10 May 2007

Public Dialogue on
Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality
and Pastoral Care
organised by Safehaven, a ministry of the Free Community Church

by Yap Kim Hao

Let me at the outset indicate the rationale for my perspective on homosexuality.

I can do no better than to quote from an official statement of The United Methodist Church in the United States that considers homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teachings and I am a Methodist. Yet it is this same Church that recognizes its "limited understanding of this complex gift and encourages the medical, theological, and social science disciplines to combine in a determined effort to understand human sexuality more completely. We call the Church to take the leadership role in bringing together these disciplines to address this most complex issue."

My approach is therefore a multi-disciplinary one.

Firstly, I will raise some general observations about the teaching of the Bible itself.

I quote a former colleague of mine when I was teaching at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Victor Paul Furnish, a distinguished Professor of New Testament who wrote: "Homosexuality is not a prominent Biblical concern. The earliest ethical codes of the Hebrews makes no mention of homosexual behavior. There is nothing about it in the Ten Commandments. The four Gospels record no saying of Jesus on the subject. The texts that are discussed are few and far between and not even all of these are pertinent."

But what do we see in many Churches in different parts of the world today? Homosexuality has become a major issue, much more serious than doctrine or church order. It is projected to split the Episcopal Church in the United States as well as the world-wide Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury who is personally gay-affirming, has to recognize the current teaching of the Anglican Communion which is against homosexuality.

As Christians refer to this common source of the Bible, those who are anti-gay are quick to say that the Bible says so and then close the Book. And the controversial issue of homosexuality is no longer discussed. The teaching of the Bible leads to the teaching of the Church which then becomes official, and obedience is demanded. The different perspectives arise from the differing interpretation of the words of the Bible and the teachings of the Church and its pronouncements change as we gain more knowledge and insights.

My view is that the different books of the Bible are time bound, historically related, culturally conditioned and contextually based. They are related to the time and place of the recorded events. They reflect the society and the culture at the time the books of the Bible were written. The revelation of God is mediated and translated by inspired human beings who are not infallible. We have to account for the relevancy of the teaching to our contemporary context.

The various books of the Bible are the products of writers who claim to have received the revelation from God, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, put it in writing. Their different interpretations resulted in the changing official teaching of the Church and the varying perspectives of Biblical scholars and theologians. This process continues and we have today come together to share our different perspectives and though we differ, we are expected to respect our differences.

The teaching of the Church must necessarily be continuously changing. Take for instance human relationships, we have moved from the predominantly patriarchal to more equality between men and women. In reference to health we are attributing disease not to spirit possession but to bacteria and viruses. In terms of geography even the flat earth has been rounded into a spherical one. Our world-view is ever changing.

With this as background, the Biblical view of sexual relationships is that heterosexuals who engage in same-sex acts are sinful. The Biblical writers regard all men as heterosexual and in condemning same-sex acts, they see it as men exchanging their male role to that of an inferior role of women. At that time, they were not able to distinguish between those whom we now identify as homosexual, from the heterosexual. Their view was that of heterosexuals engaging in same-sex sexual acts.

The Biblical texts that explicitly talk about same-sex acts are few in number. The brief references are related to laws of purity, holiness, temple rituals and to the Greco-Roman culture and pagan worship. There were temple prostitutes, male prostitution and pederasty (mentoring and sex with young call-boys). Jesus did not deal with same-sex relations in His teaching although he had much to say about sex, love, marriage and divorce. Homosexuality in terms of sexual orientation and long-term committed relationships as we understand them today was not discussed and not even a term used at that time.

It was much later that the term "homosexual" was used. Homosexuality as a term was introduced in 1869. It first appeared in newer translations of the Bible - Revised Standard Version in 1946 and in New International Version in 1978. Homosexuality is not originally a Biblical word.

Other terms like 'heterosexual, ' 'bisexual,' and 'transgendered' presuppose an understanding of human sexuality that was possible only with modern psychology and sociological analysis. The ancient writers were operating without the faintest idea of what we have learned to call 'sexual orientation' .

Let us look more closely at some of the Biblical records related to sexuality and how they show varying perspectives.

The law of Moses allowed for man to divorce his wife on account of some "indecency" in her. (Deuteronomy 24:1); Jesus categorically forbids it and will not man "put asunder" those united in marriage. (Mark 10:1-12); Jesus was also said to have sanctioned divorce on the condition of "unchastity. " (Matthew 9:9). Yet many Christians, in clear violation of a command of Jesus are divorced and for other reasons.

Divorced people are allowed baptism, church membership, communion, ordination and re-marriage but this has not always been the case for homosexuals. What makes the one so much greater a sin than the other, especially considering the fact that Jesus never even mentioned homosexuality but explicitly condemned divorce? Yet we ordain divorcees. Why not homosexuals?

Take the issue of sex itself. It began with sex only for procreation which the early Christian theologians agree. When it serves to satisfy lust it is regarded as venial sin. Augustine in the fifth century said that we should mature as early as possible to the point when we can dispense with sexual intercourse.

However, the Old Testament regarded celibacy as abnormal and we are to be fruitful and multiply. And 1 Timothy 4:1-3 calls compulsory celibacy a heresy. Yet the Catholic Church has made celibacy mandatory for priests and nuns. Some Christian anti-gay demand celibacy of homosexuals, whether they have a vocation for celibacy or not. Some anti-gay people condone sexual orientation but condemn homosexual acts. Some gay and lesbians like heterosexuals have chosen to live a life of single blessedness.

Leviticus 21 discussed how priests need to be morally, and even physically unblemished and must meet the requirements of the purity laws at that time. Today most of these purity laws are being ignored.

Far from being a Book full of bad news for gays and lesbians, I believe the Bible is indeed full of good news of God's love for all of creation - gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight alike. The Bible has no clear and consistent sex ethic and only knows a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores, moral codes or church teachings are dominant in any given country, culture, or period. There is also the emphasis on grace rather than on law.

The medical sciences today acknowledge homosexuality as a sexual orientation, not a medical, psychological or psychiatric condition that can be changed therapeutically.

It is on record that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders in 1973. In 1975 it then released a public statement that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. In 1994, two decades later, the APA categorically said, "... homosexuality is neither a mental illness nor a moral depravity. It is the way a portion of the population expresses human love and sexuality".

The American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and other major groups of medical, educational, and counseling professionals have concluded that there exists, as yet, no scientific basis for the contention that so-called reparative, reorientation, or conversion therapies can successfully change a person's orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The prevailing view among therapists is that gay and lesbian patients should be helped to improve their self-esteem and to overcome the continuing stigmatization of homosexuality in many societies. However reparative therapies are being endorsed by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which represents a minority of psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other practitioners, and by some religions.

Recently MM Lee Kuan Yew was widely quoted on this issue: "If in fact it is true, and I have asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual -- because that's the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes -- you can't help it," he said in remarks published by The Straits Times.

"So why should we criminalize it?" Lee asked.

"But there is such a strong inhibition, in all societies -- Christianity, Islam, even the Hindu (and) Chinese societies. And we are now confronted with a persisting aberration. But is it an aberration? It's a genetic variation."

Homosexuality is not an aberration, tendency, or inclination. It is a genetic or biological variation. It is an orientation.

We must admit that we do not know for certain the causes of homosexuality. This concluding statement in an article of causes best summarizes the situation:

"Perhaps there is no one answer, that sexual orientation, whether homosexual or heterosexual; gay, straight, lesbian, or bisexual, all are a cause of a complex interaction between environmental, cognitive, and anatomical factors, shaping the individual at an early age."

Given this medical perspective on homosexuality how do I minister to GLBT people? Within the larger framework of my understanding of the love of God for all of God's people and my reading of Christian ethics relating to justice and concern for the marginalized and minorities, I can only affirm and accept the GLBT community and render my service to them in whatever way that is helpful.

From my perspective, homosexuality is within the purpose of God in creation. There is a continuum of sexual relationships from heterosexualilty to homosexuality. God has made it possible for each individual to be unique and different and I affirm the diversity in God's creation. Homosexuality is a given and not a choice.

In my experience of pastoral care to the gay community, I feel their pain and agony when they first became aware of their attraction to people of the same sex. Their experience is that it is not a phase that will go away. In the solitariness of their closets they struggle and pray. Most gay people know from painful personal experience that their homosexual inclination is definitely not a deliberate choice. Who would in their right mind choose to be gay when they know they will be relegated to a despised minority. On the contrary, they choose to wear masks and pretend to be straight. Yet opponents of gay rights choose to disregard these personal experiences and continue to portray homosexuality as a sinful choice that should be criminalised.

We are aware that the gay community has the responsibility to change the perception that the gay lifestyle is hedonistic and promiscuous. The straights have the problem of pursuing a hedonistic and promiscuous lifestyle as well. The distinctive difference rests on having sexual intercourse with the same or opposite sex.

As I come alongside them, I sense their silent pain, I see their falling tears, I hear their aching hearts. Today I feel their rising hope for they are receiving affirmation, recovering dignity and restoring pride to be gay.

They are hearing and believing what Victor Paul Furnish said: "It accords with the most fundamental witness of Scripture that one's sexuality is to be received as a good gift of God. Moreover, this gift is to be expressed in ways that manifest the grace of God - for there is not variance in the reality of God's love, which graces and claims us, whatever the particularities of our own time and place. As for sexual relationships, God's love can find clear expression only where the partners are fully committed and faithful to one another."

Homosexuality is therefore a gift from God to be accepted. It is not a result of human sin or the fallen nature because of Adam. We all have, by the grace of God, to live out the purposes of God, straight or gay, for we are all created by God.