intention for heterosexual marriage and have turned to members of their own sex, burning with a desire which in itself is degrading and dishonorable.
The logical progression in Romans 1 is undeniable. Paul shifts immediately from his description of rebellion against God as Creator to an identification of homosexuality–among both men and women–as the first and most evident sign of a society upon which God has turned His judgment.
Essential to understanding this reality in theological perspective is a recognition of homosexuality as an assault upon the integrity of creation and God’s intention in creating human beings in two distinct and complementary genders.
Here the confessing Church runs counter to the spirits of the age. Even to raise the issue of gender is to offend those who wish to eradicate any gender distinctions, arguing that these are merely “socially constructed realities,” vestiges of patriarchal past.
Scripture will not allow this attempt to deny the structures of creation. Romans 1 must be read in light of Genesis 1 and 2. As Genesis 1:27 makes apparent, God intended from the beginning to create human beings in two genders–“male and female He created them.” Both man and woman were created in the image of God. They were distinct, and yet inseparably linked by God’s design. The genders were different, and the distinction transcended mere physical differences, but the man recognized in the woman “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” [Genesis 2:23].
The bond between man and woman was marriage. Immediately following the creation of man and woman come the instructive words: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” [Genesis 2:24-25].
The text does not stop with the mere creation of woman. Rather, God’s creative intention is further revealed in the cleaving of man to the woman (“his wife”) and their new identity as “one flesh.” This biblical assertion, which no revisionist exegesis can deconstruct, clearly places marriage and sexual relations within God’s creative act and design.
Few theologians have given this critical issue its due attention. Indeed, throughout the history of the church, this pattern was seen as axiomatic and unquestioned. Only in the modern period, when social experimentation and radical protest movements have sought to push a wide-scale rejection of this pattern, has the issue come to light.
Significantly, it is Karl Barth who has most seriously addressed this biblical pattern of gender complementarity. Writing in 1928, Barth asserted: “What do we really know about the male and female except that the male could not be a man without the female nor the female without the male, that the male cannot belong to himself without also belonging to the female and vice-versa?”
The male and female only have meaning in relation to the other. Barth refers to Genesis 2:25, and suggests that the man and the woman saw each other naked and were not ashamed, “Because the maleness of the male and the femaleness of the female rightly become an object of shame….only when the male and female in their maleness and femaleness seek to belong to themselves and not to each other.”
Horribly confused, Barth asserted, the sexes turn inward to an “ideal of a masculinity free from woman and a femininity free from man.” This false ideal, which is a rejection of the Creator and His command, culminates in “the corrupt emotional and finally physical desire in which–in a sexual union which is not and cannot be genuine–man thinks that he must seek and can find in man, and woman in woman, a substitute for the despised partner.”
Barth, writing in the first decades of the twentieth century, saw the coming challenge. His response remains prophetic, but it was unfinished. Carl F. H. Henry, perhaps the most significant figure in the development of evangelical theology in the last half-century, rightly rejected Barth’s extra-biblical theorizing and “fanciful exegesis” of the relation between sexual issues and the imago dei. Nonetheless, he agreed on this essential point: “The plurality of human existence is not optional; man cannot properly be man without speaking of male and female.”
The revolt against this divinely established order is one of the most important developments of this century, and it looms as one of the defining issues of the cultural revolution. Evangelicals must lay bare this assault upon creation, and yet do so in a way which is tied inextricably to biblical foundations, and not to cultural assumptions, however comfortable they may seem to secular society.