God's Judgment on Heterosexuality and the Church's Caring Response
|by Tobias S. Haller, BSG
The church is faced today with a pastoral problem of significant gravity. It has become more and more apparent that many heterosexuals have come to consider themselves to be faithful members of the church, while committing acts at variance with the church's solemn teaching. The problem is far from new; both the Scriptural witness, and the unbroken tradition of the church attest to the ongoing nature of this tragic discontinuity. The matter has only come to the renewed attention of the church in recent years due to the efforts by some heterosexuals who seek not only to defend but to justify their behavior.
Origins in Creation
The inability of heterosexuals to form lasting, stable relationships has long been noted. A survey of the biblical material provides a sad witness to this inability -- and one explanation for its source -- in God's judgment upon Adam and Eve. This judgment provides a climax to the creation account in Genesis (3.16) and may therefore be taken as substantive testimony to God's eternal plan for humanity. This passage explains the tragic inability of heterosexuals to work together as equals: the female is cursed by being placed under male rule, rather than coexisting as the full and equal partner that a healthy and life-giving relationship requires. This divinely mandated order or hierarchy -- which has institutionalized a veritable "civil war of the sexes" -- fosters the incapacity for mutuality that renders stable heterosexual relationships nearly impossible -- a fitting punishment for the failure to act in obedience to the God who welcomed his creatures into a relationship based on mutual trust and responsibility.
The rest of the biblical material portrays the unfortunate consequence of this constitutional incapacity. Even the patriarch Abraham, who in all other respects was a model of fidelity, was willing to deny his wife and turn her over as a potential concubine. (Gen. 12.13) The overwhelming majority of heterosexual relationships portrayed in Scripture are devoid of any appearance of human care, affection, mutuality, concern, or love. Few of the heterosexual relationships that do evince a degree of personal commitment are monogamous. For example, Elkanah shows real fondness for his barren wife Hannah, but not enough to refrain from having a second wife to bear him children. One is hard pressed to find even a handful of faithful, loving, lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual relationships in the whole of Scripture.
We must remember, however, that God's power is perfected in weakness. The people of Israel departed from the true path time and again, yet were capable of repentance and redemption. So too, God will be patient with erring heterosexuals who repent of their sinful behavior and return to God. The analogy between Israel's corporate misbehavior and the personal behavior of heterosexuals is firmly and dramatically linked in Scripture: heterosexual adultery and prostitution are types of idolatry on Israel's part throughout the prophetic and poetic literature, so much so that at times it is difficult to determine if the acts under condemnation are cultic or sexual in nature. The heterosexual activity (real or figurative) is almost always paired with a call to repentance, and an offer of divine forgiveness. A striking example of this in the New Testament is Jesus' forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery. The Lord forgives her, while making it clear he considers her behavior to be "sin." This is one of the few times the Gospel directly and specifically designates any behavior by the title of "sin." Indeed, of all specific individual acts identified in the Gospel as "sin," half are heterosexual in nature; the others relate to the denial and betrayal of Jesus himself. It is a sign of God's great mercy that the former sins are forgiven while the latter are retained: this fact should serve as a reminder of the gravity of heterosexual sin in God's eyes as well as God's patience with the sinner.
Disease and the other consequences of heterosexual acts
It is incumbent upon the church to avoid suggesting that the high frequency of infant mortality, death in childbirth (which until the introduction of antiseptic procedures was common worldwide), and sexually transmitted disease represent in some way God's specific punishment of individual heterosexuals for their sinful behavior. All human beings share in common mortality, fall prey to disease throughout their lives, and ultimately suffer death. Disease and death may therefore be seen as a tragic consequence of Original Sin rather than of the particular sins of any individual or group.
However, we would be negligent in our task were we to fail to note the biblical witness on this matter. The "knowledge" of good and evil that results from tasting the fruit of the forbidden tree is intimately linked with the shame in nakedness that leads to the effort to conceal the secondary sexual characteristics that distinguish heterosexuals. The taking of the fruit of knowledge leads almost immediately to Adam's first heterosexual experience after the Fall, in which he "knows" his wife. The Fall also results in God's double curse upon Eve: sexual longing for her husband coupled with submission to his domination, rendering a mature love based on equality virtually impossible.
In God's judgment upon Eve, travail in childbirth is singled out as a means to punish womankind for having led mankind astray (Gen. 3.16). It is true that this judgment is partially deferred in the Deuteropauline literature, where it is promised that a woman believer will be "brought safely through childbirth"; that is, a woman's faith will preserve her through this difficult trial, her faith serving as a balance to Eve's primal infidelity. (1 Tim. 2.12-15) Finally, though we refrain from making any direct connection at this point, it must also be acknowledged that at least one instance of child mortality is explicitly related to heterosexual sin: the death of the child born of the illicit heterosexual liaison between David and Uriah the Hittite's wife. (2 Sam 12.14)
Thus procreation, while necessary for the continuance of the human species, is forever tinged with shame, imbalance, and danger as a result of the actions of the first heterosexuals. Heterosexuality is shot through-and-through with mortality, and in the New Testament becomes a type for the world that is passing away. Jesus affirms, in Luke 20.34-35, that heterosexuality -- "marrying and giving in marriage" -- belong to this age, and that those who are worthy of a share in the life of the world to come do not become entangled in the snares of this sort of behavior. While the church has not gone so far as to take Jesus literally at his word on this point, a degree of caution is nonetheless prudent. Jesus' preference for and counsel to celibacy is both a choice and a sign of the Kingdom in which heterosexuality will cease to exist, and, in his words, those worthy of resurrection will be like angels, freed from the mortality for which heterosexual procreation was the remedy. (Luke 20.36)
Moreover, it would be irresponsible of the church not to warn heterosexuals of the dire medical consequences their behavior might cause. When medical conditions (childbed fever, sexually transmitted disease, ectopic pregnancy, cervical cancer, and so on) can clearly and directly be linked with a preventable form of behavior the church is obliged to provide at least warning and counsel to avoid such acts, if possible.
Relevance of biblical material
Many today would argue that the injunctions placed upon heterosexual contact in the Law of Moses are no longer relevant to a discussion of heterosexuality. We must point out, however, the general ritual opprobrium attached to heterosexual acts. All heterosexual acts render both parties unclean at any time, due to emission of semen (Lev 15.18), and abominable at other times, due to contact with menstrual blood. (Lev 15.24, 20.18) The continued fervent condemnation of the latter abomination in the prophetic literature (Ezek. 18.5-13; 22.10), and in church tradition down through the ages (e.g., the Didascalia, Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Thomas Aquinas) warrants our caution in discarding the Mosaic material as simply "cultural baggage."
Heterosexual Behavior vs. the Heterosexual Condition
Some argue that while heterosexual behavior is sinful, the heterosexual condition is not, and that heterosexuals are capable of leading normal, full, and happy lives within the moral framework determined by the church.
While this is to a large extent an accurate understanding, the church must also warn of the dangers of sin at the level of volition that precedes action. Both the Old and New Testaments warn of the insidious nature of such heterosexual sin. The Tenth Commandment (Exod 20.17) clearly places the mental act of coveting one's neighbor's wife in the same moral universe as outright adultery. Jesus repeats and emphasizes this connection in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5.28). Given this Scriptural witness it is difficult to see that heterosexual inclination is in any way less culpable than heterosexual action, unless involuntary and immediately rejected by an exercise of the will and moral judgment. Such an understanding must rule as sinful, therefore, all pornographic or semi-pornographic material so widely available in our society. (The latter includes much advertising that appears, at first, to be completely unrelated to heterosexuality, but uses a heterosexual subtext in order to market a product.)
The church may be informed, if not guided, by the findings of science on this issue. However, the scientific community is not yet in full agreement as to the etiology of heterosexuality, or the treatment of its more egregious manifestations. While it appears that heterosexual behavior is to a large extent genetically conditioned, and early environmental factors play a significant part in its development -- for neither of which an individual could be held responsible -- still the possibility to refuse to engage in heterosexual acts is always available to the adult person capable of exercising reasonable and free choice. Despite the intensity of the heterosexual inclination, the exercise of the will and moral judgment can assist all but the most clinically unstable heterosexual from committing acts judged to be immoral by the church. Because of this, there can be no question about the position the church must take when dealing with unrepentant, avowed, overt and open heterosexuals who not only commit such acts, but go so far as to brag about the number of their sexual liaisons (many of them made through contacts in such sordid institutions as "singles bars"). The danger to the young -- quite apart from the risk of becoming objects of predatory heterosexuals, and perhaps by this means being recruited to their ranks -- is multiplied by the bad example heterosexuals might present if their behavior were to be mistakenly considered worthy of emulation. For this reason, any toleration of heterosexuals or heterosexuality must be examined with great care and precise clarity, lest the wrong message be sent to our young people, who represent the future of the church and society.
The marriage of heterosexuals
Given the statistics on infidelity, divorce, abortion, rape, the abuse of spouses and the predatory assault upon children by heterosexuals, it would appear that few heterosexuals are capable of the fundamental, mutual self-giving required to support a lifelong, committed relationship. The biblical material on this matter is again unambiguous. When Jesus told the disciples that the only permissible exercise of heterosexual behavior was within the context of a lifelong, faithful, monogamous marriage, his disciples exclaimed that it was impossible. Jesus went on to assert that while not impossible, it was a supernatural gift only a few could be expected to accept. (Matt. 19.10-11)
The Pauline material does not forbid heterosexual marriage, but certainly does not encourage it. Paul's preferential option is for abstinence. Paul spent much of his ministry dealing with the weaknesses of heterosexuals in the early church, counseling them, if at all possible, to avoid entering marriages he knew few of them would be able to sustain, yet allowing it for those unable to control themselves. (1 Cor 7) At the same time, Paul warned against any heterosexual activity outside marriage. Clearly this creates a pastoral dilemma for the church, and an opportunity to exercise forgiveness for those incapable --through no fault other than the constitutional weakness that afflicts so many heterosexuals -- of achieving the highest standards of Christian behavior.
The ordination of heterosexuals
The question of the ordination of active heterosexuals is not a new one. While it appears that some apostles were married (Mark 1.30), Paul clearly regards the practice with unconcealed condescension. (1 Cor 9.5) The Deuteropauline material relents slightly, and allows bishops to be married "only once." (1 Tim. 3.2) The early church allowed married persons to be ordained, except those who had gone so far to marry twice, even after being widowed; and any ordained person who sought to marry was deposed. It was soon found that stricter regulation of heterosexual tendencies was required, and the catholic church, in its wisdom, determined within a few centuries of its institutional life that bishops (and in the West, all clergy) should permanently abstain from all heterosexual activity. Since the Reformation, some churches have decided once again to permit avowed, open and active heterosexuals to serve as ministers, often with disastrous consequences, as the natural tendency toward infidelity and instability evinced by so many heterosexuals emerges in socially and morally inappropriate ways.
The heterosexual agenda
Even considering the church's call to forgiveness and understanding, it would be highly inappropriate to support the so-called "heterosexual agenda" in the secular arena. The church was, to a certain extent, taken unawares when the greatest victory of the heterosexual special interest group was achieved: the liberalization of divorce laws in many parts of the world. Similarly, heterosexual lobbyists have been hard at work mounting efforts to decriminalize heterosexual acts still forbidden by statute in many states, to lower the age of consent for sexual activity between persons of the opposite sex, and to legalize prostitution and the distribution of pornography. Heterosexuals are also fervent in their efforts to retain the special rights that they have managed to secure, rights not afforded to other citizens.
The heterosexual lobby operates politically, but a more insidious influence may well be through the disproportionate heterosexual representation in the entertainment field and in the media. Heterosexuals hold tight control over almost every communications medium, and the proportion of content favorable to heterosexuality is overwhelming. Scarcely a television program or film is released to the public without at least one major heterosexual character, often the hero or heroine, and the effects of this culture-war are already becoming evident in moves towards greater toleration of heterosexual excesses. A sign of the influence of the heterosexual movement is the growing use of the term "straight" to describe heterosexuals. This novel meaning given to a perfectly ordinary word is an example of the attempt to "mainstream" the heterosexual lifestyle, and it is fundamentally misleading -- relationships as intricate, complicated and twisted as those of most heterosexuals would scarcely be called "straight" in the ordinary sense of the word.
The church and the heterosexual
The church is not only competent to forgive the moral error involved in heterosexual acts, it is also able to appeal to the state for mercy and some consideration of the broken condition of the heterosexual offender. The church should model its behavior on Christ, who while acknowledging the sinfulness of the woman taken in adultery, enjoined the crowd to remit the punishment justly due to her. However, it would be improper for the church to seek completely to prevent the exercise of secular law, which may serve--if not as a corrective--at least as a warning of the consequences of immorality.
After all is said and done, we continue to affirm that heterosexuals, despite the sinfulness of their behavior, are children of God, and worthy of our care and pastoral concern. They are more to be pitied than censured. With the pastoral care and counsel of the church, firm in its resolve that there will be no outcasts, they may grow to that "full stature of mature manhood in Christ" promised to all faithful believers.
Promulgated by the Sacred Congregation for the Defense of What I Say is True Because I Say It
Copyright © 1994, 1996 T. S. Haller, BSG
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