The Common Good
May-June 1999

Holding It Together

by Tony Campolo | May-June 1999

Peggy and Tony Campolo dialogue about the church and homosexuality.

Tony: The matter of homosexual rights is an issue that Christians cannot avoid. Not only has it been brought to the fore in the political arena, it is tearing apart every major denomination. Mark Noll of Wheaton College contends that evangelicalism has never defined itself in terms of theology, but always in terms of politics. Back in Civil War days, to be an evangelical was to be opposed to slavery. Today the two issues that define a person as an evangelical or not are probably homosexual rights and abortion.

I believe that the Bible does not allow for same-gender sexual intercourse or marriage. Peggy believes that within the framework of evangelical Christianity, monogamous gay marriages are permissible. Each of us is an evangelical with a high view of scripture. We believe in the doctrines outlined in the Apostles Creed, and know that to be a Christian is to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Peggy and I choose to publicly express our differences on the issue of homosexuality because we have a message that is more important than anything we say in words: We know it is possible for people who love each other to differ intensely over this crucial issue and not separate.

My analysis of homosexuality began back when I was a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania from 1965 to 1975. During a particular research project, I interviewed more than 300 gay men and found not one who had chosen to be homosexual. Furthermore, my research led me to believe that nobody knows what causes homosexuality. Some, especially in the religious community, claim to know, but most social scientists say they don’t know. Some experts say that a variety of factors interact to create the homosexual orientation. For the 300 men I interviewed, the imprinting of the orientation occurred so early in their psycho-social development that none could remember ever making a choice. Yet I often hear Christian preachers say that homosexuals have decided to be other than as God intended them to be.

God can do anything, but the fact is, in this imperfect world, most homosexuals probably are going to remain homosexual. We need to pray for them, encourage them, and stand by them, and call Christian homosexuals to a Christian lifestyle. I call them to celibacy because I believe the Bible demands that.

Peggy: The scripture passages used to demand celibacy of homosexual people are not valid arguments. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, the prohibitions against homosexuality are part of the purity code (what we now call kosher laws) rather than the moral law. When Christ came, these purity codes were set aside. We no longer live kosher as our Orthodox Jewish friends do. One cannot pick out certain verses and say that those rules still apply, while ignoring verses like those prohibiting the wearing of two kinds of cloth at the same time.

In l Corinthians 6:9, the word arsenokoitai has been translated as homosexuality, but scholars are not sure what it means. Up until the 14th century, it was often translated as masturbation. 1 Timothy 1:10 refers not to homosexuality in general, but to a particular practice in which young boys were castrated in order to maintain their feminine or child-like characteristics for the purposes of sexual exploitation. It cannot be applied to the concept of two consenting adults entering into a committed relationship.

Tony: For the most part, I would agree with Peggy on those passages, but Romans 1:26-27 makes it clear that any homosexual sexual activity is contrary to what the Bible allows.

We can argue over this interpretation or that interpretation, but we must take the church very seriously. The fellowship of believers called the church of Jesus Christ has stood from the time of Christ to the present day, and I believe it speaks with authority. For almost 2,000 years, the church has read Romans 1 in a particular way. People who knew the Apostle Paul personally have written about what Paul meant when he wrote those verses.

Peggy: Paul wrote Romans in the city of Corinth where the prevailing religion was the worship of Aphrodite, a hermaphrodite with both male and female sexual organs. In the worship of Aphrodite, people played the role of the opposite gender, engaging in sexual orgies with same-sex prostitutes who were available in the temple. It was against these orgies that Paul wrote in the first chapter of Romans. Romans 1 cannot be applied to relationships created by loving homosexual partners who are making a lifetime monogamous commitment to each other.

Some say that those who believe as I do are stretching Romans 1 to agree with our own a priori beliefs, that it is arrogant to declare that 1,900 years of church history and tradition are in error. I would remind these people that many of those years of church tradition supported an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12 that disallowed women from church leadership.

My own journey to Jesus and my ministry of advocacy began when I was 9 years old and my entire Sunday School class accepted the pastor’s invitation to accept Jesus, be baptized, and join the church. Because I didn’t want to be "different," I "accepted" a Jesus I did not know and developed a great talent for giving answers that created false impressions, even as I carefully chose truthful words. That is part of living in a closet, as my gay brothers and lesbian sisters know only too well.

In high school, I had a friend named Tom. He was a comfortable friend. I didn’t worry about what I wore, how I looked, or the way what I said might come out when I was with Tom. He liked me, and I can still remember how good that felt at a time when I was not always sure I liked myself. Tom was a listening ear, a sympathetic heart, and a kindred spirit.

One day some of the boys walking past our lockers upset Tom, taunting him in funny, high voices. We tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, but I felt afraid and sad and I knew Tom did, too. And then there were jokes and innuendoes, and people told me Tom was queer. I wanted to stand up for Tom, but back then I didn’t stand up for anything. I was too afraid of being an outcast myself. Only after Jesus became real to me did I find that it was Jesus I needed to give me courage.

MANY YEARS AGO, my husband and I first went to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to go whale watching. We knew that the charming village on the tip of Cape Cod was a mecca for lesbians and gays. I expected to ignore that, enjoy the whales, and go home. But I fell in love with P-town, and the people I met there changed my life. There’s an acceptance in Provincetown that makes Tony and me feel special. So when I consider that most of the people I meet there, especially the couples, would not be accepted in the places I come from, I feel a sense of sadness and of shame.

One afternoon Tony met a man who recognized him as a preacher. The two of them visited while I shopped, talking theology and having a grand time. The man never gave his name, but simply said, "I was a priest in my former life, and I used to love to talk about God, but when I told people who I really was I couldn’t be a priest anymore. I don’t usually think about God anymore either, but it’s been great to talk to you, friend."

One afternoon we were the only customers at a small, rooftop restaurant overlooking Cape Cod Bay. The waiter sat down at our table, and we talked of many things. "Where’s home for you?" Tony asked. Too much time elapsed before the answer came. "Oh, my folks live in Iowa, but I can’t go there anymore, so home is just wherever I happen to be." "Why can’t you go home?" Tony asked, really wanting to know. The look he got in response seemed to indicate that my husband must have spent most of his life on the moon!

As I got to know the sorrows and the joys of Provincetown, I realized how narrow my straight life had been. I didn’t know any openly homosexual people. But slowly that began to change as I let it be known that the status quo on this issue was not acceptable to me. Among my new friends were gay and lesbian students from Eastern College where Tony teaches. They told me more sad stories than I thought I could bear. I am ashamed now that at first I could not bring myself to publicly stand up for them. Only after I met Jesus did I find the courage to speak out for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

I remember with great pain the last time I lacked that courage. Tony and I were being driven to one of his speaking engagements by a couple who were evangelical Christians. As they began to talk to Tony about the evil homosexual people who threaten the church, I began to feel ill. I felt they were wrong, wrong, wrong, these seemingly nice but grossly misinformed people. I sat in misery, guilt, and silence one last time.

Tony did his best to enlighten the couple, but my silence was so loud in my ears that I cannot remember what he said. For me that day, a rooster crowed for the third time. I had betrayed those who had trusted me with their stories and I had betrayed God. Those people in the car would go on, comfortable with their made-up Jesus and their mixed-up thinking. And they had every reason to think I agreed with them.

Tony: My stories are very much like Peggy’s. Roger was a gay boy in my high school. The rest of us used to tease him, especially on gym day. When we came out of the showers, we would whip our wet towels at him and think it great fun to "see the queer dance." I wasn’t there the day that five guys dragged Roger into the corner of the shower and urinated all over him. But late that night, he went to his garage and hung himself.

The day after Roger’s death, I knew I wasn’t a Christian. If I had been, I would have stood up for my suffering brother. I would have said, "If you’re going to hurt him, you’ll have to deal with me, too." Because I didn’t, I believe I contributed to Roger’s death. How many of us, by words spoken or unspoken, have created pain like Roger must have felt?

A leading evangelist has sold thousands of copies of a tape called The Gay Agenda, showing gay people doing offensive things like masturbating in public in an obscene parade in San Francisco. Christian pastors show that video and say, "This is what the gay community is really like. Watch out for these people who want to teach your children and live in your community."

I resent that. I wouldn’t want someone going to New Orleans, filming the filthy behavior at Mardi Gras, and saying, "This is what Tony Campolo and the heterosexual community are really like." How can we let lies like that be perpetrated by the church? The church of Jesus Christ is not about creating fear-based hatred toward the Rogers of this world, whatever our views on homosexuality may be.

My friend Jim, a pastor in a poor urban neighborhood, told me this story:

"The undertaker called me early one morning because nobody wanted to take the funeral of a man who had died of AIDS. I said I’d do it. Some 25 homosexual men came to that funeral, and the whole time I spoke they just looked at the floor. Afterwards, at the cemetery, I read some scripture, closed in prayer, and then started to walk away. But they just stood there as though frozen, so I came back and asked if there was anything else I could do.

"One of the men said, ‘Yes. I never go to church anymore, but back when I did, I loved it when they read from the Bible, especially the King James. You didn’t read the 23rd Psalm. Would you read it?’" Jim read the 23rd Psalm. Then another man said, "There’s a passage in the 3rd chapter of John about being born again. I like that."

So Jim read that. Then a third man said, "The 8th chapter of Romans, right at the end—that’s what keeps me going." And Jim read to those homosexual men, "Neither height, nor depth, nor principalities, nor powers, neither things present, nor things to come, nothing, nothing, can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." When Jim told me that story, I hurt. I knew those men wanted to hear the Bible, but would probably never set foot inside a church because they are convinced that church people despise them.

PEGGY AND I are concerned because Christian leaders as well as politicians are playing on the homophobia of people to gather support and raise money. We cannot let this go on.

The Roman Catholic bishops who responded to an anti-gay referendum in San Francisco were right when they said that, while they did not approve of same-gender sexual behavior, they would not allow anyone to take rights away from citizens of this country. Remember, after you say, "You can’t live in our community, you can’t teach in our school, you can’t come to our college, and you can’t be part of our church"—after that you cannot say, "But we love you in the name of Jesus." Do not allow discrimination and hatred to be directed at people who never chose to be homosexual and cannot change their orientation as easily as many Christian preachers say they can.

We say we must be faithful to the Bible, but many of us belong to churches that allow people who are divorced and remarried into membership. Many churches believe that by God’s grace those people should be accepted into fellowship. Jesus did not say anything at all about homosexuality, but he did say that people who are divorced and remarried are living in sexual sin. Why can’t we at least offer as much grace to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as we do to people who are divorced and remarried?

I am not preaching approval. I am preaching acceptance, because any change of behavior will take place only in the context of love. Peggy often says that we sing "Just As I Am" for all except gays and lesbians. Everybody else is invited to come as they are to be healed, but to God’s homosexual children, we say, "Get healed first and then come."

Taking a stand on the issue of homosexuality has been difficult for me as an evangelical who is an evangelist. Some of my preaching engagements have been cancelled and some Christian book stores will not carry my books. Saddest of all are the letters I receive from people who no longer want to support the missionary work I do.

Friends say, "Why talk about homosexuality? Why not just talk about poverty and the other social justice issues?" My answer is simple. I would ignore the issue of homosexuality except for the fact that I don’t hear other evangelists talking about it. It’s important to me that somebody who preaches that people have to be born again according to the Bible stand up and say that being born again means that you love people.

TONY CAMPOLO was a noted evangelist, a professor of sociology at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and the author of many books when this article first appeared. PEGGY CAMPOLO was a writer and editor, a member of Evangelicals Concerned, and served on the council of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists when this article appeared.

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