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The Church and Homosexuality

By The Rev. Dr. Christopher Hershman (Licensed Psychologist and ELCA pastor in Allentown, PA)

Document: 2004

This New Year brings with it increased pressure from the ELCA leadership to push for key changes regarding policies on sexual morality. Most opponents of this up-and-coming ideology are simply good faithful Lutheran folk who still read and study the Bible.

A Different Gospel

St. Ambrose, fourth century Bishop of Milan, wrote that there are three expressions of chastity: marriage (between one man and one woman, of course), widowhood and virginity. There isn't a fourth option unless the entire theology of the church become deconstructed and converted into a "different gospel, which really is no gospel" (Galatians 1:6-7)

The "different gospel"of this ideology argues that the "gospel" means that these teachings of Scripture no longer really matter. It is based entirely upon internal feelings and sinful lust. It is disconnected from the scriptures and the teachings of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Consider the tome now circulating in the ELCA, written by retired bishops Chilstrom and Erdahl. As a psychologist whose specialty is marriage and family therapy, I found this book to be poor in quality because it consisted only of revisionist opinion without any serious biblical or even psychological substantiation.

A Better Book

Christian folks may wish to read more helpful and informative books on the subject. One such is the extremely helpful book written by Presbyterian biblical scholar, Robert Gagnon, The Bible and the Homosexual Practice. Another is, The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground, by Merton Strommen, Ph.D. He is both an ELCA pastor and a licensed psychologist with a doctoral degree in research and educational psychology.

Strommen's book should be required reading for everyone trying to make sense of the current sexuality crisis in the church. It consists of just 91 pages and costs only $9.95. Those pages are packed with well-documented and helpful data, easy to both read and digest. For example: studies on the prevalence of a same- sex orientation do not support the claim that 7-10 percent are homosexual. Instead, researches which have utilized the largest sample (several thousand randomly selected participants) indicate that about one percent of the population identified themselves as engaging in same sex behavior. Other studies with smaller sample (several hundred randomly selected participants) indicate about 2.8 percent.

Further: there are no studies indicating that there is a genetic or biological determination of same-sex orientation or behavior. Instead, many factors are involved. At least 88 studies indicate that many individuals can change from a same sex to heterosexual orientation.

The Push Is On

Expectedly, attempts to normalize same sex behavior in society through increased acceptance does actually result in marked increases of the incidence of a same sex orientation. For, as is commonly known, children and adolescents go through a same sex phase (around age 9-14) which has nothing whatsoever to do with ultimate adult sexual orientation. But if teenagers are invited to consider that they may have a same sex orientation, they may be inclined to explore this orientation and find their identity through it.

Large numbers of those engaging in same sex behavior are promiscuous. It is not uncommon for some gay men to have as many as 1000 sex partners per year, most of them anonymous contacts. The average "long term" same sex relationship lasts less than three years. Research indicates that sexual behavior of a high percentage of individuals with a same sex orientation radically differs from that of heterosexuals and heterosexual couples, who tend to be faithful to just one spouse.

Those engaging in same sex behavior are more prone to mental illness, physical disease and a much lower life expectancy — by about 30 years — from the general population.

Professional Experiences

A number of professional associations, like the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association have removed the "Homosexual Diagnosis," suggesting that homoxexual behavior is a mental disorder, and have set their current policies on the basis of political pressure rather than any scientific data. A number of these points made by Strommen resonate with both my own parish experience and clinical practice.

I myself quit the APA several years ago because I concluded it was more of a political lobby than a scientific association. Thus several years ago APA policy suggested that women do not have adverse psychological effects after having an abortion. To the contrary, a number of psychologists explained in a discussion on our Pennsylvania Psychological Association internet that they had patients who in fact experienced guilt for many years after having an abortion, They demanded to see the data the APA ruled on to make such a pronouncement. Of course, it had none. Ultimately, it was admitted that it had made a political decision to further a particular social agenda.

I have also had numerous gay and lesbian clients and worked with a number of cases where school guidance counselors and other counseling professionals have immediately suggested to parents that they needed simply to accept that their child was "gay" or "lesbian" if their child had been involved in any same sex activity, or even simply looked at pornographic web sites on the internet!

A major argument favored by Chilstrom is the assumption that if a same sex orientation is not a matter of choosing, then it must be a gift of God and accepted by the church as both "natural" and a "gift." Unfortunately, this perspective conflicts with both Christian theology and psychology.

The Christian Perspective

Christians believe that all people are sinners. Article II of our Augsburg Confession states:

"It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers' wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit. Rejected in this connection are the Pelagians and others who deny that original sin is sin, for they hold that natural man is made righteous by his own powers, thus disparaging the sufferings and merit of Christ."

Consequently, as with every other kind of sin — wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slanderer, God-hating, insolence, arrogance, boasting, disobeying parents, being senseless, faithless, heartless or ruthless (Romans 1:28-31) — all human beings are drawn to sin. St. Paul reminds us that not only do we continue to do these very things, but we also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32).

Sin is to be taken seriously. God's law convicts us of sin and drives us to grace. It is not proper for Christians to teach that sin is not sin. So a Churchwide Assembly does not have the authority to change biblical teachings. Instead of affirming sin, Scripture calls Christians to repent (i.e., change directions) and live a new life.

Alcoholics may argue they have a biological, genetic or even a spiritual "disease," and do not choose to be alcoholics. But while we may accept the individual, as well as have empathy toward the alcoholic, responsible therapists would not suggest that alcoholics should continue drinking. Individuals suffering from Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and most other psychological disorders, may also and rightly argue that there could be a biochemical or genetic component, as well as numerous other causes of their condition, but psychology does not generally build rationales to explain why change should not be attempted.

Why Keep the Christian View?

In his book, Strommen discusses the question whether the church should "adopt the gay agenda." He makes a number of salient points:

  1. More evidence than is now available would have to be found to justify setting aside the historic position of the Christian and Jewish faith communities and not the least, the conviction of today's Christian church throughout the world.
  2. The leaders responsible for such a change would need to explain why they oppose current programs and therapies that help homosexuals wishing to change their orientation.
  3. They would need to supply an explanation as to why they would be willing to introduce schism into the church.
  4. Pastors would need to explain to their people why passages on homosexuality in the New testament no longer have their traditional meaning.
  5. Pastors who adopt the assumptions that God has created some to be homosexuals, that this orientation is irreversible for some, and that it should be viewed as normal, would need to find a rationale for adopting as truth something which has not been established as true. The strongest evidence available today indicates that these assumptions are false.
  6. The church would need to accept responsibility for becoming a social factor that significantly influences persons, especially youth, toward a homosexual orientation.

Strommen's Research Conclusions

Strommen concudes, based on the research he has presented:

  1. The evidence from the Bible is this: homosexual behavior is not encouraged for God's people. The position paper of the German Lutheran Church states, "No biblical statements exist which place homosexuality in a positive relation to the will of God." The Bible identifies boundaries that have been established for our good as well as the good of children and families.
  2. There is no credible research evidence to establish homosexuality as an "innate, genetically determined aspect of the human body." Moreover, there is ample evidence that the orientation is reversible for some.
  3. The best explanation for the emergence of a homosexual orientation is that it is caused by many factors, most of which are outside of the control of the individuals involved. Therefore, people in the church, rather than discrediting or condemning homosexuals, should be the first to support ways of reaching out to them in love and making available help in bringing about change for those dissatisfied with their orientation.
  4. There are people who for unknown reasons cannot change their sexual orientation. They need to be accepted in the church either as people struggling with an unwanted orientation or as people fully satisfied with their orientation.
  5. As a church we need to join hands with those in the scientific community who are seeking to bring sense to this subject and who are seeking to discover the most successful ways of bringing about a reorientation. A ready resource is available in a considerable number of social scientists who do not agree with the political positions taken by their professional organization on the subject of homosexuality.
  6. Some homosexuals can change. The evidence is clear. The message should be made public so that persons struggling with this issue can know there is an option. They should know that there are effective secular and religious approaches to the healing of homosexuality.

Strommen calls for the church to seek a middle ground by making the following points:

  1. The church at all levels should continue clearly and forcefully to reject condemnation of homosexuals and acts of discrimination and injustice. Instead, we should be a welcoming church, inviting homosexuals to be a part of the fellowship of believers — both homosexuals who are dissatisfied with their orientation and those who are satisfied as is.
  2. The church should reject the gay agenda, which maintains that all homosexuals are born that way, that they can never change, that a gay lifestyle should be affirmed and encouraged as normal and desirable.
  3. Free discussion of the issues relating to homosexuality should be encouraged throughout the churches.
  4. The church should continue to study the Bible.
  5. The church should continue to hold up committed, heterosexual marriage as God's ideal (recognizing that singleness is also a God-pleasing calling).
  6. The church needs to be especially concerned for young people
  7. The church should be helping those dissatisfied with their homosexual orientation to seek change.
  8. The church ought to support and study research that seeks a greater understanding of homosexuality.

The Over-all Look

Having read Strommen's book, my impressions are very favorable. It is a helpful volume that should be widely read and discussed. I disagree with him however, on some matters, especially in light of the present political pressure being exerted upon the ELCA to accept fully the same-sex agenda. Strommen argues that the church should accept and encourage some individuals engaging in same sex behavior both to participate fully in the church and remain where they are, I believe this may be naive as well as both pastorally and theologically irresponsible.

I also sense that his initial starting point for arguing toward a "middle ground"is not generally reflective of the reality in which I live. We live in a time when there is much tolerance for just about everything and every behavior. Overt violence and discrimination towards individuals engaged in same sex behavior must clearly be held as inappropriate; yet at the same time, the agenda held by some individuals engaging in same sex behavior is likewise not appropriate. Congregations should indeed be welcoming to all sinful human beings. But those involved in same sex relationships should not be offered a special status in the church.

1. The Rev. Dr. Christopher Hershman, a Licensed Psychologist and ELCA pastor in Allentown, Pennsylvania, also edits Kairos_News from which this article is excerpted. Request an e-mail subscription to Kairos_News, at CNHERSHMAN@aol.comBack