Same-sex love, self-denial and the cross

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
2 Sep 2014

Partly as a result of developments in biblical scholarship, many Christians now believe that it can be acceptable to enter a same-sex partnership. Those who disagree sometimes cite Christ’s call in the gospels, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16.24, Mark 8.34, Luke 9.23). They argue that people attracted to members of the same sex should abstain, if necessary, staying celibate for life.

Undoubtedly following Christ can be challenging. But the language of the cross has sometimes been used in ways that contradict Jesus’ teaching and example. It is worth carefully examining at what this call does, and does not, mean.

The need for caution in using the language of the cross

Certainly everyone who follows Christ will be called on to give up some things they previously held on to, which may be painful. However, it is risky to be too quick to insist that to be faithful to Christ, a set of people with less power or prestige in church or society should give up hope of enjoying what a dominant group takes for granted.

Theologians have sometimes used the language of the cross in questionable ways. For instance they have sought to imply that slaves seeking an end to slavery and wives resisting domestic violence are being un-Christian.

Many slave-owners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries argued that abolitionism was against God’s will. Modern Bible study notes on 1 Peter from St Helen’s Bishopgate argue that “a slave must submit even to a perverse master... Christians are called to follow in the footsteps of the Christ who persevered in godliness in the face of much provocation and suffering. His death on the cross not only saves His people... but also establishes the blueprint for our life and especially for the way that we are to respond to unjust suffering.”

They state, “That astonishing obedience is the template for Christians to follow in life, especially at the time that it will be most difficult to do so – when we are being violated and receiving unjust treatment from others... God has providentially ordered society... Only if I trust in his ultimate vindication of His people (as Christ did) will I be able to sit loose to my ‘rights’ in this world and recognise that any unjust suffering I endure is, ultimately, His will.”

In the case of domestic violence too, victims have often been told that any questioning of their lot is a rebellion against God. John Calvin’s position on wife-beating has been adopted by many church leaders through the centuries.

He wrote, “We have a special sympathy for poor women who are evilly and roughly treated by their husbands, because of the roughness and cruelty of the tyranny and captivity which is their lot. We do not find ourselves permitted by the Word of God, however, to advise a woman to leave her husband, except by force of necessity; and we do not understand this force to be operative when a husband behaves roughly and uses threats to his wife, nor even when he beats her, but when there is imminent peril to her life... [We] exhort her to bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her; and meanwhile not to deviate from the duty which she has before God to please her husband, but to be faithful whatever happens.”

There are serious problems with using the language of the cross to sanctify passivity in the face of stark inequality. To begin with, such an approach may stifle alternative interpretations of what God wants, including different readings of the Bible. If Jesus indeed came to proclaim freedom to those in captivity and let the oppressed go free (Luke 4.18-19), using his name to sanction enslavement and cruelty is wrong. Yet using God’s name to sanction imbalances of power and privilege in society is an effective way of silencing dissent.

As a 2006 Church of England document, Responding to domestic abuse: Guidelines for those with pastoral responsibilities, points out:

It has been forgotten that Jesus’ teaching and ministry not only humbled the exalted but exalted the humble.

....the theology of self-denial and redemptive suffering which flows from the crucifixion of Jesus and the symbol of the cross has often undermined people’s recognition of the evils being done to them and implanted masochistic attitudes of acceptance, or even celebration, of their afflictions...

Part of the Spirit’s function is to help the Christian community to interpret the Bible and tradition in the light of ‘what belongs to Jesus’ (John 16.15), so that we may sift the healthy from the unhealthy elements of our inheritance and be ‘guided into all the truth’ (John 16.13).

The concepts of self-denial and the way of the cross can be wrongly applied, with damaging consequences. This does not, in itself, demonstrate that it is wrong to urge lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to abstain from same-sex partnerships. However it suggests that caution is advisable.

It may be useful to look again at what Jesus said, in context, and then review how it might be applied to LGBT people’s situation.

The way of love: losing and gaining life

In the Gospels, the exalted are indeed brought low and the lowly exalted. When Jesus is conceived, his mother, Mary, rejoices that God has:

brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1.52-53).

Lives are transformed as, in word and deed, Jesus proclaims God’s realm of peace and love, announcing that he has come to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed. (Luke 4.18). Many are attracted to him but many of the most pious are outraged when his commitment to the marginalised and attentiveness to human need leads him to act in ways which they believe are contrary to Scripture.

For instance he defends his disciples when they are accused of breaking a commandment by plucking corn on the day of rest because they are hungry, declaring that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.27). “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless”, he tells their accusers. (Matthew 12.7, Hosea 6.6).

When he heals a man with a withered arm in a place of worship on the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies begin plotting to destroy him. (Mark 3.6). To them, it seems improper that the desire to relieve hardship, especially when it afflicts someone so unimportant in the world’s terms, should come above sacred duty, but Jesus’ view of what God requires is radically different.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets,” he advises. Even if people are told that something is willed by God, they must look critically at the claim, being attentive to the consequences: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7.12, 18-20).

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it", he says (Matthew 10.37-39). God’s realm is like a pearl of great value, for which his followers should be willing to give up all they have. (Matthew 13.45-46).

On the other hand, he offers to ease the load of those weighed down by legalistic religiosity and an oppressive social order: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. (Matthew 11.28-30).

He is also accused of being a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7.34), indicating that he is willing to be condemned as self-indulgent and morally lax if needs be. Food, drink, shelter, fellowship and life itself (provided these are not acquired through harming or depriving others) are good things to be enjoyed, gifts of a generous Father: though Jesus’ concern that none should be denied such benefits means that he is willing to forego these himself if needs be.

Aware that his opponents are out to have him killed, though his disciples are in denial about the suffering that lies ahead, Jesus warns them that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

'Deny' is sometimes translated as 'disown' or 'forsake'. According to Strong’s concordance, the Greek word aparnéomai may suggest 'strongly reject': the instinct for self-preservation must be set aside.

Love is costly, especially in a world so often dominated by greed, cruelty, prejudice and callous indifference and in which scapegoating is rife. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, Jesus tells his followers in John’s gospel, shortly before his betrayal and arrest.

He is abandoned, convicted of blasphemy and subversion, beaten, mocked and crucified, a painful form of execution used against slaves and rebels in the Roman empire. Yet according to Christian belief, he is raised from the dead, signalling the ultimate triumph of life, love and truth and offering hope to humankind.

God has been willing to experience suffering and death so that humans may be freed from their grasp, the divine image no longer tarnished but able to shine brightly, the old self replaced with what is imperishable, this tradition claims. The Epistles reflect on this new life.

For instance, Galatians calls for an approach to righteousness based not on legalism but on right relationship with God and neighbour: “through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” Paul writes. (Galatians 2.19-20).

He warns that if followers of Christ cling to the notion that they must be circumcised (an act mandated by Scripture for men), “the offence of the cross has been removed... you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself'”. (Galatians 5.11, 13-14).

Through the cross, barriers are broken down, between humankind and God and among different sets of people. Though those who were Jewish and Gentile were once divided, Christ has "broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” so that “he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it”. (Ephesians 2.14-16).

In the light of New Testament teaching, it is worth re-examining the relevance of such concepts to the sexuality debate.

Taking up the cross, living the resurrection life

Some Christians argue that the biblical view is straightforward. The way of the cross means, for the majority, urging one’s LGBT neighbours to renounce any hope of a same-sex partnership, even if this means staying single and celibate for life; and, for the minority, embracing this renunciation oneself.

“The truth of the matter is that while we are a very sexualised culture and we see sexuality as a right; the reality is that sexual relationships is (sic) not what makes us happy,” stated Dale Kuehne, a professor at St Anselm College in the USA.

He claimed, “We may have been profoundly impacted by this world but whether we have gay inclinations, bi inclinations, whether we’re inclined toward any variety of things the fact of the matter is that all of us are called to the same sacrifice. None of us get to do what pleases us. None of us get to do what we want. We may have different challenges. Some of us may have different sexual challenges. For me, my biggest challenge is money. But the reality is, is that all of us have to stand at the cross, deny ourselves and follow Christ.”

However, many couples (heterosexual or otherwise) do find happiness in marriage, though this also involves discipline, vulnerability and self-sacrifice. Indeed, at best, loving and committed partnerships involve dying to self in order to live a life of love that overspills beyond the household, supporting one another in caring for those in need and helping to usher in God’s realm on earth. The impact of depriving people of even the hope of such intimacy and companionship should not be trivialised, especially if they do not feel called to celibacy.

To quote Michael Bussee from the USA, who used to be one of the leaders of an ‘ex-gay’ ministry but later changed his views:

I need to say that some had a positive, life-changing experience attending our Bible studies and support groups... There were some real “changes”—but not one of the hundreds of people we counseled became straight.

Instead, many of our clients began to fall apart – sinking deeper into patterns of guilt, anxiety and self-loathing. Why weren’t they “changing”? The answers from church leaders made the pain even worse: “You might not be a real Christian.” “You don’t have enough faith.” “You aren’t praying and reading the Bible enough.” “Maybe you have a demon.” The message always seemed to be: “You’re not enough. You’re not trying hard enough. You don’t have enough faith.”

Some simply dropped out and were never heard from again. I think they were the lucky ones. Others became very self-destructive. One young man got drunk and deliberately drove his car into a tree... One of my most dedicated clients, Mark, took a razor blade to his genitals, slashed himself repeatedly, and then poured drain-cleaner on the wounds—because after months of celibacy he had a “fall.”

As another former ‘ex-gay’ leader who changed his stance, John Smid explained:

Some people believe that homosexuality is merely a sexual desire. They believe it is simply a sexual appetite that can be controlled by repentance and self discipline, and that it should be. This mindset often comes from people who have never been gay…

For my entire life I have had deep needs for an intimate connection with another man. The kind of connection that finds peace and fulfillment in merely holding one close, or laughing freely in such a way that can lead to an intimate hug without fear…

To be told for over two decades that this kind of connection is against God’s nature, sinful, and that one can never have this kind of fulfillment has been disheartening. It has led me to depression, sadness, and has caused many years of feeling separated from my very soul…

I worked diligently to help gay men lay aside addictive practices with sex and pornography. Some found abatement for a season, but many never found the freedom they desired... The ongoing shame often led to a complete separation of their souls from God or anything spiritual.

This is until they finally release themselves from the cultural message that would refuse to acknowledge the deep need within them. Once they went on to find the true intimate connection with another person that matched their nature it seemed somehow that their road of life began anew.

He admitted that it was hard when those he had known for years broke off their connection with him and unsettling to deconstruct facades which he had used to hold up a false reality, but regarded it as worthwhile as he experienced the grace of God in a more authentic way.

Hence there are contrasting views of what it might mean to live the resurrection life.

Taking a stance for full acceptance of LGBT people, or even their human rights, can be costly, bringing the risk of condemnation, job loss or worse. Some Christians have been murdered for seeking greater equality.

For instance, San Francisco mayor George Moscone, who was heterosexual himself but worked to promote inclusion for minorities, women and the poor, was shot dead in 1978; while Cameroonian journalist and LGBT rights activist Eric Lembembe was brutally murdered in 2013 in what is widely believed to have been a homophobic killing. Perhaps they witness in an especially direct way to what it might mean to bear the cross.

Faithfulness and suffering

While following Christ will inevitably involve suffering, not all sacrifice is God-ordained. Indeed Jesus’ example and teaching should make Christians more, rather than less, willing to examine whether the burdens laid on certain sets of people are truly justified.

Not following one’s vocation can also be a source of sadness, for instance, like the rich young ruler in the gospels (Matthew 19.16-30, Mark 10.17-31, Luke 18.18-30), who goes away grieving because he has chosen a life of devout, law-abiding respectability and prosperity over the loss and uncertainty of joining Jesus’ band of followers.

Those who insist that LGBT people who love God should abandon any hope of a entering a loving and committed same-sex partnership should at least consider the possibility that they might be wrong. The fact that some people who are mainly attracted to the same sex successfully lead celibate lives is not enough to insist that it is not only possible, but also right, for all others. The ethic proposed, though working well for some, has driven others to depression, despair and even suicide, so love and justice require that it be carefully examined.

If the chief executive of a firm insisted, because one or two of his employees had run a marathon, that all should do so, contemptuously sacking those who collapsed with heat-stroke or heart attacks, there would be an outcry. Portraying God in such a way can damage Christian witness.

I would suggest that, in following Christ and dying to the old way of life, both LGBT people and heterosexuals should be encouraged to look more deeply at society and the church as well, examining whether the patterns of relationships are truly conducive to abundance of life.

This may involve, for heterosexual people, scrutinising the privileges which they may take for granted, for instance being able to remark on the attractiveness of a member of the opposite sex, or mention a current or former romantic partner, without being afraid of being verbally or physically attacked or threatened with hellfire. For those who are LGBT, it may involve reawakening parts of oneself that had been kept buried, a sometimes painful process; and confronting one’s own self-hatred and others’ misconceptions, even if this involves conflict, so as to move towards a more authentic and lasting peace.

Further prayer, study and dialogue may be helpful to churches seeking to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading. Meanwhile, all should be united in combating mistreatment and violence and affirming God’s generous love for all, whatever their ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender or sexual orientation.

* An Ekklesia research paper on the Pilling report, Edging towards accepting diversity: the Pilling Report on sexuality, can be found on http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/pilling.

* Another research paper, Journey towards acceptance, outlines the shifts in Christian theological thinking on sexuality in recent decades: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17246.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

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