The sexual revolution has many ramifications and the church has had many responses. I have made it very clear, in numerous written contexts, that I strongly oppose the official ecclesial acceptance of all sexual practice outside of marriage between a man and a woman. I have also made it clear, in two forthcoming articles in the ACT 3 Weekly (available online by archive and free subscription) that I believe the church should openly defend the legal human rights of people who practice sexual relationships outside of marriage and forbidden within the church. This position leaves me in the crosshairs of both the right and the left. On the far right, where it seems many want to continue the old laws that criminalize homosexual practice, some conservatives have no tolerance for homosexual people and have shown a great deal of anger, fear and intolerance. In some cases they single them out as enemies to be discriminated against in civil courts and every-day practice. On the far left my view is also held in disrespect since I will not embrace the idea that the church should openly accept homosexual practice as normative and morally acceptable. I explain my position, and my reasons for it, in some detail in those articles that appear in September.
The sexual revolution has advanced in the West over the last sixty years or so. At the same time it has also begun to advance in Africa. In the last year a debate raged in Uganda about a law that would hang homosexuals. American evangelicals have been involved in this fierce debate and some even taught leaders who advanced this law. You would think we would just stay out of issues that we do not understand (in terms of local context) but we often go where fools would dare to tread. One thing is right in all this to me. There are clear issues to be discovered here in terms of human rights. No nation should put homosexuals to death! (The only theological defense offered for such capital punishment comes from a radical misuse of the ethical commands of the Old Testament, which are clearly superseded in this case by the coming of the New Covenant.)
The problem in Africa is actually an interesting one to think about. Christian attitudes toward homosexuality are almost universally negative in Africa. But attitudes about polygamy are still varied. White Euro-American churches debate homosexuality, and African Christians attack us for our moral compromise and degradation, polygamy still plagues the church in Africa. It is true that this varies within churches and denominations but polygamy is still accepted to varying degrees. In most cases it is seen as a mala prohibitia offense (i.e. something forbidden by law in some societies but not in others). On the other hand homosexual practice is seen as mala in se (i.e. something which all reasonable people know is wrong).
To say that some Christians still practice polygamy in Africa is not to say that all do, not by any means. As African churches have matured they have progressively stood against polygamy. Most churches will not allow a polygamist to become a leader. Perhaps the most powerful antidote to this practice has been the growing status of women in general and the way Christians have begun to learn how to give confidence and respect to Christian women within the church. I am a big advocate of this teaching and practice. As women are properly respected and given true freedom these horrific practices will decline.
Philip Jenkins, the church historian, has noted that for some American Christians, especially those who want to open the church up to homosexual practice, the African church has no business lecturing us on who should hold office, or who should be married, when their own record is so inconsistent. But, Jenkins adds, from the African perspective polygamy and homosexual practice are simply not the same. Africans would say that the domestic practices of many do violate church laws and that they must end this regrettable situation. But they would also say that accepting homosexual practice as normative Christian behavior is simply wrong in itself.
Americans, suggest Jenkins, might puzzle over this problem but Africans would “likely ask why Westerners can’t understand the plain difference.”
The debate goes on. It will not be stopped by you or me or anyone else. It is here to stay, at least for the remainder of all our lifetimes, young or old. I continue to stand for the sexual norms I see taught by the church down through the ages. I do this because I believe they are still right, both biblically and ethically. But I also do not think that everyone who disagrees with this stance is intrinsically evil. I have more than a few Christian friends on the other side and this reality has forced me to listen and to learn how to disagree with civility and Christian grace. I would hope that we could get to this place on both sides but I have my doubts given the extreme way this is all framed and the way people react to sexual conflict and debate.
I am persuaded of this: You can explain your position and I can explain mine but there is never an excuse for the love of Christ to be rejected. “Love is never rude . . . love never gives up, never loses faith and endures through every circumstance” (1 Cor. 13:5, 7). I must never stop loving those Christians who disagree with me no matter how much I oppose their stance on this divisive and contentious issue. I find this an almost impossible place to be. Everything in me wants to simply run away. Then I could find great cause for throwing verbal bombs on those who strongly oppose my classical stance, one which is doctrinally and historically orthodox. If I am correct about the church’s proper stand on this contentious issue then how do I press my defense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints in a proper way? That seems to be the real challenge right now, at least for me. Truth and love, what a difficult perspective to keep in balance. But I see no escape because of both my conscience and the clear moral norms revealed by God.