Love the sinner, hate the sin. We are all familiar with the bludgeon this statement represents in Christian circles. It functions as a way to maintain one’s goodness and Christlikeness (supposedly!), while simultaneously condemning and persecuting those who find themselves drawn to live lives outside the constraints of heteronormativity in all its variations. The statement hardly needs to be deconstructed – it proves its own emptiness in relation to the way sexuality is understood as identity in the contemporary context. (There are Foucaultian reasons to be unhappy with this understanding of sexuality – one of the disciplinary functions of power on his account is the desire to find a name that will express one’s true identity – but we’ll save that for another day.)
Instead, I think we should consider a much more fundamental contradiction in the way Christian churches today speak and think about sexuality. In many mainline congregations in the US-European context, the debate has been framed around celibacy versus “practice” for persons identifying as gay and lesbian. Excluding the fringe ex-gay movement and its horrors, there are three typical positions that churches take up. One, celibate gays and lesbians may participate fully in church life. Two, married and monogamous gays and lesbians may participate fully in church life. Three, neither marriage nor monogamy are required for gays and lesbians (or anyone else) – the latter is perhaps not a frequent position for churches to take, at least officially, other than in the MCC. For most mainline denominations, the fault line lies between those who assert the ‘vocation’ of celibacy for gay and lesbian persons, and those who permit marriage.
A few examples: in this statement from 2003, the fundamental and crucial distinction is that Gene Robinson is “actively engaged in a homosexual relationship.” Since the statement conjoins extramarital and homosexual activity as forbidden, while praising heterosexual marriage as a sign of the “pristine union between God and His spotless Bride, the church.” (Again, we’ll leave a discussion of the theological significance of the nuptial metaphor for another day.) In 2010, while still Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams backed the ordination of gay bishops (at least in theory), but insisted on celibacy. In a statement from 2009, NT Wright made strong distinctions between active and inactive homosexuals by emphasizing “the distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other,” since (by implication) one can resist the ‘enactment’ of one’s inclinations. While these three examples come from Anglican contexts, similar statements can be found in many other Christian denominational contexts. These statements are usually accompanied by proof texts as well as an appeal to tradition emphasizing the unacceptability of same-sex genital contact.
Yet, as is well known, Jesus’ own statements on sexuality were few and far between. There’s that comment on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12), but there’s a different comment that he makes that utterly invalidates the distinction made in the kinds of statements above. This one is found in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NIV) So Jesus, at any rate, does not distinguish between inclination and desire and activity. Where, then, is the theological justification for the kinds of distinctions being drawn above between ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ gay and lesbian persons? More significantly yet, if we take the statement as writ, I suspect that very many heterosexually married male ordained persons ought to be defrocked immediately (since ‘sexual immorality’ is considered a disqualifying factor for ordination by the commentators above).
I point this out not in order to suggest that ordaining even celibate gays and lesbians ought to be a problem for Christians, but to point out that, at least based on Jesus’ own words, it may be that only those who identify as asexual who may be ‘qualified’ for ordination under these conditions, since they have not committed adultery. (Of course, one might also suggest that gay men and lesbians are not excluded either, since it’s only men looking at women who are specified in the language of the text.) Now, these moves are sarcastically intended, but I do think it might be worth calling those who oppose the full participation of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church to be consistent in their theologies of sexuality. Not committing ‘genital’ adultery is not enough, or even irrelevant for Jesus. (Note that the very next verse insists that “if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away,” a juxtaposition that might lead to some discomfort among people of many different sexual orientations if taken seriously.) So perhaps those of us who do not consider sexual orientation a relevant factor for church participation* ought to ask those who disagree with us to take the literal word of the Bible, indeed the words of Christ himself, a little more seriously than they now do.
* I do not use the terminology of inclusion. Inclusion always raises the question of who gets to include whom, and when deployed in this context, the implication is that an already-constituted Christian church consisting, presumably, of heterosexuals, gets to congratulate itself on its generosity in including gay and lesbian persons. This perpetuates rather than undoes the second-class status of gay and lesbian persons in Christian churches.
Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally titled: God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.