Sex and Saints

[Christianity Today, April 3, 2000]

What do you think about homosexuality? Why do you think it?

Whatever your answer, you’re probably in there: “What Christians Think about Homosexuality: Six Representative Viewpoints.” In his book, Larry Holben presents six different ways that Christians look at the homosexual condition, and critiques each from the point of view of the others. It’s the perfect volume for people trying to understand what others believe.

You have met Holben’s work before; he was the screenwriter for the very intelligent 1979 film about the Holocaust and Corrie Ten Boom, “The Hiding Place.” This book shows similar intelligence, beginning with its organization. The six positions are given labels their adherents might apply: Condemnation, A Promise of Healing, A Call to Costly Discipleship, Pastoral Accommodation, Affirmation, and Liberation. Each position is then asked the same twelve questions, such as, “What is the God-given intent or design for human sexuality?” and “Is there a homosexual ‘condition’ (orientation) and, if so, what is its cause or origin?” Throughout, Holben tactfully withholds his own opinion: “Why should my judgement carry more weight than that of the many advocates of the various viewpoints I have quoted?”

The foundational question (and Holben’s first) is, “What is the ultimate authority upon which any moral judgement regarding homosexuals and/or homosexual acts is to be based?” Who says what’s right? If we say “the Bible,” how do we handle scholarship offering new interpretations of texts? If it’s “by their lives you shall know them,” is homosexuality vindicated by adherents who show kindness, gentleness, and charity? Does God’s call for justice include homosexuals, and does that call overrule sexual moral laws?

Who says? Holben’s personal opinion is that Christians should “accept responsibility for thinking theologically about the major issues…we cannot leave serious moral reflection to the clergy or professional scholars…” Though rejecting “well-meaning assertive ignorance,” Holben would encourage informed laity to wrestle through to their own conclusions.

Though I admire Holben and his work, and recommend this book to anyone studying the range of current opinion, I disagree with this advice. I have more skepticism about the ability of people to think through to unbiased conclusions, less trust in individual wisdom, less confidence in fallen human reason. Though it’s our culture’s presumption that individuals must devise their own moral code according to their own sincere convictions, I don’t think that’s a workable plan.

Though it’s the prevalent moral advice, “Think for yourself” is a delusion. It isn’t possible to think for yourself, in a vacuum removed from outside influences, fashion, and your own desires. Everyone lives in a specific age, and it seeps into consciousness, affecting nearly every thought. We assume we’re thinking for ourselves when we agree with whatever Oprah and the New York Times are saying.

Alternatively, we can revolt against anything espoused by prevailing opinion, and become trapped in mere reaction. Suspicious conservatives keep an eye on whatever Hollywood or the evil media propose, and then sing the old Groucho Marx tune, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” But this is as constrained and un-free as slavishly following fashion. Opinion may be a two-way street, but it’s still flat. The terms, style, and even topics of debate have been pre-set, and some concepts are simply not even visible.

When it comes to moral issues, our age provides no categories except rights and justice, oppression and victim-speak. Sexual issues are illuminated only by the bare-bulb glare of banal, compulsory, politicized sexual practice. These issues are seen in genitally reductionist and strangely solitary terms, as if sexual identity is something achieved by a talented soloist, rather than requiring intimate union as a basic condition.

It’s futile to defend historic morality in these flat, politicized categories. Many Christians long to celebrate purity rather than nag about code infractions, but lack a public vocabulary to do so; “purity” and “chastity” have become empty vessels. We ourselves barely understand what purity is, and what it meant to Christians before us.

A few years back I read a lengthy collection of lives of the saints, and gradually realized that they all, from the first century till midway through the twentieth, shared a common view of the body. Distressingly, it was a view I could barely grasp. It was as if they could see a distant mountain peak that was to me just a blur. Elements I could discern included joy and serenity, and the invigorating challenge of self-control. Homosexuality was viewed as a matter-of-fact impediment, one example among many, and not an object of special loathing. Instead, they were looking in the other direction, toward something they greatly desired: chastity, a shining object of joy. I could hear themes of the walled garden and of keeping oneself pure, even at the cost of death.

But my own garden I have not kept. Living in an oversexualized culture, I can barely comprehend purity. It is as if the borders of my garden are trampled and destroyed, and I can only walk the edges and imagine what God meant to be there, and what older brothers and sisters in the faith so readily saw and loved.

A narrow-focus fight against homosexuality, couched in bible proof-texts, misses the point. We need to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the beauty of chastity, and we can begin by admitting that it is something we only dimly understand. Rather than trying to think for ourselves, we should listen to others — listen to the community of faith before us, around the world and through time. They knew something we didn’t know.

We live in a reckless age, amnesiac and self-fascinated. Welding together fresh opinions in the basement will not solve this problem. We need to take the time to listen to the wisdom of our forebears in faith — and, harder still, need to find the courage to put it into practice. If they are right, in the practice of chastity we will begin to experience a healing joy. Then, perhaps, we’ll find the words for it.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Christian LifeMarriage and Family